You may be unaware of one of Emmy’s embarrassing little secrets. The Television Movie category. For more than a decade, acclaimed works have often been overlooked for what can only be described as “questionable” nominees. The results have been so head-scratching it’s found critics suggesting means to reform or even scrap the category. But a funny little thing happened last month. The 2023 Emmy nominations were announced and the Television Movie nominees were…not bad? In fact, one of the nominees, a film that earned six nominations overall, Dan Trachtenberg’s “Prey,” was a shockingly “correct” and deserved choice by the Television Academy.
Not only did “Prey” earn an Outstanding Television Movie nomination, but it took five other nods including Music Composition, Picture Editing, and Sound Editing. Trachtenberg also earned individual nominations for Outstanding Directing For A Limited Or Anthology Series Or Movie and Outstanding Writing For A Limited Or Anthology Series Or Movie alongside Patrick Aison. An incredible slew of noms for a film that might have been slightly forgotten since it dropped toward the beginning of the qualification window. And, moreover, a nice career validation for Trachtenberg whose credits include “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the initial pilot of “The Boys,” and “Black Mirror.”
Speaking with The Playlist last month, Trachtenberg discussed the challenges of the shoot (including what turned out to be a lucky break for one of the more memorable action sequences in the movie), his disbelief over “Prey’s” Emmy haul, the importance of the Comanche language in the film and, fair warning, very little over a potential sequel or prequel to the Hulu hit.
The Playlist: What was your reaction to not just “Prey” getting nominated, but landing two nominations yourself on Emmy morning?
Dan Trachtenberg: I really couldn’t believe it. I only knew that the Emmy nominations were even happening the day before someone had mentioned it, and suddenly my stomach was like, “Wow, we could find out tomorrow if that’s a thing for us or not.” And I mentally told myself when I woke up, I wasn’t going to wake up for it. I was going to bed late. And I knew that if my phone buzzed a lot, it would mean that would be good news. And in that morning, in my sleepy haze, my kid was going off to camp and I was back in bed and I got a buzz on the phone and then two buzzes, and I was like, “O.K., that’s not good. That’s just normal morning stuff.” And then my phone started buzzing like crazy, and I woke up, I grabbed the phone and it was just normal text chains that I’m on, nothing. But then one text came in from a friend who said, “Emmy,” and I was like, “Oh my God.” And then I texted the producer, I was like, “Emmy’s?” And then he was like, “Yeah, dude, six.” And he sent me the thing for all the different categories and I was like, “Oh.” I didn’t consider it. I didn’t consider it would get that kind of appreciation. It was pretty rad in short.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but the Television Movie category in particular is the Wild West of all of the categories at the Emmys. You never know what’s going to make it. Had anyone prepped you for that?
No. Just we had this experience over the past year where the film was getting Critics Choice and PGAs and these things never won, but nominated for them. And then suddenly it was like, “Emmys.” And I was like, “Oh wow, Emmys. Weird, crazy.” And I thought maybe the movie might get nominated. I never thought Directing, for sure. And I always wanted all the crafts, sound, and music. I feel like those should win all those things, but it just hadn’t been happening for the movie. It was pretty overwhelming for sure.
Besides your Directing nod, you’re also nominated in the Writing category as well, correct?
Yeah. I have a shared story credit with the writer Patrick Aison. Yeah, I’m in the writing category. And the [film also earned] sound, score, and editing nominations.
Do any of those mean anything more to you than the others?
On the one hand, so happy for Patrick because the writing wasn’t [recognized by the guilds] earlier this year, but really those craft editing, sound, and music, I’m a movie score geek. I really have grown up with the deepest affection for movie music. And I really like the music of this movie. I listen to it. I should be sick of it. Sometimes I listen to it anyway. It really affects me. And I think what Sarah [Schachner] did was special. On the one hand, there are elements of it that are very usual for a historical epic, and there are some that are very usual for a horror. Those things aren’t often in the same album, same suite, and it has affection for the franchises’ soundtrack. I just think what she did was tremendous, and I’m so glad. And she doesn’t come from the movie [world]. She comes from video games, which is a medium that isn’t often appreciated awards-wise. I just love that she is getting recognized for sure.
This is also the first-ever individual nomination you’ve received correct?
For Emmy. I was nominated as a director for “10 Cloverfield Lane,” for the DGA, for a first-time filmmaker. But still, I forget that that happened. And then I remember I’m like, “Oh, that was great. I’m so glad that happened.”
Duh, of course. That DGA nom was actually a really big deal. You should remind your agent of that all the time. Let’s go back to this project though. I’ve read that you pitched this way back in 2016. I’m assuming at that point it was meant for a theatrical release. When you found out it was going to be for streaming, was that before production began, or was it after? How did that part of the process happen?
