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‘Homeland’s’ Lesli Linka Glatter and ‘UnReal’s’ Marti Noxon on the Challenges of Writing & Directing in Peak TV

'Homeland' and 'UnReal' Creatives on Challenges
Rex/Shutterstock

Amping up the drama on television is no easy feat, with viewer expectations rising amid increased competition across manifold platforms. Lesli Linka Glatter has become “Homeland’s” go-to director — she earned her third Emmy nomination for helming the episode that saw Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) protect Otto During from a terrorist attack in a refugee camp. And Marti Noxon, now juggling multiple projects include the upcoming drama “Sharp Objects” at HBO, earned her Emmy nod (alongside Sarah Gertrude Shapiro) for the pilot of “UnReal” which exposed the manipulations that drive reality television.

Lesli, you’re the only female nominee in your category. Marti, aside from Michelle King (“The Good Wife”), you and Sarah are the only female nominees. Why are we still having this conversation?

Lesli Linka Glatter: Oh my god, I wish we weren’t in 2016 we have the first female presidential candidate. I tell you, if you would have asked me when I started directing, if we would be discussing this in 2016, I would have said categorically, “No, this will not be an issue.” I started directing 25 years ago, and the fact that the statistics have not changed, I can’t quite believe it. I can’t wait until it’s not an issue.

Marti Noxon: I don’t think it was anybody’s plan, but there simply aren’t enough experienced people with developed voices to fill the need. (We’re in) the second golden age of television, and to me, one of the most profound things that’s happening in TV is just that by default that opened the door to more women, more people of color, more outliers. It’s one of the greatest side effects of the digital revolution.

“It should not be harder for our daughters to direct than our sons. It should be an equal playing field.”
LESLI LINKA GLATTER

Glatter: I totally agree with that, Marti. That’s the exciting thing about the time we’re in. Look what happened with Sarah Shapiro. She made a short film, and that became “UnReal.” The positive of all this is we are in a time if you want to be a storyteller… It comes off a little trite and I don’t mean it that way, but you can pick up your cellphone … Thank goodness storytellers can do that. There is an outlet, and that can open up a huge amount of possibilities.

Noxon: Absolutely. There’s a democratization that’s going on because of technology that is making it pretty hard to deny that people who maybe didn’t have access before actually have something to say.

Glatter: Again, as far as hiring goes, my feeling is it should not be harder for our daughters to direct than our sons. It should be an equal playing field. Directing is not easy. It’s a path that you have to love like writing. It has to be something that you have to do, because there are so many other things that are easier to do. I don’t think it should be more difficult for women than for men. It should not be an issue.

Noxon: Absolutely. The irony of where we’re at right now is that there aren’t enough women with enough experience to fill all the spots we’d like to at this moment, because all of a sudden there’s this charge toward diversity, but there’s been so little precedent that most of the women directors who are ready are already working.

Glatter: I think you’d be surprised. There’s a much, much deeper list. There are a lot of well-experienced women directors, but if you’re talking about new directors, directors who have never directed … Let’s say someone’s coming from being a script supervisor, a writer, or an actor, the playing field is completely equal for men and women. The men don’t have more experience and the women don’t have it. It’s the same. It’s one thing if we’re talking about experience, because there are less women in the Director’s Guild than men. If you’re talking about nobody having any experience and the hiring is still like 15 percent, that’s a whole different story.

Noxon: Yeah, I hear that. On “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” we have a mandate to hire as many women as possible, but particularly on a show that is about women and about progressive issues like that. The good thing is that now we’re finding that internally, on a corporate level, they’re asking us to hire more women. It’s much easier to get first-timers. Lisa Edelstein is directing an episode this time. They let me direct, but believe me, it was kind of a fight to get myself on my own show.

Glatter: I think the fact that this issue is in the conversation is really important. I think that things will change. I feel positive about that, because I certainly don’t want to be having this conversation in another ten years.

What excites you about the business right now?

