‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘The Flight Attendant’ Directors on Tackling Tricky Tones and Complex Female Protagonists Written by Men

Christina Choe and Susanna Fogel Handmaids
Fogel: Sthanlee B. Mirador/Sipa USA/AP Images; Chloe: Courtesy Christina Choe

Christina Choe and Susanna Fogel have served as writers and directors of film projects including “Nancy” (Choe) and “The Spy Who Dumped Me” (Fogel). In television, though, they have both racked up impressive episodic credits as directors, with Choe most recently working on “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4 and Fogel helming the first two episodes of “The Flight Attendant,” which she also executive produces.

Both women had to manage tricky tones, collaborate with lead performers who are also executive producers and elevate a female-focused adaptation.

Here, Variety brings them together to discuss their approaches to these things, as well as the both the rewards and pitfalls of being a multi-hyphenate.

Stepping into series centered on female protagonists but coming from male showrunners, what did you feel you needed to do to depict the female perspective differently than how it may have been on the page?

Christina Choe: As someone that’s coming in at Season 4 of a very popular show that is lauded for its feminist protagonists, there were a lot of things that were already established. But, I think in general — and this may or may not have to do with being a woman — I’m more interested finding the nuance and character dynamics. And so, I definitely tried to focus on getting performances that were unexpected. There were also like certain scenes where there were subtleties of the way that June was dealing with a sexual advance, and I think when it goes into that territory, I definitely feel like, as a woman, I’m not going to really take input from a guy on the nuances of how you negotiate a situation like that.

Susanna Fogel: Steve [Yockey], who was the showrunner was also the writer who adapted the book — the novelist of which was also a man. But, I think that with each generation, from novel to script and then from script to screen, it had more and more layers that felt a little bit closer to the female gaze. I really responded to parts of it that maybe weren’t as much of a focus for the guys because it’s something that they might not notice. The story doesn’t end with her fixing herself and having a husband and kids; it ends with her trying to break a bad pattern in her life, but it’s not condemning her love for traveling, it’s not condemning her being a single woman in her 30s, it’s not condemning her ambivalence about a traditional life. And that was one of the things I loved the most about it. And while that was in the subtext of the script I read, I don’t know that it was the beating heart of what drove the writers to write what they did. Sometimes there’s just shapes that loom larger for women interpreting a text and so, that adds a nice layer to it.

In Season 4 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” we are well beyond Margaret Atwood’s novel, but “The Flight Attendant’s” first season tells a very similar story to its own book version. How important was the source material in developing the first two episodes you were directing, Susanna?

Fogel: I read and loved the book, the script departed from it, but retained just the fun of that character. So I think Steve’s script was more my reference point and [author] Chris [Bohjalian’s] constantly cheerleading from the sidelines was wonderful, but it was less of a touchstone for the tone. I saw a real opportunity to take some of the Hitchcock blonde and give her a real interiority and make her a grounded protagonist who also finds herself in a Hitchcockian story.

You touched on the tone briefly, and both of these shows have such specific ones, mixing dark humor into very sensitive subjects like alcoholism and sexual assault. What are tone meetings like when you’re coming in only for a couple of episodes but setting up new worlds within them?

Choe: For “Handmaid’s,” what was great about this season was what they were trying to do with all the characters was give them more interiority to their past. With Janine, she had an abortion [after] having a child and [you’re] getting a deeper understanding of that character. It’s almost like June and Janine, their personalities are starting to reverse or switch, and that is interesting. Coming into Season 4, there’s a lot of material. I did watch everything that came before, but a lot of it is talking writers and showrunner and Lizzie [Moss, actor and executive producer, about] how they wanted to shift some of these characters’ typical behavior and asking a lot of questions, especially since my episodes were also going into new worlds of Chicago and the resistance fighters.

