Perspectives From Directors Derek Cianfrance, Lenny Abrahamson, Morten Tyldum On Their Emmy-Contending Series
"I Know This Much is True" executive producer/writer/director Derek Cianfrance (photo by Atsushi Nishijima/courtesy of HBO)
DP Quyen Tran sheds light on her "Unbelievable" work; 7-time Emmy sound mixing nominee Mathew Price discusses "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"
  • --

Writer-director Derek Cianfrance is best known for his feature films such as Blue Valentine (starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams), which made an auspicious debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, The Place Beyond the Pines (starring Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes), nominated for multiple honors at the 2013 Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards, and The Light Between Oceans (with a cast including Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz), a Golden Lion nominee at the 2016 Venice Film Fest. Yet Cianfrance is no stranger to television. On the strength of his TV commercials via production house RadicalMedia, he won a DGA Award in 2016. His body of work also includes documentaries for MTV, and the multi-year Nike Battlegrounds series which took us into a world of basketball tournaments, NBA stars and team aspects of the sport.

The latter, produced by RadicalMedia for Wieden+Kennedy, gave Cianfrance a taste of being able to live with characters over the course of a longer time span, something not possible with features unless you’re involved in cinema’s “franchiseable” universe. Cianfrance longed for the opportunity to delve more deeply into characters and their stories, even at one point writing The Place Beyond the Pines with an intermission; he recalled that his first cuts of that film were in the three-and-a-half hour range.

“I’ve been interested in doing something of size and scope for TV for a long time,” related Cianfrance, explaining that he sought “more time and space than I’m allowed to have on a movie screen” for character insights, development and storytelling. He found that and more in the limited series I Know This Much is True (HBO), based on the 1998 best-selling novel of the same title by Wally Lamb. The first of its six episodes--adapted for teleplay and directed by Cianfrance--premiered this past Sunday (5/10).

“I didn’t want to do television where I was just going to direct one episode or be part of a writers’ room,” said Cianfrance who served as the sole director on I Know This Much is True. “I wanted to do it just like I made my movies--in this case a six-hour movie with these one-hour arcs throughout.”

The series follows the parallel lives of identical twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo. In episode one, paranoid schizophrenic Thomas has a violent public breakdown as Dominick finds himself then stepping up to defend his sibling in unexpected ways. The series brings us into a family saga which goes back in time, a continuum starting around 1913 and extending into 1991, revealing betrayal, selfless sacrifice and forgiveness. The cast also includes Melissa Leo, Kathryn Hahn, Juliette Lewis, Archie Panjabi, Imogen Poots and Rosie O’Donnell.

Perhaps as alluring as the story and having six hours for character development in TV was the chance to work with Ruffalo, affirmed Cianfrance. “When I was struggling to make Blue Valentine for 12 years, Mark was an actor I went after at one point to see if he would be in it,” Cianfrance recalled. “I sent the script to his agent and never heard back from him, except that he was doing 13 Going On 30. I didn’t like him any less for rejecting me back then. He is one of the great American actors.”

As it turned out, when Cianfrance brought Blue Valentine to Sundance, Ruffalo was there with a film he had directed, Sympathy for Delicious. “We became instant brothers in that directors’ class,” said Cianfrance. “We were on the festival circuit all that year together.”

The two kept in touch and harbored a mutual desire to work together. Then some five years ago, Ruffalo reached out to Cianfrance about adapting Lamb’s novel. Cianfrance immediately accepted the challenge and found himself on the same page with Ruffalo in terms of doing justice to the Bridsey twins who are 40 years old when we meet them. “They have 40 years of completely different life experiences and they look different,” related Cianfrance who quipped this couldn’t be pulled off with Ruffalo on camera in the morning and then coming back with a fake wig after lunch to portray his brother. Instead Ruffalo would portray Dominick and then go on hiatus to gain weight to later go on camera as Thomas, a chubby, deeply sensitive man who’s been institutionalized due to mental illness. The result is two distinctly different characters physically and emotionally, as construction worker Dominick is a man’s man. Yet he too is damaged, consumed by guilt, a highly combustible caretaker for his brother.

