Interviews

Emmy-winning composer Trevor Morris creates the sound for a diverse group of television shows, including NBC’s Emerald City and Netflix’s Iron Fist.

Trevor Morris felt music in his life from his earliest childhood memories. Thanks to the encouragement of his grandmother and a music-influenced eduction, Morris now scores some of the hottest television shows airing and received Emmys for his work on The Tudors and The Borgias. He sets the mood for the visceral thrills of History’s Vikings. His Iron Fist synthesizers underscore the whiz-bang martial arts choreography.

But his lush dreamlike, lullaby-influenced work on NBC’s Emerald City merits new Emmy consideration. Based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz series and directed by Tarsem Singh, Emerald City uses brilliant visuals, extravagant costumes, and Morris’s haunting themes to return modern audiences to the Land of Oz. Morris is deeply proud of the work and of the theme-based approach to creating the score.

Listening to Trevor Morris describe his passion for music, it’s clear why Emmy pays close attention to the 7-time nominee. His grandmother would be proud.

You displayed a talent for music early on. How did that evolve initially?

My grandmother who I credit for introducing me to music. She used to tell me when I was old enough, I would climb on the piano bench before I had memory of it. I feel like music’s always been a part of my life as long as I’ve had memories. My earliest memories were my grandmother sitting me in her lap and playing the piano for me. Then, I started taking piano lessons and went to a school of the arts where I took violin and cello lessons. It started at a very early age for me.

Was your grandmother able to see you succeed in the industry?

To some extent. Unfortunately, she passed away before I moved to Hollywood. She’s a big influence on me for sure.

Tell me about composing a song for Pope John Paul II.

Yeah, that was my first compositional effort. I was 13 years old in our Catholic school for the arts. Basically, everybody sang for the choir, and everybody played a string instrument. The Pope was coming through our small town in Canada, and since we were a Catholic school it was kind of a big deal. My mother conspired with the principal to commission me – I think it was $50 which was a lot of money when you were that old – and the idea was to write something that our graduating class could sing for him during his visit. I wrote a composition for a 4-part choir and piano. Unfortunately, we never got to sing it for the Pope, but we did sing it during the graduation ceremony, which was pretty cool.

That’s such an amazing experience. I have a 12 year-old son that’s deep into music. How do you think your musical education benefitted you outside of your direct career?

There are lots of studies about how music helps with things like self esteem. It’s also very mathematic even though it’s an artistic endeavor. There’s certainly no downside to it. I studied it a lot in my life and then took a break from it. I continue to learn new things even today. It’s really tragic that it’s pushed to a second tier of importance in terms of education. We have a lot of composers in the Los Angeles area, myself included, who do a lot of fundraising on our own to try and keep schools alive and kicking with music programs. It’s really important to all of us, and there are a few foundations that support it – Education Through Music L.A. and the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. Just trying to put instruments in kid’s hands, trying to get them involved in music period.

That’s really fantastic work. I’m so glad you do that. OK, let’s fast-forward to your current film and television scoring opportunities. I’ve talked to a lot of composers who have dramatically different processes. How do you get engaged with a project typically?

It’s probably the most challenging part of the job, finding a point of entry. Everybody wants music that’s completely unique and you’ve never heard before even thought there’s only 12 notes. [Laughs] If I’ve become better at anything in my career it’s that I’ve improved how to tell a story through music, to express a narrative through the language of music rather than through a script. I try to find my way into the story first. What does the story, the movie, the show want? I try to find something musically that’s attached to the aesthetic you’re working on. It could be the way it’s shot. I react very strongly to color. Saturated color, desaturated color, black and white – they all have very different looks in my head, and that relates to how I think of music.

I tend to focus on the story first, the characters first, and then try to write a melody or two. I’m a melodic writer. I write themes whether they be for a character which is old fashioned but I still do it, the theme for an environment, the theme for an idea… that’s usually my point of entry.

Trevor Morris
(Photo: NBC)
So, I want to talk about a few properties you’ve most recently scored. With NBC’s Emerald City, what was your inspiration for the score?

There’s a great example of a story we all know, retold in a very unique way, shot in a very artistically darker way. I remember very clearly thinking to myself that the Yellow Brick Road needed a theme. It’s not a person, but it’s a place. It’s where Dorothy meets Lucas and eventually becomes their love them, and it’s the first thing I wrote and played for the producers, which they all loved. Then, there’s a theme for Dorothy, but rather than a theme for the Wizard of Oz, there’s a theme for the Emerald City as a place, a geographical location when you’re in that world. The thematic writing isn’t always attached to the characters in a Shakespearean way.

“The Yellow Brick Road” from Trevor Morris’s Emerald City score

What’s your favorite theme you’ve written for the show? Is it the “Yellow Brick Road” theme?

I’d have to go with the “Yellow Brick Road” theme because I’m very proud of it. My goal was to write a melody that’s simple, like a lullaby, but have the color of the music be very complex. It was this blend of simple melody but with exotic chord changes, and it had to have some grandeur to it. It’s probably the theme that most glued the series together. It appeared in almost every episode in some way.

You also scored Netflix’s Iron Fist which has a significant 80s-synth vibe. What drove this interpretation?

It came from having a conversation with the producers and the writers. I ask this on every project, “What is the story we’re telling?” We started off with wanting to be modern, which denotes a synthetic kind of thing. In the show, he comes back from the dead, so to speak, so he listens to his Walkman that he listened to as a kid in the 90s. There’s an ode to that in there. We decided to give ourselves some rules. There’s no orchestra in it. There’s not a drop of strings, French horns. None of that stuff. Taking those heavy-hitters off the table, it leaves you to find a unique way to solve these problems. That sound is also very fashionable right now, which I think is great.

Did you ever think about incorporating more Asian sounds into it? Is there something there more subtle that perhaps I didn’t catch on first listen?

