Cinematographer-turned-director Nelson Cragg has a knack for great drama, working on series such as “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad” earlier in his career. Of late, though, he has developed the special skill of blending genres in stylized period pieces such as Netflix’s “Ratched” and Amazon Prime Video’s “Them.” He directed the third episode of the former and a handful of episodes of the latter, also serving as an executive producer on the 1950s-set story of a Black family moving to Compton, Calif. from the Jim Crow South.
You directed many episodes of “Them” including the premiere, but not all of them. What did you feel you had to set up that directors who came after you had to follow?
On a limited series like this, we want consistency but our real rule on the show was, there are no rules. We wanted it to be absolutely people’s visions when they came in and, it’s a tricky balance, but there’s a lot of free rein in the show because it needed to be heightened and intense and stylized.
“Them” creator Little Marvin previously told Variety that he’s a big fan of 1970s filmmaking. How did that influence the shot style you created?
The thing about making something operatic and grounded at the same time was that we really wanted it to be a mix of styles. We wanted it to have some of that ’50s gloss and polish, but at the same time have some of that ’70s grit that films had at the time. It’s a play between the beautiful images we expected to see in the time [it was set] and chrome, and then contrasting that with the grittiness of what was really happening, which I hadn’t seen presented in that way in a ’50s period piece.
Did you want to use any of the gear of that time period to better help tell that story?
The new digital cameras are so sharp and crisp and clear that the DP, Checco Varese, took these beautiful, old anamorphic lenses that were really helpful in distorting the break down of the image and the quality of the image in a way that felt a little bit more of a storytelling device. We were able to soften some of the images. It’s a little harder to shoot that format, but I think it gave us a really great, beautiful textural look, which we couldn’t have gotten otherwise.
The opening sequence in the premiere episode hints at a racist act against the Emory family, but that act doesn’t get shown in full until a later episode. How did you approach telling the beginning part of that story, since you weren’t directing the episode that reveals the full truth?
That was a scene that was reshot, and we actually pulled that first scene from Episode 5 because it was so good. We wanted that story to be told as one piece in Episode 5, so we did shoot a version [earlier] but we actually used the version from Episode 5 in the beginning.
What went into the decision to reshoot?
We had things that we had to recalibrate as we made the show. Working with Little Marvin, his vision is incredible and amazing and unique, and we actually shot some of the big scenes from the pilot at the end because some of the actors took time to find some of those moments. Amazon was supportive enough to let us go back and do some of those big scenes again, with some slight rewriters, to change the tone, which was amazing. So, it was really about encouraging the freedom and letting people find it and hoping that something great would come out of that — something magical.
Speaking of the actors, they had to go to some very traumatic and dark places at times in the story. Were those times you found yourself guiding them more, or backing off to give them emotional space to get there themselves?
One of the first things I said when I met with Amazon about doing the job was, “I want to be there for the actors — because what they’re going to have to do is traumatic and insane and emotionally really, really difficult.” Some of these set pieces are so horrific and the imagery is so disturbing that the actors just break into tears. [The Emorys] see their beautiful home defaced with horrible slurs, racist dolls, and what does that feel like to see? It’s traumatic, it’s hard to digest. And then they have to do a 12-hour day talking about that. So, my job was really to be there for the actors, to modulate them. It’s such intense material that you really have to focus, find the moment, make it grounded and real. With material like that there can be an instinct to make it big, but you don’t want to get too large, too angry, and I have to make sure it’s grounded in the family drama that can still be relatable to all people.
Did you work differently with the child actors? Were there things they were shielded from on set and perhaps only told part of the story?
It’s really tricky. We would make it a point to introduce the young actors to the people playing the monsters, the creatures, Miss Vera so they could interact, talk and joke and laugh before we did the scene because some of those images are very scary. And with some of the racial things, it was really difficult — also for the actors playing the attackers. I would be there, the parents would be on set and watch it and there was a studio teacher there watching as well, and we would all talk about it and do these long rehearsals and try to keep those light as much as we could. We protected them as much as we could, which was a priority for us, so we could use doubles for certain shots.
In addition to the very grounded family story and the true pieces of historical racism being reflected, there are some larger-than-life otherworldly elements to the show. How did you balance how big to go with those moments to not overshadow the everyday horrors?
Little Marvin always said he wanted a grounded opera. Because the material is emotionally so charged that it’s a really delicate balance between the family drama and these larger supernatural or emotional moments, we had to really build to those moments. We would get really interpretive with some of those things, like vibrating the camera violently when Ashley [Thomas] is screaming in the bathroom. How do you capture that absolute rage that you cannot express? What does it feel like to be othered or feel ignored? We would try to interpret that through this rising crescendo where our world shakes. And when we were doing them, we were like, “Is this going to be too much? Is this going to distance you?” And what I would always say was, “I think we earned those moments.”
What did you find most challenging about the show?
There’s a seven-minute pie-eating scene in Episode 2. When you read a scene like that, it’s difficult. There’s no dialogue and it’s a man eating a pie, so how do you make that an emotional climax of an episode? The first two episodes were really one piece, so it took a lot of energy and L.M. and I said, “This is going to be talked about, good or bad.” From a directing standpoint that’s the challenge — because those scenes have to be pitched perfectly moment to moment with looks and subtle gestures. For me, doing a scene that’s an emotional breakdown is easy because we know where we need to be and those actors are going to get there. But another example would be Shahadi [Wright Joseph], who plays the older daughter, entering the school for the first time: a lot of that was not necessarily scripted, in terms of the look back to Henry in the car. But L.M. told me he wanted an iconic moment where a Black character enters a school in the ’50s, so we had to create that on the day and in the scene. It’s a subtle scene and nothing’s said, really, but the looks between them as she walks to school and he’s in the car are the emotions that are really telling the story: sending a daughter into danger, sending her into the unknown. We had to nail [that] to give the audience a way into this.
Little Marvin and many of the actors have spoken about the show feeling personal because they are Black. How did your own experiences help you relate to the material?
I have a young son and I’m half Korean and we’ve been dealing with a lot of Asian hate and hate crimes, and what does it feel like to have a son who’s part Asian in this culture? It’s scary. So I tried to think about how that would feel to these people, and even more in this situation. What does it feel like to be “other”? We tried to capture the feel of that, and the terror.
Both of your Emmy eligible shows, “Ratched” and “Them” are psychological horror shows set in the past. Why is that the area you’re having fun playing in these days?
There’s something about the lens of horror that allows you to explore terror and otherness and that’s what attracted me. “Ratched” was about homophobia and what it means to exist in a world that does not allow that to exist and how does it manifest? That was an earlier period piece, in the late ’40s, and we drew inspiration from Hitchcock and it was controlled and almost clinical, in a way. I tried to balance that with the simmering tension and hiding your sexuality and sexual trauma. “Them” is in the space between the ’50s aesthetic and ’70s style and when you combine those two things it creates something really emotionally effective that can draw you in. I think those kind of projects are really challenging, and I love diving into that.