Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Friday, Aug. 18, 2017
Emmy Nominees: Director, DP, Editor and Production Designer Perspectives
Elizabeth Moss in "The Handmaid’s Tale" (photo by George Kraychyk/courtesy of Hulu)
Insights into "The Handmaid’s Tale," "Stranger Things," "Silicon Valley," "Westworld," "The Night Of," "Mozart in the Jungle"
  • --

While not a first, Reed Morano has attained a rarity in the annals of the Emmy Awards, earning nominations in the same year for her directing and cinematography. The former came for “Offred,” the pilot for The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), recognized in the Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series category. As for her lensing, Morano is an Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour) nominee for the pilot of Divorce (HBO).

Steven Soderbergh was the last—and believed to be the only other—artist to be nominated for directing and cinematography Emmys at the same time. In 2013 he accomplished the feat for the telefilm Behind the Candelabra (HBO).

It’s somehow fitting that cinematography and directing be linked for Morano on the Emmy stage. Her directorial ascent is explained in part by the way she broke into filmmaking to begin with. As a film student at NYU, Morano originally intended to write and direct but her focus shifted to cinematography. “I saw a DP at work and thought it was a fascinating job. You get to work with the director, interpret his or her vision into visuals. You learn the emotion of visuals. Every new job pushed me creatively in a different direction—directions I might not have taken if I had just concentrated on directing. I didn’t give up directing. I just gravitated towards cinematography, figuring that could be what I’d end up doing professionally or maybe it would lead to directing. As a DP you are constantly thinking of how you can visualize what the director sees, to make their wildest dreams come true. As a DP you give directors not necessarily what they want but what they need to realize their vision and properly tell the story. Also as a DP, you’re a problem solver, honing skills that can only make you a better filmmaker.”

Among Morano’s notable DP credits are the lauded documentary Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa (winner of the Michael Moore Best Documentary Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival), and Frozen River, a narrative film which won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and a pair of Film Independent Spirit Awards. Frozen River was key in putting Morano on the industry map, spawning offers to shoot varied projects, including features for Rob Reiner (The Magic of Belle Isle, And So It Goes) and Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), and the lone season of HBO’s Vinyl for EPs Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger. Morano also shot several commercials directed by the likes of Mark Romanek and Phil Morrison.

Morano noted that being a cinematographer—which she has done on a high level as reflected in her earning a coveted ASC designation in 2013—bought her valuable time. “I needed to be a DP for many years before I felt comfortable to say that I can tell—and lead—a story as a director. Years as a DP help to make you ready for any scenario.

She was indeed ready for her directorial debut Meadowland (2015) which earned nominations for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, Best Directorial Debut at Camerimage, and Best Cinematography (Morano also lensed the picture) at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. In the film, Olivia Wilde portrays a mother who along with her husband grapples with the loss of a child, triggering the couple’s downward spiral. The authenticity of the film, tackling a story that’s a nightmare for any parent, resonated with viewers on a profound emotional level.

Fast forward to 2016 and Morano struck another responsive chord with audiences—and this time the ad community at large—via “How Do You See Me? for CoorDown, Italy’s national organization for people with Down syndrome. Saatchi & Saatchi NY creatives saw the empathetic and emotional gravitas of Meadowland, prompting the agency to gravitate to Morano to direct this public service short. Marking World Down Syndrome Day (3/21/16), the piece features a girl with Down syndrome named AnnaRose Rubright narrating the life she wants to have. And in this life, she’s played by actress Wilde. This metaphor is aimed to ignite a conversation around how those living with Down syndrome see themselves and how they are often times disadvantaged when people pre-judge them based on their condition. People with Down syndrome are still too often victims of discrimination, and even more than what is said about them, the way other people look at them is a common indicator of this type of prejudice.

