Mimi Leder has a rich Emmy history with nine nominations thus far--five for Best Director and four for Best Drama Series, the honored shows being ER, The West Wing and China Beach. The director/producer has won three Emmys--two for Best Drama Series (ER in 1995 and ‘96) and one for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (ER in ‘96, for the “Love's Labor Lost” episode). Her critically acclaimed work has since continued, spanning TV for example as director/EP on The Leftovers and the feature arena with the Humanitas Prize-winning On the Basis of Sex which she directed with a cast headed by Felicity Jones as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Now Leder is once again in the awards season banter with The Morning Show (Apple TV+), having directed multiple episodes including the first two and the season finale as well as serving as an exec producer. The series takes us behind the scenes of a morning TV network news show with a cast including Jennifer Aniston (a Golden Globe winner for her portrayal of Morning Show anchor Alex Levy), Reese Witherspoon (as field reporter Bradley Jackson, a TV star on the ascent) and Steve Carell (TV host Mitch Kessler who’s fired after news of his sexual abuses at the workplace broke in The New York Times). As the series unfolds, the complexity of the characters builds. Storylines are topical and carry a sense of purpose, relevant to the #MeToo movement with the sexual harassment aspect as women have to cope with a workplace where men abuse their power. (In The Morning Show, viewers have made parallels to the allegations against Matt Lauer and his dismissal from Today, for example.)
In SHOOT’s Cinematographers & Cameras feature story earlier this month, The Morning Show DP Michael Grady assessed, “It’s a tragic, sometimes weird story.” Grady added that he’s had women tell him they have been emotionally impacted by the show. To move both men and women with a story, he continued, is “pretty cool.” At the same time there are comedic elements that come into play. “If you’re going to make a 10-hour movie that brings out laughing, crying, all of that, then you’re onto something. That’s what makes this a really great job.”
For The Morning Show, Leder gravitated to some long-time collaborators, including Grady. They first worked together on the pilot for Jonny Zero (2006) in association with John Wells Productions. “We spoke the same language visually so I hired him. He and I have become a real team,” related Leder. “We finish each other’s sentences, which is kind of scary.” From Jonny Zero, Leder and Grady went on to team on finishing much stellar work, including perhaps most notably The Leftovers and On the Basis of Sex.
“I’m a very hands-on visual person,” continued Leder. “I see things immediately and what’s great about our collaboration is that he (Grady) makes me better.”
Leder and Grady had to maintain a balance between The Morning Show itself--the production realities of an a.m. news program, sometimes quite static and formal--and the filmic world where the characters reside. And above all, affirmed Leder, the challenge was to do justice to these characters and the storylines, particularly depicting “two strong women (characters Levy and Jackson) with very different ideologies trying to find their way in this ‘new normal.’” Leder said that artfully deploying dark, light and shadows helped “to speak to the complicated lives that these characters were leading,” particularly two women at very different junctures of their careers. Leder said she loves “to work from emotions and story” to find the visual feel of a show.
For The Morning Show, that entailed for Leder and Grady the desire, she said, “to push in and linger on the characters a little longer,” tapping into character emotions. “We wanted to linger a little longer than what was comfortable,” underscoring the uncomfortable nature of navigating through a world of sexual improprieties and the struggle for power.
This also translated into decisions to, for instance, change up the musical score at times. “We wanted to give the finale an operatic feel,” explained Leder. “Emotions worked their way up to a high level. The world felt operatic. The walls were coming down. We wanted to put opera in the show.” (Carter Burwell served as composer on The Morning Show. He’s a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Original Score (Carol in 2016 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018), and an Emmy winner for Original Dramatic Score on the Mildred Pierce miniseries.)
Among the many other artists Leder credited were editor Carole Kravetz Aykanian for her work on multiple episodes, an ensemble of writers headed by series creators Jay Carson and Kerry Ehrin, and series directorial compatriots including David Frankel, Kevin Bray, Roxann Dawson, Tucker Gates, Michelle MacLaren and the late Lynn Shelton.
