Director POVs On "Station Eleven," "The Dropout"; Lensing The Final Season of "Ozark"
"Station Eleven" director Jeremy Podeswa
Production designing "Only Murders in the Building" and "A Very British Scandal"; VFX for "Yellowjackets"; costume designing "1883"

For Jeremy Podeswa, a four-time Best Director Emmy nominee, the Station Eleven (HBO Max) story that fascinated him became two episodes into production uncannily prophetic. Based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven--a post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction miniseries created by Patrick Somerville--took on a profound relevance. 

Twenty years after a flu pandemic resulted in the collapse of civilization, Station Eleven introduces us to survivors who look to rebuild and reimagine the world. Our protagonists make their living as entertainers/performers in a traveling ensemble. They run across a violent cult led by a man whose past is unknowingly linked to a member of the troupe.

After the limited series was written and two episodes were produced, the COVID pandemic and lockdown hit full force. It was a jarring example of life imitating art. Episodes 1 and 3 had been shot with a planned hiatus in effect as the producers waited for a change in weather to align with the season in subsequent scripts. “We never could have predicted what happened,” said Podeswa. “It was freaky, a bit scary, unbelievable that we had filmed two episodes that could predict the current reality--with quite a bit of accuracy.”

Somerville, Podeswa and their colleagues stuck with the original story which depicted a pandemic more deadly (killing off 90 percent of the world’s population) than COVID. But the stark reality of COVID’s impact on society brought a timely relevance to the story. “To make this show while the world was experiencing this gave everything a strong resonance,” said Podeswa. 

“We were making shows before there were vaccines,” recalled Podeswa, with cast and crew quarantined in Canada. “We couldn’t go home during the making of the show. We couldn’t socialize, We couldn’t see loved ones. There was no dinner together. We were alone, separated from families in this hothouse atmosphere for many months. The work was everything, living in this heightened, slightly scary way. The show kept us alive together, with a sense of purpose. It was very different than any other show I ever made.”

Meeting this challenge hit everyone on a deep emotional level. The scenes were incredibly moving, “compounded during these heightened times,” said Podeswa, noting that the content seemed more affecting, more distressing, more disturbing, “more everything.” He observed, “There was so much of us in the show and so much of the show in us during this time.” Podeswa described it as “hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime experience of connecting to something so meaningfully and emotionally. Living through this thing was surreal from beginning to end.”

Podeswa said that the esprit de corps among cast and crew was remarkable. “We were very understanding of each other’s challenges, supportive of each other--to get through this as best we could. The material really helped. We felt we were making something special as we were doing it. The actors had such amazing scenes to play every day.”

The cast included Mackenzie Davis, Matilda Lawler, Himesh Patel, David Wilmot, Lori Petty, Nabhaan Rizwan, Daniel Zovatto, Julian Obradors, Philippine Velge and Gael Garcia Bernal. Podeswa directed multiple episodes as did Hiro Murai, Helen Shaver and Lucy Tcherniak. All three of the episodes directed by Podeswa were shot by Steve Cosens who also lensed an installment helmed by Tcherniak. 

This marked the first time Podeswa had worked with Cosens. “Steve had been on my radar. He worked with some director friends in Canada and they highly recommended him,” said Podeswa. “His work spoke to me. He was a really good fit for the show, an incredible partner.” Podeswa added that Cosens connected with the show, understood it, had a great collaborative rapport and spirit.

It was the nature of his collaborations--including with Cosens--that endure for Podeswa. The bond got stronger during the hiatus due to the pandemic. Podeswa explained that Somerville, key creatives, actors, producers, directors and varied other artisans had months of pandemic to talk about the show and “how to manifest it,” making for “a long stewing process” where they got to “delve deeply into what the show was and to find it. What was this post-pandemic world? It was a lovely discovery.”

Like the traveling performers in the series, the ensemble of collaborators behind Station Eleven reflected the importance of art and entertainment, particularly during a crisis. “We became a band of people coming together for the purpose of putting on a show,” said Podeswa whose referenced four Best Director Emmy nominations consisted of two for Game of Thrones, and one each for Boardwalk Empire and Pacific. The latter also earned Podeswa a DGA Award nod.

