If you watched the first season of “Yellowjackets” it was obvious that some new actors would enter the fold in season two. Who would play the adult versions of Van and Lottie? And, with production ramping up it’s now surprise that Lauren Ambrose and Simone Kessell are on board to play each role, respectively. But there is one other key creative who will be returning to the Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson created series, Emmy nominated director Karyn Kusama.
Best known for films such as “Girlfight,” “Jennifer’s Body” and “Destroyer,” Kusama had the difficult job of fashioning the series pilot before Showtime greenlit the program for an entire season. Covering two different timelines set twenty years apart, “Yellowjackets” is a thriller with an ensemble cast featuring four pairs of actors playing the same character. Keeping those narratives clear and compelling is one reason her peers in the Television Academy’s Directing Branch rewarded her with her first Emmy nomination.
During a conversation earlier this month, Kusama reflected on that tough gig, why she wasn’t able to helm any other episodes of the first season and, thankfully, how she’s set to return for season two.
The Playlist: Congratulations on the Emmy nominations. You’ve been in this business for a while and worked super hard on both film and television. What did it mean when you heard your name?
Karyn Kusama: I mean, I’m not going to lie, I was actually a little bit surprised just because between shows like “Squid Game” and “Severance” and “Succession,” it’s like there’s a lot of pretty tough competition out there. So it was a real huge pleasure and honor to hear my name.
And twice. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re also nominated for a series as well.
Yep. Very exciting.
In terms of the directing nomination, did the fact it came from your peers mean anything more than the series nod?
Oh, it’s huge. I mean, it just feels so great to feel like my peers see the care, I hope in what we all took to present that first episode of the show and frame the larger narrative and the bigger mysteries, set those up. And yeah, it was a huge validation to have the director’s branch recognize me and nominate me. I’m very, very thankful.
When was the pilot filmed?
Well, the pilot actually shot in December of 2019, and then we were in post through February and March. And literally, as we were wrapping post and locking picture and feeling great about the pilot, everything in the whole world blew up. And so it put us off the schedule for a year essentially. But what was great about that was it just gave everyone a little bit of time to really think harder about where the series was going to go and how it was going to be sort of shaped as a season of television if it were to become a season. And so I think Ashley and Bart, and eventually, Jonathan Lisko just did such an incredible job of creating a first season of TV that is so vibrant and strange and truly distinctive. So, the time ultimately didn’t hurt us, but maybe made us more antsy while we were waiting to know what we were going to do.
Whether they worked in film or television, a lot of filmmakers had to wait for their projects to come out because of the pandemic. Have you ever waited two years for something that you’ve worked on to come out?
I have to say it was kind of ironic because one of the things that people always say about television is, “The great thing about TV is you shoot it, and then a month or two or six months later, it’s on the air.” And that was definitely not what happened in this case. So, I felt like, “O.K., I guess I’m just, the lesson here is that patience is worth it.” but I had not expected that we would have to wait so long, but I think in the end, I’m thankful that it all worked out the way it did.
You had this great screenplay in front of you and you’re brought on to direct the pilot. What was your number one concern in terms of consistency, aesthetic, or narrative thread that you had about filming?
Well, in a funny way, you just identified what the biggest challenge was and is in the show, which is maintaining a thread. Because there are so many characters and because we’re toggling between the past and the present, and we’re introducing characters in the past and the present and they don’t necessarily always line up, it’s important to just sort of frame all that information in a way where it lands. And so as much as there is an incredible narrative density in the storytelling and so much happens in the pilot, it was just really important to figure out all the ways that we would remember the character’s names and faces and relationships. So that you felt like you had a whole enough experience that frankly you’d want to see the next episode. Because it’s a real challenge to have such a big cast and so many storylines to manage. And I think it’s kind of a high wire act for the show going forward. But it’s pretty exciting that the creators pulled it off as beautifully as they did.
This is a show where you have not one or two, but four pairs of actors portraying the same role. Did you feel like you needed them to talk to each other? Or did you want to leave that to each actor to decide?
