South Hadley’s Jeff Daniels directs Netflix series “Shot in the Dark”

  • South Hadley native Jeff Daniels, on ground with camera, films a scene from his Netflix series “Shot in the Dark.” Image courtesy of Jeff Daniels

  • Stringer Scott Lane uploads some of his just-shot film footage to his computer in “Shot in the Dark.” Image courtesy of Jeff Daniels

  • Stringer Howard Raishbrook captures some watery footage in “Shot in the Dark.” Image courtesy of Jeff Daniels

  • South Hadley native Jeff Daniels served as director, producer, editor and a cameraman for “Shot in the Dark.” Image courtesy of Jeff Daniels

  • Los Angeles stringer Howard Raishbrook captures late-night action to sell to TV stations in the Netflix series “Shot in the Dark.” Image courtesy of Jeff Daniels

  • Stringers can spend a lot of time waiting for something to film, as Scott Lane does here in “Shot in the Dark.” Image courtesy of Jeff Daniels

Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2017

If he hadn’t blown out his knee playing soccer in high school, Jeff Daniels might not be in Hollywood today.

It was while he was recuperating from a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in his left knee that the South Hadley junior got a camcorder as a present from his mother, Linda Daniels — and once he was up and moving again, Daniels, then 16, began making short videos with his friends, beginning a life-long love affair with film.

Fast forward about 21 years and Daniels — not to be confused with the longtime actor of the same name — has made a career in Hollywood as a director, producer and cinematographer. At the moment, he’s riding the momentum of a new documentary TV series he created for Netflix, “Shot in the Dark,” which follows freelance cameramen — stringers — who report on late-night mayhem in Los Angeles for local TV stations.

Debuting in November, it’s a fast-moving, sometimes sobering series in which the four main characters, representing three small, competing news teams, track accidents, fires, crime and other possible stories on police scanners; then they race to the scene, hoping to get footage to sell for TV.

The stress of the job — and the doubts one of the men has about documenting this kind of human misery — is also a theme in the eight-part series.

Looking back on his high-school soccer injury, Daniels, who has lived in Los Angeles since 2001, remembers thinking “My life is over. I was a big sports guy, in soccer and track, and when they told me I wouldn’t be playing soccer for at least 12 months, I was like ‘What am I doing to do?’ ”

But during a recent phone call from his home, Daniels, 37, said his mother’s gift of a camcorder ended up opening a lot of doors for him.

Whether it was getting involved in the drama club at South Hadley High School, or developing short films for some of his school projects, his post-sports experience pointed him in a new direction.

“I knew I wanted to get into the film industry,” he said. “And my gut feeling was that I wanted to direct — I wanted to tell stories, long-form stories.”

The 1998 graduate of South Hadley High went on to study all aspects of filmmaking at Emerson College in Boston, in a program that also offered its students internships in Hollywood to give them a foot in the door in the industry. Daniels said he moved out to L.A. in late 2001 to do that and has been in the city ever since.

Some of his past stints include working for the late action-movie director Tony Scott and as the director of several episodes of the reality TV show “Ace of Cakes,” a series on the Food Network about a custom cake shop in Baltimore.

More recently, he has been a creative director with Karga Seven Pictures, a TV and film production company that has created documentaries, reality shows and other programs for cable TV venues like the History Channel and the Travel Channel.

It was for Karga that Daniels conceived of the idea for “Shot in the Dark,” a project for which he, with a small crew to assist him, handled almost all the duties, he said: directing, producing, filming and editing.

Los Angeles at night

The inspiration for the series, Daniels said, came partly from the acclaimed 2014 film “Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Gyllenhaal plays a hustling and amoral stringer in L.A. who, by crossing all kinds of ethical lines, becomes the city’s most prolific salesman of late-night crime and accident footage for TV stations.

To prepare for the film, Gyllenhaal and Gilroy spent time with three of the cameramen featured in “Shot in the Dark” — brothers Austin, Howard and Marc Raishbrook — to see how real-life stringers operated.

In turn, Daniels said he watched “Nightcrawler” several times to get a sense of how he might film a documentary on the same subject.

“I thought there was a good story to tell about the real-life guys who do this, why they do it and what it takes, and what are some of the issues they wrestle with,” he said.

He ended up producing a short trailer for his project, then developed the series for the now-defunct cable TV station Esquire Network; Netflix then bought rights to the show.

“Shot in the Dark” follows the Raishbrook brothers, and two other stringers, Scott Lane and Zac Holman, as they prowl nighttime L.A. from late evening to early morning. Shot from inside their cars, at accident and crimes scenes, and in separate interviews, the series eschews overarching narration and instead uses the voices of the stringers to tell the story.

All of them admit to being adrenaline junkies to some degree. “I was put on the planet to film police chases, I swear to God,” says Howard Raishbrook, as he does just that in one scene, racing to a highway to position himself to film a car roaring by; police cruisers, sirens wailing, follow close behind.

Raishbrook and his brothers have been in the business for years, as has Scott Lane, who has “NEWS” tattooed across the fingers of his right hand and at one point says, “You never hope someone dies, but it makes a better story.”

There’s tension between Lane and the younger stringer, Zak Holman, who previously took over Lane’s old news company. And Howard Raishbrook’s brother Austin, after filming a terrifying highway accident, rescues a man from a burning car; he is deeply shaken and wonders if he can take much more of the job.

Initial reviews have been good, citing the series’ noirish look and feel, though some naysayers have said the show could do with more conversation about the murky ethics of the business — Where do you draw the line between reporting news and profiting from a tragedy? — and less pumped-up action.

Daniels, though, says he thinks the show does get into the ethical questions about stringers (and the TV stations that thrive on this type of footage), and he thinks it also does a good job of showing the exhausting routine they follow to do their work.

“Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction,” he said. “I would ride around with these guys all night and just be totally exhausted when I got home, and I’ve got two young kids (six-year-old daughter Ava and four-year-old son Logan) who would be getting up just about then … It’s hard to imagine the energy you need to do this job.”

“I lived that experience for months,” he added. “When you see this show, you’re seeing it through my eyes.”

He has been taking December off to recoup from working on the series; he hopes Netflix will want to run additional seasons starting next year, and in the meantime, he’s looking for some other film projects to get involved in.

“There’s no shortage of stories out here,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com