(Photo: Frank Masi, HBO)

Director Rick Famuyiwa is no stranger to strong protagonists, ensemble dramas and complex storylines.

His previous five films, including Dope, Our Family Wedding and Talk to Me, were filled with humor, drama and a keen eye for cinematic storytelling. When HBO approached the director with the chance to direct the feature drama Confirmation—with Kerry Washington already attached—Famuyiwa couldn’t turn down the opportunity.

Confirmation, which premieres April 16 on HBO, is an in-depth exploration of the 1991 confirmation hearings of then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce) and the sexual harassment testimony of Anita Hill (Washington), who had previously worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill’s charges of sexual misconduct ultimately paved the way for an increased awareness of sexual harassment as an issue in the workplace, though her testimony did not prevent the confirmation of Thomas. Famuyiwa’s fast-paced and electrifying take on the scandal effortlessly blends archival footage with new material, juggles multiple characters and showcases the expansive range and talent of not only Pierce and Washington, but actors such as Grace Gummer, Zoe Lister-Jones and Greg Kinnear.

We recently spoke to the director about the intricacies of managing ensemble casts, the glory of shooting on anamorphic lenses (even for TV) and the power of visual effects in a film that one wouldn’t consider VFX-heavy.

Amanda Meyncke, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This is the first film that you’ve directed that you didn’t have a hand in writing. The topic also varied vastly from the kind of films you’ve made before. What was the process of directing a movie you didn’t write?

Rick Famuyiwa (RF): It was definitely interesting and a different side of what I usually do as a director. There’s always some writing involved, though, and I collaborated with [screenwriter] Susannah Grant on those moments. It was strange to look at a script and only look at it from the perspective of a director. There are prejudices that you have to divorce yourself from when you write something, so I kind of liked not having to hold onto things because of my connection to them as a writer.

MM: How did this project come to life? Did HBO approach you? What was the process of working with them?

RF: HBO sent the script to me and I really, really responded to it. I’d previously written a script that dealt with some of these issues but this was the first time I jumped in to do this sort of thing as a director—a docudrama, or “historical fiction,” or biography. It was a story that meant a lot to me. There were issues and themes that are still relevant today, and I was all in. I thought the writing was fantastic when I read the script. And then the opportunity to work with Kerry Washington—who was already attached as Anita Hill when I came on the project—there was just so much going on here.

MM: With such a familiar story, how did you prepare as a director? What steps did you take to immerse yourself in the process?

RF: It was trying to live in the moment and experience it in the moment. Planting myself in the story—that’s what would get the energy and excitement going. I was looking to heighten the storytelling. Yes, this is history that a lot of people know, but they don’t necessarily understand everything that has gone on behind the scenes; they don’t understand how people were feeling as they were going through this. That connection to the immediacy of it is what I wanted to convey: that this was immediately happening in the moment. They were reacting to information—senators on the committee, the press and the people who were covering it. Creating that sense of propulsion was what I was looking to do.

MM: You mentioned that Kerry was already involved in the project. Other than that, what was the casting process for you?

RF: When you have a great story and great material, it attracts amazing talent. There were so many people interested in this story—that remembered it, that understood it, that wanted to tell it. Casting was a dream; it was sort of an embarrassment of riches. It really became about finding the people that could embody these characters and get the point of view across in a very short amount of time—there were so many characters, so many layers to the story.

I knew that the screen time that each individual character had wouldn’t necessarily be that much. I wanted them to have an initial impact in terms of who they were, their physicality, their talent and everything else. Wendell Pierce was someone I had in mind the moment that I read the script. I knew we needed a Clarence Thomas that wasn’t going to be a caricature. I knew that the heart of humanity that Wendell brings to all of his roles was something we needed.


Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas. Photograph by Frank Masi, Courtesy of HBO.

MM: How did you prepare for working with actors you’ve never worked with before, especially having to honor the real-life people that these characters are based on?

