The key people behind ‘ACS,’ ‘American Vandal,’ ‘The Americans,’ ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Barry,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘GLOW’ talk Emmys.
When the nominees for the 70th Emmy Awards were announced in July, there were some standout episodes of TV recognized by the Television Academy in the writing and directing categories.
Because a show is more than just the performances seen onscreen, ET went behind the scenes with some of the scripted categories’ nominated writers and directors -- Jesse Peretz (GLOW), Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg (The Americans), Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale), Liz Sarnoff (Barry), the McManus brothers (American Vandal), Stefani Robinson (Atlanta) and Tom Rob Smith (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story) -- to learn how their episodes came together.
With just weeks to go before the Emmys are handed out live on Monday, Sept. 17, prioritize these episodes and check out ET’s viewing guide to all the nominated series you may have missed.
Writing an Eight-Episode Dick Joke
“Clean Up,” American Vandal; Writers: Kevin and Matthew McManus
Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special
Thanks to an unlikely combination of on-point satire, captivating mystery and puerile humor, Netflix’s American Vandal drew viewers in with one simple question: Who drew the dicks? High school documentarians Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) undertake an elaborate investigation to try to clear bad boy Dylan (Jimmy Tatro) in a very phallic case of vandalism, but the series finale, “Clean Up,” by design, doesn’t make whodunit clear. “We wanted to stay true to the true-crime series and how these things go,” says Kevin McManus, who co-wrote the Emmy-nominated finale with his brother Matthew. “There’s a balancing act of saying as much as we possibly could about who we think and know is the actual dick-drawer without quite going there. We wanted to give the audience enough ammo to figure it out without Peter explicitly saying it.”
Another challenge for the finale was giving Dylan more of the spotlight. Seemingly cleared of the crime by the documentary, he still can’t help but get into trouble, vandalizing his teacher’s house in the final scenes. “Yes, the show is a parody, but ultimately, what we’re really trying to do is tell a character study about a character who normally wouldn’t get one,” Kevin McManus says. “Here’s a kid who gets labeled a bad apple -- what does that do to you? When do you just accept that as the truth and start playing that role? So, we wanted to make sure the last episode wasn’t just about solving the crime but putting the bow on that character study and really getting to see who Dylan is and what makes the Southern California stoner click.”
The brothers, who agree that it was “hard to believe” they earned a nomination (“The fact that it kind of blew up the way it did is still kind of shocking,” Matthew McManus says), are proud of how American Vandal turned out, given the delicate balancing act involved. “That’s really the goal of the show,” Kevin McManus says. “To treat something so seriously that, hopefully, the audience is getting invested in the same mystery, and then reminding themselves that they’re so invested in something that is ultimately an eight-episode dick joke.” --Elliott Smith
Crafting a Crushing Blow for Fans
“START,” The Americans; Writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series
When it comes to crafting an episode of TV, there’s probably none more important or stressful than a series finale -- especially after a critically acclaimed six-season run of the complicated story of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), two 1980s KGB officers pretending to live out the American dream while advancing Russian intelligence in the Cold War on FX’s The Americans. Conceived sometime between the end of season one and the beginning of season two -- co-showrunners and executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg can’t agree exactly on the timeline -- a potential ending for the show was discussed and put in the show’s “master document.” From then on, Fields and Weisberg would return to it as the show unfolded, knowing that the story might evolve or take a turn -- but the idea was always there. “We knew the story for this final episode had to follow organically from all of the character stories that were being told throughout all of the seasons,” say Fields and Weisberg. “Following these character journeys to their emotional catharses was our creative North Star.”
What transpires is an emotional conclusion to the Jennings’ journey as spies in the United States, with them finally confronted by neighbor and FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) and choosing to leave their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) behind as they escape for the Canadian border with their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor). Just before crossing the border, Philip and Elizabeth are stunned to realize Paige has opted not to go with them, and the episode ends with the couple looking over the horizon of their homeland. “We hoped people would be crushed, but that everyone would be crushed in their own, very personal way,” the writers say of the experience they wanted to give audiences. “And you know, not so crushed they could never get up again. Also, there’s hope in there, right? And love. So everyone has to mix those ingredients up for themselves. We just supply the ingredients.”
Not surprisingly, it’s one of the more successful series finales -- they’ve often failed to satisfy audiences in the years since shows like Lost weren’t able to bring complicated stories together -- but the showrunners, who went through their own emotional catharsis in the process, choose not to offer an explanation for why it is. “It doesn’t feel like a good idea to talk about why people like your finale. The best plan is to be really glad they do, and walk away quietly, glancing nervously over your shoulder.” A fitting conclusion for a show that often challenged audiences’ instincts. --Stacy Lambe
Creating a World of Lost Souls
“House by the Lake,” The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story; Writer: Tom Rob Smith
Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special
Halfway through the second season of American Crime Story, which tells the story of Gianni Versace’s (Edgar Ramirez) murder at the hands of Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), audiences witness the first two murders in the spree killer’s desperate journey for love and attention. After opening with the brutal bludgeoning of Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), the episode goes on an emotional, David Lynchian journey as Andrew forces David Madison (Cody Fern) to flee with him. What exactly happened during the few days the two spent on the road before Andrew shoots David in the back is unknown, but Smith says there were “a series of fragments” that clued him in on what to write. “You’re trying to infer what the bigger truth is about those people,” he says, acknowledging that the dialogue and other pieces are their own invention -- but it all serves the elemental truth established on the show.
