Elwood Reid’s television pedigree includes co-creating and serving as showrunner on the Peabody Award-winning series The Bridge. Now his talents in the creator/showrunner hybrid role have once again been brought to bear on Barkskins (National Geographic), a limited series which is the TV adaptation of Annie Proulx’s acclaimed novel of the same title. For Reid, a prime challenge was figuring out what portions of the 700-plus-page book--a saga spanning 300 years--should be the focus of the series.
Barkskins examines the mysterious massacre of settlers in the vast and unforgiving wilds of 1690s New France that threatens to throw the region into all-out war. Likely suspects abound--the English looking to drive the French from the territory--but who or what brought these settlers to such a tragic end? The eight-part series tells a story of exploration, adventure and ambition among dreamers and fighters--some with a utopian vision of the world, others crass and conniving, but all navigating the perils of a treacherous new frontier. As tensions escalate, unlikely alliances are forged, old antagonisms deepen and new families are formed against the seemingly endless natural riches and hidden dangers of the new American continent.
From Fox 21 Television Studios and Scott Rudin Productions, episodes of Barkskins have debuted on National Geographic with a next day release on Hulu. Barkskins stars David Thewlis (Wonder Woman), Marcia Gay Harden (The Newsroom), Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk), James Bloor (Dunkirk), Christian Cooke (Point Blank), David Wilmot (The Alienist), Thomas M. Wright (The Bridge), Tallulah Haddon (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Kaniehtiio (Tiio) Horn (The Man in the High Castle), Lily Sullivan (Picnic at Hanging Rock), and Zahn McClarnon (Fargo).
“You could probably adapt 20 TV shows out of this novel,” related Reid who was eager to take on the daunting task for what some considered an unadaptable historical book. For one, Reid noted that Proulx’s books “meant a lot to me as a young writer, particularly ‘The Shipping News.’” Also drawing him to the project was the involvement of executive producer Carolyn Bernstein whom he worked with on The Bridge. Now at National Geographic, Bernstein approached Reid, informing him that the rights had been acquired to “Barkskins.” Though he hadn’t yet read “Barkskins,” Reid immediately embraced the prospect of delving into the novel and mining the possibilities. He added, “Carolyn was wonderful and a tireless worker on The Bridge. I very much wanted to work with her again.”
Beyond narrowing the book’s focus for television, Reid saw one of his foremost responsibilities being the selection of directors. He gravitated to David Slade for the first two episodes, including the pilot which helps to lay the groundwork for the series. “When you write something, you establish the tone. The next important thing is to bring in that director who will shape how that material is interpreted,” said Reid who was drawn to Slade’s storytelling acumen, extensive experience in movies and adapting material for TV.
Also appealing about Slade, continued Reid, was the director’s affinity for darkness and horror with credits such as Black Mirror and a segment of Nightmare Cinema. “Early on I kept saying to Scott Rudin and National Geographic that I wanted a director who had horror elements to his work.” Reid felt this would dovetail nicely with some of the baroque and fantastical imagery called for in Barkskins. “When I first met with him,” said Reid of Slade, “the first thing he pulls out is a picture of a Carvaggio painting. ‘This is the show, dark and bloody,’ he said. He had me right there, and turned out to be a dream collaborator. He was very clear from day one.”
Slade also made clear his cinematographer preference--James Hawkinson, a two-time Emmy nominee for The Man in the High Castle, winning in 2016 for “The New World” episode. Hawkinson shot the two Barkskins episodes directed by Slade. The director and cinematographer had collaborated before successfully, including on the series Hannibal.
Reid’s objective was to “honor” the language and artistry of director Slade and DP Hawkinson as established for those two episodes, and then push the series further forward with subsequent directors and DPs. On the latter score, after watching assorted reels, Reid was struck by two Brits, John Lee and Gavin Finney, who went on to lens three episodes apiece. Reid saw both DPs as taking elements of what Hawkinson had done and then advancing the work with different cinematic languages constructed in concert with different directors.
Those directors, said Reid, were a mix ranging from television vets to directors relatively new to the medium. On one hand, Reid selected a couple of directors with whom he enjoyed a track record--Daniel Attias and Darren Grant. “You get directors with all these ideas but their appetite exceeds their stomachs. But Daniel has seen and done it all before.”
Grant too has extensive TV experience and worked with Reid on The Chi. The director also brought sensibilities from different disciplines to Barkskins in that he has roots in the music video arena.
Grant and Attias each directed one episode of Barkskins, as did Courtney Hunt and Louise Friedberg. Hunt’s initial experience had been in indie features before she diversified with forays into television. Friedberg’s TV exploits have garnered a win at the Copenhagen TV Festival for Fred til lands, and three Danish Film Awards (Roberts) for Fred til lands, Norskov, and Blodsøstre,
Additionally Reid tapped Lukas Ettlin to direct a pair of Barkskins episodes. Reid described Ettlin as a young talent, well prepared with a strong ambition. His credit include multiple episodes of Black Sails.
