Thu. Oct 1st, 2020

Interview: Writer Anna Winger on the Virtual Emmys and Making ‘Unorthodox’ in Berlin

Anna Winger is accustomed to the German limelight. A Massachusetts native, she’s made her television career in Berlin with the Cold War spy series Deutschland 83 and its follow-ups. While the series has brought her critical acclaim across the titular nation, learning that Unorthodox, the Netflix series she co-created with Alexa Karolinski, was nominated for eight Emmy Awards last week still came as a surprise. 

Unorthodox, which follows Esty Shapiro (Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie nominee Shira Haas) as she covertly leaves her Hasidic marriage in Brooklyn for a life of music and multiculturalism in Berlin, had perhaps the best luck of the year: It premiered right at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when everything was shutting down and we were all desperate to distract ourselves via streaming. But while its viewership may have catapulted from unfortunate circumstances, its success is nevertheless owed to its creative team, guided by Winger’s meticulous hand.

I caught up with Winger from her garden as we listened to birds sing and talked about bending genre, leading in a male-dominated industry, and carving out a Jewish community abroad.

our work has been recognized by the International Emmys before. Does this nomination feel different to you?

It always feels like an incredible honor. You make the work and you’re so excited and you don’t think about the prize, that’s just not something that motivates me. But it’s an incredible thing to be recognized by my peers and by people in the industry. And of course, it was wonderful to get an international Emmy for Deutschland 83, but it’s obviously an amazing thing to get eight nominations for Unorthodox. We never expected that, so it’s thrilling.

It’s a lot of nominations for a miniseries. 

Yeah, and it’s in Yiddish! It was hard to gauge from the outset how people would respond to it. A lot of love went into making it, so it feels very satisfying that people responded to it this way. 

You’ve done so much work in German, and Yiddish is obviously a similar language. Did it feel different to be on set for a Yiddish production versus a German one?

Of course. I think that this was a very special set for lots of reasons. It was a real Jewish diaspora project because we only cast Jewish actors in the Jewish roles. We felt it was important that people have the cultural relationship to their language and to the material. There was a really lively conversation on set around Jewishness, around the spectrum of the Jewish experience. It was also a very young cast, so they really became friends with each other. It was a very special 60 days. 

Of course, the Emmys are going to be virtual for the first time this year, but is the team planning to do something together?

It’s such a bummer. Those of us who are in Berlin will gather in my garden so that we can be together outside and watch and drink as much champagne as possible. But this would’ve been a very exciting year to go to L.A. My friend Ayelet Waldman was a creator on Unbelievable and she’s nominated, so it would’ve been a lot of fun to get dressed up and hang out with her, do all of that. There’s just so much going on right now that I think we have to take it day-by-day and be glad for the bright spots, because it’s a complicated time in American history.

Unorthodox is such a succinct show, and each episode ties these knots together in such a beautiful way. What do you think made “Part 1” stand out for an Emmy nomination?

It’s so difficult for me to say. I created the show with Alexa Karolinski, and as a head writer, I always write the first episode myself. I think it’s a way of finding the voice and setting the tone. It’s very difficult to find the entry point to a story: there’s the story you want to tell, but then there’s the question of where you start it. And I think that every time you write a new TV show, you’re challenging yourself to find the right entry point. You don’t want it to be weighed down by exposition, but you still need some information about what’s happening. And I kind of love the process of finding the way into the story. And once you’ve gotten through that keyhole and you’ve pulled the audience through, then you’re kinda off to the races, and then writing further episodes, they have this kind of compulsive momentum through them, you know? I think it’s fun to write a first episode and set that up, but it’s also really challenging. 

I read the memoir years ago, and I know you have a relationship with Deborah Feldman.

Our kids go to school together.

Was it difficult adapting something so personal from someone you know?

It was necessary to approach it as something fresh. I just love the book, but the book is so in her mind. In order to activate it on screen, I had to kind of break it apart and put it back together differently. I knew it needed an engine, and when I first talked about it with Netflix, I imagined it as a sort of romantic tragedy with a thriller engine. I like a genre mix. Deutschland 83, my other show, is kind of like a coming-of-age story combined with spy fiction. It’s fun to use genre elements in an unusual way. Of course, Deborah and Alexa and I are all friends, so she trusted us to reinvent the project and bring it to the screen.

