A Directorial POV On "Yellowjackets"; Showrunner and VFX Supervisor Takes On "blackish" and "Squid Game," Respectively
Karyn Kusama, EP on "Yellowjackets" and director of its pilot episode
An editor's perspective on "Lucy and Desi"; production designers delve into "The Great" and "Gaslit"

Karyn Kusama said she was driven to direct the pilot for Yellowjackets (Showtime) by its premise, a healthy degree of narrative uncertainty, and the prospect of looking at women during different stages of their lives.

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.

Kusama, who also served as an executive producer on Yellowjackets, related that taking on a pilot as a director can sometimes mean committing to a show not knowing where it’s headed. “Yellowjackets was one of those shows,” she said, noting that “the pilot essentially asks so many questions that remain unanswered. What really hooked me when I spoke to Ashley, Bart and Drew (EP Comins) about where it was headed as a season of storytelling, they were bold about their answer. ‘We don’t answer a lot of big questions even in the first season,’ was their response. That had guts. It took narrative courage. I also liked the idea that we were looking at middle-aged women and seeing a component of their identity through this teenage lens.”

Kusama also embraced the opportunity to set the tone for Yellowjackets--which is the first job and responsibility of any pilot director. She was drawn to telling the story--and doing justice to it--on two levels. One one hand, it was “a little bit like a war story, seeing the effect in adulthood of enduring a deeply traumatic extended experience at a younger age. But beyond the war story, said Kusama, was “the almost uncanny dark humor that emerges from sharing a traumatic experience together. You almost speak the same language or understand something about each other that no one else could understand. You’ve been to the same hellish place together. There’s something strangely really positive among these women. They share something that’s bonded them and potentially made them stronger.”

Kusama’s made her first major career splash with Girlfight, nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for best first feature in 2001. A year earlier at Sundance, Girlfight won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Directing Award. Other highlights in her filmography include The Invitation, Destroyer which was in the running for best feature at the 2018 London Film Festival, and Jennifer’s Body, an underappreciated movie which in recent years has gained recognition as a classic bit of filmmaking. On the TV side, Kusama’s credits span such series as The Man in the High Castle, Billions, Halt and Catch Fire, Casual and Masters of Sex.

Kusama gravitated to cinematographer Julie Kirkwood to shoot the Yellowjackets pilot. Kirkwood lensed Kusama’s last feature, Destroyer. “I consider her an important part of my creative team,” affirmed Kusama, crediting the DP with doing “a beautiful job of setting a look for a show that could kind of live with a lot of darkness, shadows--setting the stage for the sunlit wilderness world that we were going to see in season one.” Kusama recalled some of the images Kirkwood sent her early on when in prep on Yellowjackets, including haunting domestic scenes--like hair left in a hairbrush sitting on a counter in the sunlight, “the kind of images that had a sense of larger story beyond the frame, mashing the world of domestic details with a more epic, potentially sinister reality.”

Yellowjackets 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.”

Courtney Lilly
A writer and co-executive producer in the first season, becoming an EP several years later, and then showrunner in season 6, Courtney Lilly has been in on black-ish (ABC) from the beginning all the way through its eighth and final season, which recently came to a close. 

Kenya Barris, creator of black-ish, has seen the show earn exhibit status at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., as well as a Peabody Award in 2016.

Lilly, who views himself as a writer first, reflected on the series, noting that it never lost sight of the importance of getting laughs. “Comedy was a very big part of what we did--especially early on. You can’t have any kind of a message if people aren’t watching. This was very much a comedy and we had an amazing cast out of the gate.”

But once establishing an audience and the characters, there was more freedom to explore other opportunities. Lilly said that the show was able to talk about “what’s really happening around dinner tables,” particularly in Black households, reflecting the American landscape, the universe we lived in through the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations. “The show reflected what was happening more than a lot of sitcoms,” noted Lilly who added that black-ish had the benefit of child actors who grew up before the audience’s eyes, progressing from being cute to having the talent to deliver impactful performances as young adults relating to issues of family and race.

