'Picard' Is the First 'Star Trek' Series Launched By a Woman Director—Here's How She Did It

The first three episodes of Star Trek: Picard are unlike any other introduction in Star Trek history.

Instead of featuring alien locations like the ones that were introduced in the first episodes of previous series—Planet M-113, Deneb IV, Bajor, the Delta Quadrant, Rigel X, the Crepusculan homeworld—Picard is resolutely earthbound, only leaving Earth's orbit for a visit to a Borg cube held by Romulans. The new series, exclusive to CBS All Access, shows us our own planet's Trek future, touring Jean-Luc Picard's family vineyard in France and swinging by Starfleet headquarters. It's not until the very end of the third episode of the series, "The End is the Beginning," that Patrick Stewart's retired Admiral Picard even steps foot on a starship, ending the opening trilogy of episodes with his signature command: "Engage."

But it's not just the story and the terrestrial setting that separates Star Trek: Picard from previous series set in the science-fiction galaxy. Picard is also the first time a Star Trek series premiere has been directed by a woman, with Hanelle Culpepper taking the captain's seat for the first three episodes.

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Jean-Luc Picard aboard the starship La Sirena on 'Star Trek: Picard.' CBS All Access

Culpepper's episodes—"Remembrance," "Maps and Legends," "The End is the Beginning"—take us further into the future than any previous Star Trek series, introducing the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet as it exists in far-flung 2399. And to put it bluntly, things have been better in the Alpha Quadrant. A massive refugee crisis from decades earlier has left Starfleet bunkered and unsure of its role in the galaxy, while the promise of a new dawn—the advent of synthetic life—was brought crashing down by an attack on the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards of Mars, which still gives Picard nightmares.

In this perilous future, Picard meets a woman, Dahj (Isa Briones), who may be Data's daughter. Their connection compels the show's titular character to leave Earth and seek out the truth, even as a deadly Romulan cabal—the Zhat Vash—work to hunt him down and kill all synthetic life.

But long before she got involved with Star Trek, Culpepper got her start professionally as an assistant to screenwriter and director Callie Khouri (the Oscar-winning writer behind Thelma & Louise). Culpepper told Newsweek recently that while attending the Sundance Film Festival one year, she felt "inspired by the filmmakers who felt that, instead of waiting for Hollywood to give them a break, they were going to create their break."

After a handful of short films and passage through AFI's Directing Workshop for Women, Culpepper shot and released her first independent feature, the 2009 supernatural thriller Within. From there, she shot other independent thrillers for Lifetime and shadowed on the TV series Parenthood and Criminal Minds, directing an episode for each.

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With the first three episodes of 'Star Trek: Picard,' Hanelle Culpepper became the first woman director to launch a 'Star Trek' series in the 54-year history of the franchise. Hanelle Culpepper

"After that, it just started to flow," Culpepper said. Since then, she's directed for multiple series, including Star Trek: Discovery.

Speaking by phone, Culpepper described various aspects of directing Jean-Luc Picard's return to the small screen and provided an update on her next big project: a contemporary reboot of the 1970s martial-arts Western Kung Fu, which stars Olivia Liang as Chinese-American Nicky Chen, who studies with Shaolin monks for years, until she is forced to return home and set things right. This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

What was your favorite scene from the episodes of Picard that you directed?

That's like asking, "Who is your favorite child?" Can I give you three?

The scene where Picard says "Engage!"—one of my favorites. The fight between Laris [played by Orla Brady] and Zhaban [played by Jamie McShane] and the Romulans in Picard's chateau—one of my favorites. And also when he walks into the archives. The first scene of the pilot is also one of my favorites, that was a fun day.

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In the third episode of 'Star Trek: Picard,' "The End is the Beginning," Jean-Luc commands a starship again for the first time in years. CBS All Access

My understanding is that directing a pilot is a pretty big deal for a director, but what's so special about the opportunity to do a pilot or first episode?

It's like doing a feature. You're working with the writers to set the tone and the look of it. You're helping cast the main roles. It's pretty exciting—you're really setting up all the groundwork. When you come in as a guest director, you bring in your own style, but essentially you're making what you want to do fit into the tone and the look that's already been established for the show, while the main cast has probably already worked out their characters. You'll be involved with guest stars, but you're not really involved in developing the main characters. So that's why it's so cool to be a part of a pilot: It's the closest you can get to doing a feature, without actually doing a feature.

After your three episodes, what were the throughlines you developed that you were most proud to see continue playing out through the rest of the series?

