This year’s long list of Emmy nominees has its share of surprises — mostly regarding on-screen talent. What you likely haven’t heard about are the nods for behind-the-camera talent — including Ben Semanoff, who garnered his first Emmy nomination for directing “Su Casa Es Mi Casa,” the game-changing Season 3 episode of “Ozark” in which …
This year’s long list of Emmy nominees has its share of surprises — mostly regarding on-screen talent.
What you likely haven’t heard about are the nods for behind-the-camera talent — including Ben Semanoff, who garnered his first Emmy nomination for directing “Su Casa Es Mi Casa,” the game-changing Season 3 episode of “Ozark” in which Marty and Wendy Byrd (Jason Bateman, Laura Linney) angrily confront each other about their teetering marriage (with ugly ramifications).
“I was close to not submitting the episode [for Emmy consideration],” says Semanoff, 41. “A day or two before it was due, I turned to my wife and said, ‘Should I submit it? Is this a waste of $250?’
“About a week before the nominations came out, I caught wind of a bunch of panels happening around ‘Ozark,’” he says. “I Googled my name and one of the first things that came up was a thread on [awards site] Gold Derby. I thought, ‘Why did my name come up?’
“One of the staffers predicted I was going to get nominated.”
Remarkably, “Su Casa Es Mi Casa” was only Semanoff’s second time in the director’s chair after spending 20 years as a highly regarded, award-winning chief cameraman (A-Camera operator) on projects including “Creed,” “Collateral Beauty,” “The Leftovers,” “The Night Of,” “Billions,” “The Upside” and “The Affair.”
“I had been looking for opportunities to direct for a couple of years prior to ‘Ozark,’” he says. “I did a movie that Jason Bateman directed called ‘The Family Fang’ and we hit it off. He started telling me about ‘Ozark’ … and called me when it was greenlit and they were going to be [shooting] in Atlanta.” Semanoff initially passed on the offer to join “Ozark” because he wanted to stay close to home (Bucks County, Pa.) with his wife and two small children.
“He was very gracious and e-mailed me about two months into the first season and said, ‘I know you’re probably going to pass again, but you were my first choice [as lead cameraman] — do you want to come down and join us?’,” Semanoff says. “The guy they’d hired to operate the camera was getting an opportunity to direct on another show … so this was the perfect springboard.”
His big break came when Bateman, who’s also an “Ozark” executive producer, offered Semanoff the chance to direct the penultimate Season 2 episode, “The Badger,” in which Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) poisons her husband, Jacob (Peter Mullan), who collapses and dies as they stroll in the woods.
Semanoff says that Bateman gave him 24 hours to decide if he wanted to direct “Su Casa Es Mi Casa” — and, once he agreed, he took a few weeks off to prepare for the job.
“I wanted it to look like a rollercoaster ride, with spikes and falls in the right places,” he says. “Through planning, I felt there were a lot of opportunities for the camera to be quiet, to allow the drama to present itself in an interesting way. There’s a real art to the single take and I would wager that I’m pretty good at it.”
He credits Bateman for making him feel comfortable in the director’s chair.
“We have similar sensibilities,” he says. “I pitched him some crazy stuff when he was directing a few episodes. What’s amazing is that Jason creates an environment … much more akin to [shooting] a feature film. He empowers directors to try different things and have fun and be creative. Some directors who come to the show don’t do that, but I ran with it.
“Jason has the pull to change anything if he wants to,” he says. “I learned quickly that if I was planning something with him, to discuss it with him ahead of time or else it was wasted work.
“We’ve been five feet away from each other for years doing this dance, with me moving the camera and giving him notes on blocking,” he says, “so we’re very comfortable.”