Summer 2017

Wide Screen Visions

Event series and their high-profile offspring declare their visions creatively


A scene from The Handmaid's Tale, whose first three episodes were directed by Reed Morano. (Photo: Take Five/Hulu)

As a cinematographer, Reed Morano has worked with the biggest pop star on the planet (Beyoncé on the video epic Lemonade) and on such celebrated independent films as Frozen River, while as a director her credits include features (Meadowland) and episodic series (Billions, Halt and Catch Fire).

But this was something else—Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, in which Atwood reimagines America as a theocratic police state where child-bearing women, called Handmaids, are forced into sexual slavery to replenish the population. Hoping to gain ground on its behemoth competitors Netflix and Amazon, Hulu released the first three episodes as an introductory freefall into Atwood's frighteningly cultish and totalitarian world, called Gilead.

Morano submitted a 64-page look book that outlined her visual approach to the material, which she describes as "Kubrick-ian"—symmetrical to the point of unsettling, with occasions where the frame was slightly off. "Sometimes you come up with an idea when you're going out for a job, and then when you actually get into dissecting the world, you end up changing your approach, just because that's the way art goes sometimes," Morano says. "This is a weird situation where most of the things I kind of said I was gonna do—or all the things—we did."

Though The Handmaid's Tale is not technically an "event series" (Hulu has already renewed it for a second season), Morano's work on the first three episodes achieves the kind of immersive cinematic experience that have made these high-profile productions (sometimes referred to as limited series) into artistic showcases for directors in ways that TV traditionally hasn't been.

It's why Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club) was drawn to bring his style of 360-degree filmmaking to the seven-episode Big Little Lies for HBO, and why Ryan Murphy spent months of prep on one nearly two-minute-long Steadicam shot for Feud: Bette and Joan, on FX. It's why Ron Howard, who directed the pilot of Genius, National Geographic's 10-episode look into the life and times of Albert Einstein, invested in some 46 setups to shoot one lecture sequence given by Geoffrey Rush's Einstein.

"It's meant to declare its ambitions creatively," Howard says of the event series and its ilk. "It means the networks are willing to invest a little bit more in programs they hope become brand-defining."

STARRY NIGHTS: (Top) Director Ron Howard provides some pointers to Geoffrey Rush, who plays the older Albert Einstein in Genius; Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange face off in Feud, created by Ryan Murphy, who directed three of the series' eight episodes. (Photos: (Top) Dusan Martincek/National Geographic; (Bottom) Byron Cohen/FX)

Feature Films Elongated

Howard directed his first TV movie while on hiatus from his starring role on Happy Days, to "earn my way into the feature world." That well-understood ascension has become muddled. What is called an "event series" could just as accurately be termed a long movie—and, more to the point, one that tells the kind of character-based stories Hollywood used to exalt in releasing.

Not for nothing did Murphy develop Feud: Bette and Joan as a feature for six years, during which TV came of age again and a network like FX became just the place for Murphy to tell what had become an eight-hour saga.

In making Feud, Murphy aimed for nothing short of an epic homage to moviemaking as seen through the infamous Hollywood rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and the time the divas finally paired up to make 1962's macabre Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

As soon as Feud was greenlit, Murphy's thoughts turned to shooting episode five, which would depict the 1963 Oscars, when Crawford conspired to rob the spotlight from Davis, who was a best actress nominee for her role in Baby Jane. The ceremony serves as the apotheosis of Bette and Joan's feud, and it comes at a time when the larger theme of the series—the collapse of the studio system that created stars like Crawford and Davis—has been further fomented in the era of "peak television."

"You can't do the Academy Awards with two extras and a fruit basket," Murphy says. "You need to be lavish, you need to be true, so I moved money around."

The location was the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the venue where the '63 Oscars were actually held. The only trouble was the venue was now a torn-out wreck. "We had to build the sets, we had to build the costumes, all of it was custom work, so it took months and months and months of work to get that right," Murphy adds.

