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‘Girls’ Director Richard Shepard on What the Final Shot of ‘American Bitch’ Means and Getting Matthew Rhys to Do… That

Also, IndieWire finds out what was real and what was fake.

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Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

[Editor’s note: Major spoilers for “Girls” Season 6, Episode 3, “American Bitch” follow. The episode airs Sunday, February 26 on HBO, but is now available to stream via HBO NOW and HBO Go.]

When you ask Richard Shepard how he feels about directing episodes of “Girls” — specifically episodes like “American Bitch” — the word he uses is “lucky.” (More than once.) The Emmy-winning director has been a regular in the rotation of “Girls” directors, most notably being the helmer of choice for the show’s “bottle episodes” — relatively self-contained installments focusing on just one of the titular girls for an entire half-hour.

READ MORE: ‘Girls’ Review: Lena Dunham and Matthew Rhys Battle Over Consent in ‘American Bitch’

“The bottle episodes are extremely challenging and also extremely fun because you get to spend all this direct time with the actors and the characters,” he told IndieWire via phone. “And you get to shift the cinematic style a little bit because of the nature of whatever it is. We do things that had not been done on the show before.”

As one example, Shepard mentioned “The Panic in Central Park,” the Season 5 episode featuring Allison Williams and Christopher Abbott as former lovers reconnecting across the landscape of the city. “It had a handheld, freewheeling, New York feeling to it; for the way you feel when you’re in love with someone.”

But “American Bitch” presented a completely different set of challenges to Shepard.  Specifically, “How do I visualize an episode of television that is, by its nature, a radio play? How do I make it entertaining, how do I make it visual, how do I make it compelling television and not just a diatribe? That was a process, and super fun and challenging.”

The episode features Hannah (Lena Dunham) in an awkward encounter with very famous novelist Chuck Palmer, played by “The Americans” favorite Matthew Rhys. Chuck is upset with Hannah over an article she’s written about sexual allegations made against him and has invited her over to his apartment to discuss it; their conversation is a dense back-and-forth over political correctness, sexual harassment, and the power dynamics that exist between men and women.

“A script like this, from the start, we knew had to be executed really well, or it just was not going to work at all,” Shepard said, as he explained the details of production that helped make “American Bitch” an awkward, hilarious, and unnerving tour de force, capped off by a surreal final shot that Shepard himself suggested.

“[Dunham] was like, ‘This is almost a gift, for both of us to get to do this one last bottle episode,'” Shepard added. Below, he details the unique rehearsal process he implemented for the episode, how Matthew Rhys came to their attention for the role of Chuck… and yes, we asked about that penis.

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To start, how does the conversation around a bottle episode start? Do they send you the script and say, “Take a look at this, tell us what you think?”

Lena’s always been really open to conversation. On the “One Man’s Trash” episode with Patrick Wilson, she had given me a script that literally didn’t even have that character in it. It was a whole different script, and I felt at the time that the script was sort of not really about anything. And I said to her, “It’s funny, but I’m not sure what it’s about. What’s it about?” She’s like, “I can’t answer that question. In fact, I don’t like the script. I have another script I want to write. I’m going to write it.” She literally wrote that Patrick Wilson episode overnight, about three weeks before we shot it.

Lena is an incredible writer and an incredible person about listening to her collaborators. In this case [with “American Bitch”], she basically was like, “Here is this script, what do you think?” Then we started talking about it, I had a lot of thoughts as a man, as a filmmaker, as someone who was trying to visualize as well as emotionalize what she was trying to say. Also, ultimately make sure that it felt like a “Girls” episode, when it’s obviously clearly in its own little world for the 30 minutes.

One thing that’s a wonderful parallel with “One Man’s Trash” is the way in which you spend a lot of time letting the apartment introduce the character. 

I felt like to really understand Chuck and his world, you need to feel where he lives. You need to feel the detail of it and make it feel as real as possible. I scout locations with the energy that I hire actors, in terms of the importance it makes to storytelling. This is a situation where I had a very clear vision of what I wanted for this apartment, and it became another character in the show. It was also a way to make things interesting visually, because when two people are talking and you can’t really cut away to anything, you have to figure a way both in the shots we did and the editing we did, to keep attention-level going.

Then adding certain things visually — like in the original script there was no sequence where the daughter played her music, and I wanted that because I felt like it would be a great way for the audience to sort of project their emotions and their thoughts on what just happened while Hannah’s trapped in a room with this guy and not being able to run away, which I thought was a super fun and interesting way to end the episode, especially one where people are talking for 25 straight minutes; something that’s sort of not verbal. To Lena’s credit, she was like, “That’s a great idea, let me write it.”

READ MORE: Why a TV Show’s Premiere Date Still Matters, Even in the Age of Binging

It gives them a chance to sort of reflect on what just happened, because the sequence before, where they’re in the bedroom together, is asking a huge amount of the audience because it’s also the point of the episode — which is that if we continue with this male power thing, there are sort of things that are expected from it. Hannah touches him because it’s almost what society expects, she then removes her hand because it’s not what she wants. That’s how he wins that power argument, by proving his point that this is the way society is.

That scene asks a lot of the audience, and is also funny and weird and odd. I felt like how fantastic could it be if they’re then stuck, that she can’t leave. They’re stuck in that situation, and hopefully the audience can spend that time going, “What is she thinking? This is what I’m feeling,” because I think people will have a reaction.

Something people will react to right away is that you got Matthew Rhys for this. What was the casting process like?

