Directing and Exec Producing "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" and "Franklin"
Hiro Murai (photo by Joyce Kim)
Actor and EP perspectives on "The Lawmen: Bass Reeves"; Helming "The Girls on the Bus"; and Lensing "The Crown"

Director and producer Hiro Murai’s collaborative relationship with Donald Glover spans 10-plus years, yielding a mix of breakthrough music videos, short films and television. “With all good collaborations, a lot of what works is sort of unspoken,” related Murai who observed that he and actor, comedian, singer, rapper, director and producer Glover are “kind of interested in the same sort of minutiae in character stories. We like error, things that feel kind of thrown away.” There’s a mutual penchant, continued Murai for the “tonally absurd” presented in “an unabsurd context. We align in a lot of the things we think are interesting.” Furthering that is “a mutual trust” that each will do what they do best individually while bringing their perspectives together to hone the overall narrative.

Their shared body of work includes music videos for Glover, under his stage name Childish Gambino, such as the Grammy Award-winning “This Is America” all the way to the recently released “Little Foot Big Foot.” And then there’s their two-time Peabody Award-winning series Atlanta.  Peabody judges described the show as “a genre-bending innovation, a skillful commentary on issues ranging from police brutality and mental health to celebrity and Black culture....Atlanta is as able to mine the surreal as the everyday for both depth and humor. For its seamless blend of vibrant character study and rich sociopolitical commentary in a detailed and textured exploration of a Southern city, Atlanta receives a Peabody Award.”

Among other Atlanta accolades for Murai are two Emmy nominations for Best Comedy Series, as well as one for Outstanding Directing based on the “Teddy Perkins” episode. “Teddy Perkins” also scored a DGA Award nod for Murai. Atlanta has additionally received a pair of Producers Guild Award nominations, winning the honor for its first season.

Fast forward to this awards season and we find Glover and Murai again in the Emmy conversation--this time for Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Prime Video), a series sharing the same title as the 2005 theatrical film starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. On the surface, the show seemed a curious choice, a 180-degree turn from Atlanta. But perhaps the incongruity was in and itself the allure for Glover as the Mr. & Mrs. Smith he envisioned resided in a far different place than the high-profile box office hit. 

“Donald was drawn to the weirdness of the idea, taking something on like Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” recalled Murai who described the show as seemingly a mismatch of material given the people involved. However, when conversations began among Glover, Murai and others from the Atlanta creative ensemble, it became clear that this would “very much be a story about millennial couples, millennial marriages. We hadn’t seen that depicted on screen in such a heightened way before.”

It was an opportunity to strip back the conceit of a sophisticated spy couple, continued Murai, and see the “petty, jealous and messy human things percolating underneath.” 

Portrayed by Glover and Maya Erskine, the two spy protagonists are initially strangers to each other, thrown together to navigate a course of espionage and intrigue while a committed, intimate and loving relationship develops between them. What starts out as a fictitious marriage that provides cover for their dangerous assignments turns into something genuine as the worlds of fantasy and reality mesh. 

Recognition for the success of that mesh came earlier this week when Mr. & Mrs. Smith won the Breakthrough Dramatic Series honor at the inaugural Gotham TV Awards.

While gaining insight into what bonds two people personally and romantically is daunting enough under conventional circumstances, adding the overlay of a globe-trotting secret agent narrative makes the proposition all the more elusive, particularly when the attributes of a spy--being manipulative, adept at telling lies in the blink of an eye, and doing whatever is expedient to further the mission--are clearly detriments when it comes to falling and staying in love, somehow trying to create a long-lasting, meaningful marriage. It turns out that superhuman spies aren’t so superhuman when it comes to matters of the heart.

“What we hoped to accomplish,” said Murai, who directed the first two episodes and served as an exec producer, “was a show that could deliver the high octane popcorn fun of a movie” while also delving into “the complexities of being an adult” and forming adult relationships.

