Emmys: When the Run Is Limited, Basic Cable Writers & Directors Go Big

Basic cable dominated noms with FX's “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “Fargo" and AMC's “The Night Manager.”

Limited Series Writer Directory Emmy Race
Courtesy of FX/HBO

Basic cable fared well in limited series this year. FX racked up nominations and buzz with “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “Fargo.” AMC’s John le Carre adaptation “The Night Manager” was nominated for both writing and directing. HBO, which has dominated in the past with its prestige made-for-TV movies, earned only a directing nom for LBJ drama “All the Way.”

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Directing: Ryan Murphy, “From the Ashes of Tragedy”; John Singleton, “The Race Card”; Anthony Hemingway, “Manna From Heaven”
Writing: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, “From the Ashes of Tragedy”; Joe Robert Cole, “The Race Card”; D.V. DeVincentis,“Marcia,
Marcia, Marcia”

For their first small-screen venture, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski hung onto the aesthetic they established in such offbeat feature biopics as “The People Vs. Larry Flynt.” Karaszewski calls it “a weird mixture of tragedy, absurd humor, satirical pieces, but always sticking very closely to the facts.” Thus, they jumped on “the Marx Brothers stateroom scene” the day of the Bronco chase, with doctors, girlfriends, and cops arriving at Robert Kardashian’s house while O.J. pens his suicide note.

Their films aren’t strangers to serious events. “I mean, Larry Flynt does get shot and paralyzed,” Alexander notes. “We had to be completely respectful to Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. But we thought it was sort of open season on everybody else.” Director Murphy “got our tone,” Karaszewski says, and Alexander lauds Murphy for doing “what any good director does: Try to tell the story visually.” The two sides’ socioeconomic disparity was subtly accentuated by the prosecutors’ suffering under low ceilings and harsh fluorescents, vs. the cozy comfort of the Dream Team’s digs.

Court TV’s coverage, Karaszewski recalls, “was always taken from this high POV-of-God looking down on the courtroom … Ryan said, ‘No, we’re going to look up at these characters. We’re going to see ceilings. We’re shooting it in a way that’ll look very different than when you Google YouTube clips.’”

D.A. Marcia Clark is misrepresented by such clips, insists D.V. DeVincentis, who lobbied for Clark’s “standalone” episode. “What she went through just spoke to me.” Back in ’95, he admits, “I accepted the public narrative that she was incompetent. When I began my research, I found that not only was that not true, but she was outspent by a preposterous margin, and money is justice in this country very often. And she was under an enormous amount of scrutiny all day every day … while keeping a difficult private life going.”A working mom’s son himself, he wanted to express what he discovered, “if not to right the wrong, then to rewrite the image.”

In writing “The Race Card,” Joe Robert Cole tackled “the idea that African-Americans are monolithic … that we all think and see the world the same.” Contrasting world views of an O.J. Simpson, Chris Darden, and Johnnie Cochran are rarely dramatized, “so showing the messiness of their humanity — three equally authentic black perspectives — was fun.”

In shifting from fun to courtroom tension, “Race Card” director John Singleton resisted a cliched “Perry Mason” style. “I’m going to look at [Darden and Cochran] as dueling warriors,” he decided. “Straight adversaries, the way you’d shoot a Western.” Singleton staged Cochran’s attack on Darden as “a big Clarence Darrow moment,” and mined newspaper descriptions of Darden’s tortured body language. “He’d get up, walk around, almost like church.” Then we come in excruciatingly close for Cochran’s N-word-invoking final punctuation. While still serving the story, Singleton chose “to break the fourth wall and have him say it not just to Darden … but to America.”

Writer and director each blended suspense and wit in the unforgettable Afrocentric makeover of Simpson’s Rockingham mansion before the jury’s visit. “John really responded to the sequence,” Cole recalls. “We definitely had fun with the dialogue and how moments play out. But down to O.J. confronting Darden, most of it’s documented.”

