'Underground' Director Breaks Down Harriet Tubman-Centric Episode

Underground Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of WGN

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Wednesday's episode of Underground, "Minty."]

Wednesday night's episode of WGN America's Underground is a rare hour of television that works as both an important midseason climax for a heavily serialized show, but also as an installment that could easily be watched, context-free, by any viewer interested in TV that breaks the medium's formal and narrative rules.

Underground has never been afraid to shake things up, whether abruptly killing off cast regulars, setting key moments of pre-Civil War drama to propulsive modern music or just telling a story about slavery that's simultaneously emotionally gripping and an absurd amount of fun.

Even by that standard, "Minty" is a unique. The episode is 50-plus minutes of Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) giving a lecture to like-minded abolitionists at a Philadelphia auction hour. Jessica De Gouw's Elizabeth is the only regular cast member to appear in the episode, and I think she has only one line, which may be one of only two or three that aren't delivered by Tubman. 

Written by series creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, it's a beautiful monologue, as Tubman tells childhood stories, recounts her escape and determination to help others do the same, and closes with a call-to-action that will likely galvanize the show's characters and leave the audience roused. It's also a spectacular showcase for Hinds, whose rifle-toting Harriet was already a standout new addition this season. WGN America hasn't really put itself in the midst of an Emmy race before, but Hinds is so good here that if the network can make viewers watch, she'll be hard to deny. 

Steering and capturing Hinds' performance, while also keeping the episode from ever feeling claustrophobic or stage-bound, is producing director Anthony Hemingway, who helped forge the show's unique pace and visual identity in the inaugural season and has already helmed the standout "Contraband" and "Ache" episodes this season.

A ridiculously versatile director whose other credits include The Wire, Shameless and an Emmy-nominated episode of People v. O.J. Simpson, Hemingway got on the phone to weigh in on the logistical challenges of what the production called their Tub Talk. In addition to marveling at his leading lady, who eschewed cue cards or an audio-assist earwig, Hemingway talks about a compact schedule that left them with only three days at then end of the season in which to shoot. He also discusses the ambitious seven-minute oner that closes the episode.

Watch "Minty," whether you're an Underground viewer or not, and check out the full Q&A with Hemingway.

What does a script like this even look like format-wise? Is it just a big blob of dialogue for 45 pages?

Exactly right, it's something that can send anybody's nerves through the roof and strike a chord of anxiety that strums a strong note. But it literally is 45 pages of talking, and I could only empathize with Aisha when I read it and I was just like, "Ooh, wow." I think even the most trained actor in theater hasn't done what she had to do in shooting. No one on stage stands and talks for 18 pages without stopping, and that's what we basically did. We had three days to shoot it and we did the first two acts on day one, the next two acts on day two, and then the last act on day three, and it was just beyond impressive, inspiring and all of the above to watch her just get lost in channeling the spirit of Harriet Tubman. It was just absolutely incredible and magical.

Just even beyond, further back, of really realizing this task of doing something that's so different, that's breaking format of TV and is completely, absolutely bold to the fullest and just scary. Just trying to figure out and understand how to approach it took some time, I think it ultimately also came to having to let go of some of your faculties of what you would generally think of or try to do. For me as an artist and a filmmaker, I'm always inspired by what's on the page, so that really motivates any decision or instinct that I discover in designing how to give whatever I'm doing the visual treatment and style that it needs, but a lot of times, especially in TV, we're so accustomed to pace and speed and trying to keep things moving and engaging. Even with regard to reminding yourself how smart viewers are today. We are sometimes so accustomed to doing stuff to add, to bring in the bells and whistles to your approach and giving it this excitement and drive.

Those were the things that I had to completely throw out the window and somewhat start over and really just sit with it and try to think of how to not distract from or take away from the real star of the episode, which was Harriet, performed by Aisha Hinds. And that was one of the things that was challenging at first, because you keep feeling the urge to want to do something, and it's just like, "Stop forcing what's not necessary." So it was such an exercise that obviously I'm extremely proud of and having a moment to allow my artistry to be elevated and to really even learn something throughout the process was really enjoyable.

