Spring 2015

The Good Fight

Lesli Linka Glatter has brought a sense of urgency and psychological depth to such series as The West Wing, ER, Mad Men, and Homeland—and won two DGA Awards along the way. Yet she still finds time to serve the Guild and be an advocate for diversity.

Photographed by Brian Davis

With a career spanning more than 100 hours of episodic television and two features, Lesli Linka Glatter is at the top of her game. For the past two seasons, she’s been director-producer of Homeland, winning her second Directors Guild Award in 2015 for the harrowing episode “From A to B and Back Again,” a complicated emotional tapestry that explodes at the end. Her other DGA Award, in 2010, was for the equally explosive—and subversively funny—“Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” episode of Mad Men.

Glatter’s path to directing was unconventional. Originally a dancer, she turned her training in choreography into a knack for staging driving action scenes. “I think it’s been a good skill to come from,” she says, “because I see the world as moving.” Since her first film, an Academy Award-nominated short set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and shot largely in Japanese, she has brought a level of tension, psychological acuity, and moral ambiguity to such diverse and sometimes quirky series as Twin Peaks, ER, The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, True Blood, Masters of Sex, and Ray Donovan. As testament to her deft directorial touch and skill working with actors, she recently signed an overall deal with Showtime to direct and develop her own projects.

The kind of person “a force of nature” was coined to describe, Glatter channels a significant amount of her energy for the greater good, serving on the DGA National Board, the Western Directors Council, and as a former co-chair of the Diversity Task Force, in addition to offering mentorship at the Sundance Directors Lab. Asked where that all comes from, she says with a laugh, “Maybe it’s my father’s legacy as a labor organizer. You know, ‘workers of the world unite!’”

Baptism By Fire: Steven Spielberg (top) gave Glatter her first assignment on an episode of Amazing Stories with 200 guys storming a beach. (Photos: Courtesy Lesli Linka Glatter)

AMY DAWES: You had an artistic calling growing up but it wasn’t to directing.

LESLI LINKA GLATTER: I was born in Dallas and I grew up both there and in New York City, which was very schizophrenic. My mom was a modern dancer. She trained with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm and danced on Broadway. Then she met my father who was also from New York and was a labor organizer for the women’s garment union. They ended up in Texas because he was organizing factories. They were these loud liberals in a very conservative state. I was a red diaper baby. I went to school in Texas, but we would go back and forth to New York.

Q: And that upbringing led to your early career in dance?

A:Yes. In my family it was the arts and politics. The idea was that you cultivated a higher calling of some sort.

Q: You’ve always been committed to activism on behalf of women directors in the industry. Was that your father’s influence?

A: There was just a push in my family to do what’s right. Diversity has been very important to me for a long time, primarily because I come from dance, which is a very female field. When I went into film, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do whatever I wanted to do. Maybe that was a good thing in the beginning. I had blinders on, and I charged forward. But at some point you are faced with it. It’s kind of irrefutable. If I had a daughter, the fact that the playing field wouldn’t be equal for her feels really wrong in this day and age. We’re the entertainment industry. We should not be behind the curve.

Q: Considering the difficulties for female directors to break in to the industry in the mid ’80s, how were you able to get started?

A: It really started with a chance meeting that I had in a coffee shop in Tokyo, when I was in my 20s. I had been sent there to teach, choreograph, and perform throughout the Far East. One day I went into a coffee shop and an old man in his 70s was sitting there. We looked at each other and there was some strange connection. I got my coffee and sat down with him. He spoke perfect English; it turned out he spoke 12 languages. He was the Japanese head of cultural affairs. He became a mentor to me, and he and his wife became my surrogate parents. He had served as a translator during World War II. He was Buddhist, and didn’t believe in the war, but he had no choice but to be involved. Eventually, years later, he told me six stories about things that had happened to him during the war, all on Christmas Eve. They were all about human connection. I knew I had to pass them on, and I knew the medium for telling them wasn’t dance. Until I knew I had to tell those stories, it had never occurred to me to direct a film.

Q: And that’s what led you to enroll at AFI in the Directing Workshop for Women?

A:I was already fascinated with Japanese film. I’d been watching a lot of Kurosawa and Oshima and Mizoguchi and Ozu, along with the French New Wave. But I hadn’t thought of film as my medium. Then someone told me about this AFI program. By then I was back in Los Angeles, performing on the dance scene and teaching in the CalArts faculty. And these stories kept haunting me. I decided to apply to the AFI program because it would force me to think my idea through and write it down. And even though it was really set up for women who already worked in film and wanted to transition into directing, they let me in.