Noxon: The opportunity to, as Lesli said, tell stories, but also connect with people and write about things that we feel passionate about, and sometimes even things you think can make a difference in people’s lives. To execute that either as director or producer, it’s just my dream. The fact that I actually get to do it and get paid for it is miraculous to me.

Glatter: I echo that. I love being the storyteller. The fact that it is a collaborative team sport and if you can get the smartest team, the best team together and let the best idea win, it’s an incredibly exciting collaboration. I think we’re at a time, the shows you’re doing, certainly the show I’m on as well, deals with such complicated and compelling material. It’s ambiguous, it doesn’t have to be black and white, and it can explore character as well as issues. Even like on a bad day when everything has gone wrong and it’s late at night and you’re freezing, it’s like, “This is what I get to do. I get to be a storyteller with these talented people.” Also, I happen to be on something where nobody wants to be the smartest person in the room, but they want to be in the room with the smartest people. That’s pretty great. I feel very lucky in that way. One of the things that “Homeland” does is we get to look at both sides of an issue. Both sides are right. That’s really interesting.

Noxon: That’s something I feel like, again, in sort of the expanding world of what’s acceptable on television, a reason why I feel like the stuff I’m interested in doing is more commercial now, or considered more commercial, is because I really don’t like black-and-white storytelling. I don’t like characters who are either good or bad. I just don’t experience that in life, so my writing hasn’t evolved that way. When you’re allowed to tell stories with ambiguity and darkness and things that are still unresolved,  that’s the dream scenario as opposed to having to fit into a more procedural mode or something a little more conventional. That’s not what’s working on TV right now.

‘UNREAL’-ITY BITES: Lifetime’s series, which stars Shiri Appleby, left, explores the dark side of reality television. Courtesy of Lifetime

Glatter: Also, it doesn’t interest me personally. I also think that our audience is smart, so that we don’t have to explain everything. If the characters in the scene would have that information, to listen to them explain and be expository in that way has nothing to do with real life. The fact that we’re allowed to dig to these more interesting places, it’s a great time to be working in television.

But that also brings challenges. Audience’s appetites have changed. What are the biggest challenges in your jobs, and how do you combat them?

Glatter: As a storyteller, I think where working in television can almost be like lifting weights —you really have to know what your story is about. You have to know what the syntax is. With TV, and when you have eight or nine days to tell your story, you really have to know what to spend your time on. If you’ve got the dollar scene and the 25 cent scene, you have to build your day around that. You don’t want to be rushing at the end of the day with the thing that turns your story. I think the challenging thing is to really keep it fresh, to really keep being on that razor’s edge of storytelling. There are tons of production issues that are challenging. People somehow think we have a huge amount of money because we’re on premium cable, but we really don’t. We need to make it look visual, big, and cinematic. We’ve been shooting eight or nine days, and this is a three hour show. This season we’re trying to move to a ten day shoot, and people are always surprised by that because I’ve done a lot of HBO where you have 21 days to shoot a show. We don’t have that. You have to really stay honest to the story and try to be really clever and get out ahead of things. Also, our big challenge is we change countries every year. We’re always starting from the beginning every year.

Noxon: It all starts with a very solid, well-executed script, where the story is very clear and everybody is rowing in the same direction. That’s always good, that’s a constant. With the demands for me, of basic cable and now premium cable with “Sharp Objects,” it’s also about creating a cinematic quality and holding everybody to these standards which are arguably quite a bit higher than they used to be. It used be like, “Oh, over, over two shot, we’re done.” Now, I feel like everybody expects to have a filmic experience while they’re watching television, whether they’re watching network, basic cable, premium, or streaming. It taxes everybody. Every department has to be functioning at their highest level. I think that a challenge is that the basics are still the same but the expectations are quite a bit higher.

Glatter: I totally echo that completely. The expectations have really changed. I also echo that it starts with the script. You have to have a good script. You have to have compelling and complicated characters that you want to hang out with. Also, since you’re going to be living with your crew and cast, I think it’s really critical to create a great working environment, because we’re spending so many days, so many hours together. I certainly as an executive producer-director, try to create the best possible working environment because we’re just going to spend too much time together. You can be as fancy as you want to be, but that’s where it starts.

