Cinematographer James Laxton and director/writer Barry Jenkins have deep collaborative roots. The two were college roommates for a year and started working together at Florida State University film school. In fact, Laxton lensed Jenkins’ last two student films and has gone on to do the same for all his features--Medicine for Melancholy for which the DP earned an Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography, followed by Moonlight, the Best Picture Oscar winner, and then If Beale Street Could Talk. Laxton earned Academy Award and ASC Award nominations for Moonlight.
Now Jenkins and Laxton are in the Emmy Awards season conversation for The Underground Railroad (Amazon), a limited series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The 10 episodes bring us into the world of Cora Randall (portrayed by Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved woman who escapes the horrors of a Georgia plantation with an unrelenting bounty hunter (Joel Edgerton) in pursuit. She gets free of bondage with support from a literal underground railroad that runs through the American South just before the Civil War. The series includes brutal depictions of violence against Cora and others.
With the myriad creative challenges posed by The Underground Railroad, perhaps the emotional toll of those re-creations of abuse marked the biggest hurdle for cast and crew to overcome. Amazon provided supportive on-set counseling to help actors and crew members cope with the atrocities chronicled during the course of production.
Laxton said that of the 116 shooting days, very few were sans dramatic depictions of abuse. Everyone’s emotional state was being assaulted on some level but it was necessary in order to do justice to the story and our nation’s history. “Amazon understood that,” related Laxton, noting that having a counselor in place allowed cast and crew to step off the set when needed to discuss what they felt, engaging with someone in order to help preserve some semblance of mental health and well-being.
Furthermore, cast and crew helped one another. “We all needed to lean on each other’s shoulders,” said Laxton, grateful for having actors and artisans who are “open-hearted and supportive kind of people.” He shared, “When the alarm clock rang, I never didn’t want to go to work,” in part because he looked forward to seeing Jenkins and his various colleagues who were all there for emotional support and a shared sense of purpose.
Audiences too will find scenes unbearably painful to watch, yet there is also an inherent beauty captured by Jenkins and Laxton in the storytelling. And the pain we witness is seen through the perspectives of those being violated, generating an empathy as viewers connect with the horror endured and the humanity we share.
In other respects, though, Laxton felt the approach to The Underground Railroad was akin to the one he and Jenkins adopted and embraced in their feature work. “The visual telling of the story felt like a Barry Jenkins movie,” assessed Laxton. And while the pace and schedule of television production can be demanding, it wasn’t all that different from the type of independent, budget-challenged feature filmmaking that Laxton and Jenkins had done in the past. Laxton recalled, for example, that The Underground Railroad was shooting approximately the same number of script pages a day as Moonlight had.
Also as he's done in the past, Jenkins continued his pursuit of realism which in the case of The Underground Railroad entailed having people interacting with real trains. A train museum in Savannah, Georgia, helped to make this a reality, supplying trains of the era. Laxton explained that the production was allowed to largely take over the museum and under the aegis of Emmy-winning (Mildred Pierce) production designer Mark Friedberg, 200 feet of tunnel was constructed along the facility’s existing private railroad track. The controlled environment was crucial to attain what Jenkins wanted while affording the production with the maximum safety considerations.
Laxton went with ARRI Alexa LF cameras, both the Mini and the regular LF. “Barry and I really enjoy the Alexa chip in general and the color science that goes with it, the ability to render the proper skin tones.” The lion’s share of the show was shot with spherical lenses while three episodes went anamorphic. The spherical lenses were Panavision Primo 70s; the anamorphics were the Panavision T series. Tweaking of all the lenses--primarily to give a vintage sense to scenes--was done by Panavision tech guru Dan Sasaki.
Reflecting on The Underground Railroad experience, Laxton observed, “Walking away from this show made me realize how much a trusted communal process that filmmaking really is.” Without Jenkins and all the department heads--and mutual trust throughout those ranks--the vision for the series would have been impossible to attain, affirmed Laxton.
And the alluded to sense of purpose played a major role in intensifying that trust and communal feel. Laxton shared that clearly what he learned about slavery from a public school education in California was woefully lacking. Upon reading Whitehead’s book, Laxton had a deeper understanding of what happened and its impact on people. The TV series, he said, delves into people’s specific stories, tries to take viewers into their spaces. A prime goal creatively for Laxton was to help “put a face on those stories” so that audiences would fully realize the major impact on families and society, lessons from history that continue to hold a profound relevance to our world today.
Unsettling sitcom sendups (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family) mesh with the Marvel Cinematic Universe in WandaVision (Disney+) to put us in a suburban setting that is sort of an insulated, isolated cocoon, with a lost sense of the outside world--akin in some respects to what the pandemic lockdown and quarantines yielded for many of us in real life. Remarkably WandaVision was conceived--and two-thirds of it was shot--prior to the pandemic. But the timing of the show’s release carried an extra layer of resonance for viewers who found themselves confined at home craving comfort--the kind of escape and contentment that could be found in the sitcom world.
