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“How the Hell Are We Going to Do This?”: Lena Dunham, Noah Hawley, Steven Canals and the THR TV Director Roundtable

Lucia Aniello, Zach Braff, Rick Famuyiwa and Elisabeth Moss join the conversation about befriending intimacy coordinators, fighting the clock and awkwardly coaching actors.

There’s nothing Zach Braff likes more than directing. It’s where he’s happiest, he says, surrounded by creative people, encouraging them to do their best work. It is also stressful — sometimes hugely so.

“I read somewhere that first [assistant directors] don’t live very long, and that’s one of the reasons the DGA has such good insurance,” the Ted Lasso helmer shares. True or not, the morsel was digested with a mix of laughs and “makes sense” shrugs from the six others — Industry‘s Lena Dunham, Fargo‘s Noah Hawley, The Mandalorian‘s Rick Famuyiwa, HacksLucia Aniello, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Elisabeth Moss and Pose‘s Steven Canals — gathered for THR‘s annual Director Emmy Roundtable. During the course of an hour in mid-May, the group spoke candidly about everything from awkward sex scenes to manufacturing crowds.

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Rick Famuyiwa (left), on set for “Chapter 15: The Believer,” one of three Mandalorian episodes that he directed. Francois Duhamel /Lucasfilm Ltd.

When was the last time you all looked at a script and thought, “How the hell am I going to do this?”

RICK FAMUYIWA Uh, yesterday? (Laughs.) There’s always that moment where I finish a script and I know I have to direct the movie or the show and everything just shifts and it gets more real and more scary. And it always seems impossible at the beginning, no matter how many times I’ve done it.

LENA DUNHAM For me, it’s the moments when you have to pull off something complicated emotionally with four or five characters and you understand that every single person who’s in the scene is going to have a different understanding of what that scene means and feels like. And you’re like, “Oh, my job is to get four or five people with different inner lives to engage in the same emotional reality. Why did I accept this job?” (Laughs.)

NOAH HAWLEY And see, for me, it’s not about how am I going to do it, it’s more, “How am I going to trick this corporation into letting me do this?” That’s how I approach everything. And a lot of it is just reassurance and telling them it’s going to be great, even if you have your own doubts. Unfortunately, the director brain, especially in TV, is so mixed up with the showrunner brain and the writer brain, and you have to manage up and sideways. But the actual making of the thing? That’s the fun part.

LUCIA ANIELLO I was just thinking that the times that I’m usually like, “Oh God, how are we going to do this?” are when a first A.D. says, “How are we going to do this?” Somebody has to tell me this is insane because my eyes are often bigger than my shooting stomach.

How about the rest of you?

ZACH BRAFF I’d never directed outside the U.S., and I didn’t know how British crews work. They don’t really want to do overtime and they don’t really want to do more than 10 hours. And early on in a series, it’s not a well-oiled machine yet, so you don’t know how fast you can accomplish things. So, I read the [Ted Lasso] script and it felt like an eight-day shoot crammed into five with what I’d been told would be no overtime and 10-hour days, so I definitely thought, “How the hell are we going to do this?” (Laughs.)

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Steven Canals (left), on Pose’s New York City set, where the co-creator directed multiple episodes, including the series finale. Eric Liebowitz/FX

STEVEN CANALS And the thing that made things scary for me had everything to do with COVID-19. We were filming on location, in New York City, which was ground zero. And when we [returned in] September 2020, New York was still really in a place of lockdown. I directed our finale, and I had not one but two protest scenes with 250 to 300 people, and the most I could get approved from the studio was 40, so there was a lot of VFX work. I walked away from the experience less scared and, outside of the confidence that I have now standing behind that monitor and saying “action” and “cut,” just really proud of the crew.

ELISABETH MOSS I had the choice between two episodes and I picked one because of the story. It was a story I wanted to tell. Then I started prepping it and realized I had these gigantic VFX sequences and rain towers and all of this shit that I had no idea how to do.