His body of directorial work spans such shows as The Handmaid’s Tale, True Detective, The Newsroom, True Blood, Rome, Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Ray Donovan, Homeland, Dexter, Weeds, Queer as Folk, The L Word, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, The Tudors and Nip/Tuck.  Podeswa also directed the TV movie After the harvest, which won a Directors Guild of Canada Award. He additionally wrote and directed the feature films Fugitive Pieces which opened the Toronto International Film Festival, The Five Senses which was part of Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, and Eclipse which screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Michael Showalter
Director Michael Showalter’s reach spans features and TV. On the latter score he was the co-creator of the critically acclaimed The Search Party. And his feature directorial credits include The Big Sick. This Emmy season he has in the running his work as a director on The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+) starring Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd and Kathryn Hahn, and director/EP on both I Love That For You (Showtime) starring Vanessa Bayer and Molly Shannon, and The Dropout (Hulu) starring Amanda Seyfried.

Perhaps the biggest Emmy buzz from that trio of series has been generated by The Dropout in which Seyfried portrays Elizabeth Holmes whose high-tech blood testing company Theranos claimed a medical diagnostic breakthrough, making her a Silicon Valley wunderkind. However her meteoric rise turned to an epic collapse as she was convicted on four counts of fraud tied to nearly $1 billion invested in Theranos.

Showalter’s directing exploits on The Dropout--a title referencing Holmes, a Stanford University dropout--included taking on the first episode, laying the foundation for the series--as he also did for I Love that For You and The Shrink Next Door. For The Dropout, Showalter explained that he “used the camera to give the audience the feeling of constant motion. The main character, Elizabeth, is someone who is sort of in constant motion,” as reflected in the pilot episode’s title, “I’m in a Hurry.”

Showalter continued, “You kind of can’t stay in one place for too long. The camera moves in a way that is sort of like what Elizabeth’s mind is like--going places and she’s not willing to wait.” 

That mindset in a way reflects the best and worst of Silicon Valley--a relentless pursuit of a goal, propelled at times by claims, not yet proven, designed to raise much needed capital. But there can be a thin line between reaching for the stars, trying to attain what doesn’t seem possible, and trumpeting unsubstantiated claims to trigger mega-investments.

Showalter added that The Dropout was a major undertaking in terms of size and scope, entailing such tasks as constructing Holmes’ two huge office spaces, and re-creating Beijing in Los Angeles. Making those challenges less daunting was recruiting trusted collaborators, a prime example being Jonathan Furmanski, the prime cinematographer on Showalter’s Search Party. Showalter again gravitated to Furmanski for I Love That For You and The Dropout. Furmanski shot The Dropout episodes directed by Francesca Gregorini.

Also straddling a pair of series in Showalter’s mix this Emmy season was cinematographer Michelle Lawler who lensed for The Shrink Next Door and The Dropout. Showalter first met Lawler when interviewing her for The Shrink Next Door. “I loved her passion, her creativity, her excitement about the possibilities of filmmaknig as an artform. She was really committed to trying to find ways for every shot to be aesthetic.”

The positive experience on The Shrink Next Door led Showalter to seek out Lawler again. She wound up directing the four episodes of The Dropout directed by Showalter.

For Showalter, directing the first or pilot episodes of any show has him “trying to key into” the vision of the writers, “what I can do to execute that vision and what would that look like.” That search for the essence of the creative vision and doing justice to it applied to The Dropout, The Shrink Next Door and I Love That For You, which is a comedy in which Bayer portrays a woman who overcomes childhood leukemia to achieve her dream of becoming an on-air host at a home shopping network. But when that gig is threatened, she stretches the truth about her cancer to keep her career dream alive.

Showalter shared that with a first episode he’s trying to find and define “the vocabulary in terms of the visuals. Are we going to be doing a lot of handheld, Steadicam, static shots? What’s it going to look and feel like? My job is to visualize and create that.” With the priorities being story and characters, Showalter said he’s continually “trying to establish a feeling, a tone that would hopefully enhance the audience’s experience.”

Showalter often accomplishes this with projects that blend drama and comedy, telling distinctively different and heartfelt stories with atypical lead characters. As for what’s next, at press time Showalter was in editing sessions on Spoiler Alert, a feature starring Jim Parsons. Based on Michael Ausiello’s memoir “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words,” the film from Focus Features centers on the 11-month journey of Ausiello’s former partner Kit, from his diagnosis with terminal cancer to his death. Showalter is director-producer on Spoiler Alert.

