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Genre MVP: The director behind all your favorite peak TV shows

By Jordan Zakarin
keith gordon

If you have even a passing interest in prestige TV, the cable dramas that rack up awards and have everyone talking the next day at the office (or on Twitter), then you've likely seen the work of Keith Gordon. If you're at all into revisiting the smart, thoughtful, sexy indie movies of the 1990s, you've likely seen a movie directed by Keith Gordon. And if you're a cinephile with a thing for the great directors of the '70s and '80s, you've definitely seen a movie starring Keith Gordon.

It takes a great deal of talent, luck, and perseverance to make it at all in the entertainment industry, to establish even a fleeting career in one role or niche. Gordon has done it three times over the last four decades; he did it first as an actor (in movies such as John Carpenter's Christine and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill), then as a film director (his main focus for more than a decade after the premiere of his 1988 debut, The Chocolate War). Then he transitioned to TV, becoming one of the industry's go-to episodic directors, with credits on Emmy-winning dramas such as Homeland, The Leftovers, Dexter, Masters of Sex, Nurse Jackie, and Fargo, as well as genre hits such as The Strain and Legion.

Gordon's unique career has earned him plenty of praise over the years, but as the director behind some of everyone's favorite TV episodes during the Peak TV era of celebrated showrunners, he is often an unseen figure. That makes him a perfect choice for SYFY WIRE's Genre MVP series, and because he's a director, we had him answer some of our SYFY WIRE Survey questions. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You began acting as a kid, then became a filmmaker. Did you always dream of being a director, or did you become intrigued by it after years on set as an actor?

I came full circle in my particular case. I used to run around making Super 8 movies with my friends. And I was one of those camera nerd guys who did still photography, made movies. And when the AV club from the school got a black-and-white video camera that weighed like 150 pounds -- you couldn't take it off the tripod -- we used that.

I also was a huge film buff from when I was a little kid on. My dad took me to 2001: A Space Odyssey on its opening weekend in New York City. I was like 7 years old and I was too young to understand the movie. But I was so obsessed with the fact that I couldn't understand. It was the very thing that it was sort of bigger than my brain.

As a teenager, I had worked in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an intern in the film archives. I acted in school plays and stuff because it was fun. I was in the school play and somebody saw it. Thought I might be right for a professional play that they were trying to cast. I got that part, and then I got this career going as an actor. And it was kind of lucky and miraculous and all that stuff, but I always was interested in ultimately getting back to filmmaking.

So while I worked on movies, I tried to use it as my apprenticeships/film school.

You worked with a lot of great directors as an actor, including Brian De Palma a number of times. Is there anything you remember specifically, that he taught, that you learned from him, that you then put into good use as a director?

I did two films with Brian. And the first film I did with him, this movie called Home Movies, was really a film class as a movie. He was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and he had the brainstorm that the best way to teach a bunch of young wannabe filmmakers how to make an independent movie was to make one.

So he took an old story of his and he had two of the students write a script from it. Almost the entire crew of the movie were the students. The actors were professional. Kirk Douglas was in it. Nancy Allen was in it. I got hired as an actor to play the lead.

The filmmaking was also a class. The students got to direct some of the second-unit shots. Brian made an extra effort to explain what he was doing, as he was doing it. So it was kind of remarkable. As somebody who wanted to learn about filmmaking, I couldn't have gotten luckier than to end up on that project as an actor. I was getting to not only work with Brian De Palma, but work with Brian De Palma on a film where his intention was to impart how he did things.

How did he do things? What did you learn?

People think of Brian often as a very technical director. And he is incredibly technical. He knows more about lights than probably half the cinematographers who are working out there. But he is also very good with actors. People go back and work with him over and over again for a reason.

He does a decent number of takes, and he'll almost always get a lot of variations. He doesn't just do it to try and get it “right.” We'd do something and he'd go, "Okay, we've got that. Now let's try one where you're angrier. Okay, let's try one that's a little sillier ..." He knew that on a film set the thing that takes the longest amount of time is setting up the shot. Once you're there, you do it a few more times, giving yourself more choices in the editing room. He was very encouraging of his actors experimenting.

Brian also had a certain zen that I thought was really important and fascinating to be around. Things would be going wrong, as they do on movies sets. He would very rarely get upset. I mean, once in a great while. But generally, he would seem to be the calmest person on the set. And I realized how important that is. As a director, everybody else takes their cues off of you. So, if you're freaking out and screaming and ranting and raving and all that, it’s going to agitate everything.

I think that 99% of the time staying calm is going to be the right choice. Once in a great while, a freakout is actually useful. If you're trying to get people to stop a certain kind of goofing off, or if somebody’s being an antagonist. Sometimes you have to kind of freak them out. But even then, it's something I hate to do. I'm not a good yeller.