Fogel: I came into it after it was a go. Kaley [Cuoco, actor and executive producer] optioned the book and she brought Steve on, and the tone was so quirky and specific in Steve’s script, there were a lot of questions about how we were going to translate it because of the direct-to-camera stuff with Alex, and because of Kaley not having a drama background but being iconically one thing that was so different from what this was. It was a bit of talking to her and dialing in on what makes her so special as an actress, and then bringing that into the script that was unique, too. So, a lot of the tonal conversations were around how she seemed as a protagonist — whether we were going to be aligned with her and relating to her, or whether we were going to just be watching this train wreck. And for me it was really important to completely identify with her while also recognizing her bad choices, like that friend that we all have who is still our really good friend but we’re like, “No don’t do that. Why are you always doing that!?” But they’re still our best friend, not a person that we’re like, “That’s an alien I don’t know.” Kaley has such an every girl best friend energy to her that we had to keep talking about that as a touchstone and it bought us the ability to do really weird stuff with the show. But we talked about tone all the time. The pilot is hard to do because you have nothing to reference you’re like, “Just let me do it, just let me do it. I know what the tone is!” It’s just hard to articulate what it’s going to be when you have a show that is a hybrid show, where it’s not obviously drama and not obviously a comedy. People want these precise ratios, but you can’t say, “It’s this meets that,” so you use a lot of words that lead to a lot of really annoying, long meetings to get permission to go off and do the thing that you see in your head.

You both brought up the leads on your these shows who are also executive producers, and they have strong opinions about all of these things, from tone to character. Do you see working with them as a partnership? What goes into building that relationship that is collaborative but still, at the end of the day, they take your notes as a director?

Choe: Lizzie actually found me: she reached out to me to direct. She’s on the ground; she’s the EP that’s been there since Day 1, and she’s been directing this season, so she really has an intimate knowledge — she’s an encyclopedia, almost, to the show. I never got a look book or a Bible; a lot of the information I would get from her. And I was working with a DP that was new to “Handmaid’s” too, and her character often gets specific frame size and shot size, and she was just really supportive and helpful in guiding me through the specific look of it. Story-wise, we would go through the whole script and talk about ideas. There’s an additional piece at the end of [Episode] 4.04 [where] she has to take off her robe, and it’s this such loaded imagery that wasn’t really in the script before. We realized it was a really important moment where [she’s] letting go, but it’s also upsetting — it’s both freeing and upsetting. And we talked about how it should be in there, and she was just on point with keeping the show consistent but pushing the characters to be doing new things. I was definitely surprised. You don’t usually get that. But I could be wrong.

Fogel: Yeah, you never know. When people’s names are listed as EPs it can mean a variety of things from they once were attached and someone paid them off but their name stayed on it but haven’t talked to anyone in five years, to they’re there every day. So you never really know what that’s going to be like and you have to assess those politics when you show up. Kaley didn’t have the years behind her that Lizzie had, in terms of just knowing how the show was put together; she didn’t play that role on any of her past jobs, and there wasn’t a template for her. But she has this incredible leadership personality where she’s this magnetic person people want to be around and she’s an open book, and she wanted to be involved in everything and wanted to learn how to do the real job of being an EP, but she didn’t have any need to pull rank in any way. I remember talking to her before we started shooting and she was like, “Should I take classes. What should I do to prepare for this? It’s so different.” And I just said at the time, “Everything you’ve done that got you to this point, that’s your toolbox. And we’re working with a really good toolbox, so don’t worry about it: just show up and we’ll figure out what what this has to be, and if it’s different we’ll roll with it.” And there was never a moment when she pushed back on anything creatively. And for someone coming off of such a locked-down operation — a sitcom — it was freeing for her to just be able to play around. This is a pre-COVID thing to say, but I like to take actors to an escape room and make them bond and get to know each other — especially with pilots where people don’t have a dynamic yet. Escape rooms quickly create dynamics and friendships and rivalries and all these really interesting juicy layers that you can then play with, and by the time the table read happens there’s a dynamic between people who were strangers before they had to escape a locked medieval-themed room. It’s stuff like that: to find the fun with it and encourage people to connect and be as emotionally open with each other as possible so they can get to the heart of what’s going on.

