There's tension inherent in true crime, but a seasoned director like Nimisha Mukerji is needed to form that tension into a storyline that takes viewers on an emotional journey, which is exactly what she does in episode four of Hulu's Under the Bridge, "Beautiful British Columbia."

The series is a retelling of the murder of Reena Virk in the 1990s, while a writer (played by Riley Keough, who also produced) and a police officer (Lily Gladstone) investigate. But episode four is more a story of familial drama, a flashback inside other flashbacks, showing how Reena's parents and grandparents made a home in Canada. This episode is more of a tragedy, as we all know what's going to happen; we see all the choices these characters make and how they lead to Reena's violent death.

We had the opportunity to hop on Zoom with the episode's director, Mukerji, who told us how story beats came out of rehearsals, the way she covered a pivotal table scene, and more.


Under the Bridge | Official Trailer |

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: We'll start with your background and how you got into directing. I know you had a feature that was at The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), but I would love to hear you talk about that as well.

Nimisha Mukerji: My breakout film was a feature called 65_RedRoses. It was picked up by Oprah Winfrey for her documentary club on OWN. And that film was about a young woman. I was 23 years old when I started making the film, and it was about a 23-year-old young woman named Ava who had an illness called cystic fibrosis. So when kids are little, they have trouble pronouncing cystic fibrosis, so they learned to say "65 roses" instead. So that became the title for the film.

And yeah, I mean, it was my first really big project, and when it released, it was exciting. It had a really strong critical response. It played internationally. When you have someone like Oprah Winfrey get behind a project, a lot of people watched it.

But again, I think for me, the real crux of it was that I think why I became a storyteller in the first place was to make a positive impact in some way.

And I think with that film, what was really exciting was that when we set out to make the film, we were like, if even one person wants to register to be an organ donor as a result of watching this film, it will have been a success. And so we got to see real change happen. I shot the film in Canada. I was Vancouver-based at the time, and so it was amazing to see organ donation rates triple in British Colombia, and Oprah got behind it with a national organ donation campaign. So it was like what we saw is we made a great film and then that great film we were able to use to create kind of a movement. So that was really exciting and then became really addictive because when you have a success, you just want to do it again.

And so I started, I ended up making more documentary features and then moving into factual and then from factual doing short films and from short films moving into television.

NFS: And how'd you hook up with the Under the Bridge team?

Mukerji: I met the creator Quinn Shephard and the showrunner Samir Mehta ... at that point, I had done quite a bit of episodic work, but we did talk about my documentary experience, and in the end, when I used to not mention the documentary work because I thought it would be kind of held against me—that you're coming from unscripted, can you work unscripted?

But I learned to turn that into a superpower because it was really about, how do you work with non-actors? How do you constantly think about story? You have to always be setting up for the story to go in different ways. If you want that payoff to happen, you need to make sure you get that beat now. You don't get multiple takes. You really have to walk away from a scene knowing you got it and that you'll be able to put it together in the edit room.

So the documentary training was really helpful, and coming out working with young talent and starting out in the kids space, all of that became assets in a project like Under the Bridge, where there's a lot of really young talent. But also, the story was very personal for me because while I'm DGA and I work in the States, I grew up in Vancouver, and so they had mentioned this episode, episode four, "Beautiful British Columbia," which was going to delve into Reena's family.

And I really immediately responded to that when they said that there's this kind of standalone episode, I was like, I really feel this is a story. I know personally having parents that immigrated, but also I am the same age that Reena was. We were born the same year, and so I remember that time really distinctively, and I experienced bullying as well. So I really connected to the material just even from the synopsis that they gave.

I think everything kind of came together at exactly the right moment. I had these experiences coming out of unscripted, but then moving into episodic, I'd done a lot of episodic at that point, but then I also was just deeply connected to the material and knew the story very well.

NFS: Since it is such a unique break from what the previous episodes have been, how did you and the showrunner approach the planning for the episode and what the tone was going to be?

Mukerji: So much of it was on the page, the writer, Stuti Malhotra, who's South Asian as well, and had done a lot of research, and Quinn as well. There was so much sensitivity around Reena's story, but particularly this episode felt very important because it was delving into her family history. And so, working with Samir, there were so many details because it was spanning generations.

