Emmy-Nominated Directors Reflect On "Mare of Easttown," "WandaVision," "The Flight Attendant," "Ted Lasso"
Craig Zobel (l) directs Kate Winslet on the set of "Mare of Easttown" (photo by Michele K. Short/courtesy of HBO)
Insights from Craig Zobel, Matt Shakman, Susanna Fogel and MJ Delaney

Prior to this week’s announcement of the season’s Emmy nominations, SHOOT connected with various contenders going back to special Preview coverage starting in April and then this ongoing The Road to Emmy series of feature stories which started two months ago. As it turns out, a good number of the artisans we covered ended up in the circle of nominees this time around.

Included in this mix are several directors, including:

  • Craig Zobel, a nominee for Outstanding Directing for a Limited or Anthology Series on the strength of Mare Of Easttown (HBO).
  • Matt Shakman, nominated in the same category for WandaVision (Disney+)
  • Susanna Fogel, nominated for Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series for the “In Case of Emergency” episode of The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
  • And MJ Delaney who also received a comedy series directorial nod for the “The Hope That Kills You” episode of Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

Here are some insights each shared with us early on as they now continue their journey along “The Road To Emmy”:

Craig Zobel
Director/executive producer Zobel said that the approach to Mare of Easttown (HBO) was to take on the limited series as if it were one big feature film, preserving a continuity of story by going solo throughout in key roles--such as Zobel being the lone helmer of all seven episodes, Ben Richardson the cinematographer, Amy E. Duddleston the editor and so on. “That’s not normal for a TV show--even with one director you sometimes have two or three editors,” noted Zobel, whose career spans features and television.

This approach lent a best-of-both-worlds dynamic to the show. On one hand, a single creative artisan in each key discipline infused the project with a feature filmmaking feel. At the same time Mare of Easttown was not confined to a couple of hours on the big screen but rather had the luxury of some seven hours for character development and to create a portrait of a small town.

This mesh of feature and TV sensibilities is a natural fit for Zobel who has the distinction of seeing the first three features he directed all premiere at the Sundance Film Festival--Great World of Sound in 2007, Compliance in 2013 and Z For Zachariah in 2015. Great Wall of Sound earned Breakthrough Director honors at the Gotham Awards, and Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor. Compliance won a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, a Critics Choice Award nomination, and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress (Ann Dowd). Z For Zachariah starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine and Margot Robbie, premiered in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition and was released by Roadside Attractions. Zobel’s most recent film, The Hunt starring Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz, was produced by Blumhouse Productions and Universal Pictures.

On the TV front, Zobel was director and showrunner on the miniseries One Dollar (CBS All Access, which is now Paramount+). He directed the Shogunworld season two episode of Westworld (HBO), as well as an episode of American Gods (STARZ) and the critically acclaimed “International Assassin” installment of The Leftovers (HBO). 

Also fluent in features and TV is Kate Winslet, who stars in Mare of Easttown. Winslet is a seven-time Oscar nominee, winning for Best Leading Actress in 2009 for The Reader. She has also earned a pair of Emmy nominations, winning in 2007 for her portrayal of the title character in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

Mare of Easttown marks Winslet’s return to a miniseries on HBO in another title role. She plays Mare Sheehan, a small-town Pennsylvania detective who investigates a local murder as life crumbles around her. Brad Ingelsby, who served as showrunner and EP, created and wrote the series which delves into the dark side of a close community and examines how family and past tragedies can define our present.

Zobel’s directing Emmy nomination is one of 16 garnered by Mare of Easttown--spanning cinematography, casting, production design, contemporary costumes, picture editing, hairstyling, makeup, leading and supporting actress, writing, sound mixing and the marquee Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.

Matt Shakman
Current events lent an extra layer of resonance not originally planned for WandaVision. 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 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. 

The show was conceived well prior to COVID-19’s emergence which had many of us 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. 