In an earlier installment of this SHOOT “Road To Emmy” series, Francesca Sloane, who made her showrunner debut on Mr. & Mrs. Smith, observed that bringing the Atlanta collaborative spirit to the subject matter made sense in retrospect. Sloane, who served as supervising producer and a writer on Atlanta, noted that the creative dynamic of that series was described by Glover during an industry panel discussion as being “you want to surround yourself with people whom you trust to argue with.”  That honesty coupled with a creative shorthand already finely honed over time, observed Sloane, made for fertile ground to tackle the intricacies, subtleties and emotional range in a couple’s relationship--and how two people overcome adversity, at times of their own creation.

Murai embraced that mission--as well as one that sprung from it. Just as the creative reach of the Mr. & Mrs. Smith narrative was being expanded creatively, so too were the roles of the artists behind it--a prime example being Christian Sprenger, ASC, who not only shot multiple installments of the series but also made his TV directorial debut with the episode titled “Double Date.” Atlanta cinematographer Sprenger also served as a producer on Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

For that directorial turn, Sprenger naturally gravitated towards his long-time gaffer Cody Jacobs to serve as his cinematographer on “Double Date.”

Murai said that both Sprenger and Jacobs richly deserved the opportunity to diversify into direction and cinematography, respectively. “Christian and I collaborated on Atlanta and I see him as a key part of my work as a director. He’s always been a huge part of building the voice of shows. When you hire directors for a show, you’re trying to balance the style that director brings while maintaining what you build in the first couple of episodes.”

Sprenger fit that bill to a tee. Similarly, said Murai, Jacobs from day one has always been more than just a gaffer. “Again, he’s not just thinking about lighting. He’s thinking about the show’s structure, a sequencing that shows in his work as a cinematographer. Sprenger and Jacobs are such a strong team that it made perfect sense, assessed Murai, to have them spread their wings creatively and work as a director and DP.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith also provided ample opportunity for Murai to grow creatively. He cited the scale of the series as posing a particular challenge to him and his compatriots. “We made Atlanta in a specific way--nimble and scrappy. Each episode is its own independent film. There are no returning sets. Every episode is on location, constantly working with new actors. Relatively speaking it’s a much smaller show than Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Our challenge was how to you take that [Atlanta] ethos--that way of making things--and scale up to massive action scenes in international locations. How do you keep it nimble while scaling up? It was an interesting process.”

Helping in that regard was finding the common ground between Atlanta and Mr. & Mrs. Smith which, said Murai, was simply “being true to the characters’ emotions. What the characters are feeling is the central part of the process. Everything is built on that.” Whether Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a heightened version of action or more grounded at times, as long as Murai and his colleagues stayed true to the motivation and emotions of central characters, “things would work out. If we didn’t stay true to that, it didn’t work.” A key to creative success, concluded Murai, is being “an empathy machine,” getting in touch with characters’ emotions as a way to keep rediscovering what the show is and how to best realize that.

Such realization is not confined to Murai’s work with Glover. Murai, for example, has gained awards recognition on other varied fronts. Last year as an exec producer he won an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for The Bear. And in 2022, he was nominated as a director for the “Wheel of Fire” episode of Station Eleven. “Wheel of Fire” additionally earned Murai a DGA Award nomination that same year. He also won a Producers Guild Award last year for The Bear.

David Oyelowo
As he looks back on Lawmen: Bass Reeves (Paramount+), David Oyelowo noted that the biggest challenge posed by the miniseries was getting the greenlight to make it to begin with--in a manner and at a budget level commensurate with the historical significance of the narrative. The entire industry said no to the Bass Reeves character, noted Oyelowo, adding that Morgan Freeman tried to get a project made for some 25 years. Oyelowo was part of an effort that finally succeeded. He was cast as the actor in the lead role and served as an executive producer on the miniseries, part of an EP ensemble headed by Taylor Sheridan.

