This week we had the amazing opportunity to talk to Joshua Butler, the director of Shadowhunters’ “Salt In The Wound”. He previously directed the midseason finale for season 2, giving us one of the most iconic Malec moments to date. In this exclusive interview, he discusses how he prepares for episodes as the tone of the show evolves and his experiences of working with Harry Shum Jr. and Matthew Daddario.
SDN: It’s been a while since you last directed an episode of Shadowhunters and a lot has changed in the Shadow World since then. Additionally the show has gotten much darker overall. Was it difficult for you, after working on other projects, to get back into this world and to work with these characters again? How did you prepare for it?
Joshua: First of all, thank you for inviting me back to talk about “Salt In The Wound”! I prepared for directing the way I always prepare, by studying cuts and reading scripts of all the episodes between 2×10 and 3×07. I agree that the show in general has gotten much darker in tone overall. But since the emotional core is still the same, I found it quite easy to rejoin the Shadowhunters family.
SDN: A lot happened in last week’s episode - the squad found out about Jace being the Owl, Imogen died, Lilith collected enough blood to get Jonathan back. But at the same time, it also dove deeper into some of the characters’ backstories, for example the flashbacks about Maia and Jordan, or Magnus and Alec talking about their fight. How do you keep the balance between moving the plot forward while also focusing on the individual storylines and giving them depth?
Joshua: I was lucky enough to get a beautifully written script by Celeste Vasquez, who balanced the plot with the flashbacks in an expert way. From a filmmaking perspective, I wanted to make sure the transitions to the past felt organic to the narrative, especially as we tracked Maia’s journey from falling in love with Jordan to their present-day climactic argument. While pace is always important in telling a story, as a director, I love most the unspoken moments between the dialogue. I try to find the truth of the characters in their eyes and their gestures.
SDN: Last week’s episode really got up close and personal with many of the characters. There were a lot of emotional scenes and many close-up shots which made the entire thing feel more real. Of all the characters and stories in this episode, which one do you feel is the most relatable?
Joshua: I hope all the relationships in this episode are relatable. Using close-ups is something I’ve always done to bring audiences closer to the screen, ideally erasing the screen altogether from the viewing experience. In “Salt In The Wound”, I think we can all relate to Maia falling in love with someone who is changing before her eyes in ways she can’t even imagine. I think we can relate to Clary having to confess a secret that’s been burdening her since the beginning of Season 3. I think we can relate to Magnus and Alec having to acknowledge the angry words they spoke to each other. I think we can relate to Luke having to tell Sam that Ollie is gone for good. I also think we can relate, in a very dark and scary way, to Lilith doing everything in her power to bring Jonathan back to life.
SDN: The dialogue between Alec and Clary as they hugged at the beginning of the episode had the entire fandom speculating, so we have to ask: When Alec told Clary that he “would have done the same thing” at Lake Lyn, was he talking about Jace or Magnus?
Joshua: In my opinion, Alec was talking about his parabatai, given that he’s comforting Clary about her decision to save Jace at Lake Lyn. But I think it’s awesome that the fandom believes Alec “would have done the same thing” to save Magnus. I agree wholeheartedly.
SDN: After their fight in episode 3x06, Alec and Magnus seemed somewhat okay again in 3x07, hugging and apologizing to each other. Do you think that the immortality issue is off the table for good or is it still bothering Alec?
Joshua: I think the issue of mortality will always hang over Alec, given that he’s in love with an immortal.
SDN: In both the episodes you directed, you had only one Malec scene but each time you managed to bring out their intimacy and somehow managed that the viewers could feel the emotions through the screen. What is your secret to bringing out those feelings on set and making the scenes so incredibly moving?
Joshua: The key to the Malec scene in 3×07 is the hug. I wanted to make that as intimate as possible, with the use of extreme close-ups and those moments-between-the-words that I love so much. As many fans have pointed out, there is a subtle lean-in during the hug, where the sides of Magnus and Alec’s faces come together for a true moment of reconciliation. Like the kiss they shared in 2×10, I find that Magnus and Alec’s physical expressions of affection are incredibly powerful.
SDN: As we all know, Magnus and Alec's relationship has only solidified between season 2 and 3 - their connection has intensified and they have been through many ordeals that have only made them stronger. What was it like directing Matt and Harry this time around as you had to navigate with a much deeper relationship between their characters?
