- LOS ANGELES
“We reinvent the show every year. That’s why for me it never gets old. There are new sets, new crew members, a new city. It’s like a reset, doing a pilot all over again,” said Lesli Linka Glatter, director and executive producer on Homeland (Showtime).
Glatter and her colleagues have proven to be reset maestros as reflected on the awards show circuit. For example, four of Glatter’s six career DGA Award nominations are for Homeland--as are six of her seven Emmy nominations. She won the DGA Award in 2015 for the “From A to B and Back Again” episode.
Contributing mightily to the show’s success is its knack for keeping its finger on the pulse of current events. In preparation for each season the Homeland creative team goes to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the intelligence community, getting a sense for what’s top of mind--and most importantly, for what keeps them up at night.
Glatter noted that for this past season seven, Homeland tapped into “a world that is very off balance. There’s a level of distrust, a nation divided, people so entrenched in their beliefs that they can’t or won’t listen to the other side. When a country is that divided, it’s easier for something from outside to take hold (in this case a Russian infiltration). You have fertile ground for something to happen. What I like about Homeland is that in the course of telling our story, we try to show both sides of an issue, presenting completely different views.”
In that way, while art imitates life, the case could be made that life could learn from art when it comes to Homeland, which not only presents differing perspectives and viewpoints but at times shows deeper values as characters evolve. For instance, we see self-sacrifice on the part of Carrie (portrayed by Claire Danes) who copes with mental illness, the realization that she is not an ideal mom and that her sister might be able to do a better job of raising her daughter. Carrie emerges even more than ever as a multi-dimensional character. And we also see selfless character in President Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) whose stirring resignation speech shows a public servant not being a politician but rather a statesman, acting for the greater good.
“The way she resigns,” said Glatter, “shows that there is something bigger than partisan politics--the speech written by (Homeland co-creator) Alex Gansa is powerful. It’s part of what keeps me feeling so fortunate to be part of Homeland--the rich, layered and complicated characters.”
In breaking new career ground--taking on her first gig as a showrunner--Tanya Saracho has broken new ground in television, bringing viewers the Starz original series Vida, a departure from stereotypical depictions of the Latinx community. The show has received assorted plaudits, including an Audience Award at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival and a “100% Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Saracho created and also serves as an executive producer on Vida, which centers on two Mexican-American sisters from East Los Angeles who are estranged from each other. Their mother’s death prompts them to reunite and return to their old neighborhood where they are confronted by the past--as well as a revelation about their mom’s true identity.
The sisters, Emma (portrayed by Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), are left to run the family business, La Chinita bar, and the apartment building in which it is quartered. Vida sheds new light by presenting a Latinx perspective on daily life and the quandary of whether to brace for or to embrace neighborhood gentrification. Do they sell their downtown L.A.-adjacent property to developers who will likely “whitewash” the neighborhood or do they carry on the community’s ethnic tradition by preserving the business and the property on which it is located?
Part of the secret carried by Emmy and Lyn’s mom is her “roommate” Eddy who was actually her wife. Eddy (Ser Anzoategui) inherited a third of the bar, sharing ownership with Emma and Lynn. The series revolves predominantly around female characters--the sisters, Eddy, Marisol (an anti-gentrification rebel played by Chelsea Rendon), and older tenants in the apartment building. Men are for the most part fairly incidental to the story--the main characters being Latinas of different sexual orientations.
When asked what was the biggest challenge Vida posed to her, Saracho said, “Everything--I’m a first-time showrunner who had only been in Hollywood three years before this assignment.” Her prior series exploits included serving as a co-producer and writer on How to Get Away With Murder and Looking. She brought to TV her extensive experience as a playwright and as founder of both Teatro Luna, the first all-Latina theatre company in the U.S., and the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists. Saracho has directed 14 theatre productions.
Drawn to Saracho’s writing was Marta Fernandez, sr. VP of programming at Starz. Saracho credited Fernandez with being “my champion...She saw me, and gave me this opportunity, shepherding and guiding things along.”
Saracho assembled a writers’ room for Vida consisting of several women and one male, all Latinx. “You need that perspective to write a story like this one; you need the cultural shorthand for a story that’s so Latinx and so female,” said Saracho.
Several female directors are also in the series mix, including Rose Troche, Catalina Aguilar Mastretta and So Yong Kim. Vida’s DP, Carmen Cabana, is female as are editors JoAnne Yarrow, Amy E. Duddlesston and Liza D. Espinas, and production designer Ruth Ammon.
As for what her biggest takeaway has been from serving as showrunner on Vida, Saracho shared, “It’s important to be decisive. Sometimes you have seconds to make a decision. You’re on the set. You’re the ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I also learned that you don’t have to sacrifice kindness and humanity to run a production. Starz has values that I share--kindness, good communication, love and respect for your collaborators.”
In that vein, Saracho is continuing her relationship with Starz, having recently entered into an overall development deal with the network. She is currently developing a new Starz series titled Brujas with indie production company Big Beach. And earlier this month, Starz greenlit a second season of Vida.
“Vida has delivered on its promise of attracting a young, new Latinx audience to the Starz platform, as we had hoped it would, and we are pleased to be able to announce a second season of the series,” said Starz president and CEO Chris Albrecht. “With these new episodes, Tanya and her team now have the opportunity to take audiences even deeper into the lives and community of the Hernandez sisters, and we look forward to bringing the next chapter of their story to life.”
Starz, which produces Vida, retains all domestic multiplatform pay TV and SVOD rights to the series. Starz parent Lionsgate retains all international and domestic distribution and home entertainment rights.
Fernandez and manager of original programming Kathleen Clifford are the Starz executives in charge of Vida.