The work included importing trees and plants for the exteriors, which were shot in black and white. In the episode, Crawford has commandeered the green room for her own Oscar party, anointing herself the belle of the ball. Murphy would drive this home with a Steadicam shot that follows Crawford, after she presents the Oscar for best director, through a labyrinth of corridors, dressing rooms, bathrooms and back to the stage, where Crawford—her betrayal of Davis complete—returns to the microphone to accept the best actress Oscar for an absent Anne Bancroft.

"I mapped where I wanted her to go, and I sort of zigged and zagged, and then we built sets around that movement," Murphy says. "We had, like, 15 ADs on different microphones hidden in the rooms to cue people coming up. Because not only was it actors who had to be cued, but also we had all these different lighting setups. When Joan would turn a corner, there would be a lighting change."

Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed the entirety of Big Little Lies, on location for the seven-hour series, which stars Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. (Photos: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO)

History for Grown-Ups

If Feud conflates the making of a now-underappreciated film, Baby Jane, into a saga about all that Hollywood has forgotten about itself, ABC's When We Rise compresses the history of LGBTQ rights into an eight-hour history tour, from the bloody days of the gay rights movement through the source of AIDS and all the way up to marriage equality.

In directing the first episode of When We Rise, set in San Francisco in the wake of the Stonewall riots, Gus Van Sant was revisiting the terrain dramatized in Milk with screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who wrote When We Rise.

Milk was about one figure, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in politics. For When We Rise, Van Sant employed what he calls "a pretty sort of standard, modern TV" visual style, with a lot of hand-held camera. The bigger challenge was making the location feel like San Francisco in the '70s. "We were in Vancouver, and that happens to look actually quite a bit like SF, even in the '70s," says Van Sant. "We shot part of it in SF itself, and I don't think you can really tell which is which. Those towns—Portland, Seattle, SF, Vancouver—they kind of started and grew together. There's a lot of the same architecture and the same buildings."

Howard shot the first episode of Genius in and around Prague, which had to double for any number of European cities. Like Feud and When We Rise, Genius is an historical re-creation, but one that falls more squarely into what is considered "period." Howard's aim was to avoid the trap of making his world look too "postcard."

Light needed to be established as its own character in Genius—something the young Albert Einstein wrestles into meaning and which a somewhat older Einstein will turn into his theory of relativity. "When it's younger Albert, [cinematographer] Mathias Herndl and I, we chose these lenses that would flair more, so that it would become a little bit more of a factor," says Howard. "We'd notice it. We'd notice the sun. We'd notice light, we had beams of light.

"We ran these tests," he adds. "It wasn't a filter; it was a particular kind of lens that is more sensitive. Even though we're shooting digital, it kind of reacts in that more '70s kind of way in terms of generating flares."

Howard's 75-minute pilot episode runs along two narrative lines: turn-of-the-century Europe, when Einstein was a brilliant, fitful student; and 1930s Berlin, when the rise of the Third Reich is on the verge of driving the now-famous physicist to emigrate to the U.S.

"I had a particular aesthetic differentiation that I wanted to make between younger Albert and iconic Einstein," Howard says of his visual approach. "The younger Albert's world was full of angst and a little more kinetic, and there was a desperation in his need to express himself," while "the established, iconic professor was at a point in his life when he was more staid."

Behind the scenes with Reed Morano (right) and Margaret Atwood, whose novel, The Handmaid's Tale, was adapted by Hulu into a TV series. (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

A Tale of Two Worlds

The Handmaid's Tale exists in contiguous worlds, too—a tangible America that protagonist Offred (née June) has been ripped from, seen in fleeting flashback, and Gilead, the chillingly retrograde near-future in which she is imprisoned.

"One of the main differences that would alert the audience to where they are, I thought, would be sound," explains Morano. "The sound in their past, which is sort of like our present, more or less, is like an onslaught of sound."

Not so in Gilead, where practically the only ambient noises one hears are the squawking of police walkie-talkies. Translation: Shooting in Hamilton, Ontario, Morano had to find locations capable of extreme quiet. Sometimes the traffic didn't allow it. "Our post sound team in Toronto was really amazing," Morano says. "What they had to do is reconstruct the sound of a world where most of what we have doesn't exist."

