Homecoming Interview: Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez on Charting Janelle Monae's Season 2 Journey

The second season of the Amazon Studios series Homecoming is about to enter uncharted territory. While the podcast focused on Heidi Bergman's efforts to locate Walter Cruz, while also teasing the ultimate machinations of the shady corporation known as Geist, the first season of the series concluded that narrative and allowed star Julia Roberts to exit. Now the story takes another twist to follow the exploits of Janelle Monae's Jacqueline, a former military woman who awakens adrift a lake on a rowboat with no recollection of how she got there or even who she is. And from there, the show leaves Season 1 behind and forges its own path forward.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez picks up the reins from Sam Esmail, the mastermind behind the hit series Mr. Robot. Esmail already established visual language in his time making Homecoming, directing 10 episodes at around 30-minute lengths that made use of tricks such as split screen, wide overheads, and limited aspect ratios. All these visual devices helped establish a sense of mystery, dread, and anxiety that further fueled the narrative.

Alvarez took some of those tools and stripped many of them away, relying less on gimmicks and more on composition and framing to establish the same effect, all while charting Monae's Jacqueline on a journey that takes her straight into the heart of Geist.

ComicBook.com spoke with Alvarez to discuss the unique challenge of taking Homecoming into uncharted territory, working with the stellar cast, and establishing his own take on the popular story.

ComicBook.com: Having watched, being a fan of the podcast, and then seeing how they adapted it for the first season, and then seeing where you took it with the second season, it seems like there was almost a roadmap in place. And then Sam [Esmail], when he did all the first season, he provided a visual language that defined the first season. How did you approach your own version of that language for Homecoming Season 2, and what influences did you like using most, and what influences did you like to bring to it for this whole new season?

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Yeah. When I saw Season 1, you have that feeling like you were watching, I felt like I was watching something that was made for my tastes, it was referencing all the great filmmakers I love, the obvious ones, but obviously [Alan J.] Pakula and a few others in referencing an era of filmmaking that I had a particular affinity for. So in a lot of ways coming into the show, it was about figuring out how Sam utilized those and figuring out what of those conceptual ideas he brought to it should hold over, what new ones should be brought in, and which ones just wouldn't be relevant to this season's story. So it was about really delicately making decisions, like aspect ratio changes in season one, and making sure that we wouldn't do that again this season if it wasn't narratively driven, and it wasn't.

So I didn't want to ... If I just forced it in or shoehorned it in, you're saying, "Oh, Homecoming is now a show that does this every season," and you trivialize what was otherwise a really smart and creative decision. So for me it was about looking at that and then looking at the things we would keep, the formal things we'd keep, whether it's with music to always, they would earn sound effects, they would do this thing where it would escalate, escalate, and then do a hard cut-out to silence. So we used that a few times. Obviously, lots of overhead shots. But it was really more about trying to approach it on a philosophical level of basically you picking your moment, choosing when the camera is going to do something wild or unexpected or interesting, and making sure that those are driven by the story and the plot. And I think maybe I generally by nature take a slightly more conservative approach to framing than Sam does, but definitely did my best to harness that and reference season one, and make sure we are continuing the tradition of the show.

Yeah. I noticed the lack, well not the lack, but the absence of the aspect ratio change, but you still employed some of those tools of the split screen and showing simultaneous action between two characters, and that was jus ... And the way you used it, I thought was really strong because it reminds you that this tool is there. Because the show is about different people, different perspectives, and different memories, and so the way that you did that was pretty interesting, especially in regards to Janelle Monáe's character. What was it like directing her, especially considering she was two different characters in the season, basically?

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Yeah. I always was thinking, or thinking about Vertigo is my favorite or second favorite movie ever made, and they used to always be like "Kim Novak in two amazing roles." But of course, she wasn't really in two amazing roles. It was one role, but two different identities in a way. And so I thought of that a lot, and working with Janelle was great for a show that's incredibly technical in terms of we have very little time to try to pull off something very ambitious. What was great was you could always approach her, you could always approach her with the technical, right? She's a performer, she's done choreography, she's done everything you can imagine. And so what was great was you could utilize that and approach a scene, explaining the aesthetics to her first, which is not my normal speed.

Normally, you try to keep actors based in character, and of course we would do that too, but I could also describe the shot or describe the feeling we were going for in a more authentic way, and she would completely understand it and sort of love that. She had the same, such an appreciation for Season 1 for a lot of the same reasons I did, so I think we immediately sort of, it just created a shorthand between us. And she would just work really hard to get some of these complex shots working right.

And the Geist building itself was just, it felt like its own character. I was so disoriented when you first go into it, and when we follow Hong Chau's Audrey Temple taking Colin's parking spot and going in, and then going up those stairs to the greenhouse right in Leonard Geist's farm. So was that a set that you guys built, or did you guys kind of have to carefully plan when you found these locations in scouting?

