Emmy Nominees Reflect On "When They See Us," "Chernobyl," "Sharp Objects," "GLOW," "High Castle"
"When They See Us" composer Kris Bowers (photo by Molly Cranna/courtesy of Netflix)
Perspectives from composer Kris Bowers, production designer Luke Hull, costume designers Alix Friedberg and Beth Morgan, DP Gonzalo Amat
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Composer Kris Bowers recently garnered his first career Emmy nomination for “Episode 2” of When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five miniseries which delves into the true story of five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were coerced into confessing to a brutal attack in 1989 that they didn’t commit. The four-part series follows them over the course of 25 years through to their vindication.

While the Emmy nomination for his original dramatic score is a great honor, it is even more so when recognizing a project with such a sense of purpose and justice, said Bowers. “I was first and foremost honored to be part of this show and telling this story. It’s been pretty exciting to see how much love the show has received in general.”

Bowers got the opportunity when DuVernay’s go-to-composer, his long-time mentor Jason Moran, was on tour and unavailable to work on  When They See Us. Moran recommended Bowers to DuVernay. This resulted in a face-to-face  meeting where the director and composer discussed the project, what it means and to see if they were on the same page. Bowers recalled that DuVernay wanted to make sure she could trust him to give the story the love and attention it deserved.

“She had me watch the first episode, come back and speak with her again,” recollected Bowers who was moved by what he saw. “I was already a big fan of hers and wanted to work with her but this episode totally connected me with the project. Watching these boys and what they went through--being able to relate to them as an African American male, realizing my parents’ worst fears of my being at the wrong place at the wrong time, impacted me.”

For Bowers, among the prime creative challenges was “trying to have a balance of showing the horrific aspects of what’s going on, the terrifying, anxiety-inducting aspect of what we’re seeing on screen while at the same time imparting some sense of humanity. Ava would every now and then say she can’t feel the boys in the scene. When she said she couldn’t feel them, we’d look at what we could do to make sure we could feel them, using sounds, ambient sound design-y elements, piano melodies, string melodies, trying to continue to track these boys’ feelings.”

Specifically in “Episode 2,” the challenge in the youngsters going through the court process is, said Bowers, “We know how it ends. The boys end up getting convicted. We had to figure out how to build the tension, the ups and downs. When that verdict finally does come, it takes a lot out of you, out from underneath you. This required a lot of looking at small moments of hope, happiness, kindness. Those moments--while there weren’t many of them--ratcheted up the tension.”

DuVernay’s input and feedback proved invaluable. “Every single piece of music I would write, every revision, we’d sit down together, watch the scene, talk about what aspects were working, what wasn’t,” related Bowers. “She was incredibly specific about what she wanted--from the motive side of the music. ‘This moment should give me goosebumps,’ she would say. At the same time she didn’t want to be prescriptive and tell me how to do it. She trusted me to get to that feeling.”

As for what resonates most from the experience of working on When They See Us, Bowers shared, “It reminded me of the power of content that is created to move people, to think, to take action or to question things in our society, our culture. That’s something I’ve always been drawn to but I hadn’t gotten the chance to work on something that does it so unapologetically. Being a part of that team and seeing how much the work resonated with the general public was gratifying. To see these five men receiving love and adoration now--which can’t change what they’ve been through--has been beautiful to see. For me as an artist, it makes me want to continue to find work that does this, that makes me feel proud to be a part of. This made me realize the importance of creating that type of work, of putting that work into the world.”

Bowers’ Emmy nomination is one of 16 earned by When They See Us, including for Outstanding Limited Series.

Regarding what’s next for him, Bowers has wrapped Bad Hair, which he described as “a pretty wild social commentary horror film” from Justin Simien, creator of Dear White People. Bowers has also composed for a documentary from Bing Liu that delves into an organization in Chicago that works with men who come from a background in gang violence, working with them to think through the emotional aspects of what they’ve done in an effort to turn their lives around, providing them with labor skillsets and training. Documentarian Liu, acclaimed for Minding the Gap, directs commercials through Nonfiction Unlimited. Also in the offing for Bowers is the feature Good Joe Bell about a gay teenager who takes his own life after being bullied in high school. Cast includes Mark Wahlberg and Connie Britton. The true story explores the importance of parents accepting their children, showing them love and support for who they are.

Luke Hull
Another first-time Emmy nominee, production designer Luke Hull, also felt a sense of purpose relative to the work for which he was recognized, the five-part miniseries Chernobyl (HBO) which chronicles the 1986 nuclear accident, one of the worst human-made catastrophes in history. Chernobyl tells the story of the courageous people who made staggering sacrifice to save Europe from unimaginable disaster, while in the process having to combat a culture of disinformation.

