Emmys: How the Limited Series Nominees Tackled Scandal and Dark Subject Matter

12:13 PM 8/5/2019

by Katie Campione, Brian Davids, Tara Bitran, Richard Newby, and Jewel Wicker

The five nominees focused on tales of truth and consequences from across the globe, explored a unique artistic partnership and told a twisted tale about harm and healing.

Clockwide, from bottom left: 'Sharp Objects,' 'Chernobyl,' 'Escape at Dannemora,' 'Fosse/Verdon,' 'When They See Us'
Clockwide, from bottom left: 'Sharp Objects,' 'Chernobyl,' 'Escape at Dannemora,' 'Fosse/Verdon,' 'When They See Us'
Courtesy of Networks

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

  • 'Chernobyl'

    Liam Daniel/HBO

    The idea for HBO's Chernobyl started the way most budding curiosities do: with a quick Wikipedia search. But that simple inquiry into the infamous 1986 nuclear accident sent series creator Craig Mazin, 48, on a deep dive that eventually produced the five-part limited series (and a podcast to match), which went on to amass a growing audience each week — and 19 nominations.

    What was the biggest difficulty adapting Chernobyl?

    The hardest part for us was the constant desire to be as accurate as we could, faced with certain realities of production schedule and budget. We understood that if you're telling a story that takes place over roughly two or three years in five hours, things are going to have to be altered and compressed. But we tried to do that as little as possible, and we always made note of it so that I could account for it later on in my podcasts.

    What else was important to you going into production?

    We were aware that we were telling another culture's story. It was important that we, as outsiders, were telling the story from the inside. We weren't telling a story about people coming in from the outside to rescue or save. We were telling the story of average Soviet citizens and their experience of this incident. We wanted to have moments where people in the West could see that average, daily Soviet life was not necessarily what we were being told it was. There were aspects of Soviet life that were distressing, no question. But people smiled, and children played, and there was joy, and we wanted people to see that.

    There wasn't much contemporary awareness about Chernobyl before this. How did you try to help viewers wrap their minds around that?

    It's a little bit like getting on the Titanic without knowing the Titanic is anything but the name of the boat. It was difficult to present certain aspects of the denial without knocking the audience out of a rhythm. There was some remarkable denial that went on that night. One thing that is important to know is that most people who were living in that town were there because they were part of a support community for the people who worked at the nuclear reactor. They had absolutely no understanding of what nuclear power was or how it functioned or the potential dangers of radiation. That's a really hard thing for us to wrap our minds around, coming from a country where everything like that is discussed essentially openly.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Escape at Dannemora'

    Showtime

    Wilson Webb/SHOWTIME

    With a true story as unbelievable as Showtime's Escape at Dannemora, Ben Stiller wanted to leave little to the imagination. When presented with a spec script by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, he originally turned down the project because it lacked the necessary details to tell the story of two inmates who escaped upstate New York's Clinton Correctional Facility with the help of a prison seamstress. Everything changed when New York State's inspector general released a 150-page report that provided Stiller with the particulars he needed to commit. THR spoke with the 53-year-old executive producer/director about the intensive research process and how he received permission to shoot at the real prison.

    Could you have done this project without the inspector general's report?

    It was integral because the first scripts they wrote were an imagining of what happened. They didn't have that much information, and I initially passed because I felt I didn't know enough about what went on. That report had all of those details of how this relationship developed between this woman, these two inmates and how they were able to escape. Researching it went on for about a year.

    When producing a true story, does the pressure of accuracy weigh on you at all times?

    It does. Ironically, we find that what people actually do is sometimes more fantastic than something you could make up. The fact that it's true is what's so interesting about it. I made every attempt to find out what really happened and tell the story as accurately as possible.

    How did you end up shooting at Clinton Correctional Facility?

    The New York State Department of Corrections allowed us access through a meeting we had with New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo. We didn't think we were ever going to get it, but luckily, we got to film in some of those places where all this happened.

    Because the escape humiliated Dannemora, how did you assure locals that they'd be respected?

    Some people were definitely a bit wary because when the escape happened, Dannemora was descended upon by the media for about a month — and then everybody left. So I felt it was important that we developed trust and let them know that we were trying to tell the story as truthfully as possible. We made some really good friends there, such as ex-corrections officers and people in law enforcement. We worked with all locals at locations where things actually happened. That made a big difference, especially in re-creating the manhunt.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Fosse/Verdon'

    FX

    Michael Parmele/FX

    Chronicling the symbiotic relationship of showbiz couple Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, FX's eight-part series, which picked up seven noms, was made largely by the theater community (executive producers include Hamilton's Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the theater community. "We wanted to make them proud," says EP and Dear Evan Hansen scribe Steven Levenson.

    The show originally was focused on just Fosse. What about his oeuvre inspired you?

    When I became involved, there was already Sam Wasson's biography called Fosse. Everyone who read that book, including me, was struck by how Bob Fosse is such a legendary figure. Certainly in theater, his shadow looms quite large. "Fosse" is one of those words that you hear before you know what it means. Before Bob Fosse began making the musicals that he did and he and Gwen did and the way that they did them, I think of some of his earlier stuff like Damn Yankees as being like a prototypical Golden Age musical. It's got all of the things that people who don't like musicals [don't like about musicals]. (Laughs.) It's got those big smiles and the technicolor emotions and it's very broad and fun. But it doesn't have a lot of edge or darkness or ambiguity, and those were all the things that Fosse's work really brought into musical theater. His work made musicals a place where you could tell stories that were dark and sexy and dangerous. That really changed the course of musical theater.

    How did the series evolve into focusing on both Bob and Gwen?