John Carpenter was also huge. John really was very playful on Christine. He put actual time and effort into practical jokes. Which was amazing. It kind of kept everything fun. And it made people want to be there. Because movies are hard. They're long days, and it's exhausting. So I think whatever you can do to make people feel like it's good to be there is a really good thing.

What kind of pranks?

Sometimes it was big elaborate stuff. And sometimes it was small. He had a big running thing of stealing the windscreen off of the microphones from the sound guy and hiding them when he wasn't looking. And the guy would just lose his mind trying to find them. And it was just dopey, but it was wonderful. It just kind of reminds us all that hey, we're just making a movie. It’s so easy to get so self-serious. This occasional reminder that we're just playing, we're just telling a story, really, really helped.

What's the hardest scene you've ever had to shoot?

There are different challenges. Probably the hardest thing I ever had to do was the first episode of Homeland I ever made [2013's "Good Night"]. It was almost all night time, exteriors. We were shooting in North Carolina and trying to make it work for the Iran-Iraq border. And those don't look anything like each other. We had explosions and gunfire and special effects and all this stuff on a very tight TV schedule. I think it was early fall. So the hours of night were not that extensive. It wasn’t movies where you can just go in a studio and can shoot till you drop or until a producer says, "Okay, you can't shoot anymore, that’s too much overtime.”

Because we had a lot of night scenes, until the sun went down there was only so much we could do. And once the sun came up, we were done. Whether or not we were finished, we were done. And it was freezing cold at night. So every moment felt like it was a race against the clock. Ultimately, was a lot of fun. Because at the end of the day we got through it all and it turned out really well.

But there was never a moment to relax. I gotta say, by the end of the week, we were working all night until the sun came up. I was just delirious. We were all sort of semi-hallucinating by the end of it. There's a couple of shots that, if you look carefully, you go, "Oh, I guess the sun's rising in the distance there, isn't it?" But we managed to be smart about trying to shave the angles where the sky getting a little bit light would blow it. And we did it as smart as we could.

You made your own films for a long time. Then you moved to TV. Was it a hard adjustment? Because you were used to being, as a film director, kind of the boss on the set. As a director in TV, you get to put your own stamp on it, but you're also serving a vision of a showrunner.

Yes. And they're very different. And I took me a bit to get it. I did struggle the first couple of times I did it because I didn't fully understand. I came from one extreme to the other. I came from small-budget independent movies where really I was the boss. I wasn't making big studio movies where I had to deal with 25 executives. I was making little independent films where I was trading having not a lot of money to work with and not making much money myself, for having a lot of artistic freedom.

TV is exactly the opposite. You really are there to serve someone else's vision. Especially in really good TV, on the kind of auteur TV that they've got now on cable and even network. Alex Gansa is the auteur of Homeland. Damon Lindelof was the auteur of The Leftovers. Noah Hawley is the auteur of Fargo. If I do a TV show and I'm happy and the showrunner/creator isn't happy, I haven't done my job well.

At the end of the day, that's what I've been hired to do. But when I did my first couple of TV shows, I didn't get that. And I made some choices that were like, "Well, they never do this, I'm going to do this," without talking to anybody. And people got freaked out and got really mad at me. I was a little bit confused by that. Because I was just used to, "Well, I'm a director and this is what I do." And it kind of may seem stupid to say now, but it took me a couple of tongue-lashings to get the idea of "Wait a minute, I'm here for you. I'm not here for myself." And I felt really stupid. I learned that people will let you do a lot of stuff on TV, but they want you to talk to them about it.

They want to be able to say, "I'm comfortable with that. I'm not comfortable with that." Or maybe "Try one your way, but can you give me this as a backup, as protection?" A lot of showrunners on the more interesting shows will say that. Maybe it'll be doing a whole scene in one long take instead of covering it with different shots and different actors. Like on Homeland. Alex Gansa is not a guy that tends to love getting it in one shot. It's just not his taste. But he's always like, "Look, shoot a master that plays the whole scene. But just give me stuff so that I can cut it up if I want to." And once I got the hang of it, that that's the way it works, then I was very comfortable with it. And then it actually became part of the fun.

What's been your best day ever on a set?

Probably the most intensely wonderful day I've ever had on a set, or at least intensely emotional, was on the last day of shooting of Waking the Dead, which was maybe the most personal of all the projects I've done. And maybe the one that it was most intensely, emotionally incredible to work on.

Something about that project, and everybody involved with it, and how close I was with Jennifer Connelly and Billy Crudup, it just really felt like an incredibly emotional experience. It was a very challenging film emotionally for everybody. It wasn't the physically hardest movie to make, but it demanded a ton of the actors. And they were both so brave about going to really difficult places. Billy was actually having a nervous breakdown for half the movie — the character was, not him, but the character.

I think the last day, when we realized that we'd come through it, we'd made something that we felt proud of. We hadn't edited it together, but we knew that we kind of really climbed a lot of mountains as a team. It was weird. It was like the last day of summer camp on acid. So, literally, everybody almost on the entire crew and cast was weeping. Like, by the time we said the last line — by the time I said "cut" for the last time, people were standing around with tears running down their cheeks.

