One day you're in free fall. Your indie feature was hanging on a thread, then with mere days until production a producer drops out and you're screwed.
Deniz was planning to quit and sell ice cream...
Flash forward to a busy set of a new HBO series rebooting a beloved classic TV show. You're directing one of the most celebrated older actors of a generation in some deeply challenging scenes. What do you say to an actor like John Lithgow to help get a gut-wrenching, powerful performance?
What happened that helped her change course?
We'll get to all that soon.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven is no stranger to making due, pulling things together, and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Her filmmaking roots are indie at heart. She's had to cobble together pieces to make them work, and that early project that died right before production?
Well, she brought it back to life and it ended up nominated for an Oscar.
Directing a show like Perry Mason might seem at first like a whole new ball game, but by focusing on the most important single things, all that other stuff melts away.
What things? She tells us.
As for Perry Mason, The show is a must-watch for anyone who loves cinematic storytelling. It's rooted in the successful long-running series Perry Mason, of course, but it's also beautifully crafted period noir. Any filmmaker will drool over the attention to detail in it's set design, wardrobe, props, and lighting. It's a feast, and the story is gritty and engaging.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Deniz about the episodes she directed so beautifully, how she approached them, how she's confronted challenges in her career, and more.
No Film School: I absolutely love the show and I sought out speaking with you because as I watched it, I thought, "Oh my God, this is one of the most technically impressive things I've seen in a while." And I just wanted to get our community hearing from the people behind it. But to start, I'm curious to know how your career got started.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: I started off doing a film school in France. They take six directors a year, six scriptwriters, six of every department. You do films for four years. So it was the best lab in the world. And after that, I did my first feature film in Europe. It was shot in Turkey. And that film [Mustang] which was a tiny budget, got a big, big, big life. It premiered in Cannes. It was sold all around the world and it was nominated for an Oscar and that's what started to build a bridge between France and the US for me. We were going back and forth a lot for the campaign for the Oscars. And then I had some projects in Los Angeles that I was able to do.
NFS: Yeah. Nominated for an Academy Award is a pretty big deal. That'll get you on some lists! How hard was Mustang to make? Was it a passion project right out of film school, labor of love? And how did you get funding for it?
Ergüven: I started off writing another film on which I worked for about five years. I worked on a script for three years. I pushed it for two years trying to get it in production and nothing was happening. And I had done every possible lab that exists, which helps first feature film directors do their film. Nothing was working. At some point, I was completely desperate. I'm thinking, I'm done, I'm going to Australia, I'm going to sell ice cream. I thought that was my life.
NFS: Was it that specifically? Selling ice cream in Australia?
Ergüven: Yes. That was the plan.
NFS: Do you really love ice cream or something?
Ergüven: No. I just like pulling that Italian ice cream cart. It sounds so awful, but if you spend five years trying to do something and it's not working, you feel incompetent. So I thought I could do that; The gelato thing. Pull that ice cream cart. And so-
NFS: Good to have a plan B, right?
Ergüven: Yeah. And Australia was far enough. But then I had a fellow director who told me about this project he had started to write. We have this expression in France, which is like "put the rifle on the other shoulder." And that's what I did. I wrote Mustang and I wrote it with such momentum. That director friend was telling me, "If you're not done writing it by the end of the summer, you're going to die." And I was like, "Yes, I'm going to die."
Want to write fast? Check out How to Write a Screenplay During Quarantine [FREE 100-page eBook]
So I wrote it just at once. And it was the opposite of the last script. It was super easy. Everything went very smoothly, as smoothly as it can go. We went through all the public financing thing in Europe and we got everything. Then there was a lot of drama just before shooting. The producer dumped the project saying we're not financed enough. We were just about to crash and I found another producer. But eventually, it worked out, very dramatically.
NFS: So, even once all the momentum carried you, you had the public financing, you had the producer and then it was hanging by a thread again right before shooting?
Ergüven: No, there was a point where there was no thread! There was a point where the producer left and she took all the heads of departments and she flew back to France. At some point, it felt like a freefall. No thread whatsoever.
I spent three days making phone calls and calling from Istanbul every single producer I knew in Paris, begging, "Please come on board." Some people really wanted to do it and couldn't because they had to buy the rights of the project. Eventually, it worked out. And it was better because that first producer would have exploded halfway making the film. So, it was for the best. But I aged very much. I took 10 years in the process
NFS: I find it fascinating because people are faced with so many stops and starts. And a lot of times, as you said, there's a point where we say, "I think I'm just going to go sell ice cream in Australia." And it's pushing through if you can.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven: Yes. But, then, it's true that for 90% of the time you have shitty lives. That's part of the process. You're thinking what kind of masochism is this? But I did a lot of that.
