Director Amanda Marsalis only had a handful of credits to her name when she was first brought onboard to direct the tenth episode of season two of Ozark. She clearly made a positive impression on Producers Chris Mundy and Jason Bateman, who brought her back for an episode of season three. For season four, Amanda was given the sizable responsibility of directing four of the six episodes leading up to the series finale. In our conversation, Amanda and I discuss what it was like to be a part of such an iconic show, what she is taking away from the experience, and how much it has meant to her career.
Awards Daily: You directed an episode in season two and one in season three, and then you got the job of directing four of the last seven episodes. No pressure, right?
Amanda Marasalis: (Laughs) Right? They originally planned for ten episodes in the final season and I was doing two, and then they expanded it to fourteen. I got a text from (Ozark producer/writer) Chris Mundy and he asked me to do two more. I was like “I’ll do anything for you.” I’d follow Chris Mundy anywhere. He’s going to be at a party and I’m going to be “Hey, hi, what’s up, are we at this party, are we at this restaurant, what’s going on.” He’s just going to turn around for the rest of his life and I”ll be like “Hi.” (Laughs).
Awards Daily: I watched the mini-documentary on the show After Ozark, and it just seemed like between Chris Mundy and Jason Bateman they created so much loyalty and so much good feeling on the set that it would be hard not to want to work for them, even if they were making a Scooby Doo reboot.
Amanda Marsalis: I’d be like sure, you’re doing it? Cool, it’s going to be great. I saw Jason at the premiere, I’m currently producing and directing a show called Kindred for FX and he was like “Quit your job and come work for me.” I don’t even know what he wants me to come do, and I was like “Jason, I can’t just quit my job. I have a job right now. It will be done in July, we can talk then.” (Laughs).
Awards Daily: It’s going to be fascinating to see what his next gig is. Ozark is one of those “etched on your tombstone” kind of career moments – the thing that you get known for. I imagine though, he’s so smart, and so sharp, and so thoughtful in what he chooses that it would be hard not to want to be a part of whatever he does next.
Amanda Marsalis: Totally. He’s also a very good curator and he has great taste. It’s not like oh, you had great this and then all other things fall short. It’s actually a lesson learned: If Jason wouldn’t do that, I’m not going to do that. He has a weight I don’t have, so what I am capable of getting and what he is capable of getting are very different things, but I try.
Awards Daily: You mentioned music a second ago, I loved the use of Nas’s Illmatic all the way through episode 8. Can you talk about that choice and what it meant?
Amanda Marsalis: Chris Mundy worked at Rolling Stone. He was a writer there before he became a writer in film and television. In his scripts, he will write “and then this song plays.” He has such great taste, he and I will text each other songs or videos sometimes. We put some of them in an episode actually. You’re in rental cars all the time, and I was listening to the Bridge on XM. I put one of those songs in when Charlotte and Jonah are driving to bail their parents out. It was like when I got the script for episode 8, I read it and put it down and thought, am I capable or worthy of directing these episodes? This is really special and I do not want to fuck this thing up. Something spoke to Chris about that album – he had a moment. Nas’s Illmatic and Ruth comes together in a way that feels genuine.
Awards Daily: I think it points out how people from very disparate backgrounds can relate to things that you may not think are in their hot zone. There’s that great sequence with her running into Killer Mike, and Killer Mike talking about how Nas could see the promised land but he couldn’t get there and that’s kind of the same place where Ruth is at.
Amanda Marsalis: Imagine, because Killer Mike isn’t an actor, but we’re going to put Killer Mike in an episode of Ozark and we need to make it feel sincere and genuine. We need to not make it feel like we’re having a guest appearance and that this is just this chance encounter between two people that have a connection. I think I pulled it off.
Awards Daily: It doesn’t feel like Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones.
Amanda Marsalis: Exactly, but there was a lot of conversation about that. And then Laura Linney, who is the most extraordinary and generous and present collaborator, she’s not in the scene, but she came to set that day because Chris Mundy wasn’t able to be there. Laura would just be there and go (whispers) you got it, you’re good. And I would just be like (whispers) thank you. She just came and had my back that day, because it was a big day. I didn’t want to drag the Ozark train off the tracks.
Awards Daily: Later on in the season there’s this move into 70’s AM Gold, with Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down the Line, and then a move into classic AOR with Styx’s Renegade. And then of course we end with Al Green and R&B as we started. What was the idea behind going through these phases of music?
