Beth McCarthy-Miller transformed Radio City Hall from its Christmas Spectacular to Adele: Live in New York City
Beth McCarthy-Miller is in good spirits. She’s currently on set for shooting NBC’s upcoming sitcom Great News and takes some time out to talk about her latest Emmy nomination. “I’m kind of like the Susan Lucci of the Primetime Emmys, but it’s always exciting to be recognized,” McCarthy-Miller said. She’s received a career-total of 10 Emmy nominations, including direction nods for 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, and The Sound of Music Live! This year, she is nominated for directing Adele: Live in New York City, the NBC special that aired in December. NBC aired the special again in April, adding five new songs.
It was Adele’s triumphant comeback show. Her last performance was at the Oscars in 2013 where she won a Best Original Song Oscar for Skyfall. Good thing McCarthy-Miller is no stranger to music productions. She has worked on Saturday Night Live specials, America: A Tribute to Heroes, and the MTV Music Awards to name a few.
Adele: Live in New York City earned four Emmy nominations this year: Best Variety Special, Best Directing (Beth McCarthy-Miller), Best Lighting Design and Best Technical Direction/Camerawork. I caught up with her to talk Adele, her catalog, and her nomination.
Let’s talk Adele. How did it happen?
I think Adele had an affinity to SNL because Lorne was one of the first people that put her on TV for that first record in the USA. When she was deciding to do this NBC special, I think Lorne was producing it, he called me and asked if I’d be available. My first job was at MTV. I did lots of music and specials, and they’re always so much fun for me. I’m such a huge fan of Adele’s, so I said, “Yes, please.”
I know. And who isn’t and can we murder them because they have terrible taste. [Laughs]
She’s about to do eight nights at Staples Center. I think every Brit and then some is going to the show.
It’s amazing that her voice has gotten better after the surgery. I don’t know how her voice could get better, but it did.
So, you were always a fan?
Huge fan, and she did not disappoint.
You’ve done many live specials before. How do you direct something like this?
This show was a little wonky because we were pulling together very quickly, and we were going in after they had rehearsed the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. They were going to start performances the day after, so we had to take things down. We had one day to rehearse and had to change the sets over. The next day we rehearsed, shot the show, and, that night, they tore everything down and put all the Christmas stuff back up. It was a little dicey and dodgy. Es Devlin, who is a fellow Brit like yourself, is really commended for putting the other something that could be done quickly and simply and set around what was already loaded in every wing for the Christmas show and coming up with such a great elegant design idea that really captured Adele in a great way with a lot of limitations.
There were big giant candy canes in the wings that people were hiding. It was a very quick in and out. Also, Adele hadn’t performed years, and she was pretty nervous as well. That did not show through. The crowd was so anticipatory and so excited to see her that… God Bless New York, when they love you, they show it. When they don’t, they show it too. Luckily they love her and I think she felt that as soon as she got on stage. After her first song, the first thing she said was, “Oh, I’m so nervous.”
You captured her so well in this special, how do you prepare for that?
For me, when I direct music, when you’re directing it for TV, you try to give people at home the best seat in the house because they can’t be there live to watch it. You try to give them the experience of what it’s like being in that space. We try to get the set list ahead of time. I take a look at the production design, the way the stage is set up. I look at tapes of the artist so I can figure out where cameras should be to capture the performance. She commands the stage and doesn’t roam too far, so I set cameras up to capture that. With Es’s set design and the projection, we had to put cameras in place to capture those moments as well. I have an AD break down the songs for me. We get to rehearsals and she had a quick off-site rehearsal that I got to go to and see a few songs. The day of, we had everybody on stage rehearsing a bit, we loaded in the audience and shot it. It was crazy.
What did you take away from that whole evening?
