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Emmys: 'Homeland,' House of Cards' EPs Reveal Their Favorite Scenes

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's August Emmy stand-alone issue.

Alex Gansa
Homeland (Showtime)

The moment in which I walked onto the set in the season-two finale — I walked into that makeshift morgue where all those bodies were laid out. It was one of the most profound moments I’ve had on Homeland. Not only were all these dummies laid out on the floor covered in white sheets, but the building where we housed this particular scene was an old Philip Morris tobacco factory, where they made cigarettes. There was something crazy about all these dead bodies lying in a place where they made this product that killed so many people; it was this weird confluence of location and the story we were telling. It was an amazing job that our production designer did. I remember going to Michael Cuesta, who directed that episode, and he’d set up the camera in that one high shot. I looked through the monitor and just knew that that final image of the show was going to be fantastic. That was a really, really vivid moment for me during season two. It was very, very creepy. That makeshift morgue was also modeled after many of these scenes after these terrible accidents. We went back and looked at a lot of photographs to see how these things were laid out and how they looked, and we mimicked it.

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Beau Willimon
House of Cards (Netflix)

It was midnight the moment cameras rolled on the very first scene we shot: Francis and Zoe meeting on a train platform. We were in a cavernous D.C. metro station. David Fincher was directing. We only had four hours to film the scene before the station reopened at 5 a.m. — not much time for a three-page scene with a complex shot list. Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara arrived on set and rehearsed. I made a few last-minute adjustments to the text. Our DP Eigil Bryld lit and framed the master. Fincher rolled both cameras then called out, “Action!” We watched Zoe Barnes, simultaneously nervous and self-assured, walk the length of the platform and sit down behind a hauntingly still Francis Underwood. Then we heard Underwood’s Southern drawl for the first time. Suddenly this story — which I had already spent two full years working on — leapt to life. It was three-dimensional. It was flesh and blood. I could tell immediately we were on to something special. I felt exhilaration and relief. Four hours later we wrapped and emerged from the station into the predawn light. One day down, only 150 more to go.

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Gareth Neame
Downton Abbey (PBS)

My favorite moment from Downton season three is the scene in episode one where Matthew appears at Mary’s bedroom door the night before their wedding. As so often with their relationship, there was a final obstacle to their nuptials, and the evening before it isn’t even certain that the wedding will go ahead. Tom Branson persuades Matthew that he will never be happy without Mary, while at the same time Anna Bates is counseling Mary in much the same way. Matthew arrives unannounced at her door, thus breaking the convention that the bridal couple mustn’t see each other the night before the wedding, so the conversation takes place on either side of the half-open door. Matthew feels he must seal what they agree on with a kiss, and with eyes closed, their lips touch. But Mary cannot resist a sneak view of her betrothed, and while Matthew still has his eyes firmly shut, she flashes hers open, looks up at the face of the man she truly loves and smiles. It was a cheeky detail worked out by director Brian Percival and the actors that so fitted a typically beautiful scene from Julian Fellowes. After all, it is really the bridegroom that may not glimpse the bride, not the other way around.

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Matthew Weiner
Mad Men (AMC)

I was really happy with the season last year, which I don’t always say. With 13 hours and 12 episodes, it’s hard to pick a favorite. 

The thing that was symbolic — what we were working towards the whole season — was Don’s Hershey pitch, and it tied into the moment at the end of episode 13 with Sally. We were trying to start the season with the idea that Don was back to where he started, in a strange way. It was 10 times worse because he’s in his second marriage, and he’s having an affair with this woman who lives downstairs, and he’s in a state of disarray, and he says he wants to stop doing it, but he’s not doing a very good job of stopping anything. We got a chance to learn more about his past throughout the year and to see what his psychology was; these two people that he is — Dick Whitman and Don Draper — are really causing him more psychological stress than ever before. He’s tired of doing it, in a way, and it comes back to confront him when his daughter sees that he’s having an affair. 

It was all building to that moment, which I came in with at the beginning of the year: At the end of the season, he is going to be in a pitch to Hershey — which I picked because I thought it would be meaningful to Don, and it’s meaningful to me — and he’s going to tell this fake version of it, and he’s going to come clean. It’s the wrong moment to do so, but he doesn’t really have a choice anymore. It’s as close to a breakdown as we see him have. We’re kind of relieved to see him coming clean. His version of his childhood is so emotional, and Jon [Hamm] is spectacular in this scene. It’s a monologue, it’s a long, uninterrupted speech with a lot of twists and turns and a lot of emotion in it. 

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What the audience saw in the final version of the show, it was just one take. We did a couple of takes, but that’s all basically the performance from the first time he did it. And when he did that, the actors who have lines right after him, who are off-camera during that shot because he was the focus of the shot — John Slattery and Harry Hamlin and Kevin Rahm, everyone — they literally forgot their cues. No one said anything. They were standing there as people, not as actors, not as characters, completely dumbstruck at how Jon manages to be so raw in that, emotionally. For me, in the life of the show, it’s a big moment, and in the life of the season, it was what we were working toward, to admit his past to the people who really didn’t know his secret — and to himself, in a way, because it’s in the office, it’s in the place where he shines the most, in that boardroom. So for me, that’s kind of my favorite thing. It was just very satisfying.