It’s cleverly woven in there. This is probably the biggest debate we had – how much music to put in the Dojo scene or in a Kung Fu scene. We tried it all, several instruments that would represent a traditional Asian culture, and the producers didn’t like it. They thought it was too traditional. What’s in there are some of those Japanese flutes, but they’re heavily affected. It’s very subtle.

Trevor Morris
(Photo: Netflix)
Talking about the Emmy race, you have five nominations and two wins for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music on The Tudors and The Borgias. What was that whole experience like for you at the time?

Amazing. The Tudors was my first nomination, and I won. That’s sort of rare, an unspoken truth that first-time nominees rarely win. It was an amazing experience. The thing that’s interesting about the Emmys versus the Oscars is that, with the Oscars, the entire body votes on everything. So, the score category is usually a bit more of a popularity contest – not necessarily the best music wins. The Emmys is 100 percent peer-group driven. Only composers vote for composers, so what it means to me is that you get nominated by your peers and, if you win, you’re voted on by your peers. It’s pretty special. It’s not the reason why you do what you do, but it’s really cool to be recognized on that level.

Emerald City is available for streaming on NBC.com. Iron Fist is available for streaming on Netflix.

Tickled

Joey Moser talks to Tickled director David Farrier about his infamous documentary and its follow-up The Tickle King, now showing on HBO.

Many documentaries look at their subjects from afar because events are documented in their footage and their story is complete. With some docs, like 2016’s Tickled, the ordeal is all the more fascinating because the story is still developing. Co-director David Farrier’s odyssey with former disgraced school administrator David D’Amato continues with HBO’s 20 minute follow-up The Tickle King, and it proves that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.

In case you aren’t familiar with Farrier’s feature, here’s a little backstory. While trying to find something new to write, journalist Farrier casually stumbled upon the unknown world of competitive endurance tickling, but when he reached out to video producer Jane O’Brien Media, he was met with a hostile reception. Upon further investigation, Farrier, along with co-director Dylan Reeve, uncovered that the young men featured in these videos were being continually harassed when they tried to sever ties with the secret tickling world. It’s one of the oddest documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous and silly and unnerving and uncomfortable all at the same time, but there’s more story to tell.

Getting started in the tickle world

When you watch the feature film, you might not be able to look at the innocent act of tickling the same way again. When I asked Farrier if he thinks he could participate in the activity after making the documentary, he was quick to answer.

“No. Richard Ivey tickled me—it’s not in the film—but he strapped me down on a tickling bench and tickled me for 10 minutes. It was such a difficult thing to be tickled by a professional tickler and you can’t get away with your hands and your legs completely locked away. It’s pretty awful. If you’re into tickling, good on you but it’s definitely not for me.”

Up until he dived into this documentary (or documentary series at this point), Farrier had mainly been associated with lighter journalism. At the beginning of the documentary feature, we see him chatting up with a younger Justin Bieber (tickling and the Biebs were both innocent back then) and interviewing some cosplay performers. Tickled thrust him into a world of more expose reporting–something he would be more open to if the right project came along.

(Photo: HBO)

“Dylan and I both found it incredibly satisfying uncovering a story that hasn’t been told before and putting the pieces together. I wasn’t trained as an investigative reporter. I’ve admired the work of investigative reporters in the newsroom that I used to work in. I think Dylan and I both love the internet–we both spend a lot of time online–and I did enjoy the investigation side. If another logical subject fits the topic of a documentary then I’d love to dive straight back in. I do a lot of writing as well. I did an investigation recently about this sort of hidden world of pedophiles on YouTube and how they exploit young YouTubers. That worked as a written piece, and that’s the joy of the world we live in. Investigations can be a written piece of a podcast or a series of small videos or a documentary. If there’s another topic that fits a feature format, I’d love to dive back in.”

The Tickled aftermath

When the feature documentary’s credits begin to roll, a lot of questions remain. David D’Amato has been unmasked and suspicions confirmed, but it’s obvious that this documentary can continue. There’s more to the story, and that’s when things get a little crazy.

“The end of Tickled, things are left in a kind of quiet situation where it’s ongoing but we’re not experiencing the same chaos as when we were making the film. Once the film premiered at Sundance it got pretty crazy again and we started filming again, and we knew that that footage was going to go somewhere. Another film or online or whatever the situation was. But I think HBO premiere is so important for us because it’s going to go out so widely it seemed like a perfect time to make sense of the chaos of last year. We had posted some things on Facebook but I really wanted to use that footage as a timeline so people could understand. With the looming HBO date, it seemed like the most logical time to get it together.”

The Tickle King, HBO’s 20 minute follow-up, has some incredible footage. With a lot of exposes, you don’t get to hear from both sides or even see them when they are alive, but David D’Amato pays a lot of attention to Farrier and Reeve’s films. While Farrier was promoting the feature in New York, Reeve was in Los Angeles at a screening, and D’Amato was actually in attendance. Kevin Clarke, a Jane O’Brien Media representative featured a lot in Tickled, is more aggressive towards the filmmakers while D’Amato is oddly calm, shaking Reeve’s hand and willing to witness the theater’s Q&A session. These incidents were reported on in the news when Tickled came out, but it’s another thing entirely to watch it unfold on screen.

(Photo: HBO)

“I was so proud with how Dylan dealt with that situation. It was a really full on thing to be involved with to have the key people who didn’t want the film made watching the film and then getting quite angry. There was a lot of yelling and a lot of threats. I think the other emotion was almost jealousy that I wasn’t there, because I would’ve loved to have been just in that room watching. Or just to feel the atmosphere in that room. I think Dylan did this amazing job of not allowing that situation get out of hand. He had this great idea to give the floor to the main character in the film and give him the mic and let him speak. That was pretty incredible and gave you some insight into how his mind works. We don’t want people lashing out at this person through booing, and we didn’t want to harass these people back. We didn’t want to play by their rules. Dylan just wanted to calm the crowd down. This person bought a ticket to the film, and we should be able to hear what they have to say. It was neat how he shut that down.”

