Directorial Insights Into "Ted Lasso," "Hacks"; A Showrunner's POV On "The Boys"
"Hacks" co-creator, EP, director, writer and producer Lucia Aniello (photo courtesy of Robyn Von Swank)
Editor reflects on "Mare of Easttown," production designer on "Bridgerton," director and DPs explore "City So Real"

A six-time BAFTA TV Award nominee and two-time winner (for the comedy series Father Ted on U.K.’s Channel 4 and Help from the BBC), director Declan Lowney has taken on a smattering of U.S. sitcom work over the years (American Housewife, Galavant, Teachers). But he broke through stateside in a major way this awards season with Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), for which the “Make Rebecca Great Again” episode earned him his first career Emmy nomination. He is one of three Ted Lasso nominees in the Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series category, the others being Zach Braff (for the “Biscuits” episode) and MJ Delaney (“The Hope That Kills You”). For its first season, Ted Lasso garnered 20 Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Lowney’s big American splash went beyond his season one directorial work on Ted Lasso. He for the first time took on supervising producer duties on the just wrapped season two of the series, along with directing select episodes.

Making the Ted Lasso experience particularly gratifying for Lowney is the nature of the show. Ted Lasso is a departure from the comedy norm, managing to be funny while containing what the director refers to as “a bit of heart and soul” It is in essence a comedy carrying the extra dimension of meaning and purpose. It’s not a purpose rooted in a social issue but rather the power of kindness--so much so that the series won a Peabody Award a couple of months ago.

Peabody jurors described Ted Lasso as “a smart, funny, captivating celebration of good-heartedness.” Jason Sudeikis portrays the title character, a folksy American college football coach who is enticed to the U.K. to lead a down-on-their luck Premiere League soccer team. The show’s heart comes from the quietly radical way that Lasso, a man in a position of power, chooses kindness at every turn without sacrificing his authority. He coaches a highly competitive group of athletes to perform at the highest level by embracing vulnerability, empathy and decency. Peabody judges characterized Lasso as “affecting change by being a deeply good human, one with his own quiet anxieties and pain. The Apple TV+ series is the perfect counter to the enduring prevalence of toxic masculinity, both on-screen and off, in a moment when the nation truly needs inspiring models of kindness.”

Being supervising producer brought Lowney closer to the writers, other directors and afforded him the chance to watch them work. “It was great to see how different everybody is, the approaches they take,” related Lowney, who added tongue-in-cheek that he enjoyed the opportunity to see “how insecure and troubled all us directors are underneath it all.”

Lowney further quipped that he logged onto an Emmy predictions website, which listed him as a long shot at best to win. That takes the pressure off, he noted, adding that he won’t have to face the “terror” of making a speech, recalling how difficult it was to wax eloquent when he had to go on stage and accept the aforementioned BAFTA TV Awards.

Lowney’s work extends beyond TV comedy series (including U.K. stalwarts Little Britain and Cold Feet) to features (Alan Partridge) and commercials which include the famed Warburtons bread campaign featuring such notables as Sylvester Stallone, The Muppets, Peter Kay, Robert De Niro and most recently George Clooney. Lowney is repped in the U.K. ad arena by production house Merman; his U.S. spotmaking roost is Minted Content. Lowney’s commercialmaking has won a Cannes Grand Prix, Gold and Silver Lions, D&AD Pencils, British Arrows and Kinsale Sharks.

Lowney observed that his commercial directing has informed his TV series work and vice versa. For example, his TV endeavors with star performers helped him to dovetail nicely with celeb/dialogue fare for Warburtons and the like. Conversely the painstaking detail to imagery in commercials has enabled him to better infuse his TV shows with visually sophisticated sensibilities. Agonizing over images in commercials, giving rich visual layers to the work, is necessary in that audiences see this work repeatedly. Similarly with streaming becoming prominent, people are seeing TV shows over and over again, meaning that ambitious visuals become more important in engaging audiences over multiple viewings.

