By Robert Abele
CIA assassination attempt on the streets in Israel for the season two premiere.
National security is such a hot button issue in today’s post-9/11 world that the dramatic stakes on Showtime’s hit series Homeland feel tense minute-to-minute, whether we’re inside CIA headquarters, on foreign soil, or in a suburban home. What began as the parallel stories of Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), rescued from years of captivity in Iraq and gingerly reintroduced to his family and society, and CIA operations officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), an intelligence expert with a mood disorder who suspects Brody’s been turned into a terrorist, has become after one season a lauded example of how an issue with political overtones can be turned into compelling character drama.
The blueprint for Homeland’s specialized brand of subjective, documentary-style, suspenseful storytelling came from director-producer Michael Cuesta, who helmed the DGA- and Emmy-nominated pilot, and a handful of key episodes since, including the first two installments of season two.
On a rainy summer afternoon on the indoor Homeland set that occupies a spacious Charlotte, North Carolina warehouse, Cuesta could be found talking out loud about how he wants to shoot a key scene for the second season opener: an emotional dust-up between war hero-turned-congressman Brody and his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin). Cuesta just finished using an assortment of relatively calm, over-the-shoulder shots to film a living room conversation that suddenly turned revelatory. Now he’s prepping to film an angry, confused Jessica running into the garage of their house. Cuesta is looking to convey the urgency of an escalating situation, and the series’ trademark vibe that we’re voyeuristically tagging along.
“Let’s ramp it up a bit,” says Cuesta. “Let’s go handheld.”
Homeland has, at Cuesta’s insistence, gradually increased its emphasis on handheld work since the show’s early episodes. The idea isn’t to self-consciously shake an image, he says, but to latch on to what a character is going through, to ride a scene on the wave of their emotions. “The handheld work we do should be more documentary-style and less action handheld,” he explains. “It’s totally immediate, you’re right there with the character. Handheld is there to tell the story, not to turn it into an amusement park ride.”
First, Cuesta does a quick, private rehearsal with the actors, then blocks out for cinematographer Nelson Cragg what viewers will see of the cramped, detached garage set once the cameraman trails Baccarin inside from the covered carport. The only light will be practicals: the bulb hanging over the car and two meager overhead fluorescents, augmented by a handheld LED eyelight once she turns to confront Lewis.
After the first take, Cuesta—who cuts a low-key yet attentive figure on set—takes Baccarin aside to discuss how she’s going to calibrate her character’s rising emotions in the face of her husband’s inexplicable calmness. As Cuesta sits back down in front of the monitor, he takes note of a small piece of photographic realism at the beginning of the shot once the A cameraman gets into position again. “I love the bulb reflected in the car windshield,” he says.
Stationed on a rooftop, Cuesta sets the visual vocabulary for Homeland.
Cuesta is shooting the first two episodes of the second season back-to-back, and as demanding as that can be—keeping track of which scene goes with which episode—it’s been mostly stimulating for him. The idea was to launch the new season with a sense of scope and to that end the Homeland production took advantage of an extraordinary opportunity to film significant portions of the episodes in Israel, thanks to a relationship with Gideon Raff, the creator of the Israeli series Prisoners of War (Hatufim in Hebrew), that inspired Homeland. “The first two episodes are going to feel really big,” says Cuesta. “I’m glad we did it. I think we came out of the gate like a big movie.”
This is the second time the show has filmed in Israel, the first being for the pilot. An Arab neighborhood that bisected the 1967 border was used to recreate Baghdad for a flashback scene in which we’re introduced to Carrie, as she bribes her way into a prison to touch base with an informant about to be executed. The filming didn’t go smoothly.
“We were basically in an unfriendly area,” recalls Cuesta of that first experience in Israel. “By the end of the day they wanted us out, and it was dangerous. Fights were breaking out. Claire remembers it as ‘an adventure’; she was a really good sport. We made the local news in Tel Aviv. So going back this time, we said, ‘OK, we’ll never do that again.’”
