Nelson Cragg built a reputation as one of the leading cinematographers of his generation, earning Emmy nominations for his work on ‘Homeland’ and ‘The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.’
After proving himself in that role, he was given the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong ambition to direct by prolific producer and ‘American Crime Story’ creator Ryan Murphy. First, he directed Murphy’s ‘American Horror Story: Roanoke’, and then helmed the second season of its sister anthology series ‘American Crime Story’, telling the true-crime tale ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace.’
In his latest gig, he directed the Amazon Studios series ‘Them’ for creator Little Marvin. He was director for four episodes of the series, including the pilot, and guided the cast through challenging material that mixed the real-life terror of racism with the otherworldly frights more associated with the horror genre. The story follows the Emory family as they move to Compton, California, from the Jim Crow South, and find themselves the target of supernatural horrors inside their home, and systemic racism outside from their new neighbors.
Nelson’s impressive career began as a young Korean American growing up in Ohio, who didn’t see many people who looked like him on TV. And here he discusses how he hopes to encourage more storytellers from minority backgrounds, and change their lives like Murphy did for him.
We’re quite rightly hearing more about diversity in front of the camera in recent times, but probably not so much about diversity behind the camera. What was your experience of breaking into the TV industry as a Korean American?
I started a long time ago, in the 1990s, and it was a different industry then. I was a half Korean kid growing up in Ohio, and there were very few people that looked like me on TV and in movies. So I kind of gravitated towards Asian cinema, like John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat and that action stuff. That showed me there were Asians making great, fun films. And so I set my sights on Hollywood. My parents told me I had to get a degree first, so I got a degree in English, then I moved to LA in my early 20s and went to film school at USC. I just loved it. I loved being on set and the diversity of people within that school. There were people from all over the world and I found a lot of friends that I still collaborate with to this day.
It feels like we’re in quite a hot time for Asian cinema and filmmakers, with the Korean film ‘Parasite’ winning the Best Picture Oscar last year and the awards for ‘Nomadland’ and its Chinese director Chloé Zhao this year. What’s your perception of the representation of Asian people behind the camera right now?
I think it’s changing. I remember when ‘Parasite’ won, and I was on set directing, and there were some kind of racist reactions from some of the white crew members. They weren’t trying to be racist, they just didn’t understand the paradigm shift. To a lot of people that worked in the traditional times of the 1980s and 90s, a movie like that could never win Best Picture, so they didn’t really understand it. So while I think, yes, it’s good that there are Asian actors getting nominated and Asian directors winning Oscars, it’s just the very beginning and I think there’s a long way to go. Because there is still a majority of directors and people behind the camera that are white males, and that’s just fact.
What can we do to encourage more Asian storytellers, and help people from all minorities to get those senior roles in the TV and movie industry?
There has to be effort from people that are in the seats of power. I was just talking to a young Chinese filmmaker this morning, and he’s been struggling and doing low budget music videos and things like that. I’ve been mentoring him for almost a decade now, and I think the way to do it is to really try to just help where you can. I worked for a producer called Ryan Murphy, who’s very aware of things that need to change. And he gave me my first directing slot, on ‘American Horror Story’, and that was a life-changing moment and an amazing chance.
We talk a lot about the importance of mentors at Mr Feelgood, so we’d love to hear more about your relationship with Ryan. I know he launched the Half Initiative to encourage more diversity behind the camera, were you part of that?
I can tell you the origin story of that initiative. I was working as a cinematographer for Ryan on the pilot of ‘The People vs OJ Simpson’, and he was specifically looking for a female director for an episode that centered on Marcia Clark, to tell that story from a female perspective. And he couldn’t find a female director that was available, there were just so few. So in that moment he decided to launch the Half Initiative to mentor female, minority and LGBTQ people and get them on set to show them how it worked. I had one of the first mentees, a woman called Alexis Ostrander, who has gone on to become a very successful director. It was an amazing experience and I loved working with her. She was very talented, and just hadn’t had a shot. At the end of the episode I told Ryan I thought he should hire her, try and give her an open slot on ‘American Horror Story’, and he did. So he changed her life and mine.
Tell us more about the role of a director. It’s one of the most exciting, coolest sounding jobs, but for those who aren’t in the industry, can you explain what it actually involves. And what are some of the skills you have learned along the way, and what have you learned about yourself?
Well, to be a director in Hollywood and to make a living out of it, first of all it takes a lot of hard work. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I didn’t achieve great success as a director until very recently. You’re working 14 hour days for very little money at the start. As the saying goes, ‘It takes 10 years to become an overnight success.’
The skillset of a director is a bit of everything. There’s a creative aspect to it, which is visual storytelling, you have to understand images, how a camera works, how to capture these performances. You also have to be able to be a psychologist, to deal with the actors and work these scenes so they function and the characters remain consistent emotionally throughout a piece. And you have to be a logistics person, because you have to understand how schedules work, and budgets, and dealing with crew and the 15 department heads that you have to hire and manage. So it’s fascinating, multi-faceted, fun at times, and extremely stressful. There’s a million emails and phone calls, and it never really stops. So you have to be able to function in a big meta way, and then you have to be able to function in the moment when you’re on set, and tune all that out and focus on just one close up and one person’s emotional moment.
That’s so interesting as it’s something a lot of people need to improve in their lives, to be able to tune out the noise when they need to. How do you hone that skill?
It’s something you can learn through experience, but you also have to have a talent for it. A director has to be a little bit obsessive compulsive, and be able to tune out the things that don’t matter. Being on set is the fun part. The prep can be very painful, the logistics and all the minutiae of schedules, budgets and shot lists. But then when you get on the set, you have to allow yourself to become lost in the moment.
So is that a skill you can utilize in your day-to-day life? To shut out the small stuff and concentrate on what matters?
It’s a little tricky, because a set is almost military in its structure. So when you get to a grocery store, and there’s a huge line, you’re like, ‘There must be a more efficient way to do this!’ But as soon as I walk in the door with my wife and my kid, they don’t care about any of that stuff, it’s back to life as normal. You have to look at it as a job, or else it can become a little bit too overwhelming.
In ‘Them’ you are telling an important story with a vital and real social message using the genre of horror. How do you make that work and be powerful?
Whenever I approach projects, as a director you want to really focus on what’s the emotional story to tell. There’s lots of different genres, there’s sci-fi, there’s horror, there’s thriller, and you don’t have to be beholden to any. In ‘Them’, it’s a story about this amazing family, the Emory family, and those characters. So I really focus on the family, those relationships, making you care about those people and trying to get those performances to work in an amazing way. And then you can approach the thriller or the terror elements, and see what it does to those people in that space. And that’s kind of the fun of it, and the terror of it, to put people you really care about into situations that are really dark. With ‘Them’ we tried to combine a couple of different genres and create something unique.
One of the interesting things about the show is how this family is facing these supernatural horrors, but then there’s also the reality of the horror of the real-life racism. Was playing with that idea something in the forefront of your mind?
Absolutely, one of the dichotomies of ‘Them’ was what’s it like to have no safe spaces. What’s it like to be in a world where there’s external supernatural terrors, then the real terrors are your neighbors and systematic racism. So we used those elements to try and get the audience to think about race and racial terror in a new way. And the question raised is, ‘What’s worse?’