The more I learn about the making of True Blood, I realize how much talent and skill is involved in the creation of each episode. I am more and more astonished that not only does this show have a superb ensemble of actors, writers, set decorators, music supervisors, etc., but it also has brilliant technical people who help to make each and every episode memorable.
Overseeing the production of each episode is a director and on True Blood, there are four primary directors, Scott Winant, Daniel Minehan, John Dahl, and Michael Lehmann. There are also several guest directors and even Alan Ball directs from time to time on the show.
While they all have their strengths and provide excellent direction, Michael Lehmann has stood out for me as one that seems to hit the mark each time. He has directed two episodes in season one and at least three episodes each subsequent season and from my perspective, as viewer and fan, he seems to have successfully directed some interesting, if not more technically difficult, episodes. Among those he’s done that seem to be more of a challenge, in my opinion, are:
- Season 1, Episode 8, Fourth Man In The Fire, that included the famous graveyard sex scene.
- Season 2, Episode 6, Hard Hearted Hannah that included the flashback scenes of Bill and Lorena from the 1920′s and also, although more subtle in nature,
- Season 2, Episode 4, Shake and Fingerpop, which was recently chosen by HBO to be included in the package sent in for Emmy consideration.
Last month, Michael was kind enough to grant an interview to The Vault where he shared with me information about his career, his vision as a director, and how much he enjoys the work he is doing on True Blood as one of its directors.
But before we head to the Q&A interview, here’s a bit about Michael’s background:
Michael Lehmann, is a well known Hollywood director currently active primarily in television. Recently, he has not only been directing episodes of HBO’s “True Blood,” but also other HBO shows like “Big Love” and “Bored to Death” and also Showtime’s “Californication.” While he may be focusing on television right now, he has also directed several well known films such as “Heathers,” “Airheads,” “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” and “Because I Said So,” just to name a few.
Here’s the trailer for Heathers
Michael began his career in 1980 working in his home town of San Francisco with Francis Ford Coppola for his company American Zeotrope. Working for Coppola gave Michael the opportunity to experience film making at an early age without a formal film degree. Although he did eventually get his master’s degree in film, it wasn’t until later in his career that he obtained his Master’s Degree at the University of Southern California (USC). Michael explained: “My original intention had been to go to film school because that is what people did and what I thought one had to do.” So, he applied to USC and UCLA and had plans to go to those schools but then he got the job working for Coppola and decided it was better to stay there than to go back to school. He says, “I had already finished my undergraduate work, which wasn’t in film, and after a few years with Francis, I went back to school”. It’s a long story, but basically USC had lost my application, but later they found the application and sent me a letter saying do you want to go to this school and I said, yes. I had worked on about four feature films, but hadn’t been making my own so I went back to school and got into the graduate program at USC, spent a couple years and that’s what really provided the ground work for me becoming a director.”
Interestingly enough, Michael explained to me that he came from a fairly artistic household although his father was a Freudian psychoanalyst, German born and a wonderful person. His mother is an artist, a photographer and a writer and she lives in San Francisco. His sister is a novelist who writes young women’s fiction.
Read the Q&A with Michael, after the cut, where he talks about the filming of True Blood, his favorite scenes, the most difficult scenes, and what it’s like to collaborate and work on such a great show.
Here’s my Q&A with Michael:
Can you describe the work of a director in just a few sentences? How would you describe what a director’s job is and what are the most important tasks of a director?
“Oh, that’s complicated, but I’d say that first of all a director’s job is to create an atmosphere in which a large group of people can do their best creative work. Secondly, the director is a storyteller who works through words, images and behavior. Third of all, a director is a therapist for everyone involved in the filmmaking process.”
Who is your favorite director?
“I have a bunch of favorite directors. I don’t think I can single out one. I like Roman Polanski and the German filmmaker Fassbinder. I worked with Coppola and have a great deal of respect for him. There are a lot of other directors whose work I love. Stanley Kubrick was a huge influence when I was younger. Among contemporary filmmakers, I like the Coen Brothers, Michael Haneke, an Austrian film director who does these great dark interesting internal movies. Wim Wenders was a big influence back in the day. I like old Hollywood films. I like everything from old film noir, Fritz Lang, his American films, crime movies, John Huston. John Huston is definitely a favorite director and Douglas Sirk.”
How would you describe your directing style? What would you say is unique about it if someone asked you describe it?
“I’ve always felt that I have a pretty specific visual orientation for certain kinds of shots and angles and lenses, which helps define a style. I also believe I’ve become adept over the years at picking a style that is appropriate to the material. I like to think that I’m versatile and can go in a lot of different directions. I’ve always enjoyed directing comedy, specifically black comedy– stylistically dark comedy allows for great opportunities to play with tone and visual style. As far as directing actors is concerned, I believe that no matter who is being represented, no matter how odd their behavior, I want to represent them fairly and with sympathy.”
