Claire Danes is accustomed to answering questions about “Homeland” every year, but on Thursday evening the star took a turn as questioner in a sit-down with Lesli Linka Glatter, the series’ director/executive producer, for a conversation about the show and the career path of one of TV’s most sought-after helmers.
Glatter admitted that she had a “panic attack” when she got the script for the first episode she directed of the Showtime drama series back in 2012. She wound up earning an Emmy and Directors Guild nomination for her work on “Q&A,” the much-praised season two installment that features a famously long and intense interrogation scene between Danes’ Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody.
When she first read the script by late “Homeland” exec producer Henry Bromell, she thought: “It’s 40 pages in a room,” she said, noting that there was little she could do in the way of “camera tricks.” In the end, “we shot it like a play,” Glatter reminded Danes.
The two also shared the backstory of the season four episode “From A to B and Back Again,” in which Carrie has a violent and emotional reaction to watching drone footage projected on a giant screen of terrorist assassinating a CIA source as Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson is held hostage. After screening a clip, Glatter told the crowd at the Tribeca festival’s headquarters that Danes was reacting to a big “X” on a green screen because the killing footage hadn’t been shot yet. “We killed the ‘Life of Pi’ kid,” Danes said ruefully, referring to guest star Suraj Sharma.
Much of the discussion was devoted to Glatter’s own backstory and evolution from dancer and choreographer to a director respected for her versatility in handling big action sequences and intimate character drama. Here are a few things we learned about the helmer who is also fifth vice president of the Directors Guild of America and a longtime champion of opening doors for women working behind the camera.
- Glatter grew up in New York and Dallas. Her mother was a dancer, her father a labor organizer. “That’s no joke, being liberals in Dallas, Texas,” Glatter told Danes. “My father was organizing factories. It was like ‘Well, we gotta go pick up Dad from jail again.’ ” But the experience served her well for her future career. “You had to forge your way in not necessarily the most supportive environment. That trained me well to be a director in Hollywood.”
- Glatter got her start as a director while she was living in Japan teaching dance and choreography. A chance meeting with an elderly Japanese man led her to pursue a short film about incredible stories he shared. “Tales of Meeting and Parting” earned an Oscar nomination for live-action short in 1985.
- Glatter credits “Mad Max” director George Miller with putting her on the path to directing. The two met in Tokyo. Glatter then returned to the U.S. and attended the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. “Once I directed, I knew that was the next path for me,” Glatter said. “It was what I was meant to do.”
- Glatter’s first TV series directing assignment was for the original ABC edition of “Twin Peaks,” a genre-busting effort steered by iconoclastic helmer David Lynch. Lynch gave her a lot of leash. “He never told any of the (‘Twin Peaks’) directors to do it a certain way. He said ‘Make it your movie.’ “
- Time and experience has taught Glatter that sometimes, less is more in giving direction to actors. She meticulously prepares and blocks out everything in advance — reflecting her choreographer training — but she tries to leave plenty of room for spontaneity. “It excites me being on the set and allowing life to happen,” she said. “I want to know what smart actors are going to bring to the table.”
- The key for directors working well in the fast pace of TV is to know your priorities. “You need to know the $1 shot and the 25-cent shot. You’d better spend your time on the shots that move your story.”
- Glatter is “indefatigable” on the set, Danes confirmed. She always brings a big bag full of multiple pairs of shoes for a long day of shooting so she can periodically change them out. “It tricks me into believing that it’s the beginning of the day,” Glatter confessed.
- Glatter has been a mentor to scores of women looking to break in as directors. But early on she was counseled by other women not to bring new talent in the video-village tent under the theory that expanding the pool would only limit her own job prospects, given that so few women are hired for directing gigs. Glatter thought this was nonsense, then and now. “The fact that we still need to talk about this is ludicrous,” she said. “I really feel like we’re at a tipping point. If you’re in a position to help, you need to do that.”
- One of Glatter’s youngest apprentices is Danes’ toddler son Cyrus, who likes to sit on Glatter’s lap when he’s on set and call “action.”
- Early on, Glatter did aspire to work as an actress. During her time in Japan, she had a role on a primetime soap opera. “It was bloody terrible,” Glatter laughed. But she still let loose with some of her old dialogue, in perfect Japanese.
- Succeeding as a director in Hollywood requires an extraordinary commitment to working nearly 24/7 and persevering against many obstacles, Glatter observed. It demands great tenacity, but Glatter advised, “in the tenacity you have to remember the joy.”