Nick Murray 'Thrives' On The Many Challenges Of Directing Drag Race

It might be time for Nick Murray to get that Emmy Award hat trick. The television veteran already has two Emmy trophies for Outstanding Directing for a Reality Program, but his work on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 15 might just land him his third. And considering the challenges of what has become a seminal and beloved season for the World of Wonder and MTV Entertainment Studios production, he probably deserves it.

READ MORE: Exclusive: RuPaul’s Drag Race Cast performs “Wigloose” live [Video]

Murray, whose credits also include multiple Writer’s Guild West Awards ceremonies, “Bill Nye Saves The World” and “Tabatha Takes Over,” jumped on a Zoom earlier this month to discuss shooting more and more complex Rusicals (a “Drag Race” musical challenge), a “Scream”-themed music video, live musical performances during the finale, if a live broadcast could ever work for a “Drag Race” crowning episode and much, much more.


The Playlist: As you approach every season of Drag Race directing, what is always the biggest challenge in front of you?

Nick Murray: The biggest challenge, I suppose from my personal point of view, is coming up with a new visual little twist or a new way of shooting stuff to add a little bit extra pizzazz and flair into what I already think is quite a visual feast that “Drag Race” is. But we always like to deliver a little bit extra every year. That’s the challenge that I can think up. Is it some new kind of shot or is it some new angles, a new way of shooting a performance on stage, working with lighting and the production designer? But I think that’s my main challenge from a personal point of view when we go into each new season each year.

You were nominated this year for the “Wigloose” episode, which is the traditional “Rusical” or musical challenge of the season. And every year it seems to get bigger and longer and more complex. How much time do you have before you actually have to shoot to even start to plan this out?

I kind of know it’s being written at the beginning of the season or there’ll be an idea from the producers before we start roughly about what the theme of it is, and then it’s written and then it slowly all comes together, production design and the art and the music’s composed and recorded. Normally it covers over three days, so there’s the recording of the lyrics and the music finessed, and then there’s a rehearsal, which is normally off camera, and then we shoot the [performance] the third day. So with “Wigloose,” there were three sets or looks that we decided to go for with regard to this Rusical. We split it into, I think it was three scenes, three sets. It’s funny now because this was shot over a year ago, so I’ve really got to [think back]. But yeah, so it all comes together over three days. We’ll have production design meetings with how the actual stage is going to look, and then the music is being worked upon. We have meetings with lighting, we’re going to shoot it, and how it’s going to look lighting-wise. And there are renders. And then the main bulk of the queens’ work, I would have to say, is learning the choreography, which I always think is an astounding feat for the cast because they don’t get a lot of time to do that at all. And then it probably takes us an hour and a half, maybe two hours to shoot.

I think the queens have said they only did each section twice, or maybe they did it more. It’s less than 12 minutes. Is the hour and a half because there are lots of starts and stops or just what you would normally do?

Well, with “Wigloose,” I’m factoring in the set changes and wardrobe changes. So, within those two hours, we had three set changes, and I can’t remember now how many wardrobe changes, but there will be a number of wardrobe changes, but each scene itself, so we divide it into three, so if I remember rightly, four, four and a half minutes of a scene. And we run the four and a half minutes and we shoot it twice from different angles, and then there’s a scene change, and then we run it. Then we put the new set in and shoot it, shoot that scene twice, and then we put the final scene in, final set change, and we shoot that twice. And then depending on how I’ve decided to shoot it, we’ll go back at certain instances to do insert shots that maybe we don’t get when we shot it live. There was a couple of steady camera moves that we put in the “Wigloose” production that obviously put a steady cam on stage. Then that’s the only camera that can be used at that time because it blocks everybody else’s shots. So, we definitely did that a few times and we did a full techno jib pass at the end of each scene, which means moving your cameras out of the way and shooting mainly on the techno jib. It takes time.

Clearly, there’s a difference between how you shoot the show on the main stage and what goes on in the werkroom. And the werkroom is probably, correct me if I’m wrong, more traditional reality TV, floating cameras, capturing stuff, et cetera. And I’m assuming you’re often cutting as you would normally cut for live television on the main stage?

We don’t do a live cut, no. So, depends on the day, but we shoot between seven and nine cameras on the main stage, and they’re all ISO. The whole show goes to a big edit. We don’t actually do a line cut, but in my head, when we shoot on the main stage, I cut the shots in my head, even if I’m not physically doing it if you know what I mean.


It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to need that shot now or I’m going to do close up here, wide shot there.” So that’s how I run the main stage in my head and how I shoot things. Except for the bits that are set up with RuPaul, the workroom is more of a traditional verite reality style of shooting, of following organic stories that happen during the queen’s prep, runway prep, or just a challenge prep.

So you’ve already won two Emmys in this category.

We’re going for a hat trick this year.

Before each season, what gets you most excited about going back to the show? What about it makes you creatively engaged?

Over the years, I’ve been given more latitude and more resources to really up the production value of the performances, like the Rusical, like the halftime show that we did. Like any of the musical performance challenges or during the acting challenges or the roasts on the main stage. I am always excited about doing those challenges as we go into each new season and thinking about how I can make it more visually enticing, up the production value, make them look bigger, better, more extravagant. I get so excited about what the musical performance challenges we have coming. As I was excited about “Wigloose” this year, I’ll be honest, I can’t remember what else we did. Because we’re coming to the end of season 16, which we’ve done a whole bunch of new stuff.

Also, at the end of season 15, you guys bad the Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson “Scream”-inspired screen music video for “Blame it On The Edit.”

Oh, that’s right! We did. Now that was super exciting. That was something that visually, we’d never really done before.