On Handmaid's Tale, Morano often shifted to a hand-held camera to shoot her star, Elisabeth Moss, to convey how her character, Offred, feels alone in a world bled of genuine emotional connection. She also chose to use a 28mm lens when shooting Moss, to widen the frame. "Not everybody can take that lens," Morano says. "Not everybody can look great and compelling on that lens."

There was a side benefit to this strategy. Among the challenges Morano faced was how to shoot actors who were wearing what Atwood, in her novel, calls "wings"—super-sized nun's habits that all but blot out a Handmaid's face. They are vivid totems of chastity and subjugation, but not the most ideal headwear for shooting Handmaid "walk-and-talk" scenes, of which there were many.

"The easiest way to cover people is to cross-shoot them from the sides, just do two overs, which you can't do with the bonnet," Morano says. The 28mm lens enabled her to cheat this. "What we realized is, when we wanted to get into the bonnet, that lens is so wide [that] it felt like we'd gone within the bonnet when we hadn't actually gone within the bonnet."

FACT-BASED FICTION: Gus Van Sant and his young cast re-imagine the history of LGBTQ rights in When We Rise, for which Vancouver stood in for San Francisco. (Photos: (Top) Eike Schroter/ABC; (Bottom) Phil Bray/ABC)

360-Degree Filmmaking

Alone among those interviewed, Jean-Marc Vallée directed the entirety of HBO's seven-hour Big Little Lies, which, like Handmaid's Tale and Feud (now considered the first part of an anthology series), will continue beyond its intended run. Written by David E. Kelley, Big Little Lies is structured as a thriller; it begins in the aftermath of the shocking death of a parent on the night of an elementary school fundraiser in affluent Monterey, Calif.

From there, the series goes back in time several months, building to the moment of the crime. The mystery—who was killed on Trivia Night and why—is gradually subsumed in the series' larger and more unsettling theme of the violence, both physical and emotional, that men inflict on women.

Vallée shot the series as if he were making three or four features back-to-back (this included 27 weeks of editing). His moving parts included nine principal actors (including the movie stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley), a Greek chorus of observers to the drama, and child actors with key roles. For all that, Vallée works organically, composing his shot lists via rehearsals, without elaborate setups and using an Aflex on his or his DP's shoulder—a method that makes it sound as though Vallée is practically in the scene with his actors.

That's because he is. "It's fun to work this way, because we're not heavy—like using all these tracks and these dollies and these cranes, and you can't shoot there because there's equipment, and then you gotta reverse—we don't do that. We don't reverse. We shoot all the time, 360 degrees."

There are only four production people on set: Vallée, his DP, the boom operator and the focus-puller. "There's no waiting for prep, or setting up the shot; we just put in a 35mm lens and go," he says. Typically, Vallée says, he yells cut some 15 minutes after action. "There's a small video village," he says of his sets. "I'm never there."

Vallée worked at a pace of four or five pages a day—until, that is, the final episode of Big Little Lies, which he shot over 10 days at Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles, working from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and moving through the script a page at a time.

Episode 7 is the school's Trivia Night fundraiser, complete with all the couples in attendance, rich parents dressed as Elvis, secrets out and bloodshed—a rather Shakespearean climax to all that has come before. To stay improvisatory, Vallée didn't block the actors' movements and used one camera, shooting each beat of the action from every main character's point of view.

"The coverage was giant, and it was a giant piece of work to cut," Vallée says. "Of course, it was written, and we had a good plan from David Kelley and the script, but then you get creative, and you're always pushing the writing once you're in the cutting room, once you have your material."

Vallée is now in the midst of adapting Gillian Flynn's first novel, Sharp Objects, into another HBO event. "The challenge that I have is that I'm doing all of them, and physically and emotionally it becomes a marathon, a Herculean effort. It's crazy. You've gotta be in shape and you've gotta take care of yourself, otherwise the machine is going to collapse and break.

"I work the same way as I work when I direct a film; it's just longer. We have more time to explore and develop your characters, which is great," he adds. "It's a new sandbox here for us that I never thought I would be playing in."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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