Such insightful, stirring work is a hallmark of Morano’s filmography which has grown to include television. While she’s helmed single episodes of Showtime’s Billions and AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, Morano has made her biggest TV impact on The Handmaid’s Tale, having directed and served as an EP on the first three episodes of the series which has garnered 13 Emmy nominations (including for Outstanding Drama, and Leading Actress for Elizabeth Moss). Based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly part of the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a twisted religious fundamentalism that treats women as property of the state. As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (played by Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commander’s household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world. In this terrifying society where one wrong word could end her life, Offred navigates between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas, and her fellow Handmaids—where anyone could be a spy for Gilead—all with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her.

Morano noted that among the prime challenges posed by The Handmaid’s Tale was “finding the right tone” for the show. “My natural instinct used to be to gravitate to what is most real, authentic and grounded. But for The Handmaid’s Tale, another dimension was needed. To tell the story and connect with an audience, the experience had to be made more epic and not one that just totally drags the viewer down. You can’t just strike one note all the way through. You have to create more of a roller coaster ride. For me the goal was to find a balance between realism and heightened elements here and there.”

Helping with this heightening was the cinematography of Colin Watkinson whom Morano described as simply “spectacular.” She and Watkinson looked to bring new life to what can be visually mundane voiceover and flashback sequences. Of course, the beautiful and poetic writing of Atwood imbued the voiceover with a stirring spirit. Morano and Watkinson in turn worked to make the point-of-view story of greater visual interest. “We thought,” shared Morano, “if everything we do with the camera is psychologically driven, getting into the mind of the character, then these sequences could be all the more engaging.”

As for her other Emmy nomination, Morano characterized Divorce as “a tricky show” to shoot—a balance between comedy and drama, satiric, stylish, moody yet naturalistic. Created by Sharon Horgan, Divorce stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church as a middle-aged, middle-class couple. Their marriage is stagnant when a seismic event thrusts divorce into the picture.

Originally, Morano said that she, Parker and pilot director Jesse Peretz wanted to shoot Divorce on film. But that would have bucked HBO policy. So Morano opted for deploying ARRI’s ALEXA camera. “I pretty much shoot ALEXA when I shoot digital,” said Morano. “I like the way it can make images look more like film. We also went with anamorphic lenses, which takes the digital edge away and makes viewers think they’re watching film.”

As for what’s next for Morano, her recent directorial endeavors include a NatGeo commercial, being in post on the drama/dark comedy feature I Think We’re Alone Now starring Elle Fanning and Peter Dinklage, and currently in pre-pro on The Rhythm Section, a thriller being produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, known for the James Bond film franchise.

Stranger Things
Included in the mix of 18 Emmy nominations for Stranger Things (Netflix) are not only Outstanding Drama Series but also the first two in the careers of the Duffer brothers-for Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, both for the “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers” episode.

Matt and Ross Duffer have created a hybrid sci-fi/horror/drama show that’s been embraced by audiences worldwide. Winona Ryder portrays Joyce Byers, who lives in a small Indiana town in 1983. When her 12-year-old son, Will, goes missing, she launches what proves to be a terrifying investigation into his disappearance, working in concert with local authorities. Searching for answers, they confront a series of extraordinary mysteries involving secret government experiments, unnerving supernatural forces, and a very unusual little girl, Eleven, with psychokinetic powers.

Ross Duffer found the Emmy nominations “surreal and unexpected. I remember thinking when we were creating the show, ‘Is anyone even going to watch?’”

Matt Duffer added that the timing of the Emmy nominations announcement honoring season one came in the midst of he and his colleagues wrapping season two. “We were pretty exhausted but the Emmy news gave us a second wind in a way. It’s very validating to be recognized by your peers, those you look up to.”

Among those peers is director/producer Shawn Levy (known for The Night at the Museum franchise), founder of 21 Laps Entertainment which teamed with the Duffers’ company Monkey Massacre Productions to produce Stranger Things.  Levy earlier recalled, “Dan Cohen, my company VP, came into my office one day and asked me to read this pilot from two brothers no one’s ever heard of. It was immediately clear to me that his project was incredible. We brought the brothers into my office and we bonded instantly. I remember saying, ‘I get what this can be. I want to back your vision.’ Literally our first pitch together was at Netflix. The next morning we had sold them the entire [first] season.”