It was not the latter. It wasn’t like we saw the edit and we should go to Hulu. It was part of its revitalization, it was after the project was put to bed when the Fox/Disney acquisition happened, and then the 2018 movie [“The Predator”] was coming out. It was all like, “Let’s wait and see.” And then after the dust settled a year or two later and an executive at Fox brought it up and had brought it up with the idea that it could be on Hulu, not even knowing really what that would be. Remember when we were all speculating, “Is there going to be Hulu? Is it going to be called Touchstone? Who even knows what that is?” And would there be a theatrical component as well? It was all very vague when it first started before production and then really only became clear as time went on what the final plan had to be due to rights and things.
Did it have to go to streaming versus being in theatrical?
Just rights stuff. Deals with the studio, things that are above me, made it so that had to be the case.
There has been a reported budget of $65 million. I don’t know if that’s true or if that’s after-tax incentives.
That’s about it.
When you found out that’s how much you were getting to make a “Predator” movie, did you feel comfortable? Did it hinder you or were able to make the movie you wanted to make?
No, it didn’t. I pitched it with the intention that this would be an affordable version of the movie, that it would just be us out in the wild wilderness making a thing. And I’m always thinking of even set piece construction of how can this feel big but be done in a more so a fight sequence that’s all in fog and in a beaver dam and all those things. And no huge actor and all that stuff would allow for us to be more thrifty. And it wasn’t like, “O.K., you only get this amount of money.” The number blossomed out of us writing the movie and developing the sequences and doing a budget and all those things. There were squeezes that happened here and there and [you have to] be smart about how to figure it out, but it was a normal experience. It wasn’t like I was an embarrassment of riches and it wasn’t like I had to cut a million sequences that I wanted to do. It was a pretty fairly comfortable amount to make the movie.
Now that it’s been two years since you shot it, was there at least one at least sequence you are the most surprised you pulled off?
The one in the ashy mist. Normal people would’ve done that on a soundstage so that you could have a very even controllable layer of the mist, of the smoke. COVID didn’t allow for that to happen for us. We would’ve had to open doors every 20 minutes and let the mist. Technically couldn’t have been accomplished. And the first day, the first morning of shooting that, the wind took all of our smoke when we were shooting outside in the middle of a giant field, and it was like, “I have to reconceive this whole thing. There’s no way we’re going to do it.” And at lunch, my line producer pulled me aside and said, “We did get two good shots in the can there. I know, felt like a movie is made one shot at a time. Let’s go back at it.” And thankfully we listened to him and I stopped freaking out and we made, I think, a really awesome sequence out of it. That one stands out.
Did that sequence take longer than you guys had initially planned? Was it like three days and it went to seven? Or was it just like, “Okay, we can do this?”
No, it ended up being mostly inside. I would say every big sequence took a day or two longer than planned just because we were dealing with the elements. The thing that it affected actually was after that we went to do Naru’s fight against the Fur Trappers, and that ended up being a oner in the movie that was initially not going to be. It would’ve been three or so days to shoot that fight, amongst all the other stuff that we had to do up there. And since we were squeezed for time, I had to turn that into one day. It was like, “Well, let’s just spend all day getting one great shot, as opposed to three days, doing all the bits of coverage for it,” and things like that.
You find out you have one day. What is your reaction as a director? Do you freak out or are you more levelheaded and, “O.K., we’re going to get what we’re going to get?”
I would say it wasn’t like, “O.K, well now you only have one day.” It was like, “We’ll never get this in three days.” And by the way, I remember I’ve worked on a couple of things with Frank Marshall who has a version of that tale we’ve heard a million times about indie pulling up the gun in “Raiders[of the Lost Ark]” to shoot the swordsman and not to speak out of school, and I know Harrison [Ford] has spoken about probably all things were true about this moment in time. But as Frank has told it, there was a whole choreographed fight sequence that we have heard and they had no time and they had shot a morning of stuff and then looked at a stack of storyboards that was like, “We’ll never get that done.” And the solution presented itself. That always rang around in my head like, “Yes, cleverness will get you out of a time squeeze.” And I’d wrestled the whole time with whether or not that sequence should be a oner or not. It was already rattling around my brain and felt like, “O.K., now the decision is made for me. Let me lean into that.” I was nervous about it being a oner because that sequence is dependent on her being reactive to what’s happening as she’s constantly using their weapons against them. And I didn’t want it to feel like, “This is the shot where she kicks ass.” I wanted to still feel like she was figuring stuff out inside of that shot. That was the trick in making that concession for me.
