Michelle MacLaren on How to Direct a Complicated Show Like Westworld

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L-R: Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton.

On Sunday, HBO’s Westworld aired “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” one of its most eventful installments. Among other developments, a major character embraced his dark destiny and we learned that another had been created in the image of the omnipresent Arnold.*

This seemed like as good a pretext as any to talk to one of the show’s directors about what it’s like to stage these kinds of moments. I also wanted to have a wider discussion about what it means to work within an existing narrative that’s being articulated by actors, writers, and producers who were there long before the director came on the scene, and will be there after she’s moved on to another show. This is different than directing a self-contained feature film. But how different? And in what ways?

Michelle MacLaren, the director of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” and the subject of my 2014 New York Magazine profile, was kind enough to answer my questions. An edited transcript of our discussion follows.

I want to start by asking you about your choices, visually, and how much you are able to determine those sorts of things on a show that is this big and that has a set style.

Let’s start with the very first shot. This episode opens with a long close-up. You see Thandie Newton’s character, the robot “host” Maeve Millay, but you don’t see anyone else who’s in the room with her. Is an image like that specified in the script? Or is it something a director decides on independently?
Well, on this show, Jonah and Lisa [creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy] have final cut, so ultimately that’s their choice. But that image was suggested in the script. It opens up saying that we’re with Thandie. You the viewer are supposed to feel like you’re alone with her. I thought that to suggest that, you’d want to start with a slow push-in on her, to draw the audience into her head. Maybe you think at first that she’s frozen in robot mode, but then she moves her eyes.

So you put the viewer in her head first, and then you go wide and reveal more information, the geography, where they are, and you realize, “Oh, my God, she’s aware of everything that’s going on,” and “she’s put herself in a dangerous situation, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to her yet.”

In screenwriting classes, they tell you, “don’t put camera directions in a screenplay.” But are you saying that the script for this episode of Westworld said, “We open on a close-up of Maeve,” or that you made that choice based on reading the script?
Well, it’s not stated in an obnoxious way at all. I always prefer that scripts have no camera direction, because if you do include a lot of camera direction, you’re not allowing the writing to inspire the director and the actors and all the other wonderful people who make a show. The script should give you, the director, enough context to say, “Here is where I want to put on the camera in order to tell the story.”

So a Westworld script doesn’t say, “Open on a close-up, now cut to a wide shot.” They write a scene in a way that might suggest that kind of approach, but they want the director to come in and contribute her own ideas.

Jonah directed the pilot, and he’s a very visual filmmaker. He likes wide lenses, and he encourages an epic look, but he’s also respectful of other filmmakers, and wants them to come in and bring their thoughts to a project.

When I interviewed you for the magazine a couple of years ago, we talked about the action set pieces you directed for Breaking Bad, which had some very clever and difficult camera movements. We also talked about your affinity for the classic American Western, which dates back to your childhood. And now here you are directing an episode of a show that, if not an according-to-Hoyle Western, gets pretty close to that at times, and is definitely concerned with Western themes.

And yet the most emotionally impactful moments in this episode are people talking: for instance, Bernard/Arnold talking about his cornerstone trauma and reexperiencing it to discover the fraudulent nature of it, and the three-way confrontation between him, Ford, and Clementine at the end. These are all shot very simply. You allow yourself a flourish at the end when Ford walks away and we see the gunshot deep in the background.

There are a million things you could have done in this episode that were difficult or complex, moments where you could have chosen to dazzle, but you nearly always chose to go the simple route. Why?
With a cast this good, you don’t want to do anything that detracts from the emotional power of those moments. You want to see the emotion. You want to understand the relationships. You want to showcase moments that drive the story. I never want to do anything in scenes like those that would make people think, “Oh, what a cool shot.”

On Breaking Bad, I got to do a lot of cool sequences, do very dramatic things with the camera, but you only should do that kind of thing if the story seems to dictate it.

Okay then, let’s talk a bit about the performances, in particular the different modes of the performers who play the hosts. Is there some kind of bible describing what their emotional temperature should be, depending on the type of interaction? Or is that something the actors just worked out in rehearsal, or that they all instinctively know from working on the show?
All that stuff has been worked out between Jonah and Lisa and the actors, and they are very specific in their choices, and there’s always a reason for what they’re doing.

Can you give me an example?
In the scene at the end in the lab, Clementine is holding a gun on Ford, but if you look at her, you see that she’s not looking directly at Ford. Her focus is about three feet in front of her, instead of directly on Ford. Her stare is a little off, it lands somewhere between her and Ford. That indicates that somebody else is in control of her.