The Peabody recognition takes the full package into account as its judges released a statement explaining why the award was bestowed. It read, “black-ish sits comfortably within several American TV traditions: It’s a traditional family comedy with parents who love each other deeply, despite their occasional bickering; it’s a warm, aspirational sitcom about a well-to-do family, the Johnsons, living the suburban dream; and it’s sometimes a workplace comedy full of odd characters, rapid-fire banter and goofy moments. It’s an entertaining and briskly paced comedy, but what sets black-ish apart is its determination to spend time in some uncomfortable places as well. It asks whether an upper-middle-class dad has an obligation to keep his kids connected to the working-class world he came from, and it examines whether different generations in one family can ever truly see eye to eye. But black-ish‘s serious side has to do with more than class and age. At a time when America is examining more deeply its troubled treatment of African-Americans, the Johnson family engages in a multitude of ways--some wry, some painful--with what it means to be Black in this country. Following in the footsteps of Norman Lear, black-ish creator Kenya Barris has his characters wrestle with issues of culture, bias and systematic oppression, all within the context of frequently acerbic and even hilarious scenarios. For bringing a set of unique characters to vivid, witty life and for wrestling with big questions with remarkable grace, heart and thoughtfulness, black-ish wins a Peabody Award.”

While black-ish can now be binge watched on Hulu--with the sheer number of episodes offering many points of entry for new and returning audiences--Lilly observed that there’s something to be said for the dynamic where a show is invited into people’s homes over time. “We’re a guest in your house every week,” said Lilly, making for a sort of familial connection, an investment in the characters over the long haul. Growing up on network television can be comforting, he assessed. It’s more constant and lasting than being relevant over a weekend of binge viewing. Families watching grew up as the television family grew up and evolved in black-ish.

Lilly saw season 8 as a celebration of the show, something that couldn’t be wrapped up in a final half-hour episode. He also welcomed a shorter order--13 episodes instead of the usual 20-plus of a typical season--to better focus and hone in on how to best say farewell and do justice to the black-ish legacy.

Lily is a four-time Emmy nominee for black-ish--part of the ensemble recognized for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2016, ‘17, ‘18  and ‘21. He is a two-time Writers Guild Award nominee--both coming in 2006 for episodes of Arrested Development and Everybody Hates Chris.

Cheong Jai-hoon
Making a major splash in terms of buzz and viewership this past year has been the dystopian Korean thriller Squid Game (Netflix) which centers on people who are so desperate for money that they consent to compete in a series of schoolyard games which carry potentially deadly consequences.

The series, created by its director Hwang Dong-hyuk, could make history as the first non-English project to be nominated in a major category at the Emmys. 

Among the many categories in which Squid Game merits Emmy consideration is visual effects. Boding well for that prospect is the Visual Effects Society (VES) Award nomination that Squid Game earned earlier this year. VFX supervisor Cheong Jai-hoon of Gulliver Studios in South Korea, spoke to SHOOT via an English-language translator, noting that he was gratified over the VES recognition. Jai-hoon added that he has a track record of collaboration with director Dong-hyuk spanning multiple projects including the feature film The Fortress.

Jai-hoon said the director came to him with Squid Game and was confident that Gulliver Studios could bring his directorial vision to life. As the prime VFX studio on Squid Game, Gulliver turned out about 80 percent of the series’ visual effects, including computer-generated imagery.

With the resounding success of Squid Game, Jai-hoon hopes that Gulliver as well as the overall VFX community in South Korea will get a boost in terms of interest in and business from the U.S. and internationally.

An Emmy nomination would further bolster prospects for South Korea’s effects industry. Jai-hoon said he hadn’t wrapped his head around the possibility of an Emmy nod--much less a win. But if a nomination comes to pass, he would regard it as a lifetime achievement.

Robert A. Martinez
Robert A. Martinez received primetime Emmy and ACE Eddie Award nominations last year for his cutting of The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. Among those he worked with on that documentary was White Horse Pictures, which proposed reuniting with him on a couple of films, including Lucy and Desi (Amazon Prime Video). Lucy and Desi explores the relationship between--and the lives of--Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Departing from the icon and legends treatment typically given to Ball and Arnaz, this documentary instead humanizes the famed couple.

While intrigued by Lucy and Desi, Martinez was initially hesitant to take on the documentary. The editor explained that he felt intimidated by the prospect of working on Ball’s life, reasoning that being a lone male editor, he probably had “tons of blind spots” that could get in the way of doing the job. But all that changed when he was told Amy Poehler was going to direct the film. “That closed the deal,” said Martinez, confident that Poehler’s vision would make up for any subconscious shortcomings on his part. “The idea of collaborating with someone like Amy who understands female comedians and is an amazing storyteller in her own right got me excited about getting involved. I felt I could build a relationship with her, we could be honest with each other and that she could clarify things for me. I knew it would be a collaborative environment with open dialogue.”