Additionally, Lowney’s experience dealing with different creatives and clients on commercialmaking projects helped him more easily transition to the layers of professionals, including execs and writers, that he encountered in American television. In the U.K., the modus operandi normally entails a tight core trio of the director, writer and producer. Being used to dealing with the creative director, the client, a full agency team was a structure, observed Lowney, akin to the U.S. TV business.

Another parallel between the TV series and ad disciplines, continued Lowney, is the need for stellar work to have a strong creative leader. Lowney observed that Sudeikis, a driving force behind Ted Lasso, is “bloody brilliant,” analogous to a great creative director at an ad agency. “When you meet a great creative brain, you want to engage it, see how that brain works,” said Lowney. “It’s great to get inside a great mind and work together to create something.” (Sudeikis is nominated for three Emmys for Ted Lasso--Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and two writing nods.)

Also essential is to have a strong collaborative team. Via Zoom and phone calls, for instance, Lowney connected with editor Melissa McCoy for the first time on Ted Lasso. In fact she just earned her first Emmy nomination for cutting “Make Rebecca Great Again,” the same episode that landed Lowney his directorial Emmy nod. “Melissa is a special talent who knows the show very well, winning an ACE (Eddie Award) for this episode. I came out of a cutting room background. I understand you need to get this, this and this so that the editor has options. I felt I gave her the material she needed. She worked some magic with the material.”

Lowney is slated to relocate to L.A. in September to explore further directorial opportunities--in TV, features and commercials as well as branded content. Lowney had initially taken up residency in the U.S. before the pandemic hit. He started to build some commercialmaking momentum with an assignment for the Georgia Lottery, his first project via Minted Content. But when the COVID-19 crisis escalated, Lowney and his family moved back across the Atlantic, putting his push for American work on the backburner. Now he’s looking to rekindle that stateside spark.

Lucia Aniello
While she scored her first three Emmy nominations on the strength of Hacks (HBO Max)--for Outstanding Comedy Series, Directing and Writing for a Comedy Series (with fellow co-creators Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky)--Lucia Aniello found herself more moved and excited by the show’s dozen other nods. That’s because they brought much deserved recognition to varied often unsung artists. “The show was kind of a late entry to the whole Emmy thing,” she related, crediting Hacks’ success and its overall tally of 15 Emmy nods to “the fact that so many departments and so many people poured so much into the show.” 

Among those nominees were cinematographer Adam Bricker, editors Jessica Brunetto, Susan Vaill, ACE and Ali Greer, production designer Jon Carlos, costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager, re-recording mixers John W. Cook II and Ben Wilkins, production mixer Jim Lakin, and casting directors Jeanne McCarthy, CSA and Nicole Albellera Hallman, CSA.

Aniello had worked with several of these colleagues prior to Hacks such as casting directors McCarthy and Hallman on the feature Rough Night starring Scarlett Johansson. Aniello, who was director/producer/writer on Rough Night, cited McCarthy and Albellera Hallman’s affinity for finding “so many gems” in casting, including comedian Hannah Einbinder who had never acted before. In Hacks, Einbinder portrays Ava Daniels, a Gen Z comedy writer in Los Angeles whose career is in jeopardy over an insensitive off-the-cuff tweet. Desperate for an industry job, she finds an unlikely gig through her agent--writing contemporary, youth appeal material for legendary Las Vegas vet and stand-up comedy diva Deborah Vance who’s played by Jean Smart. 

The chemistry between the protagonists is a driving force behind the show. Their wide-ranging performances take us from the comedic to the dramatic and places in-between. This acumen for naturally blending laughs and pathos while generating empathy for the characters is a testament to Smart and Einbinder who are nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress and Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, respectively. 

Aniello noted that she has long loved Smart, observing that whether it’s Frasier or The Brady Bunch Movie, she always “delivers a performance that should be enshrined in some way.” As of late, the comedic actor has demonstrated her dramatic chops in Legion, Watchmen, and Mare of Easttown. The latter earned Smart another Emmy nomination this year for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series. 

