Road To Emmy Reflections: Contenders Become Nominees
"Yellowjackets" director Karyn Kusama
A look back at observations shared by "Succession" and "Yellowjackets" directors, among others, 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--as well as prior TV Awards Season preview coverage and our Cinematography & Cameras features--has gone on to land nominations from Television Academy voters. For example, among those SHOOT connected with were directors Lorene Scafaria for Succession (HBO) and Karyn Kusama for Yellowjackets (Showtime). Both directors just scored their first career Emmy nominations. 

Scafaria, who started out as a writer, came to the series after her lauded feature Hustlers, which received three Film Independent Spirit Award nominations--for her as best director, Jennifer Lopez for supporting actress and Todd Banhazl for cinematography. The film also scored assorted other honors, including Best Feature and Audience Award nominations from the Gotham Awards.

On the heels of Hustlers’ success, Scafaria set her sights on Succession. She’s been a major fan of the show, its writers, cast and crew and wanted to be a part of it. “I put it out there that I was really interested in directing an episode. I knew I’d spend the next year writing a feature,” she recalled, reasoning that her schedule could accommodate a turn at episodic directing. What Scafaria didn’t know was that the world would soon be turned upside down by the COVID pandemic. She got together with Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and EP (and director) Mark Mylod in February 2020 and landed the invite to direct. Then COVID hit. A year-plus later, she got to direct an episode. “It marked my reentry into the world,” said Scafaria who found the experience a bit surreal after a long stretch during which she hadn’t left her house, much less socialized.

Also a bit surreal was the episode she landed, “Too Much Birthday,” in which Kendall Roy (portrayed by Jeremy Strong) throws a 40th-birthday bash for himself that’s a tribute to excess. It was a plum assignment for Scafaria--big, cinematic, humorous yet hellish while evoking a mix of pity, empathy and reflection. 

“It’s a party that you’re never going to see again. You’re never going to see those rooms ever again, all built specifically for the ego of one character. You see his innermost thoughts and desires,” related Scafaria, adding that it was a golden opportunity to take familiar characters and see them in extremely unfamiliar settings. 

For the episode, Scafaria said she kept referencing Burning Man, the all encompassing temporary city. Roy’s birthday party was that, elaborate rooms within a large event space that were built only to soon be demolished. 

“Too Much Birthday” garnered Scafaria an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. Overall Succession received 25 noms, which topped this year’s Emmy tally.

The director shared that it was a privilege to collaborate with such a talented ensemble of actors and crew, describing the Succession players as “a well-oiled machine.” Succession gave her the chance to “work on other people’s visions and bring my vision to it,” to be part of the actors’ “ballet” that is at the heart of the show. She said it was a fascinating experience “to step in as the special guest yet you’re running the set.” 

Meanwhile, Kusama said she was driven to direct the pilot for Yellowjackets by its premise, a healthy degree of narrative uncertainty, and the prospect of looking at women during different stages of their lives. It was on the strength of her work on the pilot that Kusama earned an Emmy nod in the Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series category.

Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, Yellowjackets centers on a New Jersey soccer team whose plane crashes in the wilderness of Canada in 1996. The women manage to survive for a grueling year and a half-plus. But fast forward to the present-day and the trauma of the experience still looms hauntingly large.

Kusama, who also served as an executive producer on Yellowjackets, related that taking on a pilot as a director can sometimes mean committing to a show not knowing where it’s headed. “Yellowjackets was one of those shows,” she said, noting that “the pilot essentially asks so many questions that remain unanswered. What really hooked me when I spoke to Ashley, Bart and Drew (EP Comins) about where it was headed as a season of storytelling, they were bold about their answer. ‘We don’t answer a lot of big questions even in the first season,’ was their response. That had guts. It took narrative courage. I also liked the idea that we were looking at middle-aged women and seeing a component of their identity through this teenage lens.”

