Over two weeks, director Bronwen Hughes entered two of the biggest worlds on television. First, she directed a battle heavy episode of “The Walking Dead,” earning rave reviews for the horror-inspired “Stalker.” The next week, “Magic Man” kicked off Season Five of “Better Call Saul,” and allowed Jimmy to take on his popular persona. Hughes delivered popular films in “Harriet the Spy” and “Stander” before becoming an accomplished TV director working on “Breaking Bad,” “Queen of the South” and more. We spoke about her episodes, “Magic Man” and “Stalker,” which have become two of the most popular and critically acclaimed episodes of the year.
Alan French/AwardsCircuit: You’ve made feature films, including “Harriet the Spy” and “Forces of Nature” but you’ve also swung to television. Do you find a difference between the two forms?
Bronwen Hughes: I’m actually feeling form agnostic. I have projects in every medium, from digital streaming to feature films. Whatever you’ve got, if there’s a way you can see my story, I’m up for it. Reach is such a big thing today. I’ve never felt like I’ve left it behind for television, it just happens to be where the action is lately.
As a director, I’ve also benefited from TV screens getting larger and cinema screens getting smaller. It doesn’t even enter my mind anymore. I think about my work as a language, and how I use this language depends on the story and scripts. If your story needs to think about paranoia, you make choices to limit what we see or how quickly we cut between viewpoints. You’ll make different choices if the characters are falling in love, or if you’re trying to create elation.
AF: This year you directed episodes of both “The Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul” this year. They are very different in terms of tone. Do you find walking in each of those worlds difficult?
BH: I love the challenge of coming up with the right way to capture or film any story. I find it a delicious prospect to help bring these stories to life. The fact that they came out a week apart might make me look like a bit off, but the lucky part of being busy in this business is that you’re constantly swinging between the goals.
Some directors used to get pigeon-holed because they had never directed comedy, but that happens less and less now. It’s more about what kind of hold you have on the medium. You also have to be great to work with and open to collaboration. That’s a big difference between film and television because when you direct a feature, you have total say from the beginning to the end. In television, you’re stepping into a world someone else has created and been running. In a way, it’s becoming a team cheerleader, where I’m trying to find the best from everybody.
AF: Speaking of collaboration, working on “Better Call Saul” allowed you to work with Vince Gilligan again. What is like to work with him?
BH: Well Vince Gilligan and his partner on the show Peter Gould are both so great as showrunners because they legitimately want to hear your opinion on everything. They also both have incredible taste, which happens to be in sync with my own. That means that I can work without second-guessing what they’ll want or trying to tell, and more often than not it’s in line with their opinions.
When I worked on “Breaking Bad,” I had just come off directing my feature “Stander” about a South African bank robber who is also the chief of Police. Vince called me and said that I had this tone that would apply to the show he was trying to make. So that was a very relaxing feeling that I could work within my wheelhouse.
What people forget about working on the first season of a show, the series is not a hit yet. We might not know if something will work, so you’re helping to develop the style of the series. Vince is the greatest cheerleader because he will allow the best in you to come out.
AF: One of my favorite things about “Magic Man” visually is how we begin with the Gene story in black and white before it shifting to color for the prequel story. How did you approach this storytelling technique considering it occurs within the same episode?
BH: Well I love the Gene Tackovich stories, and I can’t wait to see how they wrap up. I believe the Gene stories are delicious because they’re about the paranoia of nothingness. Everything, from the screenplay to the cinematography and sound design, is all based around the idea that something could happen. This could be the moment where it all comes crumbling down. If you compose the shots correctly, you leave the audience in a state where they do not know whether the person who just looked at Gene did so with recognition or just a passing glance. That kind of language is specific to Gene’s storyline.
AF: You can tell throughout “Magic Man” Gene has become incredibly paranoid. It culminates at that moment that he’s finally recognized.
BH: I worked really hard to load the things that were casual against the things that are not. With Don [Harvey], he had to play the scene as someone who thinks he recognizes Saul, but he might be wrong. When we talked it over I pinpointed a few things, like what if he were to linger a little bit longer than a normal human? Don latched on, and the way we shot created a juxtaposition with how he played it, creating even higher levels of paranoia.
When we go to color, we see Jimmy finally adopt the Saul Goodman persona with all of its boldness and craziness. We had to shoot it in line with how Saul would want it, especially against the minimalist world that Gene inhabits. It was a legendary night when we had Saul set up his circuit tent and we invited everyone to stand in line for a free phone. We roped in everything we could into that oner.
AF: The circus tent is so colorful and the lighting seemed challenging. How do you maintain the vibrancy and the tone?
BH: Well the thing about “Better Call Saul” is that you have a tightrope to walk. If things get too serious, you cannot enjoy the comedy that comes afterward, but if it’s too comedic than the show has no stakes. It’s a fine line, and that reflects in the design of the tent. Saul needs to have something flashy, but he’s also giving away free phones to potential criminals. If you look closely, everything is fraying. The windows are yellow and the plastic is yellowing. Even the lightbulbs feel like they’re from a used car lot, so they’re not as bright as they should be.
