Female TV Directors of 'Queen Sugar,' 'The Handmaid's Tale' and More on Pushing Boundaries

Curtesy of Patti Perret/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc/OWN; Hulu
Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Queen Sugar'; Reed Morano on the set of 'The Handmaid's Tale'

Ten directors from shows including 'I Love Dick,' 'Black-ish' and 'Billions' discuss how they've used "more silence than words" and other experimental choices that packed emotional and narrative punch.

Talk to some of the top female directors working in television — where women are at the helm far more often than in film — and you'll hear a lot about the importance of boundary pushing and risk-taking in the era of Peak TV. In some cases, that means giving voices to protagonists who historically have had little screen time (as in Queen Sugar). In others, it means making fearless visual choices (witness The Handmaid's Tale) or boldly experimenting with narrative form (I Love Dick). This flexibility is the best possible by-product of the prestige programming arms race happening right now. With so many outlets competing for viewers, the way to stand out in the crowd is to tell stories that are funnier, smarter, more relevant and compelling — and above all, surprising.

"With more options on the dial, with stories getting more nuanced, with women and people of color at the center, you allow storytellers to say, 'Hey, you tell that side of the story, I'm going to tell mine,' " says Selma director Ava DuVernay, who has helmed episodes of OWN's Queen Sugar, which she created with Oprah Winfrey.

DuVernay knew well before she directed a single scene of the New Orleans-set family drama exactly what side she wanted to tell of this particular story. "My intention was to create something sumptuous," she says. "I really wanted to see black life rendered in a way where it looked delicious onscreen. I wanted people to enter into the story like an independent film. It's character-driven. You want to be with these people; you want to walk through life with them."

It's an approach DuVernay had tried before, notably in her Sundance hit Middle of Nowhere. But applying the same stylistic choices to her adaptation of Natalie Baszile's acclaimed debut novel — which charts the lives of Bordelon siblings Nova (Rutina Wesley), Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), who come together to run their father's sugar cane farm after his death — felt like a radical act. "The idea that you'd make a series that would have this luxurious pace, that would embrace an independent, foreign-film aesthetic of more silence than words and would have a certain look, was experimental," says DuVernay. "It's never been done with black people on television."

"Experimental" also would be an appropriate word to characterize Jill Soloway's I Love Dick, the Transparent creator's new Amazon comedy starring Kathryn Hahn as a filmmaker forced to navigate the eccentric art world of Marfa, Texas. In particular, the daring fifth episode, titled "A Short History of Weird Girls," sees each of the comedy's four principal female characters candidly recount her history with sex and desire. As they deliver these intensely personal monologues, the situations they're describing unfold on the screen. "Looking back at who we are and how we got the way we did — recording the relationship between our present self and our younger self, that's something I really wanted to do for a long time," says Soloway, who directed the episode. "I got excited about the idea that it would feel like these characters were offering to the court of global opinion the evidence of their past. We used this weird animation to show the moment in each woman's life where she kind of took on sexual shame. Not the funniest episode, but it was one where I was really stretching myself."

For Reed Morano's part, in directing three episodes of The Handmaid's Tale — Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's harrowing dystopian novel about a fundamentalist future in which women are stripped of their rights and forced to bear children for powerful men — she, too, stretched the genre with her show's strong visual language. Morano, whose extensive résumé as a cinematographer includes Beyonce's visual album Lemonade, shot scenes set in the present day with a formal rigor and filmed flashbacks to the recent past in a more impressionistic, verite style. To root audiences in the point of view of the main character, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), she employed frequent, very wide close-ups. "I wanted to treat it like a POV show," she says. "That's in Margaret Atwood's book and also when you're with one character most of the time — especially one that's in a very disturbing and oppressive situation. The logical thing to me is [to] try to put the audience into their shoes, to make them empathize with that character. It makes the audience feel like they are close to the character, uncomfortably close. You're seeing them almost more intimately than you would if you were actually lying right next to the person."

The Leftovers' director Mimi Leder utilized close-ups to great effect in the episode "Crazy Whitefella Thinking," juxtaposing them with expansive shots of majestic Australian vistas to capture actor Scott Glenn's tour-de-force performance as a man journeying through the Outback in search of an Aboriginal song he believes will stave off the impending apocalypse. "It was a mixture of a lot of close shots of Scott and this landscape that spoke to his character," explains Leder, who also serves as an executive producer on the HBO drama. "My approach was to make sure that the visuals matched his emotional journey." The walkabout storyline gave Glenn an opportunity for incredibly deep character work — Leder describes her role in directing his performance from behind the camera as something akin to a tour guide. "My approach was to let Scott go to the deep end and stay there," she says. "I don't like to over-talk; I don't like to over-rehearse. I like that exploration that happens on set. I thought it was really important to stay with him and be open to things happening."