Reeves was a great frontier hero and one of the first Black deputy U.S. marshals west of the Mississippi River. Oyelowo had to push hard for years to bring his story to Hollywood, trying to convince the powers that be that Reeves was a character worth showcasing and had a story worth telling. Reeves was widely acknowledged as being the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. He’s a part of a period in American history that’s regularly visited. He was in law enforcement for 30-plus years, primarily in the mid-1800s. His story is compelling. Originally he had been enslaved, then escaped enslavement and lived with Native Americans. His ability to speak the language of and connect with Native Americans helped open the door for him as a lawman. A struggling farmer with 10 children, Reeves became a part of some of the most legendary lawmen’s tales in the West. 

There were so many elements to the story making it ideal for a feature film or TV series yet Oyelowo found himself beating his head against the proverbial brick wall trying to sell the idea. The resistance to Reeves’ story--though not stated outright--centered on the fact that the protagonist happened to be Black. This spurred on Oyelowo to continue aggressively pursuing the project.

“When I was a kid, no Western heroes in film or TV looked like Bass Reeves--much less were at the center of a narrative,” said Oyelowo. “When a producer approached me with the idea--I think it was a film at the time--I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a sizable, acclaimed and widely viewed version of this guy’s life told yet. He appeared in tangential sort of ways in recent stories. I couldn’t at first understand why. But you don’t have to scratch too deep--the color of his skin was the only distinctive factor translating into why a hero of this nature didn’t yet have his own widely seen narrative.”

The indignation that Oyelowo felt as a result became a prime motivator driving him to somehow get this series made. It strengthened his resolve--reflecting a dynamic he has experienced repeatedly. For instance, he starred in and served as a producer on The After, which went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Live-Action Short Film. That too was an example of his experiencing resistance to a project he had a strong gut instinct about. “If we had paused early,” and given into the initial resistance, “we would have never gotten to that place” of being recognized with an Academy Award nomination.

Similarly he recalled that Ava DuVernay’s Selma--in which Oyelowo starred as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--took seven years to get a greenlight. Lawmen: Bass Reeves took eight years. And A United Kingdom--with Oyelowo portraying King Seretse Khama of Botswana--took seven years.

“All eventually met with very real success and real love from the audience whom I always hoped would engage with it,” affirmed Oyelowo who noted that Lawmen: Bass Reeves became Paramount’s biggest global hit of the year. This underscored the importance, he said, of trusting your gut. “For many years I felt in my gut that this [Bass Reeves] was a story that would be embraced beyond race. Part of the resistance to it was the notion that this was a niche story, a Black story, not a global story--that’s why it shouldn’t be afforded the requisite budget and platform it deserved. I take my hat off to Paramount and Paramount+” for making the commitment to the series.”  

A silver lining of sorts to the lengthy wait experienced on Lawmen: Bass Reeves was that it enabled Oyelowo to bring a broader based experience to the project. Long an acclaimed actor and with a track record as a noted producer, Oyelowo in 2021 made his feature directorial debut with The Water Man. He had earlier directed a short film, Big Guy, and of course as an actor and producer collaborated with leading directors ranging from DuVernay (Selma) to Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and Lee Daniels (The Butler).

Oyelowo said the directorial experience on The Water Man informed his work on Lawmen: Bass Reeves. “Anytime as a creative person, when you get a bit more of a say, a bit more autonomy on how you build a team of collaborators, the more it helps your vision for the story. Being the director and one of the producers on The Water Man, part of my job was to gather the folks who I’m hoping are going to help me tell the story to the best of my and their ability. Even though I didn’t direct Bass Reeves, as someone instrumental in the show being made, my experience on The Water Man give me a very real perspective on how the story [of Reeves] should be told.”

With Westerns usually told through a while male gaze, Lawmen: Bass Reeves became all the more important to Oyelowo who said that having a Black family at the center of the narrative made the series for him “sacrosanct in a sense.”

