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Tom Humberstone

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“We’re creating a world that feels true”

How to make great TV, explained by FX spy drama The Americans.

To truly understand the phrase "controlled chaos," you should consider crashing the set of a television show.

It's my first day on the set of The Americans, FX's stellar Cold War spy drama. On this frigid November morning, I step into a nondescript Brooklyn warehouse and am immediately whisked through a labyrinth of endless hallways, half-assembled sets, crowds of crew members jostling around a catered lunch. I grab some food, turn around, and immediately run into series star Matthew Rhys. He's laughing with the crew, so fresh off filming that he still has wig clips embedded in his curly hair.

Someone introduces me. I tell Rhys I'm here to report on how an episode of television gets made, and he laughs, cocking his head. "So," he says, his thick Welsh accent already coming through, "are you bored out of your fuckin’ mind yet?"

He's gone before I can answer; we're both supposed to be at a table read for "Clark's Place," the fifth episode of The Americans' fourth season, and we're already late. This behind-the-scenes access might be exciting for me, but for the cast and crew hustling to produce this episode, it's just another busy day on the job.

Cold open: The table read

I finally catch up to Rhys in a back room, though it's really more of a hastily assembled workspace. A long series of folding tables is set up end to end in the only corner where they'll fit, at least temporarily.

Space is precious on a set. However, it's not as precious as time. So as I slide onto a spare chair, The Americans' cast and producers are already two scenes deep into their read-through of the script for "Clark's Place" (which finally aired on April 13, 2016, five months after this table read). The preceding episode, "Chloramphenicol," threw a wrench into the fabric of the series (click for a spoilery summary at your own peril), and "Clark's Place" is all about confronting a frightening new reality.

This is the first and only opportunity The Americans' cast and producers will have to hear "Clark's Place" performed scene by scene, in the order in which it was written and will air on television.

As a producer reads the stage directions in a terse monotone — "Henry is on the computer playing a game; Philip and Paige watch Reagan's March 1983 SDI speech on TV" — I glance around the table. Rhys and Keri Russell, who star as married Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, sit in the center.

"Elizabeth starts giggling," say the stage directions. On cue, Russell gives a small chuckle.

"What are you laughing at?" Holly Taylor pipes up from further down the table. Taylor plays Philip and Elizabeth's teenage daughter, Paige. Russell stretches her neck and looks down the line to briefly make eye contact with her TV daughter.

"[Reagan's] cheeks are so red," Russell says, a sly smile unfurling. "He looks like a clown."

Next to Rhys, Noah Emmerich chuckles, though he's still deep in concentration. He's not only a series regular, playing FBI agent Stan Beeman, he's also directing this particular episode; every exchange and inflection helps him plan what to focus on when the cast is actually on set, shooting the scenes.

John Lavet/FX

Getting television from an idea in someone's head to the screen in your living room (or on your laptop) is difficult, fast-paced, and complicated work. Over the next five months, I'll continue to shadow the entire production of "Clark's Place," following along through umpteen script revisions and interviewing the creative team throughout every step of the process, from the showrunners who steer the story to the editor who moves the final pieces into place.

"It tends to feel like an uphill sprint," Russell will tell me months later, audibly relieved to have the bulk of the season's filming behind her. "But there’s a good thing about working that hard and being rushed. When you’re doing it, that’s all you’re doing … just that one solitary uphill sprint. That’s everyone’s goal, and you’re just there to make it happen."

Tom Humberstone

Act I: Meet the showrunners

In many ways, The Americans is not a typical show. It’s a period piece, set in Washington, DC, in the early 1980s; the current, fourth season takes place in 1983. It shoots in New York City, which has advantages and challenges entirely different from those of other typical TV production cities like Los Angeles or Vancouver. A large portion of the dialogue is spoken in subtitled Russian.*

Costa Ronin, who plays KGB operative Oleg, says that it shouldn’t be an issue if the director can’t understand their Russian-speaking actors during a scene, so long as the actors and production perform their jobs correctly: "It doesn’t matter what language you use to tell the story. At the end of the day, it’s about the story. You can watch any good film or television series without the sound, and understand exactly what’s going on onscreen. Why? Because the actors and everybody has done the job right. It is about people, and relationships."

