Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith has been on Paste’s radar since her indie feature debut The Midnight Swim in 2014. She took a big leap forward in visibility with her second feature, 2016’s Buster’s Mal Heart, which starred (now Oscar-winner) Rami Malek. This month, she’s the director of the first two episodes of Hanna, Amazon Prime’s new TV series adaptation of the beloved film. It’s spectacular, and likely to be one of the best debuts of of 2019. Smith joined us to talk about how she got the job and the differences between making indie films and making major television shows. [Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
Paste: I’ve seen the first three episodes of Hanna and I’m absolutely, absolutely in. I’m really so impressed with what you’ve done there. I guess let’s just start with talking about how this project got started. Did Amazon pitch you, did you pitch Amazon, what’s the story?
Smith: Well, my involvement kind of started in the traditional way, in that my agents called me and said—you know, they had been calling me with different projects and then they said, “They’re making Hanna into a TV series, would you be interested?” and I think I just wrote back, “Fuck yes.” Like, I definitely would be interested! So I went in to meet with them and my agents had sort of warned me like, “Look. It’s probably a long shot. It’s really competitive. They’re gonna want someone with pilot experience.” At that point, I had directed some episodes of TV, but no pilot. But I kinda I went in guns blazing because I was really excited about the pilot script—
Paste: There’s a shocker, that you went in with a lot of confidence! [Laughs]
Smith: Every once in a while you get a script and you read it and you get this weird gut feeling like, “This one’s for me.” And I felt that. So I went in and I kinda felt like I nailed that meeting. I felt like I got it. Then, the next day or later that day, my agent called to say, “Well, they loved you, but, you know, they really feel like they have to have someone with pilot experience for a show that has crazy epic scale, so they want to offer you a couple of episodes, but maybe not the pilot.” And so I did something a little bold where I was like, “You know what? Tell them no. Tell them I’m the one who is supposed to be doing this and they’re making a huge mistake and here’s why.”
Smith:Yeah, just kind of really spelled it out. Eventually, I ended up going in for maybe three or four more meetings after that and it was a very rigorous process, but David Farr and I just really connected, I think, on a very deep level about this character and this story and really what the heart of it was. I think we kinda just got on the same wavelength right away and that was probably the reason I ended up getting the job.
Paste: That is incredible. I love the ballsiness of that and, once again, I’m not at all surprised that you’d make a ballsy move. That’s you’re middle name.
Smith: I don’t know. You know, like, life is really short.
Smith: It’s interesting because I think Esme Creed Miles and I had a similar experience in terms of how we got the job. She, too, had to fight every step of the way to get this gig and—she is Hanna in her bones, you know, this was meant for her.
Paste: Well, she’s certainly incredible in the first three episodes. Especially, oh my God, especially in the end of that second episode. I’ve loved everything I’ve watched. I’m not downplaying the first episode. I’m not downplaying the third episode. But the end of that second episode was such a cathartic—oh my God, it was beautiful! [Laughs]
Smith: Wasn’t it? Yeah! Because she’s kind of learning morality for the first time, too, right? Like, in the woods, death is a part—death is a very real thing for her. She kills to eat all the time, so she’s been trained with these kind of killer instincts. And [then] she meets Sophie, who… all of that kind of violence is very foreign to Sophie. So at the end of episode two, when Sophie is seeing her about to execute this guy, it hits Hanna right in the heart. She’s almost seeing herself through Sophie’s eyes in that moment.
Paste: Through Sophie’s eyes, that’s exactly what I was gonna say!
Smith: Feeling like a monster! She all of a sudden feels like, “Oh my gosh, maybe I’m a monster.” So, I agree. I think it’s a really beautiful leaping-off point for the rest of the series. One of the things that I think makes this series so fun to watch is that, in a lot of ways, it’s like a traditional coming-of-age story, right? It’s a girl trying to figure out who she is and rebelling against her father and trying to fully come into her own, into her agency and having control of her life. But she’s being hunted at the same time. So it’s set within this really gripping thriller. I think that one of the things that makes it so addictive is that you get the best of both. And then there’s moments where it’s really funny, too. It’s such a joy getting to direct one and two because they’re such different episodes. One is this more patient, quiet, but deeply rooted in nature, Call of the Wild-type episode that’s almost like this beautiful prologue. But in episode two, she’s bursting into the world. We start with meeting Sophie, who’s literally, you know, barfing rainbows in her Snapchat. And Hanna, walking through the Moroccan market and encountering all the sights and smells and sounds of humanity. It’s just a wonderful contrast and I think one of the things that makes this series fun is that because it’s also a pan-European thriller and we’re going through so many different countries, each episode has its own feel. And it all works because we’re always with Hanna and seeing through her eyes.
Paste: So, going back to the timeline. How long between you telling the agents tell them no, and then coming back to you saying, “OK, let’s have another meeting.”
Smith: So, the real story is that I thought I had made this, like, really grand power move, you know? And then of course it was like… radio silence for at least a couple weeks. Like, OK, I guess that didn’t work. Never mind.
Honestly, they probably kept looking for people with more pilot experience in the meantime, and I had also been getting offers for other pilots. As sometimes happens in this business, when they realized that somebody else might be willing to take that gamble, that increased their confidence in taking the gamble.