Shawn Kim
Cinematographer Shawn Kim got what he viewed as a golden opportunity to shoot eight of the episodes for the fourth and final season of Ozark (Netflix). (Eric Koretz lensed four episodes with the other two shot by Attila Szalay.) Kim has been a fan of Ozark from its inception, describing the pilot (directed by Jason Bateman and shot by Pepe Avila del Pino) as “one of my favorite episodes of television ever.”

Ozark executive producer, director and actor Bateman got Kim’s foot in the door for season four. Bateman was an EP on Kidding, a series which had Kim collaborating with director Michel Gondry. Kim thinks the work on Kidding sparked interest in him for Ozark. (Kim's unique work with Gondry also spans commercials and music videos.)

While the visual foundation for Ozark was laid over its first three seasons, Kim was given the flexibility to build on that while hearkening back in part to the show’s roots. Kim recalled being asked if he would be open to revisiting that bit of noir look in the Ozark pilot he loved, bringing back more density and shadows. At the same time, plans were put in motion to have a visual arc throughout season 4--in small increments from one episode to the next, almost imperceptible but progressing over time. Kim explained that they opted to go hyper shallow focus where you hardly see anything in the background at the outset of the final season. But as subsequent episodes unfold there’s a deepening depth of field, sort of “teasing back,” Kim described. The audience sees more as the season progresses. Kim also deployed little angles to amplify what’s seen, conveying a slight sense of an unnerving force.

Kim worked with varied directors during the course of the season--including Andrew Bernstein, Robin Wright, Amanda Marsalis, and Ozark star Laura Linney in her directorial debut. The work with Wright entailed flashbacks to the very first episode, again having Kim tap into that original visual palette.

Kim noted that the first two seasons of Ozark deployed the Panasonic VariCam. Season 3 shifted to the Sony VENICE digital camera. Kim and his lensing compatriots stuck with VENICE for season 4, pairing it with vintage Leica Summilux-R series lenses.

Among the lessons learned from the Ozark experience is a deeper appreciation for being on a journey, one which in this case had Kim going back to the origin of the sojourn. “I never had a journey this long before. Toward the end, the biggest reward is seeing it all come to fruition, the color timing, the editing coming together. A lot of times with DPs you lead a schizophrenic life. You’re in this country one month, another country the next. I still do commercials and music videos which take you all over. Thirteen months on Ozark was the most consistent thing I’ve had in my professional life. It was a wonderful experience. I even had my son who was going to school remotely on location with me. I never had that opportunity before.”

All the while people came together on Ozark to problem solve, to deal with COVID and whatever obstacles emerged. It was a gratifying experience, affirmed Kim whose alluded to short-form endeavors have also gained acclaim, including winning the Camerimage Audience Award for the Death Cab for Cutie music video, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” and earning a MTV Music Video Award nomination for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” music clip.

Curt Beech
Curt Beech has five career Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award nominations, the first four coming as an art director for the feature films Star Trek, The Social Network, The Help and Lincoln. His fifth came earlier this year as production designer on Only Murders in the Building (Hulu), a series in which three strangers--Charles (portrayed by series co-creator Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez)--share an obsession with crime and unexpectedly find themselves caught up in one.

Beech was attracted to the series by its writing. “Every project I do, it’s the writing,” assessed Beech. “The writing was so good, so illustrative, strong and character driven. The stakes are kind of delightful and really serious with these characters at the same time.”

Only Murders in the Building reunited Beech with director/executive producer Jamie Babbit whom he worked with at the beginning of his career. After finishing graduate school, he took on a short film on which Babbit was a script supervisor. The project went onto Sundance.

For Only Murders in the Building, each character’s apartment in the Arconia--a fictional upper West Side building in NY--sheds lights on its inhabitant. Mabel’s apartment was close to the Arconia’s original plan in that she didn’t have the resources to enhance it. Charles’ place, though, has been revamped, with higher end art displayed, reflecting his financial wherewithal. Oliver’s abode shows his success as a stage director was of yesteryear. His apartment has what at one time must have been nice furnishings but now appear quite outdated.

