In Part One of our interview with one of Mad Men‘s most extraordinary directors, Jennifer Getzinger, we covered The Forecast and My Old Kentucky Home. In Part Two, we talk about The Suitcase, learning how to direct, and how not to direct. In Part Three, we’re going to open with Orange is the New Black, and then, of course, circle back to Mad Men. Watch for it soon!
Deborah Lipp: Now, you also directed everybody else’s favorite episode, The Suitcase.
Jennifer Getzinger: Yes.
DL: I’m sure you’ve been interviewed endlessly about it.
One of the hardest things to learn when you start directing is how to not fuck up the good stuff.
DL: I’m interested in the construction of the argument between Peggy and Don as if they are a boxing match, and what decisions went into that as a director.
JG: It’s so funny. So often I feel this stuff is hard to answer in a specific way. I’ve spoken at different film schools about directing, and there is an element to directing that’s so intangible. I can’t explain to you why something’s that way, it just felt like the right way to do it.
I do think you prepare things as much as you can, but it’s like the thing that makes your unique self as a director is just the instinctual things you do when you’re there on set. So much of it is reacting to what the actors are doing. And that’s what I would say about that scene. We definitely blocked in a simple way of them squaring off in a battle way. But as far as the performance goes, both Jon [Hamm] and Lizzie [Moss] were so prepared, physically, for the big fight scene. And both knew what they wanted to do. I think they came in at a certain level, but then it was like Boom! Boom! Boom! off each other. Like they created this great thing, and we hadn’t talked about it in prep, about it getting that heated.
I remember Andre Jacquemetton was sitting on set, because Matt [and Keith Huff] had written the episode, but he’s so busy, he can’t be on set all the time, and I remember we just looked at each other and we were like, ‘That’s it. That’s it! It has to go that far.’ It has to get that—I think they were surprised, because we did the rehearsal and it wasn’t that heated, and then as we started doing takes, it kept growing into where they were both pushing back, and we were like, Yeah, go for it, do it! It just felt so right.
Like I said, we didn’t talk about it ahead of time. I wouldn’t have said, “Oh, it should get to this level.” Until a thing happens, you don’t know. Because maybe if they got to this arbitrary level I would have thought of, like “let them get to a 9”, maybe they would have done that it would have felt hysterical and not right. That’s why I say it’s hard to explain sometimes why you go “Yes, that’s it”.
I feel like that’s the most important part of my job: Not to be the person to say, “Oh, do this,” but to be able to [recognize] what’s working.
One of the hardest things to learn when you start directing is how to not fuck up the good stuff. How to let it grow and let it be good.
Roberta Lipp: Is there a process? Just listening, how creative and intuitive it is, is what you’re saying.
JG: That’s how I feel. I think some directors come more from being shooters, or, whatever, the Coen brothers, who have such specific ideas of shots.
I definitely have my preferences of framing, and certain shots that I like, and certain visual references to other filmmakers that I like, and all of that. But to me, I care more about the acting. I care more about how to get the scene overall to a good place. And a lot of that is the hardest, most nebulous part. I don’t make it happen, necessarily. I hope I come up with things to help when it’s not working, and I come up with ideas, and give different actors different notes, but it’s such a collaborative thing. It’s something that comes from everybody who is there.
And that scene, too, is so beautifully written. That scene is almost a perfect scene, it’s so good.
DL: It really is. I was asking how “film schooly” you get and I love hearing how intuitive it is.
JG: I feel like that’s how it has to be.
RL: At one point do you start to trust yourself? Were there times earlier on when you were less trusting of your instincts?
JG: Oh, yeah. Luckily, I did a lot of scene study classes when I lived in New York, which I really loved. They were with this woman, Adrienne Weiss. It focused on the directors. Actors would come in, and you’d put up a scene, then the classes watched you give notes to the actors, and then everyone [critiques] you as a director. That’s the purpose of the class. So the actors and everyone who’s watching say how they thought you did. Which is a very strange scenario because that would never happen in real life. On a real set, no actor would ever tell you that was a bad note, you confused them, because they always want to kiss up to directors. But in this class, that was the whole point. Like to say “Between those two rehearsals, you gave me four notes, and it confused me and I couldn’t play that many things.” Or, “You said this but then later you said that.”
A huge thing I learned was [about] giving too many notes, and talking too much, and not watching what they were doing, and trying to respond off that instead of this preconceived notion of what I thought the scene should be.
So, I learned a lot of that in class, but then when I actually started working professionally, it was hard, and it was intimidating. Of course, my first professional job was on Mad Men. You can imagine!
In the beginning I focused a lot more what Matt was saying he wanted, and I was so determined to make sure I always hit those things. I don’t think I was quite as open to seeing what else the actors were bringing to it. I think by Season 4, since I started directing Season 2, and I had directed a few other shows by that point, I did have more confidence to still be doing what Matt said he wanted, because that was always an important part of the job, to make those things a priority, but to also be open.
That’s where I would feel like, ‘This is what makes it good that I’m directing this, because I’m finding the other stuff too.’
RL: What a training ground! To make you a more effective communicator with your actors is the most important thing.
JG: Oh, yeah. It’s still the most important, I talk to working directors all the time. We’re constantly like, ‘How did you handle that person on that situation?’ It’s not that actors are so hard, it’s just that [acting] is such an intimate, private thing in a lot of ways. Yet you have to ‘use yourself as an instrument’ and really be able to flex different muscles. You have to be open to trying things. Some actors are a little too rigid in what they think something should be, or—it often ends up being one extreme or the other, where they’re too rigid and they don’t want to try anything else, or they’re almost not disciplined enough.
I always used to say that part of the reason The Suitcase is so amazing is because Jon Hamm and Lizzie Moss—first, they come in with such a big level of what the arc was, and it came at such a perfect time in the arc of the show, for them to have this intimate episode. But when I would give them notes, it would be one thing, on one moment, or the feeling of how the opening should start or something subtle. The great thing about them is they’d be like “Okay” and then they’d subtly put it in and then they’re still doing all this other stuff. Whereas some actors aren’t disciplined enough, so they’ll take that note, and it kind of unravels everything else they were doing.