This time around, with the help of the Prisoners of War crew, the job was to recreate Beirut, where Carrie—drummed out of the CIA at the end of last season—finds herself on an intelligence mission. Some locations were found in the northern city of Haifa, but primarily in Tel Aviv, including the ancient port of Jaffa. “Jaffa was amazing,” says Cuesta. “There are a lot of mosques around, so you have that in the skyline.”
Cuesta, who favors a handheld documentary style, walks through a scene with Claire Danes on location in Israel.
The schedule for the eight-day shoot was ambitious, since it involved more action than is usual for a Homeland episode. Initially, it was difficult for the four-man team Cuesta brought overseas—including Cragg, 1st AD Ken Collins, and line producer Michael Klick—to reconcile their quicker, run-and-gun pace with the slower working style of the Israeli crew, who filled in the rest of the positions on the shoot. Prisoners of War is filmed on a much smaller budget, and with infinitely more prep time than the two weeks allotted to Homeland before filming in Tel Aviv. “The Israeli producers were a little incredulous when they saw what we were planning on doing,” recalls Collins. “But their learning curve was pretty quick; they got on board and into the Homeland spirit.”
However, some locations weren’t as controlled as Cuesta would have liked. An outdoor clothing market in Tel Aviv that was being used for a foot chase sequence with Danes turned out to be more unruly than expected. “It was really difficult to shoot in,” says Cuesta. “You’re trying to move through alleyways, extras are getting in your way, and [Claire is] having to move around them. I just had to embrace the chaos and make it part of the filmmaking, but I have to say, it was a little hard on Claire. I’m trying not to do that so much. She’s our lead actress and I need her healthy and strong.” Overall, though, the Israel shoot was invigorating for Cuesta. “Everywhere you point the camera is great,” he says. “It’s just full of texture.”
It’s hard to take the independent filmmaker out of Cuesta—who made a name for himself as a director with the 2001 low-budget feature L.I.E.—but it’s that aesthetic that helps makes Homeland a uniquely suspenseful and tightly-wound drama. Collins says of Cuesta, “He tries to keep a more cinematic kind of approach; to keep a vision that is not conventional television. I’ve got quite a bit of experience in one-hour dramatic, and there’s been more than one time where I’ve been surprised by the approach he took. He doesn’t say, ‘Well, I’ll shoot it from a lot of different angles, and then we’ll figure it out in the editing room.’ He has a definite viewpoint on storytelling.”
Cuesta is not a director who likes to heavily cover his shots. “What did Martin Scorsese once say, that he hates shooting multiple cameras, because it’s ‘selecting, not directing?’” laughs Cuesta. “And it’s true, right? I like to have a vision of a full piece and try to realize that, rather than just over-covering the shit out of it.”
Considering Cuesta’s decade of experience helming dark television dramas, including HBO stalwarts Six Feet Under and True Blood, not to mention putting his footprint on the first season of Showtime’s serial killer series Dexter, it may seem patently clear why Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa approached him to direct their pilot script. Cuesta was initially concerned, however, that the writer-producers’ pedigree as ‘24’ alumni implied an emphasis on action over the kind of intimate drama he’d proved adept at bringing to life.
Cuesta works with Damian Lewis as an ex-soildier and would-be assassin on the North Carolina set. The crew sets up a murder site using the architecture of the city.
“I was very glad to find out they weren’t trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, that they wanted me for what I have a sensitivity to, which is more psychological,” says Cuesta. “All of Homeland is very rooted in the real world, and it’s quite topical. So that was the thing I brought to it: to keep it a psychological thriller, so that the story turns on the dime of the characters, not just plot.”
After the pilot, Cuesta went on to direct three more episodes in the first season, including the nail-biting finale, and is on track to direct the same number and sequence of episodes for season two: the first two, a pivotal middle episode, and the second-year finale. What Cuesta enjoys about Homeland is how much freedom he has to direct, while the showrunners worry about the writing. “Alex doesn’t purport to know anything about directing, which is good,” quips Cuesta. “It’s the best job I can have, the most movie-like thing I’ve worked on in television.”
