‘Inside Amy Schumer’ director on ’12 Angry Men’ spoof: ‘It was something she was incredibly passionate about’

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
05.05.15 7 Comments

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This morning, I published my interview with Amy Schumer about tonight's “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” parody, which focused on the origins and themes of the episode-length sketch. Now it's time to hear from Ryan McFaul, who co-directed the episode with Schumer, and who speaks more about the technical end of things, including which parts of the Sidney Lumet film they were and weren't able to work into their episode.

“12 Angry Men” is one of those movies where whenever I come across it on cable, I have to watch until the end. What was your experience with it before this episode came about?

Ryan McFaul: I'm a serious film nerd. I probably first saw it when I was 15 or 16, at the point when I was first falling romantically in love with cinema, and starting to learn about visual storytelling, and the way pictures can make a story powerful. It's one of those classic examples, and it's the ultimate bottle story, to evoke that TV phrase. It has an incredible scope with not a lot of footprint.

At what stage of the process of doing this episode did Amy tell you that you would be doing “12 Angry Men””?

Ryan McFaul: This season, it was kind of a secret thing, where my first week of prepping, we were short three sketches, and I was hearing that Amy was working on this opus that was going to take an entire episode. She wouldn't even say what it was at first. It was literally on the day of rehearsal, she told me she had been working on a “12 Angry Men” draft, she told me the concept, and I was immediately thrilled. She hadn't let anybody read it. None of the producers had seen it. We did a cold reading that night, at this group The Collective, that she comes from in her training. We did a cold reading with this great cast, and it was amazing right out of the gate. I don't think anything changed very much. I think we cut it down a little bit, but then it became too quick, and we added a lot of that back in. The shooting draft was very close to that draft.

I can see how Paul Giamatti fits into the archetype he's playing (as Juror #10), but how do you fill in a lot of the other parts? How do you find a Henry Fonda type? 

Ryan McFaul: She had Hawkes in her mind right from the beginning. Amy, really, the casting was all her. She went after everybody, a lot of this was her design right from the beginning. Paul Giammatti, we were talking about him for Juror #3, we knew we wanted him to be an antagonist, but we went back and forth between which one. But she had Hawkes in the mind from the beginning. That's a hard part. You've gotta know who that's gonna be from the get-go.

So how do you as a director make this work so it feels true to the spirit of the original, and yet funny? “12 Angry Men” is many things, but it's not funny.

Ryan McFaul: Parts of it are just pure forgery, which of course was fun. We used the whole stiletto knife bit, and transposed that into the dildo sequence. That, of course, we were so excited to do. It was so stupid. I just wanted to keep it very sharp, in the spirit of the way that film was incredibly precise, in that each line is very purposeful. Even in the coverage style, we tried as much as we could to focus on sometimes how the story takes place at one end of the table, in exchanges with two or three of the guys. That was something I felt really strongly about, and we had to do a tiny bit of rewriting, to accommodate longer takes and wider shots than you would have in your typical television comedy. We really wanted to be very very choosey to where we used close-ups in the same way that the film is very choosey. I tried to play by the same rules as much as I could. It's obviously a very inspiring film from a writing and directorial standpoint.

And yet I'm guessing the target audience of the show is not going to be familiar enough with the film that they're going to require this level of fidelity. Were there any points where you said, “You know what? We don't have to work this hard.”

Ryan McFaul: No, I don't think we ever asked ourselves that question. I'm actually not really joking. When you're making a thing, you're obviously not forgetting your audience, but you know you're servicing them, but you never say, “Ah, is this good enough for our drunk late night audience?” We want this to be as good as we want it to be. That's the hardest thing, is making ourselves happy. The great thing about Amy, too, is she works so hard, and I work really hard, so when you have one of those collaborators, you don't want to let anything fly. You want to fight for the best thing you can. And this was hard. Our show is not big-budget. We really had to juggle a lot to build that set and to accommodate the schedules of all of those actors. And then we had a freak snowstorm on the day, so we started four hours late, because nobody could get out to Greenpoint. But we really had to push to make it happen.

I know Amy has directed pieces of the show before, but this was a big undertaking. What's it like to work with her as co-director?

Ryan McFaul: It's not really terribly different. The reason we could co-direct this, of course, is that she's not in it. That was just great for her. She didn't have to have one eye on her next scene. Obviously, it was something she was incredibly passionate about. It's central to the whole question of Amy Schumer as this celebrity. It's very easy to work with her. Right from the very beginning, Amy and I have just been a good fit. This, in particular, I was strangely thankful to be co-directing. We were shooting so much, with such a large and heavy-hitting cast, that to run in between takes and give notes to 12 actors is incredibly hard when you're moving fast. If you an tag team, that's amazing. She and I were able to do that really quickly: just split notes at video village really fast and then run in and talk to everybody really quickly and be rolling again.