Since the show premiered in 2013, it has frequently received high critical praise and tragically low ratings. Still, it's so beloved by its network that FX president John Landgraf gives notes on every episode.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, The Americans is run by two people — series creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields — instead of the usual one.

Weisberg and Fields are co-showrunners, a term that means exactly what it sounds like: Together, they run the show. Showrunners manage all aspects of a TV series' production, from conceptualizing stories in the writers' room to editing each episode in post-production. Though they oversee many people working under the overall umbrella of the series, showrunners make all the final decisions, to ensure that their creative vision is realized once an episode makes it to your screen.

Luckily for The Americans, Weisberg and Fields make an excellent team.

The pair's comfortable collaboration extends throughout their set, where one of their most important responsibilities is to keep all of The Americans' multiple production arms on the same page. Everyone I talked to, no matter which part of the show they work on, cited Weisberg and Fields's leadership as key to The Americans' success. As editor Amanda Pollack told me, "Joe and Joel are so clear about what they want. They're clear, and decisive, and brilliant."

Together, "the J's" (as they're known to everyone involved with the show) make a cohesive unit — which, as my colleague Todd VanDerWerff once noted, is fitting for a series that hinges on a professional partnership.

I meet the J's one week after the "Clark's Place" table read, at their offices in Brooklyn. Though they didn't know each other before The Americans, they have an easy rapport that feels much older than the few years they've been working together. They frequently turn to one another for confirmation on a point they're trying to make, and, yes, they sometimes even finish each other's sentences.

"I never wrote with anyone before," says Weisberg, who wrote novels and briefly worked on the TNT alien drama Falling Skies before creating The Americans. But he acknowledges that having a partner is what makes the show's tight production schedule manageable, saying, "With television, what you don’t have is time. Everything is condensed." I certainly didn't doubt him; I had caught up with the pair as they emerged from The Americans' post-production office, where they were looking at edits for the second and third episodes of the season, while Emmerich directed scenes for the fifth episode across the street.

The ability to make decisions quickly and confidently is imperative for showrunners. While I was talking to the J's, they realized with an amused sort of horror that between final script touches, production, and editing, they were simultaneously working on just about all 13 episodes of season four — not to mention looking ahead to season five.

Joel Fields (left) and Joe Weisberg (right). (John Lavet/FX)

"My brain right now is 90 percent focused on the episodes that we’re writing and shooting now," Weisberg said. "I have about 10 percent of my brain that is thinking about next season and the whole story arc for the series."

Weisberg credits Fields with skillfully tracking the show's moving pieces, especially when it comes to distributing key scenes between episodes to better serve the overall trajectory of the characters and series. Fields doesn't argue the point; he loves looking at the big picture. "If you’re just doing the episode that’s in front of you," he said, eyes lighting up, "you’re not telling a big story."

Act II: Writing the script

To follow "Clark's Place" from its inception to final sound mix, I would've had to start reporting at least a full year before it aired.

Usually a show will begin "breaking" a new season several months before it’s set to start filming; that means assembling the showrunners and writers together in the writers' room to plot out the story arcs and bigger moments. On some TV shows, this process happens between seasons; on others, later scripts are still being written after production on earlier ones gets underway. In general: The more time you can give yourself to plot a season and avoid a time-crunch pileup or story complication later, the better.

For The Americans' fourth season, the J's tried to get ahead and started brainstorming for season four when they were about two-thirds of the way through season three. After they broke down the season's main story arcs in the writers' room, they assigned episodes to specific writers. That person — or people, if they're part of a co-writing team — first drafted a specific, scene-by-scene outline to give both the showrunners and the network an idea of what to expect. Then the showrunners, the network, and the other writers sent back notes, and the assigned writer made adjustments accordingly.

Courtesy FX

Network involvement varies, depending on the TV show and the network. Often, a show's creative teams and their networks will be at odds, simply because their priorities are different. (Networks, for instance, are generally far more concerned about the ramifications outside the show than its creatives.) But the J's are nothing but effusive about FX, saying that The Americans welcomes its input. "They're a very positive and important part of our process," said Weisberg. Added Fields, "They’re the first audience. We are so deep in it, [so] to be able to get those perspectives from people who know the show is great."*

It was actually input from FX president John Landgraf that led the J's to start season four right where season three left off. Landgraf encouraged them "to really not leave any meat on the bone of last season" — which they had never done before.

