Insights Into Directing "Modern Family," Lensing "The Mandalorian"
Gail Mancuso (photo by Joe Puglise)
Perspectives on production designing "Ozark," costume designing "The Handmaid’s Tale"

Director Gail Mancuso recently picked up her fourth career Emmy nomination--all for Modern Family (ABC), the latest for the “Finale, Part 2” episode, capping what’s been the lauded show’s remarkable 11-year run. Mancuso won the Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series Emmy in both 2013 and ‘14. Additionally she’s a three-time DGA Award nominee (2014-’16) for her work on the sitcom.

Mancuso credits assorted others for her awards recognition, including  top-drawer writers, a stellar cast adept in dramatic and comedic moments, and artisans such as James Bagdonas, the DP on nearly all the Modern Family episodes she directed starting back during season 2 and for each year thereafter except for one when she was immersed in a movie. Mancuso described Bagdonas as “the constant” of the show, serving as DP on more than 200 episodes. “We collaborated so well, He is so knowledgeable. He helped guide the show visually.”

Bagdonas also directed select episodes of Modern Family, underscoring what Mancuso characterized as the show’s unique family feel with artists allowed to grow as part of a nurturing community. “It’s not a feeling you get on a lot of sets,” observed Mancuso, recalling that she was “immediately accepted into the family” when coming aboard the show well into season two.

In looking back on Modern Family, Mancuso said that gaining that acceptance was a blessing--and an inspiration for her to do whatever she can to create and contribute to that same kind of nurturing vibe on other projects, TV or movies, that come her way. She noted that executive producer Jeffrey Morton was instrumental in assembling the crew and guiding every episode of Modern Family. “He’s a beloved producer, very loyal” and played an integral role in “keeping his crew together,” she assessed.

That closeness made the final season--particularly the two-part finale--an emotional experience. Mancuso said of the “Finale, Part 2” episode, “We knew the end would be a huge emotional day. But the entire week turned out to be emotional. We had to allow an extra 15 minutes or so,” she recalled, to allow crew members from time to time to share, reflect and enjoy these moments at the end of the line. As the final episode’s director, Mancuso related that her “mantra” was to simply “savor every second,” trying to make it a “no rush” proposition. If somebody wanted to tell a story, they could. “We didn’t want the days to end.”

The show with a feeling of family on set also broadened perspectives on what constituted a family--centered on a long-time married couple and their three children, an older man and his much younger wife and her son, and a gay couple and their adopted daughter, all their lives connected by both blood and/or marriage. 

Cam (portrayed by Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Mitch (Eric Stonestreet) put a gay couple front and center in primetime, warm and relatable as we see them become parents for the first time. 

Mancuso recollected her going to the hair salon where she met a woman who shared that she and her son watched Modern Family together. At one point when they were enjoying the show, he came out of the closet. “There are probably a lot of those stories. Back then, when the show started out, it was a big deal (to bring a gay couple into mainstream television). It offered a safe place for a mom and son to have that kind of conversation.”

Mancuso said that it’s been gratifying to be involved in a show like that--as well as one that maintained such a high creative standard and consistent quality through 11 seasons.

However, her career accomplishments, as significant as they’ve been on Modern Family, are not confined to that series. Mancuso broke into primetime series directing with Roseanne for which she went on to helm numerous episodes. Her directorial credits over the years include such series as Friends, Dharma and Greg, Gilmore Girls, black-ish, Man with a Plan, Scrubs, Fresh Off The Boat, The Conners and 30 Rock. For the latter she won a Gracie Award in 2008 for Outstanding Director of an Entertainment Series or Special.

As for what’s next, Mancuso has a theatrical feature in the offing which she wasn’t at liberty to publicly discuss in detail. And she’s enthused over prospects in the streaming era, translating into varied opportunities for a director.

In its swan song season, Modern Family garnered three Emmy nominations--the other two being for Outstanding Sound Editing and Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (the late Fred Willard). Modern Family has a lengthy Emmy track record, including winning for Outstanding Comedy Series five years in a row (2010-’14).

Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS
Landing his first career Emmy nomination to add to Oscar and ASC Award nods, Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS is in the midst of a run that has him lensing high-profile, visually ambitious fare. Consider that the recent Emmy nom is for the groundbreaking The Mandalorian (Disney+), created by Jon Favreau and starring Pedro Pascal as the mysterious bounty hunter title character who along with a popular baby version of Yoda show that the Star Wars universe--even outside the Skywalker saga--can assume a prominent storytelling place on television. Fraser’s Emmy nomination is one of 15 earned by The Mandalorian.

