Summer 2013

The Personal Touch

Anthony Hemingway started his career as one of the youngest ADs in Guild history, eventually helming numerous episodic shows and serving as director-producer on Treme. But it’s his attention to the human element that has defined his style.



THE BIG EASY: Hemingway (center) ‘found his thrill on Blueberry Hill’ when he got music legend Fats Domino (in yellow) to perform his classic song for an episode of Treme

Sometimes the job offers a director a “pinch me” moment. Such was the case when director-producer Anthony Hemingway found himself shooting music legend Fats Domino for the New Orleans-set HBO series Treme. Hemingway has enjoyed a diverse career since first helming The Wire in 2006, guiding episodes of Shameless, True Blood, CSI: NY, ER and Battlestar Galactica, among others, as well as the feature Red Tails (2012). But even with his ability to transverse genres and adapt to technological challenges, he says being effective can come down to simple human qualities such as sensitivity to a given situation, and an affinity for the players involved. And that’s what he brought to the set that day.

Domino, who is 85, had been ailing, and his public appearances have become infrequent. The scene was to be shot at the musician’s home in the Crescent City’s Lower Ninth Ward, and required him to play himself—and the piano—in interaction with actor Steve Zahn, who as local music impresario Davis McAlary is trying to talk Fats into appearing on a record he’s making. To ease the pressure, Hemingway brought along musician Davell Crawford, who has deep roots in the area and a long friendship with Domino. He was aware that, given the older musician’s unsteady health, “He could very well have been unable to do it,” but the schedule was unforgiving. He decided to minimize the crew’s intrusion. “We kept it small, ’cause we were in his living room. Three cameras—one on a slider, one on sticks, one on a dolly—to get the wide shot, the close-ups, and the reverse angle.”

In part, the scene required Domino to approach the piano while Crawford played Domino’s classic rendition of “Blueberry Hill,” and jump in on the three-handed piano arrangement. “David [Simon, co-creator and executive producer of Treme] told me, ‘If nothing else, get the third hand on the piano.’ We were all pretty nervous,” Hemingway recalls. But as Crawford played and drew his friend out, Domino, seated nearby on a couch custom-built out of the detached rear chassis of a 1950s pink Cadillac, began to croon the lyrics. “We had one chance to get it, because I knew he wouldn’t have the endurance for more,” says Hemingway. “He got up spontaneously, went to the piano and joined in. Once that happened, there was no stopping him. He started playing, and it was just beautiful.”

Moments like those, he says, exceed what he dared imagine for himself as a child growing up in the Bronx. “You dream that you’ll get the opportunity to be creative and do cool things, but for it to really happen...” He shakes his head in amazement. “I’m grateful for every chance I get to do something I love and have a passion for.”

It was in the Southern production hub of Wilmington, North Carolina, where his family had moved after his mother began working as a production coordinator, that Hemingway found the beginnings of his career path. When he was just 17, working as an assistant in the production office for a made-for-television movie, Search for Grace (1994), he met assistant director Nina Kostroff Noble. He made an immediate impression on her and she would become an important mentor in his career.

“I was so struck by his enthusiasm,” recalls Noble, now an executive producer on Treme and a partner with Simon in his Blown Deadline Productions. “He followed me around for days, like a giant puppy dog, saying, ‘How do I get on the set? I’ll do anything.’ I would let him in on the scheduling or whatever I was working on, and he showed a lot of interest in every aspect.”

As a teenager, Hemingway had initially intended to study medicine—partly because of the traumatic loss of his sister, who passed away at age 7, when he was 4 years old. “I’ve always had a passion to help people,” he relates. “I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon, and I wanted to take a load off my mother and father.” But as high school graduation approached, he realized he didn’t want to spend another 10 years in school. Meanwhile, Noble continued to bring him along as a crew member as her own career progressed. Over the years, he says, “We formed an awesome team. My attitude was, ‘there are no problems, only solutions,’ and she picked up on that. We know how we work, and what to expect.”

LINE IT UP: As director-producer, Hemingway helped develop a visual template for the New Orleans-based series.