Elisabeth, I’ve heard you say that talking to the actors initially terrified you.

MOSS Oh, that was the thing I was most nervous about because I don’t know how to describe acting. I never went to school for it, I have no language, I have no method. And my first day I was with Bradley Whitford, whom I’d worked with 20 years ago when I was 17 [on The West Wing], and I had to give him a note and I was like, “How the fuck am I supposed to give Bradley Whitford a note?” Also, as an actor, I know how terrible it is to have a director come up to you and say the wrong thing and how much you hate them when they do that. (Laughs.)

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Lena Dunham (second from left), directing the pilot of HBO’s finance drama Industry. Amanda Searle/HBO

This could prove educational for many here. For the actor-directors, what are those things that actors hate hearing from directors? 

FAMUYIWA I’m taking notes! (Laughs.)

BRAFF I like a few takes to just get my footing and try some things. I will even say to a director, like, “Please, it’s one thing if it’s a blocking note, like the dolly can’t see you if you don’t hit your mark, but don’t give me acting notes on take one or two, let me just find my footing. Once I do, then by all means come steer me.”

DUNHAM One of the biggest things that I learned in my twenties, both being on a show for a long time and also directing my colleagues every day, was that my biggest job as a director is not to have a didactic, one size fits all approach or method to how actors work. I just shot two features in six months and, especially with the Covid of it all, it felt like this deeply intimate boot camp with actors. And it’s really about getting to know each person and what allows them to feel the safest and be the most expressive emotionally and then try to foster almost lots of mini environments.

A newer addition to sets is the intimacy coordinator. Lena, how would such a person have changed the experience on Girls, and now, as you are working with young casts, how is it different?

DUNHAM I hadn’t directed TV since Girls, and Industry has its fair share of sex scenes. I was thrilled because I think people were under this misapprehension that somehow the sex scenes on Girls were a constant enthusiasm party. They were things that I put into the script because I thought they were essential and I thought they moved the story forward. But sex scenes are embarrassing and anxiety-producing at best and can be uncomfortable and traumatizing at worst. I worked very, very hard to handle them in a way that was thoughtful and supportive with my cast, and everyone was in their 20s and everyone was friends and the fact that we all got out of that unscathed is in many ways a miracle, because there was no person to go to to say, “Hey, I have a really, really basic, silly question about how I strap this underwear on” or “I have a larger question about how this sex scene might make me feel or something it might trigger in me or a fear that I have.” And as close as you feel to your director or your producer or your co-star, there are just things you might not want to say or ask. And so our intimacy coordinator, Miriam [Lucia], became that. I’ve heard some directors bemoaning, like, “I know how to direct a sex scene, actors are my specialty,” or saying things like, “I know how to make a sex scene look sexy.” It’s like, dude, it’s not about making a sex scene look sexy, it’s about making people feel safe.

Right.

DUNHAM And so Miriam became an essential part of my every day. And now on the movie I just did, I had intimacy coordinators there if a character needed to pee in a scene, if a character needed to change underwear, if a character was going to be doing a scene where she was pulling up her skirt and there was a chance that we might catch a glimpse of something because you never know what anything brings up for anyone. And also, I’ve been in England and some of the words are confusing. “Fanny” means butt here, but it means vagina in England, how am I supposed to deal with that? (Laughter.)

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Lucia Aniello, who serves as co-creator, co-showrunner, writer, producer and director, on the set of her HBO Max comedy Hacks, starring Jean Smart. Courtesy of HBO Max

Lucia, I’ve heard Jean Smart say the intimacy coordinator concept made her uncomfortable …

ANIELLO Yeah, it was very interesting because we didn’t have any particularly sexually graphic scenes, but we did have some intimate moments and we had a really great intimacy coordinator. But Jean had never worked with one before, and while Hannah [Einbinder], who is very new [to acting], is like, “OK, great,” Jean was a little bit like, “Well, I know how to kiss.” And you’re like, “Yes, we know, it’s just …”

DUNHAM No one’s doubting the hot tamale you are, that’s not the issue. (Laughs.)

