'Orange Is the New Black': Director Matthew Weiner on "Choreographing the Chaos" of the Tragic End

OITNB Matthew Weiner Inset H 2016
Netflix; Mike Windle/Getty Images

[Warning: This story contains major spoilers from the entire fourth season of Orange Is the New Black, including the finale.]

When Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner agreed to direct an episode of Orange Is the New Black, he was saying yes to an episode fans of the Netflix series would never forget — and likely rewatch in painstaking detail. But the pressure Weiner felt was of the approval of his friend, Orange creator Jenji Kohan.

To hear Weiner tell it, the Mad Men grad says Kohan approached him after a scheduling conflict. Turns out Kohan needed a director for the penultimate episode of season four, "The Animals" — the one that sees the horrific death of fan-favorite Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley).

"You have to promise me that we’ll still be friends and have respect for each other if you don't like what I did or I blow this in some way," Weiner tells THR of his memory of the conversation with Kohan, whom he's known for years professionally and personally. "I did believe she was capable of doing that."

Being his first TV gig since wrapping seven seasons of AMC critical darling Mad Men last year, the Emmy-winning writer, director and producer says he set out to be the best guest director he could be for Kohan. He rewatched the entire series and got to know every detail about the characters so his presence on set could be as seamless as possible, given the magnitude of the episode's death scene and the emotions it would bring.

"This cast really loves each other," he says. "Having this emotionally galvanizing moment of Poussey’s character dying and Samira leaving the show and breaking up the band. I felt like I was really witnessing it. They’re an ensemble: Their success and all of this that has happened to them, this is a very small club that they’re in and someone’s leaving. All I wanted to do was choreograph the chaos enough that we could pull it off and have it still feel chaotic."

Below, Weiner talks with THR about capturing the gut-wrenching final shots, how the episode focuses on the drama amid its heavy political connotations (Poussey, a black inmate, suffocates under the weight of a white guard played by Alan Aisenberg) and how the massive yet close cast needed little prodding when it came time to play the emotions, especially stars Wiley and Danielle Brooks (Taystee).

After Kohan approached you, did it take long for you to say yes to directing?

Jenji and I have known each other for a long time. We're close friends socially, but — even though she’s younger than me — she has also been a creative inspiration and I’ve leaned on her a lot. I thought about it for a day and I talked to my wife but, I love the show. In the last eight years, I haven’t had a lot of time to watch a lot of things, but I know Orange Is the New Black and I really respect it. I respect Jenji's casting and I love the contemporary nature and the politics of it, and it makes me laugh. So even if I didn’t know Jenji, I would be like, "Sure I’d love to be in that world for a month."

How did you prepare? 

I had watched every episode up until the new season. I got to see the episodes that were in process up until that point, so there was film on everything through episode six and I had seen rough cuts. Then I read the scripts up until episode 12. But I decided that I was going to try to be the best TV director ever for the showrunner — meaning that I would do everything that I ever wanted someone to do when they would work for me. I didn’t want to get caught not knowing the history of the characters so I watched the entire series again before I started. You don’t want to get on set and say, "OK, you’re on the top bunk here," and have them say, "I’m never on the top bunk because I was raped up there." I did not want to be that person, I wanted to know the show really well. I wanted to know the actors' names, the names of the crew and I wanted to be ready for the new material.

Episodic directing is different than Mad Men, a show you created and know so intimately. Was it scary to come in for one episode, let alone an episode at the end of the season? 

You’re a guest. You don’t know any of the inside jokes and you’re going to be gone in 10 days. It’s weird, it's a little lonely but they were very friendly to me. I was surprised that a show that far along and that successful — and I like to think Mad Men was like this too, but it hasn't been my experience for the most part — success has not turned them against each other. There was no hierarchical feeling of, “I’m a big deal and you’re not.” You get told that this is the case and you think, “OK, well that’s show business I’m sure they love each other.” But they really do. It’s your kind of fantasy workplace in how respectful they were to each other and to me.

Poussey is the first fan-favorite to be killed off Orange. The cast, from Samira to Danielle, have agreed that Kohan picked Poussey because she wanted the story she's telling of Black Lives Matter and racial injustice to have the most impact. Did you and Kohan talk about the magnitude of the episode? 

Here’s the genius of what Jenji does: She's setting a context with her characters in a humorous way that is making you think you’re just following peoples’ lives, but the political context is all there. We did not have a conversation about any of those things because it was completely apparent what was going on: Piscatella’s militaristic, racist, dehumanizing attitude about power; Caputo’s compromises that he made as part of this corporatization of the prison; Bayley’s guilt about getting away with his crime while no one else does. There is so much in there that is not symbolic, it’s literal to the story and you understand it.

