Thursday, October 20, 2016
  • Wednesday, Jun. 22, 2016
"The Dresser" Nattily Attired By Director Richard Eyre, DP Ben Smithard
Richard Eyre directed "The Dresser" (photo courtesy of Starz)
Plus directorial insights into "Black Sails," cinematographer and production designer perspectives on "Narcos"

This installment of The Road To Emmy offers directorial and DP points of view on The Dresser (Starz), reflections from a director/consulting producer on Black Sails (Starz), and DP and production designer takes on Narcos (Netflix).

The Dresser
For director Richard Eyre, the Starz film The Dresser marked his first collaboration with Anthony Hopkins. “That’s what drew me to the project,” affirmed Eyre. “I had known Tony for a long time but never got the chance to work with him before. Colin [exec producer Callender] called me and I said ‘yes’ immediately. He had earlier approached Tony to see if he would do the stage production. Tony wasn’t interested but said he would like to do it on TV at some point. When that came to pass, we asked Ian [McKellen]--who I’ve worked with quite a bit--about doing it on TV with Tony and he quickly came on board. Everybody we approached for our first-choice cast said ‘yes.’ I can’t remember a piece of work falling into place quite so comfortably.”

The chance to work with Hopkins and McKellen--paired on a project for the first time--certainly was among the prime dynamics bringing other actors into the fold, along with the allure of the writing, Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his critically acclaimed play. (Harwood won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist.) 

In The Dresser, Hopkins stars as a Shakespearean actor named Sir whose life is falling apart. McKellen portrays his dresser, Norman, trying to help pull Sir--who was hospitalized earlier in the day--together so that he can perform on stage that night in yet another production of King Lear. The story is set in a challenging, harrowing time as WWII rages with Nazi Germany regularly bombing Britain. Yet the theater--even one as dreary as this one in a decrepit UK village--draws a packed house despite the threat of an air raid, underscoring the importance of art and the courage of the audience. The Dresser’s supporting cast includes Emily Watson, Sarah Lancashire and Edward Fox.

Unfolding over several hours of a single day, the story takes place primarily in a dim, disheveled dressing room of a theater well past its prime. The venue resembles a prison--which in some respects it is for Sir and Norman.

With a cast led by such distinguished and accomplished actors as Hopkins and McKellen, The Dresser poses a different directing proposition, according to Eyre. “It’s closer to conducting [than directing] because you’re so confident of everyone’s ability to play the score. You’re never saying ‘I think this scene means x, y or z.’ It’s more a question of conducting and pacing--so that the action is faster, slower, there’s more energy, less energy. Directing this cast was a complete delight.”

For Eyre--whose theatrical feature credits include Iris (for which Jim Broadbent won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2002) and Notes on a Scandal (recipient of four Oscar nominations in 2007)--perhaps the biggest challenge posed to him by The Dresser was “how you deal with turning a theater piece into something that has value as a film. It was important to me that this didn’t feel like it was a story for the stage, that it have film dimensions, a freedom of movement even within the confined space of a dressing room which is why the cinematography and production design were so essential.”

Eyre gravitated to DP Ben Smithard, BSC, and production designer Donal Woods, both of whom he teamed with earlier on the lauded BBC miniseries The Hollow Crown. Smithard was nominated for the British Society of Cinematographers Award in TV Drama for The Hollow Crown (the “Henry IV, Part 1” episode) in 2012; two years earlier the DP won the primetime Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography on the strength of his work on the miniseries Cranford. Production designer Woods is a seven-time Emmy nominee, with five of the nods coming for Downton Abbey, the other two for Cranford.

Eyre’s wife, Sue Birtwistle, produced Cranford and it was through her that the director came to know Smithard and Woods, tabbing them both for The Hollow Crown, a positive collaborative experience which led to their return engagement on The Dresser.

Eyre praised the way Woods constructed the dressing room so that every wall could be moved. “That meant we were able to get any angle imaginable, bring an energy and sense of variety to one static location,” noted Eyre.