Oval Office: Glatter, directing Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet, found The West Wing a supportive working environment. (Photo: Courtesy Lesli Linka Glatter)

Q: What was the program like at that time?

A: It was very small—only 10 of us in the class. You only got three days of training, and then you were off directing. I realized I knew nothing—I didn’t know a key grip from a best boy. So I volunteered to work on everybody else’s film. I did anything that was needed, even though I had a full-time job at CalArts. I was one of the last to shoot my own film. Everything they told me not to do if I wanted to work in Hollywood, I was doing. It was a period piece set in World War II, it was three-quarters in Japanese with subtitles, it had flashbacks, it had narration, and it had one white person in it. But I didn’t care, because I wasn’t looking for a job in Hollywood. I just needed to tell these stories. I ended up getting to tell only two of the six, because I didn’t have money for a longer film. I called my film Tales of Meeting and Parting (1985); it’s just over 30 minutes. The program gave us $3,000, and it cost more than that, so I took a job as a choreographer on To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and that’s how I made enough money to finance it.

Q: That turned out to be a good investment, since it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film and helped launch your career.

A: It all seemed like a complete fluke. Steven Spielberg saw it, and he was starting a TV anthology series called Amazing Stories. He brought in three very new filmmakers—me, Todd Holland, and Phil Joanou. The other directors were very experienced, like Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. We were each given an episode. I said to Spielberg, ‘I’m new at this, can I shadow you and somebody else?’ So I shadowed him and Clint.

Q: What did you learn from watching them?

A: They were completely different, but both brilliant. So I realized, as a young filmmaker, that you have to find the style that works for you. The episode I was given was a World War II story, with 200 guys storming a beach. This was my first day of shooting on a professional set. I had nine cameras and three Eyemos and a lot of extras. It was a trial by fire. The night before, I had the worst stress dream ever—like an actor finding himself naked on the stage, but the director version of that.

Q: What was the director version?

A: I walk onto the set and it’s a different crew than I prepped with, and a set I’ve never seen. I have no idea what’s going on. In my dream, the set was filled floor to ceiling with pea-green sofas, when I was supposed to be directing a war story with guys invading a beach. So I told this to Steven, and he said, ‘You know, I have one of those dreams before I start anything new. In fact, I would worry if I didn’t. Because there’s something about being a filmmaker, every time you do it, you’re putting yourself on the line.’ And that’s really true. Then he told me something else, which I still think about a lot. He said when you’re watching a scene, and the instincts in the back of your head tell you it’s not working, you have to listen. Maybe it’s the blocking, maybe it’s the writing, maybe you haven’t really broken down what the scene is about. But if you don’t fix it in the moment, if you tell those instincts to shut up, they won’t talk to you anymore. It’s very important to keep that channel to your instincts open. That was a great thing to learn so early on, and it’s something I strive to do. To never let fear, or a plan, or anything else get in the way of being open and right there in the moment with the crew and the actors.

Storytelling: Glatter has worked on such diverse series as (top to bottom) ER, True Blood, and House M.D. "There's not a genre that doesn't interest me," she says. (Photos: (top) NBCU Photo Bank; (middle) John P. Johnson/HBO; (bottom) Greg Gayne/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Q: How did that work on the set?

A: One of my first episodic jobs was on Twin Peaks, if you can imagine that—one of the most unusual series ever. There’s an early episode that David Lynch directed where Michael Ontkean and Kyle MacLachlan are in a bank, in one of those safe deposit rooms, and they’re on opposite sides of a table. The scene is shot with a wide-angle lens, the camera never moves. And there’s a moose head lying in the middle of the table. No one ever refers to it; it’s just there. I asked David how he got the idea to put that moose head on the table. He said, ‘It was there.’ The set dresser was going to hang it, and David came in and saw it lying there, and said, ‘Leave the moose head.’ Something cracked open for me when I heard that, which is, as much as you need to plan and think things through, don’t miss the magic that’s all around you. Be sure you’re open to what people are bringing you, and rejoice in that. You know, ‘Leave the moose head.’

Q: You’ve said that you define yourself first and foremost as a storyteller. How does that play out in the way you approach material?

A: I like to really know what every scene is about, what the text is, what the subtext is. Then I figure out how to express that when I’m shooting. Working in television, it’s absolutely essential to know what your story is, because you have such a limited amount of time to pull it off. You have to know what turns it, what the big emotional scenes are, and which ones are merely transitions, so you can budget your resources and still approach it with a sense of visual scale.

