Kabir Akhtar Interview: Saved by the Bell

We had the opportunity to speak with director Kabir Akhtar. He recently has worked on two episodes of the new Saved By The Bell series. He directed the pivotal episode which saw the original cast reuniting and recalling the most memorable moments of the original series.

Kabir Akhtar is a well accomplished director working on amazing projects like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, High School Musical The Musical, Netflix new series Never Have I Ever and two episodes of Julie and the Phantoms. Kabir Akhtar is also nominated for an  NAACP Award for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series for his work in Never Have I Ever.

We recently got to speak with  him on how important being a fan of a franchise is to enhancing it. When asked what older series he would like to revive. He immediately showed interest in rebooting Quantum Leap. He also knew the exact direction they could go

Congratulations on Saved By The Bell. It’s the perfect combination of bringing all audiences together. Were you a fan of the original series and was it easy to recreate that magic for today viewers?

Kabir Akhtar: Yeah. I mean how could you not be it was a big thing for me back in the day and as you can imagine I was really excited.

As you know continuing production during this pandemic is hard, especially staying on top of everything and trying to be consistent with creating more content. What have been some difficulties you faced and was it hard to adjust?

Kabir Akhtar: What’s interesting is so directed episodes 4 of season one and then they asked me to come back and direct Episode 8 and we were in pre production the week that everything’s shut down. We were supposed to shoot that next week and obviously we didn’t. And it’s funny cause we all like being like “We’ll be back soon” and soon turned into five months. It was almost exactly five months to the day we came back and Saved By The Bell was the first show to start up again at Universal . Episode 8 was the first full episode of Saved The Bell filmed at Universal during the pandemic. So it was you know we were all very excited to get back to work especially for this episode which was I thought it this episode had a chance to be really something special. With the original cast coming back. I’m really proud of how it came out. It certainly took a lot more work than normal. You know partly because there were a lot of new coded protocols on set social distance things wearing masks and so on but also because everybody I mean all of us were excited to be back to work. We were Nervous too. You know pretty much everybody has not been around people for months and then suddenly goes on set which is normally a very dynamic environment lots of people want running around. It moves pretty fast. You know I think that it was definitely an adjustment for the actors who you know all the rest of the boring map and they show all day. The actors have to take their masks off obviously while we were filming so you know credit to them. I thought you know it because it shows how committed they were to the work being great. Then when you wanted the other said you can’t tell that any of them you know Mark Paul or Tiffany or all of the work. Mario we’re worried at all. And I think that that is a real credit to their professionalism.

This is definitely gonna be a new social norm for a while. So it’s something that you know everybody is gonna have to adjust to now speaking on the episode. Did you originally want to have all five cast members come back to the episode.

Kabir Akhtar: Well you know it was a decision made by the writers. But when I got the script for that episode I was like This is great. You know if all those things were like when you grow up and you watch TV and you watch movies these things and these people all seem so far away from whatever you are. And then I mean it’s unbelievable to have the opportunity to suddenly be right in the middle of it and be in charge of you know creating and feel like that is as wild as a wild experience and they were all fantastic. But I was really excited to work with all of them and they were all they were all really really great. Because you never know. Right? There’s that thing about meeting celebrities or meeting famous people because they might be terrible human but all the cast especially the original cast were really kind and hardworking.

So was there any specific Easter egg that you really enjoyed being a part of the show.

Kabir Akhtar: Oh yeah. I think that was the very last thing we filmed one night when the four friends dug up the time capsule and they’re outside the cold. And they’re all excited to realize that they are trying to go back to the time that they were all friends and they had to do a group high five. There’s a freeze frame like in the old days But then on set there was the idea that well you know obviously they don’t freeze filming we have to freeze later but there was the idea that like what happened. We’ll just unfreeze and then all stand there for a second like oh now what was there. They were all so excited about it.

You seem to have a great understanding of young adults. You perfectly highlight the problems that they face and know what things they would be interested in for you. What’s the most important thing for you to highlight in the shows that you work for today’s youth.

Kabir Akhtar: You know I think things when filming or anything is authentic. You want authenticity and you want relatability. I don’t know. I don’t watch something that I don’t somehow have some personal connection to . I watch Doctor Who. I’m not a time traveler but still a storytelling that has understandable and relatable human problems and values. And I think that that’s the most important thing you know and in this Saved by the Bell episodes there were so many themes that I personally connected with. And it makes it a lot easier to work on something when you connect with it. They have you have like there’s like there’s those topics it touches on like what happens to old friendships but how friendships change over time. It touches on things like losing touch with people and getting back in touch with people and wondering why you lost touch with people remembering why you lost touch with people. And I think it’s fundamentally a story about that was a story about change. What changes over time, what doesn’t change over time, what it’s like to look back at your life sometimes 15 -20 years later. To be able to tell how far you’ve come and whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I think that it is really a fun lighthearted episode. I think that it really does raise a question if you’re interested in helping or answering.