Beech, art director Jordan Jacobs and set decorator Rich Murray--all part of the ADG Award-nominated team on the series--worked out the character-defining details of the environments they created for Only Murders in the Building.  As an example, Beech cited Murray’s work on Oliver’s apartment in which 20 or 30 teacups were strewn about, each containing what appears to be an evaporated teabag. “I asked Rich, ‘what is with all the teacups?’” The explanation: Oliver is so scatterbrained that he makes a fresh cup of tea, forgets about it, abandons it and goes to make another one. “That’s something I never would have thought of,” said Beech, but it’s among the many details that tell us about a character.

Beech had worked with Murray before but prior to the latter becoming a set decorator. Beech described Murray as someone who “just adds and adds and adds,” bringing so much to the story and characters within a set.

Jordan too is a past collaborator of Beech. “If the production designer is the architect, the art director is the project manager. He makes sure everything I’m thinking of and what I want to do is realized. He gets it from the page to the stage.” Beech affirmed that Jordan is expertly adept at all this and more, replete with “good taste,” being “very organized and really sensitive, a lovely human. It was great working with him at a time when everyone was on edge [with concerns over COVID].”
Beech has the distinction of working on four films nominated for Best Picture Oscars--as art director on the aforementioned The Social Network, The Help and Lincoln, and as production designer on BlackKkKlansman.

Beech’s TV credits also include Hunters and The Dangerous Book for Boys. Beech collaborated with art director Jordan on the latter series.

Christina Moore
Production designer Christina Moore’s work on A Very British Scandal (Amazon Prime Video, BBC) recently won a British Designers Guild’s Production Design Award, and is among the contenders being bandied about for Emmy consideration. The miniseries explores the tumultuous marriage of Margaret Campbell (Claire Foy) and Ian Campbell (Paul Bettany), aka the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, leading to the very public Argyll vs. Argyll divorce case in 1963.

While production during a pandemic posed its own set of challenges, there also was an advantage to be had as access could be gained to locations that wouldn’t have been film friendly under normal circumstances. There were Scottish castles that didn’t have any visitors, and certain London hotels and other desirable venues that had no business, making them amenable to production. Still the limitations yielded setbacks. The art department lost its set team when they came down with COVID and had to isolate. To create a key castle setting, Moore and her compatriots had to assemble a new team of people who were largely inexperienced but brought much energy to the process. 

Overall everyone had to adapt to “an unorthodox way of working through the pandemic,” said Moore, noting that the number of people permitted on set was limited. Moore, for example, couldn’t be on set very much.

Nonetheless Moore was up to the task thanks to informed communication among--and coordination with--director Anne Sewitsky and core team members such as supervising art director Iain White and set decorator Philippa Hart. Moore noted that Sewitsky was an adept collaborator, among her prime virtues being that she’s extremely thoughtful in her approach to a project and “very clear about what she wants,” responding with “a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” 

And Moore already had a track record of collaboration and an established rapport with White and Hart. Moore and Hart met on their very first production--back when the former was a storyboard artist and Hart served as an art department assistant on Sense and Sensibility. Moore described Hart as a “brilliant” set decorator with an “understanding of history and character. She brought so much to the interiors.”

Moore and White meanwhile were art director colleagues on Game of Thrones, sharing four Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award nominations, including two wins--one in 2016, the other in 2018. Moore earned a total of five ADG nods for Game of Thrones, as well as another for the John Adams miniseries for which she separately won a primetime Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries in 2008. 

Besides A Very British Scandal, among Moore’s notable credits as a production designer are Brittania, Honour, Summerland, and even a Bud Light Super Bowl spot in 2019 that was a promotional tie-in with Game of Thrones that went on to win a Super Clio as that year’s best Big Game commercial, directed by David Nutter and Spencer Riviera for agencies Wieden+Kennedy and Droga5. 

Josh Seward, Michael Adkisson
The visual effects on Yellowjackets (Showtime) were largely a combination of practical effects and CGI. Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, Yellowjackets centers on a New Jersey soccer team whose plane crashes in the wilderness of Canada in 1996. The women manage to survive for a grueling year and a half-plus.  But fast forward to the present-day and the trauma of the experience still looms hauntingly large.

SHOOT connected with visual effects producer Josh Seward and visual effects supervisor Michael Adkisson who are with Barnstorm VFX (Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C.), the primary effects vendor on Yellowjackets.  Adkisson described their efforts as geared toward serving the story and characters. “For a suspenseful show, how can we assist storytellers in maintaining that suspense? How can we assist and not go over that unrealistic level for gore, suspense and a threatening feel? We add effects to scenes to enhance the threat. For the crashed fuselage of a plane, we added smoke and fire, for example.”  On a more graphic level, also shown was a person on fire flailing about the plane’s cabin.

