Spring 2018


For Mimi Leder, Persistence Pays Off

A trailblazer in movies and television, the director has learned that knowledge is power and tenacity is the key to success


Director Mimi Leder. (Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

Back in 1985, Mimi Leder, then a script supervisor on Hill Street Blues, directed Short Order Dreams, a short film starring Lainie Kazan she hoped would get her hired to direct an episode of the Emmy-winning police drama. Because Leder's life is nothing if not filled with dramatic plot twists, she eventually made her professional directorial debut two years later, not on Blues, but on its creator Steven Bochco's hit ensemble law show L.A. Law. Yet even today, Short Order Dreams holds a special significance for the New York-born, Hollywood-raised trailblazer. "It's about pursuing your dreams, something that's been a part of the landscape of my life. My father always told me never to give up and never be afraid. So, of course, I'm always afraid—but I never give up."

If bottomless reserves of persistence are key to Leder's story, it's because for more than 30 years she's often had to deal with being taken seriously. This, despite the fact that as the daughter of lowbudget filmmaker Paul Leder (I Dismember Mama, A*P*E), she'd grown up on a set, and, as the first-ever woman graduate at AFI (class of '73, cinematography), knew how to take apart and rebuild a Mitchell standard 35 mm camera.

Whenever she was given a chance, though, she made shows she worked on better. After directing her first episode of the uncompromising Vietnam-set China Beach, in its second season, co-creator John Sacret Young asked her to come aboard as a producing director. After witnessing her direct an episode of ER (she's been credited with creating the medical drama's kinetic Steadicam style), Steven Spielberg hired her for The Peacemaker at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to direct a $50 million action thriller. Though her 1998 feature-length follow-up, Deep Impact, was a bona fide box-office hit, Leder's big-screen days seemed to end in 2000 with Pay It Forward, a heartstring-tugger unembraced by critics and audiences alike.

Painful as this stretch was, Leder's talent and tenacity never deserted her. With a still flourishing television career, Leder shot nine pilots and exec produced six series. In 2015, though, Leder was hired to guest direct a first-season episode of HBO's The Leftovers. Series creator Damon Lindelof looked at the dailies and even before she wrapped, offered Leder a job as co-showrunner. "She elevated the show instantly—we started getting calls from the cast saying, 'We love Mimi Leder,'" says Lindelof, adding that she immediately wanted to fix the series' heaviness of tone. "Mimi said, 'That doesn't have to be all it is.' She started finding what I'd call this intangible grace, beauty and forgiveness. We started to find the show mid-way through season one and that's because of Mimi." Over the next two seasons, Leder changed the series' color palette and introduced a signature combination of big-sky wide shots and sustained tight close-ups. By the end of the supernatural fan favorite, the launching pad back into features was set.

Recently, Leder, now 66, could be found in a Hollywood Blvd. post-production house, putting the finishing touches on On the Basis of Sex, a biopic about the early days of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, starring Felicity Jones. Fittingly, the hallway leading to the editing bay was wallpapered with Ginsburg memorabilia.

One photo shows a young Ginsburg on her first day at Harvard Law School, one of only nine women in the class of 1956. "She's lost in a sea of men, of gray and black and brown suits," says Leder. "That is often how I've felt in my career being one of the few. There are a lot of similarities that I relate to and why I had to tell this story."

(Top) Mimi Leder orchestrates the action on the set of On the Basis of Sex, her return to features after 18 years of concentrating on television; (Bottom) She directs George Clooney in ER during the mid-'90s. (Photos: (Top) Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features; (Bottom) Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank)

Q: You've often said that your childhood home was your first film school. Explain.

A: My father was a director of 23 ultra-low-budget movies, so I learned a lot about directing from him. I did every job on his set: focus puller, props, 1st AD, camera loader. I was armed with a lot of knowledge because I grew up with it. It was in the ether of life; it was infused in my growing up. It's kind of a family business. My father was sort of everyone's father. He brought these young filmmakers home and we all made films together. We learned the magic of storytelling. We learned how to get creative, to do it with no money.

Q: Yet your journey to becoming a director officially began in the cinematography department at the AFI Conservatory. Why not study directing?

A: I think I was too fearful, not sure of myself at that point. When I [applied] to the American Film Institute, they said, "You should come in as a director," and I said, "No, I want to be a cinematographer." As soon as I began to understand the power of the camera, I understood the power of the performance of an actor, it just made me want to tell stories. I realized very quickly that I wanted to direct.