Claire Mundell, Tali Shalom-Ezer
Humanity at its best springing out of the worst inhumanity imaginable reflects our capacity to find hope even under the most dire circumstances. Such is the case with the miniseries The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Peacock), a love story that unfolds during the Holocaust and remains intact over the ensuing decades. 

Based on the best selling book of the same title by Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz centers on the true story of Lali Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew taken to Auschwitz, the Nazis’ biggest concentration camp, in April 1942. With a proficiency in multiple languages and having befriended a tattooist upon arriving at Auschwitz, Sokolov got the chance to become a tattooist, charged with inking identification numbers onto fellow prisoners’ arms. As a tattooist, Sokolov led a marginally better yet still harrowing life. In July 1942, Sokolov tattooed the arm of another prisoner, a young Slovakian woman, Gita Furmanova, and it was love at first sight. They endured great adversity and peril but maintained a relationship through intermittent encounters at the concentration camp. Defying all odds, they helped keep each other alive--physically and in spirit. The couple married after World War II and moved to Australia. Still the brutality they experienced and witnessed at Auschwitz continued to haunt them as they persevered and fashioned a life together, having a son and being able to still experience the joy derived from a deep sense of family.

We get to know Sokolov initially when he is in his 80s, recently widowed, some 60 years after he met Gita. The elderly Sokolov (portrayed by Harvey Keitel) connects with a novice writer, Morris (Melanie Lynskey), to whom he tells his story in the hope that she will be able to share it with the world. In recounting his life to Morris, Sokolov faces the traumatic ghosts of his youth and relives his memories of falling in love in the most horrific of places. Through these recollections, we meet Sokolov as a young man (played by Jonah Hauer-King) and Gita (Anna Próchniak). 

Executive producer Claire Mundell described getting the opportunity to tell Sokolov’s story as “a huge honor” as well as “a huge responsibility.” She teamed with EP/writer Jacquelin Perski, whom Mundell had earlier collaborated with on the acclaimed miniseries The Cry. Mundell’s guiding light was to be as true as possible to Sokolov’s memories and emotions so that they could be shared on screen. The responsibility of delving into the mind, heart and soul of a Holocaust survivor is daunting, perhaps even more so given the stakes today when antisemitism is on the rise globally--and a large percentage of people have little or no knowledge of the Holocaust.

Putting the Holocaust in the context of a love story brings a relatability and relevancy that in part explains the success of the book. Mundell wanted that same dynamic to come into play for the TV adaptation. Towards that end, the selection of a director was pivotal. She wanted from the outset to have a director handle all six episodes. “I felt it was imperative” given the challenging material and subject matter. “It needed ballast in the whole process. I needed to find someone with the right balance of sensitivity, insight, a connection to the material and brave enough to take on all six episodes” and to “depict the undepictable.”

Mundell found that in Tali Shalom-Ezer. Though she hadn’t worked with Shalom-Ezer before, Mundell gravitated to the director’s body of work, which included the films Princess and My Days of Mercy. Mundell said she saw “amazing performances” and “deft handling of characters” in Shalom-Ezer’s films. “In our story we have two characters grasping for love in the midst of turmoil, living with the repercussions of turmoil,” related Mundell. “I was looking for a director who could connect the intimate and small aspects of the story as it was being told on a massive scale.” Mundell observed that trauma was at the center of Sokolov ’s story and as an old man remembering the past we see him “unpacking his trauma in front of Heather Morris.” Mundell felt Shalom-Ezer could capture all that while bringing to the story her “cinematic approach to television.” Mundell added that Shalom-Ezer is a director who comes from the Jewish community and understands the sensitivity of this story, making her an astute partner in helping to set the proper tone and feel for the series.

Shalom-Ezer in turn said she learned much from Mundell and hopes to work with her again. She described Mundell as “a wonder woman,” taking on challenges and assembling a team that could be leaned on to help fulfill their vision for the project. The director, who also served as a co-executive producer on The Tattooist of Auschwitz, credited Mundell with creating the right atmosphere so that an enormous group of people could work together as one.