“We set out to tell a story about this morning show world, a high stakes world with egos and power, dropping the #MeToo movement right into the middle of it,” said Leder. “These characters had to maneuver their way through this new world order. The takeaway is we successfully did that in the writing, through the directors as part of a group of artists telling that story.”
Leder believes that story “made people feel a lot of things. It made me feel a lot of things. People responded to it. That’s why I do it.”
Joanna Naugle, co-owner of Brooklyn-based Senior Post, had Ramy Youssef in the building. He was collaborating with editor Jennifer Lee on cutting the pilot for Ramy (Hulu). Drawn to Naugle’s work, series creator/showrunner/director/writer/lead actor Youssef asked her to serve as one of the editors on Ramy. At the time Naugle was cutting the HBO series 2 Dope Queens. She wound up cutting four episodes of Ramy that first season. Then for season two, she edited five more episodes, helped cut two others, and served as an overall supervising editor.
In a prior installment this month of SHOOT’s The Road To Emmy series, Youssef cited as invaluable his close-knit working relationship with Naugle, praising her level of “cool and temperament in the editing room.” For that reason, Youssef said he’s grateful to have Naugle as a colleague helping to shape the “editing voice” of the show. “She knows the takes I like, the timing I like.” Youssef affirmed, “She understands the show and me.”
Assorted viewers and critics have also come to not only understand the show but enjoy it--for its comedy, drama, emotional resonance and relevance. Appreciation of the show is reflected in Youssef winning the Golden Globe Award this past January for best actor in a comedy series. Last year, Ramy won the Audience Award for episodic fare at the SXSW Film Festival and was nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Breakthrough Series.
Youssef has additionally stepped up his directorial involvement in the show. He helmed one episode the first year, four this current Emmy-eligible season two.
Youssef portrays Ramy Hassan, a first-generation American Muslim who lives with his sister and Egyptian-immigrant parents in a politically divided New Jersey. He’s a twentysomething trying to find his way, coping with family pressure, looking to better define his religious beliefs and somehow balancing his old-world-values heritage with the desire to effectively assimilate. There’s a touching comedy to the pain and awkwardness of everyday life, brought on by his mix of good intentions and at times misguided, conflicted, crazy behavior.
For Naugle, among the prime challenges posed by season two was, she said, “Keeping Ramy likable. He makes a lot of bad choices in the first season and it gets worse in the second season. While some of those choices are well intentioned, they backfire on him.” Naugle noted it was important for the audience to “not be turned off by this person.”
That delicate balancing act is a recurring dynamic in Ramy. Naugle recalled as an example a season two episode cut by Matthew Booras (Naugle did a supervising pass on this episode titled “Atlantic City”). “It’s low-brow humor yet deals with real problems that people with disabilities have, shining a light on that. It’s about finding a humor in that while raising awareness,” said Naugle, noting that this pairing of comedy and empathy is part of the series’ nature.
This is what originally attracted Naugle to Ramy. “It’s what I love about Ramy’s work and how I felt seeing the pilot for the first time--how quickly his perspective will switch from serious to funny. I admire that. My favorite movie is Fargo where there’s a horribly devastating scene and then a switch to something absurd and funny. To pivot like this, and to do it well is remarkable. Our emotions aren’t always black and white. We got to experiment with this in our first two seasons (of Ramy).
Naugle also had the blessing of having two-time Oscar winner (Moonlight, Green Book) Mahershala Ali join the season two cast in a special guest role as a spiritual mentor to Hassan. Naugle said Ali’s character in the show is “so cool, calm and collected. He speaks with authority and charisma. You can understand why Ramy dives in so quickly to follow this guy.”
Ramy is produced by A24 with which Senior Post enjoys a collaborative track record, including on the aforementioned 2 Dope Queens. Among Naugle’s other notable credits are the Slamdance Film Festival-honored Kate Can’t Swim, the HBO comedy special Ramy Youssef: Feelings, and the HBO hybrid documentary/comedy Chris Gethard: Career Suicide. Naugle also cut this year’s John Krasinski-hosted comedy/reality TV series Some Good News for YouTube.
