Designing "The Hot Zone," Lensing & Composing "Our Planet," Editing "Insecure"
"The Hot Zone" production designer Mark Hutman
Artists also provide insights into "Maniac," "Fosse/Verdon," "The Haunting of Hill House," "Bodyguard," "Narcos: Mexico," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"

Production designer Mark Hutman is no stranger to the Emmy derby, having been nominated back in 2010 for the Glee pilot. He’s also no stranger to director Michael Uppendahl, with whom he worked on a couple of Glee episodes. So when Uppendahl, in his capacity as director and executive producer on The Hot Zone series (National Geographic), was looking for a production designer, he put Hutman up for consideration. This led to conference calls for Hutman with other producers on The Hot Zone, including meetings with the folks at Scott Free, the production company started by Ridley and Tony Scott.

Hutman was drawn to the project, eager to again collaborate with Uppendahl. Hutman is also a long-time fan of Ridley Scott, an EP on The Hot Zone. Most importantly, assessed the production designer, “The script did not disappoint. I remember when The Hot Zone was in development as a feature going back about 25 years now. I almost feel that this--a TV miniseries-was a better format for the story,  having the time to delve into the story. And key was getting a great actress like Juliana Margulies on board.”

The Hot Zone, based on Richard Preston’s best-selling book of the same title, is inspired by the true events surrounding the origins of the Ebola virus and its arrival on U.S. soil in 1989. U.S. Army scientist Nancy Jaax (portrayed by Margulies), working with a secret specialized military team, puts her life on the line to head off the outbreak before it spreads to the human population. Noah Emmerich plays her husband, Col. Jerry Jaax, who also puts his life in jeopardy to stop the virus. Topher Grace is Dr. Peter Jahrling, a virologist who disagrees with Dr. Jaax over the best way to contain the virus. A production of Fox 21 Television Studios and Scott Free Productions, The Hot Zone is a dramatic scientific thriller with a courageous, brilliant and determined heroine at its center.

“It’s a period piece, taking us back to 1989,” related Hutman. “The science is totally fascinating and terrifying. What sets the show apart is what the writers did to flesh out the characters. Getting to know and care about the characters, viewers became invested in the story. And then there’s the high-stakes risks. Dr. Jaax willingly exposes herself to the virus so she can examine and learn about it. Being true to the era and accounting for scientific factors were both prime challenges. Ridley Scott, (producer) Lynda Obst and National Geographic had an intense desire to get the science right from both a period standpoint and a scientific standpoint. It wasn’t okay to get a microscope 10 years too old or too new. Every detail had to be exact. We had a story to tell and a time period to capture.”

Uppendahl and Nick Murphy directed individual episodes in the six-part series. Murphy was paired with cinematographer Francois Dagenais while Uppendahl’s DP was Cameron Duncan. “In many ways, Michael, Cameron and I set the look of the series because we went first,” explained Hutman. “Although time was tight, I had some time with Cameron to scout locations and talk over designs for the sets. We had a crash course in getting to know each other starting with a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Toronto (where The Hot Zone was shot).”

Hutman then dovetailed with Murphy and Dagenais on their episodes as well, creating what the production designer described as “an arc of story as we went from one director to the other.”

While the pre-pro schedule was compressed and the project posed myriad challenges, Hutman dealt with it all, finding it most helpful to go back to what he learned from his mentors, namely that “the acting and the writing is the architecture of the piece. What I’m doing in terms of architecture, interior design and production design supports that. It all is there to serve story and character. What made it easier was being blessed with a great cast. I never saw Julianne Margulies have a bad take. You sometimes wonder going in how will we shoot all those pages in a day? But when you cast someone like that, it becomes doable--along with the support we received from Lynda (Obst), Scott Free and National Geographic. There was collaboration on all fronts.”

Hutman sees parallels to past successful series he’s worked on, citing the stellar acting and writing on House and Glee. Like those shows, The Hot Zone has gained critical acclaim and healthy viewership. On the latter score, as a three-night limited series event, The Hot Zone became National Geographic’s most-watched scripted series of all time, besting previous record holder Genius: Einstein, which earned the network critical raves and 10 Emmy nominations in 2017. The Hot Zone also was just shy of besting The Story of God With Morgan Freeman as the network’s most-watched series ever. The Hot Zone additionally registered as the second-most-watched scripted series to premiere on ad-supported cable so far in 2019.