You're going back into the grandparents, the parents, and that story of their history is juxtaposed against this dinner that's happening, which is the first time that Reena has the girls over to her home. And so it was trying to find—there's tension obviously in both stories. Her parents experienced racism, her grandparents experienced racism. They came from different communities within the Indian community. Her parents, her mother was Jehovah's Witness. So there were all these things, hurdles they had to overcome in order to build a life for their family.

And they had all these dreams, but that past kind of collides with the present-day tension of everything that Reena's going through. So, while all of that tension was there in the script, Quinn and Samir were really good about also talking about ways that we could showcase the love within the family. And that was something I really wanted to lean into, the light, the cracks of light within the darkness of this story. And this felt like an opportunity to show the love between her family and her parents. And that gives you a glimpse of the foundation that they had, the strength of their marriage, of how they were able to deal with this unbelievable tragedy in their life.

Vritika Gupta as Reena in Under the BridgeVritika Gupta as Reena in Under the Bridge
Darko Sikman/Hulu

NFS: I would love to discuss how you approach rehearsals as a director.

Mukerji: This was the first time I've ever been able to have rehearsal time with the actors—and well, you always fight for it on set because it's not a given that you'll have much time when you get there.

But in this case, production really protected for some time for rehearsal. And it just made all the difference because we rehearsed two scenes, the dinner scene and the scene in the closet because there were so many characters and there were so many beats between the characters and looks. And so we wanted to just take the time to really explore.

And Archie and Ezra, who played the parents—Archie Punjabi and Ezra Khan—they come from theater background as well. And that was such a gift because they're the ultimate collaborators and they're so generous to each other and the girls. And so, very quickly, it became a safe space to just explore the characters.

I know one thing that we discovered in the rehearsal was Chloe, who plays Jo, she dropped the earrings when we were rehearsing. She gets startled by Suman behind her, and she drops the earrings. And Archie really loved that. It just sort of showed also a carelessness with this very precious object. And she was like, "I really love that moment. Do you think we could keep it?" And I was like, "I think we should keep it."

And so then it became a part of the rehearsal. So we were figuring out all those beats and moments in the rehearsal space and not on the day when there's a huge crew watching and the clock's running, and you still try to protect as much as you can for the actors to explore, but you're on a time crunch. And so having that time to sit through where even the dinner scene went, Suman exits to go pick up, get a pizza so that it gives Manjit a chance to get into it with Dusty, those were all, those are extra beats that you're figuring out with the actors.

And then once you get those things, that rhythm of the scene when you go on the day, then it becomes about supporting that with the camera team and the lighting. And then also the production design team has figured out all those elements. How many pizzas are there going to be? Is she going to pour that drink? Who's pouring a drink?

All of these things matter because resets take so much time. And again, you want to keep your time to the takes and allow the actors to really have that time for themselves, not eating the time on resets.

So we ... by the time we went to shoot, we had figured out all those little things with the choreography. It's kind of like an action scene. That dinner scene is the way I thought of it, even the closet. I was like, these are action sequences. While no one's physically fighting, there's a lot of cues and small decisions that are impacting the rhythm of everything.

NFS: You did bring up the table scene, and those are notoriously difficult to cover and choreograph. Maybe we can talk about the coverage.

Mukerji: I think what also helped was the girls were really hungry that day for some reason. And, like, teenage girls, if you ask them to eat pizza, they will deliver. And these girls were so game to eat the pizza. So it was great because they're really in it. I think I can say that.

Vritika [Gupta] as Reena is just so incredible. She has such amazing instincts. Same with Aiyana, who plays Dusty. Anytime you need to cut to something, someone, Aiyana and Vritika are in it. They can say so much without any words. And then of course, Chloe and Izzy, they were such lovely, wonderful, friendly girls on set. And then you'd see them just be able to just turn it on as soon as the camera's on and be in that character and be in that moment. But the atmosphere that all the girls created off-camera was just really, really joyous. So it was a total counterpoint to what we were shooting.

But yeah, I think I don't shot list. I do shot list, but I take, my shot list is informed by really the most important thing to me is a beat sheet. And so the beat sheet is the key dialogue, but the key action and the key looks. And to me, even if my shot list has to be thrown out, because there's all these things that happen on set as things change constantly and the shot list that you have that you constructed, sometimes you don't get to every single shot. I think when you're in a movie set, maybe you can go, these are my specific shots, these are my storyboards. But in television, I find knowing beats, I can give up a shot. I can't give up a beat if I don't have that beat and it's not captured in that closeup, or maybe that character walked towards me and I got it there.

