Looking Back On The Road To Emmy: "Godless," "Handmaid’s Tale," "USS Callister," "GLOW"
Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera
Composer, editor, production designer insights into their Creative Arts Emmy-winning work
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Sometimes the story about the storyteller can in some respects rival the stories he or she is lauded for telling. Consider the case of composer Carlos Rafael Rivera who was nominated for two Emmy Awards in recognition of his work on the Netflix series Godless. Rivera wound up winning for the show’s main title music this past Saturday evening (9/8) at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony and in his brief acceptance remarks he thanked writer-director Scott Frank “who’s changed my life.”

Rivera’s road to an Emmy started years back when he was looking to pick up a little extra income while pursuing his doctorate in music composition at USC. Rivera responded to a posting at a Pasadena music venue seeking a teacher for guitar lessons. It turns out his student was Frank, at the time a screenwriter of some note (Get Shorty, and an Oscar-nominated screenplay for Out of Sight) who had not yet embarked on what would become a successful directing career.

Rivera and Frank struck up a rapport. Separately Rivera was assigned a mentor at USC, famed composer Randy Newman. What was supposed to be a brief encounter turned into several hours with Rivera learning from Newman about the scoring process, the pecking order and politics at a recording session.

Frank found out about the Newman mentorship and wondered why Rivera hadn’t asked him about working with him in film or TV. “I’m a guitar teacher,” replied Rivera. But Frank still sent him some script pages and gave him a chance to write some music based on them. Though that script never came to fruition as a movie, Rivers said it was a great experience—which made him all the more ready when he heard Frank was going to make his directorial debut on a film starring Liam Neeson. Rivera reached out to Frank and pursued the project.

“I emailed him that even if I write temp music which would later be replaced by a professional, I wanted to be involved,” recalled Rivera.

He wound up landing the scoring assignment for that movie titled Lookout and teamed well enough with Frank that when Godless came up, the writer-director gravitated to the composer again. Set in the 1880s American West, Godless introduces us to murderous outlaw gang leader Frank Griffin who’s hunting for a former member of his gang, Roy Goode. The chase leads him to a quiet town inhabited, after a mining disaster, almost entirely by women.

For the main title, Rivera said he was inspired by 1970s’ TV title music, like Mike Post’s theme for The Rockford Files. “I’m a fan of that music and wanted to create something that was memorable, even singable,” related Rivera. “Godless had me thinking about the absence of life so I started playing with the black notes on the keyboard. It’s one of those nerdy things a composer does for himself—and doesn’t tell the director about—when trying to come up with something. I remember playing it for my kids—my daughter was 12 at the time, my son nine and later found that they remembered it, that it was catchy. Scott wanted something that felt old school. I got to collaborate with a cellist. I played the guitar. We performed a very basic track that felt really full. Scott loved it and over time it never changed. It turned out to be the theme.”

Wendy Hallam Martin
Rivera’s backstory was reported in SHOOT’s “The Road To Emmy” series of features, which also covered assorted other artisans who went on to win Emmys during the Creative Arts proceedings this past weekend. Among that select talent was Wendy Hallam Martin who scored her first career Emmy nomination and win--in the Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series category--on the strength of the “June” episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Martin told SHOOT on “The Road To Emmy” that The Handmaid’s Tale required a re-think and reorientation relative to her editing approach. “This show cuts like no other show I’ve ever done before,” she assessed. “You cut for the emotion. You really have to know where June or Offred’s head is at a hundred percent of the time. You don’t cut it traditionally. You hang on shots a lot more than you normally would. You don’t always cut to reactions. It’s hard to put into words. You have to feel it. You have to have a gut reaction as to how it should be cut. You can end up hanging on a closeup most of the time. Or you cut wide. You don’t do overlapping dialogue. You throw out what you’ve learned over the years to show the emotion, to help evoke empathy.”

That certainly was the case with the “June” episode. “The first 10 minutes were extremely challenging,” related Martin. “You start with June in the van. There’s no dialogue for those first 10 minutes. We go through her range of emotions, starting with the hopefulness that she’s going to get away to doubting things will go well at all. The doors open and all hell is about to break loose. To get into her head, the editing is dictating what the scene needed to be--an out-of-body experience, surreal, you can’t believe it’s happening. And then we’re dragged onto a familiar field.”

That field is the iconic Fenway Park in Boston (actually shot in Hamilton near Toronto, using visual effects and CGI to get the Fenway look in a dystopian future). The deserted, dilapidated yet still recognizable Fenway Park was the site of an emotional turn of events. The handmaids are taken to the abandoned field where there are scaffolds from which hang nooses. A noose is put on the neck of individual handmaids and the nearby lever is pulled. But the drop is only minor, and the handmaids survive. It was a scare tactic engineered by Aunt Lydia in order to teach them a lesson they would never forget.

“It’s harrowing,” noted Martin. “Even though the viewer knows June is not going to die, you feel she is going to die. That comes from keeping a pace, experiencing through her eyes.”