While a tickling empire toppling over sounds utterly ridiculous, Farrier remains calm and collected during the entire interview process. These are people that don’t want to be acknowledged publicly, and they certainly don’t want to be ambushed over involvement in a tickling website. It’s all rather strange and a bit scary, but Farrier manages to keep his calm demeanor even though approaching them was something he feared doing.

“When I was approaching people that didn’t want to be filmed like when I approach the studio where they had the tickling competition. Or when I approached the subject on this, you know, snowy street. Being from New Zealand, my main fear at times was ‘does this person have a gun?’ In America, people seem to like their guns, right? So that was in the back of my head as this fear. Of course, no one pulled a gun out, and I was perfectly safe and fine, but that was always in the back of my head when I was approaching people.”

Since the story is so ongoing, it feels like there could almost be a tickling documentary genre forming, and Farrier will be right there to document it. No matter what medium the story will be presented it in future reportings, one thing is certain: this is no laughing matter.

“I think there probably is more story to tell. I got to the end of The Tickle King and there’s still questions that are raised in that, and I think we will hear from more victims and more people that are involved with this world. The authorities might be pressured to act more now that the story is going much wider now. When audiences watch Tickled, I think there’s a sense of injustice that Dylan and I felt when we were making it. We will monitor things, and film where we can. We will follow the story and figure out what the best venue is to show it whether it’s on HBO or we write about it. Visually has been the best way to tell the story so far, so I’d like to think we’ll keep filming and find a way to put it out there.”

Tom Perrotta

Author Tom Perrotta talks to Awards Daily, as this April starts the third and final season of the critically acclaimed cult favorite The Leftovers.

Celebrated author Tom Perrotta explores the simple aspects of life. Faith. Marriage. Fidelity. Infidelity. Life. Death. You know, really “light” subject matter. Tackling such heavy topics proved fruitful for the Boston-based writer. His novels Election and Little Children became critically acclaimed films starring the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Kate Winslet, and Patrick Wilson. Co-authoring duties on Little Children brought him a much deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Tom Perrotta
(Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.)
“It’s kind of an amazing experience, especially for someone like me who never expected to be there,” Perrotta said. “I really was purely a fiction writer for most of my life and was just a fan of movies… It was almost like a Zelig experience.”

But it’s his 2011 novel The Leftovers that brought Tom Perrotta to the small screen. The novel, an hypnotic exploration of a rapture-like event called the “Sudden Departure,” evolved from a public and personal events. Research on Christian fundamentalism for his novel The Abstinence Teacher, the 9/11 tragedy, and the unexpected death of his father all contributed to the story. Perrotta shopped the novel to HBO with an eye toward a dramatic series, and the critically acclaimed The Leftovers premiered in June 2014.

April brings an end to The Leftovers and its touching mediation on grief and loss. For the uninitiated, The Leftovers centers on the Garvey family (led by Justin Theroux and Amy Brenneman) as they navigate life after the Sudden Departure. Unlike most standard network dramas, The Leftovers is one to contemplate and savor bit by bit. Its first two seasons are now available to stream via HBO GO or HBO NOW.

Evolving The Leftovers Beyond The Page

To bring The Leftovers to life, Tom Perrotta partnered with Damon Lindelof, writer/producer of the Emmy-winning ABC series Lost. Their collaboration and the instincts of the talented cast helped to shape the series in ways that were direct departures from the novel. Characters forged new relationships that drove the narrative in compelling directions. Critics Choice Award-winner Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst, in particular, saw dramatic changes from page to screen.

Tom Perrotta
(Janel Moloney, Christopher Eccleston, Carrie Coon. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.)
“The book Nora is a very isolated figure. She’s basically just living inside her grief,” Perrotta explained. “In the show, we’ve given her this job with the Department of the Sudden Departure, and it’s been a source of many wonderful episodes for the show.”

The characters differences exist beyond Nora Durst. Patti Levin had a minor presence running the Mapleton chapter of the Guilty Remnant in the novel. However, Ann Dowd’s remarkable performance as Levin led to an expansion of the role, even as certain events made a Season 2 return… challenging. Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison also grew in importance in the transition to screen.

“Maybe there are writers who would be alarmed by this, but to me that’s been the greatest surprise and adventure of collaborating – seeing the novel get transformed in all these interesting ways,” Perrotta said. “Many times it’s by the writing, but it’s also by the actors who bring their own personality into a role and make us see things we might not have seen had a different actor been playing that role.”

Tom Perrotta
(Liv Tyler, Ann Dowd, Amy Brenneman. Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO.)
Leftovers Down Under In Season 3

Season 1 of The Leftovers took place in the novel’s original setting of Mapleton, New York. Season 2 shifted the action to the fictional town of Jarden, Texas, untouched by the Sudden Departure. The 8-episode final season again relocates, moving the cast to Australia. Shrouded in secrecy typical for the series, The Leftovers Season 3 introduces Scott Glenn as a series regular while adding Lindsay Duncan to the cast. The ending may be bittersweet, but it’s one for which Tom Perrotta and team were prepared.

“We did know that this was our final season which was a gift from HBO,” Perrotta explained. “We designed the whole season with that in mind. The whole season is about endings.”

For Awards Daily’s full interview with Tom Perrotta, check out the podcast link with this article or by subscribing to the Water Cooler Podcast on iTunes.

The Leftovers Season 3 premieres on HBO April 16. You can find Seasons 1 and 2 on HBO GO and HBO NOW.

Tom Perrotta
(Kevin Carroll, Regina King, Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux. Photo: Van Redin/HBO.)

Composer Jeff Russo continues his successful partnership with Noah Hawley in the Marvel adaptation Legion, premiering tonight on FX.

When you watch the opening credits to a show scored by composer Jeff Russo, you know exactly what you are getting into. He sets the mood just right. The opening to FX’s Fargo is ominous yet nimble. The score to The Night Of bleeds dread into every scene. Legion, Russo’s latest project with Fargo creator Noah Hawley, is the highly anticipated X-Men spin-off that focuses on a young mutant who is diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. Superhero dramas are making the leap from film to television more and more as of late, and FX and Hawley seem to have another hit on its hands.

