Spring 2015

On the Air - The Americans

The quality and variety of episodic television may be at an all-time high. With long-running comedies like New Girl, newcomers like Jane the Virgin, and dramas like The Walking Dead, The Americans, and NCIS: New Orleans, the range of material is vast. We asked directors about the challenge of creating some of today's most acclaimed series.


Double Lives: (top) Director-producer Daniel Sackheim's visual template for the other directors, including (bottom) John Dahl, was the moody, shadow-filled look of '70s thrillers like All the President's Men. (Photos: (top) Patrick Habron/FX; (bottom) Craig Blankenhorn/FX)

Just as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), the central characters on FX's Reagan-era espionage drama The Americans, need to juggle dual lives as Soviet agents passing as an ordinary suburban Washington, D.C., married couple with two kids, directors on the show have a pair of key responsibilities.

"It's two different skill sets that a director needs to bring," says Daniel Sackheim, who has been director-producer on the series since its second season. "One is a facility for genre storytelling, how to create suspense and tension, and the other is a real comfort with the character-driven, family-based drama. Most shows deal with one or the other. But The Americans is a spy drama and family drama that work hand in hand. Each informs the other."

Kevin Dowling, who directed back-to-back episodes for the current third season and credits Sackheim with expanding the show's visual ambition, says, "The scope of it is huge. You're making a feature every week, so you have to make your priorities, but Dan's on top of everything. He gives great notes, helps a lot during prep, and trusts that you're going to do what you do. He also created a magnificent bible last year that had visual references and tonal ideas, and when you're coming in to a series, it makes a huge difference."

Sackheim cites the legendarily moody, shadow-filled '70s thrillers directed by Alan J. Pakula—Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men—as touchstones for the show's filmic grammar and sense of scale: Long lenses are avoided, wide framing is encouraged, and close-ups are used judiciously. The early-'80s time period, as well as shooting New York for the nation's capital, presents another challenge. "In selling the 1980s," Sackheim says, "you need to populate those wider frames with period cars and extras in period-appropriate wardrobe. You have to be vigilant about architecture and signage. Some of the best things New York has to offer, we can never feature. That can tax the modest resources of a basic cable show, and a lot of it falls on the director's shoulders in deciding where to spend those resources."

The Americans executive producers Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, and Joel Fields understand how much directors bring to the show, so they make sure scripts often get delivered earlier than usual. For John Dahl's second season episode, "New Car," that meant enough time to find a pristine 1981 Chevrolet Camaro, and to figure out how to film a Brooklyn auto showroom with massive windows that looked on to a busy street teeming with Priuses and other modern cars. "We took out the offending parts by putting up a decal that ran the entire length of the showroom windows," Dahl says. "A lot of times, though, if you're shooting on the street, you sometimes have to stop to let traffic go by."

Often, script descriptions are left deliberately vague. It might say "interesting spy location" for a meeting between two characters, giving directors key visual input. "The inclination is, 'We'll stick them in a subterranean garage out of All the President's Men or in a dark alley,' but you have to monitor yourself so you don't just go to that predictable well," Sackheim says. Meet-ups on the show have since taken place in parked cars, a grocery store, and a bowling alley.

I Spy: Director Kevin Dowling says the scope of The Americans is huge. "You're making a feature every week, so you have to make your priorities." (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)

In another instance, questioning a scene's location led to a change not only more creative but money-saving. For Sackheim's season three episode "Baggage," in which the FBI meets and welcomes a Russian defector, the script described it taking place at airport customs. "I said to the writers, 'This feels like a nonevent. Shouldn't it have more spectacle, something befitting the importance of this defector?'" Sackheim says. "So I drew up something that had great pomp and circumstance, where a motorcade filled with government officials drives onto a tarmac as a jet arrives. Of course, the price tag came in, and it was something we couldn't possibly afford. But then Joe remembered a rumor that a spy had once been smuggled in a shipping crate." From that, Sackheim devised a vivid moment in an empty warehouse in which a huge, mysterious crate on a forklift comes toward the camera. The awaiting FBI agents open it, and in a shot from the side, we see a woman's hand emerge. "It's pretty weird, pretty unique, and was a fraction of the cost of renting a jet," Sackheim says. "Sometimes restrictions of time and money work to your advantage creatively."

Puzzling out the best way to convey information through heightened suspense is another Americans hallmark. For the third season episode "Salang Pass," Dowling had to stage a murder in which Elizabeth, who has been befriending a female Northrop employee she needs as an information-gathering asset, strolls up to a suburban husband working under his raised car and unlocks the jack, dropping the car on him. The killing feels senseless, until a Northrop sticker on the car windshield reveals that the victim was an impediment to the asset getting a job necessary for the plan.

Rather than just cut to the windshield from a shot of Elizabeth's shoes walking away, however, Dowling devised a clever tracking shot. "We used a prism lens that allows you to be at the surface of the ground, and you see blood pooling and coming right at you. That had a certain kinetic feel to me, and then we move up through the curve of the wheelbase, and we're asking a question. What's going on here? Then boom, there's the sticker and we finally know. I felt it would be more elegant if we tied the blood and him dying to the reason he dies."

If that's an example of the genre storytelling skill set Sackheim referred to, the final scene of that episode—a bedroom exchange between the protagonists—provided Dowling with an ideal chance to heighten character work as well. As Philip expresses concern to Elizabeth whether he should bed a CIA operative's 15-year-old daughter, brief flashbacks are interspersed that show his grueling sex training as a young agent. Dowling chose to shoot the flashbacks subjectively, rather than show a young actor digitally grafted with Rhys' features. "I wanted us to experience it as the young Philip, but every reaction would be the Philip we know, and because Matthew is such a strong actor, that was going to be more impactful. You'd see what he's seeing, and then you'd cut to see Matthew in pain trying to throw it off."

It's important, Sackheim says, that in eliciting viewers' sympathies for a pair of America's former enemies, nothing feel exploitive. "We don't want to portray the characters as venal," he says. "What I tell most directors is, imagine the characters are undercover CIA agents on the ground in Russia, and a fellow American's life is in jeopardy. They'd come to the rescue, and that requires getting their hands dirty, and making uncomfortable choices. Our characters are in the same position. On this show, there's a lot of conversation about character and motivation."

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