Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

Interview: Lesli Linka Glatter (‘Homeland’) on the support system of female directors and closing the book on Carrie and Saul

Showtime’s drama juggernaut Homeland came to a close this year, after 8 seasons of political and personal drama set against a backdrop of world events.  The story of a passionate, bipolar CIA agent with a complicated moral compass, Homeland made the most of its time on air, fictionalizing some very real global conflicts with a particular emphasis on terrorism borne out of the Mideast.  No show captured American post-9/11 angst like Homeland, and its critical and popular acclaim were testaments to the artists behind the scenes who worked hard to achieve authenticity alongside its narrative allure. 

A perennial Emmy nominee since its premiere in 2011, including wins for Best Drama in 2012 and Best Actress in a Drama Series (for star Claire Danes) in 2012 and 2013, Homeland surprisingly only managed to earn a single nomination for its final season, that for executive director and director Lesli Linka Glatter, nominated for Best Direction of a Drama Series for the show’s finale, “Prisoners of War.” 

I talked to Glatter, a legendary television director and producer, about what it was like to bring this groundbreaking show to a close, what she thinks it accomplished and why women directors need to start behaving like they are on a sports team.

[WARNING:  Spoilers for the entire series ahead, including the finale.]

Lesli Linka Glattter: Nice to talk to you! How are you doing in these insane times we’re living in?

Catherine Springer:  It all seems so absurd.

It is insane, you can definitely go down the rabbit hole.  Someone from QAnon just won a primary!  They believe in satanic rituals and the “Deep State.”   Well, I know a lot of these guys in the “Deep State.”  On Homeland, every year we spend a week meeting with the people in the intelligence community, from CIA to NSA, DNI, State Department, and top journalists to get both sides of an issue, and that’s usually where the season comes from.  Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, who created the show, ask the question:  “What are your deep fears?  What keeps you up at night?” And I can tell you it’s not satanic rituals.

Did you also have consultants on set ever during the course of the season?

Yeah, very much so.  And we always had access.  I think one of the reasons the intelligence community has been so supportive is that they feel we get their dedication to mission right.  Now, they have definitely said there would never be a bipolar CIA agent, but I think they appreciate the fact that Homeland doesn’t show anyone in a white hat, or a black hat for that matter.  We exist in shades of gray.  Some of my favorite Homeland scenes are when two characters have completely opposing views and they’re both correct.  We like looking at layered, complicated material and getting in there in a granular way.   But it’s all in service of a narrative story.   I mean, we have two very complicated main characters, Saul Berenson, who is the father figure to Carrie Mathison, who, again, is one of the most interesting female characters, who is complicated and weird and doesn’t always do the right thing but is always self-reflective.  And of course working with both Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes has been a joy.  As a director, you’re only as good as your team and I feel so grateful to have been with such an extraordinary team of collaborators.  Alex Ganza, Howard Gordon and the whole room of writers, who are all show runners in their own right, Chip Johannessen,  Patrick Harbinson and Meredith Stiehm and Alex Cary– all amazing.   We were always open to asking the questions, to wanting to push the edge of the envelope.  And, again, it’s a narrative story, but it’s based on real information.  A number of years ago, Rupert Friend, who played Quinn, went in and talked to the Joint Chiefs about what was going on in Syria.   That dialogue was quoted all the time because it really made people understand what was going on in Syria, and to me that was just fascinating.

And then, of course, a big world event is the Trump presidency.  I believe it was season 7 where it switches its focus from Middle East terrorism to homeland terrorism.  How much of that was colored by what was going on in our homeland?

Oh absolutely.  That season was all set in America and, as you know, CIA primarily works overseas but we wanted to look at what happens in that very complicated time between when a president is elected and when they take office.  And looking at the whole issue of fake news and real news.  And what happens when a president is at odds with the intelligence community.

We do want to get into the Carrie and Saul thing.  Obviously because we’re talking about the last season and specifically the last episode for which you’re nominated for, congratulations!

Thank you, I’m so I’m so grateful and surprised and thrilled!  But I do have to say one thing about that season when Trump was elected…  We were organizing a demonstration outside of the Intercontinental Hotel in New York City, against our fictional President Keane, and we had roughly 200 people holding signs saying “Not our president.” This was right after Trump was elected, so there were, at the same time, demonstrations in front of Trump Tower with signs that said “Not our president.”   So people were getting confused between the demonstrations!  [laughs]

Must have been strange.

SO strange!

But getting back to this season, I was so torn up, especially with the Carrie and Saul relationship, which has been the lynchpin of the series.  The whole season had so many twists and turns, we really didn’t know how anything was going to end, but it ended up coming full circle, which felt just perfect.   