About 40 minutes into the episode, the two arrive at a remote bar that Smith described in the script as “a world of lost souls.” There, Aimee Mann plays a “female singer who looks like she’s had a really tough life” -- Smith’s description of the character -- who is perched on a bar stool, performing a cover of the Cars song “Drive” as Andrew intently watches on. “It’s such a beautiful cover. I listen to it and it makes me want to cry,” Smith says. Meanwhile, as the song plays, David attempts to escape out the bathroom window, only to realize that it won’t get him to safety. “That scene is about a man looking out into a world and thinking, What am I escaping to? I might as well stay here and live in this lie a little bit longer,” Smith says, explaining that the police still considered David a suspect in Jeff’s death at the time.
That heavy feeling carries into the episode’s remaining minutes as a distraught Andrew pulls over at a lakeside house and David pleads for his life. It’s there audiences see the final sequence in David’s flashbacks -- scenes meant to serve as a celebration of his life -- as David runs from Andrew. Reaching the house as he is shot, suddenly we’re inside David’s head as he shares a peaceful moment with his father before we return to the reality of him being shot in the back and dying on the ground. “That killing is, in reality, two seconds on screen. It’s about trying to reclaim that moment for David and say that love was the thing that was in his head at that point,” Smith says, explaining that Andrew couldn’t penetrate “David’s wonderful soul.” --S.L.
Putting Together Paper Boi’s Unexpected Odyssey
“Barbershop,” Atlanta; Writer: Stefani Robinson
Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series
Atlanta excels at nailing even the smallest details of the black experience, and a perfect example occurs in season two’s fifth episode, “Barbershop,” when the simple task of getting a haircut becomes a Sisyphean quest for Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), thanks to his unreliable barber Bibby (Robert S. Powell III) -- a scenario all too familiar for many who watched the episode. “I think it was literally one of the conversations we had in the writers’ room,” says Stefani Robinson, who, in addition to writing and producing the first two seasons of the FX series, also worked on Man Seeking Woman. “We’ve all had similar experiences with barbers and/or hairdressers, and you are sort of hostage in that situation. It’s so hard to find someone to do your hair and you have to trust them, even if they abuse that power.”
That abuse involves visiting one of Bibby's girlfriends and cutting their son's hair, stealing lumber from a construction site and committing a hit-and-run, all while Paper Boi is forced to tag along. “The thing I wanted to convey was that Bibby always seemed to have a slippery way out of things,” Robinson says. “Even when he was in the wrong, he had a way of making like it was the other person’s fault or he was completely blameless. The idea of him constantly finessing the situation is why he’s so frustrating -- he’s so fluid, he’s always thinking a few steps ahead for his benefit.”
Robinson praises Powell, a standup comedian, for his acting debut as Bibby, and the show’s creator and star Donald Glover, who sat out the episode to direct. “It was so close in my mind, I didn’t consider what the feedback would be,” Robinson says of the episode, which became an instant Twitter favorite and earned her a “very surreal” Emmy nomination. “So many people were just anxious and frustrated and mad. Everyone was having a visceral reaction. That was the intent. It was really great to see and completely unexpected. I’m just proud I get to work on such a great show. It’s such a sweet thing that everyone seems to like it as well.” --E.S.
Knowing What Had to Be Done
“Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going,” Barry; Writer: Liz Sarnoff
Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series
When writing the explosive penultimate episode of Barry season one, Liz Sarnoff says “it quickly became clear in the writers’ room that Barry [Bill Hader] was going to have to kill Chris [Chris Marquette].” The realization comes after Chris kills someone, and when speaking with Barry alone in the car, reveals he’s not OK with his actions. “What if I just turn myself in?” Chris rationalizes as the focus draws in on the character. “He’s a good guy and this is how a normal person is supposed to react when they kill someone,” Sarnoff says. But for Barry, backtracking simply isn’t an option -- at least not when the the stakes are so high. So as Chris continues to fumble with his words, Barry pulls out his gun and shoots him in the head. It’s a brutal moment, but one that the audiences totally had be on board with to stay on Barry’s side.
“On Lost, every episode always had a scene where [co-creator and co-showrunner] Damon Lindelof would say, ‘That’s going to be the scene.’ And in episode seven, as soon as we realized what Barry had to do, we were like, ‘We’re going to be writing that forever because you gotta get that right,’” recalls Sarnoff, who spent five seasons writing and producing the ABC drama before earning her first Emmy nomination writing for the deeply meta HBO comedy about a disaffected Midwest assassin who meets a troupe of aspiring Hollywood hopefuls and realizes his true calling: acting.
