Spring 2020

The Pulse of Hip-Hop

Empire's directors discuss how they used music to enhance the show's mix of dynastic drama and a fanciful take on the recording biz

By Brian Tallerico

As Hakeem Lyon, actor Bryshere Y. Gray shows the board of fictional Empire Entertainment how it's done during the show's sixth and final season. (Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX)

When Empire, the story of a black-owned music company run by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), premiered on Fox in January of 2015, even the people who created the series could not have foreseen its cultural impact across the TV landscape. Seventeen million people watched the season one finale, and the show felt fresh and new in ways that nothing else did on television. Blending soap operas about families like Dallas and Dynasty with hip-hop culture resulted in scores of viewers tuning in weekly to see the latest drama between Lucious, his ex-con ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and their three sons. And all the high drama, betrayals, and back-stabbings were set to music, creating different challenges for the directorial team than the standard drama.

The show, concluding this spring after six seasons, started with the vision of Lee Daniels, who wasn't even sure he wanted to do television after a successful theater career and a growing profile in film. He admits he had no idea how it really worked when he created Empire, convinced that the pilot wouldn't even get picked up and unaware that, as he puts it, "It was a child that would need feeding and nourishment."

From the beginning, music was essential to Daniels' vision. "It was important that the music in the pilot was seamless—that it really connected to something that was very personal," he says. "I had Timbaland come in because I connected with his work. I wanted something that I knew my cousins in North Philadelphia would connect to."

Initially, how music would be incorporated into traditional dramatic storytelling was still something that Daniels and his team were figuring out. For example, "Live in the Moment," one of the key musical numbers in the premiere, was just written as "Rehearsing Song" in the script. "And then it became real—what are these guys gonna sing?" says Daniels. "How does it become real? How does it become authentic? How does it become honest and true?"

Addressing those questions in that first season led Daniels to find moments in the music as they happened. The show featured a blend of live performance and pre-recorded tracks, but Daniels tried to hold onto the "visceral" aspect of live performance. "Something happens when the actor is in the moment and you are present," he says. "Sometimes the live performance shuts down that song that we created in the studio, not knowing what the feelings were going to be like once we were on the ground. For me, pre-recording was a template of what it was like, and then we would do a mixture of live and pre-record."

Bille Woodruff, who directed four episodes over the entire run of Empire, reveals that sometimes the live recording of a track would be done right there, on-camera. And then, for coverage, "We'll just sing to that one," he'd instruct the actors. So what ended up on camera musically was often a hybrid of live and lip-synced performance.

For Sanaa Hamri, the show's producer-director who has directed 19 episodes, the trickiest part of dealing with music sequences is capturing narrative dialogue or action while a performance is in progress.

For instance, in "Hot Blood, Hot Thoughts, Hot Deeds" from Season 5, the singer Treasure, played by Katlynn Simone, falls off the edge of the stage. This stunt was meticulously choreographed to the exact beat.

(Top) Director Sanaa Hamri, right, interacts with Vivica Fox, Henson and Tasha Smith; (Bottom) Director Bille Woodruff (in scarf) discusses a scene with series lead Terrence Howard. (Photos: Chuck Hodes/FOX)

"When doing those scenes, one has to always make sure the action occurs at the same part (timecode inpoint) of the music/song as to not have the action out of sync," says Hamri. "So our music cues are hyper-important. We rehearse before the shoot date, so it is accurate and works for the story. Then it's choreographed to the specific point of the song. This has to be the same for every angle and every take."

She adds, "We have to be very careful when we go from playback of the song into a live version of it. For example, when the script calls for the singer to mess up their vocals as a story point. That means we need to do a pickup of the section where they mess up vocally and do that live and not as a pre-record so it is visceral and real. We have to have handles to make sure it is a smooth transition and looks effortless."

For example, in "Steal From the Thief," the Season 5 premiere, Cookie and Lucious are working on music with Treasure in the living room of their mansion. When she first begins to sing, Hamri recorded her live. Once Lucious brings in the beat, they used a pre-record.

Whether live or recorded, everyone involved with Empire adopted the motto that music should never break the flow of the show dramatically. "The music should not stop the story," says Hamri. "It should completely enhance or make the story move forward."

Those decisions about how music weaves through the storytelling on Empire have largely been Hamri's for most of the show's run. Since Daniels handed the nourishment of his "child" off to Hamri, she has been closely involved with every single episode.

As Daniels says about the decision: "I trusted Sanaa. I trusted that she would have my back, and she did. Each season, it became a different sort of interpretation of what it was [in the pilot]."

As Woodruff makes clear: Hamri "really does give you the heart and soul of the characters, but then allows you to bring your creativity into it. You know what your tools are but she's not stopping you from having fun. Some people don't know when it's time to step back and (let you) do your directing."

If individual approaches are encouraged, it's not at the expense of continuity. "A show like this requires a diligent eye and organization or else it would look like a whole different show every time," says Hamri. And that organization extends to the music. Music is tracked three episodes before shooting to help guide such elements as rehearsal and choreography. Producers with songs in the Top 100 are often brought into the fold, with multiple demos competing for a spot on the show.

