When he read James McBride’s novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” Ethan Hawke, a four-time Oscar nominee (two for Best Supporting Actor, two for Best Adapted Screenplay) knew this was a story he had to tell, his initial thoughts centering on adapting it for a feature film. But in his first meeting with McBride, Hawke soon fully realized that within the time constraints of a big-screen feature, much of the story would have to be curtailed. As a limited series, though, they were in a better position to do justice to the entire book. From that sprung Hawke’s first foray into TV showrunning, a seven-episode Showtime series, The Good Lord Bird, for which his portrayal of abolitionist John Brown earned Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations back in February. And last month, the limited series garnered a Peabody Award nomination as one of the most compelling and empowering stories released in broadcasting and streaming media during 2020.
Set in the mid-19th century, The Good Lord Bird is told from the perspective of the fictionalized Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a teenager freed from slavery by Brown. Onion joins Brown’s movement and goes on to meet the likes of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. Onion then finds himself part of the historic Brown-led, three-day siege on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, intended to help spark a rebellion of slaves in the Southern states. Ultimately, the abolitionists were defeated by a company of U.S. Marines, and Brown was charged with treason and hanged. But the consequences of the raid resonated, with Harper’s Ferry regarded by many as the first battle of the Civil War.
Hawke was drawn to the story on different levels. For one, he observed, the current growing awareness of systemic racism compels us to stare at the DNA of this country and the origins of the Civil War. At the same time, Onion’s POV brings an unexpected humanity, irreverence, and wit to the subject matter. Hawke saw the profound value of that perspective today, translating into “a loving, witty, healing look at some of the nation’s most horrible crimes.” Absurdity and tragedy are reflected in The Good Lord Bird as it sheds light on the American identity, the good and the bad.
“You can’t touch on any serious subject without bumping into this country’s relationship to race and how destructive it can be,” observed Hawke, explaining that he “felt the call to make some art about it. This book hit me across the face and the heart.” Hawke saw Onion’s story as “a way to reach people from an unexpected vantage point.”
Gratifying to Hawke was how the project gained momentum. Noting that you can spend years on a story and get nowhere, Hawke said that in sharp contrast he was “surprised how many doors opened up.” He recalled, “My wife (producer Ryan Hawke) and I took it to Blumhouse Television. They took it to Showtime and before I knew it, I was on set. It was like a river that kind of carried us along.”
Still, the logistical task was daunting. “Making a limited series is like making three independent films back to back,” said Hawke. “I’ve never done anything so difficult professionally in my whole life. But it was made pleasurable by how much we loved the material and how badly we wanted to tell the story.”
Directorial contributions were integral, including those of Albert Hughes, Kevin Hooks and Darnell Martin who helmed episodes 1, 2 and 3, respectively. Hawke credited his wife with turning him onto Hughes. She had been impressed with his direction of Alpha, urging Ethan to see it. Hawke too thought Hughes’ work on that film was “brilliant.” Bringing that feature filmmaker into the TV arena also paid the dividend of cinematographer Peter Deming, ASC. “Albert hired Peter--which may have been the biggest single hire for the project,” assessed Hawke. “They established a look, an interesting hybrid--part Western, part Huck Finn, part tall tale with elements of the Coen brothers and Tarantino. It was a very, very difficult razor’s edge to walk on in terms of tone for this material but they positioned us to succeed.”
Hawke said that Hooks, who directed two installments of The Good Lord Bird, offered great television acumen. “Albert came from cinema. He and I were fish out of water in regards to television,” related Hawke. “Kevin Hooks is a legend in TV. He’s been around the block and back in television. He became a resource and ally to us.”
And director Martin, continued Hawke, “in a way handled the most difficult turn” with the third episode which brought in Frederick Douglas (portrayed by Daveed Diggs) and marked “where we started to have to more balance comedy and drama at the same time. She (Martin) was phenomenal with the actors--particularly the journey of Joshua Caleb Johnson (who played Onion). We saw him develop as a young actor. Darnell was pivotal in moving his performance into the deep end of the pool.”
