Spring 2013

A Director's Education

Alan Taylor went to film school, but he picked up his practical knowledge on acclaimed TV series like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Now he’s learning about green screen on Thor: The Dark World.

By Andrew Pulver

LINING IT UP: Taylor says, "Thor is a collaborative process in a way I’ve never experienced. You have people doing storyboards and previsualizing, spread over three continents, with ideas popping up like popcorn."

Few filmmakers are as well qualified to analyze the contrast between directing TV and directing feature films as Alan Taylor. Many directors, of course, jump between the two formats but Taylor, with two decades of high-end TV behind him; including such landmark series as The Sopranos, Homicide: Life on the Street, Mad Men, Deadwood and Game of Thrones; is now embarking on his fourth feature, and one with fantastically high stakes: Thor: The Dark World, the latest from the Marvel Studios production line, and sequel to the box office blockbuster Thor (2011).

“In TV,” says Taylor, “when you come in to direct an episode, you are effectively learning an established languageÑyou then have to try to learn to speak it really well. But on a movie, you are the guy. You are creating the language; you make most of the decisions. Thor is a franchise movie. It’s a sequel being made by a huge corporation owned by another corporation, but still, there’s far more input as a director than there is on TV.”

Having worked with showrunners of the caliber as Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), David Chase (The Sopranos), Darren Star (Sex and the City) and David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Taylor knows whereof he speaks. (He’s worked on so many HBO shows that he’s become virtually a house director there.) “They are all really strong personalities; but it can be a struggle because a collaboration is like a marriage. They’re both hard.”

Taylor’s career, enviable as it is, is not exactly how he envisioned it. A graduate of NYU film school in the early ’90s, his ambition, by his own admission, was very much to follow in the footsteps of the maverick indie film idols of the time. “My heroes were people like Jim Jarmusch. Scorsese was my god. Spike Lee was exciting, doing exactly what we thought we were going to do: personal movies based in, and about, New York.” He laughs at the unrealistic nature of it all. “My heroes were all participating in an economic model that was collapsing as I was finishing film school.

SUPERHERO: Alan Taylor (above) directing Thor: The Dark World. He found working on the effects-heavy film “a whole different model for creativity.”

“At the time, though, I thought film school was the only way in. I realized later that was a very naive point of view, but for my generation it felt true. The next generation; people like Tarantino; didn’t need it at all.”

But NYU did teach him the fundamentals. “You serve every function: the sound guy, the grip, the gaffer. The fact that you know your way around those departments is really useful,” he says. His calling card short, entitled That Burning Question, earned him plenty of studio attention. “When I came out of NYU, there was a rush of offers. I basically said no to everything because I was overwhelmed.

“What did happen was Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana saw my short and offered me a directing slot on their new TV show, Homicide: Life on the Street. I’d done nothing but make my little movies with my friends up to that point, and this was my first professional experience. It scared the shit out of me, to be honest.

“I can see now why they hired a guy like me: they were trying to break all the rules of television. The show got more conventional as time went on, but that first season was radical. It was like shooting a documentary before reality TV had really got off the ground.” Taylor offers an example of the show’s unorthodox approach: the only preparation Homicide directors were asked to do was watch Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, “so we could learn to under-cover people, and shoot the back of their head. All the things you never do in TV.”

Taylor says from the director’s point of view it translated into groundbreaking TV. “We shot almost entirely handheld, and we basically lit 360 degrees; like Godard; and put light on the ceiling so the actors could just step into it. It meant the performances were spontaneous. There was a premium on non-continuity; we would not do coverage as such. If the actor did something different when you did a second take, it didn’t matter because jump cuts were part of the visual language. It was incredibly fast. One day, we were shooting a wedding scene with a live band, with [co-star] Melissa Leo playing detective Kay Howard and her twin sister. We got 13 pages of dialogue done. On Thor, if we get through two pages in a day we’re punching the air.”

It was also while he was working on Homicide that Taylor had a sharp wake-up call to the tricky politics of professional filmmaking. “On top of everything else, I was murdered by the DP. I found out later he wanted to direct but had been told no. Instead they hired a punk kid from film school; me; and it was brutal. I think I got by because I just didn’t realize how out of my league I was.”

