Director's Chair: <I>We Were the Lucky Ones</I> - Tommy Kail
Issue: May/June 2024

Director's Chair: We Were the Lucky Ones - Tommy Kail

Award-winning director Tommy Kail is a triple-threat whose work spans film, television and theater, and who’s probably best-known for directing Lin-Manuel’s hit musicals Hamilton (for which he won the Tony) and In the Heights. But there’s no light-hearted singing and dancing in his latest project, the new Hulu series We Were the Lucky Ones.

Based on Georgia Hunter’s bestselling novel of the same name, the timely project was inspired by the true story of Hunter’s Jewish family, who separated at the start of World War II, and who were determined to survive and reunite. The series stars Joey King (The Act, Bullet Train) and Logan Lerman ( Hunters, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), who lead a large ensemble cast. Behind the scenes, the creative team included showrunner Erica Lipez, three editors, and an army of VFX and sound artists and technicians.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, I spoke with Kail, whose credits include Grease: Live (for which he won the Emmy), 2 Broke Girls and Fosse/Verdon, about the challenges of making the show and dealing with post.

What sort of series did you set out to make? 

“It’s about this family who face a deep crisis, but at its core it’s quite simple, as it’s a story about a family who have a Passover dinner together in 1938, and who spend the next nine years trying to reunite for another one.”

Director Tommy Kail and DP Tim Ives

This is obviously a very ambitious project that you directed and executive produced. How did you prepare for this?

“Yes, it was very ambitious. The sheer scope and scale of this was huge, and we shot for 122 days – 100 in Romania and 22 in Spain. Every episode has 50 or 55 scenes, and every episode was quite distinct from all the others, as there’s a lot of sprawl, and for every episode the big question was always, ‘What’s the center of this episode? What’s the propulsion driving it? And how do we make sure it all feels like one cohesive world, even if we go to Siberia, Poland or Rio?’ So to keep that point of view true historically, our lead characters don’t know anything they couldn’t know, and then experientially, when Logan Lerman’s Addy goes to all these places, we experience all the newness with him. And we carefully prepped all that with the DPs, the production designer, the costume designer, the VFX team and so on, to create the right language and physical world for all of that.”

What were the big technical challenges of pulling it all together?

“The sheer workload is so huge on something like this, as you’re doing four or five scenes a day, every day, for 122 days straight. We obviously worked as a directing team that included Amit Gupta and Neasa Hardiman, and we passed the baton a lot, so you’d be directing in the morning and sometimes another director would take over for the afternoon. I think a big part of my job was making sure everyone was telling the same story with the same language, and our showrunner, Erica Lipez, who did The Morning Show, and I, had to ensure all the DPs and other directors shared that same vision. And that carried all through post as she and I cut the whole show.”

How early on did you integrate all the post and visual effects? Give us some sense of how it worked. 

“Big TV series like this are almost like eight-hour movies and post is no longer something you do after the shoot, so right after we finished shooting the first episode in late 2022, we began the edit. So we were shooting, cutting and prepping all simultaneously. And for all the VFX we put in markers. So after shooting Episode 1, we cross-boarded 2 and 3, then 4 and 5 and so on. That had a big impact on VFX because of the way the storylines work. Addy’s away from the family a lot, and we didn’t shoot a lot of that material till the back half, and all the VFX for that were finalized later in post, although we were working on it all the way through. We did a bit of previs for some action stuff, but not that much.” 

Who was your DP and what did he bring to the mix?

“Tim Ives, who shot Episodes 1,  2, 3 and 8. He shot Fosse/Verdon for me and we got to really build our relationship on that. The beauty of a good collaboration is that you pick up where you left off, and early on in prep we set out to make this very visceral and vivid in terms of its color palette. We didn’t want to give it that sepia-toned nostalgic look of a period piece that happened way back then. We wanted it to feel urgent and alive and ‘now.’ The colors and emotions had to feel very present, not distant. We went for a very dynamic, cinematic look, used a lot of natural light, and we weren’t afraid of a little grit and dirt in the images. We wanted a very immediate look and feel, and the characters to look like they were wearing clothes, not costumes – all that sort of detail.”

Was it a really tough shoot?