Providing continuity across all eight episodes was production designer Isabelle Guay who’s well known as a supervising art director with feature credits such as director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and collaborating with legendary production designer Jack Fisk on director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant. On the TV side, she served as supervising art director on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan before taking on an episode of that series as production designer. On the heels of that, she handled production design for Barkskins.
Reid said of Guay, “She was hungry and really wanted this job. She’s French Canadian and wanted to tell this story of her people. You go through life and can count on one hand the number of people who exude elegance and confidence, almost a cowboy glamour. She has that. She’s confident and sure of herself. I knew she would battle me. She wasn’t going to give me what I wanted. She was going to give me her vision and I would have a collaborator. I don’t like people who always say ‘yes.’ I want to be challenged. She is very strong. She didn’t have as many production design credits so we had to lobby and fight for her.”
Reid described Guay as “more than a production designer. She went out with every director, picked locations and built sets there. It was like having this pocket director always on hand.” Reid said that Guay, the DPs and the ensemble of directors he assembled for Barkskins reaffirmed for him the importance of “trusting the people you hire are going to make you better” as opposed to just “hiring people you can control and run around.”
A two-time Oscar nominee (Carol in 2016, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018) and twice nominated for an Emmy on the strength of his work on the miniseries Mildred Pierce (Outstanding Music Composition and Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music, both in 2011), Carter Burwell, appropriately enough, now finds himself with a two-pronged stake in this TV awards season--namely for his work on The Morning Show (Apple TV+) and Space Force (Netflix).
The Morning Show marked composer Burwell’s first foray into episodic television. He was attracted to the show on varied levels, including its “interesting, rich scripts,” the growing creative expanse that TV provides in this golden era of broadcast, cable and streaming, and the chance to be on the ground floor of Apple’s move into streaming service entertainment with its marquee show.
The series takes us behind the scenes of a morning TV network news show with a cast including Jennifer Aniston (a Golden Globe winner for her portrayal of Morning Show anchor Alex Levy), Reese Witherspoon (as field reporter Bradley Jackson, a TV star on the ascent) and Steve Carell (TV host Mitch Kessler who’s fired after news of his sexual abuses at the workplace broke in The New York Times). As the series unfolds, the complexity of the characters builds. Storylines are topical and carry a sense of purpose, relevant to the #MeToo movement with the sexual harassment aspect as women have to cope with a workplace where men abuse their power. (In The Morning Show, viewers have made parallels to the allegations against Matt Lauer and his dismissal from Today, for example.)
“I was told the reason they came to me,” related Burwell, “was they wanted to find some irony” to help balance a fairly dramatic, sometimes tragic storyline. The composer said his directive in part was “to find some humor in the story. I’ve done a lot of odd, dark comedic stories. One of the challenges right from the beginning is that the story is very intense emotionally. I was asked to try to keep it from getting melodramatic.”
In a prior installment of this season’s SHOOT “The Road To Emmy Series,” Mimi Leder, who directed multiple episodes of The Morning Show while serving as an executive producer, shared, “We wanted to give the finale an operatic feel. Emotions worked their way up to a high level. The world felt operatic. The walls were coming down. We wanted to put opera in the show.”
Burwell related that while his work “stayed away from melodrama,” the deployment of opera gave an extra dimension to the finale as the story built up to a nervous breakdown that Aniston’s character has on live television.
It’s this finale that serves as Burwell’s entry for Emmy consideration.
Meanwhile Burwell is also in the Emmy running for Space Force, a comedy series in which a four-star general (Carell) begrudgingly teams up with an eccentric scientist (John Malkovich) to get the U.S. military’s newest service branch--Space Force--ready for liftoff. Carell teamed with Greg Daniels to create Space Force.
Burwell recalled that for Space Force, a prime concern of Daniels right from the start was “balancing the comedy with the humanity of the characters. We didn’t want them to feel two-dimensional. They had an inner life and were fully formed human beings.”
Burwell said that Daniels--a writer/producer known for The Office, Parks and Recreation, and King of the Hill--drew him to Space Force. “I’m a big fan of his work,” affirmed Burwell who found TV distinctly different from feature films when it comes to music.
“Episodes--small sections you sit through one at a time--arc across a season,” explained Burwell. “Individual episodes can be so separate. In feature film, often you are very involved in telling the story and conveying the characters. The role of music is a little more (in features as compared to TV). There’s more for music to do--let’s put it that way. (For TV) I had to learn to pull back, to say less.” Still Burwell has enjoyed his TV experience, noting that he could see doing more work on The Morning Show and Space Force should the opportunity arise.
