“I’m always interested in the big picture, what’s going on in the world, and then the micro view – the very interpersonal relationships and how those interface with each other,” explains director Lesli Linka Glatter of her inspiration in television and film. “That always pulls me in, in terms of story.”
The final stunning episode of Homeland, written by the show’s co-creator Alex Gansa and directed by Glatter, aired on April 29. In Season 7, the action-packed political drama toggled between Russia – filmed in Hungary – and America. It focused on a White House helmed by a female President, played by Elizabeth Marvel, who ultimately delivered a powerful speech about division and unity. “That’s so Homeland, that people are layered and complicated. Often times you’ll have people in a scene who have diametrically opposite views, and we don’t take a stand of who’s right or who’s wrong, but you have to think about what you feel about that particular issue. And I love that.”
We’re by the beautiful Pacific Ocean at Malibu Farm Restaurant. Within five minutes of our sitting down, Glatter has already run into industry friends. Har-dly surprising: throughout her 30-year career, she’s worked with top Hollywood directors and actors on movies and TV shows, including The Leftovers, West Wing, Twin Peaks, Mad Men, and Homeland, on which she also serves as executive producer. Over very LA salads of grilled salmon kale nicoise, and BLT kale caesar, we continue talk of Homeland.
If a male director does a successful movie, he’ll get maybe five more movies out of it… It’s tough
Being a producing director means Glatter works over the show’s entire run. As with the start of every season, she and the crew travel to meet with DC’s intelligence community. “Alex Gansa asks: What keeps you up at night? What’s your biggest fear? And that’s what the season comes from. Of course, after those meetings we’re all in a panic. We have now learned what keeps all these intelligence officers up. It’s so tense. It’s confidential but not classified and they talk very candidly about their concerns.” With the writers in LA, she’s not only the show’s creative boots on the ground, but also the director on four of the season’s 12 episodes. Every year, Homeland is recreated in a different city with a different crew and a different story.
Glatter was asked to direct in Homeland’s first season, but she was working on Chicago Code at the time. However, when the opportunity arose again, she seized it. “I did an episode – the script was brilliant – it was called ‘Q&A’.” Yet Glatter recalls panicking when she realized 40 of its pages were set in the same room. “For a director, that’s very terrifying. You have nothing to hide behind, everything’s exposed, you can’t do any tricky camera moves. When I realised I was going to be in this room with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, I thought it was going to be OK.” This particular episode in Season 2 shows Danes’ Carrie Mathison breaking Nicholas Brody, played by Lewis. “Here you have a guy who has been interrogated for eight years, he knows how to do this, and you have her, who is a great interrogator. What are going to be all the twists and turns emotionally of that scene? I had never directed something that had gone on for that long in one room. So that was a huge challenge and preparing for the scene, I went through it beat by beat… It’s always going to go back to the material.” The episode garnered Glatter both Emmy and Directors Guild of America Award (DGA) nominations.
Glatter’s rise hasn’t charted the typical Hollywood trajectory. She started out as a modern dancer and choreographer and worked for three years with a French theatre and dance company in Paris. “I went to pre-med – and only at 18 could you think it possible – but I thought I was going to be a dancing neurosurgeon. I would operate on brains by day, and do concerts and modern dance by night. It became clear to me that if I was going to dance, it would have to be full-time.”
She spent another three years in London, and then got a grant to teach, perform, and choreograph throughout the Far East while based in Tokyo, which ended up being a career turning point. “This sounds crazy, but if I hadn’t moved to Japan, I wouldn’t be a director. I was in Shibuya, and wanted a cup of coffee. There were two coffee shops and very arbitrarily I picked the one on the right.” There she met an older Japanese man, “an incredible guy – he had been a Buddhist monk, a war correspondent, and at the time was head of cultural affairs for the largest newspaper, the Asahi Shinbum. He and his wife kind of became my Japanese parents.” Over time, he told her a series of stories about human connection that had all happened on Christmas Eve during different wars. “And the stories were so profound and so beautiful that I knew I had to pass them on,” she says. It wasn’t until Glatter relocated to Los Angeles that she started making her first film based on these stories, called Tales of Meeting and Parting.
