Insights From "True Detective" Creator, "Ozark" Showrunner, "This Is Us" Director/EP
Nic Pizzolatto (r) directs Mahershala Ali in "True Detective" (photo by Warrick Page, courtesy of HBO)
"Now Apocalypse" auteur, "American Horror Story: Apocalypse" and "9-1-1" director, "Mrs. Maisel" DP discuss their work and collaborators

Nic Pizzolatto has presided over True Detective (HBO) from its inception. As series creator, lead writer, executive producer and a director of the anthology drama crime series, he’s shaped each season’s distinctively different narrative set in a distinctly different locale. The show won five primetime Emmys the first year--for Outstanding Director (Cary Fukunaga), Cinematography (Adam Arkapaw), Casting, Makeup and Main Title Design. Season one scored seven additional Emmy nominations in 2014, including two for Pizzolatto--in the Outstanding Drama and Dramatic Series Writing categories.

A totally new story, cast of characters and sense of place took hold in season two to less acclaim but still yielding another Emmy nom in 2016, for Sound Mixing. And now season three is very much in the awards conversation with new protagonists, the backdrop of the Ozarks, and sporting arguably the most ambitious, certainly most expansive story arc yet. Characters’ lives are seen over some 35 years, with a particular focus on Wayne Hays, an Arkansas state police detective (portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) who’s haunted by a macabre case centered on the disappearance of a young brother and sister in Arkansas. Directors on season three were Pizzolatto, Jeremy Saulnier, and Daniel Sackheim.

Pizzolatto is in awe of Ali’s performance, citing its daunting degree of difficulty. “I cannot imagine a harder challenge. He’s portraying the same character in three different time periods, dramatically different in each in terms of nuance and in behavioral ways. He’s not just an old man at the end with an affliction. The subtleties he brings out are remarkable. In 1980, he’s very much an island, very interiorized and controlled. In 1990, he’s been living with his wife and children. He’s at a desk, more emotive, not interiorized, less sure of himself. And when he reaches 2015 and he’s 70, he’s lost all sense of self-security, having to perhaps examine himself in a way he never has before. It was extraordinary to watch this performance.”

As an older man suffering memory loss, Hays has his lucid moments when he’s aware of his condition. But he is lost and confused when in the throes of his malady. Pizzolatto observed “how elusive” memory can be, as Ali’s performance not only delves into the mystery at this later stage of his life but also “uncovers the mystery within, in terms of what he remembers, how he remembers it. Is it true or is his memory betraying what really happened?”

Thankfully Pizzolatto had a clear mind--one open to change--when casting season three. He had originally envisioned Ali in the supporting role of Hays’ partner Roland West, a police detective (ultimately portrayed by Stephen Dorff) who at first was written as a person of color. However, after reading the first couple of scripts, Ali found himself more drawn to the role of Hays, initially written as a white man. Pizzolatto recalled, “He (Ali) talked to me about the possibility of his playing Wayne. I at first felt the insecurity that if we did that, would the story that we planned then become about race? Would the theme of race subsume the other themes--time, love, memory, partnership? I listened to Mahershala. He didn’t want that to happen. He pointed out that Wayne was a fully formed dimensional leading man. He got me to understand that the roles offered to actors of color are often defined by race. He wanted to take on this fully formed character. So I said, ‘Let me rewrite the first three scripts, and twist the roles around. While at the same time we didn’t want to ignore race, we also wanted to make sure we weren’t doing In The Heat of the Night. As it turned out, I was thrilled and lucky to have an artist of his caliber in the lead. He was a gift to me and the work, opening up the story in ways I may have been shy about.”

Pizzolatto said that he felt especially grateful to have Ali as a collaborator in light of the inherent challenge of what season three entailed. “I had never done anything as complicated as telling a mystery in three different timelines, without ever gaming the audience or playing any tricks on them, to have the story moving at the same time in all three time periods while retaining the mystery, not using any sorts of cheats--those typical television tropes like where the character had information we aren’t giving the audience. It was about the most challenging thing I had ever conceived and written, how to do all this without falling back on any of those tropes.”

Pizzolatto had a couple of cinematographers he could fall back on during season three--Nigel Bluck and Germain McMicking. “Both do extraordinary work,” assessed Pizzolatto. “Germain brought a real palpable sense of atmosphere to the show, this kind of very beautiful burnished lighting scheme which helped us to define the three separate eras the way we wanted to--such as a burnished gold and brown in 1980, a little heavier, as compared for instance to 1990 which was a little bit stark and colder.”