I originally thought Russo might have a massive comic book collection stowed away in his basement. For some reason, I wrongfully assumed that everyone who boards a comic book or hero vehicle is a massive fan. Surprisingly, Russo didn’t follow a particular franchise.

“As a kid, I was kind of into comic books, but I wasn’t what you’d call a comic book geek—I wasn’t a collector. I read a lot of Archie,” Russo said. “That definitely appealed to me more. I wasn’t really into X-Men, but when I got older I got into the comics. It didn’t last very long—maybe 2 years.”

Composers are oftentimes given filmed material, and they must provide the underscore for the entire project. Russo continued his close collaboration with creator Noah Hawley. Working from scripts and extensive knowledge of Fargo‘s two seasons, Russo married his Emmy-nominated music from the ground up. He repeated this process on Legion.

Jeff Russo“Noah sends 2 or 3 scripts and I sketch out themes, vibe, and feel. He’s a very visual writer. Very evocative and he puts you right there. We had conversations about how to set the tone, and we did the same thing with Legion. I originally wrote 3 different themes for David (Dan Stevens’ central character). Legion, at the core, is a love story, and that lends itself to musical moments. It allows it to underscore the character. Then when the picture comes in, we have to adapt to it or change it here and there. There needs to be some added finesses to make it really work. With The Night Of Steven Zaillian sent me the script and said, ‘Tell me what you think.’ Mind you, I wasn’t hired yet, but I immediately wrote the theme. He said it was exactly what they were thinking about. It all really depends on how I’m struck by something. The narrative really drives me. Certain elements of a script really drive different parts of my brain.”

Russo’s last two projects garnered him Emmy nominations, and it’s easy to see why. Both scores are very specific to their narratives, and they compliment the stories very well. Legion is another animal. The Marvel universe allows artists to spread their wings in ways they might not have been able to do before, and the television adaptations easily take more risks and explore darker themes.

“It afforded me the opportunity to anything. It was sort of like ‘Here’s a sandbox—let’s play.’ It allowed me to mix some stuff up. There are big orchestral pieces and then there are atonal quartets, and they don’t have any real musical relation. It’s so much fun! It’s such a joy to write. A lot of the time the character doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not, so it’s fun to play around with that. Why can’t the viewer feel the same way?”

The score isn’t just big orchestral pieces. Russo incorporated a lot of different sounds to achieve an “interesting sound design.” When you have an otherworldly and mysterious show that deals with repression and possible mental illness, an unconventional sound design proves exciting. You can hear intriguing sounds in the trailers alone.

“ ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is one of my favorite albums—it’s the music of my youth. Noah shares the same love of music. I actually went out and bought an esoteric synthesizer to mold the music into it. It was a really big watershed moment. I plugged it in, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ ”

Sure, Legion features huge blockbuster action under the umbrella a very famous brand, but one of the things that attracted and grounded Russo to the material was the human connection between the characters. While you have things blowing up around everyone, the most important aspect–the one that drives the heart of the show–is emotional honesty.

“I live best creatively in an emotional point of view–whether the narrative is driven by drama or it’s a thriller or sci-fi or whatever. I do my best work if I can really delve into it. If comedy has an emotional beat, I can have a connection with it, and I’ve seen drama s that don’t have an emotional center. I respond to a true narrative based in emotional truth. With Fargo it was the case of good versus evil, and The Night Of was about the relationship between Naz and Stone. With Legion the through-line is about David and Syd. Everything ties together with an emotional core”

Legion premieres tonight on FX at 10pm ET.

siddhartha khosla this is us

Megan McLachlan talks to Siddhartha Khosla, composer on NBC’s critically acclaimed hit This Is Us, about his subtle, complimentary score.

One thing you may not always notice about NBC’s This is Us is its original score, which the composer, Siddhartha Khosla, sees as the ultimate compliment.

“That is the trick,” said Khosla. “You never want the score to be distracting, unless it’s a montage where there’s no dialogue.” The music, with its nostalgic strings and melodies, adds more emotional punch to scenes, without the audience even knowing it.

For example, in Episode 13 of Season 1 titled “Three Sentences,” one of the most powerful and revealing moments of the episode (and perhaps the series) is when Kate (Golden Globe nominee Chrissy Metz) participates in a drum-therapy class to lose weight. As she drums, the insistent, guitar-strumming score pushes Kate toward acceptance, culminating with the release of a scream and a big revelation.

“We see something we’ve never seen on the show yet, and it’s haunting.”

The show plays on the uncertainty of life. In the pilot, we learn that Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) are the flashback parents to modern-day characters Kate (Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown).

siddhartha khosla this is us
(Photo: Alden Wallace)

“For this particular show, [creator] Dan Fogelman sent me his script before I saw any footage of the pilot. Immediately, as I read the script and the ending of that pilot episode, a sound came to me. This is a very honest show about life’s twists and turns. There’s enough surprises in life that happen just by virtue of people being born or dying.”

In the opening scene of the pilot, we see a box of photos labeled “’78 to ’79” and that sets the tone for the entire series. There’s a sentimental feeling to the show, like the sensation of a warm vinyl sound from a needle on a record. Khosla often plays on this wistfulness and longing for the past.

“I approach everything I do like I’m making an album,” something Khosla has a lot of practice at, having released albums with his band Goldspot. “I really focus on creating organic sounds that you don’t really hear anywhere else. From the score’s perspective, I wanted it to have simplicity without being simplistic, so there’s a lot of acoustic guitars, with Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell influences. I never want it to feel too trendy, just classic and timeless.”

But if Khosla is being honest about this “very honest show,” he had no idea it was going to be a huge hit.

“You never expect that. You usually just feel so fortunate that you’re making music for a living and at this level. So the fact that all of this is happening is exciting.” And with the series being renewed for two more seasons, there’s an added bonus of job security. “In this back half of the first season, the show is going to a darker emotional place. I’m seeing cuts of the show and am able to suggest placing music here and there.”