It must be really different to go from shows like Bored to Death, to True Blood to Big Love to Californication, etc. They are very different or are they, in your opinion? And, if so, how do you deal with these differences?
“The shows are very different and the sensibilities behind them are different in many respects, yet they are very natural shows for me to do. Bored to Death is definitely comedy, but its sense of humor is also pretty dark. The work is layered and intelligent and the creator, Jonathan Ames, has a very sardonic point of view. One of the things about Jonathan’s work in Bored to Death is that he has a great deal of sympathy for the characters he’s created. His characters are often based on people that he’s known and spent time with, and he presents them without judgment, and with a lot of warmth and a sense of humor. The same is true of Alan Ball. Alan has a wonderful sense of irony and complexity of character, and he embraces the characters that he writes. Doesn’t matter if they are villains, doesn’t matter if they do awful things; he tries to get in their heads accurately and fairly. Those shows I’ve been doing, they are different, they are different in pace, they are different in tone, they are different in length, they have different visual styles, different acting styles. But I do feel naturally versatile with the material and I like mixing it up. Californication has a totally different feel but it is also done by a great group of intelligent people.”
You’re in New York now and you are working on Bored to Death is that right?
Here’s the trailer for “Bored to Death”:
And, you’re going to be going back to Los Angeles and working on True Blood. Is it difficult to go back and forth like that?
“I think the biggest difficulty is that I’ll be shooting here in NY tomorrow all day and I’ll be shooting Tuesday into the night, and I’ll be on a plane to LA to prep True Blood early Wednesday morning. The shoot days can be very stressful. For HBO shows one needs to shoot what is basically movie quality work on a television schedule, with high expectations, so they’re tough shoots. They’re fun, but they’re tough. On Wednesday, I’ll get up at 4am and fly to LA and go straight from the airport to the True Blood office where I start prepping episode ten.
You do direct both film and television. What is, for you, the biggest difference working in film vs. working in television?
“There are issues of length of the projects: when you make a film you’re doing something that’s 90 minutes to two hours and in television you’re down to an hour or a half hour. Aside from that, in film it’s a one shot deal; you’re telling one story in an hour and a half. Many TV Shows, especially the ones I’ve been doing, are serial novelizations, a long story told over time. There’s a different shape to the story telling, which does affect how you shoot as a director and how you treat the characters. But in a basic sense as a director the difference between doing television and film is very simple, in film, for the most part, you are the final creative authority, your name goes on the film as the primary creator, and people tend to judge the film as being the work of the director, even above the writer (which is complicated and I don’t necessarily believe in that). In television, the writers/producers have authority over the entire show, so if you are just directing episodes of the show, you hand over final decision making to them.“
Are you talking about in terms of editing and things like that?
“Yes, in terms of editing and also even in terms of the choices made on how to play things and how to ‘make the movie,’ so to speak. In television, I will confer with the writers/producers and make sure that what I am doing is in line with their vision because they live with the show all the time. They will be there after I leave, they are responsible for all the shows before mine and all the ones afterward and they have final creative authority. I can of course make suggestions about the script. And, I deliver a director’s cut; so obviously, I make more than suggestions about the edits of the show. But they have final creative authority and they can change anything they want after I turn in my cut. True Blood is an interesting show because I think the writers and producers on that show think like filmmakers: Alan has written movies, he’s directed movies, he’s also directed the show, so he has much more of a filmmaker’s point of view than your standard issue television producer. True Blood’s producers are very respectful of the directors on this show. They do pay attention to what we want and they also make sure that we do work that is in line with the show. ”
It sounds like it’s more of a collaborative effort whereas in film it seems like you are saying that the director rules and the writers of film aren’t as respected as in television, is that correct?
“That is correct. It causes all sorts of issues and problems. Writers in film, even the great screen writers, who are very much respected, for the most part they just aren’t as powerful as the director in the movie making process. A lot of directors don’t want the writer on the set, which I think is crazy. And, if there are differences between the writer and director, which does happen, and that can happen anywhere, the director will win out.”
Stephen Moyer said recently in an interview that “True Blood looks like film”. Do you agree?
“Yes, I agree. There isn’t much difference in the way we shoot this show and the way you make a movie. In fact, sometimes I think that the way our show is made, the care to detail, the quality of the sets, the caliber of the actors, the intelligence in the writing, the amount of time given to execute the material and the scope of everything— it’s in fact bigger than most smaller films these days. It’s not Avatar or something like that, but True Blood certainly surpasses what low budget film makers are able to do.
