Tuesday, December 12, 2017
  • Friday, May. 19, 2017
In The Emmy Conversation: Ron Howard, Lesli Linka Glatter, Jill Soloway, Barry Sonnenfeld
Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein and Emily Watson as Elsa Einstein in a scene from "Genius" (photo by Dusan Martincek/courtesy of National Geographic)
Insights into "Genius," "Homeland," "I Love Dick," "A Series of Unfortunate Events"

Doing justice to the life of a genius is a daunting task but not one entirely new to filmmaker Ron Howard who won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind which told the poignant story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. 

Howard now again delves into the man behind the genius, namely the iconic Albert Einstein—however not via a theatrical feature. Instead Howard opted to explore Einstein’s life in a 10-part limited series, Genius, for National Geographic Channel. Howard directed the first episode and serves as an executive producer via Imagine Entertainment, the company in which he is partnered with producer Brian Grazer. Imagine teamed with Fox 21 Television Studios on Genius.

Howard noted that over the years he had read theatrical movie scripts about Einstein but they came up short—in large part because two-plus hours wasn’t nearly enough time to fully bring Einstein to light. However, with some 10 hours of television, there’s more time and room to meaningfully explore Einstein as well as those who helped to shape his life—from his parents to his first wife and adversaries, tapping into the rich vein of the Walter Isaacson-penned bestselling book “Einstein: His Life and Universe."

Best Actor Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) was cast as Einstein while Imagine cast a wide net for an actor to portray Einstein as a young man, eventually finding Johnny Flynn.

With the first episode, Howard sets the directorial and storytelling tone for the series. “One key was to work with both Geoffrey and Johnny to create and present a cohesive Albert Einstein,” related Howard. “Geoffrey had done something similar with Shine, and he shared with me some of the discussions they had on that project. We got Johnny and Geoffrey together either online or in person, looking at archival footage of the iconic Einstein that Geoffrey would portray and working with Johnny to come up with a menu of behaviors and movements so that he could initiate a young Einstein that Geoffrey could pick up on and work with. We also had to differentiate the look and approach to the younger and the iconic senior Einstein. We captured the younger Einstein in a more spontaneous way visually. We didn’t want anything to look too planned or staged. We followed his urgency, drive and frustration, approaching him more the way you’d shoot a  young musician, poet or artist who’s struggling to be heard and noticed.”

The approach to filming the iconic Einstein, observed Howard, was centered on his being “a little more staid and organized in his life yet finding himself drawn reluctantly into the politics, drama and anger of Nazi Germany and then the Cold War politics that followed the war.” 

All the while Genius “moves in and out of time aesthetically,” continued Howard, going back and forth between the young and the senior Einstein, drawing parallels and conveying insights into how he evolved as a person. In that mosaic, Howard wanted to show as much of Einstein’s humor and humanity as possible, making him more accessible as a character. “I wanted viewers to begin to feel something of what it was like—if not to be Albert Einstein, at least to understand him, his psyche, his sense of humor, what motivated him as he lived a life that was far more tumultuous and dramatic than most of us realized as he witnessed or influenced seemingly every dramatic twist and turn of the 20th century.”

Among those whom Howard worked closely with on all these fronts was cinematographer Mathias Herndl, including on conveying what Howard described as “an aesthetic that noticed the details of the world. Einstein was that kind of individual. It was in the references he makes to coming up with an idea, watching milk swirl in his tea for example led to some question in terms of the physics of what he just saw. Also Einstein was a visualist, able to describe concepts, physics and science with visual analogies. He was able to explain a scientific theory in a physical way to make it easier for people to grasp.”

Genius marked Howard’s first collaboration with Herndl who was recommended by showrunner Kenneth Biller. “When I came aboard the project, I saw Ron’s energy and asked him if he had thought of a DP for the show,” recalled Biller. “He could get most anyone he wanted. I gave him some episodes of Legends [TNT] so he could see Mathias’ work. I had worked [as director/writer/exec producer] with Mathias on Legends and had a sense, a feeling that he and Ron would really hit it off. Ron loved how he lights, how he moves the camera. I put them on the phone together and they took off from there. It was really gratifying for me to see how they worked so well as a team.”