Hacks marked the sixth career Emmy nomination for casting director McCarthy who along with Albellera Hallman won the honor in 2016 for American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Albellera Hallman is a five-time Emmy nominee.

Aniello also collaborated with editor Brunetto previously on such shows as Broad City, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, and Time Traveling Bong. Brunetto cut multiple episodes of Hacks, including the pilot, “There Is No Line,” for which she earned the Emmy edit nomination. That same episode garnered Aniello her directing and writing Emmy nods. Given their track record of working together, Aniello naturally gravitated to Brunetto for the Hacks pilot. Aniello said of Brunetto, “She’s a filmmaker herself” and from the outset understood what the series creators were going for.

Editors Vaill and Greer collaborated with Aniello for the first time on Hacks. The writer-director was drawn to their talent and dedication, saying it was gratifying to bring them into the fold. Vaill’s editing nod came for the second episode, “Primm,” which too was directed by Aniello. Greer’s Emmy nom came for “Tunnel of Love,” episode 7, directed by Desiree Akhavan.

The Emmy nods for Hacks were the first for each of the three editors.

Hacks also marked Aniello’s first collaborations with DP Bricker, production designer Carlos and costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager. Aniello was a fan of Bricker’s work, citing such series as American Vandal and Chef’s Table. The latter earned Bricker his first Emmy nomination back in 2018. Hacks marks his second nod. Aniello credited him with being instrumental in making Hacks look quite different from any comedy series. 

As for Carlos, Aniello pointed to the production designer’s attention to tiny details that viewers might not notice but could subconsciously feel, giving additional layers and dimension to the characters. She lauded Carlos for putting so much thought into character and story development. 

Meanwhile Felix-Hager’s prior credits included Veep and Space Force, and Aniello marveled over her “uncanny ability to find and source costumes.” And if she couldn’t find the perfect outfit for the character of Vance, Felix-Hager designed it herself--an example being the gold sequin two-piece worn by the stand-up comic in the season one finale. 

Felix-Hager broke into the Emmy nominees circle with Hacks, scoring in the Outstanding Contemporary Costumes category. And Carlos now has two career Emmy nominations, the first coming as an art director on Westworld in 2020. 

Re-recording mixer Cook II scored his 22nd career Emmy nomination with Hacks. He won an Emmy in 2008 for his contributions to Scrubs. Hacks marks the second career Emmy nom for re-recording mixer Wilkins, the first coming in 2003 for Live from Baghdad. Wilkins won an Oscar in 2015 for his work on Whiplash. Production mixer Lakin scored his first career Emmy nod for Hacks.

Among the challenges that Aniello faced on Hacks was working and adapting during the pandemic. Aniello’s roots are as a stand-up and improv performer, which translates into a directing style she described as being “emotive.” She explained, “That’s one way I’m able to get across what I’m trying to say to the actors.” But the performers could only see her eyeballs when she was wearing a face mask and a shield. Instead of relying on facial reactions to convey her direction, she had to relate in words what she wanted. Aniello noted that while keeping everyone safe on set is paramount for her, she felt masking may have caused her to lose “a little bit of the humanity of what I feel directing is.”

Zoom meetings among the writers also were marked by a sense of loss. She missed no longer being able to joke and hang around with writing colleagues in person. Aniello said that when you’re on Zoom, you feel you’re on the clock and have to be pretty much all business. Thus the goofing-around banter was eliminated, off-the-cuff exchanges that under normal circumstances could serve as a catalyst for ideas, comedy and other elements that help to tell a story.

