Directorial Reflections On "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," "Genius: Aretha," "PEN15"
In the foreground on the set of "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," Kari Skogland (l) directs Sebastian Stan (photo courtesy of Disney+)
DP, EP and production designer insights also shared on shows in the Emmy Awards season conversation

Race, nationalism, the notion of what constitutes a hero--these substantive topics along with the chance to as a solo woman director take on a Marvel Studios property, typically the province of male helmers, were among the compelling factors that spurred Kari Skogland to take on the series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+).

Also drawing her to the show--for which she also served as an executive producer--was the opportunity to direct all of its six episodes as Marvel approached The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as if it were a feature film. This fosters an authorship dynamic for the director who in turn was able to bring what she described as “a consistent throughline” to the material and themes. Skogland observed that you could be shooting a scene one week which sheds light on what the same character does three weeks down the road in another episode. Being able to embrace that knowledge up front as a director of a project throughout lends a dimension to the narrative. A director can thus experience and inform a character throughout the course of a show--more akin to what an empathetic actor can do when developing a character over time.

The story centers on Sam Wilson (portrayed by Anthony Mackie), aka The Falcon, and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Winter Soldier. Sam is grappling with a seeming passing of the gauntlet which took place in  the final moments of the feature film Avengers: Endgame in which Steve Rogers gives his iconic Captain America shield to Sam. As a Black man, Sam has to grapple with the prospect of becoming Captain America, defending and championing a country which hasn’t championed the Black community. Bucky, who’s been a killing machine for years, also is in a coping mode, dealing with the trauma of his past. A chemistry emerges between the two characters cut in some respects from the same cloth as the bond between white and Black buddy protagonists reminiscent of The Defiant Ones or Lethal Weapon. While delving into these issues and internal struggles, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also is a wildly robust action-adventure ride in the spirit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Skogland deftly balances all these elements, adding an expanded view of heroism. While Rogers’ Captain America came out of World War II as a much needed response to fascism, today’s warrior heroics extend to others of service such as first responders and frontline workers. Skogland explained that a hero is now defined across a much broader continuum and that view of the greater good is infused into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier narrative. The series is very much in sync with the time we’re living in, opening a conversation up about race, nationalism, what is true patriotism and heroism, what qualifies someone to be a leader or a hero to others.

Skogland said that being able to explore these topics and themes was very gratifying, and that she and her colleagues were encouraged to do just that thanks to the support and commitment of the Marvel team.” Everyone involved, she continued, embraced the importance of the story, motivated by a sense of purpose. The objective, she related, is to leave people willing to debate and to have conversations. “Our job is not to tie it up with a nice little bow,” said Skogland. “Our job is to open doors and leave them open for people to walk through and discuss.”

Among Skogland’s compatriots on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was cinematographer PJ Dillon. The two have an impressive track record together. In fact for Skogland-directed episodes of  Vikings and The Rook, Dillon earned ASC Award nominations in 2015 and 2010, respectively. Skogland described Dillon as “extraordinary and super creative,” adding that, like her, Dillon “really dives into the research and finds nuggets for inspiration in deep, dark crevices.” Skogland noted, “He listens really well and takes whatever ideas I have and makes them better. Hopefully I take his ideas and make them better too.” 

Dillon proved instrumental on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, continued Skogland, for which scenes were always shot from a particular character’s perspective. An objective camera was not deployed. Skogland also cited Dillon’s talent to “paint with light in such a subtle way.”

In addition to the ASC nominations, Dillon garnered an Emmy nod in 2018 for an episode of The Alienist. Skogland too is an Emmy nominee--in 2017 for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series on the strength of the pivotal “After” episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. The next year she won a BAFTA Award and a DGA of Canada Award for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale.

Over the years, Skogland’s body of work spans such shows as Boardwalk Empire, Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, The Borgias, House of Cards, Power, The Americans and The Loudest Voice--as well as Sons of Liberty for which she won the Directors Guild of Canada Award in 2016 for best director of a TV miniseries. That same year she also earned a Directors Guild of Canada honor for her work on Vikings. In addition to directing, she was an EP on The Loudest Voice and Sons of Liberty.

Skogland’s career reach extends beyond television. For example Skogland’s feature film Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008), starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, won the Canadian Screen Award for her Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for an additional six awards including Best Film. Skogland’s prior feature as director, writer and producer was The Stone Angel—starring Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Page—which was nominated for Best Picture and Director by the Directors Guild of Canada, and Best Screenplay by the Writers Guild of Canada.

Anthony Hemingway, Tim Galvin
Anthony Hemingway explained that he was drawn to the prospect of serving as director/EP on Genius: Aretha (National Geographic) simply on the strength of “two words: ‘Aretha Franklin.” Hemingway was deeply motivated by the opportunity to tell her true story, to bring human dimension to someone he had long admired. Citing her tenacity and activism, Hemingway said of Franklin, “She was the true embodiment of what I feel artists are supposed to be and do--to use our gives for something good, to bring awareness to the world we live in. She did that so beautifully, was so attuned to her gift, the times she lived through. She wanted to help bring healing to her community and to the world at large.”

