Being Bold: Director Anthony Hemingway on Underground and The People v. O.J. Simpson

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Being Bold: Director Anthony Hemingway on <i>Underground</i> and <i>The People v. O.J. Simpson</i>

Director Anthony Hemingway stands as the textbook definition of a wunderkind. Born to industry parents, Hemingway became involved in TV and film production at a very young age. Immediately recognizing his calling, he quickly rose through the ranks, achieving his first directing credit on the universally lauded fourth season of HBO’s The Wire. Since then, his resume has grown to include episodes of Battlestar Galactica, Glee, ER, Community, American Horror Story as well as his feature film debut, Red Tails, which chronicled the experiences of the first all African-American fighter plane squad during World War II. Today, Hemingway stands not only as one of the most preeminent African-American directors in the industry, but one of television’s go-to visionaries.

Hemingway’s two most recent projects are the blockbuster FX series, The People v. O.J., for which he directed a lion’s share of the episodes, and Underground, WGN’s blazing new period drama about the men and women of the Underground Railroad, a top secret network route and safe houses employed in the 1800s to help slaves escape to freedom. Paste caught up with Hemingway to discuss his inspiring background, finding the humanity in projects and the one day on Underground’s production that left him speechless.

Paste Magazine: What are you working on these days?
Anthony Hemingway: I’m doing a project for A&E called Infamous. We call it our first gangster noir. It’s basically about a reformed drug dealer trying to leave his past and aspire to become a music producer. It’s somewhat in the tone and vein of Straight Outta Compton. It’s about the volatile times of LA in the ‘90s.

Paste: Between that and The People V. O.J. you’re becoming a real expert on that as of late!
Hemingway: (laughs) I know! I’m like, “What is this?” [O.J.] was such a joy to work on.

Paste: It’s been such a huge success both ratings-wise and critically. When you have successes like that does a part of you go, “Yeah, that seemed like a winner” or does it still come as a surprise to you?
Hemingway: It’s still a surprise. I never put myself first, in a way. I always consider myself as the vessel to channel these stories. A long time ago, I realized that storytelling was my purpose. Having grown up in the business, I never really realized that. I just thought I was connected to it by nature. There was a point in my life where I had a change of heart from wanting to be a doctor and not wanting to be in school for another 12 years. I realized I had been swimming where I belonged, and it all made sense. Whatever I do, we all believe the material is great and it allows us to put our best into it. But you never know sometimes. I personally don’t do projects just to get the recognition. But it’s always great to get the reward of people loving the blood, sweat and tears that’s poured into the hard work and long hours we do.

Paste: Do you have a recollection of your real-life experiences when the O.J. case was happening?
Hemingway: Well, it’s interesting you ask. I was 19-years-old when this was going on. The interesting thing for me—and this is things coming full circle—is that I was working with Sarah Paulson, who plays Marcia Clark, in the early ‘90s! It was her first job acting and I was working as an assistant director at the time. We’ve been friends ever since. But, it was interesting times, seeing how it affected the world, either through my parents or through the older generation who clearly had a lot more invested, because of the way of the world. As I look back on it, I get an understanding on how it was portrayed or perceived to be such a racial divide. This was the first time in history that a black man had the means and privilege to beat the system. At the end of the day, the story really highlights race and privilege. There was a sense of conquering that I think came from the black community in seeing—for the first time—someone get off or succeed, having never had that opportunity ever.

Paste: It’s interesting for me. I’m a bit younger so I never grew up with the idea of O.J. as a football player or movie star. To me, he’s always been “O.J., the alleged murderer.” Have you had any surprising feedback from younger viewers who share this perspective?
Hemingway: Well, no. Everyone will have their own feelings. To me, at the end of the day, none of us really know. We can all make our own judgement by how much or how little we know of the story. But it’s been interesting just to dig deeper and really go behind the core of even O.J., and really see the humanity involved in everyone who was a part of it. That really opened my eyes to many things I didn’t know, or things I just forgot. It’s interesting how we receive information from the media, and we either miss things or things can be left out. You just don’t know the agenda of it. It’s been very interesting to just have a closer look into it and be able to understand it.

Paste: Did you discover any details that were particularly shocking for you?
Hemingway: A lot of it was intriguing. Realizing, in the case of Marcia Clark, you don’t know people’s personal lives going into this. Marcia was going through a divorce, and she had two kids she was raising and that informed her state of mind. It’s so many things and layers that people don’t understand when we’re on the outside looking in.