So instead of taking a couple of months off between seasons to set a new status quo, they decided to lean into the immediate aftermath of — spoiler alert — the Jenningses telling their teen daughter, Paige, about their double lives, and Elizabeth taking Paige to Berlin to visit Elizabeth's dying mother. Fields says Landgraf's suggestion to pick up from that point in the story "really created a level of propulsion and character urgency that carries through all of [season four]."

Once the outline is approved, the writer starts work on the actual draft. That's when the real heavy lifting begins. "I constantly overwrite first drafts and then will pull things out," says Peter Ackerman, who wrote "Clark's Place."

"[When] you’re writing a speech for a character, you get into the conversation and it can go on and on," Ackerman continued. "Then you sit and you look at it, and you realize all the stuff you don’t need."*

In writing "Clark's Place," Ackerman says the most fun scenes to work on were those involving Elizabeth and Philip's teenage son, Henry, since Ackerman was the same age as Henry in 1983. One of the hardest scenes to write was the one between KGB operative Oleg and FBI agent Stan, who can't say very much to each other, despite both of them feeling deep grief over the recent death of double agent Nina.

In just the one week I was on set for "Clark's Place," I received at least six different versions of the script, some within mere hours of each other. "In a way," Weisberg told me, "[the script is] more like a never-ending continuum."

Once the script has gone back and forth between the writers, producers, and showrunners and is starting to take shape, it's time to prep for production, whether they're ready or not. Shoot dates and crew hiring are set far in advance; not having a script set to film in time just isn't an option. By the time Vox got in touch with The Americans in October 2015, all of season four's 13 scripts had been completed — though, as the J's were quick to inform me, they never truly consider a script finished until the final edit of a filmed episode is locked.

Outside of the writing itself, the most significant aspects of the pre-production process — and this is especially true for The Americans, given that it's a period piece — are research and fact checking. While the show invents the particulars of Philip and Elizabeth's missions and the FBI's investigations, they all take place within the larger, very real context of the Cold War. It helps that Weisberg is a former member of the CIA (really!), but memory is imperfect, and as the leaders of a period piece that prizes itself on accuracy, that won't do.

The Americans' respect for its era as its source material runs deep. As the J's and I sit in the show's production office discussing fact checking, they proudly gesture to a giant red wall. It's covered in sheets of paper that detail the major events of the 1980s and the Cold War, and includes a calendar page for each month of 1983, the year in which season four takes place. Each episode of the season is marked on its corresponding days; "Clark's Place" is scrawled on the square for March 23, 1983, the date President Reagan gave a speech on his Strategic Defense Initiative, or "SDI."

While the J's and Ackerman didn't deliberately build "Clark's Place"around the speech, as the season came together they realized the events of the episode would naturally coincide with it and decided to include it, the better to shade out the show's 1983 world. The real trouble, they told me — and this is true of any good period piece — comes when they start connecting stories to events they think are period-appropriate, only to have the research prove them wrong.

"We had a really great Equal Rights Amendment story that we’d broken for this season," Fields said, ruefully. "It worked perfectly for the characters. We were two-thirds of the way through writing it — and we just couldn’t line it up with the research."*

Meanwhile, Ackerman was sad that a scene in which Stan plays Trivial Pursuit with Henry couldn't include a question he found online about I Love Lucy, since it didn't appear in the edition of the game that Stan would have owned in March 1983.

Another challenge for The Americans, and other period shows like it, is fighting the 2016 instincts of its cast and crew. For example, during a recent scene where Taylor's character, Paige, was using a calculator, the actress initially pressed the number buttons with her thumbs, as if she was texting on a smartphone. "So then," Taylor told me, laughing, "I had to do that pointer finger thing my parents do."

"There are some things that we intentionally make up," Weisberg admitted. "A lot of our espionage is true, and a lot of it is based on truth and then elaborated. But because we’re creating a world that feels true, [it] depends on a tight control of those things — what’s real, what’s based on the real, and what’s made up."

Act III: Pre-production

As the script comes together, the other branches of the production prepare as best they can for the impending shoot.

