The challenge of a hit show is not only having to meet or exceed an already high creative bar but also to remember—and not stray from—what resonated with viewers to begin with.
Shawn Levy, executive producer and director on Stranger Things—the Netflix series created by the Duffer brothers (writers/directors/EPs Matt and Ross)—dealt with that dual challenge in season two after an auspicious, lauded season one which last year scored five Emmy Awards from a whopping total of 18 nominations.
“Once we became this successful show, we were given more resources to further realize the Duffer brothers’ vision,” said Levy. “The challenge was to self-monitor the grounding of the show. Even though we could get bigger in spectacle—and did get bigger in scope—we had to make sure we were always anchored in the characters first. Even as the ensemble cast grew, we did right by our core characters. We always knew season two would be in possession of Will Byers. And though we had tremendous confidence in Noah Schnapp (who portrays Byers) as an actor, it was gratifying to see him rise to the occasion with a magnificent performance at the heart of the show.”
Also key was keeping the VFX grounded even though, noted Levy, “The scale of the visual effects and action were night and day bigger than in season one.” He added that “coming up with designs and manifestations of fantastical new creatures was very ambitious. We had to make sure these designs were done in photo-real ways and within sequences that still felt real world-based.”
Season one episodes were directed by either the Duffer brothers or Levy. But their schedules didn’t permit them to do the same in season two, opening the door for other filmmaking talent, including most notably Andrew Stanton, winner of Best Animated Feature Academy Awards for Finding Nemo in 2004 and WALL·E in 2011.
“Andrew cold-called me,” recollected Levy. “He said, ‘We don’t know each other but I’m a massive fan of the show and it would be a privilege to direct an episode.’ This staggeringly talented filmmaker reached out to us. He ended up directing episodes 5 and 6, capturing the heart and visual flair that we expect for our show. Ahead of this, he spent time on the set observing the Duffers and me directing. For an Oscar-winning feature director to sit and shadow directors who have far fewer awards that him showed his hunger and humility. He brought a great flavor to his episodes.”
Still there are only limited opportunities for other directors to break into the series. “We are never going to make a season of Stranger Things in which the Duffers and I don’t direct the majority of episodes,” affirmed Levy. “We love it too much to hand it off completely. We will always be core directors on the show.”
There remains room, though, for other contributors as, for example, Nat Fuller, an assistant editor on season one, was moved up to edit multiple episodes for season two. And cinematographer Lachlan Milne, who’s lensed assorted features (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and commercials, is slated to make his first foray into TV series with several episodes of Stranger Things.
Levy himself observed that Stranger Things has opened his own eyes. Levy’s feature directorial credits include all three of the family comedy films in the Night At The Museum franchise and the quirky comedy-drama This Is Where I Leave You. His company 21 Laps Entertainment has produced varied content, such as Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed, thoughtful, emotional science-fiction film Arrival. Levy earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination in 2017 for his producing role on Arrival, which received seven other nods, winning one (for Sound Editing). More recently, 21 Laps had a producing hand in the father-son road trip film Kodachrome.
Stranger Things, though, has had a special impact on Levy. “I made 11 movies before producing Stranger Things,” he related. “These stories, these characters and scripts have become such a source of inspiration. They have made me fall in love with directing all over again.” At press time, shooting was scheduled to begin on season three of Stranger Things with Levy noting that he had recently read the scripts he was set to direct. “I’m as excited to bring those scripts to life as much, if not more than any movie I’ve done or read. Stranger Things has reinvigorated me profoundly.”
Barry Levinson—a Best Director Oscar winner for Rain Man, and nominated again for Bugsy—has on the TV side repeatedly witnessed the transformational power of Al Pacino first hand but it never ceases to amaze him. Levinson directed Pacino in the HBO biopic on Jack Kevorkian (You Don’t Know Jack) and executive produced HBO’s Phil Spector. This Emmy season Levinson directed Pacino’s portrayal of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno whose legacy was damaged in the fallout from the child sex abuse scandal involving his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, with questions regarding what and when Paterno knew about the molestations spanning at least 15 years. Paterno was fired days after Sandusky’s arrest in 2011 and died two months later at age 85.
