Sun. Oct 25th, 2020

Interview: ‘Watchmen’ director Steph Green talks “Careless Whispers,” Easter eggs and all those mirrors

If you’ve ever wondered if the Shorts categories at the Oscars mean anything, just ask director Steph Green, who credits her Oscar-nominated 2009 short New Boy for being the spark that ignited a career that has already involved her with some of the best of this era of prestige TV.  She has directed for some of the most critically-acclaimed shows in recent years, including The Americans, Preacher, Billions, Luke Cage, Scandal, and The Deuce, as well as serving as executive producer for Dare Me and The L Word: Generation Q.  But it is for her direction of the fifth episode of the magnificent HBO Emmy-nominated powerhouse, Watchmen (“Little Fear of Lightning”), that is getting her all the attention now as she is nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special.   The series that boasts 26 nominations, is sure to walk home—or stay at home, as the case will be—with more than a few golden trophies next month, maybe even one for Green, despite being up against two of her fellow Watchmen colleagues, Nicole Kassell and Stephen Williams.

I spoke with Green about stepping into the Watchmen universe, how it was to film the memorable mirror fun house scene, and how a cheesy ‘80s pop song can play such an important role in building a character.

Catherine Springer: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.  I’m sure you’re very busy.  

Steph Green: My pleasure.

I wanted to get a little bit of background first.  You were nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film in 2007 and then made a movie in 2013 and now, here you are, nominated for an Emmy for the most-nominated show, for Watchmen.  Tell me about your journey.

The Oscar was 2009, I think, which I point out because it was an interesting Oscar year.   This is an interesting Emmy year.  That was the recession Oscars, I remember, they were really changing how they were doing the Oscars.  And now this year is the “COVID Emmys.”  Obviously, my nominations are lining up with world events in an interesting way.  To answer your question, I went to Northwestern, I was a film major there, and after that I decided to go to Ireland for a little while.  There was a little bit of a family connection, but mostly for the experiment of it.  I just fell in love with living in Dublin, I loved it so much.  I was so inspired by the storytelling there, the people.   I made a short film in Ireland that was based on a Roddy Doyle short story called New Boy.  It was about an African boy’s first day of school in Ireland.  There was a lot going on with new cultures and identities coming into Ireland at the time, there was the introduction of the Euro, lots of new immigration.  Ireland had been pretty homogeneous-looking, up until about 2005, and then there was real change that came into the country.  So New Boy was nominated for an Oscar, which was so exciting.  And even though I’m not Irish, it was a big celebration for Ireland.  I wrote an Irish full-length feature film called Run & Jump.  But of course, my Irish feature film had an American main character, a scientist who was coming to live in Ireland. I was able to cast Will Forte as my star.  He flew over to Ireland and we made this really sweet feature film which was very much supported by the Irish film board.  Again, I just really love that country and working over there.  It’s really where I became a filmmaker.  After making Run & Jump, and having made the short, it was really time to come and try Hollywood.  When I arrived in 2015, it was a time when there was a push for more female directors in TV, and I feel really lucky about my timing, because I got into some of those supportive programs that facilitate female directors and luckily, because of the Oscar nomination, and the feature, I was connected to Dan Attias, who’s a great TV director, and he watched my feature film and he handed it to Joe Weisberg, creator of The Americans.  I had done some shadowing, as you do when you’re poor and it’s your first year and you’re knocking on every door to get into TV.  So Joe Weisberg watched my short film and my film and they gave me my first shot in television.  My first episode ever was The Americans.  “Munchkins,” in 2016.  What an incredible gift to have my first episode be such premium television and such sophisticated writing!

To use baseball parlance, you skipped the minors and went straight to the majors!

It really felt like that.  It was the gift of having the work to show, and then having the support of Dan Attias and Joe Weisberg.  FX at the time was working hard to hire women directors, Colette Wilson at FX was key.  They were making an effort and then Dan was my backstop and from there I went straight to Scandal, to Billions, to Preacher and it just kind of flowed.  Because I also love in TV how editors and showrunners talk to each other. And when they are impressed with an episode, you suddenly get this phone call.  That’s really how it works.

You had this incredible string of shows, you did a couple of The Americans, but you mostly have done just one episode of a series.   Do you like doing one and out, or would you like to settle down with one show?

I’ve often been invited back and I love going back, so with The Americans I went back, with Scandal I went back, but a lot of times, I’ve just been busy.  I’ve just been lured in by another show and suddenly the timing doesn’t work.  It hasn’t been a conscious preference.  It’s just been saying a lot of yesses when things come up.  But it’s always fun to return.

I noticed you are an Executive Producer for a couple of shows, but just for the pilot.  Are you one who comes in to set the tone and then hands it off?

