Emmys: How Mindy Kaling, Eric Stoltz Became Directing Contenders
This year's directing pool goes deep with a pair of Oscar nominees, '80s film stars and showrunners who know their place is really in the writers room.
"Wow -- I'm honored to be included!" said The Office's Mindy Kaling when THR mentioned to her the other names in contention for drama and comedy directing statuettes this year. It's indeed quite a group: The Walking Dead's Frank Darabont, a two-time screenwriting Oscar nominee, will battle Academy Award-winning writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), whose lavish Borgias pilot was originally envisioned as a film. Erstwhile 1980s stars Eric Stoltz (Some Kind of Wonderful) and Keith Gordon (Back to School) are also in contention, but not against each other: Stoltz's Glee episode will battle Kaling's Steve Carell-farewell Office installment, while Gordon's Dexter is up against Matthew Weiner's Mad Men finale. Whether contending for comedy or drama, each of these 13 skilled directors would agree that this year, more than ever, it will be a honor just to be nominated.
United States of Tara (Showtime)
Episode: "Dr. Hatteras' Miracle Elixir"
"Being a TV director is like being the new kid in high school: You have to prove to all your new classmates that you're cool. But you only have essentially five minutes to win 75 people over. And they have to be willing to follow you. Everybody's looking to you to have a plan. This particular episode was very different for the show because it was largely about Charmaine [Rosemarie DeWitt] not wanting her sister Tara [Toni Collette] to look after her new baby. The toughest thing about that whole episode was we were working with a real baby. The storytelling demanded that the baby had to be crying. And we were working with two sets of twins. But you wouldn't believe the care. There were two nurses with them, and you only have 20 minutes to shoot per baby, and then you swap for the other baby. I look around, and standing behind me are the parents, and they're just beaming because their baby's doing what we wanted, which is crying. But it was very hard to listen to! Toni's a mother, I'm a mother, and [castmember] Patton Oswalt is also a dad. I remember them looking at me and saying: "We have to be done. We can't keep doing this to these poor kids."
Episode: "For Blood or Money"
"This was an episode written by Wendy Calhoun, who happens to be black, who told me, "I've never been able to tell a real African-American story with this many characters." [Showrunner] Graham Yost really gave her permission to go ahead. He really wanted a more emotional story fit into the pile of season scripts this year. I think one of the first scenes I shot with [star] Timothy Olyphant in this episode is where [guest star] Larenz Tate comes by the school, and then Tim pulls the gun out on him. As soon as you see Tim in that wardrobe with a pistol in his hand, you're like, "Oh, that's right, we're making Justified!" and it's so awesome. He looks so good. And you just go, "Man, that is a TV show right there." There was another scene I loved, kind of a nothing scene in a way, where Tim goes in to talk to this real estate guy. He said to me: "The scene's just kinda flat; there's nothing going on. It needs that Elmore Leonard twist." And I don't know whose idea it was, maybe it was Wendy's or maybe it was Graham's or maybe it was Tim's, but somehow the script came back where the real estate guy wasn't wearing pants. So that one little thing, one little addition, it gave Timothy something to play, and it turned it into a Justified scene. Tim is relentless in terms of finding that little hook or that little twist that gives it that off-kilter thing."
The Walking Dead (AMC)
"I went in feeling great about the pilot; we were flipping cars, and there were like a million zombies in the street. Unfortunately, the temperature in Atlanta was 110 degrees, which was appalling, but the characters looked appropriately miserable. You can't quite replicate that feeling of sun beating on your head. The trickiest thing wasn't coordinating all the zombie extras, it was that damn car chase at the beginning. We had a bit of a problem getting that damn car to flip. It was a heavy car, with a low center of gravity, and our driver wasn't nailing it. After three failed takes, they flew in a new guy, and he was with us the whole show. He flipped the hell out of it! Calm-as-possible solution. You don't blame people -- it doesn't help. We just focused on solving the problem, and it looked great. In terms of the zombies, the most extras we ever had out there walking around was 180 -- the scene where they chase [star] Andrew Lincoln on the horse. For the big pullback, they added a ton more [zombies] using special effects. Overall, it was a very clever mix. Directing for television means you aren't so precious about your own work. It was a great experience -- awesome, really -- and the perfect way for me to change my approach technically. TV is not as careful a composition. It's more like playing jazz -- you just dive in and let the ragged edges show. If the story is great, the actors are great, then you're in good stead. It's simply more fun than making movies -- and a lot less stressful."