On the set of The Road Home, a series produced and directed in North Carolina by the late Bruce Paltrow, Hemingway found another important mentor. “We had some really inspiring talks that led me to decide I was going to make this my career,” he says of Paltrow. Forgoing college, he continued to work steadily. By age 19 he had earned his days, and Noble brought him on to his first Guild job as a 2nd AD—one of the youngest ever in DGA history. Later, when she, Simon, and producer Robert F. Colesberry joined up to make the series The Corner, based on Simon’s book, Noble hired Hemingway as a 1st AD. He was just 22. When Noble and Simon launched The Wire in 2002, they again hired Hemingway as 1st AD. And after three seasons on the urban drama, they decided he was ready to direct. “When they called to tell me,” Hemingway remembers, “I was walking my dog in the park, and I had to stop and sit down. I had tears running down my face. When someone sees in you what you’ve been feeling all along, that’s an awesome thing.”

Despite his extensive production experience, he finds it difficult to explain how he does his job. “I’m not good with words—I tell a story visually,” he says. He believes he’s effective as a director because “so much of this job matches up with who I am as a person. You have to be able to think on your feet, and have a personality that withstands many storms. You need to be a chameleon, because you’re dealing with so many different personalities every day.”

Noble offers another perspective. “He has such charisma,” she says. “Everybody wants to be on his team. That’s how he’s been able to accomplish what he has in such a short time. He takes great meetings, and bonds with everyone; he can walk into any situation and be a leader.”

Hemingway recalls that when the day of his Wire debut came, on a season four episode titled “Unto Others,” his biggest challenge was to ‘stop AD’ing.’ “I was still so focused on the time and the schedule,” he recalls. “That first day, I was about to walk away from a scene because of time, and [director-producer] Joe Chappelle pointed out some coverage I still needed. That was a turning point, when I realized I had to shift my priorities to the creative aspect and what was right for the story.”

STREET LEGAL: (above) After three seasons as an AD on the show, Hemingway got a chance to direct The Wire. (below) He sets up a tracking shot for an episode of Treme.

He discovered that his toughest days on set as an AD had been invaluable training. “My greatest lessons and opportunities came out of some of the hardest and worst situations I was put in,” he says. “They were a gift, because without them I couldn’t have learned as fast.”

After making his directorial debut on The Wire, Hemingway went on to helm episodes of eleven different series over the next two years. By early 2008, he was actively looking to direct his first feature. Even so, he wasn’t quite prepared when his agent phoned and said George Lucas wanted to meet with him. “I was like, ‘Yeah, right. Come on, me?’” he laughs. When he learned Lucas was seeking a director for Red Tails, his long-in-the-works project about the Tuskegee Airmen, a pioneering squadron of black WWII fighter pilots, Hemingway knew it was the movie for him. “I’d been praying for something with meaning and integrity, something that made a statement.” After an initial meeting with Lucas, he was invited to pitch his take on the project in a second meeting at the Skywalker Ranch. “I approached it like the job was already mine,” says Hemingway. “But even so, it was nerve-wracking. I’d never done a pitch for anything, and this was with a guy who’s a giant in our business.”

At the same time, he had just begun work directing his first episode of Heroes. Lucas wanted a meeting in three days. Hemingway engaged a storyboard artist to help him prepare. “I spent 12 hours each day in prep on Heroes, then I’d come home and we would stay up all night working. I chose two action sequences from the script—the climax in the middle and the big heroic one at the end. I gave the artist a shot list and had him drawing for me during the day. At night I’d look at what he’d done, and make notes and tweaks to it. The last night, we sat up all night refining it, and I put a book together that I used as a visual aid during my meeting.”

Word finally came after more than a month. “They called and said I got the job. I wrapped Heroes, and the next morning I got on a plane for a two-week scout.” Red Tails was a major step for him. It had a production budget of $58 million (covered by Lucas himself) and told an inspiring true story featuring Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, and a cast of newcomers. The first reconnaissance mission was to do visual research in Europe by compiling 360-degree photos of locations in Italy, Prague and London. (The 50-day shoot wound up filming mainly in Prague and Croatia, which stood in for Italy.)

