Guild Awards Preview: New--and Not So New--This Season
A scene from "Squid Game" (photo by YoungKyu Park/courtesy of Netflix)
"Squid Game" poised to make history? "Mare of Easttown," "Hacks," "The Underground Railroad" could build on strong Emmy showing

New kids on the block and already established residents figure in the ongoing Guild awards conversation this season.

Among the new kids is the breakout Korean thriller Squid Game (Netflix), which is poised for what could be a history-making stretch. Until late last year a non-English project had never been nominated in a major television category at the Golden Globes or SAG Awards. This continues to hold true for the primetime Emmys. While the Golden Globes have diminished in stature, it’s still significant that Squid Game broke through the non-English barrier in that competition last month, earning nominations in the dramatic series, lead (Lee Jung-jae) and supporting actor (O Yeong-Su) categories.

At press time, the unveiling of the SAG Award nominations was pending so it remains to be seen if Squid Game will make such history again--though it is a distinct possibility.

There could also be awards recognition--beyond the Golden Globes acknowledgment--in the offing for Squid Game creator and director Hwang Dong-hyuk. He and the dystopian survival drama from South Korea have already gained fame as reportedly the most-watched series globally in Netflix history. The show centers on people who are so desperate for money that they consent to compete in a series of schoolyard games with deadly consequences. Squid Game headed Netflix’s Top Ten chart in the U.S. for nearly a month, attaining #1 viewing tallies in some 90-plus territories worldwide.

And back in November 2020, word came that Squid Game will be back for a second season--even though most TV shows in South Korea run for just a single season. The show’s global success almost compelled a return engagement.

Squid Game also recently cracked the American Film Institute’s (AFI) top ten TV programs of the year list.

That AFI rundown includes other programs that could loom large as the Guild awards season unfolds. But unlike Squid Game, shows such as Mare of Easttown (HBO), Hacks (HBO Max) and The Underground Railroad (Amazon Studios) already have major award footprints, particularly those made at last year’s primetime Emmys. 

Mare of Easttown
Mare of Easttown, for example, won four Emmys---Lead Actress in an Anthology Series (Kate Winslet), Supporting Actress (Julianne Nicholson), Supporting Actor (Evan Peters) and Production Design (Keith P. Cunningham). Among the nominations were Outstanding Anthology Series and Outstanding Directing and Cinematography for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie.

The directorial nod went to Craig Zobel, the sole helmer on the series, as well as an executive producer. Zobel could be in the running for a DGA Award nomination this year.

Zobel shared some insights into Mare of Easttown in last year’s SHOOT The Road To Emmy Series, noting that he took 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, ASC the cinematographer and so on. 

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 was 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. Zobel’s most recent film, The Hunt, was produced by Blumhouse Productions and Universal.

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 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.

In Mare of Easttown, Winslet returned to a miniseries on HBO in another title role, portraying Mare Sheehan, a small-town Pennsylvania detective who investigates a local murder as life crumbles around her. Brad Ingelsby 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.

Mare of Easttown also starred Nicholson as Lori Ross, Mare’s best friend since childhood; Jean Smart as Helen, Mare’s mother; Angourie Rice as Siobhan Sheehan, Mare’s teenaged daughter; Peters as Colin Zabel, the county detective called in to assist with Mare’s investigation; Guy Pearce as Richard Ryan, a local creative writing professor; David Denman as Frank Sheehan, Mare’s ex-husband; Joe Tippett as John Ross, Lori’s husband and high school sweetheart; Cailee Spaeny as Erin McMenamin, an isolated teen living with her volatile father; John Douglas Thompson as Chief Carter, Mare’s boss at the Easttown Police Department; Patrick Murney as Kenny McMenamin, Erin’s father; James McArdle as Deacon Mark Burton; and Sosie Bacon as Carrie Layden, Drew’s mother and Kevin’s ex-girlfriend; and Neal Huff as Mare’s cousin, Father Dan Hastings.

