Naomi Rapace plays Swedish astronaut Jo in Apple TV+'s Constellation

Apple TV+

On the set of Constellation with director Michelle MacLaren

Apple TV+

Behind the scenes with Michelle MacLaren

Apple TV+
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March 05, 2024
Online Originals

How Game of Thrones Prepped Director Michelle MacLaren for Constellation

The Emmy winner reveals how her time in Westeros proved vital for her first space-set show.

While Breaking Bad is a significant title on Emmy-winner Michelle MacLaren's resume, it's only one of many landmark series that showcases the director-producer's versatility.

With two Emmy nominations for directing episodes of Breaking Bad — Season 3's "One Minute" and Season 5's "Gliding All Over" — as well as two Emmy wins for producing on Vince Gilligan's hit AMC series, MacLaren firmly established herself as one of television's most talented visualists. She has lent her unique approach to storytelling to such shows as Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, Modern Family and Game of Thrones. Her newest project, Constellation for Apple TV, offers somewhat of a departure for the director as it takes her into space for the first time.

Created by Peter Harness, MacLaren directed the first two episodes of the sci-fi drama, which stars Naomi Rapace as Jo, a Swedish astronaut who survives a disaster at the International Space Station. When Jo returns to Earth, she discovers that key pieces of her life are missing — so she must get them back and expose who took them and why they were taken. Constellation, which kicked off on February 21, also stars Breaking Bad alumni Jonathan Banks and James D'Arcy. The Television Academy recently chatted with MacLaren, where she revealed what drew her to this latest project and what it's like going from more grounded storytelling to sci-fi thriller territory.

Television Academy: What compelled you to work on Constellation?

Michelle MacLaren: I read the first two scripts, and I loved the mother-daughter relationship. The scene when they reunited in the desert, I thought, "I want to shoot that scene." I loved the dynamic of this woman who is an astronaut; she does an extreme job, but first and foremost, she's a mom. I love how Peter set it up that we first meet her on the ISS, and she's talking to her daughter on the iPad about brushing her teeth. It's something I ask my daughter about every morning, so it was very relatable — but also edge-of-your-seat exciting. I love that we got to mix a lot of different genres, and I'd never done zero gravity. It had such epic cinematic potential, but first and foremost, I connected to the characters. I just had to say yes.

Interesting you mention the different genre aspect of the show, because it's hard to describe just exactly what the show is.

I embrace that. You should be wondering what's going on, you should be confused by it, hopefully, in a way that's compelling and [that] pulls you in. You should be wondering, "Is this happening, or is [Jo] losing her mind?" I never like to pigeonhole something. I like to find out, hopefully, the best way to tell the story in this particular moment. So you lean into the family drama, you lean into the horror and the fear when it's scary. When she's stuck alone on the ISS, up there all by herself, and she hears strange noises — you're putting yourself into a horror film. Of course, there's a sci-fi element because we're in space, and something [unusual] is happening. Or is it? So, I felt like — let's lean into the different genres. We want the audience to be a participant in trying to figure this out with her.

You mentioned having never done zero gravity before, and I'm wondering if part of the appeal here was how many new toys you got to play with — like helicopters, tanks and spacecraft?

That is true. (Laughs) First of all, I have to say that Apple TV+ and Turbine Studios and Haute et Court, when they brought this project to me, I said: "You guys, this has got to be epic and cinematic and big. We need scope, and we need to go to these extreme places." They said yes, which was awesome. We were planning to go to Kazakhstan, and for obvious reasons — what with world politics — we couldn't do that. But I had shot Game of Thrones in Morocco. I looked at the pictures of Kazakhstan and I said, "I think I know where to go." We went to the Arctic in February [2023] to shoot the cabin scene. We built the ISS, an exact replica, with breakaway pieces for filming. We built the Soyuz, and we had a massive, massive CGI department — led by Doug Larmour, our amazing visual effects supervisor.

As a filmmaker, is there a part of you who looks at something like this and sees it as a way to add to your already considerable skill set and experience?

Game of Thrones had huge visual effects. Huge, massive visual effects that people may not know that we were doing, and thank goodness I had done that, because it really helped me understand working on this. I learned so much on [Constellation]. Doing Zero-G is one of the reasons I wanted to do it, because it is something I hadn't done, and it was extremely challenging to me. I actually did an interview a few years ago, and somebody said, 'What do you want to do next?" And I jokingly replied, "Well, I''ve never done space." But I also love scope. I love being in the desert with helicopters and trucks zooming, a 360-degree shot ...

Right. The toys.

I love the toys (laughs)! We used a drone that we weren't even allowed to photograph because it was so top secret. This drone could act as a dolly, as a crane — it could do everything — and it was game-changing for me. I mean, it's fun to play with new toys, but as I learned on Breaking Bad, we would ask ourselves, "Okay, is this shot moving the story forward? Or is it just a cool shot?" And if it's just a cool shot, it shouldn't be in there. If it takes you out of the moment and makes you go, "Oh, hey, cool shot," then it doesn't work.

Since you mentioned Breaking Bad, you directed more episodes than anyone else on that show, including creator Vince Gilligan. Is there any particular episode that stands out for you?

They're all my children. I can't choose. I loved the whole experience. But there is something that happened to me when I made "One Minute" that was a game-changer for me as a director. It was early days. I got this script that Tom Schnauz had written, and it was so good. I thought to myself, "My gosh, I get to direct this. Don't screw it up." Then I thought, "Get out of your comfort zone. Push yourself. Go beyond what you think is comfortable and ride that line. Risk falling over the other side." And I did. And when we cut it together, I thought, "Oh, man, we've gone too far. The people are going to call us out on this." Never in a million years did I think what happened was going to happen. So that episode really made a huge difference for me.

Constellation is now streaming on Apple TV+.

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