In any given year, more than half of those who are reported missing are people of color.
NBC’s latest missing persons procedural, Found, seeks to shed a light on this statistic through its case-of-the-week story format. Last week’s premiere introduced audiences to Shanola Hampton’s Gabi Moseley, a former missing person herself who now works round the clock to ensure no missing person slips through the cracks.
Her crisis management team includes several others who have close ties to missing persons cases, including Gabrielle Walsh’s Lacey Quinn — who was also abducted by the same man who kidnapped Gabi. What Lacey and the rest of the world don’t know is that her kidnapper, known as Sir (played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar), is no longer a threat. That’s because Gabi has found him and is currently holding him hostage in her home and forcing him to help her solve each missing persons case.
It’s a sinister plot twist akin to Silence of the Lambs. So, perhaps it makes sense that DeMane Davis, who also worked on that film’s TV spinoff Clarice, would be tapped to direct the first two episodes of Found.
“To me, that felt like, ‘Oh, look at what you did. You worked on Clarice, and then you get the opportunity to do this pilot and it feels like you have this language in you and now you can give that to someone else,’” Davis told Deadline.
Davis worked closely with creator Nkechi Okoro Carroll to set the tone of the series through its first two missing persons cases — the first of a foster youth and the second of a sex worker, both of whom are neglected by the system due to their circumstances. She speaks about the experience in the interview below.
DEADLINE: What were those collaborative conversations with [showrunner/creator] Nkechi Okoro Carroll like about setting the tone for the series?
DAVIS: It was wonderful, because I really wanted this to be authentic. I wanted it to inform and to frighten but also empower people. And I feel like that’s exactly who Gabi is and what she does. We’ve gotten into the situation on set where we’re finishing up each other’s thoughts, which is very rare. We just agreed that we wanted to always be able to see the light in the character’s eyes — until you don’t, which could mean something. I wanted to focus on these shadows, because I think with the trauma a lot of people [deal with], it’d be difficult for them just to function when it gets dark. Like the character of Lacey…What does she have to do to get through her day that nobody knows about? I live alone, so I get kind of scared. Sometimes I’ll leave the lights on in the room. So everyone has their own things that they go through in order to in order to survive, and I think that we were just in really deep agreement on all these things and how to bring it to life. We just clicked immediately. I was so, so grateful to get to work with her and now know her and constantly want to work with her over and over again.
DEADLINE: I can imagine it’s very gratifying to direct the first two episodes of a series and be able to really set the tone, versus working within a framework that was already set for you.
DAVIS: Yeah, man, that’s the goods. It’s really great, because it’s getting to come in with all of the ideas. The whole thing is handheld, because when you’re in the process of trying to find someone, it has to happen fast. There’s no time to waste. You have no idea if the person is going to move or be moved or what could be going down. I wanted it to be handheld and have this fluidity. But then, the times when we weren’t handheld, those would be a little bit more planned and strategic and you could see in the characters, having this trauma, that sitting still is sometimes difficult for them, because when they sit, they have to think about what they went through. Each one of these characters has something that went through that we will learn during the course of the series. So that becomes uncomfortable for them. So, [it was great] getting to say, ‘This is what I think it should be,’ and having NK agree and say, ‘Yeah, let’s run with that.’ I’m so grateful to have this job [and] to get to play in these worlds and translate the wonderful words and intent of writers. But a pilot, you’re there from day one, and I like being there from day one. I like to see how things grow and evolve and to throw in ideas and stuff. It’s just that establishing that is a lot of fun.
DEADLINE: The cast has some incredible veterans, like Shanola Hampton and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, but the first episode in particular has so many kids in it. I was particularly blown away by the young actor who played Deron, Trayce Malachi. How do you handle working with these young actors, especially when the subject matter can be traumatic?
DAVIS: He was one of those young actors who would shrug a lot. I would go, ‘So you’re supposed to cry. How do you feel about that?’ And he’d go, ‘I don’t know. I don’t cry. That’s real hard. I was looking at that earlier….I can’t do that. I can’t cry.’ And I went, ‘Okay. Well, let’s see how you feel. Just try to open yourself to the to the idea of it. I think language is really important. So don’t think that you can’t do it, but just let’s just see what happens and we’ll go back and forth.’ Man, that kid was rocking tears like Denzel Washington. He was really wonderful and totally game. Now that you’re saying that, yeah, we had a lot of kids….I think it was really important for me to explain that we were dramatizing something that hadn’t really happened to them, and that they were all safe. I let them lead in terms of what they felt like they, could give and what they wanted to give. They were just wonderful.
DEADLINE: Broadcast television is full of procedurals. Of course, there’s a reason they work. How do you find a balance between taking from the successful format of procedurals while also making a series feel distinct?
