Winter 2018

One Director, One Vision

Being the single guiding force for an entire series requires incredible stamina, but continuity of style, tone and small details offer a greater reward


Director Mary Harron, right, with actress Sarah Gadon on the set of Alias Grace. (Photo: Jan Thijs/Netflix)

A couple of years ago, Cary Fukunaga was at an event promoting his war drama Beasts of No Nation when he fell into a conversation with Jason Bateman. Back in 2014, Fukunaga received critical acclaim for directing all eight episodes of the first season of HBO's grim crime drama True Detective. Bateman, who was hoping to direct every episode of Netflix's money-laundering thriller Ozark, wanted to know all he could about the experience of being a series' sole director.

If Bateman imagined that Fukunaga would regale him with tales of unbridled creative freedom, he didn't get the answer he was expecting. "It's really hard, man," Fukunaga remembered telling Bateman, who has two small children. "I'm young now. I don't have a family. But if I had a family and other commitments? I just couldn't do it. It's all-consuming. You really do feel like you're carrying a boulder up a mountain just to keep it together."

When recalling this conversation, Fukunaga was speaking by phone, having just returned from a gruelingly long day on the set of Maniac, a black Netflix comedy starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. He is directing all 10 episodes. When asked why he sought out boulder duty again, Fukunaga just laughed. "The idea was that [Maniac] was much shorter, lighter-themed material. With every project I always think, 'Okay, this is going to be much easier because I have all this experience from the last one,' and then you're faced with a whole new series of problems and challenges."

Given the long hours, all-consuming responsibilities and weekends swallowed whole by location scouting, casting and poring over rough assemblies, why are so many directors—Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick), Ben Stiller (Escape at Dannemora), to name a few—choosing to assume all the helming responsibilities themselves? In the case of Scott Frank, who directed all seven episodes of Godless, a New Mexico-based, 1880s-era Western that he expanded into a miniseries from a feature script he wrote in 2003, it just seemed logical.

Frank says he wanted to control the aesthetic. "I had in my head what I wanted the performances to be."

Another upside, Frank adds, is that Godless was delivered as a completed series, not one installment at a time. That meant shooting time was shooting time, not a multitasking mix of filming, editing and revamping. Before production, Frank cross-boarded the entire series, then implemented a 120-day production schedule resembling that of a seven-hour movie, shooting out every location before moving on to the next.

"We didn't shoot an episode at a time—we were sort of all over the place. In fact, there was lots of stuff from episode one that I shot at the end of the shoot," says Frank. "Since we weren't delivering episodes all through the shoot the way you do in traditional television, we had a post that was more like a feature post where we'd finish the show and deliver it. "

Not fitting into the broadcast network 22-episode model also changes expectations, says Frank. "The thing about Godless or Big Little Lies is that they're limited series—there's more impetus to have an imprimatur on the show."

Pamela Adlon, who created, co-writes and stars as a single mother of three in FX's quasi-autobiographical half-hour comedy Better Things, called her decision to direct the entire second season a "natural evolution." "It's my vision, and everything flows through me," says Adlon, who after directing two episodes in the first season realized that shouldering all the directing duties turned out to be a timesaver and anxiety-reducer.

Being, as Adlon calls it, "the captain of the boat for the whole ride," helped her figure out how to get everyone's best work.

The more time she spent with her ensemble, the better she got at working with them. "Trust is huge," says Adlon, a professional actress since age 9 who thus has real-life experiences to draw on when it comes to the pressures of being very young and a linchpin in a director making his or her day. The actors who play Adlon's daughters are 17, 13 and 10. "Certainly with the girls, it's always different because I'm always asking myself, 'Where are they developmentally in their lives?' 'How much experience do they have professionally?' 'Are they flat-lining?' 'Do they need another nap?'" says Adlon. "I'll say to them, 'Listen: I don't want you to worry. I'm not going to leave you hanging.' When an actor trusts a director, then everything explodes in the best way."

Mary Harron, the sole director of the six-episode series adaptation of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, says that trust removed any speedbumps that might have popped up with guest directors. "You have a very intense rapport with the actors," she says, "especially with Sarah Gadon (who plays the title role), who I worked with very intensely in pre-production. We had a shorthand for her performance so that we didn't have to spend a long time between takes. That was part of what allowed us to shoot quickly. We didn't have to start and stop."

That shorthand included dividing the character of Grace Marks—a convicted murderess in mid-19th century Canada—into three main modes: Good Grace, Bad Grace and Neutral Grace. "We knew what we meant by that," says Harron. "I might say, 'A little more of that kind of Grace.'"

(Top) Cary Fukunaga surveys the action on True Detective; (Bottom) Pamela Adlon takes charge on Better Things. (Photos: (Top) Skip Bolen/HBO; (Bottom) Jessica Brooks/FX)

Scott Frank agrees with Adlon and Harron that face time can be essential when it comes to getting great performances—especially with Godless, which featured a sprawling central cast. "You develop a relationship with actors, who begin to trust you and they begin to do incredible work."