Television is traditionally very dialogue driven. In the past, because television was seen on small screens, words were more important, close-ups were more important. A cinematic visual style was not encouraged by producers in television. In fact, they didn’t like it. Back in the days when I started doing television, some of my early jobs, I remember being told, you’re not shooting tight close ups and, I’d say, yeah, we don’t need them and they’d say, well you need them in television because everything has to be close up in television. And I was young and much more arrogant than I am now and would get pissed off and say, well why do you have me here, why don’t you just get somebody to shoot close ups of the actors because that’s not what I do. But nowadays, that’s not necessarily the case in television and not how it’s done.”
Most of you work is now in television. Do you prefer it? Is that by choice?
“My last film was a romantic comedy, which was a pleasure but was not really the genre of movie that I wanted to be doing, so I declined to do other films of that type. Then the writer’s strike began and I didn’t have a movie that was ready to go. I’d been doing some work again for HBO after many years and was really enjoying myself. I did a show called “The Comeback” with Lisa Kudrow. Do you remember that one? I had a great time, and then I did “Big Love” and I quite liked that, and as the strike was winding down, I remember saying to my agents that I don’t have a movie in development and the studios backlogged a lot of films because of the strike and they were very slowly starting up again, and I just said, let’s see if there’s anything interesting in the world of cable television for me to do until I get my next movie going, and they said sure. So they set me up for a meeting with Alan Ball and I met with Alan and we got along and they hired me to do a True Blood. And, I’ve had such fun doing the shows I’ve been doing for the past 2.5 years that I haven’t even focused on developing another movie.”
You’ve already alluded to the fact that your life is already pretty chaotic going back and forth to the coasts. You do that a lot I’m guessing, right?
“Yea, I do. And it is interesting and a lot of the fun about doing television is, that I’m shooting all the time. I spend a lot of time working with actors, blocking scenes, shooting, working with cameramen, spending time in the editing room. I do the work that I like to do, constantly. When you make movies, it’s a long haul. It can take many years to develop a project and its touch and go as to whether it will actually get made. It’s very hard to get a movie through the system; it always has been. I’ve made a lot of movies, so I don’t have a pressing need to make projects for the big screen. I don’t feel, oh my God, if I’m not making movies, I’m not directing. In fact, I feel I’m more active and more productive and doing better work now than I’ve done my whole life.”
Some people are thinking that more of the creative work is happening in television, do you agree?
“It seems to be. I mean there are so many good shows now where the quality of writing is just significantly higher than the quality of writing in most studio features. I think there is still really great work being done in the independent world, but it’s so much harder to get financing for those projects. And what’s more depressing actually, is even if you get a project financed it’s very hard to get it out in the theaters, so, you know, in television, particularly cable television, there are a lot of really high quality shows being produced and it’s a great opportunity. I feel like the quality of the acting is really high, that a lot of actors that in the past simply would have said, ‘Oh no, I won’t do television.’, are happy taking on roles in these series. Writers in the past would say they wanted to write movies because movies have more glamour, but now most of my writer friends would rather be writing for television because they get to see their work made and they’re not being asked to dumb it down.”
How did you get involved with True Blood in the first place? You said that you met with Alan, but did you have to interview, did he know you, did they seek you out, did you seek them out?
“It’s funny; I didn’t know Alan at all. I had read the script for “American Beauty” before it was made. I took a meeting and wanted to direct it, and I didn’t get the job, but I loved his work. I never did a “Six Feet Under.” I don’t think I was doing much TV at that time, but I knew the show and I thought it was terrific, and when my agent said that Alan had a new show, I said I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me so, why don’t we find out if he’s interested in taking a meeting. Carol Dunn Trussell, who was the producer in the first season of True Blood, had produced a pilot that I’d done a few years before and she’s terrific, she’s really bright and she’s really good, so I took a meeting with her and Alan, and the meeting went well and within a couple of days they hired me.”
Your first episode was Season 1, Episode 4, Escape from Dragon House, correct? What did you think when you first read the script? Had you seen the episodes before it or were you familiar with the show? How familiar were you with the show before you saw the script?
“I had seen a cut of the pilot. I saw an earlier cut of the pilot before I met with Alan and Carol, and when I saw the pilot, I thought the show was great, so I had a really good idea of what it was about, what the style was, what the tone of the show was, who the actors were, what could be taken one step further. It seemed pretty clear to me, I thought the pilot was really, really good. And, when I took the job to do episode 4, it was right after the writer’s strike, they had shut down after completing episode 3, so I saw rough cuts of episodes 2 and 3. Three still had a couple of more scenes to shoot and I was kind of able to catch up and read all the scripts. By the time I was on the set directing episode 4, I was really well caught up and I had read the first of the novels at that point.”
Have you read any more of the novels?
“No (laughs), I probably should but you know…”
Did you foresee that the show would be a huge success when you first started working on it?