Racial matters boil over in the penultimate episode, as Det. Mark Fuhrman takes the stand in what director Anthony Hemingway calls “such a disbelieving moment … When rain comes, the air changes. The wind picks up or slows down.” Shifting to slo-mo and accentuating the cop’s footsteps “is really a voyeuristic choice. Your emotions were under water. I wanted to embody what everybody was feeling at that moment.”
Hemingway piped music on set “to remind everybody we’re ‘playing’ these people. It’s not real life. The stress levels get high and intense. We need to be able to breathe.”

“Fargo” (FX)
Directing: Noah Hawley, “Before the Law”
Writing: Bob DeLaurentis, “Loplop”; Noah Hawley, “Palindrome”

The Emmy-awarded first season stuck closely to the established Coen brothers aesthetic, says creator Noah Hawley. In season two, “I got a little more playful with it. I started to use it to highlight the emotional beats of the stories, and I needed to show the other directors what that meant.”

Directorial devices in “Before the Law” include boldly accentuated camera moves and split-screen, as well as unabashed violence, which Hawley calls “inevitable in this world, but I don’t want it to be gratuitous. If it’s a little grotesque, it’s because I want you to feel a little squeamish. It’s important to establish these things don’t happen off screen. This is what it takes.”

Not just carnage, but romance is central to “Loplop,” with fish-out-of-water protagonists Ed and Peggy stuck in a woodsy cabin with a criminal hostage. The title refers to painter Max Ernst’s “bird-like alter ego,” as writer Bob DeLaurentis puts it, and in this confrontation, small-town butcher Ed finally embraces the murderous “Butcher of Laverne” persona others have mistakenly tagged him with.

“By this time his alter ego is fully intact, and the episode is really about his attempt to save the woman he loves, and also his marriage,” says DeLaurentis, who cherished “the chance to settle a bunch of characters in place, and have the world and events swirl around them.”

Hawley intended to swirl events and deliver a gut punch in the climactic “Palindrome.” “We would see the faces of those we’d lost in the course of the season, to really bring home for everyone the toll that this had taken.”

Although he knew where the finale was going, there were surprises in store. A scene between cop Lou and survivor Peggy was to be simply “a version of ‘here you are and it’s a beautiful day’ from the movie, and it turned out to be this eight-page, really powerful summation.” An outline is just an outline, Hawley muses. “It’s amazing how different a script can be, even though the same things happen in it.”

“The Night Manager” (AMC)
Directing: Susanne Bier
Writing: David Farr

Much about John LeCarre’s complex bestseller, in which ex-soldier Jonathan Pine goes undercover to expose arms dealer Richard Roper, was familiar to Susanne Bier, Oscar-winning director of “In a Better World.” “It was very character-driven, and the sense of place is hugely important.”
But along with psychological tension, she needed to incorporate the white-knuckle excitement of the thriller.

Every director, Bier contends, “wants to seduce an audience by any possible means. But particularly today, when audiences are so sophisticated at watching stories, you don’t want to bang them over the head. You want to subtly put them in a place where they didn’t quite anticipate they were going to go.”
Seduction — specifically, corruption’s siren call — was a key theme David Farr teased out of the novel, helping him crack it where other potential adapters had failed.

“The keystone scene,” he believes, “is Pine secretly entering Roper’s private study on the island. It’s the moment he goes into the lion’s den, into the very heart of evil … I loved Le Carre’s description of Roper’s desk. Simple, almost monastic. The heart of the dark empire is a bare room and a piece of paper. Wonderful. One senses Pine’s fascination with the man, maybe even attraction?” Farr took many liberties with the novel, but insists “it was all stemming from the dramatic aftermath of this one very simple and wordless scene.”

“All the Way” (HBO)
Directing: Jay Roach

Jay Roach sought to bring intimacy to Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ stage portrait.

“He walks into JFK’s office, just after the assassination, and we used a big, big wide lens to get at the weight of suddenly being leader of the free world. Then we go in quite close, to sense the burden on his psychology… the incredible obligation to step into that role.”
Transition to LBJ being measured by a tailor. “He’s in command. So we go back out to a wide shot that shows he’s ready to take on the world.”

Surprisingly juxtaposed shots and subjective points of view allow the filmmakers to “move inside the guy’s soul … to gain greater access to the inner life of the man.”