“While of course we are thrilled that viewers responded to this series in such a positive way, we also hope that it inspires them to learn more about the current Ebola crisis in Africa,” said Carolyn Bernstein, EVP, global scripted content and documentary films for National Geographic.

In addition to his Emmy nod for Glee, Hutman has been nominated twice for the Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award--again for the Glee pilot in 2010, and then the next year for the Glee episode “Britney/Brittany.”

Our Planet
While The Hot Zone tackled a stark reality as a narrative scripted show, Our Planet (Netflix), an eight-part series, went the prestige nature documentary route to deliver an urgent message about global climate change, not just chronicling it but putting forth policy recommendations as to how to deal with it--eloquently conveyed by and advocated in the narration of naturalist David Attenborough.

A two-time News & Documentary Award winner--for Human Planet in 2012 and One Life in 2014--cinematographer Jamie McPherson said that he and the many others working on Our Planet felt a deep sense of purpose. Towards that end, the project called on him to capture some horrendous occurrences, including a much talked about scene in which walruses are seen diving off cliffs to their death. Due to climate change which has resulted in the thinning of Arctic sea ice, many walruses find themselves on solid land, climbing cliffs that aren’t safe in order to escape mass congregations and possible stampeding. Their eyesight out of water being poor, they sense other walruses below. As they get hungry, they need to return to the sea. Desperate to do so, hundreds fall from heights they should have never scaled. 

While horrific, these scenes underscore what our planet and nature’s wondrous creatures are up against. McPherson and his colleagues were on hand to film the beauty of nature and in some instances the horrors thrust upon it in habitats throughout the world, from the Arctic wilderness to the vast landscapes of Africa, the jungles of South America and the depths of our oceans.

“We assembled a great group of cinematographers,” related McPherson. “I’m proud of the team and their collaboration. You can’t do this without a big team behind you.”

Composer Steven Price also contributed to Our Planet, explaining, “We were making more than a TV show. We believed in what we were doing. I got to spend time with all the filmmakers during the process of writing the music. The last thing we wanted this to be was a depressing lecture on the planet. It’s a celebration even when we’re talking about bad things that happen. We explore things that can be done to help. The pictures and music had to bond. My approach was one of being honest with the picture...I wanted every sequence of the music in the film to feel bespoke to what was happening on screen.”

Price’s career spans feature, TV and documentary fare. He scored an earlier Attenborough-powered documentary series, The Hunt, which explored the relationship between predators and their prey. And on the narrative front, Price is a Best Original Score Oscar winner for director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.

Maniac, Fosse/Verdon
Susan Jacobs made history when she won the first Outstanding Music Supervision Emmy in 2017 for Big Little Lies. Now she is again in the Emmy banter--along with her music supervisor colleague Jackie Mulhearn--for Maniac (Netflix).

Jacobs thinks that you’d have to be a maniac to have ignored music supervision this long on the awards show circuit. At least the Emmys finally recognized the importance of music supervision--the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet to on the Oscars front, she noted. 

Music supervision entails all musical aspects of a production--from finding key songs in the infancy of a show to auditioning composers, figuring out the original score, attaining a balance between the score created for a series and the songs selected for that same series, working closely with writers, producers, directors, editors and others on placement of all the elements. At times the music supervisor has to be a translator between the composer and producer. And beyond the creative, there’s a mountain of paperwork and a heavy volume of phone calls and emails in order to gain music clearances. You need to have relationships with labels and publishers, and it all has to come together in a timely manner. Furthermore, for every creative choice, there are at times dozens of songs that don’t make it but many of which had to go through the clearance process.

A mix of dark comedy and drama from series co-creator and sole director Cary Fukunaga, Maniac stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two struggling strangers who connect during a pharmaceutical drug experimental trial involving a doctor with mother issues and an emotionally complex, malfunctioning computer.

Jacobs and Mulhearn have worked together for a long stretch. They were both music supervisors on Maniac as well as such notable shows as Mozart in the Jungle. Jacobs and Mulhearn have also teamed, respectively, as music supervisor and assistant music supervisor, on Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies, as well as feature films including David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Jacobs and Mulhearn have also individually taken on music supervision separate from each other in both TV and features.