The ripple effect had a profoundly positive impact on the relationship between Onion and Brown. “I loved Joshua and my character’s trajectory,” observed Hawke. “In the beginning I am a crazy old white guy to this young man. But that develops into a loving, honest friendship.” Hawke noted that the span of a limited series helped Johnson and him to fully “earn that transition” for their characters. They were afforded the opportunity, described Hawke, “to play so many facets of the human beings and have them seen as whole entities.”
As for his biggest takeaway from making The Good Lord Bird, Hawke related that to create something worthwhile “so many talented people have to come together at the right moment. They have to have courage one minute, humility the next and know when to have which. I learned a lot from different people.”
The sense of purpose behind this story, he continued, drove the creative engine. “It was thrilling to talk about this part of American history. We’re the first ones to put on film the raid on Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile there are 10,000 movies about the Alamo. Whites and Blacks took over the armory and started the Civil War--yet no one made a movie about it.”
Taking this step, noted Hawke, had all involved thinking of the greater good, how to best be of service to an important story--and its larger implications for national dialogue. “When people put on their humble hat, good things happen,” he affirmed.
Race relations also proved to be a compelling force in this latest Emmy-eligible season of This Is Us (NBC), taking the story in a new direction and orientation. Director/executive producer Ken Olin, a three-time Best Drama Series Emmy nominee for This Is Us, related that the show took an unprecedented turn when the killing of George Floyd brought a racial reckoning front and center, and Black Lives Matter gained enormous mainstream momentum as a movement, The unrest, the trauma, the COVID-19 pandemic made for an unsettled country. And for the first time current events impacted the trajectory of the show.
Series creator Dan Fogelberg and the writers, said Olin, “felt a responsibility to integrate what was happening in the world with our storytelling.” As a result, continued Olin, “you could see our characters changing in some ways as they confront these events. In other ways, you could see characters looking at themselves through a new prism. This was the first time in five years that a season had to address a changing landscape that was very immediate, very current. Before that, this show wasn’t particularly topical. It was more about how the past informs the present. What’s happening politically, the health of the country, were not part of the original tone of the show.
“To the credit of Dan and the writers,” continued Olin, “they took all that on within the show’s vocabulary, particularly in terms of Randal’s character (portrayed by Sterling K. Brown), and the dynamic of a Black child being adopted by a white family. We delved into aspects of racism but in terms that are meaningful to the show. That’s been really extraordinary, very challenging in a good way for everybody. Race isn’t often explored on a deeply personal, intimate family level on TV or in films.”
Olin has been involved with This Is Us early on from the first season. He owes that in part to Fogelman’s late mom who was a big fan of Brothers & Sisters, a show for which Olin served as EP and director. TV folklore goes that she would make her son sit and watch Brothers & Sisters. That mandatory viewing translated into Fogelman reaching out to Olin for This Is Us at a juncture when the show’s pilot had been completed but the pair of original directors on that very first episode--Glenn Ficarra and John Requa--couldn’t continue on a permanent basis, putting Fogelman in the market for someone like Olin.
Olin recalled the pilot being uniquely wonderful and he was immediately drawn to the opportunity. At that same point in time, cinematographer Yasu Tanida joined the show. Tanida had shot the pilot for another Fogelman series and shifted over to This Is Us. Olin and Tanida have gone on to form a deep collaborative bond. “A pilot is done to introduce the show, sell the show, launch the show,” related Olin. “But then you have to grow this thing, create an organic condition for this to evolve and sustain for a number of years.” Tanida has been instrumental in this, assessed Olin. “Yasu has been extremely influential. The partnership with him has been meaningful to me. He’s much younger than I am. We have a real shorthand. Yasu has been directing as well now (helming an episode of This Is Us each of the past two seasons). His vision of the show, his contributions are as significant as anybody’s.”
