Executive Producer and Director Ed Ornelas Talks Bringing Harlan Coben’s Shelter to Life

Spoilers

Harlan Coben is a bestselling author the world over. He’s known for twisty and suspenseful thrillers featuring ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Coben has only written one series for the young adult audience, the Mickey Bolitar series that began with Shelter, and Harlan Coben’s Shelter premieres Friday, August 18, on Prime Video.

Executive producer and director Ed Ornelas joined TV Fanatic on a Zoom call this week to discuss the series, and his passion for the project was infectious.

I have not read the books, but I can attest to the story as it unfolds in the new series. It begins with Mickey Bolitar losing his father in a fatal accident and his mother spending months in rehab.

In the wake of the accident, Mickey (Jaden Michael) lives with his aunt, Shira (Constance Zimmer), where he meets Ema (Abby Corrigan) and Spoon (Adrian Greensmith), and the three form an unlikely but tightly knit trio who together stumble into a local mystery intertwined with Mickey’s family history.

It’s a coming-of-age story that celebrates finding friendships that can change your life, and it will have you talking long after Harlan Coben’s Shelter Season 1 is finished.

The first thing that struck me about Ornelas’s career is that he spent a good chunk of it early on editing for Grey’s Anatomy. He notes that editing is like the final rewrite of a story. Speaking about it once with Shonda Rhimes, he discovered that she would have been an editor if she had chosen any position other than a writer.

He recalls her telling him that editing is reverse engineering what everyone else has done during the day, what went right and wrong, and using the building blocks to cut a scene in different ways to convey various meanings.

“Studying the way music can be used and how that can inform how it makes an audience feel, especially coupled with performance and the whole is like you’re in a lab,” Ornelas said, sharing that he’d once wanted to be a scientist.

“It feels like you’re in the lab with all the different materials, and you’re putting them together. So it was very helpful.”

He used what he learned while editing to launch a directing career, and his resume reads like a fun and eclectic walk down TV memory lane.

He’s directed episodes of Grey’s, Code Black, Zoo, Under the Dome, Locke & Key, Fear the Walking Dead, FBI, and The Resident, among others.

With his deft touch, he has been influencing how we experience the characters we love across a wide range of programming, culminating in his latest project, which finds him as an executive producer and a director.

Of working on Grey’s in particular, Ornelas felt like he got a masterclass daily, and he was particularly taken with how giving Sandra Oh was as a performer, giving him valuable lessons for his toolkit, which has helped him greatly throughout his career.

As a student of both cinema and TV, Orlelas considers himself fortunate to have worked on such diverse projects, with every job unveiling a unique learning experience. He appreciates grounding fantastical stories for shows like Zoo and Under the Dome, making them truthful and entertaining.

With his Grey’s Anatomy experience behind him, he looks at working on Code Black fondly, as he and Marcia Gay Harden bonded during his time on set.

“She gave me some great advice about working with actors. She said, ‘Once you give me a thought, I will give it back to you.’ And I just thought, wow, and I’ve used that my whole career. I’ll tell you now, even on Shelter, that comes through. It’s really incredible.”

Ornelas also directed five episodes of The Resident, a show he appreciated for its unique approach to medicine and the performances and commitment of the cast, including lead Matt Czuchry, but also for the grace directors had on set.

That grace allowed directors to explore cinematically how they could delve into the subtext and find depth in scenes that might seem straightforward on the surface.

Of producing, he said, “I think it changes from show to show, and that part of my job is to figure out how I’m needed.” For Shelter, his job was primarily to understand and support the visions of showrunners Harlan Coben and Alan McDonald while contributing his cinematic expertise.

Given Coben’s significant global presence and the personal nature of the story, Ornelas aimed to stay true to the elements that made this project special for him.

“What I felt, having read some of the other books and seen his other some of his other produce material, was that this one felt more personal somehow. And I think it’s because it takes place in New Jersey, and there’s a teenager who plays basketball, and like, there’s all these references to his life.”

The series filmed extensively in New Jersey, covering places like Montclair, Patterson, and Livingston with a hectic filming schedule that sometimes lasted nine days on location.