“It looked so to me, this was before anybody realized that vampires were going to become such a thing so I hadn’t thought about that. Instead, I thought the show would be successful because it was so smart and because there was so much more going on than there appeared to be on the surface. So I figured that people who liked and just wanted to watch an entertaining horror series about vampires, that had a kind of a sexy feel to it, and was just plain entertaining on a surface level, that they would probably love the show. People who were looking for the satire, would love the show, people who like both, would really love the show, and a lot of people who would get into it for the one aspect, would probably be seduced by the other aspects and like it even better.”
What do you enjoy most about working on True Blood specifically?
“Well, to be honest, I totally love doing the show. There is no aspect of it that I don’t like, so that’s an easy question to answer. I don’t think I’ve ever run across a situation where there’s not one actor on the show who isn’t a pleasure to work with. You know, there are no issues, nobody has attitude, nobody requires extra attention, and nobody has a dysfunctional working method. This is something that can happen with actors— sometimes great actors, who are ultimately good to direct because they do such great work, have an adverse relationship with the other actors and with the directors, almost as if they feel that it spurs better work. That can make my life as a director very complicated because I always want to create a situation where people can do their best and can collaborate effectively.
In the case of True Blood, across the board, it’s a very healthy group of actors, they come prepared, they understand the material, they like each other, they’re willing to do the work which is very, very demanding, and they put up with all the challenges and the long hours because they like it and because of the camaraderie of the people making the show. So, I like that, and it allows me to do good stuff as a director. The writers across the board are fun people to work with, are very smart and very resourceful, they write terrific scripts, and they are a pleasure to be with on the set. And they also all have different sensibilities so, it’s not a monolithic group, it’s a diverse, talented group and everybody has their set of strengths. And Alan Ball really knows how to run a show. He can delegate. The great thing about Alan is that he has a vision, and he’s always clear about what his vision is. If you ask him a question and he hasn’t really thought about it completely he will either say let me think about it and he’ll come up with a good answer, or he’ll sit there as you talk and solve problems on the spot. He also allows the writers to do their work, which is not always the case in television. He doesn’t do it for them (though he often does a polish on the script before shooting), but he provides very clear direction for what the show should be and he really knows how to handle the creative group. I think that’s a large part of why the show works so well. He’s also not a control freak. He knows that if he has good people around him that they will do good work for him if he gives them room. He always has a point of view, and he’s not giving up control— he’s just not obsessively exercising it.”
I know that this is a naïve question, but why don’t they use the same director all the time?
“It’s logistically just about impossible. The thing that happens is, once the show gets going, in production, it shoots virtually every weekday. These are very complicated shoots, they have special effects, new locations, they have complicated scenes to be shot, they require considerable prep work, and no single director could do them all. In television, once a show settles in, there are usually three main regular directors and on any given day one director is prepping, another is shooting and another one is editing. In the first year of the show “24″, I’m not positive, but I think Stephen Hopkins directed that show in the first season, he may have done all of them or most of them which is really extraordinary and I can’t think of any other time when that’s happened, but on True Blood, the show’s just so complicated there’s no way that you could be prepping one while you’re shooting another. Last year in the second season, I did episodes 2, 4 and 6 and that was a tremendous amount of work because I was overlapping. I was editing and prepping at the same time, I was editing while shooting, I was prepping the same time while I was shooting, There wasn’t enough time in-between the projects for me to do the work on a normal schedule, but I thought it was very fun and very cool, actually. I couldn’t believe that we were actually getting it all done that way– that’s you know, pretty intense. There are four directors who have been doing much of the work, myself, Scott Winant, John Dahl, and Dan Minihan and all of us have done a number of shows in every season and it seems like the show has fallen into place with us. We sort of split up the work for most of the shows, but that doesn’t cover everything. Alan likes to direct them, and there are some other really terrific directors who come in to do one or two episodes. I should also mention here that Gregg Fienberg, who is in charge of all the production-related aspects of the show, does a lot to make things better for the directors. His work is incredible, and I’m hoping he gets enough of a break from producing to direct some episodes, too (he was a producer and director on Deadwood).”
Will you be doing more than two episodes in Season 3?
“In Season 3 I have three episodes. I did episode 3, episode 6 and I’ll be doing episode 10.”
You did episode 3, I didn’t see that listed?
“Yes, I did episode 3 and it’s really good by the way.”
[Laughs] You want to send me an advance copy?
“Actually, I do want to send you one because I’m so proud of it, but I can’t. If I sent it to you, I’d have to kill you.”
Because you don’t direct all of the episodes, do you find that the actors know more about the characters and the continuity than you do? Is that possible or, do you feel that is true?