According to Gansa, Cuesta set the visual vocabulary for Homeland. “If you look at Michael’s work, he has this uncanny ability to make what you’re watching feel like real life, and that’s a gift,” Gansa notes. “We’re not overtly stylish, there’s a sense of voyeurism as you’re watching it, and that’s very much by Michael’s design.”
When the time came to build the set, a sense of authenticity, not filmmaking expediency, was paramount to achieving that feeling. In constructing the Brody home set, for instance, Cuesta wanted a replica of the location house, one that couldn’t open too much to make it easier for camera placement. “I was very adamant that it be a real house on a stage, and to not make the walls too moveable,” says Cuesta. “It’s very tight. That dictates how you shoot it, so it’s kind of confining. The action feels captured, rather than staged.”
Cuesta also isn’t too keen on dolly shots, which have gradually abated in Homeland since the early episodes of the first season, to the point that there is unwritten manifesto that says the visuals be entirely handheld. “Dolly is not the style of the show,” he explains. “I find with dolly moves, the camera starts to call attention to itself, and it’s too movie-like, too slick. I find things feel much more raw and real, even elegant, when they’re just captured either handheld, or on a tripod just panning and tilting in a very simple way, as if there was a documentarian in the room.”
Since Homeland is the type of drama that hinges on the emotional weather of its actors’ faces, Cuesta recognizes that there can be separate challenges in directing each key performer. “Damian has an incredible poker face, you never know what he’s thinking, so you can play with that psychology,” he says. “Whereas Morena, because she’s playing a mom who’s struggling, it can easily fall into melodrama and schmaltz, so you have to walk that fine line. You want it to be real. You can direct actors until you’re blue in the face, but when you see them do it, you know when it’s right.”
With Danes, whose character has a bipolar personality yet possesses analytical smarts, Cuesta developed a coded shorthand about how to play her combination of professionalism and vulnerability. “We talked about horses bucking, in terms of her insanity,” says Cuesta. “I’d say, something like, ‘They’re bucking, but they’re not breaking out.’ And then she plays colors of that. She’s so skilled that she has to do very little to show that she’s struggling. If you have to direct an actor of her level any more than that, then it’s not working.”
As Homeland’s first season progressed, Cuesta aimed for even more subjective storytelling, keeping the camera tight on the leads as their parallel storylines generated more and more suspense. It culminated in the skin-crawling tension Cuesta wrung from the 90-minute season finale, “Marine One,” which detailed Brody’s assassination scheme to kill the vice president—from his anxious preparation at home to his jittery moment of truth in a secure government bunker—as Carrie frantically attempts to squelch it. “The bunker scene in the finale was all about putting the audience on [Brody’s] shoulders literally,” says Cuesta. “At times the camera just followed him around, and everyone else was out of focus. I loved doing that. It was important that we isolated him from the rest of the people, that you felt every little thing going on in his head, in his face, in the little crease of his eyes; that you were right there, an inch away from him.”
One of the benefits of premium cable, he notes, is the chance to let that kind of tension play out longer than usual. “That’s the best kind of suspense. There aren’t good suspense movies now because they’re too fast. They just seem to cut them a lot quicker. Suspense is built in rhythm and timing. Look at Chinatown. That film really takes its time.”
Cuesta is proud that he’s been able to put his stamp, not only on the style of the show, but also on hiring other directors. He fought to bring in New York-based Lodge Kerrigan, director of unnerving, intimate indie features such as Clean, Shaven (1993) and the acclaimed character study Keane (2004), which starred Damian Lewis as a worried, disturbed father (the part helped Lewis land his role in Homeland). “I got a lot of pushback about bringing Lodge in, but I really wanted him, so we got him,” says Cuesta. “One of the things I love about his style is that he sometimes under-covers. I’m a big fan of his.”
Cuesta, working with Mandy Patinkin, tries to create the best environment for his actors.
Ironically, though, when Kerrigan began prepping for the episode—his first television job—he enthusiastically prepared a detailed shot list, which Cuesta quickly disabused him of relying on. “I said, ‘Look, I hired you to do Lodge, to bring what you do to our show. You don’t have to adhere so close to that.’ I told him it was OK to be subjective. If you’re Brody-subjective or Carrie-subjective, you see the world from their eyes and you don’t need to cover so much. Alex and I sometimes have disagreements about that, but that’s the difference between director and writer on the show.”