How do you enforce that? What rules do you establish on the set?

Noxon: I have a pretty rigorous “No A-hole” policy, and that includes me. If I find myself starting to not be the best manager that I can be (Laughs.) You have to have leadership and you have to also have compassion for all the people you’re working with. If the demands of the job start to erode that too much, I really have to take a second look at what I’m doing. We get to tell stories for a living and get paid for it. If we’re not showing up most days with an attitude of gratitude…

Glatter: We have the same policy on “Homeland.” It’s a complete “No Asshole” policy. Because “Homeland” has a huge graveyard, we can also get rid of people (Laughs.) We have never had that actually, and I think it starts from the top, too. Treat people how you want to be treated. I certainly feel the same way. If I feel it in myself, I need to sit myself down.

“Everybody expects to have a filmic experience when they’re watching television, whether they’re watching network, basic cable, premium, or streaming.”
MARTI NOXON

Noxon: Yeah. I’ve fired myself a few times.

Lesli, you’re going into a sixth season of “Homeland,” a high-stakes show. How do you keep that up, in a world with ever-more urgent headlines?

Glatter: It feels like a lot of responsibility. We talked about this before, but the writers and myself, and Claire and Mandy, have a trip to DC to meet with intelligence experts before each season starts.Obviously no one is telling us classified information, but Alex Gansa, who created the show, who has been an amazing, collaborative, fantastic human being, has created a wonderful working environment for all of us. He asks the question, “What keeps you up at night? What’s your biggest nightmare?”

We sit for a week and listen to an extraordinary amount of people talk about what they do in the intelligence world. It’s pretty overwhelming, and it feels like a big responsibility, and that’s really where the season comes from. They go into the writers room after that trip. Again, it’s a story that’s being told. It’s not a docu-drama. Certainly, it’s well-researched and I think we really try to be true to that kind of storytelling.

So this season, we have a female president, but it’s a very different president from Hillary. It is not Hillary, and that’s really important….Character is everything. You have to have compelling characters. Whatever the issues are, if you don’t want to go on the journey with the human beings. Claire Danes is an amazing, fearless partner, and going on her journey is what it’s all about, and Mandy’s journey, and Rupert’s.

Marti, you’re doing a very clever take on a reality world that we’ve come to know all too well. How do you offer a fresh spin on it? 

Noxon:  When I saw Sarah’s short, it was very dark and challenging. (And the producers said), “That’s our intention,” and I was like, “Oh, I’m really in trouble.” To me, the things that are undeniable and I feel so compelled to work on are things that have an urgency to them. The whole landscape of reality television felt like it hadn’t really had its covers pulled in a dramatic way. Certainly people have spoofed it and made fun of it, but I really felt like people, myself included, get sucked into this falsehood that they’re watching something genuine, and it can be really damaging to our perceptions of how things work, how life is. Certainly, in my self-image as a woman, I watch reality television and come away feeling like, “Well, why don’t I have eighteen guys vying for my hand? Am I chopped liver?”

Glatter: That’s such an interesting thing to be looking at, too, that created world that we somehow accept as some kind of reality. And then your real people behind the scenes and how complicated their lives are. It’s fantastic.

Noxon: It really was kind of undeniable. I had known a woman just in passing who worked in casting on one of these shows. It was no secret, at least among her friends during casual conversation, that they were looking for the craziest, the most unstable, the most TV-friendly cast, not people who were going to play the game well — they were looking for people who were going to lose it on camera. Knowing details like that, I was like there’s a cruelty to this, there’s a brutality that we all just accept, and the opportunity with Sarah to write something that really went after it and try to show people, “Look, this is what you consume as entertainment and it really hurts people.” That was too compelling to pass up.

CLOSE AT ‘HOMELAND’: Lesli Linka Glatter, center, credits EP Alex Gansa and star Claire Danes with setting the tone on set.
Courtesy of Showtime

Glatter: There are human beings here.