Well I think that was very much the intention of Alex, that the series would come full circle.  I mean we started off with Brody and that first season, which was so extraordinary, being on the edge of your seat, wondering, had Brody been turned?   Was he a hero or a traitor?  And someone actually wrote this—I did not make this up—Alex called me and said, “Oh my God, someone wrote on the internet something that just described the whole series!”  It was “Homeland started out with the traitor masquerading as a hero and ended with a hero masquerading as a traitor.”  And so, whoever wrote that, I thank them, because it succinctly said everything. 

I think one of the key things is that Carrie is always dedicated to what she feels is right.  And, looking at the big picture, this conflict has to be stopped and she’s in a position to do that.  And you have to believe that she will do this in spite of her relationship with Saul.  So those scenes inside Saul’s house which are, again, small scenes between two powerful actors who are willing to go as deep as necessary.  You have to believe that she will do what’s necessary, even if it means killing him.  Though, thank goodness at the end that was never going to happen. But you have to believe it.  And Saul has to believe it, that she is willing to do whatever necessary to save America.  She feels her mission is that important. 

We have to tell you, in our house we were quite mad at what happened to Max and Quinn!  But it just goes to show that loyalty to Carrie has consequences, right?

Yes!   And also the guilt she feels. She sent Max in there and when Max dies, I think she’s truly torn apart.  And with Quinn, Quinn probably is the person, up until Yevgeni, who she is closest to, who truly understands her.  His whole development, as the wounded warrior, what happens when we send these men in to do these jobs and they come back…it’s not very pretty to look at.

Which goes back to Brody as well…

Exactly. So there is a responsibility there.  And of course the big overriding theme is what has America learned since 9/11.  And what if we were faced with another 9/11.  We did not want to do that on American soil, so taking down the helicopter of a President was how the writers chose to look at that and to ask, would we behave better?  Meaning, would we do all of the work to figure out what really happened, and not go to war with the wrong people.  You know, to stop and assess the situation even in the horror of what happened.  Also, what happens when you have a leader who is not up to the task, who is both arrogant and ignorant and faced with a horrible situation. 

We had such extraordinary State Department advisors as well who come to the set.  We had a scene last season where the GRU and the CIA were meeting in Moscow and we were on the phone with our consultant, asking “where do you put the cell phone?”  “How do you set up the room?”  “Where do the translators go?”  Having access to that real-time information is so important.  It’s been an honor to have the access to these kind of amazing advisers. 

We were in Berlin for a season that was all about Russia.  That year when we went to meet with our advisers and asked what keeps you up at night, they all replied, “Russia.”  And this was long before Russia was in the news, I mean, this is like five years ago.   And we were like, “Russia?  Russia’s over!” And they were like, “No no no no…they are everywhere.”  Being in Berlin was amazing.  In fact a lot of our German crew came down to Morocco this season.   We were in Morocco this season for nine months.   It was very challenging. 

So talk to me a little bit about, as the director, the words are on the page, you’ve got all this history with these characters—what is your preparation with the actors before these big scenes that are emotional scenes with such huge backdrops?

With all of these amazing political story lines going on it always comes down to character. We’ve had such extraordinary actors on the show, it’s been such a blessing.  Regarding preparing with the actors, my very first episode I directed on Homeland was an extraordinary episode called “Q&A” and it was written by the late, great Henry Bromel, whose parents were both CIA agents.  He was responsible for our connections with the intelligence community because he was born into it.   And that particular script was 40 pages in one room.  And when I first got the script, I panicked—oh my God, what am I gonna do, how can I make this interesting?  And of course then I realized, I’m in the room with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.  It is the episode that had this huge interrogation where Carrie ultimately breaks Brody, but what do you have to do as a character?    Brody had been questioned and incarcerated for years, he’s very used to being interrogated.  What were the changes that Carrie had to do to make that happen?   And those kind of things were amazing to work on with Claire and Damian. We rehearsed, we discussed the scene ahead of time.  That has been very much part of the process.   There always are ongoing discussions, but the writing of the scripts is so delicious and so good that to take that next step and be digging deep with the actors, especially with this particular cast, has been extraordinary.

The acting and the writing is phenomenal, but we can’t underestimate the directing.   You are one of the most respected directors in the industry, as is Mimi Leder, I might add, who is also nominated in your category.  You both have been Emmy-nominated 6 times for directing a drama series category, and you are both nominated again this year!

Mimi is a dear friend, and the day the nominations came out, she was my first call.  We lamented not being able to walk the red carpet together.   She’s been a real source.  I look up to Mimi, I think she’s amazing.  And she has actually won an Emmy, I have not. 