Although Cuesta’s background in photography and independent filmmaking have stood him in good stead with the fast-paced, trust-that-you’ve-got-it demands of TV work, he points to his many years directing commercials as being equally good training. “It’s knowing how to communicate with the people paying the bills,” says Cuesta. “In advertising you’re always working for the agency and the client; you’ve been hired to execute something they created. That’s what I’m doing. I have to talk to Alex and Howard. I have to talk to the network. I have to talk to the studio. So advertising really helped with that communication.”
Another early lesson came from his first experience directing for television, after Alan Ball saw L.I.E. at the Sundance Film Festival and brought him to do an episode of Six Feet Under. Cuesta was advised by the show’s director-producer Alan Poul to make sure the AD is your best friend on set, because television works at a hairier clip than commercials and indie film. “I remember Alan telling me, ‘Your AD is not your adversary. They’re going to help you make your days,’” recalls Cuesta. “That was the biggest thing.”
Cuesta relies heavily on Homeland’s two 1st ADs—Collins and Louis J. Guerra—to keep up a pace that often leads to finishing ahead of schedule, yet calmly. “They’re both mellow guys,” he says. “I can’t work with screamers. I need Yoda Zen Master ADs. To me, I have to create the best environment for these actors, because they’re the ones who have to ultimately bring it.”
That’s one reason Cuesta cherishes any private rehearsal time with the actors in the hour or so before cameras roll, when he tries to bring a focused serenity to the push-push-push world of an episodic-television set. “With a movie, I would spend two or three weeks before I even film with the actors, but television moves at such a ridiculously fast pace that private rehearsal is worth gold,” says Cuesta.
Invariably, Cuesta is happiest directing a Homeland episode that has the vibe of an indie film production. He points to the shooting of the first season’s seventh episode, “The Weekend,” as one such experience. In it, Brody, seeking escape from his family, and Carrie, seeing an opportunity to get closer to her target, take an impromptu trip to a cabin that turns romantic. “They’re hanging out by the lakeside, they’re a little drunk, sort of loopy,” Cuesta says of the scene, which was filmed just north of Charlotte in Mooresville, North Carolina. “I rehearsed the scene, and I just told the DP, ‘Grab the camera, let’s move around with them and just shoot it.’ I shot it in 20 minutes. If you look at the scene, it jump cuts a lot. It’s really only one take, moving around with them. It was so loose-styled, my direction was: ‘You’re too drunk’ or ‘You’re not drunk enough,’ mostly balancing their performances. The sun went down quickly, and the actors were so happy. The film looked beautiful. All handheld, very loose. I wish it could be like that all the time.”
By Ken Collins
Sheket, b’vakasha!” Unfamiliar words with a very familiar meaning. My Israeli assistants would plead for “Quiet, please!” hundreds of times a day on the set— usually without success. From late April to the end of May 2012, I was part of a small group of American crew members in Israel to film scenes for the opening of the second season of Homeland. Our mission: turn Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Haifa into Beirut, and stage Homeland’s normal menu of riots, attempted assassinations, vehicle pursuits, video surveillance and assorted spycraft. Difficult production work in the U.S. under the best of circumstances, a seemingly impossible task in Israel.
Director-producer Michael Cuesta, producer Michael Klick, director of photography Nelson Cragg and myself, the 1st AD, arrive in Tel Aviv following a 15-hour flight and jump right into a pre-production meeting. Homeland is inspired by the Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War) and in fact we would be working with most of series creator Gideon Raff’s great crew, who had recently wrapped their second season of production.
We have two weeks to prep 39 script pages that we would shoot in eight days. The different approaches of the two teams are sometimes obvious, other times less so. Due to budgetary concerns, Gideon wrote the episodes before pre-production and direted them all, so in effect they were shooting a continuous movie. Our Israeli team is incredulous to learn that we shoot our episodes one (or two) at a time, with different directors and scripts that are subject to change during the prep periods.
