'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland It's Tuesday: Skogland is the only woman nominated for best directing (drama) at next month's Emmy Awards. She explains the care and craft behind directing such dark and intense material, and what Hollywood could do right now to increase the number of female directors. Tweet @NPRItsBeenaMin with feels or email samsanders@npr.org.
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'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland

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'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland

'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland

'Handmaid's Tale' Director Kari Skogland

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Kari Skogland is the only woman nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series at next month's Emmy Awards. David Leyes hide caption

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David Leyes

Kari Skogland is the only woman nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series at next month's Emmy Awards.

David Leyes

If you watch Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, you'll recognize plenty of faces during next month's 2018 Emmy Awards. The reigning Best Drama winner earned 20 nominations, eight alone in dramatic acting categories, from outstanding lead actress (Elizabeth Moss) to outstanding supporting actor (Joseph Fiennes) to outstanding guest actress (with three out of six nominees in that category: Kelly Jenrette, Cherry Jones, and Samira Wiley).

One face you might not recognize — because she spends her time behind the camera — will standout nonetheless as the only female in her category: Kari Skogland, nominated for outstanding directing in a drama series.

Kari spoke to Sam about why things are still so difficult for female directors, and how she put her own stamp on The Handmaid's Tale.


Interview Highlights

On leaving her mark on the show when she's not its only director (Skogland directed four episodes in the second season and one in the first)

It's show-dependent on how much license you're given to bring your unique visual style to the show. On Handmaid's you are given complete freedom — unlike some shows where you're really expected just to 'fold in' and 'deliver the script' and 'put the camera where we normally put the camera.'

So this show really is much more like making a feature, where the director is truly in charge on the floor.

And Bruce [Miller, showrunner and writer] renders a very — I would say — spare script. Imagine all those scenes where there's three words. His point of pride is to take a paragraph and turn it into a word. So there's a lot of room for the actors to perform, and for the camera and the atmosphere and the mood to help create the tension and the drama, because you can imagine all the actors have — this is tremendously difficult material to perform. It takes a little bit to get to know each other and to get to trust each other and to get inside each other's heads.

On her visual style as a director

I think I probably have a fairly signature style — I tend to have a certain aesthetic — although I try to shake that up, honestly. I think as I evolve and as I look at an episode or a feature that I'm working on, I think, "okay, what is the scene really about? And what can I really get away with in terms of drilling into that?"

I started as an editor, so right now one of the things I'm doing is looking for ways not to have edits. So you'll see my scenes unfold, and I try to eliminate what I call ping-pong editing, which is, you know, close-up, close-up; close-up, close-up; back, forth, two people sitting at a table, ping-pong back and forth.

And so I try and find ways to block it and to keep people moving. I tend to use a lot of movement in both camera and characters, and I also tend to give characters a lot to physically do. So I never mean to unsettle someone, but I always find if they're having to cope with something that's physical, you can often bring something that much more alive.

Women dressed in red robes in the style of "The Handmaids Tale" stage a demonstration against U.S. President Donald Trump outside of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House in New York, United States on July 31, 2018. Protesters hold shoes representing immigrant children separated from their parents. Atilgan Ozdil/Getty Images hide caption

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Atilgan Ozdil/Getty Images

Women dressed in red robes in the style of "The Handmaids Tale" stage a demonstration against U.S. President Donald Trump outside of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House in New York, United States on July 31, 2018. Protesters hold shoes representing immigrant children separated from their parents.

Atilgan Ozdil/Getty Images

On The Handmaid's Tale becoming a political symbol (some opponents of the President have rallied dressed in the distinctive red robes and white hoods worn by handmaids on the show)

I would like to say that nobody involved [in the show] is agenda-oriented, so I don't know that there's been specificity to say, 'Alright, we'll take on this argument.'

