- Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019
- LOS ANGELES
Director Johan Renck was a bit apprehensive going in that the fallout from Chernobyl (HBO) could very well include a limited audience. His creative instincts told him that the story was worthwhile but he wasn’t sure that it would generate significant viewership.
Thankfully, the five-part miniseries has not only scored a major audience but also critical acclaim, perhaps best reflected last month when Chernobyl garnered a whopping 19 Emmy nominations, including one for him in the Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or a Dramatic Special category. This marks Renck’s first career Emmy nomination. The accomplishment hasn’t set in for him as of yet. Mostly, though, he’s looking forward to the Emmy Awards ceremony because it will afford him the opportunity to reunite with collaborators for whom he feels a strong, lasting bond.
Among those collaborators are fellow Chernobyl Emmy nominees, DP Jakob Ihre and editors Jinx Godfrey and Simon Smith. “I had never worked with any of them before, though I knew Jakob and we tried to come together a number of times,” recalled Renck.
Finally, when a movie project fell through for Ihre, a fortuitous schedule opening allowed him to accommodate Chernobyl. Renck said of Ihre, “He’s brilliant, technically skilled, has phenomenal taste and is great to have at your side....He’s a great artist, a beautiful human being.”
With career roots in photography, Renck as a director immerses himself in imagemaking, which some DPs might find a bit intrusive. But Ihre embraced Renck’s sensibilities and proactive involvement, enabling the two of them to create the best visual language possible for the story, which delves into the landmark 1986 nuclear accident, one of the worst human-made catastrophes in history. Chernobyl tells the story of the courageous men and women who made staggering sacrifices to save Europe from unimaginable disaster, while in the process having to battle a culture of disinformation.
Editors Godfrey and Smith were nominated for telling that story, respectively, in the episodes “Open Wide, O Earth” and “Please Remain Calm.”
Renck shared, “I couldn’t have wished for anyone better than them. We became close friends and enjoyed a gorgeous collaboration.” For that, Renck feels fortunate in that it’s inherently “complex” to find a match with an editor in “tastes and sensibilities.”
Like Godfrey (who’s with Union Editorial), Renck has a background in shorter form fare, including commercials and music videos. (Renck continues to be handled by production company Reset in the U.S. ad arena).
The director noted that his experience in spots and videos continues to inform his longer form endeavors, including Chernobyl, alluding to a sequence or two with imagery that has a music video vibe. “I don’t believe that films should tap into the world of other films. There are other wells to tap into--books, literature, music videos, some advertising--to learn how to feel about and approach something on screen.” He noted that commercials and videos have been a fertile learning ground, teaching him tools of the trade and providing the opportunity to experiment and “try out different things.”
Renck’s body of work spans such TV shows as Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire, Bloodline, Vikings and The Walking Dead. He’s consistently found that his best work, including Chernobyl, involves his NOT taking the path of least resistance. Rather, he seeks out and creates challenges, a process that he believes yields better results. “Every day going to work is as challenging as it can be. All artforms are supposed to be difficult--and you see that in the outcome. The labor put into the creation of music, a book, a piece of art is something you see in the finished work, reflecting how you experience it.”
Initially Renck wasn’t sure if the experience of Chernobyl would be for him. He had just gotten back from Eastern Europe, uprooting his family for an extended time for the Sundance TV series The Last Panthers. With young kids and a family, Renck wasn’t inclined to return immediately to Eastern Europe, quipping that he instead envisioned a project in “some warm place.” And although the script appealed to Renck, he still resisted. Ultimately, though, the story was too alluring, as well as the chance to take on a project which had certain elements in his wheelhouse, self-described as tonally a little “brooding,” “austere,” and “dark,” with a natural “poetry and beauty.” He related, “I had to find ways to convince my wife,” asking her and the kids to again live in this “weird window away from home, far away from friends.”
