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‘Homecoming’: How Sam Esmail Made Fall TV’s Most Exciting Show

The boundary-pushing director offers behind-the-scenes insights into the Amazon thriller

Julia Roberts in "Homecoming"

Julia Roberts in 'Homecoming.'

Amazon Studios

Amazon’s Homecoming — adapted from the popular podcast, starring Julia Roberts and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail — debuted last week. As compelling as it was, it left certain questions to be discussed once the 10-episode season was done. Full spoilers coming up just as soon as I detach and reattach my reading glasses 27 times…

For someone who’d barely directed anything prior to Mr. Robot, Esmail has fast turned into one of television’s most interesting directors. There are times when his visual flourishes can draw attention away from the story. But more often than not, the off-kilter framing, continuous-take scenes and other devices help illuminate the characterizations rather than undercutting them.

That is particularly true of the visual signature he uses in Homecoming: presenting all the 2022 scenes where Heidi is a waitress in a vertical frame, with the left and right of the screen blacked out. At first, the technique, which resembles video someone took on their phone, just seems like a quick-and-dirty method to differentiate the future timeline from the one in the present, where Heidi is working with Walter at the Homecoming facility. Occasionally, it can even feel like a stunt undertaken for its own sake. Between Roberts’ hairstyle, the setting and the difference in characters (Shea Whigham’s investigator Thomas Carrasco only appears in the future scenes, for instance), there are enough clues to the timeframe without the black bars flanking the image (letterboxing at a 90-degree angle).

But then comes perhaps the best television shot of the year, late in the eighth episode, where Heidi finally regains her memories as she and her former boss, Bobby Cannvale’s Colin, separately tour the abandoned Homecoming offices:

Julia Roberts in Homecoming

Heidi remembers everything in ‘Homecoming.’

It is a watershed moment for Heidi, thrilling in its execution. Yes, the vertical frame helps differentiate one timeline from the other, but it’s also a symbol for how she had deliberately blocked off her memories of her time with Walter by eating the same drugged food as him in order to save him from being sent overseas for another combat tour. (Later, during the scene in the 2018 timeline where the memory-erasing meds kick in, that timeline’s horizontal frame shrinks into the now-familiar vertical one.)

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Esmail about the thinking and logistics behind the vertical frame in general, and that marvelous zoom/expanse in particular.

“We always start with the character and with her point of view,” he explained. “What is she going through, what is she experiencing? We lit it a little flatter, the colors are a little more de-saturated. Her world is more downtrodden, she’s defeated. But her memory is a big part of the show, and she doesn’t see the whole picture. She’s boxed in. And she’s also being cornered by Carrasco, and later by Colin. So we thought, ‘Let’s just literally put her in a box.’

“And when we went to episode eight,” he continued, “we thought, ‘Oh, this’ll be cool. We’ll just wipe out the screen, and now she’ll see the full picture.’ That was such a great way to represent that. I didn’t know what else we were going to do, other than, Julia’s just going to have act like these memories are floating back. So we were just going to wipe it out. I’ve seen that before. Xavier Dolan did that in Mommy. But there was something that felt wrong about that, too. It’s not like she’s seeing more of the picture; it’s that her world now feels bigger. That zolly [dolly zoom] idea came around when it got closer to actually shooting the scene.”

TV is a visual medium, but for a lot of its history — including the decades when most television sets came with an aspect ratio only a bit wider than what we see in the 2022 scenes here — the people making it rarely leaned on the pictures themselves to tell a story. Lately, that’s started to change, and Homecoming‘s two biggest emotional moments are told with pictures, not words: the frame expanding around Heidi’s face, and the shot of Heidi’s cutlery pushed slightly askew by Walter at the end of the finale, which establishes that on some deep mental level he can’t fully access, he remembers his time with Heidi at Homecoming.

As Esmail put it regarding the vertical framing, “We didn’t want it to be a gimmick. The audience doesn’t need a huge visual cue to recognize different timelines. We just thought it was the right way to represent Heidi’s journey.”

More thoughts and questions about the season, with commentary when possible from Esmail:

Instant chemistry lesson
Even more than Esmail’s visual sense, the creative success of Homecoming leans on the bond between Heidi and Walter, and the chemistry between Roberts and Stephan James. Large chunks of the series, particularly in the slow-burning early chapters, are just Heidi and Walter making small talk about road trips, the fake Titanic sequel (Titanic Rising) he and his buddies invented to prank another soldier, etc. These conversations are as essential for Heidi as they are for the show. She has to build a rapport with her client so he’ll be open with her as she monitors the effect the Geist company’s brain-altering chemicals are having on him. And the audience has to care enough about the relationship not only to keep watching until the plot really kicks in, but to be curious what’s become of Walter in 2022.

