After being nominated for an Oscar for her short film “New Boy” in 2007, Steph Green has consistently carved out a space for herself as a sought-out small-screen director. This year alone she has helmed high-profile episodes of equally important new series, including the Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) backstory chapter of HBO’s “Watchmen” adaptation and the tone-setting premiere of Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q” continuation series. Up next for Green is USA’s adaptation of “Dare Me.”
How much did you worry, when you were first starting out as a director, about how male-dominated the field has historically been?
I saw women directors around me and I would read about them, and the numbers were lesser but I felt like I had to give it a try. I had come from independent film and directing TV commercials. I did the Fox 20 program, and I was invited to do the CBS program, and FX was incredibly supportive when Dan Attias, who had been a mentor, supported my bid to get an episode of “The Americans.” So what I found when I started to get into TV was incredible support, actually. It doesn’t mean that I don’t perceive that it has been a very uneven playing field, but when I started working in TV I started to feel a shift, which is really exciting. I moved back from Ireland in 2014, and that is really when the tides were turning in television. I think if I had been here since the 2000s I would have a completely different narrative. I was at an advantage because I had an Oscar-nominated short and a feature before I started working in TV, and now, very quickly, I’m looking at all of the hiring lists and there’s just not enough female names on any of them when you’re trying to populate the show. And it’s not just women but people of color, too; it’s very hard to get things balanced.
How intentional has it been in the last few years of year career to try to work on shows created by women?
It’s definitely something I look forward to. There is a systemic disadvantage that we have felt throughout the industry. I’m also excited when I work with people like Marja [Lewis-Ryan] or Gina Fattore and Megan Abbott [on “The L Word: Generation Q” and “Dare Me,” respectively] because there is an eye towards that type of hiring: looking to diversify and be balanced at all levels of hiring.
From a storytelling perspective, what elements draw you to projects today?
When I’m looking at what show I’m going to do, it really is looking for a unique perspective and voice. I definitely look very carefully at the female perspective in projects and look for authentic female perspective. I think there is a tendency to take a heroic story that would have starred a male character and then it’s swapped so Alex become Alexa or whatever, and it’s just not the same. The true female perspective in the script is really difficult to find. And I would say that what I’m looking for now are shows that don’t just have one heroic woman on screen but have very human female characters or groups of female characters that work together, and I think that’s harder to find. I read a lot of scripts that are the singular heroic female’s journey, so I think my next objective is looking for groups of dynamic characters with authentic storytelling, and fair to men, of course, as well.
What is your approach to the technical planning required for intricate shows such as “The L Word: Generation Q” or “Watchmen” when compared with leaving room to find nuances on the fly, on the day?
When I’m directing “Watchmen” and I’m doing a special effects sequence with 1000 extras, that is the height of technical prep and needs to be storyboarded carefully. And in “Dare Me” when we have a super wide crane shot with a lot of moves that need to be figured out, those kind of sweeping scope moments do take planning. So the more scope-related work in “L Word” does take planning and you need to stick with your plan. But once we’re in the intimate moments between characters, what’s beautiful is there’s so much nuance that just comes out in those moments, so the camera can adjust and cover, especially when we’re in the closer shots. And when you’re up-close-and-personal with the actors, you want them to feel the freedom to move. All of these actors are coming up with great ideas and you want to fold them into your shooting plan and invite them to be contributors. We move so quickly, and we shoot so many scenes per day, the actor is coming with a sense of intention and a sense of how they want to move, and we put our ideas together and we make sure the camera can do its thing. “L Word” is sort of traditionally shot; it’s a classic TV show in a lot of ways. But when we have those bigger glamour shots we have more technical demands.
How did you strike the balance between reviving the original look and tone of “The L Word” with still putting your own modern touches on “Generation Q”?