ANIELLO So, where for Hannah, she was like, “Of course, this is how this industry works,” for somebody who has been working in it for a long time, it was so [foreign]. She rolled with it, but I think she was a little miffed. (Laughs.)

That speaks to the generational divide that Hacks explores, too. Lucia, you are writing for two different comedic generations here; is one more comfortable or enjoyable for you to write for than the other? 

AINELLO In the are you a Deborah [played by Smart] or are you Ava [Einbinder] question, I am an Ava but I do think that Deborah’s meanness I can whip out if necessary. But it’s interesting because I’m not 25, nor am I 69, so it’s almost as if you have to channel, truly channel, the character and then write through that lens. And we come from the world of improv, so often in the writers room we just slip into the characters as we’re pitching jokes or lines. It’s been a really fun experience, especially because we’re finding that older women are feeling seen by Deborah, who’s this bawdy, cool, funny, badass woman of a certain age that isn’t reflected in TV or film as much as it should be. One of the most gratifying things is [hearing people say,] “I like this show but my mom loves it.”

Whether its intimacy or violence or something else entirely, you often have to get your actors comfortable going to dark or heavy places. How do you all do that, and when has that been most challenging?

CANALS It requires having really honest conversations about their experiences because the last thing that I or any of my collaborators want to do is re-traumatize them. My job is to hold space for them and to listen more than anything, so even though you’re in a time crunch and, shooting this final season, we had all these restrictions and protocols, it’s my time as a director — these are my 12 hours, or my 10 hours, and I get to decide how I want to spend them. And if that means two of those 10 hours are spent sitting with my actors to make sure that they are comfortable, then I’m going to do that. Particularly this last season, there was a lot of just holding space and allowing them to voice whatever it is that they were feeling. I never want my cast to walk away from the experience feeling like that brought up difficult emotions, or you just asked me to go to a really scary space and then once you cut, we are on to the next scene. I recognize what we’re asking them to do.

DUNHAM That was so beautifully said, Steven, and basically you just [touched on] the idea that you can ask people to do hard things, but they can actually walk away elevated and energized by facing those things, instead of depleted and feeling like a husk of themselves. We are talking much more openly about all kinds of abuse in Hollywood, but one of the big things people walk away is feeling emotionally used and abused and like their inner lives have been snatched and thrown away. But this kind of before-and-after care is what keeps people feeling like they do this job for a reason.

FAMUYIWA You hear a lot about how great directors are decisive, but I feel like my number one job as a director is to create a safe, creative environment.

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Elisabeth Moss, on set in Canada, where the star made her directorial debut with what became three episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Sophie Giraud/Hulu

How about you, Elisabeth? You’ve had to get yourself and your fellow actors comfortable going to these places.

MOSS Actors can be very vulnerable and they can be insecure and they need you to be protective for them, and creating a safe space is the most important thing you can do. And every actor is different. I’m the kind of actor who you can say anything to, you can tell me to go stand on that mark, you can tell me to put my hand on my head on that line, I’m like, “Cool, great, let’s do it.” There are other actors who you could never say that to and who you have to be much more exploratory with, and you have to know which actor you have in order to get the performance that you want.

I’m curious what kind of advice did you gather as you readied for your directorial debut?

MOSS I got a lot of great advice from a lot of directors, but I asked Ben Stiller for advice as an actor-director, and he gave me the piece I used the most, which was to allow yourself to have that extra take if you need it. As any director here knows, time is the ultimate enemy and someone is always looking over your shoulder. And the worst situation to be in is when it’s you and you have to watch playback and you’re watching it and you want to go again, you think it could be better, you want to try something, and you’re screwing yourself because you have to move on. So, going, “It’s OK, I’m going to go one more,” was something I had to remind myself every day.

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Zach Braff, who directed episode two of the U.K.-based series, flanked by Ted Lasso showrunner Bill Lawrence (right) and his co-creator and star, Jason Sudeikis. Courtesy of Apple

For all of you, what’s the call you dream of getting? Your dream project, if you will?