Biller also benefited on another front as he wound up directing the last three episodes of Genius, getting to again collaborate with Herndl. Other directors taking on episodes of Genius included Minkie Spiro (Downton Abbey, Better Call Saul) and James Hawes (Penny Dreadful, Black Mirror).

Howard said that Genius also draws from the strength of National Geographic. “There are expectations that come with a Nat Geo project—authenticity, accuracy, immersion and entertainment value. There’s a powerful heritage of visual imagery, leading readers and viewers to better understanding. This heritage made us feel the need for Genius to be cinematic and visual as we told Einstein’s story.”

And other stories are on the way as Nat Geo has committed to Genius for a second season. It’s yet to be determined the identity of the next genius that Howard and his colleagues will take on. “We have a shortlist,” said Howard. “It’s our hope that there will be many seasons of Genius so we can tell the stories eventually of everyone on that list.”

Jill Soloway, Sarah Gubbins
Jill Soloway is no stranger to the Emmy conversation, dating back to her multiple nominations as a producer/writer on Six Feet Under, and extending through to her pair of wins for Best Directing for a Comedy Series in 2015 and last year for Transparent (Amazon). She is now once again in the Emmy discourse, not just for Transparent but also for her new Amazon series, I Love Dick, which she co-created (with writer/exec producer Sarah Gubbins) while also serving as a writer, EP and director.

Based on the novel by feminist author Chris Kraus, I Love Dick stars Kathryn Hahn as Chris, a New York filmmaker who somewhat reluctantly accompanies her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) to Marfa, Texas. An academician, Sylvere has to be in Marfa for an artist’s retreat/residency, but it’s Chris who gets an education of sorts—about herself—meeting and instinctively being drawn to title character Dick (Kevin Bacon), a charismatic art professor/quasi cowboy. Rashomon-style shifts of POV help tell a story which chronicles a female artist’s self-discovery, the unraveling and development of relationships, and both the simplicity and complexities of life—all with a sense of the comedic.

During a recent Amazon FYC (For Your Consideration) session in Hollywood for I Love Dick, Gubbins and Soloway shared their perspectives on the show.

Gubbins described the source material, Kraus’ book, as being distinctly unconventional. “There’s nothing else like it. It’s ferocious, honest...about a woman who is coming into her own. The journey is not a pretty one but it allows the audience to want to be a part of it and root for her.”

Soloway said of Gubbins, “She wrote a beautiful pilot,” full of moments you want to shoot. Soloway noted that I Love Dick comes from “an all-female writers’ room...which we think is an historic event.” On other projects, each of these writers have experienced, said Soloway, being “the only woman in the room” which often necessitated them “playing the room...Be funny. Don’t offend. Be careful what you say.” By contrast, for I Love Dick, with a staff of female writers, the creative process and vibe “got very loose very fast.”

This yielded comical insights, including Hahn’s character Chris dissing director Sofia Coppola for something superficial. This was a symptom of the female artist experience, explained Soloway who acknowledged that because of limited opportunities for women, “I think as recently as five years ago I was seething at people like Sofia Coppola and Lena Dunham. It’s because it feels like there are not enough spots. It feels like there only gets to be one at a time. There’s Sofia Coppola, then Miranda July, then there’s Lena Dunham—all these people, I would never say anything horrible about them, but I’ve felt that feeling of ‘why them and not me?’”

Beyond the obvious advantage of women being able to write truthfully about female characters, cast member Bacon noted during the FYC event, “Leave it to a female writers’ room to create two of the best, most well-rounded male characters I’ve read in a long time.” He affirmed that the characters of Sylvere and Dick are distinctively “male,” “complex” and “interesting.”