Taylor did make his move into independent film soon after, with the gangster comedy Palookaville (1995), which offered another object lesson in negotiating the obstacle course of being a director. “Compared to TV, Palookaville was restriction-free,” says Taylor, “except we had no money and no time. The dynamic of production depends on the personalities involved, and on this film we had a very strong producer, Uberto Pasolini, who had developed the script before I came along. He was very opinionated, very forceful, so making the movie was very much a battle of wills.”

EPIC EVENTS: Taylor, going over pages for a scene, enjoyed the location shooting for Game of Thrones in the natural landscapes of Iceland and Northern Ireland.

But the film died at the box office and the company went bankrupt. Taylor found himself in an even worse position than before. “When you direct a movie that makes no money whatsoever, there is no rush to your door for the next one.”

Fortunately for Taylor, in one of those serendipitous moments that can turn an entire career, Sopranos creator David Chase had seen and liked Palookaville, and offered him a directing gig on his new show. “Chase liked Palookaville largely because it was set in New Jersey. It meant a lot to him that it was affectionate about the place. It was hugely important to him that The Sopranos not be culturally generic and sink into New Jersey. He gave me an episode and it started a long association.”

As a director, Taylor says he learned an immense amount on The Sopranos. “I worked with DP Phil Abraham, who I later brought over to Mad Men where we picked up the wide angles, the low camera position, moody lighting and careful compositions.”

Taylor also credits Chase for influencing his style, mostly by being “virulently allergic to gratuitous directorial flourishes.” He says now: “I remember seeing beautiful crane shots being dumped on the editing room floor. And I got in trouble once for doing an unmotivated dolly shot that ended in a choreographed hand-off of one character’s action to another. This ‘over-aestheticizing’ drove David nuts. It made me more rigorous in how I use the cameraÑafter I got over the pain.”

But even as he acquired experience on The Sopranos, Taylor was still figuring out how to survive on episodic TV. “You absolutely had to serve the vision David had created for the show,” he says. “You could contribute to it, and he let you know when you’d lifted something higher than he thought it would go. But if you ran afoul of what he thought was appropriate, you heard about that. He was mostly concerned with the integrity and truthfulness of the show, which was partly about making sure it was all authentic New Jersey. He was a bit more easygoing about the actual directing of it.”

Taylor was also learning that every show is a little different. “Deadwood’s showrunner David Milch was an incredible visionary. It was like being plunged into a high level graduate seminar with a double major in cinema studies and comparative literature. He would go off on what seemed like tangents, drawing on his personal experience, his own history with drugs, classical literature, the Bible, current events, and it would eventually swoop down onto the specifics of the scene at hand.” Like Chase, Taylor also credits Milch with influencing his directorial style. “He changed the way I talk to actors. It’s hard to describe, but it involves a basic sense that we are all in this together. I try to bring that sense of assumed common ground into my collaborations with actors.”

ALL IN THE FAMILY: y: Taylor (center) learned to avoid gratuitous directorial flourishes and be more rigourous using the camera while directing The Sopranos.

The next step in his education was mastering how to drop in and out of shows that had diametrically opposed sensibilities. In rapid succession, Taylor shot episodes of Sex and the City, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Oz, Lost, as well as The Sopranos. “It was a crash course in film language,” he says. “You have to learn fast how to use cameras to be expressive of theme, character and worldview. You would do things on Sex and the City you would never do on Sopranos, and vice versa. There were camera moves and frames that suited each show and served the energy and the material. Things we did on Sex and the City; wipe-cuts, match-cuts across scenes, self-conscious choreography with the camera; all would have been disastrously wrong on Sopranos.”

But the challenge of meeting and leading new creative teams was a constant. “You have to be empathetic,” explained Taylor. “You are entering an established world, with personalities that have staked out the terrain. You walk in, you’re the new guy, but you’re also the leader. In a way you’re the least important because you just got there, but also the most important because you’re telling everyone what to do. It’s a very weird dynamic. I still go in thinking they’re going to hate me and I have to win them over every second.”

Perhaps the high point in Taylor’s TV career, was directing the pilot for Mad Men in 2007. “Of course, we had no idea how important the show would be. All we had was the script, which Matt [Weiner] had written seven years earlier. Partly because I thought it was so idiosyncratic, I never expected it to go on and have an audience on TV, so I treated the pilot as a standalone movie, where the look was hugely important.”