Meanwhile, like Ruffalo, Cianfrance delved deeply into character. “I devoured the book, memorized it, felt so close to it,” shared Cianfrance. “I felt it was in keeping with stories I’ve been telling, stories about family. I’m drawn to small stories about real people.” 

Cianfrance added that he and Ruffalo were also drawn in by their Italian American ancestry. “The narrative of my life was defined by my Italian-American upbringing,” observed Cianfrance who found a natural affinity for I Know This Much is True in terms of ancestry, legacy and “things passed on through epic scope that deals with generational trauma or ripples that can affect choices--choices made years ago can affect present generations. It’s fascinating to me.”

Building on that fascination is Cianfrance’s longstanding approach to filmmaking which he describes in the context of what a friend in nursing school told him about one of the lessons she had learned from a teacher relative to sympathy vs. empathy. He recounted, “Your patient is in a hole. You are standing outside the hole. ‘Empathetic’ means you jump in the hole with your patient and you’re both stuck. ‘Sympathetic' means you stay outside the hole and drop down a rope to pull the person out. Well (as a filmmaker) I’m in the hole with the patient. The only way I know how to live is to be empathetic and to feel things. It’s one of the reasons I love actors so much. That’s the kind of director I am with actors. I try to live it with them. One of my favorite directors is Sam Peckinpah. He’s so expressing himself through his characters. He’s never watching from a distance. He’s never removed from the violence in his movies. He’s suffering the violence like his characters are. John Cassavetes is another one. He is so in the house with the people. What I try to do with my actors is to empathize with them. I’m never in a place of being above them to judge their choices. I’m in the choices with them.”

Ruffalo, continued Cianfrance, is particularly interesting to be with in the figurative hole. “He is such a good guy, has such a good heart. It really makes a difference to work with someone who is inherently so good. The characters I deal with don’t always behave in the way they should behave. They’re flawed like I am. And to have someone like Mark, who is such a good guy at his core, play someone brings a different dimension. I had fun writing Dominick with more anger, deeper and darker because Mark’s natural buoyancy can lift that. As a friend, you almost want to do an intervention for him. You care enough to want to do that.”

Cianfrance described I Know This Much is True as “one of the greatest, most enjoyable experiences of my life. The group of people who surrounded this project on all levels from HBO to my producers, the crew, the actors--everyone has been committed to this same world. I spent 12 years trying to make Blue Valentine and had 23 days to shoot it. You realize how precious the moments are when you’re able to make something, to be on set and work with actors. I really took this (I Know This Much is True) every day as such a blessing. While the grind can be brutal and relentless, I feel so fortunate to be on set with the actors and people I work with.”

In that vein, Cianfrance has reportedly just entered into a two-year overall development deal with HBO on a range of projects.

Lenny Abrahamson
Lenny Abrahamson, a Best Director Oscar nominee for Room in 2016, was attracted to Sally Rooney’s novel, “Normal People,” on different levels. “I really loved the world she created. She had given a truthful account of first love,” assessed Abrahamson. “She really took her protagonists seriously even though they were young people who had uncertainty. It was a truthful and dignified account of a really important relationship. It appealed to me--the chance to be positive about the possibility of intimacy and love, the engines of life. I had wanted to do some television and this struck me as such a brilliant world to be in.”

Abrahamson’s producing partner, Ed Guiney (co-founder of Element Pictures), himself a two-time Academy Award nominee (Best Picture nods for Room and the Yorgos Lanthimos-directed The Favourite), had read Rooney’s novel in galley form and turned Abrahamson onto it. Abrahamson noted that he had “a long family relationship with Element Pictures” and Guiney, making the prospect of bringing a series based on Rooney’s book to fruition all the more enticing. However, there was a lot of interest in the novel with different parties bracing to make a bid. Abrahamson got a leg up on that competition, explaining that he and Guiney went to the BBC with the book early on and got a greenlight for the project. “We went to Sally Rooney with a greenlight good to go. She liked our films and we were in business.”

