“One Thing I Learned From Michael Mann, You’ve Got to Have Rules”: Brooke Kennedy on The Good Fight
In the first episode of The Good Fight, a spinoff from and sequel to the acclaimed legal drama The Good Wife, liberal attorney Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) watches Donald Trump’s inauguration in horror. In the premiere episode of the series’ most recent season (season four), Diane wakes up to find herself in an alternate reality in which Hillary Clinton won the presidency. Both episodes – and the 38 others that have aired to date – exhibit a satirical sense as sophisticated as it is original; series creators Robert and Michelle King consistently engage with issues related to race, sex, gender, class, and how they inform and are informed by the Trump presidency with a perspective that eschews conventional wisdom in favor of startlingly unique insights and provocations. The season four premiere is a case in point: as Diane tries to navigate the new world in which she finds herself, the episode veers from wish fulfillment to horror with revelations that are both unexpected and completely plausible—and frequently hilarious. Both echoing the series’ memorable premiere and looking forward to new directions for the series, the episode is filled with rich rewards for Good Wife and Good Fight enthusiasts but also works as a standalone story with appeal to anyone looking for imaginative political commentary.
It’s also, like the series premiere it calls back to, brilliantly directed by Brooke Kennedy, a Good Wife alum who executive produces all episodes of The Good Fight and has established, shaped and developed the show’s cinematic grammar to make it one of the most visually beautiful series on television. Kennedy began her career as a location manager on New York classics Kramer vs. Kramer and Wolfen before going on to work as a unit production manager for Michael Mann on Miami Vice and Crime Story; her directorial style often plays like a combination of the best of Mann and Kramer director Robert Benton. Like Benton, Kennedy has an unerring knack for finding the nuances of gesture, wardrobe and performance that define and deepen character—every performance on The Good Fight, from the stars down to the day players, is remarkably textured and powerful. And like Mann, Kennedy is attentive to every detail in the frame, and insistent on making sure the frame itself finds the precise composition to deliver the maximum emotional impact and articulate the greatest number of ideas possible. I’ve been impressed by The Good Fight’s elegance and economy of expression ever since being blown away by Kennedy’s work on that first episode and took the occasion of season four’s DVD release to speak with her by phone about her approach.
Filmmaker: I really love the graceful visual style of The Good Fight. What kinds of conversations did you have with the Kings and your other collaborators in the early days of the series to establish the tone?
Brooke Kennedy: When I’m putting up a show, I often say to my creative partners, “If you take a documentary and call that one, then take the film Brazil and call that a 10, where are we on the scale?” This show’s around an eight, as opposed to when I did Third Watch—that was like a three. Since this show was birthed from The Good Wife, we had a visual language in place that was elegant and classic; Fred Murphy, our original cinematographer, loves a great portrait. We want everybody to be in an attractive, stylized world.
Filmmaker: The style intersects with the writing to create a really interesting tone, since there’s a classical, restrained visual approach but a lot of the content is emotionally wrenching, or angry, or funny.
Kennedy: A DP friend of mine wrote me that the power of the show lies in the fact that its surface is formal and conservative in style, but scratch that and you reveal a righteous fury beneath. I think that really sums up how we do things.
Filmmaker: How do the performances come into play? What kinds of conversations do you have with the actors to fit them into that balance between righteous rage and restraint?
Kennedy: Often an actor comes in and feel that they have to work to make the dialogue sound natural or give it credence. I say, “Don’t play the jokes, don’t play the drama. Just let the words do the work.” I find it relaxes them and they’re able to move with it. We also have a phenomenal costume department, so as soon as an actor walks in we start to build their character in wardrobe. My biggest job is to make the actors feel comfortable and safe, and it’s actually really simple because we all do that as a team. The leads—Christine Baranski, Delroy Lindo, Cush Jumbo, Sarah Steele—they’re wonderful to the guest stars. When I did The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies and I met and I said, “What kind of show do you want?” She said, “I want a show actors want to come to,” and that’s what we built. It just makes it so easy. Honestly, it’s like driving a Ferrari.
Filmmaker: I’m amazed sometimes by the caliber of actor you get to come on and do guest spots. Alan Alda, Margo Martindale, Rob Reiner…
Kennedy: Those people are very easy to direct, because you’re talking about actors who make great choices. Your job is to be aware of the transitions in and out of things and maybe pull them back a little or ask them to emphasize something a little bit more, but other than that it’s pretty easy.