RF: We had rehearsals before we shot. How I like to deal with actors, it’s not just necessarily reading the script and going through it over and over, but more about conversations that we were having about who these individuals were, finding the commonalities and contradictions. There were hours of conversations with each of the actors that went into just examining these people—our own suppositions about who they were and the challenges that they were facing. Once you sort of establish what your center is for each character, then you throw them into the reality of the situation.

MM: How many shoot days did you have and what cameras did you use?

RF: We had 40 days, which was luxurious—a testament to the support we had from HBO. We shot on the Arri Alexa, which has kind of become the go-to standard. We shot with anamorphic glass even though we were going to do a 1:85 extraction for the broadcast. We made a decision to shoot anamorphic when we were in Washington D.C. and for the hearings, because of the sort of subtle changes in terms of how those lenses deal with light and color. Then we chose to shoot spherical lenses for all of the Oklahoma scenes prior to Anita Hill arriving in Washington. What was interesting was that you could still get that beautiful effect even though we weren’t going to be throwing this into the widescreen. Some of the more painful parts of the process were when we were in D.I. and you would see these beautiful wide-screen images that we shot on anamorphic lenses… and then you had to intuit the changes that would be needed for the 1:85 because it’s something that HBO is still, for some reason, [using]. We tried and fought hard, but you know, they sort of stick to their standard. I think they’re getting close to changing over, where they’re going to start showing both films that were shot in widescreen on their network and then the films they do themselves. But sadly, we weren’t there yet. Maybe in a year or two they’ll be at that point.

MM: What was the post-production schedule like?

RF: We had a lot of luxury in terms of the production schedule. The post-production period was when it took on a really television-like schedule. We wrapped shooting end of last August. We locked the picture just before the end of the year, right at the new year. It was a really quick schedule. Yeah, even in independent films, you tend to have more time, sometimes because you run out of money or whatever. For Confirmation, we had a very deliberate schedule in post. It definitely was a challenge because there was so much that we shot, and we had archival footage from the era, plus we had the hearings, and dozens and dozens of characters with speaking roles. You know, my editor was already grey and probably got a little more grey… and lost some hair. [laughs] It was a challenge, and it was funny. It’s one of these films that everyone looks at and goes, “It’s easy! It’s just a bunch of guys talking,” but you begin to see the layers of the storytelling, and whether it was our visual effects team or music, everyone understood, “Wow, there’s a lot going on here.” That’s what made it fun, but we were definitely hauling ass. [laughs]

MM: What was the biggest struggle you faced on set, and how did you overcome it?

RF: One of the biggest struggles was trying to recreate Washington D.C. in Atlanta. We ended up having to do a lot of visual effects and green screen work on a film that you wouldn’t necessarily think would be as effects-heavy, but it’s part of how we’re telling stories today. The technology gives you the ability to do a lot. Even in films like this, you’re creating worlds and environments, even though they’re worlds we’re familiar with.

I think by far the biggest challenge was in the post-production process just because of the amount of footage that we had to cut and the limited time which we had to do it. But production was actually fairly smooth.

Photo by Frank Masi/HBO.

Rick Famuyiwa. Photograph by Frank Masi, Courtesy of HBO.

MM: What directing advice would you give to younger directors starting out today?

RF: That’s a tough one. I came up learning about the auteur theory of filmmaking and that’s something that I firmly believe in. It’s become harder and harder, in the way we make films today, for the director to have the leading voice and vision of the project. But I’d say for all young filmmakers, that is still the center of how everything happens. You can never lose sight of the fact that you’re in control, that you’re setting the tone of the story you’re going to tell—whether it’s a personal story or a larger story about our society. There has to be a sort of clarity and voice. You can be criticized for that, but that’s what it’s about, because ultimately when a film doesn’t succeed, they blame the director.

MM: What’s your own favorite political thriller?

RF: I don’t know if you’d call it a thriller—All the President’s Men. In terms of the filmmaking and the acting, and it’s a story in which we obviously knew the outcome but felt like each moment was tense. Three Days of Condor would be another one. The ’70s were an interesting period for political thrillers. We mistrusted our institutions so I think that’s where the best work came from. MM

Confirmation airs April 16, 2016 on HBO. 

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