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This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s special Emmy stand-alone issue.
No matter how smooth and polished a production looks on screen, during shooting there surely were moments of travail and even terror. THR asked the creators of some of this year’s Emmy hopefuls in the movies and miniseries category to recall their most challenging scenes. As Top of the Lake executive producer Jane Campion explains: “There are so many unknown factors that go into making scenes work. My guess is that 65 percent of the time you might know what’s going on, and 35 percent of the time you don’t — and have to act like you do. You can cross your fingers all you like, but it either works or it doesn’t. When you get to the editing room, that’s when you face the facts.” Seven producers, in their own words, share their toughest moments on the bumpy road to the red carpet.
Executive producer, World Without End (Reelz)
The most difficult scene was destroying a 300-foot wooden bridge. The bridge is not in good shape and the townspeople want to rebuild it, but Prior Anthony won’t because it would cost too much. Our hero warns that it won’t hold so many people, and sure enough, in the middle of a hanging (which in the 14th century, when there were no movies or websites to surf, was a major event in the town), that’s when the bridge goes down. We had hundreds of people wearing wetsuits under their 14th century burlap skirts or pants because the water was so cold. A stuntwoman had to be swung back and forth on this bridge that was breaking as everything else — livestock and horses — fell into the water. It was wild. We had a hydraulic system to collapse it, then we had to build it back up. We had five takes with six Arriflex cameras and little Iconic IP cameras strapped to people and horses to give all these perspectives — very kinetic, very fast. The prior falls off the bridge, and his sister drowns him in the chaos so her son can be the new prior. And who is that evil woman? [Actress] Cynthia Nixon.
Executive producer, Political Animals (USA)
The tricky thing was echoing reality without mimicry. You’re cognizant of the similarities, but you want to create your own universe. In the opening scene, where Sigourney Weaver‘s character loses the nomination, it’s eerily similar to the scene where Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary — it’s actually shot in the same hotel ballroom. But there’s as much of Condi Rice in the character as there is Hillary, and her [faithless] husband is based more on LBJ than Bill. And Sigourney brings her own persona to it. It’s like hip-hop: You’re borrowing a piece of the rhythm of the past and remixing it.
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey
Executive producers, The Bible (History Channel)
Downey: The toughest sequence to shoot was the crucifixion. We filmed it at Easter last year.
Burnett: A complete coincidence. And when we shot the Jewish people being released from Babylon, it was Purim — the actual day when Jews celebrate the release from Babylon.
Downey: It took us three days to film on a lonely hillside in Morocco, and it was climatically challenging. There were high winds up there.
Burnett: If you didn’t want to work in 130-degree heat or below zero, this wasn’t the shoot for you. We had to bolt the cross to the ground and build a large platform so that we could get our actor on and off the cross. Clearly he couldn’t be left up there for very long. It was terribly uncomfortable and even painful for him.
Downey: I played Mary, the mother of Christ, and it was painful in a whole other way to be at the foot of the cross looking up at him.
Burnett: You think you’re ready to roll and then a light goes down, so we’d have to let him get off the cross for a bit — have a break. The U.K. and Moroccan crews were incredible. We had great resources: People from Spain, Italy, France and Germany had made crucifixion documentaries and movies before us. We had one man on set who actually had overseen more than 60 crucifixions in his career.
Executive producer, Top of the Lake (Sundance)
This was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve had but also the most charmed because so many elements had to work together. We had 18 weeks to shoot a six-hour story with two cameras and two directors: me and Garth Davis. It’s the fastest I’ve ever had to go. I wouldn’t call it an artistic process — it was an emergency process. Trust and jump! We had three babies born during the shoot. Garth’s wife went into labor, and I nearly had to shoot a scene with hundreds of extras and two helicopters, which Garth had been planning for months. Turned out it was false labor — the baby came later — so Garth could direct it after all. I must say I was relieved.
The hardest scene was in the women’s camp run by Holly Hunter‘s character, where Elisabeth Moss‘ character turns up in the sixth hour of the piece. It’s the big scene where all the story strands start to come together. It’s a scene you’re really prepared to do when everybody’s more established in their character and you’re more familiar with your crew, but we had to shoot it in the second week! I kept saying, “Can’t you put it at the very end?” Elisabeth’s supposed to do all these things that the whole five hours before have brought her to, including more or less trying to kill herself by drinking all that vodka and putting a bag over her head — she has to imagine all that. But when things are difficult, you pay more attention, and the work benefits. It’s a bit risky. I didn’t even notice Elisabeth was bawling until I turned to my editor and said: “Oh my God, she really went there. She really knew what to do.”
