Emmys: 'Mad Men's' Matthew Weiner Reveals Most Challenging Scene From Series Finale

And that's just one story related from 17 of TV's top comedy and drama helmers — whose duties ranged from shooting an entire episode with iPhones to hugging (and crying) it out with crewmembers — as they explain how they pulled off logistical miracles and creative triumphs to make some of the season's most unforgettable (and, in one case, history-making) television.
Courtesy of AMC
Jon Hamm in 'Mad Men'

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

THR asked: What scene or episode tested your mettle as a director, and how did you handle it?

Stunts, Spins and a Shootout
Adam Arkin, Justified (FX)

"By the time I learned that I was directing the finale, I had like five or six days to prep. But the beauty of not having a lot of extra time to plan is that it forces you to be present and to work without prejudgment or expectation. Logistically, the shootout scene with Boon [Jonathan Tucker] toward the end of the episode was very challenging and very satisfying. We knew it needed to be backlit, which gave us a certain window in which to shoot. We had the automobile stunt. We had to set it up for two stunts — the initial stunt of the car hitting Raylan's [Timothy Olyphant] and spinning him and Ava [Joelle Carter] around, and the fun secondary stunt of Ava pulling away and doing the reverse 180 — and then the shootout between those two stunts. It was daunting, but as it unfolded we started realizing, 'We're going to pull this off!' "

'Justified's' Carter and Walton Goggins

The Perfect Murder
Paris Barclay, Sons of Anarchy (FX)

"It isn't every day that your lead character murders another lead character, his mother, on your series. Gemma's [Katey Sagal] death was the moment the past two seasons had been building to — maybe the whole series — and suddenly we have to shoot it. And no one wanted to do it. We wanted it to be as perfect as what was on [showrunner] Kurt Sutter's page, with Gemma pushing her son, in the last moments of her life, to pull the trigger. We had the technocrane move across the garden just so, with the split diopters for the camera to keep both actors in focus up to the final few seconds. I was focusing the actors' attention on the technical — where to look, where to stand, how high to hold the gun — deliberately to keep everyone's emotions, including my own, from boiling over. And then we shot her, and the scene overall, in about 90 minutes. We cried, and then we went home."

Barclay (right) with 'Sons' star Charlie Hunnam.

Finding the Funny at a Funeral
S.J. Clarkson, Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

"For the scene where Piper [Taylor Schilling] attends her grandma's funeral, I wanted to mine her trajectory and realization about how disconnected she is from her family while in prison. There's wry humor that [showrunner] Jenji [Kohan] and the writers very articulately inject into the emotion, so the real challenge is to carry both the humor and the drama. It was really a matter of pushing the scene quite far into comedy and then pulling it back to how emotional it would be, then playing with it the next take. It was a big day of trying to figure out how to mine all the moments."

Trans Truth
Nisha Ganatra, Transparent (Amazon)

"I was most challenged by the bathroom confrontation [between Jeffrey Tambor's character and an intolerant onlooking mom], and not only because so many different things are going on: one daughter [Amy Landecker] standing up for her parent but using all the wrong pronouns, the other [Gaby Hoffmann] in denial and hiding in the stall. I came out of the bathroom to check the monitor, and I saw every trans woman and every trans man on our set standing there holding their breath. I said, 'Is everything OK?' And they all said: 'This has happened to every single one of us. This is one of our biggest emotional issues, and we want to make sure you get it right.' I was so stunned by that moment because we just remembered all of these men and women were watching a piece of history. I finished the scene and then I came out, and everyone was in tears. We all just hugged each other and cried, and then we said, 'We got it.' "

Landecker and Tambor on 'Transparent.'

Split Perspectives on Terror
Lesli Linka Glatter, Homeland (Showtime)

"In the episode 'From A to B and Back Again,' the biggest challenge was a scene that takes place in two different locations, and a lot of the choices were about point of view: Carrie's [Claire Danes] in the ops room, and Aayan's [Suraj Sharma] on his journey to meet his uncle, who shoots him in the head. In prep, we tried every way to schedule it to be able to have everyone in the ops room watching the real scene, but there was just no way we could make it work. We had to shoot the ops room part at our soundstage in Cape Town about a week before we did Aayan getting killed — which we had to shoot about an hour outside of Cape Town, where the land is very similar to Pakistan and Afghanistan. So Claire had to watch a greenscreen and create this whole thing in her mind to make it believable while our AD [Nick Heckstall-Smith] read [the Aayan scene]. I can't even tell you how many times he read it out loud; he definitely needed lozenges after. (Laughs.) Then, when we were doing the Aayan scene, the camera on the helicopter broke down. We only had a very short amount of light because it was winter, so by 4 in the afternoon the light would be gone. We got the camera fixed, and we got one pass at [the scene]. I had to stay calm and focused when I was like, 'Oh my God, the sun is moving, and no one can stop that.' "

Sharma in 'Homeland.'