Paste: Sure. And then when you finally were officially aboard, where were they in the casting process? Had they not cast anything yet and you had a hand in all of that?
Smith: Nothing! One of the most beautiful things about a European television show is they really believe the director is the filmmaker, and that’s really empowering in TV. To the point that they hadn’t cast anyone, hadn’t hired any crew, like, I really got to shape this thing from the ground up. I was really given that trust by David and the producers. David said to me early on, “I trust you completely. I’ll take care of the what, you take care of the how.” And in my episodes he only came to set once, you know? For a little bit. He really believed in what I was doing and let me do it, and it was incredibly refreshing.
Paste: So then, do you know Veena Sud? Did you just say, “I’m just gonna steal your actors”?
Smith: [Laughs] I’m such a fan of The Killing. I mean, I’ve been studying The Killing. And actually, Mireille came on first; she was my top choice for Marissa and everybody was really excited about her. So as we were thinking about who to pair her with, of course we couldn’t help but think, “Oh my gosh, Joel Kinnaman and Mireille Enos reunion!” It’s such a fun way to do it because, you know, in The Killing, they’re buddies, and in this series they’re hardened adversaries. What’s really interesting is they’re really kind of circling each other. David is such a smart writer and he’s so great at thrillers and he really likes that cat-and-mouse type structure and I think he’s holding on to that tension for as long as possible.
Paste: You know, the received wisdom I guess is that in a series it’s great to be able to stretch out and lean into these characters and do long arcs with them and that kind of thing. What differences have you seen that are either positive or negative, or neither, with telling this long story rather than an hour and a half story?
Smith: This was on a TV schedule and a TV budget, so there’s limitations in that regard, but I come from a scrappy, indie film background. Buster’s Mal Heart was made in 18 days. My first movie was made, I think, in 12 days. So I think I’m very used to, sort of, filmmaking on the fly and doing the best you can with limited resources. I always set out from the very beginning—and, to all the producers credit, they got onboard with me—to say, “We’re making a film here. Let’s make this like a film.” And in this wonderful new world of TV, there’s no reason why you can’t do that. If you can join everybody in your cause, that’s totally achievable.
Paste: In those three episodes you certainly achieved that. It definitely feels like—I mean, you know, as the way that many of us watch movies is changing, that’s also blurring the lines between the two, right? You know, I’ve only seen two of the Mission: Impossible movies—
Smith: And those were episodic, right?
Smith: I mean, movies and films are becoming episodic!
Paste: Exactly! I mean, I’ve already decided that when the next one comes out, I’m going to sit down with my son and watch all the ones up until the new one. So obviously we’re not going to the theaters to see those. We’re going to be watching them on our TV screen. Hanna doesn’t feel that different from going back and watching the six, or however many there are, Mission: Impossible movies. There’s not a real substantial difference, in my experience of them, as a consumer.
Smith: No, that’s right. I mean, I think that the biggest difference is the one that you’ve stated at the outset of your question, which is that it is true that TV series are a bit more like novels. You have more room to take tangents and really explore relationships and character, whereas in movies, you have 90 minutes with a beginning, middle, and end and sort of one grand through line. So, to that end, that’s really—that guided my approach artistically. Joe Wright’s movie is, you know, a masterpiece and I love it so much. It’s a beautiful fairy tale, and I didn’t want to try to recreate that as a series. I wanted to do what TV does best, which is to be beholden to character. And to really serve the relationships. I’d like to try and direct with an invisible hand as much as I can. From my point of view, I think if someone’s noticing my directing too much, then I haven’t done my job right, because then they’re not locked into the story. I just really wanted to focus on performances and have the more grounded, gritty, real version of these characters.
Paste: If you think back to your favorite TV shows, we can all usually choose an episode from the run of the show that we didn’t really like. But then, if you think of your favorite movies—I challenge you to name a scene that didn’t work in the Godfather, it’s impossible. It’s just like in a short story. In a short story, you cannot waste a word. Every word has to be perfect. In a novel, you can make mistakes, and I think it makes you freer, you know? And so, I wonder if that sort of freedom of, Yyeah, let’s take some chances,” is part of what you’re feeling with making a show, or if there’s just as much pressure as making a movie. I don’t know what the diplomatic answer is, but—
Smith: For me, it’s just as much pressure. You know? Because one thing, I think, that does leave room for experiment in the series is that I directed one and two, but then there are three other directors that also brought their vision to this. And because it’s a show that travels across Europe as Hanna travels across Europe, each episode really ends up having its own flavor. So like, episode three, [which] I didn’t direct, is set in Berlin; it really has its own sort of Berlin-like flavor versus episode one that’s so clearly about the woods speaking to us.
Smith: In episode two we’re, you know, in Spain and Morocco, so I think yeah, the diversity of experiences and the different countries we get to see, the scope of the show, I think, is one of the things that’s going to be really fun for audiences to get to watch.
Hanna premieres Friday, March 29 on Amazon Prime Video
Michael Dunaway is a filmmaker, journalist, film festival director, and professor. He is Paste’s Editor at Large and host of the Paste podcast The Work. His latest film is Six LA Love Stories.