Describing Tanida’s cinematography as creative yet fast, Olin observed that he is “part of a generation of cameramen who came up and learned in a digital medium. He didn’t come up with film and then in that transition was part of the generation figuring out how to go from film to digital. He understands the latitude of the digital medium. He knows what is needed. He knows how to create in post also. It’s not about trying to make this medium look like film. It’s about how to use the entire latitude of the medium.”
At the same time, Tanida’s brand of cinematography doesn’t call attention to itself, instead adapting to best capture the stories and actors’ performances which drive This Is Us. “Yasu puts us in intimate places,” noted Olin. “If the cinematography is working and you’re experiencing scenes in an intimate, human way, you are not aware of the cinematography. If the camerwork is calling attention to itself, it is detracting from the writing, the performances and where you want to take the audience in terms of an emotional experience.”
Olin’s roots are in acting. To many he is still known for his Golden Globe-nominated performance as a regular in thirtysomething. But he has since diversified into an accomplished director and EP. He, for example, has two Producers Guild Award nominations--for Alias in 2004 and This Is Us in 2019.
Over the years, This Is Us has garnered 32 Emmy nominations, four wins, and one TV Academy Honor, the latter coming in 2017 for work that explores and exposes issues of concern to society in compelling, poignant and insightful ways. The most recent Emmy win was last year for Ron Cephas Jones for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series based on his portrayal of William Hill in the “After the Fire” episode.
While current events helped shape the latest season of This Is Us, they provided a distinctly different dynamic on the limited series WandaVision (Disney+). After the fact they lent an extra layer of resonance not originally planned as unsettling sitcom sendups (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family) mesh with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in WandaVision to put us in a suburban setting that is sort of an insulated, isolated cocoon, with a lost sense of the outside world--akin in some respects to what the pandemic lockdown and quarantines yielded for many of us in real life.
The show was conceived well prior to COVID-19’s emergence which had many of us confined at home craving comfort--the kind of escape and contentment that could be found in the sitcom world. On the surface, super-powered characters Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame, appear to be living an idyllic residential neighborhood life in Westview, New Jersey. Yet as their environment shifts through different decades, they encounter varied TV tropes and begin to suspect things are quite different from what they seem.
Matt Shakman, director/executive producer on WandaVision, said he never could have imagined the pandemic parallels that surfaced in the show. Two-thirds of the shooting for the limited series had been wrapped before the lockdown. But audiences saw WandaVision in the midst of the pandemic, making it eerily relatable. “It was a strange twist of timing,” acknowledged Shakman who noted, though, that the show has universal themes which are relevant during more normal circumstances as well. “It’s a show about meditation on loss,” he shared as Maximoff is dealing with personal trauma and trying to cope.
Shakman directed all nine episodes, bringing a continuity to a show that sojourned to many different places in terms of narrative, style and tone. Having a single director was the plan all along. “This was among the first batch of Marvel shows for Disney+ and they wanted to approach it the same way they created their feature films,” said Shakman, referring to using but one filmmmaker who could help bring a cohesiveness to a constantly evolving narrative, able to re-craft scenes, storylines and worlds as the show went along.
“My personal experience as a director made it feel like WandaVision was what I had been getting ready for my whole life,” related Shakman who’s helmed a wide mix of fare spanning comedy, drama, action and VFX-intensive shows over the years. He is experienced at being the sole director on a project, having helmed entire seasons, for example, of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Furthermore as a child actor who grew up on 1980s sitcom sets, Shakman felt simpatico with the WandaVision spirit. “It was therapy for me in a way revisiting all those backlots and old shows.”
Underscoring that he was a custom fit for WandaVision directorially is Shakman’s recent DGA Award nomination for his work on the unconventional series. This marked his second career DGA nod, the first coming in 2018 for “The Spoils of War” episode of Game of Thrones.
