Timothy Van Patten started out in show business as an actor, most notably in the basketball-themed series The White Shadow from 1979 to 1981. By the ’90s, Van Patten made the switch to behind the camera, honing his craft by directing over 30 episodes of Touched By An Angel before finding critical success over at HBO. He’s directed episodes of most of HBO’s flagship shows, like Sex And The City, The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, and The Sopranos. He was nominated for four Emmys for directing episodes of the landmark series, including the climactic “Long Term Parking.” Van Patten was also nominated for an Emmy for directing the Game Of Thrones pilot, and won in 2012 for Boardwalk Empire.
So it’s not surprising that HBO and Van Patten would team up again for the cable channel’s latest prestige project, Perry Mason, which just finished its first season. Van Patten directed several episodes of the prequel series featuring the early, gritty years of the legendary defense attorney, evident by his familiar depictions of brutal yet aesthetically beautiful violence and nostalgic palettes. Van Patten also served as a producer on the series, which was recently renewed for a second season. He talked to us about the show’s finale—which was helpful because we had many questions (spoilers below).
The A.V. Club: You have such a gift for finding beauty in violence, with your work in The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and this series. It’s kind of brutal, but you still can’t look away from it.
Timothy Van Patten: I’ll do what the violence requires. In other words, I think part of it is, it has to be earned. When you’re working with great writing, it usually is earned. Let’s just take, for example, the killing of Drea de Matteo’s character [Adriana] on The Sopranos. When she’s killed by Silvio—you could see that coming because she was an informer. But, you didn’t need to see the graphic detail of that killing because it wouldn’t be an honorable way to sort of send her off the show, for one. Also, it was so much more powerful to leave it to the imagination. And the heartbreak. So, she crawls through the frame, and he’s sort of trailing her with his pistol leveled, and you know it’s coming.
But, in bigger sequences, yeah. I mean, I try not to get too graphic, but even if it is graphic, it’s about composition, isn’t it? I’d rather sort of imply it than be super in-your-face with it. For example, seeing it in a tableau sometimes, like when you see Ennis get killed at the end, or when he’s killing Seidel, or when he gets drowned. And timing-wise, you know, do it in real time. In Boardwalk Empire, when Shea Whigham’s character kills the federal agent in his own living room, I thought, “Well, gosh, how long does it actually take to punch somebody into the next world?” And that fight went on for minutes. Minutes! It was clumsy, and sloppy, and… yeah. So I guess I sort of treat it as per the show and the character and not try to be [Laughs.]—this is going to sound strange—but not to be too abusive about the violence.
AVC: That first Perry Mason episode definitely felt like it was making a statement about this version of the character. Almost immediately, there’s the shot of the dead baby with the stitched-open eyes, followed by the naked Fatty Arbuckle-type character chasing after Perry. Then the Ennis murder where he’s stepping on the guy’s neck until he bleeds out. People tuning in to see a traditional courtroom drama were not going to find what they expected. It seemed like such a reinvention.
TVP: I probably wouldn’t have been interested if it was just a straight courtroom drama, that’s for sure. For me, the whole draw for it was world-building. And setting and characters in 1931, 1932 Los Angeles, which was not the ’20s of Boardwalk, but was a new world for me. Dave Franco, who was a DP on Boardwalk with me, came along, and we tried to sort of create a different look with scale and scope. But it turns out that, tonally, I think they were sort of establishing out the gate that this is not your grandfather’s Perry Mason.
AVC: Tonally, you also do so much with color: When Perry’s in the city, it’s all blues and the grays, but when he’s at his house on the farm, it’s all golden and breathtaking.
TVP: We fought a lot about the palette. Dave and I even made a pitch to black and white. And HBO in all their wisdom talked us out of it. But we did some experimenting with it. It would have been great, but it might have been too on the nose. You’re really putting it out there: This is a neo-noir.
But my references for this really were, in terms of the art, the Ashcan artists of the last century. They were a group of artists that went out on the streets and painted life. Part of that school was John Sloan and George Bellows and Edward Hopper.
Even in terms of set design, Sister Alice at her church, that was meant to look like a boxing ring: the light coming down from above on the square—of her in that auditorium—in George Bellows’ paintings of Jack Dempsey knocking Firpo out of the ring. We were really specific about design and about light.
AVC: I hadn’t thought of Hopper before, but that makes total sense, especially since Perry is essentially such a lonesome character.
TVP: Yeah, exactly. You got it totally right. Because you look at the composition of a lot of those Hopper paintings, like with the women and men in a room alone, and they don’t have a lot of detail upon the actual individual. But the composition of the shot gives you all the emotion you need. The attitude, the body language, and the placement in frame where the subject is, and where the light’s coming from, was a great influence for us in this show.