Levinson said of Pacino, “He buries himself in a character. Kevorkian, Spector, Paterno are so different but each time I’ve seen Al absorb the character he’s playing and evolve it before we start shooting. Step by step he begins to turn into that character. In the early part of the shoot, we’ll have some discussion—talking about this aspect or that—but then he’s on his way to being that character. He’s right there. What’s great, though, is he’s open at any point to trying new things. He will try something or just literally create a scene that didn’t really exist just from me mentioning or suggesting something to him. He’s very brave, very up to being challenged to create something.”
The creation of the Paterno biopic was initially sparked by Pacino. Levinson recalled, “Al was interested in the story for a long time. They tried to make the piece work but it never came together for a number of reasons. He asked me at one point to look at the story. We came up with this angle of exploring the two-week period when the story exploded, when all of a sudden you get 100 members of the press outside your door. In this brief period, we can get into the story and its revelations. The irony is that during this two-week period, Paterno became the winningest coach in the history of college football. He was so revered. Literally a week later the grand jury story breaks about Sandusky and these boys. And within days Paterno is fired, learns that his health is deteriorating and then his life quickly comes to a close. We tell the story by focusing on these two weeks.”
For Levinson, the story wasn’t about Sandusky. “He is a pedophile. But for us the story was about a place of higher education that hid information and allowed this to happen repeatedly—and a head coach who preached ethics and morality yet when it was all said and done, there was a failure to protect these youngsters.”
Levinson, who also served as an executive producer on Paterno, assembled a team to tell that story, a couple of prime contributors being a cinematographer he worked with for the first time, and an editor whom he earlier teamed with for The Wizard of Lies, the HBO biopic on Bernie Madoff which garnered four Emmy nominations last year, including one for Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Madoff.
That editor is Ron Patane who was nominated for an ACE Award for The Wizard of Lies. Patane earlier garnered an Independent Spirit Award Best Editing nod for director JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.
“I have a shorthand with Ron,” related Levinson. “You don’t have to constantly explain and go over things. He has an innate understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish. We built a strong relationship on The Wizard of Lies. And when you feel comfortable with an editor, you like to continue that relationship when schedules permit.”
As for how and why he gravitated toward DP Marcell Rev for Paterno, Levinson explained that the catalyst was his son, writer/director Sam Levinson. “Sam wrote The Wizard of Lies and went on to direct Assassination Nation, a film that will be out in late summer/early fall. I looked at some of the footage and thought it was terrific. Marcell was the DP. I happened to go down to New Orleans while Assassination Nation was being shot and got the chance to see Marcell at work. I was impressed. Sam loved him and I thought Marcell would be good for what we were trying to do with Paterno. He was interested in the story and its challenges. So we were good to go.”
Levinson enjoys delving into the lives of the likes of Spector, Kevorkian, Madoff and Paterno but isn’t convinced that “biopic” is the correct term to describe this program form. “I wouldn’t quite call Paterno a biopic because you’re dealing with a situation that is much bigger than the individual. And of course you’re open to a lot of second guessing as people will wonder why you didn’t include this or that. But you can’t possibly cover everything about a particular topic. You can only deal honestly with a portion of it and give insights into the person and the bigger story.”
Levinson’s talent for sharing such insights on the TV front is reflected in eight career Emmy nominations, including four wins. His most recent Emmy nods were Outstanding Television Movie for The Wizard of Lies last year, Outstanding Miniseries or Movie for Phil Spector in 2013, and Outstanding TV Movie and Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or Movie for You Don’t Know Jack in 2010. Levinson’s sole Emmy win for Best Directing came on the strength of an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street in 1993.
The Fourth Estate
Documentarian Liz Garbus and producer Justin Wilkes, head of entertainment for RadicalMedia, reunited for The Fourth Estate, a Showtime docuseries which embedded them in the inner workings of The New York Times during the first year of covering the Trump administration. The first episode of The Fourth Estate screened as the closing night film for last month’s Tribeca Fest where it was well received and put the series smack dab in the middle of this awards season’s Emmy conversation.
Garbus and Wilkes’ prior collaboration—What Happened, Miss Simone?—performed well at the Emmy Awards, topping the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category in 2016. The documentary on soulful, inspiring singer Nina Simone, an agent for social change and a champion for civil rights, also earned five other nominations including one for Garbus for Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming. Additionally What Happened, Miss Simone? was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar.
While Wilkes enjoys an ongoing collaborative relationship with Garbus, The Fourth Estate marked the first time producer and co-director Jenny Carchman worked with her. “I had met Liz socially, admired her and then got this opportunity,” said Carchman. “On January 18th (2017, a couple of days prior to President Trump’s inauguration), we went to Washington to meet with reporters about what we were doing. We started shooting two days later. It’s been an 18-month love affair working with Liz.”
