From 'American Son' to 'Bad Education': How 5 TV Movies Found Their Paths to Emmy Noms

1:30 PM 8/7/2020

by Rebecca Ford

Nominees including 'Dolly Parton's Heartstrings,' 'El Camino' and 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' have one thing in common: They began in unusual places and took unexpected turns, from a country music icon's past to a top-secret project shot in Albuquerque and a real-life scandal at a Long Island school.

American Son - Bad Education - Publicity stills - Split - H 2020
David Lee/Netflix; Jojo Whilden/HBO

  • 'Dolly Parton's Heartstrings: These Old Bones'

    When Dolly Parton was a young girl, a clairvoyant in the Smoky Mountains who went by the name Bones once told her she was meant for greatness. "She told me once that I was anointed. I didn't know what that meant, but she said it meant that I was going to do big things one day, and that I had a special gift that I needed to share with the world," said Parton. "And I took that serious." Parton eventually wrote a song, "These Old Bones," about the mysterious woman, which was released on the 2002 album Halos & Horns. The story then became the foundation for one of the episodes of Netflix's eight-episode anthology series Dolly Parton's Heartstrings. Now nominated for the TV movie Emmy, the episode is set in the 1940s and centers on a lawyer (Ginnifer Goodwin) who returns to her hometown, where she meets a mysterious old mountain woman (Kathleen Turner) who is said to be a clairvoyant. "That one is very involved with people I grew up with and my own family," Parton said of the episode during an Oct. 28 press conference at Dollywood's DreamMore Resort, "and kind of having the gift of prophecy."

  • 'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie'

    The story of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman seemed to wrap up when the AMC series Breaking Bad concluded after five seasons in 2013. A prequel series, Better Call Saul, was launched in 2015, but it turns out creator Vince Gilligan was hoping there was more of Jesse's story to tell and had been thinking about it even before he finished Breaking Bad. "I didn't really tell anybody about it, because I wasn't sure I would ever do anything with it," he told THR. "But I started thinking to myself, 'What happened to Jesse?' You see him driving away. And to my mind, he went off to a happy ending. But as the years progressed, I thought, 'What did that ending — let's just call it an ending, neither happy, nor sad — what did it look like?' "

    In 2018, while planning events tied to the 10th anniversary of the premiere of Breaking Bad, Gilligan told his inner circle about the idea. Gilligan, who wrote and directed the project, brought back Aaron Paul to star as Jesse, and much of the original cast, including Jesse Plemons, Robert Forster, Jonathan Banks, Krysten Ritter and Bryan Cranston, to reprise their roles as well. They filmed in secret (under the title Greenbrier) in Albuquerque in late 2018, and the project wasn't revealed until August 2019, when Netflix dropped the trailer. It was released both on Netflix and in theaters Oct. 11. At the time, Paul told THR: "It was so easy for me to just jump into where Jesse's at mentally, emotionally, because I lived and breathed everything he went through and then some."

  • 'Bad Education'

    The film starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney started out as a 2004 New York magazine article by Robert Kolker that chronicled the true story of a Long Island school superintendent who stole millions of dollars from his public school district. Mike Makowsky, who was a student at the very school that superintendent Frank Tassone had ripped off back in 2004, bought the rights to the article and adapted it into a screenplay more than a decade later. He returned to his hometown and interviewed more than 25 teachers, faculty members and parents in his research. In 2018, Jackman signed on to star as the charismatic administrator, with Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) directing and Ray Romano co-starring. "It was something that I hadn't done before," said Jackman when THR asked why he took on the role. "I was scared of it, which is always a good sign for me. Generally what I'm most scared of brings out the best in me."

    The film had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival in September, where it was scooped up for just under an astonishing $20 million by HBO, which debuted the movie on its networks April 25.

  • 'American Son'

    The play American Son opened at the Booth Theatre on Broadway on Nov. 4, 2018. Written by Christopher Demos-Brown and directed by Kenny Leon, the critically acclaimed production starred Kerry Washington as a mother who is searching for her missing 18-year-old son. ("Kerry Washington gives an intense performance that lays bare her character's anguish without smoothing away her sharp edges," stated THR's review.) Before it left Broadway on Jan. 27, 2019, Washington revealed on The Tonight Show that Netflix would be adapting it into a TV movie. Along with Washington, much of the play's original cast reprised their roles, including Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan. "Since we had basically rehearsed the movie for four months, we just all had to kind of trust ourselves and take our foot off the gas a little bit," Washington told THR about filming the movie version. "Onstage, you're having to communicate every molecule to the person who is 900 seats away. Your audience, in film, is right there." The 90-minute movie, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and debuted on the streaming service Nov. 1, explores racial injustice. "What's powerful about the piece is that it is an opportunity for Black folks, for us to see ourselves and have our journey affirmed and acknowledged and mirrored and held up in the canon," said Washington.

  • 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend'

    Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's comedy series, about a woman who has to adjust to life in the real world 15 years after being abducted, ran for four seasons on Netflix, from March 2015 to January 2019. The series ended with Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) becoming a successful author. But Fey and Carlock felt there was more to tell and decided they would do it in a different way, using Netflix's new interactive technology (first used with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) to create a choose-your-own-adventure story for Kimmy. In Kimmy vs. the Reverend, the protagonist is preparing for her wedding to Prince Frederick (Daniel Radcliffe), while also taking on her kidnapper, the Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm), which Fey says offers a "movie-scale level of action and drama" while also addressing "something we had left unresolved in the series." But the interactive nature of this new story required a heavier lift for the creators, with a script that was more than 140 pages long, and was shot in 28 days. "Mentally, it was just very difficult to keep track of everything and remember everything that had happened leading up to this point and where we were within the story of the show," Kemper told THR. Fey added that the May 12 special, which earned two Emmy nominations, might not be the end of the line for Kimmy and her friends. "I would always be happy to revisit these characters," she said. "But this does feel like a nice coda to the series, and it feels so in keeping with the silliness of the series — the light and dark mix."

    This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.