Magnum P.I.’s Zachary Knighton Captures the Humor in Directing Debut

Magnum P.I. is coming to an end. Again. After four seasons aired on CBS, the network axed the TV series, only for NBC to save it for a fifth and final season. But with only a handful of episodes remaining, Magnum P.I. still has plenty of thrills and treats in store for audiences. “Consciousness of Guilt” marked the directorial debut for series regular Zachary Knighton. The Happy Endings actor portrays Rick, a former Marine who runs his own bar, the hip La Mariana. Once a playboy, he’s settled down and become a father.

Knighton’s episode found Magnum teaming up with Katsumoto when a trial case goes south. Meanwhile, Jin becomes convinced that something sinister has befallen the client he house sits for after she goes on an ”unexpected” trip, leaving a friend to watch over her place. Knighton recently spoke with CBR about stepping behind the camera, Bobby Lee’s comedic genius, Rick’s experience as a parent, and Jon Lovitz.

Characters lean on their cars in Magnum PI

CBR: What makes an amazing Magnum P.I. script, and in what ways did Consciousness of Guilt check off some of those boxes?

Zachary Knighton: You know what’s great about the episode they gave me to direct? I have been hounding them to direct for a long time. I think they were waiting for an episode that was sort of a comedy episode. Bobby Lee is the star of my episode, which is great. I had a comedy background. Before Magnum, I did mostly comedy. I think what makes our show special is it didn’t really follow the procedural gambit like Hawaii Five-O or NCIS. Magnum got beat up all the time. A perfect episode would be funny, full of humility, and a little bit of the brotherhood that exists between the friends and Magnum. That’s what we get in the episode I directed.

As usual, Bobby Lee delivers this manic, playful energy with Jin. How much of that was on the page? Did Bobby have a rip-roaring good time improvising?

Bobby loves to riff and have some fun, but he’s really good at staying on script. Most of it was on the page. We did some fun stuff with him. There is a bit of a dance sequence that we have in the episode. Bobby and I go way back. I had a show on Fox when he was on Mad TV. We were on publicity tours together when we were in our early twenties. Bobby and I have a fun love/hate relationship. There is definitely a scene in the episode where he’s hiding out. It is sort of this cat-and-mouse game through this house. I’d like to say I wanted to run the James Cameron Abyss on him that day. There was some frustration. I think he posted some stuff. I think he was upset about his off-the-rail director, but we were just playing. We have so much fun. We just had a good time. You can’t take this stuff too seriously. In the pilot episode, the guy parachutes from space. If you are taking it too seriously, you are not in the right business. It’s not like we are making the Sopranos. We are just having a good time, and I think that shows up on the screen.

Bobby Lee in Magnum PI

When you were flipping through the script, what challenges did you anticipate this narrative presenting? How did you go about tackling them?

Well, this was my first time directing, so I thought the entire thing was a challenge. I approached it as if it was a big challenge. You are essentially directing a four-million-dollar, one-hour movie. I would say, in particular, I wanted to tell the story with a nice cohesive through-line from beginning to end. I wanted to honor the writers who gave me a great episode. We all felt like it was coming to an end, so I thought this would be my swan song in a lot of ways. In particular, I would say there is a big helicopter sequence. Convincing Perdita Weeks to do the actual stunt… I thought that would be a challenge, which it wasn’t. She was super game and wanted to ride the helicopter. Everybody always wants to ride the helicopter if they can. They don’t let us do it too often, but there was that big helicopter sequence.

Working in departments that I don’t normally work in… I worked with a storyboard artist, which was really fun. I got to see their side of it –angles from the crew, the camera department, the make-up and hair… You work so closely with everyone. I wouldn’t call that a challenge. I would call it exciting and the biggest learning experience in the episode.

What surprised you about the cast while looking through this directing lens?

