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Kodak InCamera Web Exclusives: David Nutter: A Director's Perspective

Kodak InCamera Web Exclusives: David Nutter: A Director’s Perspective

[Original article here]


Director David Nutter and script supervisor Kathleen Mulligan go over script with Eric Close (center) who stars in “Without a Trace.” (Photo by Gale Adler/CBS © 2002 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

David Nutter: A Director’s Perspective

David Nutter is a director and producer of compelling television programming who specializes in pilots. He has directed 15 pilots for television series, and all 15 have been picked up for production as series – an unparalleled record of success. Nutter attended high school in Dunedin, Florida, and studied at the University of Miami, where he realized that his dream of being the next Billy Joel might not pan out. He took a film-related class, loved the process, and decided to pursue a career in motion pictures. His first directorial effort, Cease Fire, met with critical acclaim and led to a shot at directing episodic television. Since then he has earned three Emmy® nominations as a director, and shared an Emmy for Best Direction for his chapter of the Band of Brothers miniseries. His credits include episodes of Entourage, The X-Files, The West Wing, ER, Nip/Tuck, The Mentalist, Without a Trace, Millennium and The Sopranos. He also directed the feature film Disturbing Behavior.

Question: How did you become interested in a career in filmmaking?
Nutter: I loved music, and I always wanted to touch the audience’s emotions. I love drawing that out of people, and found that I could do it with my directing style and the way stories and images work together. Music and storytelling with images both require rhythm. In 1981, I was making decisions about what I wanted to do with my life and I saw a movie called Reds, directed by Warren Beatty and photographed by Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC). It was such a powerful experience for me, not just because of the story it told, but how the images and the visual style of the storytelling went hand in hand. It was so wonderfully dramatic, powerful and emotional, and the images felt so delicate. I find that when film comes across as a delicate thing, that makes it precious. I am always trying to find the precious part of the story, and trying to expose that as much as possible, because it is what people will want to see.

Question: How did you break in?
Nutter: When I moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t get arrested directing traffic. I was out here for a year. One day, I played golf with a few friends and a guy happened to join us. His name was Patrick Hasburgh. He had just created a show called 21 Jump Street. I had directed a low budget movie that had received some critical acclaim, but not much else. We played 18 holes, and afterward he called his producer and told him to hire me to direct an episode. I really owe so much – everything – to him, and all because of a golf game. Those are the steps that you make in your life; you go with your gut. I almost didn’t go golfing that day, and it’s taken me to this part of my life. You never know what it’s going to be or when it’s going to happen, but you always have to be prepared to grab onto that ring.

Question: What do you look for in a cinematographer?
Nutter: I look for someone who really understands the story and what is necessary to tell it. It’s all about telling a story where there is no curtain; where we as filmmakers are invisible. I believe the camera should be invisible. The tone should be fitting for the story. The attitude of the camera, and the feeling we’re trying to put across to make that emotional connection with the audience has to be seamless. It’s not always about this or that particular shot. It’s about a series of shots, like a series of notes that builds to the final crescendo. I also need someone who understands that there is so much material one needs to get in a limited amount of time. With the crazy schedules we work under, I need someone who is responsible and pragmatic as well.

Question: How did you connect with cinematographer Bill Roe (ASC)?
Nutter: I met Bill when I was preparing to direct Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It was the biggest pilot at Warner Bros. at that time, and it was my second project with Jim Cameron’s fingerprints on it. I had previously done Dark Angel. It was very important to work with someone who got it, who was fast, and who understood the scope and integrity of the material. Bill and I had crossed paths many times, but never had a chance to work with each other. He was one of the guys who had survived The X Files for many years in Los Angeles, and had made it so perfect and made it look so wonderful.

Question: Describe your collaboration with Bill.
Nutter: For me, the performance is most important. But I am also a big believer in blocking the actors. I have ideas and suggestions relating to every piece of the puzzle that I need to sell a particular sequence or story. When you’re working with someone fantastic like Bill Roe, you create a shorthand with each other. When we began working on Sarah Connor Chronicles, we watched a lot of different films and talked about still frames from different movies. We talked about every situation, including densities and exposures, layers of the images, everything. Then, we just jumped in and did it. I had seen so much of Bill’s work and respected him so much that I knew he had the ability to make it fantastic. Now, it’s surprising how little we speak. We bring our ideas and collaborate on putting the pieces together.

