Stepping onto the set of Amazon Prime Video’s “Homecoming” to direct all seven episodes of the second season, Kyle Patrick Alvarez had a big task at hand. The first season had been entirely helmed by executive producer Sam Esmail, who created a very specific visual look for the show, including the use of long, tracking oners and different aspect ratios to denote different time periods within the story. And although the second season started with a central new character in Janelle Monáe’s Jackie (née Alex), Alvarez did not want to completely change the vibe of the show.
How does your personal aesthetic align with the shot style of “Homecoming”?
When I watched Season 1, I was very much like, “Oh someone made a show just for me.” Tonally, the shots, the score, every reference to movies, I understood it at its core, and that’s what I came in with: I know this show and I felt lucky to be apart of it. When I met there was no sense of, “We’re trying to keep this from Season 1.” I was the one that came in and said, “OK we need to hold onto some of that. You made this really unique, special show.” And in some ways I felt like I was a gatekeeper of, “Hey, let’s let it evolve as the scripts have evolved, but I want to shoot with the same lens package.” And any changes I made, I tried to be very careful that they weren’t ego-driven and also make sure they weren’t driven by trying to hold onto something that wasn’t fitting the story.
The second season still tells the story non-linearly and in two slightly different places in time. What went into how you wanted to differentiate one from the other?
There could have been a way to make the aspect ratio changes function in the second season, but I just felt that if you do something like that again, you risk diminishing what made them inspired in the first place. There was an inspired choice to the aspect ratio choice in Season 1 because it really matched what Heidi was going through. If I did it again, I would just be doing it because it felt like it was “Homecoming.” So I was reminded early on to just be confident and steadfast in what new things I would bring. And also, the audience would be expecting it: “When is the aspect ratio going to open up again?” You have to stay ahead of them. In some ways doing that is about not repeating — but also not looking for a new gimmick. We’ve trained the audience to understand how time jumps work on this show.
The Geist Corporation within the show has always been such a source of ominous power, but that finally gets stripped away this season. How did you want to show that transition, visually?
It was all about scope. In a way, it was trying to have fun, and by that I mean, in Episode 2, how is it going to be fun to follow Janelle into this space and introduce it, even though we’ve seen it before? Or at the end of Episode 7, how do you create these images that don’t feel monstrous — like a Jonestown thing? This isn’t that show, but you do have 400 people passed out in an atrium and you’ve got to show that off! The end of Episode 7 probably had some of the biggest changes because of that. It’s a different place now. In a lot of ways, you’re pulling a veil back. Season 1 tells you they’re a company that makes soaps, but it still treats them as this enigmatic corporation that has total control. And one thing that I was excited about that they did with Chris Cooper’s character Leonard was that they made it a little more nuanced. It’s so easy to be like, “Corporations are evil,” but it’s more interesting to say, “There are some people trying to work really hard within an evil setting to do good” and what does that do to someone? I thought it was so interesting to take Leonard Geist and dissect him and [reveal] he’s so sincere.
The audience is ahead of the characters in many ways this season because, assuming they watched the first season, they already know the gaps Walter is trying to fill in and might suspect immediately that Alex was dosed with the same berries. Where did you want to build out further tension so the audience couldn’t get too comfortable?
It’s really about handling the inevitability as inevitable. It really comes down to the end of Episode 6: when you find out how and why [Jackie] got into the boat. We spent a lot of time talking about how clearly can you tell if Walter, in Episode 1, is on the shore or not. All I could say was the season needs to work whether you assume it’s him or not. I do think a lot of the audience assumed it was him, so when you have the chase in Episode 6, we tried to play it shorter and ended up scoring it really differently because it’s not a traditional suspense scene, it’s something more tragic. We referred to many moments in the season as “Back to the Future” moments because the fun has to come less from “Oh my God, what’s going to happen?” and more from “Oh, that’s how that window got opened!” It’s more about the investigation into the details, although I do think we had a shocking moment in the finale, with the dosing, that we hoped we kept hidden. But at the same time, from a character perspective, we’re not forcing a surprise twist: When you see her and Walter on the shore, you know the needle is going to end up in her arm. It’s just more about the anticipation of how it’s going to happen.
What was the collaboration like with Stephan James and Hong Chau, who came to the new season already knowing and having lived in their characters?
The storylines are so disparate that I was trying to adapt to each one of them individually. With Hong and Stephan there was a sense of characters, but both of them have the drive to not rest on their laurels. So with Walter, Stephan’s character, you saw him almost entirely through Heidi’s eyes in Season 1 — from this gaze of just adoring him and loving him. But Stephan and I talked about how this is actually a damaged man and he has troubles and struggles of his own. He got to be a little bit darker. Season 1 ends — and it’s obviously interpretable — but she feels comfortable saying bye to him because he has the life he wanted. But what we talked about this year was that it’s a lonely life and he’s haunted. And with Hong, it was fun because we only saw one side of her in Season 1, and here in the first two episodes you’re seeing her Geist side but Hong made some really strong choices about who Audrey was going to be as this woman who is ambitious but also in over her head. She has this very presentable persona that we see at Geist but then when she’s home, she’s a little goofy.
You mentioned the interpretation for which Season 1’s ending allowed, and, for many, there was the assumption that Walter pushing the fork meant he remembered Heidi. But in Season 2 he admits to so many large gaps in his memory that it no longer seems possible he does remember her.
That’s something I thought about for a long time because I thought the end of Season 1 is one of the all-time great TV moments. It was one of those things where we all agreed that you’re not going to beat the fork, in a lot of ways. In my mind I always thought that no matter how strong the berry is, part of our natural impulse is still intact. In Season 2, there is something about Jackie that still feels connected to who she was [even though she had memory loss]. And Walter was an innocent man in that scene in the diner in Season 1, but I don’t think it takes away from the perspective or abstraction of, “What does both of them feel?” I still think it leaves Season 1 with some interpretation, especially, “What does it mean for Heidi?” By not bringing Heidi into Season 2, it allows the purity of Season 1 to stay intact and now we’re seeing Walter from a different point of view, following him out from under her gaze.
With what feeling did you want to leave Walter, and the audience, at the end of Season 2?
Season 1 ends on a gasp of breath — “Oh my God, the fork!” — and then it cuts to black, but here we hold the shot a little longer, fade out, make it a little bit more digestive, I think. And that was key because here’s this guy who didn’t feel right and then found out what was wrong with him and was given a list of people who still don’t know either. He has a purpose now to help these people.