Shakman said that a DGA nomination means a great deal in that it comes from peers who “understand what you do on a granular level.” He found it particularly gratifying to be this time around in the company of such esteemed fellow nominees in the Movies For Television and Limited Series category as the eventual winner, Scott Frank for The Queen’s Gambit, Susanne Bier for The Undoing, Thomas Kail for Hamilton, and the late Lynn Shelton for Little Fires Everywhere.
Shakman’s awards pedigree also includes an Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series Emmy nomination last year for an episode of The Great.
About to wrap a directorial gig, Susanna Fogel had planned on taking some time to recharge and write, a discipline in which she’s well versed as reflected in Best Original Screenplay nominations last year from the BAFTA and Writers Guild Awards (shared with Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman) for the feature film Booksmart.
Yet when executive producer Sarah Schechter sent her a script for The Flight Attendant (HBO Max), and Fogel took a phone call with that show’s EP and star, Kaley Cuoco, those plans for a directing hiatus were quickly scuttled. The clincher was that 45-minute conversation with Cuoco whom Fogel described as “the warmest, most persuasive and charismatic person ever.”
That persuasiveness was amplified, though, by several other factors. For one, Fogel had read Chris Bohjalian’s book, “The Flight Attendant,” on which the series is based, and found herself drawn to the script penned by series creator Steve Yockey. Furthermore, Fogel felt a kinship with Schechter, whom she’s known for many years; the two had almost worked together on various occasions but the timing got in the way. The Flight Attendant would be an opportunity for them to finally collaborate.
Fogel observed that Yockey brought his “quirky playwriting” touch to the TV adaptation, making the story more offbeat and compelling. She shared that the pairing of offbeat sensibilities with a mainstream project was irresistible to her. A large part of that mainstream appeal came from Cuoco and the good will that the actress has built over the years. She is loved for her comedic touch yet could extend her reach with The Flight Attendant, pushing the boundaries into such weightier areas as addiction and denial all wrapped up in a murder mystery. The audience, reasoned Fogel, would be willing to follow Cuoco and her character, flight attendant Cassie Bowden, into these places. And Cuoco did not disappoint, navigating this journey while somehow retaining that humor and relatable humanity. Fogel assessed that with all these dynamics working for it, the show represented a golden storytelling opportunity.
Confirmation of how golden that opportunity was came just a couple of months ago when Fogel won the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy Series for “In Case of Emergency,” the first episode of The Flight Attendant. The DGA honor took on a special significance for Fogel in that, she observed, there’s generally only one director on set which can in some respects feel isolating in the big picture. “Finding a community of directors is not something we get the privilege of,” she observed. “The Guild is one way to do that.” Thus to get recognition from one’s peers in the form of a DGA Award becomes all the more gratifying. “It’s an incredible award not just because of what it symbolized but also my mom was watching (the awards ceremony) on Zoom.”
Fogel directed the first two episodes of The Flight Attendant which introduces us to Bowden who after a one-night stand with Alex Sokolov (portrayed by Michiel Huisman) awakens in her hotel room in Thailand to find him dead--and she has no memory of what happened. From there unfolds a story that is part murder mystery, comedic thriller, dark introspection into the doubts and demons within us, and more. Part of that more, said Fogel, was departing from a course which often relegates the woman to being “the vamp” and “a victim.” Instead, The Flight Attendant gives us Cuoco, someone you feel could be your best friend, and drops her into this mix of genres not known for female characters. Cuoco’s performance expands the perception of what she could do dramatically, offering the audience a character they could trust in and relate to--what Fogel described simply as “a dimensional woman.”
Bringing visual dimension to the two episodes Fogel directed was cinematographer Brian Burgoyne. They had initially teamed some years ago on Life Partners, a TV movie that sprung out of Sundance Lab--it was the first feature for both Fogel as a director and Burgoyne as a DP. Fogel recalled that Burgoyne was originally recommended to her in 2012 by Rachel Morrison, a celebrated DP whose work on Mudbound made her the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar. (Morrison has also diversified into directing.) Burgoyne went on to make his mark on varied projects, including The Big Sick. Fogel gravitated toward him for The Flight Attendant not just for the rapport they enjoyed in the past but based on her hunch that he would like to take on a project that was a departure from what he was known for.