While his family survived, and in some respects flourished during its return to Eastern Europe, so too did Renck excel professionally. He said the experience affirmed for him that “great things can happen if there’s a great willingness to let people do what they’re good at.” He and HBO applied that approach to all of his collaborators on Chernobyl--giving them freedom from fear and micromanaging. “That way you allow for great filmmaking to be done,” related Renck, observing that the importance of collaboration and collaborators sunk in for him on Chernobyl, to the point where he now feels “the biggest challenge is not what to do but who you are going to be doing it with.”
On the strength of his work on Fleabag (Amazon), Tony Miller, BSC landed his first primetime Emmy nomination--for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single Camera Series (Half-Hour). “Of all the shows to be nominated for, Fleabag is very special and important,” shared Miller. “It’s such an ensemble effort and as the camera breaks the fourth wall, I felt like almost an actor in the film.”
Key for Miller was that even though the camera is “a player” in the action, the audience “must not feel the cinematography at all. If they do feel the cinematography and lighting, then I have failed--and the series would have failed. With Phoebe (Waller-Bridge, series creator/writer/EP and the actor portraying the title role of Fleabag), I found it an easy decision to do the show. She is inspirational. We talked about the psychology and emotions that underscore the scripts, how we wanted to involve the audience, to make the audience feel it was part of their experience. I’m known for doing darker noir, Kafka-esque environments. I hadn’t done comedy. But this is comedy with a serious side, a dramatic aspect, psychological layers. There’s a subtext of dysfunctionality I was interested in underscoring with the cinematography. Phoebe and I did a lot of tests, cobbling together a cinematographic look that was naturalistic. We need to like her even when she does awful things so that we feel implicated in her journey. Sometimes she’s not self-revelatory. Usually it’s when we break that fourth wall down and Phoebe as Fleabag talks to us that she reveals how she really feels.”
Miller shot hand-held with the ARRI Alexa Mini, deploying Cooke anamorphic lenses. “I had to operate the camera myself. I had to be emotionally close to the beat of the drama. I felt like an actor, massively aided by Phoebe who was so generous, so wonderful. In terms of the look, I wanted her to be radiant but in a naturalistic way.”
It became clear that going hand-held made the most sense in that the camera is like a player in the drama--directly connected to the character Fleabag so “it felt right,” observed Miller, “to be dancing around hand-held with that little bit of movement.”
The Fleabag series is adapted from a lauded play about a young woman trying to cope with life in London while coming to terms with a recent tragedy. The adaptation has proven to be a commercial and critical success as Miller’s Emmy nod is but one of 11 the show has received.
Miller shared that his wife often reads scripts on his behalf. She said Fleabag mirrored much of her experience as a middle-class woman in her 30s. “A woman’s experience is rarely shown like this on TV,” he assessed.
Waller-Bridge, explained Miller, was drawn to his lack of experience in comedy. “I remember asking her why she hired me,” he recalled. “She said because you don’t come from comedy. You want to be psychologically engaged with the emotion and beat of the drama, playing against what is traditionally seen as comedy.” This approach in turn makes the comedy more real, and substantive when paired with emotional and dramatic elements.
Miller noted that he “tried to maintain contrast and although obviously lighter than my other work, underscore the drama of the scene. Even though it was a comedy, Fleabag has a dark and ironic side to it. There is a premise in the U.K. that comedy must be lit--it must be light at all times. I think it is a flawed premise and I hope in Fleabag there is a slightly braver attitude towards creating more contrast between scenes. I tried to keep a naturalistic realism to the mood of the lighting, sourced from windows and practicals--no backlight unless naturally motivated. We wanted to feel the real world at all times.”
Miller also embraced a 2-39-1 aspect ratio. “Most of the great movie comedies shoot 2-39-1 scope, from Woody Allen to Wes Anderson, via the great films of the ‘50s. TV is becoming more like cinema everyday, and Amazon Studios encouraged us to be bold. 2-39-1 allowed us to often cover scenes in one shot, to use the width of the frame for multiple relationships and tensions to exist in that same frame. It is often the complexity of the relationships within the frame that makes this so exciting.”
Among the 13 nominations for Russian Doll (Netflix) is Laura Weinberg’s for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series--based on the episode titled “Ariadne.” This marked Weinberg’s second career Emmy nod, the first coming in 2015 on the comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer.