Some directors might overthink it and say, “This is a streaming movie. I have to think of this for television. I have to think that this is going to be on a smaller screen.” Did that thought ever cross your mind?
No, I was in denial about that, that it was for streaming. I don’t even know that I would think it’s for streaming anyway and shoot that, the studio was in denial. No one was thinking, “Oh, let’s make a concession for streaming.” Maybe there may have been, I don’t know. But even when I’ve done commercials that I know and people say, “Oh, it’s people looking on their iPhone.” I’m like, “Yeah, we watched movies on our iPhone that were shot, we have to treat it all as if it was the best version of itself.”
Was that also your mindset for the pilot of “The Boys”?
Same thing. Because we’re all watching all of it. We’re all watching it, all of it, in all ways. In fact, there was a weird experience when we were doing the sound mix in “The Boys.” I think this may have just been a misconception from one person handling it, but they first brought out a little TV set to do our sound mix on and we were going to mix in stereo. And then they say, “Oh yeah, then we’ll uprise.” I was like, “No, we have to look at it in the most perfect version of it and then we figure out how all of these ideas fit into another box. We don’t start with the worst version and then that means the best version will be a degrade of the worst.” It was very strange. That was a mentality from network television, I think of how they mixed network TV and it was like, “That’s not what we’re doing on this.” And turned out “The Boys” won some award. I don’t know what that award was, but the sound mix on that pilot won some great, I forget, I don’t think it was an Emmy. It could have been an Emmy. That’d be great. [Editor’s Note: it was an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy or Drama Series (One Hour).]
One of the things that made the film pop to so many people is how authentic the Comanche experience is in the film. And I know you guys brought on a producer who was Comanche or partially Comanche to assist with that, but was that something you were nervous about? Was it something you had to pay close attention too?
Yes, nervous about it. Yes, had to pay attention to it. It was everything. I wanted the movie to feel like it was a historical movie that then cool stuff happened that then action genre elements infected as opposed to it’s a genre movie and then let’s just make sure some historical stuff is in it. Let’s try to get that right. To me, that was the wrong approach. I really want to make sure that we were making a movie, we’re treating this like this is the story of this character in this time and this setting, and everything wants to feel as authentic as possible. And part of the impetus for making this movie is that Native Americans, Indigenous, and Comanche, in particular, are never cast as the lead, are never characters that are the lead of the movie they’re in. So often they’re the villain or the sidekick. Comanches in particular have a pretty gnarly history in Hollywood in terms of their representation from “The Searchers” to “The Lone Ranger.” I really wanted all of that stuff to feel, “This is the part that we don’t often see from interesting things like brushing teeth to who the characters actually are and what they’re playing.” Having a producer alongside was essential. I needed someone day to day, every day. As little things came up, “Is this the most true thing?” It can be the same way in working with an actor and we’re like, “Is this the most true thing it can be?” And working in deep heat, “This shot, are we doing the best version?” With Jane, every second, was “Is this right?” And from the script to the screen to things being made and costume and hair and makeup and all of that stuff, it’s not just a check-in once in a while with an advisor. It’s someone who’s really shoulder-to-shoulder with us. And even bringing those instincts to the genre moments so that things can all be intertwined, that there’d be a historical authenticity, cultural authenticity meshed in with the fond genre stuff as well.
Obviously, the movie hinges on whoever plays Naru. How hard was it to find Amber Midthunder and was it one of those things where you saw her tape and knew right away?
It was. It wasn’t that hard because we saw her in one of the first rounds and I saw her on tape and one of the first rounds and then we had stopped down for a while. I think that was a COVID stop-down. I did a pilot, I stopped down, I went back, did another, finished that pilot, and then we started casting again. Brought Amber in for chemistry stuff with some of the guys, and I knew it was her from first meeting her. But when we did that and she had [finished] auditioning in Comanche, she did a physical little obstacle course thing and then we decided to do a dialogue scene without saying any words. She was incredible. She was absolutely incredible.
The movie was a huge success and you’d assume that they would want to do another prequel or another sequel to this. Are you involved in that at all? Or is this just a one-off and you’re moving on to other things?
I can’t really say anything about that right now, but I’ll say while we were finishing the movie, we were having really exciting conversations. The studio, myself, the writer, and the producers about what crazy things could we do next. And I’ve never stopped, no one stopped thinking about how cool things could be going forward.
However cool those things would be, would it be for streaming again or would it potentially be for theatrical first?
No comment. I answered the question. Somewhat answered part of the question. Got to allow me that. [Laughs.]
“Prey” is available on Hulu and Disney+ outside the United States.