James was busy filming If Beale Street Could Talk when Homecoming was casting, so his first audition was done on tape. It was striking enough for Esmail to put him in a room with Roberts, and their connection was so obvious so quickly that the director scrapped plans to devote pre-production time to helping them get more comfortable with one another. What he first noticed between them is very apparent in the finished product. 

What’s the story with Audrey?
Homecoming is an Esmail show, which means it’s required by law to have an atmospheric mid-credits scene in the finale. In this case, it’s a continuation of the earlier role reversal between Colin and his former assistant Audrey (Hong Chau, who’s had a busy fall between this show, BoJack Horseman and that one great episode of Forever). As soon as Colin finishes signing the paperwork that makes him the scapegoat for the Homecoming mess and leaves, Audrey’s smug demeanor vanishes. She looks worried, her fingers start to tremble and she rubs the contents of a vial labeled “Lab Use Only” on her wrists. Is this her using a less extreme version of the drugs that Heidi and Walter ingested, in order to alleviate her anxiety about recent events? Is it a different Geist creation altogether? And how much of this scene is set-up for the planned second season? Esmail’s not telling: “Spoiler-free zone. I can’t talk. But I will say this: She’s a great actress on the show.”

Esmail vs. autoplay
Another of the show’s visual signatures: the end credits play over a lingering, usually static shot of some innocuous activity: Carrasco goes through file boxes in the office basement, a corporate party happens around Colin as he contemplates the reason Heidi would call him four years after they last spoke, etc. None of these moments are necessary for the plot, but they contribute to the series’ paranoid atmosphere, lending the viewer a feeling of spying on the characters after they think the director has called cut.

When making the show, Esmail wasn’t sure how Amazon’s autoplay function would accommodate the idea, since it typically offers the option to jump to the next episode as soon as the closing credits begin. As it turns out, that option does pop up right away, but if you don’t manually click on it, you get a good 30 seconds of unsettling vibes before the next episode begins — just not as much time as Esmail and his collaborators may have intended. (You can, of course, opt out of autoplay, but that’s more effort than most people are willing to give in a binge.)

This is the Bad Place?
The Homecoming facility itself, which Esmail suggested was an example of a corporation trying to seem cool and failing, was a set built for the show. And some places, like the Geist corporate headquarters with its big atrium and staircase, were chosen to suit the vertical frame of the 2022 scenes. But a few other locations may have looked familiar to Peak TV viewers. Heidi’s apartment complex in Tampa was the same building that Transparent used as Shelly’s retirement community. And speaking of retirement communities, the one that Walter and Shrier stumble upon during their brief escape attempt was shot on the European city street on the Universal backlot — a.k.a. Michael’s neighborhood from The Good Place‘s first two seasons.

(For that matter, Heidi’s office, with its circular shape and wood paneling, resembles Dr. Melfi’s from The Sopranos, though it was built for this show.)

I can see clearly now
Esmail is one of those directors who loves to give his actors props to play with, as much to challenge them with an extra physical component as to help inform character. Heidi is constantly fiddling with her digital voice recorder and adjusting the items on her desk (which helps set up that great concluding moment at the diner), while Carrasco puts on and takes off his collapsible, magnetic reading glasses so many times during his investigation, the specs practically become his partner. Esmail, Whigham and the prop team spent a long time considering various pairs of glasses and loops before settling on that particular old-school combo.

(The 2022 scenes are decidedly low-tech in general. The creative team chose a four-year gap in part because technology wouldn’t look too different over that span. “The phone I have now pretty much looks like the one I had in 2014,” Esmail noted.)

Haven’t we met before?
In addition to Heidi and Colin’s reunion in the 2022 timeline — where he pretends to be a soldier with PTSD so he can get close to her (and sleep with her) while he figures out her angle — the series features a couple of real-life reunions. Cannavale worked on the most recent season of Mr. Robot, and as Esmail tells it, the actor approached him one day and began extolling the virtues of the Homecoming podcast. Esmail explained that he was actually adapting it for TV, Cannavale seemed surprised, and they moved on. A few days later, Cannavale approached him and suggested he would make a good Colin. When I proffered that this seems like a performer playing dumb to manipulate his way into a job, Esmail thought about it and admitted it was entirely possible Cannavale was gaslighting him.

Meanwhile, Heidi’s depressing 2018 boyfriend Russell is played by her old My Best Friend’s Wedding co-star Dermot Mulroney. Esmail is a big fan of the movie and sheepishly suggested Mulroney in an early meeting with Roberts after she had signed to play Heidi. “And she said, ‘Hold on, let me text him,'” he recalled. Between takes, he said, the two had the chemistry of siblings, with Mulroney calling Roberts “Jules” at all times.

What did everybody else think?

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