Road To Emmy Recap: Contenders Become Nominees
Cinematographer James Laxton (l) and director Barry Jenkins on the set of "The Underground Railroad" (photo courtesy of Amazon)
A look back at reflections shared during SHOOT’s latest round of TV awards preview coverage

As in years past, a healthy percentage of those SHOOT interviewed relatively early on for its The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories--as well as prior TV Awards Season preview coverage--went on to land nominations from Television Academy voters. For example, among those SHOOT connected with were Sam Zvibleman and Ken Olin. Zvibleman, co-creator, director and EP of Pen15 (Hulu), recently garnered him his first career Emmy nomination, which came in the marquee Outstanding Comedy Series category.  Meanwhile Olin, director/EP of This Is Us (NBC), just earned his fourth career Outstanding Drama Series nomination for the show.

Also traversing our Road To Emmy were Matt Shakman and Craig Zobel who were both nominated in the Outstanding Directing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie category. Shakman scored his second career Emmy nom for Disney+’s WandaVision. (His first nom came in 2020 for The Great.) And Zobel earned his first Emmy nomination for Mare of Easttown (HBO).

Furthermore on the directorial front, three of the six nominees for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series shared their insights well before last month’s announcement of Emmy nominations. One was Susanna Fogel who earned her first Emmy nod for the “In Case of Emergency” episode of The Flight Attendant (HBO Max); the other two were recognized for their work on Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)--MJ Delaney for “The Hope That Kills You” episode and Zach Braff for “Biscuits.” This marked Delaney’s first career Emmy nom and Braff’s second. Braff’s first came back in 2005 as lead actor in the sitcom Scrubs. Ted Lasso earned Braff his first Emmy nomination as a director.

Awards show recognition for Braff over the years extends beyond the Emmys. For example, as a filmmaker he’s been nominated for the Humanitas Prize for Garden State, which he wrote, directed and starred in. Garden State also won him Best First Feature at the Film Independent Spirit Awards and Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review.

SHOOT reached out to Braff back in April, a month after he had received a DGA Award nomination for the “Biscuits” episode. Ted Lasso broke new ground for Braff whose TV series directing had been confined to episodes of shows in which he starred, including Scrubs and Alex, Inc. Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, who had a creative hand in Ted Lasso as well, brought Braff into the Apple TV+ show’s directorial fold. Braff was immediately drawn to the series for the opportunity to again work with Lawrence and to collaborate for the first time with Sudeikis who stars in the title role and created the series with Lawrence, Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt. Also appealing was the prospect of directing the second episode of Ted Lasso, meaning Braff could help lay the foundation for the series in terms of look and tone. In that vein, Braff said that while the pilot was “hilarious,” it didn’t really yet reflect the heart of the show. “Biscuits” introduced that emotional side to the series.

Ted Lasso has tallied 20 nominations in its first season, won a Peabody Award and has already been renewed for seasons two and three. 

Finally on the directing score, SHOOT interviewed Christopher Werner who like Braff wound up scoring DGA Award and Emmy nominations this season for the same work, namely the “Trump & Election Results” episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO). This marked Werner’s third career Emmy nomination, the first two coming in 2020--one for co-directing an episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, the other as a producer credited for Outstanding Variety Talk Series. Werner came up a winner in the latter category. This year Last Week Tonight is up for seven Emmys, including looking to repeat as Outstanding Variety Talk Series.

Both Werner and Braff share another bond--both are represented for commercials and branded content. Werner is with Moxie Pictures in the ad arena while Braff recently connected with Accomplice Media.

Music, Editorial
Also part of SHOOT’s preview coverage was composer Kris Bowers who wound up getting two Emmy nominations for Bridgerton (Netflix)--for Original Dramatic Score and Original Main Title Theme Music. This marks the third consecutive year Bowers has picked up an Emmy nod (in 2019 for When They See Us and last year for Mrs. America).

By contrast, editor Michelle Tesoro, ACE, featured in our Road To Emmy Series, wound up securing her first nomination for the “Exchanges” episode of The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series which had a final tally of 18 nods.

Tesoro was drawn to The Queen’s Gambit for its story as well as the opportunity to again team with writer-director Scott Frank after solidifying their working relationship on Godless. For Frank on both Godless and The Queen’s Gambit, Tesoro cut all of the episodes. Based on the novel of the same name by the late Walter Tevis (author of such books as “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell To Earth”), The Queen’s Gambit centers on orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played as an adult by Anya Taylor-Joy) who struggles with drug and alcohol addiction as she strives to become the greatest chess player in the world. 

The coming-of-age period drama unfolds during the Cold War era and became Netflix’s most watched scripted miniseries. 

Tesoro said she and Frank have a mutual trust. “At this point he feels confident that I’m going to not only represent in the cut what he’s looking for but also bring to the table new ideas that he might not have thought of. I heard him once describe what he looked for in department heads as one-plus-one equaling three.”

