Before making the jump to directing television in 2016, Steph Green was a filmmaker with three shorts, including New Boy, which received an Oscar nomination, and she had already directed her first feature, Run and Jump, as well. Once she moved back to L.A. from Ireland, Green started to get more involved with directing television, first with FX’s The Americans but quickly making her way through a number of shows, including Netflix’s Luke Cage and HBO’s The Deuce before being hired for an episode of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen also for HBO.
Green has been nominated for her directing work on episode five of Watchmen, the episode called “Little Fear of Lightning,” which focuses on Tim Blake Nelson’s Wade Tillman aka Looking Glass with an amazing opening flashback sequence set in a fairground when the earth was hit by the giant space squid. (If you’re familiar with the show or any of the different incarnations of Watchmen, you’ll know what that refers to.)
Below the Line got on the phone with Ms. Green last week for the following interview:
Below the Line: I’d seen your short New Boy, although I haven’t seen your feature. About four years ago, you made the transition to television and have been really busy in that field, so how did that jump happen?
Green: Well, it was great. I came back to LA after making the feature film Run and Jump in Ireland, and I started looking to see if I could get into television. Luckily, I got into some programs that I did some shadowing and I had the Oscar-nominated short, which was really helpful, and the feature. And Joe Weisberg from The Americans saw Run and Jump, and he and FX with the support of Dan Attias, the director I had been shadowing, they sort of gave me my first shot. My first show was The Americans, a episode called munchkins. And as soon as I had done the Americans, it sort of started and it hasn’t stopped and it’s been fantastic moving show to show and such premium television and such great opportunities.
BTL: What’s that like for a director or filmmaker who has been doing her own stuff for awhile, coming onto a show for one episode and how far in advance are you part of the process?
Green: It’s brief. It is a transition. It’s a unique structure, television, and you’re really working with the showrunner to keep the continuity of vision, but you have your own distinct story that you get to tell in your episode. So it’s always a balance of adhering and elevating the established style of the show and then also bringing your own voice to it, so it is a transition going from being an indie filmmaker to doing television, but it’s kind of like going to graduate school. You get to play with almost every film toy you ever imagined, you also get to work with these unbelievable actors. In one year, I probably worked with like 50 stars, 50 amazing actors and I never would have gotten that opportunity just making one film. So there’s so many positives to the TV transition, it just is a different structure. And then in answer to your question, I often get the script only a couple of weeks before I start working. In the case of Watchmen, I got it earlier, and I could really start developing early because Watchmen was such a beast and a complex kind of project. Each episode is its own movie almost.
BTL: Are you able to bring people in that you want to work with below the line or are they all pretty much in place?
Green: Part of the exciting thing for me, over the last year, I’ve been doing more pilots and executive producing, so for example, the pilot of Dare Me, I was able to crew up the entire production and work with Zoë White as DP and Michael Bricker as Production Designer, who are two of my favorite collaborators and I hope to bring them onto more projects. So that’s an example of where I got to really build the crew, and then similarly, I did the pilot for L Word and together with the team there, we built out our entire crew. Often when I’m mid-episode director, I’m inheriting that show’s crew, and most of the time that’s such a privilege, because I get to meet new crew members that way. As I meet those new crew members, I then keep them in mind for my future projects. It’s good to be doing both, meeting new people by coming in mid series and also hiring, building the team from the ground up when you’re starting off a show.
BTL: One of the set pieces for your episode of Watchmen takes place in the carnival flashback, so how long did it take you and the team to get that up and running? That was only gonna be for that one section at the beginning, so how long in advance were you able to work with the production designer and their team to build it?
Green: That sequence along with the Europa sequence really dominated our prep time. So I think from the very beginning, and I would say it was at least a few weeks out, we were visiting that location, brainstorming how we would create the carnival set, all those elements both before and after the squid hit. And then of course we were also spending a lot of time considering how we would build the interior of the sunhouse, which we did on set, on stage. And to do that, we created the mirror maze, which was all practical — Xavier Grobet, who’s also nominated, did so much work to get the mirror maze working in a practical way. Then we had VFX to blow apart the mirror maze, and then of course we actually wrecked and sort of decapitated our own set to create the aftermath when young Wade is exiting the mirror maze.