Matt Duffer said that Levy and 21 Laps saw advantages to what others viewed as drawbacks. “We wanted to run the show but had no showrunning experience—21 Laps saw these types of things as positives. They saw our need to bring on people who were passionate about the project, some with more experience than others. We hired guys who had never composed music for a TV show before. Shawn and 21 Laps didn’t view inexperience in certain roles as a problem but rather a chance for new energy, drive and perspectives. We made discoveries when working with new talent. And in a way the show found its audience that way. Viewers felt they happened upon our show and it became a new discovery, and that helped us to build a core audience.”

The industry at large too has been responsive. On the strength of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers earlier this year became DGA Award nominees, won the Producers Guild Award (along with Levy, Cohen, and EP Iain Paterson) for Outstanding Producer of Episodic TV, Drama, and earned two Writers Guild Award nominations in the Dramatic Series and New Series categories.

As for their biggest takeaway from Stranger Things, Matt Duffer affirmed, “If we feel something in our gut, we should always listen to that.”

Ross Duffer added, “When production is moving at such a fast pace, you have to speak up then if you want something to change. If something feels a little bit off in your gut, fix it now.”

Silicon Valley
Among the 10 Emmy nominations this year for Silicon Valley (HBO) is one for Jamie Babbit in the Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series category on the basis of the episode titled “Intellectual Property.” Babbit is a first-time Emmy nominee, building further upon a career which has seen her direct for such notable shows as Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Girlboss, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Nip/Tuck, The L Word, Malcolm in the Middle, United States of Tara, Married and Looking. Her feature filmography includes But I’m a Cheerleader, The Quiet, The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and Addicted to Fresno. And now Babbit is looking to make a meaningful foray into directing commercials and branded content, joining Independent Media, the production house headed by EP Susanne Preissler, for representation in the ad sector.

The opportunity to direct Silicon Valley came while Babbit was helming Girls. She had mentioned to an HBO executive that she loved Silicon Valley for its comedy and how it delves into modern culture. That exec in turn mentioned it to Silicon Valley creator Mike Judge who hired Babbit to direct an episode a couple of years ago. From there she went on to helm additional episodes with Judge eventually bringing her in as a co-executive producer and in-house director. Now Babbit helms about one-third of the Silicon Valley episodes, more than any other director.

Relative to “Intellectual Property” which earned her the Emmy nom, Babbit said the episode had a fulfilling share of physical comedy, in particular a scene where Richard Hendricks (portrayed by Thomas Middleditch) is enraged when his breakthrough invention of “a new Internet” hits a stumbling block. Hendricks kicks down a door on the set. To facilitate the scene, Babbit recalled that “a multitude of doors were created with balsa wood so it would be easy to knock through them during multiple takes without injuring the actor.” Accenting the humor is that this nerd character, whose orientation is never to “get physical,” decides to go to battle with a door—and the door wins. His macho moment instead results in his foot getting caught. “The door swallows his foot and shoe,” laughed Babbit.

In terms of what’s next for Babbit, she’s directing the season finale of a series called The Orville, created by and starring Seth McFarlane. The comedy/drama/sci-fi show is based in outer space, affording Babbit the opportunity to work on another visual plane. “I’m always looking to create visual moments where comedy plays out,” she said. “I enjoy having different cinematic palettes.”

Additionally Babbit hopes commercials and branded content will be part of the directorial mix. Early on in her career, Babbit started out working for Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. She served, for example, as script supervisor on Fincher’s feature The Game. She said of Fincher, “He was a mentor for me as far as the visual world and having control of it. He’s a master of short form. I saw directors like him and Mark Romanek at Propaganda take on commercials and capture something special.”