Still, Hacks has managed to resonate with viewers. Aniello was excited to find out that older people feel connected to the show, in large part due to Smart’s portrayal of Vance, who’s cool, sexy, funny and a bit of a hard-ass who says what she thinks. Vance is also relatable as a person who’s surrounded by laughter and audiences professionally but by contrast isolated in a big mansion in her personal life.  “I didn’t quite foresee how much the show would resonate with older people. It’s really satisfying that we are portraying somebody of a certain age so well.” Aniello noted that she’s written 25-year-old characters most of her life but to be able to portray Vance has been a true gift.

In addition to being co-creator, an executive producer, director and writer on Hacks, Aniello currently serves as exec producer and director on Comedy Central’s Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, and writer, exec producer and director on Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club starring Alicia Silverstein and Mark Feuerstein. Season two of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens will premiere on August 18. The Baby-Sitters Club has also been renewed for its second season.

Meanwhile in the offing is season two of Hacks. But more immediate on the schedule is a wedding. In September Aniello is getting married to Hacks’ co-creator Downs who in the show also portrays Jimmy, talent agent for Vance and Daniels. Aniello and Downs are partners both in life and creatively, the latter connection being through their production company Paulilu Productions.

Eric Kripke
The Boys (Amazon Prime) are back in the Emmy nominees’ circle. Garnering one nod (Sound Editing) in season one, The Boys this time around upped that tally to five in the show’s second year--for Outstanding Drama Series, Writing for a Drama Series, Sound Mixing, Special Visual Effects and Original Music and Lyrics.

Series creator/showrunner/head writer Eric Kripke is enthused over the recognition from Television Academy voters. “I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve worked on projects that have sort of lived under the radar. I do not take for granted this moment and am relishing and appreciating every second. I know intimately how rare this is. It’s really gratifying that the project I love the most and consider closest to my own sensibilities and sense of humor has gotten this reaction.

The Emmy nominations also underscore that Kripke and his colleagues were up to the challenge inherent in a show that enjoyed success its first season. “I felt the pressure to deliver a second season that was at least as good and hopefully better than season one. I felt the pressure to not be a one-hit wonder.” Kripke knew going in to avoid what he described as “a rookie showrunner mistake” which is to try to somehow make the show bigger, to give the audience more. Having had prior experience showrunning, Kripke realized that going bigger is “an unsustainable path--even if you eke out a win in season two, you’re dead in season three.”

Rather than go bigger, the tact to take is to “go deeper,” related Kripke, which means thinking harder about the characters you’ve established, delving deeper into their psychology, their nuances.

Kripke did just that, bringing further dimension to the show, which is based on the best-selling comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. The premise involves popular superheroes who have gone awry, abusing their superpowers instead of using them for the greater good. But when Hughie Campbell (portrayed by Jack Quaid) suffers a devastating loss due to the recklessness of a superhero, he teams with Bill Butcher (Karl Urban) and The Boys to seek out vigilante-style justice.

The ensemble cast on The Boys includes Urban, Quaid, Laz Alonso, Tomer Capon and Karen Fukuhara as the title vigilante characters, and Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Chace Crawford, Jessie T. Usher, Aya Cash and Nathan Mitchell as members of the superhero group “Seven.”

Kripke credits his own core of assembled hero talent on The Boys with the show’s success, including fellow Emmy nominees such as VFX supervisor Stephan Fleet, composer/lyricist Christopher Lennertz, lyricist Michael Saltzman, re-recording mixers Alexander Fehrman and Rich Weingart, and writer/EP Rebecca Sonnenshine.

It was on a show called Timeless that Kripke first met Fleet. “Even then, he was the best VFX supervisor I had ever worked with,” assessed Kripke. “He is an artist at creatively engaging with how best to pull off a beautiful effect, and has the knowledge and wherewithal to execute it with various artists around the globe.” Kripke noted that Fleet “probably has as much creative input into The Boys as anybody, including the director and DP. When it comes time for a big visual effect, I have such faith in him to pull it off.”

