Emmy Watch: 'Sons of Anarchy' EP Paris Barclay talks setting up a season right

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Image Credit: FX

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, EW.com is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.

There have been a few times in Sons of Anarchy EP/director Paris Barclay’s career when he’s known he’s had something special. “Like when David Milch would write a script at NYPD Blue, and I’d go, ‘Wow, this will be fantastic,’ and I’d direct it and he’d win the Emmy and I’d win the Emmy,” Barclay says, laughing. He had the same “wow” feeling when Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter handed him the script for the season 4 opener, “Out.” “It has not only the brutality that some people associate with Sons, but also some really tender, loving scenes — a wedding, a proposal. It’s a great juxtaposition of the kind of hard action that we do really well and some really deep emotional stuff.”

That juxtaposition was set up by the brilliant end montage of the season opener and defined Sons of Anarchy‘s entire fourth season. We’re hoping this is the year the show finally breaks into the Outstanding Drama category.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Rewatching “Out” after you’ve seen the entire season, you see just how much was set up in that season premiere: You have Gemma (Katey Sagal) and Tara (Maggie Siff) starting off all affectionate because they feel like family now, and then you end the season with Tara being the person who could destroy Gemma’s relationship with Jax (Charlie Hunnam). You have Gemma and Clay (Ron Perlman) celebrating his release from prison in bed, and then end the season with Clay in a hospital bed and Gemma wishing he were dead.
PARIS BARCLAY: “Out” is sorta like a great overture. When you go to a terrific old-school musical, the overture tells you what the hit tunes are. You haven’t heard them yet, you don’t know them, but when you hear them again, you’ll recognize them. For me, “Out” was really well constructed to be an overture for the season. We knew that Tara was going to basically ascend to the throne and battle Gemma for that relationship, so we knew the best way to start that out was by this expression of love that would then be completely turned by the end of the season. We also knew Juice [Theo Rossi] was going to unravel last season, and so we gave you a little hint when he shoots the Russian for his first kill of the stress he was gonna be under, which would continue to weigh on him through killing another [SAMCRO] member and his attempted suicide. We knew Opie [Ryan Hurst] was going to have a very difficult year, so we wanted to start him on a trepidatious high of getting married, and sure enough, everything goes to s— for him the rest of the season. We’re introducing the sheriff [Rockmond Dunbar]. We’re introducing Lincoln Potter [Ray McKinnon]. We just basically played the tunes that we knew we were gonna flesh out with the continued orchestration, to continue the metaphor. [Laughs]

Even Jax’s proposal to Tara in the premiere, when he’s telling her he wants out of the club, he says: “I’m not my father, I’m not weak,” and then the last shot of the season is Jax and Tara at the table, where he’s literally in his father’s chair.
Sometimes directing is doing as little as possible. There are few shots in that scene because the acting is so strong…. Probably that scene, even though it’s maybe four or five minutes long, took about two hours to shoot. The actors were ready, and I didn’t want to over-rehearse it. I showed the basic blocking of it, we designed really simple camera moves to keep the focus on the two of them, and let them do it…. On the other end of that, we have the opening montage of “Out,” which is virtually no dialogue and virtuoso camera movement. Everything is designed to go one thing into another, which demonstrates a different kind of storytelling. We’re in cranes, they’re coming out in jail in slow-motion, the music [Joshua James' "Coal War"] is re-edited to work with the shots. That’s appropriate for that, that’s bringing the audience back to this motion picture that is Sons of Anarchy.

Watch the opening of “Out” below.

We’ve talked before about the art of the montage, how on this show, they’re never filler.
You remember the Yeats poem that has figured into the history and mythology of Sons of Anarchy, “The Second Coming.” We had the idea that we wanted to bring that “turning and turning in the widening gyre” and that “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” digitally into both of the opening and closing montages. That’s why [the opening] starts with the camera that spins almost completely around Jax, past his Sons of Anarchy tattoo and back to his scars, revealing new information, and at the end at the dance, we kept trying to turn and spin the camera and keep people feeling like, you know, we’re going down with this ship, so get ready.

Season 4 was such an adrenaline rush. How do you keep that maintained over the course of a season?
Part of it is when the writers are breaking the story, they’re thinking each episode has to involve both emotion and excitement for the audience. Every episode is designed to be like a kick-ass chapter, like a great graphic novel should be done. When it comes to us in the directing division, I encourage directors to spend time with the scenes that are the meatiest, whether they’re the action or the emotion, and get through the stuff that just pulls the story together as quickly as possible so we can really deliver what the fans want.

Looking ahead, you’ve directed the season 5 opener. What can you tease?
Now you know if I tease anything, I’d be left for dead in an alley.

Just say enough to get a broken leg.
If there’s one word to describe the season opener, it’s explosive.

And with this show, you don’t know if that means verbal sparks or actual explosions.
And maybe it means all of the above. That’s the word I kept using throughout. We’re not gonna slack this season. We’re coming out guns blazing.

Some fans, and even members of the cast, were surprised that the story accelerated as much as it did in season 4, with Jax taking over the club.
I was not surprised. There is road to travel with these folks, and there are surprises still in store. I think if you think you know what’s gonna happen at the end of seven seasons, which is currently what we’re planning to do, you’d be wrong. It’s not gonna be what you think it’s gonna be… It’s also probably not gonna be what The Sopranos was. We’re probably not gonna end with a black screen. [Laughs] That really irritated me.

You were nominated for six Emmys in total for NYPD Blue, and won twice for directing. How do you look at the Emmys?
The thing about the Emmys that is a little hard to fathom, and I’m a voter so I know, is how people get stuck in the habits. They go to the shows that they regularly see. I really wish there was a way to actually make the awards what they say they are — the best writing, the best directing, the best drama series — which would mean you’d really have to take a look at everything. There are some fantastic shows that never get the love of Emmy, and to me, it devalues the award a little bit when it’s so driven by tradition and popularity and it really doesn’t take into consideration the great landscape of television.

I talked to Justified EP Graham Yost for an upcoming Emmy Watch advocating for that show to break into the Best Drama category as well. My dream would be to see both Sons and Justified in that category, and he said he’d get Walton Goggins to clog for EW.com on video if that happened.
[Laughs] Yeah, that would be the end of the world. I mean, everything would fall off the cliff if that actually happened. I don’t imagine it would happen, but it’s a great example of two shows that are as well written and as well put together as possible.

Read more:
Emmy Watch: Katey Sagal talks ‘Hands’ (and Kurt Sutter’s decision to stay silent during Emmy season)
More Emmy Watch interviews
Best of 2011 (Behind the Scenes): ‘Sons of Anarchy’ music supervisor Bob Thiele Jr. on season 4’s greatest hits
‘Sons of Anarchy’ Season 4 Premiere’s Killer End Montage: How They Did It!
‘Sons of Anarchy’ season premiere: The art of the montage. Who does them right? Who does them wrong?
‘Sons of Anarchy’ season finale: Kurt Sutter talks twists (and what’s next)
‘Sons of Anarchy’ season finale: Ron Perlman talks Clay’s wild ride

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