"Succession," "Mrs. Maisel," "Russian Doll" Emmy Nominees Discuss Direction, Lensing, Design
Director Adam McKay, an Emmy nominee for "Succession" (HBO)
Reflections from director Adam McKay, cinematographer M. David Mullen and production designer Michael Bricker
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Prior to this week’s announcement of the season’s Emmy nominations, SHOOT connected with various contenders going back to our Spring Directors Issue in April and then this ongoing The Road To Emmy series of feature stories which started a little more than two months ago. As it turns out, a good number of the artisans we covered ended up in the 2018-’19 circle of nominees.

Included in this mix are:

  • Adam McKay who earned an Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series nod on the strength of the “Celebration” episode of Succession (HBO)
  • M. David Mullen, ASC who’s nominated for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (One Hour) on the basis of the “Simone” episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
  • And Michael Bricker, an Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Program (Half-Hour) nominee for the “Nothing In  This World Is Easy” installment of Russian Doll (Netflix).

Here are some insights each shared with us early on as they now continue their journey along the “Road To Emmy.”

Adam McKay
While a DGA Award is a high honor, Adam McKay was in even more rarefied air this year when he scored two Guild nominations for different projects--for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film for Vice, and in the Dramatic TV Series category for the HBO series Succession.

While Alfonso Cuaron took the feature award for Roma, McKay won for “Celebration,” the very first episode of Succession, which introduces us to the Roy family--Logan Roy and his four children--who control an enormous media and entertainment conglomerate. Succession tracks their lives as they contemplate and grapple with what the future may hold for them once the aging patriarch steps down from the company.

Oscar-winning writer Jesse Armstrong (In The Loop) created the show and penned the pilot episode helmed by McKay, himself an Academy Award recipient for writing the adapted screenplay (with Charles Randolph) for The Big Short, which also earned him his first career DGA nomination as well as an Oscar nod for Best Director in 2016. This year McKay added three more Oscar noms to his résumé for Vice--Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay.

As for Armstrong, his work on the “Nobody Is Ever Missing” episode of Succession just earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.

McKay has been a long-time fan of Armstrong, though past attempts to collaborate on projects didn’t come to fruition. Finally pieces began to fall into place for the dramedy that is Succession, with McKay, Armstrong, Frank Rich and Will Ferrell among the show’s executive producers.

The fictional Roy family conjures up thoughts of other power-wielding mass media families from the Murdochs to the Maxwells and the Redstones. McKay said that Armstrong’s original script for Succession was “fabulous,” prompting his desire to direct the pilot. 

“You try to only direct things you feel you should direct,” related McKay. “And there are times you feel someone else could direct. I was drawn to this. It just felt like it was from the world we live in right now. As a director, I felt I could actually help the first episode, setting the tone and feel. From my background in theatre and improv, I thought I could add to the idea of family which is at the core of the story. I could add something to this show which touches upon all kinds of ideas--dynastic wealth, income equality, media empires, power, the hallmarks of the times we live in.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting the right tone, observed McKay. “I knew Jesse’s script was so good and the times we live in are so strange. It had to be funny but dramatic and dark. Sometimes it’s very funny. For a few times, I’ve seen that tone well blended, like in Neil LaBute’s early stuff--In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. Neil was kind of a key, a director who’s done that, gone very dark. Foxcatcher was also a big influence as far as the visual look of the show; it was  remotely funny and very dark, a masterpiece.

“I knew these characters (in Succession) would be very unlikeable when you meet them,” continued McKay. “By the end you find their vulnerabilities--not to say you like them at the end. That’s why the tone was a tricky thing. It was what was most challenging and at the same time what excited me most about the show.”

To help realize this unique tone and blend, McKay helped bring together a mix of artisans, including composer Nicholas Britell, a two-time Oscar nominee for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, who also scored both The Big Short and Vice for McKay. 

“He’s one of the most collaborative talents I’ve ever met,” said McKay of Britell. “He can do anything. He’s classically trained but has done hip-hop. He has the ability to create the sounds necessary for the project in front of him. He doesn’t impose himself on it but there’s always a flavor of Nicholas in what he does. I told Jesse he would love Nicholas. They met and in a couple hours banged out the theme which helped bring a Shakespearian tone to the show, depicting a power family, with a rock music feel hinting at inherited wealth. It had a swing and a groove to it. He got the show immediately.”

Britell also just got his first Emmy nomination for Succession, scoring in the Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music category.