Prepping Godless included building a horse ranch from the ground up, constructing an almost $4 million set to resemble the frontier mining town of La Belle, and accepting that his cast included dozens of unpredictable horses. Early on, it dawned on Frank that if they were going to make their day, they couldn't conform to a conventional schedule. "Some days we did a version of French hours and other days we did meal penalties," says Frank, who loved what happened when everyone agreed that they wouldn't stop for lunch. "Everybody stayed in the zone and felt the momentum. We'd get way more done in 10 hours than we would have in 12."

In order to best capture the low, natural New Mexico daylight and its rugged landscape, Frank traded in his dream of making an old-fashioned celluloid epic Western for the imitative expediency of the Red Weapon camera. "It was a big job, and I knew shooting anamorphic would slow us down—so we just shot the digital version of Super 35," says Frank, who also heeded something Godless executive producer Steven Soderbergh picked up while directing every episode of The Knick: Don't complicate things. "When I first started directing, there was a lot of 'Look, Ma, I'm directing shots,'" says Frank. "Now I find that I prefer a simpler aesthetic, that if I had rules for myself in terms of lenses and a really strong and rigorous color palette, it makes decision-making on the set so much easier and simpler."

Everyone knows that directing every episode requires the stamina of a superhero. One of Frank's approaches was to use the drive to and from the set to plan for upcoming scenes with his first AD, cinematographer and executive producer, as well as chew over the day's victories and failures. Halfway through the Godless shoot, he realized his nerves were fraying. "I could feel myself losing patience, losing my temper and I thought, 'OK, I need to recalibrate—I need to find ways to last, like, I won't rehearse every weekend.' And it helped because at the end of it, I could've shot another hundred days because I wasn't killing myself and I wasn't killing the crew."

The fatigue factor also affected Harron's experience on Alias Grace, much of which was shot outside of Toronto. "After shooting, I tended to get take-out food and go to my room," she says. "You're very aware that you only have so much stamina and you have to look at the scenes for the next day, and you're just kind of in a more monastic kind of life."

The energy-saving route that Sam Esmail took before directing every episode of Mr. Robot starting with the second season, involved building a pair of mini-hiatuses into the 80-day shooting schedule. It's part of a game plan he rolled out when USA Networks and his studio, UCP, expressed concern about him wanting to direct all the episodes. "They didn't want to break me, and my explanation was that I already felt pretty broken during the first season," says Esmail about a production schedule that left him with not enough prep time, tone meetings too short to unpack an intricate psychological thriller for guest directors, and excessive scrambling between the writer's room and the edit bay.

(Top) Scott Frank, on location for Godless, says he cross-boarded the entire series and implemented a 120-day production schedule resembling that of a seven-hour movie; (Bottom) Sam Esmail ponders his next move on Mr. Robot. (Photos: (Top) Ursula Coyote/Netflix; (Bottom) Peter Kramer/USA Network)

In his new, improved strategy, the whole season's worth of scripts were written and cross-boarded. Then Esmail got his cast together for a two-day binge table-read of all 10 scripts. With all the jumping back and forth in the timeline—they've been known to work on four episodes in a day—there are few on the Mr. Robot set who don't welcome a short vacation. "It's not just good for me, it's also good for the production to go off for five days, recalibrate, reset," says Esmail about the brief stretches of downtime. "You start thinking about the production in blocks as opposed to one massive 80-day schedule."

When Fukunaga made True Detective, he famously chose to shoot a long police interrogation scene like an uninterrupted play, 29 script pages in all, before breaking it up into segments that could be inserted across episodes. "It was an amazing amount of work to do in one day, but it was the smartest thing to do. It was the most realistic way of covering the moment."

Today, he can't imagine different directors struggling to capture the same tension-filled vibe as Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle being grilled by a pair of hardboiled detectives. "It wouldn't have made sense," he says. "And it's not so much about control as about continuity of vision."

Harron cited Fukunaga's interrogation scene as a model for a protracted doctor-prisoner exchange in Alias Grace. "We were doing it on a stage, and we really needed to do them all together. It was all in the same room, but I put them in different parts of the room and always sitting closer. It was six days, and we shot one episode per day in that room."

Fukunaga makes the case that a limited series is best served by a single director because it's not a feature film or a TV series, but a hybrid.

"The job for a director in feature films is not just to color in a script—you're supposed to expand upon it, make it something beyond what the words are," he says. "When one director does long-form television, you're able to do that as well because you're able to have ideas of leitmotifs that can repeat, things that you aren't always able to communicate to all departments ahead of time, stuff that's added the day of or a lucky accident that happens and makes sense thematically.

"I have a lot of feelings about how [being the sole director] could be done better," says Fukunaga. "But if you weren't there from the beginning to the end? You wouldn't be able to maintain all these loose elements that only coalesce in the editing."

Harron says she "would never go into a limited series without all the scripts (written by Sarah Polley)" upfront, an advantage that Fukunaga didn't have on either True Detective or Maniac. "That's one of the things that made it very possible. It's not like when you're doing episodic [and] they're giving you pages as you walk onto the set."

For now, the single-director sensibility may have its clear successes, but it will also require more convincing in such an entrenched industry. "Combatting the paradigms and structures of standard television production is one of the biggest challenges," says Fukunaga. "It's really about retraining everyone involved in it from the production level to the studio level about what this thing is, which is not like anything else they've done before."

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