“My memories of the beginning of ‘ER’ were of the building that set — John [Wells] and I looking at the floor and going, ‘That’s a great floor! Let’s use that!’ And I remember our D.P. going, ‘That’s awful.'”
But Leder pushed forward, laying a foundation for one of television’s most impactful series ever made. No one directed more “ER” episodes over those first two seasons and, as co-executive producer, Leder was entrusted with shaping the series that came after Rod Holcomb’s two-hour pilot — a pilot met with a lot of internal trepidation.
“I did hear all the rumors,” Leder said. “That it was really iffy; that [NBC executives] weren’t sure about the show; that it was ‘so different,’ and they almost didn’t pick it up. I was shocked because I thought the pilot was fantastic.”
Leder was called in by her longtime collaborator and friend, “ER” showrunner John Wells, to tap into the pilot’s spirit and expand it into a compelling series. Despite the negative buzz, she said the “only pressure I felt was the pressure I put on myself to come through.”
“It was so exciting to build those walls and then begin bringing the show to life as a series — which is very different than doing a pilot,” Leder told IndieWire in a recent interview. “How do you build on the pilot?”
It’s a question Leder knows how to answer, and not only from the two-time Emmy winner’s days on “ER,” but from stepping in for the fifth episode of “The Leftovers,” becoming the producer-director, and — per co-creator Damon Lindelof — saving the series.
“When you’re making a television show, you’re discovering what it is,” she said. “The writers write and leave bread crumbs along the way that say, ‘Oh, this is what this character really needs to be.’ You’re also discovering who the actors are, what their capabilities are, and their chemistry. So creating a series, especially in Season 1, you’re really going through the discovery process — and it’s quite exciting. You’re going with your instinct and your passion.”
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Specifically, Leder wanted to keep the energy up. She helped institute the walk-and-talk scenes made popular throughout “ER” (and later in “The West Wing”), but she wasn’t satisfied moving the camera just to move the camera.
“I wanted to change the approach to directing the series by adding more Steadicam, having more fluid motion, and being right in [the action] all the time,” Leder said. “Rod Holcomb did a great job with the pilot, for sure. […] [But] I knew in my heart and soul that I wanted to bring something different to the show. I knew I wanted to do oners, and not just oners going down hallways, but six-page oners that started with them coming out of an ambulance, going down a hall, into surgery, actually starting the surgery, and then going to another surgery. I wanted to create this feeling of being in [the E.R.] in a really strong visceral way — of being in a life or death situation. I really felt like the camera was my weapon and the way to achieve this.”
In her first “ER” episode, “Day One,” you can see this in action when Leder tracks her lead doctors — Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), Doug Ross (George Clooney), and Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) — from a dark stairway out onto a sunlit helipad as a helicopter lands, hands off a few patients, and the doctors wheel them back inside. That outdoor scene features a few cuts, but once they’re inside the emergency room, Leder’s camera follows the first patient down the hallway and into an operating bay, roams around the nurses and doctors trying to help, and then smoothly pivots through the connecting doors to the little girl crying out for her mother. It’s one long take — no break for the doctors means no break for the audience, either.
“I don’t remember the episode, but we had not aired yet […] We were all working so hard, and Noah Wyle came up to me and said, ‘Mimi. Do you think anyone’s gonna like this show? What are we doing here?’ And I looked at him like he was an absolute alien. […] I said, ‘Man, this is great! What are you talking about? Everyone’s gonna love this!’ And guess what? They did! It’s not that I was being cocky or a know-it-all, it just felt so good and I liked it. Not everything I like, everyone else likes, too, but you know, whatever.”
Leder’s instincts steered “ER” to unprecedented success. NBC had an immediate hit, as “ER” became the second highest-rated program on television in its first season (behind “Seinfeld,”) and it soon took over No. 1 for Seasons 2 and 3. With an average audience of nearly 31 million people over that time, the show spiked with 48 million viewers midway through its sophomore run. Meanwhile, “ER” won 22 Primetime Emmy Awards — including Best Drama Series and a Best Directing trophy for Leder.
Leder is feeling the same vibes she felt then around her latest project: the much-anticipated Apple TV+ series, “The Morning Show.”
“I join on to a show because I love the concept, script, idea, and relate to it in a really personal, guttural way. That happened to me on ‘ER,’ and it happened to me on ‘The Leftovers,’ and it definitely happened to me on ‘The Morning Show,'” she said.
Leder said she wrapped post-production on the series last week, and she’s eager for people to see a show that’s been cloaked in Apple’s trademark secrecy from the get-go. “It was a wonderful and exciting undertaking,” she said. “Very complicated, very hard, and awesome — not unlike ‘ER,’ like beginning a show, birthing it.”
She also saw connections in the cast, even though the NBC drama was a star-maker for actors like Clooney, Julianna Margulies, and Noah Wyle, while her Apple crew is stocked with A-list stars like Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
“[‘ER’] was a really incredible cast,” she said. “It was like lightning in a bottle. It really struck, and it doesn’t always strike. I feel that way with ‘The Morning Show.’ Our cast is extraordinary. You can’t believe that all this great energy is exploding from the screen.”
Leder doesn’t mask her enthusiasm for “The Morning Show,” and when she says she wants people to see it, she means she wants a lot of people to see it. She’s still frustrated that “The Leftovers” wasn’t able to reach more people — ‘The Leftovers’ was so wonderful, the writing was an extraordinary piece of art, but no one saw it! — and she likes seeing great work get recognition. (She just finished watching the first season of “Mindhunter” and can’t believe David Fincher’s Netflix drama wasn’t an Emmy darling.)
Even on a service exclusive to Apple owners and in the era of Too Much TV, getting a wide audience is “really important” to her.
“Obviously, when you’re a filmmaker and you’re helping to create a show, it’s very important that people like it and respond to it. I’m not going to lie and say that it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t make it just to put it out there so people can go, ‘Oh, I don’t care.’ It does matter. It matters to me that it affects you in some way,” she said.
“I always wanted to do a show about the behind-the-scenes world of a show — a character piece,” Leder said. “‘The Morning Show’ is definitely a character piece, and it’s very important to me that people like it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You want people to critically look at them and ask, ‘What is it about this that is important to me?'”
Leder knows “ER” was special. No modern show can be held to its standards, but what matters is the impact — “ER” made an impact on her, and then it made an impact on the world.
“With ‘ER,’ these stories were extremely exciting and funny and heartbreaking, and people responded to it because some of these people were like themselves,” Leder said. “I think that’s one of the reasons ‘ER’ was so successful. And I mean come on: George Clooney, Anthony Edwards — hello! — Juliana Margulies, Eriq La Salle. We had an extraordinary cast, an extraordinary group of writers headed by John Wells, who’s one of my best friends on this planet. We did something special together, and we’ll always have that.”
At the behest of Wells, Leder returned to direct an episode of “ER’s” final season in 2009.
“They changed the set a little bit, but everything felt the same,” she said. “The walls that we had built, the floors that we had picked the design for, which tried to match the pilot’s floors — all that was there. We all try to make memories. When I see John, when I see George, when I see anybody from that world, I’m just filled with that time in my life which is quite extraordinary. It was an extraordinary time as a filmmaker. Making ‘ER,’ producing ‘ER,’ shaped me. It shaped my career. I’m so thrilled I got a chance to be part of it.”
Now, “The Morning Show” has made its impact on Leder. Come November 1, we’ll start to get an idea of what it means to everyone else. Only time will tell if we’ll be talking about it in 25 years, but one thing’s for certain: Leder sure knows how to lay a foundation.