On the surface, super-powered characters Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame, appear to be living an idyllic residential neighborhood life in Westview, New Jersey. Yet as their environment shifts through different decades, they encounter varied TV tropes and begin to suspect things are quite different from what they seem.
Matt Shakman, director/executive producer on WandaVision, said in an earlier installment of SHOOT’s Road To Emmy Series that he never could have imagined the pandemic parallels that surfaced in the show. “It was a strange twist of timing,” acknowledged Shakman who noted, though, that the show has universal themes which are relevant during more normal circumstances as well. “It’s a show about meditation on loss,” he shared as Maximoff is dealing with personal trauma and trying to cope.
Helping to realize that creative vision was having one director, Shakman, and a single DP, Jess Hall, on all nine episodes, bringing a continuity to a series that sojourned to many different places in terms of narrative, style and tone. Marvel wanted to apply its feature film approach to its shows for Disney+, including WandaVision, by having a director and DP team to bring a cohesiveness to a constantly evolving narrative, able to re-craft scenes, storylines and worlds as the show went along.
Hall related that Shakman was looking for a particular kind of DP “who could straddle different tonal variations from the sitcom genre into action and visual effects.” Hall added that Shakman was a fan of the feature Hot Fuzz, a genre mashup lensed by Hall. That film put the DP on Shakman’s radar. The two then had a great conversation and struck up a rapport, laying the groundwork for what became a successful collaboration.
Hall cited Shakman’s directorial acumen as well as another experience factor which contributed greatly to the series. “What was unique about Matt is that he was a child actor in sitcoms. He deeply understood the sitcom genre. Right from the start he was able to guide me into that world.”
A challenge Hall felt going in was creating sitcom period looks with digital technology. Deploying the ARRI Alexa LF system, varied custom-built lenses, the VFX prowess on the Marvel team, the expertise of color scientists at Technicolor and other resources, Hall concluded, “We are now at an interesting point where you are able to do something original that is informed by the past.” Digital can be “a compassionate medium,” he noted.
Hall also had to maintain a delicate balance--giving viewers a sense of a comfortable space that sitcoms provide while at the same time undercutting that with an ominous, unsettling feel, what he described as “a rupture in the fabric of what we’ve created.” Helpful towards that end, observed Hall, was an approach which he and Shakman adopted--namely that capturing the sitcom dynamic was “never about replication but creating our own interpretation of these shows, created out of Wanda’s memory.”
First-time series creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay have hit the mark with Industry (HBO, BBC), which follows a group of young graduates competing for a limited number of permanent positions at a leading international investment bank in London. The drama series provides an insider’s perspective on the world of high finance--through the eyes of an outsider, Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold), a talented young woman from upstate New York. Adding dimension to the story is the delving into and exploration of issues such as gender, race, class and privilege in the workplace--not to mention the tricky proposition of navigating life in your early 20s. The premise of the show is rooted in the actual experiences of series EPs/creators Down and Kay. Tinge Krishnan directed three of the episodes, including the second episode; the first was helmed by Lena Dunham. In fact, some of the scenes directed by Krishnan wound up in that first episode.
Krishnan was deeply attracted to the Industry script. “It was a London that I really recognized. It felt authentic,” said Krishnan. “It was scripted and produced with diversity in mind and as a female director of color I was immediately drawn to it.” Krishnan added that she felt an affinity for Down and Kay, their nuanced storytelling and they’re “not being precious about every word.”
Krishnan also cited the generosity of Dunham who invited her to the set of the first episode. Krishnan said of Dunham, “She’d say come sit by the monitor at any time. She would tell me how she was working with the actors. It was really lovely.”
Down and Kay didn’t want the show to play like Wall Street, shared Krishnan, but rather “something more organic like The Big Short, which is very much in my wheelhouse.” Also in her wheelhouse was the tone and tenor Dunham established on set which Krishnan described as “inviting collaboration and not micromanaging, honoring everyone’s artistic freedom and what they could bring to it instinctively in the moment.”
Industry additionally showcased, continued Krishnan, the fact that “genuine diversity behind the camera really works--at a producing and executive level, a writing level. That makes a difference in terms of the atmosphere on set and the authenticity of the show.” Additionally, affording actors the latitude to improvise little moments further enhanced the show.
The cast includes Herrold, Marisa Abela, Harry Lawtey, David Jonsson and Nabhaan Rizwan as the graduates, and Conor MacNeill, Freya Mavor, Will Tudor and Ken Leung as management.