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: The atrium location is actually an old Toyota headquarters. In season one when they shot there where the spiral staircases are, the big ones, that location, when they shot there in season one, I believe they were the first major thing to ever shoot there. Of course, now everyone's seen season one, and they go, "Where's that building?" So now, I think Space Jam was shooting there right before us, and McMillions was shooting there and all this stuff. So you have to go in there, and Sam shot it so beautifully the atrium section, and then I'll get into the offices. Up there that this year we were filling, of course, nearly every scene in there is filled with a 500 extras, so it was about re-conceiving the frames you can build in that place, trying not to mimic any of the great shots from season one, but remind people of the geography and the space of it because it was going to be a lot more important to understand that space this season.

So one of the first decisions we made when I started, when I got on board, was okay, in season one you see Hong at her desk, that little reception desk in front of Redwood. We never see behind it. If you look really closely, it's not 100% continuous, and even the vibe of Geist we decided to shift a little bit. Season one, it's all people in suits, and it was supposed to be a little more mysterious. And this season, we understand what kind of company they are a bit more, which was something a little bit more representing a tech company, like lots of young people, lots of attractive people dressed well, a little bit more of a trendy, cool place to work.

So the production designer, Nora [Takacs Ekberg], and I started talking about "Well, what would be right behind her desk? How would that whole world work?" And she really came in with, right away came in, she's just brilliant, came in with an image of that floating spiral staircase. And I was like, "I don't think we can ... Can we make this?" Because that whole thing is a set up there. And she was like, "We can," and they brought in special craftsmen to pour the concrete and then had a thing that would hold the stairs up that we'd take away only when people walked up in it. It was a really beautiful centerpiece. So then we were rebuilding, re-staging scenes to make sure to always take advantage of it.

And I think I had mentioned, we were talking about style and taste, and I'd mentioned that beautiful meeting room at the beginning of Inception when they're, it sort of plays out a little bit like a Japanese temple, and there's really incredible low-hanging lights. So I was just being like, "I just want some texture on the ceiling," and she came up with that cool wood paneling up there that was made by hand. Anyway, I'm getting super specific, but people were assembling those, one by one, and the sets were made with a lot of care and love. And then it was just a joy to shoot in them because they look so beautiful.

Did you work with the writers, with [Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horrowitz], on the narrative flow of this season, or did they have all the scripts in place before you signed on? Because it was just interesting that the way the first season bounces back and forth, whereas this one, you just orient everyone and then take us back. We basically start at the end, and then you take us back and show us how we get there. And I was just wondering what went into that decision, and how difficult it was to hook people into, to tell a story in that order.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: When I got onboard, most of the scripts were written. I think the last two were still going through some changes, but really I got to give them the credit that devising this puzzle structure that when I came in, I just said, "Look, we've got to start thinking about this a little bit like a time travel movie, right?" So in a time travel movie, you see someone go and mess something up, and then when they come back to their time, you see how that messed things up. So we were sort of doing the reverse of that where by the time you hit episode three ... We knew that in those first two episodes, we had to make it as dense as we could with little Easter eggs and little details, so that when you go back and when you then continue the season, or if you rewatch it, all those details fall into place.

Anything from the big ones, like the melon on the bed. "Okay. What's that mean?" to the small ones, which is, "Well, how does she get in that window so easily in episode two when she sneaks into Temple's house?" So it was trying to plant as many of those little continuity things as we could, which makes it incredibly confusing. In fact, sometimes you're like, "Wait, has she open this door yet or not?" Or "How did she get the key to this room?" You try to hold the feet to the fire in a way and make sure all the details stay true. But really, they've done that hard work of the logic of, "Okay, does this all make sense?" And that really is really, really, really ... I have a lot of admiration for them because it's really easy to come up with a mystery, but insanely difficult to give that mystery a sensible resolution. I thought they did that in season one really well, and I think on the writing level they pulled it off again in season two.

What was your favorite scene, second season, that you've got to make?

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Oh, man. Probably the end of episode ... There's a few, but I think the sequence I was most excited about, or the most invested in myself, was the end of episode two when Janelle and Hong see each other from across the crowd as the balloons are falling, and we go into split screen. Because I remember in my first pitch, I said, "Look, I think this season ..." Split screen was used in a very utilitarian way in season one. It was, "Hey, we're going to be ..." It's an immense amount of phone calls in season one, but it never weighs on you because the split screen is always keeping you engaged on both sides of it. So here it was like, "Okay, we only have two phone calls this season, maybe three. So how else can we utilize split-screen as a narrative device?"