“He was thrilled to do something different,” said Fogel, noting that The Flight Attendant has proved to be an antidote of sorts for the industry tendency to pigeonhole people--including herself, Burgoyne and Cuoco. “With Kaley nobody knew she could do what she did (on The Flight Attendant),” assessed Fogel. Cuoco went from “this comedy person” to “this brilliant actress” overnight. Similarly the perceptions of Burgoyne and Fogel have grown to encompass a wider range of work. Industry perceptions, said Fogel, “had me strictly in the comedy box for years.” Thanks to The Flight Attendant, Fogel is now receiving overtures on projects spanning different hybrids and genres. “I feel encouraged that taking risks pays off. You have to teach people how to see you and perceive you,” she affirmed, noting that “just one project” can change perceptions.
Jeffrey Jur, ASC
As wonderful as it is to win a lifetime achievement award, such an honor can also imply that one’s career has concluded or is at least winding down. Jeffrey Jur, ASC, quipped that he’s glad that neither has been the case. The recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers’ Television Career Achievement Award in 2019, Jur has continued working at a creatively high--and-high-profile--level as reflected in his lensing of multiple episodes, including the first three, of the lauded Bridgerton (Netflix), In fact, at press time, he had already started on season two of the show.
Jur was drawn to the opportunity afforded by a period piece--and being able to continue his collaborative relationship with Shondaland, the production company founded by show creator/producer/writer Shonda Rhimes. Jur’s lineage with Rhimes goes all the way back to the pilot for Grey’s Anatomy, extending through to How To Get Away With Murder and now of course, Bridgerton, which takes us back to 1813 in Regency-era England when ladies and gentlemen of means and royal blood try to find true love--or at least a tolerable spouse. On the lookout for a soul mate in the matrimonial market is Daphne Bridgerton, a debutante (portrayed by Phoebe Dynevor) who’s a daughter of a widowed viscountess.
While true to the period--as captured in the series of romance novels penned by Julia Quinn which inspired the show, with liberties taken by its creator and showrunner, Shondaland vet Chris Van Dusen--Bridgerton offers a dramatic departure in terms of race as Black actors star as land-owning aristocracy including Simon Basset, aka the Duke of Hastings (played by Regé-Jean Page), who is Daphne Bridgerton’s love interest, and the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuvel). The notion of royalty being of diverse racial descent has historical roots as some in academia believe that the reigning Queen Charlotte at that time was of Portuguese and African ancestry.
Bridgerton marked the first series in Rhimes’ exclusive development deal with Netflix. Jur recalled that he had wrapped an episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when he got a call from executive producer/director Julie Anne Robinson about Bridgerton. Jur already had a collaborative track record with Robinson, which entailed his lensing the pilot for The Catch, which she directed. (Rhimes served as an EP on The Catch.) Jur immediately found the prospects of shooting Bridgerton creatively appealing, evocative of an era but with a new bent, departing from dark, heavy and muted to a more colorful, visually rich, positive look with a fantasy, fable, storybook feel. For her direction of the first episode of Bridgerton, “Diamond of the First Water,” Robinson recently earned her first career DGA Award nomination.
Also fortuitous for Jur was that Tom Verica, the director of multiple episodes, including Bridgerton installments two and three, was another trusted collaborator over the years. Having a shorthand with Robinson and Verica helped Jur to craft a visual language true to the vision defined in the original script written by Van Dusen. Jur had earlier shot an episode of Dirty Sexy Money directed by Verica. The two also worked together on How To Get Away With Murder on which Verica was a cast member, portraying the husband of Viola Davis’ character. Verica, who continues to direct and act, was recently appointed Shondaland’s head of creative production, a newly created role in which he will help translate Rhimes’ creative vision for all of the company’s projects.