Paste: Looking at the show, the only directors credited are you, Ryan Murphy and John Singelton. What is that dynamic like when it’s just the three of you directing? Even some cable shows can have as many as seven or eight directors per season.
Hemingway: It was very cinematic. Initially when I was brought on, I was told I would do half of them and Ryan would do the other half. That excited me because it’s always more fulfilling getting to have a larger part or to have a voice that is really integral and heard, especially in TV because it’s so uncommon. It felt like we were making a feature. It was a really awesome—no pun intended—dream team. It’s rewarding and it’s so uncommon in TV. I wish they were all like this.

Paste: Ryan directed the first two episodes, so he got the investigation and the infamous Bronco chase. Your episodes are mostly set in conference rooms and the courtroom, with people discussing legal strategies, jury selections, etc. Yet it’s as equally compelling. As a director, what are the challenges of making these talkier, exposition-heavy scenes work?
Hemingway: You just want to get it right. It’s about being true to life and the complexities that are there, and letting it all really be organic and natural. And it’s definitely something I considered thinking about it from the beginning—all the sedentary scenes that could be there. The courtroom, meetings, conference rooms—it was a way of trying to get into the visual nature of it, and breathe life into it, and make it really pulsating and lead the charge from a visual standpoint that allowed the viewer to be a part of things, and not a fly on the wall. Stylistically, that approach allows you, as a viewer, to live in [those scenes], rather than be standing back and looking at them.

Paste: And you have such a star-studded cast. Was there a part of you that was intimidated to be working with so many high-caliber actors?
Hemingway: I was like a kid in a candy store! I’m spoiled. Every job I do now, I’m like, “can we go out to Meryl Streep? Can we call Robert De Niro? What’s up?” (laughs) That was just a pleasure. It elevated the material and gave it a complexity in terms of the story being about the celebrity. Having these celebrities be a part of [the show] and bringing a humanity to the characters really ironed that out. They are all undeniably amazing. I kept pinching myself to make sure it was real!

Paste: At the end of episode three, Marcia utters the word “motherfucker” and that was uncensored.
Hemingway: That’s right!

Paste: Were there any issues about whether or not that could be included? I know Louie had used that word uncensored in the past.
Hemingway: Not at all. It’s basic cable but it’s still cable. It allows you that liberty and freedom. Clearly, as the process goes, the studio and the network read scripts and if it was something that wouldn’t clear, we wouldn’t have been able to use it.

Paste: I think it just caught a lot of people by surprise.
Hemingway: (laughs) It did! It’s funny, people are like “Wow, I didn’t know you could say that!” They get so wrapped up in TV being TV and not thinking of the different paradigms of what’s allowed and what’s not. There are certain networks and channels that people associate with having that freedom—HBO or Showtime. You think of FX as Fox so I guess you think of it as more network. I’m glad we’re able to push the envelope.

Paste: I want to move on to Underground. At what point did you become involved in the project?
Hemingway: Early on. I was a part of the race to find the director and had a meeting. The first read for me of the pilot was a no-brainer. I had to be a part of it. Just the opportunity to really dig in and talk about these heroes and shed a light on it in a way we’ve never seen before. That was really important for me. If you even just look at what I tend to do, I really champion these stories that have integrity, and a purpose, and a meaning and make an impact positively. I want to leave something behind and something that can live on. These are those stories that are classic and timeless. Underground does that for me. It was so special in so many ways. As a young black man, having stories that continue to inspire and give people examples of knowing how to see your worth, and how to embody your strength and how to do a lot with a little. The ingenuity that these characters had in becoming revolutionary was just special.

Paste: You’ve directed pilots before—Power, the in-development show Bros and now this. Can you speak to the pressures of being a pilot director, wherein every decision you make is establishing the visual vocabulary of the show? All following directors will be following that template.
Hemingway: It’s so fulfilling. Again, it’s almost like you’re shooting a film. You are really responsible for creating that template. We love to create as filmmakers. As much joy as I get from being an episodic director and being a guest, there’s nothing better than getting on something from the beginning and breathing life into something. You want to be creative and challenge yourself. It’s the one chance you get to really make an impression and put your stamp on something.

Paste: Were there any particular visual reference points you had in mind when making the pilot?
Hemingway: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the main reference points for me visually. Just cinematically, I loved that period and the look and feel of it. We brought a lot of those textures into Underground. At the same time, I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with too many influences. Here’s a story that’s rarely told. It’s a couple sentences or paragraphs in our history books and it was an opportunity to make it fresh, since not many people are aware of it. I wanted to go at it with a fresh approach. That allowed me to really be free, and live on the edge and just be provocative and bold with it.