“Well, it’s sort of true, but even the actors aren’t in every scene. Even Anna isn’t in every scene. They know everything about the scenes they’ve done. You know I stay very close to the show and even though I’m not there watching the shooting of the shows that I don’t direct, it’s also true that if I’m prepping a show I’ll be around the set a fair amount and I’ll go to the table reads for the episodes and I’ll read the scripts. So, I’m with the actors all the time. The writers of course, in the writer’s room discuss everything and all the implications, everything that crosses over from one episode to another and they keep very good track of where the characters are, so these things are discussed. Jane Sekular, the script supervisor, is also tremendously vigilant, as are Kate Barnow and Elizabeth Finch (who work in the writer’s room, and have also written 3 episodes). The first thing we directors do when we get on board is have a tone meeting and a concept meeting with Alan and with the department heads. Alan will talk about sort of a general creative approach to things. He’ll make sure that we directors know what the characters are really up to in a particular scene and what his intention is, what the tone should be and what’s going to happen later on and if we need to be filled in on episodes previous that we haven’t seen yet. We get the full run down. Every once in a while an actor will say, “Oh, remember I said this line two episodes ago”, and it will be an episode I didn’t see finished yet and I’ll say “Oh yeah, that’s right we’ll change it.” That will happen, but everybody stays pretty much on top of this stuff. It’s pretty amazing; you know it’s a big team of people who really care about the work. ”
What about working with the different writers? So far it looks like you’ve worked with Alan Ball, Alexander Woo and Brian Buckner mostly. How are they different in style and is it a different experience working with different writers?
“It’s a very different experience working with the different writers. I happen to love and respect all three of these guys and so they are all different, they all have different needs and different sensibilities and they and all the writers on the show are hugely talented. I mean, you know, it’s a great writing staff. So, as a director on this show, you want to make sure that the writers are getting everything on screen that they had in mind when they wrote, you don’t want to disappoint them, you don’t want them to feel as if anything has been compromised.
Alex Woo, has a great sense of humor, a good dark sense of humor, and a twisted imagination. He is also really compulsive, he’s very detail oriented, he’s on top of all these details and he wants everything to be a certain way. He’ll look at things on the set that the rest of us are not focusing on and he’ll fixate on them. As a director, it is a pleasure to work with someone who is so detail oriented. He’s very attentive to what is going on, and he and I get along great and have a really, really good time shooting stuff. We also make bad puns constantly throughout the day, which irritates everyone on the set, much to our amusement.
Brian Buckner is really funny; he’s a great comedy writer, he wrote for Friends, and he’s got a fantastic sense of humor and a thoroughly perverse sensibility. I have a lot of fun working with him, too, and I think we’ve done excellent work together. He wants to make sure that the tone is properly hit, but he’s pretty open minded about how things should be shot as long as it works. He doesn’t go crazy about shots that I’m doing or the way I’m blocking a scene as long as he feels that it’s correct for the material. Alex and Bucky and I have all had a great time working together, and we’ve become good friends. I have tremendous respect for them as writers. Oh, and Bucky hates puns, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to get him to laugh at them.
Alan Ball: Alan is a blast. I think that Alan is happy when he can get away from the rest of the running of the show to spend some time sitting on the set. He’s an amazing writer, and the things that he writes are very, very easy to translate to the screen. I think that because he’s a director and because he’s done this for so long, he has a very visual sense when he writes, so I always feel that there’s a natural translation from page to screen with Alan’s stuff, which makes my life much less complicated. The actors also love his work, and when he’s written the script, they show up fully prepared and treat the material with great respect. He’s also good at letting the actors do what they want, he doesn’t go crazy over line readings and he doesn’t go crazy making sure that the actors are saying the lines exactly the way he had them in his head when he wrote the script. He understands that the creative group brings a lot to the table, as much as they can—he’s open to the creative process, so working with Alan is quite a pleasure. It’s also great that I can turn to Alan and say “What do you think?” if I have a question– I know that his choice is the right one for the show. So the process with him is very streamlined. He also delegates well; he lets us do our work, and if he has a note he’s not shy about giving it, but he’s very respectful and very tactful about it. Oh, also, he’s got a great sense of humor—we laugh like crazy when he’s on the set.”
Then, it’s pretty obvious that with the writers it’s a very collaborative effort?
“Yes, which I think is really good. Given the amount of time that the writers put into these scripts and the amount of care that they put into them this isn’t a situation where as a director you feel like saying, ‘Oh, just let me do what I want to your material.’ I always feel, no, let me make the show as good as it could be and give you a great interpretation of what you wrote.”
Do you have any say in how the set looks or what makeup or costumes are used? Can you veto something that you don’t like? How much control do you have on the overall look of a scene or episode in general?