Bingo Breakdown
Peter Gould, Better Call Saul (AMC)

"The biggest challenge was a scene where Bob [Odenkirk] has an emotional breakdown while calling Bingo. It was such a tour de force for Bob, but there were a lot of other elements to keep track of. We had a roomful of elderly performers, and we wanted to make sure they would be fresh and attentive. One of the things we did to help the scene click together was to shoot Bob's monologue first; this way, the extras were ready to go, but also I wanted to make sure we captured all the nuances Bob was bringing to the scene. We shot the second half of the scene first and then moved in for the closer shots. The other thing we did was have our camera crew capturing shots of the extras watching Bob's monologue and reacting to him. Our B camera was frequently rolling when the extras didn't know it. In the editing room, we found those small moments so real, funny and helpful to the sequence. Bob came in so perfectly prepared and with so much detail that I wanted to show him as continuously as possible. In our first cut, we almost never left Bob's face."

Odenkirk (left) and Gould on the 'Saul' set.

Church Concert
Sanaa Hamri, Empire (Fox)

"The most challenging scene I directed on Empire was the church scene when Gladys Knight performs [at a funeral]. The challenge was we were recording her live. She said, 'You know, Sanaa, every time we sing it's going to be different.' I said, 'Absolutely — let's just go for it.' But she sang it live like a million times, and every time was on! We used real people in the church; it's always tricky to incorporate people who've never been on a set. It was also a scene that I wanted to feel like it was happening in real time. When all the family is together and Cookie [Taraji P. Henson] was crying and Jamal [Jussie Smollett] was comforting her, I looked at it and said: 'This is going to be good. This family is going to make waves.' "

Knight sings on 'Empire.'

Riverboat Improv
Jonathan Krisel
, Portlandia (IFC)

"We were shooting on [Oregon's] Willamette River and trying to cheat it as the Hudson River in New York, which was challenging. They were doing construction on one of the bridges we were shooting next to, and it was extremely loud. We're supposed to have this boat be on fire. There were girls in bikinis. Someone bailed, and we had to put someone from the costume department in a bikini, which was a terrible pickle to be in because it was a sort of demeaning role — and that's kind of the point of the role. We do so much improv — every take is totally different little performances. The climax of the episode is so over-the-top, where people are pulling off wigs. It's Fred [Armisen] playing a woman who's dressed up as a man — already so crazy. One of the funniest moments of the whole season was with Peter Giles, who played an evil, misogynistic boss. He was really good — his scene made me laugh every time I watched it. It was a very harrowing, hot day. When we were writing it, I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, this is going to be impossible to pull off.' The producer is telling me every five seconds, 'If you go over 30 minutes, we're gonna run out of money at the end of the schedule.' It became all about keeping the solution as simple as possible, so we kept the boat docked, just like the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street when the police come onboard Leo's [DiCaprio] yacht. It didn't have to be at sea after all. Anyone can direct something if they have unlimited resources and unlimited time! My job is puzzling it out and using the resources and time and getting it done."

Krisel helms 'Portlandia' from afar.

Family Facetime
Steve Levitan
, Modern Family (ABC)

"This episode was like no other we've ever done, so the first scenes of the first morning were the hardest. We shot 11 actors on four sets at once (one on greenscreen) and had to determine the best way to shoot the actors on iPhones so it looked like they were holding the phones themselves. We had to determine portrait versus landscape for each actor and block several tricky reveals within the confines of the FaceTime conceit. We also had to track the intricate timing of everything that was going to happen on Claire's [Julie Bowen] computer screen while getting the cast comfortable with the building emotional arc. I triumphed over the stress and fear by eating a lot of the prop cheese and caramel corn."

'Modern Family’s' all-iPhone episode.

Bloodlust With Brio
Phil Lord
and Chris Miller, The Last Man on Earth (Fox)

MILLER "The bowling sequence was difficult. We set up all the aquariums and put a bunch of bowling balls in a truck, set up the angles we thought would be best, and whatever happened, we knew we just had one shot. We didn't have any more aquariums, and we didn't have any way of stopping."

LORD "Will [Forte] insisted on driving the car because he wrote that scene for the express purpose of getting to do it, so we had to train him to do the stunt."

MILLER "In the background we had to make sure the streets were stopped — a looky-loo could've ruined the entire thing. It also was dangerous: There was a bunch of broken glass that could fly up. Will was wearing heavy-duty boots, but he was in his underpants and a sweatshirt so he had a lot of skin exposed."

LORD "Once Will's bloodlust kicked in for smashing things, his performance became very natural. We talked a lot with him about the overall tone of the piece, which is, how do you smash things with joy and brio and not just anger and frustration? It was emblematic of a broader thing we were trying to do with that episode, to highlight what Forte does so well, which is to be really empathetic and really funny at the same time."

From left: Forte, Lord and Miller on 'Last Man.'