For that first Emmy nomination, Weinberg was part of an ensemble of sketch editors. “A bunch of us were editing together. But for Russian Doll, it was just me, which feels a little bit different. Both nominations were welcomed surprises.”
Russian Doll introduces us to Nadia (portrayed by series co-creator and EP Natasha Lyonne), a cynical young woman in New York City who keeps dying and returning to the party that’s being thrown in her honor on that same evening. She grapples with finding an escape from this strange time loop.
Weinberg found working with Lyonne, who also directed the “Ariadne” episode, as being particularly gratifying and direct. Weinberg cited Lyonne’s collaborative nature. As for the “direct” description, Weinberg explained, “It’s great to have the person in the room with you who knows exactly what the story should be and what each moment should convey. I did an editor’s cut. We worked on the director’s cut together. We didn’t have to have as many drafts. She was the ultimate authority.”
The “Ariadne” episode posed varied challenges to Weinberg, particularly in a scene in which Nadia and Allan (portrayed by Charlie Barnett) figure out they are in different timelines. “A split screen became a quad screen in the bodega where their paths crossed,” related Weinberg. “The scene had been storyboarded but it took us a little while to figure out how we wanted to tell the story of that moment--both of our main characters figuring out what was happening in their lives, and our figuring out what the cadence of the edits were, how the music would play. It was challenging in a fun way, with a bunch of different versions.” Ultimately Weinberg and Lyonne arrived with a version pretty close to what was storyboarded but for which the pacing kind of changed over time.
For Weinberg, the “great treat” of Russian Doll was working directly with Lyonne and co-creator Leslye Headland. “It was amazing to see how their minds worked. I feel very lucky being able to work with as many powerful and creative women as I have. The show is so cinematic, the pacing of it, the feel, the look, the music, everything. And we have the luxury of time to do what we want on Netflix. We’re not stuck to 21 or 23 minutes. There’s something about the luxury of time that makes this show specifically work, that supports such a hybrid genre--comedy/mystery/adventure, whatever the hybridization might be.”
Part of the gratification felt by Weinberg over Russian Doll is how people have responded to the series. “We shot and cut it last summer, but it didn’t come out until February. It’s been great to see how people have reacted. I’m honored and happy it’s received as much love as it has.”
As for the alluded to creative women she’s been privileged to work with, Weinberg cited not only Headland and Lyonne, but also other series creators such as Schumer (on Inside Amy Schumer), Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson on Broad City, and Sarah-Violet Bliss on Search Party.
At press time, Weinberg was about to embark on season four of the TBS series Search Party while sorting through other possibilities for the fall.
Heather Goodwin Floyd
Back in a June installment of this Road To Emmy series, SHOOT profiled editor Cindy Mollo for her work on Ozark (Netflix). Last month she picked up her third career Emmy nomination for the show’s “One Way Out” episode. She shares the nod with Heather Goodwin Floyd, a first-time Emmy nominee.
In some respects, “One Way Out” marks Floyd’s major graduation to full-fledged editor, though it’s not her first gig as an editor. Floyd served as an assistant editor for some 20 years, including working with Mollo for 10 years. “To work with Cindy on this amazing episode of Ozark and to receive an Emmy nomination is kind of surreal,” related Floyd. “I’m ecstatic. I love the show for so many reasons. The people are amazing and so talented. Working for Netflix has been tremendous in that they give us so much space to do what we think is right which is not always the case in television.”
Mollo and Floyd first worked on Mad Men together, then took on some feature fare. Floyd took some time off to have kids and then Ozark came about. “I remember being told the showrunner was open to bumping people up,” said Floyd. “I was ready to cut. Cindy said we could see if we can make that happen.”
Floyd garnered an additional editor credit on the series pilot, getting the opportunity to work with star Jason Bateman who directed that initial episode. “Being with Cindy in Atlanta to see Jason direct the pilot, the show became a part of me from the very beginning,” shared Floyd who added, “We do block shooting so with dailies coming in, I was able to fill in some gaps cutting them, getting a co-edit credit during the first season.” During season two, the same opportunity arose with dailies--along with the chance to cut her own episode. And then “One Way Out” and the opportunity to collaborate as an editor with Mollo emerged.