As for Smithard, Eyre assessed that the cinematographer “is never daunted by any lighting problem. I’d ask him, ‘Can we move here and here and here?’ He’d say, ‘You’re asking for 320 degrees--I can make that work.’ Ben would just do whatever was required.”

Ben Smithard, BSC
DP Smithard noted that lighting The Dresser was a major challenge. “All windows are blacked out because of the war. You can’t tell what time of day it is. You lose a light source--sunlight, street lights, ambient light don’t exist in that dressing room. All the light has to come from within the set. And the character Sir often likes to have the lights off. As the film progresses, its tone gets a bit darker, and the set too gets darker and darker. There are dialogue scenes between Sir and his wife [Watson] which play out in almost darkness. He is going to a dark place and is trying to explain to his wife where he and she have gone wrong. The darkness is part of the story--not some artistic whim.”

Smithard embraced the challenge, spurred on by his appreciation for the story. “I was attracted to the project for the chance to work with Richard and Donal again. Beyond that, I really just love the writing, the dialogue. It’s some of the best dialogue I’ve heard in that kind of film for a long time. Great acting, great dialogue. I had never worked before with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. Sarah Lancashire was just stunning. Also brilliant was Emily Watson, whom I worked with before. Plus I got to shoot at the historic Ealing Studios [in London] which was a great experience.”

For The Dresser, Smithard selected the Panavision Genesis. “The camera was designed and invented about 15 years ago and I’ve used it with great results on period pieces--like Cranford and The Hollow Crown,” related Smithard. “The look is different from most digital cameras; it’s closer to a film look. Panavision just came out with a new camera so this is probably my goodbye to the Genesis. But I’ve enjoyed working with that camera and Panavision has always been really helpful.”

Smithard is active in TV, features and commercials. He broke into the lensing ranks in the latter discipline, working extensively on commercials as well as music videos before successfully diversifying into TV and theatrical movies. His first feature was The Damned United (2009), directed by Tom Hooper for whom the DP has also shot a number of commercials for the likes of Guinness and Captain Morgan. The Damned United tells the true story of Brian Clough (portrayed by Michael Sheen)-considered one of England’s greatest soccer coaches--and his 44 controversial days at the helm of reigning champion Leeds United.

Smithard’s feature filmography also includes the well-received, Simon Curtis-directed My Week With Marilyn (2011) which takes us behind the scenes of a week shooting The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1957 movie directed by Laurence Olivier and starring him and Marilyn Monroe in the title roles. Colin Clark, who’s in the employ of Olivier, chronicles the week and is portrayed by Eddie Redmayne--with Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier, both delivering Oscar-nominated performances. 

Black Sails
Steve Boyum has directed multiple episodes of Black Sails in recent years, additionally serving as a co-executive producer of the series in season two and a consulting producer in season three. Reverting this past season to a consulting producer capacity which he held originally on the show freed Boyum to direct a couple of pivotal storytelling episodes this time around, including the one marked by the death of Captain Charles Vane (portrayed by Zach McGowan). The opportunity to direct some of the mid-season, turning point episodes wouldn’t have been possible if he had remained a co-exec producer, explained Boyum, and he relishes the directorial challenge which in the case of Vane meant the departure of one of the show’s most popular characters. 

Yet while the plot twists and turns are equally “fun to direct” and creatively challenging, shared Boyum, every episode of Black Sails carries with it varied inherent filmmaking challenges, a prime example being creating “a world that is at times at sea on pirate ships that in reality aren’t in the water. That may sound easy to some who just think of green screen as the solution. But for our show in season 3 we had to make this world as interactive as it’s ever been as there is so much interaction with characters, their surroundings, the ship-to-ship battles.”

Boyum noted that a seamless mesh of live action and visual effects is essential to the human-based storytelling, reflected in part in Black Sails winning one of its two Emmys in 2014 for Outstanding Special and Visual Effects in a Supporting Role. And last year, Black Sails earned a Special Visual Effects Emmy nomination. Helming effects for the show is sr. VFX supervisor Erik Henry. 

Written as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” Black Sails also has period piece re-creation challenges. Boyum said that series creators Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg have gone back in time and generated scripts which are “pieces of literature. Every word has meaning. It’s like doing Deadwood with more scope. Nothing in Black Sails is gratuitous. Every word is plot or character driven.”