Timeless was also the project on which Kripke had crossed paths with re-recording mixers Alexandra Fehrman and Rich Weingart, CAS. Kripke noted that he got to know both much better through The Boys. “They had to tolerate me talking from the back of the room, making requests like ‘I want that head explosion to feel much wetter.’”

Kripke had an extensive track record with composer/lyricist Lennartz going into The Boys. Kripke and Lennartz went to college together and are good friends. “With one or two exceptions, he’s scored anything I’ve ever done,” said Kripke who described Lennartz as “a musical chameleon, delivering a wide creative range of songs, including being able with that work “to reflect the insanity of our pop culture reality.” His contributions to The Boys have been substantive and in tandem with lyricist Saltzman on the nominated song “Never Truly Vanish” for “The Big Ride” episode.  Saltzman, a season two writer, stepped up to tackle the lyrics challenge. “We were talking about the song,” recollected Kripke, “and out of nowhere Michael says, ‘I’ve written some songs. I can help write it.” Saltzman helped come up with lyrics that were the right kind of funny for the show.

Like Saltzman, writer/exec producer Sonnenshine first collaborated with Kripke on The Boys. “As showrunner I work closely with a lot of people but really closely with the writers. We are locked in a room for hours and hours. She put so much heart and soul into that script (the nomination is for the ‘What I Know’ episode).” Kripke said Sonnenshine is “such a talented writer, so good at finding the humanity in the genre.”

The Boys also brought a new dynamic to Kripke’s writing. “I was a little reticent to add my own personal perspective about either politics or the world we live in into my work,” he related. “The Boys has sort of taught me that with the world we live in right now, if I’m lucky enough to have a platform and the right show to talk about it, I feel I have to. That’s not to say it’s about any political perspective one way or the other. But there is a lot of shit going on now. I don’t want to be the writer who puts his head in the sand.”

Through Stormfront (portrayed by Cash), a member of The Seven who’s a Nazi, for example, we are exposed to white nationalism and white supremacy, in some respects shedding light on the modern hate we see today, cloaked and camouflaged in freedom of speech garb online.

Kripke is grateful to be involved in a multi-dimensional show like The Boys. “When you’re lucky enough to be on a project where all the elements come together and  you really love it, just relish and appreciate every second. It will happen once in your career if you’re lucky; twice in your career if you’re ridiculously lucky. Squeeze every moment out of it while you have it.”

Amy E. Duddleston
This has been an eventful awards season for editor Amy E. Duddleston, ACE. She picked up both her first and second career Emmy nominations--for the first and second episodes of Mare of Easttown (HBO). Her two nominations--solo for episode one (“Miss Lady Hawk Herself”) and then bringing in Naomi Sunrise Filoramo for co-editing support on episode 2 (“Fathers”)--contributed to a total of 16 for Mare of Easttown (including Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series). Mare of Easttown stars Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan, a small-town Pennsylvania detective who investigates a local murder as life crumbles around her. Brad Ingelsby, who served as showrunner and EP, created and wrote the series which delves into the dark side of a close community and examines how family and past tragedies can define our present.

Mare of Easttown also stars Julianne Nicholson as Lori Ross, Mare’s best friend since childhood; Jean Smart as Helen, Mare’s mother; Angourie Rice as Siobhan Sheehan, Mare’s teenaged daughter; Evan Peters as Colin Zabel, the county detective called in to assist with Mare’s investigation; Guy Pearce as Richard Ryan, a local creative writing professor; David Denman as Frank Sheehan, Mare’s ex-husband; Joe Tippett as John Ross, Lori’s husband and high school sweetheart; Cailee Spaeny as Erin McMenamin, an isolated teen living with her volatile father; John Douglas Thompson as Chief Carter, Mare’s boss at the Easttown Police Department; Patrick Murney as Kenny McMenamin, Erin’s father; James McArdle as Deacon Mark Burton; and Sosie Bacon as Carrie Layden, Drew’s mother and Kevin’s ex-girlfriend; and Neal Huff as Mare’s cousin, Father Dan Hastings.

