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

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.