Succession earned a total of five Emmy nominations this awards season.

M. David Mullen
Last year cinematographer M. David Mullen, ASC garnered his first career Emmy nomination for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This week he landed his second consecutive nom for the hit Amazon Prime show. Mrs. Maisel adds to TV credits for Mullen which span such shows as Westworld, Get Shorty, Smash, Mad Men, Big Love, and the pilot for The Good Wife.

Mullen made his first mark in the indie feature arena, in which he continues to be active. He was nominated for two Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Awards—for Twin Falls Idaho in 2000 and Northfork in 2004, both directed by Michael Polish.

Mullen initially connected with Mrs. Maisel creator/director/writer Amy Sherman-Palladino through a mutual collaborator--director Jamie Babbitt who teamed with Gilmore Girls creator Sherman-Palladino on numerous episodes of that series. 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 1950s’ New York Jewish wife and mother who pursues stand-up comedy--back then, hardly a woman’s province--following the breakup of her marriage. Mullen explained that he was particularly attracted to the challenges of lensing a period show, capturing 1950s’ New York. This most recent season added the dimension of two episodes shot partly in Paris, and three in the Catskills region of upper New York State. Mullen wound up lensing seven of the 10 episodes this past season. The other three were shot by Eric Moynier whom Mullen also shared duties with on season one.

Mullen noted that he and Moynier visit each other on set and talk to each other extensively in prep. “We cover all the bases, including what we want in new sets that are going to appear in both our episodes--how we’d like them rigged, practicals and other lights,” related Mullen.

In terms of recreating 1950s New York, Mullen credited the talent of several artisans, including fellow first season Emmy nominees on the show, production designer Bill Groom and costume designer Donna Zakowska. “We sort of referenced 1950s advertisements and movies—the costume and production design were spot on. Our approach was what I’d describe as ‘aggressively pastel,” offset against neutral backgrounds, which tends to get those colors subtly noticed. This also helped to make the look a little more romantic, taking the sharpness off the digital camera.”

Mullen’s choice of camera was the ARRI Alexa for “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. “From my end the job is to keep the energy level and camera movement that drives the show forward. In some respects, the approach is one shot like a theatrical play except we are moving the camera quite a bit as actors have to perform the whole scene from top to bottom.”

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel earned 20 Emmy nominations this season, finishing second behind the record-setting 32 for Game of Thrones.

Michael Bricker
Production designer Michael Bricker, with a background mostly in indie film, embraced his first TV series, Russian Doll, which in turn has earned him his first Emmy nomination.

Russian Doll introduces us to Nadia (portrayed by series co-creator and EP Natasha Lyonne), a cynical young woman in New York City who keeps dying and returning to the party that’s being thrown in her honor on that same evening. She grapples with finding an escape from this strange time loop.

Bricker shared that among the lessons that impacted him on Russian Doll was that it served as a window to “how I’m evolving as a designer. I’m much more interested now in the lighting, which I know is the realm of the DP. So much of how a set looks has to do with lighting. We’re designing in a world about tone and character. The way a show is lit in my mind has to be almost the first conversation.”

Towards that end, Bricker made an invaluable collaborative connection with cinematographer Chris Teague on Russian Doll. “Lighting gives you control as a designer,” said Bricker. “The colors of walls change with lights. We had to look at color temperature. What do I want? Is that what the DP had in mind? We would pick colors based on what the lighting would be.”

Bricker’s approach to Russian Doll was to celebrate the magic as well as the darkness of the story. He embraced the dying in every episode, being a bit playful about it. He created a world that was New York in nature and at the same time which had a magic edge to it, constructing varied environments.

Teague too earned an Emmy nom for his work on Russian Doll, specifically the “Ariadne” episode. He cited his rapport with Bricker. “We became friends working on the show,” related Teague. “He brings a lot to the table, which is inspiring for me. His ideas led to other ideas. We worked together to accomplish things. I had a trust in him. I knew he cared so much about the show.”

Teague added that he and Bricker teamed on “things camera and design-wise that weren’t the typical ‘right things to do,’” opting for dark and reflective surfaces in environments that most would try to avoid--but they were the right choices in terms of supporting the story. For Teague, a prime lesson learned was that “if you’re doing something that isn’t ‘the right thing’ to do, maybe you’re on the right track,” reaching for “something different,” paralleling the uniqueness of the Russian Doll narrative.

Russian Doll earned a total of 13 Emmy nominations this season.

This is the 11th installment in a 16-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.

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