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This story first appeared in a stand-alone special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In between uttering “action” and “cut,” a TV director can either capture the beauty of a well-oiled, finely tuned production machine or endure something that might make Sisyphus’ daily to-do list seem merely repetitive. Tasked with directing an episode — or episodes — of a television series, these individuals often are working with established characters, storylines and words that are not their own as well as a cast and crew that may border on the clannish. Among all of the snarls untangled, all of the bumps in the road avoided, there is always that one moment when even the most seasoned professionals catch themselves wondering, “What was I thinking?!” In their own words, seven top TV directors answer that very question.
Sons of Anarchy (FX), “Sovereign”
A seemingly quiet ride through the desert turns violent when the motorcycle club is ambushed by a rival gang.
I don’t think I’ve ever had to do something with so many moving parts that had to come together for those two nights in the desert. A lot of things could have gone wrong, things that people don’t even think about — like the truck that burns up couldn’t be a truck at all. When you actually burn a fiberglass truck, apparently it creates all sorts of carcinogens, so we had to build a truck for them to shoot at and set on fire. We didn’t anticipate it would catch on fire as enthusiastically as it did. The fire department was itching to jump in there, and I was rolling, and I finally cut and everyone jumped in and doused it. The last thing we wanted to do was burn up Charlie Hunnam in the first episode of the season. The gunfire — when it was shot vis-a-vis when things were on fire — was an issue, and how close the cameras could be was an issue. Then, you know, there had to be acting! In the middle of all of this, we were introducing new characters and giving the audience moments to see them, so it was a logistical nightmare. My head was about to burst.
Southland (TNT), “Chaos”
Officers John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) and Hank Lucero (Anthony Ruivivar) are kidnapped by meth addicts, with one of them meeting a grim fate.
The script [by Zack Whedon] was as finely tuned as any teleplay I’ve worked on in my career. I didn’t want to exploit the real-life basis for the story, the 1963 Onion Field murders: Two LAPD officers, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, were kidnapped by a pair of criminals during a traffic stop, and Campbell was ultimately shot and killed. Eerily, the day we shot the scene in which Lucero is shot was March 9 — 50 years to the day after the Onion Field murders. Many people have asked where we shot the grueling scenes inside the addicts’ house. It was a real home in Lancaster, Calif., but we didn’t touch anything or art-direct the interiors. All we did was dig a hole outside. The realism of the setting enhanced the eerie feeling we had while filming. I would say, “Cut,” and there was just silence.
Lesli Linka Glatter
Homeland (Showtime), “Q&A”
Carrie (Claire Danes) interrogates Brody (Damian Lewis) in hopes of preventing a terrorist attack.
When I first read Henry Bromell‘s script, I panicked. Forty pages in an interrogation room! It was both a thrilling and terrifying task because as a director, you have nothing to hide behind. It’s all in the words, the acting and the turns of the scene. Working with Henry, who is no longer with us [Bromell died in March], the collaboration was profound. That day, Damian and Claire and I had broken down the scene as to where the turns were, what the important beats were. You have a character who has been incarcerated for eight years, who has been tortured and survived, and you have to believe that in 25 minutes, Carrie is going to turn him. It felt so intense that we decided to try it as one take, and the takes were between 23 and 25 minutes long. I’ve directed a lot and luckily on some wonderful shows, but I’ve never had that experience. Take two, two minutes in, I felt Henry reach over and grab my hand, and we held on to each other for the next 25 minutes.
New Girl (Fox), “Chicago”
Jess (Zooey Deschanel) impersonates The King at the Elvis-themed funeral for Nick’s (Jake Johnson) father.
The challenge was how to do this episode without reaching for punch lines but finding stuff that is genuinely funny within it. We don’t usually do episodes about death, grief, unresolved issues with your parents. We tried different ideas of who would dress as Elvis because you know it’s going to look funny, but you also don’t know exactly how it’s going to play. There was a version where it’s the Elvis impersonator, and then Liz [Meriwether, the show’s creator] had a moment where she was like, “Jess! It’s Jess! Jess should be Elvis!” It’s scary because you are so deeply committed to a big conceptual thought, and when you get there, you have to figure out the details of it — where we’re laughing, where it seems sad, where Zooey sings too beautifully, how you play the reactions — and not get so preposterous that it takes the weight out of the moment. Once Zooey started, it was immediately clear that it was going to be poignant and funny and hopefully a scene that you haven’t seen before.
The Office (NBC), “Finale”
After a nine-season run, the Scranton office of Dunder Mifflin gathers for one last hour, led by the man who directed the series’ very first episode.
As we neared the final days of filming, I felt the cast collectively realize what they were all about to leave behind, so the emotions were right on the surface. Occasionally I had to remind people that we were still making a comedy! It’s a tight-knit family and, apart from Steve Carell, they were unknowns when the show began. This group has grown up together, professionally, and Greg [Daniels] wrote this wonderful line for Andy [Ed Helms]: “I wish there was a way to know that you’re in the good old days before you’ve left them.” Even talking about the last scene makes me a little choked up. Everyone had come to the set for the last shot, and it was a very simple shot, the insert of Pam’s watercolor of the building and all of the cast walks past it. When I called “Cut!” the entire ensemble was there, as well as all of the producers. It’s hard to express because nine years before, I remember how many people told me that a remake of the British show The Office was doomed.
Girls (HBO), “One Man’s Trash”
Hannah (Lena Dunham) ditches her coffee-shop gig for an emotionally and physically naked tryst with a handsome, wealthy doctor (Patrick Wilson).
I read the script that Lena had written, and I felt comfortable enough to tell her, “Look, I’ll try my hardest, but I’m not quite sure that this is the script that will end all scripts.” She said: “You know, I kind of agree with you. I have another idea …” And then she went home and wrote, from scratch, this episode — not developed, not run by anyone, she just wrote this thing and handed it to me. It was two weeks before we were shooting, and it threw everything into a tizzy in terms of schedule, location, actors, approvals. But the most difficult moment came actually after we shot, because we were sort of left alone to shoot, and it became harder when we started to put together the cut of the episode. There was some massaging, and you could feel that tension of, “Holy shit! Is this going to work, or are we going to have to reshoot?!” I really wanted to show people what Lena and I knew we had.
Scandal (ABC), “Nobody Likes Babies”
James (Dan Bucatinsky) confronts his partner, Cyrus (Jeff Perry), the White House chief of staff, about Cyrus’ role in rigging the election.
Finding that arc and flow with the final declaration of what Cyrus did to get into the White House was hard enough — not just to honor the words but also to cover all bases on how to let it all come out so that it’s not predictable. Then we layered in the element of them being completely nude, so we had to work around simple things like sound. We usually wire our actors, but we were like, “Not for this one — there’s no place to hide a wire!” Then there’s the obvious issue of camera angles, what you can show, what you can’t show, knowing that we’d be tight on certain moments but also doing wider shots to show where they’re at, and their comfort level doing all of that. You very quickly lose the novelty of, “Oh, there are two naked guys in a room having this five-page scene …” What was always important to me was what was really happening between these two actors, and all those challenges took care of themselves once we got into doing the scene. It all came together in kind of a symphony.
Additional reporting by Stacey Wilson.
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