Normal People (Hulu and BBC) introduces us to Marianne and Connell whose complex yet tender relationship starts with their school days in a small-town west of Ireland and eventually spills over into their undergrad years at Trinity College. We see them weave in and out of each other’s lives, delving into different layers of intimacy and young love. Debuting on Hulu at the end of April, the series stars Daisey Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell. Abrahamson served as an EP, directing the first six episodes--with the remaining six helmed by Hattie McDonald.

Abrahamson said the biggest creative challenge posed to him by Normal People was “getting the intimacy right. It’s such a central part of the story--how they feel about each other, their physical intimacy, and making sure we did justice to that. It had to be believable, sensitive and tender, and I think we did that.”

The revelation for Abrahamson was the invaluable contribution of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien. Abrahamson confessed that he didn’t even know about the intimacy coordinator role going into Normal People and he was skeptical about its worth. He discovered otherwise. “I came to really value her. She was brilliant at setting a way of working, a structure, helping actors to feel safe and listened to. We could not have achieved that level of candidness in shooting otherwise.”

Abrahamson’s colleagues on Normal People ranged from a first-time collaborator in cinematographer Suzie Lavelle to a long-time trusted compatriot, editor Nathan Nugent. Abrahamson said some Irish filmmaking friends suggested Lavelle. “When you are at the end of a conversation and you want that conversation to continue, you’re usually talking to the right person,” recalled Abrahamson of the first impression Lavelle made on him. He found her to be “warm, intelligent, fabulous with the cast, equipped with a great eye and emotionally connected to the material in a really good way.” He also wanted “a female presence” to contribute to the POV, atmosphere on set and the comfort of the actress at the center of the story.

As for Nugent, Abrahamson observed, “It’s hard to know in the editorial process where he starts and I stop.” The two have a lenghty track record together, spanning four features--including Room for which Nugent earned a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Editing--and a prior TV show (Chance). “Nathan has a filmmaking brain that can take on the knottiest of problems. His instincts are always great,” assessed Abrahamson. “He’s so focused on the work. He’s always thinking about it. I’ll go home and the next morning he’ll send something that occurred to him late at night. It’s always fascinating to watch. He frequently comes up with something that’s not what I planned but better than what I planned. He’s such an ally.”

What resonates most from Normal People for Abrahamson is “a real sense of optimism over the generation that we are showing. Marianne and Connell are more sophisticated, more empathetic and know themselves better than my generation. There’s a sense of hopefulness when you’re around that, seeing people who are good to each other and understand each other.”

From a filmmaking standpoint, Normal People, continued Abrahamson, “convinced me it is possible to have a very positive experience in television’s current streaming climate. The work is of a high level. It didn’t feel different in terms of the quality and the environment felt on a feature film. And when you keep that family unit together--people you enjoy collaborating with--you can make amazing stuff for an audience.”

(Abrahamson is also represented in shorter-form disciplines; he is on the commercialmaking roster of production house Ruffian.)

Morten Tyldum
A Best Director Oscar nominee for The Imitation Game in 2015, Morten Tyldum--who’s served as a director/EP on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan streaming TV series--treated Defending Jacob, an Apple TV+ drama which premiered in late April, very much like a feature film, directing all eight episodes as well as wearing an EP hat. 

Tyldum was engrossed by writer/showrunner Mark Bomback’s first draft of the script and then started reading the novel. “It’s a drama which really connected with me,” he related, observing that it asks the deeply personal question, “What are you willing to do for your child?”

Defending Jacob centers on a seemingly perfect family, the Barbers, whose teen son might be a murderer. The series is based on William Landay’s 2012 novel of the same title in which an almost idyllic, closeknit family--headed by Andy (portrayed by Chris Evans) and Laurie (Michelle Dockery)--begins to crumble after a homicide investigation pinpoints their boy, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), as a suspect in the death of a kid with a reputation for being a bully.

“I approached it more as an eight-hour movie,” said Tyldum who added he was “lucky enough to have all the scripts written before shooting.” He noted, however, that all eight hours were lensed “completely out of order,” marking a major challenge “especially for the actors” in that for example, Dockery had to initially perform a pivotal scene that’s the product of a huge journey the character had to go through which had not yet been filmed. “To switch those emotions on and off is incredibly challenging,” Tyldum affirmed.