For the director, that means studying the script as the first drafts come in to prepare for what lies ahead. For most episodic television, directors are assigned to episodes months in advance; whichever episode they get is essentially the luck of the draw. So with "Clark's Place," Emmerich knew he would be directing the fifth episode of the season but not much more until he received the first script. At this point, the director, writer, editor, and showrunners set a "tone meeting" where they can go through the script and make sure they're all on the same page regarding the emotional arc of the episode.

For production designer Diane Lederman, who joined The Americans in season three, getting started means mobilizing a deep, multi-pronged team that's responsible for just about everything you see onscreen.

"I'm in charge of the art department, the whole look of the show," Lederman told me. "Anything that’s not an actor that’s on camera, it’s my responsibility to put there."

Elizabeth uses this safe house when working an asset. (Diane Lederman/The Americans/FX)

Even before the script is ready, she and her various teammates will at least parse the outline to figure out the possible demands of the locations, sets, props — whatever will help tell the written story visually.

At the production designer's immediate disposal are:

  • The location manager, who scouts for viable places to shoot scenes that can't be shot on set, like finding a cemetery in Queens that could also pass for a Russian one in a scene where Oleg (Costa Ronin) attends his brother's funeral
  • The art director, who executes the production designer's overall vision and coordinates the budget
  • The set decorator, who oversees all the tangible parts of the set

Each of them in turn has his or her own team, including graphic artists and various assistants, who have their own responsibilities for realizing the production designer's vision whether they're filming on a custom set or on location.

"When somebody walks into a location and they don’t think we’ve done anything to change something — which is never the case — that, to me, is the greatest compliment," Lederman said, "because they’ve accepted the reality I’ve created."

And while production design is an enormous part of any show's makeup, on a series that takes place in another era it's much more complicated. Some period shows will go for the kitschy versions of their eras, likeThat '70s Show's aggressively groovy flair or Fresh Off the Boat's Technicolor '90s aesthetic. But The Americans operates more in theMad Men realm, which prizes authenticity and realism above all else.

The lives of the Jenningses and everyone else in their orbit feel truly lived in, in a way that more narrow approaches to period work often don't. "Sometimes movies explore periods in a very unrealistic way, as if nothing existed before the things that happened in that period," Lederman said. "But the reality is for most of us — if we look in our lives, in our homes, in our closets — a lot of what we have is a gathering of things that have accumulated over the entire time that we’ve been on the planet ... People’s homes and businesses don’t stay the same. Things change. And things should change."

Still, even when the Jenningses get a new computer — as they do in season four — they're not especially trendy. They're still trying to put up a front of just being an average married couple who own a travel agency together. As spies, one of their highest priorities is blending in.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

This is where Peg Schierholz — whom I can actually refer to as The Americans' "head of hair" — comes in. Along with makeup department head Lori Hicks, Schierholz has been with the show since the pilot, and lived with the characters and their various disguises as long as anyone. The trailer she shares with Hicks has a corner dedicated to wigs; when I went to take a picture, she had to stop me, realizing there were several secret new ones that would count as spoilers for season four.

Even though Schierholz has very limited time to come up with new ways to disguise the Jenningses, she takes it as a challenge. She tends to shy away from cursory internet research in favor of old magazines, and even yearbooks, for more specific 1980s inspiration. For season four, she borrowed a yearbook from a crew member who was in high school in 1983. "There was a bowling scene with the Jennings family," she said, referring to a particularly fun scene in the fourth episode, "and I drew so much from the bowling team at her high school."

From there, it's a matter of sifting through rental wigs, or wigs the Jenningses already own that she can spruce up. If a character or spy persona is going to be part of the show for a while, Schierholz might even see about making a custom wig, like the one Rhys wears to play his longstanding spy disguise, Clark.*

Last fall, Schierholz stepped in to help with hairstyling on the November 7 episode of Saturday Night Live, when Donald Trump hosted. If you pay special attention to that episode's parody of Drake's "Hotline Bling" video, you'll notice that the "dad" character looks suspiciously similar to Philip Jennings's alter ego, Clark.

The writers and showrunners often give Schierholz a heads up on whether a character is sticking around for a longer period of time so she can plan accordingly. Sometimes there's a surprise; for example, she didn't expect Kelly AuCoin's Pastor Tim to be as prominent a character as he's become, and had to adjust his perfunctory wig into something more permanent.