WandaVision director/EP Shakman said he never could have imagined the pandemic parallels that surfaced in the show. Two-thirds of the shooting for the limited series had been wrapped before the lockdown. But audiences saw WandaVision in the midst of the pandemic, making it eerily relatable. “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.

Shakman directed all nine episodes, bringing a continuity to a show that sojourned to many different places in terms of narrative, style and tone. Having a single director was the plan all along. “This was among the first batch of Marvel shows for Disney+ and they wanted to approach it the same way they created their feature films,” said Shakman, referring to using but one filmmmaker who could help bring a cohesiveness to a constantly evolving narrative, able to re-craft scenes, storylines and worlds as the show went along.

“My personal experience as a director  made it feel like WandaVision was what I had been getting ready for my whole life,” related Shakman who’s helmed a wide mix of fare spanning comedy, drama, action and VFX-intensive shows over the years. He is experienced at being the sole director on a project, having helmed entire seasons, for example, of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  Furthermore as a child actor who grew up on 1980s sitcom sets, Shakman felt simpatico with the WandaVision spirit. “It was therapy for me in a way revisiting all those backlots and old shows.”

Underscoring that he was a custom fit for WandaVision is Shakman’s recent DGA Award nomination followed by the directorial Emmy nod. The series received 23 Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and across categories recognizing casting, production design, picture editing, hairstyling, main title design, makeup, music, lead actor and actress, supporting actress, sound editing, special visual effects and writing. 

Susanna Fogel
Let’s start with some backstory relative to how Fogel became involved in The Flight Attendant. About to wrap a directorial gig, Fogel had planned on taking some time to recharge and write, a discipline in which she’s well versed as reflected in Best Original Screenplay nominations last year from the BAFTA and Writers Guild Awards (shared with Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman) for the feature film Booksmart

Yet when executive producer Sarah Schechter sent her a script for The Flight Attendant, and Fogel took a phone call with that show’s EP and star, Kaley Cuoco, those plans for a directing hiatus were quickly scuttled. The clincher was that 45-minute conversation with Cuoco whom Fogel described as “the warmest, most persuasive and charismatic person ever.”

That persuasiveness was amplified, though, by several other factors. For one, Fogel had read Chris Bohjalian’s book, “The Flight Attendant,” on which the series is based, and found herself drawn to the script penned by series creator Steve Yockey. Furthermore, Fogel felt a kinship with Schechter, whom she’s known for many years; the two had almost worked together on various occasions but the timing got in the way. The Flight Attendant would be an opportunity for them to finally collaborate.

Fogel observed that Yockey brought his “quirky playwriting” touch to the TV adaptation, making the story more offbeat and compelling. She shared that the pairing of offbeat sensibilities with a mainstream project was irresistible to her. A large part of that mainstream appeal came from Cuoco and the good will that the actress has built over the years. She is loved for her comedic touch yet could extend her reach with The Flight Attendant, pushing the boundaries into such weightier areas as addiction and denial all wrapped up in a murder mystery. The audience, reasoned Fogel, would be willing to follow Cuoco and her character, flight attendant Cassie Bowden, into these places. And Cuoco did not disappoint, navigating this journey while somehow retaining that humor and relatable humanity. Fogel assessed that with all these dynamics working for it, the show represented a golden storytelling opportunity.

Confirmation of how golden that opportunity was came earlier this year when Fogel won the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy Series for “In Case of Emergency,” the first episode of The Flight Attendant. The DGA honor took on a special significance for Fogel in that, she observed, there’s generally only one director on set which can in some respects feel isolating in the big picture. “Finding a community of directors is not something we get the privilege of,” she observed. “The Guild is one way to do that.” Thus to get recognition from one’s peers in the form of a DGA Award becomes all the more gratifying. “It’s an incredible award not just because of what it symbolized but also my mom was watching (the awards ceremony) on Zoom.” 