Jur credited Van Dusen’s script with being “the core inspiration” for the look of the show, something inherent to which he, directors Robinson and Verica all responded. Instead of being some precious period era piece which had been done many times, Bridgerton “lifted” the genre, said Jur. “Shadows were lifted, highlights were lifted, the color was enhanced but not pushed too far,” continued Jur, noting that a naturalism was brought to the light and style.
The entire Shondaland ensemble and individual artisans were described by Jur as “incredible, smart and supportive,” adding that Bridgerton represented his first time shooting in the U.K. “I can’t say enough good things about the working conditions and crew there, including the amazing Will Hughes-Jones,” shared Jur, noting that the production designer “thinks large scale, is not afraid to build big. To be able to step up and support that was wonderful. To go to his sets everyday was the thrill of a lifetime.”
Hughes-Jones’ work on Bridgerton was recently nominated for a British Film Designers Guild Award. He shared the nod with supervising art director D. Dominic Devine and set decorator Gina Cromwell.
Beyond the ambitious scale of sets, Jur cited the locations as being awe-inspiring, particularly the majestic Wilton House located in Salisbury, U.K., just an hour and a half or so outside of London. The episode one scene in which Daphne Bridgerton is presented to the Queen takes place in Wilton House. That massive room, recalled Jur, was familiar to him at first sight. He later realized that he had first seen it decades ago in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. “The room had not changed a bit since then,” said Jur, noting that it was inspiring to be shooting in a Kubrick-approved location.
Jur selected the Sony VENICE digital camera for Bridgerton, coupling it with ARRI Signature Primes. The DP explained that Netflix has a high resolution mandate, which narrows the choice of cameras--one of which was the VENICE that operates up to 6K. This marked Jur’s first time deploying the VENICE, noting that it came recommended from colleagues who too had used it for the first time. The camera, he assessed, delivered on all fronts with the resolution doing justice to skin tones, fabrics, decors and other fine design details. The ARRI lenses also were integral to capturing all the amazing detail and texture that went into the Bridgerton sets and costumes. Shooting at 6K, Jur needed lenses that would cover the entire sensor with a crisp, clean, undistorted image, and the Signature Primes held up beautifully.
Filming a period piece in the early 19th century, candlelight was an important part of the look. Jur said that the Signature Primes yielded a gorgeous bokeh from the candle flames, soft in the background, contributing to the desired fairytale look. The lenses also facilitated the right balance between foreground and background, enveloping the characters in the dreamy realm needed for the story.
Jur knew going in that Bridgerton would have a built-in audience centered on fans of the books. “But what Chris has created and what Shondaland understands--and I’m lucky to be a part of this with them--is how to create a story that resonates universally, a story that affects a lot of people. We became part of a project that was going to reach out and not just for fans of the books. Woman are a big part of the fan group for the show. But I’ve had a lot of guys, sometimes reluctantly, admit they love and enjoy the show. We did something right in terms of telling a story in a universal fashion.”
Fostering that universality is diversity. In SHOOT’s TV Awards Preview back in February, Jinny Howe, VP, original series for Netflix, cited the appeal of inclusiveness that marks Rhimes’ lineup of programs. Howe observed, “Shondaland’s fans have come to expect diversity in all her shows. Bridgerton took a seed of truth about Queen Charlotte’s background to reimagine her as a Black monarch using her power to affect broader change in British society. The empowerment of people of color and women made Bridgerton feel accessible and contemporary, resonating with audiences all around the world. Like The Queen’s Gambit and Emily in Paris--two other hugely popular Netflix series--Bridgerton draws upon themes that are universal yet speak directly to women because they feature independent-minded female protagonists in lead roles.”