We worked together for five years, so you get to know everyone pretty well. You know that Jay Hernandez works a whole lot, so you want to be pretty prepared as a director so you don’t have to keep him there too long. The guy puts in a lot of hours on that show. The same goes for Perdita. As an actor, we are students of human behavior. As a director, it’s a good tool to have to know how to steer [the] ship as you are going through day to day. And, he crew. You have to keep those guys energized and happy. Something I am focusing on right now is directing. I felt like I was going to graduate school, in a lot of ways, learning about lenses with my DP and camera department. You are also working with your home team. Everybody is rooting for you. Everybody was so supportive. It was probably one of the best times I have ever had professionally.

John Lovitz in Magnum PI

This episode also features special guest star Jon Lovitz. How did that come about?

The idea was to introduce him to the show. If we were going to continue, we would have a foil to Magnum, a comedy foil in the form of this character Lovitz played. I would have loved to keep doing this show and for him to keep coming. I just envisioned him like — this is sort of an obscure reference for some of the younger audience — but in The Big Lebowski, there is this detective who has been hired to follow Lebowski. He is this fumbling guy who drives around in this VW Beetle. I envisioned that as the guy, this sort of scumbag guy, who is the opposite of Magnum. He has zero charisma and is kind of smarmy. I am sorry, Jon if you are reading this, but Jon Lovitz was the first guy who came to mind. I’ve always been a big fan of his. It was an honor and a thrill to work with him. He only came in for a day, but it was a blast. We had all these ideas to team him up with Higgins. There was going to be some really fun stuff. It will just have to be in the next iteration of Magnum P.I. that comes out in 2064.

Even though audiences get that end sequence with the helicopter, there are no big car chases, shoot-outs, or brawls in this episode. How relieved — or maybe disappointed — were you?

It’s definitely a talkie episode, so I had to navigate the pace and think about all that stuff. It’s such a big deal to direct one of these episodes, so I was thrilled I only had one big action sequence to think about. For me, it is all about the story, so it was great to be able to tell the story. And, like I said, working with Bobby is so much fun. We were laughing the whole time. When you can say in a meeting, “OK, Bobby Lee is going to be fighting this woman. I would really love for her to start ripping his hair out. Can you get me pieces of long, black hair that match Bobby Lee’s hair?” “Sure. No problem.” The power to be able to do that and make your friend get his hair ripped out on camera is immeasurable.

One of Rick’s greatest developments was becoming a father. What facets of the character have you enjoyed getting to explore with that?

They really took a lot from the book of Zach for this guy in this run. First of all, Peter Lenkov — the guy who created this whole thing — saw a video of my wife, who was then my girlfriend, dancing behind a bar at our yacht club that we used to be members of. He loved it and thought, “This is so great. What if Rick had a gal that he fell in love with and was working at La Mariana?” Then, they hired my real-life wife to do that. She became my love interest on the show. In real life, we ended up having babies, and they put that on the show. She was shooting when she was pregnant. It’s funny. We had our baby, and then she had to put all the pregnancy stuff back on to shoot some scenes. I’m a surfer in real life. I would say of all the jobs I have ever done, this one was closest to me. That was fun and also weird in a lot of ways. You are in a fight with your wife, and you have to shoot a love scene, so you have to figure it out. Not that we ever get in any fights…

What can viewers expect from Rick and Magnum in the remaining episodes?

We all just had such a good time shooting this thing. Probably in the back of our heads, we knew this was the end. Everyone was just loose, having a great time, and nobody was taking anything too seriously. We were all present and enjoying being with each other and the crew. You are going to see that on camera. We ended the show really nicely. We didn’t quite know this was going to be the end. I am sure the writers would have loved to have wrapped it up even tighter, but I think it was done really well. I am proud of the work that we did. I hope everyone enjoys the last couple of eps.

Magnum P.I. TV Show Poster

Magnum P.I.

An ex-Navy SEAL returns from Afghanistan and uses his military skills to become a private investigator in Hawaii.

Release Date
September 24, 2018

Eric Guggenheim, Peter M. Lenkov

Jay Hernandez , Perdita Weeks , Zachary Knighton , Amy Hill , Tim Kang

Main Genre

Action , Adventure , Crime



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