Tyldum noted that visually he and DP Jonathan Freeman, ASC, tried to imbue the show with “a cinematic quality.” The director was drawn to the opportunity to work with Freeman, a three-time Emmy winner for Boardwalk Empire, and twice a nominee for Game of Thrones. “He’s part of the generation of DPs who redefined what television looks like,” assessed Tyldum who had previously teamed with the cinematographer on several commercials. Defending Jacob marked their first longer-form collaboration. 

There are pluses and minuses to taking on what Tyldum described as “an eight-hour movie.” He observed, “Everyday is tight and you’re tired. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. But the rewarding part is you get to work with actors and their characters on a deep level...Having eight hours to develop characters, relationships and stories is a blessing, particularly with such an incredible cast.”

Indeed the eight hours are a luxury when you consider the proposition of having to adapt a cinematic novel like Defending Jacob for the big screen. “Finding the essence of a book and squeezing it down to two hours is difficult,” Tyldum said. “With a six, seven or eight-episode series, you can really do the book justice.”

Also helpful, continued Tyldum, was the supportive nature of the Apple TV ensemble. “They are film lovers and storytellers who wanted this to be as good as possible. There was no one pushing us to shoot or show an Apple product in any way or form. To the contrary, there was not a single limitation on how we wanted to shoot anything. They gave us what we needed to do this right.”

Quyen Tran
Cinematographer Quyen Tran recalled being in the midst of wrapping a major show commitment on a Friday. Then a call came from a valued collaborator with the invitation to work on another series that would have to begin prep the following Monday. Very much in need of a break, Tran was inclined to pass on the new opportunity sight unseen--but then she read the script, finding it to be “heartbreaking, powerful and emotional.” 

The project was so compelling that Tran plunged right back into the fray. The show was Unbelievable (Netflix) and the collaborator who gravitated to her with it was Lisa Cholodenko, an Oscar-nominated writer for The Kids Are All Right, and an Emmy-winning director for Olive Kitteridge. Cholodenko served as a director and executive producer on Unbelievable, a limited series based on a real-life rape case. Kaitlyn Dever portrays Marie Adler who files a police report after being sexually assaulted by an intruder in her home. But the investigating detectives, as well as people close to her, come to doubt her story. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, two detectives (played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) meet while investigating a similar pair of intruder assaults and team in the pursuit of a potential serial rapist.

Much of the story unfolds from the perspective of Adler, the victim turned survivor. We see her endure a brutal assault, and a brutal police interrogation. What’s boldly unique about Unbelievable is that the POV is from that of the woman being abused on different fronts from which spring her courage, determination and resilience. “We never wanted the perpetrator to have any power in the story. What we wanted was a perspective that was only told through the victim,” explained Tran who along with Cholodenko prepared Dever for what was in store. Cholodenko laid down on a couch while Tran pretended to be the camera. Dever saw exactly where the camera would be situated to best capture what the character had to endure. Tran said this very personal prep was designed to get Dever as comfortable as possible, to know that she was in a safe environment even while she had to convey her character being traumatized.

Tran is not sure that two men could have prepped Dever in such a manner. “A female gaze” was necessary, said Tran, adding that since she formed a bond with the cast, she often operated the camera in order to give the actors an extra measure of comfort.

Also helpful was the bond between Tran and Cholodenko who helmed multiple episodes of Unbelievable, including the first one. A year earlier Tran had lensed two Cholodenko-directed episodes of the HBO series Here and Now. There the two developed a rapport, so much so that Cholodenko sought out Tran’s empathetic eye for Unbelievable.

While Unbelievable puts us in character Adler’s shoes, it is not a POV of the conventional victim. Tran explained that she and Cholodenko talked extensively about that perspective, underscoring that everyone is different when dealing with trauma. Adler’s former foster mom, for example, didn’t believe her--in part because the older woman felt that an assault victim would be hysterical and overtly emotional. Instead Adler was calm and collected, seemingly normal, almost cold at times, detached, removing herself from the situation. Such behavior, though, doesn’t contradict the truth of the horror she experienced. Tran’s camera helps to capture this.