While Bridgerton is squarely in the Emmy conversation this season, Jur has a track record on the awards show circuit. He won Emmy Awards in 2005 for the “Lincoln Highway” episode of Carnivale, and in 2016 for the telefilm Bessie. He also garnered an Emmy nomination in 2005 for the “Pick A Number” episode of Carnivale.
In addition to the aforementioned Television Career Achievement Award, Jur has to his credit two ASC Award wins--for Last Call in 2003 and Carnivale in 2004. Additionally he was nominated for ASC Awards in 2006 for Carnivale, in 2010 for Flashforward and in 2016 for Bessie.
For The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), writer-director Scott Frank gravitated to various prior collaborators, including editor Michelle Tesoro, ACE, whom he had worked with on a Paul Giammati-starring pilot, Hoke, and then on the Western miniseries Godless. For Frank on both Godless and The Queen’s Gambit, Tesoro cut all of the episodes. The “Exchanges” episode of The Queen’s Gambit earned Tesoro her first career ACE Eddie Award nomination and win. She received the Eddie last month, topping the Best Limited Series or Motion Picture or Television category.
Tesoro was drawn to The Queen’s Gambit for its story as well as the opportunity to again team with Frank after solidifying their working relationship on Godless. Based on the novel of the same name by the late Walter Tevis (author of such books as “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth”), The Queen’s Gambit centers on orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played as an adult by Anya Taylor-Joy) who struggles with drug and alcohol addiction as she strives to become the greatest chess player in the world.
The coming-of-age period drama unfolds during the Cold War era and became Netflix’s most watched scripted miniseries, gaining critical acclaim which included a pair of Golden Globes--for Best Limited Series and Actress. Taylor-Joy also won a Critics Choice Television Award and a SAG Award for her performance.
“Soon after we had wrapped Godless, Scott was already developing The Queen’s Gambit,” recalled Tesoro who added that Frank’s adaptation had the feel of the book, particularly in terms of getting inside Harmon’s head.
Tesoro said she and Frank have a mutual trust. “At this point he feels confident that I’m going to not only represent in the cut what he’s looking for but also bring to the table new ideas that he might not have thought of. I heard him once describe what he looked for in department heads as one-plus-one equaling three.”
The relationship between Frank and the other department heads is cut from the same cloth, Tesoro noted. “He involves you at the earliest you can possibly be involved, helping you to feel you understand the process and how certain ideas are arrived at.” That orientation helps to inform and inspire a high level of work and a feeling throughout of being connected to the story.
In that vein, Frank brought Tesoro and DP Steven Meizler to Berlin, where much of the series was shot, for a summit to experience chess at a high level and get a first-hand feel for the game. This ultimately helped them attain an authenticity for the chess matches in the show which range emotionally from flirtatious to tensely adversarial confrontations.
As for being able to cut all the episodes of a series, Tesoro views it as “a bit of a double-edged sword.” On one hand, it can be a lot of work. On the other hand, you gain greater continuity and control. She added that with someone like Frank it was a doable luxury to edit all seven episodes of The Queen’s Gambit because he maintains a good balance relative to the volume of shooting. “He’s not going in with three cameras and shooting the hell out of something, giving you hours of material for a short scene. He has a sense of purpose.” The balance, he attains, explained Tesoro, entails “specifically knowing how we are going to put something together” while offering “some leeway to be creative around that.”
In terms of pandemic considerations, Tesoro shared that she and Frank had “this big aha moment” where the realization set in that the post could all be done remotely.
Tesoro’s body of work as an editor spans such credits as On The Basis of Sex, director Mimi Leder’s feature starring Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg; an installment of Ava DuVernay’s miniseries When They See Us; multiple episodes of House of Cards; and a recent recut of the Sean Penn-directed film, Flag Day.
John P. Goldsmith
This isn’t your grandfather’s or for that matter your father’s Perry Mason, with apologies to Raymond Burr who portrayed the iconic, resourceful criminal defense lawyer in the beloved long-running CBS show. The new and reimagined Perry Mason in HBO’s series of the same name stars Matthew Rhys as a divorced, down-on-his-luck and a bit unkempt private investigator whose home is Los Angeles in 1932 during the Depression.