And by the way everythin,g that happened in the book, according to Margaret [Atwood, who wrote the original novel on which the show is based] — which I know, from research — has happened in the world. Nothing was made up. She obviously put it into a narrative that was fiction, but it's all based on absolute truth. So I think we are very aware in every step of what we are portraying and I feel very good about that.

On directing the show's darkest scenes

I can say, you know in episode eight where Joe [Fiennes, who plays Commander Waterford] has to spank his wife [Serenea, played by Yvonne Strahovski] — I mean, it was a very quiet day on set. We were all very reverent of what it was we were displaying, and what we were portraying.

We shot many, many takes, and we rehearsed it. We knew what we were trying to say here, He was just destroying the relationship. He was humiliating [Serena] to destroy a relationship that was threatening his position. And we knew exactly what that was, what the intention of the scene was, and therefore how important it was to get it right.

And so it was just a very quiet time set.

[...]

You know, I have to take it on. I have to put myself into this scene, and kind of be all the characters. I have to embody the space from all the different perspectives.

It's hard. You know, if I have to make someone cry — Yvonne had to cry for probably three hours. The poor woman was destroyed. And it was a beautiful, heartbreaking scene. But I feel like the taskmaster: "Okay, do it again, here we go!"

So having said that, what I do, for example, Samira [Wiley, who plays Moira] — in her heart-wrenching moment where she sees the the her lover her dead lover for the first time [in a book of recorded deaths] — first of all, I try to make a very safe set. And that means when we have a particularly difficult performance, it's about being quiet, it's about being reverent, you don't joke around.

With Samira, I did the close-up first. And I also made sure that she saw nothing of that book until it was time to look through it. So we recreated the dead bodies and we recreated the dead body of her lover who's in there, and made sure she didn't see that, so that the first time she looked at it was the first time she saw it. And we captured that moment. It helped her just be in the moment, and not have to force anything but truth.

On decompressing after a long day on set

I go home and hug my kids, or I talk to my kids. I've got a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old. And I think that's been a big part of grounding me — and my husband. I talk to them because they haven't experienced what I experienced, so if I bring my stress home, they call me on it. And all of them do.

You know, hearing about their day and taking me out of my day — which, I think at the time, is so important — and you realize 'eh, that's not so important, listen to what happened to them.' So it really is my true regimen — connecting with them.

[...]

One of the things that I think I've been very careful to do is not separate them, actually, from what I do. So they've seen me distressing over something maybe I felt I didn't get right, and all the stuff that goes into the creative process. I've embraced that, and let them see it, so that I hope — as women — they will grow up to understand that that's just part of living.

On gender imbalance in directing (Skogland has two daughters)

I was just told it's impossible — you will not be able to have a family and direct. And so I decided to embrace making it all normal, kind of making it our family business. My husband is an editor, and in fact he was the first person who hired me as an assistant editor. Then we fell in love and the rest was history.

Sadly, the narrative hasn't really changed and and the numbers haven't really changed. And that's not about griping about it, it's just saying, 'How is it it hasn't changed?'

[...]

I think a female tends not to be able to fail up. I think men often fail up and women generally don't. So if you've made a mistake, you wear it, and it's really hard to dig yourself out from under that mistake.

Having said that, you just do it. And I mentor a lot of women. Not only on set, but I have several people who call me, and I have people that I call — both male and female. And I can say I've had as much support from men as I have from women to get past some of these barriers that are gender-specific.

I recently spoke with a female director who said she had chosen not to have children, and she was questioning it as a woman later in life. And I felt for her, because I thought, you know she bought in. And I guess it's up to you to design your life the way you want to design it.

Hopefully the message is: it certainly can be done. There is a whole boatload of luck involved, and then a whole boatload of hard work. You asked how I decompress and night. I also do my shot-list for the next day and get a little bit buried in that. I look at dailies. I spend probably two hours working. And I don't think male or female any director and a person who's succeeded at anything wouldn't say that there's not an awful lot of hard work that goes alongside that.