Q: How did you navigate a career path for yourself after those first opportunities?

A: Early on I decided that I’m only going to do jobs where I relate to the material, whether that’s on the big screen or the small screen. I’d come from being a dancer, and you don’t go into that for the money, you go into it for the passion you have for doing it. At one point, I was offered a movie for more money than I’ve ever been offered for anything since. But it was terrible; it was just nasty. I thought, ‘If I do it, it’ll allow me the freedom to do something else that I really want to do.’ But then I thought, ‘What if I get hit by a bus while I’m directing this movie? Will this be what I’m remembered for?’ So I turned it down, and that was a big turning point for me. And it wasn’t a straight line from there. I had some really hard times. I did a pilot that wasn’t picked up, for various reasons, and I took the hit for it. I was blacklisted from the network. I’ve had to dig myself out of holes, like every director.

Q: Your career has coincided with the rise in the quality and boldness of TV dramas that began with shows like NYPD Blue, which you worked on. From a director’s perspective, how was that show a game changer?

A: There was a kineticism to the camera and the storytelling that was unique at the time. Greg Hoblit was the director-producer and he was interested in keeping it moving and fluid, with camera movement as opposed to cuts, like when your eye whips off something and then comes back to it. But he insisted that it feel real and motivated. There was no Steadicam, and we used longer lenses a lot. It created a good tension for a police procedural.

Q: You use a similar effect on Homeland where there’s a subtle but constant use of the handheld camera.

A: We shoot Homeland on the [Arri] Alexa, and yes, it’s almost always handheld. The idea is that the world it depicts is really tense; nothing is solid, there’s a level of anxiety under everything. It’s subtle, we’re not shaking the camera, but you can always feel a little bit of movement. But if a director said, ‘I want to shoot on a dolly,’ and it made sense for the scene, then so be it.

Locked Up: Glatter works with a captured Damian Lewis as he awaits his execution in a tense scene from Homeland. "There's a level of anxiety under everything on the show," she says. (Photo: Didier Baverel/Showtime)

Q: Since the start of season three you’ve been director and executive producer on Homeland. How do you see that role?

A: My job is to create the best possible working environment for the directors, and give them everything they need to tell their story in the best possible way. I pre-scout locations, so they have choices that are really good. I prepare a book for them with scripts and DVDs and cast photos and set diagrams. Hopefully they have everything they need the minute they get there. And I pass along information—if a cast member works a certain way, or any pitfalls they need to be aware of. My philosophy is that when they get on the set, it’s their set, to tell their story. It would be insulting to sit behind someone and say ‘Can you move that camera three feet over?’ I want to be their biggest support. I’m there anytime they need me, but I’m not going to be standing over their shoulder. It’s essential to empower the episodic director. I think that’s when they do their best work.

Q: Did you have mentors that shaped your approach to being a director-producer?

A: I was affected by the director-producers I was lucky enough to work with, people like Thomas Schlamme, who created a very supportive working environment on The West Wing. And John Wells, who’s very empowering to directors and writers, and expects that you’ll bring your A-game. I spent many years based at Wells’ production company, doing shows like ER and The West Wing. You can create a healthy, supportive world, or you can create a dysfunctional, horrible, backbiting situation. I don’t work well in that, and I don’t want to create that for anyone else.

Q: You joined Homeland in its second season when it already had a specific style. What was that like?

A: Michael Cuesta directed the Homeland pilot, and he was also the director-producer for the first two years. I came in during season two as a guest director and for my first episode, I got a script called ‘Q&A,’ written by Henry Bromell, and it presented a real challenge, because it had 40 pages taking place in an interrogation room with just Carrie [Claire Danes] and Brody [Damian Lewis]. It’s the scene when she finally breaks him. I panicked when I saw this. It’s a situation where as a director, you have nothing to hide behind. No fancy camera moves are going to help you. It’s the words, and the actors. But then Michael said something to me I’ll forever remember: He said, ‘Don’t be scared to be simple. Trust that the material is good.’

Q: So how did you shoot it?

A: I looked at a lot of other interrogation scenes, including the movie Marathon Man and the Homicide: Life on the Street episode where the whole show was an interrogation. That helped me realize that two people sitting in a room can be totally involving, especially when it’s Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. What I could do as a director was break down the scene with the actors to say, within this window of time, what are the turning points where she sees the opening to break him and he is open enough to be broken? The next thing was deciding to cross cover it, with a camera on each of them, and have them run it like a stage play, doing the whole scene at once. My preferred style is to be close to the camera and the actors, but in this case I couldn’t choose between them.