Among those charged with creating this noirish world were production designer John P. Goldsmith and his core team which included set decorator Halina Siwolop, supervising art director Chris Farmer, art director Anthony D. Parrillo and prop master Pete Clarke. Their efforts on Perry Mason recently earned Goldsmith his fourth career nomination for an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award. His prior nods came in 2012 for the fantasy feature film The Adventures of TinTin as set designer, in 2009 for the miniseries John Adams as art director, and in 2008 for the Coen Brothers’ feature No Country for Old Men as art director. Both No Country for Old Men and John Adams wound up winning the Art Directors Guild Awards for Goldsmith and various colleagues.
Goldsmith fortuitously found himself on the trail for Perry Mason when Aida Rodgers, a co-executive producer on the show, reached out to him. EP Rodgers had previously worked with Goldsmith on The OA, a Netflix series. Rodgers invited him to meet with Perry Mason director/executive producer Timothy Van Patten and those two immediately developed a rapport, resulting in Goldsmith ultimately getting the gig.
That gig had Goldsmith delving into Los Angeles locations, finding the bare bones framework of its architecture in the 1920s and ‘30s, having to peel away the layers amassed over the subsequent decades to when possible get to the desired look and era. Stripping away the modernization was akin in some respects to what was done for the classic, Oscar-winning Chinatown, with Goldsmith finding that 1974 film as a source of inspiration for the Perry Mason task at hand. “L.A. in 1932 still does exist but it’s buried under 70 to 80 years,” said Goldsmith who along with his ensemble were able to get down to that self-described “nitty gritty” in assorted locations--complemented by some ambitious set construction to realize the needed authenticity for the show.
Among the sets was one of a courtroom, with the architecture of Los Angeles City Hall serving as a guidepost of sorts after Goldsmith had extensively researched various halls of justice worldwide. Built on a soundstage, the set featured a hand-painted, Works Progress Administration (WPA)-style frieze on the ceiling that deftly contrasts against dark wood benches and wall panels. The courtroom represented much more than just re-creating a period setting. “We had an interest in expressing the fact that modernity was encroaching on life. A traditional courtroom is not what we wanted to build. We wanted to show that modern life is coming,” said Goldsmith who cited Siwolop’s decor work as stellar, ranging from light fixtures to wood paneling, as well as other fine details inspired in part by an art deco palace in London.
At the same time social strata of that era in L.A. were conveyed in varied residences--reflecting upper, middle and working classes.
Research also uncovered archetypal crime scene photographs taken during that time period. The images were disturbing but full of detail, recalled Goldsmith, helping him and his colleagues to imbue the scene of the murder in Perry Mason with a sinister tone, capturing L.A.’s noir underbelly.
The landmark Angel’s Flight railway car which transports passengers from downtown up to L.A.’s Bunker Hill neighborhood was also depicted, adorned with period placards. Special effects helped to create a nearby drugstore circa the early 1930s.
Perry Mason marked the first time Goldsmith had collaborated with Siwolop. “I did not know Halina but had seen her work,” said Goldsmith. “She is a talented, fantastic human being who became a great partner. I have unbelievable admiration for her and cannot commend her enough.”
Goldsmith had prior working relationships with art directors Farmer and Parrillo, teaming with the former on The OA.
Goldsmith also collaborated with Clark previously and has known him for some 20 years. But Perry Mason was the first time that production designer Goldsmith got to work with Clark as a prop master. Earlier, for example, Goldsmith was a set designer and Clarke an assistant property master on the Edward Zwick-directed feature, The Last Samurai.
Goldsmith said of Perry Mason, “The scale of this project was huge but we were never daunted.” Ultimately the production designer affirmed that he and his team felt a “commensurate sense of accomplishment,” having realized “what we were hoping to achieve.”
Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features will explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.