How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
Episode: "Subway Wars"
"I especially love when I get asked stuff like: "This is a one-way street, Pam. Which way do you want it to go?" It's like: "Wow, I'm God. I can decide where the streets go!" I think I'm at this point, on this show, pretty unflappable because these ridiculous writers, who I love so much, just throw things at me. We had more meetings for the "Subway" episode than we had for any other. I mean, to have a moving subway car on the stage? It was crazy. We shot for three days at Universal, this beautiful backlot where they created all these neighborhoods of New York. I walked through it and I'm like, "OK, we can do this here, we can do this here, we can try and do this here." It was this great puzzle to solve. Then there was the issue of who would guest-star as the iconic New Yorker the gang would see throughout the episode. We kept throwing out names -- he wasn't available, she was booked, so-and-so was out of the country. Then we had it: "Oh my God, it's gotta be Maury Povich." I know everybody says this about their show, but it's an extraordinary group of people. Camera operators fight for the opportunity to get a certain shot: "I'll do it, I'll do it!" Because it's fun, and the actors are fun. And just look at us: We get to do two more seasons. I'm the luckiest director in town. I moved around all the time earlier in my career, which had its benefits because you get to meet everybody. But to end up here? Pinch me. "
Episode: "In the Beginning"
"A pivotal scene was when Jennifer Carpenter's character, Deb, was expounding her theory that there was a revenge killer out there and playing with what it means to have been up all night and what that does to you physically. At first, she was very down, and there wasn't a lot of energy. We started experimenting with what would happen if there were a hyperness from when you're up all night, and that led to the intensity that's in the scene that made it interesting. That was one of Deb's defining moments, and it's why we took extra time with the scene. I take scenes that are emotionally important -- sometimes they're really obvious like kill scenes, and sometimes they're less obvious -- and note that it's an important scene in the arc of this whole show, not just this episode, and note if I'm going to rush something to make the day, it's not going to be here. We took more time and did more takes with this scene and tried more things because the writers, producers and I knew it was an important moment for her character. Part of my job as a director is to be a time-management person and know which other scene may not be as important. But this scene has to work because it's where her whole character is going, so I tried a few more takes and gave it more time. I spend a lot of time in prep making decisions of where, if I'm short on time, where is good enough OK and where is anything less than perfect not acceptable? In TV, you're always making those trade-offs; the important thing is doing it in the right places."
The Borgias (Showtime)
Episode: "The Poisoned Chalice"
"DreamWorks commissioned the original [film] script and then didn't want to do it. I'd cast Viggo Mortensen, Christina Ricci and Anthony Hopkins. Then I spoke to Colin Farrell and Scarlett Johansson. Two years ago, Stacey Snider and Steven [Spielberg] suggested, "Why don't make it into a cable series?" Showtime said, "Yeah." I'm glad I waited. I'm new to television, a whole new world. I've never written at that length. And I'm the showrunner, which is a term that I didn't know before. A shocking experience, one has to say. The style we're using is this: The camera moves with kind of a seductive or a suspenseful purpose. When you do big movies, you spend an enormous amount of time designing sets you can build. CGI is so rapid -- we could build a series of sets that would be finished by CGI elements. So every time a director came, they had a kind of comic-strip book. What I liked most was the re-creation of St. Peter's interior because we could only afford to build one-tenth of that, and they had to expand it to 10 times its size by digital painting. It makes things very complicated, too, but it's quite thrilling because you literally are re-creating something that hasn't existed since the 15th century."