And here’s another one: You might notice that when Thandie’s character kind of goes in and out of focus in her scene, it depends on whether or not somebody is exercising control over her at any given moment.

And then you’ve got Jeffrey Wright, who in this episode is working in a lot of different modes. All this time he’s done an amazing job of playing a host who doesn’t know that he’s a host, and now in this episode he gets to play Bernard realizing that he’s a host, and he freezes!

You might also notice that in that scene after he’s discovered that he’s Arnold, and we see him actually being Arnold, his performance is much warmer. He’s more easygoing, more relaxed. I thought it was a very subtle way to convey the difference between Jeffrey as Bernard and Jeffrey as Arnold.

So now I wonder: On a show this complicated, how much do you know going into production? Do you know what’s in store for these characters after the episode you’re directing, and does that inform your choices? Or are you in the dark and working intuitively, in the moment? How much do the actors know? And how much do you have to school yourself on the mythology of the show before you start work? How much does that kind of thing really matter when you’re just directing one episode of an ongoing story?
We all know where the story is going. And in episode nine, I definitely needed to know where all the stuff I was directing was ultimately going. Before you direct an episode of a show like this, you want to be familiar with everything that’s happened up to that point, and you want to know what’s going to come after that point. It’s really important, especially on a show like this, which has so many layers.

We had a lot of discussions about why you need to capture this [story] beat, because later on this other thing is going to happen. So the directors spend a lot of time with the writers making sure we understand exactly where the events in this episode are coming from and where the story is going.

But as far as the visuals of the episode, the style choices, the choices you make in the moment: It really depends on the show and the people who are involved with it. On Westworld, obviously, there are a lot of Western motifs, and those are to be expected, especially when you go out into the towns and outside of them. You’re thinking about Western motifs and how to use them, and a lot of the directors are naturally going to want to shoot those scenes in that way. Jonah and Lisa chose the directors that they did because they thought that in those scenes, they would embrace the kind of style that was created in the pilot.

Okay, then, here’s a question about one of those dynamic bits of Western visual grammar you love so much: In the scene where William (Jimmi Simpson) embraces his destiny and becomes a Black Hat and menaces his future brother-in-law Logan (Ben Barnes), you have some very, very low angles. The most striking is the moment where William is looming over Logan and threatening him with a knife; there’s a reverse angle from Logan’s perspective looking up at William that’s so low that the camera seems to be buried in the earth. And then at the end he rises up and it looks like he’s nine feet tall.
What we did there was actually take the actor that was supposed to be on the ground and raise him up and put him on a platform.

Interesting.
Well, you know, you don’t actually need to see the ground in that shot!

No, I guess you don’t!
I love that shot, and I’ve done it in different ways.

What are some of the ways?
Sometimes you dig a hole in the ground and put the camera in it. Other times you raise the actors up on a platform. It all depends on what’s available and how fast you need to get the shot.

And then there have been times where I’ve put the camera right on the ground and still gotten that shot, only you also get to see the ground in the shot. You just have to use a special lens that allows you to get the lens right flat on the ground, so the shot includes both the ground and the person above.

But putting the actor on a platform and raising him up about a foot is the fastest way to get that shot.

The laboratory and debriefing scenes are not in that Western mode at all. You’re shooting in a different style. Old-fashioned Western visuals don’t make sense there. Plus, on the lab sets, there’s glass everywhere. Which I guess poses a more immediate set of problems?
That was my first thought when I walked onto that set. It’s a fantastic set that gives a director the potential for all sorts of amazing angles, and the glass is also going to reveal hosts and workers in other rooms. That means you can create images with layers upon layers of information, images that have so much depth.

But it also means it can reflect crew. That means that when you’re setting up those scenes, you have as many people as you need working on set, but once you’re rolling, you’re doing it with minimal crew, and that small group of people has to locate the one slice of visual pie where they aren’t going to end up in the shot or reflected in glass and go stand in it. Or they can just leave the set, because we’re trying to have as few possibilities of accidental reflection as possible.

Do mistakes creep in anyway and have to be digitally painted out later?
That happens less often that you might think. I’m sure there are cases where a scene needs that kind of digital help. But most of the time not, because you choose your angles carefully so that you use reflections dramatically in the shot, but without reflecting things you don’t want. And there are a lot of clever, simple tricks used [to prevent that]. The cameras are draped in black, the camera crew might also be draped in black.

Here’s another geeky question: When the actors playing hosts freeze, are the actors literally freezing in place on the set, or is that effect created visually by freezing the motion in some parts of the frame to create a still-frame effect?
It depends. For the most part, the actors just freeze. They do an amazing job with the freezing. Jeffrey, for example, in that opening scene, froze so well that I could not even believe it!