Working with Michelle Hurd [who plays former Starfleet officer Raffi Musiker] and how much of the pain of the past she holds in the present. I asked Michael Chabon [Picard's showrunner] to write up a little bio of each character, so they could see what their history was with Picard, with Starfleet and their own personal history. So that was one thing with her.

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Jean-Luc's (Patrick Stewart) relationship with former Starfleet officer Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) is strained, but the retired Admiral has no one else to turn to for help unlocking the mystery of Data's daughters. CBS All Access

For [Alison Pill, who plays Dr. Agnes Jurati], there's such a reveal with her character in later episodes, so for us it was working with, "Okay, what is this relationship with Bruce Maddox?" What actually was their relationship? How much was it love and how did this all affect her?

With Laris and Zhaban, it was again exploring the relationship with Picard. How did they come to the chateau? How much was the Tal Shiar a part of their lives that made protecting Picard and helping him to survive such a risk?

As for making those choices with Santiago Cabrera [who plays Chris Rios], it was wonderful to work with the various holograms of him. What do they look like? What's the thing that's going to make them distinct? I got to do two of those characters.

One thing I got a kick out of with Raffi was how her future trailer is parked near the Vasquez Rocks in California, which is the first time on Star Trek we see them as they really are on Earth, instead of standing in for an alien planet. That was fun, but it also struck me that the first three episodes of Picard are among the most earthbound hours in all of Star Trek. How did that affect the vibe of the story you were telling?

For me, that was something that was interesting about it from the start. Even when I had my first interview for the job and I wasn't allowed to read the script because it was top secret, I was interested in seeing him more earthbound and seeing how he navigates the world. So it was actually quite exciting to see that's what the show was for the first three hours. The shooting at Vasquez Rocks was a wink to the fans, shooting Vasquez Rocks for Vasquez Rocks, instead of an alien planet.

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The Vasquez Rocks in Los Angeles County, California, have appeared in numerous 'Star Trek' series, but was most famously the location of Captain James T. Kirk's fight with the Gorn in the 'Star Trek: The Original Series' episode "Arena." CBS Television Distribution

Your episodes also introduced some Star Trek stuff we've only ever heard of before, like the Daystrom Institute, which is Starfleet's advanced research center. But the center itself is a special effect. So how do you handle these special-effect canon elements on set? Are you telling actors, "Imagine this beautiful building over there"? Or are you showing concept art? How is that handled?

I worked with the storyboard artist and art department to develop the visual effects part of it and the concept art. So once we found our location for the Daystrom Institute, then the art department came up with some ideas about how that building would then fit into the overall look.

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While mentioned in previous 'Star Trek' series, the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa, Japan wasn't seen on-screen until 'Star Trek: Picard.' CBS All Access

A little sidenote for the fans: There's actually a shortage of concept artists out there. If anyone loves drawing and wants to get into sci-fi, there's work to be had. That was probably one of our biggest challenges on Picard, was finding the right concept artists.

You also mentioned earlier that one of your favorite scenes is Picard's visit to his storage locker at the Starfleet Archives, which is loaded with memorabilia from his Next Generation adventures. Can you tell me a little bit more about working with the art department and the little things you came up with for this future?

A lot of it was in the script, but we would brainstorm what else could be in that space and what else would he find special. My favorite thing in that archive is the Picard Day poster [from TNG episode "The Pegasus"], which we had to recreate. We had to recreate a lot of them. Some of them we managed to find in storage.

But, like, the Data head—it wasn't in that scene but it's interesting—that was the actual one that was used in the movie [Star Trek: Nemesis] and we had to borrow that from a fan who was like a museum-level collector. Working with the designers was really cool. We would look at old designs and either replicate them or adjust them in a small way, or what would be the future version of an item that still feels like that item.

As a director, what are the things you're evaluating or looking for when a Picard script first gets to your hands?

When I'm reading a script the first thing I'm thinking is how I want to visually tell this and looking for ways to callback to what's been done before, and what is the way to approach this that hasn't been done before. I always hope to find something visually different to present the material, as well.

While filming Picard what was the shot or the scene that took the most takes? What was the biggest challenge of the shoot?

I think it was shooting in Ten Forward. There's the shot where we are pushing in to him and the camera is turning at the same time, so we end up with him on the side, so after we push in it can match cut to him in bed. So getting the timing right for that, while also trying to get the angle how I wanted it. That's probably the one that took the most time, or at least popped into my head.

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At the beginning of the series premiere episode, "Remembrance," Picard has a nightmare of witnessing the Mars attack from Ten Forward, the lounge aboard the Enterprise operated by Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.' CBS All Access

What about the most fun thing to happen on set?

