Winter 2019

9 Questions

Sam Esmail

The man behind Mr. Robot brings three-dimensional life to the podcast Homecoming, with Julia Roberts as his ace in the hole

By Margy Rochlin

It wasn't the intention of Sam Esmail to direct all 10 episodes of Amazon Prime Video's new drama Homecoming, leaving script responsibilities to Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, from whose podcast the show is adapted.

But then, in preproduction, his Homecoming star Julia Roberts got wind of his intention to return to Mr. Robot after the first few episodes. "It was very clear that she was only interested in doing it if I were to direct all of them," says Esmail, noting that film actors are accustomed to only one person behind the camera. As it turns out, Esmail's frantic schedule-juggling was worth it. Homecoming is a taut, time-shifting, psychological thriller centering on Heidi Bergman (Roberts), a tightly wound counselor at a privately run facility that helps reintegrate combat veterans like her most sweetly genial patient, Walter Cruz (If Beale Street Could Talk's Stephan James), and showcases all of Esmail's stylistic flourishes: long tracking shots, unusual camera angles and framing, and two different aspect ratios.

1. What's the trick to turning a podcast into a TV series?

I think honestly it was about balancing what was special about the podcast and at the same time finding moments where it felt like it could be very different and expanded upon visually. I'll give you an example: The sequence where [a patient] steals the van to go into town to prove his theory that they're not in Florida? [In the podcast] that sequence was being told in hindsight to Heidi by Walter. That was a moment that we felt we could expand in the series, actually be with those two characters and keep the suspense and tension until they discover that they actually are in Florida.

We had to alternatively decide when not to do that. For example, in Walter and Heidi's session scenes, Walter oftentimes tells little anecdotes from his time in war. We could have jumped to those in flashback. But, for me, the heart of the show was their sessions and how the relationship and bond between Heidi and Walter forms. So we decided staying with them would actually be better.

It was really all about being surgical, a balancing act. Because we knew that in the end [the series] was going to be its own thing, its own creature.

2. How did you shoot the telephone conversations between Heidi and her fast-talking boss?

I didn't want the typical phone call scenes or sequences that you see in movies where you cut back and forth. Here, I wanted to really have this feeling like you were watching this live. So we leaned heavily into the split screen.

Then I told my sound designer, "I want it to sound [tinny], like the phone call was recorded and that we were listening to it being played back later." I wanted the feeling that you were eavesdropping in on this conversation, listening to something you weren't supposed to be listening to. In general, we wanted that voyeuristic feel to be throughout the whole show.

3. Why use only pre-existing scores from, for example, The Conversation, The Parallax View and Body Heat?

Tone is very important to me. When I listened to the podcast, what was refreshing about the story was that it harkened back to these classic, character-based thrillers that I loved growing up. So when my creative team and I sat down to talk about tone, a lot of our references were from '70s paranoid thrillers. I realized there was something unfair about asking a composer to ape that quality and sound from those classic scores. So I had my music supervisor (Maggie Phillips) look into the possibility of just licensing them. It was a pain in the ass but we were able to pull it off.

4. What was your experience like directing but not writing all 10 episodes of Homecoming?

I have to say that it made Homecoming more difficult. On Mr. Robot, because I run the writers' room and know every decision behind every line of dialogue, I'm able to be nimble and adapt with the scripts and the moments. I never have to question what I'm doing as I'm directing the actors or going through the scenes. [With Homecoming], I couldn't spend a lot of time in the writers' room because I was shooting season three of Mr. Robot. I was mostly reacting to drafts and giving notes on that. In general, I'd rather be a lot more intimate with the writing as I direct.

Sam Esmail says Homecoming star Julia Roberts was capable of elevating the material to another level. (Photo: Hilary B. Gayle)

5. How do you help the cast know where they are in a given scene when you are shooting multiple episodes and timelines in a single day?

One thing that we do [on Mr. Robot] is a binge-table read. We spend two days [reading scripts from] the whole season. A few weeks before we start shooting, I sit down with every actor, go over their arc and answer any questions they might have. That's because when we get to set, it gets a little crazy.

We did that on [Homecoming] too. It was especially important because Julia was constantly jumping between two different timelines (2018 and, four years later, in 2022). Not only were we jumping between episodes, she was essentially playing two different characters and two different sets of memories. The table read was critical and helped ground everyone in terms of their arc.

6. What kind of cameras did you use and why?

We really wanted to control the tone that I wanted, again, to hearken back to the classic thrillers. So we used the Panasonic DXL 2 with custom-made Panasonic lenses. They have this kind of earthy, desaturated quality to them that had that vibe we were looking for.

7. How did you approach Amazon Prime's next-episode binge function?

That was kind of a challenge to us. This is such a slow burn storyline and the endings don't have those cliffhanging gotcha moments. They're much more nuanced and subtle. So what I wanted was for the endings to have a lingering effect on the audience. So even though that [autoplay] icon will pop up on the bottom right, I thought the onus was on us as filmmakers to [create something] that dares the audience not to click to the next episode, endings that say, "How about you not click on it? How about you stay and watch [until the end]?"

8. How tightly do you choreograph your tracking shots?

Everything is precise, calibrated, mapped out, prepared. For example, that long tracking shot in the first episode? We must have rehearsed that a few times before the set was even built. We had chalk outlines on the stage and Julia would come in and we'd just walk it through, time it out, time out the dialogue, decide which props I was going to use.

9. This was the first time you worked with an actor of Julia Roberts' stature. What was that like?

The thing about Julia is she has such a high level of craft and skill, and you can constantly rely on it. With some actors, if I have upward of 10 notes, I don't want to give them all 10 notes and overwhelm them. I usually parse them out three or four at a time. With Julia, I found that I could give her as many notes as I had. Not only that, I could adjust the blocking, maybe add a prop here and there, and she could not only take it all in but maybe also elevate it to another level. It was like working with a top-shelf athlete: You always know what you're going to get.

(Top Photo: John Salangsang/January Images)


10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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