Guiding a show as unconventional as “The Flight Attendant” would be a tough task for any director. Adapted from Chris Bohjalian’s 2018 novel, the series was one part thriller, one part comedy, and one part mystery with a wee bit of grounded drama thrown into the mix. The result was HBO Max’s first breakout hit, a show so popular it’s already been extended from a one-off limited series to an ongoing episodic. While the series was originally developed by creator Steve Yockey and executive producer and star Kaley Cuoco, a good deal of credit for its successful takeoff has to go to director Susanna Fogel.
Best known for directing “The Spy Who Dumped Me” and co-writing “Booksmart” (which earned her a WGA Award nomination), Fogel launched “The Flight Attendant,” helming the pilot and the second episode, “Rabbits.” Her work on the former found her the winner of the 2020 Director’s Guild of America Comedy Series Award against tough competition such as “Ted Lasso.” This past month she landed her first Emmy nomination in the same category.
Sadly, scheduling conflicts won’t allow Fogel to direct any of season two, but during our conversation earlier this week, she shed some light on her next project, an adaptation of the popular New Yorker short story “Cat Person.”
The Playlist: What did the Emmy nomination for directing mean to you?
Susanna Fogel: It was incredible, honestly. When you make something, you’re never really sure if it’s going to be a piece of work that people notice or one that you love and it’s like a child, but then it dies, and obscurity and this one happened to hit it, I think just the right time for people who had been trapped in their houses for too long. Anyway, so it really caught on with people and hit the Zeitgeist a great time. I was really pleasantly surprised about that. I didn’t let myself think about it too much, but it was incredibly meaningful to me. You worked so hard in this business, and every so often, when your peers recognize you, it’s just incredible, to be honest.
It was well deserved because one of the great things about “The Flight Attendant” is such an interesting mix of tones. It’s so hard to nail that, and you had to pull it off in the pilot. What was your thought process about that challenge?
When I first read the script, I was in the middle of shooting something else, and I was really exhausted and overworked, and I wasn’t expecting to be open to taking on something out else. And then when I read the script, what jumped out at me was just that it really boldly combined two tones and two genres, at least two if not more, which is to say it was the blueprint for an incredibly stylized show, but it didn’t have archetypal characters. It was really dimensional, grounded characters with deep psychology in this very aesthetically heightened world. It seemed like a really exciting mix of things that is a risk that’s not often attempted by first season shows [or] by first-time show creators. It was clear that the team wanted to aim really high and take a leap off a cliff, and that just really excited me.
So yeah, it was a lot on the page. The split-screen and some of those devices were written or at least hinted at, and if not explicitly pitched, and that helped. It gave a blueprint for the level of risk-taking that they really wanted me to bring. There was a freedom to the whole thing, and it’s not always like that. Oftentimes, there’s a lot of hyper managing, or the parameters will have laid out for you, but here it was, all of us just figuring out how far we can push the boundaries and still retain the loyalty of our audience. It turned out that as far as we pushed it, people stayed on the journey with us, which was really wonderful.
Do you remember a read-through or anything where you talked to the actors about it? Or were they just so talented you didn’t need to?
There were a lot of conversations about tone just because as surprising. As it is for me to read something that’s got so much dimension, if you’re an actor or an actress, you’re not reading much material with as many different modes like this one. So there were a lot of questions like “How’s this going to work? Is it going to work? Is it too funny for how serious it is? Is it too serious for how funny it is?” You can’t ever answer that preemptively with complete confidence. Still, my last movie was an action-comedy where we also had those kinds of conversations, which were “If somebody’s running from a gunman in a car chase, are they going to be making a joke or not? What’s the reality of the movie versus the reality of reality?” You’re always having these weird intellectual conversations about whether something will work, and at the end of the day, you have to hope that it will.
Fogel continues: We did have a read-through, and what’s funny about the read-through is that the comedy and the energy of it were what really stood out. And I think that’s partly because Kaley Cuoco has done so much live TV that she’s such a performer in those particular situations. So she was landing every joke, and it came across so much funnier in that read-through than I [thought it would]. The executives and the audience weren’t expecting that. Then we had to over-correct in the other direction and reassure them that it would also be dramatic because, I think for a while, they were worried it would be too dramatic. So, it was like every time we did a version performing it that wasn’t actually shooting it, people were worried that the tone was going to be too much of a tight rope walk in the end. But then, once we started shooting, everyone figured out that it would somehow sew together.