While she taught modern dance and choreography at CalArts, she applied to the Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute. “I applied totally unqualified because it’s set up for women in the film business who have directed. At this point, in my early thirties, I was having a really good dance career.” She says she miraculously got in: “And then, of course, I panicked because I realised I knew nothing about making a film. But, as with dance, you can’t cheat. So I went and worked doing all kinds of jobs on the sets of 10 of the other women’s films because I wanted to understand the process.”
A year later, and after shadowing Australian director George Miller (whom she’d met in Japan) on his episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie, she was ready to make her short film. It came together as a period piece set in WWII with flashbacks, narration, and one Caucasian character – not conventional commercial Hollywood material. But, that didn’t bother Glatter. To her surprise, it garnered award nominations, including an Oscar. “When I got the call to say it was nominated [for an Academy Award for Short Film], I thought it was a mistake. I had to see it written down somewhere to believe it.” Though it didn’t win, Glatter did hear from director Steven Spielberg. “You could never plan that. He saw the film on a plane, which I thought was the most exotic thing ever.”
The two directors met about a TV anthology series Spielberg was developing called Amazing Stories, on which he’d invited his friends: Martin Scorsese; Clint Eastwood – as well as three newer names to direct. “That was really my film school,” Glatter notes. “What you learn is that everyone has a style. There’s not one way to do this, so you better find your own way of doing it. And to learn from such great directors! I feel like in dance I had always been a storyteller, so to me it was just a shift of direction in terms of what medium I was going to be telling stories in.”
Each episode was a separate story and prepped like a movie; Glatter directed three. “Steven Spielberg is an incredibly brilliant and kind person. And he told me a number of things that come into play all the time when I’m directing. One of those things is that when you’re watching a scene and something’s not working – maybe it’s the blocking, or you haven’t broken down what the scene is about, or there’s something wrong with the dialogue – if you tell your instincts to shut up, they will and they won’t talk to you anymore. That idea of keeping the channel to your own instincts open and clear: what a great thing to be telling a young director.”
I went to pre-med – and only at 18 could you think it possible – but I thought I was going to be a dancing neurosurgeon. I would operate on brains by day, and do concerts and modern dance by night
And then Twin Peaks happened. “I went to the screening of the pilot and was blown away. Twin Peaks was a game changer. To me, it was the beginning of what’s going on in TV right now, of amazing visual storytelling. We’re in a golden age,” she says. “David Lynch is an amazing director, a visionary director. In person he’s fantastic, very down to earth.” She eventually got the call, directed four episodes, and was nominated for her first DGA Award.
“From that moment on, I’ve been directing all the time. I try not to make decisions about what the delivery system is. Meaning I’ve done movies, I’ve done pilots, I’ve done TV episodes. It’s about good material,” she says. Glatter’s first movie was Now and Then starring Melanie Griffith, Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, and Rita Wilson. “It was very successful. Then I did another movie called The Proposition with Madeleine Stowe and Kenneth Branagh, which did not do as well. And I think it’s changed a bit, especially as a woman. If you did one successful movie, you’d get another, but if it was unsuccessful, you’d have to go and reinvent yourself.”
“I’ve talked about this with male directors: If a male director does a successful movie, he’ll get maybe five more movies out of it… It’s tough. If you’re going to do it, you have to have the perseverance. I don’t think I ever thought of giving up. It was: OK, how badly do you want to do this? And for me, not doing it was not an option.”
Part of The Proposition’s problem came down to PolyGram’s going out of business. “It was bad timing. I felt it was a combination of factors but I certainly looked at the creative and thought: What could I have done better? Like all of us, you just have to get back on the bike and do it again. You can’t let it paralyse you.”
It’s no surprise that Glatter, who has a pleasing energy about her, is a mentor to many. “I looked around and I saw how few women there were. It was just not acceptable. There are a lot of strong women and I knew that as a working director, I could afford to grab the hand of the next generation. It’s been amazing that some of the women I’ve mentored I’ve walked the red carpet with. There’s nothing more thrilling than saying: This is my mentor, this is my mentee, and we’re doing this together.”
WORDS: Marina Kay
IMAGES: Vincent Long