NFS: So you directed a few other series, but then Perry Mason comes along and you direct three episodes. This show is extremely cinematic, large budget, popular IP, HBO... I'm sure a lot different than the indie roots. Was it daunting to come into it?
Ergüven: No, it was extremely exciting. The thing is, to me, the leap between my features and even the first television show I directed was two different worlds. When I was doing my features, the budget was so tight, it was literally sticks and stones. You just do with whatever you have. And sometimes it works really well and you can transcend not having money. For example, Mustang, there was a scene in a soccer game when we were supposed to have 45,000 people in the stadium and then there are two teams playing. And then there's a ball. We didn't have any of those things and had something like 30 extras. And on the day, 90% of the team thought I was crazy and they really didn't even understand what was going on. And we did it and the scene is great and it worked and we transcended that whole nothing, the nothing we had in our hands.
But sometimes it really doesn't work. Like on my second feature, production cutting the lines of every single secondary character so they don't spend money on actors but employ extras. So when I arrived on my first TV show, basically, the very first time I had a scene with obviously a lot of extras, I was having this discussion with the first AD and he's asking me, "How many extras do you want?" And to me, asking anything above 18 was as if I was asking for a necklace with diamonds.
So I had the impression it was obscene and impolite. I was like, "I don't know." It was really very, very hard for me to just tell them, "Bring everyone." And so that thing I learned from one TV show to the other.
In Europe, we're extremely free to go in many, many different directions and there's great creativity there. But the thing is, it's not so large as an industry, so there's not so much money in every single film. And so the spirit is, let's work with the cheapest. So you get to have a lot of, I don't know, the nephew of I don't know who, is slightly incompetent, but he's the cheapest or things like that. I was almost shocked the first time I was on productions in the US. That sense of pride in getting the best people all the time and being at the top of whatever you can do all the time was just so comforting. And not always just literally counting how many pins you have.
Even when I came on board for Perry Mason, Tim van Patten[Perry Mason's other director] was telling me, "We're getting such narrow slivers of Las Angeles and it's so difficult." And I felt like wherever we were, we could go around almost 360 on every single location. There was almost no impossible angle. The level of comfort of filming was huge all the time. Wherever we arrived, we just took over.
NFS: I was struck by how much it seems like Perry Mason recreated period Los Angeles and gave us so many locations, and so many perfect little specific elements.
Ergüven: I had this scene in episode five where Dylan and Perry are talking in a room and we could have not seen anything outside, but having a window open and seeing period cars go by was something. And it makes a world, literally, those small details. So we did that. We never had a sense of, you know what, I'm going to change my angle or tilt my camera so we're not going to see something. That almost never happened.
On the set of HBO’s “Perry Mason,” green screens included, at the foot of Angels Flight. (Merrick Morton/HBO)Credit: Los Angeles Times
NFS: You can really feel that in the show. It's really effective. I think even people who aren't aware of it subconsciously, there's such great attention to detail in every location that soaks you into that reality. How was that for you as a director, collaborating with a production designer and art department a lot?
Ergüven: Yes, of course. There's that. And there was also just the best producers ever. Producers who delivered, literally. I've never seen people deliver like that.
NFS: Do you have some examples of how that works or what that experience is like?
Ergüven: Sometimes on an indie, you leave the set and you hope there's going to be what you want the next day. And sometimes you show up and there's a huge part of your set which is not there. And you just need to trust your producers and everybody else and the rest of the crew, of course. But on my second feature, most of the time, there was a scene with that many extras and then you arrive and there are two extras. Production is not delivering. And so it's that teamwork which is not there. And here, on Perry Mason, it was all the time. I don't know, it was the best producers ever. I can't tell it in any other way. I was amazed by them.
NFS: You'd show up to set and you would see things you didn't even expect in a good way? Like, oh my God, that's amazing, kind of thing?
Ergüven: There are a lot of things where you have so much elbow room you've never had. Ever. Producers thinking of how many angles you have and how free you are before you even arrive there for the first time. Things like that.
NFS:There are so many great actors in this show. They bring so much to the table. The performances in the show are great, but also, this cast up and down is really impressive. Was it intimidating, or just fun?
