[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the “Atlanta” episode “Helen.”]
A couple who is dating drives to the girl’s hometown and is surprised by an encounter with a wild animal on the road. In town, the guy can’t seem to adjust to feeling scrutinized, is one of the few black people around, and finds the strange residents way too friendly and obsessed with him. Sound familiar?
It’s actually the premise of “Atlanta’s” Season 2 episode “Helen,” in which Earn (Donald Glover) and Van (Zazie Beetz) travel to Helen, Georgia to attend the Germanic festival celebration known as Fasnacht. But it’s probably not a coincidence that it bears a resemblance, especially stylistically and tonally, to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning film “Get Out.” Indie darling Amy Seimetz chatted with IndieWire about directing the episode, trying to capture Donald Glover’s version of the festival known as Fasnacht, and her odd connection to the story.
“By nature, it kind of lends itself to that,” said Seimetz about the similarities to “Get Out.” “For the writer [Taofik Kolade] who wrote it, that maybe was an inspiration, but you’d have to talk to him about it. But I definitely think [it’s similar in] the difference in culture, the fear — especially when they’re playing that game and they start yelling his name. I find chanting and very white men frat-y things very terrifying. It feels like it can suddenly turn really violent very quickly, even when they’re overly excited. So a little bit in that vein.”
She also deliberately shot the scenes in a way to amp up the paranoia factor.
“When we shot it, Christian [Sprenger] the DP and I decided that it would be really fun to shoot this episode on 100mm,” she said. “Most of the episode is on a 100mm or 200mm lenses so it makes it feel like they’re being spied on the whole time. Very creepy like somebody’s watching them the whole time and we get that vibe of alienation like, ‘Oh wow, there are these two black people here,’ people just staring at them the whole time, so Earn can never quite feel it in his skin.”
The Festival of Fasnacht
For Georgia tourists looking to partake in Fasnacht, look beyond this country. The festival that’s depicted in the episode is inspired by but not remotely authentic to the ones celebrated in Europe.
“Fasnacht is a festival in Germany, but it doesn’t actually happen in Helen, Georgia,” said Seimetz. “That’s just something they made up. Half of that stuff in there, I have no idea. Donald was just saying, ‘I think it’s just stuff I read off the Internet,’ and they put it in. This feels very much like the show is anyway, taking these weird pieces of reality and making them part of the world.”
Van grew up attending Fasnacht and wants to share the experience with Earn, but the entire celebration is strange, confusing, and borderline scary. Someone wins a ball-tossing game by bypassing all the rules, everyone is wearing masks, and a dude called the Schanppviecher is running around stealing things while wearing a bizarre beast head.
“It’s nightmarish and very haunting, alienating in a way,” said Seimetz. “There’s no reason Earn would be there other than just to be there with Van. It’s a really alienating episode for both of them.
“All those masks are handmade,” she added. “We looked up different masks from the festivals and this guy that’s in Atlanta made all these creature masks. So we basically designed all of these masks so they felt nightmarish but still realistic.”
As for the Schanppviecher, Seimetz said that he actually did look and sound as disturbing in real life as on screen. “The guy that was walking around in the puppet [head], without me saying anything, he started making this really ridiculous laughter,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is so creepy. Keep doing that.’ It just became a mix of funny and really disturbing.”
In real life, Beetz was born in Berlin to a German father and American mother, and is fluent in both German and English. In the episode, when Van hits it off with another character at Fasnacht, they begin speaking German, which leaves both Earn and the audience feeling left out, since there are no subtitles for the scene.
“They wanted us to feel Earn’s alienation, this part of Van that he doesn’t really know, that he’s not sure if he wants to know,” said Seimetz. “It’s a part of Van he can’t access. I don’t think most Americans speak German, so I wanted us to be in the dark too. You get a few words here and there to ground you. He’s so funny in that scene.”
Later, however, Van and the same guy are still speaking German as they walk, but this time, the viewers are clued in with subtitles.
“When we go to look for her cell phone and the Schanppviecher, I really wanted to steal from European movies from the ‘60s. So when we were shooting it, we shot it in this very surreal, dreamy European style. Even the subtitles, we were like, “Let’s have them be like European subtitles, really weird looking [font],” which was Christian’s idea. So when we are back in that surreal moment looking for the Schanppviecher, it’s back into Van’s POV, so having the subtitles was important so that we understand what she’s going through.”
Van and Earn
As bizarre and dangerous as the episode feels, at its heart, it’s about Van and Earn’s different desires for their relationship. She wants a true partner who will share her life and raise their daughter, but he’s more casually invested. The subject resonated with Seimetz, who had coincidentally also broken up with someone during a trip to Helen, Georgia.
“The most challenging [scene] is having couples fight on-screen and having it be realistic, having it feel authentic, and then also making it hurt,” said Seimetz. “It’s easy to have people argue but to have it really stick and hurt…they were making fun of me because I don’t do a lot of takes for scenes, but when they were doing their fight, I had them do it over and over and over again, to the point where Donald was like, ‘Are you reliving your breakup in Helen, Georgia right now? Is this some sort of sick masochistic exercise that you’re doing that’s making us do your fight?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, maybe. I can’t tell, I’m not sure.’