As for colleague Bluck, Pizzolatto cited his “fantastic work on season two,” adding that he and the DP “had a very good working relationship and shorthand already” in place going into this eventful season three.

Ken Olin
Though some still know him for his high-profile work as an actor on thirtysomething many moons ago, Ken Olin has since built a longstanding career as a director and executive producer, a hybrid role he serves in for This Is Us (NBC), landing along the way two Outstanding Drama Series Emmy nominations (in 2017 and ‘18). In some respects, he is indebted to the mom of series creator Dan Fogelman. She was a big fan of Brothers & Sisters, a show for which Olin served as EP and director. “I was told she’d make him (Fogelman) sit and watch it,” laughed Olin.

That mandatory viewing translated into Fogelman reaching out to Olin for This Is Us. At that juncture, the show’s pilot had been completed but the pair of original directors on that very first episode--Glenn Ficarra and John Requa--couldn’t continue on a permanent basis, putting Fogelman in the market for someone like Olin.

“He sent me the pilot,” recalled Olin. “I was living in New York, planning to maybe freelance for a while. I didn’t know I’d be going back to L.A. all over again.” 

But the pilot was persuasive. “I hadn’t seen anything that moved me like that for awhile,” noted Olin. “I told my wife, ‘This pilot is really good.’ She said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ To my mind, it was the best pilot I had seen since Alias (for which he was an EP/director). “The script, the direction, the acting were so well done. I loved it. I got on the phone, Dan and I talked. He hired me and I was on my way back to L.A.”

For the current Emmy-eligible season, Olin noted that much of the work on This Is Us represented a dramatic departure from what had been the series norm. “We spent the first two full seasons and the first several episodes of our third season taking a deep dive into the domestic lives of our characters,” Olin related. “Then we went so outside the family’s domestic life, going back to Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) past in Vietnam.”

Hearkening back to the Vietnam War entailed a couple of trips to that Southeast Asian country, building up a war story infrastructure spanning sets and locations, and dovetailing with a Vietnamese crew. “You have a real shorthand for two-and-a-half years with your crew, then you start to work for the first time with others who don’t speak your language. This was among the many challenges we faced,” Olin recalled.

Those challenges, though, were creatively invigorating and helping to meet them were the continuing longstanding collaborative relationships on the show, a prime example being that between Olin and cinematographer Yasu Tanida who’s some 25 years the EP/director’s junior. Despite the age difference, the two have formed a deep bond. “We have a real shorthand,” shared Olin. “I never worked with a cinematographer whom I lean on as much. We collaborate in a true partnership. We know each other’s needs and likes, and he respects the things that are important to me such as how I like to tell a story emotionally. He’s amazing. I never worked with a DP who is so intuitive, hardworking and fast. He creates the opportunity for the actors, for myself and the other directors to come in and try different things, to explore options and realize remarkable stuff.”

Olin and Tanida both came to This Is Us at the same time, after the pilot was done. Tanida was shooting the pilot for Pitch, another Fogelman series which got picked up, and then moved over to This Is Us. Olin found himself simpatico with Tanida in terms of prioritizing story and characters. “You never feel that the camera, what he’s doing stylistically ever supersedes the writing or the acting--yet the show is beautiful,” assessed Olin. “You could not experience the acting and writing in the same way if Yasu’s cinematography wasn’t brilliant. You could not evoke those feelings otherwise.”

And while the Vietnam War was a turn away from what This Is Us had conventionally delved into, there was still a constant to the approach. “It was the same in that our show is still about character, and the exploration of character, and how that experience defined Milo’s character,” observed Olin. Adding to that character study was a reason Olin could be grateful being a generation older than Tanida. “I was in high school around that period (of the Vietnam War). It was a period that so defined a young person, and even though I was way too young to tell that story, I knew how things felt back then. It felt a certain way, and I could impart that to the young actors on the show so we could invoke all that somehow. We want our audience to experience story in an immediate way as opposed to looking through the prism of reminiscence. We want the experience to be seamless and immediate.”

This Is Us received eight Emmy Award nominations last year, including a win for Ron Cephas Jones (portraying William H. Hill) as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.

Chris Mundy
From season one to season two of the critically acclaimed Ozark (Netflix), showrunner Chris Mundy said he’s experienced “an equal/opposite challenge.”

“For season one we had this built-in storyline,” he related. “We had this story engine where you have to launder millions of dollars by the end of summer or you die--but we didn’t yet have the characters you knew or cared about. We developed those characters around that engine.