Q: How many takes did you run like that?

A: We did three. The first one was amazing, but there were a couple of turns that still needed to happen. When Carrie finally asks Brody if there is a plot to attack America, he has this huge pause—and then he says yes. I don’t think it was there in the first take. But that second take, it felt like what was happening came through them completely, came right through their bodies. That was really exciting, and that was the take we used.

Close Shave: Glatter works with (left) John Slattery and Jon Hamm on Mad Men. She directed six episodes of the show and won a DGA Award in 2010 for the "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" episode. (Photo: Carin Baer/AMC)

Q: How do you pack so much story and tension into an episode given the constant time constraints?

A: With any action sequence you have to plan it well. I tend to storyboard action sequences so the crew will know exactly what we’re doing. I directed the season three finale episode where Brody is hanged [from a construction crane, in front of Carrie and an angry mob.] We had one 10-hour night to shoot that. I had to be incredibly organized. I had a list of things that had to be shot, and a wish list of things we’d get if we had time. I didn’t want to waste a second discussing something while we could be shooting. All those discussions happened ahead of time, and then you have the boards up during the shoot so everyone knows exactly what you’re doing. That’s how we were able to get through a huge amount of material. For me there’s something exhilarating about having a nearly unmakeable situation, and figuring out how I’m gonna do this. How can I make this limitation into an opportunity? That’s how I try to approach it.

Q: Another harrowing action scene you directed was in the season four premiere, ‘The Drone Queen,’ where an American agent [Corey Stoll] is pulled out of a car in Pakistan and beaten to death by an angry mob.

A: That one was very tricky to pull off. We were shooting in Cape Town, South Africa, for Pakistan, and we got there in winter, when daylight is very limited, only from 8:30 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon. We had to split the sequence over three days, so we shot everything around it, and then the mob scene. We did multiple stunt rehearsals before we were ever out on the street, so the actors knew exactly what they were doing. There were no doubles—Corey wanted to do it himself—so when they drag him out through the car window, that’s really happening. I like action that is very real and gritty. It’s an ugly scene that the characters would never forget—they would wake up and have nightmares about it. And it was scary shooting it.

Q: You won the 2014 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Series for the episode in which Carrie orders a drone strike that would kill her friend and mentor Saul [Mandy Patinkin], and she has to be physically restrained from carrying it out. What does an actor like Claire Danes need from you to prepare for a highly emotional scene like that?

A: Even the best actors need to be directed, because they can’t see their performance from the outside. She and I talk a lot and work well together. I always want to see where she’s going with it, and then we modulate—how big do you want to go, or how internal is it. Sometimes she’ll say, ‘just let me do this,’ meaning, without a rehearsal. When she throws everything off her desk, we did it bigger, then smaller, focusing on where she put her energy at the end. Was she defeated? Was she crying? We did a version where she cried, but then we didn’t use it. Sometimes you’re surprised by where you need to go to find the right balance.

Q: You directed a different kind of action sequence in the infamous lawn mower episode in Mad Men. Can you talk about the challenges of directing that?

A: I had directed a lot of Mad Men, and on my fifth episode, I was given a very unusual script called ‘Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.’ What happens is, the team that now owns the agency comes over from England, and Don thinks he’s going to be made head of the company, but instead it’s this guy they’ve brought with them, who’s very clever and charming. They have a party, and they’ve just gotten the John Deere account, so this tractor is there in the office, and it runs over the British guy’s foot, and bloody chaos ensues. I read it and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is either going to be absolutely ludicrous, or it’s going to be incredible.’ I only had one day to shoot that, so I storyboarded it like an action sequence set inside the Sterling Cooper ad agency.

Q: You move from a sentimental scene with Peggy [Elisabeth Moss] and Joan [Christina Hendricks] without a cut to this craziness going on where everyone winds up covered in blood.

A: It’s black comedy, and yet parts of it are oddly moving. It’s a huge challenge to be handed material like that. We could really only do it once, so we tested it ahead of time so we could decide how far to push it. It needed to be gory and horrible, but some of the funniest lines are mixed in, like when the cleanup crew is cleaning the blood off the wall, and John Slattery walks in and says, ‘The man lost his foot just when he’d gotten it in the door.’