Hemingway described Franklin, universally dubbed The Queen of Soul, as “a true genius” whose music made lasting and transformative contributions to society. To this day, he related, “I can walk down the street and hear people of all ages and different classifications rocking out to Aretha.”

Still, there’s an inherent challenge in delving fully into the life of a real person. “She was loved by all but often only seen as a celebrity. You need the right sensitivity and approach to humanizing that person as well as honoring and celebrating her legacy,” related Hemingway who affirmed that he found the ideal ally and talent to help him in that pursuit, Cynthia Erivo who portrayed Franklin. “She is phenomenal, an extremely talented, smart, giving, supportive artist and from day one we both wanted to make sure that we found who Aretha was. We both fully recognized the importance of the opportunity we had to tell her story. Plus there was the timing of telling that story, the chance to represent a beautifully gifted, strong, complicated Black woman, especially in today’s climate. We wanted to convey Aretha’s humanity in every way that we could. That was our goal--to deliver a human experience, to look beyond celebrity and tap into the human being.”

Franklin’s story is also one of overcoming racism, sexism, loss and abuse--and turning her pain and suffering into a source of creative inspiration.

Hemingway hadn’t planned on directing five episodes of Genius: Aretha. The original intent was to have other directors take on more installments. The series had benefited from the contributions of directors Neema Barnette (episodes 2 and 3) and Bille Woodruff (episode 4) but when the COVID-19 lockdown hit, after episode 5 had been wrapped, the decision upon the resumption of production was to have Hemingway direct the balance to finish out the series. Hemingway described Barnette and Woodruff as “directing giants” who brought a great deal to the series through the episodes they helmed. He in turn felt that their work had informed his, putting him in position to step up his directorial involvement.

Among the many other collaborators helping to bring Genius: Aretha to fruition were such artisans as cinematographer Kevin McKnight, costume designer Jennifer Bryan and production designer Tim Galvin. Having worked with McKnight previously, Hemingway knew they shared a common philosophy and approach. “We both start with understanding and wanting to know the psychology of the narrative and the characters, the true story we’re telling. From the psychology of the character spring our conversations which start to dictate how to best approach and do justice to the story.”

This marked Hemingway’s first turn working with Bryan and Galvin but he found they fully embraced doing whatever they could to capture Franklin’s life and complexity--and doing so in a bold way to create “a beautiful cinematic experience.”

Hemingway added that he long wanted to work with Galvin. The production designer enjoyed the close working rapport he had with Hemingway and DP McKnight on Genius: Aretha, giving him a sense up front of how the series would be shot, particularly the bigger sequence stuff which had Erivo performing on stage as Franklin. “They made an important decision to do portions in black and white. Anthony and Kevin had that idea and promoted it as a technique to further reveal the character.”  

Galvin explained that they would shoot in color and then manipulate the image to appear black and white. Thus it was essential that Galvin in his production design know how colors would read in black and white, their value and contrast. This, he recalled, had him more focused on “the texture of everything” as texture reads more than the color in converted scenes. 

Galvin also had the challenge of taking on the story’s chronological span from the 1940s into the mid-’90s. He had to not only recreate those time periods but also had to believably depict famous places like performance venues and Detroit studios which are now hallowed ground for musicians. “We had to honor these real places the best we could and make the show feel correct to the people who would really know the difference,” noted Galvin.

Yet another challenge was the shutdown due to the pandemic. But the long break contained a silver lining, said Galvin. “We were only two-thirds of the way through at that point and we got the chance to look at all the material, refashion things a bit, come up with some new things that lined up more to the new reality.” The opportunity to analyze and assess what had been done up to that point was invaluable. “It’s unusual to come back from a long break for a show like this but we were able to figure out a lot of things.”

Galvin personally figured out a lot when it came to his understanding of Franklin and her legacy. “I had a greater appreciation of just how far she came. When you start, you think you know who she is, what her story is kind of about. But it is so much more. You come away form it really appreciating what she was able to do in her life against incredible resistance and odds for a Black woman at that time. You realize how great she was, how much her father and gospel background affected everything. You know about her singing but you also gain a deeper appreciation of her musicianship, her playing of the piano, her incredible musical talent.”

Galvin’s award pedigree includes an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nomination for Bloodline in 2017.

Hemingway is also no stranger to the awards conversation. In his dual director/EP role, he earned a pair of Emmy nominations in 2016 for American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson--for Best Directing in a Limited Series, and Best Limited Series. Hemingway was part of the ensemble that won the Emmy in the latter category.

Sam Zvibleman, Andy Rydzewski
There’s much to be said for friendship--personally and professionally. On the latter score, Sam Zvibleman hit it off with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle who were already friends when he met them several years ago. “They were so funny. We’d hang out all the time,” he recalled. “I was making short films back then, doing film festivals, trying to sort of make my way as a filmmaker. They at the time were making these reality show sketches, playing different reality characters. I would help them on their sets, show up as a PA, set up for them, hold the boom mic if needed. We were kind of leading super indie film lives.

