lllustration by Agata Nowicka
lllustration by Agata Nowicka
Agata Nowicka

If "Film Is a Fling, TV Is Like a Marriage": TV Directors on Everything From the Social Justice Movement to "Difficult" Actors

Anna Boden, Deborah Chow, Jon M. Chu, Alex Garland, Janet Mock and Jonathan Nolan discuss how the state of the world affects them ("The news just got darker and darker — I found myself not being able to concentrate"); what it's like to speak for an underrepresented community ("I just don't want to f*** up") and anxieties of going back on set: "Recession kills people the same way viruses do."

Alex Garland, the Ex Machina director and creator of FX/Hulu's sci-fi thriller Devs, is adjusting the blinds in his London office, trying to get the light behind him to look just right for his video interview.

"You're a little dark on the left," chimes in Westworld co-showrunner Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan, who is watching Garland on a computer screen from his Los Angeles home on this mid-June afternoon and can't help directing the shot. He catches himself, and says with a laugh, "Let's see what happens when you put six directors together on a video chat."

It turns out that when Nolan and Garland were joined by Janet Mock (Pose, Hollywood and The Politician), Jon M. Chu (Home Before Dark), Anna Boden (Mrs. America) and Deborah Chow (The Mandalorian) for an hourlong conversation for The Hollywood Reporter's TV Director Roundtable, a lot could happen. The wide-ranging — and virtual — conversation covered everything from how the current state of the world is affecting them as creators ("It's a fascinating, terrifying and enthralling moment"), to what it's like to speak for an underrepresented community ("I just don't want to fuck up") and what they think about going back to set in the wake of the novel coronavirus.

We have to acknowledge the unprecedented times we're in. How has the state of the world and the country — from the pandemic to the movement against social injustice — affected you creatively?

JANET MOCK When we first got shut down on season three of Pose, I was directing the premiere, and I was like, "OK, good, I can take a breath, I can go home for three weeks." We thought it was going to be a cute little three weeks. And then it just got darker and darker and darker. I came back to Los Angeles and was being creative for the first month — and then these issues started bubbling up. The news headlines were hitting more and more about who was being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. I found myself as an artist and a creative not being able to concentrate on the actual work. And of course George Floyd happens and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, and then Black trans women being killed. I felt called to speak out as someone who is seen as a representative of a community in this strange way that I didn't ask for, but it's a responsibility and a duty that I must do. So, I don't think that it's going to change my work. I think it's just a more urgent call to get to work and to use the privileges and the access that I do have in the institution of Hollywood to hopefully push for greater change and find more co-conspirators to jump in and help us do some work on the ground.

ANNA BODEN I have to admit that I haven't even begun to understand how this time is really affecting me creatively. I was in the middle of a move to New York in March, nine months pregnant, with a 5-year-old — and really the first part of the time was just trying to figure out how to have a baby during a pandemic, trying to get myself situated in a house where I could really shelter in place. Then slowly, I think like what Janet was saying — just everything that was going on was becoming so much clearer. Being in New York and really seeing the privilege that I had, to be in this space that was comfortable to live in, and seeing so many people I knew have the privilege to flee the city and get out — you really start to see those contrasts between people with that privilege and people without. So I think that for now, it's really been much more about me just trying to figure out how to deal with this period of time as a human being.

ALEX GARLAND It has affected me creatively quite a lot, initially because I got sick. I got the virus very early on and it completely knocked me sideways for about four weeks. But I didn't have to go to the hospital, so it was unpleasant but it wasn't dangerous. When I came out of it and looked around, there were two things: One was that I could see this was very bad and it made me unsure of how to write about the world, because was it a world where everyone wore face masks and shops were closed? I just didn't know what that would be. It's going to sound perverse to say, but I think there are positives within this pandemic and one of them is it shows all of the populist leaders around the globe — Boris Johnson in my country, Trump in yours — it just shows what frauds they are. It shows what absolute idiots they are. It's uniquely the populist leaders that have failed to deal with this virus. It's because they lie and their lies don't work against reality. They have managed to push away reality with their bullshit up to this point, and this has penetrated it.

