Creative Space

'Morning Show' Director Mimi Leder on How to Film Jennifer Aniston

Damon Casarez
Mimi Leder photographed Oct. 16 at her home in Los Feliz.

The trailblazing helmer and producer also opens up about her time in "movie jail" and working in TV long before it was cool.

Mimi Leder has three offices: one on the Sony lot, another at her weekend house in Ojai and a third in the hillside Los Feliz home she shares with her husband, actor Gary Werntz. But when she's not on set, the prolific director-producer says she gets most work done in her living room — where a glance up from her MacBook offers panoramic views of L.A., from downtown to Hollywood.

Though she was born in Manhattan, this is very much Leder's town. She arrived on the West Coast in 1958, growing up on sets with her filmmaker father, Paul Leder, whose credits include such colorful titles as The Baby Doll Murders and I Dismember Mama. "They were B movies," Leder, 67, says over coffee at her dining room table one early October afternoon. "But they were B movies with a message."

Despite her father's legacy, her own Hollywood path has been more groundbreaking. In 1973, she became the first woman to graduate from the AFI Conservatory. She paid her dues as a script supervisor and eventually earned a directing gig on the NBC drama L.A. Law in 1987. She ranks among the first TV directors to get an executive producer credit (ER in 1995); in 1998, her feature Deep Impact bowed to $41 million — at the time, the highest opening weekend for a film directed by a woman. (Movies may be in the Leder DNA: Daughter Hannah's directorial debut, The Planters, a collaboration with Alexandra Kotcheff, is making an impression on the festival circuit.) 

Now, after an invigorating turn directing and producing HBO's The Leftovers and helming the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, Leder is behind one of the most anticipated TV projects in recent memory. The Morning Show, Apple's flagship series, which she directs and produces, launches the streaming service Nov. 1. It unites Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon on camera and behind, tackling sexism, ageism and the lingering stink of sexual abuse behind the scenes of America's ostensibly sunny morning news programming. 

The Morning Show is a mashup of Brian Stelter's tell-all Top of the Morning, the ousters of Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose and a completely fictionalized story of two newswomen clashing. What's the elevator pitch?

It's a timely show that pulls the curtain back on the world of make-believe that is morning television and examines those personas. There's also something of a love story between these two women who collide at very different points in their careers — one at her peak, coming to a cliff's edge, and another trying to make her mark — and navigating that world together and apart.

There also is Steve Carell's character, which has prompted a lot of comparisons to Matt Lauer.

You can't ignore the #MeToo movement as part of this world. On the show, our story is fictionalized. The male characters, certainly Steve's, are definitely an amalgam of many. Unfortunately, there are too many to draw these stories from. It's still daily. We're watching the NBC situation unfold again right before our eyes — which is the plot of our show.

Was it challenging finding the tone while negotiating two very different storylines?

It is a drama but also very much a dark comedy. I wanted it to be grounded in reality — never farcical, never a joke, but funny. I wanted it to have several looks. In front of the daytime TV camera, it's sunny, beautiful, bright and flat. When that camera's turned off, I wanted it to be saturated in color and have a lot of shadows and edge.

There are a lot of lingering shots, particularly on Aniston's character.

That's part of the visual language of the show. I wanted to hold shots longer than normal — like Jen staring in the mirror during the first episode. Normally you'd cut sooner, and they asked me to, but I found her fascinating.

People credit you with bringing the steadicam to television on ER, but when do you feel like you established your style as a director?

During China Beach [1988-1991]. It was one of the great experiences of my life and when I really felt that I had become a director.

By ER, you also were a producer and in a position to hire women directors.

Yes, I brought Lesli Linka Glatter into the fold on ER. Women had less [past directing work] to show — women always have had less to show than men — so women were hired less.

Do you feel it has improved since we started talking about it more?

It's not equal. No, no, no. Nowhere near! But we are working really hard. The Morning Show is 50 percent women and people of color and 50 percent male. There's gender parity on our show.

Did any women hire you earlier on?

I've most always been hired by men. [Former Paramount chief] Sherry Lansing is the only woman who gave me a job, when she reached out and gave me Deep Impact with Steven Spielberg.

And you were blowing up then.

One has really hot, nonstop work — and then you're not so hot anymore. During the ER days, I was very hot. I made The Peacemaker [1997], the first DreamWorks film. I did Deep Impact [1998], then I made Pay It Forward [2000], and everything stopped dead in films. Boom! Movie jail.

What's movie jail like?

Your reps never say, "I can't get you the job that you said you want." They just tell you, "I can get you this job." It's very delicate and humbling. You do erratic things. You change agents. Ultimately, your work gets you work. During that time, I was very much accepted in TV — when it was like, "Who wants to work in TV?" Now everybody does.

In 2018, you came back to film after a long break.

Michael Ellenberg, whom I'd worked with on Luck and The Leftovers when he was at HBO, had already asked me to direct the pilot and produce this series with Jen and Reese attached when I'd signed on to do On the Basis of Sex. The Harvey Weinstein story broke in the middle of production. I'd come home from shooting a scene about gender inequality, and there it was on TV.

Do you want to do more features?

I love television, but I'm going to do another feature — or two or three. I've co-written one with my brother and niece about our filmmaking family. It's like Day for Night. Hopefully, I'm going to direct this love story Kristin Hahn is writing based on the book The Light We Lost. I have a lot in development.

The other asteroid movie, Armageddon, famously came out two months after Deep Impact. What was your reaction to discovering you had a rival project?

I couldn't believe it. And the press was trying to pit us against each other. That didn't feel good. Both films have great value and, fortunately, they both succeeded tremendously. It was just so strange. I have stories. I just don't know if I should tell them.

You should probably tell one.

Michael Bay did come to my premiere, which really shocked me. And I can tell you that after — after [seeing] my film — he went and reshot the end of his.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.