So what's the worst day you've ever had on set?

The worst day, wow, there's a big collection of those, too. There's competition on both extremes. It probably would involve actor misbehaviors or producer misbehaviors. It's when people are acting really terribly. And you're going down the drain dealing with lunacy that has nothing to do with what you're trying to get done.

So without using specific names, because throwing people under the bus is never the best thing to do, but a project, it was not my own project, it was a television project, back quite a while ago. There was an actor who is a difficult personality and then was, just say, ingesting large amounts of illegal substances, constantly. Which also contributed to their being paranoid crazy and difficult, on top of them already being paranoid, crazy, and difficult.

And they did that thing of locking themselves in their trailer. And it was a TV situation, where we didn't have the time. If we were running a $100 million movie, where it's like, "Well, okay, we just lose the day shooting." But we didn't have that luxury. And this actor, at least in this point in their lives, among the many manifestations of their craziness, was this weird, angry, misogynistic hatred of women.

He was convinced that all the women in the project were trying to make him look bad. Which was pure lunacy. I mean, there were a lot of terrific women. And the only way I could get him back on the set was to tell him he was right and that they were all bitches and that they were out to get him. That it was going to be me and him against them, because I was going to have his back. And I hated myself for saying it, but I couldn't come up with any other way to get him out of there.

But I felt completely gross and dirty, like I was a bad person. But I didn't know what else to do. So I sat there while he bayed against these actresses, who were just being great. And I went, "Yeah, you're right. It's true. They're trying to make you look bad." And it was just awful. Everything bad you'd ever heard about Hollywood, I felt like, "Okay, I'm right in the middle of it right now. I'm in the middle of a terrible parody movie about the stupidity of Hollywood."

So that was probably my very worst day on a set. I spent most of the day, not on the set, trying to coax somebody, who was barely conscious, into coming in and getting through the day. And I felt like, "This is not why I took this job." If the last day of Waking the Dead was why I wanted to do this, that day was "This is not why I want to do this."

What's your dream project?

There's a movie that I've wanted to make for many, many years. It's a novel called The Muse Asylum. And I first read it in 2001; it was brought to me by some producers. I fell in love with it. I thought it would make an amazing movie. I wrote a script for free. We went down a bunch of roads. It didn't happen. The rights got away. I thought, "I'll never get to do this."

The rights became available again and I optioned them. I'm trying to re-get the project going. Because I still love the book. I still love the characters. I love the story. It's just a really wonderful complicated look at storytelling. At subjectivity, at the links between creativity and madness. It's a love story. It's kind of a murder mystery. I read the book and I went, "Oh, my God, this is like a script. It's like a movie." The way it's structured is very cinematic and visual.

So, my script's close to the book. I've adapted now a bunch of books, and I've mostly stayed pretty close to the books. I'm in the very slow process of trying to put that together. Because movies take forever. Waking the Dead took me 10 years. I think Mother Night took six or seven years. They cost a lot of money, and the kind of movies I like to make are not the most obvious. If you're trying to do a horror movie, it's a lot easier, because there's a built-in market for that. If you make a bad horror movie, it's still going to make some money. When you're trying to do a complicated adult drama that doesn't have an obvious, easy hook.

So, usually it becomes this very strange dance of the money people, even if they really like it, they're like, "We like this, but come to us when you've got all your actors and you've got everything in place." And the list of actors who are worth something, especially now, is not that long.

I mean, 20 years ago, when I was first doing this, it was a much longer list, who was considered partly financeable. So everybody's going after the same handful of actors for every project in the world. So when you go to that very short list of actors, they're getting 10 scripts a day. And so getting them to even read your script, if they're not your best friend, when you don't have your money yet, and you don't know if you're going to get to make this movie, or when you're going to get to make this movie, is really hard.

I am constantly going to people that I worked with years ago. And it's like, you want to walk that line. You don't want to bug them too much, but you don't want to just let it sit on a desk forever. So, it's a very painful, slow dance. You’re hoping to find that actor that's meaningful enough to make a big difference and have them say, "Yes, I'll come in and be part of it. Even though you don't have your money in place." And/or find a money place that will so love your project that they'll go, "We don't care. We are going to back up a financial offer to an actor and take that risk, because we love this so much."

And then you find one of those things, the company goes out of business or the actor gets cast as the lead in the new next three movies of Star Wars and isn't going to be available for five years. So the story of Sisyphus is the story of making independent movies. You're constantly rolling the boulder up the hill, and just when you think you're at the top of the hill, it goes over the top and rolls down the other side.

But I have found that, I've gotten five movies made as a director and one as a writer/producer. And I find that if you hang in long enough, and you've got good material, and you're really patient and really enterprising, finally you get there.