I come from feature film aspirations and having done one, and working towards a few more, so what I love about a pilot is that it feels like a feature film experience.  You are building from the ground up, casting and launching the show in the direction it should go.  And then, sometimes, I do feel like, yeah, I’d like to open up to other opportunities at that point because the show’s in good form to continue.  It’s certainly the most creative part, I think.  It’s all creative and it’s all problem-solving, but when you are conceptualizing, like what is the world of this show?  Who are our actors and where do they live?  What does it look like? What kind of film are we going to use, what kind of lighting?  I love all that decision-making, that’s really film-maker decision-making.  And then there’s the side of me that really wants to produce as well, but I’m really focused now on the world-building.

Speaking of film, and speaking of world-building, I don’t think there’s any other series on television that feels more like a film than Watchmen.  It felt like a 9-hour film.

I agree completely.

How did you come to Watchmen?

I have been a colleague, admirer, friend of [executive producer/director] Nicole Kassell for a long time.  We overlapped and met on The Americans.  And so when Nicole was brought in to work with Damon [Lindelof, executive producer], she started to recruit who she wanted to work with and I was lucky enough to get the call from Nicole, who really was treating us like partners.  She said, come in, let’s be partners on this show.  Besides the fact that it was Nicole, it was already starting to be some of the best cast members you could imagine, as well as Damon Lindelof, whose work I love…so it was irresistible.

I’ve always wondered how different directors can come into a series like this and still inject their own vision.  It’s like you’re directing 1/9 of a film…

Yes.

What is your approach to that?  How do you put your stamp on it?

I think part of the privilege of Watchmen was the episodes were so different, they could have a lot of signature creative work.  That said, they also adhered to some creative rules that kind of become your tool kit when you show up.  Ok, we’re using this “LUT”, which is the look up table, which is the lighting/camera approach.   So it’s ok, this is the LUT of this show.  We love to do these kinds of frames that look like a comic book, so frames within frames, for example.  Or lots of foreground imagery.  So there’s a set of general guidelines, but they aren’t hard and fast rules, you are really invited to push the envelope as a director, and kind of bring your take on the tool kit.  And the tool kit is created by the pilot director, and then the DP’s—the Directors of Photography— hold those standards as well.  And they are there before you, like my DP, Xavier [Grobet], had done episode 3, so he had already been in the world.  This never happened, but if I had pitched something that was way outside the box, he would have gone, “uh, I’m not sure that’s our show.”  You’re there long enough, and Nikki had a huge bible of inspiring imagery, so we all sort of learn the ropes.  And because my episode was so contained, for Looking Glass/Wade’s story, it really felt like we were making a feature, from start to finish of his origin story, which was really cool.

What was your signature?  Was is uniquely Steph Green in this episode?

I think in this episode, I think generally, I really love working with perspective-driven storytelling.  So, most of this episode, we are really in step with Wade/Looking Glass, our hero, even though we start with the younger version of him, we never really leave his side.  And I love storytelling like that because it becomes so personal, and you can tell these sort of epic stories, epic love stories, epic thriller chase showdown with the gun, all of these big set pieces become very personal through the eyes of the character that you’ve also seen tuck himself into bed, vulnerably, or be scared and be naked and be ashamed.  All these things that we all recognize as very human, as psychologically correct to our internal selves.  

A really great performance, too.  Tim Blake Nelson, who plays Wade, happens to be from Tulsa.

Yeah, very deep connections to the material.

Did you have a lot of time with him to prep?

It’s never enough!  But HBO is such a supportive studio/network to work with.  We actually did spend a lot of time together as we were both not at home, we were both in Atlanta.  We went out to dinner.  Tim actually cooked for us one night, for Xavier and I, it was really lovely.  Sometimes it’s really lovely when you’re on location together, you end up spending quality time together.  Tim is such a brilliant actor, he’s also a director.  We both loved these character elements that were revealed in the script.  Together, we just always made sure we were clear as to where Wade was in his arc for that particular scene.  Because you shoot out of order, so you always have to make sure to ground yourself with where is he now, where did he just come from  and Tim is just full of great ideas and he’s smart enough to know to pitch those ideas at the appropriate times. [laughs]  And to just be a helpful collaborator.

Xavier is also nominated for this episode, and I have to ask you about the opening sequence and shooting in the house of mirrors.  That had to have been difficult and how you made it look so amazing.

