[Warning: This story contains spoilers from The Americans’ “Walter Taffet” episode.]
This week’s episode of The Americans is a big one for co-star Noah Emmerich.
Not only is it an event-filled hour for his FBI agent character, Stan, but it also marks Emmerich’s directorial debut. The actor, who’s been wanting to helm an episode of the FX espionage drama ever since season one, welcomed the challenge. “It’s always something I had a desire to do, but the opportunity had never presented itself in such a straightforward way as being a regular on a series,” he said. “I had never done a series before, but it was one of the things that was alluring to me about doing one, the fact that it held that possibility.”
After three years of experience on the show, executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields felt Emmerich was ready to direct — and thus far, he’s the only cast member to serve in such a capacity on the series. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Emmerich discusses the most intimidating scene to shoot, reveals which directors he shadowed to prepare for his turn, and explains why directing is more challenging than acting.
It makes sense that you’d pick your own show as your first foray into directing.
I have the home team advantage in that we’ve become family over the course of three seasons. I know the crew really well, I know the cast really well, I know the writers and producers really well. Everyone couldn’t have been more supportive and embracing and helpful. It was really a thoroughly wonderful experience.
How did the opportunity come about? Did you approach executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields?
I approached them during the course of our first season together and said it was something that I would love to do. They were very supportive and said, “There’s lots you can do. You can begin to learn about all the things that go into being a director. One way to start is to shadow other directors.” I did that starting in the first season and continued through last season. The days that I was acting it was harder to do, but there were lots of days were I wasn’t acting and I took those days — and even some of the days where I was acting — and just followed the director through all the different steps that they were taking along the way. I learned a lot about preproduction and postproduction. I went to all the meetings, I went to everything. At the end of least season, they said, “OK, we think you’re ready. We’re going to give you a shot next season.” I was really happy and grateful.
Which directors did you shadow?
A bunch of them to different degrees: Dan Sackheim, who is our executive producer director who is there a lot; Dan Attias I spent a whole episode with; Tommy Schlamme I spent a lot of time with; anybody that I could, really. They were all amendable and generous and open to helping me. It was wonderful to learn a lot not just about directing but about how our show runs.
Was there something particularly special about this episode that made it a good fit for you to direct?
The good thing about episode seven is that it’s the first episode we shoot when we get back from Christmas break, so it gives me that break to have no acting responsibilities and to be able to focus solely on the directing work. I had those two weeks to get my head in line, really get my homework done and then come back fresh and ready to go. Of course, the episode wasn’t written yet. None of them are in television. You know you’re working Jan. 5, but you don’t know what you’re shooting because it hasn’t been written yet. So there’s that sort of potluck moment where you get the script and you hope it’s not only a good one but one that you can connect to personally and in an interesting, meaningful way. I got incredibly lucky on all accounts because it was a great episode and a great piece of writing and I immediately felt like, “Oh yeah, I have lots of ideas here.”
This is your first time directing, period. Isn’t that right?
It is professionally. I made some short films and I directed a lot of theater. I went to NYU film school for a while, but I’ve never had a professional job directing. This is my first time.
Would you like to direct more on The Americans?
I’d love to do more anywhere. In general, I really love it. I would love to do more on The Americans, too, though. I love the people and I love the material. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more if people like this episode.
Your character was in quite a few scenes this episode. Do you think that make it more difficult to direct?
There was a lot of Stan in the episode. I discovered that I’m incredibly difficult to work with. I would never hire me (laughs). I had some anxiety about that, but in the end it didn’t present that big of problem. My biggest fear was not giving my fellow actors the fullest attention they deserve from a director because I was obviously directing with them. In the end, that may have ended up turning into an advantage because no one has a better point of view on a performance of an actor than the person that they’re acting with. And we all know each other so well and it’s such a comfortable relationship that it actually ended up being very smooth and very easy. It is just sort of odd to be acting in the scene and then say, “Cut!” Once you get over that weirdness, it was all pretty good.
When you first got a hold of the script, what stood out as the most intimidating scene?
I was probably most intimidated by the action sequence [at the end of the episode], just because that was the most foreign to me as a director. I’ve directed things before, but I’d never done anything close to action, so it was not as comfortably in my vocabulary. I was slightly intimidated by that. But I just broke it down piece by piece, and then once you break it down into its components, it becomes much less intimidating. You have a blueprint for your plan of attack. There are some other moments in the show that are such big moments for which we’ve been laying the groundwork for seasons that pay-off in this episode. I just didn’t want to fumble that ball on the goal line, so I was worried about the scenes with the FBI and Martha. That’s such a big moment. I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe they are giving me the torch for the last 10 yards.”
Once you were actually filming, which scene proved the most challenging?
We had two different days to shoot the action sequence on and it was daylight contingent because it was an exterior scenes. We were confronted with the reality that we had different weather two days in a row. The first day was a white-out blizzard, and the next day was a crisp, sunny, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky day. That was a real wrench in the works because we had the shot list and we had figured out how to shoot it and then we figured out that we couldn’t follow it at all because we couldn’t marry these two days together. They would never match. We had to come up with a game plan on that first morning — with the clock ticking — of what we were going to do. We had to rearrange all of our shooting order and figure out how to shoot stuff that would cut well with the next day’s work, which we knew was going to be bright sun. That was probably the biggest challenge we faced on the shoot. And it all worked, I don’t think you could tell.
You’re usually on set for the scenes that involve just Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell). What was it like to be present for every moment of the shoot?
It’s exhausting. Actors think that they work long, hard hours — and they do, in fact — but man. No one works longer, harder hours than the crew, and among that, obviously, is the director because you’re there from the very first moment of the day to the very last moment of the day every day. An actor will have a 12-hour day and think, “Wow, that was a long day,” and then the next day they only have an eight-hour day, but the director has a 12-hour day every day, or even a 14-hour day or a 15-hour day. It just creeps up on you. The first couple of days is adrenaline, but by day five, six, seven, your gas tank starts to run out, so you really have to manage your sleep and your energy. I love the Sydney Pollack quote about what tool is most important for a director to have? He said, “A good pair of shoes.” It’s true because you’re just on your feet all day long. I don’t think I sat down more than two times the entire shoot because you’re just moving all the time, so stamina is critical.
Now that you’re a directing pro, what advice would you give to someone who is helming an episode for the first time?
Get all your homework done. Really know your material, obviously. Have a real game plan for what you’re going to do, but, at the same time, never lock yourself into having to execute your plan exactly as you expected. Nothing will ever go as you imagined it, nothing will ever be exactly how you think it’s going to go. And equally, don’t cut off the resources that are all around you because people come to you with great ideas. You have an incredibly talented cast and an incredibly talented cinematographer and production designed and costume designer and make-up and hair designers. So, as clearly as you see something, make sure that you don’t ever turn off the voices around you that can really expand, enhance and improve your own vision. That’s really one of the balances that’s critical as a director, I think, is having a vision and being inclusive and collaborative at the same time.