But if I'm checking off to say, did I get that beat? And if I didn't get that beat, then we need to go again, or I need to do an additional shot, but I'll let go of a dolly shot, for example. I'll let go of that because at the end of the day, I'm like, that's not as important as did I get that key moment where the character maybe grabs someone's hand under the table or shoots a look at his wife.

Or, in this case, there's so much going on between Reena and Jo and Manjit that there's so many little moments and looks that you just want to make sure that you're getting those things. But I also was really fortunate because my DP, Minka Farthing-Kohl, was such a collaborator on this, and we knew we had limited time, so we already, with our AD, knew that these scenes were going to be big.

So we did them at the beginning of the day so that the other thing I do is I'll front load the day and then know that the last scene, I could probably get it in two shots. I had to, so you're protecting for it. But we went in with a plan, we talked with the three of us, Lorie [Gibson], my AD, and we talked through those scenes. How are we going to shoot them? What's the most important thing to protect? Where do we start? Sometimes directors want to start on the close, but for me, I use the wises as rehearsal time again to get people in it. And then what's the order we're shooting? So we had figured out a lot of that. We talked about it, there's two parts. There's like you're living the scene as the director, you're living the scene as the story.

You're trying to be in the scene as you're reading it, and what does everybody need? What do the characters need? How do you motivate movement? How do you have all the pieces and props there? And then the other thing is living out the day of you're going to, the day going to go when you're shooting it, and you want to get ahead of all those little problems that add up into a lot of time. And so I'll live out that day like, okay, if we're shooting this scene first, what's the first thing I want to do? What do I want to move into after that? What do I want to do after that? And live it out so that again, you get ahead of a lot of problems.

Vritika Gupta as Reena in Under the BridgeVritika Gupta as Reena in Under the BridgeHulu

NFS: I do like to ask, especially with directors, do you see novice mistakes that are made often and can you advise how to avoid them?

Mukerji: I do want to empower emerging filmmakers and new directors. It's really easy to feel intimidated and overwhelmed, but the thing that I always kept in mind and even today, is that nobody has shot this scene before under these conditions with these actors, under these circumstances. That's part of the joy of directing is there's always something new and something you're learning and something that's happening for the first time. So experience is important, but you also have to trust your gut. I think I'll oftentimes just the sheer number of people that's on set; you sometimes get stressed about performing for people, but to me, ultimately, it's like what is in the frame? All that really matters to me is what's in the frame, living in the frame, and operating with kindness.

And if you don't know something, just say you don't know. To me, it's like this is a collaborative sport filmmaking, and there's a reason. There's this large team. And what I started to learn was that the number of people on set, they're there to help achieve what your vision is. And the showrunners are there supporting you, protecting for the whole series. And they're collaborators. The writers are collaborators. Everybody wants to make this count.

I think sometimes a novice mistake is feeling alone on set, feeling like you have to have all the answers, feeling that you don't have the experience, and especially for BIPOC directors and female directors occupying that space, that space is yours. There's one director on set. So really allowing yourself to take that in, that you're leading, you're leading your team. So it took me a while to understand I need to take that space, use that space, occupy that space, and then again, I think kindness is so important.

NFS: Is there anything you wanted to add about your episode that I didn't ask about?

Mukerji: I think the only other thing I'd love to mention is that Illahi Rayani and Bally Gill play the young Suman and young Manjit. And the other thing that was really special about the episode is that you have these guest stars, people who are just coming in for one episode. And so again, to watch them come in, I think part of what was really exciting for me directing this episode was that I had other folks coming in just for this episode.

And so we formed a family with the reoccurring, our principal cast, and then the cast that were just coming in for this episode. And we really looked at this as, how can we make this into a mini movie? And so there was this sense of everyone coming together, and I know Ezra talked to Bally about Manjit. There was exchange of information. It was just really, really collaborative.

And I just want to make a shout out for them because coming into the episode, and again, they have theater background, theater training, they were just so generous with each other and really understood how important it was to get those scenes right, because we only had one chance. It's only in this one episode.

It was really exciting to just work with that international cast.