Martinez also served as a co-music supervisor on Lucy and Desi, teaming in that capacity with Dan Reed, an additional editor.

Among the prime challenges Lucy and Desi posed to editor Martinez was the temptation to focus too much on I Love Lucy. “We were dealing with two big protagonists--and then there was the potential third major protagonist, the TV show itself. This was not the I Love Lucy movie. However, the gravity of that beloved show could pull you in that direction.” Martinez had to stay true to the documentary’s intent--to focus on Ball and Arnaz’s love story, their partnership.”

Martinez saw it as “a modern love story before its time,” one that is very relatable today--a working couple trying to balance the relationship between family and career. That working couple scenario was not so common back in the day when Ball and Arnaz were grappling with how their work--arguably the most successful TV show of all time--impacted their personal lives and relationship.

Martinez found that Ball-Arnaz relationship fascinating--one that Poehler helped him delve into meaningfully. The editor said of Poehler, “She’s most interested in people, in people’s stories, figuring out who they are. We would talk about stuff that would never make it into the film--but it helped for us to just get into their heads a little bit as people. Amy was always available. Not only talented and a good person, she was all in on this. I never had trouble if I had a question or wanted to talk to her about something. She was completely engaged and made her schedule accommodating. Even with all that was on her plate, she was generous with her time.”

Beyond navigating through their personal and professional lives, Ball and Arnaz were a couple of mixed ethnicity, also not common during that era. Their relationship in the context of I Love Lucy was not only accepted, but fully embraced by American viewers. Additionally, while not seeing herself as a feminist, Ball brought many women under her wing, guiding them professionally. And Arnaz, a brilliant innovator and businessman in television, was successful in part because he saw things differently than others in the mainstream, perhaps in part due to his cultural upbringing and influences. As a Latin editor, Martinez affirmed, “It was a pleasure to tell his story.”

Francesca Di Mottola
Boding well for production designer Francesca Di Mottola’s Emmy prospects was an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award nomination she and her colleagues earned earlier this year for their work on the “Five Days,” “Dickhead” and “Wedding” episodes of The Great (Hulu). 

Loosely based on the life of Russian Empress Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), the series in season 2 posed its own unique set of challenges for Di Mottola. But under the heading of being prepared, the production designer put herself in a position during the first season to meet those challenges. Most of the sets constructed for season 1 had some kind of adaptable panel structure with which she could play around. Di Mottola could move those panels, deploying new paintings and backdrops within them. She was thus able to enliven existing spaces, repurpose rooms in the palace, turn sets into new rooms and adorn sets so that they took on a different feel in support of particular moments. In season 2, for instance, Catherine’s husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult) throws a baby shower in his apartments. For the occasion, Di Mottola could make the original space much more lavish thanks to the flexibility she had built into the set. 

While Kave Quinn served as production designer on the pilot, Di Mottola took over from there in the first season. Di Mottola’s orientation wasn’t about creating a beautiful palace but rather, she said, “spaces that reflected the characters.” Series creator Tony McNamara wanted each room to say something about its inhabitants, and Di Mottola embraced that approach and designed accordingly. While research certainly plays a part in her work on the show, Di Mottola noted that the designing of the palace was also “an intuitive process.” That was shaped by her intuition about the characters as well as character-defining discussions with McNamara.

The in-house construction team Di Mottola assembled in season 2 has returned for season 3. “They know the sets. It’s like talking to family,” she said, adding that many props are also created in-house, affording the production another custom-made advantage which again can complement and reflect both characters and their stories.

Among Di Mottola’s teammates on The Great were supervising art director Marcus Wookey and set decorator Monica Alberte. Both, said Di Mottola, made invaluable contributions to The Great. Wookey was on board for seasons 1 and 2. Alberte came aboard for season 2. Di Mottola noted that Alberte is half-Spanish, half-French and from Switzerland. She naturally brought an international look and feel to the proceedings. “She would find things all over the world. She had worked all over the world herself,” said Di Mottola of Alberte.