AVC: Speaking of influence, where did the impetus for this reinvention of Perry Mason come from? Because if you’re doing a 1930s P.I., you could bring back Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Why reinvent Perry Mason in this manner?
TVP: Well, that sort of precedes my involvement in the show. I think Robert Downey got the I.P. on it. And he brought it to HBO with [True Detective creator] Nic Pizzolatto. He was going to be in it, Robert—and then, for whatever reason, he couldn’t do it, and Nic couldn’t do it, and then [creators] Rolin [Jones] and Ron [Fitzgerald] took over and developed it.
And I was on a job, on Shogun, and it got pushed a little bit, and I wanted to jump into something, so I parachuted. We had a meeting with the Downeys, and me and—you know, it was like putting on something comfortable, a world I sort of know. I wanted to challenge myself, of course, always, and introduce people to a new world, or a new place, or new characters. But I said, “Okay, this is the perfect thing. I can jump into this and I can build a world.” Build a team, a cast.
I mean, that’s a question I guess that people are asking: Why now? Why Perry Mason? And that’s why, when you look at it, it’s, like, okay, this is Perry Mason, this is his origin story, the guys he came up with, and it was so castable—I think the cast is brilliant from top to bottom.
And it was a great pleasure because I never shoot out here in California. I live in Brooklyn, and I tend to shoot East Coast or Europe—I just don’t shoot out here. And I was dreading it a little bit because it was away from home and everything else. But we shot it at Paramount—what’s more classical than that, right? And I never shoot in real studios. And then we shot out all over L.A., really rooting around to find locations that hadn’t been on film before—or that’s what they told me [Laughs.].
But a lot of them were. We wanted to present these locations that we’ve all grown up looking at and see what we could build off—because, you know, you don’t get a whole lot of swaths of 1931 L.A. You have to do a lot of implying of scope and scale. By having people sit in a room by a window so you’re framing the frame within the frame. We did use visual effects—I always try not to, but we used them when we had to extend streets and extend background. But we really tried to live in shots that required some removal of modern things.
What you see on the show pretty much existed in the time. And that’s on the stage designed by John Goldsmith—he had his team, the decorator, his whole team—it was just brilliant. And that goes down the line, too, with Emma Potter in costumes. All the way down. It was such a pleasure. It became a family. And Matthew [Rhys] is a great No. 1 on the call sheet, great leader—he’s prepared. He brings such a positive, light touch to the set. And the crew loved him, the cast loved him. He kept us laughing, he kept us entertained. And John Lithgow: the same. They were awesome. I would just sit there and watch them work—this is as good a cast as I’ve ever worked with. They were all so committed and so generous of spirit.
AVC: It was so great to see titans like Stephen Root and John Lithgow face off against each other in a courtroom. Stephen Root was hilarious. It just seemed like was having such a good time.
TVP: It’s funny because the show has its very dry humor. You know, all these actors have good comedy chops. And comedy comes out of reality on this show, like on The Sopranos—it’s all authentic. But they were really good at modulating—at riding the balance, you know, the very delicate balance of too much, too little… the drama and the comedy, managing it and keeping it totally organic to character.
AVC: Shea Whigham’s character, Strickland, and Matthew Rhys—their riffs on each other, and their wisecracks—their relationship was one of the best parts of the whole series. “It’s a dead body.” “See, I told you he was an expert.” You could watch a show of just those two.
TVP: [Laughs.] I know, I like that—the Strickland relationship where Perry says, “You taught me half of everything I know.” And Strickland’s like, “Half? I taught you everything you know.” And it’s sort of like the way they broke up at the end, you know? The breakup. It’s so understated in a good way. Two men in the 1930s breaking up. It wasn’t overly dramatic.
[But] they were funny! They didn’t know each other—obviously, Shea and I had worked together for years on Boardwalk, but I just had a feeling about them being a great team. They really made a great team as a one-two that I’ve ever seen. They just really worked off each other great. And, actually, so did Della [Juliet Rylance] and Matthew. And Matthew individually with E.B.—John [Lithgow]—it was really sentimental. In episode four, where Matthew finds him sort of drunk and passed out on the couch. He goes over and Matthew’s tying his shoe, and E.B. is remembering meeting Perry as a boy. It was just a really beautiful moment of grace in there.
And watching Della evolve—in the beginning you see how observant she is, that she’s always listening, and she’s always caring, and you could feel the weight of the time period, where this is a person who could run her own law firm.
AVC: In a different era, for sure.
TVP: And I hope the audience gets this, because I really tried to hammer this home—is that there were some very forward-thinking women characters in the show. And it felt real and organic. Like Lupe. She’s a Mexican woman who’s based on a character called Pancho Barnes. And she jumps in with both feet, you know? She wants that land. But I think that she serves a purpose for Perry—it’s like his imaginary friend—it’s really the person that he can talk to.
AVC: Right. He needs somebody.