BRAFF It changes depending on what you’ve just done. I [recently] made a short film that was a period comedy. Adobe had a competition for college kids; they’d design a movie poster and the prize was that I’d write and direct a short film inspired by the [winning] poster, which was one of the coolest things ever because they had money, too. So, I wrote this sweeping period comedy that was 10 minutes long, and now I’d love to do a big period comedy.

DUNHAM I just directed a period comedy, and I can’t recommend it enough.

How about you, Noah? What’s the call you haven’t yet gotten but hope to soon?

HAWLEY Well, I’ve gotten a lot of calls, and the real question is, are you sure that you want me to do this? Because what I’m interested in is taking the story where it wants to go or exploring the medium of film or TV or fiction. We are commercial artists, right? So we have this process we have to go through, which is the art process and the commercial process. And if the network or the studio can ask you to be more commercial, you should be able to ask them to be more artistic, which is to say, none of us knows anything about what is going to work and what is not going to work. I’m going through this now. I’m doing this alien show for FX, and what’s interesting to me about that [subject] is not necessarily what is interesting to everybody else. And I do a lot of reinventing, and I think what I’m good at is figuring out what a movie makes me feel and creating that feeling for other people. But I can’t re-create what it makes you feel, you know what I mean? So, you get into a lot of those conversations where it’s clear that what I think Fargo is or Legion is or Star Trek is is not necessarily the movie that you saw, which is always an interesting part of the process.

And that can get messy …

HAWLEY I’ve found with the franchise stuff, which I’ve flirted with, is that people don’t have a good sense of humor about that stuff the way they do when there is less money involved. (Laughter.) The more money, the more there’s a brand, the less like, “Oh yeah, that would be ridiculous, we should definitely do that.” That is not a conversation that you tend to have. So yeah, I’m trying to figure out, like, is it worth pushing that rock up the hill, or is it better to just try to do things that are less important to the companies?

ANIELLO I love that, Noah, and what I really connect to is the idea of being like, it doesn’t really matter what the medium is, it’s just, “Where is there the most amount of freedom?” To me, that’s always the thing I want to be doing next — the thing that they’re just going to let me and all the people I want to play with play. And I wouldn’t mind a little more time to play but otherwise … (Laughs.)

BRAFF Do you ever get that, though? It’s funny, from the tiny budget things to the big things, you [always want more time]. I wonder if Chris Nolan doesn’t have enough time.

FAMUYIWA There’s never enough time. (Laughter.)

Rick, the internet seems to have a lot of big goals for you. You’re on these shortlists to helm projects like Black Superman and Blade. Are those the types of things that you want to do or, to Noah’s point, does the tentpole come with too many cooks and too much fear?

FAMUYIWA The first film I saw was Star Wars, and I’m working on a Star Wars project now. So, on many levels, I’m already doing that and enjoying it. But yeah, I’m in this place where I want to make great stuff that really speaks to me, and that might be something like Blade or Superman or Star Wars or whatever, but it also might be something I’m writing. I was fortunate, like Lena, to have started when I was really young. My first film [The Wood], I was 23 when I wrote it and 24 when I directed it, so I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’m at a point where those things might happen and it would be incredible, but I’m enjoying that I can make things and be creative with people I enjoying being around, which for me is now becoming more important than whatever the shiny toy or brass ring might be out there. I just want to work with cool people, and this past year has reinforced that.

Lena, you directed the pilot of Industry and are a producer on Generation, both of which feature young ensembles. How do you advise them, knowing what you needed then and know now?