Maniac marked the first collaboration with Fukunaga for both Jacobs and Mulhearn. Jacobs said of Maniac, “Unlike some other shows where the composer might create a familiar main theme and that theme could be used throughout the various episodes, almost every episode of Maniac is in a different time period, location or fantasy world. Dan Romer (the composer) had to create a musical palette for almost every single episode. He did an incredible job with that.”

And at times finding and securing existing music proved to be daunting for Maniac. Fukunaga had picked “a crazy, obscure song,” related Jacobs. “All we had was an image of a 45 that we assumed was from a dead man since the 45 looked so old. He (Fukunaga) wanted that song in the show. We tried to find the family, which led us all around America.” Jacobs and Mulhearn ultimately found that obscure Southern gospel song, tracking it down based on what initially was very little information.

Mulhearn recalled, “Tracking down the rights to that gospel track took several months. The family was wonderful. They didn’t know what music licensing was. We walked them through the whole process. And that piece wound up being important throughout the series.”

Whereas Jacobs and Mulhearn had not collaborated with Fukunaga prior to Maniac, production designer Alex DiGerlando worked with the director several years back on season one of True Detective, for which Fukunaga directed all the episodes. DiGerlando earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Art Direction for a Contemporary or Fantasy Series on the strength of three episodes in that first season of True Detective. Furthermore, he won the Art Directors Guild’s Excellence in Production Design Award for True Detective in 2015 and was nominated again for season two in 2016. Earlier this year, DiGerlando garnered his third Excellence in Production Design Award nomination--for his work on Maniac, an honor which may bode well for his Emmy prospects this season.

As touched upon in the context of music, Maniac takes us to different time periods, locations and fantasy worlds--and while they are defined in the script, there’s much room left to the imagination, and specifically to the imagination of DiGerlando who had to take us to such places as Long Island in the 1980s, a seance in the 1940s, an epic Lord of the Rings-like world, an other worldly New York in which past, present and future mesh, and of course the prime pharmaceutical biotech lab setting.

When casting an eye on the future, DiGerlando noted that a key decision was made. “Our first thoughts were to go with a real futuristic look and approach but we realized that opened up a can of worms...What we had to do instead was think like someone in the late 1970s, or early ‘80s, maybe in certain cases dipping into the’90s and what someone back then would view as their future, built on ideas and technology available to those people back then.”

DiGerlando teamed with set decorator Lydia Marks and supervising art director Anu Schwartz. “I had worked with Lydia years ago on a Jim Jarmusch film I was not the designer on. And I knew Anu almost socially through a friend. We briefly collaborated, brought onto a show The Leftovers to help out for a couple of weeks,” recalled DiGerlando who noted that he, Marks and Schwartz dovetailed beautifully on Maniac. “It’s a whimsical show, requiring people who have a sense of humor, with creative ideas not locked into the way things should look but with an eye on inventing something new with a sort of playfulness. Both Lydia and Anu fit that bill.”

The trio of DiGerlando, Marks and Schwartz are up for Emmy consideration not only for Maniac but also possibly for the FX limited series Fosse/Verdon about the tumultuous romance and complicated yet creatively fruitful relationship between choreographer/director/filmmaker Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon. DiGerlando observed, “For Maniac, we created something from whole cloth--using real references to make it. But it was up to my department, Cary and the writers to decide what that was. Whereas on Fosse/Verdon, we’re recreating a lot of well established, beloved sets from movies and Broadway shows that are documented.”

Recreating motion picture sets, though, is trickier than one might suppose, explained DiGerlando. It entails not just capturing those sets based on movie scenes but in Fosse/Verdon those sets are viewed from vantage points that had never been seen before; they are not just from what was captured in the movie itself.

Fosse/Verdon also required faithfully recreating, continued DiGerlando “Gwen’s apartment and later in the series Bob’s apartment. We were very close to exact matches to the apartments they lived in and how they decorated them (thanks to photos that daughter Nicole Fosse provided from her family photo album), helping to advance the real feeling of what it would be like to be a fly on the wall in those settings.”

Insecure, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Nena Erb earlier this year earned her first career American Cinema Editors (ACE) Eddie Award nomination for the “Obsessed-Like” episode of Insecure (HBO). The editor said she was gratified to get a chance to work on the series which she’s been a fan of since season one.

Erb recalled, “Sometime in season two, they reached out to me to see if I was available. I had just booked Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW Network) the day before. Thankfully, season 3 of Insecure rolled around and they remembered me. It’s not everyday you can do a show based on your hometown.”

