The Story Behind The Americans’ Excruciating, Beautifully Shot Tooth-Pulling Scene

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Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans. Photo: Michael Parmelee/FX

The third episode of The Americans’ third season built toward one of the most excruciatingly brutal scenes in the show's history: Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) in a laundry room, extracting Elizabeth's damaged tooth without anesthesia. Titled "Open House," and scripted by Stuart Zicherman, the hour was directed by Thomas Schlamme, a veteran of TV drama and comedy and a regular on The Americans. He spoke to Vulture about the specific challenges of shooting a scene of such intensity. 

So are you ever going to go back to the dentist again?
[Laughs] I've never liked to go to the dentist to begin with!

When I got Stuart Zicherman's script, I thought this could be the dentistry scene in Marathon Man, or we could ask, "What is the story, what's really going on?” You know: Okay, we know this is a gunfight, but are we just gonna shoot a gunfight, or are we going to ask what the gunfight's about

Once I read the script quite a few times, I thought about it, and I just thought, you know, I shot a scene last year where they performed a 69 on each other, and I didn't find it as near as intimate as what I thought this scene really was about. So, I was like, “Oh, great, this is The Americans' version, this episode, of their sex scene.”

You know, it's funny, because that's sort of the impression that I got as well, because what jumped out at me in the direction of this episode was the tight close-ups of their faces, specifically their eyes. This is not a close-up-driven show. It likes to keep its distance whenever it’s able to. And in the tooth-extraction sequence you’re getting so close to the actors’ eyes, it’s like the viewer is turning into an ophthalmologist.
It was going to be hard to get the audience to understand that what this was about was trust and love, and not about “Can you get me out of this fucking pain as quick as possible, no matter what you do because we're Russian spies and we can't go to the doctor?” And it was the chase scene before that, and him sort of touching her, and trying to say, "I'll be home later.” We wanted to get across that there is an enormous amount of tension in that relationship at that point.

Yes, because of the disagreement over whether or not to allow the daughter, Paige, to possibly get recruited into the KGB.
Yeah. That’s a breaking point in a relationship, stuff about your child. I've been married 31 years, and I can tell you, our fights, the biggest and most powerful we've ever had, were always about our children. And so, knowing where [Philip and Elizabeth] were emotionally, the question becomes “How do I set up, from the beginning of that chase all the way through the tooth being pulled, that this is about trust and intimacy?” It wasn't “How do I make this action sequence the most exciting action sequence? How do I make this tooth-pulling just so excruciatingly painful and weird?” The close-ups of the eyes were about “he has to see what he's doing,” but they were also about the fact that we’re basically shooting people making love, and they're just staring at each other the whole time. There's this phenomenal intimacy. One of the most erotic love-making scenes for me is in Don't Look Now, this Donald Sutherland–Julie Christie movie. And there's a moment where their eyes just meet. It's so powerful. So that was sort of the idea. As you say, this is not a close-up show. You’re not going to be spiraling in on somebody’s eyeball like it’s the final shot of the shower scene in Psycho. This show doesn't do that kind of thing that often, so when it does, there has to be a justification.

And I know for Matthew and Keri it was liberating to shoot it that way.

Why?
Because it spoke to this concern of "Oh God, this is too barbaric, that they're going to do this.” That’s why I kind of broke the whole thing up into two beats, so that in the second part, when he comes back and he realizes he only got part of the tooth, the scene is now about the two of them trusting each other: “I know you can do this” and “Go ahead.” It wasn't necessarily about the stoic Russian female who's not going to feel anything: “Go ahead, pull my fucking tooth!”

So where did you shoot this episode? I assume the tooth extraction and other home scenes were done in the studios near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn?
Yeah, we shot a lot of it there, and then we shot a lot of the car stuff out in Oyster Bay.

We did this scene on the family stage, where they shoot the home stuff. They have this little room with white walls that we could sort of pull [away]. But we didn’t do that.

What, you didn’t take the walls out so you could get better angles on the actors?
No.

Why not, if you have that ability? Wouldn’t it have made shooting easier?
I’m not a big fan of pulling walls [out]. I’ve gotten to really appreciate shooting in practical locations, where you’re restricted by what the location actually is. So that's just me personally. But I also knew that within that scene, it was going to be really intimate, that the cameras were going to be close, and I wanted wider lenses up close, not long lenses far away.

And I will say, Keri was extraordinary in that whole sequence. I mean, they both were, but Keri just never stops. She was just so focused! You just really started to feel it between the two of them. Obviously we were doing things that protected her teeth and protected what we were doing, but still, it was hard to watch at times, you know?

How do you fake something like this? I mean, aside from actually pulling somebody’s tooth out, which obviously you can’t do, every other aspect of the scene has got to be real. Keri Russell actually has to have her mouth open for a hell of a long time, so you can shoot all the stuff you need to shoot. And Matthew Rhys is actually sticking a pair of pliers in there.
Yeah! We had taken a whole lot of precautions, and Matthew’s the one doing a lot of the work. But we had plastic around her tooth, and at times we'd have to pull back and put blood in her mouth … We'd keep rolling, she stayed right in character, and I wanted everybody to stay right there. “Now work yourself back up.” So it was a pretty intimate piece of shooting.

How long total to shoot the entire scene?
I would venture to say four hours, maybe?  

During the second extraction, for some reason a phrase popped into my head: "We've gone this far." You know, like, “We've gone this far — why not go all the way with it?” And that seems like it ties in with a really basic dynamic of this show, which is built around a marriage that’s very complicated and that at various points seems as though it might be in danger of ending. At some point on the show they have to make the decision "Do we go forward, or do we stop this thing?" It always seems to come down to "Well, we've come this far." You might as well keep going. So the extraction is the marriage in microcosm.
It's true, and that makes perfect sense, I think that probably is organically what we were feeling. I would like to say that it was a bigger metaphor for their whole relationship, which is "We've gone this far.”

Which isn’t to say that every decision they might have to make is always going be decided in terms of “Yes, let’s go on” from this point forward. But at that moment, when he’s in there pulling out with the pliers, that’s what you’re feeling.
No, they still have this massive impasse that's ahead of them, which is the decision about Paige.

But I think that's what The Americans does so well. It’s about the ebb and flow of a relationship like this one. It's not that it's always so clear: “Oh, I see the direction we're going in, so we're just going to move forward, in a kind of clean, linear, non-realistic way.” Life never works that way.