Q: Post-graduation, you spent 10 years working as a script supervisor.

A: I did script supervising as a means of support. It was great to work with all those directors. I worked with Greg Hoblit, who gave me my first directing job. I was working as script supervisor on Hill Street Blues and Stephen Bochco and Greg Hoblit hired me to direct [an episode] in the next season. They'd given me dates. Then they left the show and a new set of exec producers took over and they didn't feel I was qualified to direct. I was fired before I ever got a chance. Was I fired because I was a woman? Yes! The two guys they hired [after I left]—their 1st AD and their location manager—had less experience than me. Neither went on to have a feature film or television career. It was very disheartening. But I believe in never giving up. Just go forward. Get knocked down. Stand right up.

Q: The way the story goes, Hoblit and Bochco next went to L.A. Law, right?

A: Greg Hoblit called and said, "Come script supervise for me on the pilot and a few episodes. You help me, I'll help you." I was script supervisor on the first six episodes of L.A. Law. I'd gotten pregnant. I worked, had my baby. Three weeks after Hannah was born, they called me and said, "We want you to direct show 19." I went, "What?" I was nursing my beautiful Hannah and I had to wean her. It took three months. I'm in horrible pain. It was very challenging, but I loved every minute of it. I got a second episode. Then my career just took off.

Q: Describe being in demand as a TV director.

A: I'd been directing for a year when I did my first pilot for Aaron Spelling. I had told my agent, "I'm not doing a pilot about nurses in skirts (Nightingales) for Aaron Spelling. That's not what I want to do with my career." She said, "They want you to do a pilot. Do it! Are you nuts?" So I did it, and signed on for three episodes. Then John Sacret Young and John Wells called. They hired me to direct episode four [of the second season of China Beach] and [afterward], they asked me to stay on. I was under contract to do a couple more Nightingales. I was raised a feminist. I was an anti-war protester all during the Vietnam War. I had to do China Beach because it was something that I totally understood. So I left Nightingales and didn't fulfill my obligation. [Spelling producer] Doug Cramer said, "You'll never work in this town again" (laughs). That didn't happen. I'm still here.

Q: In fact, you became one of the first-ever producer-directors.

A: Greg Hoblit was the first one to do it on Hill Street Blues. I was the second one. When I came on to China Beach, they hired me for two episodes, then said, "We'd like you to join our staff," and I said, "As what?" and they said, "As a producer-director." I directed episodes but I also started hiring the directors and prepping them. This was in the '80s when there were no people doing that—except Greg.

Q: You've been a DGA member for some 33 years. Talk about how the Guild has influenced your career.

A: When I'm able to participate, [there's] a great community. I love going to the director night events. They have a feature night and an episodic night and I like going to both. We never get to talk to each other [so] it's always very exciting to sit at a table with eight other directors you admire and talk process and laugh. "How did you do this?" There's just a respect that's invaluable.

The Guild work that's being done in the areas of diversity and gender equality is so essential. I respect the community and the community it provides. I think it's the greatest union in pension, in benefits, in leadership. I'm very proud to be a Guild member.

Q: Throughout your career, you've always used your status to lend a hand to other women.

A: When I was hiring women in the '80s and '90s, it was a new thing. Few women were being hired. I hired Bethany Rooney, Sharron Miller, Diane Keaton, Elodie Keene, Anita Addison, Donna Deitch, Helen Shaver, Neema Barnette, Leslie Libman, Tawnia McKiernan. I gave Michelle MacLaren her first job outside of X-Files on John Doe. I hired Lesli Linka Glatter on ER. On shows that I have exec produced, I've always brought women directors in. When I became exec producer on The Leftovers alongside Damon, I brought in Michelle MacLaren and Nicole Kassell. In season two, I remember I had this big list of women directors that I wanted to hire and they were all working. That was pretty exciting to me. It's still hard. But things are changing. There are more and more programs. Women are getting the opportunity to direct and are doing great work. So hopefully, the door will stay open.

(Top) Leder is in command central on Deep Impact (1998), which grossed $350 million worldwide; (Bottom) she guides Nicole Kidman and George Clooney on The Peacemaker (1997), DreamWorks' debut release. (Photos: (Top) Paramount Pictures; (Bottom) Myles Aronowitz)

Q: Steven Spielberg opened the features door for you. Is it true that he had to talk you into directing The Peacemaker?