Ergüven: It's true. The list of primary characters is almost 18 actors, very big actors having important scenes. That's a delight, really having so many actors of that caliber. And in my case, there were a lot of actors that I didn't know, and very different work processes. For example, Tatiana Maslany was an incredible powerhouse of an actress. And I love the relationship and the collaboration with her. Then I had specific focuses on some characters on the show, having a lot of discussions with the team about them. There's so many. John Lithgow, Lili Taylor, Matthew Rys. It's such a feast. Shea Whigham, Robert Patrick. All so good.
NFS: There's a scene between Jonathan Lithgow and his client in the cell that I just was so drawn to and wanted to talk to you about. Even for people who haven't seen it, it's so simple. It's just a two people talking scene.
And yet you make so much MORE out of it. You get in close on their eyes in this way that's really moving. The lighting is gorgeous, it's got the noir, black and white inspired because this show is so cinematic and has such cinematic roots. But it's so simple. Can you tell me about shooting that scene and the decisions and the lighting and the choice to push in close like that? There's so much going on there and it's such a beautifully executed scene.
[Editors note: Spoilers ahead]
Ergüven: Well, that scene is just before a scene of a suicide. So everything needs to be in there. The suicide itself is almost a bit clinical. The preparation is quite cold. And so this was the big emotional moment and it was a big moment of him completely hitting a dead-end. And the funny thing is that what I told John[Lithgow], he spoke about it the very last time I saw him at the end of the shoot. I told him something like, "Can you please break our hearts?" Or something like that.
Ergüven: Or I told him something like, "You need to break our hearts now." And then he remembered it and I forgot about it. But then on the last day, he said, "I'll never forget when you asked for that."
NFS: That's beautiful.
Ergüven: God, when I talking to you, I remember I missed something. So Gayle[Rankin] was doing such difficult scenes one after the other all the time. After a while, when you're acting, it can, for your mind, process events as if they were really happening. So I was thinking, she must be super shaken by now. And I forgot to do it because we left Los Angeles very, very abruptly. But I was supposed to do something like a ceremony, send someone like a sorcerer or somebody who would turn around her with smoke and just to have a little ritual so that the character would leave. Because I think your mind needs to know it's over.
I remember when we were in film school, I remember one day I was acting in a little thing for another director. And it involved a very, very hard part and hard things to live and process. When it was over and I was still crying and crying and crying. I just couldn't stop. And then we went to the screening room and we watched the scene again, and I was crying and crying and crying again. Two friends, students who turned, and one of them said started clapping. And she said, "You need to break the spell. You need to break that thing." And that stopped me. And I thought we need something like that for Gayle. She was going through so much.
NFS: I just want to go back to the direction you gave John Lithgow, to give him something like that for it to stick with him too. That's such a cool story. When you saw him play the scene did you think "oh wow it worked!"
Ergüven: It was super moving. I was heartbroken. Completely heartbroken.
NFS: Another interesting thing to me about that also is that this is a genre that has such history. Detective Noir comes with baggage- gritty masculine, etc. You delivered on every level in terms of what this genre has been and can be, but as a female director was there any sense at all of, "I don't want to fall into any trap of overdoing or underdoing any element of this genre and the detective-y thing?" Or, were you trying to just stick to the story?
Ergüven: No. Each time you're so focused on your characters, your focus is not on facts. You're more about making this real. Or, even those scenes you mentioned, for example, I'm thinking about the scene. No, we were so focused on what's going on in that scene and the power struggle and things of that nature. And no, it felt really comfortable. There are a few other scenes, you'll see with Strickland and in places which are more for... gentlemen, but it was just super exciting and fun. And I never thought about it as this is not girl's territory or anything like that.
NFS: Do you have any really specific lessons you took from shooting the show? Are there things that you developed in these things that you would take forward with you to the next stuff?
Ergüven: Oh, so much. That question is... do you have five hours for my answer? On the last three TV shows I've done, from VFX to just thinking bigger in general, there are many things that I didn't even think were possible. I remember just a few years ago discovering... I'm almost too embarrassed to tell you, it's such a simple VFX effect now that I think about it.
NFS: No, please do tell me.
Ergüven: In Turkey, at some point, when people were protesting, they were shutting the lights on and off in their houses. So when you looked at the city, it looked like this huge jukebox or something, a blinking machine. And I thought that was beautiful and I wanted to have that in a future film. And that's the easiest thing to do in VFX, but I didn't know, just five years back.
The other thing is, you're making films every single day and on a TV show. For Perry Mason, shooting was nine weeks or so. And Handmaid's was four or five weeks or so. So, when you do this back to back it's as if you were painting all the time for a painter. You're so much in it all the time that you have the impression that you're drawing your line. Everything is becoming sharper. You're becoming a little better every day.