JON CASSAR was sitting in his director's chair on the Oval Office set of "24" during a typically hectic day for the first-time Emmy director nominee. Cassar was filming the first two hours of the Fox drama's sixth season, and there was an awful lot he has to live up to.
The first two hours of "24," which Fox airs in one night, have become a January event for the show's rabid fans. He earned his Emmy nomination for last season's first episode, deemed by critics and fans as one of the most memorable dramatic hours of the entire TV season. In its first 12 heart-stopping minutes, two main characters were killed, including the beloved former U.S. President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and a third was critically injured, forcing Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) out of hiding in the Mojave Desert. It started with a bang and never relented, and now Cassar must find a way to outdo himself.
Can he? Probably not, he thinks. Part of the problem is that he cannot even remember how he carried out the mission last year. "Every year those first two hours feel like I'm doing a movie. What I remember is that it was very difficult and, as usual, there was a lot of agenda in it. But right now, I am so knee-deep in getting this show ready that I cannot remember details.
"Look, every year people have said to us the same exact thing: 'There's no way you can do it again.' And you know what? Most of the time we agree with them. I think it's very hard to beat killing off main characters that were with us for four or five years and to kill them off within the first act. To try to top that, I don't think so. But you're not going to be bored."
On this particular afternoon in Chatsworth, Cassar is establishing the show's White House story, which has always been integral to the spy thriller set in the Counter Terrorist Unit in Los Angeles. The writers, it seems, have come up with a doozy: Wayne Palmer, the deceased former president's brother who was with him when he was assassinated, has become the leader of the free world. How this goes down, nobody is telling. But here he (D.B. Woodside) is, the first time viewers see him in the Oval Office, and in typical "24" fashion, things are not good.
America is already under some form of terrorist attack when the season opens, and Jack, who was last seen literally on a slow boat to China, has been behind bars there for 20 months. So the new president is ticked. Cassar coaches the actor on the gradations of anger -- "Be angry at the situation, not the people" -- and when Woodside, Peter MacNicol, who has joined the cast as a presidential special advisor, and Jayne Atkinson, who plays Karen Hayes, a Homeland Security official, perform the scene again, it is gripping.
"It's always a little harder from my point of view being the first director on this show because it's really like doing a pilot where you're establishing all the characters and how their relationships are going to interact," Cassar said. "We start off with virtually a new cast every year. So once you get the first two down, then there's a groove, but the first two are the hardest."
Stephen Hopkins ("The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" and "Lost in Space") directed the series pilot and set its style and tone. Shot entirely for "human height," that is with no shots from up above or down below, "24" moves fast only when its actors are running to give the audience the feeling of being inside the scene with them. "Our camera angles are always real, and what happens is that you don't realize it but you're a voyeur," Cassar said. "That's why we are behind things a lot or through things. There's nobody there but the audience; that's the audience point of view."
During the first season, Cassar, who had worked with executive producers Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran in Canada on the TV series "La Femme Nikita," was hired to direct two episodes. Then Hopkins left to continue his feature film career, and Surnow hired Cassar, a virtual unknown in Hollywood, to become the show's director-producer.
Cassar, 48, was born in Malta and was raised in Canada, where he was a film buff and studied photography before moving on to his film and television career as a camera operator. His first U.S. directing gig was on "Baywatch Nights" in 1995, but he remained based in Canada until he moved to Los Angeles with his wife and younger son four years ago. (Cassar also has a 24-year-old son.)
'This is the best place to be'
THE idea of directing a television series full time does not appeal to many directors because the work becomes repetitive and the commitment is long-term. But series such as "The Sopranos" and "24" have changed the face of television, enticing more feature actors, producers and directors to work in the medium. Sometimes they even decide to stay. Cassar said he approached the offer as a "one-year" experiment but quickly realized that "24's" serialized, high-action, real-time format meant boredom was not likely to set in.