Our workweek shifts to Sunday through Thursday as Friday is normally a half-day and Saturday is Shabbat. We begin the familiar routine of driving around in a van for hours looking for locations, concentrating on the ancient city of Jaffa.
Meanwhile, I meet the Israeli 1st AD, Melina Karpovich, and 2nd AD Carolina Fainstein. Melina tells me early on that this is the biggest project that she has ever worked on and I think she is speaking for most of the crew. Our technical scout starts at an old house that we are turning into a mosque, after being denied permission to film in any real mosques. We arrive with approximately 30 crew members and began to talk through the work. Suddenly, we hear loud and angrily escalating voices. My first impression was always that these altercations didn’t have anything to do with us. Wrong! It always had everything to do with us. In this case, a local gangster has decided to take the opportunity to shake us down for money to shoot at the location. The tone of the discussion indicates that firearms are on the verge of being produced. As we are leaving, I notice that Israeli police have appeared and are standing near our vehicles. One of our producers says everything is fine, but we are not going to pay, as it would set a precedent.
We begin filming on Sunday, May 13, in the “mosque,” wrapping and moving to a nearby safehouse location at lunchtime. We spend the next day and a half there. These are our two easiest days and I had purposefully schedules them first to provide time for our crews to get to know each other and our respective methods. One important difference between the two crews is that the Israeli crew has no stand-ins. In fact, the concept of “marking a rehearsal” is unknown as stand-ins are considered to be an unnecessary line item in the budget.
Our third shooting day includes four different locations within an approximate six block radius in Jaffa. I knew this would be the first test of our crew’s ability to shoot efficiently and move from set to set. The first scene of the day involves three principal vehicles: Mandy Patinkin, as Saul, is dropped off at the mouth of an alley by a U.S. embassy car, walks into the alley and steps behind an open door. The pursuing terrorist car slowly passes by and then a third car turns down the alley, picks Saul up and drives off. No problems, except the cars are balky, the Israeli police woman assigned to us doesn’t understand that we want her to control traffic for safety and our walkie-talkies are practically useless around the ancient stone buildings. We complete the sequence about 30 minutes behind my timeline and move to the second location.
For this scene, the pickup car drops off Mandy at the top of a walking mall that we have populated with vendors, carts and 50 Beirut extras. Cuesta has designed long handheld shots leading Saul through the crowd to a spice vendor who gives him a nod and points him to an adjacent alley. Chaos reigns. The effects team has filled the air with the acrid smell of incense on charcoal. Wandering tourists attempt to buy the set dressing. I have sent a couple of my 2nd ADs ahead of me to the next location to rough in the background. Upon arrival, I walk through the first shot, moving backwards and seeing what has been set up. After about five passes and a lot of individual instructions, my 2nd ADs and the extras are beginning to understand what they need to be ready for primetime.
Day four would turn out to be probably the hardest shooting day of my career. The scene calls for Carrie (Claire Danes) to walk up a Jaffa street and meet Saul who is waiting for her at a café. They are conversing on cell phones when it becomes apparent that she has been spotted by one of Saul’s tails. He tells her to keep walking and meet him later at a safehouse. One of the heavies gets out of the car and pursues her. A quick cat and mouse pursuit ensues and he corners her in a market, hiding in plain sight in the midst of a number of Muslim women. She expertly immobilizes him and escapes from the souk.
Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
We have 150 extras to populate the street and café. The “extra” cars and trucks that we take for granted in the U.S. are a very big deal in Tel Aviv. They are expensive and they don’t run very well, so just putting a few of them in position to move through the shots is tough. We are almost three hours into our day before all of the elements have been assembled and rehearsed and shooting can begin. There are two cameras, usually shooting at off angles from one another. We stage long handheld shots leading and following our cast through the streets. The ambient noise contributes to a level of confusion that I have never experienced. The sound of Hebrew shouted through the bullhorns and coming through the walkie-talkies adds to the mayhem. As the morning draws to a close, we are hurrying to complete the street work and get into the market. The souk merchants don’t want us to interfere with their normal tourist commerce and have specified that we can shoot there from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
By 5 p.m., when it is becoming apparent that we will need at least until 7 p.m. to finish in the souk, some of the disgruntled merchants begin to close up their stalls, preparing to leave. Throwing shekels at the problem buys us just enough time to finish our sequence, while the B camera is able to pick up the truck shots on a nearby street.