Question: You’ve done 15 pilots, and every one has been picked up. Also, every one has been originated on film. Why is shooting on film important to you?
Nutter: In the case of Eastwick, Bill and I felt it was important because that story needed to be lush. We were telling a story of beauty with these women, who were going to be right out there for the audience. We wanted to give it a sense of majesty and a mystical feeling. I thought that the best way possible to do that, of course, was film. Warner Bros. recognized the necessity of giving this pilot the pop that it needed. I just don’t feel that video is at that level, where it can be matched one on one with film. Maybe it will happen eventually, but I haven’t experienced it yet. I think with respect to portability, and depth and richness, film might be matched someday, but never improved upon. Today, you can do so much with the latitude and the sense of light you get with film. You have so much flexibility in color correction to make things seamless. It all goes back to evoking that emotional response.

Question: Take us through the post process, and how you extend your storytelling using those tools.
Nutter: I’m there every day for the editing and sound mixing process. Editing and sound, as well shooting, are things that I take very seriously and personally. When it comes to color correction, Bill has used Tony Smith at Riot in Santa Monica going back to The X Files. We talk to Tony about the style and tone of the images. We gave Eastwick, for instance, a real burst of color. Bill comes in and spends time with Tony, and then I come in and we’ll all watch together. There is a tremendous amount of work that gets done in editing. There are so many opinions about the best way of doing something, especially when you are trying to sell a pilot. I’m often fighting to keep it as close as possible to how I originally envisioned it. You are also dealing with the clock – not so much how much time you have to do it, but the amount of time you have to tell the story.

Question: What is your advice to aspiring filmmakers who are just starting out?
Nutter: The world today is so very different with respect to making films. It’s not for just the privileged or the people who have the money to go to film school. You can grab a camera and just shoot stuff and put it on YouTube. So again, I think it’s about content and finding something that is interesting. With respect to technical things and also many creative things, there will always be someone who is better at what they do than you are. But what they don’t have is you. I always tell people to find themselves, and find out what they are most capable of doing – what they like to do the most – and try to tackle that. All the young students want to be directors but they are not all going to become directors. The key is honing in on the specifics of what really turns them on and really attacking that.

Fangoria: Behavior [David Nutter]

Fangoria #176: Behavior
[David Nutter]
Steve Newton

Cinefantastique: The X-Files leading genre Emmy winner

Cinefantastique (Vol.28, No.6)
The X-Files leading genre Emmy winner
Paula Vitaris

ER may have won Outstanding Drama Series at the 1996 Emmys last September, but for genre fans, the real winner was The X-Files, which took a total of five statues when it added Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series to the four won the previous night at the Creative Arts Awards ceremony. Gulliver’s Travels tied with The X-Files for a total of five Emmys, the most awards given to any show this year. Also, The Outer Limits episode, “A Stitch in Time” won for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series, Amanda Plummer.

At the Creative Arts Award ceremony on September 7, Director of Photography John Bartley won an overdue award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Cinematography for the episode “Grotesque”. Thierry J. Couturier and 12 colleagues at West Productions in Burbank won for Outstanding Sound Editing. Michael Williamson, also of West Productions, and 3 colleagues, won for Outstanding Sound Mixing for “Nisei”. And guest star Peter Boyle won for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his performance in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”. The only X-Files nominees to come away empty handed that evening were art director Graeme Murray and set decorator Shirley Inget, nominated for art direction on “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”.

At the main ceremony on Sunday, September 8, The X-Files was up for three more awards. For the second year running, the show was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series, and Gillian Anderson received her first nomination as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series.