The Office (NBC)
Episode: "Goodbye, Michael" (Part 1)
"It's a dream to direct something you've written. I went into it like, "Great, I get to throw off the shackles of someone telling me how to direct something." And then you're like, "Oh no, I don't have the input of the smart writer." Also, I'm a bit similar to my character, Kelly, in that I can get emotional. And when I'm having to direct a scene as complex as a singing scene with Will Ferrell and all 17 of the series regulars, I literally couldn't get caught up in the moment because if I hadn't been the writer or director, I probably just would've been crying. But there's also a sense of: "OK, we're sending Steve Carell off. And we've basically tricked this movie star, Will, into being on our show. This is a farewell; it has to be seamless and artful and everything else." Another tricky thing is that I was also acting in this episode, but I didn't have a single line. It's virtually impossible to have a really good eye directing and be acting, too. So all the scenes I was in, I made sure I was in front of the table with the tablecloth because then they could put a little monitor underneath it so I could watch everything stealthily. Little tricks like that saved me."
"I'd directed the pilot of the British version of Shameless, so casting the U.S. version was both kind of exhilarating and terrifying. I had such a belief in my mind already about how each line should sound that I'd never be able to liberate my head enough to be able to do the job properly. Thankfully, as we saw all these incredible young actors, I became more confident I could see the essence of the original becoming apparent in the American version. It still had that essential kind of truth, due largely to this incredible cast of young people. I kind of fall in love with the actors as much as I'm in love with the characters. I tend to nurture, and that approach works tremendously well, I find, with younger actors who know nothing but confidence and encouragement, and they respond terribly well to that. You find in the casting process that much of the time, you're actually casting people you like; you're kind of unconsciously casting people you like as well as casting people in the roles. You just need to take the time to actually talk to them; be patient, patient, patient -- which is ironic because I have no patience in my normal life. And the only reason I'm able to channel that while I'm working is that I'm so scared of f--ing it up. I feel such a massive responsibility as a television director; I just mortally dread f--ing up a good script. It's really just that: The stakes are too high. "
Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
"The Song Beneath the Song"
Shonda [Rhimes] had talked about doing a music episode for a long time. At first I thought "God that's a horrible idea," even though my background was in musical theater. It wasn't until she figured out how to do it and have it still feel like Grey's Anatomy that I thought – "This could work." But the studio and network weren't convinced. They had concerns that we were trying to be Glee. You can't do anything without pissing off somebody. So I said, "We should do a cabaret." I took our rehearsal room, put down carpets, hired a band, got [Grey's stars] Sara Ramirez, Kevin McKidd and Chandra Wilson to sing. Shonda worked out a rough narration of what was going to happen in the episode and chose four songs. I basically created Joe's Pub on the Prospect Studios lot. We had food, liquor, and all the execs came in and sat down, watched and heard the actors sing. The lights came up and they were like, "This is the greatest idea ever." They saw the potential for a new revenue stream like, "We can get in on that iTunes market, make more money there." Then the big revelation was that we would do songs that were made famous on the show, and not hire our own compose or lyricist. We didn't have that kind of time. But the most daunting task was choosing a director. We went down the big list, with luminary names like Rob Marshall. Shonda turned to me and asked, "Do you want to do it?" I was stunned. "I would absolutely love to." She knew we were so in sync about the tone of the show, she wasn't going to worry about me. For her, that was priceless.
"Anytime they break into song and dance, it's a massive challenge -- both technically and emotionally. You want to be able to tell a story within the story of the song, and with the music and dancing -- and the reaction -- it can all be a bit overwhelming. Because the show itself has become such a phenomenon, a lot of the actors have become quite savvy and quite sophisticated in their sense of humor and their approach to the work. What I remember about directing this episode is that I tried to get them back to the place of innocence and wonder, perhaps when they were actually auditioning for the show and didn't have the job and weren't affected by the success of the show. I remember feeling a little guilt over two numbers in particular: Amber Riley and Naya Rivera did "River Deep -- Mountain High" and Harry Shum Jr. and Jenna Ushkowitz did "Sing," and both of those numbers were incredibly exhausting for them. I kept asking for one more take, and I could see them literally about to collapse on the set. I felt like I was driving them too hard, but they are so passionate about doing good work that I overcame my guilt and they recovered -- although they all told me how wiped out they were the following few days. It's a serious feeling you don't often get when you direct a show -- that you're physically abusing the actors with the goal of creating something wonderful."