I will say, I’ve been a huge fan of hers for a long time, but I had never seen her live before. Just sitting in a rehearsal space with her, I was blown away by how she can command her voice. I did years of MTV Unplugged, there are some artists who are so special and use their voice like an instrument. There are a lot of different artists who are the real deal, the kind who can take their voice and make it work for the song and how it’s intended. They sing like it’s an instrument. Adele clearly has that gift.
For her as a performer, she’s so passionate and emotional when she performs that you feel the pain, the happiness, the sadness and everything that is in each lyric. I was blown away by the presence that she commands on stage. Especially in a world where everyone is now doing lots of bells and whistles to get everything across, she can just stand on stage and command that and emote the way she can and capture a giant audience like what she had at Radio City. That was just unbelievable to me.
That’s the thing about her. It’s never a bells and whistle show. It’s just her on stage, and that’s it. You show that.
It’s always a pleasure to speak to female filmmakers, your resume goes on endlessly from SNL to 30 Rock. What’s it like for you as a filmmaker?
I started on a place like MTV that was the little engine that could. I started directing when I was 25. I started under the encouragement of male directors for which I associate directed. They told me, “You’re going to be great at this, and we think you should do this. We don’t think you should produce. We think you should direct.”
At the time at MTV, I was taking whatever job was paying more money so I didn’t have to wait tables anymore. [Laughs] I have always been encouraged to pursue directing because people thought I had a gift and passion for it. My experience, which I know isn’t the experience of many people, has been 89 percent positive. I don’t think of myself as a woman director or a minority. I think of myself as a director for hire. I know that is not the case for lots of people. Yes, have I been in situations where I’ve been treated differently? I handle it with grace and humor instead of having to yell and scream, “Just because I’m a woman you shouldn’t treat me like that!” I handle it in the way I handle things.
I would say, I’ve had more positive than negative experiences in my career. I know and appreciate how lucky I am that that has been the case.
What do you watch in your downtime? Are you able to watch without critiquing shows?
I can enjoy and watch scripted television. Drama is easier than comedy just because I’m a comedy nerd and that’s my business. I can sometimes watch events, awards shows, and music specials without saying, “Why would you go to that shot?” or “I wish I thought of that shot.” [Laughs]
I like TV. I’m a big fan, and I can sit back and watch shows as just a fan. I can appreciate things a little bit more when they’re really well done because I know how hard they are to get them to be like that.
I can watch an episode of Mad Men and appreciate the fact that from every single costume to every single production design detail that everything is perfect in the episode. I can really appreciate it because I know how much work went into it.
I don’t think of myself as a woman director or a minority. I think of myself as a director for hire. I know that is not the case for lots of people. Yes, have I been in situations where I’ve been treated differently? I handle it with grace and humor instead of having to yell and scream, “Just because I’m a woman you shouldn’t treat me like that!” I handle it in the way I handle things.
What advice do you have for people who want to get into directing?
I would say, my whole career, I worked a lot. I sometimes took something that wasn’t always the most high profile thing, but it’s something that interests me, and it led to something else and it gave me more experience. I would always tell people to find out what their passion is and follow it. Don’t think that anything is beneath you, you might be surprised.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a director when I was 21. I think Spielberg knew it at 8. I didn’t, but I found it and thank God I found it because it is truly a passion of mine. It is what I love to do.
You really need to find what that passion is and follow it. Especially in this business because the hours are long. It’s not quite as glamorous as everyone thinks it is. [Laughs] I love when people think I go to parties in Beverly Hills with famous people. It’s not quite like that.
It’s been such a pleasure speaking to you. This has got to be it. Right?
I want to beat Lucci’s record before anything happens. I’m not counting on anything. It’s lovely that I got recognized for the show. It was beautiful. It was an honor to be asked to do it. I’m always thrilled when Lorne calls me and asks me to do something because I have so much respect for him. I just love her, so just to be there and be able to watch it. Never mind just watching it was such a treat.
Thank you for capturing the live experience.
I’m so glad. That’s what I tried to do it. Even if one person felt it, then yay.