Zobel collaborated for the first time with the lion’s share of his key creatives on Mare of Easttown--a prime exception being his first assistant director, Kayse Goodell, whom he worked with on the David Gordon Green-directed feature, Prince Avalanche. Zobel was a producer on Prince Avalanche while Goodell was a second assistant director.

Among Zobel’s many first-time collaborators on Mare of Easttown was DP Richardson. Zobel has been a fan of Richardson, citing his indie film work. A Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Award winner for Beasts of the Southern Wild (which additionally earned Best Cinematography honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival), Richardson has also been active in TV, as reflected in an ASC Award nomination in 2019 for Yellowstone. He could figure in this year’s ASC Awards for Mare of Easttown.

Zobel said that he and Richardson were simpatico on the approach toward Mare of Easttown. “It needed to be naturalistic, all about the acting. We weren’t trying to make a show with an aggressive visual style that would impact the naturalism of the acting.” At the same time, continued Zobel, the style of the show grew “out of the two of us interacting with each other.”

That and all conventional collaborative interactions, though, were interrupted by the pandemic lockdown. About one-third of the show had been shot before quarantine. This meant that change had to be adopted, embraced and adapted for when shooting resumed. The spirit of the narrative was preserved even though adjustments had to be made. “We couldn’t do that scene that was supposed to have 200 extras,” noted Zobel. Thankfully, he continued, HBO provided the time and support necessary to bring the project to fruition--as well as a commitment to the health and safety of all involved.

Also scoring big at last year’s Emmys was Hacks (HBO Max) which too could figure in various award shows this season, including the DGA and SAG proceedings. Hacks won three Emmys--for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (Jean Smart, who could figure in the SAG derby for this performance as well as her supporting role in Mare of Easttown), Writing for a Comedy Series (Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky) and Directing for a Comedy Series (Aniello). Overall Hacks scored a total of 15 Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Hacks stars Smart and Hannah Einbinder. The latter portrays Ava Daniels, a Gen Z comedy writer in Los Angeles whose career is in jeopardy over an insensitive off-the-cuff tweet. Desperate for an industry job, she finds an unlikely gig through her agent--writing contemporary, youth appeal material for legendary Las Vegas vet and stand-up comedy diva Deborah Vance who’s played by Smart. The chemistry between the protagonists is a driving force behind the show. Their wide-ranging performances take us from the comedic to the dramatic and places in-between. This acumen for naturally blending laughs and pathos while generating empathy for the characters is a testament to Smart and Einbinder (who earned an Emmy nod for Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series).

In last year’s The Road To Emmy Series, SHOOT caught up with Aniello, who is also a co-creator of the show. Her directing and writing Emmys reflect at the very least contending status for DGA and Writers Guild award nods this year.

Aniello related that among the challenges she faced on Hacks was working and adapting during the pandemic. Aniello’s roots are as a stand-up and improv performer, which translates into a directing style she described as being “emotive.” She explained, “That’s one way I’m able to get across what I’m trying to say to the actors.” But the performers could only see her eyeballs when she was wearing a face mask and a shield. Instead of relying on facial reactions to convey her direction, she had to relate in words what she wanted. Aniello noted that while keeping everyone safe on set is paramount for her, she felt masking may have caused her to lose “a little bit of the humanity of what I feel directing is.”

Zoom meetings among the writers also were marked by a sense of loss. She missed no longer being able to joke and hang around with writing colleagues in person. Aniello said that when you’re on Zoom, you feel you’re on the clock and have to be pretty much all business. Thus the goofing-around banter was eliminated, off-the-cuff exchanges that under normal circumstances could serve as a catalyst for ideas, comedy and other elements that help to tell a story.

Still, Hacks has managed to resonate with viewers. Aniello was excited to find out that older people feel connected to the show, in large part due to Smart’s portrayal of Vance, who’s cool, sexy, funny and a bit of a hard-ass who says what she thinks. Vance is also relatable as a person who’s surrounded by laughter and audiences professionally but by contrast isolated in a big mansion in her personal life.  “I didn’t quite foresee how much the show would resonate with older people. It’s really satisfying that we are portraying somebody of a certain age so well.” Aniello noted that she’s written 25-year-old characters most of her life but to be able to portray Vance has been a true gift.