"The Americans is deceptively large," Schierholz said. "It’s part of the way it’s structured and written: It’s about the intimate lives of the people." And like Lederman told me, part of the beauty of television and The Americans is that so much more work goes into making the world look both realistic and complete. "You don’t realize that through the first season I went through 51 wigs," Schierholz told me. "Why would you?"

Real-life spies — both the ones Weisberg worked with at the CIA and those working for the Soviet Union — would stick with simplicity, maybe throwing on a baseball hat and glasses. But on a television show, both Schierholz and The Americans' actors are keenly aware they might need to do something a little more in-depth, for the sake of variety and entertainment. "The extra element is trying to keep an audience interested ... while trying to keep it in the realms of something believable," Rhys told me. "You're fighting that dichotomy all the time."

With the hair, costumes, and makeup departments working just as hard as the writers to create each character, the actors can have an easier time slipping into their personas and convincing viewers that they are, for example, Soviet sleeper spies. "You watch films like Jaws and say, 'I want to be a shark fisherman,'" said Rhys, "not, 'I want to be an actor.'"

For Russell especially, the spy disguises tend to be more involved than the scruffy wigs and wire-rimmed glasses Rhys's Philip depends on. While Elizabeth often has to blend in, she just as often has to make herself noticeable in the right kind of way to approach a target; in the first couple of seasons, she frequently played a femme fatale. But as the show has progressed, Russell has learned to appreciate Elizabeth's disguises that are less sexy and more offbeat.*

According to Russell, the crew regularly nicknames Philip and Elizabeth's various disguises. One season four persona was known as "Simple Jenny" and involved a matronly gray wig, thick glasses, and church-appropriate clothing (from the '80s, of course). "It’s all highly attractive on my part," Russell deadpanned. "It’s a big self-esteem builder when you walk on the set and the crew just dies laughing at you."

"The uglier [the disguises] are, or the worse they are, I think the better they are," Russell said of Elizabeth's many personas. "It’s much harder to be, like, the 'sexiest' girl or the 'prettiest' girl. It’s so subjective. It’s much more fun to be something else."

Act IV: Shooting the episode

Cut to: a cold and echoing parking garage basement on the Upper West Side. It's a frigid, rainy December morning, only a few days after the table read for "Clark's Place," but the Americans team is already deep into shooting.

A two-hour movie might have anywhere from a few months to a full year to shoot footage. A 40-minute episode of television usually has about a week.

Across the garage, KGB handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) leans heavily on a cane and waits. Then Elizabeth and Philip stride up, hands in pockets, gazes set determinedly forward.

It is a truth universally acknowledged on film and television sets that a "vibe" will trickle from the top down; if you have difficult actors and showrunners, the shoot and writing process, respectively, will also be difficult. But for such a tense show, The Americans has a more casual set vibe than I was expecting, which is in large part thanks to Russell and Rhys's congenial attitude and sharp focus.

Frank Langella (left) and Matthew Rhys. (John Lavet/FX)

From the very beginning, the cast of The Americans has found nuance in every gesture. Russell's Elizabeth is sharp and brittle, flawed and focused. Rhys's Philip, meanwhile, is just as effective an assassin as he is a reluctant one. The two share a fraught but inextricably linked relationship that is the heart of the series.

This scene with Gabriel is the episode's 43rd — though the scene number doesn't matter to the cast, since no production ever shoots chronologically. Instead, TV shows shoot what they can when they can, depending on variables such as location, availability, and which actors are involved. As Taylor told me later, the one time The Americans ended up shooting two scenes in order this season, it was such a rare occurrence that it was almost more confusing.

In the parking garage, Emmerich sits at the video monitors some 50 feet away from the actual scene, where crew members are perfecting the lighting around Gabriel's '80s-appropriate car. Rhys and Russell's stand-ins — people who literally stand in place for the show's actors in order to help the crew set up when the actors themselves can't be there — hang out and chat while lighting techs and camera operators arrange their equipment before the cameras roll. This section of the crew takes its orders from the director of photography, who works closely with each episode's director to make sure the crew can execute the showrunners' vision.

