Veep‘s Dale Stern talks to AwardsDaily TV about “Mother” and his first Emmy nomination
Dale Stern is a very easy person to talk to. The seasoned vet has been behind the camera as an assistant director for shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League, and Documentary Now!, but he took the helm for one of Veep‘s best Season 5 episodes, “Mother.” As tensions mount in this election, Selina’s mother takes a turn for the worse, and the campaign has to deal with the unexpectedly emotional aspects of the situation.
On the morning that I spoke with Dale Stern, he revealed that he was just involved in a small fender bender, but he seemed to take it all in great stride. He sounds like a man that can find the funny in almost any situation (he also mentioned that his father would chuckle at some obituaries), and that mixture of comedy and pathos is exactly what makes his directorial turn so effortless and so hilarious. His nomination is very well deserved.
This is your first directorial effort on Veep, and you landed an Emmy nomination. Congratulations! How did you hear the news on nomination morning?
Well, that’s funny you ask that. I was on set on another show, and it’s very long hours. It’s always ten pounds in a five pound bag when you’re on the set of these shows. I got a text from a friend (it was Callie Hersheway from Veep) that said, ” ‘Congrats on the nom.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, stupid, predictive text.’ ” What is she trying to say, you know? So I ignored it, and then my phone started blowing up with all these messages, and it took me a while to figure out what they were saying. I pieced it together and I didn’t realize they were making the announcement that day. I’m standing on set, and I’ve been nominated for an Emmy. That’s unbelievable! And I wanted to just yell out, “Hey! Guess what everybody!” but that’s not me.
Everyone who writes for the site loves “Mother.” Do you think you lucked out with directing such a wonderfully written episode?
Yeah, it really is. Those guys really knocked it out of the park.
You have been in the industry for over 20 years, but it’s the first time that you directed for Veep. Can you tell me what from your previous experience guided you as you directed the episode.
I’ve always been a more creative collaborator as an assistant director on all my shows. I worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm for 10 years, and I didn’t just roll a camera and sit back. I was right there with the creative team pitching ideas and coming up with thoughts of how to shoot it or what they should say. I’ve always been doing that anyways, so they kind of created that monster. (Laughs) When I got onto Veep, I just did the same. My fingerprints are all over everything I do, to a degree, but with this particular episode, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it. It was so deliciously dark and so outside of the box—which is me. I couldn’t wait to get into it. Once I did, I wanted to do it my way. I did a number of steps to insure that everyone was on board with how I wanted to approach and shoot the show. I took a script and I went to the locations, and the weekend before, I acted out all the parts and did all the blocking to figure out the best places for them to be. I wanted to do that to remove any distractions. A lot of time on these shows you do like seven or eight scenes a day.
On a show like Veep, you spend 20 minutes of time to figure out, “What if you’re there and what if you’re next to him,” and I didn’t want any of that. I couldn’t have any distractions in these people’s heads. I wanted the cast to focus 100 percent on performance. I really worked hard at making sure it was a really good solid plan that they knew about and that they approved. So when we got on set that was taken out of their heads to just concentrate on the scene and being in the moment. This is an episode where you need everybody in that moment, you know? It’s so outside of what we normally do. I got to do it exactly how I wanted to do it. It was very exciting and very fulfilling. It came out exactly the way that I wanted it. I’m thrilled to death. Everyone did such a great job.
I think that particular episode has the best “comedic crying” that I’ve seen all year. Obviously with Selina breaking down at the end, but I had forgotten how great Catherine is in the hospital scene.
Yes! Sarah Sutherland really knocked it out of the park this year–my episode in particular. It takes her a couple minutes to get there, but she has this incredible wail that knocked me out of my seat take after take. It’s genius! It was so fantastic and fit so perfectly in those scenes. And, of course, what Julia does at the end. Come on, she’s magic.
She’s brilliant in that episode.
She really is. The writers Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory (both are nominated for the same episode) penned a great script. They can write whatever they can write, and I can direct or the director can make suggestions. But the performer delivers what they can do, and what Julia does in this episode goes way beyond what was on the page or what she was asked to do. Her performance truly transcends. I wanted to make sure I got a camera right up in her face to show the world that she’s amazing. People can sit up on their couches and say, “Wow! That’s incredible!”