As for her biggest takeaway from Unbelievable, Tran observed, “It opened my perspective as to how people deal with abuse and trauma. A lot of people came forward after the show aired, sharing how they had similar experiences and thanking me for working on this project. I felt the power of storytelling. Yes, I’ve thought we’re not heart surgeons saving people’s lives. But at the same time it’s pretty important to change perspectives, to impact people. That’s why I’m trying to find projects that are socially or politically impactful--to feel a special responsibility like I felt on Unbelievable.”

Unbelievable adds to a body of work for Tran which includes features such as Pali Road and Sundance Fest titles The Little Hours and Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, as well as TV fare like the HBO comedy Camping, and the Peabody Award-winning documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.

Mathew Price
A seven-time Emmy nominee--the first six coming for his work on The Sopranos, followed by a nod last year for the “Vote For Kennedy, Vote For Kennedy” episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime)--production sound mixer Mathew Price is now once again in the Emmy conversation, this time for season three of Mrs. Maisel, a series in which he’s been involved since year one, episode two. He described the experience on the show as “my favorite job I’ve ever done,” citing the esprit de corps and strong sense of family shared by cast and crew, and the creative joy and challenges of delving into sound for a show marked by witty rapid-fire dialogue and an ambitious musical ear and vision.

Price recalled his initial attraction to the show, citing the high caliber writing and getting to work with its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Price also noted that at the time he had a track record in which dark drama was prominent, including three years of the crime/horror series The Following and 10 years of The Sopranos. “I really appreciate comedy, the chance to do something a lot lighter, more fun. And as a sound mixer when music is involved, I get very excited.” Price had done his share of music-related films, including Notorious, the life-and-death story of The Notorious B.I.G., and Not Fade Away, Sopranos creator David Chase’s feature directorial debut about the revolutionary advent of rock ‘n roll in the 1960s--as seen not through its famous players but everyday suburban kids inspired and moved by its spirit.

The opportunity to work on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel materialized when the sound mixer on the pilot had moved onto another show commitment. By the time Mrs. Maisel was picked up for series, the producers were in the market for another sound pro. Brian A. Kates, the editor on the pilot, recommended Price; the two had worked together on writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages, which earned two Oscar nominations (for Jenkins’ original screenplay and lead actress Laura Linney’s performance) in 2008, and then some 10 years later on another Jenkins’ feature, Private Life, which earned three Film Independent Spirit Award nominations last year (including both Best Director and Screenplay for Jenkins).

The creative challenges posed by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel run deep in the audio arena, observed Price. “You have amazing dialogue that goes a mile a minute. We have almost 90-page scripts for 60-minute shows. We have a large cast which means more radio mics.” The signature style of the show entails Steadicam shots, cameras floating around with many actors in a scene, and characters coming in and out of frame. There are also contrasting stand-up styles to deal with as Maisel tends to roam the stage with the microphone while Lenny Bruce abandons the mic from time to time. 

And while the lion’s share of shows generally have music prerecorded in studio and then played back on set, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at times goes a different route to bring an extra dimension to a scene. In episode five of season three, for example, Sherman-Palladino wanted the Miami nightclub to have a four-piece jazz band there live while filming. “It adds so much production value, such a reality, recording live in the space,” said Price, who recalled that in the second season the Catskills episodes could involve a full band, a singer, two emcees, et al.

Price affirmed, “I love working on a show like Maisel, with music, comedy and so much going on, and so many challenges. The most important takeaway is realizing how much I love the collaborative process that doesn’t always happen when you’re a sound person on set. It’s nice to be asked for feedback and input into the process--to do something to help bring Amy and Dan (Palladino’s) vision to the screen. On a show like this you’re learning more and more all the time, how to think on your feet in the most challenging of situations. There’s so much great leadership on set; so much satisfaction in doing a show like this.”

Editor’s note: SHOOT's Emmy season coverage kicked off on May 8th with our Road To Emmy Preview. This May 15th installment is the first in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 12 and 13, and the Primetime Emmy Awards on September 20.

MySHOOT Company Profiles