The dark moment is immediately followed by a performance of a scene from Macbeth between a visibly shaken Barry and Sally (Sarah Goldberg) during the troupe’s Shakespearean showcase. Initially, Sally struggles to get through her scene while Barry offers no support, distracted by his own thoughts of Chris. But then, in a sudden moment of vulnerability, he delivers the line and “is able to genuinely express an emotion to her, and that emotion becomes contagious and she uses it to ground herself and do something real,” says Sarnoff, who herself studied acting and was trained in classical theater. For her, the show’s acting class scenes and the Macbeth performance were a walk down memory lane. “I think that’s why I got the job, because when I met Bill, I mentioned I’d studied acting for seven years… And I’ve been wanting to do those stories for a long time.” --S.L
Getting Ready for the Opening Bell
“Pilot,” GLOW; Director: Jesse Peretz
Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series
Bringing all the disparate elements of a television show together to create a cohesive pilot can be a challenge for any director. But when Jesse Peretz (Divorce, Girls) wrapped up the pilot for a new Netflix series created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, he knew he had something special on his hands. “Of all the pilots I’ve done, this is definitely the one with the most magic. Somehow, every step of the way, it just felt like we were being blessed with beautiful people bringing their talent into the project,” Peretz says. “By the end of the process, there just felt like there was something unique about it, something special, something that was really commenting on the time that we’re living in from the perspective of four decades earlier. I felt incredibly lucky that Liz and Carly included me in their project.”
Based on the real-life origin story of the 1980s women’s wrestling promotion known as the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, GLOW kicks off with revelatory performances from Alison Brie, Marc Maron and Emmy nominee Betty Gilpin, while nailing the era and capturing the physicality of the sport -- not bad for someone with limited knowledge of the squared circle. “I was not someone who had watched a lot of wrestling,” notes Peretz, who earned his first-ever nomination for the premiere episode. “Me and [director of photography] Christian Sprenger really talked about in what ways or what places we would shoot the show to capture traditional wrestling and in what ways we could take a cinematic perspective. It was amazing to see all these women learn so much, so quickly. We got so immersed and obsessed with the cast learning to wrestle.”
The pilot ends in an extended fantasy wrestling sequence between former friends Ruth (Brie) and Debbie (Gilpin) set to Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” a scene that was both challenging to shoot and rewarding to watch. “One of the most fun parts of working on GLOW is shooting the wrestling, and the big fantasy sequence at the end of the pilot, I mark that as one of my favorite days of directing in what is a pretty long career,” Peretz says. “For me, I’m really happy that people connected with the show and it’s found an audience. I’m so thankful I got to be a part of the beginning of it.” --E.S.
Ritualizing the World of Gilead
“After,” The Handmaid’s Tale; Director: Kari Skogland
Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series
Going beyond the story of the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel on which the Emmy-winning Hulu series is based, season two of The Handmaid’s Tale expands the world both inside and out of Gilead. And in episode seven, which is largely about the aftermath of a handmaid’s suicide bombing, audiences are introduced to a haunting new Gilead ritual: the handmaid’s funeral. In the show’s opening, the remaining handmaids -- dressed in black cloaks with red scarves covering their faces -- are seen mourning the women who were lost in the blast in an eerily orchestrated performance, with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) at the center of a circle of red coffins. “I wish I could give you a world without violence, without pain -- that’s all I ever wanted,” she says as the women repeatedly touch their scarves to the caskets and then to their mouths.
With little written on paper, Skogland’s imagination was allowed to flow through “all the little doors” opened by the script. Drawing from previous episodes, Skogland incorporated visual elements from previous episodes -- largely the inner and outer circles from the handmaid’s rock punishment and Commanders’ Wives baby shower -- with ideas -- red coffins, the kissing movements -- that creator Bruce Miller wanted to see. The funeral also combines elements of Celtic, Jewish and Native American practices. But for all the religious or cultural subtext, the director ultimately knew the sequence needed to showcase Lydia’s humanity. “She doles out tough love, but of anybody, she loves the girls more than they can possibly know,” Skogland says. “This is a crushing moment for her as well. I wanted that emotional space for her.”
It’s just one of the many striking scenes that fills the episode as it explores Moira’s (Samira Wiley) pre-Gilead life and her state of arrested development in Canada’s free world and shows the beginning of an unexpected alliance between Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and June (Elisabeth Moss). But perhaps the episode’s other most notable moment comes when June is reunited with Emily (Alexis Bledel) in the grocery store. It’s there June offers her real name to Emily, and the other handmaids giddily start sharing their names with each other. “It catches on like a fuse,” Skogland says of the dreamlike scene of disembodied shots of the whispers. “Suddenly, these women were not going to forget their names.” --S.L.
The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards, co-hosted by Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost and Michael Che, will air live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 17, starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on NBC. Check out the full list of nominees and ET’s ongoing Emmy coverage here.