Peter Boyle read the list of nominees for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series and then announced the winner: Darin Morgan, writer of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, the episode for which Boyle had received his award a mere 24 hours before. “I didn’t even hear them call my name,” said Morgan, who had never met Boyle until he joined the actor on stage for his acceptance speech. “I just heard ‘The Emmy goes to Da~’ and everyone leaped up and was screaming.” The loudest screamer was his older brother Glen Morgan, a writer and producer on The X-Files. The elder Morgan happily kidded, “Of the greatest thrills in my life, Darin’s Emmy was just a notch under Steve Garvey’s Game Four home run against the Cubs in 1984.”

The eight nominations and five wins represented a particularly sweet accomplishment for the show. Not only did it win in the creative arts categories that usually bring genre shows their only Emmys, but with the writing awards, The X-Files broke through the glass ceiling to win in a category usually reserved for mainstream fare (Rod Sterling won for The Twilight Zone in 1961.)

Darin Morgan had no expectations that “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” would net him a nomination, let alone a win, although he felt certain Boyle was a shoe-in. “Most people don’t think of The X-Files as a writer’s show; they think of it as a special effects, science fiction thing. It’s looked down upon by mainstream TV in several areas,” he said. When his nomination was announced, his first thought was “Oh God, I’ve got to get a tux,” an outfit he found only slightly less constricting that the latex suit he wore when he played the Flukeman in “The Host”. But with the Emmy in hand, he admitted that he felt “good”.

The list of nominees included some surprising omissions, including lead actor, David Duchovny. “David got screwed,” Morgan stated firmly. “At least John Bartley won. He should have won last year. You look at the other shows and you go, ‘Well, it’s obvious that he should have been winning all this time.’ My only complaint is they gave an award to the writer of the episode, but they didn’t even nominate the director, David Nutter. And if he directed both the actor and the script to an award-winning status, then he should have at least gotten nominated.”

The lack of nominations for the shows directors is curious indeed. Morgan believes that Emmy voters won’t give serious consideration to a series about aliens and the paranormal, citing the Academy’s neglect of director Rob Bowman’s work on his episode ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ as an example. “That’s one of the best hours you’ll ever see on TV. But there are people who see a story with an alien and say, ‘Ob, it’s an alien thing’, and they will completely disregard the content of the episode.”

David Nutter, who directed the Emmy winning “Nisei”, as well as “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, credits the lack of nominations to the remoteness of the X-Files shooting location in Vancouver and the fact that while the show’s directors are members of the Director’s Guild of America, the assistant directors and production managers are members of the Directors Guild of Canada. “We’re further away from the real action in Los Angeles where a lot of the voting takes place,” he noted. But he was delighted with the “Nisei” and “Clyde Bruckman” wins, adding that “I feel like I got a little piece of the statue.”

Darin Morgan, who has departed the X-Files to work on feature film scripts, watched a videotape of the Emmy broadcast after he got home. To his dismay, he thought he “looked and sounded like a Peter Sellers character – a cross between Claire Quity in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. You see something like that and you say, ‘Oh man, never again. I’m going into hiding.” The biggest thrill was watching the reaction of all our producers. They were so goddamn happy. I’ve never seen all those guys that happy over one single thing. It was great just to watch.”

Cinefantastique: Family Ties

Family Ties
Paula Vitaris

The show’s basic premise turns on a family tragedy, tracing Mulder and Scully’s backstory.

I once had the opportunity to ask what Glen Morgan thought about Chris Carter killing off Melissa Scully, because personally, that REALLY pissed me off! He told me that most networks have what’s called “character payments”. If a character that a writer created returns in another episode, they get a couple hundred bucks. This doesn’t happen on FOX, so there goes any cash for the Lone Gunmen, Skinner, Tooms, Scully’s Ma…etc. “If we did get character payments, I would have been more bummed that they killed Melissa. Now I just feel bad for Melinda who is a wonderful actress and a really nice person … sorry if I sound greedy but it’s sort of joke between Jim and I.”

