Winter 2020

A Symphony of Graphics and Movement

With Patriot Act, director Richard Preuss and his team orchestrate and choreograph a show that gives new meaning to the term "multimedia"

By Jill Goldsmith

Richard Preuss and stage manager Eddie Valk consider camera options on the multimedia set of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. (Photo: Marci Revens)

On a chilly November evening in New York, fans of Hasan Minhaj queued up outside a plain gray door on far West 57th Street patiently waiting to slip into a small theater where the comedian tapes Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. The host of the popular series has been attacking establishment targets for more than a year with eloquence, humor and 1,457 square feet of screens.

Patriot Act has already won a Peabody Award and kudos for its social relevance and its unusually immersive entertainment value (it also won an Emmy for Outstanding Motion Design). On stage, Minhaj is backed by three giant screens, and he paces around atop a fourth. The alum of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart darts between and over fast-moving original animation, video interviews, newsclips, charts and maps that literally illuminate his takedowns—of cruise lines, Canada, policing, the NRA, Sudan, fentanyl, mental health care and civil rights and asylum in the Trump era.

Behind the camera, the challenge is significant: This 34-year-old sneaker-forward host is always just one Nike step away from accidentally blocking a bar graph on teen depression or a mock Tucker Carlson interview.

"The screens are constantly changing to a literally endless range of anything that the team can dream up," says show director Richard Preuss, referring to the highly collaborative community of writers, animators and graphics experts behind this trailblazing series. The best way to put it is: "The screen is a character … and the intent is blocking in a way to highlight Hasan, the screens and their relationship to each other."

Preuss follows the moving pieces with five cameras.

"In the control room, Rich is like a conductor with an orchestra," Minhaj says admiringly, pointing rapidly in different directions with a mock baton on his way out of the Nov. 15 taping that explored the human cost of the Trump administration's immigration policy.

"Whatever happened to the caravan?" he asks at the taping. "A few thousand people showed up and asked for asylum. That's it — That's how many people came to my wedding in Sacramento. That's small. For Indian people, that's nothing."

Associate director Elliot Mendelson, left, with Adam Mishler, helps cue the show's many moving parts. "It's a fine line we have developed," says Mendelson. "I know Hasan's rhythm and Rich's rhythm." (Photo: Marcie Revens)

It was the second episode of the show's fifth cycle. Patriot Act tapes and airs episodes over six or seven weeks per cycle with a hiatus in between. Netflix ordered 32 episodes and the first show aired in October 2018.

Preuss, associate director Elliot Mendelson and stage manager Eddie Valk, all veterans of TV series, talk shows and specials, describe a high-pressure, highly rewarding undertaking that's unlike anything they've done before. They had a hint of the show's direction in the pioneering 2017 standup comedy special Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, which also made innovative use of screens.

"When you consider the entire history of television and the countless programs that have been made over many generations," says Preuss, "to be able to direct a show that is considered unique is an incredible opportunity and a real rarity."

Preuss touts a long line of credits on awards shows from the Grammys to the Emmys to the Golden Globes, and says he was intrigued when producers reached out. "My past experience with variety television helped with seeing the dimensionality of a show like Patriot Act and the possibilities of having each show look completely different."

He adds that "part of the fun with directing Patriot Act since the first episode is that we were able to make our own rules and establish our visual language. And then we look to break those rules and continue to evolve with every episode."

It starts with the written word, he says. "Then Hasan's performance and incredible ability to connect with the audience in the room and at home through the lens. Then the graphics teams designing elements that are based on the news, research, writing and archive teams. Then the screens themselves and how they are cued, when they are cued, and how they look in relation to the work of the lighting team."

With such busy visuals, the cues are legion. Preuss counted 176 in one half-hour episode.

Since the floor is a screen, directors can't set marks—tape would spoil the graphics. As Minhaj jokes, tells stories, explains complex topics and bounces from camera to camera, he must hit specific marks that have been blocked based on the graphics. "The goal is for him to seem to be moving very casually," says Mendelson.

"Part of the fun with directing Patriot Act since the first episode is that we were able to make our own rules and establish our visual language."—Richard Preuss

Preuss works closely with Mendelson, who calls the massive number of cues as screens transform, the script advances and Minhaj is on the move.

A high degree of agility is required by all. "Rich hears me calling for a change, so he is waiting for that, and then he takes a wide shot," says Mendelson. "[Or] we get a new script and I let him know that I need to call a certain cue earlier than I think. … Or he's asking me, 'Can you delay the cue in a certain spot?' And because those transitions are baked into the … graphics, you really can't go just by the script."

For instance, "I may know there's a two- to three-second delay at the animation because of a big transition at the top, so I have to get [the cue] to hit right on time, and very often I have to go to Hasan and ask him: 'Are you going to take the beat? Are you leaving that open for laughter or applause there, because I don't want to jump it and give away a visual joke.'

"It's a fine line we have developed. I know Hasan's rhythm and Rich's rhythm."

The team uses sophisticated previsualization software to view the entire graphic flow of an episode. It runs on a console device with a complex 3D server on which many Broadway productions rely for theatrical lighting.

Mendelson, who has worked on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and was with The Chew for its entire run, had filled in on The Daily Show for years and liked Minhaj's work, especially Homecoming King. "When I heard it would more or less be modeled on that, I knew it would not be just a guy at a desk with over-the-shoulder graphics. That it would have a different look.

"They are constantly pushing the envelope with big fireworks moments and big takeover moments that encompass bigger areas of the screen," Mendelson adds. A recent mental health episode included a complex M.C. Escher-like animation across screens and floor. "It was conceptually designed that where one animation ended, the next one picked up. There may have been 10 different beats in this sequence."

Hasan Minhaj, host of Patriot Act, takes center stage. (Photo: Cara Howe/Netflix)

Enter stage manager Eddie Valk, who stands in the audience at the back of the 200-seat theater silently waving Minhaj from one side of the stage to another, nodding to indicate a teleprompter shift, counting down with four fingers as a full-screen video wraps. Valk runs to the edge of the stage and points to a spot on the floor. Needing a mark, he's eyed a map of the U.S. and tells Minhaj to step onto Colorado. He is always in the host's line of sight.

"It's absolutely different than any other standard format," says Valk. "Really like a blend of standup special and film and comedy show. Hasan has a super ton of energy and moves around a lot. … The challenge is to keep him at a certain spot. He's got to be in a certain exact area to not block a graphic."

Basketball helps. They both love it. "I'll tell him, 'Your high post is here.' He'll say, 'I get it: Don't drift to the low post; stay on the free throw line.'"

Valk compares himself to a gentle air traffic controller. "It's like when they land a plane. I don't want to be disruptive. It's about finding the nuances of when to tell him to move."

Minhaj has made their relationship ("Eddie is my best friend!") an ongoing riff. The stage manager—an alum of The Late Show With David Letterman—is a recurring star of Deep Cuts, a wide-raging, hilarious Q&A with the studio audience that Minhaj records after taping each episode and runs on his YouTube channel and social media.

Given a show that deals with the dramatic cost of the Trump administration's draconian immigration policies, Minhaj cautions that the see-saw between humor and pathos can be tenuous for him and the show's creators.

"This episode is a little heavier so the jokes we do," he says, "they need all the love we can get, because the sad stuff is really sad."

Preuss said that sad-funny balance makes Patriot Act unique. He recalls wondering last season, "'How are we going to make [the opioid] fentanyl funny?' The writers and show runners did a good job of taking the viewers on an amazing journey," he says. "The graphics team knocked it out of the part. It was a heartfelt show that … had its ups and downs in a way that I have not seen other people doing."

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