These are not the only shows you have directed this year, between “The Twilight Zone” for you, Christina,” and “Utopia” and “The Wilds” for you, Susanna. How do you choose what to get involved in these days?

Choe: As someone that also writes my own material, if I’m going to do a show as an episodic director, there’s either something in the show that I get to explore for the first time or there’s themes in the show that really resonate with me. Maybe I’m a little picky. For me, having complex characters is something that is always compelling for me. For “Handmaid’s Tale” it was a no-brainer: the level of actors that you get to work with are the best in the world and I think it has always been one of the most cinematic shows on TV.

Fogel: Because I do ultimately want to be also focusing on developing my own material, [if] things come in that feel really similar to something I would have written myself, I usually don’t do them. And usually if I get something that I can totally wrap my head around as a director and love the writing, but it’s not something I would have done, it feels a different kind of opportunity — especially if it’s something I haven’t done before. When I was sent the script for “Utopia,” which was Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of the British show, that would never have been a script I would have written but I had a vision for it. So it just has to offer me an opportunity to do something different then the jobs I would kind of create for myself or manifest from myself by writing. “The Flight Attendant” played with genre in a way that I hadn’t done and it was highly visual, and honestly it was the weirdness of the script and taking an actress who’s sort of known for one thing and showing a completely different side. Actors and actresses get pigeonholed so often that they get typecast, and I like the part of my job that’s to show people they can do something completely different, even if they knew they could do it the whole time. Also, I’m addicted to travel and we got to shoot in Thailand.

I’m glad you brought up writing your own material. It does feel like for a long time that was the advice to up-and-coming directors: make something yourself to show what you can do, even when Hollywood is telling you no. How important do you believe that to be today?

Choe: It’s about what you see yourself doing ultimately in your dream world. I see myself writing or directing films that are personal and are expressing a character that maybe hasn’t been seen before. In that sense, it’s not just creating something for me, but it’s also creating a character that just is on outside of the margins in the mainstream and wanting to create something that I want to see. My ultimate sweet spot is being able to write and direct a film that came from my head, but I don’t think everyone can do it or everyone should do it. But if you want to express your point of view, you’ve got to; only you can do that. It has to be a need — a need to do it.

Fogel: I agree with that. There are certain projects that I don’t want anyone else to write it; if I don’t write it, I’ll die, so it has to be me. And then there are other projects where I love this person’s script and I’m happy to help them put their vision out there. The project tells you what it wants to be in a way — the idea tells you what it wants to be. I think it is tough for directors who are writers to just get the material to actually show what they can do, but I also don’t know that that means everybody has to be a high level writer and figure out how to create when their real passion is for directing. The work community can be really useful: if people are connected to writers or people who wear different hats and can get together with friends and make things, it’s sourcing from other people who are developing skills. But like Christina was saying, I think it’s too hard of a job to do it if you don’t absolutely have to do it, which is kind of how I feel about most Hollywood jobs. [Laughs.]

Choe: I will say, if you are able to write your own material, it’s almost like a superpower because I feel like when everyone is saying no — and I’ve been there — it’s like, “Fuck you, I have this script.” That’s how I got my first movie [“Nancy”]. At the time I was begging for money and I couldn’t get this movie made, and Steve Buscemi did it because of the script.

Fogel: My first movie was a half-million dollar, tiny character-driven movie [“Life Partners”] and then my second movie was a giant action comedy [“The Spy Who Dumped Me”], and if I hadn’t written that action comedy out of a desire to prove every to everyone I could do [more], I would never have been given that opportunity. I literally had to just write myself that ticket, and that has opened a lot of doors, so I will say you’re always one script away from getting out of whatever hole you’re in. But whether you’re the person to write it or your best friend is, that’s just up to each person.