And so for me, when I came in, I said, "Well, look. Episode two is all about her tracking this woman. She has no idea who she is, and tracking her and tracking her, and it's this labyrinthine thing going around this building. And we need to make this the biggest, De Palma, over-the-top kind of meeting we can, because obviously it leads to a bit of a twisty moment. And so for me, that's one of those rare moments where everything you conceive of, it ends up working and clicking.

Usually, filmmaking is about unexpected surprises, both good and bad ways, and that's one of those scenes that just ... It worked. It was how we storyboarded it, it was the score fit in how we imagined it. It all clicked into place, and so I watch it, and it feels very planned and fulfilling to me because I'm like, "Oh, that worked." So I'd say I'm the most proud of that. It was just technically really difficult having that incredible amount of extras, only being able to afford to drop those balloons a couple of times. There was a lot of pressure on how we're going to pull that off.

Now, I have to ask you this just because it was one of my favorite shows before it was canceled way too soon, but you worked on some of my favorite episodes of Counterpart. And I was just wondering what was your experience working on that, and how was it to go for, to immerse yourself in that world, especially because the complexities and the sci-fi of the espionage aspect of it, I thought it was amazing. And especially those two that you did, I really enjoyed how you brought us back into this bigger world now that we've experienced what we did in season one. So can you speak a little bit about that?

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Yeah. I loved working on that show. [Counterpart creator Justin Marks] trusted me a lot because I'd been working in television, but in teen dramas and TV. And so me, I was saying, "Hey, look. I really want to do genre. I really want to do international production." I'd never shot outside the US, and I'd never even seen a squib or an explosion go off on set. So for me, I love the show, but I could also say, "Hey, these are these technical challenges I want to get a chance to experience." And it was incredible. It was a very long chunk of time. I was on that show for five months for those two episodes, because you're going back and forth between Berlin and the US. You do Berlin without [JK Simmons], then you do Berlin with JK. It's a very complicated structure.

And then you creatively have this really complex show. Justin had such a grasp on it, and it's become so relevant, right? That's the shame of it having been canceled. Beyond it just being a good show is we're basically, I think Justin even tweeted to say that "We're living season three right now in terms of what it's like to respond." So what's fascinating is we have this book of rules about how the other side worked, this other side that had been ravaged by a flu that had killed a lot of people. And so there's these rules that never are talked about on the show, but we always would follow, and it created subtle differences between worlds.

So it was simple as well, people don't shake hands when they meet each other. Also, the flu happened in the '90s, or maybe it was late '80s, it happened before touchscreens were invented. And why in God's name would anyone invent a touchscreen after what happened? So there's no touchscreens in that world. It was that the way that Justin would create that butterfly effect of things in really subtle ways was fascinating and also terribly relevant to today. He even posted a scene that got the lead in front of my episodes where two people walk through a temperature thermometer thing before getting on a subway, and they have to get separated because one of them has a hotter temperature than the other.

And I remember at the time not fully understanding the subtleties of it and having to ask a lot of questions of like, "Well, okay, explain to me why?" And now it would seem commonplace because we're living it. But I was really grateful for it. I would not have been able to approach the scope of Homecoming with the confidence I was able to without having been able to do Counterpart, because it was just working on a bigger machine like that for the first time. And it certainly had a lot of stuff I was able to bring over into understanding how to do Homecoming.

If things return to a sense of normalcy in the immediate future, what are you looking forward to working on next? Are there any projects you can talk about at this point right now?

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: Nothing specific. I've optioned a book, this great book called Stephen Florida I'm trying to turn into a movie now, or I'm trying to turn into a script. And so I'm working on that, but looking at a few TV things and also trying to look ahead at knowing that we're looking at a couple of years of production being different, in some ways maybe even healthier. But knowing that, for example, this is Homecoming season two, which we had two weeks of 500 extras, right? That's probably not going to happen anytime soon, so I'm trying to see it as a positive and kind of put my head a little bit back in the indie roots and just be like, "Okay, what are the kinds of stories that might be able to be told more responsibly in the coming years?"

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And so I'm sort of re-shifting a little bit. After Homecoming, I was like, "Well, maybe I'll get to do bigger and bigger things after this, and I've shown I can handle bigger budgets and all of that." But now, I'm trying just rethinking that and not taking that for granted, and just saying, "Hey, maybe if the limitations give birth to an era of modest family dramas, I'd be just as happy." So I'm trying to re-shift my thinking in the past couple of weeks, and can hopefully be making something, whether it's TV or film. I love both experiences, and I really love just doing every episode of this season. So I hope that's something that I can continue again, especially if it's in the 30-minute space. It's a lot more manageable for one director to do that much content than 10 one-hour episodes. It seems maybe a little self-destructive.

Homecoming Season 2 is now airing on Amazon Prime Video.

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