Some characters have developed their own melodies that drive the story, as well. “There’s definitely a Kate and Toby theme. It’s romantic, as if Joni Mitchell got behind the scenes and started playing guitar.” But mostly, Khosla works in episodic themes, with music depending on what’s going on in a particular episode.

Khosla has composed music for everything from film (upcoming Fat Camp, which has a more hip-hop sound) to commercials, but television brings its own unique challenge.

“Your time is compressed. Movies can take years to score. With TV, the challenge is committing to something very quickly, going with it, getting everybody to approve it, and going through everyone’s revisions and changes.” Plus, Khosla works under a very intense schedule, with typically only a week to do an episode. “It forces you to work with your instincts a little more, instead of going down 15 different paths to get to ultimately the same goal.”

And for the This is Us audience watching these characters’ lives unfold over Khosla’s beautiful soundtrack, their challenge is going an entire episode without going through a box of Kleenex.

Gloria Calderón Kellett

Netflix’s One Day At a Time revisits the Cuban-American experience based on the family of Gloria Calderón Kellett

Gloria Calderón Kellett started off as an actress, moved into writing, and now executive produces. Her latest show, Netflix’s acclaimed One Day At A Time reboot, couldn’t be more timely, even though it’s based on a 70’s TV show. To bring it into 2017, the show features a Cuban-American family and stars Rita Moreno as the matriach. Kellett explains the show is biographical and based on her own relationship with her mother.

Here, Gloria Calderón Kellett describes how the experience of being an executive producer opened doors for minorities. Also, find out what she has to say about Netflix’s newest comedy, now streaming.

Why did you choose to go with a Cuban-American family?

I chose that because I’m Cuban. It was a pretty easy choice made when my father made sweet sweet love to my mother. My parents came here in 1962, and they didn’t know any English. They learned it all from watching TV ironically. It’s crazy to them that I now write for TV. It was a great opportunity to write this love letter to my family.

You also have Rita Moreno starring in this. How did you get her to say yes?

Norman Lear. That’s the beauty of Mr. Lear. He asked me who did I picture in the role, and I said, Rita Moreno. He told me he was friends with her, and he called her, and he made that happen.

That’s so exciting. OK, what can we expect from the show?

Tears and laughter. We talk about very real issues that face our families today whether it’s technology, issues of sexism, immigration, veteran issues, LGBTQ issues, religion, and we really get in there. We would talk about things that are meaningful to us, and it made its way onto the screen.

In terms of representation of Latinos on TV? How has that changed since you started out?

It has changed in that I guess we get police officers now, we get some lawyers here and there. I still feel like there’s a misconception about who we are, and that TV can help to change that. So, to be able to do that on the show and to bring to light who I am, the main character is based on who I am, and the Rita character is based on my mom. To talk about the complexities of these women who are happy and sad, and the mother and daughter relationship is great to explore.

On that note, how much of it is biographical?

A lot of it. The Elena storyline in the pilot, the daughter was a real conversation I had with my parents. I didn’t want to do the quinceanera. I thought it was misogynistic… old school, and they said it was just a party. I had seen all these people spend all this money for a 15-year-old girl. I promised my parents a big Catholic wedding when I got married, and I gave that to them. Everybody won, and I got a car instead which was much more useful to me.

What about the casting?

Justina Machado is like my sister from another mister. We are like two peas in a pod. I can’t think of anyone better to play a version of me onscreen. She plays the comedy so beautifully. She plays the emotion with such beauty. I’m honored to have these women play us.

How did you discover Marcel Ruiz? You have to tell me about him because he’s such a scene stealer.

We did a lot of searching. Those casting directors worked hard to bring together this talent. They were undeniable. We love that we get to put them out there for the world to see.

What was it like getting the show to Netflix? How much freedom do you have with Netflix compared writing for a network?

They were really supporting. When we did get notes, they were really thoughtful and smart. Often, they took the time to say no. Netflix gives us time, the extra seven or eight minutes we get, allows us to delve in deeper and keep those jokes we love. We don’t have to cut anything. We get to live a little and that’s a pleasure.

You’ve gone from acting to writing and producing. You’re opening doors for others. What made you take that step?

I really feel like if we’re going to make real change, women and minorities. We need to be the real storytellers. It gives me pleasure to create opportunities for people like Justina and Marcel and to open these doors and just seeing these faces that we don’t see often enough. Also, just writing a role for a really strong woman. Female roles are largely underwritten. The best way was to do it myself.

Is it easier or harder for women with TV writing? Is it actually getting easier?

I hope it is getting easier. That’s a question for the next generation. In many cases, I was the only woman or the only person of color in any room I was in. Mike Royce and I wanted to hire diversity. People thought I knew a ton of people, but I didn’t. We took great pains to read and read because we didn’t want to hire people whose last name was Lopez. We did. We hired great writers whose last names were Hispanic. We found an incredible group of very talented writers. 24-94 when Norman is in the room. The conversation we get to have with a half-Latino room is incredibly rewarding.

You’re doing comedy, and you’ve done drama. What’s easier?

I think comedy is harder because you need jokes. The writing on drama and procedural has more writing. Comedy is the most rewarding as it comes more naturally to me.

You held a pilot class last year. How did that go?

I teach an online course when I’m available. I’m also a professor at Loyola Mount University, my students are emailing me their scripts. I love teaching and wish I had more time to do it.  I will definitely come back to it as I feel a responsibility to teach the next gen of writers.

Lev Spiro

Joey Moser talks to Lev Spiro, director of a crucial Orange is the New Black Season 4 episode

Lev Spiro didn’t want to mess up his latest directorial effort for the fourth season of Orange is the New Black. He had previously worked with creator Jenji Kohan for Showtime’s Weeds.

“I guess the biggest challenge is to live up to the material. You read it and think, ‘Christ, this is good!’ and you just don’t want to fuck it up.”