Filmmaker: In terms of how you see the characters and their place in the overall environment—I’m talking both visually and in terms of what you want out of the performances—how much do you plan ahead of time?
Kennedy: I usually say I go into shooting days knowing about 80% of what I want, but I love the discovery of the other 20%. I love when an actor does something unexpected and I have to ask, “Is this real?” Maybe it is, and even if it isn’t what I imagined when I read the script I’ll go with it. Maybe it’s better. Sometimes, I read something and I have an immediate response to it and can see it right away. Sometimes it takes a little longer—a little bit of casting, a little bit of location work, just reading it over and over in my head, talking to actors about their ideas, hearing Robert express his thoughts on the script as opposed to just reading it. But really, I pick up a script and it’s almost like a seashell: I just listen to it and it tells me what to do.
Filmmaker: What about something like the season four premiere, where Diane finds herself in an alternate reality where Trump lost the 2016 election? I thought you did some very interesting things there to convey her disorientation and allow the audience to participate in it.
Kennedy: A lot of it has to do with point of view. When Diane is looking at somebody, her view of them is totally clean, and sometimes they’re looking directly at her. Then when you come around to their side, it’s a normal shot with an eyeline that’s different—close, but it’s different. I did a lot of that to subtly put the audience off so that it felt normal but wasn’t quite normal. Then, at the end we used color in a way that we usually don’t, making it more and more surreal. On that particular episode, Ron Garcia was the director of photography, and Ron used to work with Vittorio Storaro. Ron was really into the Lüscher color book, so we went through that book looking for colors that would enhance what we felt was Christine’s journey, and when she went into the woods Ron created a very specific yellow inspired by his work with Storaro.
[Ron Garcia adds: “The gel you’re talking about was a ‘Vittorio Storaro Yellow.’ I tried to get it in New York but the gaffer could not find it on his Rosco Swatch book. It was called Roscolux Cinegel R4515 CalColor R2003 Storaro Yellow. When I worked with Storaro I asked him about The Last Emperor and how he got that yellow. He said he designed the gel, which is now in the arsenal of Rosco’s pure Storaro color gels. That’s what I wanted to use in the forest. Since they couldn’t find it in time, I improvised with the gaffer and mixed what they had in the truck and combined a Straw and CTO to try and match the Vittorio Storaro gel, and dialed in a color temperature that would compensate and augment the combo of gels used on the forest scene. It wasn’t the same but the colorist made up for it and achieved the yellow Brooke and I talked about.”]
On any episode I just take my cue from the script and think about where I want the eye to go and what needs to be emphasized, and I talk about that with the DP. I’m not a dictator, I don’t go, “Okay, everybody, get out, I’m making it pink.” It doesn’t work like that.
Filmmaker: How does your background as a location manager play into that? When you’re scouting, what are some of the factors that go into whether or not a location is going to work for the show?
Kennedy: When you start prepping, you’re beginning the process of what I call dimensionalizing the script. You’re taking this one-dimensional piece and creating a world. And just like there are great day players, there are certain locations that are really going to sell it. If you have an actor walk in who’s never been there before and they go, “Oh, I’m comfortable here. Yes, I think he belongs here,” that’s important. And a lot of it has to do with asking questions like, where is the light coming in? From what direction? We start with that. And then, we love depth of field, we don’t like anything shallow. You’ll notice we live in a fairly elegant world, so the restaurants are the better restaurants. It’s not Third Watch, where we were living in a cop’s world.
Filmmaker: I’m glad you brought up depth of field, because that’s one of my favorite things about the show, how much you always have going on in the frame. But it seems to me that it would be really challenging to get all the pieces you need on a TV schedule, because so often you have so many actors in a scene, and their reactions are all important, especially in something like the courtroom scenes. How do you approach those?