Erb who came to the U.S. from Asia, went to school in Inglewood, Calif., and knew first-hand that community as well as Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights and other South L.A. neighborhoods that have, she said, been largely “ignored in the media.”

At Insecure and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Erb said she is afforded a measure of freedom to “trust my gut and take some risks.” She affirmed that it’s been a blessing to “work with great people who have allowed me to experiment.”

Perhaps the grandest successful experiment in Erb’s career was her making the transition from nonfiction reality fare to fiction television. She won an Emmy in 2016 for Outstanding Picture Editing for An Unstructured Reality Program on the basis of her work on Project Greenlight. “I told myself this will be the last nonfiction series I’ll do,” recollected Erb who had come off a string of reality TV endeavors. The Project Greenlight reboot, though, carried some entertainment industry cache and had enough crossover appeal which helped open the door for her into fiction, narrative TV, a big break coming with the Gabrielle Union-starring series Being Mary Jane, which in turn down the road led to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Insecure.

Erb’s work on the current Emmy-eligible season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has also gained notice, dealing with protagonist Rebecca’s mental state, the highs and lows she copes with, while also bringing into the narrative such fantasy elements as musical numbers and ambitious choreography.

As for what’s next, Erb at press time was embarking on an ABC pilot for a half-hour comedy centered on a Chinese family.

Bodyguard (Netflix, BBC) centers on the fictional story of David Budd (played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden), a war vet struggling to cope with everyday life while working as a protection officer for the Royalty and Specialist Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police Service. An assignment to protect Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) finds Budd torn between his duty and his beliefs. 

Bodyguard creator/showrunner Jed Mercurio said he wanted to make a political thriller while shying away from a House of Cards rivalry-type scenario. He was drawn to the issue of security, a cat and mouse game, a kind of In the Line of Fire-type drama involving an enigmatic character who, portrayed by Madden, “potentially could be the biggest threat to the person he was assigned to protect.”

Mercurio wound up gravitating to two directors, John Strickland and Thomas Vincent, and a single cinematographer, John Lee, to help bring Bodyguard to fruition. “I never made a show with Thomas but I developed one with him attached as a director a few years ago for Canal Plus,” recalled Mercurio. “The series never got made but we enjoyed working together. It was a productive collaboration. I sent him the first couple of scripts of Bodyguard and he was excited about the project. I was able to persuade the BBC and the production company about him being a really good choice. He has a strong vision, is very meticulous.

“The same applied to John Strickland who directed some of Line of Duty (a Mercurio-created U.K. series). John also directed a show, Bodies, a medical drama I did before that. He’s one of those technically able directors who’s very collaborative.”

By contrast, Bodyguard marked the first time Mercurio had worked with DP Lee. Mercurio was drawn to Lee’s “strong vision for how he would achieve the look for the show. He also comes from a documentary background which we felt would give a certain sense of social realism to the show. There was an aesthetic in John’s work that makes things a little glossier, more thrilling to watch than something that is pure verite style.”

Mercurio further noted, “It felt to me and the rest of the production team that having one DP was the best way to go, to minimize the change in look when we moved from one director to the other.”

Bodyguard has been a hit in the U.K. while finding audiences internationally and in the U.S. on Netflix. The show has gained traction in the awards show circuit this year with Madden winning the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Dramatic TV Series, Steve Singleton the ACE Eddie Award for Best Edited Drama Series for Non-Commercial Television, and a BAFTA Award nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. 

Mercurio has been recognized at assorted industry competitions over the years including a pair of Best Drama Series BAFTA TV Award nominations for Bodies, and  a BAFTA TV Craft Award nod for writing on Line of Duty, a show which also won him a British Screenwriters Award for Best Crime Writing on Television.

At press time, Mercurio said he was in serious talks for a second season of Bodyguard.

The Haunting of Hill House
Earlier this year, Mike Flanagan won his first Writers Guild Award, shared with his writing ensemble, for The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix), a series he created. A modern reimagining of the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House follows siblings who, as children, grew up in what would go on to become a famous, or infamous, haunted house. Now adults, they are forced back together in the face of tragedy and must finally confront the ghosts of their past. Some of those ghosts still lurk in their minds, while others may actually be stalking the shadows of Hill House. The ensemble cast includes Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas. 

