“Stay Open to the Moose Head on the Table”: Director Lesli Linka Glatter on Homeland, Learning from Lynch and Spielberg, and Resuming Production
Lesli Linka Glatter began her career in the arts as a choreographer and dancer, and this early experience clearly informs her work as a director. On shows as varied in genre and style as Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, True Blood and Mad Men, one thing remains consistent when Glatter is at the helm: an astute attention to the dramatic rhythms that are created by finding the precise visual corollary for whatever is going on emotionally in a scene. Hers is a cinema of extreme precision, defined by clear, bold choices when it comes to her compositions and rigorous control over light and color; it’s no surprise to learn that one of her mentors was Steven Spielberg. Yet as Glatter notes in our interview below, she was also able to observe David Lynch early in her career, and learned from him how to remain open to the possibilities on set no matter how detailed her plans.
Glatter’s ability to maintain a balance between meticulous planning and intuitive responsiveness has served her well on her primary job since 2013 as a producer and director on Showtime’s Homeland. This year marked the eighth and final season of the show, and with the series finale Glatter and writer Alex Gansa pulled off the rare trick of resolving the storylines and relationships in a manner as unpredictable as it was completely satisfying. (Note that there are mild spoilers in the interview ahead if you haven’t watched the episode yet.) This last episode of the series perfectly illustrates why I think Glatter is one of our finest directors: it veers from chilling suspense and tragedy to poignant lyricism and black humor, pulling the rug out from under the audience in the last few minutes just before restoring our sense of security in a perfectly orchestrated epilogue. Glatter manages all the tonal shifts and transitions with her usual dynamism and clarity, exhibiting a total mastery of blocking and camera movement as well as a perfectly tuned eye and ear for the delicate nuances of performance. It’s one of the best hours of television I’ve seen this year, and I spoke to Glatter about it a week before her online master class for the Sundance Co//lab. This three-hour class on blocking and designing a scene is free and will take place on June 2—you can sign up here. It’s an invaluable opportunity to learn the craft from one of its wisest and most talented practitioners.
Filmmaker: The series finale of Homeland did a great job bringing closure to a complex show, with a script by Alex Gansa that really covered a lot of different tones and dramatic shifts. How far ahead of shooting did you know that was the way the series was going to end, and did you feel added pressure in this final season?
Lesli Linka Glatter: I have to tell you, the day that the finale aired, I had a major panic attack, as did Alex Gansa. We were texting each other all day going, “Oh my God, I feel nauseous.” “Well, I’m curled in the corner of the room.” The pressure of ending a series is so intense and it’s filled with land mines. The whole idea around this final season was to come full circle with the show. The series started off with Carrie Mathison [Claire Danes] suspecting Brody [Damian Lewis] of having been turned when he was in captivity, so this season starts off with people suspecting Carrie of having been turned when she was in Russia. Somebody on the internet wrote the most amazing thing: “Homeland began with a traitor masquerading as a hero and ended with a hero masquerading as a traitor.” Those are not my words, that came from someone on the internet, but it’s a great way to describe it. Homeland has always been, for me, about these powerful layered, complicated, imperfect human beings who are dedicated to a mission where nobody has a white hat and nobody has a black hat, juxtaposed with what’s going on politically in the world.
Filmmaker: Yeah, the show has been amazingly prescient over the years, with many seasons touching on, or even predicting, very specific things that are really going on in the world of foreign intelligence and diplomacy. What kinds of technical advisors do you have?
Glatter: That’s what’s been so exciting about working on this series. Every year we go to DC, meet with the intelligence community and Alex Gansa always asks, “What keeps you up at night? What’s your biggest fear?” That’s where the series comes from. This year, it was again circling back to the question: what has America learned since 9/11? That was a situation where we overreacted—we went to war with the wrong country. There was a sense that we had to do something rather than gather the information, and we made horrible mistakes. For the final season we didn’t want to set up another 9/11 on American soil, so we downed a helicopter with the president in it to ask: how would America respond? Have we learned? What happens if you have a leader who is both arrogant and ignorant and not up to the task?
We have an incredible array of advisors that we can pick up the phone and talk to. Last season we had to do this big meeting in Moscow between the GRU and the CIA, so we got on the phone with a beloved ambassador and high ranking person in the State Department to find out what the table would look like. Where would the cell phones go? Where would the interpreter sit? The intention is always to make it as real as possible. Anytime I’m doing an action sequence or a military sequence, I have the best possible people around. I’m not going to make up how someone would take a building, I’m going to rely on the Navy SEALS who have done that. Then you’re going to get something that’s so much more interesting.
Filmmaker: What about when you have a scene that’s more character based, where your approach is coming less from real life references than from psychology? For example, in the season opener, I thought there were a lot of really interesting ways that you visually represented Carrie’s fragmented state of mind in terms of the ways you use lenses and color and camera movement. How do you conceive those moments with the director of photography?