Wilkes observed, “Shortly after Trump’s election, like many people we found ourselves in a conversation about what we should do next. I was talking with Liz and we hearkened back to Nina Simone who said it’s the artist’s responsibility to reflect the times.”
This literally led to their taking on the responsibility of reflecting The Times. “Liz told me she thought we might be able to be a fly on the wall at The Times,” recalled Wilkes. “Clearly it would be a fun ride if we could do it. Very quickly we started putting the pieces together. Shortly after that, Jenny got involved. It was a pleasure working with the two of them. We had a shared vision. Not to sound overly important but we got a front row seat to observe what reporters go through, putting their energies and lives into finding and telling the truth. We felt a deep responsibility to do justice to this story.”
Carchman said she felt simpatico with Garbus. “We developed a very rare unique sense of when to go, what to do, constantly sharing our ideas about who we should be following. We split up the shooting. It would have been too grueling for one person to do it all. I would go with a team one time. She would go the next time. We were in sync about not just when to go and shoot but how to pick up what the previous person had filmed. We had a shared understanding of how to advance this story forward, using shoot days in the most productive way possible.”
Wilkes explained, “From a logistical standpoint, we had to figure out how to build a production mechanism that would capture news as it’s breaking, as characters report on stories on the fly. News stories would be unfolding in front of us, sometimes unexpectedly. You cannot shoot 24/7. So you have to build a nimble enough support team to react, a director and cinematographer team to make decisions in a cinema verite mode. At the same time, there were events we could plan for—like (former FBI director James) Comey testifying before Congress or the State of the Union address.”
Carchman said her experience on The Fourth Estate was an eye opener. “I had never seen the process of reporting in the way I was able to witness it over this past year. It’s a long and painstaking process to get sources to go on the record, to confirm facts, to get the writing right and to make sure it’s clear. It was an incredible experience to see what it takes to put every single sentence up online or in the paper.”
Carchman added, “It’s a story about devotion and dedication. The reporters, the editors, the people at The Times who believe in the power and responsibility of the Fourth Estate give up a lot—meals, family time, personal time outside the office. And we found ourselves doing the same—dedicating and devoting our time to them. I loved every minute of it. You have to have a firm belief in the importance of what you’re doing to give up as much as you do in order to do this job.”
The Fourth Estate was produced for Showtime by RadicalMedia and Moxie Firecracker Films, in association with Impact Partners.
Asking showrunner/director/EP Barry Sonnenfeld to reflect on current Emmy-eligible season two of A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix) is inherently unfair because he’s already started season three and barely had time to look back. His decision to produce seasons back to back was necessitated by how fast kids grow. Sonnenfeld didn’t want another full year to pass for the youngsters portraying the Baudelaire orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny. He wanted to keep age continuity for the children as they grapple with the evil Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) who will stop at nothing to get his hands on their inheritance.
Meanwhile Sonnenfeld himself has grown into the role of showrunner, one which in some respects he was a bit standoffish about during season one. Being a filmmaker who never much appreciated someone looking over his shoulder, Sonnenfeld initially wasn’t about to do the same to another director. And his directorial roots run deep, spanning such features as the original Men in Black and sequels II and III, Get Shorty and The Addams Family. His TV directing credits go well beyond A Series of Unfortunate Events, including an episode of Pushing Daisies for which he won a DGA Award as well as an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series in 2008.
“As a director who didn’t like interference, I was reticent as a showrunner during season one to be on stage with the directors. As a director on TV shows, I had enough power to semi-ignore the showrunner—except for Bryan Fuller of Pushing Daisies whom I loved on set. As a showrunner, I got involved in writing and very much in post but I felt uncomfortable being on set. That started to change during season two. Still, I directed 40 percent of the second season episodes and with all the post work, there was only so much time I could be on set with other directors. But my approach started to change as I was no longer nervous about making suggestions to directors. I realized that I could help them because I was so attuned to the tone of the series—when a take could use more urgency, where diction had to be watched, when X or Y needed to happen. Now with season three, I feel comfortable connecting with directors on set and offering them advice, recommendations and things to consider.”