Lev Spiro hit the directorial jackpot when he landed a gig with the latest season of Netflix’s prison drama. Now in its fourth season, it had its best season yet this summer, and Spiro was asked to helm “People Persons,” the 50th episode in the series. It’s a dense episode packed with almost every series regular you’ve come to know and love, and Spiro ably brings his expertise to make this great material come alive on screen.

“When I got to the set I thought, ‘Gee, now I have to prove myself.’ You are the guest on set. You have to earn the trust of the actors. That’s one major challenge. One advantage I had was that I had worked with Jenji Kohan before on Weeds. When you’re new on a set, they put pictures up of the cast. You normally have a few principal speaking parts. There were 52 speaking parts on my episode. I took a picture of it, sent it to my wife, and said, ‘Well, here’s my cast.’ ”

Even though Spiro has worked on shows like Ugly Betty, Modern Family, and Arrested Development, he truly gets to flex some dramatic chops with “People Persons.” The employees of Litchfield are spooked by the discovery of a former guard found hacked to pieces in the prison garden. As with all Orange episodes, we are treated to more backstory of one of the prisoners, and this episode focuses on Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. Aduba has two Emmys for her portrayal so far.

“Sometimes you don’t know what’s coming when you’re asked to be a part of something. You don’t know if you’re going to get a great episode or if you’re going to get the dog of the bunch. When I found out that I was going to be handling Crazy Eyes’ back story, I knew I had something good. I knew, even before I got onto set, that Uzo Aduba was a great actress, but then I was blown away by how nice of a person she is—that’s not always the case with some actors. I have to say Uzo always makes fascinating choices. The last person I saw make choices like that was Mary Louise Parker when I was involved with Weeds.”

The most dramatic moment comes when the guards select a group of inmates for questioning for the possible involvement of the murdered guard. New Captain of the Guards Desi Piscatella is interviewing Red about her possible involvement, but, in the other room, the new dude bro guards of Litchfield are bored and want to see a fight. A rebuffed Maureen volunteers to fight Suzanne, but Suzanne insists she doesn’t want any part of it. After a few tense moments of pushing, Suzanne unleashes a fury on Maureen and beats her unconscious. While Orange has showcased violence before, it feels even more personal because it’s egged on by men who don’t give a damn about these prisoners.

“I’ve done lots of violence in other pilots and features. With this, I wanted it to be different. With this scene, I wanted there to be real consequences—both physically and emotionally. I stayed close to the editor, and I noticed he used a lot of close-up shots. It’s really graphic, and that really sold the emotional aspect of it. I have to tell you that when Uzo broke down afterwards, that’s not in the script. She was overcome with so much emotion with that feigned violence that she was overwhelmed. I wanted to make sure that was captured, so I pushed the camera over. Uzo lets herself be that vulnerable.”

While “People Persons” brings the drama, there is some levity. In a fun and awkward moment, celebrity prisoner Judy King suggests that she and Luschek try Molly in her cell, and they end up having a threesome with Yoga Jones. While this may seem like a very easy scene to shoot, Spiro explained that it was a lot more complicated.

“Well none of these three actors had done ecstasy before, so to describe believable behavior was actually quite difficult. It was hard to give result-oriented direction and hard to describe how it affects you. Hard to get the right tone. It came out great. It looks a lot better than I thought it would.”

One of the reasons why the writing is so strong on Orange is the New Black (especially this last season) is that it isn’t strictly defined by drama or comedy. Awards bodies never know where to put it, but that’s one of the reasons why it remains one of the best shows on television.

“There’s a great Lasse Hallström quote (that I can’t remember) about the concept of life not being purely tragedy or comedy. My instinct as a director is to ground everything emotionally. Jen’s writing has always been a difficult note to strike, but it’s all worth it. What’s funny is that I submitted this episode to the DGA as a comedy, but then they called me and told me that it’s being considered in the drama categories. When they told me they were considering me for UnReal because they saw my work on Weeds, they gave my two scripts to read. The first one dealt with everyone reacting to a suicide, and I kept thinking, ‘I hope they don’t want comedy…because it’s not a funny script.’”

When we started talking about current television, he revealed that he loved HBO’s Westworld (“it combines a lot of great stuff: western, sci-fi, action and I love the landscapes”), but he would definitely be interested in directing more episodes.

“I think Jen liked what I did. I’d love to return to Litchfield.”

With how great “People Persons” turned out, it’s safe to assume we’d all welcome him back.

Gonzalo Amat

Gonzalo Amat visualizes the modern resonance of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

Amazon’s critically acclaimed and Emmy-nominated dystopian series The Man in the High Castle returns for a second streaming season today. In some eyes, the current political climate eerily mirrors the series design, which perfectly captures the spirit of Phillip K. Dick’s original source novel. Sure, America and the Allied powers still won World War II (the series imagines an alternate universe where they did not), but themes of oppression and fascism loom large in current headlines. This connection hit home with the creative team, including cinematographer Gonzalo Amat.

“I think it’s amazing because it’s a subject that we’ve been touching for the last few years – for the last couple of seasons,” Amat said. “When this election cycle started to get closer, we all felt it. We all felt a responsibility to tell this story of oppression and how people act under oppression. With the next season, it’s going to be even more relevant.”

On creating the visuals to represent this twisted story

Politics aside, The Man in the High Castle weaves an intriguing mixture of a retro-futuristic America. The Nazi and Japanese imagery that splits this fictional vision of America burns into your brain. Amat and fellow cinematographer James Hawkinson (Emmy winner for Season 1’s “The New World” pilot episode) needed to create new and frightening imagery that still has an air of familiarity around it. Their vision of America vaguely resembles reality, but it’s horribly twisted to fit the script’s needs.

“I have a background in photography, so I will always be very visual. All the passion to tell the story visually comes from the story itself,” Amat said. “I’m very passionate about trying to convey the stuff that’s on the page on a visual level. I like to help tell a story on a different level. To try and elevate the story to a different level that connects more with people.”

The results proved staggeringly successful. Audiences feel at once at home in the 60’s era setting. At the same time, the visuals push forward a sense of unease and disquiet when Nazi imagery dots the traditionally American skyline.