Mollo earlier told SHOOT that “One Way Out” posed among the biggest creative challenges she’s experienced on Ozark. “When you read it, you think, ‘oh my God, you better not screw this up.’ It’s so well written with amazing scenes for Laura Linney’s character when she gets kidnapped....As an editor, my thoughts were how do I not get in the way of it because it’s so well done? I found myself gently messaging things, not to throw the performances and writing out of whack.”
Floyd observed, “There wasn’t a lot of levity in this episode of Ozark. Sometimes we have those moments of levity, moments where we can take a breath. This episode is pretty heavy. When something is that heavy, the challenge is keeping the audience engaged by they’re feeling it’s authentic. You don’t want to be over the top. You don’t want to hit them over the head.”
Floyd remembered years earlier seeing Laura Linney performing on a Broadway stage. Fast forwarding to Ozark, Floyd observed that the feel in dailies is akin to watching Linney again on stage--”getting drawn in and wanting to stay with her the whole time.”
That feeling reflects in a sense a major lesson learned for Floyd based on her Ozark experience. “Follow your gut, don’t be afraid to stay with characters when you feel drawn to that. The pacing on the show is something I’m drawn to. It’s more meditative-type pacing. We are allowed to say in moments longer and make those decisions. We’re trusting that sometimes staying in the moment works best and that the audience will go there with you.”
That journey this awards season yielded a tally of nine Emmy nominations for Ozark.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon) continues an Emmy run for VFX supervisor Erik Henry who just landed his sixth career nomination. Four of those came in consecutive years--2014 to ‘17--for Black Sails. His first nod came back in 2008 for the miniseries John Adams.
Henry is a two-time Emmy winner--for John Adams and Black Sails. The latter came in 2014 in the Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role category. In subsequent years, Black Sails was deemed no longer eligible for the Supporting Effects category, instead receiving nods for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, grouping it with the likes of Game of Thrones. Henry thought all along that Supporting Visual Effects was the more applicable designation for Black Sails. He’s grateful to now see Jack Ryan gain inclusion in the Supporting Special Visual Effects category for the series pilot.
“The success of shows like Black Sails and Jack Ryan is all about the visual effects not being seen,” affirmed Henry. “I’m very proud of this Emmy category. It’s not in any way, shape or form an also-ran or second-class citizen. I firmly believe there are different types of achievements. Being able to do a dragon is a certain type of achievement. We didn’t do a dragon. We did things less sexy but nonetheless important to the story and to being able to emotionally connect with the audience.”
Henry said the quest for authenticity starts at the top with series creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Rowland. “While there are not a lot of visual effects in the show, they are all--as Carlton likes to say--’very authentic,’” noted Henry. “We take people on a ride through the world of espionage without them thinking there’s a lot of visual effects work in it. The Emmy nomination recognizes the fact that the effects work isn’t recognizable.”
Perhaps the biggest effects challenge posed by the Jack Ryan pilot was the opening sequence depicting the bombing. Henry said, “It’s such a crucial scene because it is sort of the telling of the genesis of what happened to these boys, two brothers, that would inform the audience as to their backstory--the thing that causes people to do bad things. They don’t start out that way. All of those sorts of themes coalesce in the opening scene.”
But it wasn’t the planes and the bombs dropping that provided the biggest effects quandary. Rather, related Henry, it was the environment. The background plates were great, shot around a lake outside of Marrakesh in Morocco. But then a town off in the distance had to be built, then had to be bombed, leaving terrain that had to be authentic, requiring simulations of what happens when a bomb hits the ground and the kind of damage it can do. You could feel the heat of the bombs that dropped. The bombing was seen from the boys’ point of view--except for one shot looking straight down through open bomb bay doors. Henry explained this shot was needed to push back against the “sort of dispassionate destruction” often viewed, “the idea that you can fly along, drop these bombs and it’s ‘mission accomplished.’” On the ground there are terrified kids running, chaos and consequences that ensue.
