in conversation

The Americans’ Resident FBI Agent on How to Direct an Episode of Television

Philip and Martha share a tense moment on Wednesday night’s episode of The Americans, directed by Noah Emmerich. Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Noah Emmerich, who has played troubled FBI agent Stan Beeman on three seasons of FX’s spy series The Americans, directed his first episode of the show this week. It was his first time behind the camera in any professional capacity, and as it happens, Lara Shapiro’s script required him to work in a lot of different modes. There were straightforward dialogue scenes, a car accident and a street fight, several silent or near-silent moments of suspense and nonverbal communication between spouses, even a quasi-lyrical opening shot that brought the show closer to poetry than its stoic Russian temperament usually allows.

We talked with Emmerich about his first time behind the camera on The Americans, and took the opportunity to ask some basic questions about what it means to direct an hour of TV on a brisk schedule and a tight budget. His motto is the same as the Boy Scouts’: Be prepared.

Is this the first time you’ve directed an episode of television?
It is, indeed. One of the possibilities of doing a series is that this potentiality exists. I went to the producers in the very beginning, in the first season, and said, “You know, if we’re fortunate to run long enough, I would love to have a go at directing, if it’s possible; tell me what I need to do to help make that happen.” They laid out a course for me, shadowing other directors and following them around, and spending time in pre-production and post-production. So I kind of got my mini television-film-school education in the first two seasons. And at the end of the second season, they said, “Okay, we’ll give you a shot next year.”

Have you directed anything before this? Like in theater or film or anything?
I have done a bunch of theater, and I spent some time at NYU film school and I made a couple of short films, but I’ve never had a professional sort of job, you know, in the major realm.

So where did you learn about the practical, professional aspects of this job?
There’s a lot of opportunity on film sets to absorb as much as you want.

Are there any feature-film directors that you feel you learned a lot from?
Sure, there are many. The director I’ve worked with the most is Gavin O’Connor, who, of course, directed the pilot of The Americans, but whom I’ve also made five films with. We’re really close friends. So he’s my longest-standing relationship, professional and personal, with a director, and I’ve learned a lot from him. The funny thing is, directing and assistant-directing are amorphous jobs. There are so many approaches, so many different types of directors. There are really technical directors, there are really visual directors, there are really actors’ directors. There are action directors and drama directors and … it’s sort of like with actors! You know, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Daniel Day-Lewis are both actors, but they’re different kinds of actors practicing different crafts.

How did you prepare for this episode? Did you make a shot list? Did you wait until you got on set to figure out where to put the camera? What kind of a director did you end up being?
I did sort of all of the above, actually. The action sequence at the end was where I was the most trepidacious. I hadn’t done that, really. So I was pretty rigorous about planning that part. I actually worked with a storyboard artist and I came up with a concrete plan of attack, not just because of my own insecurity, to some degree, but also because of the tightness of our schedule: We barely had enough time to shoot the daytime exteriors that we needed, so it was important to have a really clear, really tight plan, which could be communicated as easily as possible to every interested party from the crew. A storyboard is the most efficient, clear way to do that.

The action sequence on last night’s episode.

With other scenes, I had a clear idea of how I wanted to shoot it, or at least a general notion. I spent quite a bit of time with Richard Rutkowski, our director of photography. He goes through every script with every director to get a general sense of what they’re thinking and make sure they’re on the same page, and that once they’re on that page they have the right equipment and the right setup to get what they need. Then there were scenes that I’d planned out, in terms of the feeling and dynamic and energy I wanted, but the actual shots were found on the day itself.

So there were times when you might go into a scene with your storyboards, but once you were actually there on the location, you and the crew might come up with better shots, or more sensible shots?
Yeah. In some scenes, I had shots that I knew I needed. I knew I had sort of one or two shots in mind for that scene, and then the rest of the scene I could kind of build out from those one or two shots. And then it becomes a question of how you get to those shots. So it was really kind of a mixed bag in terms of how specific my preparation was on a scene-by-scene basis. For a couple of the scenes, I had no idea where the camera was going to be. I just knew what I needed to get from the actors. In other scenes, I knew exactly where the camera was going to be.

Am I correct in assuming that the scene in the bathroom with Martha is one of the scenes where you had a very definite idea of where you wanted the camera to be? Because it seems like that scene is the kind that depends mainly on two shots, like you were saying. One would be that overhead shot of Martha in the stall, and the other would be the lower-angle shot of Martha sitting on the toilet looking around anxiously.
Right. That’s exactly right, those were the shots.

High and low shots of Martha in the bathroom.

I mean, I knew — I didn’t have a shot list or a storyboard, but I knew it would be a lot of high and low angles, and maybe they’d be more extreme, exaggerated angles than we’re used to on this show, because they’re expressing that sort of paranoid, scared state Martha’s in. You know, that was a set that we built! I had a very specific notion of how I wanted the set to be so that we could shoot in it, and I worked with a production designer in terms of how to build that set: the lines that we wanted, the depth we wanted.

