Helmers who created some of the season's most memorable scenes share their inspirations (Rembrandt, anyone?), obstacles (hello, rattlesnakes) and the lessons they won’t forget.
The difference between running a TV series and directing an episode is sort of like the difference between being the CEO of a burger chain and the night manager at a neighborhood McDonald's. Showrunners usually are the ones who establish the product, while directors are the ones who actually have to serve it up for public consumption.
THR asked directors who have worked on some of television's most acclaimed shows to select a favorite episode they helmed this season and explain what they personally brought to the project.
"As a director, I'm always looking to find a role for the visual language beyond just recording the script. I love anything where you can push the drama of realism using images from the unconscious and firing them back into realistic storytelling. So the perfect opportunity to do that was when Frank [Kevin Spacey] is fighting to survive death after the assassination. He's having all these hallucinations caused by the breakdown of his liver, so in his mind, his life-and-death struggle is played out when he's haunted by victims from his past.
My job was to find the right images to underline what Frank's subconscious was showing him. It was about stripping everything away as he gets closer to death. We went into a sequence where the heads of characters like Frank Russo and Zoe Barnes are onscreen … just their faces, looking like tectonic plates moving together. It was like the actors having a face orgy! House of Cards is a verbal show, so creating these huge close-ups with the intimacy of skin and fingers touching was new territory.
A set should seem as close as possible to children in a sand pit making castles and imagining anything. Actors will feel safe and can get to the truth of things. Something that might feel idiotic can turn out fine in a safe space like that. You can't achieve what we did in that scene every day, but that's what's appealing to me about directing."
Shankland also has directed an episode of HBO's The Leftovers this season.
"I knew from the start that the episode with the resurrection of Jon Snow [Kit Harington] was going to be a major moment for the audience. Handling it took a lot of work. I actually didn't know about it until I got the script, which made it very clear that the moment needed a strong ritualistic aspect. It was almost a religious experience — there had to be tension, mystery, suspense … a sense that nobody knew how it would go until the end.
A big influence for the look of all the scenes with the body in the chamber was Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson. It shows a group of doctors gathered around a body, not religious but with a religious quality. My father was a painter, so I was familiar with it, and I quite often use references from the fine art world for composition and mood. The room we shot in wasn't that big, and we needed a lot of people in the scenes. I wanted a sense that the resurrection was like the resistance. I wanted it to feel cloistered.
The scene operates on a level deeper than just, 'will he or won't he live?' We also spent a lot of time discussing what Snow's reaction should be — subtle or really emphatic? We felt the idea of him almost being submerged in water and coming up for air worked best. Life was entering his body again. There had been so much speculation about what would happen, and the best compliment I got was people telling me they honestly didn't know what was going to happen until the very end."
"We had a lot of great moments this past season. I really enjoyed the discovery that Lucious' [Terrence Howard] mother was still alive. That started peeling the onion back on Lucious because he had so many secrets. I still love it when Lucious [first] sees his mother and then just walks away. That set up a fabulous through-line for the season.
Still, probably my favorite moment was in the finale, when Lucious has to marry Anika [Grace Gealey]. I didn't know how Terrence was going to handle that scene. We spent time talking about the nuances, how he was marrying her knowing she's the one that pushed Rhonda [Kaitlin Doubleday]. As a director, I try to give my actors room. I already have an idea of exactly what I want, but I always give them the floor to explore. One of my favorite phrases to use when directing is, 'Let's see what happens!' And most of the time, the scene goes where I wanted it to go anyway. Our show is very stylistic, with a very specific tone. And I need to make sure I'm not getting in the way of [the cast's] art."
"This is a show that requires directors to bring their A-game every second, especially with the actors we get and the locations we use. So it was a real challenge for me this past season when we shot in Berlin and had to re-create a Syrian refugee camp in Germany. Those scenes we'd shoot in that location would feature a lot of action in a short amount of time, so we had to prepare like it was an actual military mission. I storyboarded every shot, knowing that we're in Germany and dealing with crews that speak different languages. You have to be crystal clear about what's essential to shoot because if you're behind, and the sun is dropping, suddenly you only have time for one or two more shots.
You have to plan everything, but at the same time, you need to remain open to whatever happens in the moment. And we had an insanely bad thing throw us off that first morning we were going to shoot in our makeshift refugee camp. I'd very clearly asked for three matching cars for the scene because we had to rig them for an explosion. All the cars showed up, and they were totally different. Some had TV sets in the headrests, some didn't. And you can't rig a car for a shot and then put in another car. We had to scramble to make it work, but that forced us to be more ingenious. They figured out a way to make the car drivable from the outside. We pulled together as a team when that happened, which was important for the whole season. We did these scenes early on in the schedule, so surviving put us on a good path."