One of the things when I first read it, I was like, “We need to find an actor that is inherently likable.” There are a lot of fine actors who have a coldness about them — I think Matthew is the opposite of that. He can play cold characters, but there is an inherent warmth that comes through. It was like, we have to have an actor who by the time [the episode] goes into his bedroom, the audience isn’t screaming, “Don’t go.” It lops off a lot of actors who are great, but just don’t have that inherent warmth. Even when he’s playing someone who’s not very warm, you know. It’s in there anyway.

Weirdly, our script supervisor on “Girls” is also the script supervisor on “The Americans.” Her name is Kim Delise, and Kim was — for years — talking about how Matthew Rhys is the greatest guy in the world. When we started talking about who to cast, it rung in my head and Lena’s head and Jenni [Konner]’s head how much Kim had talked about Matthew, because I also knew that we needed an actor who was going to fully go for everything and be a pleasure to work with, because, again, if anything was off, then the episode just fails because there’s nowhere to cut to. All those factors went into sort of narrowing it down to Matthew.

We’ll make sure Kim gets credit for that.

She should. Good ideas come from everywhere, do you know what I mean? By the way, Matthew is a lovely person. That wasn’t a wrong recommendation.

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What were those initial conversations with him like?

I think he, any actor, would look at this part as being challenging. You are playing someone who uses his power in a way that is destructive. It’s not a wildly romantic episode, it’s not a hysterical episode, it’s about finding an actor who will take this text and make it interesting and passionate.

Usually we have six days to shoot an episode of “Girls,” but on this one I asked to use an entire day just for rehearsal. Lena and Jenni and Matthew and myself, just the four of us were in that apartment for an entire day, talking about every single scene, blocking every scene, and discussing the text in every scene. Which is this gift because it allows Lena as a writer to hear things that are working or not working, and allows Lena the actor and Matthew the actor to talk about and question things that either make sense or don’t make sense.

READ MORE: Lena Dunham on the ‘Amazing Flood of Female Energy’ That Made ‘Girls’ Possible

Because there’s no crew looking at their watches, you’re able to work at a different energy and pace. That day of rehearsal allowed us to go and shoot the episode in five days, knowing our blocking completely and being able to focus on performance. Because at the end of the day, that was and is what the episode is about: these two characters.

Were you able to shoot at all sequentially?

We shot completely sequentially. Though, to be fair, because we had rehearsed it in a detailed way, we probably wouldn’t have had to, if for whatever reason we couldn’t do it. But we basically did. The only thing we did differently was that we shot the very opening and the very ending at the same time right at the beginning.

Talking about the mechanics of actually doing the big bedroom scene– Okay, was that a prop penis?

It was a prop penis. Matthew was like, “I’ll do anything for you, but I’m not showing my two-thirds-erect penis.”

One of the things that was interesting — I’ll talk very blatantly here — you can get plenty of dildos that are an erect penis, but to get something that is sort of semi-erect is incredibly difficult because they don’t really sell them commercially. We ended up getting it from a medical supply company. That was sort of a brand new piece of information I hadn’t ever thought about, but of course that does make sense.

We spent a lot of time discussing the size and the color. You’d be amazed at the amount of conversation looking at the semi-erect penises over a production meeting table. Then, of course, having Matthew sign off on it, on the size, shape, color, everything. Then doing it.

I wanted that moment to be completely shocking without hitting it over the head. The question was, how do you do it? I really want to shoot it as a wide shot, so your eye doesn’t immediately go [to it], or if it does, you may for a moment question whether what you’re seeing is really what you’re seeing. I also thought that would be the best way for comedic effect as well.

I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s such a power play, after this discussion of power, to show it, and for his character to basically be like, “I know you’re going to touch it.” Then in the rehearsal day that we had, the very first time we blocked the scene, Matthew had such a great shit-eating grin on his face after she leapt off the bed. I remember in the rehearsal being like, “This is perfect,” we have to capture that because it’s so telling about the whole thing — his reaction to it.

As the director Lena goes to for bottle episodes, has she said anything to you about what she sees in your directing style that she really responds to?

I don’t know. I don’t think we’ve ever really had that discussion. I’m one of the oldest people on that set. I’m also without a doubt the oldest man on that set. I come from a different generation, I bring a different point of view, and I think that Lena likes to have other points-of-view in the mix. And we share a cinematic language — we can talk about movies in a very geeky sort of way.

The very last shot of the episode, I don’t know if you caught it, but the very last shot of the episode is Lena leaving the apartment. I thought it’d be interesting if the only people on the street were women and they were all going into [Chuck’s] apartment, because I wanted to say that Hannah may have escaped, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve solved this problem. Not necessarily specifically about Chuck, but any of these situations where men are using their power in ways that aren’t correct. For me, that shot was deeply important for the bigger picture of what the episode was.

I thought it was really cool, but as a film nerd, when we shot it, I was like, “Please come look at it.” That was a situation in which we can film nerd out about how cool that shot will be, and Lena still knows that if she doesn’t like it later, she doesn’t have to put it in the episode. She is the author of the show. She’s not only the writer of the episode, but she’s the creative and showrunner of the show. She has this power, and then she lets people free to do with it and she can make the ultimate decision. What’s always been so gratifying working with her is she pushes you to try and do stuff, you feel pretty safe that nothing’s going to be embarrassing because she won’t let it happen. She’s a pretty brave boss to work for.

“Girls” Season 6 airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. 

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