Henry heads an Emmy-nominated Jack Ryan ensemble which includes sr. VFX producer Matt Robken, sr. VFX coordinator Jamie Klein, special effects supervisor Pau Costa, VFX supervisor Bobo Skipper, matte painter Deak Ferrand, 2D leads Crawford Reilly and Francois Lambert, and CG lead Joseph Kasparian. Jack Ryan earned two Emmy nods this year, the other being for sound editing.
Earlier this year Henry and his cohorts won a Visual Effects Society (VES) Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode on the strength of their work on the Jack Ryan pilot. This marked the third consecutive year Henry and company garnered that VES honor, having been recognized in both 2017 and 2018 for their efforts on Black Sails.
Henry has a total of six career VES Award nominations and four wins. His first win came for his first nomination, which was in the Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Minseries, Movie or Special category for John Adams.
Emmy nominations announcement day was a good one in production designer Bo Welch’s household. The four-time Oscar nominee (The Color Purple, A Little Princess, The Birdcage, Men in Black) secured his first career Emmy nod. It was for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period or Fantasy Program (One Hour) on the basis of the “Penultimate Peril: Part 1” episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix). This was one of three nominations received by Unfortunate Events, including Outstanding Children’s Program.
Meanwhile Welch’s wife, Catherine O’Hara, also landed an Emmy nom as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Schitt’s Creek (CBC and Pop TV). This marks the seventh time O’Hara has been an Emmy nominee, with her winning in 1983 for her writing on the variety series SCTV Network 90. Schitt’s Creek earned four nominations this year, including for Outstanding Comedy Series and Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (Eugene Levy).
For Welch, the Emmy nod for A Series of Unfortunate Events is another accomplishment in a fruitful ongoing collaboration with director/showrunner Barry Sonnenfeld. The director and production designer first teamed on Men in Black, yielding Oscar nomination number four for Welch. They went on to collaborate on two Men in Black sequels, the Wild Wild West feature, the series pilot for The Tick, then multiple seasons of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Welch has also directed select episodes of the latter series which is based on the internationally best-selling series of books recounting the tragic tale of the Baudelaire orphans--Violet, Klaus and Sunny--and their extraordinary encounters with the devious Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) who will stop at nothing to get his hands on their inheritance.
Welch said so much of A Series of Unfortunate Events emanates from the creative drive and vision of Sonnenfeld. Welch said of the director/showrunner and long-time collaborator, “Barry is enormously entertaining, tremendously funny. He works really hard, sets an example for everyone else in terms of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. From that relationship, we generate good work.”
The “Penultimate Peril: Part 1” episode presented “a daunting challenge of scale,” according to Welch. “Everybody in the entire series turns up in this episode--in a giant old seaside hotel which is of a grand scale,” he said. “So this hotel had to be constructed. Every molecule of the show is on stage and designed, built, curated and put in front of the camera for a very specific reason--all within a timeframe and a budget.”
Integral in realizing this and more were Welch’s fellow nominees in the production design category--supervising art director Don Macaulay and set decorator Kate Marshall.
“Don is a tremendous supervising art director,” said Welch. “I talked about scale and all the sets--and that’s his strength. We have hundreds and hundreds of sets. We’re building, striking, shooting every day all day long for months and now years on end. His ability to figure out where, when and how we do all this is mind blowing. At the same time he manages to have a demeanor that is calm, never alarmed.”
Relative to set decorator Marshall, Welch assessed, “She’s so well organized, has such great taste--and she delivers. When I set out to design, I think ‘wow, I’d love to do this but is it too ambitious? We’ll soon find out.’ Kate is always up to the task. Kate, Don, the construction crew, illustrators, the paint and sculpting departments, every single person who’s worked on this show was great. The crew I have in Vancouver (BC, where Unfortunate Events is shot entirely on stage) is among the best I’ve ever worked with.”
Welch’s work over the years spans features, television shows and commercials. He likens his experience on A Series of Unfortunate Events in some respects to the latter discipline.