Sonnenfeld also can provide expertise in cinematography. He began his career as a DP, collaborating with the Coen brothers on their first feature film, Blood Simple (for which Sonnenfeld earned a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography), and continuing with Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. Sonnenfeld also served as DP on Penny Marshall’s Big and two Rob Reiner films, When Harry Met Sally and Misery, before settling into the director’s chair.
Relative to his lensing background, Sonnenfeld shared, “The camera can be a character in your show, which we have realized here [in A Series of Unfortunate Events]. Using wide angle lenses can make the audience feel they are in the scene with the actors. It’s an emotional tool with the camera being another character and furnishing a specific point of view for the audience. Joel and Ethan [Coen] and I embraced wide angle lenses, starting with Raising Arizona.”
Sonnenfeld added that production designer Bo Welch’s sets on A Series of Unfortunate Events “are so good, so extraordinary that you can use wide angle lenses, and can see the kids within specific environments.”
Bernard Couture has shot the lion’s share of Unfortunate Events episodes, with second unit lenser Todd Elyzen eased into multiple episodes as a DP during season two. Sonnenfeld recalled, “What stood out for me about Bernard was an independent feature he had shot with wide angle lenses—but it really looked good. I’m a wide angle guy. It’s very hard to light well with wide lenses but Bernard’s work was lit beautifully. Plus he’s incredibly fast, never fazed by a situation when using wide angle lenses. He’s so well prepared as we pre-light all these huge sets. Our average episode has over 300 visual effects. For a fifteenth of the budget, we’re making what amounts to a feature film every five weeks and Bernard is up to the challenge.”
For Sonnenfeld, a big difference maker is Netflix. “I remember meeting them to sort of audition. I said if you want to hire me, I need to shoot this in Vancouver (B.C.), entirely on stage. I never want to leave the stage. I want to create our own world and never worry about the sun, rain, night or day. Then I remember showing them early drawings that looked like something designed by Terry Gilliam—both real and surreal at the same time. That was the tone I envisioned for the show—reality-based but a different reality than normal reality, totally real within its own world. They embraced what we were trying to do. Now every five weeks we have a video conference with Netflix and show them drawings for the next outrageous show we have in mind. They have opinions but they come from a good place which is about story. They are so supportive in terms of really feeling that their job is to hire the right group of people to make the show. They give people the support to follow their dream.”
Sonnenfeld described A Series of Unfortunate Events as being “the best experience of my professional life. I became showrunner of this series by accident. Originally I was just supposed to direct the pilot. In turns out that I now love being a showrunner and would love to do it again given the right material. My takeaway is that I love doing long-form television for Netflix.”
Writer/director Brett Morgen has seen Jane (National Geographic)—a documentary delving into the life and work of primatology scientist Jane Goodall, renowned for her research about chimpanzees—earn assorted honors, including the 2017 National Board of Review Award for Best Documentary, the Producers Guild Award for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures, a Writers Guild Award, and a Best Documentary BAFTA Film Award nomination. That awards pedigree also places Jane firmly among this season’s prime Emmy contenders.
Morgen is no stranger to the primetime Emmy proceedings as his Cobain: Montage of Heck garnered seven noms in 2015, including for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
In terms of backstory, Morgen got a call from National Geographic about making a film utilizing footage from Goodall’s initial expeditions in the early 1960s. He was immediately interested, saw and ultimately realized the potential to make an immersive film, inviting the audience to be in the middle of the action. Much of the footage was MOS. Morgen deployed sound along with color grading to help create a compelling experience. “Technology in the past 50 years has allowed us to realize Jane in a way and manner not available when that original footage was shot. Sound played a critical role. We created an immersive soundscape for the film which wasn’t possible back in the 1960s. We began sound editing two-and-a-half years before we locked to picture.”
Morgen noted that some 250 hours of color grading went into Jane, an atypically high total for a 90-minute film. “It was all in service of the narrative and creating an immersive experience...When Dr. Goodall saw the film, she said it was the first and only time she had seen what was in her mind.”
Asked if he agreed with the contention that we are in the midst of “a golden age” for documentary filmmaking, Morgen, who created a cinematic experience with Jane, offered a key distinction. “It’s not a golden age for the theatrical documentary,” he observed, relating that the movie house heyday was from 2002-2009 when films like March of the Penguins and Bowling for Columbine generated significant box office.