DAVIS: For me, it’s about the actors. It’s about their faces. It’s about pushing in and seeing what their eyes are doing and giving them that moment. I have watched Law & Order since I was a child. I’m very partial to Organized Crime, because I love the way it’s shot. I love the framing and the moving of the camera. But if you look at the original Law & Order, everything is moving so fast. It’s a lot of medium shots, and you’re kind of far away. I think as the show went on, you got a little bit closer. So for me, it was important to get as close as possible, so that we understand everything that these characters are going through and some of the hints that we’ll see in their stories in the future that we don’t even know about that make them the way that they are….The farther away that you get, the more it becomes about plot. But when I get close up, I now see how it affects this person and how this person might now move through the rest of the scene. So that’s what I tried to do.
DEADLINE: There is definitely a psychology to that.
DAVIS: Because otherwise, you’re not in it. The example that I always use, which is funny because it’s what I talked about to get a job on Clarice, is when I went to see Silence of the Lambs, the part where they think it’s Anthony Hopkins on top of the elevator shaft and they’re looking down and the cops are running up the steps. Jonathan Demme did this really super, super close up of one of the cop’s faces. And my friend and I were in the balcony of the theater and we both went, ‘Andre?!’ because we went to school with Andre…it kicks you out. That’s sort of the reverse. Like, if I didn’t know Andre, I would have been like, ‘Oh my god, this cop is freaking out. Look how scared he is.’ So that’s [the goal]. I just think, you have these incredible faces. I mean, you have Gabrielle Wash’s face. How are you not looking at that face? You gotta get in there and look at her eyes. You know what I mean? You’ve got to see how all of these things are affecting her.
DEADLINE: It’s funny you mention Silence of the Lambs, because once it’s revealed at the end of the pilot that Gabi is holding Sir hostage and using him to solve cases, it naturally felt so similar.
DAVIS: To me, that felt like, ‘Oh, look at what you did. You worked on Clarice, and then you get the opportunity to do this pilot and it feels like you have this language in you and now you can give that to someone else.’ I remember…when I saw Shanola’s heels, I was like, ‘Oh, I need to see these heels.’ I wanted to do behind the steps, but now we definitely need that. But it’s just like we load it and load it and load it and then release it at the very last moment, and there he is.
DEADLINE: Shanola and Mark-Paul have such a great chemistry. What was it like to see them in those initial scenes together?
DAVIS: It’s really electric. Nkechi did the casting of Mark-Paul before I was involved, and Shanola was always going to be Gabi. So, really, my first time meeting Mark-Paul and seeing him was on camera test day, which was great even then just to see the two of them even though there was no dialogue — just him standing in the dark and us talking about what that character was. He watched so many awful true crime docs [to research] the psychology behind it. There’s little things that she does because of him. I was looking on Twitter, and some people were like, ‘Wait a minute, she’s fixing her hair. Is she into him?’ And it’s like, no, that’s what he’s taught her. That’s part of the presentation of building this perfect world for himself whenever he would visit. When she’s delivering meals, I’m like, ‘You never take your eyes off him. You never turn your back, just in case.’ I actually rewatched the pilot just a couple of hours ago and was thinking of those scenes in the basement. It’s really powerful.
DEADLINE: Nkechi spoke recently about wanting to make sure it never felt like there could be redemption for Sir. Can you talk about that in terms of how it might have impacted the way you approached scenes as a director?
DAVIS: I think it’s really evident that early on that something’s quite wrong with him. I love the way that he played our first real introduction when he said, ‘Who’s ready to eat?’ [Or when] he would get infuriated but never furious to the point of doing anything crazy, because that’s also a part of his show. For me, it was just making sure that the times when he was going to move or be more vocal were warranted. This is just the beginning. Beyoncé would never blow out her vocal cords on a second song. It will be a slow burn here.
DEADLINE: You mentioned reading what viewers are saying on social media. Do you enjoy engaging with audiences online?
DAVIS: Yeah, I am addicted to live tweeting…I love the idea of watching with an audience. It’s why I love movies and being in the movie theater and hearing everyone gasp. That’s what live tweeting is. It’s like you’re watching with hundreds or thousands of people. I started doing it when I worked on Queen Sugar. If I could watch an episode live during the week, I’d tweet along with people and laugh. Man, these people are fast with these gifs. It’s hilarious, and it’s great. Also, I can answer a couple of questions. I can throw some photos up. It’s like I have friends I get to watch TV with even though I’m doing my own thing. I will be live tweeting [Episode 2]….I think I may have read Episode 3, but I haven’t read anything else. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I will be live tweeting every Tuesday night because I love the show and I’m so excited for the crew and the cast and so grateful to what they created. So I’ll continue to support it.
DEADLINE: Going from director to fan!
DAVIS: Exactly. But I feel like if you’re a good director, then you’re a fan. What moves you is going to move someone else.