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Looking at Characters from the Inside Out: An Interview with 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' Director Joss Agnew

Joss Agnew shares with Script about the process behind directing episodes 7-8 and the importance of that interview process with the show's creators, how he approaches camera angles for character development, keeping the show tonally consistent and so much more.

Inspired by the Walter Tevis novel of the same name and the iconic David Bowie film, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH follows a new alien character who arrives on Earth at a turning point in human evolution and must confront his own past to determine our future. 

Those familiar with the feature version of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) starring David Bowie, the wonderfully brilliant and talented chameleon legend, who left us too soon, and directed by Nicolas Roeg, can sense the essence of the original and the love letter presented in the latest iteration from creators Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet. And to tie the vision altogether is a great team in front and behind the camera, including creative mastermind Joss Agnew, who directed two pivotal episodes, seven and eight, respectively. Agnew puts his creative vision into hyperdrive within these two episodes.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Joss Agnew about how he was brought onto direct episodes 7-8 and the importance of that interview process with the show's creators, how he approaches camera angles for character development, keeping the show tonally consistent and so much more.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Faraday in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, "Cracked Actor". Photo credit: Aimee Spinks/SHOWTIME.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Faraday in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, "Cracked Actor". Photo credit: Aimee Spinks/SHOWTIME.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: You definitely captured the essence of the original film and then made it your own within those two very pivotal episodes you directed for this season. Episode Seven seemed like an incredible creative playground. What was the process of just stepping into the middle of the season and breaking down the story and characters, and being mindful of carrying the established tone?

Joss Agnew: Yeah. I use an analogy about a steaming locomotive that's piled high with the circus on it. And you're wanting to catch up. But you run and find out where everything is, what the story is, where we're heading, and all the rest of it, but luckily when I joined Alex Kurtzman and, and Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, the DoP, were already shooting. I don't know how Alex did it, really. But he managed to give me quite a lot of time. And Jenny Lumet going through the scripts and putting me in the picture. Obviously, you can read everything that's gone before it, but it's the thinking behind it that you really want to get a hold of what's underneath those amazing words underneath those characters. Sometimes you can miss subtext, and you can miss theme. So, it's great to have that time to explore that and be explained to what that's all about.

I just fell in love with scripts immediately. They're beautifully crafted in terms of not just telling you a story, but holding you by the hand where you need to be held by the hand. And then in other places just let your imagination go with it a bit more.

Joss Agnew

Joss Agnew

Sadie: Did you get to choose the episodes that you directed or were you hired specifically for those two episodes?

Joss: Yeah, it was, ‘this is the block we're interested in talking to you about.’ For an episodic director that's coming in and being interviewed for something, you've got the privileged easy job, a privileged position and it's the easy part of the process, because all of that heavy lifting, the creation of this amazing world, all those characters, it's all obviously done before you, you haven't had to lift a finger to get the project off the ground and have any of that endless slog that everyone else has done. It's a rarefied position to be in.

I was given one to six to read, so I can make sense of following the story, where we're up to, and so on. And then I'm specifically looking at episodes seven and eight. And I think it's just about how you respond to those scripts. That's when we then have a conversation with in this case, it was Alex, what he's looking for is how you feel about it, and how you respond to it? How do you relate to it? What meaning can you see in it? And general thoughts about the process. And what was really lovely about the chat with Alex, is that we talked a lot about process. And quite often, literally, how are we going to make this? What can you bring to the process of actually shooting something? And quite often it's not really touched on in interviews about how you actually physically make something.

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Sadie: That’s so great that they provided that opportunity for you to explore that.

Joss: Oh, yeah. It was a delight. Because I also think every artist has their process. Every past person has their own process. And sometimes they're quite guarded about sharing that. And this was the opposite. Alex was explaining how he and Tommy Maddox had come up with a specific look about the access to the characters. They described it as looking at the characters from the inside out, not the outside in. And everything kind of stemmed from there - character development and story. So, we covered all that in the first meeting, which was a delight. But when you went in first for an interview for it, you're just trying to respond to the story, how it affects you just like an audience member.

Sadie: You kind of touched on this too, the team laying the groundwork tonally – were you beholden to anything in terms of tone or the style for the two episodes, just to keep everything tonally consistent?