Winslet’s performance earned a lead actress Emmy nomination with supporting acting nods going to Nicholson, Smart and Peters. Duddleston was drawn to the story from the get-go. “It was just my kind of story about a woman and her life--with a murder mystery thrown into it. It’s very different from what you usually see. I worked on The Killing which was a little bit like that but Mare of Easttown went a lot deeper into the life of the detective while the whodunit remained very strong.”

Mare of Easttown marked the first time Duddleston collaborated with director/executive producer Craig Zobel. In an earlier installment of The Road To Emmy Series, Zobel explained to SHOOT that the approach to Mare of Easttown was to take on the limited series as if it were one big feature film, preserving a continuity of story by going solo throughout in key roles--such as Zobel being the lone helmer of all seven episodes, Ben Richardson the cinematographer, Amy E. Duddleston the editor and so on. 

This approach lent a best-of-both-worlds dynamic to the show. On one hand, a single creative artisan in each key discipline infused the project with a feature filmmaking feel. At the same time Mare of Easttown was not confined to a couple of hours on the big screen but rather had the luxury of some seven hours for character development and to create a portrait of a small town.

While Duddleston and Zobel both earlier worked on American God, they didn’t collaborate directly on that show as they were involved in different episodes. On Mare of Easttown they came together and developed a strong working rapport which helped do justice to the story and characters. 

Positive creative bonds were essential to weathering the pandemic storm. When the lockdown hit, none of the episodes had been completed. Two months worth of shooting remained. “The work stoppage was really shocking,” recalled Duddleston. “We had worked from October (2020) to March (2021) and then everything shut down. I was very worried. We wanted to see the show finish. We didn’t want it to end up on the shelf.”

The silver lining was that during supposed down time, Duddleston was up and active on the show, recutting and honing the material. “The super plus that came out of the whole thing was the luxury of time to work on it for as long as I did.” Duddleston said she, Zobel and Ingelsby were able to focus in on and further hone the story “to make it the best it could be.”

When production resumed, the material already captured had been refined and was ready to dovetail with new scenes. “They hadn’t shot anything with Guy Pearce before they shut down,” recollected Duddleston. Those scenes and that relationship added a whole new dimension to Mare’s character which was exciting to see come together, said the editor.

And of course due to COVID-19 production protocols, shooting and the configuration of a number of scenes had to be altered from what had been originally planned.

Duddleston found herself editing much of Mare of Easttown from home. “I edited seven episodes of a TV show in my house, in my dining room. I found out that was doable. Not to be glib, but ‘wow.’ I’m still shocked that we got it done and am happy it turned out the way it did.”

Despite the success of cutting at home, Duddleston still missed the dynamic of physically being with others. “Not being in that edit room, not being with other people--it wasn’t optimal. I like being in a room with people working, the collaboration behind all that work. I definitely missed it. It feels empty, that little pieces are missing from the experience.”

Filling that void in part are the two Emmy nods which Duddleston regards as “a tremendous honor” in that they reflect the judgment of her peers. 

Will Hughes-Jones
Production designer Will Hughes-Jones is also in the midst of an awards season to remember as Bridgerton (Netflix) has landed him his first Emmy nomination as well as his first British Film Designers Guild Award nod. He shares both noms with art director Dominic Devine and set decorator Gina Cromwell.

The first series to come out of Shonda Rhimes’ exclusive development deal with Netflix, Bridgerton tallied a total of 12 Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Drama Series. The show takes us back to 1813 in Regency-era England when ladies and gentlemen of means and royal blood try to find true love--or at least a tolerable spouse. On the lookout for a soul mate in the matrimonial market is Daphne Bridgerton, a debutante (portrayed by Phoebe Dynevor) who’s a daughter of a widowed viscountess. 

