Tuesday, July 17, 2018
  • Thursday, Jul. 27, 2017
Emmy Nominees Reflect On Finding True "Genius"
Showrunner Kenneth Biller (l) and Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein on the set of "Genius" (photo by Dusan Martincek/courtesy of National Geographic)
Showrunner/EP Kenneth Biller, costume designer Sonu Mishra, makeup artist Davina Lamont discuss challenges of capturing the life and times of Albert Einstein
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Kenneth Biller, showrunner and executive producer of Genius (National Geographic Channel)--which is in the running for 10 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Limited Series--observed that properly telling the story of Albert Einstein, while a daunting task, was ultimately a gratifying experience. He described the project as “the absolute high point of my career. I couldn’t be prouder of the whole cast, crew and creative team.”

Biller, who also directed three episodes of Genius, including the season finale, reflected on the many challenges of the 10-part series, including living up to the pilot directed by Ron Howard, partner in Imagine Entertainment which teamed with Fox 21 Television Studios to produce the show. Howard (interviewed in Part 1 of our Road To Emmy series) also served as an EP, along with Imagine compatriot Brian Grazer. 

Upon earning a directing nomination for Genius, Howard related, “This was the first time I had ever directed scripted drama for television, so to be nominated in this category is a wonderful surprise. I was really excited going into the project about the possibilities for telling Einstein’s story in a way we’d never seen before, and with the beautiful locations in the Czech Republic, an incredibly talented cast and an agile, tireless crew behind the cameras. I couldn’t have been more pleased with how all the pieces came together on screen. Everyone who contributed to the series should be incredibly proud of how their commitment paid off.”

Howard set the bar high with episode number one. “As a director,” said Biller, “I wanted to do justice to the tone Ron set, embracing the style and visual choices he made to bring Einstein’s story to life. Plus we had to do justice to Walter Isaacsen’s sprawling Einstein biography [‘Einstein: His Life and Universe’] on which the series is based. All the while we had to make the story dramatically compelling but still historically accurate.”

As for his role as showrunner/EP, Biller described himself as “the creative officer--trying to work with all the creative people from the directors to the cinematographer to the editors, production designer, makeup and costume design artists and so on to do whatever I can to help ensure the creative quality of the show which entailed a big sweeping production shot on location in Europe and spanning different time periods.”

Those different eras--from the late 1800s to the 1950s--carried myriad challenges as well as opportunities for all the artisans involved, two prime examples being costume designer Sonu Mishra and department head makeup artist Davina Lamont who are both Emmy nominees. 

Mishra earned her first career Emmy nomination for “Chapter Seven” of Genius, along with assistant costume designer Martina Hejlova and costume supervisor Petia Krckova, in the Outstanding Period/Fantasy Costumes For A Series, Limited Series or Movie Category.

Lamont is also a first-time nominee for Genius--as department head makeup artist in the Outstanding Makeup For A Limited Series or Movie (Non-Prosthetic) category.

Whereas Lamont had a track record of collaboration with Biller, Genius marked Mishra’s first time working with the showrunner/EP/director. Mishra had been working on the Fox network series Prison Break when her name had been put forward to Biller for consideration on Genius. “We had a Skype call and I was excited to be in the running,” recalled Lamont. “I love Albert Einstein. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t. He was such an incredible mind and is a great inspiration. I had never done a project this big before. Ken hired me. I appreciate his giving me the opportunity to take this on, to think outside the box.”

For Mishra, the prime creative challenge were episodes that “moved so fast, taking us from 1886 to 1955. We had to be true to each era, researching each carefully, with the transitions in terms of costuming sometimes being handled in a very subtle manner.”

Those transitions had to “come gradually yet at the same time noticeably,” observed Mishra, particularly as Einstein’s clothes over the years became “looser, more lived in and used” as reflected in appearance and the performances of Johnny Flynn who portrayed Einstein as a young man and Best Oscar winner (Shine) Geoffrey Rush who played Einstein in ensuing years. For Genius, Rush earned a Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.

“Women’s costumes changed more quickly than men’s over the years so the changes on that end weren’t always as subtle,” continued Mishra, adding that among the most engaging challenges were famous characters who appeared briefly. “We had important historical characters who sometimes were only in one episode,” she noted, citing famed psychologist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung as an example. “We had to be authentic in creating their look even though they were there for relatively brief moments. The research had to be meticulous, replicating the look of photographs we had found.”

Mishra praised her nominated compatriots, Hejlova and Krckova. Of the former, her assistant costume designer, Mishra said, “She was always in the fitting room with me, paying attention to detail, the intention of every costume.”

Of wardrobe supervisor Krckova, Mishra related, “She got the entire department together, more than 40 people, helping to assemble the best people in the business.”

Mishra also cited crowd/background supervisor Cristina Tucci. “She was my eyes on set for every background, making sure everything was correct.”

Era-driven makeup
As for department head makeup artist Lamont, the Emmy nominee’s earlier alluded to collaborations with Biller include working in New Zealand on Legends of the Seeker, for which Biller served as an EP. More recently, the two were colleagues on the series Legends.

Lamont said she was attracted to Genius on many levels, including the chance to reunite with Biller, being able to work with director/EP Howard for the first time, and the opportunity to take on historical characters from the late 1800s to 1955. The latter, she affirmed, “was probably the biggest draw--to get to cover so many eras” and “to design the makeup, things like subtle changes with the hair and facial hair with men, keeping characters young looking and then adding little bits of makeup to show aging. We’d have to account for every single character--there was one who appeared in episode two but didn’t return until episode five so we had to keep track of how he would have aged over the years.

“Plus,” she continued, “there was the sheer number of characters who appeared for relatively short times--and being true to them such as Carl Jung, Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover. We did a large amount of research on each and every character, thinking about makeup and hair even before we knew who the actors would be. We had to make a wig not look like a wig on every character--or a full beard or a goatee.”

Now, though, Lamont’s thoughts have turned from Einstein to the iconic protagonist of season two of Genius--Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, stage designer, poet and playwright Pablo Picasso. Lamont is already delving into not only history but art history to prepare for the next chapter of the National Geographic Channel series.

This is the 11th installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores the field of Emmy contenders 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 Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.