“Going into season two,” he continued, “we had no such story engine but characters we loved. That’s the equal/opposite nature of the challenges we encountered.”

Whereas season one had a story cliffhanger in terms of what would happen next, season two ended with what Mundy described as being “more of an emotional cliffhanger--between Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney).” Without divulging any details of season three, Mundy noted, “That’s where we start, getting into both of their head spaces, what they want out of their lives, their marriage, and what that means to the crime enterprise.”

For Mundy, the cast has been a blessing, no matter what the nature of the challenge from season to season. He cited specifically Bateman and Linney. “They are both so good, awesome people to have on set, both so professional.” 

And of course, Bateman also directorially set the tone for the series, helming the first two episodes. Last year, season one garnered five Emmy nominations, including two for Bateman as both lead actor and director. Among accolades received by Mundy himself were a Producers Guild Award nomination this year in the Episodic TV, Drama category, and a Writers Guild nom in 2018.

Remarkably, Mundy had initially not planned on coming aboard Ozark. When he was approached about the show which was prepping for its first season, he was working on season two of Bloodline. “They literally wanted someone ASAP in September/October and I was going to be working on Bloodline until February or March,” recalled Mundy. “I thought Ozark was really great but I couldn’t do it. It was an awesome script, a show I’d be a fan of, but there was no way in terms of scheduling. But they kept coming back and the timing evolved. I talked with the Netflix people, then sat down with Jason Bateman and slowly over time realized we could make the scheduling work. I was drawn to everything it was about. Having not written the pilot but having worked on the show after that, I’ve found that it holds so many different emotions and moods, subjects like family, marriage, class. It can be darkly funny. It can be violent and scary. The chance to write something that has all that in it is what primarily attracted me. It was not only one thing or one genre, which was very seductive.”

Making those different genres manageable and doable, observed Mundy, is the esprit de corps among the cast and crew working on the show. “What I’ve learned and confirmed from season two is that the  more we all own it together, the better the show becomes. The actors, writers, directors, all the artists have bought in, have taken ownership and worked well with each other.”

Also viewers have found the story relatable, in part due to how Ozark deals with the state of marriage. “The scripts follow as we track and stay true to Wendy and Marty emotionally,” noted Mundy.

The basic premise was inherently engaging as we see a marriage and family coming apart--only to be in a sense brought closer together by the crisis of criminal activity.

The Ozark environs have additionally played a role. “The look and tone feels like it’s coming out of the earth there,” observed Mundy, noting that this amplifies the experience of “people from Chicago having to come to this ‘foreign land.’ We see the nature of the Ozarks as the art of it. Jason gets credit for having a real picture of this in his mind before directing the very first two episodes.”

Mundy cited DPs Ben Kutchins and Armando Salas for furthering this dynamic throughout the first two seasons. “Ben and Armando just did it every week. They are both so talented.”

Jennifer Lynch
Earning a slew of Emmy nominations year after year beginning in 2012--with multiple wins during that span--American Horror Story (FX ) now has its American Horror Story: Apocalypse iteration in the running for Academy recognition. Director Jennifer Lynch is among those who’ve contributed to this latest Emmy-eligible season but her collaborations with Ryan Murphy and colleagues go beyond that, also extending to 9-1-1 (Fox). Murphy and Brad Falchuk created American Horror Story, and teamed with Tim Minear to bring 9-1-1 to life.

“I’m in my second year contractually with the world of Ryan, Brad, Tim, FX and Fox,” said Lynch. “I’m happy to land in that world while working on my own stories.” Lynch observed that among her challenges is to be true to Murphy’s world while at the same time addressing “how do I not do Ryan Murphy and be myself. How do I sing along with him, be the same but different. It was a little problematic for me when other people started directing Twin Peaks back in the day. I felt people were trying to do David Lynch (the famed director who’s her father). But the way we all tell a joke, make love, create is different, slightly nuanced, the same but different. So I don’t do exactly what Ryan would do but am glad he trusts my voice. I like to think that Tim, Brad and Ryan view me as someone to whom they can hand an idea and feel secure it will be interpreted with as much affection as possible.”

What she values about “Ryan Murphy camp” is that there’s the need to “enjoy joy, beauty and horror in this world we live in.” And at times the horror can be beauty. Sometimes, she said, it’s incumbent upon us to understand the monsters. Maybe they’ve been hurt and had to grow armor. Through storytelling, affirmed Lynch, “We can humanize people we think are different....That’s the opportunity that entertainment provides us, to invite people into lives they would otherwise not know, to show us different things and come back to what we have in common, whether the characters are human or monsters.” 