Amanda Marsalis: The music in Ozark – Chris Mundy has a very strong vision about music and so does Jason, and so do I. Gerry Rafferty Right Down the Line, Chris and I always joke about listening to The Bridge while we’re here – we’re not in our hometown, we have rental cars, you have satellite radio, you end up listening to the Bridge, Gerry Rafferty’s on. We would joke about it, so it was like this ode to our friendship putting Gerry Rafferty in. Because it ultimately was just that it felt very AM radio because they were in the van, so you’re like what else would they have in the van. It felt very Ozark, like who people in the Ozarks would be listening to.
Awards Daily: One thing that I absolutely loved in the first episode was the killing of Javi. Javi walks in the room, he’s got words still in his mouth and Julia just shoots him down in like three or four shots. It’s so immediate.
Amanda Marsalis: It was because the entire episode is building to it. All she wants to do is kill Javi. The episode has such intention and such mission and Ruth is so driven, and she fails. She has a dream about it, she has dreams about killing the Byrdes, she almost gets it, she sees him and she doesn’t do it on the street. So by the time she’s there – just fucking do it already. That’s the satisfying thing. I was a photographer before I was a director for twenty years, so often when I see spaces, I can just tell, if we do this it’ll just play. And fortunately Alfonso, who plays Javi, is a very good physical actor. I knew he could get shot really well. I didn’t have to hide him being shot. You watch it and he looks like he got shot.
Awards Daily: It’s almost shot in silhouette. That sequence is so dark. Javi doesn’t even get to have a facial expression before he goes down. I think there’s something about the way she dismisses Javi in that moment. What you were talking about her visualizing shooting him beforehand. A lot of times in shows or movies somebody visualizes that thing and then they chicken out and don’t do it. So I think that cue of her visualizing it and then losing her nerve and then coming back and not having any hesitation at all, almost upends your expectations, because when she does it, it’s with such suddenness.
Amanda Marsalis: Yeah, because otherwise she wouldn’t have done it, otherwise again she would have chickened out, so it just had to be. I do love when you go in after and the Byrdes and her just have to decide what to do now. How great is it when Laura says, “You’re going to have to wipe down every surface.”
Awards Daily: The ending has been somewhat divisive. Sort of the Soprano’s-esque back and forth, is it good? Is it satisfying? The thing that I came to is that it’s not the show’s job to make you feel good or satisfy you. It’s the show’s job to get the ending correct.
Amanda Marsalis: I agree that it’s the perfect ending. And the reason I think so is because I think it’s truly about how the Byrdes get away with fucking everything. And you think oh Marty’s gonna get it, Wendy’s gonna get it. Since I directed episode 10 from season 2, I was like if we kill Marty, can I direct it? I wanted to be the one to kill Jason. And it didn’t happen and it was brilliant. I was like of course the rich and the powerful get away with everything and the poor don’t.
Awards Daily: I’ve always found, especially as the series has gone on, how generous Jason has been with the other performers – particularly female performers on the show. You could make an argument that the show becomes Laura Linney’s and Julia Garner’s show down the stretch. They’re the drivers of this and Marty is simply trying to navigate between the two a lot of the time to keep the train running off the track. Did you feel that generosity in giving everyone so much space to do their best work?
Amanda Marsalis: Yeah, Chris, Patrick Markey who’s our producer, and Jason – my first episode of Ozark was my fourth episode of television I’ve ever directed. I had directed two episodes of Queen Sugar and one episode of Shooter, and a $200,000 movie (Echo Park) that was shot in fifteen days – I shot an episode of Westworld in sixteen days. So they took this leap of faith in me. I actually got really emotional at the premiere talking to Chris. I told him, everybody is going to think I’m cool now and everyone’s going to come knocking at my door and they just don’t know that all that matters is that you had faith in me and what you saw in me and then you just actually let me be and supported me.And with Jason, imagine directing a director who has set the look of the show, who is also a producer.
Awards Daily: He knows how to fly the plane.
Amanda Marsalis: But you’re flying the plane and he keeps walking into your cockpit. And you’re like how are we gonna fly it today? This is my plan. I’m gonna do this.. And he’ll be like, okay. So you’re basically, honestly, constantly passing a test with Jason. He’s very supportive but he’s also very aware that, Ozark is supposed to be a certain way. And then in season 4, episode 8, it’s a bit different. It’s a bit more emotional, so he and I would have these conversations about why I was going to do something. It’s just about holding your own.
Awards Daily: There’s a sequence when Wendy and Marty are in the backyard, Wendy is seated, and they are having a conversation and the line said by Wendy is “What the fuck do you think it means?” But when Wendy is sitting there she goes out of focus even though Marty is in the background. That’s obviously very intentional.
Amanda Marsalis: It’s where the emotional pull is. Who is having the feeling that you need to be paying attention to? Wendy is talking but Jason is trying to figure out what the fuck he can do about it. She’s about to go check herself into a mental facility to play a game of chess with her children and he knows how she’ll take it to the extreme. He’s just like fuck, fuck, fuck.