DEBORAH CHOW [The social justice movement] has changed me creatively. It felt like there's almost a "before" and "after" with just perspective, how we look at the material. It just feels different, the way you're looking at character arcs and stories and themes. Obviously, there's a long road to go on this, but I'm kind of glad for the change, honestly. I feel like there's been a lot of talk and a lot of pushing to get here, but I'm glad that things feel different. I welcome it, even if it has been a very difficult way to get there.

JONATHAN NOLAN It's a fascinating, terrifying and enthralling moment. It's a moment in which you are realizing that for many people, the world is not what you experience. This is a moment in which you have to listen carefully and question assumptions. I think one of the other problems that we're beginning to realize is a certain complacency amongst people who might not think of themselves as racist, a complacency in saying, "Oh well, I've done my part, I've done a little bit." And it's clear the little bit is not enough. So it feels like there's a moment here to take stock of the things we are all doing as people and as an industry and say the depth of the problem is much more significant.

There's been a lot of renewed conversation about how Hollywood can improve its lack of representation. This group has several barrier breakers in it. Janet, you're the first trans woman of color to helm a major TV series and to sign a deal with Netflix. How do you carry that responsibility?

MOCK I guess for me, I just don't want to fuck up, because I want to make sure that they keep the doors open for other folks to come in so that eventually progress looks like not me being the first and the only, but tons of folks coming in and being able to tell the stories that they feel are important for them, right? I'm also just trying to figure out, number one, how to do the work. I didn't go to film school. Next, trusting my intuition and my voice and the things that I know about story. What's called upon for me in these moments is to do the things that bring me joy, that make me feel like something has resonated or is brewing, that excites me.

Jon, Crazy Rich Asians was also a major milestone for representation.

JON M. CHU There are moments where you feel the weight, of course, but at the same time, I feel like I just took a giant shower. We didn't create the movement, the movement created me. This idea that everyone was out there to create this wave … Actors who have been training all these years, doing the work, a book that came out at that time and readers who were open to it — all these things, they had to come together. So in my mind, I feel very free, actually, to finally confront the things that are scariest to me. I mean, it's scary to be on the front lines, or have people expect that from you when you aren't that person. But at the same time, it's an honor and you have this great responsibility.

Deborah, you were the first woman and the first woman of Asian descent to helm a Star Wars franchise project [two episodes of The Mandalorian]. Were you aware of that significance going into it?

CHOW I think I underestimated it, for sure. When we were making it, honestly, we were not overthinking it. Like, I wasn't sitting there going, "Oh my God, I'm going to be the first." But when the show came out streaming at midnight, I think, then I woke up at 7 a.m. and all the sudden, I've got 27 texts telling me I'm trending on Twitter, which I had never in a million years expected would happen. It was at that moment, you're like, "Wow, there really is a responsibility and weight with this." You do feel it because it's not only the responsibility of Star Wars, of trying not to screw up Star Wars, but it's also the responsibility of trying not to be the first woman or Asian who screws up Star Wars.

Anna, you went from Captain Marvel, which was the first female-centered Marvel movie, to working on Mrs. America, also a story centered on feminists. Were you aware of gravitating toward feminist stories back-to-back like that?

BODEN Honestly, I wasn't. I was in post on Captain Marvel, a very, very intense period, and I didn't want to read anything. I was not interested in my next project, I just wanted to take a long nap. And the script came in and it was like these real-life female superheroes, all these people whom I grew up learning about and having so much admiration for, and yet it was told from such a different point of view — I mean, really told through the anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly. It piqued my interest, it made me keep reading, and it didn't hurt that Cate Blanchett, who's also a kind of female superhero, was involved.

Things are changing quickly, but it looks like productions are starting up again. As the directors on set, you are the leaders and responsible for the cast and crew. Do you think we're ready to go back?

NOLAN I'm feeling very apprehensive about it. In television, being the director but also the executive producer, you feel very responsible for your crew. You feel responsible for them right now, because all crews plan for a month or two of not working, right? We're showbiz folks, this is how it works. Nobody plans for this. I think with the big on-location stuff that all of us shoot, it's going to take a long time to figure out how to do those again and how to do them safely. We had a relatively minor illness on Westworld season three, and a massive amount of money went into that. It's hugely disruptive. So if you consider a disease that incubates for 14 to 18 days and people can be asymptomatic — we still know so little about this.