There was a lot of preparation. We had many stunt and production design conversations and conversations about background, all to make it so that it would be safe. Because doing something like that, especially for someone like Uzo [Aduba] who’s really going to commit, and with people leaning on each other and all of that, so much bad can happen in an attempt to dramatize that. The first time that we got them in the pose of the staging with Bayley’s knee on Poussey's back, everybody just gasped. No one was looking at photographs trying to mirror anything, you just got the sense of: This is how it’s going to happen, we all know what this is. And it was probably more horrifying.

The beauty of using drama to hit that emotion is that we know her, and we know him. So there was not a larger political context, there was a dramatic context that set the politics, rather than just holding up a sign or something like that. The language, everything. [The episode title] "The Animals" and the dehumanization. To me, as a writer, what really makes it work is that there’s so much hope in that episode. There are so many conflicts being resolved. Alex and Piper was one of the first scenes that I had and to see them forgive each other and have this super intimate conversation, everybody’s talking about the future. The future is not a big part of the prison conversation. There's also Pennsatucky and Boo and Poussey and Soso more than anybody, there’s so much conversation about: Well, what’s going to happen after this? And then this hopeful thing of everybody even putting down their racial divides to get through this oppressive guard situation. You have the feeling they’re working together and there’s so much hope in the episode.

That’s how I wanted the last scene to work and Lauren [Morelli, Wiley's real-life girlfriend] wrote it that way, in a beautiful way. You get to this moment of solidarity and you get this feeling of victory. By the time Red climbs up onto that table, you’re thinking: You guys lost. Then the chaos happens and here comes the boot. That was just a really well-written story that was handed to me and a harvest of all the thematic conflict that was going on for the whole season.

The episode called for the entire cast to be in the scene, which helps to bring it all together. But what was it like to navigate such a large and emotional ensemble?

It was all done in one day. We prepared tremendously. They are a machine: hair, makeup, wardrobe, the ADs and a great cinematographer. What I was really worried about was holding everybody’s attention for the 15 hours or whatever. But honestly, it was dramatic enough that it could. These people play these characters, so you don't have to do much. As long as they’re in the scene and reacting, you make sure that you get them on camera. My whole thing was: get the stunts right and structure it dramatically so that you feel that moment of triumph and then really feel the chaos. Because that’s how things like that happen.

The Bayley character, he should not even be a guard. Of course he ends up sitting on the smallest person in there, he doesn’t even know what he’s doing and he’s terrified. When you see people like Humps who relish the power of Piscatella, you want it to feel like: “Oh, well this is a horrible accident.” But it’s not, it’s set up by every single thing that’s been happening during the season. 

Is that how you approached the final shot of the episode, where you see Taystee (Brooks) collapsing?

That big shot at the end, I wanted that dizzying feeling of pulling away from the scene and seeing that everybody’s there and that time has stopped. You have to have a crane and you have to cut a hole in the ceiling! You want to go and get this moment that was in the script, which is one of the things I was most worried about. She died from having the weight on her, she suffocated. I wanted to see how big he was and how small she is. I wanted to see that you get Uzo completely committing physically and having all the guards and all that action and distraction, that Bayley doesn’t notice it and that he’s afraid. You want to be afraid of Suzanne/Crazy Eyes at that moment.

They wrote this beautiful thing where Taystee (Danielle) is being dragged out and she sees Poussey underneath all of the tables. They really pulled that off with the camera, but to me that’s the moment where I go, "Oh, wait a minute. That’s the moment she’s actually dying." You can write that and it doesn’t always mean you feel that.

Both Samira and Danielle credited you for getting them through it, especially since they are close friends and the scene felt so personal. Can you talk about filming the two of them in that scene?

They’re amazing. They couldn’t even look at each other without getting emotional or bursting into laughter at any point. That experience was huge. Half the time, they’re laughing so they’re not crying. Everything in the writing and in Jenji’s plan boils down to building up a moment of focus between the two of them, because Jenji and Lauren knew that’s the drama. You will feel the most when Taystee discovers this and she’s the one who can emotionally get there. The only thing I told them is, "Let’s try and do the rest of the episode like this isn't going to happen. I will tell you if I don’t believe it. Or if it’s too big." They know they’re characters and all I wanted was to set up an environment for them where they felt free to do it and I would be an audience member for a moment and tell them whether it worked for me or not. Honestly, there wasn’t much more to it than that. When we're in the moment and the camera is there, there was nothing to do. 

Would you direct another episode of Orange in season five? And what's next for you? 

I am not going to talk about what I’m doing next because I’m writing right now, but if Jenji asked me to, I will find a way to do it. Because I had a great experience and I’m a huge fan of the show. It was fun to be a part of that. But the best part about it was that Jenji was happy. That’s what I cared about most. It’s a big deal!