'Altered Carbon' Director Miguel Sapochnik On His Influences, Imagining The Future, And 'Blade Runner' [Interview]

Over the past few years, Miguel Sapochnik has been directing some of the most exciting episodes on television. Sapochnik's Game of Thrones episodes, "Hardhome" and "Battle of the Bastards," are unforgettable and earned him a well-deserved Emmy. Before returning for the final season of that HBO series, the director (who has also helmed episodes of House and True Detective) worked on one of Netflix's newest and biggest shows, Altered Carbon, an adaptation from showrunner Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island).

Sapochnik directed the first episode of the 10-episode science-fiction series, which gave him the opportunity to visualize the world 300 years into the future, shoot some brutal action, and help get the ball rolling on a noir mystery. In a recent email interview with Sapochnik, he told us about his approach to showing the future, why Blade Runner is so seminal to filmmakers, his favorite action directors, and more.

With the first episode, you had the chance to help establish the world. Visually, how did you want to make the world believable and tangible?

I should start by saying that we didn't really follow that kind of process on AC. I never looked at it as an attempt to come up with a tangible or credible version of the future. It's a very stylized future that seemed appropriate to the kind of story Laeta wanted to tell.

To my mind, any story set that far in the future requires some creative license and a certain suspension of disbelief.

There were certainly many long conversations about the rules of the world we were creating; mainly concerning the different kinds of evolution in technology that we felt were appropriate (or could afford). Because we wanted to work within the framework of film noir, for example, there was a long and protracted attempt at making self-lighting cigarettes. It was eventually abandoned because it's just not as easy as one might think to make a prop cigarette that lights itself and can be smoked safely in a single shot. We did make them, but the practical ones were unreliable or very expensive to remove the lighting mechanism digitally. And being that our main character smoked a lot (at least he did in the pilot script), it became one of those things that while it seemed like a natural evolution of technology, it didn't really work for our show.

The world is incredibly detailed. In the first episode are there any subtle background details that you think make the world feel more lived-in?

I was particularly interested in how the alien tech used to build the stacks and the meth towers had adapted to our civilization or -as I saw it- infected the human environment. We spent a lot of time looking at architectural design and how organic metal forms could create a web of sorts and weave in and out of our existing and human structures. The 'web' on the stack itself was meant to appear in various forms throughout the city and on a variety of scales. Carey Meyer, our production designer and I spent quite some time weaving this into the general design of the city.

For Altered Carbon, what were your influences? Any film noir?

It's sci-fi film noir. Visually it's Blade Runner, Out of the Past, Blue Valentine. We looked at LA Confidential, Only God Forgives, and Enter the Void for inspiration. I like to divide my influences into visual, tonal and character. On this, I thought a lot about Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now as my character ref for Kovacs.

Whenever there are neon lights and rainy streets in a sci-fi story, there's almost always comparisons made to Blade Runner or cyberpunk movies. How much do you have to consider what audiences have seen before while working on a project like Altered Carbon?

I think you have to consider the stories that have existed before yours whenever you tell one. But you also have to just get on with it. Blade Runner is a seminal film for many in my generation of filmmakers. It didn't just predict the future: it showed it. Making a sci-fi noir without owing something to Blade Runner isn't really possible because Ridley was dead on target. Frankly, I'm just pleased to have anything I do mentioned in the same sentence as that film, for better or for worse. That said, we did try to do something different or at least something we felt was a spin on what has gone before us. It was a fun challenge and more successful in some areas than in others. Laeta brought a strong gothic influence to Altered Carbon and Martin Ahlgren, my DOP, brought a fantastic color palette that was far less restricted than the usual dark sci-fi noir.

You've previously said one of your biggest fears as a director is "everything is taking too long on camera." With Altered Carbon, what were some of your biggest fears?

The raven not wanting to fly. The flying car breaking down and the bad guys looking silly. Have to admit I liked the way the bad guys turned out (thanks, [costume designer] Ann Foley) in the end and luckily the car never broke down because it couldn't fly in the first place.

When it comes to worldbuilding or directing in general, were there any lessons you learned from Repo Men that you brought to Altered Carbon? I remember with that film you wanted to shoot more scenes outdoors with characters on the move, which there's quite a bit of in Altered Carbon.

Tons but that's another interview.

When you're depicting violence and have more freedom working with companies like Netflix or HBO, do you often question what you can or maybe should show?

As far as on screen violence is concerned I always try to do a plus five and minus five version, so we can decide in the edit room what we want to show and at what point. When depicting violence on screen, I think it is important to understand why you are choosing to do it at that particular moment. Asking myself simple questions, like, how does it move the story forward? Or is it in keeping with the tone of the piece? This helps me decide what level of violence and how much of it I leave in or take out.

You have a background as a storyboard artist. How do you think that experience helped shape you as a filmmaker? How much did you storyboard for Altered Carbon?

Not a lot. We did the flying car scene. Being a storyboard artist greatly influenced my career as a director, but that's because storyboarding was my only way to direct when I didn't have the resources to actually make anything. Still is.

Like your past action, the set pieces in Altered Carbon are very physical and rely on practical effects and stunts. Are there any action filmmakers you're particularly inspired by? 

Paul Greengrass, the Coen brothers (I know they don't do 'action,' but their action is always pretty intense).

Was there one scene in Altered Carbon that presented more challenges than the others?

The opening one where Kovacs wakes up. Joel had to be naked and covered in goo all day. I felt for him, but he didn't really seem to mind!


Altered Carbon is now available to stream on Netflix.