Star Trek: Picard Director Hanelle Culpepper Makes History (And a Home in Space)

With news of rising numbers of COVID-19 infections and the economic fallout the disease destined to come with it, everyone is looking for watch lists for some quality home entertainment. Highly recommended by critics and viewers alike is CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Picardwhich has been the most-watched original series to date for the streaming service. The first three episodes of the series were helmed by director Hanelle Culpepper, whose credits range from superhero action adventures to thrillers, from juicy genre films to character-driven dramas. Culpepper has directed episodes of Parenthood, Criminal Minds, The Flash, Gotham, Star Trek: Discovery, and NOS4A2.

The first season of Star Trek: Picard is ending with a bang, and the streaming service has released a well-timed and exciting announcement through Picard himself, Patrick Stewart. The Credits spoke to Culpepper about her work on the show, how things are going with her new projects, and why Star Trek: Picard is perfect viewing in these stressful times.

For Culpepper, directing the first episodes of Star Trek: Picard would have a huge impact on the longterm visual palette of the show, as well as a number of other elements. It put the director in a position responsible for its success or failure. She explains, “Doing a pilot is so exciting for a director because we decide things like what the Romulans look like, what they wear, and how they fight, as well as what the Borg look like, and so much more. A million choices like those are part of the long-term visual palette for the show.” Culpepper also had a hand in crafting character and story. I was able to help choose the cast and work with them to develop their characters. I also developed the camera language, movement, and color palette. These decisions were driven by the character of Picard and the story we’re telling. What you will see is how the color and camera language start to shift as Picard sets off on his journey, and ultimately returns to space instead of feeling trapped on Earth.”

Culpepper is the first woman to helm a pilot in the 53-year history of the Star Trek franchise. Whether the show was rejected or embraced by Star Trek fans would reflect on her. She needn’t have worried. The pilot episode got a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the whole season receiving an 89% approval rating.

How much is the director’s aesthetic in evidence? She offers examples. “That’s a hard one to answer, as my aesthetic is all over it, but I’ll mention a few places with some of my favorite shots. When Picard is in the bedroom and first wakes up, the volumetric lighting and shooting through foreground glass is something I love to do. Also, in the interview scene, as the interview got more intense, I made the ‘dirty over,’ which is an over-the-shoulder shot that includes a piece of the person’s shoulder, which is more intense and literally crowding Picard into a smaller part of the scene. I also switched to a close and wide lens to add to the discomfort.” Lastly, she mentions a fan favorite, when Data is painting in the vineyard. “I love using available sun flares, they really add to the surreal nature of the scene.”

Culpepper says that the skills she found most useful working on Star Trek: Picard included her relationship with actors and her experience in both VFX and stunt action. She believes every production expands her knowledge base. “Every time you direct, you learn more and you learn something new. What was also quite useful is my ability to collaborate with the showrunner and writers to translate what they want to our department heads.” 

The dedicated fans and great press Star Trek: Picard has gotten has opened even more doors for Culpepper in terms of new projects. Also helpful has been her inclusion in the ReFrame Rise Directors Program, a customized two-year sponsorship that provides high-level endorsement and support for experienced female directors who are poised to lead studio features and high-profile television shows. “It’s been invaluable to tap the guidance of the high-level executives that work with me. I was able to show them my pitches, and get excellent feedback and suggestions, which I took into meetings that helped me land 1000 Miles and Kung Fu. They connect me with people I want to meet, will make calls to endorse me, and are cheerleaders who motivate and inspire me.”

Kung Fu, which is a reimagining of the 70s television cult classic, had just begun production on the pilot with Culpepper as director when COVID-19 required halting work on the show. Still, she’s very excited about this new take on Kung Fu. “I feel the world needs this show right now. My lead, Olivia Liang, who plays Nicky, is amazing and connects with you immediately. It’s wonderful to do this retelling with a Chinese woman at the lead and to see women doing these awesome kung fu moves.  In addition to cool action sequences, Kung Fu has a lot of heart, and I think fans will also love Nicky’s completely relatable emotional journey and her tricky relationship with her family.”

Culpepper will also be helming the film 1000 Miles, which is based on the true story of William and Ellen Craft, an enslaved couple that escaped to freedom by traveling from Georgia to Boston, with Ellen posing as a white male slave owner, and her husband as her slave. The director explains how she got involved with the project. “It came about because I directed an episode of Sorry For Your Loss for Big Beach‘s television side last summer. The episode turned out very well, and everyone was thrilled with it. So Big Beach’s TV side told their feature side about me, and that’s how I was approached about 1000 Miles. The story grabbed me immediately, and I could clearly see how I wanted to direct it. Developing the look book and pitch was one of the easier ones I’ve done because it was so clear to me. Then I got a few key notes from my ReFrame sponsors, and here we are!”

With the season finale of Star Trek: Picard now in the books, fans are already clamoring for season two. Still, there are many viewers staying home or sheltering in place who have not yet had the chance to see the series. They might benefit from the escapism, strong character development, and nostalgic comfort the show offers. This is why the news that viewers can watch Star Trek: Picard and all its shows for free with the code GIFT, now through April 23rd, is so great. Joining Starfleet seems like a pretty great move right about now.

Culpepper, who, like most members of the Hollywood community, is hunkered down at home, expresses gratitude for the decision to make Picard available to all. I thank CBS All Access for offering their service for free for a month.  I know there are many who want to see Picard, so I’m thrilled they will now have the opportunity, and hopefully, they will get a little bit of enjoyment during these crazy times.

For CBS All Access for free through April 23rd, go here and use the code GIFT.

Featured image: Handle Culpepper and Patrick Stewart. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2018 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

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Featured image: Chris Evans (left), Ana de Armas (center) and director Rian J


Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale is lead contributor for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, where she writes reviews and spotlights focused on female filmmakers and women in film. You can find her work on the site at She has owned ArtInsights, an art gallery dedicated to film art, for over 25 years, which has resulted in expertise in the history of animation and film concept art.  She is in her eighth year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con.