Paste: In the first second, it opens up with that chase scene set to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” and you just think, “Wow this is something different.” Was the idea of using anachronistic music and songs an element introduced from the very beginning of the development process?
Hemingway: That was in the script. Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski ], the creators of the show, are brilliant. They’re geniuses. That really allowed me to see, from the first couple of lines, that this wasn’t what I thought it was (laughs). It engaged me immediately and I could not stop reading. But that was one of the things we wanted to do in terms of being bold with this. We wanted it to resonate broadly. We really wanted to be sure we didn’t give anyone a history lesson. We didn’t want to take you to the museum and see the pictures on the wall. We wanted to allow you to live in it. That’s where a lot of the material I’m doing really has a connection or common thread. We were looking to be fearless with it. I always get inspired by the narrative and the material, because these revolutionaries and these American heroes in this story had to create their narratives.


Paste: Obviously this is a show about slavery and there are a lot of brutal, emotional gut-wrenching scenes. But then it’s balanced by moments that—because it’s the Underground Railroad—almost feel like a heist movie. How do you work that balance so the harsher scenes never feel so overwhelming?
Hemingway: It’s a fine line. But, again, a lot of it started on the page. Misha and Joe really intended to make sure this was entertaining first. Being such an action-thriller, it was just that excitement behind it that drove a lot of choices and decisions. The narrative kind of runs the course of extremes, so I wanted to visually live in that dichotomy of extremes as well. I’ve handled drama and action and comedy—so, having all that in my wheelhouse, I had the ability to somewhat balance that.

Paste: When you are reenacting those harsher scenes, what is the atmosphere like on set? Are people still able to come out of it and joke around, or is it more solemn?
Hemingway: It changes moment to moment. It depends on what we’re doing. For the most part, we assembled a family in terms of behind-the-camera and in front. There was a lot of love and there were such high spirits. Everyone understood why we were there, and our purpose and intent in doing it, so we were excited. There are definitely moments where we have fun and laugh. I try to foster a set that enables everyone to feel secure and safe. We need to be quick and efficient and get the work done, and have fun doing it.

But there were moments that were hard and beyond surreal. The moment where Rosalee gets whipped for trying to protect her brother was beyond emotional. It was a moment where, after shooting that scene, I had to hold [actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell] for like 15 minutes and just let her weep in my arms because she carried that as an actor for so long. We had prepped it and talked about it for a while. Then came the day we had to shoot it. Just from the crack of that whip, it washed over everyone, and just sent such a blanket of stillness because it was so surreal. It’s one thing to read these stories and to even see it somewhere. But when you’re in it, and involved in recreating it and making it come alive to its fullness, there’s’ nothing like it. It was so incredibly chilling. We shot that scene right before lunch, and I was speechless. I didn’t want to talk to anyone after lunch. It was still washing over us. I walked through the catering and you could see it on everyone—from extras, to craft service to the Teamsters. Everyone who watched that scene really felt it. And of course the actors having to embody that was a lot, and a heavy responsibility.

Paste: The pilot introduces us to the real-life William Still who wrote a lot of documents about the Underground Railroad. I assume a lot of the characters are amalgamations of different figures, but will there be room for more real-life figures like Harriet Tubman and whatnot?
Hemingway: Harriet Tubman will be in Season Two for sure.

Paste: You mentioned growing up with your parents in the industry. What did they do?
Hemingway: My mother was a production coordinator my whole life. I grew up in and around sets and the production office. I was a child actor, did extra work. I started PA-ing when I was 13. After my senior year in high school, like I said, I had a change of heart and decided not to be a doctor. I realized I was already around what clicked and worked for me. It was this particular job when I was 17 years old. I was working with Bruce Paltrow, and he had been a family friend and used to always pour wisdom into me about the business in general. Just having conversations with him, things started to click with me. A lot of lightbulb moments. I made the choice to say, ‘Let me give this a shot.’ I continued PA-ing and, speaking with him, I chose to be a producer, so I stayed in the production lane and became an assistant director (AD). I was the youngest director to join the DGA at 19-years-old. When I was 21, I was the youngest first AD in the DGA. Along the way, more creative juices started to open up and resonate and flow through me. On The Wire, in 2005, I was awarded my first directorial debut.

Paste: Because I love writing about TV, I’m contractually obligated to ask you about The Wire. When you were working on it, was there a sense of “Man, what I’m making right now is something fantastic” or were you not able to fully comprehend it until you had some distance?
Hemingway: Yeah, again, it was one of those things where we all knew that what we were doing was special, but not to the degree of what it became. We all cared, and poured a lot into it, and believed in it and loved it, just in terms of what it represented about the human condition. But it wasn’t until the show was over that it really blew up. We rarely had people showing up to watch it week-to-week. [Creator/showrunner] David [Simon] had to fight HBO every season to get it renewed. It had its following, but it wasn’t big numbers. It wasn’t until we ended that it really elevated. Then we all look back and laugh.

