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‘The Underground Railroad’ Team Details Working Together to Build Something Beautiful

Barry Jenkins, James Laxton, Onnalee Blank, and Nicholas Britell discuss working together with "The Underground Railroad" cast and crew.

The Underground Railroad Barry Jenkins James Laxton

Consider This: Conversations highlight television’s award-worthy productions through panel discussions with the artists themselves. The above video is presented by Amazon Studios and hosted by IndieWire’s TV Awards Editor Libby Hill. “The Underground Railroad” is streaming now via Amazon Prime Video.

In October, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will return to its home at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., a full 19 months after the organization ceased performing at the location in light of COVID-19. In a matter of weeks, music enthusiasts can see legendary conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the helm of the orchestra, keeping dozens of musicians in balance with each other, making sure the harmony sings, and the performance doesn’t fly off the rails.

This is precisely how Barry Jenkins works. As director on a project as immense as Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad,” he brings his vision to some of the finest artisans in the industry, and together they craft an intricate and elegant tapestry, all under Jenkins’ watchful eye.

Barry Jenkins is a conductor, in every sense of the word.

With 10 episodes, the adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel could have been overwhelming, though in moments when the scope could feel like too much, Jenkins would remind himself that when reading the novel, he never thought bringing any of it to life was unachievable.

“I have two sayings, one is ‘Get to day one,’ and on this one, getting to day one was an ordeal. And then once we were in, every day was just chopping wood,” Jenkins said during a panel interview, though he noted that DP James Laxton might feel differently. “For me, it was just about having very, very nearsightedness. ‘Next week, I know we’re going to be in the Tennessee episode, I got to make sure we’re ready for that.’ And then you get 50 weeks in and you realize, ‘Oh, shit, we’re almost done. All right, that was pretty cool.’ That was really the only way to achieve it.”

But Laxton, who the director noted was the person responsible for making sure the light was correct, the cranes were moved into proper position, and so many other logistics, felt similarly.

The Underground Railroad

“The Underground Railroad”

Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon

“Chopping wood is a great analogy, of course. And also, maybe for myself, I’ll just say, a bit of ignorance is good, too,” Laxton said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into and if you wake up just knowing that, ‘OK, we need to make sure these actors are in frame when they say this dialogue’ and just boil it down to some really simplistic ideas and if you married that to the idea that, yes, there’s a lot of infrastructure on the set and we have these beautiful actors and beautiful artists, persons behind the scenes, we’re going to create some great things if we just let people do their thing.”

One of those artisans wasn’t creating on-set, but was toiling behind the scenes in post-production, ensuring that the series sounded as visceral and distinct as the visuals audiences would experience on-screen. To hear sound supervisor Onnalee Blank tell it, building a show’s sound profile has a nebulousness that she didn’t experience often when working on many seasons of “Game of Thrones.”

“I start with a very basic sort of vibe and then it ebbs and flows to what it eventually becomes. Which is a great process for me because it means that I can try a million versions and then hopefully one of them is the right one,” Blank said. “That’s why I love working with Barry and [editor] Joi [McMillon]. They give a lot of feedback.”

“This was way harder than ‘Game of Thrones,’ to be totally honest with you,” she said. “We were on that show for about 10 years and so it became this very well-oiled machine. They shot at the same locations, same actors, same costumes, etc. [‘The Underground Railroad’] was very different because I didn’t want Georgia to sound the same as Tennessee to sound the same as Indiana winter. And so sometimes I would call [composer] Nick [Britell] at midnight, almost crying and be like, ‘This is like 13 movies. How the heck are we gonna finish on time? What episode are you working on?'”

Director Barry Jenkins and Thuso Mbedu on the set of "The Underground Railroad"

Director Barry Jenkins and Thuso Mbedu on the set of “The Underground Railroad”

Cr. Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Prime Video

“It became this really great back-and-forth of pumping each other up and knowing that Barry and everybody is like, ‘Just do it, put your head in it,’ and we got there,” Blank said, crediting her huge team of sound editors and designers for helping to perfect the soundscapes.

Nicholas Britell co-signed Blank’s observations about collaboration and camaraderie, which for him began as it always does, with Jenkins. The composer first worked with the director on the Academy Award-winning Best Picture “Moonlight,” as well as Jenkins’ follow-up feature, “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

“I had a sense early on, just given the the scope of the series, that if we didn’t start early with brainstorming things — and honestly, Barry and I always start early with thinking about things — but we started earlier and did more early-on on this than anything we’ve done,” Britell said.

“From very early on, Barry was sending me sounds that I did start experimenting with and it was a whole world of exploring and what became an exploration of these elemental forces like earth, air, fire,” he said. “Especially air, that idea of the cicadas and of taking these incredible sounds that Onna sent over, and bending them and morphing them and actually drawing inspiration from those sounds.”

“Actually, when we would slow some of them down, we would almost hear these fascinating cicada melodies. So there was a whole range of exploration that went in and it was wonderful, because of the the scope and length of what we were doing.”

The Underground Railroad Amazon Prime Video

Sheila Atim in “The Underground Railroad”

Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios

With “The Underground Railroad,” Jenkins brought together a group of disparate artists, all of whom worked tirelessly to achieve a vision that was not just the director’s or the author’s, but an exquisite amalgamation informed by voices, expertise, work, and sacrifice of hundreds of contributors.

“You kind of have no choice but to trust the people you’re working with. Now that I’ve been directing for a while, it’s so strange to me how outsized the credit the director gets on any film or television show because a director doesn’t really do much,” Jenkins said. “I mean, you do have to communicate a lot and you have all these ideas, but the actors actually giving the performance, they are doing. James is moving the cameras, setting the lights. I think that when we get there on the day, we’re all very clearly actively creating this thing together.”

So many voices came together in order to make “The Underground Railroad” sing. But at each moment, Jenkins was there to maintain the harmony created by brilliant television.

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