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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Homecoming director on half-hour dramas and the Pavlovian response to Fleetwood Mac

Illustration for article titled iHomecoming /idirector on half-hour dramas and the Pavlovian response to Fleetwood Mac
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Courtesy ID-PR, Ali Goldstein/Amazon

Note: This interview contains light spoilers for Homecoming season two.

When he took on directing duties for the second season of Homecoming, Kyle Patrick Alvarez sought to build on the mystery established by Sam Esmail and executive producers Micah Goldberg and Eli Horowitz in season one, while carving out space for a new story centered on new lead played by Janelle Monáe. The second season of Amazon’s compelling half-hour drama comprises fewer episodes, but isn’t short on questions or great performances, including the return of Hong Chau and Stephan James. Ahead of the season premiere, The A.V. Club spoke with Alvarez about taking over for Esmail, finding the right sound for the latest volume of the show, and just how easy it is to get people to clap for Fleetwood Mac.

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The A.V. Club: Helming an entire season of TV is already a considerable undertaking, but you’re also taking over for Sam Esmail on a show where obscuring the truth is key. How did you approach that?

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Kyle Patrick Alvarez: It’s a tricky thing, right? The show’s built off mystery. But at the same time, it subverts a lot of expectations you have about what a mystery is or what entitles a reveal. And for me, what’s fun about joining a show that you love immensely, like I do this one, is you get to kind of look under the hood and see how it works. You get to sort of be a part of it and hear the stories about past seasons. You learn from those, and you create new lessons along the way.

So yeah, it can be tricky—talking about filmmaking and TV is a little tricky. This is maybe a little bit deep end of an answer, but I think auteur theory has sort of confused people about what directing is for a long time. Granted, the job is really different in TV than film, but that confusion subsists across it. If someone loves something, they’re looking for one person to credit for that. And the truth is, we’ve been doing it for directors in film for a long time, for right or wrong—but I mean, we could write a whole book about that. But with this being a relatively new thing to TV, in terms of understanding a director’s place, it will hopefully invite these nuanced conversations. Doing every episode is a very different thing than just doing one episode, because you’re coming in and presumably being hired to bring something specific to the show, where in a lot of cases, being a good episodic TV director is bringing yourself to it, but also lining up with the status quo on the show and delivering what the show is. This show is so much more of a creative experience, because even though it’s season two, there was still a lot of discussions of “What do you think the show is stylistically? What do you think it looks and feels like?” And there was a ton of room to play within that.

AVC: In terms of establishing a new style this season, what role does music play this time around? For the first season, Maggie Phillips used film scores from these great paranoid thrillers to make up the score of the series. Did any of that carry over this year?

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KPA: For season two, we don’t have that conceit of using old scores, which was pulled off brilliantly and beautifully and was one of my favorite things about season one. I didn’t not do that arbitrarily. I thought about it a lot. I even thought about what scores we’d use. The decision to go with a composer was twofold: One, I just love composers. I love old scores. I love new scores, and I just wanted to be able to have someone there with me, immersed in the music for this. I was excited about what a composer could bring to this season. And two, I didn’t want to trivialize some of the decisions of season one to do it that way by just sort of saying, “Oh, we’re going to do that thing again.” I thought, maybe that worked well for season one for a reason, and hopefully having an ambitious score that’s original for season two will work well for this story and this season.

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So, for me, the role of music was, first of all, still harnessing a little bit of that throwback quality, making sure it wasn’t a score dominated by electronics. We recorded a live orchestra, which is not always that common in television and takes a lot of time and money. My dream would be that people think it’s an old score at first and then go look it up and realize it’s a contemporary score. But, for me it was about having themes. So season one doesn’t repeat things. They’re always using new cues. And for me, what I was excited about this year is using certain melodic themes to introduce characters or certain feelings in the season. The season has a sort of circular structure to it, so the score can bring back to a theme you might not have heard for a few episodes and remind you where you are in the story. You can use it both subconsciously to remind the audience where we’re at, but also overtly guide them through some characters or feelings or scenes.

AVC: You’ve previously shot hour-long dramas. What was it like to switch to the 30-minute format?

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KPA: I loved it. I want to keep doing 30 minutes, but I want to keep doing 30-minute dramas. For me, what I loved is—and this is not a slam on any show I’ve ever worked on or even indicative of them—but it’s a tall order to turn around even 10 hours of a television show. That’s an immense amount of content. So, of course being one director, it makes just the workload more manageable. You can give more love and attention to moments and sets and everything. You’re not just trying to create a framework within the shoot to shoot the show within, because you can juggle seven scripts in your head. I don’t think I could do much more than that, but it was possible. And for me, a 30-minute drama just allows you to hone in and focus in a little bit more. This show doesn’t have to follow a ton of different characters. The cast can stay small. The stories can stay tight. For me, there’s an enjoyment there. There’s a pace to it that I think makes this season in particular really exciting. Ultimately, we say comedies are 30 minutes and dramas are an hour, and it’s sort of arbitrary. I have a lot of respect for my guys, Eli [Horowitz] and Sam, for saying, “Well, no, hey, it worked for 30 minutes on a podcast, so why not on a TV show?” and have that decision come from a creative place as opposed to an attention span place. When you have 30 minutes, you can structure things a little differently that leaves room for some innovation there, storytelling-wise.

