A cinematographer who would become one of TV’s most respected directors, Alik Sakharov has had the privilege of watching the entire trajectory of TV’s Golden Age unfold before his very eyes.
Shooting 38 episodes of The Sopranos over the course of its run, including its pilot and finale, Sakharov was subsequently entrusted with myriad prestige dramas and the antiheroes at their center, directing on such shows as Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, House of Cards and Game of Thrones.
Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, Ozark centers on Wendy (Laura Linney) and Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), a married couple who are forced to move their family to the Ozarks, when a money-laundering scheme goes awry. The drama’s third season introduced Ben (Tom Pelphrey), the mentally unstable brother of Wendy, who featured heavily in Sakharov’s season-ending mega-block, and quickly became one of the director’s favorite characters.
Below, the director reflects on Pelphrey’s unique skills as an actor, his own remarkable legacy in TV, “warm memories” from his time on The Sopranos, and what Ozark has in common with that iconic show.
DEADLINE: How did you feel when you found out you’d be directing the final four episodes of Ozark Season 3?
ALIK SAKHAROV: I was very excited because I’m a big fan of the show. I’m a big fan of the writers, of Jason, Laura and the children. For me personally, it felt very organic to return to the show because I had such a wonderful time in Season 2, and when I found out that there was a conversation about getting this mega-block, the challenge of it was very exciting.
To be honest with you, I wasn’t really daunted by the fact that it was four episodes. Basically, for me, it’s business as usual. It’s shows like this where I prep a significant amount of episodes sometimes, so that wasn’t very complicated. The good thing was that the crew that was in place are fantastic—magnificent people, very easy to work with—and working with those guys was a joy because we were able to break everything down to a tee, doing it in a diligent, organized, and disciplined fashion. So, it was good.
DEADLINE: What did your prep process look like, coming into the drama’s latest season?
SAKHAROV: In my book, it’s very simple. You need to break down the script and visualize everything, and when I say everything, I mean really take your time to understand the whole curve of the episode, and then break it down into visual curves.
Then, outside of visual curves, you also want to break it down into tone and mood that corresponds to the mood of the actual script. Usually what I do is, I read the script to understand the impression of it. I don’t even think about technique. I don’t think about any of that, because that comes later. I just want to see how it comes off the page. Usually, those scripts are very well written and very interesting to read. They’re like little short stories, and they become page-turners for me because they engage my interest right off the bat.
So then, once I break everything down, and match to the mood and tone of the script, and find a visual parallel to the scenes, I try to find locations that correspond to that. Or if the locations do not correspond to that, then I would [match] the scenes to the locations found. I basically call it location casting, and once you cast your location, it turns into its own character. So, you want to marry the characters to that location, and then it becomes very simple. Then, I do the Russian school of coverage, where I just put the camera sometimes in four different corners of the room, and go with it.
DEADLINE: For Emmys consideration this year, you submitted Episode 9, “Fire Pink.” What made that piece special to you?
SAKHAROV: The special thing was Laura Linney and Tom Pelphrey, and they were just a joy. Not to say that our other cast was not. But because I spent so much time with those two, and really tried to explore the dynamic, especially the last-minute dynamic between the brother and sister, before she had to make a decision that she made, to me, it became a very special way of making that film, because it felt to me very much not like an episode, but like its own little installment. I think what became special about it is that it felt like we were making not a part of the television show, but an independent installment, so that in the 10 chapters that we had, the ninth became the standalone chapter.
DEADLINE: This season, you also worked with Pelphrey on a terrific taxi monologue, in which we see him becoming mentally unglued. How did you work with Pelphrey to deliver that lengthy, stationary scene?
SAKHAROV: We hadn’t spoken about it in much detail, to be perfectly honest with you, during the filming of the episode, because this particular monologue got pushed to the very end of the schedule. I think we actually shot it either second to last day, or the last day of the schedule.
I was always curious about what Tom would do with this, and the more I was working with him, the more I realized what wonderful acting chops this man had. So, my intrigue with that scene was very much like, “I don’t want to talk about this, because I actually want to [find it] on set, on the day.”
Sometimes you can kill the scene by over-talking it. It’s such an internal monologue-y kind of scene, and I realized how strong Tom is. I wanted to keep it very fresh, and we allotted only about three or four hours for that scene on the day, not much. I shot it with two cameras, and so I rehearsed it without much emotional involvement, at first. I just wanted to understand Tom’s personal circumference of relating to space—like, how he’s going to relate to the confines of this cab.
So he read it, and as he started reading the scene, and we were rehearsing it, I realized how much emotion is already built in there. What’s amazing about Tom is that he never refers to the pages during the rehearsal. He’s got it all memorized, like a computer. It’s so deeply within him—the spine of the scene is already so much in him—that all he has to do is basically just breathe out what’s already been built into his DNA.
DEADLINE: Did you have other favorite scenes from Season 3?
SAKHAROV: [Tom] did a phenomenal job in the car, when [Ben and Wendy] were eating burgers. I mean, that scene was so beautifully modulating. It was so complex, because within a single scene, they went through a range of emotions. It was tears, it was revelations, it was very heartfelt and hard moments, and just the one scene had so much in it. It takes a tremendous amount of acting chops to be able to carry an audience through such a modulated performance.
DEADLINE: It must have been a lot of fun to orchestrate the final, shocking turn of the season, involving Janet McTeer’s Helen.
SAKHAROV: It was quite fun. Actually, it was complex, because we needed to stage everything in such a way, so [as] not to betray or telegraph what’s coming, which is kind of a discipline. Because if you sometimes overthink it, or over-cover it, by virtue of overdoing it, you might just betray something.