That wasn’t an actual restroom?
No! That was a built set! A very small built set. Our stage we had the room to build on, you know, a temporary set, is pretty small. I think you’d be surprised if you saw the actual set. It’s not large.

I have visited the set of The Americans a couple of times. You’re right on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, in what looks from the outside like a totally anonymous little warehouse. And it is striking once you go inside and see how much you all are able to do in that space. I was especially fascinated by what you might call the workhouse sets: the ones that get used over and over again, every week, like people’s homes, their workplaces. Some of those sets are in pieces when you’re not shooting on them. They’re stacked in corners very meticulously.
[Laughs.] Yeah! Well we have limited space, and a lot of ready sets, and then we have our regular sets, and then we have some slim sets. I mean, our bathroom didn’t exist eight hours after we were done shooting that scene. Once we were done shooting that scene, it was gone! It didn’t exist anymore. For me, that was a little heartbreaking. We have this incredible production designer, and they built these beautiful, meticulously constructed sets for the episode, and then once we’re done with them, they’re all gone. I guess it’s like life, you know?

Can you tell me about the opening shot of the episode? It’s quite striking, and it has a sense of visual design. You’re almost pulling a Spielberg there, starting with a shot of the night sky and then craning down slowly over the entire house until you push in through a window and end on a close-up of Philip.
It is a little Spielbergian! That’s probably in my DNA, from growing up on his movies. It was something that I thought of long before we began shooting, in a conversation that I had with Daniel Sackheim, an executive producer and director on the show. Philip is listening to news of his son in Afghanistan, news that he has no control over. He knows his son is in jeopardy in a war in Afghanistan, and he’s listening over across the universe to the shortwave, to the BBC News report, and he’s in his basement. And then he goes upstairs to his daughter, whom he’s also sort of losing control of. He obviously has more control over her than he does over his son in Afghanistan, but there she is, right in his house. And she’s looking away from him. To me, the whole sequence is about Philip’s frustration with his own impotence in terms of his guiding of his children’s future. So as I was speaking about that, I was reaching across the sky, and I wondered, How do you show sort of this notion that he’s reaching across the sky? And I thought, Well, why not start on the sky? And you hear the broadcast. And you realize he’s trying from all the way across the world to have some contact with his son.

This opening shot pans from the sky, down Philip and Elizabeth’s house, and lands on Philip listening to the radio.

I was really excited. Sackheim said, “Well, we can do that,” I was astounded! I didn’t think it would be possible on our budget and schedule to be able to do something like that. That was the first shot of the whole episode that I had planned out in my head!

Are there special effects in that shot?
Yeah. It’s really a marriage of different shots: you know, coming off the sky, moving to the house and then down, that’s a couple of shots, and then, obviously, the bit where we’re going through the window of the basement, there’s some special effects work in there.

What kind of special effects? The glass that the camera pushes through — did you add the glass later, digitally?
Yeah. It looks like the camera’s going through the glass and into the close-up of Philip, and you’re supposed to feel like it’s all one shot. We started out by shooting off of a green-screen [where stars would be added later], down the side of a piece of the set. We shot the top part of the house in one place. We did the middle part of the shot — the kitchen level of the house — in another place, and then we did the basement part of the shot in another place. So we couldn’t do one long, continuous shot! We had to shoot it all in pieces and sort of connect each part to every other part, so that when you watched it, you’d believe it was all one shot. That was an education. I’ve never done a special-effects shot before! That was really fun.

So it’s like you got to do the $1.98 Birdman?
[Laughs.] Exactly. Or the 58-cent Birdman.

What’s it like acting in a production you are directing? Is it a little weird? Are you standing off the set, and then you sit down in your place and say “Action,” and then after you’re done acting in the scene, you walk off the set and go look at the monitor to see if you got what you needed? Also, how hard is it to be present for the other actors in a scene when you’re worrying about your duties as a director?
You know, my hesitation about that was about just being able to give the other actors in the scenes that I was in the attention and focus they deserve from their director. I felt somehow slightly awkward about short-changing them about it — if I’m acting, I’m a big part of the interaction, and I’m thinking about my own performance. But the advantage of being in the cast of the show is that I have this pretty great relationship with the cast, and many times before we were actually shooting our scenes, I was able to have a conversation with them about the scene, about the work, to in some ways take care of a lot of the directing work, at least in terms of performance with the actors, before we got to the set that day to shoot the scene. And then in terms of actually looking at the shots, you know, we don’t do playback on our show.

So you don’t watch the shots after you’ve done them?
No. Playback is not just an expense in terms of money; the biggest expense is the time that it takes. If you doubled the time you spent on every shot you got so that you could go and watch it being played back, you wouldn’t make your days. We talked about having playbacks for me, because if I’m in the scene, obviously, how am I going to look at the shot and make sure they got it how I wanted it, or how I hoped that we’d get it? And we did have playback for one day. But I never even looked at it! I would watch the shot, the choreography, and the blocking of the shot with a stand-in, and we would get it right with a double, and then I would just trust Richard Rutkowski, who is a phenomenal [cinematographer]. If he said we got what we wanted, I’d have faith that, in fact, we did. So then it was just a matter of performance. And funnily enough, no one knows how the performance is going better than the actors who are in the scene. You’re there, and you’re in it, and you’re feeling it, and you can feel how your co-stars are doing, and you can feel how you’re doing.

