Last year, Emmy voters saw fit to nominate seven women directors across six categories, and “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Reed Morano became the first woman to win for Outstanding Director for a Drama Series. This year it was down to four: Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia”), Lynn Novick (“The Vietnam War”), Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) and Kari Skogland (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) were the sole women in their respective categories, all first-time nominees.
It wasn’t easy to get there, we found out. Here are their stories.
Variety Sketch Series: “Portlandia” Season 8, one Emmy nomination.
Network: IFC/The Sundance Channel
Career highlights: “Sleater-Kinney” punk indie trio, web comedy duo ThunderAnt (with Fred Armisen), NPR blog “Monitor Mix,” 2015 memoir “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.”
Home base: Los Angeles
Episode 1, “Riot Spray”: At the start of their eighth and final season, Brownstein and “Portlandia” co-creator and costar Armisen (“SNL”) joined their writing room per usual with a bunch of ideas for comedy sketches. “We’re usually bringing in observations, cultural and personal ways at coming at phenomena from different subjective points of view,” said Brownstein, “like the ways technology informs our lives, politics, interpersonal relationships. One season we were grappling with aging, another was about masculinity. We get into the writing of what feels the most relatable, premises that are grounded and not too conceptual — that’s not what sticks with you and makes people come back.”
Brownstein and Armisen enjoyed building on the same ten characters. “Instead of a flimsy slice of a human,” she said, “we thought we could bring some depth to the characters and bring them back and explore more. Audiences like character.”
Becoming a director: For the first four seasons of “Portlandia,” co-creator and “SNL” digital shorts director Jonathan Krisel directed all 10 episodes, but as he got too busy, others on the staff stepped in, as well as guest actor Steve Buscemi. They always kept it inside the family, said Brownstein, who, after directing a seven-minute short for fashion brand “Kenzo,” decided to keep at it.
“Directing is a natural extension of my writing and desire to tell stories,” she said. “Beyond the words on the page and the characters’ narrative and emotional arcs, there’s also the visual element of storytelling. I have a perspective, and instead of leaving that point-of-view up to someone else, I wanted to be in charge of the aesthetic vernacular.”
After Brownstein directed two episodes in Season 7, she directed the first two Season 8 installments. “Riot Spray” felt right as the season opener. She didn’t demand a bigger budget, but she put in time on planning and prep, making a shot list and working out sequences in advance with the cinematographer. The main sketch features Armisen and Henry Rollins as aging rockers trying to reignite their old punk band, complete with flashbacks of their younger, angrier selves.
“Comedy sketches don’t have to look bad in order to be funny,” said Brownstein. “It was about people trying to hold onto their rebellion, how does rebellion age? When you are used to anger as a language, how does that stay useful and not toxic, how do you progress as a human?”
Before Season 8 she directed for several other shows, including Hulu’s “Casual,” NBC’s “A.P. Bio” and “Idiotsitter” on Comedy Central. “I’m used to collaboration,” she said. “Directing feels very eye of the storm — so much chaos, so many pieces spinning around you, that not being afraid of it, and trying to find some pattern in that chaos, the velocity of it is very exciting, having something take shape from all these disparate elements, building this body. It’s really cool, so intellectually stimulating. It relies on emotional vulnerability and risk-taking, but you have to stay loose and fluid. It’s hard to do, and takes all your skills and ability to be present in the moment, to resist rigidity.”
While “there is an eagerness” in the community to hire and support women directors, she said, “the trick is realizing progress is not inevitable. We need to restructure our thinking. These injustices and inequities are institutional, endemic, systemic. We can’t dabble in social progress. There has to be major changes in action. It’s so easy to default to the things we’ve been indoctrinated into: If you look at a room and see a certain makeup in terms of gender, it seems normal, but it’s not representative of the world. We have only four director Emmy nominees. It’s not going to get utopian and better unless everyone is consciously moving forward.”
But her Emmy nod feels good: “That is how people get to stay working and are encouraged by feeling worthy and confident and accepted and seen. I appreciate the mention. It’s about acknowledgment.”
Next Up: With “Portlandia” in the rear view, Brownstein has executive-produced and directed “Search and Destroy,” the pilot for a Hulu series about a Seattle rock band based on her 2015 memoir. She does not star in it. While she enjoyed acting in “Portlandia,” “Transparent,” and films from Portland buds Todd Haynes (“Carol”) and Gus Van Sant (“Don’t Worry, You Won’t Get Far on Foot”), writing and directing is her goal; more episodic directing is lined up including a Hulu series based on Lindy West’s memoir “Shrill.” “I feel like I’m good at it,” she said. “I’m usually modest and hyper-critical. But I’m going to keep doing this.”
