Pam And Tommy Director Hannah Fidell Lets Silence Speak Loudly [Interview]

Hannah Fidell tells stories through the eyes and ears of her characters. The filmmaker behind "A Teacher," both the acclaimed film and the FX show, expresses point-of-view in a way that's both dramatic and cinematic. In the case of her episode of "Pam & Tommy," titled "Pam in Wonderland," the pauses can be as painful as the unsettling dialogue. 

Fidell's episode is a change of pace for the series, stylistically speaking. Producer Craig Gillespie established an energetic and frenetic tone for all the chaos, but with this most recent bottle episode, Fidell went for a different pace. She depicts a brutal deposition and the pain involved with stillness and observation. SlashFilm writer, Valerie Ettenhofer, praised it as a high point for the Hulu show. "Pamela Anderson, as imagined by episode writer Sarah Gubbins and embodied by Lily James, takes center stage in an episode about the deposition in the Lee family's case against Penthouse," she wrote. "The resulting half-hour is one of the series' best."

Fidell, who's currently working with Brie Larson on a series for Apple and developing shows for FX, recently took us behind the scenes of "Pam in Wonderland." 

'We could make the impossible happen with no time.'

A choice you made that couldn't have felt more right was not showing the tape during the deposition.

I think that was the decision that I made pretty early on. I felt like it was more powerful to be on her because the scene really isn't ... We already know that the tape exists. We know what's on it. And what this episode was really about was how it affected Pam. It just felt right.

Your work is very point-of-view-driven. How else did you want to express her point of view?

I think that as a director, [when] you always go into an episode you want to study the script and study every scene, really to make a decision about whose point of view everything is. From there you can determine how it's going to be shot. I got lucky in that this was a Pam bottle episode, and so I already knew whose perspective we were really focusing on. But at the same time, it was [like] how do we ... I wouldn't say do away with the male gaze, but how do we really make this feel different than the other episodes prior? What that meant was focusing on her and not being afraid to hold on her for longer.

When you show her entering the Playboy mansion, you do one of those great long takes where you enter the world with a character. How tricky are those shots to pull off?

I can tell you just that particular shot we just didn't have any time, so we had to nail it. It just comes down to having great technicians behind the camera who can do it without any technical difficulties, and they certainly did. I think that particular shot is very Scorsese-esque. When you think about "Goodfellas" or any of those long tracking shots, it's fun to put that into an entirely different context.

Did you imagine "More Than This" for that scene?

That was in post, I believe. It happens after I'm done editing. Yeah, because I wasn't on the producer side of the show, I just came in and did my thing and delivered a cut and they handled the music supervision. But I think it was a great choice.

How's that as a filmmaker, coming in, doing an episode, and then later thinking, "Oh, so that was the song they went with or that was the decision they made?"

I think it's great. You hope that the people who are making decisions are on the same page as you are, and in this case they were. I've never been in a situation where they haven't been, so that's been great. I imagine it could be tough on other shows with other executive producers, but not on this one. I think for me, doing an episode of television on someone else's show is fun because as a writer you are siloed, often working on your own thing and as the director, you rarely get to see other directors work. I always look at it as a real learning situation.

So what did you learn from "Pam & Tommy"?

I learned that we could make the impossible happen with no time. We had very little time for this episode. It's truly because of Lily nailing it every take and our camera department and all of the departments just being on top of their game that they were able to pull it off. It's even more of a treat for me hearing people say that they are enjoying the episode because of that.

As you said, Lily nailed it every time, so coming into the show later on, how was it seeing her performance already deeply developed?

Well, the good news is that Lily and I started talking about this episode I think within a week of her starting the show. So we had a lot of time to discuss and prepare and think about it, and that was incredibly useful. It wasn't as if I only had the two weeks before we started shooting to prep and I never got to see them. Lily and I got on a bunch of Zooms and FaceTimes beforehand and talked it through. And also, just having such easy access to the showrunners as well and talking it through with them even before [the] official press started was helpful.

I think, just to more specifically answer your question, I think it's great when a crew is warmed up and the boulder is going down the hill, so to speak. It's not that you're just along for the ride, obviously, but it is what it is. I think everyone, especially on this crew, knew the importance of the show, knew how good it was going to be, and wanted to carry that through. Because by the time I came on, I think I was able to see cuts of the first four episodes. It was clear, even in those early director's cuts, that this was going to blow up in a major way.

Given the time you had, how was the football stadium scene pulled off?

We were very seriously considering cutting out the football stadium and somehow sort of reworking it into someplace that wasn't so VFX heavy. I think we all stood our ground and said, "Well, this is what really happened, so we should stick to reality." We made it work. But yeah, that was the last scene that we shot. I think the show wrapped with that scene. We made it down to the wire.

'I think it's relatable for a lot of women.'

The actor playing Hugh Hefner, it's uncanny.

It was not a deep fake, I promise.

The shot introducing him, like this angel or demon looking down, is kind of hilarious.

Oh, totally, yeah. When we were scouting that location, I saw that balcony. There was a shot where he came in through the door and saw Pam and saw that she had something special. I just felt in Pam's world, and especially in this episode which is sort of structured as a fairy tale, that having this guy who played probably the single most important part in her life at that point descends upon the scene from above, it felt visually perfect.

Obviously, conversations are still ongoing about Hugh Hefner and his role in culture, but since Pamela saw him in such a warm light, was that how you wanted to depict him and shoot him?

Yeah. I talked a lot about this with Lily, who I have to say was our resident Pam expert on set. Pam had a very close relationship with Hef, and I think we didn't want to shy away from that.

For you, what else was crucial in how to depict Pam?

I think it's really been that sympathy that myself, and I know Sarah, the writer of the episode, and I think all of the producers felt towards Pam. Knowing that in telling her story, we would sort of change her cultural dialogue around her history in a way that should have been done years ago. I feel as though if you make something with sympathy, it'll come through. I hope that people come away with a newfound respect for everything that Pam's had to endure, and I certainly have in the process of making it. So, that's my takeaway.

That final shot in this episode is painful.

I know.

Just her feeling the need to make someone else feel comfortable when she's deeply uncomfortable.

Oh yeah. I think it's relatable for a lot of women. Just having to ... that's what we're taught to do.

Similar to "A Teacher" and your other work, you let those silences speak. 

Thank you for noticing that. That was something that I said to everyone when I came in, was that I wanted it to feel different than they had their episodes. I love Craig's work so much. He is truly one of my favorite directors. Episode two is probably my favorite episode. But they're so frenetic and so it's like, go, go, go. I just felt it would be a radical move in our Pam bottle episode to slow it down a bit. I'm glad that everyone agreed and let me do that.

"Pam & Tommy" is now streaming on Hulu.