The Trials (and Tricks) of Emmy Directors

2012-29 FEA Emmys Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston Vince Gilligan H

Vince Gilligan (right) directs "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston in the season-four finale.

Rioting villagers. Rain-soaked night shoots. Exploding nursing homes. This year's nominated drama and comedy helmers survived these crises and more to create the year's most award-worthy moments.

There are a few things you'd likely never hear a television director say in 2012: "It's raining? Oh, let's just pick that shot tomorrow." Or: "Our budget is big enough. We can totally afford to rehearse that car explosion again." Or: "This location isn't working for me. Can we book a different remote Middle Eastern village?" The fast and furious schedule (and confined budgets) of a primetime drama or comedy require that the pros at the helm be equal parts magician and crisis manager. This year's Emmy hopefuls each embody this balance well -- and that most crucial trait: humor in the face of inhuman expectations.

Phil Abraham
"The Other Woman," Mad Men (AMC)

Sometimes the toughest moments come where you least expect them. In this episode, that moment was Don throwing money in Peggy's face. It was a pivotal story point and didn't seem like it would be a hard beat to hit. During rehearsal when Jon Hamm threw the money at Lizzie Moss, it beaned her right between the eyes, inadvertently, but it was exactly what the scene required. Of course when we go to shoot the scene after setting the lights, Jon tosses the money at her, but it's just not eliciting the same response. Lizzie tells me it would really help her if Jon just nailed her with the cash again. It's harder than you think to have perfect aim with loose bills in your pocket when your target is 13 feet away. It took a few more takes than anyone had patience for, but when the cash finally landed where it needed to, it took Lizzie by surprise all over again, and that was the moment you ended up seeing onscreen.

Michael Cuesta
"Pilot," Homeland (Showtime)

In the opening scene, we had to create a traffic jam in this small village north of Tel Aviv. It was within a Palestinian area, which we were playing for Baghdad, and our local contact had everyone cooperating early in the day to have the street cleared for us. We needed to film Claire Danes driving and stuck behind a truck and then getting out of her car and having a cell phone conversation with someone at the CIA. I filmed it from the rooftop, from the car, from the street -- all different angles. As we got halfway through the day, the town became less cooperative. The challenge was to get that scene before we lost control. They started to come out into the streets and demand we leave. We'd shut these local merchants down -- our contacts had paid everyone properly to close down their stores as you would when you're shooting in any village -- but some people apparently didn't get paid. By 4 o'clock, I still had a shot to get of Claire walking into the sunset, but I had to drop it because fights broke out, and it got dangerous. I started to shoot scrappier and faster, which gave the scene a great deal of realism.

Lena Dunham
"She Did," Girls (HBO)

The most challenging scene was the truck-crash stunt. I'd never directed a stunt (unless you count slipping off a chair while on drugs), and I wasn't used to all the impediments to emotions and dialogue. I had to remind myself it was a cool, unusual learning opportunity. But I was hugely impressed with the stunt team and felt like Brooklyn's own Michael Bay by the time it was done. [Actor] Adam Driver is an adrenaline fiend. The biggest challenge was calling "Cut!" and getting him to remove his harness.

Vince Gilligan
"Face Off," Breaking Bad (AMC)

I don't know if it's a Boy Scout saying, but "prior planning prevents poor performance." We could only do the nursing-home explosion once. Werner Hahnlein, our effects guy, expertly blew the door off its hinges with giant tanks of compressed nitrogen. There was no real explosion -- just air pressure. But you'd be dead if you were standing in front of it. That scene was shot two hours before the one where Gus walks out of the room, though it looked like one long shot. There was one take for that and 19 for Giancarlo Esposito walking out the door, straightening his tie and falling down. And we used take 19. You're morally obligated to! You can't make an actor fall on his face 19 times and use take two. You should be in director's prison for that.

Steve Levitan
"Baby on Board," Modern Family (ABC)

We needed to wait until dark to shoot the scene in which Mitchell has a breakdown and decides he no longer wants to adopt a baby. He walks out into a field and is so emotionally exhausted, he lies down in the dirt, with Cam eventually lying down beside him. The only problem was that as soon as it was dark enough to shoot, it started to rain. Hard. We scrambled to cover the area with tarps and even a big tent so that the whole thing didn't turn to mud. We brought the actors out to the site and ran through it a couple of times on the tarps for position. We considered shooting under the big tent, but there were no great options. Then suddenly, the rain stopped. The crew raced to clear the tent and the tarp. We raked the dirt to make it match and shot the scene. The minute we wrapped, it started to pour again.

Tim Van Patten
"To the Lost," Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

When an actor knows he's going to be killed off, you're aware of any tendency where he might be acting as if his character knows the secret. I had to watch for that with Michael Pitt and be sensitive to his experience. He was bummed out. Complicating matters, the night we shot was full of technical problems. One crane was broken, and we were filming 50 yards from the ocean, so the winds were howling, and we were fighting daylight. The last three or four lines preceding the gunshot were the most complicated in terms of staging. It was freezing. The actors' heavy clothes were saturated. It took from sundown to sunup -- the whole night to shoot the scene. And we still owed two shots on it.

Robert B. Weide
"Palestinian Chicken," Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

Right before the end, there's a scene where Larry David is walking through a parking lot, and on one side is this Palestinian chicken restaurant that's going to open; on the other side, a deli. We were scouting and found this parking lot with buildings on either side. The one on the right, we were allowed to put up the signage. But the one on the left was a preschool with a big painted sign. I said, "Location is great, but what are we going to do about the wall?" Someone said, "Oh, we'll just paint over it." "What do you mean?" "We paint what we want and paint it back afterward." It blew my mind. In the early days of the show, there was no budget for anything like that. You really had to find a blank wall!

Jason Winer
"Virgin Territory," Modern Family (ABC)

Phil finds out that his daughter Haley is not a virgin. That moment comes through an interplay of the live scene and couch interviews. The hard part was that the interviews were done on a different day but needed to relate in such a specific way to the action of the scene. The moment is brought together by a one-sentence interview moment where Sarah Hyland says, "I have a pretty great dad." We did some takes, and I told Sarah, "I think you need to go for it, get emotional.' The next take, she welled up. I remember co-writer Chris Lloyd nodding: "Yes, that's what I meant."

As told to Tim Appelo, Lesley Goldberg, Lacey Rose and Stacey Wilson


THE NOMINEES: Comedy Directors

  • Louis C.K.
  • Lena Dunham
  • Jake Kasdan
  • Steve Levitan
  • Robert W. Weide
  • Jason Winer

THE NOMINEES: Drama Directors

  • Phil Abraham
  • Michael Cuesta
  • Vince Gilligan
  • Brian Percival
  • Tim Van Patten