Kennedy: The first thing I do is try to envision each actor’s behavior in the scene. Are they really going to sit across from each other and not move? Is one not looking at the other as they talk? Are they on their phone? What is the choreography of human behavior? Then in rehearsals, so many times actors will do things they don’t realize they’re doing and I’ll say, “That’s great, do it just like that.” If they’re relaxed they’ll bring more of their own choreography into it, then I layer that into the scene. There was an episode I did with an actor playing a judge who stood in an unusual place during rehearsal, and it worked because he was supposed to be inexperienced—the episode was all about Trump appointing people who didn’t belong on the bench. It was great, and I just guided him a little to make the blocking work within the scene as it was conceived.
When we’re in the courtroom, I consider whether the lawyer is walking around and moving to the judge or playing to the judge, or is this a hearing where everybody’s just sitting there? That anchors the scene. We shoot with three cameras, and we only shoot one direction. If we have five scenes in a day, we shoot all five scenes in one direction. Then we turn around and shoot everything in the reverse direction. It’s very tough on the actors, but they’ve gotten really great at it. So, you shoot three cameras and move in with sizes on those, getting all the looks, which is what’s really important in this show. You can talk an actor through that and just say, “Let’s swing this over here and get that connection between the defense and the prosecuting attorney.” And sometimes we’ll do a 360 where all the lights are hung and you really move the camera around; I just try to understand what the story is and what kind of energy it needs in any given moment, then have the actors and the camera meet it.
Filmmaker: I’m assuming that as a producer one of your roles is guiding the other directors on the show to protect the consistency of the visual style and the performances. When you put on your producer hat, what kinds of things do you tell the guest directors?
Kennedy: First of all, the Kings are very involved. We have concept meetings, we show the directors the shows that we like the best and what they captured. We are very involved in the casting. We’re making a series, not an episode. When it comes to the camera, there are a couple of rules that you have to ask to break. Like, we don’t do handheld unless there’s a reason. That’s one thing I learned from Michael Mann, you’ve got to have rules. I’ll also go through all the actors and little nuances I know about them…but really, I deal with other directors the way I deal with actors. I see what they can bring to the show that’s special and try to encourage that. If it doesn’t perfectly fit into our narrative, I say, “That’s a great idea but if you just did it a little bit that way and we kept the camera lower, I think it would work great.” And usually they’re like, “That’s fine. Great, I know what to do.”
Filmmaker: Since you brought up Michael Mann, I’ve got to ask what kinds of things you learned working for him that you still utilize as a director?
Kennedy: Oh, those gifts from the days of working with him just keep giving. What Michael taught me is that everything is story. It doesn’t matter if it’s the pen somebody holds, the glass he drinks out of, the gun, the color they’re wearing—whatever it is, everything is story, story, story. And the other thing is, pick a point of view and stick with it. In those days we shot film, and we were precise about our guidelines. The frame has to be designed and you have to make decisions about that frame. I learned a lot from Bob Benton too, without even realizing it. Watching him in the courtroom on Kramer and seeing how gentle he was with actors and how he had a vision…he knew that each actor has their own way of working and you have to create that trust between everyone and figure out how to get where you’re going. In television we have to do it within seconds, so with guest stars, I’ll go to the hair and makeup trailer and say, “Do you want to talk about anything? Are you comfortable here?” My first job as a director is to provide a safe environment, and I feel that as an EP too. For my crew, for my guest directors, it’s vital that everybody feels they’re in a safe environment to do the work they need to do.
Filmmaker: Speaking of feeling safe, you’re prepping for a new season now and obviously everything is different with COVID. Have you gotten a sense yet of how COVID is going to change production?
Kennedy: Well, we’re not going up until January. We’re so political that we didn’t want to go up before the election. The Kings made what I think is a really smart decision, which is to open the writing room as soon as the election is done and figure out how the outcome will drive our stories. You know, the series premiere was originally written under the assumption that Hillary would win—that opening scene with Christine watching Trump’s inauguration came later. We were already shooting the episode when Trump won, and it was written for a world where Hillary was president. We were on the location for Christine’s new office, that big, big conference room. It was night and it was Delroy’s second day of working with us and all the lights were out. This office was very large, it went around the entire floor. Like, the 36th floor or something, or 50th, I don’t know. Every time I walked away from camera, my whole crew, in the dark, were on their screens watching the election. I kept saying, “Put it away, I do not want my actors thinking about this until this scene is done.” And of course, they knew. I walked Christine aside to say something and she said, “I know, I’ve been looking.” But they’re pros, they go on.
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 and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.