While scenes on the ground would be shot in a traditional style, the aerial dogfights required CGI. “The few P-51 fighters that still exist aren’t safe to fly, so it all had to be done with green screen. My goal was to make it feel real. I’d take a model plane,” he says, pretending to hold a model up to his eyes, turning it this way and that, “and say, ‘What perspective can I shoot that from? Or how can I make it feel like we’re inside that cockpit?’”

His visual approach to the aerial scenes includes loops and rolls with continuous motion and dynamic cutting to create a sense of action. In contrast, for character scenes in military and civilian locations, Hemingway went for “simplicity and subtlety, not trying to overdo things. I let the story be the focus. I did look at old movies for inspiration, but tried not to be too influenced. I like to have my own approach.”

In all, the movie included some 1,600 visual effects shots, leading to a lengthy period of postproduction. But by March 2010, Hemingway had joined Simon and Noble in New Orleans to work on Treme. This time, though, in addition to directing, he came onboard as co-executive producer. Noble explains her thinking: “I knew shooting in New Orleans at that time would be incredibly challenging, and that Anthony would be a big asset. But I also felt at that point in his career, we had to be able to offer him something that could further his training. So I asked him to take the wider perspective of knowing the whole show and being able to guide other directors.”

HIGH FLYING: Hemingway, with Cuba Gooding Jr., directed his first feature, Red Tails, about a black fighter squadron in WWII.

Hemingway helped develop the visual tone for the show, a compassionate portrait of the city’s attempt to recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Our approach was to be very real, and to respect the culture and history of the place,” he says. “Pretty much everything was shot on location, and if the only light was from a streetlamp, we went with that.”

He also directed several episodes each season, and in the season three opener “Knock with Me—Rock with Me,” the visual approach is evident. In the dark of night, trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) jumps out of a cab in the Treme district and into the middle of an impromptu musical wake that’s taking place in the street for a recently departed colleague. When the cops arrive to break it up, citing the lack of a permit, the clash is lit mainly by the flash of the cherry-top on the squad car reflecting against the brass bells of the tubas and trombones. Hemingway notes that the near-darkness added to the sense of chaos and frustration, as did his choice to film from within the roiling crowd.

Capturing the authenticity and naturalism of live musical performances was a key feature of the series. Music was always recorded live on the locations where it would naturally occur, such as clubs, parades, and street corners. “We didn’t want to stop, have a musical interlude, then go back to the story,” says Noble. “It all had to flow together, so there were technical problems to solve. And Anthony was part of the team that helped create the template for shooting that.”

Says Hemingway, “It was a process that evolved. Every season we learned something new, so we could improve on it.” Typically, he says, coverage began with a wide master shot of the entire group while an initial live sound recording was made. “We needed a clean track for post, with nothing on it but the music, so we’d want to get that while the band was fresh and at full force.” On a subsequent take, the musicians might pantomime the motions of playing, while staying in rhythm and time, so that dialogue in the scene could be recorded live as needed. “When that was done, we’d have them play again, while we got our singles and close-ups.” Working closely with music supervisor Blake Leyh, Hemingway says, “If I needed a certain kind of shot to happen, I’d tell him so he could plan for that while he set up the band.”

Over the course of four seasons, Treme employed some 900 musicians from the region. Scheduling them was as much a part of the job as directing them. “There’s so much music going on in New Orleans,” says Hemingway, “that it would bleed in from the bars or the streets. Our show was ‘period,’ and sometimes the music was more recent, or we couldn’t license it. [So] we’d have to wait it out, or maybe go and pay them off to stop for a while.

Hemingway sees the job of director-producer as supportive rather than dictatorial: “I’m there to support your vision and help you fight for what you need, but also to prepare you and bring you up to speed quickly on the cast and crew.” Now that Treme has wrapped (its final season airs later this year), Hemingway says he would like to continue as a director-producer, preferably on a project he’s developed, “because it’s very time-consuming, and removes me from other things. I was away in New Orleans for eight months out of the year.”

But regardless of what he does next, “I’ll always direct,” he says. “On every project that I’m a part of, I’ll want to direct.

Director Profile

Stories profiling feature film directors about

their life, work and approach to making movies.

More from this issue