When you’re acting and directing at the same time, are you able to lean on the other actors in the scene and say, “Look, usually I only have one thing on my mind when I’m acting in a scene with you, but today I have two, so can you spot me a little bit?”
Right! I mean, I spoke with everyone I had to work and act with about that in advance, and we have a very unanimous dynamic. We trust each other, and we love each other. It was not very difficult. I had some anxiety about it, but after the first day, it became clear: Oh, this is going to work. You know, a lot of times on episodic television, sometimes a director that nobody in the cast knows very well comes in to do one episode, and we just meet them maybe on our first day of work, and the trust and the faith is not there. By that I mean the things that we build up with some of our recurring directors, and with each other, are not there. So sometimes the actors depend on each other more than on the director anyway, because there is a stronger, deeper relationship there. All that made my job a little easier.

Are there moments where a guest director will want to do something a particular way, and one of the regulars in the cast will say, “Actually, that is not something we do on this show”?
Well, not exactly like that, but it would be hard to imagine that a guest director would know your character as well as you know your character — I mean, not in terms of how to shoot something or how to cover something, but maybe the motivation or choice that your character would make as an actor. In terms of Stan, I might say, “I don’t actually agree with how you perceive Stan in this particular moment.” And unlike on a film, where you are really working for the director in a much more explicit way, on a show like this, obviously, I have been living with this character for three years now, while the director is a guest on set. They may have watched all the episodes and caught up, but no matter how brilliant they are, it’s not possible for them to have as deep a connection to the character as I do.

You got to direct an excellent script by Lara Shapiro, one that’s got even more subtext and misdirection than a lot of episodes of The Americans, which is saying a lot. But I wonder, after you get a script and read it through and start thinking about shots, what happens after that, at a writing level? There must be points during the production where you say, “I’m not entirely clear on this plot point, or this bit of character motivation.” What happens when you have a question like that? Does the writer have to do some rewriting on the set? And are there moments later on where you’re in the editing room, worrying, “I am not sure the audience will understand 100 percent why the character is doing this other thing,” and you have to go ask the writer, “Is there some line that we can add offscreen to clarify what’s happening for the audience?” 
The writing process continues in depth, actually, all through this process. You get the first draft, and then the draft of the script you are going to shoot, and there are a lot of conversations about what the intention is, or the tone of the scene, not just with the writers but with [co-executive producers] Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. And also we have these things called tone meetings, where you go through it case-by-case and discuss everything. It is a two-way conversation about how [you] see the scene and what the producers and writers mean by the scene. There will be a real engagement there, and this is all happening weeks before you shoot. During the course of all that, there are rewrites and a table read where you have the cast come together and read the script, and there are always surprises in store.

What kind of surprises?
Things that you read on the page and think will come together one way, and then you put it out there with the actors and realize you need to make adjustments. We are constantly receiving rewrites. Usually there is somewhere between two and ten drafts of a script. We’ll get rewrites before we begin shooting, and then rewrites while we are shooting. And then when someone is in the scene that you’re actually shooting — a scene that you think has been revised and you’ve got it down and everyone sees what is on the page — once the actors are there and you speak and you’re on the set, you find new things that need to be discussed. And you call the writer’s office and say, “Hey, here we are. We have this thing we’re bumping into. What do you think?” And then later, when you’re editing, there are surprises, too. There are always unexpected results. Someone said editing is the last rewrite. This is a very malleable medium, from the very beginning to the very end.

When you got to the very end of this process, what were some of the things that made you think, You know, the next time I direct, I am going to make sure to do X?
That’s a good question. There’s nothing I felt like I overtly messed up or I wished I hadn’t done, nothing that I really regretted. I was really pretty thorough in my preparation. But if there were more time, I would want more breathing room to find the perfect location. Pre-production is quite demanding and quite important, and very squeezed in television. You have about a week to find all your locations that are new in the script and plan around the locations. I had about two or three weeks to find them, where on a theatrical film you might have two months to find your locations. Also, we have a fantastic composer, PJ Bloom, and I wish I’d had more time to sit and work with him.

The most exciting thing for me about television directing is that I get to be involved in the post-production process. That’s fairly atypical on a series. Usually a director of an episode has four days to cut the whole show, and then they have to hand it in, and then they might get on a plane and go do their next job. And later, when they’re watching the broadcast of the episode, it is probably very different from what they handed in, because it’s been reedited by the producers, by the network, and by the studio, and it gets a lot of notes along the way. I was incredibly fortunate to be included in all those rounds, to be a participant in all those rounds, because a show really [is] a group effort.

So you get to be more involved than some guest directors because you’re playing Stan Beeman on The Americans every week, and you don’t have to get on a plane when you’re finished and direct some other series?

I guess membership does have its advantages, as they say.
Exactly! It does.

The Americans’ FBI Agent on Directing TV