Almost all of this year’s Emmy limited series nominees are based on true stories and set in real-life locations — the exception is HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” which is based on a novel. In striving for the most accurate, truthful experiences on screen, several projects shot in the exact sites where their dramatic events took place. That in turn helped inform the creativity both in front of and behind the camera.
With six weeks to go before shooting, “Escape at Dannemora” director Ben Stiller found himself in dire straits: It looked like the Clinton Correctional Facility where the daring titular escape took place was going to be off limits for Stiller and his crew. The director was at a loss as to how they were going to re-create the vast prison in Dannemora, N.Y., without massive visual effects that were out of budget for the Showtime show. But luckily, thanks to a helping hand from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Stiller and co. were eventually given permission to shoot in the prison.
“The first choice is always to shoot in the real place because it’s going to give you so much not only on the screen, but in terms of the involvement of the community,” Stiller says. “What we learned as filmmakers by being there with the people who experienced the story is, to me, more important than anything.”
Shooting in the prison presented plenty of logistical issues, but Stiller says stepping into the facility for the first time “felt like going back in time” and enhanced the actors’ performances by giving them “a sense of isolation,” with Patricia Arquette, in particular, gaining an insight into her character’s “dialect and motivations.”
While walking through the prison was a transformative experience for Stiller and his actors, “When They See Us” executive producer Jane Rosenthal says she and the team, including writer-producer-director Ava DuVernay, also took an important walk before production began on their Netflix four-parter.
“The first day of our location scout we walked through Central Park,” Rosenthal says. “Yes, we were scouting, but it was a coming together of the group to walk the path that this event happened. It was a spiritual moment for all of us to take that walk the first day.”
The Netflix series begins with the near-fatal jogger attack in that location in April 1989 — an event that changed the lives of five young black boys who were convicted of that crime, which they did not commit. Rosenthal says the exonerated men were often on set, including on the day the team re-created that fateful night.
“Kevin [Richardson] was there with his wife and he looked at me and said, ‘The only thing I did wrong that day was follow my friends.’ He just stood there and watched the same street, same crosswalk where he made a transition to something that was going to change his whole life.
He was there as an adult watching his younger self cross that street, which was extremely impactful for the cast and crew,” Rosenthal says.
Meanwhile FX’s “Fosse/Verdon,” which brings the rocky, often volatile relationship between famed choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and legendary dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) to the small screen, leaned more heavily on constructing sets to re-create the grand Broadway theaters and smoky nightclubs in which the narrative takes place. And when it came to constructing Fosse and Verdon’s apartment, executive producer Steven Levenson points to the production’s ace up its sleeve: Bob and Gwen’s only daughter, Nicole Fosse, who served as a creative consultant on the show and was on set “almost every single day” to make suggestions and “tiny little adjustments.”
“From the beginning there was a fearlessness from Nicole; she never once said, ‘Please don’t do this, it will make my dad look bad,’ or ‘I don’t want to tell that part of the story.’ She would often tell us things that made it even darker,” Levenson says. “Having her on set was so helpful for bringing these characters to life in a way which hopefully for her means she’s seeing the truth.”
Truth is precisely what Craig Mazin was striving for with “Chernobyl,” as well. The HBO series did shoot in and around the Soviet power plant that exploded in 1986 — however, Mazin says that footage was mainly for the epilogue, which showcased the full destruction of the city. More than three decades after the nuclear disaster, Chernobyl is not only unrecognizable from what it was before the disaster, but it is also unsafe. For the bulk of the project, they shot in Chernobyl’s “sister power plant” in Lithuania and relied on experts to advise on re-creating details on sets, as well as costumes.
“That’s the beauty of writing: I get to go places I’ve never been, be people I could never be,” Mazin says. “I can split myself across all sorts of fascinating aspects of humanity all in my head, but at some point it’s really important to let other people [in] to make sure that, in your flights of fancy, you have been accurate, you have been sensitive, that you are not unintentionally causing harm or offense. That’s really important.”