“But it was just getting that to land so you feel really upset, like when you get in a fight and you say something that’s really mean and you shouldn’t have said it to the other person,” she continued. “Just getting to that moment, so you don’t feel too angry at Earn and you kind of understood why he was feeling the way he was feeling, but also that it really did stick with Van and feel really awful, so that she would question the relationship. That scene was challenging but I think it ended up being really effective.”
The final confrontation takes place over a ping-pong table, echoing their match from earlier in the episode, but with a major difference. Despite Van picking up the paddle, it’s clear that this is a foregone conclusion: They’re going to split up.
“My favorite scene, and it makes me cry every time I watch, is just the ending,” said Seimetz. “When you know they’re not going to be together and they start playing ping-pong and that song kicks in. They’re broken up, but they still have to deal with being parents to a child. So they know they’re going to see each other, but they don’t know if they’re going to be together. It was just so sad for me.”
Joining the “Atlanta” Family
Although Seimetz’s resume, including films and Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” made her more than qualified to direct episodes of the series, she was still hesitant to sign on.
“Everyone had seen ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ and ‘Sun Don’t Shine,’ the film I directed, and they were big fans of it,” she said. “I don’t go out of my way to direct on a lot of television that’s not my own writing, but ‘Atlanta’ is such a special show. I immediately was very excited at the idea of it and I think everyone was really shocked when I said yes, because I had never said yes to directing anything that wasn’t my own.
“I Skyped with [director Hiro Murai] and Donald, who I’d met before, but I hadn’t worked with before, and I was like, ‘I just want to make sure you guys know, you might want to find a different director, because I’m only used to directing my own stuff and making mistakes. So my directing is making mistakes with my script and learning from those mistakes and then correcting them while I’m directing. I don’t really know if it works the same with directing someone else’s script.’ And they said, ‘No, that’s exactly what we do!’ So that was sort of how it happened.
Seimetz still had discussions with Glover before and while working on the episode. He had a few notes about scenes that she should be careful about, such as the one that takes place between Van and her friend Christina (Jessica Tillman).
“There’s a conversation in [‘Helen’] about Van choosing black and her friend Christina choosing white [men/identities],” she said. “Donald wanted to make sure that it was handled in a very natural or a very delicate manner. He didn’t want it to be pedantic. And we were both on the same page. It was just really important to him for that moment to be authentic and not feel preachy, to feel natural and conversational and something that might happen as opposed to us suddenly preaching for a second. We had a lot of discussion about that, how to cast that part, direct it, and have them perform it in such a way. But the actors naturally did it anyway, so I didn’t have to do too much.
Putting Her Stamp on the Episode
Despite the guidance, Glover encouraged Seimetz in finding her way through the episode.
“Anytime I had problems, we could discuss the ‘how’ and if we could make a few changes to make it work,” she said. “I don’t think any other show would be as creatively fulfilling as this, because they allowed me to sort of take the reins and make it my own. And by the nature of the show, each episode is its own little universe, so it kind of functions in that way. It’s not intimidating or scary. I’m not feeling like I have to fit into any specific world, even though it’s the same characters because every single episode is surreal and completely different than the last.”
Her connection to the episode was personal also. Beside sharing Van’s experience of dumping a guy, she also has a European background that gave her insight into the festivities that may have been a part of Fasnacht.
“I also grew up in Ukraine and had gone to Ukrainian festivals and doing a lot of polka and stuff,” Seimetz said. “So I kind of pulled on that, this hodgepodge of Eastern European sort of strangeness,” she continued. “Then I imagined this experience of maybe entering my family’s very Ukrainian, polka dancing parties.”
While Seimetz was able to choose which episodes she directed, she felt that the ones Glover had chosen for her fit.
“When they gave me this episode, it was very weird, because I actually had a breakup with a boyfriend in Helen, Georgia a long time ago,” she said. “And the other episode [‘Champagne Papi’] that I’m directing that airs in two weeks, that was the girls’ night out episode. I think what they wanted to do was pair some of the episodes that explore Van a little bit more as a woman. I think that was a part of the thinking.”
What’s Next and “Stranger Things”
While “Atlanta” fans can look forward to “Champagne Papi,” Seimetz is keeping busy. She’s developing two other TV shows, is writing a film, and will appear on “Get Shorty” for the Epix network.
She also appeared as Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) aunt in Season 2 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” after the Duffer Brothers saw her in “Upstream Color” and she got a recommendation from casting director Carmen Cuba. While Seimetz couldn’t reveal if her character would be back for Season 3, she would personally love to return.
“It’s such a super fun show to work on,” she said. “[Brown] is unbelievable. She’s such a pro. She clicks in and it’s incredible that she’s as young as she is. She’s just so focused and so good at clicking in. In real life, she’s such a silly goofball, she’s so sweet and so silly. So it’s amazing to watch her go from super silly to click into Eleven super fast.”
”Atlanta” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.