On the Emmy front, Soloway lauded the Television Academy’s opening up of new categories—one honoring music supervision, the other splitting cinematography for a single-camera series into one-hour and half-hour series. The latter, said Soloway, will enable deserving artists like cinematographer Jim Frohna, who shot Transparent and I Love Dick, to gain recognition. Soloway said the same for her trusted music supervisor Bruce Gilbert whose contributions to Transparent and I Love Dick have been essential. Relative to I Love Dick, Soloway described the soundtrack as “more than a character,” serving as the “soul of the show.” To have music supervisors eligible for Emmy consideration for the first time is long overdue, affirmed Soloway.

Lesli Linka Glatter
Lesli Linka Glatter is a six-time DGA Award nominee, four of those coming for Homeland, the Showtime series for which she serves as a director and executive producer. Her first DGA win came in 2010 for the “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” episode of Mad Men. Then in 2015 she won the DGA honor for the “From A to B and Back Again” episode of Homeland.

Five of Glatter’s six career Emmy nominations are for Homeland (the other being for directing the aforementioned episode of Mad Men). Last year her Homeland Emmy nods came for Outstanding Drama Series, and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (the latter being for the episode titled “The Tradition of Hospitality”).

Homeland is now once again prominent in the field of Emmy contenders—this time for an eventful season six in which the Glatter-directed finale featured the shocking death of beloved character Peter Quinn (portrayed by Rupert Friend). Also, after years abroad, season six returned to the U.S., set primarily in New York.

Assorted fans were saddened by Quinn’s passing—as was Glatter. “I was crestfallen and I had to direct it,” she said. “Rupert is an extraordinary actor. I directed his first scene in the show, ironically. I had seen his character develop into an extraordinary force, a multi-dimensional, layered character. It was bittersweet for everyone involved.”

As for lensing in New York, Glatter said “being back in America was perfectly timed for the story.” At the same time, she acknowledged that there were inherent challenges to shooting in the Big Apple. “There were 54 shows shooting at the time we were in New York City. We were lucky to have a great crew but there are struggles in terms of getting the right locations with so many productions in town—and parking can be tough. With so many shows in town simultaneously, there’s also generally the issue of a number of shows not always being able to get their first choices in terms of crewing. Then there’s the challenge for me as a director—how do you shoot New York in a different way? That’s what we tried to do—not shooting landmarks but instead trying to capture the energy of the place. In the big picture, it was great to be in New York. The city has an incredible energy which is exciting and creatively stimulating.”

When production began on season six, it was assumed Hillary Clinton would be elected President. Trump winning had some ramifications, said Glatter. “While many of the original themes were in play—such as fake news versus real news—we had to make some adjustments. We had to recalibrate on the fly as a result.”

Glatter sees another growing responsibility emerging for Homeland—the exploration of issues from different perspectives. For example, explained Glatter, we’re spending $120 billion a year to combat terrorism. Is that too much? Is it enough? One character may think we’re overreacting to the threat of terrorism. Another feels that this kind of reaction is justified. Each loss of human life is huge—yet the loss of life from gun violence dwarfs the number of victims of terrorism. “With our show, you get to look at both sides of an issue. There’s no easy answer. There are no rights or wrongs. The questions are complicated. But they are worth asking and looking at—particularly when we’re so polarized in society that these kinds of discussions don’t take place. Anything that allows us to hear both sides, to have a balanced discussion, is valuable.”

Prior to tackling the next season of Homeland, Glatter is currently focused on a limited crime anthology series for NBC centered on the high-profile case of the Menendez brothers (Lyle and Erik) who were convicted of murdering their wealthy parents in 1996 and sentenced to life imprisonment. The trials (the first two ending in hung juries, the third in the guilty verdict) received heavy media coverage and captured the nation’s imagination, with the brothers’ attorney, Leslie Abramson, becoming somewhat of a celeb. Glatter is directing multiple episodes of the series, noting she’s excited to be working with actress Edie Falco who is portraying Abramson. Glatter noted it’s been some time since she’s directed mainstream broadcast network TV; the series is being executive produced by Law & Order creator Dick Wolf through his Wolf Entertainment banner.