For Flanagan the WGA Award was “an unexpected honor, my first time ever in a writers’ room.” He said the Guild honor was “validating for a very personal show--for me and the other writers. Drawing from families, losses, struggles, everybody in the show got very vulnerable and personal about their own experiences. To see that honored by other writers is remarkable--and a steeper climb when it comes to getting that reaction in that (horror) genre.”

A veteran of that genre with such films he wrote and directed as Oculus and Absentia, Flanagan recalled that The Haunting of Hill House started off quite “innocuously....I took a general meeting at Amblin and they were interested in developing it for TV. The novel is one of my favorites, one of the most influential on me. It fit so neatly in the feature film format (1963’s The Haunting), done so perfectly by Robert Wise. It didn’t make sense that you could expand that material for TV. It would require a complete overhaul. But it got more exciting as I thought more about it, approaching it as a family drama first. Can we do a family drama that is also a ghost story? Let’s not call it a horror show. Let ghosts be an extended metaphor for types of things that define and haunt a family.”

Up to this point, Flanagan had only done features. He came to view the TV show like “a 10-hour movie.” In that spirit, Flanagan brought in some of his feature cohorts, including cinematographer Michael Fimognari. “Michael has shot every movie I’ve ever made,” explained Flanagan. “Prior to Oculus, he was not in the horror genre. He had mostly shot indie dramas. They were beautiful. I didn’t want to be covering the work we did with the expected horror aesthetic. He didn’t come from that world.” 

Fimognari thus brought a different dimension to the TV horror drama. Flanagan is such a believer in his DP that he quipped, “I won’t take a selfie without him.”

As for his biggest takeaway from The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan observed, “Any movie is the product of hundreds of people standing on each other’s shoulders and lifting each other up for one coherent vision. This show more than anything showed me the importance of that. We had an amazing number of cast and crew members to get this up on its feet, all committed to telling a personal and emotional story. I take away from this the most how reliant we were on each and every person. On dozens of occasions, people had to step up and perform in a way they never had before.” 

Flanagan also cited the combined support of Amblin, Paramount TV and Netflix as being integral to the success of the show.

Narcos: Mexico
Like for The Haunting of Hill House, Narcos: Mexico found a measure of validation at this year’s Writers Guild Awards. Eric Newman, EP/writer of Narcos Mexico, and producer/writer Clayton Trussell earned a WGA Award nomination for the “Camelot” episode of Narcos: Mexico.

Newman said of the Guild nod, “It was a real honor, the greatest of my career. The Writers Guild is entirely comprised of writers. To be favorably evaluated by a group of such talented people means a great deal. I began my career as a movie producer, not as a writer. The nomination very much for me felt like a bit of an arrival, very much a validation of the course we took for the show.”

That course started as a movie idea before ultimately turning into a TV show with Netflix. Narcos: Mexico was originally intended to be the fourth season of the Netflix series Narcos, but it was ultimately developed as a companion series. Through the crime drama, we bear witness to the birth of the Mexican drug war in the 1980s. This gritty Narcos saga chronicles the story of the Guadalajara cartel’s ascent with a cast headlined by Michael Pena, Diego Luna and Tenoch Huerta.

Newman, like Narcos: Mexico, saw himself being transformed from film to television. With movie-making roots, Newman described TV as “a fairly late career shift for me.” He recalled his TV viewing early on being more for “competitive reasons” but then giving way to “personal preference. My viewing habits have gone way up. I watch everything, particularly international stuff. I believe it is a better storytelling medium than film--with some exceptions when you have the masters working in film. Generally the two or two-and-a-half hour story is never going to be as satisfying as the deep dive that an eight or 10 hour series takes. This longer format storytelling allows you to do remarkable things.

Game of Thrones is a great example,” continued Newman. “In the first episode a guy is having sex with his sister and throws a child out the window. It paralyzes the kid for life. That guy eight seasons later is my favorite character in the show. You can do in TV what you can’t do in movies where the bad guy usually is always the bad guy.”

Professionally, noted Newman, “I never wanted to be a screenwriter. But I became immediately taken with being a television writer because of what you can accomplish. In 10 hours you can really get to know somebody. For me, that’s the greatest takeaway from my TV experience. It’s like the difference between a novel and a comic book. The potential of TV is vast and starting to be fully realized.”

This is the seventh installment in a 16-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.

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