Emmys: Personal Tragedy, Illness and Other Tales of Woe From the TV Season
The line between television and film doesn't exist for this year's crop of limited series and telepics, whose writers, directors and producers faced cinematic challenges in bringing their stories to life.
This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Jon Robin Baitz, Writer/executive producer
The Slap (NBC)
"I rewrote every script about 122 times. There were eight versions on set at any given point. It led to actor chaos. It led to script-supervisor angst. Walter Parkes, my writing partner, rewrote the scripts as many times as I did, and the script department would live in terror of who was supposed to disseminate what when. In the end, it didn't matter. It all sounded coherent. If it didn't, it was my fault."
Angela Bassett, Director
"I could hardly contain my enthusiasm and excitement at the opportunity I'd been blessed with. I saw it as a huge, terrific challenge. But one week into filming, I received an unexpected call at 1 a.m. that my mom had [died]. I experienced great sorrow and loss while simultaneously experiencing professional and personal fulfillment. Nothing on set would ever be as insurmountable, unknowable and permanent as her death."
Hugo Blick, Writer-director-producer
The Honorable Woman (Sundance TV)
"The most important thing you have to do is 'make the day.' This means matching a prescribed number of camera setups in order to bring the schedule in on time. For The Honorable Woman, these setups approached 30 per day. This is tough at the best of times but toughest of all when we were in the desert. One weird thing about filming there is you look one way and you see nothing but emptiness, you turn around and look the other, and you see nothing but 300 people -- all looking at you, all in need of food, water and shelter -- a positively biblical responsibility. Still, we managed to 'make our days,' not least because of the pressure of an approaching storm of such violence that when it finally hit, it picked up our entire desert landscape and a week later dropped [our production] on Southeast England."
Lisa Cholodenko, Director
Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
"One of my biggest challenges was seamlessly and credibly aging the actors by 25 years. I knew I'd risk losing the audience if I didn't get it right. I assembled a team of highly experienced hair and makeup artists, a wig maker and an incredible prosthetics expert. We spent days doing camera tests, making minute and radical changes as we went. No less significant was hiring the great cinematographer Fred Elmes, who supported me in my stubborn determination to shoot Olive on 35mm film. I was convinced that film would give us our best shot at pulling off the aging with as much veracity and elegance as I wished for. All evidence aside, I still believe film has that ineffable dreamlike quality that pushes realism toward something more forgiving and poetic."
Stephen Kronish, Writer/executive producer
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (Lifetime)
"The biggest challenge was trying to tell the story of an iconic figure from the perspective of what the audience doesn't know. In our case, that meant focusing on Marilyn's relationship with her mother and her fear of inheriting the family's predisposition to mental illness. Marilyn's mother, Gladys, was a paranoid schizophrenic. We tried to show that not at the beginning but that as time progressed, and as Marilyn was dealing with other stresses in her life and was dealing with her own growing dependency on alcohol and medication -- both prescribed and not -- she started to sink into this sense of paranoia and, ultimately, her worst fears became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was really interested in doing this movie in the first place because I thought so much of Marilyn's life is well documented and has been seen before, but there is a lot people probably didn't know."
Elliott Lester, Director
"The whole movie is one man in a house, and we kept finding houses and losing houses. Literally, two weeks out before shooting, we lost our house location because the EPA deemed it 'uninhabitable,' so we couldn't shoot there. We checked out a house in Glendale, and the people there were hoarders, and we knew we couldn't shoot there. Fortunately, we found this woman in this house in Tarzana. I was scouting with the production designer and the director of photography, and as soon as we walked in her house, we were jumping for joy. We were over the moon. We knew we had found it. Losing locations normally happens, but we lost like six houses. No one wanted us there except this 96-year-old woman called Ruth. As soon as we found Ruth's house, we thought, 'Great, we can make our movie now.' "
Dee Rees, Writer-director
"Shooting the big tent scene was challenging because we had to make sure that we were in the right place at the right time. Looking at cameras while also keeping it organic was challenging but fun. The biggest thing is managing not just the cast performances but managing the crowd. It's really important that the crowd felt connected to Bessie. I was managing the performances of like 100 people versus eight. I made sure to get out from behind the monitor, interact and not just talk at them. I had a handheld monitor, so I was able to move around the crowd. Once they saw that I was still into it and not just a voice shouting from nowhere, they stayed in the scene, too. It was great having Queen Latifah because they responded to her energy."
John Ridley, Writer/director/executive producer
American Crime (ABC)
"The most unnerving aspect was the desire to do a very reductive show. We didn't know how the network would really take that because it's hard to explain until you see it. It was difficult early on to explain to directors and department heads that they should approach things in the most minimal fashion because historically, that's how you lose your job. They go into the edit and there isn't the coverage that people would want, or that extra angle to cut to, or enough lighting. We always asked: What is the least that we can do to express the most? The least amount of setups, extras, makeup. Not really least, but the appropriate amount. It was a challenge that every single person in every single department not only rose to but really embraced."
Tom Shankland, Director
The Missing (Starz)
"In the third episode, there's a very important car chase and car crash. When you look at the budget and the schedule -- we had one day to do it -- we knew it was going to be a challenge. Every time we had a profound moment or something affecting happened to a character in the series, we did it in one take without cutting so that the audience could feel every second of that human experience. We thought it would kill two birds with one stone to try to play a car chase as one take where we would always be in the car with Julien. We would feel all of his anxiety, his urgency, his sense of purpose as he goes through these narrow streets. We convinced production that this would be cheap because it would all be one take inside the car. Necessity was the mother of invention."
Clement Virgo, Writer-director-producer
The Book of Negroes (BET)
"A stomach virus broke out during shooting. I got to the set, and [actress] Shailyn Pierre-Dixon had been throwing up all night. I told her mom: 'Don't worry about it. We won't shoot with her today.' Half the crew was throwing up. I was trying to figure out, what do we shoot? Luckily, two camera guys, my director of production and myself were OK. I called Aunjanue Ellis on one of her rare days off. I said, 'Can you come and shoot this scene at the end of the series where you walk on the beach with your daughter and you look out over the ocean?' She said, 'I'm on my way.' She showed up, and I did what I did in film school: We just got a pickup truck and put all this equipment in the back. It was six of us, and we just went down to this beach, and that's one of the nicest sequences in the series."
Paula Weinstein, Executive producer
The Red Tent, (Lifetime)
"Adapting a hit novel to screen is always an arduous process, but in our case, adapting it was inspiring. There were so many scenes we needed to collapse into four hours and so many choices to make when taking a story covering at least 60 years while remaining faithful to Anita Diamant's extraordinary work. We had started telling only Dinah's story but had cut out the Jacob-Rachel-Sarah triangle due to time constraints. We had three scenes in which to tell a 15-year history of a triangle love story full of passion, jealousy and pain. It felt like an impossible task, and we struggled through version after version and casting obstacles. We finally licked it by finding a creative way to shoot the time jumps and aging actors, which, for many, is the sequence that most resonates throughout the miniseries' two parts."