There's a school of thought that she's up there and she's telling stories, so every single time she goes into a story you could hypothetically cut to a sepia-toned flashback of like young Minty and the sugar or whatever. Did anyone every consider that or did you know that that would be a violation of what this episode was?

We wanted to just sit there and let her do the work and capture the moment, reacting to how she flowed, because this was an opportunity for her humanity to shine and take the front row seat as well as center stage of doing something that we've experienced before, which was really having this opportunity of really learning or being reintroduced to this hero, this legend, in such a three-dimensional way. And thinking that is just like, "Stop and just watch and listen and take it in," and just trying to allow the viewer to have that experience at the same time. Those were the things that I just had to not do that could easily become distracting from really being engaged in her performance and hearing her story.

What was the thought that went into how big the crowd was going to be watching her, how much we'd hear their reaction, how much we'd see their reaction, how many times you'd cut away to them, etc.?

It was a process, for those initial instincts and thoughts of what we were doing and were approaching, all the feelings of what you think you want to do came to the conversation. I remember Misha and I going back and forth because I was like, "We need a crowd, I want a big room full of people," because it's just trying to think of these things to, again, make it interesting and exciting or whatever the reasons were, and she was like, "No, it can't be that many people." I was like, "Why not?"

Just to kind of go back, how they came to this idea initially was really in the research, realizing and discovering that Harriet was giving public speaking at this time, and in doing it she was risking her life, so to come to find the right amount of people was really just the ability of feeling like obviously, everyone she was talking to was someone that she had met along her journey, and there had to be some safety net there. And that also went into trying to really discover the right setting for it and how it was gonna look because she was vulnerable in doing it, all while being hunted for her life, so it had to be in a setting of a small group of like-minded people that she was just continuing to encourage and inspire to keep doing what they were doing in fighting for the cause.

I think part of just how the episode unfolded and how the viewing experience came to be was really looking and again trusting. That was a thing that I had to keep reminding myself and I think everyone in the process, of really trusting the moment. Trusting even the idea and the concept of it, which was really allowing Harriet to share her humanity and giving us that moment of being in the theater, and she's on stage giving a one-woman show. So it was this time which they found, in doing their research, that they found their end, which was basically Harriet Tubman giving a TED Talk. And of course we call it a Tub Talk.

But it was definitely a process. I think we went through different evolutions, even editorially. I think the beginning cut was again that instinct to try to pace it in an unnatural way or a way that it didn't need to be, and we really found ourselves coming back to a place of living in moments and sitting in it and allowing yourself to become a part of this experience, as a viewer, of really feeling like you're so captivated and engaged and are listening. And that was even somewhat of the design of what I came to, there were several references that I went to in my head. I went back and looked at several different TED Talks and just feeling their approach to this kind of concept or idea, I was thinking of different stand-up comedy shows, anything that really gave that same of feeling like you were in the theater or on-stage and thinking of how to shoot it from that place.

If I was here, in this moment, where would I place the cameras, how would they be? Obviously, we're in a space in the world now where technology allows us to be able to get in and get on different modes of camera and do steadicams and cranes and other stuff that allows us to get into that space and break the wall. But if you really go back and think of the reality, cameras were in the back of the house and maybe on either side of the house and really on zoom lenses, so thinking of it that way of really now putting yourself as a viewer in it and being drawn in. But it was definitely a process, one that we had to play around with and really come to where we landed, but it definitely was a process of throwing out a lot of initial instincts, just because it was something that we all learned together. This was something that was so different, and just the idea of wanting to do something so bold was exciting for everyone, I think, on board, from cast and crew. But it was one experience that we definitely found collectively.

And the last shot, the concluding seven-minute one-shot, is obviously spectacular. Did you know immediately when you read it that you wanted to have that be breathless and uncutting and unflinching for those last seven minutes?

Yeah, that was definitely the idea. You've been a part of this experience now. She starts off in this vulnerable place, being Clark Kent, she finds her Superman again and becomes the hero that we know her to be and she takes you on this ride, and now she's at this place where now finding a moment to settle and to really continue engaging after she shared her whole life, allowing us to see a piece of her in us, or ourselves in her. Realizing that she is a human, regardless of us seeing her or knowing her as this iconic figure and being a hero, she is also a human being. So, to get to that last act was one that was just wanting to just slowly build.