While true to the period--as captured in the series of romance novels penned by Julia Quinn which inspired the show, with liberties taken by its creator and showrunner, Shondaland vet Chris Van Dusen--Bridgerton offers a dramatic departure in terms of race as Black actors star as land-owning aristocracy including Simon Basset, aka the Duke of Hastings (played by Regé-Jean Page), who is Daphne Bridgerton’s love interest, and the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuvel). The notion of royalty being of diverse racial descent has historical roots as some in academia believe that the reigning Queen Charlotte at that time was of Portuguese and African ancestry.

Hughes-Jones described the series as a dream come true for a production designer. “It’s not your run-of-the-mill period piece,” he affirmed, explaining that while it may be set in an era, the series has a much more heightened look and feel, more colorful than what you would typically see on screen. The story has modern sensibilities which have to be meshed within a period piece context. Normally a period piece has rules to which a production designer must adhere. But Bridgerton, observed Hughes-Jones, incorporates pastiches of a period more than being an outright true period piece. “That allowed us to  open the floodgates and look at every different type of visual reference,” he said, affording his team the opportunity to delve into feature films of the 1950s and ‘60s, interior designers with contemporary overtones, and of course Regency era architects. 

Hughes-Jones praised art director Devine and set decorator Cromwell. The production designer has collaborated with Devine for many years, spanning such Starz series as The Spanish Princess and The White Princess. Bridgerton marks Devine’s first career Emmy nod. Hughes-Jones said of Devine, “He keeps me in check, seeing that I don’t spend too much money for starters.”  Devine, continued Hughes-Jones, “allows me to be creative and then knows when to say ‘enough creativity’ when it’s time to balance the books.” The two have a close working rapport, akin in some respects to the relationship Hughes-Jones enjoys with Cromwell whom he’s known for some 20-plus years. Many moons ago, Hughes-Jones worked as a buyer for Cromwell on varied features, then served as an art director in tandem with her as set decorator. Bridgerton marked the first time they teamed as production designer and set decorator, respectively. Hughes-Jones said he’s grateful that their schedules finally aligned on Bridgerton, noting that Cromwell is a world-class talent, a five-time Emmy nominee--three coming for Downton Abbey, and the other for Outlander

Among the challenges posed by Bridgerton is that the story takes place between April and August when in fact the first season was shot starting in July and extending into February. This translated into “a conundrum,” said Hughes-Jones as the series had to look like spring and summer. Maintaining accuracy relative to the seasons entailed such practices as placing blossoms on trees in December. Hughes-Jones even recalled an occasion when shooting took place outdoors in December, necessitating the use of blow heaters to defrost the garden. 

Hughes-Jones observed that with a series so ambitious, he and his team had to live up to that ambition. For him, the experience of season one carried “a very big lesson,” namely that “anything is possible. So often you are restricted by your own worries. With this show we threw caution to the wind, I allowed myself to be as big as I could possibly think. That’s a great lesson for any designer when they get to the point where they feel comfortable enough to actually do that.”

At press time Hughes-Jones was engaged in season two, dealing with the world of COVID. While that circumstance can be taxing, the overall experience on the series has first and foremost been quite gratifying. Part of that gratification was bringing Devine and Cromwell together as collaborators for the first time. Hughes-Jones is fairly certain that it won’t be the last time--whether he’s working with them or not. The production designer added, though, that he would welcome them all uniting again, tapping into the creative camaraderie they established and are enjoying on Bridgerton.

Steve James, Jackson James
Steve James, a two-time Oscar nominee (film editing for Hoop Dreams in 1995; and Best Documentary Feature for Abacus: Small Enough to Jail in 2018), picked up two Emmy nominations last month, giving him three career nods. His two current noms are for City So Real (National Geographic) which is up for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, and Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program. (James’ first Emmy nomination came in 2019 for producing Minding the Gap, which was recognized in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category.)

For James the current cinematography nod is special in that he shares it with his son, Jackson James. This marks the younger James’ first Emmy nomination. 