CHU We were finishing [the Warner Bros. feature film] In the Heights. And as soon as schools were shut down, our mixers, our sound editors, their kids were coming home. Of course, they're going to work; of course, they're going to finish our movie, but I could see in their faces, they have kids coming home and they don't know what to do with them. So there is a responsibility in our roles to protect them. When the government is not necessarily doing it, then we have to take it upon ourselves. I have never really felt that responsibility until this time, [and was thinking,] "I need to fight with the studio or whoever is paying for this because I know they want to move forward, but we have to protect our crew, who is sitting here and in pain." If someone were to get it, if someone's parents or kids get it, I don't want that on my shoulders either. There's also: What kind of production, what are the stories that you can actually do? I'm not sure I feel that comfortable, just — to protect my own family, really.

BODEN I have a 2-month-old at home, so I have been extremely conservative in my own personal life. I totally agree with everything you guys just said about feeling a lot of concern. Maybe there's a resort movie that we could make, where everything is shot in the resort, and everyone can bring the families and we all quarantine together in the resort. We just shoot everything in the resort and eat the resort food. I don't know. But that's not something that I'm really seriously thinking about.

GARLAND I understand the apprehension. And of course it's correct to have apprehension, and I've got it too. But at the same time, I don't know if we can all sit around saying a vaccine is going to turn up.

NOLAN No.

GARLAND But the people that we're talking about protecting, there are other ways they need protecting as well as their physical health, which is economically. They need to work. We do have to find a way to get back on set and to get productions going, and whether the day works a lot slower, possibly, so it's like you do the lighting and then everyone steps back, and then the grips come in and sort out the dolly — maybe it's something like that. I don't know. But I am getting to the point where I want to start figuring out how to get on with it, because it's the only thing I have maybe ever agreed with Donald Trump about, which is that some of the economic consequences become quite serious in themselves. You know? If people aren't earning, if people don't have money — recessions kill people just the same way viruses do. I can feel I'm breaking out into hives, finding myself in a point of agreement with him. But I do think we need to get back to work. I don't think we're going to be able to say, "Nobody is going to get COVID." That seems impossible. But we do need to get on with it.

BODEN Do you think [that means] smaller crews? Is that going back to a way of working that we started out with on small, indie films?

GARLAND Yeah, that indie model where it's quite guerrilla, it's quite stripped back. But at the same time you can still get a tracking shot, it doesn't mean everything has to be handheld with one key light. It gives a lot of flexibility. Maybe that's the baby steps before we get back into the kind of big movies you guys know how to make — I've never worked on a thing like that. I'm just straining at the leash a bit, you know?

Alex and Jonathan, both your shows are sci-fi stories that can challenge viewers. Did you ever feel the need to simplify the story to make sure audiences didn't get lost?

NOLAN I've been here now 20 years. When I started with my brother Chris [Nolan] with Memento, it was backward and forward and it had this Möbius strip construction to it. It was financed independently, and then the time came to sell it. I remember we screened the film all around town for different distributors and they all came back and said the same thing: "We loved it, we think it's great." OK, well, are you going to buy it? "No, no, because the audience won't get it." And you go back to this place of, "What the fuck makes you think you're smarter than the audience?" The prevailing attitude when I showed up in this town was that the audience was dumb. So we banked our whole career on the premise that there was an underserved part of the audience who wanted something that was challenging and complex, that the audience wasn't dumb, that in fact the audience was smarter in many cases than what they were being offered.

GARLAND Sometimes I try to imagine, "Will this plot point make sense?," "Is it clear that this car is on that side of that car?" — some of the mechanical-type stuff. But broadly speaking, when I'm making something, pretty quickly I just drop into a hole and I'm in that hole and I'm really just working on instinct.

Did you pitch Devs, or was the screenplay completed before you brought it to studios?

GARLAND I wrote it as a spec, basically. The issue I have always had with pitches and treatments is that I personally can't tell from a treatment whether it will work as a script. So, it's actually much easier for me to write it as a script. And they don't all get made. Sometimes people don't want to make them — well, that's the breaks. So there was no pitch, there was a script. Then you've got a good creative position because people aren't there for notes; you're really saying, "Do you want to make it or not?"