You get a sense of the detail Taylor brings to his work when he starts enthusing about, of all things, 1960s ceiling design for Mad Men. “One thing I was keen to feature was the modernist ceilings of the time. Back then, movie directors and photographers were thrilled by this new imagery themselves, and so we found a way, with the low cameras, to feature things like the grid of ceiling lights and stuff like that.”

Game of Thrones was another story. He says that appealed to him partly because, way before NYU, he was studying for a Ph.D. in history at Columbia. “I love Game, and Deadwood too, because you can see it as a historical piece.” As well as directing six episodes of Game of Thrones, more than anyone else, Taylor became co-executive producer for the second season, before moving on to Thor. Having to wear a money hat as a producer as well as a creative one influenced his outlook. “I got used to trying to save money, which means shooting away from the green screen as much as possible. On Thor, I had to learn to shoot towards it because you get cooler stuff [with effects]. I had a great time in Iceland on Game of Thrones and, unlike Thor, I got to compose shots with the landscape that’s all there. You are actually standing on the glacier.”

Taylor is frank enough to admit that he still hasn’t escaped the process of evaluation and audition, despite his success in TV. “You’re still only as good as your last piece of work,” he says. “When Game of Thrones came around, I had just done a pilot for HBO that didn’t work out very well... [So] I was very aware that although I’d been in the field for a while, I still have to prove myself all the time.”

Taylor hadn’t directed a feature since Kill the Poor in 2003, and though the fantasy of Thrones had a not dissimilar sensibility to the Marvel behemoth Thor, he was surprised to get the job. “It was a surreal process. I was working on Game of Thrones in Belfast, when I got a call from Marvel about Thor. I thought it was a joke, that they had the wrong guy. But it turned out they were serious.” Taylor says he ducked the project at first. “I was up to my eyeballs in Thrones. [Then later] my agent told me they were looking for a director again, so I went in for the meeting.”

Taylor is upbeat about directing a superhero film. Thor is based on the Marvel series of comics featuring Norse gods Thor, Odin and Loki. “The good thing about Marvel is it’s basically one guy, Kevin Feige.” Feige is the company’s president of production, and the guiding spirit of every movie it has produced since X-Men in 2000. “When you have meetings, there are at most two guys in the room. It’s nothing like network TV. Marvel is huge, but it’s almost like an independent film; three guys in a room and whatever you three agree, that’s what’s going to happen.”

The green screen issue is still a vexing one and the latest part of Taylor’s learning curve. “Directing actors on green screen is grim for everybody,” says Taylor. “You walk into a room and there’s nothing there, apart from that green wall. Some actors are very good with it, as they have a process that’s all in their head anyway. I find it very unpleasant because I love composition and camera movement, and it’s hard to do that when there’s nothing there to shoot. There are new systems on the way that will show you what’s going to be put in later, but that’s certainly not happening now. On this movie we’re flying by the seat of our pants.

“We’ll shoot a scene on location, it gets married to what we shoot in two months’ time on a stage at Shepperton [Studios], which gets married to green screen stuff. It’s a bizarre process.” As an example, he recalls a trip to Iceland to shoot some scenes representing the home world of characters in Thor called the Dark Elves. “It was very expensive to drag the huge production team over there, so we focused on getting the key wide shots with our principals on location. Then we built an exterior set back at the studio to shoot coverage later. This material will be augmented with shots of our principals and stunt people doing wirework against green screen at the end of filming. Obviously, it’s a very disconnected way to shoot, bred of logistical and economic necessity.”

For a director who has largely worked realizing polished and precise screenplays where dialogue is key, the effects-based approach of the comic book movie has taken some getting used to. “It’s been a revelation to me that we are deep into developing storyboards for a scene before the script gets written. We all fall in love with things in the sequence and then we have to pound the script into achieving those things. It’s not what I’m used to. There are so many other things driving it.

“I want to make it clear I see the benefits of this way of working,” he adds. “You get some wonderful stuff out of it, and it’s a collaborative process in a way I’ve never experienced. You have people doing storyboards and previsualizing, spread over three continents, with ideas popping up like popcorn from all these people. Your job is to scrape them together and pull a movie out of it. It’s a whole different model for creativity.”

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