Emmys: 'Walking Dead,' 'Breaking Bad' Directors Reveal Their Biggest Dilemmas (and How They Solved Them)
Ten leading helmers of miniseries, comedies and dramas sound off on strategic feedback to actors, the scenes and sequences that required quick pivots, and "moving fast" for a sex scene that was "the least fun of all."
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The directors of TV's top miniseries, comedies and dramas revealed what directorial tricks they employ to successfully shoot a difficult scene, sequence or episode.
One scene featured the character of Eddie Nero, an unpredictable and narcissistic movie star played by Rob Lowe. It kicked off with a conversation between Hank (David Duchovny), Charlie (Evan Handler) and Eddie, during which Eddie told a long story detailing his onscreen performance of fellatio. Then a succession of people piled in until the room became packed with about 25 actors. The week before, I'd drawn up an elaborate plan that resembled a football play -- all Xs and Os and arrows -- detailing who went where and the placement of the different shots. The only problem was, on the day of filming, Lowe showed up with a broken foot. All he could do physically was stand up and sit down. My elaborate plan went out the window, and we had to restage everything so that the entire constellation of characters revolved around Rob.
Bates Motel (A&E)
The storyline featured a lot of obstacles to overcome. It finds Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) arrested for accidentally killing his girlfriend's father. Almost half of the episode is shot in this very small and uninteresting waiting room in the police station. My job as director was to try to open that room up and create a visually interesting adventure. I worked with lighting to evoke a mood that paralleled Norman's psychological journey, incorporating dimly lit corridors and little crevices of light to render the room and Norman's mood darker and more desperate. I took some creative license to take viewers into the belly of the police station. This was a way to storytell and also reflect what was going on with Norman psychologically.
Breaking Bad (AMC)
It was the big denouement in the finale. It happened in the clubhouse headquarters of the white supremacist gang that Walter White (Bryan Cranston) ultimately eradicates. The exterior stuff with the rigged machine gun firing went relatively smoothly. But inside the clubhouse was a different story. It was this big square room with a low ceiling and very tricky to light. We're shooting in there for four days, and it was all outfitted with miles of wire and hundreds of little explosives -- the electronically detonated squibs that simulate machine gun hits. It took hundreds of man-hours to drill and wire and pre-rig that whole thing. As we're shooting the dialogue, we're surrounded by explosives on all sides. So we had to be real careful. Plus, we had only one take at this thing. What if a camera broke down or a light failed? We'd have been screwed. Fortunately it worked, and the actors were the nicest bunch of neo-Nazis ever.
American Horror Story: Coven (FX)
This scene called for Fiona (Jessica Lange) to summon the voodoo demon Papa Legba (Lance Reddick) to her bedroom and sell him her soul in exchange for eternal youth. The staging was simple: two chairs and a low side table between them -- Fiona in one, the other empty (for Papa). It was to have a drug deal tone. We were looking for one uninterrupted shot, all in-camera with no VFX. The shot I had in mind was a series of vertical 90- to 360-degree spins. We see a reflection of Fiona cutting cocaine on a mirror, tilting up and back, rotating up to the ceiling until we see demonic "shadow puppets" begin to appear. We needed to employ a 360-degree vertical rotation, incorporating flexibility in the fore and aft of the rotation. It had to be manual and seamless to generate an effect of dancing demon shadows on the wall. We eventually got it.
The Good Wife (CBS)
I'm thinking of the love scene between Cary (Matt Czuchry) and Kalinda (Archie Panjabi). It was difficult because we are on network TV. The job of Standards and Practices is to leave us very few inches of human flesh we can shoot. I kept the camera on Archie's and Matt's faces and tried to give it a perfume-commercial prettiness by covering them with a cream-colored sheet. It allowed us in the editing room to cut between the takes. We digitally made the foreground sheet drift in and out of the shot, obscuring the scene for a second and thus allowing us to disguise the cut. The scene was also difficult due to the content. It required that an angry Cary get rough with Kalinda verbally and Kalinda push Cary off of her. Arguing scenes in bed are the least fun of all. The only trick I had was moving fast.
The Sound of Music Live! NBC
The biggest technical challenge came in the fifth act. The kids are getting ready for a party, which starts in Maria's bedroom before looking out on the terrace to the opening ballroom dance. The camera moves into the living room to find the Nazis and Austrians fighting and the captain trying to calm everything down. We then peer in on Maria teaching Kurt how to dance and growing flustered. Just then, Max sweeps in with his suitcase and rushes upstairs to get into his tuxedo and tails before rushing down the stairs as the kids begin to sing "So Long, Farewell." Finally, Maria changes into new clothes and leaves for the abbey. This all happens in a single sweep and had to be practiced and carefully orchestrated. It involved moving cameras from one set to the next during a live performance. It could have been dicey if the cameras or actors weren't where they needed to be.
The Walking Dead (AMC)
We had to stage the most elaborate action sequence we have done. Our heroes discovered a warehouse store stocked with supplies, but unbeknownst to them, the roof was overrun with zombies and a crashed rescue helicopter compromised the structure. When Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) causes a shelf to topple, the noise draws the "walkers" to the center of the roof, and they begin plummeting through the ceiling. Our characters found themselves literally in a storm of raining zombies. Between the practical zombie makeup effects, gore-filled "splat" dummies and stunt people being dropped through the roof, the sequence provided every facet of what makes the show great in a five-minute span. The scene was storyboarded, and each character's kills were meticulously choreographed. Mike Satrazemis, our DP, designed a lighting effect to simulate the torn-open roof and streaming sunlight into the dark store. Effects producer Victor Scalise created a downed Chinook helicopter and expertly simulated its fall through the roof. I couldn't be more proud of how it turned out.
The Newsroom (HBO)
The episode "News Night With Will McAvoy" took place in real time over the course of a one-hour live broadcast. Even when the story moved away from the newsroom, the broadcast was almost always visible on a monitor. I had to track the action of our characters against what would be taking place during each moment of Will's newscast, in effect producing two parallel scripts -- the story and the broadcast -- that had to dovetail perfectly. My first assistant director, Kenny Roth, and I created a detailed grid across two giant whiteboards where we broke down both the main script and the parallel newscast minute by minute, side by side. We had to perfectly time when Will's on-air interviews would shift from background noise to scripted dialogue. We didn't have the luxury of shooting in sequence, so there was no room for error.
The Americans (FX)
There's a fight sequence in the season-two finale that culminates in the mortal wounding of a teenage boy, leading to a three-page confession as he's bleeding to death. A death scene is a trope that's very difficult to pull off, to not feel melodramatic. So like any good director, I'm looking at this as a recipe for disaster and losing sleep for weeks. The day finally arrives. We start shooting. The actor is very committed, but it isn't working. I give him an adjustment, he executed it just as directed and it got worse. We were behind schedule. Then I remember that the best direction is often the opposite direction. So I ask him to remember something amusing that happened to him over the past year while doing the scene. And the scene soared. Victory!
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
The finale focused on the launching of a music and arts festival, a concert that took two days to shoot with five famous bands and a thousand extras. We used six cameras, four more than we're accustomed to and three more than is sane to use in a comedy show. The night that bridged the two days featured heavy winds that ripped down banners and almost destroyed the stage, but the production team rallied at 2 a.m. and had everything ready by call time. I wanted the musical finale to include a helicopter shot panning over the event at night, but it turns out helicopters are expensive, so one of our operators attached a GoPro to a remote-controlled toy copter and buzzed it over the crowd. I got to tell some of my musical heroes not to be alarmed if they saw a robot drone flying directly at their heads.