Mimi Leder has seen it all. The 10-time Emmy nominee has directed episodes of “E.R.” and “The Leftovers,” “The West Wing” and “Shameless”; she’s helmed big-budget blockbusters (“Deep Impact”) and intimate indies (“On the Basis of Sex”); she’s offered critical support as an executive producer; she was the first woman to graduate from AFI’s Conservatory program, and the list goes on and on.
So when Leder tells you something is difficult, you better believe it.
“Finales are very hard,” she said during a recent Zoom interview. “I often wonder, which is harder: the pilot or the finale?”
Leder is often called on for both, most recently directing the first episode of “The Morning Show,” as well as its emotional finale, “The Interview.” She received an Emmy nomination for the latter, her first Outstanding Directing nod since 2006, and as she weighs the difficulties of both setting the tone and paying off on its promise, you can see the years of experience flash across her face.
“Anyway, I don’t know. They’re both really hard,” she said. “[But] I always feel that finales are far more satisfying.”
With “The Morning Show,” a fulfilling ending was far from guaranteed. Apple TV+ renewed the show for a second season before it premiered, and juggling complicated issues spread across a large ensemble could’ve easily led to confusion, missed moments, or simply punting toward next season, in the hopes of finding a fulfilling payoff later on.
Leder, along with writer and showrunner Kerry Ehrin, helped make sure that wasn’t the case. The finale brings many central conflicts to a head in a suspenseful, beautiful, and surprising hour. Below, Leder explains her part in crafting three pivotal scenes.
Much of “The Morning Show” pivots around Alex (Jennifer Aniston), the veteran anchor whose role at the network is upended when her longtime co-host, Mitch (Steve Carell), is ousted for sexual harassment. Their shared executive producer, Chip (Mark Duplass), is an unintended casualty of their long fallout, and the finale finds he and Alex plotting behind each other’s backs. She’s trying to make a deal with the network to save her job and keep the show moving forward; he’s trying to blow up the existing power structure and instill a new regime.
When their plans are exposed, rather than hear Alex and Chip lash out at one another, Ehrin wrote a scene where they’d simply cross paths. Alex leaves a fateful meeting with the network president (Tom Irwin) as Chip walks into his own. As soon as they see each other, they’ll know what the other has done.
“The silent moments and the silence that’s between the words is something I look for, I cherish, and try to visually find a way to tell the story,” Leder said. “That scene wasn’t [originally] written on an escalator. It was written as one’s coming out of an elevator and the other crosses into it. I looked around at our location, and I saw this escalator. I went, ‘This is it. This is where we’re going to put them.'”
The staging sets them on an immovable course. They not only have to glide past each other, but their proximity and trajectory creates added tension; she’s on the way down, he’s on the way up — when really, it’s the opposite.
“My cinematographer and I were running up and down the escalator,” Leder said. “He would be on one side, I’d be on the other. You don’t need words to feel the shame that Alex feels in that moment, and [Chip] feels the weight of his betrayal as well — two people that truly were a partnership for 15 years.”
An even more pivotal moment comes later in the episode, when one of Mitch’s victims — a producer on The Morning Show named Hannah (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) — dies by suicide. At first, it appears Hannah has a way out from under Mitch’s eye, as well as the network that protected him: She’s been offered another role within the company, outside of New York. But when it comes time to accept the offer, she can’t. It doesn’t feel right, and Leder explores that feeling through her camera.
“I brought her across the street, established where we were, and I did this shot where she made the phone call and slowly pushed into her face, and then I held on it — which is uncomfortable,” Leder said. “You don’t normally do that in television, [but] I tried to do this a lot on this show because I wanted to get into the complexities of what the characters were feeling. She felt like this was going to make her feel good, but it didn’t. It made her turn numb. It made her feel nothing.”
Originally, that was where the scene ended, and the next morning, Hannah’s friend would discover she’d overdosed. But Leder wanted more.
“I was looking at the street all night, the cobblestones, where we placed the steam, and I decided to do this end shot, where she walks away, and the steam envelops her, and the smoke continues and we fade to white,” Leder said. “To me, I needed to do that shot because it felt like a goodbye. It was the last time we see her alive, and, I know this sounds pretentious, but it felt she was walking toward heaven. She was such a good soul, who was so hurt and so wounded, and it was a goodbye shot.”
Leder’s addition not only helped to set up Hannah’s fateful decision, it also provided a way to close out her overall arc. After seeing her body on the floor of the apartment, Leder cuts back to the street, and as the camera slowly glides away from Hannah, the steam returns right before a brief shot of the cobblestones.
“The Morning Show” deals with a variety of difficult subjects through an array of dominating perspectives, so choosing Season 1’s closing shot was going to be significant no matter what. Ehrin’s script wrapped things up on Mitch, sitting alone in his house, after he was cut out of a conversation he’d hoped would help welcome him back to the national spotlight. Instead, “The Morning Show” was saying goodbye to Mitch, goodbye to men like him, and goodbye to the patriarchy he represents.
“The moment also is very much about that maybe Mitch finally gets what he did,” Leder said. “I put them on the kitchen island because I thought it was symbolic of him being on an island of his own making. I talked to [director of photography] Michael Grady about: ‘Let’s make sure we see the reflection when we do the pullback.'”
The final version sees Carell silently brooding while the camera moves away, as if it’s leaving him behind. He stares at the television as his former co-anchor and replacement explain to the world what it’s been like working under men who take advantage of their female co-workers, and it’s very clear there’s no going back to what things were. Mitch’s anger is palpable, and Leder worked with Carell on other takes, including versions where he cried and more audibly acknowledged what he was thinking in that moment.
“We went with that silent version because it just felt right,” Leder said. “We tried other versions, him getting it and breaking down, and it just didn’t feel right, but it was a great discovery to put him on that island.”
Wherever “The Morning Show” goes in Season 2, the first set of episodes ended with a resounding message, and much of that resonance came from Leder. Whether it’s working with the actors, listening to her colleagues, designing shots, or finding them in the moment, Leder’s work elevates everything in the series. Forget the pilot or the finale: Her whole job is difficult, even when she makes it look easy.
“The Morning Show” Season 1 is streaming now via Apple TV+.