Director Craig Gillespie Reflects On "Pam & Tommy"; Series Has Parallels To His "I, Tonya"
Craig Gillespie (l) directs Lily James as Pamela Anderson in "Pam & Tommy" (photo courtesy of Hulu)
Production designer Bill Groom sheds light on "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"
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Craig Gillespie first established himself as a world-class director in the short-form discipline. A five-time DGA Award nominee for best commercial director of the year, Gillespie won the honor in 2006 on the strength of spots for Ameriquest and Altoids. The next year the Chicago Film Critics Association nominated Gillespie for Most Promising Filmmaker on the basis of his feature, Lars and the Real Girl

Fast forward to today and Gillespie continues to make his mark in features and commercials. His biggest splash came with I, Tonya--directed and exec produced by Gillespie--which was nominated for three Oscars, winning Best Supporting Actress distinction for Allison Janney in 2018.

Now, Gillespie finds himself in the Emmy Awards season conversation for Pam & Tommy (Hulu), directing the first three episodes and serving as an EP on the eight-part limited series. Among his other TV exploits are Physical--directing the first episode and exec producing that show which debuted in 2021--and some years back taking on directorial and consulting producer roles on United States of Tara.

In several respects, Pam & Tommy--which delves into the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape story--is reminiscent of I, Tonya, centering on real-people whose lives have become part of a media circus. In I, Tonya we were re-introduced to Tonya Harding, the Olympic ice figure skater who along with her then husband, Jeff Gillooly, were implicated in a knee-smashing attack on her prime U.S. skating competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, just prior to the 1994 Winter Games. The media feeding frenzy on this sordid story came to be regarded in some circles as a precursor to what is now our society’s increased penchant for sensationalized news and reality TV.

However, in the skillful hands of director Gillespie, writer Steven Rogers and their filmmaking compatriots, Harding’s story as told in the movie proved to be smart, funny and engaging, propelled by Margot Robbie’s tour de force, Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Harding. Principals in the story, including Harding, her mother (portrayed by Janney) and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), were shown in the present, looking back on their lives, providing their accounts of--and perspectives on--what happened. Gillespie navigated in I, Tonya an artful dance between drama and humor, frequently bringing them together in the same moment.

Pam & Tommy too is part tongue-in-cheek documentary, biopic, drama and comedy rolled into one, shedding light on rock star Lee and actress/model Anderson, both generational sex symbols. Like I, Tonya, Pam & Tommy is also a mix of love story, crime caper (the theft of the sex tape by a disgruntled contractor, played by Seth Rogen) and cautionary tale. Furthermore both I, Tonya and Pam & Tommy feature a misunderstood woman as a protagonist, simultaneously embraced and dismissed by the media who depict her as a one-dimensional character. While carrying darkly comic overtones, Pam & Tommy brings overlooked dimensions of Anderson and Lee to the fore, evoking empathy over how their love story--a sort of pop culture fairy tale--was destroyed. And in the process we in a sense have to examine ourselves for perceiving and judging people a certain way based on tabloid fodder.

Gillespie noted that Pam & Tommy came to him “fully formed” with all the episodes written. “I could see the tone of the show and where it was going,” said Gillespie, adding that he “loved it immediately” for going “against expectations” by conveying the humanity of Lee and Anderson and how they were affected on a personal level.

The audience is complicit, observed Gillespie, in giving short shrift to “media figures” the likes of Lee, Anderson and Harding. A more human re-appraisal of them, related Gillespie, makes us “hold the mirror up to ourselves” relative to how we process media coverage and cursory accounts without regard for the people involved.

Helping to build our connection to the characters were the performances of Lily James as Anderson and Stan as Lee. Gillespie said he was blessed by their acting acumen. James was already cast before Gillespie came on board. “This is one of the gifts I got,” said Gillespie of James, citing her transformative portrayal, adding that an actress known for her work in classic period pieces was able to deftly take on Anderson’s lifestyle in a rock star world. Gillespie could see that James was on point during rehearsals a month before production. “To see the amount of work she had put in, the prep, dialect, mannerisms, you knew this was going to be great.” She and Stan, continued Gillespie, were adept at improvising and their chemistry together was evident early on.

Gillespie of course knew firsthand of Stan’s talent, having directed him in I, Tonya. Gillespie pointed to the actor’s uncanny ability to flit back and forth between comedy and drama--sometimes doing both simultaneously. This was essential for Pam & Tommy, related Gillespie. “If I don’t have an actor who can do that, it’s never going to work. You cannot manufacture that in an edit.”

