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David Nutter Looks Back on His Best and Worst Episodes: From ‘Thrones to ‘Sopranos’

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He’s been called the “pilot whisperer.”

Across his four-decade career, David Nutter has an extraordinary track record of directing 25 broadcast TV pilots and getting 21 of those picked up to series (including The Mentalist, The Flash, Supernatural and Smallville). Even more impressive is Nutter’s work on premium cable, where he’s helmed some of the finest episodes of television ever made across HBO series such as Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and Band of Brothers.

These days, Nutter is more selective than ever before since his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, which he says has made him better behind the camera.. “When I first got Parkinson’s, I was doing season eight of Game of Thrones and didn’t tell anybody,” says Nutter, who will receive the lifetime achievement award at the 2024 DGA Awards. “What I found was I became more empathetic, more compassionate and caring about people. I might be a little more tired when the day is over, but during the day I move and move.  It doesn’t slow me down and when you love what you’re doing, nothing is going to stop you.”

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Below, the three-time Emmy winner (and seven-time nominee) looks back at some of his seminal work, reveals the one show he would love to direct, and why he won’t work on Thrones spin-offs. 

What’s the best pilot you ever made?

I had just done a feature film called Disturbing Behavior (1998). I had the worst time of my life on it. It was supposed to be a teenage X-Files but they wanted to turn it into something else. Then I was sent a script called Roswell [for The WB]. It was exactly what I wanted to do, and it became the highest-testing pilot in the history of 20th Century Fox Television. I also loved Fox’s Millennium pilot with Chris Carter. 

And the worst?

In 2016, I had Parkinson’s disease before I knew I had Parkinson’s disease, and I was suffering from it a little bit when I directed this [Paranormal Activity-style] drama pilot from Kevin Williamson. It never saw the light of day, and there’s a reason it never saw the light of day.

The second show you directed was 1987’s 21 Jump Street. What was it like directing a young Johnny Depp when you were still new at this?

I got that job on a golf course. I had directed a movie [at film school] called Cease Fire and hired an actor named Don Johnson, who after that became Sonny Crockett [on Miami Vice]. I thought this was now all going to happen for me. But a year-and-a-half later, I couldn’t get a job directing traffic. Then I was playing golf with friends of mind and there happened to be this guy there, Patrick Hasburgh, who had created this new show 21 Jump Street. He was having issues with older directors and wanted to get some young guys.

I got the job and was nervous — Platoon [which featured Depp] had just won the Academy Award for best picture. My first day, I went to meet the actors and Johnny and Peter were talking about lighting each other’s farts on fire. Okay, I can handle this. Johnny was fantastic and appreciated quality material. They were having issues at the time with Johnny keeping his hair in his face. I went to talk to him and explained how this is a very important scene, and he came back with this bandanna keeping his hair back [which became part of his character’s look]. He was a very gracious guy. 

21 Jump Street Courtesy Everett Collection

You directed 15 episodes of The X-Files. Which are you most proud of? 

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” That was a funny episode. 

What’s an episode you improved the most from what you were given on the page? 

Another X-Files episode. The first one I directed, “Ice” [season one, episode eight].   

“Ice” was the first one that hooked me as a viewer, it had a lot of atmosphere to it.

[Creator] Chris Carter said it was the first “real” episode of the show and that he wanted to model the rest of the series after it.  

The X-Files 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection.

You did 10 episodes of Entourage, which was such a huge hit at the time, but now its reputation has really fallen off.  

Entourage was a show I deeply respected — how they shot it and the access they had. I really loved the tone of the show. Of course, in today’s world, well … let’s put it this way: The characters were like this band of brothers that always looked out for each other, and that’s really what hooked the audience and what the show was about. 

On The Sopranos, you did “Join the Club,” which was the episode where Tony (James Gandolfini) was in a coma and dreaming that he was a salesman in Costa Mesa. What do you remember about Gandolfini creating this very different version of his character? 

James Gandolfini was a method actor — beyond method. He lived the life of Tony Soprano, but was also a great guy and funny. I got lucky because I got to direct a version of Tony who sells solar panels or something. But the thing about that episode that really stands out to me is that Edie Falco’s performance was so powerful. 

The Sopranos Barry Wetcher/Courtesy of HBO

What was the toughest scene you ever shot? I suspect I know what show it was. 

The Pit of Daznak [sequence from Thrones season 5]. You have this huge arena full of people. There are gladiator fights. Then there’s a riot. And then a dragon comes in. That was the most difficult. 

Of course, I have to ask about “The Rains of Castamere,” aka the Red Wedding. What’s something about making that episode of Thrones you haven’t told before? 

This was the last episode some of those actors were going to be in the series. There was that moment where Oona Chaplin’s character [Talisa Stark] gets stabbed and Robb [Richard Madden] crawls over to her and he’s crying and dying. He needed a bit more motivation so I started explaining to him how much he loved her and saying all these things. He got so into it, everyone started crying. The hair and makeup ladies behind me were crying. Making that show was just as powerful as the scene because we all cared about it so much, and that’s why the audience grabbed onto it. 

There still hasn’t been an episode of television, I don’t think, that has delivered that big of a traumatic shock to so many viewers at the same time. 

It was the first time I got to see, as a television director, how people reacted to my work [via fans uploading YouTube videos of their friends and family watching].

“We all cared about it so much,” director David Nutter says of Game of Thrones (the Red Wedding scene is pictured here). “And that’s why the audience grabbed onto it.” Courtesy of HBO

You directed three episodes in Thrones final season — including one that’s really well liked, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” People always talk about what the showrunners could have done differently. But is there anything you wish you had done differently?

When I used to direct episodes early on, I’d wake up in the middle of the night saying to myself, “Why did I do it that way?” Then I decided that every day, I’m going to work as hard as I can, and then I’m going to let it go. The scripts [on Thrones] were so great, I really enjoyed it so much. That said, I really enjoyed the fireplace scene [where several characters contemplate the battle to come and Jaime Lannister knights Brienne]. That whole sequence I loved doing. 

Now there’s House of the Dragon, and The Hedge Knight coming, and other spin-off ideas in the works. Would you ever want to direct on those? 

No. It’s like when Warners president Peter Roth wanted me to direct Fringe and I was like, “This is a copy of X-Files.” It would be difficult to do something in that world unless the same people were involved. 

What advice do you most often give to aspiring directors?

Go with your instinct if it feels right. Don’t believe everyone who says they know better and realize that you have to count on yourself. You have to believe yourself and follow through and never let go. That said, I always let the script tell me what to do. A lot of directors have their own style or look or whatever. I sit down with the writer and ask, “What do you mean by this scene? What do you mean by this line? Where do you want to take it?” The more I can get involved with the writing, the better episode it will be. 

What’s a current show you’d like to direct an episode of? 

Fargo. It’s such a creative, fun show. Everything is so different about that series. [Showrunner] Noah Hawley is amazing.

He’s great. Do you know him?

Not at all.

I could see you meshing well with that show. Hopefully he sees this and reaches out if/when he does a season six. So, finally, the hardest lesson you learned?

Not spending enough time with family. Looking back, it was a really tough road — my wife died of pancreatic cancer in 2019. Since then, I’ve tried to make it up to my kids every day as much as I can. 

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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