Glatter: David Klein and Giorgio Scali are our alternating DPs, and they’re both brilliant. Dave is an incredible storyteller. Every year we have new conversations about what we’re looking at, because we get to kind of reset the show. Carrie’s point of view is a central part of the storytelling, so how do we want the world to feel? It’s a world filled with anxiety. How do we get that feeling? What does Carrie’s point of view look like when she can’t remember? That’s why we played around with color and did a lot of tests. We talked a lot about it. We referred to other movies, like All the President’s Men. We’re constantly talking to find the right approach for the season. For those scenes you mentioned, we played around a lot with her point of view using an unseated lens the operator kept moving that would come in and out of focus.
Filmmaker: And what kinds of conversations are you having with Claire Danes at this point? She’s been playing the character for almost ten years, so do you still talk a lot, do you just leave her alone?
Glatter: Oh God, not at all. She is my partner in crime. Claire does her homework. We all do a lot of reading before the season starts, and there’s constant dialogue. This year it was a lot about Afghanistan as well as about Carrie’s mental state: what happens physically and psychologically if you’ve been pulled off your meds? Claire is an extraordinary, fearless actress who will go as deep as necessary, but like any actor she can’t see herself and doesn’t want to have that sense of consciousness. She relies on her directors. No one is going to come in at this point and tell Claire who her character is, but there’s a lot of talking, especially about dealing with bipolar disorder and how far we can go with where she is on the emotional and mental spectrum.
Filmmaker: In general what kind of environment do you try to create on set to facilitate everyone’s best work? Not just the leads like Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin who have been there for a long time, but guest actors who come in and have to be instantly integrated into this group that’s been working together for years?
Glatter: From the beginning, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon created an environment that wasn’t about being the smartest person in the room, but being in the room with the smartest people and the best idea wins. We had a room of showrunners, a writer’s room where everyone had created and run their own shows. That’s not normally what a writer’s room looks like. People always think we have more time and money on Homeland than we actually do. We are a show that is primarily on the road, and I think the longest amount of time we had to shoot an episode this season was 11 days. Nine of those days are on locations, often with several moves in a day, and two onstage. That’s a big challenge. For me, it’s very important to have a no-asshole policy when you’re under that kind of pressure. You treat people with respect, and the best idea wins.
To answer your question about dealing with new actors, I call them up. I think you have to make them feel that they are part of the team because any new actor coming into a show, especially where they respect Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, you want them to feel welcome and that they are included. As a director, I’ve always done this, especially if I haven’t met them in a casting session, which is often the case because being in Morocco, Germany or South Africa you can’t really do that. I always call them up and say, “Are there any questions I can answer? I just wanted to introduce myself,” and it makes a big difference. I also think Mandy and Claire are great at welcoming actors into to the team, because they know how it feels when you are coming in as a guest, and people do their best work when they feel protected and safe. I feel as a producing director, it’s about creating the best possible working environment so people can do their best work.
Filmmaker: I’m curious how you see that role as producing director in terms of the other directors on the series. Obviously you have to maintain a certain consistency, but you also have some great filmmakers like Keith Gordon whose most creative ideas you presumably want to encourage. How do you strike that balance?
Glatter: The first producing director that I learned a lot from was Thomas Schalamme on West Wing. Tommy created an environment where you as a director were encouraged to bring your A game and make it your story, make it your hour. To me that encourages the best possible work. If you encourage someone to bring their A-game and create the environment where that is possible, then they’re going to do that. I believe in hiring the best possible people and giving them everything they need to tell the best hour of this 12-hour novel we are shooting. Their hour is their hour. There are a few things that they should be aware of, like the fact that it’s a political thriller and the world is filled with anxiety, so point of view should reflect that, but with that, I think you’re going to get the best possible work if you don’t micromanage someone else’s storytelling. I’m around a lot during prep to make sure they have all the information that they need, because every time we go to a new country, it’s a different way of working. I don’t want them to come on the set and be surprised by something, I want to fill them in. If there’s an actor who works a certain way, I don’t want them to be surprised by that. I want them to have all the information they need. Then on the set, it’s their set. I’ll come by a couple of times a day, but I’m not going to micromanage any of these amazing directors. That would be crazy.
Filmmaker: I want to go back to your earliest experience on the show, when you were a guest director in season two, because I remember that you had an extremely challenging episode with a massive interrogation scene. Now, shooting action is one thing, but how do you figure out how to direct a long scene that’s essentially just two people in a room talking?
Glatter: I wasn’t able to come direct in the first season because I was an executive producer/director on another series. I saw the first season and flipped out. I thought it was one of the most interesting things I’d seen. I had no idea whether Brody was a hero or a traitor; I was constantly on uncertain ground, and I loved that. When they asked me to come direct on the second season, I was thrilled. Then I read the script and had a panic attack. It was 40 pages in one room. I thought, “Oh my God, what am I going to do to make this interesting?” Then I realized, “Okay, the writing is incredible, and I’m in this room with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.” Once I fully embraced all the twists and turns of what was going on in that interrogation, I felt like I was the luckiest person around. Working with those two actors and figuring out the specific places where they made huge emotional decisions or tactical decisions was incredible. There’s nothing you can hide behind when you have 40 pages in a room, so it’s not about doing fancy camera movement. It’s about embracing what the scene is and trusting the power of brilliant acting and writing. I remember Michael Cuesta [the producing director on the first two seasons of Homeland] saying to me, “Don’t be afraid to be simple.” And I thought, “What a wonderful thing to say to another director who’s about to do a scene like that.” As a producing director, that’s what you want to give to other directors coming in.