Gonzalo Amat
(Photo: Amazon)

On partnering with James Hawkinson to create a consistent experience

This connection and drive to tell visual stories first attracted the production team to Gonzalo Amat’s skills as a cinematographer. After cementing his reputation in Mexican television and film, Amat became a top-ranked candidate to partner with Hawkinson on the series. The studio wanted to accentuate Hawkinson’s Emmy-winning work on the series pilot with Amat’s ability to focus on character likeability. The two worked closely to adapt the pilot’s visuals and generate a new vision to carry forward.

“It’s a close collaboration. [James and I] talk a lot about logistics, the people we want to hire, locations, and sets,” Amat said. “We don’t really talk too much about how to approach individual scenes.  We do our own thing, but it ends up being a very solid and cohesive unit because we both have a very strong concept of what we want.”

Amat and Hawkinson constantly push themselves to work outside of their cinematic comfort zones. They both try new bold new camera techniques and equipment to constantly seek unique ways to tell their story. Season 2 brings an Alexa camera which allows greater reliance on natural, available lighting. All the while, they ensure High Castle still maintains a consistent look and feel. Their lensing challenges the medium, but it still feels like the same show episode to episode.

On being drawn to The Man in the High Castle

Gonzalo Amat became intrigued with the material thanks to its eerily realistic alternate history. He relished the opportunity to tell a story set in a world that came frighteningly close to reality. The inherent challenge in filming the series, again, evolves from the need to film this alternate reality in a relatable world.

“It felt so relevant from just a social point of view about oppression and terrorism,” Amat said. “It’s a story that had to be told. I look to tell a story that is relevant to society. When my son grows up, is this story going to make him think? That’s one of the things that was most appealing to me.”

Moreso now than even before, audiences need to pay attention to history and its potential implication on current and future events. Amat’s brilliant work on The Man in the High Castle visualizes a compelling case of a world gone wrong. Ultimately, his work on this show contributes to our own future narrative as an American people.

Here’s hoping his future projects and potential directing opportunities provide Gonzalo Amat the same personal resonance.

The Man in the High Castle Season 2 debuts on Amazon Prime streaming today.

Michael Hirst

ADTV talks to Vikings creator Michael Hirst about his on-going vision for the History Channel series

Michael Hirst is in the UK talking about the recent election results — not just in the UK, but the surprise results here in the USA.We talked about assimilation and the wave of anti-immigration sentiments being publicly expressed. “Well, you know they came over. Ragnar’s vision was to find ways of settling in good agricultural land. They were absorbed into European culture and they have affected our lives ever since,” Hirst said before we start talking about Vikings.

Politics proved something Michael and I could discuss for a long time, but we shifted the conversation to talk about his work on History Channel’s Vikings. The show consistently ranks as one of the top ten shows on cable TV and pulls in an average of 4 million viewers. Created by Hirst, Vikings is based off his interest of and extensive research into Alfred The Great and tells the remarkable tales of the lives and adventures of the explorers of the Dark Ages.

I caught up with Michael Hirst to find out more about his vision for the series and his plans for the continuation of Vikings Season 4.

Michael Hirst, you created Viking fever. There’s a lot of excitement for the new season.

One of the reason is we have two figures on the poster that was used in the promo. One is Ragnar, the other is his son, Ivar The Boneless. Ivar is coming and going to be one hell of a new character. He turned into one of the most famous vikings of all time. Can you believe that he was a cripple?

How do you manage to create these characters who are so relatable given that they are hundreds of years old?

That’s my belief that I want to connect the past to the present. I grew up watching these dreadful BBC dramas and I had no sense of it. The past is a continuum. We are all part of the past and these people are surely like us in so many ways. My whole effort is to make these characters and their issues relevant to today, and reverberate it to audiences today.

Even if it’s someone like Elizabeth the I who inherited her father’s business. With Vikings, think about a quiet, introverted guy who’s curious about the world. Ragnar thought he was descended from Odin. Here’s Ragnar who’s motivation is curiosity, and who knew that he’s a family man who loves his wife and kid. I want people to engage at that human level because history is quick. The distance between us, Romans and Vikings is very short actually. I want people to realize these were humans behaving in a human way, even if their beliefs were different.

I feel very passionate about it. I hate watching those BBC shows where they spoke a different, dead language.

How do you adapt this material for TV?

We actually know a lot. I have a historical consultant. Out of my research comes the storylines and characters. I tried to understand what their ambitions were. For me, that’s an important process because I’m dealing with real people. I’m not dealing with fantasy. These people affected how we live. I tried to also be authentic as I could be. As I’m writing drama and not documentary, I also had to be entertaining.

I grew up in York, and it was a viking town. A lot of the villages near where I grew up had viking names. We shoot the show north of Dublin, which is a Viking town. Our laws and their DNA is flushing all over the place. When I sold it to History. I told them to go down to the street, to walk two blocks, and that they would have met twenty vikings. Their influence was huge, so the past is always with us.

To give you another example, when we shoot, I have an apartment just outside Dublin where Enya has a castle. I’m looking out at the sea and I know in the viking age, the vikings used to come and collect women and they’d wait for ships to take them to Iceland to breed with Scandinavian men. The DNA in Iceland is significantly Irish, and I’m living on the point of history.

A lot of Irish women were kind of attracted to Vikings because they were clean. They suffer from this image of being hairy and violent, and that’s a propaganda image, but actually they always traveled with a change of clothes, they always washed their hair and beard, and Irish women didn’t mind that.

How was working on Vikings different with The Tudors?

There was too much information with The Tudors. The way I had to shape the stories on top of a huge amount of information. Tudors, for me, was more about the wives of Henry the Eighth. It was more about the women. The History Channel is a male skewed channel, but I was determined to introduce women characters. Lagertha is this amazing maiden, wife and warrior. The show actually has a huge female following that I’m really proud of.