Kusama also embraced the opportunity to set the tone for Yellowjackets--which is the first job and responsibility of any pilot director. She was drawn to telling the story--and doing justice to it--on two levels. One one hand, it was “a little bit like a war story, seeing the effect in adulthood of enduring a deeply traumatic extended experience at a younger age. But beyond the war story, said Kusama, was “the almost uncanny dark humor that emerges from sharing a traumatic experience together. You almost speak the same language or understand something about each other that no one else could understand. You’ve been to the same hellish place together. There’s something strangely really positive among these women. They share something that’s bonded them and potentially made them stronger.”

Yellowjackets delves into cannibalism, starvation, women turning on each other. Kusama observed, “For Ashley and Bart, they were saying with this story that women and girls are very bit as ferocious and susceptible to highly aberrant, aggressive behaviors as boys and men are. Beyond that I was interested in the ways that ultimately these are women who are still dealing with the real world in the here and now--in a contemporary world where Donald Trump was President, where you take your husband’s last name.”

Kusama added that even with the advances made over the years, “it’s fair to say we have a really long way to go when it comes to men and women seeing each other as peers, equals. We’re still deeply divided. This (Yellowjackets) was an opportunity to kind of explore some of that, by being in this all-female subculture. That was interesting.”

Kusama’s nomination was one of seven garnered by Yellowjackets.

Kusama made her first major career splash with Girlfight, nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for best first feature in 2001. A year earlier at Sundance, Girlfight won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Directing Award. Other highlights in her filmography include Destroyer which was in the running for best feature at the 2018 London Film Festival, and Jennifer’s Body, an underappreciated movie which in recent years has gained recognition as a classic bit of filmmaking. On the TV side, Kusama’s credits span such series as The Man in the High Castle, Billions, Halt and Catch Fire, Casual and Masters of Sex.

On the cinematography front, SHOOT’s awards coverage touched base with several contenders who earned Emmy nods earlier this week, including M. David Mullen for the “How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?” episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video). The nod came in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (One Hour) category.

Mullen got his start in independent film, making a major mark for his work with director Michael Polish. In fact, Mullen earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Cinematography on the strength of two Polish-directed films--Twin Falls Idaho in 2000 and Northfork in 2004.

Mullen went on to diversify into television with HBO’s Big Love, noting that the door opened for him because the show was specifically looking for an indie feature cinematographer. This led to Mullen eventually taking on more episodic work for the likes of The Good Wife (the pilot), United States of Tara, Smash, Ascension, Hindsight (the pilot) and Westworld. But awards recognition didn’t come in the TV arena until Mullen garnered what has proven to be an ongoing plum assignment, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Mullen has earned four ASC Award nominations for Mrs. Maisel over the past four years (2019-’22). He’s also a four-time Emmy nominee for Mrs. Maisel. He won the Emmy twice--in 2019 and ‘20 for the episodes “Simone” and “It’s Comedy or Cabbage,” respectively.

Mullen landed the Mrs. Maisel gig thanks in part to director Jamie Babbitt. Mullen initially connected with Mrs. Maisel creator/director/writer Amy Sherman-Palladino through Babbitt, a mutual collaborator. Babbitt teamed with Gilmore Girls creator Sherman-Palladino on numerous episodes of that series. Meanwhile 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 New York Jewish wife and mother who pursues stand-up comedy following the breakup of her marriage. Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, comedy was hardly a woman’s province. Mullen explained that he was particularly attracted to the challenges of lensing a period show in New York. Subsequent season work added the dimension, for example, of shooting in such locales as Paris and upper New York State’s Catskills region.

Mullen’s choice of camera was the ARRI Alexa for what he first described to SHOOT during an interview after the first season as “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--as its 12 Emmy nominations this year attest.

Mullen is currently lensing season five of Mrs. Maisel, with production scheduled to run through October.

Also part of SHOOT's prior coverage this awards season were editors Douglas Crise, ACE for Dopesick (Hulu) and Nam Na-young for Squid Game (Netflix). Dopesick and Squid Game each registered 14 Emmy nominations this week.

