‘The Americans’ co-star Noah Emmerich on directing his first episode

Senior Television Writer
03.11.15 5 Comments


It”s not uncommon for actors on long-running shows to take a turn in the director”s chair. Some even turn that into their full-time job, like Laura Innes or Peter Horton. It”s rare that you see an actor be given quite so complicated an episode for his first directing job as “The Americans” handed Noah Emmerich tonight.

The episode (which I reviewed here) had an action scene, suspense at FBI headquarters and a lot of tricky emotional material for Emmerich to both direct and, in several scenes, play. Earlier this week, we talked about how the assignment came about, what he learned from other “Americans” directors, and how he got the show to dip back into the Fleetwood Mac catalog after the early success with “Tusk.”

How did it come about first of all that you were going to direct an episode?

Noah Emmerich: It was something I had in my sights from the moment I signed on with the show. I went to the producers and said, “I would love to do whatever I can to enable myself to direct an episode if we”re on long enough. Are you guys open to that?” And they said, “Well, sure, if you want to come on board, and shadow some directors and follow us around preproduction and post-production, you know, let”s take that first step and see how things go.” So at the end of the first season, I shadowed some directors, and in the second season, I did even more, and I privy to a lot of – to all the different stages that go into making an episode. And at the end of the second season the producers said, “We think you”re ready, and we”d love to have you do an episode.”

What are some of the things you learned about the show that you”ve been working on in this other capacity from the process of shadowing these directors?

Noah Emmerich: I guess the most overwhelming takeaway is how many moving parts and how much work it is to get them all aligned and working together and how much work it is. As an actor, you show up to Thanksgiving, and it’s all there. You get to have a party. It’s like going from being a student at a school to being a headmaster at a school. All the work that goes into making it possible for the actors and the director to execute and shoot that episode is enormous and overwhelming. From location to logistics to production design to costumes to props to disguises and hair and makeup and wardrobe. It”s just an incredibly long list of things that have to come together at the right time in the right way to afford the actors the opportunity to play in that fictional world. Directors have to be able to make really fast, really secure decisions, choices. A lot of it comes down to hundreds and hundreds of choices. Every single detail that you”re watching, none of it exists. Everything that you see is a choice from the fork that you”re using to eat whatever it is the person is eating, to the chair, to the coat to lighting, to the angle of the camera, to the set, to the location. It”s just all constructed and fabricated and you take that for granted. As an actor you go, “Oh, we”re shooting a scene in a garage. There”s a great garage that looks really cool. There”s a car there and it”s all perfect.” But someone has to find the right garage and the right setup and all that has to be manufactured or found or fabricated and it”s a lot of work.

So let”s take a specific scene from the episode, where they”re scanning for listening devices in the FBI bullpen, and Martha is waiting for them to maybe or maybe not find her out. That”s a set you work on all the time, and here you shot very close on Alison (Wright) during that scene. How did you decide like this is the way you wanted to do that?

Noah Emmerich: We were going to be using the set in a bigger way than to my knowledge we’ve used it before., which is really taking in the entirety of that FBI bullpen. We”ve always shot things in little pieces of it but we never have literally gone right through it. Martha is at the back end of that right in front of Gaad”s office, and I imagined that the sweepers will start as far away from her as possible and work towards her in this encroaching impending danger, and this increasing anxiety and nervousness in Martha as we worked our way towards her. We didn”t have exactly a specific game plan or shot list at first, but we had the eye focus, the intensity which I asked Richard Rutkowski, our director of photography, about. I always knew we wanted some extreme angles on Martha and I knew we wanted to creep up on her. We have one shot that we used a couple of times which is a long slow dolly towards her. A lot of that scene is shot more subjectively than we normally do. We cultivated from Martha”s subjective point of view or her emotional point of view, which is not necessarily 100 percent realistic. It”s how she”s experiencing that moment in time. One of the things that I was actually quite anxious about was that the sweepers, the guys doing the searching for the bug were not cast actors. They were extras. And it”s quite a big job for an extra. Casting the right physicality to those guys took a good bit of time. I must have seen 50 or 60 people before I found the guys I thought looked to have the right tone and the right menace, the right sensibility to them. And then you have someone that you think is physically appropriate but then another question is how are they going to perform on camera, how are they going to handle that. Because even though there”s no dialogue, it”s quite an important moment. And we got lucky. We were meticulous about finding them and then once we found the physicality that we thought was right we found someone and I think that he did a great job. He really has a great energy. And then we got him in the bullpen and you fill it up with extras, you fill it up with cast and you walk around – which I had done many times alone, but when they”re actually there it changes everything. You walk around with a viewfinder and you come up with your shots. But we had a good overall game plan for the shape of the scene as I saw it.