This scene is short, but pivotal. After the disastrous events of "Chloramphenicol," all three characters are exhausted — no less alert, but certainly frayed around the edges. As Rhys describes it, Philip is "a metronome, getting faster," and in this scene his concern for the well-being of an asset, FBI secretary Martha, has him dangerously close to boiling over.

Sitting in the parking garage with my hands wrapped around a cardboard cup of coffee, I recall Ackerman telling me about writing this tense, restrained kind of moment. "Scenes like that get written over and over and over again, because it’s too much, it’s too little, or you lose track of one character," he said. "It's clearly a Philip/Gabriel argument, but Elizabeth is there."

So even before he wrote the dialogue, Ackerman wrestled with the blocking, or positioning, of the scene, weighing what each possibility implied. "At certain times, Elizabeth entered the scene when Philip and Gabriel were in mid-conversation; certain times Philip entered." But the final decision was one that echoed the core of The Americans' mission statement: "We ultimately decided they arrive together, because they’re a team."

Once the lighting is set, Emmerich calls for quiet and cues action. Rhys and Russell stride up to the car again. Russell radiates a determined calm as Rhys leans into Philip's agitation, his tone just that much more clipped and furious with every passing take.

"Directing is like acting in the sense of how you understand the characters," Emmerich told me after a long day of shooting. "You have to get into every character's point of view just to understand what they're going through, and work with the actor to help them find that."*

Russell credits Emmerich's direction with helping her understand a crucial point about playing Elizabeth, whose hard-line stances sometimes make it difficult for the actress to connect to her character: "[Elizabeth] can be tough or unlikable ... which is why I love my character; it’s so much more interesting to play. But there are many times during a scene when I’m like, 'Fuck, this is a hard line to take! How am I going to do this?' Noah gave me this great note: 'You’re right. Don’t listen to anybody else; you are the right one.' It’s true! Everyone thinks they’re the right one."

Emmerich lets the actors run the scene all the way through a few times, eyes trained on the monitor screens that display what the cameras are filming. In fact, Emmerich is still removed from the action itself, periodically consulting with his assistant director as the actors play out the scene. The only interruptions are Langella coughing a little too hard in character to continue and Rhys accidentally looking straight at the camera — an immediate cause to start over, since characters aren't supposed to know the camera's there anyway.

After four full takes, Emmerich yells, "Cut!" and bounds out of his chair toward his actors, with a smile as broad as his rich voice.

John Lavet/FX

Frank Langella (left) and Noah Emmerich. (John Lavet/FX)

He gives the go-ahead to the crew, who promptly start setting up the lighting all over again. The first few takes had the cameras trained solely on Rhys and Russell, the better to frame them how Emmerich wants and in the right light. This time, they'll take it from the top, with the cameras turned on Langella. Between the 10 or so takes, they should have enough footage with enough variations to bring the scene together.

After half an hour watching them set and reset this tiny scene, I suddenly realized that I was — as Rhys warned I might be, that first day on set — totally bored. See, here's the dirty secret about how even the most exciting entertainment in your life is made: Just like any other workplace, film sets can be a monotonous grind.

Case in point: As it turns out, one of the scenes I was most excited to see filmed wasn't going to be shot in a way that would make sense to me as a bystander. Onscreen, The Americans' espionage scenes are thrilling, even if they're as simple as Philip bumping into a fellow KGB agent to grab a note, or Elizabeth's hackles raising at the very slightest sound in the distance. In "Clark's Place," Philip comes excruciatingly close to getting caught by Stan and another FBI agent who might recognize him, and has to run out of the apartment as Martha walks in without anyone seeing him.

Courtesy FX

Reading the script, I could tell this could be a brilliantly tense sequence — but was told that watching it film would be more boring than anything else. Quick shots of cars creeping down a street would be filmed in Queens, but Rhys-as-Philip-as-Clark would be scrambling in Clark's place on a set back in Brooklyn. The shots would be quick and, if not unremarkable, at the very least more fleeting than longer, more uninterrupted scenes might allow.

And here is the moment when I first heard one of the most ubiquitous phrases in all of production: "We'll fix it in post."

Act V: Post-production

To make sure I fully grasped how important post-production is, the J's staged an ambush.