And then, obviously, as you saw, we get to the very end and then she breaks the fourth wall and now she is looking directly at us, into camera, which is our parallel to bringing this story and moment in time forward. As we can realize that these stories are as old as time but as contemporary as today's headlines. And the funny part about it is that this was conceptualized and written way before where we are now in this Trump craze, but it's definitely very relevant. She basically talks to us, talking to every viewer and really challenging everyone to really wake up and find your own call to duty to really be a part of our healing.

How many times did you get to do that last shot, how many times did it take to get it exactly right?

I think we did it about seven or eight takes. I can laugh at it now, but I was so in the moment and on the day just like every time ... Because even Aisha knew. I was like, "This is gonna be a oner, so any mistake, we have to start over." By the time we got to that on the third day, I just felt like, "I'm about to break her, and I feel terrible." I'm just like, fingers and toes crossed, I'm praying like, "Oh my God, just get it, because I don't want to make you do it again." Yeah, we did it about eight takes, I think.

Oh God. OK, so three days to shoot an episode of television and a 54-minute episode of television. That's crazy. Who was it who had to tell you that you only had three days to do it? You're an executive producer on this show, could you not just say, "Give me four, give me five"?

Yeah, I wish I had that power, but we work for a studio and a network who pays the bills, and that's all we were able and allowed to do, unfortunately. It's just one of those moments and the irony of it is I think the challenge of it definitely elevated moments and forced and charged us to trust decisions or instincts and just live with it. But yeah, it wasn't one that we designed or wanted. Unfortunately, just logistically, it was the very last episode we shot and unfortunately it came at the cost of what we had to experience and endure over the course of the season, from certain storms that we had to end up paying for, the loss of time and every other thing that impacted the budget.

But it came to a place where I remember, a several episodes out from doing it, Misha and Joe came to me and they were like, "You're gonna have three days to do the last episode." And I said, "What?" Of course, like me as anything, I'm like, "Alright, cool." I didn't really think about it then, not until it really came to be, where I was like, "OK, wow." And more so, really, just having the time to give Aisha to not be forced with really exploring this character and moment and opportunity and responsibility at the same time, and giving her that space to really live in it and really embody it so fully and have time to even explore and play with it. That was what I really was concerned about in the beginning, but she's so amazing and phenomenal as a person and as an actor where she came in swinging.

For one of the choices I hadn't even thought of, after she has her moment of stillness and just trying to find the strength to come out, when she first walks into the space and I made the decision to go slow-motion, it was me watching Rocky go to the ring, and then at the same time allowed that nature to connect with her. When I watch it, I feel her heartbeat just pounding as the anxiety rises, and then for her to get there, sit down, and not know where to start and just her looking out at these people and just trying to collect herself, it's pure artistry and I'm so thrilled to have had this opportunity to be the one to channel it. I'm very proud and excited by it and so ready to share it with the world.

Was there any opportunity for rehearsal at all? It seems like the kind of thing where in theater you'd, say, for example, rehearse for six weeks before doing a one-man show like this.

Exactly. And I don't think anyone in theater has done this, because not many acts of a play run that long. You have many breaks or intermission or whatever you may have, but no one's up there doing 18 pages without stopping. But no, there wasn't much time. We got the completed script a week out from shooting, and then of course there was everything at once coming to a head of really settling on finding the right location and all of the creativity of designing it, going into that. I'm so thankful we have such an exceptionally talented crew that everyone really cares and wants to be there and champions the show and understands that there's a really unified synchronicity that goes on with a lot of us of really understanding the psychology of where we are and what we're doing and what we're telling and the reasons behind it.

So it definitely forced us to move fast and figure so many things out, but for Aisha it was basically, "Here, take this script." I think what we did do, she, myself, and Misha just did a reading. We sat down and read through it and just talked a little bit about it, a couple beats, but then she took it and ran away. It crossed over the Thanksgiving holiday, so she came back home to L.A. and completely isolated herself and really started to dig deep and go through it in her process. And we talked a little bit about it, really it was just a matter of what my plan was and how I was gonna break it up over the three days so she could really prepare and study it that way, so instead of trying to take on the daunting task of trying to learn the entire episode and do it that way. But unfortunately we didn't get all the liberties that you would in normal circumstances.