I think we did have this responsibility to the original, but also so much has changed culturally and we had responsibility to this moment. From Marja, it was so clear and so inspiring to have a truly diverse cast, to talk about real issues without becoming melodrama or too serious. “The L Word” is important [for its] really grounded, relatable characters in somewhat of a fantasy setting. As a director, a lot of what I felt like I was doing was creating the character of Los Angeles, which was going to be this place where you saw these women thrive and live incredible lives. They were written beautifully, we were casting in a really interesting way, and I felt like we needed to surround them with light and warmth and the natural beauty of LA and the luxury and fashion of LA. For Marja and for me, we know we’re creating that heightened world, and it’s in part to send that message that there’s a beautiful place for you and it’s going to be OK. And my part of that was the visual, so we talked a lot about shows that succeed in that and movies that we love and how we bring LA in as a character. And you’ll notice we’re very often looking at LA from up above; we’re very often bringing the outside inside — because that’s such a unique facet about living here: you can have your window or your sliding door open 12 months out of the year, so there’s always integration of outdoor living here. So it was a lot of creative choices like that and then making sure each character’s wardrobe was really expressive and unique and that we moved with a certain pace and energy and joy through LA despite the real issues that were affecting every character socially culturally and personally.
Did you take many cues from “The L Word’s” shot style on which character should be framed in what way in “Generation Q”?
There was continuity of story with creating who they were and who they became. We developed the look based on what had happened to them in the past 10 years. And that was with a lot of participation from [the actors] on what they would look like now. And that’s really fun because it’s like you’re fast-forwarding and moving ahead and doing that alongside completely new character creations.
These shows run a gamut of emotional moments, from the intimate sex scenes of “Generation Q” to exploring the trauma of characters on “Watchmen.” What extra work did you find yourself doing with the crew and the actors to make sure everyone was adequately prepared physically, mentally and comfortably?
I worked on “The Deuce” so I’ve shot quite a few sex scenes now which was a great learning process, and I think it’s an important time to be talking about that process and how we do it so everyone is as comfortable as possible because it is really delicate for everyone involved. The first thing we do is really minimize our crew; we go onto a closed set situation on all of these shows. We make sure that the actors are really comfortable with the crew that’s very close to them, like the camera operator or the boom operator, the people who are literally standing over them when they may be naked. And then the most important thing is an intimacy coordinator, as well as rehearsals where we really build trust between the actors. Like a dance routine, we create choreography so each actor knows what to do when because what you want to avoid are any surprises or anything unexpected when you’re in that very vulnerable position. I often share storyboards; I’ll turn the camera monitor around to show them, “This is where I am; this is what it’s seeing.” I think because of the abuse of the past and the power dynamic during sex scenes, things are just more careful. And I should just say, no one is actually having sex on-screen. I’ve got to just say it, especially with a woman going down on another woman, for example, where people may ask what is going on down there. What is down there is a cover, and often we use VFX or some sort of technique to hide the covers that were on the body. I think it’s important to mention that because it’s interesting how real it starts to look and how revealing it can be of body parts when, in fact, on set they may have been covered. I have to say, I think “L Word” is being very brave about how it’s showing women’s bodies and how it’s showing female sexuality for the female gaze and really trying to be honest and authentic about how women are with each other, but also there is a trans character, so we’re portraying that as well, which is exciting. It’s a big responsibility, but I really admire Marja’s vision and then we were just careful in our planning.
Do the scenes that are emotional but not necessarily physically intimate receive similar sensitive treatment?
I think that is just the raw skill of the actors. In a room full of 100 people, they can take themselves to a very vulnerable, emotional place to tell a story. Of course there still needs to be a sense of safety and respect around them, and sometimes actors do need certain things to be in place if they’re going to have a really difficult scene, but part of the craft that all of these actors have cultivated — and their natural abilities — is that very alone moment. It’s quite a feat, and it’s why it’s such an incredible art form and skill.
With episodic directing there’s not usually a lot of time to build an off-set relationship with actors. What have you found to be the key to coming in quickly and efficiently?
First you study them by watching other work they’ve done, and then you meet with them and ask them about their techniques and if they have a way they like to be given a note or adjustment. They really are all very different, and you have to embrace that as part of the joy of working with them. It is fast, and sometimes it feels too fast, and because we’re sharing episodes between directors sometimes we’ll talk to each other about, “Who do you recommend gets extra rehearsals? Who would enjoy that? Who wants to just get to set and go for it?”