It was very challenging.  And Xavier deserves a lot of credit.  I’m so glad that he was nominated.  We would joke during prep that there was smoke coming out of his ears as he tried to do all the mathematical puzzles to get this mirror thing organized because he and I had to give instructions to our production designer to build this made-to-order mirror maze to sort of plan ahead for the shots we wanted to do.  What we ended up doing was designing a mirror maze that used a one-way mirror where you couldn’t see us hiding behind the mirror and to our actors and to our camera, it just looked like a mirror.  And it was all done practically, there were no VFX whatsoever except when the mirrors shatter around the actor, so Xavier was just brilliant, it was like a big math problem, trying to figure out where we could hide during the different shots.  And the really fun part was those two actors were really in a mirror maze, they could not see where the camera was, they knew because we would knock on the mirror and a PA would say “they’re behind this mirror now,” but for them, it was a completely immersive experience in the mirror maze.

That’s incredible. 

I hope Xavier is celebrating.

26 nominations, congratulations!  Speaking of all the elements, I can’t let you go without talking about the music of this episode.  Your use of “Careless Whisper,” wow.  The original score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is genius, but talk a little about the music, both original, and the pop songs.  

It’s brilliant.  I can’t take too much credit, it was not in the script, it was a choice made later, but I will say having studied it and watched it evolve, it was just so perfect to have these versions of “Careless Whisper” to reflect where Wade was.  Again, what was fun about having such a perspective-driven show was that we could create this sort of theme for Wade that captures this sort of mournful regret and denial and betrayal that he carried around.  And the different versions of it, depending on where he was as a character.  And it was fun, of course, to start with the more cheesy, uplifting version, pre-trauma and then the trauma changed everything and “Careless Whisper” became this sort of the music of Wade’s internal being and it was incredible.  And the genius of using the different versions.  And of course Atticus and Trent’s music is just so haunting, also with such a great sense of humor in moments.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it winks at us.  Perfectly captured.

There is so much humor.  Tell me a bit working with Regina King and Jean Smart, who you only have short scenes with, but they both so good with humor, especially Jean, who has such great dry sarcasm in this episode.  What was it like shooting that with her?

Such a pro!  Such an amazing sense of timing, pace and humor. Dry, she just knows exactly what she’s doing and what’s fun is that the character does too.  I love the “We’re FBI, we bug shit, calm down.”  I relished working with Tim and Jean, it was such a fun day.  And Regina too,  What I will say about Jean, and also James Wolk, in my episode, was they had these incredible moments that, in any other actors’ hands, would have been very expositional, revealing a lot of information, but because the writing is so good and these actors are so clever, everything is just laced with delicious subtext and the delivery is so biting and so fun. And Regina is of course, Regina King.  What can I say.

Talk a little about that one quiet moment in the bar with Wade and Renee.  Was there an intention to shoot that scene conventionally and to sort of take a breath in the episode, or am I reading too much into it?

I think we felt that what matters here is that you really believe this is the beginning of a love story. The whole thing would have fallen down if we didn’t go with Wade to this possibility that he could really be meeting a woman who understands him, a woman who he could be honest with.  So we had to slow down and feel with Wade, by just watching him very carefully, and watching her and just letting the camera rest on eyes and facial expressions, like we would with romantic dialogue.  I don’t think you’re wrong, we were a little bit outside, when they kissed, we were doing a little Easter egg of graffiti of the kissing, that’s in the Watchmen, of that silhouetted kissing thing that’s on the wall, I remember that was pretty fun, but again, two such talented actors.  Paula Malcomson, we were so lucky she did it.

26 nominations, a weird virtual Emmys.  Does the Watchmen family know what you’re going to do, are you going to get together to celebrate the achievement?  A Zoom party?

There have been some Zooms, not everybody at once, but there have definitely been some Zooms, some emails, some texts exchanged, but I think everyone really is in the dark about what the Emmys themselves will be, we are all wondering, should we pick out our favorite pajamas?  What do we do?  But I’m sure the Academy will be clever.  But it’s such an honor to be acknowledged and it’s such an important series to be talking about and I’m just glad the nominations will bring more eyeballs to watching it.

Four of the 6 nominees in your category are women, including yourself and Nicole Kassell.  So many strides, as you noted, have happened for women on the TV side, but it still seems to be a struggle on the film side.  Do you still have the desire to do film, or are you happy on the TV side, or are you going to try to do both?

I am still hoping to do a feature or two, as soon as possible.  TV is just so alluring right now, it’s so fantastic.  It’s a good problem!  I agree, we do have a lot more work to do in feature films.  And we have a lot of inclusivity work to do in TV, too, in the BIPOC space, but I definitely have seen change in the three years I’ve been going and I’m excited by that change and it shows promise for what we can do if we keep going.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Steph Green is nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special for the episode “Little Fear of Lightning” from Watchmen, which is available to stream on HBO platforms.

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