Having never been to the Garden State, Ornelas found the state “amazing,” noting, “every time I turned a corner, it was a revelation,” and was thrilled when they chose to shoot in Liberty Park, which is a change of setting for an integral scene from the book.

Working with Coben was a wonderfully collaborative experience, Ornelas said, noting that the story’s “DNA is from the novels. But [Coben] is so open to changing it and even, arguably, elevating it in places because now we’re working in a different medium.

“Harlan loves movies, and he loves the language of cinema. There are things that we were able to do with lensing, with camera movement, with drum work, and sound design that you couldn’t necessarily do in the novel.”

There are changes from the page to the screen, including the importance of Mickey’s aunt, Shira, who did not feature prominently in the book. He also notes that experiencing a character in your imagination is entirely different from seeing actors bringing them to life.

“They’re going to add elements” to the characters, and he said that getting to know the actors in the medium of television gives you the opportunity to write directly for them, as well.

“I think that [Coben] was really smart about how he approached that, being able to find their nuances and what made them unique as actors, and then writing to that and elevating the character. He was great to work with,” Ornelas said.

He laughed, sharing how closely the two worked together. “There was one time we were at the monitor watching some things. And he’s standing right next to me. And I turned around like, ‘Oh, you’re right there.’ I actually liked that because he’s got this great smile when you when you’ve [captured] the thing he loves.”

For those who haven’t spent their career in the editing room, Ornelas said it could surprise them when they see how two images cut differently can create an entirely different take on what was filmed. “So having options that allow us to play and find something interesting, cool, and unique tells a great story.”

Ornelas is sure they’ve created something magical for Harlan Cohen fans. “We did a really good job of finding that world and exploring it with all the twists and turns. It’s very entertaining in that it’s like the way he writes, and there’s always a surprise.”

While it captures the essence and suspense of the novels, it also introduces deeper societal topics. Central to the story is the journey of its young characters navigating the complexities of their world.

“At their core, they want to make the world a better place. They may not know that in the beginning, but as they discover the secrets of this town and Mickey learns about this family, they will rise to the challenge and correct it.”

“As Ema, Spoon, and Mickey discover who they are beyond the awkward outcasts, they find each other, learn to work together and trust one another. There’s a lot of gravitas and a weight to it, but it’s a lot of fun and interesting.”

One of the secret ingredients in this production, Ornelas says, is the music from composer Hannah Parrot.

“I love the needle drop and the songs that we use, but we have a composer who hasn’t worked a lot with a lot of other teams of like heavy hitter feature composers you’ve heard in the movies, but she went out on her own on this.

“There’s a nuance that I could hear in her pitches before she even started. She compiled a bunch of pieces of music — about 2530 minutes — and it has the tones of all these things we’re talking about. You could feel the friendship I had read in the script. I could see the scenes through her music.

“For example, Spoon is a complicated character. On the page, when reading the novel, it’s pretty broad, and Adrian, who plays him, is amazing.

“He was really able to convey this character and give him layers and ground him. And then I heard the music with it, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the chemistry set. This is going to be really spectacular.’ We were so very fortunate to find Hannah.”

Eight episodes later, Ornelas believes the music gels the whole production together.

While we were talking, Ornelas mentioned the first season, which indicates there could be more to this story. Fans of the books have long felt the journey was unfinished, and given the chance, everyone involved would be willing to dive in once again.

“We would very enthusiastically jump back into that world. I know that Harlan would love to continue it. And that’s one of the great things about working on a series.

“This is just me, but we could go multiple seasons and explore things that aren’t in the book. To finish it, as you say,” he laughed, “and to continue to develop the characters and introduce more characters.

“I think there’s a lot that Harlan could do that he would love to do. He is prolific in his writing,” Ornelas said of Coben.

“The wheels are always turning with Harlan. And I think he would love to do it if we were given the opportunity. We’ve got to deliver, though, and that’s what we’re going to find out.”

Harlan Coben’s Shelter premieres on Friday, August 18, with the first three episodes and will drop weekly after that. Return to TV Fanatic for full reviews of the series every Friday!

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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