She’s only one of two women who have won in this category…

She’s been at the forefront of so many things.

Talk a little bit about the support system in the industry between female directors and what it’s going to take the level the playing field to create more opportunities.  Both of you are legends and I imagine you have both mentored quite a bit.

We have both mentored quite a bit and have both been very committed to mentoring.  I came from a totally different field, I was a modern dancer and then a choreographer, a very female field, so I never really thought about being a woman as being a problematic issue.  So when I started directing I was shocked that this was such a huge issue. I started mentoring very early on because I felt like, you know what, if you’re in a position to open the door to grab the hand of the next generation to make a change, you need to do that.   And I really feel like directing is not easy for anyone. But it shouldn’t be harder for our daughters to direct than for our sons.  It should be equally hard for everyone.

I do think that things have changed.  Last year in the TV season, it was 50% women-directed episodes.  That is extraordinary.  That’s not to say we rest on our laurels, I mean we have to keep moving forward with this.  Now this is in television, this is not the case in feature films.  The statistics are much worse.  But these are good things, and I think it’s important to acknowledge positive change when it happens.  Men have always been on sports teams together and supporting each other, and I think that has really just started to happen with women.  I do think things have changed, but it’s important to recognize the change and that there’s still more work to be done.  But there’s such great work out there in television.  I hope at some point, this will be a non-issue.  I’d like it to get to, “Oh remember when we had to discuss this?”  

I’m looking forward to what you do next.  Are you able to work now, do you have anything going on?

When everything shut down I was on my way to Budapest to start prep on an eight part miniseries for Amazon called The Banker’s Wife, with Meredith Stiehm, who was on Homeland and created Cold Case and The Bridge, she’s a wonderful writer.   It’s about the banks that do business with dictators and money launderers and drug runners and the wealthy and entitled.  I was literally packed with my four suitcases and three boxes when we were told to stand down.   So that is what I will be doing when we open up again, hopefully! 

I’ve tried to use this time to focus on creative development.  I was an advisor at the Sundance Directors lab.  I was on the DGA COVID task force, coming up with safety guidelines to move forward, so trying to focus on things that are hopefully important.

I am trying to see the silver lining and think of all the great work that is being thought up during this time that we’ll get to enjoy later….

I feel like I’m an optimistic realist, so some days are really good and I can focus on what’s essential, and then the next moment I’m in despair for our country, for what this new normal is, but then it passes.  And we should allow for that.  We’re in a moment that no one has ever experienced before, or at least since 1918 or whenever the Spanish flu was.  It’s not easy to deal with these changes.

Well, you certainly made your mark with Homeland.  Such a great show.  And important.  I hope people paid attention, because there’s a whole world beyond our borders and there are a lot of bad actors out there, and it’s not always the ones that you hear about.

It’s so true.  It’s so exciting to see people watching shows in all different languages now.  That was not the case 10 years ago, this is a new phenomenon, and it makes it exciting. It makes it a smaller world.   It makes it more of a one world.   But yes, working on a political thriller where the world beneath us is not solid, where there’s a level of anxiety and uncertainty to everything and then tracking through with these extraordinary characters…I’m so grateful.  I love what I do.  I love being a story-teller and being on the show.  You know, you only get a few of these, where you have this meeting of such amazing material, such talented writers and an incredible crew and cast! It’s been a wonderful journey.

And you ended on your own terms.  Even though that last scene with Carrie and Saul was excruciating to watch, the show ended so perfectly.

Those were our last scenes with Mandy and Claire, so there were many goodbyes. But yes, we made a choice to end this season and to very much end on our terms rather than staying too long at the dance.  I have to say Alex Ganza re-worked those last 20 pages so many times.  And then, reading that final draft, I got chills. 

Watching it, I had no idea how it was going to go until that very last scene.  You managed to hold us until the very end, which is so rare, so congratulations on that!

Thank you!  I have to say that moment with both Claire and Mandy in different locations—the moment when Mandy was figuring out that there was a message in the book. Alex had that idea literally the day before we were shooting it, so designer John Kretschmer had to come up with the book!  And then that moment where you turn the page and it’s dedicated to her daughter, hoping that she will understand… when Mandy looked up and the look on his face of like, “Oh my God, she’s my asset.”  This was the long game that she was playing.   And Carrie is actually the happiest she’s ever been.   I think she is probably in love with Yevgeni, and she’s also working with her mentor on something she truly believes in, and can somehow live with that dichotomy.  It’s perfect.

Lesli Linka Glatter is nominated for Outstanding Direction in a Drama Series for the episode “Prisoners of War” from Homeland, which is currently available to stream on Showtime platforms.

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