Mimi Leder wasn’t born with a camera in her hand. But it didn’t take her long to pick one up. Her father was Paul Leder, an auteur of, in her words, “ultra ultra low-budget films.” She and her two siblings worked on them — shooting, writing, editing, more.
“We ran through the streets of Hollywood without permits, stealing locations,” she said. “It was a great education.”
Leder was speaking, on a video call, from her home in Ojai, Calif. Despite these semi-legal origins, Leder, 71, has since become an established director and producer. On the Zoom screen, she had the look to match — red lipstick, black-framed glasses, black blouse. The first woman to be accepted into the American Film Institute’s Conservatory program in cinematography, she has gone on to direct nearly 100 episodes of television, from “L.A. Law” to the Apple TV+ drama “The Morning Show,” which begins its third season on Wednesday. The second woman to win an Emmy for outstanding directing of a drama series, for a wrenching episode of “E.R.,” she has also directed four feature films across a variety of genres: “The Peacemaker,” “Deep Impact,” “Pay It Forward” and “On the Basis of Sex.”
Her longtime colleague Michael Ellenberg, a fellow executive producer on “The Morning Show,” defined her style as “that balance of big cinematic scale and honest, intense emotion.”
Leder established both the glossy look and heightened tone of “The Morning Show,” a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional broadcast news program, starring Jennifer Aniston, Billy Crudup, Mark Duplass and Reese Witherspoon. Her style, beginning with the pilot and through several episodes each season, is probing, intense, empathetic, supporting the characters even as they make lunatic decisions. Her camera goes wide, then it goes narrow, focusing on faces in moments of extreme tension or stress, maintaining that focus past the point of comfort.
“I am most interested in what the character is feeling,” Leder said. “I use my camera to emphasize those moments.”
In an hourlong interview, Leder discussed cinematography, sexism and why she loves it when actors take big swings. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You have been a prolific director for decades, but you originally wanted to become a cinematographer, right?
I applied to the American Film Institute. They said, “We want you to come in as a director.” I said, “No, I want to be a cinematographer.” I had such a great education there in terms of understanding the power of the lens and what you could do with a lens. It all turned out the way it should. I can pick up a camera, I can shoot, I can do all of that. And I know what lenses help to tell what story.
How did you break into television?
I was a script supervisor on “Hill Street Blues.” I made a short film. Greg Hoblit and Steven Bochco [executive producers of the series] gave me my first break. It was to have happened on “Hill Street Blues,” but they got fired. And then the new producers fired me before I ever did the job. But Greg made good on his promise. And three weeks after my daughter was born, he said, “We’d love you to direct on ‘L.A. Law.’” Three months later, I weaned my daughter and I was on the floor directing.
You’re having quite a long, robust career. But have you ever felt that you were treated differently because you are a woman?
Absolutely. A female director makes a movie, it fails in the box office, she goes to movie jail. A man makes a movie, and a $250 million flop, he gets three more movies. I went to movie jail after “Pay It Forward.” It was very painful. It was very difficult to get through. It hurt. Did it hurt my life? I don’t know. But did I come out of it? Yes.
A lot of people, they fizzle out, their careers stop at a certain point. Or they only do certain things, only tell one kind of story. I love that my interests take me everywhere. And I’m getting more work now than than I ever have. There are a lot more opportunities today than there were when I was coming up.
How was “The Morning Show” pitched to you?
We had just finished “The Leftovers,” which Michael Ellenberg spearheaded at HBO. Michael and I had dinner, and he said that he had the rights to Brian Stelter’s book “Top of the Morning.” The behind-the-scenes of making anything fascinates me. What you see in front of the camera, what you see behind the curtain. So I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it.”
How did you decide on the look of it?
I went to New York with our production designer, John Paino, for the first season. We walked the halls of the “Today” show, “Good Morning America.” We looked at the color palette. We looked at the walls. We looked at the ceiling, all the wires. We watched the live show. We just took it all in. I wanted it to be very bright because onstage everything was lit brightly and everybody looked beautiful. Behind the scenes, I wanted to make it a lot more contrasty. A lot of dark, a lot of light — to complement the messiness of their lives. As the seasons developed, I took that further, especially in this season. I did a lot more hand-held work, made things feel a lot more unsettled, a lot more uncomfortable.
Because the first two seasons were so relaxing?
I mean, yes, I hear you. But for me, I was like, I’m going to bring in this element of uneasiness even further. Our characters don’t know where they really belong. They’ve lost their footing.
How did you decide what the tone of the show should be?
Our characters have big, extreme feelings. Our characters are mostly extremely privileged as well. They live in this little bubble and oftentimes seem very spoiled. They have very high-class problems. So we wanted to walk this line between drama and comedy because to achieve great drama, you need comedy to get you through. I wanted to ground everything in reality, even though the drama was heightened.
I don’t always understand the choices that the characters make.
They’re not often the ones we make in real life. Because the consequences are so great. But if you don’t have high complexity and great risks in storytelling, it’s kind of ho-hum. It’s really important in television to heighten those realities. You question, as the audience, Would I do that? Probably not. But it does take you to a place that you consider doing it.
What’s the pleasure of working with such seasoned actors? Does their experience allow them to make wilder choices?
We make the choices in the writing and the directing, and they make the choices as to how big to go, how small to go. I think we are a fearless bunch because what’s the alternative? Who cares about average? You want to watch the big swings and you want to make them exciting.
What’s the animating tension of this season?
The first season brought us the #MeToo movement, and the second season brought us the pandemic. This season, the focus was women’s agency, reproductive rights, the state of journalism and the state of the truth. Our characters are carrying a lot of secrets.
How do you decide which episodes to direct?
I choose the ones that are the most challenging. I always shoot the openers and I shoot the finales. The season opener last year was New Year’s Eve at the dawn of Covid. We shot it during Covid — no vaccines. This season, going to space was a huge challenge.
You don’t make it easy on yourself.
Easy? That’s boring.