Brändström’s rise to Power

Brändström’s rise to Power

April 29, 2024

The Director’s Chair

Director Charlotte Brändström breaks down her approach to her craft, outlining why she’s always drawn to character-driven stories, her work on series such as Shogun and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and why we need to learn to live with AI.

Across a career spanning more than 30 years, award-winning director Charlotte Brändström’s work has taken her from French drama Disparue (The Disappearance) to Swedish crime series Wallander and US shows Grey’s Anatomy and The Outsider.

More recently, the French-born Swedish filmmaker has helmed episodes of Disney+’s epic historical drama Shogun and Prime Video’s John Wick prequel The Continental, while Brändström is also returning to Middle-earth as the lead director of the second season of Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. She directed two episodes of season one, and takes four in the upcoming sequel.

Brändström sat down with DQ to talk about her role as an international competition jury member at French television festival Series Mania, her approach to her craft and why she wants to embrace AI.

Charlotte Brändström

You’ve watched a lot of series in your role as a jury member at Series Mania. What do you like to watch on television?
I’m always looking for what is character driven, for what grips me, for what makes me want to see more. There are a lot of great stories being told, but they don’t always have very well-written characters. To quote Charles Dickens, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry and make them wait.’

Really, it’s about characters. Once you have really interesting characters, intriguing characters, edgy characters, characters you want to follow, you could almost watch them in anything. Then there are certain genres I like, but I like everything that has a visual imprint, that’s another world, that’s interesting to watch.

One thing I’m finding very interesting right now is a British Apple TV+ show, Criminal Record. I just started watching it and it is really about the characters. The last fantastic thing I watched was probably Chernobyl.

A show that I was just a small part of, Shogun, has really interesting, very well-written characters. It’s visually stunning and it’s impressive, but had it been visually impressive but boring, people wouldn’t have watched it.

How do you choose the projects you want to direct?
I’m looking for characters because I want to direct interesting actors. I’m looking at what kinds of characters there are, who the characters are and what they do. And in a big ensemble piece, I want somebody to stand out. I want to have a perspective. So I’m looking for that first, then obviously I’m looking for a good story, and then I’m also looking for things I haven’t recently done.

I was interested in Shogun for two reasons. I knew the showrunner, Justin Marks, because we had done Counterpart together in Berlin a few years before, and the second reason was that I hadn’t done anything historical for a long time. I had just come out of fantasy [with The Rings of Power] and I thought it was interesting to dig into 16th century Japan and make something period and historical.

Brändström helmed the third episode of critically acclaimed period drama Shogun

On Shogun, you directed episode three. What’s your approach to picking up an episode mid-season?
You’re always lead director of your episode. You pay attention to what everybody else is doing and specifically what the first director has done. [On Shogun] there was only one director before me, so I saw him a few times. I looked at his dailies. I spoke a lot with the showrunner, but every episode has its own life. It comes to life in your hands. There’s always something different.

I start most of my episode with inserts. I like to start small and go bigger afterwards. Compared with the first two, my episode of Shogun was probably more intimate, and then it evolved into battles and skirmishes, so you create a life within a show, but you try to respect what’s been done and to listen to what people tell you.

I often say to the writers and the showrunners, when I come on, just explain to me exactly what you want, and then I have to figure out how to do it. But in this business, it’s not like you go and do a painting or write a book or do a musical piece [on your own]. There are a lot of people involved. There’s a lot at stake. There is money, so there are always a lot of opinions around, whether you do the first one or one in the middle.

The filmmaker has also worked on John Wick prequel series The Continental

When you’re not the lead director, do you get to choose your episodes?
You don’t get to choose. Very often you get chosen, and it’s also to do with when you’re available. That’s obviously a bit of a lottery, because you sometimes end up with something like The Rings of Power, where I felt like I was very lucky. I got to do two amazing episodes that actually corresponded to stuff I like – I had the battles, I had the volcano, so that was fantastic to be able to do. But then sometimes you come in and you get different kinds of episodes and you do the best you can.

I like both. I like to start and be the lead director, because it’s exciting to cast, to set a tone, to be very creative. But at the same time, when you come in and do an episode and you’re a block director, the good thing is that you end up working with people who you might not have chosen, and people who bring you stuff you didn’t expect.

I feel like my style of directing has evolved so much since I started work in America, because I had to direct in a certain way. I was meeting with many new DOPs, and I would never [usually] work with that many different DOPs because it feels safer to keep working with the same people who trust you. You can have a shortcut if you just keep working together, but then you don’t evolve in the same way. I did an episode of a show called The Outsider for HBO and I had a wonderful camera operator. We collaborated in a specific way, and he was just very interesting visually. I learned a lot, and I used things I learned on that show when I directed The Rings of Power.

Her biggest project so far isThe Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

You’ve worked in the US for about a decade. How do you compare working there to working in Europe?
It’s obviously very different, but it’s all a collaboration. Whatever happens, you have to adapt. You have many more people around you [in the US]. I always try to come in with a strong perspective, the point of view of what I’m going to do – and showrunners and writers actually expect that from a director. They want a director to have a unique point of view, they want a director to bring them something fresh, because they’ve been working on their show for so long, they need it. And when you deliver an episode that’s well edited together, they’re very grateful because they have less work.

They don’t necessarily want you to come in and change everything – they want it to correspond to their vision – but if you show them something that is good or different, a lot of people are very open to that. One should not be afraid of having a perspective and a point of view. It’s actually an advantage.

Has the director’s role on a series changed during the course of your career?
If I do Grey’s Anatomy, what I will say there is I really direct traffic. There you come in, you do a wide shot and you do close-ups. But if you do an episode of The Outsider, Shogun or The Rings of Power, it’s very creative. You create the world, you create the look. You work with a concept artist, you work with VFX. You have to have a vision. That’s what’s exciting about what we do, and it’s changing so quickly.

Brändström is lead director on the second season of the Prime Video Lord of the Rings series

What impact do you think AI will have on directing, and the television business more widely?
AI is going to evolve much faster than we think, so we have to be really smart, use it as a tool and know as much as we can about it and how to use it best. Those people [who do] are going to end up ahead of others. Instead of resisting it completely, we have to see how can we work with it, because I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop it. I definitely want to continue learning about AI because I have to. But AI doesn’t have human experience; it can’t replace the human spirit.

How do you look back on making season one of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and what was it like coming back to lead season two?
I loved the episodes I did in season one. I was very proud of them. I spent a lot of time with the showrunner on the look and on the characters to see what we could improve, what is changing, what do people want to see? You don’t sit there and think constantly about how massive it is because it would scare you a lot. The sad thing is a lot of people had judged the show before it even came out, so that was actually tough. But then you try to adapt to that and see what they are really looking for.

Some fans were mixing Peter Jackson’s films with Tolkien’s work, and we’ve been trying to stay true to Tolkien and give it a really cool look. I love Peter Jackson’s films – that’s why I got involved in the first place. So I guess we’ve tried to mix everything. But the new season is definitely darker. It’s edgy, there’s more drama. I don’t control everything, but I hope people like it.

tagged in: , ,