CHU What's the most heartbreaking one that didn't get made?

GARLAND Ahh, the most heartbreaking ones are some of the ones that did get made. (Laughter.) I'd much rather have a bad script not get made than a bad script made. But that would be kissing and telling, so …

CHU Fair enough.

Deborah, there were multiple directors on The Mandalorian. I'm curious how that affects the way you worked on your episodes. How much are you thinking about what came before and what came after your specific episodes?

CHOW It was an interesting experience because we were in there so early. I was there two and a half months ahead and we pre-vised [previsualization, or the mapping out of scenes] everything going in. So as a result, what was really interesting was that all the directors got to really know each other because we'd all be doing pre-vis or prep, as opposed to traditional TV, where you maybe just overlap a little bit with somebody and you're ships passing in the night. We actually started, in a lot of ways, leaning on each other and collaborating to figure out things like movement, like, "How are we defining this character by movement?" It was almost like a team, which I have never been part of.

You're now working on the Obi-Wan series for Disney+. How different will that be, directing all the episodes yourself?

CHOW It's definitely going to be different, just in terms of the sheer workload, obviously, of doing the whole thing. But in some ways, I'm going to miss having a team, and having people who are there to bounce ideas off of. But then obviously the flip side is, it is nice to have a coherent voice and know what you're doing from beginning to end.

It's unusual, but we have two directors in this group who worked together as actor and director. Janet, how did you end up with a role on Devs?

MOCK I had never acted before. I thought it would be a great experiment for me to see what it feels like to be an actor on a set — the not knowing of it all and the lack of control, in a sense, the trust you have to give to the process. I left with a huge appreciation for actors and what they do and the bravery of just like, you do it on the day and then it just disappears and it comes back and it's this beautiful thing and you're like, "Oh my God, did I do that well?"

GARLAND The thing about work is that on the one hand, you're constructing a TV show or a movie, and there's something grand about that in some respects. But in other ways you are really like a bunch of people standing around a hole in the road trying to figure out how to fill it. It's all very practical. On the day, on set, it's really quite practical and straightforward. And it's quite fun having unexpected aspects, like a director acting. That's a good thing. It brightens up the day, I guess. I felt very confident about Janet. What I didn't know was what will the very first moment be like, because I would never do that — I'd never stand in front of a camera and read lines, never. So there is a sort of suspended, held-breath beat of "Is Janet actually going to be able to do this?" And she just did, and then it's just good fun.

Deborah, you and director Rick Famuyiwa both had small acting roles in The Mandalorian.

CHOW That started as a joke that I never thought was actually going to happen. It was supposed to just be a cameo with no lines at all. So it's developed a life of its own. For Rick and me, neither of us have even been able to watch it, it's that horrifying for us. I definitely do not want to be an actor.

The relationship with actors is such an important part of working as a director. What makes the best collaboration?

NOLAN Trust. You have to build that with every step, every moment. You have to make it clear that you have created a safe space, and in exchange you get to a different place. Part of that is how you design your set and who you allow to be on your set and the rules that you build — just making sure that these incredibly talented people who you have asked to reveal pieces of themselves feel safe to do so, that they feel that they can trust you.

I'm not 100 percent sure, frankly, that my presence on set makes any damn difference at all. On Westworld, we have one of the most ridiculously talented casts that I could imagine, and so I flatter myself in imagining that anything gets better when I show up on set.

CHU I love creating that process. With Home Before Dark, specifically, with Brooklynn Prince, who was 8 years old, she wouldn't just say lines, she really had to understand it. I don't know the perspective of an 8-year-old girl. So we would have a lot of conversations with me and her, without her parents, about what does this word mean, what does this moment mean? We'd have these family meetings with Jim Sturgess, who plays her father, and Abby Miller, her mother, in the fake kitchen, talking about how Brooklynn felt about being bullied.

BODEN Part of it is just chemical, and there are certain people with whom you start talking the same language right away. But it reminds me of one of the things I learned from an actor on one of our first movies. Especially as an independent director, when you're writing something on spec and you're trying to get it sold, you create this entire world in your head and you feel like you know every minutiae of how everything should be. And then you start inviting people into the process. There was an argument about what the facial hair of one of the characters should be. I had imagined it a million times. Then the actor had a different idea and said, "You know, when I look in the mirror, I feel like the character." I think about that all the time, because this person comes in and they are bringing this whole new life to it. It becomes this whole new collaboration and [it's about] whatever you can do as a director to help them feel most like the character, so they give their best performance.