The action of the final shooting day of the week takes place at the exterior of an apartment building that is meant to be the home of a Hezbollah commander and his informant wife. We are shooting in sequence, so we spend most of the morning with the SUV outside of the apartment building. After a few drive-aways, I notice a group of about 10 businessmen walking toward us in the next block. This can’t have anything to do with us, right? The next take is delayed for 15 minutes as the location reps and producers have a contentious meeting with neighbors who are upset about our permitted street closure. The rest of the day is a footrace with the sun. All in all, a good day and the blessed weekend has arrived.
Three very tough days are left.
At 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, we are in Haifa, 90 miles to the north, getting ready to shoot a CIA assassination attempt. The first position is one of two sniper’s eye views. We were unable to check out the rooftop on the tech scout, and even now are being told that we must use our second choice. An inhabitant at our first choice has shown a knife to our location rep, indicating that he is not interested. As we are considering the less than ideal backup choice, word comes that the knifeman has relented, having misunderstood our intentions.
Our new location is perfect; we assign Klick with one of the three Alexa cameras and move on to sniper position two. This rooftop is above a law firm and even has an elevator to the top floor! Cragg will man this post with the B camera. Finally, Cuesta and I are on another roof above the action. The A camera is on a Panther jib arm, extended directly over the top of the scene, approximating a satellite or drone’s eye view. As planned, the principals, extras and vehicles are rehearsed and ready. My key 2nd AD, Tzahi Portnoy, dons a Palestinian keffiyeh and a machine gun and puts himself squarely into the middle of the action. What better way to control the background action than to be a part of it? The day goes so well that at 4:30 p.m. we have shot everything but the bloody squib shots of two of our actors. We end up needing all three takes on both squibs but still wrap at 5:30 p.m.
On Monday morning, the embassy day that has been looming large on the schedule finally arrives. We are at Tel Aviv’s old city hall in Bialik Square. The plan is to have the extras playing 150 Muslim protesters, U.S. Marines in combat gear, Beirut policemen in riot gear and assorted guerrilla journalists ready for action by 8 a.m. Security has positioned for intermittent traffic control on the busy street and when action is called, a real riot appears to take place.
The filming is so realistic that a young Israeli war veteran who has passed through the security cordon suddenly wades into the action and begins violently kicking one of the extras. Avner, our muscular operator, quickly hands off his camera and wraps the vet up in a bear hug, shouting, “It’s a movie, it’s a movie!” Suddenly the vet dissolves into tears. “Oh my god,” he says, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know!” The moment will stay with me forever and somehow cuts right to the heart of what people are going through over here.
The next day we are shooting in an inactive terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport with about 100 extras, which really need to look like 300. In the scene, Carrie arrives in Beirut, walks out of a jetway corridor and has a brief encounter with a customs officer. Then she goes outside and catches a taxi. As instructed, my ADs have spent time giving our extras the context of their scenes. Throughout the day, I continue to speak to them, individually and in groups, praising their participation and giving them backstories to motivate their actions. I can’t always be sure how much English they understand but they seem to really appreciate the inclusion and work tirelessly for us.
The final scene of the shoot involves Saul being confronted by an authority as he passes through departure security. Cuesta stages an elaborate Steadicam shot and surprises everyone when he tells us that no further coverage will be needed after three takes. Amidst the hugs and the handshakes, Mandy leads the crew and the extras in an emotional rendition of “La Kova Sheli” (“My Hat”) in Hebrew. An incongruous children’s song that everyone seems to know; it is a perfect moment of togetherness and farewell. I look around and see smiles, laughter and tears streaming down faces as we wrap it up. A filmmaker’s memory of Israel that I will treasure forever.