"We have a music team," explains Hamri. "I get on the phone with the showrunner, Brett Mahoney, and the writers, and they go through all of the songs they want in an episode. I'll give notes and directions. Then we take those and send them to current music producers. They make music demos and we choose the demo. The best song wins and that's the song. It's a matter of taste mixed with being thorough."

(Top) Director and series co-creator Lee Daniels provides guidance to Taraji Henson on the Empire set; (Bottom) Terrence Howard, cinematographer T "Maddox" Upshaw and director Mario Van Peebles get into the mechanics of a scene. (Photos: Chuck Hodes/FOX)

Hamri gets very detailed with the producers so that by the time the guest directors come in, everything musically is done. "I always ask for a mash-up," says Hamri. "It sounds like blah blah blah meets blah blah blah. So we'll be very specific. And I'll always ask what's the hit record reference for this. What is it about? What's the tone? We really tuck into specifics, so by the time we know what that song is, then it goes to the music producer. So all the songs are coming in how we wanted."

From that point, a music cue meeting helps determine how the songs will be treated. "I tell the guest director that I want them to A) film the whole song, or B) just film the first half, or C) choose a verse and a chorus from any part of the song," Hamri explains. "Sometimes I know we don't need this whole song. Or I know that a song is going to do well, and we might use it for a promo. So I have them shoot the whole song."

Recurring director Mario Van Peebles has a long history with music in film and television, and he understands how to use it to tell a story. It's all about rhythm. "It means that you have to be very aware of what the narrative is," he says. "In a good musical, when the boy starts to sing and he sings about the girl, you know by the end of the song that he intends to date her even though her father says it's not a good idea. The narrative has to be pushed and you have to know what those beats are."

For Hamri, no amount of prep with the directors is too much when it comes to the blending of drama and performance. Hamri "really gave me the tools to succeed and lay it down," says Woodruff. "I got to feel the energy and the vibe and see how they do things—how they balance music vs. dramatic scenes that are really the story and how they combine. How much of a song are you really shooting? Where should you try to help yourself by requesting an edit on a song?"

The elephant in the room is Jussie Smollett, whose Jamal character was hailed as a positive depiction of a gay black man on television. His allegation of being the victim of a hate crime in early 2019 was contested by Cook County (Ill.) investigators—a case that's still ongoing. Although Smollett's character was written out of the show's final season, the controversy threatened to spill over into production.

"The show is such a drama, and there's been drama surrounding the show," admits Woodruff. "But the vibe on the set is very unassuming. Some sets are very stressful—this isn't one of those sets." That doesn't mean Woodruff didn't encounter any bumps in the road. "Terrence (Howard) wasn't that easy when I first started," Woodruff recalls. "He didn't know me. He tests you a bit. And I had to show him that I knew what I was doing."

Navigating the cast's shifting personalities is just one aspect of a series one director called "a show and a half." As Richard Lederer, unit production manager, says: "While you're doing this show—prepping and shooting—you're also dealing with choreography, rehearsals, getting songs approved, getting lighting approved, putting it all together and getting the director to approve it as well."

As the show evolved, the crew expanded to accommodate all the moving parts. "The first two years we had two 1st ADs and only one 2nd AD, who was prepping and filming," says Lederer. "It was a challenge to get everything done. So we went to two 2nd ADs so we could have a 1st and 2nd prepping while a 1st and 2nd filmed. It helped with organizing everything and getting it approved and making sure it followed the right steps. We also added a music coordinator. And that person was in charge of the red tape between Fox Music, the labels/artists and Sanaa."

(Top) Serayah McNeill guest stars in the "Good Enough" episode midway through the sixth season; (Bottom) Howard and UPM Richard Lederer talk logistics.(Photos: Chuck Hodes/FOX)

Lederer admits that during the second season it was difficult to keep pace with the success of the show. Since Empire was shaping up to have at least one performance every episode, finding and equipping locations for those shoots came at a significant cost. "We had to find venues," recalls Lederer. "Every episode, there's a certain drop load of lighting for every number. And we're going to different locations for every episode in Season 2. The price of bringing in this lighting was expensive; just bringing in the whole circus on location costs money."

Eventually, a dedicated performance space was created at Cinespace in Chicago to help consolidate resources and alleviate a ballooning budget. "Season 3, we built a performance space," adds Lederer. "It was costly, but we went from four stages to five to six. And ended up with seven stages. Now we have this lighting for seven months. That helped out a lot."

If the scale of Empire eventually had lived up to its name, for Daniels, the show's reverberations extended beyond ratings and entertainment value. "I didn't understand the impact it would have," he says. "And I'll miss that feeling of change. Grown men would come up to me, white/black, [and say] how their view had changed on how they treated their son because they were gay. These white, 80-year-old women would understand and identify with Cookie, which blew my mind. It transcended race."

The subtext of tolerance and inclusion also resonated with Van Peebles. "I like to entertain folks and make them think," says the director, "and Empire was an opportunity to do that and, in some ways, re-examine and emotionally feel for a gay brother in hip-hop."


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.

More from this topic
More from this issue