Stephanie Berger Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Lynn Novick (with Ken Burns)
Documentary Series: “The Vietnam War,” three Emmy nominations.
Career highlights: PBS documentary series “The War,” “Jazz,” “Prohibition” and Emmy winner “Baseball.”
Home base: New York City
“We felt this episode was able to show the complexity of the story we were trying to tell,” said Novick, “Vietnam from the perspective of ordinary soldiers on all three sides: the politics, the intense anti-war movement after My Lai and Kent State, the important well-known stories told in a way not told before.”
The series took 10 years to research, shoot, and edit, as the team participated in an intricate and intimate collaboration for decades. Ken Burns works with his editing team in Walpole, New Hampshire, while Novick runs the Manhattan production office with producer Sarah Botstein, with frequent visits to New Hampshire. Novick organized the archival research and licensing with associate producers, worked with writer Geoffrey C. Ward, conducted the interviews (80 out of 100) and finalized post-production.
“A lot of people put their fingerprints on every single decision, back and forth,” said Novick. “I get deeply involved; it becomes part of me…Because I interview so many people I understand the complexities of their stories and their humanity. People tell you things they are not proud of and wish hadn’t happened. I don’t lose track of the larger narrative.”
©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
“The Vietnam War” demanded a rich soundtrack. “Music is a character from the beginning,” said Novick. “It’s the embodiment of how the American people and the soldiers in Vietnam express themselves; they listen to the same music, it’s a common thread, a voice to different complicated feelings.”
Botstein took on the epic undertaking of chasing after the top musicians of the ’60s and ’70s with an iron-clad favored-nations approach. “It didn’t cost a fortune,” said Novick. “Every artist got paid the same, the Rolling Stones and Beatles got the same rate as Johnny Cash and Dylan and Hendrix. They all understood nobody was getting special treatment, all of these artists and their heirs knew this time was when they came of age and made their mark, experiencing their first success, all in the context of the Vietnam War. We got every piece we wanted to license.”
After seeing “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Novick sought an original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. “Their music had an evocative quality, an anxiety and urgency, fear and tension. It gave the film a sensibility that was appropriate for a different kind of experience for Americans of profound cognitive dissonance, as they were questioning who we are as a country and what it means to be an American. Are we good guys, are our leaders honorable?”
When the documentarians embarked on this project, they had no idea how much those questions would resonate today.
The archive footage was rich, urgent, and immediate, as the Vietnam War was the first covered by intrepid journalists with lightweight cameras. “They were able to go places reporters had never gone,” said Novick, “and bring back material the American public had never seen.”
Back in the narrator’s chair was Old Reliable Peter Coyote. “We didn’t question that,” said Novick. “He has a wonderful way of telling a story without taking over, while he holds your hand. You don’t wonder, ‘who’s talking to me?’ He has authority without being overbearing.”
Episode 8 digs into the events of May 4, 1970 at Kent State, a powerful setting for the war at home. One traumatized student had shot video footage which was shelved in his attic. It took a year to track down and another two to convince the family to agree to let the filmmakers use it. They digitally remastered the footage from the original film cans. “We had never seen this in color, students wounded,” said Novick, who wrote to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young personally to get permission to use “Ohio” to accompany the horrific materials.
Tim O’Brien, author of Vietnam memoir “The Things They Carried” is one of two moving characters at the center of episodes 7 and 8. “He had angst about the war, a crisis of conscience about his real failing that he didn’t go to Canada when he felt the war was wrong and he should do something against it and not go,” said Novick. “But he went, he didn’t desert the army, he had to live with that.”
Burns and Novick pair him with Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran who wrote his own account of the devastation of Vietnam, “The Sorrow of War.” “He doesn’t do interviews,” said Novick, “but we were able to get him to agree to do an interview; he peels back the layers of the onion, what the experience was like for the soldiers. Hearing from them together, what each went through, was a central fulcrum for the film.”
Becoming a director: Burns and Novick have been co-directors since 1997’s “Frank Lloyd Wright,” but clearly, Burns has sucked up the attention, as the publicity machine tends to perpetuate his name brand. “There hasn’t been much recognition of that until now,” said Novick. “Unfortunately until recently by default if partners are a man and a woman — leaving aside Ken’s enormous body of work outside working with me, he is a brand and has made many films on his own– reporters with limited time have talked to him. Until recently I was happy to let them speak with Ken. They’d call the film by Ken Burns, and mention me in the article — or often not mention me.”