When I called Weisberg and Fields in February, as they were wrapping up editing for "Clark's Place," I was greeted by no less than four enthusiastic voices instead of the expected two. "We figured you were sick of talking to us," Fields said, the grin audible in his voice, and promptly introduced editor Pollack and post-production supervisor Crystal Whelan.

In our first interview — which was several months ago at this point — Weisberg was reverent about how much happens in post-production. "I would actually almost describe it as a miracle," he said. And after talking with the J's, Pollack, and Whelan about just how much it takes to get an episode together, I'm inclined to agree.

While the J's have the final say over the episode cut, the work and input from their post-production team — composed of editors, visual effects artists, sound editors, and more — is crucial. In fact, the post-production process isn't just about piecing the episode together; it's about making the episode feel cohesive, attending to things as basic as making sure the color is correct or as complex as possibly restructuring scenes if they're not working quite like the director or showrunners imagined.

As Fields put it, the editors have to "construct and reconstruct every emotional moment," making their first cut of the episode "the final piece of the storytelling puzzle."

Weisberg and Fields talked at length about how they're consistently surprised and impressed by the first cut they receive. It's almost always different from what they expected — and often better. "I'm surprised at the degree to which problems can be fixed and solutions found in editing," said Weisberg. "If a scene's not funny, you can make it funny with little snips and cuts. You can change the rhythm. You can change the tone."

As one of three editors on The Americans, Pollack was tasked with editing four episodes of season four, including "Clark's Place." With the script at her side, she whittles down anywhere from 20 to 30 hours of footage, working off notes from the director and script supervisor on which takes they thought were best, but also her own instincts and judgment on how the rhythms of the scene should play out.

Some scenes are a matter of just getting the structure right, like the assembly of those abbreviated shots and moments that go into making an action sequence flow. Longer, more dialogue-heavy scenes take a little more emotional consideration. "I try to get an idea of what the scene is about," Pollack said. "And not just what they're saying — what's really going on."

Once the episode is stitched together, the editor starts layering in the visual and sound effects, in collaboration with the sound and visual effects artists. Said Pollack, "The best visual effects you don't notice." So while the post-production process wasn't as arduous for "Clark's Place" as it was for "Chloramphenicol" — which involved flashbacks and gunshots — it's sometimes the episodes that are less obviously dramatic that really harness the value of post-production and its impact on how an episode looks. For "Clark's Place," that means making a plywood set look like a brick building — as Pollack did in the episode's very first shot — or inputting Reagan's SDI speech on a television that in reality wasn't playing anything at all.

Lest you think The Americans never employs more complicated visual effects, however, consider the "Clark's Place" scene where Philip and Elizabeth drop someone off at a motel. Both on paper and onscreen, the scene looks as basic as they come: Philip pulls the car up to a hotel, the passenger gets out, Philip and Elizabeth watch him go and then drive away.

But in reality, Rhys drove a car up to a blue screen, leaving room for an effect yet to come — because there was never a hotel there. Instead, post-production used 35 mm footage of an old hotel and doctored it to fit seamlessly into The Americans' world.

When it's time to refine the sound, the editors must consider everything from music cues to sound effects, like The Americans' signature, nauseating bone crunches. If there's room to use a preexisting song to underscore the action, they coordinate with the music supervisor, who will usually have a library of possibilities, to make that happen. In "Clark's Place," Pollack and Emmerich consulted with music supervisor P.J. Bloom for a song that would be appropriate in both period and theme to score the episode's closing montage. They secured the rights to David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" just a couple of weeks before Bowie died.*

That closing montage is gorgeously edited, with various characters staring fate in the face while Philip and Elizabeth have fierce, desperate sex to forget how much trouble they're in. The show's creative team didn't take using the song lightly; they had been sitting on the idea for a while, waiting for the right moment, and decided it made the most sense at the end of this particular episode. "The song has a lot of beautiful changes that went with the scenes," Pollack told me. "The lyrics are perfect. You could pretty much put it on every montage on The Americans."

Once the editor's cut is set, it goes to the director and producers for notes. Another edit that incorporates those notes goes to the network, and then an edit that incorporates the network's notes becomes the network cut. Then the showrunners attend a "final mix," where they view the whole episode from the opening shot to the final credits, to make sure everything is as it should be.