Among the other Hacks Emmy nominees last year were cinematographer Adam Bricker, editors Jessica Brunetto, Susan Vaill, ACE and Ali Greer, production designer Jon Carlos, costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager, re-recording mixers John W. Cook II and Ben Wilkins, production mixer Jim Lakin, and casting directors Jeanne McCarthy, CSA and Nicole Albellera Hallman, CSA.

They all could be considered in the running for awards in their respective guilds and disciplines this time around. For example, McCarthy, Albellera Hallman and casting associate Anna Mayworm received nominations on the strength of Hacks just two months ago for the Casting Society of America’s Artios Award in the comedy category spanning first season comedy series and TV pilots.

Hacks marked the sixth career Emmy nomination for casting director McCarthy who along with Albellera Hallman won the honor in 2016 for American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Albellera Hallman is a five-time Emmy nominee. Aniello had worked previously with McCarthy and Hallman on the feature Rough Night starring Scarlett Johansson. Aniello served as writer-director-producer on that film.

Aniello also collaborated with editor Brunetto previously on such shows as Broad City, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and Time Traveling Bong. Brunetto cut multiple episodes of Hacks, including the pilot, “There Is No Line,” for which she earned the Emmy edit nomination. That same episode garnered Aniello her directing and writing Emmy nods. Given their track record of working together, Aniello naturally gravitated to Brunetto for the Hacks pilot. Aniello said of Brunetto, “She’s a filmmaker herself” and from the outset understood what the series creators were going for.

Editors Vaill and Greer collaborated with Aniello for the first time on Hacks. The writer-director was drawn to their talent and dedication, saying it was gratifying to bring them into the fold. Vaill’s editing nod came for the second episode, “Primm,” which too was directed by Aniello. Greer’s Emmy nom came for “Tunnel of Love,” episode 7, directed by Desiree Akhavan.

Hacks also marked Aniello’s first collaborations with DP Bricker, production designer Carlos and costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager. Aniello was a fan of Bricker’s work, citing such series as American Vandal and Chef’s Table. The latter earned Bricker his first Emmy nomination back in 2018. Hacks marks his second nod.

Meanwhile Felix-Hager’s prior credits included Veep and Space Force, and Aniello marveled over her “uncanny ability to find and source costumes.” And if she couldn’t find the perfect outfit for the character of Vance, Felix-Hager designed it herself--an example being the gold sequin two-piece worn by the stand-up comic in the season one finale. 

Felix-Hager broke into the Emmy nominees circle with Hacks, scoring in the Outstanding Contemporary Costumes category. And Carlos now has two career Emmy nominations, the first coming as an art director on Westworld in 2020. 

Re-recording mixer Cook II scored his 22nd career Emmy nomination with Hacks. He won an Emmy in 2008 for his contributions to Scrubs. Hacks marked the second career Emmy nom for re-recording mixer Wilkins, the first coming in 2003 for Live from Baghdad. Wilkins won an Oscar in 2015 for his work on Whiplash. Production mixer Lakin scored his first career Emmy nod for Hacks.

The Underground Railroad
The Emmy recognition for The Underground Railroad spanned seven categories--Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series, Directing (Barry Jenkins), Casting (Francine Maisler, Meagan Lewis), Original Dramatic Score (composer Nicholas Britell), Sound Editing (including sound supervisor Onnalee Blank, sound designers Jay Jennings, Harry Cohen, dialogue editors Chris Kahwaty, Katy Wood), Sound Mixing (re-recording mixers Blank and Mathew Waters, production mixer Joe White) and Cinematography (James Laxton). 

While a casting nomination didn’t materialize in the Artios competition, the other Emmy-nominated artisans figure to be in contention this Guild Awards season--including Laxton for an ASC Award nomination.