Editor Kevin D. Ross has to his credit such shows as Californication, Shameless, Southland and Halt and Catch Fire. His work on the latter caught the eye of two series creators--Matt and Ross Duffer--who ultimately selected Ross for season two of their Stranger Things (Netflix).
It was a fortuitous choice as reflected in Ross’ first career primetime Emmy Award nomination which came last year for the “Chapter Seven: The Bathtub” episode. That same installment of Stranger Things landed Ross his first Eddie Award nomination from the American Cinema Editors (ACE). And earlier this year, the “Chapter 9: The Gate” episode of Stranger Things garnered Ross his second Eddie Award nom.
Among the challenges encountered by Ross was editing the season two finale which he said was “so massive in its scope compared to season one. We had to wrangle all these visual effects, hundreds and hundreds. When Eleven fights the Shadow Monster at the end, it had to feel real and not hokey. Thank goodness we had an effects crew that worked in-house with us. We had visual effects guys in the same building, often in the cutting room with us. At the same time, we didn’t want to get too caught up in visual effects. It’s all about the characters. If you don’t believe in the characters and care about them, nothing works. One of the positive points about Stranger Things is that they built this core group of interesting kids and teens you care about and want to follow. That’s what keeps the emotional impact of the story intact.”
Also energizing the show is the opportunity to “improvise when you need to,” observed Ross. “We have a longer post schedule than on a network series. It’s like working on a feature where you get to try different versions of scenes or moments. Being able to explore different options is a lot of what this show is all about.”
In the big picture, Ross related, “You never know when you’re going to work on an award-worthy show. This is one where everything jelled and came together. We have great showrunners and creators, the Duffer brothers. And Shawn Levy (executive producer/director) was like the father who led them through trial by fire to get the show made. It just shows you the power of being part of a great group of people--people who care about each other. There’s not a competition going on. We wound up on a great show which has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s magical when it happens. Our editorial team is amazing. We are all like a family.”
Part of that family is Kat Naranjo, Ross’ editorial assistant, who got the chance to cut one of the season two episodes. “She got to prove her worth as an editor, which was just great for all of us to see,” affirmed Ross.
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. He’s also been nominated for Excellence in Production Design from the Art Directors Guild for the feature Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2004 (as an art director), the half-hour single-camera TV series Community in 2011, Hatfields & McCoys in 2013 and the TV miniseries Bonnie & Clyde in 2014.
Now Hill is once again in the awards season conversation for Ozark (Netflix), which 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.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Jim Dooley is an Emmy winner, recognized in 2008 for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score) on the basis of the Pushing Daisies episode, “Pigeon.”
Dooley collaborated with director/executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld on Pushing Daisies. And this Emmy season he’s again working in tandem with Sonnenfeld--this time on A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix). Showrunner/director Sonnenfeld brought Dooley aboard for season two of the show, taking over from composer James Newton Howard.
Dooley noted that a prime logistical challenge is “the sheer amount of music required for the series. Every episode is 40 minutes or so--35 of which need music. It’s an enormous task but having such a wonderful composer as James Newton Howard setting the framework was extraordinary. It felt like putting on a warm coat for me. Very animated, French-inspired, melodic music is something I’m comfortable with.”
Still, Dooley had to take that framework and add his creative imprint, being mindful of the turn in tone taken in season two. “Things start getting worse in season two,” he related. “Hope is slipping away. The challenge was to codify that in the music and at the same time keep a level of whimsy that doesn’t get too dark....The work is highly melodic and highly harmonic which is not necessarily fashionable in lots of contemporary TV at this point. For me, it’s quite refreshing to go in and carve out a specific melody.”
Helping to further push the work creatively is Dooley’s working relationship with Sonnenfeld. “He wants everyone’s input and the best idea is going to win,” said Dooley. “I’m comfortable enough with him to say, ‘Here’s a bad idea but let’s see if it has any legs.’ Barry usually finds something of value in that even if we use the idea or not. It sparks something else that can work. Taking chances like that has led to the greatest success on season two. We trust each other’s abilities. It may lead to some mistakes but overall taking more risks allows you to get to better places.”
Lost In Space
VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani and VFX producer Terron Pratt brought an Emmy pedigree to Lost In Space (Netflix). Raisani was part of the Game of Thrones ensemble that won Outstanding Special Visual Effects Emmys in 2013 and 2015. And Pratt was on the Black Sails team that earned Outstanding Special Visual Effects nominations in 2016 and 2017.
Lost In Space was similar to Game of Thrones and Black Sails in terms of the high bar set for visual effects artistry. Pratt cited the diversity of the VFX work required by Lost In Space from “very difficult effects simulations to complex creatures transforming, morphing and interacting with humans and other creatures. There’s a wide range of landscapes. Every episode carried something different, at times causing us to tap into multiple vendors all over the globe.” Prominent among those VFX vendors were Image Engine, Important Looking Pictures (ILP) and Cinesite.
Pratt explained that he and Raisani are “both essentially independent contractors hired by Legendary Television and Netflix to produce material for the show. We are involved from the very beginning, working with showrunners and producers to determine how to do things and ultimately the best way to get them done, selecting the right mix of vendors.”
Raisani did not look back on the Lost In Space feature but rather deeper into the past to the original TV series as partial inspiration for the Netflix series. He related that a prime challenge was “how do we create a new version of Lost In Space that takes into consideration those people who love the original series but knowing that we had to make our own version of the show.”
No matter those creative decisions, the major necessity for Lost In Space--as with all ambitious projects--is thorough preparation. “It all comes down,” said Raisani, “to how to approach something of this scale, volume and complexity. Extensive planning in pre-pro is essential. You have to extensively prepare to figure out how to shoot a world of this scale.”
This is the sixth 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.