Meanwhile Fraser’s latest feature exploits include the much anticipated Dune, based on the famed sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, and The Batman. The former, currently in post, was directed by Denis Villeneuve while The Batman is being helmed by Matt Reeves.

Fraser shares The Mandalorian Emmy nomination with cinematographer and colleague Barry “Baz” Idoine. Having worked with Fraser for several years as a camera operator and second-unit cinematographer on features including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Vice, Idoine assumed a DP role for The Mandalorian in anticipation of when Fraser had to take off to begin pre-pro on Dune. Fraser described Idoine as “incredibly talented” and said he’s filled with “pride, joy and excitement” to share the nomination with him.

The alluded to filmmaking breakthrough on The Mandalorian came as Fraser teamed with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to deploy The Volume, a massive LED soundstage. The stage featured a curved video wall consisting of some 1,300 individual LED screens that created a 270-degree semicircular background topped with an LED video ceiling, which was set directly onto the main curve of the LED wall. The remaining 90 degrees of open area contained two flat panels of more LED screens. The panels were rigged so that the walls could be moved into place or out of the way to provide whatever access to the Volume area was needed. The set was filled with LED panels that would render the actual VFX backgrounds in real time. Thus Fraser didn’t have to imagine as he would in using bluescreen what backgrounds would look like. Instead he could see firsthand and light accordingly to get the optimum desired look for actors and physical props. Thus there’s no disparity between the lighting of subjects and the background. Fraser built towards this tech innovation over time, making inroads with ILM on Rogue One into a stage-for-the-future concept that helped lay the groundwork for what came to fruition on The Mandalorian. This took a substantive leap of faith for all involved, affirmed Fraser.

Yet while this technology on The Mandalorian represents a significant advancement that figures to impact many other projects, Fraser cautioned that it must be put in proper perspective. “I’m not going to sit here and say this is the end of location scouting and shooting. That would be terribly sad. If we stopped shooting on location or real sets, that would be the end for me, I would retire tomorrow. But if we can use the system to improve certain aspects of filmmaking, you can take that money and time saved and put it in other areas. Maybe we can spend five extra days on location because of the time spent and saved on The Volume.” 

Fraser got The Mandalorian gig based on the work he did on Rogue One. The relationships he developed on that film with the people at Lucasfilm and ILM had them gravitating back to him for The Mandalorian. Fraser cited a strong esprit de corps on Rogue One which helped the participants bring the scope and scale of a Star Wars property to television in the form of The Mandalorian.

For The Mandalorian, Fraser opted for the ARRI Alexa LF camera paired with Panavision’s full-frame Ultra Vista 1.65x anamorphic lenses.

At the same time, Fraser said he tries to keep his priorities straight when it comes to technology. He described himself as “a firm believer in the dog wagging the tail rather than the tail wagging the dog when it comes to film production. The production behind making a movie is the tail. The dog consists of the acting performance, the narrative, script and drama. More often than not in the world we live in, COVID-19 or not, we do things because it’s easier, cheaper and faster. That is the unfortunate reality. That is the tail. If I can make sure the dog is wagging the tail, it helps the process.”

The Mandalorian marked Fraser’s first major television assignment. He had wanted to take on select TV work in the past but invariably his feature schedule prevented him from doing so. Thankfully The Mandalorian fit into the itinerary and he hopes to do more in the TV/streaming world down the road. 

In addition to director Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One and Adam McKay’s Vice, Fraser’s feature filmography includes Garth Davis’ Lion for which the DP earned Oscar and ASC Award nominations in 2017, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, and Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman.

David Bomba
The “Wartime” episode of Ozark (Netflix) kicking off season three turned out to be a celebratory time for production designer David Bomba who earned his first career Emmy nomination, shared with art director Sean Ryan Jennings and set decorator Kim Leoleis.

Ozark marked Bomba’s first foray into episodic series television. He had only done some limited series work (Godless) prior to Ozark while establishing himself in features with credits that includes the James Mangold-directed Walk The Line, Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces and Dee Rees’ Mudbound.

Initially Bomba had some reservations about taking on Ozark, even though it’s an acclaimed show. He explained, “I didn’t set the look of the show. What will I do on a third season?”

Production designer Roshell Berliner worked on the very first two episodes of Ozark followed by production designer Derek R. Hill for the rest of that first year and all of the following season.