“I’m really proud of the show, the real obsession that every single person in my department had, working very hard for a year,” related Hull. “I’ve appreciated the impact that the series has had on people. I always knew the script was so good that people would find it fascinating. I didn’t know that it would find such a vast audience so straight away.”

Hull praised his team that earned the Emmy nom for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period or Fantasy Program (One Hour or More). That team included Hull’s fellow Emmy nominees--supervising art director Karen Wakefield and set decorator Claire Levinson-Gendler.

Chernobyl marked Hull’s first time working with Levinson-Gendler whom he said did a masterful job with a set decorating department largely from Romania. “She was fantastic at layering each set, helping to define the characters and story,” assessed Hull, adding, “We got along very well on a personal level. It was easy to be honest with each other, which was very useful in crafting the work.”

Meanwhile Hull had a track record collaborating with supervising art director Wakefield who hired him as an assistant years back on the Ridley Scott-directed feature Prometheus. Hull credited her with running a department while handling assorted daunting logistics on Chernobyl, “bringing in the right people, connecting all the dots, working in Lithuania, coordinating with departments from Kiev and Moscow. It helped that we had worked together before. We’re a really good team.”

Teamwork was needed to re-create the Chernobyl power plant and then destroying part of it. There was “constant discussion,” recalled Hull about “making sure the pieces fit together, nothing seeming out of place.” The overriding consideration, he observed, was “you want it to be historically correct, to do justice to the story and its people, but still give the work a cinematic quality--all of that, together.”

Hull also learned a key lesson working abroad. “You can’t get them to always work your way. You have to adapt to their way. You can get the best out of people when you adapt to them, not necessarily forcing them to do it your way.”

Whatever the way, it’s hard to argue with the results as Chernobyl earned 19 Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Limited Series.

Alix Friedberg
Like Chernobyl and When They See Us, also in the running for the Outstanding Limited Series Emmy is Sharp Objects (HBO), which received a total of eight nominations. Among that haul is one for Outstanding Contemporary Costumes shared by costume designer Alix Friedberg and costume supervisor Shawn Berry for the “Closer” episode.

Based on the novel of the same title by Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects centers on Camille Preaker (portrayed by Emmy nominee Amy Adams), a reporter for the St. Louis Chronicle who returns to her small hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to look into a string of unsolved murders. Preaker’s investigation causes her to confront psychological demons from her past.

Friedberg noted that Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed all eight episodes, works “very in the moment” and they didn’t settle on shooting on a soundstage in Los Angeles until some six weeks before the production started. In that tight turnaround time production designer John Paino created the interiors of a Victorian mansion--the home of Camille’s mother Adora Crellin (played by Patricia Clarkson)--on that stage. “Designing the costumes was so dependent on the interiors of that house,” related Friedberg. “The house is such a predominant character in the series. It was difficult to choose the color, progression, pattern of costumes without having that house totally mapped out.”

Friedberg observed that from a costume design perspective, telling a story visually with color and pattern was imperative from episode 1 through 8 of Sharp Objects.

The task would have been close to impossible if not for the shorthand Friedberg had already developed earlier on Big Little Lies with Vallée, Paino and set decorator Amy Wells. Based on that experience, “he (Jean-Marc Vallée) had trust in myself and the production designer” for Sharp Objects which made all the difference in the world, observed Friedberg. Their collaborative relationship, incidentally, on Big Little Lies won Friedberg an Emmy for Outstanding Contemporary Costumes for a Series, Limited Series or Movie in 2017.

Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies also each earned a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination in 2019 and 2017, respectively, bringing Friedberg’s career total to four--the first two coming for Modern Family in 2011 and 2012.

From repeat collaborators--Friedberg also worked with writer Flynn on the series Utopia, which the author created--to first-time colleagues, Friedberg found the Sharp Objects experience gratifying. A prime first-time collaborator for Friedberg on Sharp Objects was costume supervisor Berry, am accomplished artisan. “I had heard of her for a long time,” said Friedberg of Berry. “She has a great reputation. It was such an honor to get to finally work with her. She’s been doing it for nearly 40 years. She brought such a strong, passionate, old school work ethic to the show.”

Gonzalo Amat
The Man in the High Castle (Amazon) has taken cinematographer Gonzalo Amat to a high place this awards season with the “Jahr Null” episode landing him his first career Emmy nomination as well as his second ASC Award nod. Amat’s first ASC nom came last year for the “Land O’ Smiles” episode of The Man in the High Castle.

Among the challenges posed by the “Jahr Null” episode was creating the time tunnel, said Amat. “There is visual effects augmentation in the show but it is always made to look and feel real. We try to do any lighting effect in camera. We try to make the set as realistic as possible. The overriding question is how do we tell the story of this time travel machine in a convincing way? What does it do? What would it look like in our world? We had a lot of conversations about how to best execute this in a limited amount of time while also shooting other episodes.”

