“Before Directing, I Never Truly Understood Just How Exhausting and Taxing the Filmmaking Process Is”: David Weil on Solos
Showrunner David Weil’s Amazon series Hunters was one of the most audacious pieces of television I saw in 2020, a profound meditation on morality and history articulated with the exhilarating narrative rush of a great genre film. Epic in its sweep and ambition, the show made me eager to see what Weil would do next—where does a filmmaker go after such a bold swing for the fences? The answer turned out to be Weil’s new show (also for Amazon) Solos, which operates at the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale but is just as daring in its own way as Hunters—and ultimately, even more emotionally satisfying.
An anthology series in which each episode features a single actor—sometimes giving a straight monologue, sometimes conversing with an offscreen voice or electronic device, in one instance (an extraordinary episode starring Anthony Mackie) talking to his own double—Solos is a master class in minimalist filmmaking for maximum philosophical effect. Each episode is an elegantly structured, beautifully acted (by performers including Uzo Aduba, Helen Mirren, Anne Hathaway and Constance Wu) and thematically dense exploration of the necessity for human condition in a technological (and pandemic-afflicted) age, and of all the paradoxes and dilemmas associated with that need. Weil makes his directorial debut on three of the episodes, exhibiting a control and confidence in his framing and direction of actors that distills the show’s complex conceptual premises into intensely personal and intimate conversations between the characters and the audience. The show drops on Prime Video on May 21; I spoke with Weil by phone a few weeks before the premiere to ask about the series’ origins and his experience as a first-time director.
Filmmaker: Solos seems like a real change of pace after the maximalist Hunters. What was the starting point for you?
David Weil: The starting point for Solos really goes back to when I was young, in the sense that it’s a sort of conjuring of how I fell in love with storytelling. The first storytellers in my life were always single people, in one environment, telling a singular story—whether it was sitting around a campfire with my brothers listening to them tell ghost stories after we went hiking, or sitting around my grandmother’s kitchen table when she would tell stories about her experiences during the war, which became the basis for Hunters. I’ve yearned for a return to that mode of storytelling for a very long time, but TV and film don’t often allow for that. There’s a structure and a certain pace that you need to move at, and tons of characters—and yet, I always remember films and TV and theater by their monologues, whether it’s the red dress monologue in Requiem for a Dream or Shylock’s great soliloquy in Merchant of Venice. I’d always been itching to tell stories in that form. It’s a great challenge, to try to capture an audience’s attention for 30 minutes with one actor and one location, and to tell a real three-act story within those confines.
Again, you don’t often get that opportunity, but at home during the pandemic, having to push other shoots because of COVID, I thought it was the right moment to try and realize a piece that could be shot incredibly safely, and to tell intimate, personal stories that are about the affirmation of humanity, the way in which we’re all connected, the plights and dreams and hopes and desires that we all share. A piece that hopes to illuminate the way in which we’re all connected. It’s been a lifelong dream and this felt like the right moment to do it.
Filmmaker: What was Amazon’s response when you brought it to them? Did they have to be talked into it, or did they get what you were going for pretty quickly?
Weil: I wrote the “Tom” episode that Anthony Mackie stars in first, and brought that and the “Peg” episode to Jen Salke and all our friends at Amazon. It would have been too difficult to pitch because of the unique concept, so I wanted to bring them completed scripts. Jen had been looking for programming that could be shot safely, and this was a prime piece because each episode had one actor, and therefore the risk level was far lower.
Filmmaker: The budgetary and health risks are lower, but as a first-time director there are a lot of creative risks, in the sense that you want to keep it visually dynamic but not get too show-offy or distract from the performances —easier said than done on episodes that take place in one room.
Weil: It’s incredibly difficult. I think when we cast these incredible actors, it all became about protecting the performances and allowing the audience to access them without feeling encumbered by flashy camera movements or glaring set design. Everything was really to serve the reality and the truth of the performances, because at the end of the day, those are what capture us for these 20 to 30 minutes.
Each episode had a different approach. For Anthony’s, I viewed it much like a play, and I really tried to keep it quite simple. The directorial plan was simply about proximity to him. And so, over the course of the piece, you begin to grow closer and closer and closer. And likewise, because he’s playing two roles, it was really about establishing a reality for both those characters, so they’re lit a bit differently. Our costume designer, Shiona Turini, created a certain color story for Tom’s magenta and burgundy and for Edward’s light blue, so you felt differences even though they are identical.
For a piece like “Sasha,” with Uzo Aduba, I felt more of a demand to generate energy and dynamism within the camera work itself, to support the fact that it was just one character—as opposed to Anthony’s two—in one location, if that makes sense. That story is really a story about power, so when she feels a bit more vulnerable you see her alone in this big vacuous space; at other times, like when she went into a memory, I wanted to get incredibly close to her. What I was really trying to express was this kind of thriller question of, “Can I trust this home? What is home? Is it safe outside?”
Filmmaker: And then in the “Jenny” episode with Constance Wu, I was impressed by the varied tones that you had. You would go really quickly from broad comedy to poignancy, one extreme to the other. In terms of modulating and calibrating it, how much of that is done in the writing, how much of it is in her performance and how much finessing did you have to do in the editing room?
Weil: For that one, it certainly started with the brilliant writing of Bekka Bowling, who I’ve worked with before. Her voice is just so powerful, and she does a wonderful job finding reality in the absurd and absurdism in reality. So, I think both Constance and I really took our lead from the actual page. Constance meticulously mapped out the emotional changes throughout the piece so that it would always feel grounded; the danger with that character was that certain actors might have played it too broad or over the top, but Constance always kept it real even when things got absurd or a little humorous. Then in the last 10 minutes there’s that oner, where I just held the camera close on her, and she just did her thing. You really see the full breakdown of this character and you see the armor —which, for her, is humor—coming off. That was a real conversation with Constance over the course of three days, and we split up the shooting so that she was supported in achieving each act of the piece on a certain day versus doing the whole thing through.
