At a panel of directors who work on FX shows at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles on Sunday, one of the reporters in the room asked newly-minted Directors Guild of America president Paris Barclay if he felt like he could detect his colleagues’ fingerprints on episodes. He mentioned Alfonso Gomez Rejon’s use of what he called “bizarre” lenses. But what Barclay said next about Gwyneth Horder-Payton was even more revealing.
“Because I’ve known Gwyneth for so long now, I know Gwyneth is tight and performance oriented and the action is always chilling and done in a way that you would never expect a female director to do,” he said.
From another director’s mouth, that might sound like criticism. But Barclay meant nothing but praise for Horder-Payton, who has a long resume on television shows that have male characters, and even more importantly, are deeply consumed with questions about violence, what it means to deploy it, and how men are changed by using it. The first show with which she had a long association was The Shield, the cop drama created by Shawn Ryan that became FX’s breakout show and first major entry by the network in the so-called current Golden Age of television drama. And she’s gone on to work on shows like AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead, FX’s Justified, which follows a U.S. Marshal returning to his home county of Harlan, Kentucky, and now, biker show Sons of Anarchy, a working-class riff on Hamlet.
And Barclay’s praise is something Horder-Payton’s quick to embrace. “That was nice of him!” she said, when I asked about his evaluation of her work after the panel.
She pointed to a fight sequence she shot for Sons of Anarchy as a particularly good illustration of what she brings to action directing. In the episode, the two main characters, motorcycle gang president Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) and his step-son Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) come to blows while they’re in prison together in what Horder-Payton describes as “a sort of classic stepson-father fight, in that they need to work it out. And the only way to do it is to come to blows. It’s a male thing.”
“I studied fight after fight after fight, famous movie fights, famous television fights, across the board, I went to YouTube and I looked at street fights,” she explained. “And what’s so interesting is that in 95 percent of the fights on-screen, the men barely sweat, or feel pain, or even feel anger. It’s so interesting. They’re so macho that it’s all about landing the blows, selling the hit to the camera. You don’t see the progression. And they never show fatigue. It’s rare…So I thought, you know, as a woman, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to bring sweat and progression of blood, and pain, and vulnerability.”
By the end of the exhausting sequence — it lasted two minutes, which is exceptionally long for a fight in movies or television — driven by “the encouragement of true anger, and almost a desperate need to hurt and be hurt, at the end, they actually almost came to blows, the two of them. So I thought, ‘The actors, they need this. I’m going to let it go.’ So at the end they were exhausted, rolling on the ground, truly punching each other.”
Horder-Payton says she saw the fight as a singular accomplishment because “As a woman, that’s what I was proud of. It really felt real. You get exhausted in 30 seconds. You put the men on the screen, in front of the camera, and they’re not going to show that. They’re men.”
And Horder-Payton agreed that many male directors have a tendency to focus on the technical elements of fights, rather than the emotional components of action sequences, or even the character and plot arcs that are tightly packed into those violent exchanges.
“I feel that they are reluctant sometimes to go the extra emotional mile. They don’t want to see them cry,” she acknowledged. “But I just feel as a woman, I’m more likely to want to go down the emotional path, at least explore it… [On other kinds of crime shows] you’re not forced to be dragged through the awkwardness and the messiness, and the sadness of violence. I think the sadness is key.”
But even as Horder-Payton talked about bringing emotion into action sequences, and even given her long directorial resume, she was blunt about the fact that female directors must clear higher hurdles in order to get the authority that will allow them to implement their visions. When one of the reporters in the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton asked if female directors face particular challenges their male counterparts don’t share, Horder-Payton told her yes before the question was even complete.
“You really have to prove yourself the moment you walk on a set,” she said. “Really it’s that fast. If you don’t sort of make a mark the moment you step on the set somehow creatively or with your you know, if you have any intelligence or force or presence or whatever it is that you can come up with to make a mark and say, ‘I am the leader here and trust me,[ then you’ve lost it. You’re gone.”