Coping with COVID concerns during the production reaffirmed for Di Mottola the value of having trusted, talented collaborators. “I’m lucky to work with incredible creative people--from the scenic artists to the sculptors to the art department. They all bring something amazing to the table.” Having to come that much closer together during the pandemic underscored how vital these working relationships are along with the opportunity to brainstorm with others--out of which spring completely different ideas that were unimagined before. It’s a dynamic that helps to make The Great great.

Daniel Novotny
While Gaslit (STARZ) is a modern take on Watergate that focuses on the untold stories and forgotten characters of the scandal, some of the environs that needed to be re-created for that ambitious narrative are incredibly memorable and indelibly etched in the minds of many viewers. That familiarity was among the prime challenges posed by Gaslit to production designer Daniel Novotny--the front-and-center example being constructing the famed Senate hearing room from which proceedings were televised. The decision was made not to just make a room that felt like the real room--but to match that authentic setting with dead-on accuracy.

Thankfully Novotny put together a core team that was up to the task, including supervising art director Rob Tokarz and set decorator Jennifer Lukehart. He credited the latter for having “a fantastic eye, an eye for reality.” Her desire to keep it real was coupled with an inner drive for excellence, said Novotny who went on to describe Tokarz as “an incredible orchestrator of people, keeping everyone on track, keeping me on track, all on the right path.” Tokarz not only has an artistic eye but an eye for budgets and balancing the numbers, added Novotny.

Gaslit marked Novotny’s first time working with Lukehart and Tokarz.  The production designer felt fortunate to land them, particularly at a time when TV activity was starting to ramp up and there was heavy competition for talent. He needed that talent to be expert and to develop a close rapport with each other in that the Senate hearing room was but one of nearly 160 environs they had to create for Gaslit. The scope of the show was enormous and there was “so much riding on this,” said Novotny, given the  marquee nature of the project. 

Produced by UCP, a division of Universal Studio Group, for STARZ, Gaslit had a stellar cast headed by Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell and Sean Penn as her husband, Attorney General John Mitchell. Martha Mitchell is a prime focus of the limited series, a big personality with a penchant for unfiltered talk, ultimately becoming the first “insider” to publicly sound the alarm on President Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, which caused his Presidency and her personal life to unravel. The Gaslit cast also included Dan Stevens as John Dean, Betty Gilpin as Mo Dean, Shea Whigham as G. Gordon Liddy and Darby Camp as Marty Mitchell.

Another challenge was COVID as the project came together at the height of concern, meaning that only so many could be in a room at the same time--and Zoom calls were prevalent. Penn took a stand by not coming to work until everyone was vaccinated, noted Novotny who respected the actor’s moral stance. Penn’s commitment to health and public safety went far beyond the set as he was at the helm of grass-roots volunteer/organizational efforts to get people vaccinated nationwide.

Helping cast and crew to deftly navigate through this at times daunting obstacle course, continued Novotny, were director/EP Matt Ross and first assistant director Gary Marcus. Both did their part to keep everything moving along in an intelligent, thoughtful safety-first yet productive manner. Novotny described Ross as “a really sharp director who was very good at collaborating. He was good at taking everyone’s points of view into consideration and making his own vision come through all of that.”
Gaslit is based on the first season of the critically acclaimed “Slow Burn” podcast. The series was created and executive produced by Robbie Pickering. Matt Ross directed and executive produced. Sam Esmail, via his overall deal with UCP, and Chad Hamilton served as executive producers under their production banner Esmail Corp. Roberts executive produced under her banner Red Om Films, along with co-executive producers Lisa Gillan and Marisa Yeres Gill. Anonymous Content and Slate’s Gabriel Roth and Josh Levin also executive produced. Leon Neyfakh, who created the podcast, consulted on the project. 

Novotny started out as an animator and illustrator who got into VFX and modelmaking. His VFX and strong drafting and drawing background have served him in good stead as an art director and then production designer. Among Novotny’s notable production design endeavors are two seasons of Gotham, the pilot and first two seasons of Outer Banks as well as an overlooked gem of a series, The Arrangement, and extensive work on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Novotny’s credits as an art director on the feature front include James Cameron’s Mars--IMAX 3D, and L.A. unit work on the Aaron Sorkin-directed Molly’s Game.

This is the third 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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