    I can pinpoint the exact moment: Tommy Kail and I had driven up to New Hampshire to spend a crazy 24-hour jam session with Nicole Fosse [Bob and Gwen's daughter], whom we'd only met once before. In that weekend, it became so clear that Gwen was the missing piece of this story. What made the story so different and not just another story of self-destructive and destructive genius was this presence of Gwen Verdon and her unsung role in his work and in his life. We realized there was an incredible story of marriage — both the literal and the creative marriage. The fact that he died in her arms on the way to the opening of their musical in D.C. ... It's such an incredible mystery in some ways. Like, how did these two stay together? 

    How did the #MeToo movement inform this story?

    We were working on it right around the time that the movement really started to explode. The more we learned about Bob Fosse and delved into his psyche, we saw troubling behavior there. He did a lot of bad things with his power. There was a moment where it felt like, "How could we tell this story about this guy who wasn't really such a great guy?" But as the movement happened, it felt like we have to tell this story. We have to fly right into the face of that if we're going to do this. And maybe this is an opportunity, especially factoring in Gwen, to talk about how men like this can thrive in the entertainment industry and the kind of culture that encourages and allows allows them to behave that way.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Sharp Objects'

    HBO

    Anne Marie Fox/HBO

    HBO's Sharp Objects, adapted from Gillian Flynn's novel, is an unflinching look at the ripple effect of pain inflicted on oneself and others. Starring Amy Adams as a small-time newspaper reporter who is drawn back to her hometown (and to her troubled mother, played by Patricia Clarkson) after the brutal murder of a young girl, the Southern Gothic miniseries earned eight Emmy nominations. Creator and exec producer Marti Noxon, 54, spoke to THR about the surprising element Adams brought to the series, the emotional resonance of those final moments and the possibility of a second season.

    What drew you to adapting Sharp Objects for HBO?

    I read [Flynn's novel] Gone Girl, and I loved the way Gillian's mind worked. I was like, "This lady is my kind of dark. What else has she written?" And then I read Sharp Objects and I just couldn't shake those characters. I, in particular, couldn't shake Camille. She just kept talking to me after I finished the book, and when that happens, I know there's something major there, there's something that's really resonating with me.

    What were some of the challenges of adapting the darkness of Flynn's novel for the screen?

    So much of it has to do with casting. I hadn't thought of someone like Amy [Adams], partly because there's a sunniness and a lightness to her no matter what she does, which is part of the reason why people love her so much. But then as soon as I heard she was interested, I was like, that's brilliant because we will be able to stay with her. So casting Amy, Patricia [Clarkson], Eliza [Scanlen] and Elizabeth Perkins, these women were just powerhouses, and they all have a real quality that draws you to them through all the darkness.

    There were some earlier discussions about a potential second season. Is that something you're still interested in?

    With every month that passes, it feels less likely just because everyone is getting really busy. And it was a beautiful and complete narrative.

    The ending of the series is different from the book's ending. What was the decision-making process behind ending the series there and the post-credit scene?

    That was an ongoing discussion. I often say with material like this is that what I bring to it as a filmmaker and a writer is the emotional resonance of the book. For me, the book ended, emotionally, there: Camille's discovery of what Amma is and what she's done is the gut punch. All the stuff that came after it, the epilogue about how things were working out, I felt that was a whole other show. Gillian acknowledged that there were a couple of different endings in the book. It felt very rushed to me. It was three or four pages, or maybe five or six pages, trying to explain everything that happened after that. And when I hit on that line, "Don't tell Mama," I was like, "This is everything." It shows everything about how damaged these women are, that Amma is still afraid of her mother, that it all goes back to Adora, and the damage in this family started with her in our story.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'When They See Us'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    "The industry stuff is a nice cherry on top, but nothing can replace the moment when the men saw it for the first time and turned around to me in the screening room with tears in their eyes," creator/director Ava DuVernay says of her four-part Netflix series, which illuminates the stories of five black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of rape in the 1989 Central Park jogger case. DuVernay spoke to THR about When They See Us' 16 nominations, capturing the criminal justice system and the show's international appeal.

    How did the Exonerated Five react to the Emmy nominations?

    When I called the guys, I had to explain to them what the Emmys were, and I think that is very telling. This ceremony and this experience is very isolated to our industry. You have people who are really living their lives deeply, meaningfully, that have no connection with our kind of laudatory celebrations. For them, their awards came from the way that their lives have changed, the way that people are now regarding them, the way that history has been rewritten. Now that they know, they're getting their tuxes ready and they're going to be up in there.

    Niecy Nash tweeted about her nomination, emphasizing she's more than a comedic actress. How did she come to portray Korey Wise's mom?

    I'd seen her do some work on an HBO show called Getting On that I was really impressed with. I cold-called her. I said I had a small part in Selma and would love to bring her down [to] be a part of that family, which she did and was lovely in a key scene. And I worked with her again on my Jay Z [and] Beyoncé visual film Family Feud. We've come to know each other personally, and I just knew of her desire to exercise all parts of her. She's a very formidable artist and actress and so I knew she could do it. All of her emotions were very available. She was just real.

    Nash's role helped showcase how wide-reaching the effects of the wrongful convictions were. How important was that context in the series?

    In order to "humanize" — and I think that's a violent word because it means that you've not been seen as or treated as human until this point — you have to treat the characters as humans. And that's very much the case for people behind bars and people who have to interact with and engage with the criminal justice system, particularly prison. We need to make sure that we're showing the totality of human beings, unfortunately, in order for some of us to realize that they should be cared for and regarded humanely. In order to do that, you have to construct the whole story. You bring in family. You bring in memory. You bring in dreams. You bring all of that.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.