What do you do if you just can't find a way to jell with an actor?

NOLAN You just kill off the character. (Laughter.) No, you've got to work through it. A film is like a fling, but TV is like a marriage — you've got to make it work with your core cast, you've got to figure it out very quickly, and if it's not working, you need to sit down and really talk through it.

MOCK Most of the actors on the shows that I have been on, what they call for is that I have a command of story and I know what I'm looking for, and then that way they can show up and try new things. I don't think I have ever had anyone yet just give me what they want to give, you know? Some of the more veteran actors will kind of have that: "This is what I'm going to do and I'm not going to shift from that." Then you have to go in and have a little conversation, usually in rehearsal, or take a little bit of a break and explain the process of where we're going. But, yeah, some days you have difficult actors who don't show up on time, who don't do this, don't do that, and slowly but surely, as Jonah said, they get written down and down and down, because they are not as dependable. It's simple. (Laughter.)

CHU But sometimes that tension is great ­— that energy shows up onscreen. We might call them "difficult" actors, but sometimes it's just a perfectionist or them trying to understand something that I don't necessarily understand. I love fighting through that because energy is energy and when that camera turns on, you feel it.

We’re going to end this with one lighter note. If there was one director, alive or dead, you could sit down with and pick his or her brain about their work, who would you pick?

GARLAND Just because I’ve been rewatching his stuff recently, I am going to say Nic Roeg — Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, Man Who Fell to Earth. Because there’s decisions that get made within those films that are absolutely fascinating and I would like to know how those decisions got made. So I would say Nic Roeg. But I could say Peter Weir as well because I rewatched Picnic at Hanging Rock the other day and that is a very, very interesting movie.

CHU To be honest, one of those people would be Alex Garland, for sure. I love his movies, I love his brain.

GARLAND Thanks, Jon. That's very kind.

CHU I would love to talk about the future with him. The details of the future — these are the things I stay up at night thinking about. I don’t make movies about them yet because I just don’t feel smart enough. But when I watch your movies, I see such honesty in technology and humanity and I just think that that is such a beautiful thing because I think it’s something we’re all going to be having to confront very soon if not already. I just think you have a perspective that is so fascinating and interesting, and that we’re all going to have to engage in that conversation sooner rather than later.

GARLAND Well I am definitely blushing, Jon, thank you very much. That’s really cool.

CHU I’ll get your email later, don’t worry.

MOCK For some reason the first name that popped up was Nora Ephron and George Cukor. And I think because both of them were kind of dismissed for doing women’s pictures, and there is something about, specifically for Nora, there is a clear kind of parallel in our career. She started off as a journalist and then stared writing about her life and then she wrote a screenplay for Hollywood and then she got to write and direct. And so, just wanting to sit with her over a meal that she cooks and ask her about everything, including what I should wear and what doctor I should go to, but then also how she did it, what made her jump in, how did she learn, what did she learn, how did she get better — those kinds of questions.

CHOW I’d say [Akira] Kurosawa. I would love to sit down with him. I’d have a lot of questions. And I think the biggest question is just how he managed to make things so powerful with such seemingly simple stories and just learn from that.

BODEN I’m just going to say the first name that popped into my mind because there were a lot of names right afterward, which was Robert Altman. I think he was one of the first filmmakers I watched when I started — like around when I was a teenager, started watching movies and just really feeling like oh my god I could just fall into these characters. And the way that he kind of is able to explore character and have this light, naturalistic touch — I would just love to spend a day with him.

NOLAN I was going to say Kurosawa. I go back to his films and watch them again — we did samurai episodes in the second season of Westworld, which is one of the most enjoyable experiences as a producer I’ve gotten to participate in. I look back at those productions and I don’t understand how he did them. Just extraordinary. In those days, when you didn’t have the luxury of fixing it in post, just the ambition, the scale, the largeness but also the small, human beauty that he smuggled into every frame. Incredible.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.