Among those brought onto the team was cinematographer David Katznelson whom Mundell sought out based in part on his work on the Russell T. Davies-created miniseries It’s A Sin. Mundell described Katznelson’s work on It’s A Sin as “beautiful and astonishing.” Mundell told Shalom-Ezer about Katznelson and the director too was enamored with his cinematography. Shalom-Ezer then met him in person and felt an immediate connection, discovering that both his father and grandfather survived the Holocaust. Katznelson took the assignment and brought not only remarkable lensing acumen but also his family's Holocaust stories to the project, with some of those experiences and emotions finding their way into the series.

Mundell said that Katznelson brought a “gentle” and “painterly” touch to The Tattooist of Auschwitz. As all TV creatives and filmmakers want to create something “beautiful,” so too did Katznelson--but he also was mindful of the fact that much of what’s being depicted is “horrific.” Finding the right visual tools to balance the beautiful and horrific was a delicate proposition and Katznelson was up to the task with an insightful and thoughtful approach, assessed Mundell.

Another key decision was to bring author Morris into the story as a character, one in whom Sokolov confides. “The relationship is so special,” observed Shalom-Ezer, noting that Morris is the connection who enables him to unburden himself, to share his trauma.”

Mundell added that Morris was someone to whom the audience could relate. Mundell described the author as “an ‘ordinary’ person” who had a job as a social worker at a hospital. She wasn’t a historian but had the compassion to give her time to Sokolov.  She was “an everyday woman” who served as “an access point for the audience.” This novice writer developed a kinship with Sokolov.

And it’s a kinship which has extended to viewers--as well as to Shalom-Ezer herself. “I learned every day from Lali,” affirmed Shalom-Ezer, citing “something about the way that he loved life.” Shalom-Ezer was inspired by him, adding that although the trauma was always there for Sokolov, he still lived his life fully--his life with Gita. “I’m still learning from him.”

Tim Van Patten
Tim Van Patten is no stranger to the Emmy Awards. He has 15 nominations for his direction, writing and producing, winning the Outstanding Miniseries Emmy in 2010 for The Pacific, and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series in 2012 for Boardwalk Empire. He also has eight career DGA Award nominations spanning such shows as Game of Thrones, The Pacific, The Sopranos and Sex and the City--the latter series garnering him a pair of wins.

Now as executive producer and director, Van Patten takes us back in time with the miniseries Franklin (Apple TV+), starring Michael Douglas as Benjamin Franklin who as an elder statesman, celebrated for his experiments with electricity and other inventions, goes to France to solicit money and munitions for the U.S. colonies in their revolt against Britain. Accompanying the 70-year-old Franklin on the trip is his grandson Temple (Noah Jupe) as a story of intrigue, espionage, double-dealing and secret liaisons unfolds in a pivotal yet often overlooked chapter in world and American history.

Van Patten directed all eight episodes of Franklin and although he prides himself as being somewhat of a history student, he didn’t know much about this portion of Franklin’s life. He embraced the opportunity to direct the series in its entirety, having by contrast grown up as a self-described “itinerant director” who would jump in as “a substitute teacher” of sorts, taking on an episode and then exiting after a few weeks. While demanding and tiring, the marathon duty on Franklin--right through postproduction--was most satisfying in terms of telling a full story. What drew Van Patten to Franklin was the same motivator that’s driven him in the past--namely “to take myself someplace I’ve never been--and take the audience there as well.”

Part of a place he had never been was directing a show that was spoken half in French. Van Patten doesn’t speak French but that didn’t bother him. His goal was to find out if he could see the truth of scenes through the physical behavior of the actors. All the while he had a bilingual supervisor and a script translated into English at his disposal. But his litmus test was simply, “I wanted to see if I could see it,” meaning if he could capture the physicality of performances to the extent that from that he could discern that the right feel and tone were being achieved. 