“A lot, but Audrey Fisher who does wardrobe is amazing. She makes incredible choices. Suzuki Ingerslev is one of the most incredible production designers. She is just about the best production designer I’ve ever worked with in television— she’s a top level designer. Those kinds of choices are usually just ones of taste; do I like this one better than the other one; does this one service what we are doing better than the other one some? As director one has a big say in that. I think ultimately, if I made a choice and Alan didn’t like it, he would either overrule me or talk to me about it and find out why I liked it better. If Alan makes a choice before I get there and I don’t understand why he made that choice I’ll ask him why he chose that over something else, but generally speaking, I find that there are very, very, very few differences. We usually get along really well in our choices. You know, I might get into it with Suzuki over a color of a wall or, you know, the treatment of a floor or something crazy like that, but those are ultimately pretty small issues because the sets are amazing. And, I look at what she does and what her department does and my feeling is always how do we get it and make sure that we see it on screen. I like to design the scenes so that we can see what the art department has done. It’s always a tricky balance between giving the full production value and also in being on the actor’s eyes when they say their lines because you need both.”
Here’s a clip from Shake and Fingerpop
You work with many different actors, and they all have their own style. Does that influence your directing? Do you have different approaches for different actors and can you give an example?
”Yes, I think I do have different approaches for different actors. I think you have to. Each actor has a different set of needs and different strengths and need different amounts of attention a lot of the time, and they require different kinds of support. It’s also not just the principal cast, there is a guest cast that comes in and works for a couple of episodes and it might require more work getting them to be in line with the tone of the show. But I would say there are differences.
You know, Stephen [Moyer], because he’s English, and is trained in England, has his own way of working; English actors tend to have a different orientation than most American trained actors. Most American actors, or a lot of them, have been raised on ‘the method’ and they like to be talked to in a way that gives them a certain kind of approach to character. They like to talk about their motivations, it provides them a way to connect to their character in some way, and they put care into making their choices. English actors, I find are less stuck on any kind of method and in a lot of ways a lot of the English actors I’ve worked with are easier on the director because at a certain point they are willing to just talk about what the character needs to be doing and they’ll say, ‘let me figure out how to make that work.’ Whereas sometimes American trained actors only want the director to give them a specific kind of direction and they don’t want to or refuse to be talked to about other things. Anna [Paquin], Ryan [Kwanten], Alex [Skarsgård] and Stephen [Moyer] are not Americans and I’m not sure how significant that is, but they require no delicacy when they work. They also, by the way, all have a pretty healthy respect for directors and do care what we think. And, most good actors have pretty good built-in “bullshit” detectors: you’d better speak to them intelligently about what you’re doing or they aren’t going to be very agreeable. These guys can be challenging but they come well prepared and they are extremely talented.
Somebody like Jim Parrack who plays Hoyt, he’s a little bit more ‘methody’ and he plays around in a different way, so he sometimes requires a different approach from a director. Deborah is terrific, she’s really fun to work with and she is very resourceful. The principal cast is really great across the board — and you know, Chris Bauer is an amazing actor and Carrie [Preston] is an phenomenal actress. These people are at the top of their game and they are people who require very little from me: the directing is all fine-tuning. They enjoy it. I enjoy working with them. I never really, with our principal cast, have trouble getting them to a basic place, and it all goes from that.”
Did you ever have something go terribly wrong during the shoot of an episode? Do you have any funny stories that you could share?
”Laughs, I’m trying to think. I can’t think of anything going terribly wrong, but I can think of a lot of weird perverse stuff that all of us were giggling and shaking our heads at saying “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” No, the amazing thing is that I can’t think of a disaster time. You know, when you shoot movies and television there are definitely disaster days when nothing seems to go right from the weather to somebody’s mood to an essential piece of equipment to some location, you know everything falling apart. But I can’t really think of one like that on this show. Thank God.
We’ve had complicated scenes that took a long time to shoot and we’ve done some really oddball stuff. From Season 2, Shake and Fingerpop, that big orgy in the woods — I remember we shot that in one night. It was one of the coldest nights in Los Angeles I can remember and we had all these crazy background players who were being asked to simulate sex all night long, out in the freezing cold, naked in the woods, and we had black contact lenses in their eyes and crazy music playing and some of the people visiting the set working on the show were saying ‘Ugh, I can’t believe you guys are doing that?’ How can you do that? And some of the extras were not really respecting the boundaries of what is simulated sex and what is not so simulated sex. [Laughs].
Here’s a clip from the orgy scene:
We were doing everything that we could to make sure that everyone was behaving properly, but also that it looked like a real orgy in the woods. You know, Romeo [Tirone], the Director of Photography and I, had devised to shoot part of this scene with a special tilt shift lens that shifts the focus in the frame in an unexpected way so that we could have people’s eyes be in focus and the rest of their bodies all off focus. It was a challenge and kind of a difficult scene to pull off visually and at the same time everyone watching us shoot were saying, ‘Why are you doing more takes of that?’ And I’d say, Well I’m trying to get the focus right here.’ ‘Do you really need to see any more of that?’”
Can you describe your process for blocking a scene?