Features, though, figure to continue beckoning to Burwell. His filmography includes not only Carol and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but also such notable credits as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, O Brother, Where Art Thou (a BAFTA nominee for film music), Before Night Falls, A Knight’s Tale, Adaptation, Intolerable Cruelty, No Country for Old Men, In Bruges, Twilight, Where the Wild Things Are (a Golden Globe nominee for Best Original Score), The Blind Side, The Kids Are All Right, True Grit, Mr. Holmes, Missing Link and Wonderstruck.
American Factory, which won the Best Feature Documentary Oscar earlier this year, now figures in the Emmy prognostication equation--including for the work of editor Lindsay Utz who last year garnered an American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Award nomination for the doc., which was directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert.
American Factory centers on the Chinese company that took over an abandoned General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, opening an auto glass factory there. Bognar and Reichert were initially interested in the launch of Fuyao Glass as a story about culture clash as Chinese and American workers, and U.S. and Far East-rooted management and business philosophies try to successfully co-exist. But the film evolved into not just that but much more, extending into areas such as workers’ rights, globalization and automation. American Factory helps in fact to nurture a deeper understanding of globalization by putting a human face on it, sharing the perspectives of workers, management, and chronicling the ripple effects on the local community.
In a January 2020 installment of SHOOT’s The Road To Oscar Series, Bognar observed that among the prime challenges American Factory posed to him and Reichert was “trying to encompass a lot of points of view and still keep the movie elegant and the storytelling flowing. We had to articulate the feelings and work of not just blue collar Americans but blue collar Chinese folks as well who came over to Ohio and wouldn’t be able to see their kids for two years. We had to get the perspectives of American management and Chinese management as we kept filming. We tried to reflect all these points of view fairly and accurately in the movie.”
Bognar credited editor Utz with helping to bring this all together. Tapping into the voices and stories of select characters was essential, concurred Utz who related, “The story was stronger as a symphony--a symphony of perspectives is how I came to view it.” At the same time, “weaving the personal stories into the factory narrative was tricky. You wanted enough people to get a full picture. But if you had too many people, it would get too crowded.”
Utz added, “If we spent too much time with one character, we could lose the thread of the factory,” which was an important character in and of itself, both when General Motors closed it and caused despair, and then when it opened 10 years later, stirring both anticipation and hope.
Also challenging for Utz was the sheer volume of material, which she estimated to be between 1,000 and 2,000 hours of footage, much of it in another language. “It took a while to get it up and running, properly organized,” she said, “so we could be strategic about what we were looking at.”
American Factory, via Participant Media, made an auspicious debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival--not only in terms of being well received by audiences but also being where it garnered backing from Netflix and Higher Ground, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s production company. This raised the profile for the film even higher as the first acquired by the Obamas’ venture, helping to pique interest and viewership.
American Factory marked Utz’s first collaboration with Bognar and Reichert. The latter introduced herself to Utz at a Midwest film festival after the feature documentary Quest had been screened. Directed by Jonathan Olshefski and cut by Utz, Quest introduces us to a husband and wife living in an impoverished neighborhood in north Philadelphia where they raise their daughter and run a recording studio in their basement. The studio is a refuge of sorts for a community of artists but it is not sanctuary from sad realities in life. The verite portrait covering a decade sheds light on race and class in America, as well as the power of love, family, healing and hope.
Reichert envisioned Utz as the ideal editor for a major upcoming project--and told her so at the festival. The documentarian followed up with an email and they met again at another fest. Then Utz got a look at some of the raw footage for American Factory. “The kind of access they had, the depth of the filmmaking--those are the kind of films I get very excited about as an editor. That’s how you get the golden stuff.”
A special collaborative relationship evolved among Utz, Bognar and Reichert. “I do a lot of cinema verite, observational cutting,” said Utz. “That’s what she (Reichert) recognized in Quest and why they thought I’d be good for the project (American Factory). We liked each other and all got along, which is good because the work is so intense, you’re married to each other for so long. Thankfully all the pieces fell into place.”
American Factory reaffirmed for Utz that “you can’t do these films alone. It’s such a deep collaboration with other people. You have to kind of like swallow your pride and ego, and be a good team player. It’s a long road to make these films. It’s emotional. A lot is invested by people in terms of time, energy and money. You need to be kind and patient with each other. It’s a lot to ask a group of people to sit in a room and finish this together. I’m so proud of my collaboration with Steve and Julia, and how we became family in the process.”
Earning her first career Eddie Award was particularly gratifying for Utz--not just for American Factory gaining recognition from her peers but also getting the chance to meet, thanks to Netflix, on the red carpet with legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s trusted editor and a female industry pioneer. Schoonmaker was on hand as a nominee for her work on Scorsese’s groundbreaking Netflix feature, The Irishman.
As for what’s next, Utz at press time was cutting director R.J. Cutler’s documentary on Billie Eilish, slated for Apple TV+.
This is the ninth installment 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 in September, and the Primetime Emmy Awards later that month (9/20).