The other aspect is I’m very involved in the spiritual aspect of what I write. With The Tudors, there was the conflict of Catholicism and Puritanism. In Vikings, it’s the conflict between the pagan Gods and the Christian Gods. I don’t think I could have written without getting involved with those conflicts.

What else can we expect over the remainder of Season 4?

Just about everything is a spoiler. It’s the most momentous and emotional season that we’ve done so far, and it’s huge in every way. All the major characters have changes in their lives. It has two of my favorite episodes ever that involve Ragnar.

Michael Hirst’s Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET on The History Channel.

 

john turturro

I’m not going to lie. I was bit starstruck as I was introduced to John Turturro. In my view, Turturro is one of the finest actors of the last few decades. A formidable talent, he is renowned for disappearing into an eclectic career of roles. His most recent performance is HBO’s The Night Of which unsurprisingly lends his excellence to what has turned out to be a very successful TV venture indeed.

john turturro
(Photo: HBO)
Nice to meet you, I have been a fan for a long time.

Thank you very much.

We’re going to talk about your latest TV venture, The Night Of, which was really good.

Thank you.

But not before we delve into your film work ever so slightly first. A great, varied career, so much variety. Do the Right Thing, Quiz Show, and very recently you did the Italian film Mia Madre – which did well in Cannes. A very varied career. Has it all gone to plan?

I don’t know if anyone can have a plan. Initially I wanted to do a variety of material, challenging material – be it theater, then in film. And some stuff on televison. That was sort of the goal. There are a lot of different kind of roles, contemporary, classical. You are dealing with terrific writers, and they gave me a window into a world. A way of thinking, exposing you to what you have not felt. Whenever I have worked with a good director or writer, I have been very fortunate.

Barton Fink might be my favorite film of yours, but it is my favorite performance of yours. It’s an astonishing film.

Well, that film, they wrote that for me in the middle of trying to write Miller’s Crossing when they had writer’s block. So they told me. We did that movie, and it was an experience for me. My wife was pregnant, and our first son, Amedeo, was born. Such an odd film. A lot like doing a play some days. I had no idea how people would like it at all, so I was susprised. When you work with good filmmakers, every little thing counts. It was a pleasure working with Joel and Ethan.

That collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen, a famous one. Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? What was that relationship like? Was it a case of begging them to take you back, or was it them not letting you go?

I knew them from Fran McDormand. I went to Yale with Fran, and they saw me do a lot of plays. They wrote Miller’s Crossing, and they ended up writing Barton Fink. And it changed the trajectory of my career. I was not just playing the tough Italian guy. And Spike’s [Lee] movie kind of opened it up. I wanted to play all different kinds of characters on film. They [Coen brothers] were my executive producers of Romance and Cigarettes, we worked very closley. They are really good friends. You need people who get you, appreciate you: John Patrick Shanley, Spike Lee, or later on I got to work with [Robert] Redford, Francesco Rosi.

Great. The Night Of, then.

Yeah, I mean, that goes back to that time. Steve Zaillian talked to me about doing Searching for Bobby Fischer years ago. I really loved the movie. We knew each other back then, and know Richard [Price] from The Color of Money.

Was TV something you wanted to do at this stage? Were you looking to go back into it?

I have done a couple of TV movies over the years, one with Sophia Loren. I did a TNT movie, and played Howard Cosell. And did a mini-series for ESPN, where I played the manager of the Yankees, Billy Martin. They just did not have the money to do it like HBO do it, but had a good time doing it. I always like the BBC long form series. I’m a fan of Dennis Potter, Brideshead Revisited. I have worked on so many adaptations of books. The two hours of a good book just doesn’t make it. [With The Night Of] I read the material, and was like “Wow.” I did not know the original series. I was basing it on what I read.

john turturro
(Photo: Craig Blankenhorn / HBO)
So you had not you seen the British show [Criminal Justice]?

I watched a few minutes, but thought, “You know what, I will have to find my own way anyway.” Now I can see it. That sometimes works. I like reading the books, I am a big book lover. Always find that very helpful.

[Your character] John Stone feels like a real survivor. What do you think keeps him going? How did you prepare for the role?

I had a lot of months to think about it, meet a few laywers, did all the things you normally do. I thought there was a lot on the page – thinking about the costumes, the eczema. And it started to remind me of people I know, people with great intelligence, and maybe didn’t end up doing what they wanted to do. I thought this guy probably has everything that would make a terirfic lawyer. Some good lawyers explained how exhausting it can be, I just started thinking about it like that. I thought there was a lot of Richard Price in it, and thought we had a very good relationship. It was a fascinating character, had so much wrong with him, but had these attributes that offset that.

The Night Of is a very New York story. Did you draw on personal experiences for the role?

Well, I mean there are a lot of different people you meet – journalists, lawyers, actors. Sometimes the more specific something is, the more universal it is. It did remind me of Dennis Potter, the black humor. So many interesting characters, I was so happy to be working with them.

Yeah, huge cast.

Really terrific cast.

How close to James Gandolfini were you before he passed? Did you have concerns with taking a role originally intended for him?

He was my lead in Romance and Cigarettes. He was a friend, someone I really cared for, since the early 90’s. I really loved the guy. I was heartbroken when he died. Someone I really wanted to work with again. When they first approached me I was not sure I wanted to do it, but then I saw him. He had worked one day on it, and I thought about it and read everything and thought I have to do this.

Really good show. A lot of people talking about it, for audiences it seemed to come from nowhere – and people loved it straight away.

The response was really strong.

What is next for you work-wise and personally? Any big plans with Christmas looming?

Looking forward to the holidays. Editing my new film, which I have just finished. An adaptation of a book and movie, and we are getting to the first full cut of the film now. Very challenging, it has been very different form The Night Of.

One last question: Are you working with the Coen brothers again?

Oh my God, of course. I’m under a lifetime contract. Anytime.

Real pleasure talking to you. Good luck with the show. And Happy Holidays.

You too. Happy Holidays to you. Thank you.

john turturro
(Photo: HBO)

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