Is this a situation where everyone knows this is a special thing you're getting do? Did the other actors come to the set to just watch in the wings? 

Absolutely, everyone was there lending support, being affected by her. I mean, day one take one, I don't think there was a dry eye in the house, from background transcending all the way back behind camera and through the crew and everyone. Everyone was there, jaw dropped, just mesmerized. Everyone came out and definitely moments of lending support to her. I got her a massage every day at lunch, everything just to continue to keep her loose and measured, just so she could be safe in coming and performing.

Was there an emotional beat that she was worried about or that you were worried about and that when you knew that you nailed it, you were able to actually have a exhaling, a high-five moment of "We got that one"?

I think that was every beat. I think it was the entire episode, we were just like, "OK, we got act one done. Phew. Moving on." Then act two, "Phew, moving on." It was like every moment, because we went act by act. I think before every moment, she and I would just talk about her ideas and my thoughts and just tackling it and just going after all of those ideas and just finding what felt right. Just the decisions of when she would really get up and walk around and sit down and just own the space. Part of it was definitely honoring the flow and the arc of it in terms of how she really gained the control or the confidence to really just let go and let loose.

It was kind of like the first day of school or the first day on any job. It was just like, "Oh my God, my heart is beating for her. I am feeling and carrying her anxiety." I felt the weight on my shoulders, obviously, being a supporter creatively, also as a friend and wanting her to succeed and get up there and completely slay it, so it was doing whatever we could to even offer her whatever kind of resources that we could just as a safety net. 

We entertained and offered to have an earwig for her and we'd just feed her lines if she went off or whatever. We talked about having a teleprompter, getting cue cards, and it was just one of those things of having everything and the kitchen sink available, especially with the last minutes of the script and everything else, but she's never done that or used any of those devices, so it didn't come as a natural acceptance of wanting it. She obviously was open, because I think even as her anxiety started, she just again was listening and being open to whatever we had to share or offer, and it all came from purely a place of trying to provide her the best resources or platforms to allow her to succeed. But none of those were used, and that was just her up there purely connecting and evoking the performances that she delivered.

It was funny, earlier today I was thinking, I remember the moment when she came to set. Prior to coming to the set, she and I, one of the things that we connect with, and we have such a ridiculous love for one another just as people, as friends and as artists, but we're both very spiritual, we connect on that level also, and that day I just kept walking around. I saw myself pacing, which is what I don't normally do, but I just felt myself feeling this little level of anxiety and something just said to me to go to her trailer and pray with her, and I did and I went and I just basically wrapped my arms around her and held her tight and just prayed to release the fear and anxiety and allow her to come in and do what she was meant to do. 

And she did and literally when she came to set, she tried even entertaining the earwig, and of course, those things are never great. It always has this little static or buzz in it. I've never had to use it, but I can only imagine how distracting it could be, especially in a time and a moment like this for her. It was just one where we all were just like, "Nope, that's not gonna work." So then she just had to get up there and do it, and I tell you, from the moment I called action, she just started unleashing. It was literally like Harriet came down onto that set and just reintroduced herself to us and just filled the moment and the space, and it was just absolutely magical to watch and to witness and it was powerful.

And just as a last question, having experienced this, having done it, having gotten through to the other side and having putting some distance behind it, is your reaction to tell Joe and Misha, "OK, give me another one of these next season," or, "Never, never again?"

That's so funny you say that, cause I do remember the whole season was a challenge. I'm not sure if you realize that Jurnee Smollett-Bell, our lead, was pregnant, and we had to shoot around that and two tropical storms, and I can go on and on and on the challenges that we faced on that show in a city or a place that doesn't have an infrastructure. It's endless. I thought season one was challenging and hard. Season two knocked it out of the water, it was insane, and I remember telling Misha, "I don't ever want to work this hard again. I don't ever want to do this. I'm not doing it." I literally was on my hands and knees coming home, it completely stripped me. It's like I gave everything in me and what I didn't have to this production this season. It's one of those things where I can't ever call or anticipate. I just go with it and what speaks to me, I tackle. It just feels right. So if I do it again? Who knows.

Underground airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on WGN.