While we were shooting that same scene, we were all like kids in a candy store because we were on the Ten Forward set and we had Brent Spiner and we had Stewart and Jonathan Frakes was prepping, so he came to say hello. So we were on that set with the three of them, and we were all ecstatic and they were happy to see each other and laughing. So that comes to mind as one of the most fun things.

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William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) reunite in the 'Star Trek: Picard' episode "Nepenthe." CBS All Access

I'm curious about the relationship between Picard and Star Trek: Discovery, because you also directed for that. I know they share producers like Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman, but how deeply are the two shows entangled? Does it feel like a completely separate project?

They are completely separate. Discovery is filmed in Toronto and Picard was filmed in Los Angeles. One of my main goals when approaching Picard was making it feel different from Discovery, with a different color palette and camera movement style. This is a very different story than Discovery.

What was it like working with Chabon and the rest of the writers?

A fun thing for me was to be able to spend time in the writers' room with them. As a guest director, you rarely get to do that. So it was great to sit in and see how their minds work and figure it out. It really is a room of smart people who love Star Trek and know the canon. They are all very collaborative and very open to—if something is not quite working out—they were open to other ideas. They were great to work with. Michael's just a very, very nice guy and so is Alex Kurtzman. There are no bad apples in our group, which made it a pleasurable experience for everybody. It's fun to be around smart people and see how they think!

Picard pilot aside, do you have a favorite Star Trek episode or some thing that impressed you in previous Star Treks?

My favorite one is the one where he basically lives a whole other life, "The Inner Light." It really changes him forever, because you see, for example, how it softens him towards children. We actually put his flute in the bedroom at the chateau. It's hard to see, but it's there. That was my absolute favorite one. Oh, and of course, the finale. When he comes in and joins the poker game always kind of makes me cry.

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Captain Picard playing his Ressikan flute at the end of "The Inner Light," after experiencing a full lifetime on an alien world. CBS Television Distribution

I always hear stories about George Lucas only saying "faster, with more intensity" and stuff like that to actors, so what's your method of interaction? How do you reach out to them and what do you say?

I try, early on, to figure out what kind of directions they like. There are definitely actors who know their characters, where all they want to know is "faster" or "slower" and they don't want anything else. They get annoyed if you give them more than that. But I tend to be someone who gives you direction and tweaks and changes, so I'll try and give you a playable action. Or I'll do an "as if," and give them an adjustment. I always try to get to know my actor and talk about things that they are comfortable sharing and experiences that they had. Then I can say, "Remember when you told me about the first time you rode on the train?" Or something like that. I prefer to do it that way, because it gets in touch more with their actor side. But you also have to respect their individual acting process. Some people want it simpler.

Picard had some impressive fights, particularly with the Tal Shiar, and now you're working on Kung Fu. Can you tell me a little bit about the fight choreography, both on Picard and now on Kung Fu?

I find fights a lot of fun to do and I've developed my method for shooting them, but I wanted to change it up for both Picard and Kung Fu. So with Picard, when I was working with the stunt coordinator I told him the main thing I wanted was for the way Dahj fights to feel very different from the way the Tal Shiar fights. One of them is this deep, embedded programmed instinct, and one is a trained fighter. So working with him, coming up with those different styles, was cool. We would do various pre-vizes and I would do adjustments.

I also wanted to shoot them differently. The way I shot with Dahj was very different from Tal Shiar. The Tal Shiar fight is more aggressive, handheld camera, with more kinetic energy—you're in it. With Daj, I wanted flow and the idea that this person's been activated. So you'll find that while there is some handheld, there is also camera on the dolly and dutch angles and things like that.

I took that to Kung Fu, which also has a lot of different styles for the main characters, which play off of kung fu and the animals that they named their stances after. So, this character is more this animal and that character is more this animal. What does it look like when they're training together versus fighting in the streets? Shooting it, I wanted to play around more with shooting with dollies and not as much handheld. I try to bring, as much as I can, story and character into the design of the fight.

What's the status of Kung Fu right now?

On March 13, we were shut down, along with most other productions around the world. So we're editing those things that we shot. We'll see what happens. I haven't gotten official word if we're coming back and finishing the pilot, or if they're going to wait and make a decision and order the series, hopefully. I can't really give a definite answer, but we're editing stuff together and we caught some really beautiful scenes before we were shut down and so we're hoping to give them something exciting enough that they can make a decision, even if it turns out we can't finish the pilot as a standalone pilot. My fingers are crossed we finish it as part of the series.

All ten episodes of the first season of Star Trek: Picard are now streaming on CBS All Access.