Joshua: Matt and Harry are such skilled actors that they are intuitively aware of how much deeper their characters’ relationship has become. Directing them is always a pleasure because it is never a question of where Magnus and Alec are in their relationship. Instead, it is a question of how we can collaborate to best convey Malec’s emotional life to the audience.
SDN: In 3x07, we had a really nice scene between Magnus and Catarina where we could see them working together in Magnus’ apothecary. Magnus was very upset but in what could have been a scene completely focused on Magnus’ anger, you managed to create this great banter going back and forth that made it very enjoyable. How do you decide how to create this movement in the scene? Could you describe what it was like to work with Harry and Sophia?
Joshua: Harry and Sophia have a wonderful chemistry in real life, so it was fun to direct them in a scene that really is about Catarina pushing Magnus to be the best he can be. I also wanted that scene to be about Madzie, even though she wasn’t actually in the room. Sophia and I played with her “I have to go” moment so that it’s clear that raising a warlock isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
SDN: For this episode, you had the opportunity to visit lots of different locations, such as Magnus’ loft and apothecary, the Institute, Maia and Jordan’s beach. As a director, which of these locations did you have the most fun filming at? Which one gave you the most trouble?
Joshua: I think I had the most fun in Magnus’ apothecary… that place is truly AMAZING. I got to set early that day and had such a great time choosing what props and set decoration we would need for Magnus’ (failed) attempt at a formula. The set that gave us the most trouble was the beach, given that we filmed the Maia and Jordan scenes last October in Toronto when it was reaching freezing temperatures at night. So not beach weather. I have to give massive props to Alisha Wainwright and Chai Hansen for being such troopers during that day of shooting. We had heaters standing by off camera and people ready to throw coats and blankets over them as soon as I said “Cut”, but it’s hard to act “warm” when everyone’s teeth are chattering!
SDN: We know that you will also be directing another episode this season, “The Beast Within”. You always seem to direct episodes that are a little bit more emotional than others. Without spoilers, how different will things be for Alec and Magnus at this point of the season? And if you can, could you give us a tease about this episode, and maybe describe it with only 3 words to ease the wait?
Joshua: It’s impossible to describe “The Beast Within” without feeling like I’m spoiling anything. I’ll be happy to tell you all about it after it airs. 😉
SDN: Without spoiling too much for the fandom - how did prepping and shooting 2x10, 3x07 and 3x18 differ for you? We obviously don’t know anything about 3x18 yet, but 2x10 and 3x07 were very different episodes. Recalling your work on all three of them, was there anything special or different about any of them, compared to the others?
Joshua: I think the difference for me is that I would be a fanboy of the Shadowhunters series, regardless of whether I had the opportunity to direct it or not. The fact that I get to direct all of these superb actors in their iconic roles makes me want to up my game and be as invested in these episodes as I know the fans are. Hopefully my passion behind the camera shines through.
SDN: We know both cast and crew always have a good time on set, and we have heard from so many how welcoming, kind and entertaining Matt and Harry are. What do you like most about getting to work with them, and are there any particularly fond memories involving them you could share with us?
Joshua: I love working with Matt and Harry because they are so fearless as actors and always welcoming to me as a director. They are both aware of the importance of Magnus and Alec’s relationship to the Shadowhunters fanbase and to the world beyond. We live in incredibly challenging times where a lot of the progress we’ve made towards inclusiveness and diversity is being challenged by small-minded, so-called “leaders”. To love and ship Malec as we do is not just a responsibility as fans, it is a necessary act of rebellion against the small-mindedness and prejudice that still remains on this planet.
My fondest memory is when we rehearsed the hug scene in 3×07, Harry pressed his head against Matt’s and it broke my heart. We shot Harry’s side of the hug first and I reminded him during the takes of that beautiful gesture. When we shot Matt’s side of the hug, I encouraged him to take the lead from Harry and lean in to Magnus’ cheek. They both agreed with me that it was a lovely Malec moment and solidified the characters’ apologies to one another. Sometimes when I direct little nuances like that, they go unnoticed by the audience. That’s the truly beautiful thing about the Malec fandom: They notice everything.
Thank you so much Joshua for taking the time to answer our questions, and we look forward to see your work on Shadowhunters again in the near future!
Oh… it looks like the whole team took part in creating this article!