Yeah definitely one of the things they really expand on the relationship with Zach and his son and I thought that was a really great way to tackle that. You know the distance between parents and their kids especially with how busy each one gets now for you personally is there anything in the original original series that you’d like to retcon and fix in this new show.

Kabir Akhtar: I don’t think that anything I would retcon. But I really know I mentioned it on set. We talked about it on set. You know in the old show Zack Morris if you think about it it could freeze time. I think there’s a lot to dig into there. Yeah you know and now Daisy can freeze time. We talk about you know what if the two of them somehow got into a conversation about this power that they had. It really it’s stunning and the fact of the it was never really looked at, and its sitting right there it hasn’t really been addressed. I’m really hopeful this season. They are. They take a look at that because. I’m really curious about the physics of it all. Especially in today’s modern storytelling there’s not hopefully an opportunity to peel back the layers about it and what’s going on.

Maybe bring a little bit of a supernatural feel to the show a little bit. Now the show has done a great job in placing the original cast and in specific roles did you think that this would be their futures did you. Did you think that Zach would be the governor and Jesse and A.C. would still be part of bayside?

Kabir Akhtar: You know it’s interesting. I don’t really know where I thought they would end up but I think they all make perfect sense. You know I feel like especially given California’s history of having, look at California Governor I mean Reagan, Schwarzenegger. Why not Zack. I think in a weird way it makes perfect sense. I love that Slater is still teaching at the school. I love that Jesse is so committed to her students. I love that Lisa is in Paris. I mean I think it’s really fun to check in on where everybody is.

The show is really meta. Like there’s a lot of things that they point out that they didn’t really point out in the original series. And there’s a lot of Easter eggs that they place into the show to older fans to let you know that they’re still part of this show. Where there’s some Easter eggs you want to incorporate in this season that you’d feel like may or may not be put in the final cut.

Kabir Akhtar:  I don’t think so. I think that you know yeah I’m not really sure. I think that we’ve worked on a lot of subtle callbacks even for Zack Morris to ask Principal Todman “Wait, were you Belding?” I think the volumes about who these characters are and what their relationship was like with the world of Saved By the Bell past and present.

Did you identify with any of the original characters?

Kabir Akhtar: Look I was not a cool kid at all. Growing up I think the lives that Zack and Kelly and everyone were living were for me and I think for a lot of people really aspirational. You know I think I think there was a real hope among viewers that one day maybe we would be that cool. And so I certainly always as a kid felt like an outsider. I think that’s one of the things I really like about this new show a lot is that you would really dive into this world where all the new students at Bayside are all you know they don’t really fit in. You know they’re kind of they’re all sort of fish out of water and you know I think really the show really explores the dynamic between these characters and all of the entitled Bayside. Twenty years ago we’re all held up as being quote cool. And now you can see how they are all potentially problematic. Which I think is really important.

Can we switch gears a little bit? Because I binge watch one of one of the other shows that you worked on and it’s one of my favorites. Julie and the Phantoms. You directed the “Unsaid Emily” episode which was amazing. It was a great episode. It really found a way to touch the audience. Like I think everyone that I’ve talked to t That’s probably their favorite episode. Did the song lend a lot to how you wanted to shoot that very much.

Kabir Akhtar: You know I’m a sucker for a sad emotional song and you know if you listen to the song. It’s very you know it’s a little slower than all the other songs. It’s a little more delicate but it’s very intense. And I wanted very much to capture that in the filmmaking both in the camerawork and in their performances and to really convey the really horrible tragedy that the song is about. I mean Unsaid Emily is the song and Unsaid Emily is the story of this kid who ran away and died before his parents ever found out what happened. And now he’s able to go back and see them as a ghost. And in this song right. Julie the lead character brings them lyrics to a song that he wrote about his mom and how much he really loves her and for the mom to see that and read that. I mean the heartbreak and I had I mean I’m so proud of the work it took. You know it was a lot of planning and you know Charlie was great in it. And it was funny cause we shot. We shot that stuff in the house. I think that was the first day we were filming together. We just met and you know I threw out there the idea of there that shot like right when it started the shot that starts on the parents and sort of dollies through them and they sort of disappear and the room transformed right around them. Yeah. Which is how it starts. And it’s also how it ends. And you know when reading the script I was like we should get we shot that with a motion control rig . We had the actors there and we had the actors in a way in which the room was empty and then we redressed the room for a sad Christmas and Luke ran away. So we shot it. You know each although each of those two shots at the beginning and the end is actually four layers all come together and visual effect. So you start on the parents and the parents fade away and the room is empty and the room changes to the Christmas room empty like the past. And then Luke and his mom run it. So it’s all each of those is like it looks like it’s one shot which I mean but it’s actually four different pieces all fit together. And the same thing at the end you know the parents disappear the police lights fade away the room transforms back the present and the parents reappear. That’s how we filmed it and I was looking for a way to show that these parents’ lives never moved on. They lost their son and they still live in the same house. Most of the decor is the same; they never moved the furniture around. Their lives were frozen in that moment. All the joy in their life went away when they lost their son. And as you’d expect. And really finding a visual way to tell that story and to make it it’s heartbreaking as possible. Yeah I will. Where is the shot where Luke rides his bike down the driveway and mom chasing after you just like pedaling off into the distance. There’s a little cloudy Misty foggy night. And he sort of fades away into the fog which was I think I think that was my I was just looking for a way to show that like here’s that kid and he disappeared. And they never saw me. He literally disappeared right in front of our eyes.