Part of what was so fun was figuring out a before and after of a big event, what was it going to look like before the squid landed? And what was it going to look like after? And then also the combination of the FX and practical. So for example, the camera that pulls away from young Wade when he’s screaming, what happened is a practical zip-line camera pulling quickly away and down the street. And then as soon as it goes through that very large Ferris wheel, we move into VFX build to mimic and create New York and to show the big squid reveal. So it was many weeks and many hours of planning, but never enough. And just an incredible team with Kristian Milsted, who’s the Production Designer nominated for a different episode, but he also put so much incredible work into this one. And then Xavier, as I mentioned, the DP, so the three of us sort of joined together and just prepped and prepped and prepped until we could get it right.
BTL: I think you shot some scenes on sets that appeared in other episodes, so do you have to come in and film those things while other episodes are being filmed, or do you still end up doing those in your own allotted one or two week shooting period?
Green: Well, generally speaking with episodic, you kind of own the production for the length that your episode needs. So it might be eight days, it might be 12 days, and you get to use all the sets and get to find your own marquis locations. Sometimes, just because of the breadth of this production, we had multiple directors working at once or we shared the sets or we did non sequential shooting, but yeah, for the most part, when it’s your episode, you take control of the prebuilt sets and you get to put your signature to how they’re lit and filmed. And then you of course find all your new locations for your episode as well.
BTL: How about working with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the music? Did they have a lot of music written from having the scripts?
Green: What was really exciting in the edit was to hear how much they had written based on the scripts. They had brainstormed and shared a lot of music for inspiration, and of course it wasn’t the final score necessarily that we were laying down in my assemble edit, but I was already hearing just how brilliant their music was. Just how ominous and tense and then what a great sense of humor it had when that was called for. So it was really fun to have that music available, they were so prepared and just so, so brilliant.
BTL: Were you able to throw in some of your own musical choices like the Howard Jones song at the beginning?
Green: It’s always a collaborative conversation in the editing room. Ultimately, the edit moves it back into the hands of the showrunner to complete. So I would credit Damon [Lindelof, the showrunner] and his team with more of the final decisions, but I was part of the conversation of how we were going to kind of find an ’80s cheesy ballad, and then that would become careless whispers, which was this sort of melancholy theme that would run through the episode that would embody Wade’s feelings of betrayal so poignantly. And so it was really fun, the use of score and music tracks is just, I think, beautifully laid in to the episode.
BTL: How have things been over the last few months? Have you been able to do preproduction on anything?
Green: Oh, it’s just so difficult. It’s so sad because we’ve all been interrupted from doing what we love doing, we’re just all waiting to get back to work safely. Some places are starting and I’m hoping everyone’s being safe, but I have been watching movies and being more of a consumer of movies and TV than a maker, which is a shift. It’s okay for temporarily, but I’m really ready to get back to work now.
BTL: Is there anything else you were able to finish before the shutdown?
Green: Let’s see. Well, after Watchmen, I did The L Word — I did the pilot and episode four — and then I’m currently working on The Dropout, starring Kate McKinnon, which we should start up hopefully as soon as we can, when it’s safe to do so.
BTL: Will you shoot that in New York?
Green: No, actually, the idea is to shoot it in Los Angeles.
BTL: Were you involved in casting at all for anyone for your episode? For instance, the young Wade?
Green: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something that episodic directors are absolutely empowered to do any new casting on their episode. So anyone that you hadn’t seen before in the previous episodes, I would have been a part of the casting conversation and finding young Wade and then recruiting the amazing Paula Malcomson to play Looking Glasses’ kind of love interest. That was all really, really fun to be a part of.
BTL: Was it hard finding a younger version of Tim Blake Nelson or someone who c0uld pull that off?
Green: It was hard, but then the minute Philip [Labes] came along, we knew this is our guy. Philip was so good. He worked to learn the accent that Tim Blake Nelson was using, and he was so brave and bold an actor. He had to be so vulnerable and strong to do the performing he did, and he’s a fantastic actor, I think I just saw him on something else. He’s really blowing up.
BTL: I loved watching the episode again knowing that’s Wade at the beginning, which I must have missed the first two times I watched it.
Green: That’s kind of cool you get to watch it two different ways and I’m glad they were both enjoyable.
BTL: I watch a lot of movies multiple times, but TV shows not so much. It was great talking to you. Are you in the same Emmy category as Lynn Shelton? I had the pleasure of interviewing her many times over the years and most recently got to talk to her about her television work.
Green: I am, I am. I’m so glad that that nomination exists. I was just a huge fan of hers and totally devastated, and I’m so glad that she’s there. It’s what we should be doing to honor her, and I wish we could do more. Such a tragedy.
The entire Watchmen series, including the episode Green was nominated for directing, “Little Fear of Lightning,” can be watched on HBO Max.