Samir Rehem: Tiny Pretty Things

DGC Ontario Production Tiny Pretty Things, which climbed up to the number 3 spot on Netflix Canada’s Top 10 last month, follows the cutthroat world of competitive dancing.

We caught up with Director Samir Rehem to discuss how he became involved with the popular show, the unique challenges of shooting choreography, and why he loves working in Toronto.

How did you become involved in Tiny Pretty Things?

I really have Carrie Mudd from Peacock Entertainment to thank. One of my first directing jobs was back in 2006 on a very low-budget comedy series titled Cock’d Gunns; at that time, Carrie worked at Tricon Films and Television, producing the series for IFC series Canada. Over the years, we kept in touch and even got close to working together again but never found the right project. Around the time Tiny Pretty Things was interviewing directors, I’d met with Carrie, and she’d asked if I was interested in being put forward on a new dance series that they were service-producing for Netflix. Fortunately, I had had some experience directing dance for a popular Family Channel series. I suppose that show combined with my other work was sufficient to get me an interview with Michael (MacLennan) and the show’s LA producers. 

I’ve always felt that the hardest part of this profession was getting into the room, so when the opportunity presents itself, I’ve always tried to put my best foot forward and stay true to my creative aesthetic and filmmaking style. If it’s a good fit and I book the job, I know that the collaboration will likely succeed. I consider myself very fortunate when I get hired because I know that this position is highly competitive. There are a lot of other directors out there who are extremely talented and available. With that in mind, I approach every job with a positive outlook and as an opportunity to learn new skills and grow as a director so that I can take that knowledge to the next gig. 

What are the unique challenges of directing/shooting choreography?

The practical challenges of filming dance are that it’s really exhausting for the performers and requires great strength, agility, and flexibility to execute with the ease we see on screen. Knowing this from past experiences, I knew that I needed to be very specific with my blocking. I didn’t want to over-extend the dancers because they often only last for a few takes before they’re spent. Whenever possible, I tried to go to rehearsals and watch the choreographer work with them; it allowed me to make some creative choices for camera positioning and composition. With a busy prep schedule that wasn’t always feasible, the choreographer would send video clips for everyone to watch. 

When filming choreographed dance, a major creative challenge was something I wasn’t aware of at first; I suppose it never occurred to me. Still, ballet specifically is intended to be viewed from the perspective of the audience. When watching ballet, you typically don’t have an opportunity to move around a dancer or watch from another performer’s perspective. I think that was always an obstacle for most of the guest choreographers; ultimately, they wanted the dance to be seen from the audience’s perspective – but we wanted to tell the story from the dancer’s, and that meant seeing them sweat, hearing them huff and witnessing their injuries. Ballet is a brutal business and not for the weak. Ultimately that was one of the through-lines for the show and one of the underlining themes I would incorporate into every scene. 

Can you talk about how you’ve put your creative stamp on this and other series when there are multiple Directors?

I realized early on that having a candid conversation with the shooting director while in prep can be quite informative and can sometimes help you prepare by getting insight from the person who’s currently on the floor. However, the producers have hired you at the end of the day because they feel you’ll bring a unique aesthetic to their show. When I’ve stayed true to my creative ideas and implement an effective plan to execute those ideas, I will almost always deliver a unique episode. These days most shows have producing directors that are there for the duration of production. They work closely with the showrunner and help design the overall look and tone of the series. In my experience, that has been an enormous benefit, having someone that can provide creative guidance and has first-hand knowledge of the practical obstacles of directing the series. I’ve continuously had great experiences with people in this role. It’s always inspired me to push my own abilities further, ultimately making me better at my job in one way or another. 

What do you love most about directing TV in Toronto?

Toronto has been my hometown for over 25 years. I went to school here, all my friends and family are here, and almost every street corner on Queen West is significant to me in one way or another. Working in this city is comfortable and familiar, and after 15 years of directing television here, I feel like I know this city better now than ever. On top of all that, Toronto is jam-packed with talented actors, producers, cinematographers, and crew – and each time I show up on a new series, I’m bound to know a few people working on it. Toronto hosts many productions each year, and I’m thrilled that I can thrive in an industry I love in the place I call home. 

What did you take from your previous TV work to Tiny Pretty Things?

I think that Tiny Pretty Things marks a milestone in my career. It is one of the first series I’ve done that had a surplus of talent attached to it, not to mention a healthy budget. It allowed me to think bigger and execute on a larger scale. We had an immensely talented DP in Luc Montpellier; his work and approach inspired me daily and gave me the confidence to take chances knowing that I had him in my corner. If anything, I think that the chance to direct this show has made me realize what’s possible and has given me a new set of skills to take on my next opportunities. 

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