But in other cases, they might have the actors freeze and then go into the shot in post[production] and paint out eye movements, blinking, or any other little motions that spoil the illusion. They might even go in and isolate a particular character and freeze them.

But we also do a combination of all that. You remember the scene in the episode where Bernard is in bed with Theresa?

Yes.
What we did there was actually a split screen. We used a piece of footage from a scene that had already been shot for a previous episode, where they were in bed, and then we froze one piece. Then we shot Jeffrey in bed, acting as Bernard reacting to Theresa being frozen. The two elements were married in post. Visual effects brought them together.

We did the same thing for the shot where we’re behind her in bed, and Bernard stands up and looks down at her. It would have been really hard for an actor to hold that pose for such a long time without moving. Also, we didn’t have the actress that day [Sidse Babett Knudsen Wood, who plays Theresa], so we got a double and had her do that pose, then we froze it.

Speaking of digital trickery: Tell me about that flashback with the young Ford walking through the lab. How did you do that? 
That was complete face replacement, but we took care to cast a young actor who was believable as a younger Anthony Hopkins from the back and sides.

Even though we only see a few seconds of him in the episode, I was impressed with that actor. He really walks like a young Anthony Hopkins, and Anthony Hopkins has never been an actor that I thought of as having a distinctive walk.
Isn’t he great? Facially he had the right look to help the digital effects guys paste the face on later. But it was about the walk. When we auditioned actors for that part, we made all of them walk for us.

So you’re involved in auditions of actors? That’s interesting. Given how directors pass in and out of TV shows, I would not have assumed that.
I’m involved, but only for characters that haven’t been established in earlier episodes and are appearing for the first time.

Are you also involved in the editing of the episodes later, or is it more like, you finish and go, “That’s a wrap, folks, thanks very much,” and then you’re on to the next assignment?
The editor does their cut, then the director does their cut, and then the producers come in and start working on it, and they have final cut. Per the [Directors Guild of America], the director has to get a cut. And also per the DGA, the director has the right to see subsequent cuts.

Some shows will continue to send the director revised versions of their episode to get their input. Westworld is like that. I did my cut, Jonah and Lisa did theirs, but when the time came to submit the final version to HBO, they sent it to me and let me give them my thoughts on it, which was awfully nice of them to do.

But at that point, after the director has turned in her own personal cut, it’s just a courtesy, right?
Well, what happens on a lot of shows is, the director does her cut, then the producers and the network take over, and you really have no idea what’s finally going to end up on the air. There are certain shows that have a way of doing things that’s very well established. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Also remember that a lot of the time, directors finish the job and move on to another show, and they’re perfectly happy to give their cut and then say, “Okay, that’s it, see you next time.”

It’s different if you’re doing the pilot. But I’m saying you don’t always have to stay involved all the way through the process when you’re directing an episode. A lot of directors don’t want to stay involved. And there are shows where the producers don’t want the director staying involved after a certain point, because they know what kind of show they’re making and there’s no reason for that.

Westworld is one of the few TV dramas left that still shoots on 35-millimeter film. You’ve shot a lot on film, notably on Breaking Bad, but you’ve also done a lot of digital high-definition shooting, including The Leftovers and Game of Thrones. What are the differences?
There are pluses and minuses to both of them. For one thing, when you’re shooting on film, you’re constantly having to change mags, or magazines. When the film runs out, you need a new mag. You have to be conscious of how much film you’re shooting. You also have to be conscious of how much film is in your mag, the length of your mag, so that you don’t run out of film before you’ve gotten the shot you want.

This all changes the way you shoot. When you’re shooting HD, you can just let the camera roll and roll, and in between takes you can give the actors some quick notes and then have them go again right away without cutting, and you don’t have to worry about running out of film. But shooting that way can be dangerous because it can produce a huge amount of footage, and a lot of it you don’t need.

There’s this conception of film as an old, unwieldy medium and digital as something fairly compact and light and easy. Is it
accurate?
That’s not necessarily the case. When you pare down and use a small mag, there’s a flexibility to shooting [on 35 mm] that you can’t get with the higher-end HD cameras, which tend to be unwieldy. What it comes down to is the ultimate aesthetic look. I love shooting with film. It’s great. I like shooting digital as well. But I would be really sad if film disappeared completely. There’s a look to it that is striking.

* An earlier version of this piece stated that we discovered Bernard was a host in episode nine. In fact, that happened in episode seven.