Barry Sonnenfeld
As the director/producer/showrunner of the Netflix show A Series of Unfortunate Events, Barry Sonnenfeld—director of such features as the Men in Black I, II and III, Get Shorty and The Addams Family—fulfilled a long harbored ambition. He read the Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) books to his daughter, who grew out of them—but Sonnenfeld didn’t. When he found out that Scott Rudin, producer on his Addams Family movies, was producing a feature version of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sonnenfeld wanted to get involved. “I loved the conceit of the books—that all children are capable and wonderful while all adults are banal and bad.” Sonnenfeld quipped that he related, having grown up as an only child in a Jewish household in Washington Heights. But when Rudin left the project and a different producer came in, Sonnenfeld was off the feature. He felt the movie missed in part because it didn’t focus enough on the kids and perhaps a bit too much on Jim Carrey’s comedic abilities.

So when he heard Netflix was making a series based on the books, Sonnenfeld put his hat in the ring, eventually landing the gig. The show follows the tragic tale of three orphans—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire—who are investigating their parents’ mysterious death. The siblings are saddled with an evil guardian named Count Olaf (portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris), who will do whatever it takes to get his hands on the Baudelaire’s inheritance. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny must outsmart Olaf at every turn, foiling devious plans and disguises.

Among Sonnenfeld’s priorities was that “there be a wonderful artifice to the show and it should feel like it’s in its own world. I wanted to create a world unto itself and make sure the tone is consistent with that world.” For that world building he brought in production designer Bo Welch, a four-time Oscar nominee (for The Color Purple, A Little Princess, The Birdcage and Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black).

Sonnenfeld had also worked earlier with Welch—and for that matter actor, Patrick Warburton, who portrays Lemony Snicket—on the short-lived The Tick television series. (Warburton was also in Men in Black II.) Sonnenfeld credited Welch with creating the ideal worlds for A Series of Unfortunate Events which was shot on stages in Vancouver, B.C. Welch also directed two episodes of the series.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Sonnenfeld encountered on A Series of Unfortunate Events was taking on the role of showrunner. “I considered myself first a director and then a showrunner at the beginning of the season,” said Sonnenfeld. “I initially found it difficult to tell other directors what to do....maybe because I didn’t particularly like it when I directed. But my early reluctance to embrace being showrunner has gone away. You can be in charge of the other directors yet still respect and love them and what they do.”

Sonnenfeld also brings a first-hand expertise in cinematography to the series. 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, Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train, 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. And Bo Welch’s sets are so good, so extraordinary in our show that you can use wide angle lenses, and can see the kids within specific environments.”

A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t the first TV endeavor from Sonnenfeld to garner attention during an awards season. Back in 2008, Sonnenfeld won the DGA Award as well as a primetime Emmy for comedy series directing on the strength of the “Pie-Lette” episode of Pushing Daisies.

What’s new for Sonnenfeld this time around in his TV career is Netflix. “I cannot imagine a better, more supportive experience. They believe in filmmakers. The creative freedom you get from them is extraordinary. I explained my concept of pushed reality for the series—that you don’t necessarily know the time or place, with objects like walkie talkies from the 1950s and another from today, an old British car and a new Fiat. The curved and sharp lines fit in this world. Cindy [Holland, Netflix’s VP of original content] and Brian [Wright, director, original kids & family series at Netflix] embraced my vision for the show. They believed in the tone and style. They believed that I believed it would work and was best for the show.”

There’s also an inherent advantage to being on a streaming service. “You’re not locked into specific time rules—the four act approach with breaks for commercials [on broadcast TV], with the first act having to be only ‘x’ amount of minutes,” said Sonnenfeld. “Several of our episodes have been in the high 40-minutes range with one as long as 62 minutes. The length of each show is based on what works best. This area of streaming TV has opened up a lot of creative opportunities.”

This is the first installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation, Visual effects and production design. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.