‘The Americans’: A Peek Behind the Season 6 Production Curtain

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields invited Variety to periodically spy on “The Americans” during the past six months. Here are glimpses of how Season 6 was crafted at the show’s production facilities in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood.

Tone Meeting, Oct. 13, 2017
“This is our last first tone meeting,” Weisberg says as about 15 people squeeze into a small conference room just before filming begins in earnest. The discussion focuses on the nitty-gritty of the look and feel of the show after a three-year time jump to 1987 following the end of Season 5 — and the best way to telegraph the moods of the main characters: exhaustion for Elizabeth, glumness for Philip.

Fields and Weisberg steer the discussion. Rhys is on hand to prepare for his directing assignment for Episode 2. His throaty laugh fills the room, but he listens more than he speaks.

Prop Meeting, Disguises Meeting, Nov. 6
How much does it cost to rent a reasonably believable fake severed horse head? About $650 a day, from a guy in New Jersey.

Prop master Dan Fisher has a quick answer for virtually every item that comes up on the list of things needed for the season’s third episode of the season. Fisher, episode director Dan Attias and about a dozen other staffers talk through every scene to work out potential problems and make sure there are no surprises once the cameras roll. Fisher drills down on the size of the rubber rock needed for one character to hit another over the head and not “make it look like Ruth Buzzi” from “Laugh-In,” he jokes.

Cars are also crucial to creating a period feel. “The Americans” has attracted a group of regulars who work as background actors and also bring along their 1980s-era wheels for an extra fee.

The disguises meeting is quicker. The show’s “masters of disguise” — costume designer Katie Irish, makeup maven Lori Hicks and hair and wig designer Cory McCutcheon — have a shorthand. Season 6 has been particularly challenging, the trio notes, because now the Jenningses’ daughter, Paige, needs her own disguises after joining the family business. “We’re running out of looks,” Hicks jokes.

Producers Meeting, Nov. 13
Executive producer Mary Rae Thewlis, the kind of EP who makes trains run on time, has an important message for the team as it studies the needs for a scene set in a McDonald’s. The team ponders the question of whether the Russian characters be able to smoke in a McDonald’s in 1987?

After much discussion of how to find authentic McDonald’s trappings of the era — from menu items to 1987-specific foam Big Mac containers — the scene winds up shifting to a pizza place.

Editing Session, Jan. 30, 2018
Longtime “Americans” editor Amanda Pollack brings organization to a sea of footage by scheduling shots according to the scripts, then works with the episodic directors to fine-tune their vision before presenting the first rough cuts to Weisberg and Fields. The showrunners sit with Pollack in a tiny dark room, watching a cut unspool on a large monitor while Pollack takes notes on their notes.

Weisberg and Fields zero in on a three-minute sequence of two characters talking at night on a park bench. Every eyebrow arch and every facial expression is scrutinized to make sure the meaning is clear. The conversation is pared to the bare minimum. The showrunners want feeling more than they want words. “That line has such a written quality to it. I wonder if it isn’t doing us a disservice,” Fields notes to Weisberg. It is quickly snipped.

Pollack then pulls out a caper sequence involving Keri Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings breaking into a government facility. The showrunners are effusive with praise for the improvements she’s made on the pacing since they last gave her notes. “I didn’t know that scene had that scene in it,” Weisberg says.

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