The tone of Hulu’s The Great is very tricky. We have to be entertained enough to stick around and watch more, but we can’t be laughing too much or the pathos of the show will be lost by the time the first season is over. Luckily for us, we had Matt Shakman behind the camera for the pilot episode, and he introduced us to a world full of decadence, glass smashing, and darkness.
Shakman comes from the theater (he is currently the artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse), and he brought in the cast to rehearse the pilot like a play. Not only did it deepen the relationships, but the playtime deepened the comedy. Establishing tone and rhythms in the rehearsal room is way different than trying to create it when the cameras are rolling.
Without Shakman to guide the start of Elle Fanning’s innocence or Nicholas Hoult’s instability, who knows what the rest of the first season of The Great would have looked like. Shakman’s direction, mixed with Tony McNamara’s script, make for the perfect premiere. Huzzah!
Awards Daily: Tony McNamara has a very distinct style and voice. What was your reaction to the pilot script?
Matt Shakman: I loved it. I read it within 20 minutes, I think. I emailed him immediately and told him how much I wanted to do this. It’s based on a play and I think you can feel its theater roots in terms of tone. I come from the theater world, and I run the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. I spend half my time doing TV and half of my time doing theater, so I could feel that familiar DNA to it. It’s so much about character and loves to play with tone in a bold way. I knew it would be a fun challenge to get that to life.
AD: I love how the tone dances around. Some shows try to do that, and it feels very disjointed. Specifically with Nicholas’s [Hoult] character, a lot of the tone shifts depending on Peter’s behavior. What kind of conversations did you have with him about building that?
MS: He’s a brilliant actor.
MS: He’s able to ride that line between comedy and horror. There are moments in sheer horror throughout the season as in the pilot. He’s lovable which makes him watchable in a story that is really about this powerful woman who has to overcome these obstacles to achieve her own greatness. You actually like Peter as he is cutting off people’s heads and doing terrible things, and that’s a testament to Nick. The ensemble was put together from a similar approach where they can turn the feeling of a scene on a dime. A lot of them come from theater, and Nick and Elle [Fanning] haven’t done as much. They still have that same ability. We approached it like a play and rehearsed it like a play.
AD: Oh, I didn’t know that.
MS: We got together and played in a room and we wanted to make sure that we all felt like they are in the same ensemble. We needed everyone to understand that tone otherwise they are going to feel like they come from different worlds. I wanted to have a playfulness to it, and sometimes when you get into the editing room and you realize that you pitched the wrong flow. In the theater, you are always looking at the flow. We wanted to try to experiment and do different things so we could approach it from a more comedic place and then find the more grounded tone.
AD: That’s so interesting that you rehearsed it that way, because it gets everyone on the same page. If one actor didn’t understand that, he or she might do a tonal shift that doesn’t make sense in the scene and it would feel disconnected from what everyone else is doing.
MS: One hundred percent.
AD: I think that tone is represented really well in the wedding banquet in the pilot. I think that personifies what the show is.
MS: Yes, that’s a great example. Hats off to the DP, Anette Haellmigk, who I have worked with many times over the years. She’s a genius. She allowed a box that allowed a lot of crazy, tricky tone stuff to operate in. It’s always held together by this incredibly beautiful, realistic approach to period, but it’s not fetishized like it is in a lot of other period shows where it’s all about trying to create beautiful images, if that makes sense?
MS: It was lit by candlelight, because it would’ve been. It’s full of the richness that you’d expect from that lush, Russian era. Within it, you can throw glasses in absurd ways, push people over, and bring in a bear. There’s all this absurdity, but it’s held in this real box which allows people to never forget that this is a real person. We have obviously taken liberties, but it reminds us that this stuff was real. It has a contemporary energy in that way without being anachronistic. The costumes are gorgeous but most period shows you look at, everyone looks like they stepped out of a portrait. We know that for their portraits, people put all of their best things on all at one time. (Laughs) What did people look like when they would just be hanging out? What does it look like when they take the wigs off? Peter wants to be comfortable, and he’s making up the rules. He decides the level of comfort. Nick’s version of Peter is kind of a rock star—kind of like Mick Jagger. He’s roams around the palace as he wants, and he can wear as little or as many clothes as he wants.
AD: I spoke to Emma [Fryer] about the costumes, and she mentioned how she wanted to make things very fashion and not stuffy. And that’s what the show does so well across the board. Nothing sticks out as being out of place. In the pilot, you never question anything with the tone and the modern tone to anything.
MS: That’s great.
AD: In the opening moments, I love watching Elle on that swing and how the camera moves back and forth with her. What is it like capturing that optimism? Her hopes are dashed really quickly when she gets to Russian even though there are those grand moments with the swelling music and she kisses the ground.
MS: I wanted to focus on her as the point of view for the show. The choice to mount that camera on the swing with was really to establish that language that the world is seen through her fabulous perspective. Catherine’s wonderful, optimistic way of looking at the world is how we are going to look at it too. She’s a stranger in a strange land who comes from a place full of flowers to this place where people are getting their heads cut off. We wanted her to see all of this slowly get peeled away, but we can’t give it all away up front. When she almost drowns in the trunk is really where it’s over. We had to keep a little bit of her innocent flame burning up until that point and let it slowly, slowly go away. By the end, when she looks up into the camera and she says, “Huzzah!” we are totally on the ride with her. We are fully with her and understand how fucked up the world is. We are ready to watch her take it down. Originally, in the script, she drops the knife and she decides she’s not going to kill herself, but Tony and I wanted a verbal way to confirm that. She should own that word too and she should own Peter’s language.
AD: Are a lot of people asking you about bears?
MS: Not too much. (Laughs)
AD: I was just wondering…
MS: It’s funny, because you can’t film with a bear in England. It’s against the law, so we had to use a guy in a suit and use a CGI to make it more realistic.
AD: Well, it looks great!
AD: You only direct the pilot, but I was curious if there was something else in the season that you wish you got to direct?
MS: I really love to get things start and doing all the prep. I love seeing something at the National [Theatre] and finding Adam Godley and bringing him in to play the Archbishop. Putting together that ensemble and building that tone is so much fun for me. I love pushing things out into the world and seeing how it goes.
AD: You directed one of the best episodes of Succession this season. I was wondering if you thought of the similarities between the selfishness of the Roy family to the extravagance of Peter’s court.
MS: Yes. Those shows are very similar stylistically. Both creators are very similar in their incredible way but also the dark way of looking at the world. It’s an accurate way of looking at the world. Tony’s Peter is very Trump-ian and the Roys are pulled from our headlines right now when we look at our corporate giants. It also goes back Armando Iannucci. Someone who is incredibly funny but sardonic and dark at the same time. What I love about Succession is how funny that it is even though it’s a drama. I’m nominated for directing a comedy series, but it’s also very dark and horrific. I love that theater has been blending tones in this way. Every great play is essentially a blend of comedy and drama. In the streaming world, it feels more like life. It’s messy. We don’t just live comedy or drama in our lives.