Among her human collaborators as of late are DPs Joaquin Sedillo on 9-1-1 and Gavin Kelly on American Horror Story: Apocalypse. With Sedillo, Lynch said, “The challenge is not just to blow buildings up though I love stunts and explosions more than I can express. But something that’s also important (on 9-1-1) is to feel explosiveness with just two people at the dinner table. It’s important to sometimes do the opposite of what’s expected. It’s what said quietly during an emergency that stays with us.” She described Sedillo as a great compatriot in capturing the overt as well as the subtle explosions.

As for Kelly, Lynch assessed, “He brings an incredible, clean objectivity” to American Horror Story: Apocalypse, and “an effortlessness” in creating the right mood. “I love to say to Gavin, ‘I want to feel this or something else and he can run with that.” Lynch said that Kelly has been an ally in helping to attain what she’d like the audience to feel.

Lynch said of Kelly and Sedillo, “I love them both,” but noted that she was assigned the two DPs and didn’t personally select them. Similarly Lynch added that she had “no voice” in what episodes she’d get to direct. “My job not just on set but in life in general is to find a way to get along and work with anybody I’m around” and in the process doing justice to the material, telling a story “the best way possible.”

“I consider myself one of the many colors on the palette at Ryan Murphy Television. As a brush or part of a palette, we all matter,” affirmed Lynch, noting that what echoes within her is much like “a cave painting” on which is “carved many a memory and images.” She continues to add to that painting through working with others, observing that her biggest takeaway from American Horror Story: Apocalypse and 9-1-1 is that for storytelling “more than ever, compassion and bravery are what’s most needed in the recipe for life in television.”

Gregg Araki
For indie filmmaker (Nowhere, Mysterious Skin, The Doom Generation) and now writer-director-showrunner of the decidedly atypical comedy series Now Apocalypse (Starz), Gregg Araki--at one time described as a leader of New Queer Cinema--recalled one of his key early inspirations being David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Araki described the show as “a giant influence,” explaining that it showed that “a visionary, groundbreaking piece of cinema could be on TV and broadcast into everybody’s homes.”

Still, Araki at best dabbled in TV, focused more on independent films, though Nowhere, he said, was “structured like an episodic show” and at one time he had a deal to develop it for television. Back around 2000, he recalled a pilot he made for MTV, a “Twin Peaksy-kind of show.” But it wasn’t until 2015 that Araki started to get meaningfully into TV. “John Ridley called me up and asked if I would be interested in directing an episode of American Crime. He was interested in having ‘Sundancy’ directors do that show. I had never done anyone else’s episodic show before. He is so smart, has such great ideas. It was an awesome learning experience for me on how a show is done, what a showrunner does.”

For some three years, Araki directed episodic fare for others (American Crime, Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why, Red Oaks), likening the experience to his “TV school.” Among the lessons he learned, though, was that being a showrunner was like working 24 hours a day. “The only way it would be worth it is if I could do my ultimate dream show. I sat down with my friend Karley (writer Sciortino) and we started to define what that show would be--set in L.A., young confused people, sexual misadventures. It started to gel in my head. I wrote a spec script with no idea what would become of it.  I showed it to Greg Jacobs over lunch one day. We had become friends on Red Oaks (for which Jacobs was the showrunner). He was a friend reading a friend’s script. He loved it and asked what he could do to help get this made. He works with Steve Soderbergh who has a deal at Starz (The Girlfriend Experience). My show got greenlit. TV isn’t supposed to be so fast. I sat down with Karley, we wrote these 10 episodes and we shot them last summer.” (Soderbergh and Jacobs are exec producers on Now Apocalypse.)

Now Apocalypse introduces us to Ulysses (portrayed by Avan Jogia) and his friends Carly (Kelli Berglund), Ford (Beau Mirchoff) and Severine (Roxanne Mesquida) who pursue fame, love and pleasure--exploring identity, sexuality and artistry--in the at times surreal and bewildering city of Los Angeles. Ulysses is bisexual and straddles the world of reality and fantasy, stricken with dreams that suggest that he’s in the midst of some kind of monstrous conspiracy replete with alien abductions. He wonders if he’s having a premonition about the imminent demise of the world or if he’s merely suffering from marijuana-sparked delusions. 