Helping to define and shape the tunnel were conversations, specifically, with director Daniel Percival. “He knows the show better than anyone,” said Amat. “The very first episode I did on this series was with him and we teamed again on this one (“Jahr Null”). We talked a lot about the right vision for the tunnel.”

In a previous installment of this “Road To Emmy” series, production designer Drew Boughton discussed the time machine. The creation of this mechanism, he related, had to be in the context of the Nazi mindset. “Nazis would be incapable of spiritual travel so we essentially had to make a piece of machinery that accomplishes what it’s made for through physics and violence,” explained Boughton, bringing a new, perverse twist to what had traditionally been the time travel machine affording users the opportunity to go from one dimension to another.

Boughton and Amat garnered two of the three Emmy nominations received this year by The Man in the High Castle, the other being for Outstanding Visual Effects.

As for camera selection, Amat shared the evolution of that dynamic for The Man in the High Castle, the first season of which was shot on the RED Epic Dragon for its 4K capabilities. However the transition was made to the ARRI Alexa for its low-light sensitivity. Amazon agreed to let go of the 4K prerequisite for the desired “better resolution in low light” provided by the 3.2K Alexa, according to Amat. For season 3 and the “Jahr Null” episode, he continued, the decision was made to lens with the ARRI Alexa SXT. Alexa Mini was the choice for season 4.

Amat’s experience on The Man in the High Castle has reaffirmed his feelings about teamwork. “I’ve always been a team person. When you rely on people, delegate and curate ideas as head of a department, then the results can be amazing. Everyone has their experience and expertise to bring to the process. When you listen to other people’s ideas, I think the best idea ultimately takes over. By listening you get the best from everyone and end up with the most solid concept.”

Amat added that his Emmy nomination reflects “recognition of the work of so many people--lots of idea from lots of minds working together.”

As for what’s next, Amat is shooting a couple of episodes of the Netflix project Outer Banks in South Carolina. He’s then off to do a bit of directing on another series.

Beth Morgan
The GLOW (Netflix) episode “Every Potato Has A Receipt” recently earned costume designer Beth Morgan her second career Emmy nomination; the first came 15 years ago on her first job as an assistant costume designer on Deadwood.

Morgan shares the GLOW nod with costume supervisor Sharon Sampson and assistant costume designer Alexandra Casey. Morgan collaborated with both for the first time based on recommendations and now extols their virtues, citing Sampson’s “great calm” and “everything is doable” attitude. “She would always make everything work within whatever the time parameters were,” assessed Morgan of Sampson.

As for Casey, Morgan cited her theatrical feature pedigree on everything from Marvel movies to Hunger Games: Mockingjay--Parts 1 and 2. “She wanted more TV experience and felt GLOW made the most sense,” noted Morgan, pointing to Casey’s contributions spanning such areas as creativity and expertise in running the work room. 

GLOW centers on a group of female wrestlers vying for celebrity on the syndicated pro circuit. A mutual colleague helped get Morgan a meeting with Liz Flahive who teamed with Carly Mensch to create GLOW. Morgan feels her take on the series was instrumental in landing her the gig. “I wasn’t trying to make it a 1980s’ over-the-top, glittery, candy neon thing,” related Morgan. “Instead I wanted to get to the gritty realness of the characters.”

In a season marked by the athleticism of the women, with much more in-the-ring wrestling action than before, Morgan had an ambitious, at times logistically challenging creative costuming aspiration. “Girls are wrestling in all these scenes, rehearsing so that they can show their skills in competition, going to trainers, getting massages so they could function as wrestlers. On top of that we added multiple costume fittings for bridesmaid leotards, for ruffled sleeves worn off the shoulder--for 15 different girls with different body sizes. 

Morgan and her compatriots engineered these leotards which in turn brought a new stylish dimension to the story.

For Morgan, the lesson of striving to realize a vision despite scheduling and other possible drawbacks underscored a key lesson for her: “Trust your instincts.” In building this show as a costume designer, Morgan said she refrained from questioning herself, instead having belief in what she felt was right every step of the way. “My instincts paid off, especially with this episode,” she affirmed. “The end result was so dynamic on camera,” adding to the wedding bells being rung in an eventful season finale.

Morgan, Sampson and Casey’s nomination for Outstanding Period Costumes is one of five garnered by GLOW this season, the others including recognition for the show’s stunt coordination (an acknowledgment of the escalated athleticism in the show) and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Betty Gilpin in her portrayal of Debbie Eagan.

This is the final installment in a 16-part series that explores this season's field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, casting, music, production design, costume design and visual effects. The series will be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.

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