Filmmaker: Well, speaking of other directors, early on in your career, before you directed your first episode of Amazing Stories, you were able to shadow both Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, and you worked on To Live and Die in L.A. as a choreographer, so you got to see William Friedkin at work. Three very different directors with different approaches and styles. What did you take away from those experiences?
Glatter: You learn different things from everyone. With Steven Spielberg, what sticks out for me is that he was just so clear on why he made every single choice. Also, he told me something after I had a total stress dream about starting production. He talked to me about staying in touch with your instincts and said that if you tell your instincts to shut up, they won’t talk to you anymore, and it’s critically important to keep that channel open because your instincts will keep you honest. Then seeing Clint Eastwood work, his process was so completely different from Steven, but brilliant. He walks on the set and feels completely in the moment, but also very conscious of why he’s doing what he’s doing. Did he make the plan ahead of time? I don’t know. It was amazing to come on his set after watching Steven on his set.
After Amazing Stories I got to work with David Lynch on Twin Peaks, which was a director run show. I think it’s why I never looked at TV as not being a director’s medium, because starting off with Steven and then David Lynch, you tell a visual story. It doesn’t matter what the delivery system is. Anyway, I was watching David work, which was always amazing. It was a scene with Michael Ontkean and Kyle MacLachlan in a bank looking at a safe deposit box. It was a wide angle lens, I figure it was a 21mm. The camera didn’t move and there was a moose head on the table during the scene. No one really refers to the moose head, it’s just there. The scene is brilliant because of it. It made the scene. So I asked David where he got the idea, like how does his brain work? And he said, “It was there.” “What do you mean it was there?” Well, the set dresser was going to hang up the moose head on the wall. When [Lynch] came into rehearsal, the moose head was sitting on the table and he saw it and said, “Leave the moose head.” I like planning everything, but that was a moment where it became totally clear to me: you have your plan, but be sure you stay open to the moose head on the table. Don’t miss the opportunity in front of you because you’re fixed in your vision of something.
Which brings me back to the finale of Homeland, because I did not have the end of the script until we were about to start shooting it. Like, seconds before we were about to shoot it! Now, if I get into a total panic about not having the script, I’m not going to be able to think creatively. When I was a younger director, I used to worry about everything equally, and now I really try to worry about the things I have control over because it’s more productive. I meditate every day. I try to do whatever I can to stay true to my own instincts. I come from being a dancer, so I am a planner. I like to think through everything and I shot list everything. But I do that so I can be open to the moment. I have no hesitation about throwing it away for a better plan. I want the actors to come in with something I could never have thought of. But I need to have jumped inside the material so that I can recognize the good idea and also not take something that doesn’t work. I need to go to the set and walk it out. I need to put myself physically in every character’s body to block out a scene in my head and figure out how to shoot it. Now, it could change totally when the actors come, I don’t force them into anything, but it’s made me ask all the questions, what does this character want? Where are they coming from? Where are they going to? What’s really underneath the dialogue they’re saying? It forces me to examine every part of it. Then I look at a fantastic director like Alex Graves. Alex Graves can sit in a room and plan the most complicated action sequence you’ve ever seen with diagrams. I don’t even know how to approach that. I will never be able to do it. It’s not my process. I love that about being around other directors.
Filmmaker: I want to switch topics and finish with a couple of questions about how you see the state of the industry right now, because I know you had been announced to direct all the episodes of a new Amazon series before the pandemic hit. What was the status of that project and how was it affected by the current situation?
Glatter: I was heading out of town to begin physical prep on that project. I had my four suitcases and three boxes packed. I was headed to Budapest for the next seven months and we literally got the call. That was March 12th, so we got the call to stand down the day before I was flying. The good news is, I didn’t fly to Budapest and have to turn around and fly back. But the suitcases and the boxes stayed in the middle of the living room for about two weeks before I could deal with unpacking them.
Filmmaker: I know this is a huge question, but what kinds of steps do you think need to be taken in order for everyone to get back to production, and how do you think filmmaking is going to change as a result of all this?
Glatter: Well, everyone wants to get back. But we have to go back in a way that protects our crews and our cast, who are the most vulnerable because they can’t be wearing protective gear. We have to protect everyone. We have to protect our team. I’m very involved, I’m on this DGA task force. I can’t talk specifically about what’s going on because we’re all sworn not to do that. But I can tell you that many, many organizations are working on guidelines that hopefully will all come together to protect all of us so we can go back to doing what we love. Do I think it’s going to change how we do things? Absolutely. There’s a commitment by the DGA and the other guilds and unions to protect our members, to try to get us back to work as safely and as soon as possible. Safe being the operative word, because what we don’t want to do is go back to work in a haphazard way and have to shut down again. That would be a disaster.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.