The relationship between Frank and the other department heads is cut from the same cloth, Tesoro noted. “He involves you at the earliest you can possibly be involved, helping you to feel you understand the process and how certain ideas are arrived at.” That orientation helps to inform and inspire a high level of work and a feeling throughout of being connected to the story.

In that vein, Frank brought Tesoro and DP Steven Meizler to Berlin, where much of the series was shot, for a summit to experience chess at a high level and get a first-hand feel for the game. This ultimately helped them attain an authenticity for the chess matches in the show which range emotionally from flirtatious to tensely adversarial confrontations.

On the cinematography score, SHOOT’s awards preview coverage touched base with the likes of James Laxton for The Underground Railroad (Amazon) and Jeffrey Jur, ASC for Bridgerton (Netflix).

Cinematographer James Laxton and director/writer Barry Jenkins have deep collaborative roots. The two were college roommates for a year and started working together at Florida State University film school. In fact, Laxton lensed Jenkins’ last two student films and has gone on to do the same for all his features--Medicine for Melancholy for which the DP earned an Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography, followed by Moonlight, the Best Picture Oscar winner, and then If Beale Street Could Talk. Laxton earned Academy Award and ASC Award nominations for Moonlight.

Now Jenkins and Laxton are in the Emmy nominees’ circle for The Underground Railroad, a limited series adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The 10 episodes bring us into the world of Cora Randall (portrayed by Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved woman who escapes the horrors of a Georgia plantation with an unrelenting bounty hunter (Joel Edgerton) in pursuit. She gets free of bondage with support from a literal underground railroad that runs through the American South just before the Civil War. The series includes brutal depictions of violence against Cora and others.

With the myriad challenges posed by The Underground Railroad, perhaps the emotional toll of those re-creations of abuse marked the biggest hurdle for cast and crew to overcome. Amazon provided supportive on-set counseling to help actors and crew members cope with the atrocities chronicled during the course of production.

Laxton said that of the 116 shooting days, very few were sans dramatic depictions of abuse. Everyone’s emotional state was being assaulted on some level but it was necessary in order to do justice to the story and our nation’s history. “Amazon understood that,” related Laxton, noting that having a counselor in place allowed cast and crew to step off the set when needed to discuss what they felt, engaging with someone in order to help preserve some semblance of mental health and well-being.

Furthermore, cast and crew helped one another. “We all needed to lean on each other’s shoulders,” said Laxton, grateful for having actors and artisans who are “open-hearted and supportive kind of people.” 

Audiences too will find scenes unbearably painful to watch, yet there is also an inherent beauty captured by Jenkins and Laxton in the storytelling. And the pain we witness is seen through the perspectives of those being violated, generating an empathy as viewers connect with the horror endured and the humanity we share.

The Underground Railroad received a total of seven Emmy nominations.

Production design
Production designers on The Road To Emmy included John P. Goldsmith for Perry Mason (HBO), Anne Seibel for Emily in Paris (Netflix), Sara K. White for The Flight Attendant (HBO Max) and Elisabeth Williams for The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu).

Williams recently picked up her sixth Emmy nomination--the last five coming in 2018 (two nods), 2019, 2020 and now ‘21 for episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale.  She won in 2018, ‘19 and ‘20 for The Handmaid’s Tale episodes “June,” “Holly” and “Household,” respectively. Williams’ first career nomination came in 2016 for Fargo. Her latest nod for The Handmaid’s Tale is for the “Chicago” episode.

Williams has been production designing The Handmaid’s Tale since season two, invited by executive producer Warren Littlefield whom she had worked with on Fargo (as an art director during that show’s second season, then a production designer on season three). Her aforementioned Emmy nod for Fargo came in the capacity of art director, working with production designer Warren Alan Young.

Williams has enjoyed her longest career series tenure on The Handmaid’s Tale. She noted that the ambitious show has posed complex challenges, necessitated sophisticated sets and has entailed her working with a dozen or so directors and four different DPs, always producing a quality product. “Now I know I can do anything, I think.”

Particularly gratifying has been working with different directors, including series star Elisabeth Moss and DP Colin Watkinson who have both done some select episodic direction. Williams got to see Watkinson, a DP she thoroughly respects, in a completely different light when he settled into the director’s chair. “He’s a great director. His ideas are great. He’s a storyteller and left the design part up to me.” 

As for Moss, Williams shared, “Lizzie is a lead actress, an executive producer. She’s all hands on all decks all the time. She’s obviously good at every single thing she does. It’s been beautiful to watch her shift into directing. She openly relied on me and DP Stuart Biddlecombe. Stuart, Lizzie and I have a beautiful symbiotic relationship.”

This year The Handmaid’s Tale earned 21 Emmy nominations.

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