Illustration for article titled iHomecoming /idirector on half-hour dramas and the Pavlovian response to Fleetwood Mac
Photo: Ali Goldstein (Amazon Studios)
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AVC: If anything, what it represents is an abundance of thought, because not everyone is able to self-edit. For this show, you’re all working within tighter constraints but with the same ambition. It’s part of the rise of the half-hour drama.

KPA: I want to keep that going. I want to create shows that are 30-minute dramas. I think there’s a value there, and I think you hit it on the head in a smart way, which is that it requires a little more self-editing. When I was an independent filmmaker, I was my own editor. I’ve cut all my own movies, and I can stand by their run times—in some cases, too short, too long, whatever it might be. But I’m a firm believer that a story is found again in an editing room. And I find in TV, that’s not always the case. For example, I find that I usually turn in the tight cuts of episodes—not on Homecoming, but on previous shows—that then turn out, by the time they’re up on air, they’re 20 minutes longer sometimes. It’s a little disheartening because you go, “No, no, no, it’s great that we shot some extra stuff, but it’s all the better to shave it down to the essentials.” It requires editing to happen on the earlier stages, because your real estate is just less. I think it’s a challenge.

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AVC: In the first couple of episodes, there’s a lateral, kind of languid, movement to them that almost makes it look like characters like Buddy and Jackie are in kind of a maze. It really makes you feel like they’re the lab mice in an experiment.

KPA: That was the intention, especially in those first two episodes. So, episode one, a scene that ended up being shorter, for good reason, was her running through the hallways. But I shot that as long as I could. I wanted everything of her lost in this hallway in almost a surreal way. And it got tightened appropriately, but at one point there was a two-minute cut of that sequence. [Laughs.] It’s now only 25 seconds or something. But the idea was, “Oh, she’s waking up in this very real environment.” But how do you just give the feeling to the audience?

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I think Sam was aiming for this, too, that maybe everything isn’t real. That’s the sense of paranoia, and the camera plays a huge part in that, how it can be observational or a little more objective–objective photography. For example, there’s a long zoom when they’re breaking into the hotel room. That was really deliberate and designed to give a sense that they were doing something wrong, and we’re spying on them. And episode two was fully written and designed like a maze. I mean, I joked that the show could be called “People In Hallways,” because we have endless footage of Janelle [Monáe] just racing down these strange hallways. Some of them that are like the Universal Studios theme park parking lot and stuff, because we were just trying to create this labyrinthine quality to make Geist, which is on the surface an innocuous corporation that sells bath product, that try to make it seem like there was something villainous to it. Something enigmatic and dangerous.

Illustration for article titled iHomecoming /idirector on half-hour dramas and the Pavlovian response to Fleetwood Mac
Photo: Ali Goldstein (Amazon Studios)
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AVC: Speaking of that danger, there’s an added layer to having actors like Janelle Monáe this season and Stephan James last season in a story about experimentation—there’s a fraught history of Black people and medical research. There’s also a different standard of care from medical professionals. Did that inform the story at all? I understand that might be more of a question for Eli and Micah [Goldberg], but I was wondering if that was part of the conversations you had about the show.

KPA: Yeah, it’s interesting. I know season one, because it was so based in the military world, there was a lot of thought and care, a lot of research and understanding, that went into that and what that means for military people to be experimented on, and what that means also to be a person of color in the military being experimented on. I think some of that naturally just came into this season, in terms of having Stephan back and having the groundwork already laid out. I think Janelle’s character is a little bit of a subversion of that. It’s not the same thing. Without spoiling too much, we come to find out that she’s not in the same position that Walter was in season one. The show follows her in realizing that, and discovering how she ended up how she ended up, and what choices led her there. So the sense that Jackie is a victim and Alex is the perpetrator is really fascinating to me. I think it’s an essential theme to the season.

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AVC: I do want to talk about the end of episode two, “Giant,” and the combination of the balloon drop and the needle drop for Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” It made me feel like the audience at home is kind of a test subject, too, because there’s a Pavlovian response to that song and to seeing balloons drop. And we see that in the episode where, even though Leonard’s [Chris Cooper] speech is being cut off, people just start clapping, because they hear that song, and they see those balloons dropping. 

KPA: [Laughs.] Yeah, look, I have heard that song probably more than anyone else alive, except for Fleetwood Mac members, at this point between editing, and we shot that sequence between two different months. The extras heard it, because we played it on set. It was written into the script. It was part of the plan early on. And so, yeah, we talked about how the music that should be playing in that environment should sound like a political campaign song, where the song itself is chosen for a particular reason to sort of put you in a mind state, right? So, there’s a context, of course, a tongue-in-cheek context to the lyrics of the song. But, it also just has this upbeat, generic quality that forces you to clap. So, there was definitely a deliberate sense of humor going on there in terms of having this ranting man, desperate man onstage, and his own employees can be quickly distracted—catnip is the equivalent of the balloons falling from the ceiling. In a lot of ways, it was like that for the extras, because a lot of those reactions were there in the first time we shot it. We could only afford to drop those balloons twice, and so, a lot of those reactions were real, where we were like, “What is this going to look like? We don’t know. How are they going to cascade down? We don’t know.” So, in some ways, it plays like our lower-budget version of a big special shot where you’re just like, “Oh, cool, that looks great.” You don’t know. So, the setting and the way we shot that, I think, inadvertently contributed to that quality.

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Homecoming season two is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Daily binge recaps by Alex McLevy will run from May 22 through May 31.

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