“It feels closest to doing a commercial for three years. The pace is breakneck. In some regards its tortuous because the pace is so fast. On the other hand, you don’t have the chance to overthink and overanalyze. Plus Netflix is fabulous, giving us what we need. You don’t have those tedious meetings that sometimes features have where executives at the studio feel they have to weigh in on every detail. Between myself and Barry, we do what needs to be done, which is thrilling. There’s a tremendous amount of work but its innervating. Every day I get to look at something new and fun. It’s really gratifying work.”
Welch added that having directed select episodes is “a bonus” that affords him the amazing opportunity to escape further into the Unfortunate Events material “and get to lead an alternate reality. You can get lost in this material, in the storytelling, in the design. It’s an escape that I’ve found to be really lovely. Especially in today’s world, that kind of escape is really useful.”
Casting director Aisha Coley landed her first career Emmy nomination for When They See Us (Netflix), Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five miniseries which explores the true story of five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were coerced into confessing to a brutal attack they didn’t commit in 1989. The four part series follows them over the course of 25 years through to their vindication.
Coley shares the nomination for Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or Special with casting directors Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram. Coley started the casting process in L.A., spearheading the overall effort, and then brought on Hopkins, a four-time Emmy nominee, and his colleague Ingram to take on the task of filling some 100 supporting actor roles in New York. Coley was at the helm of casting the principal players, including the Central Park Five as teenagers and adults. (In the case of Korey Wise, the oldest of the five teens convicted, Jharrel Jerome played him as both teen and adult.)
“When you work on something based on real people, you want to make sure you do them justice,” related Coley. “When they watch the project, they feel like you’re properly representing them. You want them to feel that you got it right, that the actors have picked up their spirit and essence, that they feel like they’re watching themselves on screen.”
This entailed, according to Coley, “stepping into their world,” finding young kids who had the acting chops and emotional maturity to play these roles and then matching them with the actors portraying them as adults. “You’re hoping that combination matched each real life person,” said Coley.
Yusef Salaam was portrayed by Chris Chalk as an adult and Ethan Herisse as a teen. Antron McCray was played as a teen by Caleel Harris and as an adult by Jovan Adepo. Portraying Raymond Santana were Marquis Rodriguez as a teen and Freddy Miyares as an adult. And Kevin Richardson was captured as a teen by Asante Blackk and as an adult by Justin Cunningham.
For Coley, the Emmy nomination is a great honor--all the more so because of the importance of the story being told. “It’s always wonderful when you get acknowledged for what you do,” she said. But heightening that honor is the fact that this project “had such a significance and importance to it.”
The opportunity to cast When They See Us grew out of Coley’s longstanding collaborative relationship with DuVernay going back to her first film as a director, I Will Follow, and then going on to Middle of Nowhere, Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, and the TV series Queen Sugar.
Coley has seen DuVernay grow as a filmmaker and values their connection. “You learn a yes and no, a give and take, push and pull, a kind of shorthand in a relationship like this,” shared Coley who’s now embarked on another project for DuVernay, a TV series she’s created called Cherish the Day.
Coley, who back in 2015 earned a Casting Society of America Award nomination for Selma, shared that among her biggest takeaways from her experience on When They See Us was the joy in seeing what the series has meant for the five young men who were wrongly convicted. There’s been an outpouring of love and compassion for the men.
“The public response has been amazing, the comments I’ve gotten back, the lessons we’ve learned from it,” Coley proudly related.
Coley’s Emmy nomination is one of 16 earned by When They See Us, the others including Best Limited Series, directing and writing for DuVernay, and eight acting nods. Among the latter are lead actor for Jerome and supporting actor in a limited series for Blackk. Aunjanue Ellis was nominated for a lead actress Emmy, while supporting performance nods went to Vera Farmiga, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash and Marsha Stephanie Blake. Additionally, Bradford Young, ASC, was nominated for Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series while composer Kris Bowers landed an Original Dramatic Score nod. When They See Us also scored sound mixing and sound editing noms.
This is the 14th installment in a 16-part series that explores the 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 then 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.