It’s such kismet when you already know the writer like that. And talking about director Maria Schrader as well, what was it like to go from writing for her to having your writing directed by her?

It’s not that different. She’s bossy as an actress and as a director, and I’m bossy as the head writer of both shows. We have a dynamic, and for me it was a natural extension of our existing relationship. She really elevates the performance of all the other actors, so I knew that she would be a really good director to work with. She made a feature, Farewell to Europe, between our first two seasons of Deutschland and I love the look and feel of that movie. Wolfgang Thaler, our cinematographer, he shot that as well, and we also worked with the production designer, Silke Fischer. It’s really satisfying to see the whole production recognized and to see all my talented collaborators recognized. As an executive producer [with Studio Airlift], that’s like a dream come true. 

Switching gears a little, the role of music in the series is so important. What prompted you to incorporate it in such a visceral way?

Music drives a lot of creative narrative for me, and in this case, it’s a story about a young woman literally finding her voice. We wanted to pivot from Deborah’s real life, we didn’t want to do a biopic. So we decided to make her a musician rather than a writer, and once we did, we liberated ourselves from reality. It was fun to dig in to the different kinds of music, how music connects us to the past, how German and Jewish music is connected. Music is a huge part of Jewish culture and religion, so it just felt really meaningful. There’s a real school here in Berlin that brings Jews and Arabs together to play classical music, the Barenboim-Said Akademie, so we were inspired by that incredible project. And Alexa worked really closely with Antonio [Gambale], our composer, on the score. The funny part is, the opening credits music that was nominated, “Esty’s Theme,” was actually what he sent us as his audition. 

So many of your collaborators on Unorthodox are women—I was talking to Shira in May about how many women were behind the scenes. Looking at the writing nominees, they’re largely male, especially for comedy and drama series. What does it mean to you to be among the women nominees for this story about womanhood?

It means everything to me. I want to be an example for younger women who are getting into this. I used to be a photographer, which is a really male-dominated profession. There were very few role models, and the people that I admired here in Germany, I really sought them out. I think it matters to see examples in the world of people like yourself doing the things you want to do, and I think that if you get to the position of being lucky enough to choose who’s hired on projects, it’s incredibly important to prioritize, emphasize, encourage diversity of all kinds in a writer’s room.

Do you think that gender disparity in film and TV is different in Germany than it is in Hollywood?

It’s probably better in Hollywood. I would say Germany is probably more retro than the United States. I think there’s less of a conversation—not just in the film industry but more generally across the board—about female leadership. And in a funny way, I always think of Angela Merkel as the exception that proves the rule. We have this incredible female scientist as Chancellor, but it’s not replicated in every part of this society. With the younger writers who come up in my writer’s room, I take it pretty seriously, being a role model, being a woman with my own production company.

I know you have a lot of projects that are in various stages of development, with things being paused right now. Can you say what’s next for you?

Well, I have a lot of writing projects. I’m working on a few different series—not a few, that sounds like way too many. I’ve developed a couple of series, and I’m enjoying the writing because it’s very rare to be in the situation of writing only, you know? We’ve already started productions here in Germany, and I have two projects that take place in France, so I think it will be possible to shoot them. And it’s also an interesting challenge to shoot them under the circumstances, to think about which projects can be executed now and which can’t, which are more difficult and need to wait for a vaccine. It’s difficult to do a lot of travel, you have limited locations, but it’s kind of a fun nut to crack. A show I executive produced for Apple had to suspend production during the lockdown, but now is aiming to restart in the fall. We were two episodes in.

That’s a refreshing perspective to hear, that it’s a “fun nut to crack.”

I’ve never worked in the Hollywood system. One thing about Germany is that production is really efficient here, so maybe it’s just a German efficiency cliché, but it’s true that there’s a lot of problem-solving on how to shoot something. There’s a lot of people shooting now. It’ll be exciting to get back. 

Anna Winger is nominated in the category of Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or a Dramatic Special for “Episode 1” of Unorthodox, which is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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