Anyways, just thought I’d share that little anecdote since this article was written before Melissa’s unfortunate demise. – Sensation

Although the main focus of The X-Files is the cases Mulder and Scully solve every week, the show’s basic premise turns on a family tragedy, the disappearance of Mulder’s sister, Samantha. Although the writers have wisely refrained from overplaying Mulder’s quest for Samantha, it is inevitable that they (and the viewers) would want to see both Mulder’s and Scully’s families worked into the storylines. Mulder’s parents did not appear until late in the second season, in the two-parter “Colony/Endgame” and the finale, “Anasazi,” but viewers met Scully’s family early on in the series with the first season’s “Beyond the Sea”, and subsequently in the second season’s” Ascension” and “One Breath”. Even though their presence has been brief overall, Scully’s family has become much loved by the show’s audience.

The conception for “Beyond the Sea” originated with a desire on the part of scripters Glen Morgan and James Wong to write a “Scully episode” with the goal that such a story would both highlight Gillian Anderson’s acting ability, and humanize the dour Scully. They believed the best way to achieve that was to tie the episode’s X-File case to her in a personal way: by introducing her parents and having her father die before the teaser ended, and then linking her need to speak once more with her father to a psychic prisoner on death row.

Morgan recalled that, “In the pilot, Scully mentioned that her parents didn’t want her to become an FBI agent. We found that interesting. So many people want their own lives, and yet need their parents to accept that life, and we thought it seemed to be a common phenomenon around us. So we put it into the story and hoped it would connect with people. And we thought maybe Scully’s parents lived in Washington. And if they live in Washington, what could her father do? It was kind of obvious to us he was in the government and we put him in the military. Then we thought, ‘OK, he has to be a higher rank, a Navy captain’s kind of neat. And we just worked backwards from that.”

Director David Nutter cast Don Davis, familiar to genre viewers as Major Briggs in Twin Peaks, as William Scully, and Sheila Larken as Margaret Scully. “Scully needed to have a father and mother both of real strong qualities and charisma and three dimensions,” he said. “I felt that Don David and Sheila Larken would bring the required weird to the parts.”

Davis, who has a Ph.D. in theater, moved to Canada in 1981 to teach in the theater department of the University of British Columbia. He started doing extra work during the summers, and eventually found himself doubling for Dana Elcar in Macgyver He won a leading guest role in that show, with more series work to follow, and was able to give up teaching for full-time acting. Nutter had worked with Davis previously on several shows, including Broken Badges, and called him personally to ask him if he would accept the role of William Scully, despite its brevity.

“The character is very similar to Briggs on Twin Peaks,” Davis noted. “William is a military man who, although he loved his child deeply, was unable to verbalize that love until it was too late. It was very much along the line of the Major Briggs character, that this was a guy who was at the top of his field and the way he showed his love to his family was to give his children an example to follow and to provide them with great security. That’s kind of where I started off from with the character.”

Although William had died, on The X-Files anything can happen, and he reappeared in “One Breath” to deliver to the comatose Scully the paternal message she had longed for in “Beyond the Sea”. David said that director Bob Goodwin’s concern was that his monologue would not “become maudlin. He wanted me to be on the verge of being overcome, but he didn’t want it to happen. He wanted the character to be strong, to be very much the man that had fathered Dana. So what I tried to do was to show a man holding himself in, a man who was filled with emotion but who, as a military man, controlled the emotion. We did a few takes and each time Bob was bringing me down.”

In between “Beyond the Sea” and “One Breath” David made an uncredited, off screen appearance as a dialogue coach for “Miracle Man.” As a native of the Ozark Mountains region, and a former theater professor, he lent his expertise to the guest cast to help them properly pronounce Southern accents.

Scully’s mother Margaret was portrayed by actress Sheila Larken, and in the X-Files world, where almost everyone has a hidden agenda, Larken’s maternal warmth and sincerity was a bright spot within all the bleakness. David Nutter had met Larken when he auditioned her for his 1985 film Cease FIRE, and although he didn’t cast her, she made an impression on the director.

Larken’s husband, X-Files’ co-executive producer Bob Goodwin, mentioned her at one point to Nutter, and Nutter immediately thought of her for Margaret. “She was perfect. She was the one, and I hired her.”