This whetted her appetite for commercialmaking. Babbit recently connected with Preissler whose shop, Independent Media, is known for bringing feature filmmaking and TV talent to the ad/branded content arena. “Susanne comes from storytelling and a visual place like I do. I’m very attracted to working with her.”

Babbit also sees the potential for her short-form and longer form exploits to inform one another. In Silicon Valley, for instance, Babbit gets the chance “to distill a visual style that is very modern and very relevant in this digital era we all live in—where we’re looking at our screens all the time. We’re telling stories about people dealing with screen technology. Meanwhile more boards for commercials are telling stories underscoring the value of retaining our humanity in a digital world.

“For me,” continued Babbit, “commercials can only improve my storytelling. Commercials are the most distilled form of storytelling around.”

Tied with Saturday Night Live for the most Emmy Award nominations this year—22—Westworld (HBO) scored in such categories as Outstanding Drama Series, Lead Actress (Evan Rachel Wood), Directing and Writing (both for Jonathan Nolan), Production Design (Zack Grobler for “The Bicameral Mind” episode; Nathan Crowley for “The Original” episode) and Cinematography.  The latter nominee is Paul Cameron, ASC, for “The Original” episode, the pilot which helped set the tone for the overall series.

Earlier, “The Original” landed Cameron an ASC Award nomination as well as a Best Pilot nod for the Camerimage Jury Award.

Nolan reached out to Cameron’s agent to set up a meeting to discuss the series. Within minutes of getting together with Nolan, Cameron knew he wanted to take on the first episode of Westworld, a visual blend of sleek sci-fi with the gritty Wild West. Cameron loved the premise and story crafted by Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy Nolan. Based on the 1973 feature film Westworld written and directed by Michael Crichton, HBO’s Westworld takes us to a future in which artificial intelligence has become so advanced that an alternative world theme park populated by androids has become a reality. Wealthy visitors pay a premium to immerse themselves in an Old West experience that often is decadent and illicit, raising questions about the state of humanity—and whether the androids are more human, moral and principled than the customers themselves.

Also drawing in Cameron was production designer Crowley whose talent would bring the necessary scale and scope to the project. “I had probably the most collaborative location scouting I’ve ever experienced, working closely with Jonahan and Nathan,” assessed Cameron. “I showed them parts of Utah they hadn’t seen before—where we wound up doing some key shooting. We all came together in a most cinematic way. We all knew we were working on something that mattered, something that could be great.”

Most enticing to Cameron was the opportunity to shoot on 35mm film. “Jonathan and I come from the same place. We love 35mm film, its elegant quality. It’s an amazing tactile photochemical process that has worked for over a hundred years. It’a such a wonderful level of photography.”

ARRICAM LTs were the film cameras of choice, shooting 3 perf on Kodak 35m film with Cooke S4 lenses. “We were able,” shared Cameron, “to set a tone and feel for the series, with subsequent cinematographers maintaining the look in their episodes yet adding their own interesting elements to the mix.”

Westworld landed Cameron his first career Emmy nomination. He has also been active in feature filmmaking and shorter form fare. On the feature front, he and Dion Beebe, ASC, shared a Best Cinematography BAFTA Film Award in 2005, as well as an ASC Award nomination, for the Michael Mann-directed Collateral. Among Cameron’s latest feature credits is this year’s release, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

The Night Of
Editor Jay Cassidy, ACE, recently garnered his first career Emmy nomination for “The Beach,” the premiere episode of The Night Of (HBO). Cassidy is a three-time Oscar nominee—for Into the Wild in 2008, Silver Linings Playbook (in tandem with editor Crispin Struthers) in 2013, and American Hustle (with Struthers and Alan Baumgarten) in 2014.

The Night Of scored 13 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Writing (Richard Price and Steven Zaillian), and two apiece for both Lead Actor (Riz Ahmed, John Turturro) and Directing For A Limited Series (Zaillian, James Marsh).