AF: One of the real standouts of this season comes from Rhea Seehorn, who has been riveting. Do you shoot Kim in a different way than you shoot Saul?
BH: Well she’s the heart of the show moving forward. The direction that Jimmy McGill is heading and the direction Kim is heading could begin to diverge. Working with Rhea, you have to trust her to have a good handle on the character. We had to determine exactly how convinced or confused with Jimmy at any moment.
She’s still in love with him, and there’s no black or white to be seen. She’s walking on a train track trying to keep it balanced. We have to hear her say the words that she’s on board, but we also need to see it in her face that she’s worried.
AF: In addition to the Kim & Jimmy storyline, you have the Cartel storyline. Tell me about shooting with Tony Dalton and Michael Mando.
BH: All aspects of “Better Call Saul” has a buoyancy to it, and in the cartel storylines, these performers feel like they’re playing with each other. Tony Dalton is walking charisma and we know he’s capable of great violence at the same time. That swagger makes him so interesting to watch and you can’t wait for him to come back on screen.
Meanwhile, Mando is outwardly playing one set of loyalties while hiding a different loyalty in the shadows. At any given moment, he’s communicating on three levels, because he’s also worried that the slightest slip up means he’s toast. Giancarlo Esposito makes you constantly want him back on screen, and he’s such a fantastic presence as a person. He’s so optimistic and its really a joy to work with him.
AF: That comes across with him. “Better Call Saul” has been on for five years, but “The Walking Dead” has been on for twice as long. Does that change the environment at all for you as the director?
BH: Well it’s a fantastic team between Greg Nicotero and Angela Kang. While it could be intimidating, they welcome you onto the team. It’s more of a challenge coming into a show with such a rabid fanbase and deep lore. Greg and Angela were extremely open to let me bring some of my ideas into this great show, and it was amazing to feel welcome.
Another aspect to keep in mind is the setting. Georgia feels like its 110 degrees, and many actors wear latex suits. You have to keep things moving. You have to be on your game, but you also get to play in the toybox with these characters, even if its just a shot of an empty graveyard.
AF: One of the things I loved about “Stalker” is that it feels like a true horror film. There are so many references throughout the episode, what was the goal when you were on set?
BH: Well when I talked to Angela on day one, we specifically discussed the image of the hand coming out of the grave. It’s so iconic, even if people do not always know where it’s from. Angela told me I did not have to be subtle, but she wanted to make it poster-worthy. I approached the rest of the episode with the idea of creating strong images that could fit within the universe but still feel extremely bold. It should not be subtle, it needed to be explosive.
From the moment we dropped Beta down the hole, we wanted you to wonder what he is up to. By the time we reveal, we wanted to make it as creepy as possible. You have the empty graveyard, then a hand exploding out of the dirt, and finally the monstrous Beta.
When he’s standing against the edge of the town, he is lit against the night with a knife in each hand. That’s an example of some image building we used in this episode. After he kills the townspeople he waits for them to reanimate. We had him sit in a Yoga pose so he would look like a cult leader performing a ritual. It should never feel random, we actively created those images.
AF: Well there’s the scene in the hallway that felt like it was pulled from Carpenter’s “Halloween,” down to a young woman telling the two children to run away as she gets attacked.
BH: That’s definitely in there. Jim Barnes, one of the great writers on the show, certainly has that in his mind. The jump scare of Beta grabbing her needs to feel scary. It’s also great for us to know where the seeds of these horror sequences came from.
AF: The fight between Darryl and Alpha was also very cool, especially the blood on the lens. Where did that come from?
BH: Well I have to give Angela credit for that. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we needed to raise the stakes. This was a battle between the show’s titans and it has to be worthy. The point of the fight needed to make the audience believe that they could bleed out by the end of the episode.
I decided early on that Darryl had to be weakened, so the slash across his face made it difficult for him to see. I also came up with the idea that he had to skewer her so they had a literal faceoff. Angela came up with the idea for the shot of blood running in his eyes, and I loved the idea because it deprives the character and the audience of vision.
AF: What’s up next for you Bronwen?
BH: Well I can tell you what I’ve already shot. I look forward to everyone seeing a Hillary Swank series, “Away” I did for Netflix. It’s about a five-man, three-year mission in a spaceship. It’s deep in visual effects now, but it has an incredible cast of actors from across the world with Hillary in the lead. The human aspect of the story is emotionally affecting, and we cannot wait.
I was on my way next week to do a mini-series on Evil Knievel and I turned in a screenplay for a feature that will be a spy thriller. Hopefully, that will go when everyone is safe again.
AF: Well thank you so much for your time Bronwen and we hope to speak to you again soon!
BH: Thank you!