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Blair Breard
Louie (FX)

A favorite moment was when David Lynch agreed to play his part in our three-episode arc, and we had never done a three-episode arc before. We talked about lots of different people who could play that role of Jack Doll — heavy hitters, big heavy-hitting actors. And then Louis [C.K.] called me up one day and said, “I’m thinking about David Lynch,” and I just thought it was such a genius moment. It was so unexpected and just a completely different direction. David Lynch doesn’t act, he’s a director, and he doesn’t like to leave L.A. So Louis wrote him a series of letters that really glued him to do the part. 

It took him a long time to say yes. He is a very dedicated practitioner of transcendental meditation, and so one of the conditions was giving him two times a day, each shooting day, to meditate. We needed a place for him to meditate that was on the set that was a quiet, solitary room. It was an odd request, but we figured out how to do it. When he finally agreed, I just thought, “I can’t even believe that this is happening.” That was a hugely great moment, and working with him was tremendous.

Going to China [for the season-three finale] was also a crazy, weird thing. We had talked about it being a totally different country, and I had started to make inquiries into working in that country and then when Louie handed me the script and goes, “China,” I put my head down and silently wept. Lots of people shoot in Beijing and Shanghai, but we shot out in the countryside, and it was really challenging to find a hutch and a family who would let us come into their house. We found a river location totally by accident, and that was great. We were there for nine days, we shot for three days. It is a long way to go and a very complicated place to shoot for what ends up being 10 minutes of the episode. It took months to set up because you have to get visas and also the Chinese government has to approve your script. Louis doesn’t show anybody anything — ever. FX never sees scripts ahead of time, so I thought the biggest obstacle was going to be convincing Louis to show the government the script. But Louis just looked at me and said, “Don’t even ask me about shooting somewhere else.” 

The highlight of what I do as an executive producer is being able to say yes over and over and have the quality of the show come from his imagination, his commitment to authenticity and the choices that he makes.

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Steven Levitan
Modern Family (ABC)

We were shooting a scene in which Mitchell and Cameron were best men for their friend Sal’s [Elizabeth Banks] wedding, and a young couple was visiting the set. Between takes, they were brought out to meet Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, when suddenly the boyfriend dropped to his knee and proposed. Jesse and Eric were in on the whole thing. The shocked young woman accepted, there was applause and tears, and the crew, having been tipped off, shot the whole thing. Moments later, we resumed filming. In the scene, during a heated argument, Mitchell jumped on Cameron’s back; Elizabeth Banks as Sal took in the picture and ad-libbed: “Well, this is a mystery solved.” A sweet moment cut by a great joke — neither of which we had to write.

Steven Molaro
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

It’s impossible to pick a single favorite moment from last season, so I’ll say today, my favorite is when Penny finally said “I love you” to Leonard. From a writing standpoint, we struggled with the scene all week but eventually hit on a version we were feeling good about. Then I had the supreme pleasure of watching Johnny [Galecki] and Kaley [Cuoco] bring it to life in the most touching, beautiful and honest way — in a single take — that brought us all to tears. Kaley has said that in that moment, it was like the audience and the cameras went away, and it was just the two of them alone on the stage. I believe that. I’m very protective of Leonard. I care about him. I feel for him. Those words were a long time coming, and I’m glad I could play a small part in making it happen. He deserved it.

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Armando Iannucci
Veep (HBO) 

“There is an episode where they all fly to Helsinki, and Selina [Julia Louis-Dreyfus] has a press conference with the Finnish prime minister, played by Sally Phillips, a fantastic British comedy actress. It was a bit of a comedy summit, to have these two fantastic comedy actresses from different sides of the Atlantic meeting. When we were doing the scene with the press conference, Selina is given a gift of an Angry Birds clock. The clock was unusually big — we hadn’t planned it in the script — but when we saw how big it was, we just thought it was very funny to have a very serious press conference with her holding this clock that was getting increasingly heavy in her hands. It became hysterical, the atmosphere on set, because of Selina trying to answer questions on various social issues while holding an enormous Angry Birds clock and buckling under the weight and while dealing with Sally Phillips playing the Finnish prime minister, completely humorless. It just became, at one point, impossible to carry on filming. 

But also we came up with a lot of funny stuff on set in that moment, and that seemed to typify how Veep works. We set up situations, and then while we’re almost getting ready to shoot, something funny happens in the mood in the moment that really carries the whole [thing], and everyone will remember that time that we struggled with the stupid clock.

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Robert Carlock
30 Rock (NBC) 

I really like that last scene between Alec [Baldwin] and Tina [Fey] as Jack and Liz, when they finally express their platonic feelings for each other after seven years of expressing them every way but directly. Our hope was that the audience was really going to think that Jack was going to leave on that boat — but he comes back, and everyone, in one weird way or another, is still in these roles after the series ends. These people weren’t just thrust together by happenstance. They will continue to have relationships. As silly and as big and comic as our show could get, we were very conscious of the characters and the characters’ lives. And, to me, that ending was really the most gratifying. As bittersweet as it was to end, we felt we did it on our terms with that song playing. Ultimately we went back to [the song] “The Rural Juror” because there’s a certain amount of nostalgia for us. We found a song that was nonsense but sounded sort of triumphant and sweet. It was the most 30 Rock way to do it — and also the least amount of work. Although, I think Tina single-handedly wrote the lyrics to that nonsense song. She will dissect for you exactly what she thinks it is about.

D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, executive producers of HBO’s Game of Thrones, were unable to participate.

Reporting by Scott Feinberg, Rebecca Ford, Lesley Goldberg, Philiana Ng, Michael O’Connell, Lacey Rose and Stacey Wilson.