Noxon: You were seeing it in the news, too, people who couldn’t get their lives back on track after they’d been on these shows, because the viewers aren’t privy to the editing or the story that they set out to tell. They don’t know that they’ve been, in many cases, manipulated into playing a role. That’s suddenly their identity. People who aren’t actors aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with the fall-out from that.

We’re inundated with new television series in this era of Peak TV. How do you create a show that stands out? Is it in the writing, the acting, the directing?

Glatter: It is all of the above — I don’t know if you can separate it. If you don’t have a great story, you don’t have compelling, complicated, deep characters and you’re not shooting it so it supports that story and that subject … It has to be all of that in marriage together. That’s the incredible challenge. For me personally, I don’t know if you can separate any of that. Sometimes I get a script that scares me to death. Actually the first “Homeland” I directed was written by the late, great Henry Bromell, and it was thirty pages in an interrogation room. I read that and I panicked. I’m like, “Oh my god, what am I going to do.” Michael Cuesta who directed the pilot of “Homeland” said something incredible to me. He said, “Don’t be afraid to be simple.” I realized, I have thirty pages in this one room, but it’s with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, who are saying incredible things. Trust that. That ended up for me as a director being a profound experience. I think it’s a marriage. That’s why we all need each other. I feel like the writer is my key collaborator and my actors are my other key collaborator. It’s inextricable. We’re all bound together.

Noxon: It’s true. For me, so much of the worth is about that urgency and things that feel really timely and part of a conversation that either is happening or really needs to happen. The pilot that I just finished that I’m doing with Skydance is based on a book called “Diet Land.” It takes on the beauty industry and has an element of vigilantism — a feminist group of vigilantes who are taking down people in America and all around the world who have systematically abused women.

It’s pretty dark. But it also just expresses a kind of anger that we’re seeing in the culture which is the status quo is hanging on by fingernails and things that used to pass for acceptable no longer do, but how do we affect change? When I read it, I was like, oh yeah, this feels like it could actually happen. Woman might at a certain point now just be like, well, since we can’t seem to pass any reasonable gun laws, maybe we should just be armed.

Can you talk about a challenging moment you faced this past year, and how you got through it?

Glatter: Every year we reinvent the wheel and we go to a different country and have a whole new crew. Our keys go with us, but basically we have a whole new crew. The episode that I was nominated for, “Tradition of Hospitality,” I was so thrilled that we’re finally shooting Berlin for Berlin. It’s the first time in “Homeland’s” history that we’re actually shooting the country we’re in for the real place. I open up this episode, and it says “Syrian-Lebanese border, refugee camp.” At first I thought it was a joke. I thought, okay, Alex is playing a joke on me. There are cameras here and he’s going to see me fall over in a dead faint.

But, no, it wasn’t a joke. We were in Berlin having to make, in Berlin, a refugee camp that’s on the border of Syria and Lebanon. So that was a huge challenge. It was very early during the shooting. We’re just getting to know this crew, it was a big action sequence. I needed three matching Mercedes, because we have to rig and unrig, and again, we don’t have a long schedule, so we are doing a huge amount of work. Every inch is storyboarded, all the vehicles show up, and they’re all completely different. On the outside they look somewhat similar, but on the inside there’s a TV mounted on one, there are different headrests, but it’s all predicated on being able to rig cars and have matching cars. The fact that we made it through is a miracle.

Noxon: Speaking for Season 1 of “UnReal,” we had so many challenges. For me personally, I got so incredibly lucky to have “Girlfriends” picked up, and I had thirteen episodes of that to deliver before the end of Season 1. We had ten episodes of “UnReal” and they were shooting and being scripted pretty much simultaneously. That was a rough year, and I have to say that asshole policy would have gotten me kicked off the show, because I was not always at my best. The other challenge was simply how do we make Vancouver look like the wish-fulfillment “Everlasting” world with girls in bikinis and all the tropes of the genre when it was freezing. Certainly, the elements didn’t always conspire. There were so many production challenges along with just trying to keep the narrative and the tone of that show intact, which is so delicate. Doing something that is half black comedy and half social commentary and make it dramatically satisfying … It’s a miracle that we all are still alive.