Steve James served as director-producer-cinematographer-editor on City So Real. In recent years he has done a lot more lensing for his documentaries but added, “I am not a DP by training as Jackson can tell you.” Jackson by contrast is steeped in shooting experience, leading to him taking on his highest profile cinematography assignment to date in City So Real, which provides a deep-dive portrait of Chicago and its people.

As earlier reported in SHOOT, Steve James, Jackson James and his producer/sound recordist colleague Zak Piper had long wanted to chronicle the dynamics of Chicago, their home town--and in many respects show how it reflects the country as a whole. But they were waiting for that point in time when the city found itself at a critical crossroads. The mayoral election two-plus years ago was that pivotal moment. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to seek re-election, it triggered, said Steve James, “the most wide open mayoral election in Chicago’s history” with 21 candidates in the running and the city’s future in the balance. The series begins in mid-summer 2018 when Emanuel, embroiled in accusations of a cover-up related to the police shooting of an African-American teenager, Laquan McDonald, shocks the city by announcing he won’t seek a third term as mayor.

Steve James, Jackson James and Piper thus began their documentary odyssey which was originally to have yielded a feature film but given the sheer scope of what was covered became a docuseries. City So Real wound up garnering acclaim at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Back then, the series consisted of four hourlong episodes. But then the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd happened, creating the need for a fifth hour. What made City So Real an even more compelling series was that the first four hours provided a context and fuller understanding as to how Chicago coped with--and why it responded the way it did to--the pandemic and social injustice.

Like much of Steve James’ cinema verite work, many insights come from everyday people. This stems, he said, from “a real belief in the wisdom of regular people,” particularly those who often aren’t paid attention to or who normally get short shrift. Part of Steve James’ original inspiration for City So Real was Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May), documentarian Chris Marker’s 1963 film that takes us inside Paris. Le Joli Mai features both verite scenes and revealing conversations with everyday Parisians. This serendipitous approach to capturing Paris provided a creative spark for City So Real as the filmmakers were open to people they ran across wherever a given day’s shooting would lead them.

When a mayoral candidate, for instance, campaigned at a restaurant, Steve James opted to microphone the waitress and the campaign worker assigned to get patrons to sit down with the candidate. This gave a dimension that typically wouldn’t be captured to a political campaign as the candidate became a footnote with everyday folks instead in the spotlight--revealing far more about what makes Chicago tick.

Jackson James did yeoman duty on City So Real, lensing locations that captured the spirit of the city and then being on the frontline of protests for racial equality, among myriad other verite venues. “It was a little scary to be in big crowds of people in the middle of a pandemic,” said Jackson James who explained that protesters weren’t always enamored with the media and camera operators in general. Could a cameraperson be there to identify protesters rather than to report what’s happening to the public at large. On occasion, recalled Jackson James, protesters chanted at him, asking that he leave. “At times it didn’t feel good,” said the DP who nonetheless continued to capture the goings on, spurred on by a sense of purpose and the need to tell Chicago’s story.

Jackson James became deeply drawn to verite-style shooting over the course of City So Real, marking his transition to what he described as “a process of filmmaking that is all about instinct, relationships and compassion,” trying to find and tell the story as it’s unfolding.

Steve James interjected, “Shooting verite well is not easy.” He noted that the cinematographer has to be truly listening and paying attention--not just looking for shots but also mindful of what an editor needs. “It was clear to me that it was fine to let Jackson go out on his own. He really has learned how to do this in a really beautiful way.”

The filmmakers behind City So Real all reside in Chicago or nearby. Steve James affirmed, “The experience of making this series made me love the city and its people more than I already did. Even though this series certainly takes an unvarnished look at what’s going on in the city, the passion its people have for this city is unmistakable. For a city beset with problems like a lot of American cities, we still came away with the hope that we will get through all this and it will be okay because people care so much about the city and the issues that are driving Chicago.”

Editor’s note: This is the 13th installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of 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 on September 11 and 12, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

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