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How Emmy-Nominated Directors of ‘Watchmen,’ ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ Handled High-Adrenaline Episodes

Stephen Williams The Watchmen Director HBO BTS
Courtesy of Mark Hill/HBO

For the finale of Hulu’s limited series “Little Fires Everywhere,” the late director Lynn Shelton had to balance a number of world-changing events, from characters leaving the formerly sleepy suburban town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, to the culmination of a custody battle in court. And, of course, she finally had to pay off the reveal of who set the titular fires that burned down the Richardson family home.

Given the technical complexity and symbolism of the fire, that proved to be one of the most challenging pieces, Shelton told Variety before she died in the spring. (Shelton received a posthumous directing nom in the limited series/TV movie/dramatic special category.)

“There were a lot of factors and things to think about: how long does it take for the actual house to be in full blaze; how far away did Izzy get before then?” she recalled. “Fire acts in a very specific way: it blows out the windows and it’s licking around the shape of the various orifices of the house, like the windows, and so it was a combination of practical and digital effects and any time there was any kind of effect — whether it was the charred aftermath or the full blaze or a little bit after the full blaze — we storyboarded incessantly. I learned so much because I’ve never had to direct a sequence like that before.”

Such cinematic sequences need to be visually stunning as well as plot-pushing and, due to their scope and size, they are often the most time-consuming pieces of episodes to put together. This requires a deft hand by their helmers so that the moments of spectacle don’t overshadow important nuances of dialogue-driven character work.

“With a big action piece hundreds of things are happening at once so you have to watch playback a lot to make sure you see everything and got everything you want,” says Nicole Kassell, who is nominated in the limited series/TV movie/dramatic special directing category this year for the series premiere of “Watchmen,” which included everything from a re-creation of the 1921 Tulsa massacre to a shootout in a cow field.

“But then, in the same way that the action pieces will exhaust you in the making of them, they also can exhaust you when you watch it,” she says. “You need the quiet in between as a respite; you need the character to justify these action pieces and keep you invested. The action is moving the story forward but it’s also really entertaining, so it’s a nice balance of a little bit of an adrenaline rush and then you can sit down and relax and then you get another adrenaline rush.”

“The Morning Show” executive producer and director Mimi Leder (nominated in the drama directing category for the finale episode) often slowed down the pace of high-adrenaline moments just to ratchet up the tension. The final time she filmed sexual-assault survivor Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) alive, she lingered, first on Hannah’s face, as a decision that she thought would make her feel better turned out not to, and then as she walked away.

“We were on this beautiful cobblestone street and we had all of this smoke going, and I wanted her to get lost in this cloud, into this sort of heaven,” Leder says.

Later in the episode when her colleagues learn of her death, Leder used slow-motion, shooting at 60 frames, because she “wanted to feel like I was under water, like I could barely breathe.”

In “Watchmen,” sequences as complex to shoot as the massacre, which required a long view down a street, in addition to close-ups of the trauma on actors’ faces, were filmed over a couple of days, followed by a day shooting a “simpler” scene of two characters talking, Kassell says. The shift between days helped her immerse herself, her cast and crew in each scene’s unique tone and time period, such as the sepia-toned movement of the massacre and the “more composed,” comic-influenced present-day scenes. “I consciously did not want a hand-held feel” in 2019, she notes. “The comic has a very rigid frame and it was very important to me that the contemporary world have that.”

For “Watchmen” executive producer and director Stephen Williams, also nominated in the limited series/TV movie/dramatic special directing category, but for the sixth episode of the adaptation, the majority of the action and emotional arc was set in the past — in the 1930s, telling the origin story of vigilante Hooded Justice both through his eyes as a young man (Jovan Adepo) and as seen in memories his granddaughter Angela (Regina King) experiences with the aid of a pharmaceutical.

“The subjectivity of that became a part of the visual grammar of the piece, which involved shooting on wide lenses, [in] black and white [and with] long takes and careful consideration to the transitions between scenes,” Williams says.

Williams’ episode included a graphic and visceral depiction of a lynching attempt on the vigilante’s life that “shed light on the genesis” of police lieutenant Judd’s (Don Johnson) murder at the end of the first episode. Williams did not want to mimic the shot design of the previous scene, but instead get inside the “logic” of the moment. At one key point he put the audience directly into the “curated, pivotal and formative” memory by wrapping a camera and rigging it with a hose to mimic breathing, so there was true first-person perspective.

In order to seamlessly switch between the two episodic protagonists, Williams says, sometimes the camera simply panned off one actor and “while it’s moving off that space, one actor steps out and the other steps in.” Other times, though, he needed to enlist the assistance of visual effects “to make it appear as if it was one singular camera move, one singular take.”

To best capture such big, tentpole moments takes keen collaboration from many.

“Schitt’s Creek” showrunner and star Daniel Levy brought in his long-time friend Andrew Cividino to help him direct the series finale (for which they are both nominated, in the comedy directing category). The episode centered on his character David’s wedding, which meant more elaborate set pieces and costumes than the average episode, as well as extra emotional content for him to perform.

“There was so much going on,” Levy says, adding that he needed to be really accessible to multiple departments on the days of shooting. “We really sat down and worked out the aesthetic and the shots all in advance so when the day came and I needed to go and do other things, Andrew, someone who I really know and trust, could take over.”

Similarly, Ramy Youssef pulls multiple-duty on his self-titled Hulu comedy “Ramy,” and although he says his preference is often to direct episodes he is not in so he can have a more singular focus, the tight shooting schedule doesn’t always allow for that. In the second season he helmed four episodes and picked up his first comedy directing nom for one that saw his character competing in a spontaneous archery match to solicit a donation to his mosque.

“There’s a weird thing around the word ‘director’ where it’s like, ‘Wow that person did everything,’ but it’s not really that,” he says. “To me and at least on my show, it speaks to the whole team. To me a directing nom on this show is like a show nom.”