A: Steven's company produced ER, and he came to the set when I was doing a six-page one-er. [Later] we met in his office and really connected. He was a great supporter of my work. He called me one day and said, "I have this cop show. I want you to direct the pilot and be exec producer." This is when we were getting a 44 share. Fifty-two million people were watching ER. I said, "Steven, thank you, but with all due respect, why would I leave ER to do a cop show?" About four months later, he called me up and said, "I'm not calling you up to do a lousy little cop show. I'm calling you up to direct DreamWorks' first feature. It's an action film and takes place all over the world." And I said, "Thank you. But I've never directed action."

Q: How did he change your mind?

A: He said, "You direct action every day on ER. You can do this." I hung up the phone and thought, "Wow, I've got to do this." I brought my Steadicam operator, Guy Bee, with me. I had Branko Lustig, this great producer who'd done Schindler's List with Steven. I hired Dietrich Lohmann as DP who had done all these Fassbinder films.

Q: What did you think about when picking a DP for the film?

A: I just wanted to hire a European guy. It felt right. By the time I did Peacemaker, I'd been directing in television for 10 years. So, for me, I approached it in a very similar fashion. I thought, "Find the DP who speaks your language, who can relate to you, who can respect you and you can respect." It's like a marriage when you pick a DP. You have to be in sync. It's so important for you and your director of photography to develop a language. The Peacemaker was a very big movie with big shots, but I wanted it to feel very visceral, guttural.

Q: You won a directing Emmy for ER in 1994. Talk about coming up with the show's high-energy trademark look.

A: Rod Holcomb directed the pilot and he used about 25% Steadicam and did the rest on a dolly. I did the first episode. I decided to make the style of the show more fluid and accelerated the Steadicam use to about 75%. Three-quarters of the show was on Steadi and the rest was on long-lens dolly and some handheld, but not much. I felt the best way to tell the story was to use the Steadicam.

Q: The scripts were famously long. Was this also a choice born of pragmatism?

A: It was pragmatic. But first it was an artistic choice. The camera just didn't wander. It was very specific. It wasn't just running down hallways. It was going into surgery, into intimate scenes, telling the story without cutting. I've always been very connected to the camera. I know the power of a lens. I know how to point a camera to get the most emotion and power of a scene to be realized. It just felt like the right way to go. Then it became absolutely essential to the storytelling.

The Steadicam was a tool that allowed us to go in and out and be very fluid. Then as we perfected the use of the Steadicam, the shows started coming up short. So they started writing longer scripts. We'd start with a 53-page script and by the time the first season was over, I believe we were in the 75- to 80-page range. We just got so good at it.

Q: What's the trick to doing a six-page one-er with a large cast?

A: It was a challenge for the actors to retain all the medical dialogue within a long, flowing shot. It was a challenge for the cameraman to do six pages of dialogue all in one shot. It took about three to four hours to rehearse. The way I designed the shots is that first I'd block it with the actors. Then I'd fold in the camera. Then we'd lock with the camera and adjust any of the staging and blocking. So it was a dance that we created. Then I'd fold in the sound. Then I'd fold in the extras, then the props. Then we'd do it all at once. It was a challenge for everybody—but then all of the sudden, you'd have six pages done before lunch. You can't get better than that.

Q: How did you find Chris Cuevas, the Steadicam operator you've been working with for the past six years?

A: I met Chris Cuevas when I was directing the finale of Luck. He was the C camera operator. I just fell in love with him. He's the Man. He danced my dance. Meaning I would say, "I want the shot to start here, then I want you to go to her face"—whatever the design of the very long Steadicam shot was—and then I'd say, "Now make it a little better" or "Instead of going right to left, should we go left to right? Should this be a 180 around this person? Or should we go 360? Does the story allow us to move the camera here organically?" I don't like to move the camera just to move the camera. I want to do it because it makes me feel something. He's just a unique artist. I brought him on The Leftovers as the A camera operator after I became co-exec producer. He's an integral part of the storytelling for me. You find these great operators along the way. Operating is an art, and I work very much English style.

Q: Meaning you prefer speaking directly to the camera operators instead of going through the DP?

A: Yes, American style is that the director speaks to the DP and the DP speaks to the operators—and I'll do that too. But I'll also go to the operator and say, "Let's try putting the camera here."