So it wasn’t something where you guys were in the editing room, working on The Pilot, and you’re like, “No, these are the takes we need to use,” and then all the other directors realized while they were editing, “Oh, this is it. This is the tone of the show.”
I don’t know. When we were actually filming, with Kaley at the center of it, she’s so exuberant and funny and compelling to watch, and there’s a levity to her that she brings to anything, even in the darkest of scenes. You get a sense on the day when you’re shooting something, whether it’s going to work at least in the granular level of that particular scene you’re doing. Things will rarely work day to day and then not come out in the editing room, even though it obviously takes some invention no matter what in post. I think that just because we’re feeling good with the dailies and with what we were shooting, we felt like, “O.K., this will work somehow even if we have to figure out how to calibrate the music and the drama versus the comedy and how much of this is about the jokes,” but the editors were incredible too because we did have to ultimately figure out mostly the pace because you pace the comedy so differently than how you might pace the drama. So that’s all editing. That was a big part of the post-process too.
In your Emmy nominated episode, The Pilot, is there one scene or moment that when you look back at it, you’re most proud of that you were like, “Oh, I knocked that out of the park?”
Like most directors, I always am critiquing the little things that could make it 0.03% better no matter what, but let me think about that. My favorite scene is probably the one where she finds the body and has that reaction, [she] reacts in ways that are totally dysfunctional and semi dissociated and then that George Michael alarm goes off, which was in the script. But just to me, it was such a fun, almost entirely nonverbal sequence. To me, it hit those different notes that the show really does, which is, there’s a certain amount of screwball comedy that Kaley brings. And also, there was a real edge and some gore to it, but it still had this sort of humor to it, and I loved all of that. It was a lot of strings to pull. That one came out just like I had imagined it when we were prepping the show, which is rare. There’s always a huge gulf between what you plan and what you do, but that was one sequence where we actually ended up executing while we planned.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Michiel Huisman is just dead in that bed for like hours on end while you’re shooting this, right?
Do you mean is he just lying there during that scene?
Pretty much, yeah. He’s a great sport. So much of what he shoots is being the guy who’s some version of a manly figure of some kind. We were shooting his first [romantic] scene. He’s like, “I’ve done a million of these. This is so not a big deal for me. I’m always doing this.” It put everyone at ease because he was acknowledging that in his career, he’s definitely done a lot of that kind of… In this role, he gets to play a smart widow-like guy, but also, as a director, you’re so sensitive to approaching any intimate scenes with actors, especially in the culture now, and really wanting to make sure. So I was hyper-aware of the way that I approached the actors, and he was completely amused at how much I was overthinking it because of how often he was asked to do it, which reminds me a bit of working with Sam Heughan on “Spy Who Dumped Me” because in “Outlander,” just when is he not making out with someone?
When you shot this, it was under the guise of a “limited series.” It’s now an ongoing series. Is there any chance of you coming back to direct any episodes for season two?
I would love to. I’m not available when they’re shooting, but I hope that there’s a time that I can in the future. I feel like many filmmakers have had all these planes sitting on the runway since pre-COVID, and now the planes are taking off. So anything else that might come up, we have to play out those previous commitments, but I’m hoping that I’ll get to come back in some way in the life of the show because I really love that team. If not on this show, then in other things, I’d want to reteam with those people because they’re truly incredible supportive artists who are not Hollywood types at all.
Do you know what you’re doing next?
I’m actually prepping two movies, but it looks like, well, one is starting in October. It’s an adaptation of The New Yorker Story, “Cat Person.“
Which you may remember from the vitality that it had. So StudioCanal is producing the movie as a thriller that Michelle Ashford, who created “Masters of Sex,” adapted in sort of the way that “Parasite,” “Get Out,” or “Invisible Man.” I’m directing that this fall with Amelia Jones and Nick Braun. After that, I have this project that’s been pushed due to COVID, but it’s a biopic of reality winner, the whistleblower, the 20-something whistleblower, who just got out of prison for leaking a document about the Russian election interference in 2016, and she’s still in her 20s. She’s out of prison, and it’s basically a biopic of her that approaches her as the normal 20-something that she was. It’s more of a “Lady Bird,” “Erin Brockovich,” “I, Tonya” take on an Edward Snowden story. So that’s the other thing that’s coming up soon, hopefully.
“The Flight Attendant” is now available on HBO Max.