How does that make her feel? “To be honest, it hasn’t been easy,” she said. “I love working with Ken and our team, but I have learned recently to be more asserting and advocating for myself. It is clear this is a partnership; we made these films together, and Ken is 100 percent supportive of that. I don’t think I’ve articulated that so well until now. The goal was not to get attention for me or Ken, but to get attention for the film so people would know it’s on its way.”
Comedy Series: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 1, 14 Emmy nominations
Network: Amazon Studios
Home base: New York
Career highlights: “Gilmore Girls,” “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” “Bunheads,” “The Return of Jezebel James,” “Love and Marriage,” and an Emmy writing nomination for “Roseanne.”
Being a showrunner: It’s hard to appreciate the demands on a long-distance showrunner. Right now it’s “500 degrees and 130 percent humidity” as Sherman-Palladino shoots Season 2, Episode 207 on a New York soundstage. She’s not directing this episode, but she does direct Episode 208, she said.
“I have to finish the Catskills episode, which was rained out, so we’re doing the driving shots next week, with a rehearsal today around the corner in an hour,” she said. “I have to give notes on a cut, I have a scene to write we’re shooting Monday, a table read at 6 pm tonight. The scene we’re shooting Monday I have to write is Episode 10 which I’m directing. Because the actress in it is pregnant, we have to shoot her scene out on a show I haven’t written yet — otherwise the baby will have come.”
Warner Bros TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Becoming a director: Careful what you wish for. “Writing is very solitary, you sit and the computer mocks you,” said Sherman-Palladino. “You think about when you were young and things worked better, cry silently and eat things you shouldn’t be eating, write something down and hate yourself.” The showrunner had gotten used to watching other people not directing scenes the way she saw them in her head: “OK,” she’d say to herself. “Next time.”
She started out directing on “Gilmore Girls” with the Season 1 finale. “Finally directing was a special experiment to myself,” she said. “Could I achieve what I put in the script? I could control the way I saw it.”
Suddenly, she was thrown into the social whirl. “With directing, you get on stage with a whole bunch of people who need answers from you,” she said. “Directing actors is interacting with people. It’s a different vibe, a fun experience. When you’ve spent most of your life sitting in a dark room, you use different storytelling skills. Because I direct what I write, I write as if I’m directing it, music, shots, angles. I write the scenes the way I want them to flow and be staged.”
Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Studios
The experiment was a success. “It did work like gangbusters!” she said. “But it does mean getting your ass out of bed and getting to set at 7 am, and I’m a night writer, my habit is hard to juggle. I write on set a lot — I can write another episode as the camera setup can take a hour. And on a period show, as girls get into skirts and hair and makeup and wigs — you’d be surprised how much time it takes to put a dress on a girl.”
So Sherman-Palladino, who trained as a dancer and choreographs movement rhythmically, got into the habit of directing each “Gilmore Girls” season premiere and finale; at least two, sometimes 3 or 4 episodes. “It’s very hard to get away to do prep for directing, because it was a runaway train, so much writing to do with 22 episodes,” she said — each one crammed with fast-talking Howard Hawks patter (her scripts are much longer than most).
Pilot: The scripts for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” are even longer than “Gilmore Girls,” because there are no commercials on Amazon, which greenlit the show with a healthy budget and a New York location shoot. Sherman-Palladino was willing to walk away. “I didn’t want to go half-assed,” she said. “I saw in my head what it could be, the vibrancy from not just talking inside rooms but walking down the street.”
She had a blast bringing 1959 New York to life in all its period glory, from the Garment District to Washington Square Park and the Village Gaslight accompanied by soaring Barbra Streisand. The pilot (which was not cheap) was the toughest to do because they had to set everything up. “It’s very hard in such a short amount of time to make you fall in love with your characters,” she said, “get interested in their world and the journey they’re about to go on. This woman goes from this world to that world, to have a journey in the world of standup.”
She believes the show would have been turned down “in the hottest second” by a network. “This girl would not have passed muster, they would not like her journey, the language, the subject matter, the stylistic way of writing is not the network way. She’s not a heroine for ABC, she’s a streaming or cable network. This was the right time for the right meeting of formats. Amazon was hungry for a strong fun women’s show. They gave me everything I need, so on the first day I turned to Dan and said, ‘for the first time in our careers, if this gets fucked up it’s literally on us.’ We had all the pieces: we had to put them together.”
The final result: 14 Emmy nominations, more than any other Amazon show to date.
Next up: In Season 2, “Midge’s choices set off a bomb that reverberates on all the people around her,” said Sherman-Palladino. “We get to dig into the repercussions on her children and her mother and father and the journey the husband must take, now that he realized his wife was the talent in the relationship all along. He’s sitting next to a superhero, he’s just the guy holding the purse. What is his life going to be? Last season was about Midge realizing this voice in her and figuring out if she was brave enough follow it. This year we will fill you in on her journey, which is the end of life as we know it.”