“I never was confused [by the language],” he said. “Maybe that’s because I grew up in New York. I’ve been observing all my life.”

More of a challenge, he related, was having to block shoot the entire series by location--and Franklin was at least 90 percent shot on location. “We had to shoot out every location,” said Van Patten, meaning that scenes from multiple specific episodes, from one through eight, had to be shot while at a particular location. Multiple weather seasons, costuming, aging, makeup, hair and wardrobe scenarios from multiple episodes--jumping from one to the next--all had to be accounted for on location. Thankfully, said Van Patten, an ensemble of “brilliant, kind” people, the cast and department heads, were up to the task. “We never got tripped up really,” although the situation was ripe for potential mix-ups.

Helping immeasurably in both logistical and creative challenges was the measure of continuity attained not only by Van Patten directing all the episodes but also compatriots with whom he worked before and enjoyed a shorthand with--including executive producer Richard Plepler, whom Van Patten came together with on notable work at HBO, and cinematographer David Franco. The latter worked with Van Patten on varied shows, including Boardwalk Empire, Perry Mason and the recent Masters of the Air (Apple TV+). 

Van Patten shared that he and Franco are like-minded. He recalled walking into an empty office with Franco and by the time they leave, it’s covered from floor to ceiling with photos and assorted other visual references. That again was the case with Franklin as they broke down scene after scene in their minds.

Franco lensed all eight of the Franklin episodes as well as the finale installment of Masters of the Air which Van Patten directed.

Van Patten observed that Franklin and Masters of the Air depict related pieces of history, the former taking us back to the very beginning of what was to become America while Masters of the Air delves into the aerial wars of World War II through the enlisted men of the Mighty Eighth Air Force who too fought for democracy, sacrificing and suffering losses to win freedom from oppression. Having a hand in telling those two stories, affirmed Van Patten, has been a gratifying, fulfilling experience.

DeMane Davis
Director DeMane Davis was on board with The Girls on the Bus (Max) upon reading an initial script. She connected with the story which centers on four women journalists who are part of a traveling press corps on the presidential campaign trail with leading candidates. The Girls on the Bus was created by exec producer Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries) and Amy Chozick who wrote the book “Chasing Hillary” about following--and reporting on for The New York Times---Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency.

Davis felt an affinity for the story on different levels. For one, she was attracted to the mix of political and personal drama. The script reminded her of 1970s movies like Network with “incredibly gritty characters who care” and are caught up in their pursuits with a sense of purpose. At the same time, they also have their lives to tend to, which often entail choices grounded in personal ethics and values. 

The narrative also had Davis hearkening back to her early career ambition to be a journalist on the road, finding and telling stores of relevance to the human condition. While that goal eventually gave way to creative writing, yielding a career in advertising which diversified into features and television, Davis still harbors a love for newspapers and magazines, and retains a deep admiration for journalists, particularly given society’s pressing need for conscientious ones.

But perhaps what drew Davis most to The Girls on the Bus--leading her to direct the pivotal seventh episode--was the bond that develops among the four female reporters despite their different cultural backgrounds, political orientations, unique sensibilities and personal issues. There’s Sadie McCarthy (portrayed by Melissa Benoist), a talented writer who romanticizes her occupation and even imagines inspired conversations with Hunter S. Thompson--all the while trying to maintain objectivity yet realizing the value of subjective judgment. She also is grappling with an unexpected pregnancy. There’s Grace Gordon Greene (Carla Gugino), a well-connected veteran reporter who’s no stranger to news scoops but whose absence from home has made her daughter a bit of a stranger to her. Meanwhile Kimberly Kendrick (Christina Elmore) is a Black on-air reporter for a politically conservative cable news outlet--and a newlywed with marital issues. And there’s Lola Rahaii (Natasha Behnam), the new breed social media reporter who embraces the highly subjective and rejects many of the traditional journalism practices of the other reporters. She is a social activist, spurred on by the trauma of being a school shooting survivor which prompted her to use her reportage to speak out against gun violence--and that in turn dovetailed into advocacy related to varied other major social issues.

