Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to director Mimi Leder about how television has changed since her first Emmy win and how she pulled off that final sequence in “The Interview.”
At the end of the first season, The Morning Show sets up a second season to pivot toward two women taking on the male-centered, problematic system of morning TV. And if there’s anyone who’s used to challenging a male-dominated environment, it’s director Mimi Leder.
At The Morning Show‘s virtual FYC event, Leder celebrated the fact that three women were nominated in the Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series category this year. She was only the second woman ever to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (and there are only three women to ever win—including Karen Arthur and Reed Morano). The tides are changing when it comes to including women and minorities at the Emmys, and The Morning Show isn’t just about change in TV—it’s also representative of it.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Leder about the female lens of the show, what it was like discovering Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon’s chemistry on set, and why the show is a little like a tragic opera.
Awards Daily: I watched the FYC virtual conversation with you, Jennifer, Billy [Crudup], and Mark [Duplass], and I loved what you said about the show being through the female lens. One thing I love about all of your work is that I always know I’m in for a strong female character. Where are the instances in the show where you think the female lens comes through the most?
Mimi Leder: First of all, it comes through the writing. That’s where it always begins, with Kerry Ehrin’s brilliant work. Then, there’s the lens of the director, who if we’re talking about me, is female. (Laughs) Our group of executive producers is mostly all women; we have one man, Michael Ellenberg, who is an incredible man, whose company Media Res produces the show and brought us all together. And so when I say a female lens, it’s a female gaze. We look at this show through women’s eyes and through our characters’ eyes, who mostly are women, our two leads point of views. That’s what I mean when I say when we look through a female lens.
AD: That makes perfect sense. I keep thinking about how your first Emmy win was for ER’s “Love Labor’s Lost,” which is about a tragedy that happens to a woman in the eyes of a male doctor. Twenty-five years later, you’re still directing a tragedy that happens to a woman, but the lens has changed. What else has changed about the way women are viewed through stories told on television? You’ve done so much, from China Beach to now.
ML: I think in the days of China Beach, if you look back at that show, it was definitely through a female lens, from the female point of view of Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger, two very different women written by both men and women. Really great writers. John Sacret Young, John Wells, William Broyles, Jr. Carol Flint. Lydia Woodward. That show then was on ABC, and I would say today if they put that on the air, that would be a high-end cable show, because in my eyes, I don’t see that kind of work on network television. There are a lot of female-centered stories on network television, but I think—I’m gonna get in so much trouble for saying this—I feel that the exploration of female characters is greater on high-end cable or all cable. You see it constantly in television today. Our show, Watchmen, there are just so many. Unorthodox, which is told through a woman’s point of view. It’s just a great time in television now where we can explore women’s stories and tell them in a really authentic and honest way.
AD: It’s an exciting time. “The Interview” is such a masterful hour of television. I’ve watched this episode a few times now, and this time, I was struck by Hannah’s scene, where she reveals what’s happened to her to Bradley. Another director and show might edit this scene, since we already know Hannah’s story, but you lean into recapping what has happened, and it feels fresh and urgent. What did you do to make this scene push the story forward without feeling redundant?
ML: First of all, it was beautifully written. When we approached the shooting of this scene, it was very important for me to not rehearse it too much, not rehearse it really at all. Just run the lines, find our places in the scene where we’re going to get up and clear the set of everybody. I had the cameras set up and that was all that was in the room. I shot it in a very classical way, with wide shots. I try to be as subtle and pull back as I could be as a director, in terms of letting this story unfold, letting her story, her truth unfold. The words were so powerful and the story so crushing emotionally, I didn’t want to push it. The rest of the show, I approached it in a very operatic way. Emotions were high, camera was moving, things flow down. We actually put opera in. It was very high volume, and this I felt had to be the actual interview, it had to speak for itself in its own purity—the purity of her grief and her pain, and I just tried to honor that in how I directed it. When you look back at it, it was painful to shoot and listen to, but we knew this was coming for the entire season. They were ready, both Reese and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was extraordinary. Extraordinary actors, both of them.