However, Bomba very much wanted to collaborate with Ozark actor/director/executive producer Jason Bateman. In fact, the production designer had interviewed with Bateman for another project, The Outsider, but didn’t get the job. A colleague of Bateman on that show, though, told him they’d be reaching out to him again down the road. Bomba quipped that he had heard that before but much to his pleasant surprise the phone rang a couple of weeks later and Ozark was the topic of discussion.

As he delved deeper into Ozark prospects, Bomba found much to be enthused over, not only working with Bateman, showrunner Chris Mundy and a great writers’ room but also getting the chance to create a casino for season three as well as the world of the Navarro drug cartel.

Bomba noted that developing and designing the riverboat casino may have been the biggest challenge of season three. With an educational background in architecture, Bomba embraced the chance to figure out how a boat purchased in the second season of Ozark could be turned into an operating casino. “I grew up in New Orleans,” he related, adding that he became familiar there with offshore casinos.

There were related logistical challenges as well. For example, the original plan was to get 100-plus slot machines from Las Vegas. But when some glitches emerged in terms of procuring the one-armed bandits, Bomba determined it would be best to build a casino’s worth of slot machines--which they did at the proverbial 11th hour.

As for his nominated team, Ozark marked a reunion with art director Jennings and a first go-around with set decorator Leoleis. Bomba recalled that he first met Jennings years ago in Atlanta; they went onto collaborate on another show with Bomba bumping Jennings up from a set designer to an assistant art director. Eight years later they got together again on Ozark. Bomba said of Jennings, “He’s a dear friend, collaborator and wonderful art director.”

Meanwhile Leoleis served as set decorator on season two of Ozark. “I was told I could bring on my own team,” related Bomba. “I met Kim and talked to her. She had done a great job on the second season, she was new to me and we hit it off well. A couple of weeks into the show, we were finishing each other’s sentences.”

Bomba observed that the Ozark experience underscores for him the increased importance of collaboration between departments--the art department, grip, electric and camera is “so crucial,” he assessed. With the prevalence of digital filmmaking, “more and more the lighting needs of the camera are incorporated into sets.” This was evident in the casino where he noted, “We wanted everything to be real. Coordination was critical.” Design and lighting that will support the camera department is “so crucial.”

As for what’s next, Bomba is getting in gear for season four of Ozark, slated to consist of 14 episodes. 

Bomba’s Emmy nomination is one of 18 Ozark garnered this year, including for marquee distinction as Outstanding Drama Series.

Natalie Bronfman
For the third consecutive year, Natalie Bronfman has earned an Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes category for The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu). However the latest nod is different in that it’s her first as a costume designer, the first two coming as costume supervisor. 

This latest Emmy-eligible season Bronfman succeeded costume designer Ane Crabtree on The Handmaid’s Tale. It was Crabtree who first brought Bronfman into the series fold, having worked with her some 10 years earlier. Bronfman was also drawn to the show as a self-described “great big fan” of author Margaret Atwood’s work. In fact Bronfman had been working on another Atwood project, the miniseries Alias Grace, when the opportunity to become part of The Handmaid’s Tale team emerged.

To now garner a third nomination--this time as costume designer on the “Household” episode--came as a surprise to Bronfman who affirmed, “It’s an amazing honor.”

As for the biggest creative challenge that this tour of duty as costume designer on The Handmaid’s Tale has posed to her, Bronfman shared, “The sheer quantity of what the show has grown into. The first two seasons we had never more than 60 handmade dresses. For this (‘Household’) episode we had 350 as well as 100 army outfits. There was more of everything.”

She added that the Washington Mall scene in “Household” had to be shot in a 24-hour period. At first Bronfman and her team--including her nominated colleagues, costume supervisor Helena Davis Perry and assistant costume designer Christina Cattle--were given four weeks to prepare. That was reduced to just two weeks.

Still Bronfman took a methodical approach, taking small bites out of a big project while aided immeasurably, she affirmed, by remarkable artists and creative people all around her.

The “Household” episode was also nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award this year.

Bronfman is gratified to be costume designing The Handmaid’s Tale. She brought a major element of continuity to the show which helped her best transition the costume designing from Crabtree to her. “I knew the show from the very beginning,” said Bronfman. “I was there for Liz’s (a reference to actress Elizabeth Moss) first fitting in New York. This all helped me (to handle costume design) in the third season.” 

Among Bronfman’s other costume designer credits are Transporter: The Series, the sci-fi drama See, and the new Quibi short-take show Most Dangerous Game.

This is the 15th installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy Award contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound, costumes and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).

MySHOOT Company Profiles