Risk-taking and experimenting, however, still have to be done on budget and on time. Production schedules don't change simply because there's a desire to capture the perfect shot or the perfect performance. Even for the most ambitious series, there are only so many opportunities to get a scene right. Under those conditions, creating an atmosphere where spontaneity can thrive, where actors feel supported to explore raw emotional territory, isn't always easy.

"The schedules are almost routinely incredibly fast and require a pretty high level of decisiveness and willingness to understand the limits of the production against the ambitions of the production," explains Karyn Kusama, who helmed "Golden Frog Time," the penultimate season two episode of Showtime's high-stakes financial drama Billions. "You really have to keep that balance — what are the priorities given the fact that this isn't an endless shooting schedule? What are my creative priorities for the show day to day and hour to hour?"

Homeland's Lesli Linka Glatter, who, like Leder, is an executive producer on her acclaimed Showtime drama, echoes those sentiments. "You have to know what the story is about, because you only have 10 days to shoot it," says Glatter. "You have to know what are the key scenes that turn your story, because you don't have all the time in the world. You want to know what the priorities are." Whether she's directing an explosive action sequence or a tender moment between actors, Glatter says when she's going to be behind the camera for an episode of the political prestige series, she comes prepared with a detailed plan — which she's then willing to abandon should something more interesting develop during the shoot. "The planning makes me feel like I totally understand what the scene's about, what the subtext is, what each character wants out of the scene. All the planning has made me freer because I think I'm more open to the moment and what's happening in it."

The same rules apply in comedy. "You go in with a plan, but then you see things [and you think], how can you frame it in such a way that makes it even a little bit funnier?" says Linda Mendoza, who directed two memorable episodes in the third season of ABC's topical family comedy Black-ish — including "Their Eyes Were Watching Screens," in which the Johnson clan attempts to break their addiction to technological devices after young Diane (Marsai Martin) accidentally stumbles across online porn. "Can you get both reactions that are open enough to camera? Do you focus on what is happening in the background? It can be so subtle sometimes, what you're doing, but honestly I always really try to enhance what's happening in the script."

It's hard to believe, but somehow TV comedy veteran Marta Kauffman (producer of Friends and Veronica's Closet) had never directed before she elected to take the reins of the season three premiere of her Netflix series Grace and Frankie. But the transition from showrunner to helmer felt like a natural one, she says. "James L. Brooks once told me that writers make great directors because they know the story, they know what the story is they want to tell, and they look for the visual moments to tell that story," she says. "That was a real boost for me to hear that. And it is a really good space for me to be in, behind the camera, because I can think quickly. I can adjust blocking and keep it motivated for the actor."

In this case, the actors in question, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, are women with whom Kauffman already enjoyed an established rapport, a mutual respect and open lines of communication. "I know what to say to help them adjust a moment because I know them very, very well and don't have to find 20 ways to say something until I know what works," says Kauffman. "And Jane and Lily work differently — you have to be able to speak with them differently."

For a director coming in from outside a project — and in certain instances, meeting actors for the first time — forging those connections can be a formidable challenge. Before she arrived on set to helm the fourth hour of Feud, Ryan Murphy's FX limited series about the intense rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, director Liza Johnson did her homework. She read the scripts for the three previous episodes and watched the dailies that already had been shot to better understand the choices the cast had made up to that point in production. She knew she needed to be able to effectively serve as a sounding board to help them fine-tune their performances in each scene.

"They had already built those characters with Ryan by the time I got there, but I could definitely calibrate them," says Johnson. "Almost the only thing that one can do at that stage is to just be the most attentive witness that is humanly possible. I remember doing [a scene with Jessica Lange as Crawford]. We did it a couple of times, and she felt unsure about it. She looked at me, like, 'Really? You want me to do it like that?' And I did — it was really good that way! She just wanted to know that I was seeing her, and it was the right choice. And I was seeing her, and it was the right choice. Everything was easy for us the whole rest of the time."

Jessica Yu, who directed the series finale of ABC's American Crime, says she tries to always remain flexible to better adapt to each actor's preferred way of working. "Some actors like to talk a lot; some don't want to talk much," she says. "They want to show you something first and then you can talk." When it came to one of the most powerfully riveting moments in the final hour of John Ridley's gripping anthology series, talking proved unnecessary. Yu captured the scene — in which social worker Kimara Walters (Regina King) is called to the morgue to identify the remains of teen prostitute Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) — in only one take. The credit, she says, goes entirely to King, who won back-to-back Emmys in the supporting actress in a limited series category for her work on the previous two seasons of American Crime.

"Ana was able to be there for Regina for the scene," says Yu. "She stayed covered until we were rolling. So, when the sheet was pulled back, that was Regina seeing her for the first time. It was such a raw and painful moment. The grief that came out, as soon as we shot it, it was just, 'Cut,' and move on. There's no way we'd get that any better or any more authentically."

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