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Emmys: 'American Horror Story,' 'Fargo' Producers Reveal Their Toughest Days on Set
Producers, writers, directors and actors from this year's Emmy-contending television movies and miniseries have stories to spare from the creative trenches.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Bruce Beresford, director, Bonnie & Clyde (Lifetime, movie)
Our toughest day of shooting was the escape from the motel that involved a massive gunfight between the authorities and the Barrow Gang. These types of scenes are always a challenge for many reasons, so I'd estimated it would take four or five nights to shoot -- but the schedule allowed only one and a half. We just didn't have the budget for more. To make certain we would catch every nuance of each key character in the scene, I storyboarded every camera setup and filmed with three cameras. We also had photographs of the original place where it went down and built a replica. In reality, Bonnie and Clyde crawled along the floor of the two motel rooms they were in and then drove out through the doors and past the police -- and got away. It was enormously complicated and very demanding on everyone to pull this off. The cast and crew did an amazing job in getting through what was a huge action scene so quickly.
Colin Callender, executive producer, The White Queen (Starz, miniseries)
What distinguishes The White Queen from other historical dramas is that it tells history from the women's point of view. This was central to the miniseries, and at its heart was the story of a mother-daughter relationship that was not only familial but also strategic. It was crucial that we cast these roles in a way that brought to life the difficult personal and political choices these women had to make in order to survive. Our first day of shooting was by far our most difficult. While we had cast the glorious Janet McTeer as the calculating mother, it wasn't until the day before we started rehearsals that we found our leading lady, the then-unknown Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson. The entire success of the series rested on Rebecca as we embarked on the first day of shooting with great trepidation. When we saw the first set of dailies, the producing team let out a collective sigh of relief as Rebecca's raw talent, honesty and smarts shone through, embodying everything that was the White Queen.
Dante Di Loreto, executive producer, The Normal Heart (HBO, movie)
The most difficult day of our shoot for me was the one when, the night before, we had tragically lost someone close to many members of our crew [Glee star Cory Monteith]. That night we had gathered together to discuss whether to shoot the next day or not, finally deciding it made sense to lose ourselves in the work. The next morning we had to drive to Long Island and film a funeral sequence on the beach, this hugely emotional scene. The reality of having lost someone far too young and so unexpectedly hit a lot of us hard as soon as we were done with the shoot. In a very profound way, it mirrored what our whole film was about: that inexplicable grief that takes hold when someone dies before their time and who was so close to your heart. It was a stark reminder of the tragic loss we all felt so often at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Stephen Frears, director, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (HBO, movie)
The day I was shooting Ali's hearing [in the 1971 case of Clay v. United States, heard before the Supreme Court, regarding the fighter's refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War] and trying to deal with the complex political arguments at hand was quite difficult. I wanted to make it clear for the audience how the actual trial was presented because it was such a complicated case. Those who wrote about it had different opinions about what happened in court, so they didn't make it easy for a poor fellow to follow the arguments -- let alone a film director like myself. Plus, the actors we had who were playing the Supreme Court justices were quite the handful. When the cameras weren't rolling, they would be singing Broadway show tunes all day. They were dazzling, but my -- it simply never stopped. Combine that with the fact that our principal character wasn't even present in the film -- seen only in archival footage -- and you have quite the challenge.
Phillippa Giles, executive producer, Luther (BBC America, miniseries)
The scene that worried us the most was one where a killer puts a man's head through a ceiling fan. We had to build a whole house for it to happen in, for one thing. On the day we did it, our director Sam Miller proudly showed us the very small attic where this would be taking place. It all went smoothly until the moment where the man's head was supposed to burst through the ceiling. It took forever for it to bust through, and the hole didn't look big enough. Plus, there was no blood, so we kept having him thrust and thrust up through the ceiling. There was more and more debris falling, and our poor actor, whom we had put through absolute hell, was now full of dust and grime and frustration. Finally he said, "I can't do it anymore." It all became very anxious and took a significant chunk of our budget -- but when we saw it on film, it was very effective and ultimately worth it.
Noah Hawley, writer/executive producer, Fargo (FX, miniseries)
Our toughest day of shooting was the day before the temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees. It was this day because we actually couldn't shoot on the minus-40 day. Propane, I learned, turns to liquid at minus 40. The Port-a-Potties freeze. Orange road cones shatter, as does all of your cable. The day before it was minus 40, it was minus 25. We were on a frozen lake in Calgary. The actors couldn't feel their faces to act. Our headsets didn't work well in the morning until the sun came out and warmed things up a few degrees. You have to be careful not to set yourself on fire standing next to the industrial space heaters because even 6 inches away you can't feel the heat. Canadian currency is made of plastic, by the way, and we had one producer who melted $600 together in his pocket while [standing] next to a heater. The bank was sympathetic, but its opinion was that that level of dipshittery constitutes human error. So he was out of luck.