Boyum recalled talking about the show this past season with cast member Toby Stephens who portrays Captain Flint. “He realizes that what he has gotten to do and what’s been written for him represents a great launching point for him. He has to ask himself will he ever get another role like Flint, one that is so well written and demanding. As a director, I can’t imagine ever getting another project to do that is as fun and challenging. I’ve worked with a lot of casts and crews over the years and for whatever reason, this one [for Black Sails] is the most magical. We’ve had four seasons with a core cast of 10 or 12--and season four could be our best though I’m not at liberty to discuss it. This cast and crew are one big family, and I think the young actors in the cast will be friends the rest of their lives.”

Beyond the series creators, cast and crew, Boyum attributes the high caliber quality of the show to Starz itself. He noted that Carmi Zlotnik, managing director of Starz--who’s responsible for programming and development activities for the network as well as for overseeing production of Starz Original series--is both incredibly supportive and demanding of Black Sails, helping to make it “as perfect a show that we can deliver to the audience.”

For cinematographer Lula Carvalho, a prime lure drawing him to the Netflix historical drama series Narcos was his longstanding collaborative relationship with Jose Padilha, executive producer and a lead director on the series. The two artisans had worked together on the Elite Squad movies in Brazil, the feature Robocop as well as documentaries including Secrets of the Tribe

“We are friends, close working partners and because of that I was involved from the beginning even before Narcos had been greenlit,” related Carvalho. “It was a partnership job between two people who like to work together and have done so on many other projects for many years. That’s why I shot eight of the first 10 episodes, which isn’t the standard way of doing things. Normally you have one DP wrapping an episode while another preps and shoots the next episode.”

Narcos follows the infamous Medellin drug cartel, chronicling the criminal exploits of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. The story is told from the perspectives of Escobar (portrayed by Wagner Moura) and Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the DEA agent looking to bring him to justice.

Carvalho opted for the RED Epic Dragon camera for Narcos in that he needed to deliver 4K resolution for Netflix, actually shooting the series in 5K with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. 

For Carvalho perhaps the biggest challenge posed by Narcos was that there was no stage work. “Supposedly there were no suitable stages available in Colombia so we had to shoot a hundred percent on location. Every day we were going from one place to the other in Bogota where we shot 90 percent of the show. It’s a big city with a lot of traffic, and at times from a production point of view it was almost undoable. And with the fast pace of a TV show, sometimes you have to shoot in locations that are not your favorite, which was difficult. On the other hand, actual locations give a lot of real feeling to the scenes. Luckily Colombia is a friendly country, a friendly place to be in. Also helping with the challenge was the quality of the story itself. Escobar’s story is amazing. If you start from a very good story, a strong script and an actor as good as Wagner, you are in a very good position no matter the other challenges.”

Among those entrusted with bringing realism to the story--its locations and era ranging from the 1970s to early ‘90s--was Bogota-based production designer Diana Trujillo, an architect with a degree in visual fine arts from the University of Los Andes, Colombia. In her production design and art direction endeavors, she brings to bear her sense of architecture, fashion, interior, design, photography and art. “Being the only head of a department [as one of the production designers on Narcos] who is from Colombia, I felt a strong responsibility to bring reality to the project,” she said. “My mission was to connect the audience to a world unknown to them, with a strong sense of realism and a natural aesthetic.

That realism, though, takes on an extra dimension of relevance as Narcos opens with a title card explaining, “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe,” adding that there’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.

That “birth” reference was to Colombian Nobel prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez who introduced magical realism as a narrative technique. Escobar’s rise from poverty to opulence is characterized from the outset of Narcos as such a story. Thus the foundation of reality entrusted to the filmmakers for this story, including Trujillo, was of paramount importance. 

Narcos adds to Trujillo’s body of work which also includes production design for such features as Roa and art direction on The 33.

This is the sixth installment of a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony on September 10 and 11, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 18.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Richard Eyre, director; Ben Smithard, BSC, DP.