Executive producer, The Big C: Hereafter (Showtime)
Two scenes were tough. In the first, Laura Linney‘s character, Cathy, goes scuba diving and follows all these beautiful fish. Cathy really loves the water, and Laura learned to scuba dive, but she’s not a fan. I kept pushing her, like, “Isn’t this exciting?” She said: “No, this is terrifying. I’m scared of water.” But she’ll do anything. We went to Puerto Rico for two weeks. The weather was terrible; the water was murky. We couldn’t get any clear images of her swimming. It was the second-to-last day, so we had to shoot it and try to fix it in post. We get in the boat, and it starts pouring down raining. We’re looking at our monitors under plastic sheets, trying to communicate with the underwater director and the actor. We lose connection to the monitors, so that has to be fixed. We get the shot and cue everybody to come out of the water. Then Laura yells: “That wasn’t me! You guys didn’t shoot me!” We were shooting the stunt double the whole time. Underwater, they’d thought we were rehearsing. We went back down and reshot it so what you see is Laura. She’s got courage and an amazing work ethic.
The other scene was the show’s finale. I’d written that Cathy gets last rites from a priest, a rabbi and an imam. We got to set, and I realized I had not actually written the words for each to say. So I’m scrambling to do research. Luckily the woman playing the rabbi knew a song the rabbi sings over a person who’s about to die. The priest wasn’t hard: I found some last rites, and I was in a corner helping the actor memorize the words at the last minute. The imam, however, has to say his last rites in Arabic. So in a matter of minutes, we get an Arabic coach on the set, and the wonderful actor is just sweating trying to learn the last rites phonetically because he doesn’t speak the language. We had the coach write out the words on big cue cards. We said, “We know we’ve really done a number on you here, but feel free to just read it off the cue cards and we’ll make it work.” The director yells, “Action!” This actor looks at Laura in the hospital bed and he starts to say these words, and he was so overcome by the emotion of the scene that he just burst into tears. And everyone burst into tears. We were all crying, and Laura took his hand and she was trying to wipe her tears away and help him through it. We all kind of broke down and said goodbye to this character in our own way. It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever had on set and an appropriate dramatic finale for what we were shooting.
Neil Meron and Craig Zadan
Executive producers, Steel Magnolias (Lifetime)
Meron: The toughest scene we purposefully held off until the very end: the big breakdown for Queen Latifah‘s character. The movie is all about emotions and everything is leading up to that one explosion, that titanic well of emotions she’s been holding back.
Zadan: This is the third time we’ve worked with her (after Chicago and Hairspray). She went to a really deep, dark place she’s never gone to before.
Meron: This is after her daughter dies from cancer. She lashes out at the ladies in the beauty shop, but it’s really just her pent-up pain because she was never able to break down. She needed to be that tower of strength. We did it at least 10 times with three cameras running at all times.
Zadan: The shoot was around 18 days. It really needed to come off like clockwork or we were all in big trouble.
Co-creator, American Horror Story: Asylum (FX)
The most difficult thing this year was that the show was set in an insane asylum, so we had to spend a solid year researching it. The series is called American Horror Story, and mental institutions in the ’50s and ’60s in our country really were that — horror stories. When Zach Quinto‘s psychiatrist character tries to cure Sarah Paulson‘s character of homosexuality, we actually used the real equipment and dialogue, everything people 50 years ago had to go through in sanitariums. We treated that asylum like it was this mad haunted castle, and it was period, so the set and costumes and dialect all had to work together. The musical sequence in “The Name Game” episode was very hard to do, because it was a choreographed mental breakdown fantasia with Jessica Lange dancing and singing with 50 mentally ill people. I really wanted to make sure the patients were very authentic. We gave them specific characters, like the woman who carried her doll or the chronic masturbator or the rocker, and they all sustained those mental illnesses through 13 episodes and danced and sang in character, which was pretty remarkable. All of those extras who weren’t dancers or singers had to dance as if they’d just had a lobotomy, or shock therapy. We had a whole day to shoot that and it took a week to prep. You have to show how the asylum was in 1964 at the height of its pristine beauty, then in 2012 when it was crumbling. They had to build and disassemble the set over and over and over, bringing graffiti artists and weathering it and rebuilding it, from Friday to Monday. We had a triple crew working around the clock; nobody slept the entire weekend.
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