Growing Up: Glatter's first feature, Now and Then (1995), is a coming-of-age story told from a girl's perspective. Glatter is pleased that women still tell her how important the film was to them. (Photo: Courtesy Lesli Linka Glatter)

Q: You’re constantly working and yet you’ve found time to be very active in the Guild, currently on the National Board and the Western Directors Council. Why is service so important to you?

A: I think it’s really important to give back to your community. I’m really grateful to the Directors Guild. Before I got involved, I felt like I was doing this thing alone. Now I have a community of director friends and associates. I can pick up the phone and say I’m having a really hard time with something and get advice. And it’s not just that I’m grateful for health care and pension; it’s a bigger picture than that. I think our Guild is extraordinary. Just having it work for me is not enough.

Q: You’ve also been a member of the Television Creative Rights Committee for almost 15 years. What do you see as the most pressing creative rights issues directors currently face?

A: We still need to preserve the idea of one director, one film, and one director per episode. The idea that you can shoot multiple units at the same time and have someone else put them together is not acceptable. We need to protect editing time, and we need to get scripts delivered in a timely fashion. I understand why a script is late. But if you have seven days of prep, and eight days of shooting, and you’re not getting your script until the sixth day of prep, there’s not a lot you can do. I think it’s made a big difference having DGA programs to focus on these areas.

Q: Does your Guild service dovetail with your concern about opportunities for women directors?

A: It often does, particularly with the Diversity Task Force. An interesting thing came out in the statistics this year, which was that even among first-time DGA directors, meaning people who come from the crew, like an AD, or an actor or writer or script supervisor, only 18 percent of the people being hired [on episodic television shows] are women. People like to use the excuse: ‘There are not enough women who are qualified.’ Which is not true—there’s a huge list. But in a group where nobody has previous experience, only 18 percent of the chances are going to women. What is that about? As an industry we really have to look at that, and we have to do better. One thing I thought was very exciting at the DGA Awards this year is that in four major categories, women directors were selected by their peers as having done superior work. I think what it says is that when women get up to bat, they do really well. So I’m not sure what the fear is about hiring women directors.

Q: The first feature film you directed, Now and Then (1995), was a coming-of-age comedy that had four grown women [Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith, Rosie O’Donnell, and Rita Wilson] looking back on the friendship they shared the summer when they were 12.

A: Yes, and I loved every second of making it, and I love that women in their 20s come up to me all the time and tell me that the movie was important to them growing up, because there weren’t a lot of coming-of-age movies told from the girl’s point of view. And it was successful at the box office, so I got to do a second movie, a period movie called The Proposition (1998), made for PolyGram, and that one didn’t do as well. PolyGram was going bankrupt, and they basically dumped a whole slate of movies. So for the time being, I was out of luck as a movie director. I went back to TV to sort of reinvent myself again. One thing I love about TV is that it has allowed me to work in so many different genres. And another thing is the quality, which allows directors now to explore so much rich terrain.

Glatter directs Mädchen Amick in Twin Peaks. (Photo: Courtesy Lesli Linka Glatter)

Q: There are elements in your first film—the tension and high stakes, the psychological component, the moral ambiguity—that are also hallmarks of a show like Homeland. Have you been aware of that through-line in your career?

A: Well, that first film was set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, so it was not a ‘female story.’ It was very tense and testosterone-driven. So I wasn’t categorized as someone who could only tell women’s stories. The fact is, I’m totally interested in telling women’s stories, but I’m just as interested in telling men’s stories, and all kinds of human stories. There’s not a genre that doesn’t interest me. Before I directed The Walking Dead, I would have said I’m not interested in zombies, but what I am interested in is this theme of ‘when everything we know is taken away from us, who are we?’ And I have done many, many action scenes, but I’m not interested in just blowing up a truck. I’m interested in action that serves the storytelling, and moves it forward. I’m interested in stories where things are not what they appear to be, and you have to dig deeper to find out what’s really going on. I’m interested in coming-of-age stories, and I think you can come of age in your 50s and 60s. I’m definitely interested in characters, in human beings, with all our brilliance and weaknesses and strengths.

Q: Do you think at some point you might return to directing features?

A: I’m developing both pilots and features, but to do a movie right now it would have to be something that really needs to be in that large-screen format. That midrange part of the business where I did my first two films has mostly gone to TV now. We’re in a time when such interesting, challenging material is being created for both mediums, and I think it’s thrilling. I love this job; I love being a storyteller.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

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