Drama Writers’ & Directors’ Struggle for Emmy Gold Starts With Pitched Battle

“Game of Thrones” took three nominations but competition from "Downton Abbey," "The Americans" and more is fierce.

Drama Writer Director Emmy Race
Courtesy of USA/HBO/CBS

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” took Emmy nominations in the Drama Series categories for its massive “Battle of the Bastards” and the heartrending “The Door,” but the competition is fierce. “Downton Abbey” and “The Good Wife” are favorites in their final seasons; “Mr. Robot” and “UnReal” are hot newcomers; and “The Americans,” “Homeland,” The Knick,” and “Ray Donovan” are established stalwarts.

“Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Directing: Miguel Sapochnik, “Battle of the Bastards”; Jack Bender, “The Door”
Writing: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, “Battle of the Bastards”

Death and battles are always certain on “Game of Thrones.”

“I think Dan and David are particularly cognizant of that and always looking for a way to up their game,” Sapochnik says. “A pitched field battle is something they’ve been wanting to do for a long time —I think as far back as season one or two — and so when we first talked about it, a key phrase for them was to make a ‘strategic spectacle’ of it.”

Sapochnik’s job was to interpret that idea.

“I wanted to find a way to show both the psychological and tactical warfare that Ramsay brings to the table and at the same time find a way to remain at Jon’s side — physically and mentally — throughout the entirety of the sequence,” he says. “I also had my own preoccupations about luck and the horror of war, but those were secondary to the core themes.”

The battle and scenes at Winterfell were filmed over a 25-day period.

“The scripts always come in bigger than the final thing because I don’t think David and Dan write with a filter,” Sapochnik says. “Part of the process is a negotiation between creative and production to refine the idea to its leanest and meanest and make it actually doable within the time and financial constraints. It actually makes it better most of the time.”

For the death of fan-favorite Hodor in “The Door,” Bender wanted an image that was like “rats overtaking a subway” with the dead crawling on the ceiling in their nightmarish pursuit through a cave. But Bender says producers wanted to avoid a more graphic, horrific depiction of Hodor’s death.

“David and Dan said at an early meeting that we don’t want the horror to overpower the emotional loss of Hodor,” Bender says.

“Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Directing: Michael Engler, “Episode 9”
Writing: Julian Fellowes, “Episode 8”

For the penultimate episode of the series, Fellowes delivered some long-awaited take-downs of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery).
“We had two scenes, which had in a way been missing: The moment when Tom [Allen Leech] really tells Mary off and the final battle between her and Edith [Laura Carmichael], when Edith calls her a bitch, which every viewer must have known was coming,” Fellowes says.

I loved both these moments because we, the audience, had expected and wanted them for so long … I have always enjoyed writing for Mary, because Michelle has that wonderful gift of not caring if the public hates her, which is tremendously freeing for a writer. As for Tom, every now and then the public needs to have a character say what they are all thinking.”

In directing the series finale, Engler wanted images that encapsulated the show’s themes and relationships.

“Julian’s script set that all up, but I felt a sense of responsibility to really make sure the visuals and the emotional expression of the actors was as vivid and clear and iconic as possible,” he says, noting that sometimes the emotions of the characters and the actors playing them were in sync. “That’s such a gift for a director and actors when the love and sense of family they share as a company can spill into the scene.”

“The Americans” (FX)
Writing: Joel Fields, Joe Weisberg, “Persona Non Grata”

A question introduced in season one — does Russian spy Philip (Matthew Rhys) have a son back in Russia? — was left ambiguous at the time, but it returned to play a major role in the show’s fourth-season finale with confirmation that Mischa would attempt to find his father in America.

“We weren’t thinking there’s definitely a son and we would spring it on the audience,” Weisberg says of introducing the plot in the show’s first season. “It was in the middle of this season as we were writing the last arc of episodes that we started talking about it again,” Fields says. “That’s rare for us. We’re pretty obsessive planners.”

“The Good Wife” (CBS)
Writing: Michelle King, Robert King,“End”

In scripting the series finale, Robert and Michelle King say they had long planned to have Alicia (Julianna Margulies) slapped, “that the victim was going to become the victimizer,” but they weren’t sure until the final season which character would deliver it.

“We auditioned a lot of different ideas: family members, colleagues — men and women — until we realized that Diane was the right choice,” the Kings say. “Not only did it allow us to spotlight two brilliant actors, Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski, but it allowed us to play with the idea of Alicia turning a friend into collateral damage in the same way she was collateral damage in the political scandal that started the series.”

“Homeland” (Showtime)
Directing: Lesli Linka Glatter,  “The Tradition of Hospitality”

For this second episode of the show’s fifth season, Glatter says she had a purposeful approach to shooting the scene where Carrie (Claire Danes) and her new boss, Otto During (Sebastian Koch), visit a Syrian refugee camp.

“When Otto is giving his speech, so much of the scene is from Carrie’s point of view, taking it in, versus it being about Otto delivering the speech,” Glatter says. “There’s some of that, too, but it’s not really the subtext of the scene, and that’s what’s always so interesting to me about ‘Homeland’ and following Carrie Mathison through the world.”

“The Knick” (Cinemax)
Directing: Steven Soderbergh, “This Is All We Are”

Though it marked the end for his character, Clive Owen says Soderbergh treated the second-season finale as any other episode.

“He is very consistent and he directed the last episode as he did the first,” Owen says. “He respects actors and is very alive to what they are doing. I will miss his courage, focus, decisiveness, and intelligence.”

Owen praises Soderbergh for his skill as a visual storyteller. “He always finds an original perspective and never just shoots actors talking,” Owen says. “He looks at a scene and then finds the most interesting, original way to cover it and [does so] with such a clarity of intent.”

“Mr. Robot” (USA)
Writing: Sam Esmail. “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov”

Alex Sepiol, executive vice president of development for NBCU Scripted Cable, still remembers reading the pilot script on a weekend and being taken aback by how Esmail gave voice to Elliot (Rami Malek) and the originality with which he wrote about technology and hacking.

“The first time I read the Elliot-Krista therapy scene, the way he layered Elliot’s non-response with the running commentary of the voiceover, it was really a delicate dance,” Sepiol says. “It did capture the anger of a certain character but he was also able to do it with this detachment and perspective so you could understand him as a character. It was like a magic trick.”

“Ray Donovan” (Showtime)
Directing: David Hollander, “Exsuscito”

Season finales are tricky due to viewer expectations, but for showrunner Hollander, directing the third-season ender also meant capping a season-long arc for the title character as Donovan (Liev Schreiber) acknowledges to Father Romero (Leland Orser) that he killed the priest who sexually abused him.

“The beating heart of the story is Ray’s condition emotionally,” Hollander says. “I kept trying to find ways to photograph Liev in prayerful or suggestive-of-prayer positions before he landed finally in prayer.

“But none of that works unless the performances are what they were,” he says. “I can’t take credit for that.”

“UnReal” (Lifetime)
Writing: Marti Noxon, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, “Return”

A drama set behind the scenes of a reality dating show, “UnReal” benefits from viewer knowledge.

“All you need is a hot dude in a suit standing at the top of a mansion driveway and people pretty much know what’s going on,” Shapiro says. “There were so many visual signifiers that saved us from exposition.”

The pilot that aired was actually the second one filmed for “UnReal.”

“We ended up scrapping all the rewrites from our first shoot and going back to our original script — with a splash more dark stuff,” Noxon says. “With Lifetime’s support, we had the rare opportunity to course correct and get the tone right.”