The personal and professional human-centric insights into workplace culture from the bottom up have struck a responsive chord with viewers as evidenced by the HBO’s recent decision to renew Industry for a second season. Writers include Kay, Down, Sam H. Freeman and Kate Verghese. The directorial lineup features Dunham, Krishnan, Ed Lilly and Mary Nighy.
Krishnan’s exploits on Industry as well as the Apple TV+ series The Mosquito Coast have thrust her into this season’s awards banter. Her body of work over the years also includes Shadowscan which won the BAFTA for Best Short Film and screened at Sundance and assorted other festivals worldwide. Her next short, First, screened to acclaim in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. She went on to wrap The Circle, a half-hour drama for U.K.’s Channel 4. Krishnan’s debut feature film Junkhearts won Best Film and Best Lead Actor (Eddie Marsan) distinction at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2012. She was later BAFTA-nominated for her work on Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle for the BBC.
Production designer Elisabeth Williams is a five-time Emmy nominee--the last four coming in 2018 (two nods), 2019 and 2020 for episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu). She won in 2018, ‘19 and ‘20 for The Handmaid’s Tale episodes “June,” “Holly” and “Household,” respectively. Williams’ first career nomination came in 2016 for Fargo.
Williams has been production designing The Handmaid’s Tale since season two, invited by executive producer Warren Littlefield whom she had worked with on Fargo (as an art director during that show’s second season, then a production designer on season three). Her aforementioned Emmy nod for Fargo came in the capacity of art director, working with production designer Warren Alan Young.
Williams has enjoyed her longest career series tenure on The Handmaid’s Tale. She looks back on Littlefield’s commitment to her as his having seen “something in me that was always there.” Williams’ confidence has only grown since over time. She noted that the ambitious show has posed complex challenges, necessitated sophisticated sets and has entailed her working with a dozen or so directors and four different DPs, always producing a quality product. “Now I know I can do anything, I think.”
Particularly gratifying has been working with different directors, including series star Elisabeth Moss and DP Colin Watkinson who have both done some select episodic direction. Williams got to see Watkinson, a DP she thoroughly respects, in a completely different light when he settled into the director’s chair. “He’s a great director. His ideas are great. He’s a storyteller and left the design part up to me.”
As for Moss, Williams shared, “Lizzie is a lead actress, an executive producer. She’s all hands on all decks all the time. She’s obviously good at every single thing she does. It’s been beautiful to watch her shift into directing. She openly relied on me and DP Stuart Biddlecombe. Stuart, Lizzie and I have a beautiful symbiotic relationship.”
With some dozens of episodes (and counting) of The Handmaid’s Tale under her belt, Williams is currently the longest standing creative artisan/department head on the show. She thus becomes a source of continuity. “I’m counted on by (EPs) Warren (Littlefield) and Bruce (Miller) to be that person who keeps it all kind of on the same visual continuum.”
Williams in turn counts on her team members, including art director Martha Sparrow and set decorator Rob Hepburn. Sparrow has been art director and part of the core team on all four of Williams’ Emmy nods (and all three wins) for The Handmaid’s Tale; Hepburn has been on board for three of those nods (and two of the wins). “You would think that on a TV series it would be time to move on and do something different,” said Williams. “But the work itself is different every season on the show. June’s journey (Moss’ character, June Osborne) is changing and keeps evolving--and thus so does our work. Since we have this great relationship and have developed a shorthand, we are able to produce a lot of quality sets in a very tight time frame. It’s an incredibly well oiled machine. I really on Rob, Martha and Larry (art director Spittle) to push back, bring their own ideas. That’s the spirit on the set. The best idea wins.”
This past year Sparrow was away at first from The Handmaid’s Tale, working instead in Chicago on Fargo. So Williams brought in Spittle who had been a former compatriot of hers back when she was on Fargo. While the current Emmy-eligible season was logistically complex and more challenging than ever, requiring yeoman stamina, Williams said that her team was up to the task, thanks in large part to their depth of experience together. “So much is required of every single person. Everyone had to step up.” While the aforementioned creative shorthand the core team members have with each other is invaluable, the dynamic that puts them over the top, affirmed Williams, is that they “have a love for one another that goes beyond the working relationship.”
Williams thus far also has four Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nominations to her credit--two for Fargo and two for The Handmaid’s Tale. She, Sparrow and Hepburn won in 2019 for The Handmaid’s Tale episodes “June” and “Unwomen.”
Production designer Judy Becker is also no stranger to awards season proceedings, having Oscar (American Hustle) and Emmy (Feud: Bette and Joan) nominations to her credit--as well as six Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design nods, winning for Dunham’s Girls in 2013. Becker’s other five Excellence in Production Design nominations span features (The Fighter, American Hustle, Joy, all for director David O. Russell) and TV (Feud: Bette and Joan, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace).
