Chicago Fire director Olivia Newman on directing Benny’s funeral

CHICAGO FIRE -- "What Will Define You" Episode 707 -- Pictured: (l-r) -- (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC)
CHICAGO FIRE -- "What Will Define You" Episode 707 -- Pictured: (l-r) -- (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/NBC) /

Chicago Fire’s Olivia Newman made her TV directing debut with Chicago Fire season 7’s biggest episode and spoke about filming Benny Severide’s funeral.

One Chicago fans don’t know Olivia Newman, but she was responsible for directing the most important episode of Chicago Fire season 7.

Olivia directed “What Will Define You,” the installment that focused on the shocking death of Benny Severide (Treat Williams) and Firehouse 51 saying goodbye to Kelly Severide’s (Taylor Kinney) father.

She’s the person who was calling the shots for such important scenes as Kelly’s emotional farewell to his dad, and that impressive sendoff Benny received outside the church. How did she make this incredible episode come together?

Meet Olivia Newman below and learn more from behind the scenes of her Chicago Fire episode with our special interview.

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One Chicago Center: What was your reaction when you found out you were directing this Chicago Fire episode?

Olivia Newman: I was really excited, because I knew Treat’s character was a beloved and equally frustrating character on the show. I knew it was going to be a big, emotional episode.

I come from a drama background and so I was excited my episode was going to have this really emotional story at the center. It seems like the fans have really responded to it and were moved in the way we all hoped, so that was great.

OCC: How did you prepare to approach the episode knowing what the stakes were?

Olivia Newman: I think because it was my first [TV directing credit] and because I love the show and wanted to do a great job, I kind of over-prepared. I went through the script and boarded the entire thing on notecards by the different storylines, just to make sure that when we started shooting, I knew where we were for each storyline we were shooting that day.

I was very cognizant of the important emotional beats we needed to get across in each scene, and when we got on set I would always approach the actors and see if they had any other ideas for blocking. I was very ready to let them go, because I came in really cognizant of what the emotional storyline was for every scene, where we were at tonally in this five-act structure of the whole show. Keeping track of that stuff for the actors and myself was really important.

And then I thought-listed the whole thing ahead of time. But once you’re on set, you come up with new ideas and collaborations with the [director of photography] and camera operators. So coming in with everything planned in advance and then being ready to throw it all out the window is a better idea.

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OCC: The levity in the episode comes from meeting some of Benny’s exes. How did you handle those scenes and keep them from becoming just funny caricatures?

Olivia Newman: Even the scenes that had a comedic bent to them, they were so grounded and the comedy came out of who the characters were and that we weren’t playing into broad comedy. In every one of those scenes with the exes, we were constantly reminding each other that yes, they may be quirky or funny—but there’s a sensitivity in the room that here are friends of Severide who are here because his father has passed.

So even if there’s a moment of humor, all the actors were aware this was a very dramatic and important task that they were after. That they really needed to help their friend. That was always sort of the undercurrent.

And for all the exes, even if they had anger and resentment towards Benny—whatever feelings they had for Benny, they were sensitive to the fact that they were speaking to friends of his son that were suffering. Just reminding ourselves and reminding the actors of that really helped keep it grounded.

All of the women have very real relationships with Benny. They all have different baggage, both good and bad. So just reminding them of what that real relationship was like, whether it was a loving one or one where there was real heartbreak that came out if it, what the real story and real relationship was.

OCC: The end of “What Will Define You” is such a classic Chicago Fire moment, with all of the firefighters turning up to send off Benny. But how difficult was that huge display to pull off?

Olivia Newman: That scene required the most planning ahead of time, because we were dealing with so many different rigs and so many extras, and figuring out not only how to block all these people who were going to be in the scene but [also] block the trucks. [I was] working backwards with what do I want this last shot to be? And then how do I set up the trucks for that? Coming up with how to place the trucks was sort of the first piece of the puzzle.

I knew I wanted to see Kelly walking under the crossed ladders and I wanted to see the church in the background, so [I was] figuring out how to line up the shots so we could have that image and feel sort of the epic scale of what his firefighting community did for him and his father.

Once I figured out where I was going to place the trucks and how I was going to block the scene, then it was a matter of how to make the most of camera movements to get across what I imagined. Building emotion that [Severide] would have seeing everyone come through for him in the end. Then Taylor was so fantastic, really allowing the scale of the presentation to be carried on his shoulders as he walked through the procession. His performance was heartbreaking.

OCC: You came to Chicago Fire through NBC‘s Female Forward directing initiative. How did that help you prepare for your TV debut?

Olivia Newman: I booked my spot on Chicago Fire and then I spent July onset shadowing Reza Tabrizi, the producing director. I got to see how he works, and all the nuts and bolts of how the show works, and got to know all the cast and crew. Having that experience before getting on set to prep and direct my own episode was hugely instrumental in making me feel ready and [like I] knew the show best as I could before my first episode.

OCC: You’ve been invited back to direct another Chicago Fire season 7 episode that will air in 2019. How much does that mean to you?

Olivia Newman: I have to say the cast and crew of Chicago Fire are some of the most fantastic people I’ve ever worked with. I had an absolute blast working with them and I really felt I was part of the family. I was so happy when they found another episode for me to come back and do. I’m looking forward to shooting in the Chicago winter…Of course, I hope the next episode I get some fire!

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