Crise was nominated for Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie on the basis of the first episode, “First Bottle,” of Dopesick. Earlier this year that same episode--directed by Barry Levinson (who also served as a series EP)--earned Crise an ACE Eddie Award nomination. Dopesick delves into opioid addiction in America, drawing us into a distressed Virginia mining community, a rural doctor’s office, the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma, and the inner workings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Based on Beth Macy’s 2018 best selling nonfiction book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” the series spans the past 25 years with different storylines that personalize a drug epidemic fueled in large part by Purdue’s insidious behavior.

Dopesick performances include that of Michael Keaton who portrays Samuel Finnix, an old-school, good-hearted doctor from a small mining down in Virginia. Convinced by a Purdue salesman (played by Will Poulter) that OxyContin is pretty much “nonaddictive,” Dr. Finnix prescribes the drug to relieve pain. Among the patients we meet is a young mine worker, Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), who becomes addicted. Her parents (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham) desperately try to save her. Other prime characters in the narrative are Richard Sackler (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) as the mastermind behind Purdue’s push for profits via OxyContin, Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard), the Assistant U.S. District Attorney who leads the Justice Department investigation into Purdue Pharma, DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson), and Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker).

Dopesick was a learning experience for Crise--in terms of subject matter and further honing his collaborative relationship with Levinson, whom he first worked with on The Survivor (HBO), which this week earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Television Movie.

Regarding his working dynamic with Levinson, Crise noted that they developed a strong creative bond over the course of The Survivor and then Dopesick--even though their interaction on Dopesick was largely remote due to the pandemic. Crise and Levinson developed a free and easy give-and-take dialogue as reflected at the juncture when they thought they had a good assembly of the “First Bottle” episode. There was a scene in act four of that episode in a bathroom where Betsy kisses her girlfriend. Levinson asked why the scene was there to begin with. It didn’t add anything to the story. The scene was taken out. A couple days later Levinson and Crise revisited the scene, realizing that it would be relevant if instead placed in act one, revealing that Betsy was gay. In act four, we already knew her sexual orientation. That’s the kind of open-mindedness and spirit of ongoing discussion that results in restructuring and different placement of a scene for the benefit of the story. 

This is the first Emmy nomination for Crise who also has a Best Editing Oscar nomination to his credit--shared with Stephen Mirrione, ACE for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Babel in 2007.

Editor Na-young also scored her first career Emmy nomination--for the "Gganbu" episode of Squid Game. The nod came in the Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series category.

Squid Game made history by becoming the first non-English language show to be nominated for the Best Drama Emmy. The dystopian Korean thriller centers on people who are so desperate for money that they consent to compete in a series of schoolyard games with deadly consequences.

Editor Na-young was drawn to Squid Game by its creator and director Hwang Dong-hyuk with whom she has a longstanding collaborative relationship. The editor shared, “We work well together, especially in our understanding and interpretation of the work, so I cleared my schedule when I heard that he was preparing for a new piece. Squid Game is of a genre that I already love, but I was worried that it might not stand out if it didn’t have a strong impact since there are already so many other great global works of the same genre. But after I read the scenario, I knew that the series would be refreshing and special. I took on the series because I thought, ‘This one is different!’ seeing the intriguing games and storyline of the characters present in each episode.”Squid Game marks Na-young’s first TV series and she said it posed some challenges compared to her feature work. “Movies are only about two hours but a series tells a much longer story divided into several episodes. Since I had only edited movies in my career, there were so many things I had to learn and get used to. I had to put in a lot more time, and the editing work was different. Throughout the editing process, I kept thinking, ‘Is this too loose? Am I thinking only in terms of movies? Should I be editing the series in a way that can resonate more with a larger audience?’”

As for a prime lesson learned from the experience, Na-young shared that “focusing on one series for a long time requires stamina and concentration. Once you focus on one thing for a while, your mind breaks down.” Na-young added that she found it helpful to “work calmly.”

This is the 10th installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories which will explore the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume 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 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.

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