Paste: Like, “Where were all these people when the show was on?!”
Hemingway: (laughs) I know! Exactly—it was pretty funny.

Paste: Did your mother ever think, “Maybe you could have been a doctor” or did she see this made you happy and pushed you to do it?
Hemingway: No, she’s proud. Oh my God, she’s beyond proud! She’s like my biggest fan. Both her and my father. They didn’t force me to go school. I went to the school of hard knocks, you know? But they didn’t force me to do something that didn’t feel honest to me and really supported me. Mind you, we didn’t have the money to waste, so I didn’t want to do that either. Thankfully, my father—being a Vietnam vet—he somewhat proposed me going into the service to at least provide a foundation for myself in life. To be able to have something to fall back on. I entertained it and quickly figured it wasn’t for me. I flew in and ran for the hills! (laughs) But, no, they were loving and supportive.

Paste: What project was your biggest learning curve as a filmmaker?
Hemingway: Red Tails.

Paste: Have you ever considered doing a feature again?
Hemingway: Yes, I’m anxiously ready for the next story that really resonates with me. I’m dying for a film, but I want it to be the right one and the right story. So, I’ve been patient. But, thankfully, with TV, the quality is high. I feel like I’m doing films on a TV format or level. It’s not a total loss or feeling like a complete void, but that compelled me just to realize—even being raised in this business—there’s a lot you don’t know until you walk through it and experience it firsthand. Just in terms of balancing the politics and the business aspect of it, the creative aspect of it, all those kinds of things, really sharpened my skills.

Paste: Were there any filmmakers you worked with either as a PA, assistant director or just in a collaborative fashion that you seek to model yourself after?
Hemingway: You know, Jonathan Demme is someone I always respected, just from being personable. He knew every crew member’s name and really reminded you that the little things matter—letting people know you are paying attention and thankful and gracious for what they’re bringing to the table. That allows them to work hard for you. Bruce Paltrow, clearly, is number one for me. Again, he’s the reason I was able to really see my future and help me to put one foot in front of the other. Agnieszka Holland is another. She was really influential in terms of allowing me to know what I believe, and what I can fight for and how to fight for it. There are many others—Nina Noble, who was an executive producer on The Wire. We’re like family and she has given me a lot of my first opportunities. I got into the DGA with her, she gave me my first job as a director and as a producer. She was a mentor. Obviously, my mother is clearly number one on the list! But, yes, there are a lot of people I have learned from. Even the ones that made mistakes. Sometimes the worst experiences are your greatest, because it forces you to make up for what’s not there. This whole journey has been awesome. Every moment has been the stairway to where I am.

Paste: One thing I’m always curious about with someone who works as an episodic director is how you move from project to project. Looking at your resume, in one year you did The Wire, ER and Battlestar Galactica. How is it jumping from those different projects? Does it give you whiplash, or did it come relatively easy?
Hemingway: You know, it’s interesting. One thing I try to do is find the commonalities in everything I do, regardless of genre or length. We come through this business and it’s very easy to be put in a box and only perceived by how someone sees you. At one point, it was a challenge to prove to myself that I could do it all. Because I liked it all. I wanted to figure it out and just learn things about myself. Often people aren’t allowed to look outside the box or beyond the range of what they see. That was awesome for me. I learned a lot about myself and it was challenging going from show to show, even if it’s in the same genre. Sometimes you have to forget what you’ve done to allow yourself to be open and learn and study what you’re doing and honor that. It was always interesting going from a comedic approach, to sci-fi or straight drama. I think there’s something that they all share and it’s the human quality. And even then, I see if I can mix—I think how I would approach something on a comedy, and I’d try to see if I can do that on the drama side.

Paste: Are there shows currently on the air that you think, “If I had a chance to direct an episode of that show, I’d so take it?”
Hemingway: There are a couple. I love American Crime. I love Blackish. I love Scandal. I don’t get to watch a lot of TV, so I know there’s a lot of things out there that I’m not aware of. But those are things that are always DVRed on my TV.

Paste: Is there anything else coming up you would like to talk about?
Hemingway: I have several things in the works. I’m developing with my producing partner Mark Taylor, we have our production shingle, Hemingway Taylor Productions. We have the show Bros. We are developing with Ryan Murphy and I have a couple of films in development that are getting closer and closer to getting out the gate.

Paste: Anything you can talk about?
Hemingway: The one project I’m really excited about is a film about James Harris who was the first black quarterback in the NFL. It’s a very poignant story that I’m so passionate about and can’t wait to get going.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.