It was heartbreaking when you saw the police come to the door and all these things. Oh yeah. You can’t you can’t reconcile because you just know simple arguments.

Kabir Akhtar: Yeah I think the actors who play the parents were fantastic in that they were barely there and weren’t in the show very much at all. But they really hit the ground running. And it really brought a level that made it really believable. And understandable. And yeah I mean I am thrilled that this music video has broken so many hearts.

It was a great song and it’s just a great episode and I think that was one of my favorite ones of the series which was why I was super excited to see what happens next season. You’ve been working hard these past few years on multiple things working on traditional TV and now do all these new streaming services. Is there a different feel production wise to you from traditional TV to streaming.

Kabir Akhtar: You know I think the thing is that streaming shows typically you have a little more time to work on it. You know one thing about working on network series is that you are up against everything that has an actual real deadline coming your way. Like Episode Eight has to air for Thursday for now. So there’s not much time. As far as shooting and there’s not as much time as far as editing and working on it afterwards and in streaming yes or dropping the whole season at once they’re waiting for the whole season to be done.

There is another show that you are gonna be a part of. Which is Never Have I Ever. Can you speak on that and what makes it such an amazing show and bring a different light to shows right now?

Kabir Akhtar: Oh man I. I love working on that show. The cast is great. The crew is great. The show creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher are awesome to work with. It’s an extremely great experience working on it. And when that show first was announced I know I read about it and I was like Oh my God they’re making a show about a first generation brown kid. So I was thrilled when they invited me to come work on it and I shot two episodes of season one. And I’m doing two episodes this season two.

I actually just stand upon it. Do Netflix and was like wow this is a really funny show. I love it. It’s a great show.

Kabir Akhtar: I think Davi is a flawed character. She makes a lot of mistakes but she wants to do good. And you know it’s great. Like for so long if you were gonna show a minority character I guess I wanted to be careful that like well this is the one brown character on TV they gotta look good. We don’t want people to think ill of brown people but like it’s great to be able to show three dimensional characters of all different shapes sizes and colors. Now it’s just so important. Growing up I never saw any brown people on TV that weren’t a punch line.

You know me as well growing up as an Asian kid. I’ve always looked to identify with some of the characters. But growing up in the 90s it wasn’t really a thing. So it’s really great to see shows like this.

Kabir Akhtar: It’s been tremendously fun to be part of that. And I think the writers on the show do such a great job with the script and like putting it all together in a way not just just me just telling a great story and you know great stories about people. I’m really excited about what I’ve already worked on in Season 2 and I really hope people enjoy it whenever it comes out.

That’s amazing. Now you’ve been part of a lot of revivals Saved by the Bell and I know you worked in past work on 90210 in your personal opinion. Is there another 90 shows that you would love to revive and put your little spin on.

Kabir Akhtar: Oh yeah for sure! Look the dream show is to bring back Quantum Leap like oh I don’t know why.

I love Quantum Leap and Scott is great.

Kabir Akhtar: I don’t know how that hasn’t happened yet but to me it’s been like I think the original show was set up perfectly to start a new start. You just have to make it about the daughter trying to find him. But in time. But you do the same thing. I mean I worked it working on a new Quantum Leap that would be amazing.

Can we just like put that into the universe and have that happen. Because yeah I feel like today’s generation would love this. I mean with the success of time travel movies and even Avengers: Endgame and its take on time traveling through different realms I think that it’s the perfect time to you know show young audience to this. I think that would be amazing. We’ve got to put that out to the universe and make it happen and you’re gonna be. You gotta be the one in charge of it man.

Kabir Akhtar: You know fingers crossed.

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