Created by Zaillian and Price, The Night Of delves into the intricate story of a fictitious murder case in New York City. The series follows the police investigation and legal proceedings, all the while examining the criminal justice system and the purgatory of Rikers Island, where the accused—a Pakistani-American college student named Nasir “Naz” Khan (portrayed by Ahmed)—awaits his trial. Naz’s lawyer is played by Turturro.

Cassidy was drawn to the show by the quality of the pilot script and the opportunity to work with Zaillian whom he’s long admired. Cassidy said of Zaillian, “Steve didn’t want me to know what happens in the rest of the series, thinking it might color my feeling about the work in certain ways. So I didn’t know what happened to Riz Ahmed’s character until I saw it on television. Looking back, I think Steve was right. He didn’t want to impact my feeling towards the character—and therefore influence the editing—by letting me know the final verdict.”

Cassidy believes this is a golden era of storytelling in television. “You can tell a story the way Charles Dickens would tell a story, letting it evolve methodically and in great detail. You are not constrained to a set timeframe like a two-hour window for a theatrical feature. A story like The Night Of could be told the way it was meant to be told.”

“The Beach” episode earned Cassidy his seventh career American Cinema Editors (ACE) Eddie Award nomination—his first in television. The other six were for features—the documentaries An Inconvenient Truth in 2007 and Waiting for Superman in 2011; and the narrative features Into the Wild in 2008, Silver Linings Playbook in 2013, American Hustle in 2014, and Joy in 2016. Cassidy has won three Eddies—for An Inconvenient Truth (shared with Dan Swietlik), Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Cassidy recently cut Thank You for Your Service, a feature slated for release in October.  Directed by Jason Hall, Thank You for Your Service introduces us to a group of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq who struggles to integrate back into family and civilian life.

Mozart in the Jungle
For its “Now I Will Sing” episode, Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon) tallied three Emmy nominations this year: Outstanding Cinematography For A Single-Camera (Half-Hour) Series (DP Tobias Datum), Sound Mixing For A (Half Hour) Comedy or Drama Series (re-recording mixers Andy D’Addario and Gary Gegan, production mixer Marco Fiumara), and Production Design For A (Half-Hour or Less) Narrative Program (production designer Tommaso Ortino, art director Susanna Codognato and set decorator Letizia Santucci).

This is the first career Emmy nomination for Ortino, who earlier in the year won an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award for “Now I Will Sing.” Among his other notable credits is the feature Still Alice for which Julianne Moore won the Best Leading Actress Oscar in 2015.

For season three, Mozart in the Jungle shot several episodes in Venice, Italy, with the last one, “Now I Will Sing,” featuring a big concert on the water. “I focused on the concert, the venue,” said Ortino. “We had to research what could float, how we could keep agile, creating the proper design. Boats are your trucks in Venice, moving people and resources about. The logistics can be complicated.

“Additionally, being born in Italy, I knew the strong sense of pride there. People are very proud of their city, their history, their art. We had to be careful to design something that would show all of that but at the same time not disrupt or overpower it.”

Mozart in the Jungle has been a learning experience for Ortino who started on the show in 2015. “You always research to better understand the world you’re trying to design. I learned about the world of music and musicians. And that’s been a big takeaway for me from the show. I’ve also learned how to make quicker decisions as we go off to shoot in many real locations often in far away places. I have to exercise the muscle of being quick on my feet. You need to quickly present options to writers and directors, to quickly get approval, to quickly connect with others such as location managers. I was used to taking two weeks to prepare something for a feature. I had to learn a much faster pace for Mozart in the Jungle, I started to get good at it. I learned how to preserve the quality of what I did in two weeks but now accomplish the same in one week’s time.”

Next up for Ortino is The First, a series for Hulu created and written by Beau Willimon who’s well known for being a creative force behind House of Cards.

This is the 14th installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores Emmy contenders spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation, visual effects and production design. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.