Tim Minear, executive producer, American Horror Story: Coven (FX, miniseries)
We had a character in the series who was obsessed with [classic rock icon] Stevie Nicks, and we planned to use a lot of her music in the show. Then, amazingly, Stevie herself became available, though we knew we were going to have only a short window with her. When she found out there was a scene where the witches perform what we termed the "seven wonders," Stevie told [creator] Ryan Murphy, "I wrote a song called 'Seven Wonders.' " What are the odds, right? So now, on the spur of the moment, Ryan came up with a brilliant idea: Have Stevie and the other castmembers shoot a 1980s-style music video teaser with that song for our last episode. We had maybe 24 hours to put together this extremely elaborate sequence. Stevie hadn't performed the song in ages and wasn't sure she even remembered all of the words. But she came through like a trouper, and we were able to write it, costume it and shoot this very challenging piece that wound up kind of weirdly brilliant.
Nina Noble, executive producer, Treme (HBO, miniseries)
For our final season of Treme, we wrote in a storyline where McAlary [Steve Zahn] decides to pay Fats Domino a visit to sign him to a record deal, along with a bunch of other jazz old-timers. In real life, however, Fats is 86, very reclusive and suffers from Alzheimer's. We reached out to his daughter Adonica, who agreed to try and get her dad to do it. Unfortunately, she couldn't tell us where he'd want to do it, or when, or even if he would be capable of it. So one morning we got a call from Adonica: "Come now." We went to his house with minimal crew and waited at his front door. Adonica finally opens the door and says: "Come in. I think it's going to be OK, but try to be quiet." So we had our actor Zahn, our director Anthony Hemingway, two cameras, a sound man and me go in quietly -- along with Davell Crawford, a young jazz pianist and a familiar face for Fats who we thought might relax him. We waited some more. Then finally in came Fats, wearing a hat and in full regalia. He sat down on this couch that's designed like the back of a Cadillac but didn't say a word. Zahn tried to engage him in conversation, without much success. Then Davell starts to play the piano. Fats gets up and goes and sits next to Davell. A huge smile comes over his face, and totally spontaneously he starts playing and singing "Blueberry Hill." Fortunately we had the cameras rolling the whole time. The muscle memory was still there. Even as jaded filmmakers, it was a moment of just pure magic. It was the best outcome we could have ever hoped for.
Cicely Tyson, executive producer/star, The Trip to Bountiful (Lifetime, movie)
Our first day was probably the toughest of the 16-day shoot because the star -- me -- was acting like such a diva. I was absolutely consumed with fear because I had just played this character on a major stage for six months and had to work so hard at projection. Now here I was, being asked to reduce it to a small room. I'm convinced that what they're asking me to do as an actress is virtually impossible. It felt devastating. I agonized and agonized. Finally I saw they weren't going to let me have my way, so I said, "OK, I've got to let it go and let God have it." In retrospect I'm glad because the consensus is that it worked.
Sue Vertue, producer, Sherlock: His Last Vow (PBS/Masterpiece, miniseries)
There was a day toward the end of our shoot that was absolutely chaotic. It was our last day at the studio, and we had all of these loose ends that needed to be tied up and pickups that had to get done. In one area, you have people jumping through on greenscreen. We had shots for our dungeon scene, for a jail-cell scene, then another unit is shooting John [Martin Freeman] doing close-ups in a bedroom scene, while yet another is filming bits with Magnussen [Lars Mikkelsen]. Meanwhile, others were doing bits of filming for the series app. It was all quite mad. Compare this to our first day of filming, when my son was on set in the cameo of Little Sherlock. He was 11 and loved having a trailer, small as it was, so he had to be in it all the time. He was also wearing these blue contact lenses that dilated his eyes and made it impossible to see, so I had to guide him around like a blind person.
David W. Zucker, executive producer, Killing Kennedy (National Geographic Channel, movie)
The toughest day, in many respects, was the first. While Kelly Masterson's script juxtaposed the lives of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald leading up to the fateful day at Dealey Plaza, from Minsk to Moscow and D.C. to Dallas, location realities required that we come out of the gate on day one of shooting at the emotional peak of the story. It was at Parkland Hospital in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Ginnifer Goodwin's first turn as Jackie Kennedy was cradling Rob Lowe [as JFK] in her lap -- the shock and devastation laid bare -- before they'd been able to play a single living moment together in the film. This stunning scene not only set the production on its way but also captured the intimate human truth of this history. Nelson McCormick's directorial craft and restraint let this and so many other iconic moments land with tremendous impact and veracity.