TVP: It’s a little transactional, but by the end, you go, “Oh, yeah, this did mean something to both of them.”
AVC: Even in movies like The Big Sleep, it’s kind of unclear who the murderer is. So I’m so happy to get to talk to you, because, at the end of Perry Mason, I’m still kind of confused. And maybe that’s the intention. Why did they stitch the baby’s eyes open? Was that a ritual thing?
TVP: Well, why they did that was to fool the young couple into thinking the baby was alive. They’d get a peek, and they would see the baby with its eyes open.
AVC: Oh, that’s awful.
TVP: As the car descended past the window. I think there was a case in the ’30s where someone did that. A lot of these little moments are based on—you’d have to ask Ron and Rolin—actual headline stories of the day.
As far as being sort of open-ended—you know, I’m a huge fan of films from the ’70s. I grew up watching old movies and stuff—but, in the ’70s, there were so many open-ended shows. Where you get to the ending of this, and [Perry]’s standing on the cliff’s edge, and he’s looking out at the Pacific. It’s almost the beginning. You feel like you’re about to start a journey, don’t you?
AVC: Also, did Alice move the baby’s body? She must have. But I don’t know how she did it. I kind of respect the series more for not answering that question. Or did it, and I just didn’t get it?
TVP: I’m glad to hear you say that. I know we’re going to get a lot of flack for all the unanswered questions. But, for me, I feel like, if you’re living with these characters and their inner life and you’re accessing them, I think you’ll go anywhere with them.
And it’s like each viewer will interpret these stories the way that they will. I think details like “How did they do it?”—leave that up to the imagination. But I think the journey—Perry’s journey, the internal journey—is complete. It’s a sort of classic noir in that he was stumbling through life, literally, and bottom-feeding, and he lands a case that changes his life. Basically. In a nutshell.
And there’s a world of characters yet to be mined. That’s the beauty of long-form, because you really get to sink into the characters. I mean, look at the old series: They were all procedurals, basically. It was all courtroom stuff. And that was so interesting. People loved that stuff. People love it.
But you brought it up earlier: Will people recognize any of the original Perry Mason in this series? I think toward the end of the journey—of the eight hours—you’re sort of watching him emerge, the character. The more familiar character, I should say. You watch him sort of find himself and become Perry Mason. That might be more familiar to them.
AVC: I’m still piecing the mystery together. Like, the whole scheme was to get the church money, but then why did they burn the money?
TVP: Well, you see some burnt bills in there. But in my mind, Ennis is not burning the money. I feel like he probably took a fistful of twenties, and a bunch of ashes and paper and whatever he had to do. Without explaining it, I’m just going to imagine—this guy is incredibly corrupt.
The parallel story of Sister Alice and how that sort of bumps against the investigation was always very tenuous, but I think by the wrap-up of the characters, I think there’s enough information there. Between their conversation on the cliff, and if you went back in your mind and sort of reviewed, I think there’s enough information there to sort of put it together.
AVC: The character of Sister Alice was also based on a real person, right?
TVP: Aimee Semple McPherson was a preacher in Los Angeles in 1931. And she was a rock star. I mean, she was literally like a rock star. And so she’s very much based on her. In fact, did you ever see the old film, probably 1973 or around that area, The Day Of The Locust? It was a novel written in the ’30s about Hollywood and the sort of desperate people who inhabit the world, the sadness of it, the loneliness of it, the price of stardom. It’s really interesting, and that character is sort of central in that story as well, a character like that, who’s playing Aimee Semple McPherson. And Burgess Meredith was nominated for an Oscar. It’s really—it gets campy from time to time.
But you can really feel L.A. in it, 1930s L.A. And we looked at that film, looked at Paper Moon, looked at a bunch of films—of course Chinatown. You can’t ignore Chinatown. I’ve seen it so many times. So there is a bit of homage in there, actually. The last location in the series was shot down in a cliff by San Pedro. And the little cafe where [Perry] sees Sister Alice was where Jack Nicholson goes after he sees the guy wading through the water—coming out of the sewer by the ocean. And then Nicholson puts the watch under the tire of the guy to see what time the guy left, right? That location was where they did that whole sequence.
But with Tatiana [Maslany]’s character—I ask myself all the time, What is the level of her piety? How devoted is she? What is this? Is she really speaking in tongues? Is she truly absorbing all of this—how much of it is a show? But, you know, she sort of puts it right back at [Perry] at the end. He says, “Well, did you ever think you were going to bring Charlie back?” She says, “I did, didn’t I?” And people may say, “Look, that’s not enough information for me.” And I would respect that. But I feel like, gosh, I think she was and it just got out of control, and she was in a crisis, and she had that awful experience when she was with her mother coming across the country. And she was bottled up. And, you know, strange shit happens in life. The question of faith. It’s an old mystery.