Pam & Tommy also reunited Gillespie with cinematographer Paula Huidobro who shot the aforementioned Physical. The DP got her foot in the door for Physical thanks to series EP Gillespie (who also directed the initial episode). She had shot second unit for Gillespie’s feature Million Dollar Arm some years back. Gillespie and Huidobro teamed to set the look of Physical in the first episode and she wound up lensing that show’s entire season, including the installment--directed by Liza Johnson and Stephanie Laing--that garnered her an ASC Award nomination earlier this year. Gillespie noted that also drawing him to Hudibro for Physical was her lensing for the series Barry (which garnered her an Emmy nomination in 2018). On the feature front, Huidobro shot this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, the Siân Heder-directed CODA.

Gillespie added that the ensemble of directors assembled was also key to the success of Pam & Tommy, capturing the proper tone and hybrid comedic-dramatic nature of the series. At the same time, each filmmaker was afforded the freedom to put her stamp on it. After Gillespie, episodes were helmed by Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Hannah Fidell. Gillespie cited their sensibilities in both comedy and drama as dovetailing well with the Pam & Tommy narrative.

Meanwhile Gillespie’s commercialmaking experience has dovetailed nicely with his feature and TV endeavors. In his ad exploits, Gillespie has long had a certain self-described “fearlessness, always trying stuff, taking chances, pushing it.” On advice from his wife, whom he calls his “toughest critic,” Gillespie on I, Tonya began to be more fearless akin to his approach to spotmaking. Up until I, Tonya, Gillespie said he had been “more conservative” with his filmmaking. With I, Tonya he decided to go more strongly with his instincts relative to what he liked, and to be “more aggressive” with the camera, adding to the visual language of his feature filmmaking. This helped to elevate I, Tonya and became his mantra going forward, again being applied most recently to Pam & Tommy.

Bill Groom
Production designer Bill Groom brought a distinguished Emmy pedigree to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video). From 2012-’15, he won an Emmy each year, a total of four in all, for his work on Boardwalk Empire

Mrs. Maisel has further added to Groom’s string of Emmy nominations. Groom recently wrapped his fourth season and was at press time about to start his fifth of Mrs. Maisel. He was nominated for each of the first three seasons and currently is in the running for TV Academy recognition for season four.

Groom also won two Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Awards for Mrs. Maisel--in 2019 and ‘20. This followed four ADG noms for four straight years for Boardwalk Empire, with a win coming in 2012. Groom’s first ADG Award nod came in 2009 in the feature film arena for Milk.

For the entire run of Mrs. Maisel, Groom has enjoyed core team continuity, working with art director Neil Prince and set decorator Ellen Christiansen. He had collaborated with both artisans prior to Mrs. Maisel--on different Martin Scorsese-executive produced series for HBO. Prince was a compatriot of Groom on Boardwalk Empire, and Christiansen was a colleague on Vinyl.

Among the varied challenges that season four of Mrs. Maisel posed to Groom was the creation of an elaborate set of the decaying Wolford strip club as Midge Maisel (portrayed by Rachel Brosnahan) emcees a burlesque show which starts out with crude bare-bones acts that over time become more elaborate and choreographed. The burlesque theater itself shapes up as a venue--with ambitious productions done on stage--at the behest of Maisel.

Groom said that the COVID pandemic necessitated the building of the burlesque theater on stage. At one point before COVID hit, Groom and his team were looking for an existing vintage Broadway theater to use. But with uncertainty over COVID taking hold, resulting in restricted street parking among other obstacles, the production opted to build the Wolford Theater on stage at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. Groom envisioned the Wolford as having been built in the early 1900s as a vaudeville theater and then converted to a burlesque facility. Groom’s build of the set was designed and rendered accordingly. 

In the big picture, Groom has enjoyed the evolution of Mrs. Maisel, with season one taking us to NYC in the 1950s, progressing through to season 4 which puts us in the early ‘60s. Groom noted that he and his colleagues have been careful not to fall into a chronological trap. The production designer explained that in 1950s’ NYC, for example , many New Yorkers were living in buildings constructed back during the turn of the century. These old upper Westside buildings had their own distinct character. If you were too “on the nose” of what 1950s’ architecture was, you would be missing the reality of the setting. You had to depict how streets, buildings and interiors that were much older than the 1950s looked in the 1950s.

In addition to the Wolford Theater, among the other special season four environs designed by Groom with a watchful eye on historical accuracy was a game show set replete with studio audience circa the early ‘60s--work firmly rooted in the script and extensive research.

Beyond settings evolving over time, Groom has deeply appreciated another evolution on Mrs. Maisel--that of the cast. “It’s been interesting to work with a group of actors who grow as an ensemble,” related Groom. “Season four has been the best ever. There’s a real sense of family in the cast. There’s literally family in the story and a sense of family with the actors too. There have been great moments in the writing, great monologues, great exchanges between characters like Midge Maisel and Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby). The relationship between the parents--Abe and Rose (portrayed by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) with Moishe and Shirley (played by Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron)--strengthened in season four.”

This is the first installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories which will explore the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume 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 that month.

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