“Well for one thing there’s always a balance between acting and visuals when you block scenes for film and television – you want to block scenes so that they look good to the camera and seamless for the actors, which is tricky. It’s not simply, oh, just put the actors here and the camera over there, you have to know both what makes for good looking shots and also what makes for intelligent shooting so that you can go from shot to shot efficiently and get the pieces you need to cut together that scene right. And, I’m a great believer that the actors intentions need to be primary. You could (but it’s not good) bring actors to the set and say here, you’re going to stand here and move over there on that line and, you know, basically treat them like puppets. I don’t work that way, I never have and I never will, because it’s not respectful to actors and it doesn’t give them a chance to do their best performance. So, when I look at locations or when I go to the sets we have, I look very carefully in relation to what has been written, where it makes the most sense for the scene to play and where, from my point of view, it would make most sense for people to move and how to configure this in terms of what an actor’s motivation is going to be and what an actor’s needs would be, what the character’s needs would be. And, then, keeping that in mind, we orient things so that they fall into place for a really strong visual. That’s the challenge. There are a lot of filmmakers who start from the shot. They say that this is going to be a really cool shot and they arrange everything else accordingly. I don’t feel that’s right for actors most of the time.”
Do you shoot in order or block shoot?
“I don’t block shoot very often, it’s not good for the actors, but if we have a lot to shoot in one location and need to get out of there in a day and it’s too time consuming to move from one side of the room to the other and then back again we will arrange things so that we have the fewest number of turnarounds; but that’s just smart practical shooting. It’s more efficient.”
I’ve heard that you used real wolves this season? What’s that like?
“Animals are a huge pain in the ass. There’s nothing easy about working with animals. I worked with them a lot in my career. I made a movie where a dog was one of the lead characters and I know what that’s like. There are things that animals can do and things that they can’t do and you create the illusion that they can do things that they can’t really do by getting a lot of little pieces. Wolves are really something else; they don’t do a whole lot. They’re beautiful, but they have to be trained very specifically to do exactly what we need to have them do so, it’s a challenge.”
Do you sometimes shoot them separately making it harder to edit?
“Yes, any time you work when animals you separate them out whenever you can. When you have four actors and an animal in a scene, it’s highly unlikely that an animal is going to hit its mark at the right time in relation to the dialogue so you don’t roll the dice on that very much. You figure out where you can include the animals and of course it depends on what kind of animal it is. There are some dogs that are pretty good; you can’t get much out of a cat, and wolves are tricky. For example, you can’t get a wolf to growl unless you never want to work with that wolf again because once you get it to growl on a set, it’s not going to calm down.
I don’t think anybody will be disappointed with Season 3.”
Which episodes are you most satisfied with overall in the whole series?
“I like them all. There’s not one that I’m not proud of. I can’t give a favorite. But I think that I was particularly bonded with Hard Hearted Hannah,. Also episode 4 last year was a very subtle episode and it had amazing stuff in it. You know sometimes the ones that have the biggest spectacle aren’t the most engaging, and sometimes the ones that have more subtlety to them interest me more. It’s a bigger challenge because you can’t hide behind effects. When an episode is particularly character driven, it’s much, much harder to pull it off.”
Hard Hearted Hannah was a very complicated episode. You’re in Dallas, you’re in the woods, you’re in the Light of Day Institute, then, there’s the transition from Andy to Eric, Lafayette’s PSD scene, the orgy scenes, and then the flashback scenes were incredible. To me that looked like, wow, so much diversity in one episode I would have thought that was a difficult one. Was it?
“That was a very difficult episode. I really, really love the flash back scenes. I think that they are amazing. I think that Stephen and Mariana [Klaveno], who plays Lorena are really phenomenal together and this year I’ve done’ great stuff with them again. Stephen and Anna are also great to work with, they have chemistry all over the place, they have fun when they work together, and there’s a lot of complex stuff to be done with them. But the relationship between Bill and Lorena is so twisted and is so perverse, the scenes are just complicated and they function on a bunch of different levels and I thought those flashbacks were great.”
What was the most difficult scene to shoot in Hard Hearted Hannah?
“My memory of the most complicated aspect of the shooting was doing the transition from the piano player in the bar, Nathan Barr, to Stephen Moyer. From Nathan playing the piano to Bill playing the piano, that’s a very complex transition and it’s a very tricky shot. It took a lot of work to conceive it so that it would appear to be completely seamless and invisible, but if you look at the way we go from Nathan playing the piano at the hotel to Stephen playing the piano in the salon, it’s seamless. You can’t see where that transition is. Normally to do this you would set up something called ‘Motion control,’ where you have a computer precisely control the repeated motion of a camera. They’re necessary for really complex composites where you basically have a computer programmed to move the camera exactly the way it did in one place and repeat that move in another place and then merge the two together. But we didn’t use motion control here, we didn’t have the time or the equipment to do that and we did what was basically a ‘poor man’s version of it’ which required a lot of very careful planning. Stephen had to be singing on his side and playing the piano in synchronization with Nathan on the other– the keys on the piano which were part of the transition and the hammers on the strings had to be exact. It required a whole lot more synchronization than you would think.”