Now streaming platforms—which aren’t conducive to a cinematic experience—are gaining in prominence. Plus movie theaters are oriented to a blockbuster mentality. “Even the ArcLights and Laemmles are programmed by studios, and holding onto the screens (for documentaries) is impossible,” said Morgen, noting that despite being a top grossing film on a six-screen multiplex, Jane was ushered out of that theater in a week.
On the other hand, continued Morgen, “Jane is a film that represents the best of what television can bring us. And National Geographic has been there from the beginning—in the early ‘60s for her early expeditions. National Geographic has been supporting this kind of work for 50-plus years. It’s one of the longest running TV and documentary companies, bringing high quality programming to audiences around the world. It provides the opportunity to create a film that can be seen in over 150 countries simultaneously. While the broadcast experience is different from cinema, the story is still told and audiences can connect with it.”
Morgen added, “Whether you watch a documentary on IMAX or on your phone, you are able to access important work.” So it is a golden age for documentaries in the sense that they have gotten increased exposure, that there are far more opportunities for audiences to see and be moved by nonfiction films via streaming services.
Morgen is also a commercialmaking veteran, being one of the first directors to join production house Anonymous Content for spots and branded content. Over the past some 17 years, he has directed more than 250 spots. He credited his commercial experience with informing and benefiting his other filmmaking endeavors. For one, he credited spotmaking “with allowing me the opportunity to be selective about my documentary projects. I didn’t have to take a project to support myself. It has led to a better filmography.”
Commercials have also enabled him to collaborate with some of the world’s best cinematographers, “informing me both as a fiction and nonfiction filmmaker,” said Morgen who cited such DPs as Dante Spinotti, ASC, Ellen Kuras, ASC, and Paul Cameron, ASC.
Morgen is about to embark on his third pilot for Hulu, again finding his work in commercials invaluable. “When Hulu initially brought me in to direct pilots, it was for my longform work. But nothing translates from the documentary world to the scripted world. Fiction hinges on one’s ability to rally a crew to see your vision. And if you spend your life working with three-person documentary crews, it can be overwhelming to work on a crew from 60 to 80 people. If I hadn’t done commercials, it would have been a much more difficult transition to TV.”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Production designer Bill Groom brings a distinguished Emmy pedigree to Amazon’s acclaimed series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. From 2012-’15, he won an Emmy each year, a total of four in all, for his work on Boardwalk Empire.
Over those same four years, Groom garnered four Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nominations for Boardwalk Empire, winning in 2012. His first ADG Excellence in Production Design nod came in 2009 in the feature film arena—for Milk which won Oscars for Best Leading Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black).
Groom was drawn to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, relating simply, “I loved the script.” Groom then met with series creator/executive producer/director Amy Sherman-Palladino and EP/director Daniel Palladino for the first time, struck up a rapport and just like that he was recreating New York City in the 1950s, striking the right tone and vibe, lending support to the premise of a housewife from that era breaking convention in her quest to become a stand-up comedian.
Groom observed that a prime challenge was not falling into a 1950s’ trap. New York in the 1950s, he said, had many New Yorkers living in buildings built back during the turn of the century. “There were old upper Westside buildings with their own character,” he said. “You couldn’t be too ‘on the nose’ of what 1950s’ architecture was. Instead you had to depict how those streets, buildings and interiors that were much older than the 1950s looked in the 1950s.”
For The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Groom’s team members included a pair of artisans whom he earlier collaborated with on two different Martin Scorsese-executive produced series for HBO: art director Neil Prince, a compatriot on Boardwalk Empire; and set decorator Ellen Christiansen, a colleague on Vinyl.
“It’s always important to work with people who are on the same wavelength, whom you have a shorthand with,” said Groom. “This can make a complex job with a lot of moving parts a little smoother and easier to accomplish. You have a trust you’ve already built. That’s what I enjoy with Neil and Ellen.”
And that dynamic only grows over time, continued Groom, noting that he and his many collaborators on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have settled in nicely, benefiting from “a confident calm” that developed during season 1 and has taken root in season 2.
Nurturing that feeling, related Groom, have been the people at Amazon who have been “very supportive and great to work with. It all serves to make what we do a little easier and creatively fulfilling.”
Reflecting that fulfillment on the awards show circuit thus far for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, have been a Producers Guild Award and Golden Globes for Best Comedy Series and Best Comedy TV Actress (Rachel Brosnahan), and a DGA Award nomination for Sherman-Palladino for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy Series.
This is the first installment in a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies on September 8 and 9, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.