An accomplished documentarian whose credits include producing and directing Mitt (which tracked Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency), Most Likely To Succeed (nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival), Resolved (recipient of two News & Documentary Emmy nominations) and New York Doll (which debuted at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival), Greg Whiteley also served as creator/producer/director of Last Chance U, winner of an International Documentary Award for Best Episodic Series.
The latter in turn figured in the genesis of Cheer (Netflix), a series created, produced and directed by Whiteley that has attained pop culture status with its featured athletes appearing on Ellen and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Additionally Cheer has enjoyed social media fandom from such notables as Reese Witherspoon and Chrissy Teigan. The hit show has generated both a strong following and a strong Emmy buzz.
A documentary series centered on a champion cheerleading team at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. Cheer delves into these competitors’ lives, their dedication, their athleticism and a coach, Monica Aldama, whose leadership is a mesh of maternal and drill sergeant instincts.
It was while Whiteley was filming Last Chance U that he got a taste of the cheerleaders’ story and saw its documentary potential. Last Chance U introduced us to competitive junior college football programs that give troubled youngsters a chance at getting their lives on track and headed in a positive direction. In an attempt to make season two of that show unique, Whiteley recalled an episode which touched on tangentially related people, including band members and cheerleaders. “We checked out a cheerleaders practice and saw this strangely intense work with them performing stunts we never saw them do on the sidelines. They told us they would never do this on the sidelines--that they were saving these stunts for Daytona. ‘What’s Daytona?’ I asked. As soon as they explained it to me, I knew we had something worthwhile to explore.”
Daytona is in reference to the national collegiate cheerleading championship competition held in Daytona Beach, Fla. Cheer takes us to that world--and what it takes to get to that world. Whiteley said of the Navarro College cheerleaders, “They are the toughest athletes I’ve ever filmed--not to take anything away from the football players. But you see it when you understand the sacrifice that it takes to spawn an award-winning routine, the energy, the fight through injuries and pain. In Last Chance U, many of the athletes we would focus on had a Division 1 scholarship waiting for them if they could stay healthy and play well. If they were injured in practice or in a game, they would be held out. It wasn’t worth risking a Division 1 scholarship to win a junior college football game. But for cheerleaders, there’s nothing waiting for them past Daytona. There’s no professional circuit for cheerleading. Daytona is as big and as good as it gets. So there’s a cat-and-mouse game between the trainers, coaches and athletes. There’s a huge incentive to hide injuries, bruises, cracked ribs or a concussion. The pain threshold of these athletes is unbelievable.”
To cast believability, though, on the proceedings, Whiteley turned to a couple of cinematographers--Melissa Langer and Erynn Patrick. Whiteley had worked with both lensers on scout shoots, had gotten strong recommendations for both from trusted colleagues, and noted that he “wanted to hire women in these key roles (co-DPs of Cheer) for a number of reasons. I knew there was a chance that most of our main subjects would be women.”
Whiteley assessed of the DPs’ contributions, “It (Cheer) is beautifully shot. It’s exquisite cinematography. And you can see how close and intimate they were able to get during some extremely impactful athletic moments. Shooting Cheer is tricky. You never know when there will be a moment, when the character or the story will turn. In ways it was similar to Last Chance U--the length of practices, very physically demanding work. We were blessed with two women with the physical constitution to do this kind of work. There are very few people who can do this kind of shooting. We were blessed with their stamina and artistic eye so that the images have a poetry, a beauty to them, capturing documentary moments.”
Whiteley added that strength and stamina came not just from the DPs but the crew as a whole. The level of required stamina was in a sense fostered by the Cheer subjects. “All of us,” affirmed Whiteley, “drew a lot of inspiration from Monica and the cheerleaders, and how they went about pushing through adversity, making physical and mental sacrifices to produce the very best routine that they could.”
This is the seventh installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).