Cinematographer Laxton and director/writer/executive producer Barry Jenkins have deep collaborative roots. The two were college roommates for a year and started working together at Florida State University film school. In fact, Laxton lensed Jenkins’ last two student films and has gone on to do the same for all his features--Medicine for Melancholy for which the DP earned an Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography, followed by Moonlight, the Best Picture Oscar winner, and then If Beale Street Could Talk. Laxton earned Academy Award and ASC Award nominations for Moonlight.

Jenkins and Laxton again came together for The Underground Railroad, a limited series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The 10 episodes bring us into the world of Cora Randall (portrayed by Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved woman who escapes the horrors of a Georgia plantation with an unrelenting bounty hunter (Joel Edgerton) in pursuit. She gets free of bondage with support from a literal underground railroad that runs through the American South just before the Civil War. The series includes brutal depictions of violence against Cora and others.

With the myriad creative challenges posed by The Underground Railroad, perhaps the emotional toll of those re-creations of abuse marked the biggest hurdle for cast and crew to overcome. Amazon provided supportive on-set counseling to help actors and crew members cope with the atrocities chronicled during the course of production.

In a Road To Emmy interview with SHOOT last year, Laxton said that of the 116 shooting days, very few were sans dramatic depictions of abuse. Everyone’s emotional state was being assaulted on some level but it was necessary in order to do justice to the story and our nation’s history. “Amazon understood that,” related Laxton, noting that having a counselor in place allowed cast and crew to step off the set when needed to discuss what they felt, engaging with someone in order to help preserve some semblance of mental health and well-being.

Furthermore, cast and crew helped one another. “We all needed to lean on each other’s shoulders,” said Laxton, grateful for having actors and artisans who are “open-hearted and supportive kind of people.” He shared, “When the alarm clock rang, I never didn’t want to go to work,” in part because he looked forward to seeing Jenkins and his various colleagues who were all there for emotional support and a shared sense of purpose.

Audiences too may have found scenes painful to watch, yet there is also an inherent beauty captured by Jenkins and Laxton in the storytelling. And the pain we witness is seen through the perspectives of those being violated, generating an empathy as viewers connect with the horror endured and the humanity we share.

In other respects, though, Laxton felt the approach to The Underground Railroad was akin to the one he and Jenkins embraced in their feature work. “The visual telling of the story felt like a Barry Jenkins movie,” assessed Laxton. And while the pace and schedule of television production can be demanding, it wasn’t all that different from the type of independent, budget-challenged feature filmmaking that Laxton and Jenkins had done in the past. Laxton recalled, for example, that The Underground Railroad entailed shooting approximately the same number of script pages a day as Moonlight did.

Also as he’s done in the past, Jenkins continued his pursuit of realism which in the case of The Underground Railroad entailed having people interacting with real trains. A train museum in Savannah, Georgia, helped to make this a reality, supplying trains of the era. Laxton explained that the production was allowed to largely take over the museum and under the aegis of Emmy-winning (Mildred Pierce) production designer Mark Friedberg, 200 feet of tunnel was constructed along the facility’s existing private railroad track. The controlled environment was crucial to attain what Jenkins wanted while affording the production with the maximum safety considerations.

Reflecting on The Underground Railroad experience, Laxton observed, “Walking away from this show made me realize how much a trusted communal process that filmmaking really is.” Without Jenkins and all the department heads--and mutual trust throughout those ranks--the vision for the series would have been impossible to attain, affirmed Laxton. 

And the alluded to sense of purpose played a major role in intensifying that trust and communal feel. Laxton shared that clearly what he learned about slavery from a public school education in California was woefully lacking. Upon reading Whitehead’s book, Laxton had a deeper understanding of what happened and its impact on people. The TV series, he said, delves into people’s specific stories, tries to take viewers into their spaces. A prime goal creatively for Laxton was to help “put a face on those stories” so that audiences would fully realize the major impact on families and society, lessons from history that continue to hold a profound relevance to our world today.


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