“They came to one of my screenings and then we realized that maybe not only did we get along so well as friends but we had a shared sensibility. They came to me one day and said do you want to write a TV show with us. Hell, yeah. We would meet at each other’s home a couple of times a week and brainstorm different ideas. They had been tinkering with this idea of girls who escaped from a cult. It was very plotty, a serialized thing. What came out of it was that they would invariably tell stories about their growing up as girls. At a certain point these stories of your childhood are wonderful. We then thought what if we just did that, sort of a memoir. Cut out all the artifice, plot and cults, and this stuff could be amazing--especially with me as a guy with different kinds of drama than what the girls had. From there, the stories just flowed. Everyone has stories from middle school--formative  years and experiences.”

From this sprung PEN15 (Hulu) with Zvibleman, Erskine and Konkle as co-creators and EPs. Zvibleman also directed during the first season and then all the season 2 episodes. But the ultimate multi-taskers were Erskine and Konkle who star in the series, playing teenaged versions of themselves as they navigate middle school starting back in the year 2000, surrounded by a cast of teen classmates. We are thrust into the painful, disorienting, awkward, tricky, heartening moments of being a young teen. Zvibleman, Erskine and Konkle have been lauded for the show, earning three Writers Guild Award nominations along the way--two last year in the New Series and Comedy Series categories, and one this year in the Comedy Series competition.

Season 2 explores more serious themes than the first season--themes that kids around that age are sensitive about and which stay with us well into adulthood, such as rejection, understanding sexuality, changing bodies, the quest to be “popular,” growing rifts with parents, slut-shaming, alienation, peer pressure. As the show grew, so did creative responsibilities and a degree of concern for Zvibleman. “When the show broke through that first season, we were stunned and grateful. It felt surreal. That said, I felt some fear of letting those fans down. Part of me knew that this (second) season would take on a little less broad comedy and play a little more real and dark. We were playing scenes more for truth and less comedy. We had to trust that the comedy would come if you thought about it a little bit. The creative challenge was believing in that philosophy.”

As for his biggest takeaways from his experience thus far on PEN15, Zvibleman shared that a prime lesson is to be “truthful and specific in what you create.” He noted that TV and studio execs are always on the lookout for stories that are relatable and universal. But trying to be universal is a backwards approach, he observed. Specificity and the truth are key to storytelling that attains universality. “One of the things that works about the show is that we didn’t anticipate how universal and relatable it was. In sharing middle school experiences, we weren’t trying to be relatable or universal. We were just telling our stories.” Critical to the success of PEN15, related Zvibleman, has been “creatively trusting that specificity and that truth.”

Also clear to Zvibleman from his work on PEN15 is the importance of committed collaborators. “It is really hard to make a show or movie really good. You almost have to work ten times harder to make something five percent better. You really need collaborators, a family of people who love and support each other. We are lucky on PEN15 to have our cast and crew also willing to spill their blood, sweat and tears because they believe in the show.”

Friendship also figures in the creative ties to one of those collaborators, cinematographer Andy Rydzewski who lensed the lion’s share of PEN15 episodes. “Andy is one of my best friends,” noted Zvibleman. “I’ve known him for 15 years. We worked together on a ton of short films I did and some smaller TV projects. He’s sort of my filmmaking wife. We work very closely, have a shorthand, always push together forward. He’s been an incredibly important part of the show in terms of creating that very specific indie ‘90s film look and feel.”

Rydzewski said he was drawn to PEN15 from the outset, recalling, “I was just obsessed with potentially working on something at once very strange in terms of its approach while also being very honest. It was almost like magical realism.” He added that the prospect of “speaking to the truth of adolescence, coming of age” was creatively exciting to him.

Being true to the reality of the story was paramount to Rydzewski who observed that a prime challenge was “resisting the urge to shoot sexy images. Restraint was a big part of the show.” Capturing the reality of adolescence, he continued, made it “important to us to not make the work look glossy. Don’t make it pretty. Don’t move the camera unless there’s a reason to move the camera. It was a fight against artistry, against perfection.”

Rydzewski gravitated to the ARRI Alexa Mini for PEN15. Noting that Zvibleman is “a deep lover of film” and not a digital fan, Rydzewski assessed, “The Mini is easily the most filmic digital camera that there is out there. There are other cameras I love. But the Mini is a digital camera that isn’t overly clean or sharp. It’s the closest to film for me. These days it’s frustrating when people ask for 4K. Mini sometimes gets dismissed because it’s just shy of 4K.” 

But, he continued, it was the camera best suited for PEN15. “I’m obsessed with the way motion is rendered by various digital sensors. The Alexa Mini is the one model that has the best rendering for motion. We wanted something as close to film as possible, easy to move around.”

PEN15 holds a special place in Rydzewski’s creative heart. He greatly values “the opportunity to be on a show where Sam, my beloved collaborator, was really pushing us to be more thoughtful and bold while making interesting choices--and to be able to work with Maya and Anna who are giving iconic performances, to feel that I am contributing anything to a show that feels special. You only have so much control over your career. I feel gratitude to have been able to work on this show. I feel like my fingerprints are on it. I can see my effect on the show. Not everybody gets a chance to do that.”

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features will 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 then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

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