(Top) Leder controls the reins on the finale episode of HBO's Luck (2012); (Bottom) Working on The Leftovers with camera operator Chris Cuevas. (Photos: (Top) Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO; (Bottom) Ben King)

Q: You've guest directed many times over your 30-year career. Give an example of how to handle pushback from a crew member.

A: On "Gladys" (an episode of The Leftovers), I was doing a shot of Ann Dowd. I said to the DP, "I want to do a medium shot of Ann getting into the van." He said to me in front of everybody, "Have you seen our show?" I said, "Are you telling me I don't know how to direct?" He said, "Oh, no. I'm not saying that. It's just that we have a style." I said to him, (very politely) "Could you please put the camera on Ann Dowd in the style of your show? Thank you." Then we broke for lunch and the two camera operators were like, "We're horrified. We apologize. We will do any shot you want." Then, of course, the DP apologized for being an asshole.

Q: You like to shoot with three cameras. Why?

A: Because I don't want to miss a performance. If we're shooting an incredible performance, I want to have it three times. For example, if I'm doing an over-the-shoulder of a person, I can, if the lighting demands allow it, do a close-up and a profile of them at the same time. Often on On the Basis of Sex, I couldn't use the third camera because it was lit so specifically that you didn't want to cut it with something that was not well lit.

Q: What did you use for On the Basis of Sex?

A: We used mini-Alexas. We shot on digital because it was cheaper. It was a film with an indie budget. We shot it in 34 days. My DP, Michael Grady, though, calibrated and used these old lenses from the '70s. When light would hit glass, it would bend a little differently. So it has a very filmic quality. It has a lot of grain in it.

Q: Do you like to rehearse?

A: I don't like to rehearse a lot. I like to go through the scenes with the actors and talk with them about what they're about. Then stop. I don't like to find it in the room. I want to find it on the set. I want to find the magic and I don't want to catch it in a rehearsal hall or my apartment or my house and then never be able to find it again.

Q: What happens when an actor is having trouble?

A: We talk about the scene. Is it the writing? Is it the approach? We work it. And then you go over schedule (laughs). You work it enough until you find a new way in or why you aren't connecting to the material. What is it that you're not connecting to? Is it that you really need to be angry instead of sad? Is the emotion the wrong emotion? Does it have to start angry then go somewhere else? It's great. You rehearse it on set. You find it. And then you roll camera. Then you get it.

Q: Let's rewind a bit. You've always said that after the critical and financial disappointment of Pay It Forward, you were exiled from features.

A: I was at a real high point in my career, coming off of ER, Emmy wins, Peacemaker. Deep Impact made $350 million worldwide in 1998 when tickets were $8. On a non-holiday weekend, it made $41 million. It was huge. Then Pay It Forward bombed and the scripts stopped coming. It was a very difficult time. I was working more than I ever had but my feature career was over. I tried to develop my own material. I directed pilots, six of which went to series. I also did some episodes I wasn't proud of. I felt like, "I'm not going to do this anymore." It took a while to come back from that emotionally. I felt like I lost my heart. I was hurt. I felt completely defeated. Then I had some successes. Michael Mann hired me to do the finale of Luck.

Q: How many years was your feature career at a standstill?

A: Many years. Pay It Forward was 2000. I directed a film for Avi Lerner in 2008 with Antonio Banderas and Morgan Freeman when the big crash happened and Avi just sold it all overseas. He didn't need to release it. That was just heartbreaking. I didn't direct another feature until 2017.

Q: You directed more episodes of The Leftovers than any other director. Can you talk about the first?

A: I'd only seen the pilot. I just went in there and directed the show the way I thought it needed to be directed. The material on The Leftovers spoke to me in a very deep way. It was about these grieving people, about the stories we tell ourselves so that we can get through the day.

(Top) With producer Damon Lindelof on HBO's The Leftovers; (Bottom) Leder frames a shot on ABC's Nashville. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Donn Jones/ABC)

Q: One episode included a wrenching sequence in which a woman who has taken a vow of silence is stoned to death.

A: [I'd worked with the actress before], Marceline Hugot. I mean, what a face. What a wonderful actress. But I'd never seen a stoning before or shot one, and it was very challenging. First of all, we had to throw stones at her. I was terrified to shoot that.

I had them make big and smaller rocks out of bean bags. Those didn't work. They hurt the actor. I had them make foam rocks. They didn't work either. They just bounced off of her and looked ridiculous. So I had a full-body dummy made of her for the wide shots. I had them throw real rocks and some bean bag rocks at the dummy. If the [stones] hit the head and the head went back, great. If not, we could adjust it. We could do CGI rocks if we needed to.