Martin praised the vision of Margaret Atwood, author of the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and series creator/showrunner/writer Bruce Miller. “Bruce has a no a-holes policy, bringing together talented, considerate people, which makes for great working collaborations and great work,” affirmed Martin. 

Selina MacArthur
Also scoring her first Emmy nomination and win was editor Selina MacArthur. She earned the Emmy for cutting the “USS Callister” installment of Black Mirror (Netflix). “USS Callister” is a departure form most Black Mirror episodes, with its share of comedy and deployment of special effects. It introduces us to tech wiz Robert Daly (portrayed by Jesse Plemons) as he lives a double life. One has him bullied at his own company called Callister. The other puts him at the helm of the USS Callister, a Star Trek-like spaceship which he captains through the machinations of a video game adventure.

MacArthur got the opportunity to cut “USS Callister,” the season four opening episode of Black Mirror, thanks in part to her history with director Toby Haynes. “I’ve known Toby for a long time,” recalled MacArthur during our Road To Emmy series. “I assisted years ago on M.I. High [BBC], one of my first jobs, which was also one of Toby’s first directing gigs. Our paths have crossed many times but we had never worked together as director and editor until ‘USS Callister.’ We met one night for drinks and he told me about this project [‘USS Callister’]. There couldn’t have been a better script. It was the perfect collaboration.”

MacArthur said that as an editor she was backed by a “USS Callister” ensemble that included Haynes, DP Stephan Pehrsson, BSC, a brilliant script and cast. “This wasn’t one of those shows where you had to creatively deal with story problems or cut around performances--none of the factors that would have made for a difficult edit. It was a dream job.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge was the volume of great material being delivered. “Toby and Stephan [cinematographer Pehrsson] worked together way back on Doctor Who and thus managed, since they knew each other so well, to speed through an incredible amount of material,” related MacArthur. “The sheer amount of rushes coming in was the most I’ve ever received--a lot of character cover, great performances that make for a great show though we were pressed for time in assembly. I couldn’t rest for a second. But it was a great experience in that Toby completely trusted me to go for it in assembly.”

Todd Fjelsted
Another first time Emmy nominee and winner is production designer Todd Fjelsted--for his work on the “Dusty Spur” episode of GLOW (Netflix). He topped the Outstanding Production Design For A Narrative Program (Half-Hour or Less) category.

Set in 1980s’ Los Angeles, GLOW centers on a group of female wrestlers vying for celebrity and stardom on the syndicated pro circuit known as Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW).

Perhaps the biggest creative challenge that “Dusty Spur” posed to Fjelsted as a production designer was a montage in which we see many of the characters’ backstories for the first time—albeit in brief, fleeting fashion and sans dialogue.

“Up to this point, we had only seen these women in the context of auditioning as wrestlers, being in the gym, rehearsing to become pro wrestlers on TV. This montage revealed more about them, showing them moving out of their homes, in Rhonda’s case her car. We see Carmen was living in a basement. Maybe she had to move down there because she was the only girl in the family. These are very brief moments which make you have to think about what they mean or circumstances they reveal for each character. The women all move into a hotel which is like an Olympic village kind of situation. We had to create a scenario for each in their own space at this hotel, reflecting something about each character. So for a relatively brief montage, we’re creating these sets which will only be on camera for a few seconds—but it’s important because we’re giving viewers a little handle, a little grounding on each woman.”

Fjelsted shares the GLOW Emmy with art director Harry E. Otto and set decorator Ryan Watson. Fjelsted said of Otto, “He’s a huge art director with credits in features and TV, and a great sense of architecture which is so crucial to knowing where the show is in the world in terms of timeframe. His background and expertise were tremendously beneficial to GLOW.”

While GLOW marked his first collaboration with Otto, Fjelsted has a longstanding working bond with Watson; the duo has teamed on some 30-plus projects over the years.

Earlier this year, Fjelsted, Otto and Watson—along with graphic designer Vanessa Riegel and digital set designers Cate Bangs and Glenn Williams won the Art Directors Guild’s Excellence in Production Design Award on the strength of three GLOW episodes—the pilot, “The Wrath of Kuntar” and “The Dusty Spur.”

Fjelsted recalled that his first major television show, HBO’s Looking—which he landed after designing independent features—helped spark interest in him from GLOW producers.

“Looking had a realism, showing the underbelly of a great American city (San Francisco) and it led the people at GLOW to check me out.”

Fjelsted crafted a slide show pitch depicting the flavor of 1980s’ L.A. “It wasn’t the cartoonish caricature you normally see of Los Angeles. I pitched a version that was a little more gritty and strange, letting the humor play out. I think that’s what got me the job.”

The job in turn yielded much for Fjelsted—not just the Emmy but also an invaluable perspective. “What I never experienced before GLOW and hope to experience a lot more of was a huge team of women,” shared Fjelsted. “GLOW has mostly female writers, directors and producers—and a cast of women. Being surrounded by that many women telling stories through their eyes, experiences and situations was really refreshing and exciting. The experience was illuminating for me as both an audience member and a crew member.”



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