Joss: That's such a great question. It's a difficult answer, because it's yes, and then no. Alex laid out, and John Hlavin, the fabulous showrunner, this is the kind of style that has been done before, but then there is the opportunity too, ‘What will you do with that style to make it respond and to get the right tone for the for the episodes you're doing?’ Because this is not a precinct drama. This is quite a journey. And so, every episode just moves on into different worlds all the time, or different territory to explore. So, for episode seven, it was I guess my analogy was, it just felt like it was a whole pressure cooker. And the whole time, we're just cranking up the heat on it until it pops at the end of episode seven, and then episode eight, it's a full on chase until there's a kind of sort of standoff and then that becomes much more suspenseful. I think that's it - pressure building, and then an eruption with the chase and the suspense for the second episode, with the headlines.

Jimmi Simpson as Spencer Clay in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell". Photo credit: Aimee Spinks/SHOWTIME.

Jimmi Simpson as Spencer Clay in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell". Photo credit: Aimee Spinks/SHOWTIME.

Sadie: And going back to that character development, and I love their approach of looking at the characters inside out, I feel like you actually do capture it in episode seven, with the use of close-ups, especially when we see Spencer Clay at his desk on that phone call and how you're a little askew on his close up, but you're kind of getting a sense of his internal register. I just love how you did that. And it's very clear, that you're using those close-ups a lot in that episode, but it's very poignant. I'm curious about your approach of you using very specific shots like a close-up, and how it anchors emotional resonance for a character, and the storyline?

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Joss: Yeah, there's a really interesting conversation with the operator on the show, we were talking about the difference between the proximity of the camera and the particular piece of glass you're using to photograph someone. And the difference between like going up to them. He said, ‘I'm going to walk right up to you’ and got right in my face. And you're right in that character's sphere, and right into their world. And I think that's a completely different way than often we look at people. And we do see this quite a lot now - maybe like Nomadland, something like that they are very much within the orbit of a particular character. So, I think with Jimmi [Simpson] playing Clay in episode seven, we wanted to push that a bit more and explore that. And again, I guess that's a useful way of examining that character and seeing how they're dealing with growing pressure.

Sadie: It definitely works. How much time did you spend prepping for these episodes? Were you looking at the original source material or the original movie and figuring out how you can make it your own for these two episodes?

Joss: We all paid homage to the original movie. And then, of course, David Bowie, and Nicolas Roeg’s work on that. But I think the novel was fascinating - to get more into the internal workings, and what's going on in Newton's mind. But to be absolutely honest, it was something we want to pay tribute to, but you have to bring it into 2022. And that's a very strong foundation to build something on. But how do we make it relevant and immediate to the modern audience? So yeah, I mean, I read the novel. I saw the movie when I was a kid, and it kind of freaked me out. [laughs] I learned more about it. I understood a lot more later. But yeah, it was quite a thrill.

Sadie: I also noticed that you had a brief background as an editor when you started out in filmmaking. How much has that influenced in wanting to become a director?

Joss: When I was training, I had the opportunity to go into different departments. I had an amazing break on the particular training course that was running in Britain at the time. And one of the routes you could go down was editing. And I knew I wanted to be a director. But I knew editing was the closest thing to it, apart from writing, of course. So, that was my choice, because David Lean was a massive influence. And that was his route. And I thought, well, that's got to be the right route.

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When I came out of that, it was literally in the last few years of celluloid editing. Crewing wasn't as fluid as it is now. I worked on quite a few movies as a second assistant. And then I came out, I went in to do something else and then came back into direct. I sort of had to leave the industry and work my way back in to be a director. But I learned so much from working with the veteran editors I've worked with. I wouldn't change it for the world that kind of stepping into the industry.

Sadie: It's one of those skill sets that people don't immediately think about in terms of storytelling, because editing is a form of writing as well and it's usually the last writing of the film.

Joss: That's right. Just seeing the way it all comes together in the cutting rooms. And then just the emphasis of any scene how it's given to any particular character, what you can say with the sound, how much storytelling can be done with that - just infinite possibilities. It's fascinating being around the creatives, seeing the other filmmakers make the choices in the cutting rooms, and seeing how the film evolves. And then with test screenings as well, seeing how movies alter once the audience gets their say and I find that incredibly fascinating to see.


Sadie: Are there certain stories that you're drawn to or subject matters that interested in exploring through the director's eye?

Joss: I'm fascinated with survival stories, to be honest, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, in a way, is that. It's dealing with all of our survival. It may be in more of a long term, but it's actually very short term. Just seeing how different characters cope with life and all the obstacles that can be thrown at us. I think if it helps us understand each other a bit more. I think you can tell survival stories in numerous contexts. So yeah, kind of interested in that. But in terms of genre, I don't really have anything specific that I like, as long as I'm rooting for characters in fascinating situations, I want to see what happens next. So, as I said at the beginning, really, I just consider myself a part of the audience.

Season one of The Man Who Fell to Earth is now streaming on Showtime.

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