Beef is a rare show where the rewatch punches just as hard as the first viewing, which is really saying something given that finale. The writing is tight, and the directing pitched perfectly to deliver each twist and turn. We spoke with Jake Schreier, executive producer and director of six of the series’ ten episodes, about nemeses and the intricacies of artistic translation.
“Sonny (creator Lee Sung Jin) and the whole incredible team of writers write these beautifully specific scripts. There’s a lot of drive and propulsive-ness hidden under observed character moments,” he explains. “Even if it isn’t always obvious, or it isn’t external stakes, they are always really tightly wound and driving towards something. And I think as a director, that’s all you can ask for.”
Such intricate writing requires equally intricate filmmaking, a tall order especially when many series tend to be shot out of sequence, as Beef was.
“We shot it like one long movie, while trying to keep track of those things, and making sure that the filmmaking supported those rises and falls,” says Schreier. “Getting that stuff right and being really specific about character perspective and when to be grounded…and making sure that was actually enforced across an entire season as opposed to just responding to the moment, I think that was probably the biggest challenge, but also the thing that was the greatest opportunity.”
As the characters in the show develop, the way they’re filmed shifts to capture changes in perspective and evolving relationships.
Schreier gives an example: “The beginning, you’re very much with Danny (Steven Yeun), you’re very much with Amy (Ali Wong). There’s a moment in episode two, where Young [Mazino] and Steven are having a conversation in the bathroom…and he walks away. And that moment is the very first time that the camera walks back with Young, with Paul’s character. And it’s the very first time that Paul becomes a perspective character in the piece. From then out, the camera’s allowed to follow him a little bit more.”
The team also took a nontraditional approach to shooting conversation.
“Traditionally you balance the cameras, like you’ll even measure it sometimes, what the focal distance is on one side of conversation, and then you match that in the reverse. And that makes for the most seamless editing. But we would do a lot of unbalanced coverages where the camera’s always closer to Amy, or Danny within a scene…you could decide, actually, this is Paul’s scene, and you can balance it that way.”
This attention to detail reflects the layered nature of the script. As Schreier notes, “The scene almost doesn’t work unless one character in the scene is lying, sometimes to themselves, not necessarily to the other person. To do that, you have to pick your moments to be close to those characters and see that…so much of what’s happening is in between the lines. The moments you’re looking for are the interior decisions that they’re making about what to say and how to play it. That necessitates a different perspective on how to shoot a scene than you might traditionally think.”
Beef has been categorized as a black comedy and psychological drama, and certainly delves into darker aspects of the human psyche, but ultimately surfaces as an optimistic commentary. Schreier takes care to make this clear when I ask him about the tragic nature of parts of the season.
“That’s so funny. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, I guess because I knew where it was going,” he begins. “Sonny is not, in the end, a cynical writer, and he’s not a cynical artist. He really does believe in the sense of connection and love and beauty…Knowing what episode ten is, what you’re really looking for is those moments of heart in between. Because in the end, that’s how the show is going to survive.”
Schreier’s resume includes extensive music video direction, another exercise in the artistic translation and direction that contributed to Beef’s runaway success.
“As a fan, when I watch a music video…I want to feel like it was [the band] presenting that to me,” he explains. “I think my job in that world is to form these connections and almost cinematically translate their ideas and make something that feels like they made it, for their fans…So in a situation like Beef where the show is so personal to so many people involved with it, and if you’re directing a scene in a Korean church, which I have zero personal historical connection to, you have to leave that room and you have to trust the people you’re collaborating with and hope that they bring enough of themselves to it.”
As we close, I indulge in one last question about the conflict between Amy and Danny.
“I have a theory that everyone meets at least one nemesis in their life,” I begin. “That nemesis could be a person or a concept. It could be a rival, but it’s also ‘an inescapable agent of someone’s downfall.’ Do you think that Amy and Danny could be considered nemeses in some way?”
“You’re gonna get me in so much trouble with this question, because I can only picture Sonny watching my answer and being like, that’s not what I would have said,” chuckles Schreier. He ponders.
“In the end, it is about this very important connection that I think the show suggests they needed…I guess to me, on an external level, you could argue that they are the agents of each other’s downfalls from a traditional societal perspective, but my sense (and he can correct me if he wants) is that what Sonny is going after is the idea that they needed this in some way. There’s something very essential about where they end up.”
He takes us to the perspective of the car chase in the season’s penultimate episode.
“We talked about wanting to do that chase in a different way, where we finally had a high angle,” he recalls. “There’s this idea that these two people are locked in a cycle, and if something doesn’t break, they will go on in the cycle forever…And this will never end if something doesn’t break. If that’s true, then it’s not a tragedy for them to have met.”
Beef is now streaming on Netflix.