Sherman-Palladino is directing four episodes.
Dramatic Series: “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, 20 Emmy nominations.
Home base: Toronto
Career Highlights: “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Killing,” “The Borgias,” “Fifty Dead Men Walking,” “The Walking Dead,” “Rome,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” (won the TV BAFTA for directing Episode 10 finale).
Becoming a director: Skogland got started as a feature writer-director in Canada, breaking out with IRA thriller “Fifty Dead Men Walking,” and jumped into premium television early on, making her mark with Neil Jordan’s period extravaganza “The Borgias.” She also did second-unit directing as well before moving on to shoot “torture, murder and mayhem” on “The Walking Dead.” “It felt to me like the world had changed,” she said. “Sure enough, soon everyone else was clambering onto these beautiful projects.”
Partly she became a big fish in Canada, able to gain valuable experience she couldn’t have obtained in Hollywood via high-end commercials and music videos, bringing her eye and voice to her television assignments. “My distinct style has gotten me in trouble a few times,” she said. “It also carved me out of the pack. I decided early on during ‘The Borgias’ that I was chosen, no matter what, to do what I do. If I lost my way by being too much of a cookie-cutter, then I wouldn’t have a career, I’d lose my footing, my grounding of who I am as a filmmaker. It caught people’s eye, my brand started to be noticed — that I bring something special to it, which helped me to stay in the game.”
She gained valuable skills over the years — aided by her non-gendered name. “I’m a bit of a bossy boots,” she said, “working in a male-dominated arena on car, beer, and cigarette ads, with race cars and rodeo roundups for beer ads. I don’t think any females were doing that, and few men had that footing with the varied training skills. I had done the big productions with stunt coordinators and so on. I fine-tuned my action skill set. With each job I seemed to dig in, you learn something everywhere you go.”
Jordan hired her for “The Borgias” after seeing “Fifty Dead Men Walking.” She not only handled lavish period sets and hundreds of extras but horses, cannons, panthers, and tigers. And Michael Hirst took her onto violent action series “The Vikings.” “[Hirst] has five daughters, there was no gender complication at all, it’s whoever can do the gig,” she said. “I somehow keep busting through. While I faced it many times, I ignored the glass ceiling and managed and popped from one creative endeavor to the next.”
Hulu had tried to sign her up for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but she was too busy until the Season 1 finale. “I hadn’t shot in Toronto for six or seven years, and it was lovely to be at home on a project based on Margaret Atwood, who I grew up reading at school.” Star-producer Elisabeth Moss insisted on having Skogland back for four episodes in Season 2, to bring needed continuity as she delivered a challenging role.
Episode 7, “After”
“Everyone knew we were working on something special, as the political climate changed in the States dramatically,” said Skogland. “The rhetoric coming out of Washington was eerily echoing the world we were creating. The joy of working on such resonant material was fuel for the creative process for the finale. Bruce Miller kept saying, ‘push the envelope, go for it, don’t self-edit.’ I hadn’t heard that in a long time. I had had a lot of handcuffs on, it was a real joy to soar.”
Skogland focused on impressionistic visuals for the opening funeral, from the striking black and red costume contrasts to the anonymous Handmaid faces. Costume designer Ane Crabtree spent weeks testing for fabric to fall out of the Handmaids’ hands in just the right way. “It was important that the fabric had life to it,” she said.
Luckily it snowed the day before the big scene (they added CG snow in the air). “The rock-dropping scene was echoing things we’d done before,” she said, “and it’s also important that Ann Dowd, who is a heinous character, be understood, she actually loves these girls. It was a huge blow to her they had died the way they had. Suddenly her character and all of the grieving handmaids were on an even playing field.”
Being a woman director: Remarkably, Skogland has also raised a family — with support from her editor husband, of course. “He was a big part of this journey and adventure. We traveled all over the world, bringing our two daughters to set,” she said. “A lot of people told me as a woman you couldn’t raise a family in this crazy business. I didn’t listen to naysayers. I tried to normalize it, pay no attention to what I couldn’t do, and do what I wanted to do. l made sure they were well loved. Wherever we went we set up a home. We were in Budapest for two to three years, and they loved it. They think of the world now as their backyard.”
Next up: Skogland is directing the AMC pilot for “Fear the Walking Dead” executive producer Jami O’Brien’s “Nosferatu”-inspired series “NOS4A2,” based on executive producer Joe Hill’s vampire novel. (He’s the son of Stephen King.) She’s also tackling the pilot for Lionsgate/Starz’s “The Rook.”