While logistically the show was challenging, working on what he characterized as “a tight indie schedule and indie budget, shooting the whole season in about 40 days,” Araki--who directed all 10 episodes--said that he had a major advantage:  “the most amazing cast I had ever worked with.” And in turn, that cast too had a significant advantage. “They were able to read all 10 scripts before we started,” noted Araki. “Everybody knew what their character arcs, their journey, would be. For the actors, this was really helpful. They could figure out where they were going, knew what would happen next, so we all joined in on a race to get the show done. It was kind of magical--hard work but super fun.”

Making it all attainable was Araki’s team of artists whom he’s worked with before spanning much of his indie film work, including cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen, editor Alex Blatt, production designer Todd Fjelsted (an Emmy winner last year for GLOW) and costume designer Trayce Field. “My films tend to be quite stylized and have a certain visual technique and style to them,” related Araki. “I told my crew that I wanted to take it another level with Now Apocalypse. There are so many TV shows out there. I needed the look, style and feel of this to be very different than any other show, to stand out from the pack. I wanted it to pop out with a hyper colorful subjective style, making it visually beautiful and easy to watch. I wanted it to be an incredibly visceral and pleasurable aesthetic experience to watch this show.”

For Araki, Now Apocalypse has been “an ideal creative experience,” one he hopes will continue on season two. At press time Starz had commissioned the writing of a second season. “My fingers are crossed that we’ll get to shoot those scripts,” said Araki. “I told Greg (Jacobs” that I want season two to be on a whole other level. I don’t want to repeat season one. I want to take all the characters to new places.”

M. David Mullen
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime) scored 14 Emmy nominations--and eight wins (including Outstanding Comedy Series)--last year. Amidst that tally was the first career Emmy nod for M. David Mullen, ASC in the Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-Camera Series (One Hour) category. The show’s pilot also earlier this year landed Mullen his first ASC Award nomination.

Mullen is now again in awards season banter for his ongoing work on Mrs. Maisel, which adds to TV credits that include such shows as Westworld, Get Shorty, Smash, Mad Men, Big Love, and the pilot for The Good Wife.

Mullen made his first mark in the indie feature arena, in which he continues to be active. He was nominated for two Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Awards—for Twin Falls Idaho in 2000 and Northfork in 2004, both directed by Michael Polish.

Mullen initially connected with Mrs. Maisel creator/director/writer Amy Sherman-Palladino through a mutual collaborator--director Jamie Babbitt who teamed with Gilmore Girls creator Sherman-Palladino on numerous episodes of that series. Mullen had lensed a short film, a feature and episodic TV--including United States of Tara and Smash--for Babbitt.

Mullen was drawn to Mrs. Maisel which stars Rachel Brosnahan in the title role as a 1950s’ New York Jewish wife and mother who pursues stand-up comedy--back then, hardly a woman’s province--following the breakup of her marriage. Mullen explained that he was particularly attracted to the challenges of lensing a period show, capturing 1950s’ New York. This most recent season added the dimension of two episodes shot partly in Paris, and three in the Catskills region of upper New York State. Mullen wound up lensing seven of the 10 episodes this past season. The other three were shot by Eric Moynier whom Mullen also shared duties with on season one.

Mullen noted that he and Moynier visit each other on set and talk to each other extensively in prep. “We cover all the bases, including what we want in new sets that are going to appear in both our episodes--how we’d like them rigged, practicals and other lights,” related Mullen.

In terms of recreating 1950s New York, Mullen credited the talent of several artisans, including fellow first season Emmy nominees on the show, production designer Bill Groom and costume designer Donna Zakowska. “We sort of referenced 1950s advertisements and movies—the costume and production design were spot on. Our approach was what I’d describe as ‘aggressively pastel,” offset against neutral backgrounds, which tends to get those colors subtly noticed. This also helped to make the look a little more romantic, taking the sharpness off the digital camera.”

Mullen’s choice of camera was the ARRI Alexa for “its pleasant dynamic range, which feels more like film to me. We tested extensively and found that the Alexa—with Panavision Primo lenses—gave us a look not ridiculously sharp but pleasantly sharp.” Mullen assessed that Alexa provides “film-like image quality, particularly in the highlights. It was important to me that the show have a traditional film look to it in terms of dynamic range and colors.”

Mullen stressed that ultimately the cinematography has to do justice to the writing, story and actor performances which are stellar on Mrs. Maisel. “From my end the job is to keep the energy level and camera movement that drives the show forward. In some respects, the approach is one shot like a theatrical play except we are moving the camera quite a bit as actors have to perform the whole scene from top to bottom.”

This is the third installment in a 16-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 Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.

MySHOOT Company Profiles