Linka Glatter also has directed episodes of Showtime's Ray Donovan this season.
"The final scene in the finale, when our group finally meets Negan [Jeffrey Dean Morgan], was something we'd been building toward throughout the season. And in that moment, after having been on a journey with these characters for six years, we had to see every bit of their confidence was stripped away.
At the start of the episode, I used wide shots of roadblock after roadblock. As we moved along, the shots got tighter and tighter. By the time we got to the group on their knees meeting Negan, the camera was on top of every face so the audience would feel the same level of futility and claustrophobia as the characters.
I didn't want to shoot this all in little sections, either. It was one continuous thought onscreen, so it had to be shot the same way. We shot it over the course of two days, when the temperature felt like it was maybe 12 degrees, and by the end of the first night, everyone was emotionally spent. Tears were pouring out of the cast's eyes because they knew they had to go through it all again the next day. Still, we had to work at that pace because there was no other way to capture Rick's [Andrew Lincoln] emotional degradation. This had to feel like no other previous moment with him. The last shot was the perfect exclamation point for the whole sequence. I know a few people objected to the fact that we left such a cliff-hanger, but I didn't see any other way to end that episode. If we'd showed the kill, people would say, 'You have a formula where you just kill people.' Now, after the initial response, I think people will step back and appreciate the storytelling of that episode."
"Having directed the pilot, this was naturally a show very close to my heart. It's the time where we get to meet Jessica [Krysten Ritter] and establish that lovely film noir quality that drove across the rest of the series. Probably the scene we were most excited about in that first episode was the hotel-corridor sequence featuring Jessica confronting Kilgrave [David Tennant]. First of all, it was a big dialogue scene, and we didn't do a lot of those. It's also critical to the season because it shows that Jessica is suffering from PTSD. She's damaged and vulnerable, yet tough and a superhero.
I need to find a way to represent all this visually, and that's how I came up with using a purple light in the scene. It was Kilgrave's color and a nod to Jessica fans. We used purple strobes and shot at six frames a second so everything was blurred and had a ghostlike quality to it. Then we'd jump-cut to the normal frame rate, creating this sense that Kilgrave might be there and he might not, which helped to drive home what it's like to be in Jessica's head.
I never watch my work once I deliver it. I'd only look at it and realize all the things I should have done. With Jessica Jones, though, I actually went to the premiere and got to watch the episode as an audience member. Honestly, I'd forgotten about that hotel scene, but I remember very clearly seeing it on this massive screen. You could feel everyone taking a gasp of breath, followed by nervous laughter. You could definitely feel how everyone was tense, but that was juxtaposed with Jessica's sarcastic voice and humor. It played out perfectly."
Clarkson also has directed an episode of HBO's Vinyl this season.
"The night we filmed the Nazis at the Wimmin's Festival was the very last day of shooting for season two. This coincided with a heat wave, and we were on location in the dry brush outside of Los Angeles, complete with rattlesnake wranglers. The set decorator made a huge pile of books that had an internal gas flame so the books could be lit, and we had probably 30 background actors dressed as Nazis and queers and a choreographer and a live band playing horns, all to Alice Boman's 'Waiting.' You know, no different than any other television show.
It was a production. Every single department went to great lengths in this heat to make what seemed like the impossible happen. There were dudes dragging fake trees over to real trees, and someone had to move a piano from one rocky inlet to another. The complete dedication of everyone, working together under these conditions, exemplifies for me what our show is about: a true family of folks sacrificing to make the most beautiful art ever.
As far as the scene — Nazis arresting queers in a choreographed dance, cross-cut with second-wave feminists telling Maura [Jeffrey Tambor] she isn't welcome on 'Women's Land' because she's not a 'born woman' — I think we're asking the question, 'What happens when the oppressed oppress?' These women made a safe haven for themselves when they needed it, now couldn't they extend it to the next group of women, trans women? Don't they also need a safe haven? Transparent is a show that asks hard questions of everyone without being preachy, and that makes the most risky, beautiful art."
"The episode where Sheldon [Jim Parsons] and [Mayim Bialik] finally sleep together was great. It answered the will-they-or-won't-they question that fans have asked for a long time, but it also encapsulated what we want this show to be — funny but also sweet. And the way it came about was totally organic. Nothing about it was ever forced. We just go along with our stories, and sometimes you see a chemistry that works. So we never project too far ahead.
For that episode, we all knew what was going to happen, but I wanted to do a big reveal for the audience. I'd show Sheldon in a single shot, saying, 'I enjoyed that more than I thought I would!' And then we'd see Amy there with her hair messed up and breathing heavily, saying, 'Yeah, me too!' To sell this idea to our producers, I actually had a prop guy stand in front of Mayim at the run-through to keep her completely covered until the big moment. So she was revealed to everyone on set the same way the camera would reveal it to the audience. The producers loved that, saying, 'That's just the way we pictured it.'