You mentioned before like the show doesn”t necessarily use subjective angles quite as much as you were using there. What else did you learn and what were you told by other directors about the visual template of the show and how it”s supposed to look?

Noah Emmerich: The easiest way to say that is to just watch the show! I had a lot of evidence to look at to figure out the visual language of our show. And we have some nice artwork, visual images that are evocative of our sensibility. Different photographs, different things from magazines. We talked about some of the filmmakers from the 70s that touch upon our sensibility, like (Alan J.) Pakula is a great example. But the source material really is amazing. There”s 26 episodes in the first two seasons to look at. The show visually became more cinematic in season two. It found its footing and it found its voice in a clearer way. So the second season was in some ways easier to draw upon. And obviously all the directors that I worked with as an actor when I”m there, or that I”ve shadowed as an apprentice when I wasn”t acting, you sort of absorb through osmosis the sensibility of the show. It”s something that I was trying to line up for imagery didn”t fit into the vocabulary of our show. It became readily apparent just internally. It”s like, “That doesn”t look like our show.” I don”t know how to sort of articulate it more succinctly than that, but you just look at the frame and you go, “That”s not us,” and then you move it a little bit and you go, “Oh, that”s us.”

You have this big action sequence at the end. It”s not Michael Bay or anything, but there are a lot of moving pieces there. Was that something you were excited about, or something you were nervous about?

Noah Emmerich: I was most nervous about that. I felt confident in many of the areas about what I was bringing to a job, but I’ve never done an action sequence, never directed an action sequence in theater or films. When I got the script I was sort of hoping it wouldn”t be too much of a big action episode, and then, “Oh my God, I hope I don”t screw this up.” And then I realized that”s just abstract fear. The truth is I felt like you break it down into step by step, piece by piece, just imagine just like you do with any other scene, what do you see in your head and break it down. We did hire actually a storyboard artist for that because we had such a small timeframe to shoot that. And it was a pretty complex sequence of four different locations essentially, including Hans in the car across the street. And it was quite a difficult sort of orchestration, choreography and within the timeframe that we had which was really not a lot of time. It was not decent daytime we were in. It was winter so there”s not a lot of daylight. And we had the unfortunate circumstance of one of the days that we had to shoot somewhat out of sequence was a total whiteout blizzard. And the other day was a completely bright blue sky, crisp winter light day. So we had to shoot that sequence over two different days and they couldn”t have been less of a match. That was an unexpected challenge on the day. But I had a storyboard made. I got the shot list that I knew worked on paper. I was able to communicate that shot list to the DP and to the crew, so everyone was on the same page at every moment. We knew exactly what piece of film we needed in that moment. And it was very clear communication. And it ended up being quite a good time.

Was it your idea to use the Fleetwood Mac song, or who made that call?

Noah Emmerich: We had been talking a lot about trying to find an iconic track to fit into that. I talked about how “Tusk” in the pilot was such a successful use of music, and I spoke to our music supervisor way before we started shooting about that sequence and trying to find the right track for that. We narrowed it down to a couple of tracks. We had the one that we used, “The Chain,” and we had one or two others. And we tried them out and “The Chain” just fit incredibly well, not just for the actual sequence but how it spoke to the journey that the characters were on in this episode. We had another track that spoke really well to the action sequence but didn”t have the bigger resonance for the characters in the episode. I just couldn”t believe that we got the green light for it. We put it in there, and when you put it in, it”s sort of a dream and you wonder, “Is the budget going to work out? Are we gonna get the rights? Can we afford the rights? Is everyone going to approve it?” And they did and everyone embraced it and I”m really, really ecstatic that it”s in there. I still think wow, that”s a great cut.

You”ve told me in the past that you don”t necessarily try to pay a lot of attention to what”s happening in the non-Stan portions of the show, because you want to be focused on things that Stan would know about. So Stan”s in this episode, but you”re really delving into a lot of KGB action. Was that strange for you to be dealing so much with the rest of the show”s universe?

Noah Emmerich: It was fun, actually. I got to be Stan and I actually had a good bit of stuff to do in the show. I had an incredible scene with my son, which is the first time you see Stan and his son really talking to each other. And Stan has his wife come and tell him that she wants a divorce. There”s some pretty seismic events in Stan”s life this episode. But the bigger hat that I was wearing obviously was as the director, and it was great to be able to let go of Stan and take on the show in a more bird”s eye point of view and get into it as a director. It was a nice break. Stan is not in the happiest of places. It”s not always the happiest journey. But to be able to be involved in all the other characters and the whole sensibility of the show was really refreshing and energizing.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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