AD: They were great. I know you talked about your working relationship with Jennifer, that you two have a familiarity, but what was it like to see her play off of Reese Witherspoon? They have such an electric chemistry.
ML: What’s really interesting, when you direct and create a pilot and create the look and tone, we know how great Jen is and we know how great Reese is, but you never know how in this story, how the chemistry is going to play. Obviously, we assumed it would, and obviously it did. (Laughs) Their characters couldn’t be more opposite, yet they share a lot of similarities. There’s an understanding between these two characters. They explore each other in the first season; the season takes place in 23 days. In reality, Alex didn’t know her very much at all; she just plucked her out of obscurity and made her the co-anchor. Why did she do it? She did it to save her ass, because she knew that the network was gunning for her. It was politics, but it was a human life. So in a way, they were plunged together in a very deep way and at the same time a very shallow way, where they didn’t really know each other. Those two characters are trying to figure out who they are—to each other.
AD: That’s an interesting dynamic to play with.
ML: Very interesting. And they both are great. Tremendous actors and people. It’s such an honor to work with them and a privilege. They make me look good. (Laughs) We have a tremendous cast that all work so well together, and that’s rare. You never know when you’re casting a show—will this work? And it did. (Laughs) I think.
AD: I do, too. The cast has a chemistry that you might see in Season 2 of a series, but this show gets to it faster, which is a tribute to the talent behind it.
ML: Thank you.
AD: The final scene of the show is also masterfully cut. There’s so much going on in that scene, from Reese’s reaction to Jennifer walking around the stage. I feel like this is a scene that could easily lose focus, but it captures so much. What things did you know you needed to achieve to really nail this scene?
ML: I knew we had to approach this from a very grounded place, but a very real place. We were hitting our crescendo. Alex goes rogue. She doesn’t know she’s going to do what she’s going to do until she gets up and is walking around, and then she sits down, she decides. She’s having a breakdown. What’s happening is that Alex is having a breakdown and a breakthrough all at the same time. Then there are the consequences of that. Bradley didn’t know that was going to happen either. So it’s this moment where the two of the come together in a real, real way, for I think the first time. “Are we gonna do this?”
AD: I love that line!
ML: Let’s bring the network down. Let’s speak the truth about what’s going on in this world, in this patriarchal toxic workplace. So that’s what happens in that moment. Then we cut to all of our other characters. We cut to Fred whose fucking freaking out. “No, no, no! This is not happening” He’s running down the hall, and I chose to shoot that in slow motion to just make it feel like, is this a dream or a nightmare? Then we cut to Chip in the park, and he’s crying because he’s lost everything. When we cut to all of our characters witnessing this moment, speaking to the women on the staff there, that’s why I cut to Allyson and Claire and Isabella, because they were speaking for them. It was just one of those scenes that was full of complexity, but a culmination of everything we had been leading up to in the series. The ladies were great. Alex realizes her complicity in this, in this moment, because when you’re in it, these characters in the past, they would roll their eyes when they saw predatory behavior and it was laughed out. And no more could she stand silent. That was a sequence about all of the things I said it was about, but it was also about Alex finding her voice.
AD: I love that you described the show as an opera. Do you view the episode as a tragic opera?
ML: When I say it’s operatic, it’s that soprano singing where your ears are like, “Ahhhh I can’t take it anymore.” Example, Chip comes to tell Mitch that Hannah is dead, and he holds him responsible, and he fucking rails at him. And there are these two middle-aged men rolling around on the floor and it’s kind of ridiculous and funny and yet there’s nothing funny about it. We put Vivaldi to it—my brilliant editors Carole Kravetz Akyanian and Aleshka Ferrero are brilliant editors. We played Vivaldi all the way through this sequence because it just felt so tragic and so painful and so big. The stakes were high. When you put all of these ingredients together, I guess you have a tragic opera.
Season 1 of The Morning Show is streaming on Apple TV+.