Sometimes, as the internet will tell you with a satisfied smirk, there are editing inconsistencies that reveal the stitching of a show: a misplaced eye line here, a mysteriously disappearing utensil there. These "mismatches" can plague anyone who's worked on an episode if they let it. Maybe a viewer will, in Fields's words, "point out that a fork isn’t in the next shot. And then all you can see is the fork. 'I watched it 35 times without seeing a fork, and now this episode is about a fork.'"

But Weisberg insists that such a scenario isn't evidence of a mistake, but rather a compromise. "You're allowing that in the interest of something more important," he says, like an actor giving a better performance in one take that might have the aforementioned misplaced details. "You're gambling that 99 percent of people won't notice."

One thing that helps cut down on mismatches is the fact that everyone involved in the post-production process is looking at the episode from a different perspective, shaped by varying priorities and expertise.

"We exercise different muscles," said post-production supervisor Whelan. "Joe and Joel and Amanda are so focused on story ... I'm a little more boring and technical. I turn the sound off. I'm just watching for things I see in picture." That way, while the J's and Pollack are busy sorting through the story, Whelan can concentrate on the sheer look of the show and pinpoint inconsistencies or places that could be more visually coherent. Together, they've usually got their bases covered.

Just like the producers and writers, the post-production staff is most often working on several episodes at once, each inevitably at different stages of completion. And everyone is keenly aware that the collective weight of television production could collapse at any moment if something falls even just slightly out of place.

So Fields and Weisberg credit their post-production team for maintaining some sense of serenity even amid total chaos — the kind of attribute that can make a television set run smoothly. Just like with the J's in their writers' room, or Rhys and Russell on set, the ability to make quick, confident calls in the post-production process is vital to its success. With so much to do in so little time, there's no room for attitude, errors, or confusion. Otherwise, making a television show becomes that metronome ticking faster and faster, until it finally breaks.

Act VI: Conclusion

The set of Joan's apartment. Joan is a KGB phone operator who helps Philip and Elizabeth send and receive coded messages. (Diane Lederman/The Americans/FX)

I would love to tell you that after five months of reporting, I completely understand all the ins and outs of making television. But the reality of any production is that no matter how deep you dig, there's always more than meets the eye.

Every TV show is different; every set has its own rules and atmosphere; every showrunner values things others might not. Every writer, producer, actor, director, designer, crew member, coordinator, and assistant is constantly making decisions that affect the final product. I could talk to every single person listed in the credits of a series and still have more to learn.

What I can tell you is how The Americans became one of the best shows on television.

Everyone on The Americans is working toward the same goal. This sounds like an obvious statement, but trust me: With so many variables in play and so little time to get everything done, that kind of teamwork is both rare and prized. If a set is like a train hurtling toward its destination, any bit of discord on the route clashes against the tracks and creates a warning spark — and the more that happens, the more likely it is that the whole thing will derail.

But with showrunners Weisberg and Fields steady at the helm, and drama-free lead actors Russell and Rhys in front of the camera, The Americans is clear-eyed in its vision. Even if not everyone knows exactly where it’s going, everyone’s role is defined, valued, and, most importantly, trusted. With that trust comes a rich world full of possibilities.

Weisberg and Fields can turn to their writers, who know the voice of the show and are invested in telling the story. They can turn to their directors, who can transform words on a page into something truly cinematic. They can turn to their designers — hair, makeup, costumes, sets, and everything in between — and walk into a whole new world. They can turn to their actors, who can step into a scene and feel their characters’ passion, rage, and heartbreak so keenly that, for a minute, they become their characters. And they can turn to the post-production staff, who can take something that’s in pieces and make it whole.

Without this kind of teamwork, a series is never going to reach its full potential. Weisberg and Fields couldn’t make a television show by themselves. They need the help of an equally committed, exceptional team to bring their vision to life — and they have one.

"If you’re precious about it, and you only want it done the way you want it done, then everything is going to feel constrained," Fields says. "But if people are free within the confines of the show to explore, you can be surprised … and that’s the best."

Illustration: Tom Humberstone
Data visualization: Javier Zarracina
Copy editor: Tanya Pai
Project manager and producer: Susannah Locke


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