Awards Daily: Marty has to finish what Wendy has set up. And he kind of has to do it her way because there is no other way forward at this point.
Amanda Marsalis: Exactly. For me one of the most brilliant things about Ozark is, Chris Mundy was given a pilot by Bill Dubuque – we don’t know him, he’s not a part of Ozark, they handed it over and that was it. He took what was basically a misogynistic script where Wendy was whatever and over season one turns it into something better. I feel like Chris took the Titanic and turned it away from the iceberg, and by season two it’s truly the rise of women in power – like Julia Garner. He really plays to the actors’ strengths. You really start to see who shines and then you just start writing for it.
Awards Daily: I have this thought as far as Wendy is concerned that she had been sidelined by her husband’s career, becoming a mother when she used to be a political mover and shaker. And then when she gets her chance to move back into the world of making decisions, she isn’t content being Lady Macbeth whispering into the King’s ear, she wants to be Queen. She will do literally anything.
Amanda Marsalis: One of my favorite lines, which I think is a real key, is when they are at the dinner inside the Belle, and they all leave and Wendy’s father is talking about the son and he says something like “You know he was the most stable of my children.”. Chris has a way of having other characters tell you about another character. Just like the speech that Ruth gives to everybody before she kills Javi. She’s like a fucking apex predator.
Awards Daily: In that sequence at the courthouse where Laura Linney practically self immolates in front of her father, begging him to let her keep the children, it’s all show. She’s putting on a performance to try to convince her father to give her the kids. When the scene ends and it doesn’t work, her face just changes as if to say, well, that didn’t’ work I’ll have to do something else.
Amanda Marsalis: Any day that you have Laura working you’re like “I better come with my fucking A-game”. She is so insanely talented and so thoroughly prepared and knows everything. In season 2, episode 10, there’s a scene with her and Cade in the diner and she is giving Cade money to say get out of town. She’s going to send him on the road and she knows that Nelson’s going to be there to kill him. It’s kind of the first scene where you see Wendy get real nasty in the series. She gave this performance in this way that I at first thought, this feels very un-Wendy – her taking things to this next place. Chris and I were both there and were like I don’t know…and I talked to her about it and she said “Well, I disagree with you, but I will give you both performances and you can choose later.” Guess who was right? (Laughs). So basically from then on I’m like well Laura is right.
Awards Daily: You mentioned Nelson. Nelson’s death and that shot of Rachel standing over him in the rain – that is an amazing shot.
Amanda Marsalis: There’s practical things in production and night exterior rain is very expensive. When Chris and I were talking about it in prep, he said, “They are going to try to cut this rain, and we are not going to let that happen.” It is everything to the end of this story that we are outside and it is night and it is fucking raining, and we feel this chaos and this pressure. Once that rain starts, it is just boom boom boom. We are just standing out there at three in the morning under a giant rain tower shooting Ozark you know? Jordana (Spro) was so awesome, just as an actor, all of them are just so physically, spiritually, emotionally game to just give it everything and just be out there in the mud. At that point we had destroyed Ruth’s compound, dug a pool, and dirt was everywhere. I love that shot. We get stills, and I actually spent months just looking at that still every once in a while thinking, I did good work.
Awards Daily: Now that it’s over and you ended up playing probably a bigger role down the stretch than you expected to, what are you feeling? I can only imagine your attachment to this because as you were suggesting, you didn’t have a ton of credits before this. This is a real marker for you, it feels like. You can always say “Look fuckers, I did this.”
Amanda Marsalis: Yeah, I’m a bit in shock and sort of in awe. I don’t know how I was so lucky. I’m so grateful everyone likes it, but I love the work, and I love Chris Mundy and Laura Linney and Julia Garner and Jason Bateman, and the relationships I have with them, and the future work I will do with all of them. In this way, I also think oh, I probably won’t be homeless, I’ll probably get some work again. (Laughs) Also, when I work I don’t feel insane. It is so wonderfully satisfying to use my whole brain and tell stories and connect with people. Directing is math and art. You are constantly doing the math of your day. How long is this set up going to take, where am I going to go, this is going to turn around, do I want to use this tool or that tool, this tool is maybe better, this tool takes longer, do I have that. I always think about the value of things. Am I willing to spend on this or not? You have to do all that and then you have to ask, what is the meaning? Do I have the performance? Am I able to communicate with these actors? Am I able to understand them? Have I told props what the texture of the thing is that I need? So, having done Ozark makes people excited about me, which means they will listen to me, which means I get to tell more stories in ways that are deeply satisfying and it makes me emotional. I just want to keep workin,’ man.