Here’s the transition that Michael speaks of above.
I didn’t think it looked difficult, but it was, right?
“As a filmmaker that’s the goal—to make it look simple, no matter how complex it is. Regarding the bloody murder scene, we shot that very quickly. We didn’t have a lot of time and basically Stephen and Marianna were so good that we just kind of went for it with only a couple of takes. It was all blocked out and done in advance. Those scenes that have a lot of blood and a lot of violence and fangs and bites and bleeding necks have to be done that way.
Did you have any technical problems with the filming of that to make it look so real?
Well, we worked it out in advance. Dan Rebert, our special make up effects guy, had to build fake body parts that bleed– we consult with him and he makes appliances and fake skin and organs and things like that— this year I did some fine work with a fake head. There are neck pieces where people are bitten and their flesh is torn away, there’s a lot of that stuff. It’s a combination of articulated dummies, body parts that are designed to channel blood and have flesh pulled. There’s a whole lot of special makeup work that’s done to make those things look real.”
For going into the flashbacks scenes, I imagine you change lighting and photo angles. What do you do to shooting differently in these scenes?
“Yes, we’ve done different things at different times. In the first season the flashbacks were borrowed from a method used in The Assassination of Jesse James, 2007, that Roger Deakins shot and he used a particular lens with distortion on it and we sort of borrowed that technique a little bit for flashbacks during the first season, but I didn’t choose to use that on the 1920′s flashback in Hard Hearted Hannah because I didn’t think that was the right look. So, we did it more with lighting and choice of camera angles and production design.”
Can you talk about what it’s like to work with the cast? Do you collaborate with them and come up with ideas or is it pretty much by the book?
“It depends. I like to rehearse with the cast. We do a table read. If there’s anything special that needs to be done we’ll have conversations well before the shoot, things related to effects and how they’re going to do complicated things. Nelsan [Ellis] and I talked ahead of time in Season 1 when we first introduced Eddie, Stephen Root’s character; Nelsan had to kiss him, and it was a little tricky to figure out how to do that comfortably. I think that the scenes in episode 2 of Season 2 where Nelsan’s character was in the saw room (the dungeon below Fangtasia where Lafayette was held prisoner)– that required some discussion. By the way, he is an incredible actor. You know he and Rutina [Wesley] are both Julliard trained and they come to play, they know what they are doing. There is a lot of healthy discussion with them about how things should be played and what they are about. This is an agreeable bunch when it comes to blocking of scenes and that sort of thing. Stephen is very knowledgeable about filmmaking and he has some great ideas about how to play things in relation to the camera. He is very clever. I really like working with him. I like working with them all. Each actor is different. Anna is scary smart, and she has been doing this since she was quite young, and she knows her stuff. I adore her. She gives me a hard time but in a very good-natured way. After years of doing this there are times when I want to remind the actors of some very basic things before we roll, and I’ll tell them what is going to happen in a shot, and tell them you know, you don’t have to do this in this scene because the camera is not going to be on you, etc. If I try to tell Anna something that she already knows, she just rolls her eyes at me and says ‘Right Lehmann, what do you think I’m doing here, do you think I don’t know this stuff.’ It’s a good bunch and a very happy bunch.”
Do you visit fan sites or the message boards to read what the fans are saying? Do you visit the Vault?
“When I do movies I refuse to look at that stuff because it’s all after the fact, but when the show is ongoing you’re getting comments as its being made. It’s always great to see when people say good things and it’s also great to get feedback. I have looked at the fan sites for True Blood because its part of the fun of the show and it’s nice that it has a fan base that cares so much about the show. It’s also interesting to see what people respond to and don’t respond to.”
Without giving away any spoilers, can you describe Season 3 in three words.
“Oh God. No, I can’t I don’t even know how I would do that. There are werewolves; there are all sorts of unexpected things. There are great performances by new vampires who are being introduced in this season. There’s a lot of really interesting and perverse intrigue among the vampires, OK? I wish I could tell you more. Last year all three of my episodes were in the first half of the year, and I left to do other stuff, but even though I came back and visited the set and had access to all the scripts, I stopped reading after episode 8 so that I could watch the rest of the season, as a regular viewer. A lot of it was given away to me because I had to know where some things were going, but very little was spoiled for me in the actual viewing. It’s fun to watch the stuff unfold and not know exactly where it’s going. I think this is a really, really, really good season and I think the episodes are very strong. It’s huge.”
Thanks to Michael for taking the time to talk with me and share such interesting information about the making of True Blood. I found it fascinating and can’t wait to see his work in Season 3 and beyond.
Thanks to Dorothea, LISMlvr for the proofreading.
Photos by HBO/John P.Johnson and videos are courtesy of and the property of HBO.