A Queen's Walk of Shame
David Nutter, Game of Thrones (HBO)

"In the season finale, I was quite nervous about Cersei's [Lena Headey] walk of shame. I wanted to get it right because it was a very sensitive matter in how it would be portrayed. I did my very best to take advantage of the little time we did have and the dates and location we did have to see everything we needed to see and to capture the intimacy and struggle Cersei had in this quite astounding thing she's basically forced to do. For me, it's always about preparation, preparation, preparation. With a show like Game of Thrones, you can't stop and prepare for one sequence because there are so many others coming. It's not just about the scope and the size and the glam of it all; it's really about what's going through the characters' hearts and souls and finding something that exposes it as much as possible. This scene is one I'd known about for a long time and worried about — and one that had never been done before in TV or film. I wanted to make sure the essence and the heart of the matter was really exposed so Lena could do her best work."

Nutter on the 'Thrones' set.

Father-Daughter Dynamics
Jesse Peretz, Girls (HBO)

"A difficult scene was where Elijah [Andrew Rannells] comes home from taking Tad [Peter Scolari] shopping to help him realize his new gay self — and Elijah's being cavalier about talking to Hannah [Lena Dunham] about her dad's sexual conquests in the past and in the future. She's having a hard time figuring out how to have her sort of progressive, liberal perspective and deal with this new concept of her dad having sexual interest and sexual events in the past with men. For me, the biggest test or the things that you feel most proud of as a director is when you are able to help the actor find that intense emotional truth and at the same time be funny. I felt very connected personally to that storyline of her dad coming out — my own dad came out in the last decade. The challenge was trying to figure out the dynamics of something that's emotionally complicated. I felt I could interject a little more about the script because I had a real point of view about it."

Scolari (left) and Dunham on 'Girls.'

Sibling Battles
Johan Renck, Bloodline (Netflix)

"One of the most difficult scenes was pretty early on in the season when all the siblings are having a quarrel. It took a hell of a long time to shoot because there's a very difficult line to walk with them trying to be polite while also knowing each other too well. There's five people in the scene, and you inevitably can't place five people so everyone gets equal camera time, so the stumbling blocks were placement and a bunch of entrances and exits in the scene. You've got to hope it can work without being too flawless — like Leonard Cohen said, there's a crack in everything, so the light gets in. I found that this scene played out best if it wasn't interrupted. Every detail had to be right, or we had to start from scratch. There was something new we discovered in every take, and with five actors, new discoveries become f—ing fractal theory. You have to hope you can keep your mind sharp but also that your heart's in the right place."

Family dinnertime on 'Bloodline.'

Staging a Small-Screen Musical
Jeff Richmond, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

"We were going to create a movie musical with the cast singing and with guest actors and cameos. It was going to take place on a luxury liner, and we had to shoot in two hours because that's episodic TV — and it was the same day we were shooting an animatronic dolphin on the street. So the real doozy was, I would go start rehearsing in the street for the dolphin scene, then I would go in to check on [guest stars] Jefferson Mays and John Cullum in the recording booth. I wanted to do the music duties, too, but on the way to the ADR rooms I'd have to run through the set so I could check on the choreographer. I knew that if I just kept moving, I wouldn't stay in one place long enough for anyone to ask too many questions. It was a fun, frenzied day."

'Kimmy Schmidt’s' Tituss Burgess and Ellie Kemper.

Chaos and Collapse
Tom Verica, Scandal (ABC)

"In the scene in which Olivia [Kerry Washington] runs down a long, dilapidated hallway while she tries to escape her captors, I had to convey her world as very chaotic in the moment. I wanted the viewer to feel like it was an endless hallway for Olivia. In reality the hallway was 70 feet, yet my challenge was to make it feel like it went on forever. One technique was to use the Doggicam, basically a rig attached to Kerry as she ran to keep her still in frame while the world behind her spun wildly. Another was a variation on the Steadicam which allowed the audience to swoop past, chase and pull her, creating the sense that her universe was collapsing."

'Scandal's' Washington.

Finale Phone Call
Matthew Weiner, Mad Men (AMC)

"In the series finale, the scene with the phone call between Don [Jon Hamm] and Peggy [Elisabeth Moss] probably was the hardest. We were in Big Sur. We were waiting for the sun, trying to create intimacy outdoors, on a pay phone, dealing with the fact that Elisabeth was a tiny voice they wired through on the phone and that we were away from home, surrounded by strangers. The director part of me was mad at the writer part of me for making the climax of the series happen over the telephone. Jon had to be emotional, but I didn't want him to emotionally exceed what was the actual climax of the episode, which is when he hugs Leonard [Evan Arnold]. Jon killed it. We did find a way to electronically — it doesn't sound complicated, but it was — get Peggy's voice doing a performance on the other side. Also, we were on the coast. The wind is fierce; you can hear it, and you don't want to hear it. You're hoping that over the five hours you're shooting the scene, the sun doesn't bury too much. It was scary because it also was committing to the end of the story — even more so than the yoga scene. This is the end of the road."

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