You worked on Borat and Bruno and you obviously have an experience with improvisational comedy. We’ve talked to Reid Scott a few times, and he talks about the process on the writing side. Did you encourage the actors to improve a lot on the set?
Well, yeah. Generally speaking, we like to get all 50+ pages. (Laughs) We have very, very long scripts—they talk fast. Once we’re done, I like to loosen up the dialogue and give them a free one. Let’s try something fun. I call it a “one for fun.” Let’s see what happens. Sometimes what happens is absolute gold, but it can come back and bite you. Sometimes if it’s so good and it’s so amazing that we realize we have to capture different coverage and go back to an earlier setup and capture exactly what they just did. But it’s totally worth it. I totally encourage improv once we get the words down. I’m very respectful of the script, but, having said that, when you have seasoned professionals and thoroughbred improvisers like we have all over the place, you’d be crazy to not let them loose.
You obviously don’t want to hold anyone back.
No! Reid Scott is an amazing improviser. You just let them loose, and it’s a whole new scene. They go into all of these great areas, and everyone is just falling out of their chairs. It’s awesome! It’s an awesome cast—the best ensemble cast ever.
Were there any surprises as you took on the role of director? What was the most surprising thing you noticed as you directed the episode?
Oh, wow. What was the most surprising thing? That I wasn’t nervous at all. That’s a great question. I don’t know if there any surprises? I can’t really think of any. I’m sorry!
You’ve been on the set for so long, and it’s such a collaborative set.
It is a great collaboration. I don’t say, “She should wear a red dress with a yellow stripe…or she should have a black pen”, you know? We have production designers and costume designers that will come and ask, I will say yes and know. I mean, they’re pros. They’re all so, so good. Usually their first instincts are correct, so I just go along with that. It all comes together. And like every other show in between takes it is a collaboration. The writers will have a thought, Dave Mandel, the show runner whose a genius, will have a thought, maybe the actors will have a thought about something. I have to be open to any suggestions. I took a suggestion from one of the background actors in one of the scenes one time that was great that did change the scene a little bit. If anyone has a great idea, that’s great—I’ll take it.
You don’t hear a lot of directors say that.
You should! Your job is to build a team, and you have to trust that team, you know? Especially in television, it’s not one person swinging a sword and saying, “We’re doing it this way, and that’s it!”
What does the whole Emmy nomination mean to you? Is this the first time you’re observing the experience?
It is surreal. Well, a couple of things are surreal. It’s surreal that my name was pulled out of a hat—that’s amazing to me. Also, I’m talking to AwardsDaily. It’s a site I read all the time, and now you’re asking me questions! Here I am literally working 15 hours a day—almost 7 days a week—on a show in Detroit, so it hasn’t really sunk in. I have an occasional interview or occasionally someone will write to me and say congrats, and I think “Oh yeah!” I forget.
Are you going to be directing anything in Season 6?
Oh, yes. I’ve asked them to give me another out-of-the-box episode, because that’s where I live anyway. I like being outside there. I know I have one episode, and I’ll be working on all the shows as an assistant director as well.
What are you working on right now for Comedy Central?
Sam Richardson who plays Richard on Veep created a show with Tim Robinson from SNL and Sam was asking me to do it. I told him I thought I’d be busy, so I didn’t know. I do Documentary Now! also, so Tim asked me to do it. And I told him I thought I’d be, so I don’t know—I’ll think about it. (Laughs) I finally said I’d do it. It’s called Detroiters, and it’s shot here in Detroit. It’s a really fun, fun show with those two guys. It’s great because it’s 99 percent local crew.
After this I’m directing a few episodes of The Detour on TBS.
Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s such a little gem of a show.
I do a lot of crazy stuff. I did 10 Items or Less with John Lehr done in a working grocery story which is insane to do. I’ve done a bunch of nutty, out-of-the-box comedy shows. That’s where I love to live.
Sounds like we have a lot to look forward to!