TV director Lesli Linka Glatter’s list of credits is almost identical to every critic’s listicle ranking the best dramas from the past two decades. She’s behind pivotal episodes of Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks, The West Wing, E.R., House, and Mad Men. Glatter also directed the standout installment of this season of Homeland: the terse, thrilling, and brilliantly acted interrogation episode called “Q&A,” in which bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) breaks the object of her romantic and professional obsession, ex-Marine turned terrorist turned Congressman Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis).
Though the talents of Danes and Lewis in “Q&A” have been amply and deservedly praised by recappers and reviewers, Linka Glatter’s no-frills direction is what elevates the episode to instant classic. New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz perfectly described Linka Glatter’s brilliant technique, writing, “As Carrie bears down on the truth of Brody’s existential predicament–as she pushes his buttons and gets him to open up–the direction becomes primordially simple: an exchange of tight close-ups; lines answering lines, faces answering faces.”
That Linka Glatter was able to wring so much tension and pathos from two actors in an empty concrete bunker speaks one of her great skills: Directing dialogue. Linka Glatter spoke to Co.Create about how to set a scene, whether it’s against the backdrop of Mad Men’s fainting couch or one of the West Wing’s infamous walk-and-talks.
When I got the script (for “Q&A”) I figured I better look at interrogations in different movies and TV that have worked. There wasn’t anything that paralleled [the scene in Homeland]. I watched Marathon Man, that amazing scene between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. I also watched Reservoir Dogs. I watched many, many scenes from movies, and the one TV scene I looked at was an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets [“Three Men and Adena,” from Season 1]. That whole show is an interrogation, and it’s extraordinary. What it helped me do is realizing that two people sitting in a room can be totally interesting, especially when it’s Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.
My background is in modern dance. I was a dancer and a choreographer before I was a director, and in dance, you can’t cheat. Your leg goes up in the air or it doesn’t. So when I direct, I’m a big preparer. I think about the text and the subtext. I don’t ever want to impose something on the story. I want the story to tell me.
First I prepare alone, then with the director of photography [DP], and then with the actors. When you’re working in a collaborative storytelling medium, every step of the way, you’re opening yourself up. I love when an editor finds something on tape I didn’t expect, because they’re bringing their particular point of view to it.
When we were shooting the Carrie and Brody interrogation scene [in “Q&A”], we did three completed takes. Take two was the take we used. We did cross-coverage, shooting Carrie and Brody at the same time. That’s really hard for a DP to do, and Nelson [Cragg], our wonderful DP, did it. I felt it was really important that we do that–that scene is so complex. Both [Danes and Lewis] were completely exhausted from using so much physical and psychic energy. Most takes are three minutes long, but we shot this scene like a play, and the takes were 25 minutes. You need amazing actors to shoot scenes like these. Take two was so tense and alive, I was sitting with the writer Henry Bromell, and we were holding onto each other.
The creators of a quality show have built a tremendous working environment. I’m someone who has worked as a producing director, and you go into all these different worlds with their different creative environments.
Every creator sets up their world differently. That’s what’s so amazing about someone like Aaron Sorkin and his writing. It’s like how an actor needs to learn Shakespeare to rise above the material–if you don’t know the dialogue cold, you can’t do it justice. The first time I directed West Wing, I had a scene in the Roosevelt room with 13 characters in it. It was like an eight page scene, and the only description in the scene was “he enters.” There was no other stage direction. As a director, that’s so exciting. You start to break it down, realize what the scene is really about and to stage it wherever you want it to be. Another brilliant writer, Mad Men’s Matt Weiner, his detailing of stage direction is down to the minute detail–so what could be more different? That for me, keeps it interesting.