DUNHAM I tried to let them know that no matter what happened with the show, whether it became an internet sensation and they started getting people sliding into their DMs or whatever the kids are saying these days — I’m old! — or they felt anxious about the amount of attention it was getting, or whatever career anxieties came with it, to remember that acting and making art is the thing that they’ve always wanted to do and to think of the show as a little art-making troop and lean on each other. I think the thing that really saved me in my 20s was the fact that I was always making the show, and my work is the only reason I was born onto this planet. So I just encourage them to lean further into that and also be vocal about what they need and not allow a swarm of well-meaning but ultimately joyless people who didn’t know them to sweep them away on a press tour that sucked their mind, body and soul away from themselves and to stay in touch with their families and to wear what they want to wear and talk about what they want to talk about and care for themselves and keep their shadows attached to their bodies à la Peter Pan or whatever. That was the general gist. (Laughs.)

For the rest of you, what do you wish someone could have told you at the beginning of your career?

BRAFF To savor it. I was a waiter when I got Scrubs. I had such big eyes and big plans, but I look back now and I’d tell a young person starting out that it’s so rare that you actually get to do the thing. So much of this career path, of being a freelance creative, is pitching and writing and struggling and hustling and praying and crossing your fingers and lighting a candle that it’ll happen. So when you are actually getting to do it, when the trucks are actually there on the street and they are unloading the gear, savor every day and be so grateful that you get to do it. There is an old expression that’s always stuck with me. It’s related to acting but it applies to directing, too, which is that you get paid for all the auditioning and all the stress and getting to do the thing should be free, because you can’t believe you get to do it. And the money that you sometimes make should be for all the late nights that you’re up worrying if the thing is going to actually happen.

HAWLEY I used to think that the advice was don’t take it personally. Someone likes your script, they don’t like your script, it’s not about you. But then I was having a conversation with Jason Schwartzman on Fargo, and there was a scene that he was nervous about. And I said, “Picture the most iconic scene in the most iconic movie; it’s ‘I coulda been a contender’ [from On the Waterfront] or ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’ [from Aliens].” I was like, “All those scenes were filmed on a Tuesday between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.” Do you know what I mean? They just came in and got to work and they made something amazing, but they didn’t go, “OK, this is the moment we’re making the iconic scene.” So, you’ve just got to show up and be open to the experience of it and not worry about the clock, and one day someone will be looking at this scene and think, “Oh my God, they must have had nine days to do this scene, inside and out.” And it’s like, no, we had five takes and we just had to get it done.

CANALS I grew up in housing projects in the South Bronx in the 1980s. My parents were young, we had no money, and this is where I am right now, sitting here on a Hollywood Reporter roundtable with all of you — that wasn’t even a possibility, it wasn’t even a dream. There was no one in my community who was aspiring to be here. I was reading X-Men comics — which, side note, that would be my dream project, so Marvel, please call me. (Laughs.) But I think about how long it took me to get to this point [and how many noes I heard along the way], and I wish there had been someone who would’ve said to me, “It’s absolutely a possibility.”

DUNHAM The other thing I try to express, especially to young women or queer people or people of color, who have the experience of coming into this world and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m here and it’s not going to [last,] so we better shove ourselves into the door while we can,” [is not to] feel as though they have to say yes to every opportunity that comes their way because “This is the moment.” And I know that when there was the gold rush of shows called Girls and people thought it was cool to be a girl and there was, like, six months where there was a poster for Two Broke Girls, Girls and New Girl, I thought, “Better seize the girls moment before I’m back working at the children’s clothing store for the rest of my life.” But as beautiful as it is to be open and say yes to life, it’s also really important to have boundaries, because no one is going to create them besides you, and your artistic life has to evolve space for you. And this is a selfish business, everybody is out trying to create a career for themselves, and that is the magic and also the terror of this business. So, trying to recognize that it’s OK to take some space and you’re not going to lose the momentum that you’ve created for yourself just because you say no to something is something that I try to communicate to every young person I talk to, because I really wish someone had communicated it to me.

FAMUYIWA Of course, the frustration is you know your younger self wouldn’t listen to you anyway, even if you gave them the good advice. (Laughs.)

DUNHAM Yeah, I would’ve been like, “You’re dumb and not that cute, do you have any pills?” (Laughter.)

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.