Emmy Nominees Share Insights Into "Paterno," "Genius: Picasso," "Ozark," "Mrs. Maisel"
Al Pacino portrays Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in a scene from "Paterno" (photo by Atsushi Nishijima/courtesy of HBO).
Reflections from director Barry Levinson, DP Mathias Herndl, production designers Derek R. Hill, Bill Groom
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Prior to today’s (7/12) announcement of this year’s Emmy nominations, SHOOT connected with varied contenders over a two-month stretch spanning different disciplines and as it turns out a good number of the artisans we covered in parts 1 through 8 of our The Road To Emmy series of feature stories ended up in the 2017-’18 circle of nominees.

Among them were: director Barry Levinson who’s nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special on the strength of Paterno (HBO); cinematographer Mathias Herndl, AAC, a nominee in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie category for “Chapter One” of Genius: Picasso (National Geographic); production designer Derek R. Hill who’s recognized for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (One Hour or More) on the basis of the “My Dripping Sleep” episode of Ozark (Netflix); and production designer Bill Groom, an Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Emmy nominee for the “Ya Shivu v Bolshom Dome Na Kholme” episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon).

Here are several of the insights these artists shared with us on their continuing “Road To Emmy.”

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.”

Paterno is also nominated for Outstanding TV Movie. 

Levinson thus far has four career Emmy wins--the sole one for Best Directing coming for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street in 1993.

From Albert Einstein in season one to Pablo Picasso in season two, the bar has been set high for the National Geographic series Genius. Season one earned 10 Emmy nominations last year, including for Best Limited Series. Among the assorted other honors bestowed upon the show was the first career ASC Award win for Mathias Herndl, AAC on the strength of his lensing the very first Einstein episode which was directed by Ron Howard.

This time around, Genius: Picasso garnered seven Emmy nominations, including one for Herndl’s lensing of “Chapter One.”

Herndl observed that season two of Genius was inherently daunting for a DP. “You’re shooting a series about the greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso, for National Geographic, which is famous for its images.” Helping to meet that challenge was the original approach of Howard to Einstein’s story--an approach that was adapted for Picasso. 

Herndl explained, “We had an aggressive and kinetic camera for Einstein in his youthful years (portrayed by Johnny Flynn), slowing things down with a heavier camera when he was older (played by Geoffrey Rush in an Emmy-nominated performance). We also had a hand-held kinetic energy for Picasso in his youth (played by Alex Rich). But in his later years (with Antonio Banderas as Picasso), the camera was completely static. Keeping the camera absolutely still set up a picture frame effect with characters moving in and out of a static frame. It was almost like the frame was within the framework of a Picasso painting. His life became a painting in our visual interpretation.”

For Genius: Picasso, Herndl deployed a mix of 35mm film (color as well as select black-and-white usage) and digital lensing, the latter with the ARRI Alexa.

“It’s been a privilege to be part of this project, which has been a learning experience these two seasons,” said Herndl who cited as an example his realization of “how little I knew about Einstein as a person, his personality” prior to embarking on Genius. “And to then see this result in an ASC Award, to be recognized by your peers at that level, is a great honor, extremely gratifying.”

Genius: Einstein and Genius: Picasso were produced by Imagine Entertainment in tandem with Fox 21 Television Studios and Nat Geo. Howard and his Imagine compatriot Brian Grazer are both EPs on the series. Season 3’s Genius will be Mary Shelley, the iconic author best known for her Gothic novel, “Frankenstein.”

Production designer Bill Groom brought a distinguished Emmy pedigree to 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. He’s now added to that tally with his latest nomination for Mrs. Maisel.

Groom was drawn to Amazon series, 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. Prince and Christiansen are also Emmy nominees for Mrs. Maisel along with Groom in the Production Design category.

“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.”

Production designer Derek R. Hill is no stranger to primetime Emmy proceedings, having been nominated for Outstanding Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series in 2006 for House: MD and Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries in 2012 on the strength of Hatfields & McCoys. Now Ozark has landed him his third career Emmy nomination.

Ozark centers on a Chicago-based financial advisor (Jason Bateman) who secretly moves his family to the Missouri Ozarks when his dealings with a drug cartel go terribly amiss. Hill came aboard the series succeeding a production designer who handled the first two episodes--the first set in Chicago, the other leading to the relocation to the Ozarks. Pretty much most everything Ozarks then came under Hill’s aegis when he started on the show. 

Director Dan Sackheim, who was prepping for an Ozark episode, reached out to Hill about possibly joining the series. Sackheim had worked with Hill on House: MD. That connection led to Hill getting a FaceTime call with Bateman, which eventually led to the production designer landing the gig. Bateman has also directed multiple episodes of Ozark. 

Among the prime challenges for Hill was making Atlanta look like the Ozarks. Hill thus had to keep a watchful eye on such elements as “the size of buildings and the shape of streets. Some buildings are run down. Some are closed. We had to construct sets accordingly. I’ve had some people say, ‘I can’t believe you shot that stuff on stage. I can’t tell the transition from the interiors to the exteriors, what’s real and what is a set.’ That is a great compliment for a production designer to hear.”

Hill is accustomed to shooting in far-flung locales that are quite removed from where the story is supposed to take place. He’s demonstrated an affinity and talent for making a distant location look like what the storyline calls for--a prime case in point being Hatfields & McCoys which was lensed in Romania. “I hired a U.K. set designer and otherwise worked with the locals in Romania,” recalled Hill. “I pushed them to the limits. Some didn’t understand why I was being so ‘difficult’ in creating the look. ‘Why was I working so hard to get the wood stain and the aging right?’ But when we started to get nominated for awards, I got emails from folks in Romania offering thanks on how well things turned out.”

This is the ninth 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.

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