As for the editing, Simon Smith edited the piece, and my idea was always quick cuts to allow the audience to feel the joke without the director or the writer manipulating them to experience the humor. I think it really allows them to be participatory versus waiting for the punchline on Constance’s face and hearing the proverbial applause and canned laughter. I think the hard cuts really made the audience feel engaged and created this great contrast between the absurdism of one moment and the heartbreaking reality of the next.
Filmmaker: The performances are great across the board, and I’m curious if working with Al Pacino on Hunters taught you anything about working with actors that informed your work on Solos.
Weil: Working with Al Pacino taught me everything—about art, and directing, and writing, and approaching and supporting actors. First of all, his commitment is unparalleled. He taught me to really listen, because he has the most incredible instincts and impulses and ideas—I learned to let him express all that and then create an environment where he would feel supported in his process. So, coming into Solos, my first question to the actors was always, “What works best for you? How can I support you?” Each one has a different process, so you have to become a bit of a chameleon to adapt to that process and give them what they need to fully realize their ideas.
Anthony, for example, is an actor who can hit it on every take. We can do the same scene eight times in a row, and he’s sobbing every time with tears running down his cheeks. He can just get there, time after time. That was an interesting thing to learn about him, and I was able to use it to our advantage if we needed to capture something or take a risk directorially. I knew that I would not be exhausting him if we needed to go again, because he truly has an endless capacity to emote.
I think for Uzo, part of the challenge was that she had essentially a 30-page monologue, and we cast her just a few weeks before we started shooting. She’s a genius. I mean, she memorized 33 pages of dialogue. And she’s in one location, and she needs to be doing different things within this location to help the piece continue to feel dynamic. So, the best way I could support Uzo was to break the script up into sections and maximize and master specific parts of this short play. One of the things I love most about Uzo is that she will always go for it—she will always take a risk and try something. The benefit of that for me as a director is that we can experiment; we can try different things, and maybe they don’t always work, but what was fun was really taking those risks and trying something new. For example, there’s a oner that was on her for about 10 minutes straight reciting this story about how the pandemic started. I wanted a very imperceptible oner that started incredibly wide and slowly got closer and closer and closer, so that we ended on her face. And you really felt the story of this person who starts out in the world and becomes more trapped by quarantine and the pandemic.
As for Constance, she did so much work before we even set foot on set. For her, it was just about knowing what tone we were trying to create and how to calibrate it. She too will try playing it on different levels, so we always tried it a few different ways; I captured the piece of Jenny almost on three different emotional levels, so that in the edit room I could really play with and calibrate the arcs of that tonal journey.
Filmmaker: Did you feel like shooting during COVID affected the DNA of the show? Not just in terms of logistical difficulties, but in the emotional effects given the show’s themes of loneliness and connection?
Weil: Absolutely. First of all, shooting during COVID is incredibly challenging. One of the most challenging parts is that communication is key with your actor and with your crew, and so much of that communication comes from the little nuances, the smile that you give, or the look of surprise or consternation, or whatever it may be. We’re all reading each other at all times, and we’re all trying to be one well-oiled machine. Having a mask and a shield in front of you prohibits part of that communication. When we cut, the actor has to get PPE’d up. I, obviously, have my PPE on. I can come within a certain distance of them and I speak really loudly. So, some of the intimacy and nuance of directing is just more challenged, because of the pandemic. But the flip side of that is that we were filming at a moment when people were eager and excited to get back to work safely, to create something really special with a community of artists. And one of the most rewarding things was feeling such a sense of community and protection. Everyone wanted to keep themselves and the other cast and crew members safe. So, people didn’t go out on the weekends, they really stayed home. Everyone was incredibly considerate and protective of each other. And it was such a beautiful thing to witness, a community of artists coming together to create something that was a piece that affirmed humanity. It became a real gift during a really dark time.
Filmmaker: How nervous were you directing for the first time, and what did you do to prepare?
Weil: I was deeply nervous and deeply excited. But I’m grateful for the nerves, because whenever I’m nervous about a project it always pushes me to do the work, to research, to study, to prepare. I’ve been very lucky as a writer, getting to work with directors like Darren Aronofsky, Susanne Bier, Jordan Peele and Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon. I’ve been a student of fine filmmakers for a long time, just as a writer, having that proximity. Studying them and their process was the greatest gift for me. And our cinematographer, William Rexer, who shot all seven episodes and worked on Hunters, gave me a real master class about composition and color palette and framing and movement and lenses. We went on Shotdeck and looked at different shots of the films that we love—for Tom, we looked at The Master and a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson work, which to me really focuses on the individual; for Jenny, Almodóvar was a big source of inspiration.
Filmmaker: Were there any challenges that surprised you?
Weil: How much my legs hurt at the end of the day! How much standing there is. Before directing, I never truly understood just how exhausting and taxing the filmmaking process is, even though I’ve been a writer and a showrunner. Being a director requires every ounce and iota of your concentration, your artistry and your focus. It is incredibly exhausting, but the rewards…being able to work so intimately with actors I admire was a great gift. Seeing when they achieved something artistically exciting, that was the greatest reward for me—that they felt supported, that they felt safe, that they felt seen and that they felt that they were able to deliver a really remarkable performance.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.