I tried not to make too much of the scene, though. We just did one rehearsal and the run-through where we messed her hair up, but other than that, we saved it for the audience. I realized that you didn't have to pound the scene into people's heads. It's more effective to keep it simple and not make too much out of it. And it was our highest-rated episode of the season, so we all went, 'Yeah, that's what people wanted to see.' "
Cendrowski also has directed episodes of CBS' The Odd Couple this season.
"LI loved the storyline of Mitchell [Jesse Tyler Ferguson] and Phil [Ty Burrell] getting high together for the first time. A story like that can be fraught with cliche and a lot of false moves, so as people with some experience in that realm, we tried really hard to get it right.
The scene had a nice build to it. We talked about letting some beats breathe, being as funny as possible but always feeling real. The moment when they're given pot gummy bears in the movie line, then clink them together and eat them was perfect in that way. It just happened in the moment. We tried it on set, and it turned into another one of the little beats that sets the right tone without feeling false.
The best moments for us don't always have deep emotion, but there is something beautiful about the subtlety of the performances. And it'd be easy to laugh at these guys being high and turn it into a bad sketch. That's why we made it more about them deciding to do something they've never done before and that moment when what they're doing first hits them. I know it worked because I was laughing a lot in the theater where we shot the scene. And more importantly, it genuinely got a big laugh at a screening in front of our writers. And trust me, that's not an easy room to get a laugh."
"My favorite episode has to be the midseason finale. It was definitely the darkest and the most serious, going to places that other network sitcoms don't often go. You see a lot of shows riding this tone where funny meets stupid, but then there are also really sad and dark moments. Our show takes place in a world where almost everyone is dead, so it's absurd but with some real, grounded emotional moments.
The climax of the episode played that out perfectly. Phil [Will Forte] needed emergency surgery to remove his appendix, but this is a world with no doctors. Gail [Mary Steenburgen] is going to have to perform the appendectomy, and [Mary] asked me about bringing in a medical technician, one of those people who show actors playing doctors how to do it. We did a seminar, and I realized, 'This isn't about how a doctor does it. It's about how someone who isn't a doctor would do surgery.' [In the script,] Gail looked at one book and practiced on cherry pies. So Mary and I watched seminars, but now we're just going to cut that appendix and yank it out. That was what worked for this particular episode.
We're used to working scenes logically like that, finding the reality. We ask a lot of questions on this show with this premise that they don't ask in others. I mean, we have to ask where light comes from! We have to use lanterns and candles in this world, so we're darker than any other show on television. Literally."
"I will never forget the day we filmed the scene in which Robert [Hugh Bonneville] is sick at the dinner table and vomits up blood. The thing that made the moment so powerful was the very distinct relationships everyone around the table had with him. Right away, you knew what emotions they were going through. It was an intense and troubling experience. And there was all this tension between how people are supposed to behave in that era versus who they are as emotional human beings.
The dinner table scene was one of the most visceral we've ever done. The acting was very instinctive for the cast. When somebody coughs up blood, you don't have to imagine how you'd react. The challenge for me was that we were shooting in a very preserved room and had to be very careful how we did everything. There were only certain places we could get blood on this enormous table and white tablecloth. We worked with a physician who talked us through what would happen in this situation.
We did rehearsals with Hugh, and he also worked with a doctor to practice how he'd vomit, where his pain would be. And on the day of the shoot, he did it perfectly, although a little spray ended up on Elizabeth McGovern, who was sitting across from him. That was scary, but at the same time I was lucky because the camera captured it all, so that reaction you see her give was real."
Engler also directed episodes of Empire and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt this season.
"For the season finale, we shot an 18-minute scene. This was where Christine [Riley Keough] fulfills a cuckold fantasy with a client, which includes another escort. That length presented a certain challenge, so I chose to direct it continuously to make sure the actors could settle in and feel more comfortable. This was a sex scene, but I needed to exact emotional intimacy from the three of them. I wanted it to feel like a documentary, where you don't know what's going to happen next. The scene really reflects this issue of role-playing and performance. Christine goes into these situations in the show expecting to have a degree of ready-made fantasy, and I find it interesting to then show how that affects her other relationships. To what degree is she actually in control?
We shot multiple setups but tried to move quickly, getting it all done over the course of 12 hours. We didn't do a lot of rehearsal to prepare for it. When I first started, I wanted to rehearse everything, but with more experience I learned that actors don't really turn it on until the cameras are rolling. It helps that I come from a writing background, which informs my directing work. What I've learned from this combination of experiences is that at the end of the day, all narrative is essentially human psychology. It's about tracking how people are acting and reacting. And whether they learn from the situation they're in."