Talking to Veep‘s Emmy-Nominated Director About Art Imitating Life

Veep Assistant Director Dale Stern has been the creative right hand man to show creator Armando Iannucci for four seasons, steering the series toward critical and audience acclaim. In the fifth season, Stern took over the directing chair for a single episode that was so brilliantly executed it earned him an Emmy nomination. In mid-season standout Mother, Stern took on some of the darkest material the show has tackled and it turned out to be some of the funniest. 

On a show where a new haircut carries the same weight as a national crisis, Mother delves into even more absurd territory. As Selina removes her mother from life support, her staff creates a “mobile oval” office in the hospital as she obsesses over a vote recount. “I wanted to do backflips when I got that one,” Stern recalls. “I just love Mother so much. I really wanted to do it right because it is very different, but I was afraid people would wonder, ‘What is this?’ I really wanted for it to make sense for everyone.”

Critical to the success of the episode was the setting, Stern says. He passed on hospital locations that offered “gray walls, gray floors and no windows.” Assistant Director Michelle Gritzer finally landed the light infused location that created the voyeuristic ambience. “I like to make it messy,” Stern says of his directing style. “I like long LensMasters, shooting through glass. I like to just use a hint of it to draw the audience in. That’s why I was really excited about that hospital. It gave me a lot of opportunities to do that without overdoing it.”

Stern did extensive prep, even going to the location and acting out the parts before bringing the cast in. Shooting over 50 pages of script (a typical 30 minute comedy running 30 pages) in five days, Stern wanted to make efficient use of time. “I wanted to remove all of the distractions from the actors and be able to focus one hundred percent on performance,” Stern recalls. “To me that was crucial for this particular subject matter. [Julia] had to dive into a whole new bag of tricks that she’s never used on this particular show. We wanted to show the audience why Selina is who she is. She’s really awful. Julia is lovely, amazing, generous, thoughtful, caring, wonderful amazing person. But Selina is awful. She’s an awful politician and an awful mother. I knew that this script was a centerpiece in the five year long exposition of Selina and the deep chasm of her beautifully flawed character.”

Adding to the length of shooting is the unscripted comedy gold the actors bring to the show. After shooting scenes as scripted, Stern will often roll on a few improvised takes. “When you have people like Julia and Matt Walsh and Reed [Scott] and Tim [Simons], they’re all thoroughbreds in improv. You’d be crazy to not just let them go – let the horses out of the stable.”

Stern has experience working with improv actors. Working with Sacha Baron Cohen on films Borat and Bruno, Stern recalls, “The thing about Sacha is once he puts on the outfit, the mesh underwear, he’s Borat, and you are now dealing with a complete imbecile the entire day. Between takes, at lunch, he is Borat. He never breaks character, which was a lot of fun.”

Amidst one of the most unpredictable presidential elections in American history, the divide between reality and fiction on Veep seems to narrow. Stern says the current political environment can be challenging. “It’s debatable if it’s easier or harder to satirize,” Stern says. “I think it’s harder as real politics escalates in insanity. If you write characters – I don’t want to name names – but if you write somebody like Trump and the things he’s said on the campaign trail, people would turn us off. They would change the channel and say, ‘No one would ever do that. No one would ever say that.’ But they do.”

The show even strikes a chord with the real life Veep. “Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] is in touch with [Vice President] Joe Biden,” Stern says. “He’s a huge fan of the show and will sometimes tell her how close we are, but we hear it all the time.”

Audiences were introduced to Selina Meyer in her role as Vice President of the United States giving the show it’s title. Meyer ascended to a de facto presidency in season 4, then shockingly lost all public office in the season 5 finale. Stern says this is just the beginning. “Next year is exciting,” Stern teased. “Every year they raise the stakes. Season 6 we know where she’s not. She’s not the President, she’s not the VP, she’s not in the White House. Where is she? Where she is is hysterical. It’s going to be awesome.”

Featured image: Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. photo: Lacey Terrell/courtesy of HBO




Kelle Long

Kelle has written about film and TV for The Credits since 2016. Follow her on Twitter @molaitdc for interviews with really cool film and TV artists and only occasional outbursts about Broadway, tennis, and country music. Please no talking or texting during the movie. Unless it is a musical, then sing along loudly.

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