I loved it.

Yeah, it was very cool. Obviously, it was the “Scream” video that inspired the whole production, but being able to shoot the queens in the corridor on the techno and spinning the camera head 360 was something that was really fun, and I thought the way the lighting department really stepped it up and gave it such a cool futuristic, yet kind of retro, we were going back in time, you got MJ’s “Scream” video look, all in one, and it was a great thing to shoot for us because it was a little bit different. We had more elements than we normally do on these music videos that we shoot. So it was exciting.

For the live finales, you have been through the ringer over the past three years. You shot one on a roof downtown when we were still coming out of COVID. You had to go to Vegas. I was at the Vegas one…

Oh, you were?

Oh yeah. And that was a standing stage set that you’d probably never been to before and then you were back this year downtown with a live audience with two live musical performances in it, a first for the series. Is that the most stressful aspect of the show for you, getting to the live finale?

You know what? I thrive on that. I get excited when I get to do the live-to-tape finales in a big theater with musical performances. For me, I thrive on what other people may perceive as stress. I was so excited to shoot Jinkx [Monsoon]. Her voice was incredible, and we shot that twice and double-standing ovation. It was unbelievable. It was real and brought the house down. I get really excited about [the live finales]. I look forward to it. I treat it as a big challenge how to really make the performer look incredible and convey the excitement of the audience in the way that we shoot it and the way that it looks. It’s more excitement than stress. When I told the steady cam to do the 360 at the end, I was in the control room screaming and pointing at it going, “This is f**king brilliant. Look at it.” Like a child who just got an amazing birthday present. I was very happy with the way that the performances turned out for the finale this year. What was the other performance you said?

Well, you also did the Orville Peck one.

Yeah, that’s right. Yes. That was phenomenal as well, and I loved how we segued into the “Wigloose” chorus at the end, and we had the whole crowd on their feet screaming and chanting the chorus, which was so much fun.

Because I was also lucky enough to be at that finale, this was def a case of real-life crashing the proceedings. And maybe it happened at the best time it possibly could have, which you never want to say, but a dancer injured themselves in the first of four dance numbers. And you guys basically had to stop and every dance number had to be re-choreographed.

That’s right.

You talked about stress. Did you panic then?

It was more stressful for the choreographer than me. So, I felt for the dancing team and the choreographer at that moment, because thankfully the guy injured made a recovery. But with regard to the show, they’d spent days rehearsing these numbers, the top four, super excited to do it. So to then have to rethink in a way or how you’re going to adapt, having one person less than you would have been used to, I think was hats off to not only the four cast members but also the choreography team and the dancers. That’s stressful. I think having to rejig the whole dance routine times four. It really didn’t affect the way I was shooting it, but from a performance point of view, I think that’s where the stress was.

I would still say that you and your camera team still deserve a tiny bit of credit because you had to capture it and you would never have known that someone was “missing” or that the choreography had been rejiggered 10 minutes beforehand. It looked seamless.

Well, I’ve been doing it for a while. I cut my teeth on live television in the UK, so I’m used to things happening on the fly or things not working or things changing or not being quite exactly how we rehearsed. And it’s a little bit of luck, but also you dig into your experience over the years to adapt and do the best you can and portray what you’re seeing in the best possible way without the audience knowing that something has changed. So I’m glad that what we did came across as seamless and proficient, as you say. So yeah, thank you for that.

Do you think that the live finale could ever be truly shot live to broadcast?

You know what? That had been talked about years ago, and I don’t want to speak out of place for the executives, but I think it could be, but they wouldn’t want to do that. I feel like the show does so well because it’s very well put together and edited, and I think we do overshoot a little bit, and I think that makes the show a lot better. So we have little moments to pick and choose from and how the show basically is put together. I think it would be really exciting to do it live. Some shows benefit from that, but I don’t think ours would, to be honest. I don’t think it’s necessary to shoot it live.

Here’s my last question. Is there a way to get a drone camera shot into “Drag Race”?

Well, let me tell you this. I shot a lot of B roll on the drone last year, and there are a couple of drone shots on “Drag Race” and “Drag Race: All Stars” [this year]. You have to spot them, though.

Did I miss them?

Yes, you probably did. There were just little B-roll shots on the main stage. Some of the shots didn’t quite work. I flew a drone through that and turned on the main stage, but that didn’t quite work for what they wanted to use in post. But they got the tail end of the drone, which they put in the runway build. We shot a drone going from one stage to another, but I think they ended up using the steady cam version of that shot.

Well, I’m impressed.

The thing about a drone is you don’t really need it in a studio setting unless there’s something, because it shows the world. The lens is so wide. I’ve used drones on other shows. I would like to do a big “Drag Race” shoot outside. I think that would be a big challenge. Then you could use drones maybe on the top of a building, shoot Ru on the top of a building doing one of her amazing performances, or at that new Vegas venue, which would be super fun.

At the Sphere.

The Sphere. “Drag Race” at the Sphere. That would be incredible. Yeah, I’m just very fortunate that I get invited back every year and I get to do the thing that I’m very passionate about, which is my job, and I’m very fortunate to be the director of what is now a global phenomenon.

I’ll end this by saying your work is so amazing, even with so many international franchises out there – and some of them do very good work – they still never match up to what you guys pull off. You guys make it look so easy.

Thank you. I appreciate that. At times, working with Ru has just been and continues to be an absolute dream and it’s an utter pleasure. He’s got to be the nicest, most professional person in show business, and I’m very proud to be a part of the team and long may we continue making the show. And changing the cultural landscape around the world.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 15 is now available on Paramount+