Fogel directed the first two episodes of The Flight Attendant which introduces us to Bowden who after a one-night stand with Alex Sokolov (portrayed by Michiel Huisman) awakens in her hotel room in Thailand to find him dead--and she has no memory of what happened. From there unfolds a story that is part murder mystery, comedic thriller, dark introspection into the doubts and demons within us, and more. Part of that more, said Fogel, was departing from a course which often relegates the woman to being “the vamp” and “a victim.” Instead, The Flight Attendant gives us Cuoco, someone you feel could be your best friend, and drops her into this mix of genres not known for female characters. Cuoco’s performance expands the perception of what she could do dramatically, offering the audience a character they could trust in and relate to--what Fogel described simply as “a dimensional woman.” 

Fogel’s Emmy nomination is one of nine scored by The Flight Attendant, including for Outstanding Comedy Series as well as recognition for Lead and Supporting Actress, writing, picture editing, casting and main title theme music.

MJ Delaney
Delaney casts her DGA Award vote every year. This time when the ballot came through, she saw her name on it. That was a thrill in and of itself. “To see myself as an option was something,” she recalled.

Describing herself as “happy just to be on the ballot,” Delaney saw that inclusion go a significant step further in March when she earned her first DGA nomination for “The Hope That Kills You” episode of Ted Lasso.

Producer/writer/director/actor Sharon Horgan knows Sudeikis and recommended Delaney to him as a possible director for Ted Lasso. Delaney had directed Dreamland, a short film written by Horgan, as well as episodic work for the series Frank of Ireland which Horgan executive produces. Produced by Amazon Studios and Horgan’s production company Merman, Frank of Ireland debuted recently on U.K.’s Channel 4 and Amazon Prime. In 2018 Horgan as EP/writer won the BAFTA for Best Short Form Program for Morgana Robinson’s Summer, which was directed by Delaney.

Via Horgan, Delaney got a meeting with Sudeikis, resulting in her directing episodes 9 and 10 of Ted Lasso, the latter installment being “The Hope That Kills You.” 

Delaney said her biggest takeaway from her experience on Ted Lasso goes beyond its awards show success to what she believes has contributed to the show’s popularity among viewers and critics. “It shows the virtue of a lack of cynicism,” she observed. “It’s so lovely to see how the atmosphere created in that show has resonated with people during what has been a hard year, a devastating year for many. I think it provided what people wanted and shows how the creators had such great foresight in seeing the value of the story--the spirit of that character which became the spirit of the show was something quite special.”

Delaney added that there’s something to be said for properly placed “sentimentality and earnestness.”

The environment created for the making of the show was also special, continued Delaney. “It was a very happy set. Everybody had a really good time which was a testament to the people at the top of the tree.”  Along those lines, she continued, “We feel safe COVID-wise going back for season 2. I thank Warner Brothers and Apple for that.”

Delaney is represented by Moxie Pictures for commercials and branded content in the U.S. The alluded to Merman handles her for ad assignments in the U.K. Delaney credits her experience in the short-form arena with positively informing her longer form endeavors.

“I’m grateful for the experience of doing commercials work--being able at times to play with expensive toys. My trajectory is starting on micro-budget movies, then low budget television and short films. Because I had done commercials, you understand a Technocrane or CGI when you get on a bigger budget show. It would take a much longer time to get there just in long form. But you get a grounding, an invaluable experience in more sophisticated tools and resources, from commercials.

Delaney’s commercial exploits spans such brands as Dove and Nivea, as well as public service fare for United Nations Global Goals, UNICEF  and the Obama Foundation.

Her Emmy nomination is one of 20 earned by Ted Lasso--including two other directorial nominations (for Zach Braff and Declan Lowney), one for Outstanding Comedy Series and the balance spanning such categories as casting, picture editing, main title theme music lead actor, supporting actors and actresses, sound editing, sound mixing and writing.

Editor’s note: This is the 10th 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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