In an ideal situation, you’d want everybody to meet and face-to-face sort of work out the intricacies of their characters. And to some degree that was possible with some of our characters and some of our actors, but not all of them. And so it was really interesting to go on faith and hope that we had cast people whose energy, and I want to say psychic temperament felt aligned across the two actors. And to speak very openly with both actors playing one single character about what felt like essential elemental qualities. So even if the notion is that we’re exploring how these women have grown and changed from their younger selves to their middle-aged selves, it was also important that we find those core qualities that were more consistent really between the two timelines. And so, that was kind of exciting to see that it could work with actors this good, it can be consistent. That was really, really an exciting experiment. And I don’t doubt that it doesn’t always work out, but in this case it did.
There was a year in between you shooting the pilot and production shooting the remaining nine episodes. But the pilot is also supposed to tease and hint about where the entire rest of the season is going. Were there things that changed in that year “off”? Or did the pilot remain pretty much what you delivered in the spring of 2020?
I mean, structurally, it was largely entirely the same. However, there were a few characters that we knew we wanted to introduce into a season that we didn’t have room for in the pilot. And there were a few characters that we were like, “Oh, I wonder if we’re going to be able to really make this storyline land in the way that we thought from the pilot.” So we did have to do the very difficult kind of heartbreaking work of cutting some characters out of the pilot and then adding some characters with newly shot material that just helped really lay the groundwork for what would become the first season. And in a weird way that’s kind of the function of shooting a pilot and not going straight to series because if it had just been the first episode and we knew kind of where every single thing was going to land, say by episode nine, I don’t know that we would’ve run into that same quandary, but given that this was Showtime, they like to shoot pilots and then make a decision about whether or not to have a season order. So, we did make a few tweaks. But it wasn’t a huge rearrange or anything like that.
Right. It wasn’t like you reshot half the pilot or something.
Oh God, no. No, no.
It was over a year later when production restarted. Were you originally supposed to come back and do other episodes?
I mean this is sort of like a boring life answer. But what had happened was that I didn’t know if they were going to renew it and I just had no idea at that point. And so I did sign up to do an episode of a show that my husband and his partner created called “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”
That also shoots in Vancouver. And I got to experience the strange magic of being quarantined in my apartment for two weeks without being able to leave the front door. And doing that one time, I just was like, “Ooh, this is a big commitment because you have to direct an episode and give a month of your life to that.”
But then you also have to spend an additional two weeks not able to leave. So, it was still that situation in Vancouver by the time the show got picked up and up and running. And so I just wasn’t able to wrap my head around, honestly going through that quarantine again. But luckily, what’s so wonderful about this situation is that the team and the creators are great people who I adore and know very well. And so I felt still very much like a part of the team and a part of the team in finding other directors and looking at cuts and reading scripts. And so it’s been so great to be still quite involved in the show and I am very excited to go back for season two to direct some.
That was my next question. I know that many times they set up episode commitments in “pods.” Directors will come in and do two or three episodes and then someone else will take over. Is that the plan this time around?
It probably wouldn’t be that it would be maybe the last block or the finale.
Awesome, O.K. I’m going to just guess, that you were very excited about the reaction to the show overall. What surprised you the most about what fans got excited about with the show? Was there anything that like you weren’t expecting?
Well, that’s an interesting question actually. Because, and believe it or not, I have not been asked this question. And I think what’s really gratifying is that something about these stories seemed to resonate with people, particularly women.
But I think a lot of people, men, and women alike are engaged and responding to the show. But something about its wildness actually seems to be speaking to people in a way in which they experience it as very authentic. Like people are invested in these characters. And that is just so exciting because part of the point of the story is about exploring, I just want to say, regular people.
Where something very profound happens, very catastrophic you could say. And some of them are left to really pick up the pieces of that experience. And part of that process is whether or not they can pick up the pieces. And I feel like that’s sort of reflective of life in general. And so this wild, outrageous, insane story is actually speaking to people. And it’s not that it surprises me in that I knew from reading the script that it spoke to me, but it’s really cool and really gratifying to feel like I’m not alone. Do you know what I mean?
I absolutely do. And so knowing that you’re going back, I assume it’s restarting in a couple of weeks?
Yeah, that’s correct. Yeah.
You must know the arc for season two. Is there anything you can tease at all about where it’s going to go?
I mean, I guess what I would say is season one, in my opinion, did a great job of completely upending the idea of an expected direction for any of it. And so I would just say that season two is a continuation of that kind of surprise and humor and tonal collision that is essentially as surprising and crazy as real life.
“Yellowjackets” is available on Showtime