Davis loved this cast and mix of characters, what they were going through personally and professionally. “Some work together, some separate from one another,” related Davis. “But gradually we see them sitting closer to each other on the bus. That’s my hope for people with different opinions, belief systems, backgrounds--that they can at least sit next to another for a little while and hear what others have to say.”

While we all have the right to have differences, continued Davis, friendship, camaraderie and a sense of community are still all possible. “When you start to have that, you can truly get somewhere,” affirmed Davis. 

As a guest director taking on a single episode of The Girls on the Bus, Davis got the chance to read the scripts leading up to her installment. She noticed--and was told by others--that the series was also very funny, except her episode. Others saw that as a challenge but Davis didn’t whatsoever. “I love and appreciate drama and for the moments where it could be funny, I leaned into them a bit more.” Letting the dramatic pieces be dramatic, noted Davis, was a pleasure, particularly with actors such as Benoist, Gugino, Elmore and Behnam--as well as Griffin Dunne (who plays McCarthy’s boss at the fictional New York Sentinel).

Davis made her first career mark in the advertising industry, serving as a copywriter, owning two small ad shops for a stretch, and working as a creative at such agencies as Hill Holliday and Arnold Worldwide . She then diversified significantly into independent film, directing in tandem with Khari Streeter and Harry McCoy the feature Black & White & Red All Over, which screened at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. She and Streeter later directed Kerry Washington in LIFT, a film which premiered at the Sundance Fest in 2001 and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

Ava DuVernay then reached out to Davis for the television series Queen Sugar. Davis got the gig to direct for season two and was then named producing director for season three. Davis’ TV exploits went on to include serving as director-producer on the Netflix limited series Self Made: Inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, with Octavia Spencer in the title role.

Davis continues to be involved in short-form fare as well, directing commercials and branded content via production house Sweet Rickey. She directed a PETA commercial for the 2024 Super Bowl starring Edie Falco, known for her animal rights activism. Entertainment Weekly singled out the celebrity spot for its impact as we see two male bullies enter Falco’s kitchen and take her cheese as she was about to make pizza. Falco pleads with the men not to steal her cheese and is beside herself when they leave. The scene shifts to a distraught mother cow chasing after a truck that’s carting away her calves. A supered message appears which reads, “Cheese isn’t your baby. But it robs a mother of hers.”

Davis observed that working with star actors over the years--ranging from Spencer to Viola Davis to the late Cicely Tyson--helped her to relate to Falco and “not be freaked out,” even though she’s a big fan of The Sopranos star.  Davis related, “Everything informs everything,” which translates into her short-form directing informing her work in features and TV--and vice versa. Being involved in multiple filmmaking disciplines, she said, has only accelerated her learning curve--and made her realize there’s continually so much more to learn.

Adriano Goldman, ASC, BSC, ABC
Lensing the series finale of The Crown (Netflix) seemed somehow fitting for Adriano Goldman, ASC, BSC, ABC. The cinematographer has been on The Crown from the outset--thanks in part to a collaborative bond with Stephen Daldry that started with the feature Trash in 2013. Trash told a story set in Brazil where three kids make a discovery in a garbage dump only to soon find themselves running from the law and trying to right a terrible wrong. Working with Daldry on Trash was a dream come true for Goldman who had long admired the director, citing such films as Billy Elliot and The Reader.

Daldry recalled returning to Rio de Janeiro for the Trash premiere in 2014. At that time, word of The Crown was out and about. Goldman had heard of Daldry’s involvement in the project and that showrunner/creator Peter Morgan was prepping for the series. Goldman reached out to Daldry in Rio, expressing his interest in The Crown. Daldry embraced the prospect of again teaming with Goldman who in turn embraced the chance to delve into history and deliver on the challenge of creating work that would look different form other period dramas in Britain.