Larken was reluctant to take on the role of Margaret Scully. The New York native had left acting several years ago and had obtained a master’s degree in clinical social work. But after moving to Washington state with her husband, X-Files’ co-executive producer Bob Goodwin, she found herself busy with acting offers. Her hesitation stemmed, she said, from her own father’s death the year before from a heart attack.

“It wasn’t really something I really wanted to do or pull up,” she said. “But I did it anyway. I never thought the part would repeat. My interpretation when I did that scene at the funeral was of a woman so involved with her own pain, she couldn’t even react to what her daughter was asking her. And they allowed that, even though the daughter was the lead in the show.”

Larken saw Margaret as “a military wife, married before I graduated college, someone who never gets to finish her college degree or find a career for herself, but mainly gets enmeshed in her family. You know, the Everymother. Part of her emergence in becoming self-sufficient was during the course of this show with Dana. I think Margaret is ever-evolving. ”

Larken’s favorite scene came in “Ascension, ” when Margaret and Mulder meet at a park and talk about the missing Scully. “You explore a scene and try to find what you’re thinking, and what you’re not thinking, and that one just jelled together. There were just so many little itsy-bitsy things that came together and they came together on camera.” She found working with Anderson and Duchovny to be a particular treat. “Their depth is multi-layered. A lot of times you work with actors, and when you look into their eyes, they’re a blank. You’re working alone. But when you get to work with Gillian and David, whatever you send is received and vice versa.”

Larken said that as Margaret she usually does not draw on her own experience as a mother, because “it’s almost too vulnerable to let in. ” She did admit to an exception: “There’s one scene where being a parent did work. In ‘One Breath’ where Margaret says to pull the plug on her daughter, Mulder doesn’t want her to do it. He moved away on me, and I called him his first name. I just went, ‘Fox!’ I could hear that ‘mother’ voice. And David stopped cold, he stopped in his tracks. It was like the voice of every mother; in that sense, the mother did come through.”

The arrival of Scully’s sister Melissa, in ‘One Breath’ was an unexpected one. Scully’s two brothers, of whom she spoke in ‘Roland,’ were glimpsed in “Beyond the Sea” and were seen as children in a flashback of ‘ One Breath.’ Yet the sibling who turned up in that latter episode was a previously unheard of sister, Melissa, played by Melinda McGraw. McGraw, who had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, had spend several years as Syd Madison on The Commish, where she had become friends with Morgan and Wong, and they had wanted to write a part on The X-Files specifically for her. “Melissa was someone who had to understand Scully and yet be different to challenge Mulder’s actions,” said Morgan. “Who better than a mother or a sister? Considering where Mulder was at that time, we thought it would be interesting to see Mulder’s reaction to a believer of ‘positive’ ideas. So, again, it was a character that was created from the needs of Mulder and Scully’s characters. Most importantly, we wanted to write a good part of Melinda McGraw, with whom we shared a frustrating time on The Commish.”

Coincidentally, McGraw said, she brought up the idea of making Melissa a psychic, and found Morgan and Wong had already had the same thought. McGraw enjoyed playing a softer role after several years as a police detective. “It was really great for me to play a different character,” she said. McGraw felt that Melissa “was the black sheep in this family, probably a very difficult teenager, in trouble, very curious. She experimented, I’m sure, with drugs and boys, was very political and was always a bit left of center and always pretty conscious of developing her psychic ability.”

Morgan and Wong had also played around with making Melissa a girlfriend for Mulder, and although that idea was jettisoned, McGraw said she felt the element of attraction was still there, “Certainly from Melissa’s side. We had talked about that, and I think that for various reasons it wasn’t to be. Mulder had just had a romance the week before (in “3 “). McGraw felt that in the end, it was a good idea that the relationship “didn’t go that far, because that left grounds for something later. I think they wrote Melissa in a neat way, because she wasn’t all pure and light. She had this dark side to her, and this slightly jealous side, of being jealous of Dana.” But, she concluded, there is also a “total love. The bond of sibling love is so intense. It’s an age-old dramatic theme, and it’s one of the greatest loves that human beings have. It’s undeniably bigger than any other connection, because you’ve shared not only the same parents, but the same actual physical experience of being born to that mother.”