Putting 'Scandal' to rest: Havertown's Tom Verica talks - spoiler-free - about directing finale

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Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in ABC’s “Scandal.”

Havertown’s Tom Verica knows exactly how ABC’s Scandal will end its seven-season run on Thursday, and I, happily, still don’t.

What Verica, who’s directed nearly two dozen episodes of the drama set in Washington, including the finale, could tell me about the episode, written by creator Shonda Rhimes and titled, ominously, “Over a Cliff,” is that it doesn’t play out the way he thought it might.

“This one caught me by surprise,” Verica said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to the audience’s response.”

The Haverford High grad, who got his start in TV as a dancer on Philadelphia’s Dancin’ on Air, is known for his three decades of work as an actor,  including a starring role as the father in the Philly-set drama American Dreams and, more recently, as the lying, cheating (and quite dead) husband of Viola Davis’ character on another Philly-set series, ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder.

Read more: Scandal producer moonlights on How to Get Away with Murder

But finding ways to help Rhimes and her writing staff  keep viewers Scandal-ized by the doings of D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and her band of “gladiators” was Verica’s day job as the show’s producing director, a post he left after last season  to take on the same role at a new Shondaland legal drama, For the People (10 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC), while Jann Turner, who directed the next-to-last episode of Scandal, replaced him as producing director.

‘We’ve missed him’

Bringing Verica back for one last Scandal seems to have been a popular move.

“We’ve missed him so much,” Bellamy Young, who plays the show’s current president and former first lady, Mellie Grant, told reporters visiting the show’s Hollywood set in January.

“He’s family,” said Katie Lowes, who plays Quinn Perkins. “It’s like you finish each other’s sentences; it’s like you understand each other’s vocabulary. He comes in and gives you direction, and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ It’s so second nature.”

“Tom’s just fantastic,” said Tony Goldwyn, who plays the show’s former president, Fitzgerald Grant, and who has directed a number of episodes. “Tom brings a kind of enthusiastic leadership to everything he does. He’s just a real bright light, and he’s super-funny. He’s just like the best kind of team captain you could have on a sports team — he just makes it great fun, he’s super-smart, he’s a fantastic actor himself, so you have tremendous trust in him.”

Read more: Scandal writer roots plots in real-world figures

“And he has a great eye,” added actor Joe Morton, who plays Olivia’s megalomaniac father, Rowan Pope, and who also directed an episode  this season (as have Washington and fellow cast member Darby Stanchfield). “So not only does he understand [the job] from an acting point of view, what we need, but from a directing point of view, he understands how to tell the story.”

Tom Verica and Kerry Washington on Scandal finale set
Camera icon Eric McCandless/ABC
Director Tom Verica (left) with “Scandal” star Kerry Washington during the shooting of the show’s series finale, which will air at 10 p.m. April 19 on ABC (Eric McCandless/ABC)

It was Young’s expectations I was most curious about. Verica, she said, likes a challenge, so she was expecting something great from him for the finale.

“I feel like it’ll be a crane, or a helicopter, or something epic.”

Read more: Why is Scandal targeting Philly?

Some favorite episodes

Verica’s not confirming epic, exactly, but “yes, we did do something we hadn’t done before,” including shooting parts of the episode on location in D.C. instead of using green-screen technology and Los Angeles locations “to try to sell Washington,” he said. (Some of that material was also used in the April 12 episode, he said.)

“I always … look for the challenges, just look for ways to elevate my game. It’s always a fine line of not wanting to do something for the sake of just going big and broad that runs the risk of upstaging the material or taking focus away from it. So it really does depend what the script calls for.”

In For the People, where creator Paul William Davies is telling stories about first-year lawyers in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, Verica chose, for instance, to work with fixed lenses, “to design shots a bit more, to show the world in these massive … frames what these kids were up against.”

Three of the Scandal episodes he’s fondest of haven’t necessarily involved spectacle:

  • “The Trail,” Season 1, Episode 6: “I was not [yet] on as producer-director, I was just a guest director for the sixth episode. I drew a really good script, which was kind of the origins story of Fitz [Goldwyn] and Liv [Washington], how they came together, and their relationship blossomed on the [campaign] trail. That had particular sentiment to me because that was not only my first episode, but it kind of launched their whole relationship.”
  • “Run,” Season 4, Episode 10: “Liv  was kidnapped, and the entire episode was pretty much contained in this hostage situation, in a cell and hallway. So it was a real challenge to dramatize this world for a complete hour” with only two rooms. “I was able to, because of the script, get really creative visually … really kind of get into the psychology of her world, and how limited it was, and it really freed us up to get to play a bit.”
  • “The Lawn Chair,” Season 4, Episode 14: “Probably more political than we normally get. This African American man’s son had been shot [by police]. He [guest star Courtney B. Vance] gets his lawn chair and straddles his son’s body, wouldn’t let anyone get to it. It was this whole standoff between police and the community … It was just so well written. And it had so much resonance. Our shows get very emotional for different reasons, but this one had particular impact.”

The true power of Scandal

It would be easy to dismiss Scandal as just another guilty pleasure, a story that, with its Oval Office affairs, assassinations, and conspiracies, is too over the top to be taken seriously — insert your snarky current events commentary here, if you must — but that would be to discount the effects of the iconic character Rhimes created in Olivia Pope.

When the show began, Washington told reporters in January, most of the questions she received were about being “a  black woman as a lead in a television drama,” something she hadn’t grown up seeing.

“That is certainly not the case [now]. … I think it’s a testament to audiences, not only in the United States, but around the world, who are eager to see stories about lots of different people, in lots of different places, and who understand that our protagonists do not just fit one kind of identity, or identity politics. I think the world was just ready, and now our studios and our networks are responding,” she said.

Washington, Verica said, was as passionate about getting her character right in the final episode as she had been in the first season. “That’s her work ethic; that’s her speed. I am in awe of her commitment to every element of that.”

Part of Verica’s job on Scandal was hiring other directors for the show, and “I think a lot of them coming in the first time may have been intimidated by her … because she’s so laser-sharp. But Kerry really wanted and needed that sort of challenging and questioning, so I would really push directors to challenge her,” and not to be afraid to share ideas, he said. “If she pushes back, it’s not that she’s doing it to test you, it’s really to want to understand and want to bring every possible aspect and angle to the work. She never just kind of wanted to put it on autopilot.”

Verica, who got his start as a TV director by directing a couple of episodes of American Dreams, said he saw part of his job on Scandal as offering the same opportunity to others.

“There was this young director that I had seen a couple of her indie films that I absolutely loved. … I called her agents — they didn’t call me back. She hadn’t done any television before, she hadn’t done any big films,” he said. He finally called her directly. “And this was Ava DuVernay. It was before Selma and before everything,” he said of the director of  A Wrinkle in Time. The studio and network, unfamiliar with her work, wouldn’t sign off on her to direct what became the third-season episode “Vermont Is for Lovers, Too” until Rhimes got involved, he said.

“Shonda gave  me that support … and Ava came in, and became a friend of mine, and we tell that story often. But that kind of opened the door for the many people that I have hired since then. There’s a number of first-timers and a lot of female directors who have done outstanding work in the indie world who weren’t getting their shots [at TV] that we’d been given shots to. And I’m pretty proud of the number of people that we’ve brought into Shondaland,” he said.

Scandal. 10 p.m. Thursday, ABC.