Additionally, there was a wolf attack near the conclusion of episode 7 in which a girl’s face gets ripped apart. Sophisticated CGI was deployed, noted Seward.

Another intricate scene was a child’s flashback to her father who has his part of his head blown up. The intense scene was largely achieved via CGI. Adkisson related that they had to create the interior of a damaged skull, with a piece of that skull removed, revealing brain matter. Tracking head movement was essential as the father is still talking at one point with half his head destroyed. 

Seward added that select talent was brought in to work on Yellowjackets, complementing the Barnstorm team, including visual effects supervisor Kent O’Connor who oversaw on-set VFX work.

Whether it’s a graphic scene or one where smoke and practical effects are added, the goal, affirmed Seward, remains the same--to make the effects seamless and invisible. The effects can’t detract from the story.

Karyn Kusama, an EP on Yellowjackets who directed the pilot, touched upon that story's deeper meaning. in a prior installment of this Road To Emmy Series. Yellowjackets, she said, delves into cannibalism, starvation, women turning on each other. Kusama observed, “For Ashley and Bart, they were saying with this story that women and girls are very bit as ferocious and susceptible to highly aberrant, aggressive behaviors as boys and men are. Beyond that I was interested in the ways that ultimately these are women who are still dealing with the real world in the here and now--in a contemporary world where Donald Trump was President, where you take your husband’s last name.”

Kusama added that even with the advances made over the years, “it’s fair to say we have a really long way to go when it comes to men and women seeing each other as peers, equals. We’re still deeply divided. This [Yellowjackets] was an opportunity to kind of explore some of that, by being in this all-female subculture. That was interesting.”

Janie Bryant
Costume designer Janie Bryant is a seven-time Emmy nominee, winning for Deadwood in 2005. In addition to her three nods for Deadwood, Bryant was nominated four times for Mad Men. Now she’s again in the Emmy contenders’ mix for her work on 1883 (Paramount+), the prequel to Yellowstone. 1883 follows the Dutton family as it flees poverty in Texas and sojourns through the Great Plains in search of a better future in Montana. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill star as James and Margaret Dutton. Sam Elliott portrays cowboy Shea Brennan. The cast also includes Isabel May, LaMonica Garrett and Dawn Olivieri.

Bryant was drawn to the opportunity to work with writer-director-producer Taylor Sheridan, co-creator of Yellowstone and creator of 1883 who’s also known for his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Hell or High Water. “Taylor is a true artist,” said Bryant, “I loved the conversation we had initially about each character. He really allowed me to design the costumes and present my work to him. We had discussions about the designs. He could be very specific about color palettes for the characters. I loved hearing his perspective. We had a great back-and-forth creative collaboration throughout.”

Bryant’s frontier fashions, with rips, dirt and blood stains, chronicle in a way the Duttons’ arduous journey, shedding light on each character--major and supporting. Helping Bryant in her work was the consistency and continuity among Sheridan who directed the pilot and the directors/cinematographers for the rest of the season, Ben Richardson and Christina Voros. Bryant noted that it was lovely to team with Richardson and Voros who have “the same kind of knowledge” of how Taylor works and what he wants to see while bringing their own vision to the proceedings. To have directors who also shoot meant that direction and cinematography dovetailed nicely with production design and costume design so that all the disciplines meshed to help develop and reflect the many characters in 1883

“I love designing period pieces. It’s the passion of my work,” said Bryant who added that the nature of the period work was epic, necessitating hundreds of townspeople who had to be fit from head to toe in attire that helped to define all of them. It took a lot of inner strength for Bryant and her team to deliver such a volume of costumes but at the same time the endeavor underscored for her “the joy of creativity.”

Bryant was also the beneficiary of a profound education she didn’t fully expect going in. “The most wonderful experience was to be able to work with the Native Americans. That was for me the most spiritual and enlightened aspect of that show. I learned what happened to the Native Americans, what really happened. What you learned in school is not what really happened. It made me want to take a deep dive into their journey, to work with Native American tribes and our Native American consultants. I learned about their artistry, spirituality, their forgiveness, their incredible journey and strength.”

This is the fourth 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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