Feud: Bette and Joan was Becker’s first collaboration with director/writer/producer/series creator Ryan Murphy, which led to their teaming again on such endeavors as American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Becker’s work on yet another Murphy show, Ratched (Netflix), now has her in the Emmy conversation once more.
Becker shared that an important part of her career strategy has been to connect with directors whom she admires--that draws her in even more than the specific design challenges or aesthetics of a project. “I want to be part of something I am proud to work on,” she explained, noting that auteurs like Russell, Murphy and Todd Haynes (Carol, I’m Not There) have delivered that for her over the years.
The bond with Murphy came at a time when Becker was looking to take on more television work, attracted by the growing quantity of high caliber content on the small screen. While working on the feature Battle of the Sexes (directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton), Becker got a call that Murphy would like to meet her. Since she was building sets at Fox for Battle of the Sexes, which took us inside the historic tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, all Becker had to do was walk across the studio lot to get to Murphy’s office. The two hit it off, Murphy told her about Feud and a collaborative relationship was born.
Becker described Murphy as being “of few words, very concise, very decisive. I find that an easy kind of artist to work with.” Additionally she shared that Murphy’s personality and tastes align with hers along with the way she likes to work.”
Ratched centers on nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fame but it delves into her life prior to that story. Becker recalled Murphy telling her that he didn’t want the show to look anything like the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And while at one point Becker thought she found the ideal facility to serve as the hospital--one that Murphy wanted to look quite glamorous, almost like a hotel where the rich and famous would stay--that location fell through. Without the needed permission to shoot where they wanted, Becker used that location/facility as a model of sorts for set construction. “The great thing about building it was we could tailor it to the needs of the script and the characters,” related Becker. The main part of the hospital took up an entire massive stage. The patient’s lounge took up half of another stage. “I hadn’t approached anything of that scale before,” noted Becker who found the process and end result gratifying.
Becker credited her team with which she has a close-knit relationship, as evidenced by the progression of Matthew Flood Ferguson who served as a set decorator on the Murphy-directed film Running With Scissors and then such series as American Crime Story and Ratched. Ferguson worked with Becker on both American Crime Story and Ratched. For the later, Becker had to move onto another Murphy-produced project, the feature Boys in the Band (directed by Joe Mantello), with Ferguson stepping in for her as production designer on the last three episodes of Ratched. “He’s a full-fledged member of the family,” said Becker of Ferguson. Becker said she had to twist his arm a bit to take on the production designer role but on the heels of doing so on Ratched came Ferguson’s first full production design gig on Murphy’s limited series, Hollywood.
As for what’s next, Becker recently wrapped an untiled David O. Russell film starring Christian Bale and Margot Robbie, and at press time had embarked on The Brutalist, a feature directed by Brady Corbet. Citing such Corbet credits as The Childhood of a Leader, Becker noted that she’s been wanting to work with the filmmaker for some seven years.
Darren Star of Sex and the City fame created and serves as showrunner on Emily in Paris (Netflix), described as his love letter to the City of Light. Parisian production designer Anne Seibel also has much reason to love the city as cinema set there, Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, earned her an Oscar nomination, and earlier this year she nabbed her first Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nod for Emily in Paris. The latter came in the Half-Hour Single-Camera TV Series category.
Seibel, art director Jean-Yves Rabier and set decorator Christelle Maisonneuve devised the varied interior and exterior sets which included modern-day offices, cafes, bistros, a country chateau and a famous opera house, among other venues. Lily Collins stars as Emily Cooper, a young American marketing exec from the Midwest who is transferred to Paris to shape and evolve social media for a French luxury marketing boutique. Filming of Emily in Paris took place on location in the City of Lights before COVID-19 hit. For Seibel, the trick was for the stage work to appear as if it were on location too--a test she passed according to even some of her veteran French colleagues.
Seibel had a prior collaborative connection to Star, having as an art director done some episodic work for Sex and the City in Paris, as well as the Sex and the City: A Farewell documentary paying homage to the series. Based on those positive experiences, Star gravitated to Seibel for Emily in Paris.
Emily in Paris was the first major series gig for Seibel whose body of work is steeped in features. She enjoyed the TV experience, and would welcome doing more if it entailed working with a showrunner, directorial and producing talent with whom she felt a connection. Emily in Paris also provided a learning opportunity which she embraced. “You don’t have three, four or five directors on a feature,” she said. Dovetailing productively with different directors served as an invaluable education for the production designer.
Rabier and Maisonneuve are part of a team which Seibel described as being “like a family.” She worked with them back when she was an art director as she and they came up the ranks. Among Seibel’s art direction exploits was director Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette on which Rabier was a draftsman.
Seibel was a British Independent Film Award nominee for Best Production Design on the strength of The White Crow, a Ralph Fiennes-directed feature for which Maisonneuve was a set decorator.
Editor’s note: This is the sixth 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+.