So what I was very careful about is, I didn’t want to project something into the scene that might have taken [away] that “Oh my God, what just happened?” kind of reaction.
So, I talked to my crew, and I’m like, “Guys, why don’t we just rehearse the hell out of this? We [should] understand very, very well the geography of the scene, so that when the actors fall into their marks, they organically just land [there], and it makes perfect sense, where to land.”
Once they have landed where they needed to land, we needed to put down everything around them. In other words, we need to service the shot—so, we put the camera on steadicam. I rehearsed it with stunt doubles, and then I rehearsed it with stand-ins, and then we brought in first team, and I felt like it was pretty organic. Everyone understands exactly what needs to happen, and I wanted to have the camera moving a little bit. I wanted to have it less perfect, so that it’s not so over-composed.
Then, when it felt like it was the right time to shoot, I talked to [DP] Armando [Salas], and we shot it in one take. There were no repeat takes. First take was it, and so we moved on.
DEADLINE: As both a DP and director, you’ve been able to witness basically the entire arc of TV’s Golden Age. What has that been like for you?
SAKHAROV: Well, it’s funny because when you start doing it, you don’t know that you’re going to be involved in the Golden Era of television. You just do your work.
When we started doing Sopranos, I was there from the very first day. We used to share an office, [creator] David Chase and myself, and Dave sometimes would come into the office to look out the window and just be very quiet. I’m like, “What’s up, Dave?” and he’s like, “I don’t know who’s going to watch this.” And I felt like, “Seriously? It’s a great script, dude.” [Laughs]
Then, you just start doing it, and little by little, you do one thing, you do another thing. You do one scene; you do another scene. You do one week, and another week, and things begin to look good, and then they come out well. I mean, look. [We had] very good writers, hugely important dialogue, so succinct and so poetic. It’s just like, boom. So, that started winning people over, and I remember that by the time we finished Season 1, it was like, “Ah, this is something special going on here.”
So, when it changed the face of television, and people started extolling Sopranos to the skies, like this great show, for us, we were just working on a show. We didn’t know it was going to be so great. We just wanted to do conscientious, diligent, disciplined good work. It just took off, and it took off on its own merit.
Same thing happened with Game of Thrones. You try and go there and do the best work you can do, and then before you know it, so many people in the world are watching it. The same could have happened with Black Sails, the same could have happened with Marco Polo, but it didn’t. I don’t know why.
DEADLINE: Reportedly, The Sopranos has been a favorite to watch (or rewatch) during quarantine, connecting with an entirely new generation during this period. Do you have any particularly fond memories from your time on that show?
SAKHAROV: Undoubtedly, it was the cast. Jim Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico. Just working with those people was fantastic—just to be communicating with these people, and being in the same room. Everyone was so always on point, so humble. There was absolutely none of the razzmatazz of stars, and this and that. None of it. It was a very, very close-knit [group] of people. It was a family, always family, and Jimmy was a king of personability and warmth.
He was a wonderful human being. He knew everybody’s name, down to the very last PA, and because he was so personable and warm, and basically was interested in people, the love that he was giving to the crew, he was receiving back. So, there was a wonderful simpatico going on, between him, and the crew and others, because you take your example from the lead, and the lead was fantastic.
He was so beautiful towards everybody, and so kind. He appreciated the crew, so every single Thursday, he would put out a wonderful spread of sushi for the entire crew, like an open bar, whether Jimmy was present that day or not. It was like this every week, and that’s how he was. He was that person, so working on Sopranos was a family-like atmosphere. It was a very warm dynamic there.
DEADLINE: What has made Ozark special, in comparison to the series you’ve worked on before?
SAKHAROV: I have to say, Ozark is the closest to the family atmosphere I’ve had after Sopranos. It’s a wonderful group of people. You know, the sky’s the limit. They will do anything for you—anything—and they’ll do it with such grace. Every set should be like that.
DEADLINE: Jason Bateman has played a critical role on Ozark, as its director and star, and a protector of its creative vision. Recently, it was reported that he won’t be able to direct on its fourth and final season, due to COVID-19 safety protocols. What are your thoughts on that?
SAKHAROV: Well, I’ve been in the business long enough to understand how things transpire and work, and I think it is what it is. You know, you have to take it with how it all happens, and mostly this COVID has not been fine to anybody. It’s been very strange, and it’s been very taxing for what’s going to happen with the crews. I mean, you have to be abiding by very strict protocols these days, and you need to be respectful of that, because safety is the number one concern. So, I get it. We have to embrace it, and make it so that we can work with it.
DEADLINE: Will you be back for Season 4?
SAKHAROV: Too early to tell.
DEADLINE: What are you looking to do in your career, going forward? As someone who has spent so much of his career in television, are you interested in directing features?
SAKHAROV: Yes, of course I have interest in features. It’s just that I don’t have interest in any feature. My basic, personal requirement, really, is I like to be involved in something meaningful. For my own self, I have this thing that I call “BHD.” BHD, for me personally, is Basic Human Drama. So if I am approached by a producer to make a feature film or television series revolving around basic human drama, I’m all in, and I would be very excited to do that. Not to say that I wouldn’t do something like a mercenary, and go and do a good job on something that my heart doesn’t really lie entirely in. I can do it.
I mean, look. People may laugh at this, but I’ve been in the business for a long, long time, so it would be nice to do something in the realm of what I used to be doing on Sopranos, or House of Cards, or Ozark, or some of the episodes of Game of Thrones. The dramatic element is much more interesting to me than, let’s say, chase [films], or thrilling whatever.