“Yes, every day was huge and challenging, but we had a great team that included DPs Ruairi O’Brien and David Pimm, who shot some episodes, and a great crew, and everyone was so committed to the project.”

Tell us about post. It must have been equally challenging? 

“Yes. It’s been a huge process – over 16 months so far, and we’re still finishing up the sound, VFX work and color as we speak. We’ve done it all – editing, sound, color – at Harbor in New York, where I posted Hamilton and Fosse, and they’re a great team, and it’s always nice to work with the same people again. Christina Fitzgerald was our post supervisor, and she did a great job dealing with all the schedule changes we had.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I love it. I’m a theater director first, and post is like tech in theater, and I love tech. It’s where all the elements come together. You get out of the rehearsal room and now you’re in the theater seeing it all happen. I really got why Fosse found it hard to go back to theater after post, as he was chasing that ultimate control post gives you over the material and elements. I love the time it gives you to cut a scene and then think about it, or how you can re-edit or move one scene and then all the others fall into place. And we’re getting all these great ideas as we do the final mix - ideas we just weren’t ready for earlier in the process. I love that whole laboratory feel of post and working with people who are so skilled at their jobs.”

Give us some idea of how the editing worked. 

“We had three editors: Jonah Moran, Erica Freed Marker and Kate Sanford, who all worked with me on Fosse, and as we were on-location most of the time in Romania and Spain, most of it was done remote on Clearview, as we could all share screens, and obviously Pix got a good workout, especially with the VFX. We’d watch cuts and send back detailed notes, and we used for color mixes if we couldn’t get there. Erica Lipez was based out here in LA, so for all post stuff like color and sound, she was remote, and I’d be on the mix stage at Harbor. The editors were all very collaborative and I’m a great believer in open-source, and Erica and I were in lockstep about every aspect of post. Everyone was watching other cuts and sharing ideas.”

What were the big editing challenges? 

“The big one was the sheer tonnage of material and coverage. There was so much to deal with, and we had so many choices just in terms of performance. But if you looked at our shooting scripts and our cuts, they’re very similar. This wasn’t the sort of project where you’re doing a lot of re-writing in the edit. Our main focus was on coherence and making sure all the stories felt like branches of the same tree, and that it felt as intimate as possible despite all the many locations and backdrop of huge historical events.”

There are quite a lot of VFX. Was that a steep learning curve for you?

“Yes, but it was a joyous experience for me and I learned so much. We had a bunch of great VFX vendors, including Crafty Apes, Buf and Ingenuity, and a key thing I learned about VFX is to always ask. Sometimes you ask for something that they just can’t do, but then things you think they can’t possibly do, they do in a day or so. And our VFX team was as relentless as the rest of us. If a shot was just pinging in the center, we’d go back and make it sharper, and sometimes doing less would work better. And having our VFX supervisor Oliver Cubbage and his people on-set while we were shooting was essential for dealing with all the green-screen work and set extensions, and I loved the whole process.”

Tell us about the sound and creating the soundscape.

“For a start, having the right score is like having the right script, and there’s a lot of music in this. Our composers were John Erlich and Rachel Portman, and they wrote a gorgeous score that really nailed all the emotional notes of the story. And I’ve done several projects with our mixers and sound editors - Tony Volante and Dan Timmons - and there’s no ego and a real willingness to experiment and try anything to find the best idea. That was another part of post that I really love.”
What about the DI? 

“We did that all at Harbor with colorist Roman Hankewycz, and my DP Tim and I talked a lot about getting that warmth and keeping the look of natural light, even when we were shooting on-stage. So in the DI we focused on that and a feeling of immediacy. We didn’t want it to feel stylized or elevated in how we were pushing color. I love the DI and I was there at the sessions as often as possible, or I’d be there remotely. Usually, Tim and Roman would do a pass, then I’d go in, maybe with Erica remote, and we’d give notes. Then for the final tweaks we’d put stuff up on Pix or and all look at the sequences and sign off on them.” 

Looking back now, how would you sum up the whole experience?

“John just said to me during the final mix, ‘It’s been like a relay race with everyone running their personal best,’ and that really summed it all up. It was this spirited, passionate and joyous collaboration.”