Was there any kind of clear division of labor among all the responsibilities a director has?

Ryan McFaul: The way it would work was I would let her do the real detailed performance notes. For example, the Nick DePaolo breakdown in the third act, that was totally Amy. She was feeling very protective of Nick, and said, “Let me work with Nick.” That was an amazing moment on set. He's not as experienced an actor as all these other guys. And he really really went for it. I think he brought so many people to tears during that one take where he breaks down. So Amy really focused some of the performance stuff specifically, and all of the blocking and stagecraft and all that kind of stuff was more me.

With something like the Nick DiPaolo moment, how do you draw the line so that it doesn't get too raw and kill the joke?

Ryan McFaul: There were a few moments like that, and also the moments right after that, when everybody leaves, where there's nothing funny about that. We're not really in a comedy at that moment, and we don't really end on a comedy until we pop back out to that final beat with Dennis Quaid. In the back of my mind, I knew what we were doing was good, but I was fearful that we would have to cut some of that stuff, or cut it down, because it is a comedy, and in the end, there are network notes. But those notes never came. So we got the cut we wanted, which is amazing. Because we're not in a comedy at the end, but I also feel like what we're in is incredibly well-earned. Look, even if our audience has no idea what this movie is, I still feel like we've taken it to that point, and earned that moment.

You recreate most of the iconic moments from the movie. The one that's not in there is the bit where Fonda is re-enacting how long it would have taken the old man to the limp to get to the door. Was there a version of that in any point in the script or in what you shot?

Ryan McFaul: It actually is in there, it's a slightly truncated version of it, with the eyeglasses moment. There was a larger bit of business with measuring out the steps of how far the picture would have to be away without eyeglasses for her to be a sexy out-of-focus girl. So that was a fusion of the eyeglasses moment and the floorplan moment. We did have to simplify it a little bit, because it was the last thing we were shooting. So we had to simplify it. 

You got this great cast. Giamatti had been on the show before, a number of people had not been. Did anyone require any hand-holding once you got started of understanding the spirit of this thing you were doing here?

Ryan McFaul: Incredibly, it didn't. We were all a little bit nervous to do something this high-profile. But honestly, everybody was great. We had a slow start, which made me think it was good. We had those hours where people were delayed by snow, so we did a reading, and everybody was getting fitted. It was a little bit of a slow ramp-up, and we only got one shot off before lunch on our first day. But as soon as we were there on our first scene, I was like, “Wow, this is completely normal. There's nothing weird about this at all.” Everybody was super cool. I had worked with Goldblum and Giamatti before. It's funny: it was the middle of a snowstorm, and our lunch was two blocks away down a snowy street, in this weird, funky, fringe art gallery space where they had set up the catering tables, and it was so embarrassing, with all the high-profile people we had. “Okay, throw on your jackets and schlep out for macaroni and cheese!”

Did you get a sense that most of them knew the movie?

Ryan McFaul: Yeah, there were a couple of them I showed them scenes to. But John Hawkes came in with a notebook full of notes, and he went, “Oh, is it this moment?” Everybody pretty much knew it. I think we showed a couple of sequences, specifically that opening shot when everybody is loading into the room there. There are some very specific moments, like when Henry comes up to the fan and is fiddling with that, and then we go to the window. We did this truncated version of the opening shot. I showed Chris Gethard some of the moments, just to show his first interaction with Juror #3 over by the bench. But I think for the most part, everybody kind of had it. They knew the characters for sure.

The movie takes place on a very hot day, and you try to evoke that. But as you say, you were filming it during a snowstorm. Was that difficult, or was being in a studio all you needed?

Ryan McFaul: Honestly, it felt like the middle of a hot streak in summer. It was an incredibly ambitious shoot. I know for myself and Amy, it was a pretty stressful couple of days, because we were trying to get so much done. But that wasn't too hard. It was literally a crappy set in Greenpoint where it was all hot lights. The set itself was pretty uncomfortable. It was cramped. We had fly-away walls, but for a number of shots, all the walls were in there. So it was often hard to get out of the set. Often, the actors would just end up getting stuck on the set while we were turning the camera around. I think there was a little feeling of being trapped for all 12 of them and Amy and myself, which helped.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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