What’s your favorite TV show from the last few years? “The Americans”? “Better Call Saul”? “American Crime”? “Rectify”? “Vinyl”? “The Leftovers”? Nicole Kassell has directed episodes of all of these — and more.
But will studios fund her features? Nope.
The NYU Film MFA holder also helmed “The Woodsman,” a Sundance sensation from 2004 starring Kevin Bacon. Though the gap between film and TV is shrinking every day, few successful small screen directors have jumped from hour-long episodes to feature films. Kassell is a good example of the illogical barrier: Despite earning nominations for Best First Feature at the Indie Spirit Awards, Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards and a Grand Jury nod at Sundance — in addition to her growing resume in top-tier TV — her artistic citations aren’t enough to merit funding for a new feature.
But that’s not getting Kassell down — not really. The talented, gracious and attentive director knocked it out of the park in 2016, eagerly digging into gigs on “The Americans” (Episode 11, “Dinner For Seven”), “American Crime” (Episode 10, the Season 2 finale) and “Vinyl” (Episode 6, “Cyclone,” which featured a nod to David Bowie); the latter of which was particularly special, as Kassell says Scorsese’s early films are “in my DNA.”
The director is acutely aware of her goals and what’s limiting them; careful not to complain during a recent interview with Indiewire — “That’s just the state of our industry.” — but also clear in her desires — “I definitely still have interest and ambition to make feature films.” Below, Kassell and Indiewire discuss the Emmy contender’s impressive year, how she ended up in TV, why each new show is exciting and what she hopes to do next.
In the last year alone, you’ve worked on “Rectify,” “The Leftovers,” “American Crime,” and “Vinyl.” Those are all very well-respected series, so how do you get your foot in the door for these projects as a director?
I think it’s really the work. It’s a small industry and there is a lot of word of mouth. I feel like there was a tipping point. Now I’m on the list, so now people are calling me. It’s like the credits accumulated and my name became known. How to get your foot in the door, it really happened for me off “The Woodsman.” Off “The Woodsman,” I got to do an episode of “Cold Case.” I worked on that with Veena Sud who became the showrunner of “The Killing,” and I had gone to film school with Veena and we were friendly and good collaborators so I became part of “The Killing” family. I’d say the work really speaks for itself.
Was that something you were consciously working toward — getting into television — or was that just the work that came your way?
It’s definitely the work that came my way. I kind of considered it my day job. Since “The Woodsman,” I’ve always had feature scripts that I’ve been developing. I’ve written a number that haven’t gotten made. In the beginning, TV was my income, as well as writing scripts. That opportunity to get back on set, working with actors, working with crew, designing shots, dissecting a script: I always saw it as an opportunity to keep my hands in the craft. I didn’t see the shift coming the way it was, but I feel so lucky that I got my foot in the door at that moment. But with shows like “The Killing” — and the list that you have now — it’s like making a little movie over and over again. But I definitely still have interest and ambition to make feature films.
Has it been hard for you to get feature films made? Once you have a breakout, like “The Woodsman,” it usually gets a little bit easier to get those features made. Do you think there’s something in the system working against you?
It think it’s a combination of many factors. Right off “The Woodsman,” I did not have amazing scripts come to me that were ready to go so I could just dive into another film. I had to steer more towards development, and then we hit the late 2000s, so it’s been extremely hard for me to get the features made and now I have a film that’s female driven and I can’t get the financing. I’m not alone in that. That’s just the state of our industry.
I think because I’m working on such high-caliber TV shows and getting to direct such great material it does make me very picky about what I’ll take time off to do for a feature. I want it to be a deep, deep passion project. I’m seeking material that grips me personally, emotionally, politically and that lets me do something artistic. But in our culture, very few of those films are getting made.
What’s it like coming into a TV show where you’re stepping into the directorial style that’s been set by someone else? Particularly something like “Vinyl,” where Scorsese directed the pilot and then the rest of the series has to match that tone.
It’s fun! It allows me to play with an aesthetic that may not be my own — especially with “Vinyl.” Early Scorsese films are in my DNA. Creating a show or directing a show set in the ’70s — which is very much my favorite period — and allowing that to inform how we filmed it was really really fun. I was teaching a class at Columbia where we were dissecting “Vinyl,” and there’s a whip zoom in there and there’s shots in there that I’d probably never use in my own film. It was really fun to get to embrace the language of the show.
There’s the scene where Devon’s (Olivia Wilde) in the artist studio, and, to me, that’s a little homage to “Last Tango in Paris.” That’s not Scorsese, but I could embrace that because it was from the period. In a way, it’s been the greatest art school. Go direct comedy, go direct horror, go all these directions. The trick is definitely staying connected to my personal aesthetic. If I were to go direct a feature today, what would that look like? To stay connected to my inner artist’s voice, I do a lot of photography and I pull stills and I stay in touch with my taste. But while I go to these other shows, it’s constant education.
I feel like one of the trickier things for actors to convey is how to act either drunk or high. Are there ways that you go about directing that, specifically, on TV? How do you make sure you get an accurate portrayal out of that?
I was going to make a joke and say I definitely do my research. [laughs] With Bobby Cannavale, especially for this episode, we had to carefully tread the state of his high — whether he had just done a hit or needed a hit.
This episode exhausted him. He was so ramped all the time. I was very aware of having to limit the number of takes, whether it was because he was snorting something or getting thrown on the floor, it was so physical and emotional and you know there definitely were those moments where I could only ask so much of him. He would have never said that. I just felt it. With that role, I tried to stay very in touch with him and really communicate to him what the shot plan was and checking in on him a lot.
[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This campaign is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This contenders may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]