Sons of Anarchy (FX)
"The truth is, people feel more comfortable when I'm not around. It's a bus -- it just runs more smoothly when I'm not on the set, which is totally fine with me. I'm a writer first, so I only direct the finale each season, mostly because it's the only one I have time to do. It's a great way for me to end the season each year. This one had an eight-day prep because of the big reveal that this episode had, and the killing and stunts. We don't storyboard, but I do go in with a shot sheet and a pretty specific plan. But I've learned to hold onto that loosely. For some of that stuff, I had to be very specific; I sat down with my DP and really mapped out where the three cameras were going to be running, and where the little hand-held was gonna be. So the scene killing off Jimmy O'Phelan was very choreographed. But when you're shooting out of sequence, you have to figure out, "OK, in this scene, how much of it are we gonna reveal?" So that when it cuts together, there's an emotional arc that makes sense. In terms of a complicated narrative, it was probably the episode I've spent the most time detailing ahead of time since the show started. The thing I've learned is that I need to overprepare and then underuse my preparation. That's really the advice that I would give a writer who's prepping to direct: Do a shot sheet, know exactly what you need to cover -- but then be willing to let it all go. "
Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Episode: "Deaf Blind Tumor Pee-Test"
"Shooting Coop's (Peter Facinelli) birthday wedding scene was a big challenge. We had to schedule around Peter and his Twilight shoot. That scene was our final day with him, and our very last scene was the wedding. We'd only shot the serious shot of him and Eddie (Paul Schulze) in the bike cab driving off. We had to shoot the last scene of the night, and it was late. We had almost everyone in that scene because it's the wedding. We did one take where Thor -- who is played by my real-life brother, Stephen Wallem -- comes in and is delivering the cake. After I yelled, "Cut!" I noticed he looked a little green around the gills. He had food poisoning, and because he's diabetic, which is also part of Thor's storyline, we know we have to be very careful whenever he gets that sick. I was in the back of the vestibule telling everyone to hold on, and we had to cut around him because we had to get Steve to the hospital. So I had Steve, dressed as Thor, in a prop wheelchair and was wheeling him out through the set and loading him in the car to head to Bellevue Hospital because that's where one of our tech nurses works. I came back and said, "OK, we're going to work around this." I took a mental picture of where everybody was and knew that the next week we'd have to pick up the reverse of the scenes that showed Thor bringing in the cake. Luckily we figured it out, and we wrapped Peter. You will notice that in the rest of that scene, Peter is nowhere to be found when Steve brings in the cake. We shot that the following week after Steve had recovered. It was quite a stress because I really didn't know at the time what to do."
Mad Men (AMC)
"I don't feel compelled anymore to "make a splash" or show off when I'm directing. In fact, I don't think I ever did feel that way. I'm like any other director who comes on the show -- they're always trying to pull the plug on me. But I do fight for the things that I think are really important for the story. One thing that was really important to me in this episode was bringing the character of Megan into Don Draper's life. I needed to make sure that the audience fell in love with her as he did. But the big question was: How do you get the most punch out of the scenes that they spend together, without showing a clichéd courtship? There were also other little visual things that I wanted to put in there, like the moment when the kids ask Don to go in the pool and he won't do it; he's just sitting there on the bed, and the audience is thinking, "Are you going to jump into this life with your kids or not?" And then you see him, literally, jumping into the pool with the kids. Also, I'd never filmed anything with a swimming pool -- all the individual challenges of that were like an obstacle course. But for me, the best anecdote directorially, besides the fact that [castmember] Kiernan Shipka nailed that milkshake-spilling scene, was being able to shoot inside those diners in the California scenes. They were such a big part of my childhood growing up here and largely why I got interested in this time period in the first place. So to be at the Bob's Big Boy in Downey, which was re-created so perfectly, and to see everybody in their period clothes and sitting in vintage cars outside the restaurant was a complete thrill."
-- Additional reporting by Tim Appelo and Lesley Goldberg
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