Q: What about the close-ups?

A: For the close-ups, I'd call out "Bam!" [claps hands together] "Bam!" [claps hands together] "Bam!" Every time a rock hit, she'd throw her head back. I kept the camera rolling and I'd tell the makeup guys, "Get in there! More blood! Put some on her head!" Okay, "Bam!" [claps hands together]. That's basically how I shot it. Then we put in CGI rocks hitting her. Shooting it was very different from how you felt after it was cut. It wasn't emotional when I was shooting it. It was almost ridiculous. When we cut it together, though, it was one of the most painful sequences I've ever watched. There were 13 hits in that sequence, and it was character-driven. It was the first time this character had spoken in a year when she said, "Please. Stop." The human spirit was broken at that point. It was an extraordinary thing to find with the actors.

Q: What were some of the changes you brought to the series?

A: I helped to find the voice of the show and continued to open it up in season two and in season three. I hopefully brought a depth in emotion to these characters' arcs. We actually shut down for three weeks and rejiggered personnel. We put out a new edict.

They had a single cameraman. After we shut down, I brought in three cameras. It gave us the ability to find more moments. The show was mostly handheld but occasionally, we'd mix handheld with these super-long lenses, and it was always very powerful. I wanted [guest] directors to talk to their cinematographers. So much more comes out of prepping with your DP and actually planning what you're going to do.

Q: There are so many almost painterly images from the final episode. You used a drone, for example, to shoot Carrie Coon riding a bike through fields of bright yellow flowers.

A: The drone is a piece of equipment that if used properly, is far more effective than the helicopter. You can get in closer, and you can get out wide. We were in Australia, and all of a sudden, these canola fields started blooming; you'd smell them and everything was yellow. And I said, "Jesus, this is so beautiful." So all the high-angle shots were a drone, then mixed with crane. In this canola field, it was a way to take us to this crazy image of Carrie on this bicycle with pigeons on the back, and pedaling, and she did everything.

Q: You've had so many transitions in your career. Talk about returning to features.

A: The Leftovers was life-changing for me. I had complete autonomy. I was boots on the ground. I was Damon's partner. We had total respect for each other. We love each other dearly. It was like producing a 25-hour movie. So was the transition difficult? Not at all. It's just a different kind of prep. It's a longer prep for a shorter period of time directing. So you just have to adjust your body clock a little bit. When you do high-end television, you get about eight to 10 days to prep and then you're shooting for about 12 days. It's very fast. I love that. I love working fast because I love making decisions organically, spontaneously. With features, you have more time in prep to think about it. I don't like to over-think things.

Q: The finale also has to be the biggest sequence too, right? You have to build through each one.

A: Yes. You do it so that it is real. As long as it keeps the same tone that I am trying to set with the rest of the film. Again, it was the relationship.

Q: How did On the Basis of Sex come together?

A: My agent sent [the script] to me. I met with Robert Cort. Natalie Portman was attached at the time. Natalie and Robert hired me. Robert said, "You have to leave The Leftovers. We have to do it now." I'd just signed on for the third season. I said, "Can you wait for me?" "No." So I passed and moved on. A few months later, they called me in Australia and said, "Okay. We'll wait for you." And here I am. It was meant to be. It was the right movie for me to make. Telling Ruth Bader Ginsburg's story was one of the highlights [of my career]. I so identified with her and what she's done. She's a superhero. I understand a lot of her struggles because I've had them. They're different, but I've had them.

Q: Your line producer, editor and casting director were all women. What sorts of considerations do you make when staffing a crew?

A: I tried to have gender parity with the department heads. You walk into our editing suite and it's a very estrogen-filled space but men are very welcome. I had three camera crews on On the Basis of Sex. One of them was entirely women. That's unusual and hard to find. My costume designer was also female. It was pretty 50-50. I really strive for gender parity in hiring. You don't want to discriminate against men who are beautiful artists. I'm not going to not hire Michael Grady because he's a man—but I'd love to work with a female DP as well.

Q: In a way, you've come full circle.

A: It's like I'm in this second wind. To be able to make a film and feel its magic is extremely gratifying and satisfying. I feel, oddly, like I'm 25—but with all this wisdom and experience. And it feels tremendous.

DGA Interviews

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

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