Goldman shot multiple episodes for each of The Crown’s six seasons. He’s been there as the show has evolved along with its cinematography--but the constant throughout has been the prioritizing of story and characters, all the while maintaining a positive collaborative mindset. Still the lensing has adapted to more contemporary times as the story progressed through the decades--with different directors and cinematographers contributing to the show’s visual language. Again, doing justice to story and character are what fuels the cinematography. For example, Goldman observed that from the beginning the decision was to go for a visual approach that was realistic and grounded, avoiding the glossy “Cinderella”-style look at royalty and royal venues that was normally attached to the subject matter. This was especially important for the show’s initial seasons which took into account the immediate aftermath of World War II, a time when settings--even the home to the Royal Family--were run down and in need of renovation. Furthermore the story of a young reluctant Queen Elizabeth was hardly the stuff of glamorous royal legend. The visual grammar had to reflect these realities.

Fast forward to the sixth and final season, and the imagery had to be true to the stress felt by Princess Diana, particularly as we near her final days. Subtly, almost imperceptibly, said Goldman, the cinematography takes on an observational kind of feel, again rooted in what she experiences.

While the show over the years has had it share of grandeur, a remarkable sense of scope and scale, Goldman related that there’s no scale just for the sake of scale. It’s only when it truly fits the story. That dynamic has endured even when the look has changed--sometimes dramatically--from one season and era to the next. The show is about the characters, the actors’ performances, “never about the cinematography,” stressed Goldman. “My desire was [for the cinematography] to be invisible throughout the six seasons.”

Just as the show adapted creatively, so too did it open up creative opportunities expanding the roles of varied artists. Goldman noted that several DPs have come up through the ranks on The Crown. For instance, Goldman’s operator during season one, Stuart Howell, started shooting episodes in season two, continuing into subsequent seasons. Ben Wilson replaced Howell as Goldman’s operator for seasons two and three. Wilson then graduated to full-fledged cinematographer on season four, then seasons five and six.

This familiarity with The Crown from artists who worked on the series before becoming DPs on it brings a consistency and continuity to the process--even when the nature of the cinematography called for changes over time as the show moved forward chronologically,  requiring approaches decidedly different from those deployed initially.

These camera pros deserved the opportunity to grow, said Goldman, crediting Morgan and the directors they worked with for approving such advancement.

Goldman’s creative artistry and discipline also flourished as evidenced in an Emmy track record on The Crown consisting of five nominations thus far--including two wins for his cinematography on the “Beryl” episode in 2018, and the “Fairytale” installment in 2021. His fifth Emmy nod came last year for the “Mou Mou” episode. 

Goldman has additionally garnered three ASC Award nominations for The Crown, winning twice--for “Beryl” in 2019, and the season one episode “Smoke and Mirrors.”

While he shot episodes one and two of the series which were directed by Daldry, Goldman noted in an earlier SHOOT interview that episode five was shot first--the aforementioned “Smoke & Mirrors” with director Philip Martin. In many respects, “Smoke & Mirrors” helped set the look and tone for the series with the input and approval of Morgan and Daldry.  

Goldman deeply appreciates the opportunities afforded him on The Crown. While he harbors no aspirations to be a director, Goldman said he does “want to be as influential as I can be as a cinematographer.” The Crown allowed him to be just that as he joined Morgan, the directors and the script department in meetings, getting the chance to voice his opinion regarding how to improve the story and how to best tell it. Goldman said that being “involved in meetings that DPs are not used to being a part of” represented a unique and fulfilling privilege for him.

This is the fifth installment of SHOOT’s weekly 16-part The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. Nominations will be announced and covered on July 17. Creative Arts Emmy winners will be reported on September 7 and 8, and primetime Emmy ceremony winners will be covered on September 15.)

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