ICON SPOTLIGHT on Rachel Goldberg

AWD Icon Members work extensively in feature films, television, commercials, music videos, and/or new media. They have not only shown exceptional skill and/or received substantial acclaim, but are also advocates for AWD’s mission for parity in the entertainment industry.

AWD Icon Member Rachel Goldberg got her start directing theater before earning her MFA in Directing for Theater and Film. She directed several short films and was a participant in numerous labs and fellowships (including AFI DWW, Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative, and those sponsored by Sundance, HBO, Film Independent, and more) before breaking into episodic directing. Rachel has since earned a spot amongst the in-demand television directors, helming episodes for “Mayans,” “A Friend of the Family,” the upcoming “Agatha All Along,” and other incredible shows.

Rachel spoke with AWD about how her theater training informs how she works in television and film, what to keep in mind when submitting to labs, and what she learned while shooting the final episode of “Resident Evil!”

AWD: What pivotal moments or personal inspirations have uniquely shaped your journey into the world of filmmaking?

RG: I discovered theater in middle school, and as an awkward, first-generation, half-Persian, curly-haired oddball who hadn’t yet found my people, it changed my life. Suddenly, I was in a world that made perfect sense and where I fit perfectly. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad, but I was scared to commit to theater as a major because it wasn’t “practical.” One day, a theater professor stopped me in the hallway who had seen my work with the experimental theater club on campus, and stated, matter-of-factly, that I should be a theater major with an emphasis on directing. It meant so much to me that a professor I had never met, had seen something in me, and it gave me the courage to commit.

My work in theater is interdisciplinary, combining puppetry, music, dance, and film, and is highly spectacle based. Post-graduation, a friend suggested I look into film because my work was so visual. I had been studying photography and had dabbled in film, but I wasn’t sure film could touch an audience the same way that theater did. Theater is so visceral and alive –and my work was so strange and experimental. Then I saw one of my favorite David Lynch films on the big screen, and I realized that film can have the same exact impact on an audience as theater. At the time, Calarts offered an MFA in Directing for Theater and Film, and was known as an interdisciplinary, experimental school, so I thought it would be the perfect place to continue pursuing theater while exploring film. When I arrived, I discovered that this particular program was primarily focused on narrative film, and not so much on experimental film or theater. At first, my heart was broken, but then I fell madly in love with film. So, my journey into film was a strange series of events that kept pointing me in that direction, until I finally realized it was exactly where I was supposed to be.

As a participant in many diversity programs, you have exemplified how these initiatives can propel a directing career. What strategies and actions did you take to stand out and leverage these programs to build your success?

I would say it’s not just about standing out, because there are so many incredibly talented and deserving people who apply to these programs. I think the biggest key for me was that I just kept applying, and never took the rejection personally. One of the first programs I was fortunate enough to participate in was AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women.  I applied three times before I was accepted. It is so important to never, ever, take it personally. Just dust yourself off, and try again. There are so many factors that go into a selection process, and so much of it is out of your hands. That being said, there is an art to the application. Always do your homework. See if you know anyone who has done the program in the past and if they can share any insight. Every program is different and each one is looking for a specific kind of applicant. So, the more you can learn about each program, the more you can cater your application for that particular one. I will also say that the personal statement is very important. Chances are there are many people applying with excellent resumes and excellent directing samples. So, your only chance to really stand out is in your personal statement – what makes you, you? Why are you a perfect fit for this particular program? (Be specific!!) What gaps do you have in your background, experience, education that this program can fill? And don’t be scared to show off! Share your accolades and successes while also being clear on what education and opportunities this program will provide that will benefit your growth and career.  

Photo credit Ethan Wilson

Your work often explores gritty, dark, and thought-provoking narratives. What draws you to these themes, and how do you ensure your crew and cast fully embrace and execute them?

Thank you! I think for me, art has always been a way to grapple with my subconscious and to make sense of the world around me. When I was younger, I wasn’t always able to articulate what I was feeling or thinking vocally, but when I would take pen to paper, words would pour out through characters and situations that would help me find peace, express my emotions and answer questions I didn’t even know I was asking. I also danced for 14 years, and dancing was freedom – I could express myself in a way that I couldn’t in other spaces, and I could release anything inside that I needed to let go. So, when I discovered theater and film, it was a chance to understand the human experience. I think all art, in its essence, asks the question, “Why do we do what we do?” There is so much pain and heartbreak around us, but also joy. And I have always wanted to understand, why we as humans, do what we do. 

I started out as an actor before transitioning to directing, and in both art forms we are taught to break down scripts, to analyze character, to look for through lines and character arcs, to understand action and reaction. Every single time I get to tell a story, I have a chance to dig deep and understand a world and the people in it. I love that. So, I am drawn to stories that allow me to explore themes and topics that I find fascinating. And with that comes complex characters in complex situations.  But personally, I also need it to provide an opportunity to create something visually stunning. How can I amplify the story with a powerful and evocative image? How can I add layers and nuance through camera, color, lighting, blocking and composition?  I love to use bodies in space to help tell a story, and generally look for three things, no matter the genre: complex characters, an element of spectacle, and something to say.

In terms of cast and crew, I think most people self-select. From my experience, most cast members and key members of the crew choose a particular film or television project because they love the story, the characters and the worlds. So, chances are, I am already fortunate enough to be working with like-minded people! On most projects I have worked on, we are all there because we love the material and want to tell the best story possible. We might have different ways of trying to achieve that goal, but we are all there for the same reason!

Does your educational background in psychology and theater shape your approach to storytelling and character development?

100%. My background in Theater is where I really learned to break down a script. Later, when I began teaching, I would teach Stanislavski to my directing students – not only in terms of tools and language for working with actors, but also in terms of learning how to break down a script, find beats and tactics, analyze character, motivate arc, and more. Theater also gave me the incredible gift of allowing me the space to really work with actors. When I am directing a play, I get weeks to fully explore character and story, and to dig deep with my actors. We rarely get that time in film and television. Theater is where I was able to practice and hone my directing skills in working with actors. It is one of my favorite things to do. I tell all my students, if they really want to get better at working with actors they should do two things: 1) Take an acting class! You will learn SO much about what works and what doesn’t, and will gain an immense respect for actors and how vulnerable they must make themselves. 2) Direct a play – many plays!!! Because then you have a chance to really explore blocking and performance in a way that will only make you a better film director. And psychology, like theater and film, is about understanding the human mind and why we do what we do. So, my training and experience in the field of psychology, definitely helps me as I am breaking down character and working with actors.

Photo credit Ethan Wilson

What was the most challenging project you worked on, and what did you learn from it?  

Okay, you want me to spill the tea! Sooo, this is in writing and will be archived forever, so I won’t pick an emotionally challenging one, lol 😊 Instead, I can tell you that one of my favorite projects of all time, was also one of the most challenging in terms of craft, RESIDENT EVIL. This show was such a tremendous gift and I loved every minute of it. I had the opportunity to film the season finale which was big and glorious and wonderful, as well as a bottle episode that was essentially in one space between two of the most amazing young actors, Tamara Smart and Siena Agudong, and the legend Lance Reddick who will be forever missed. 

For the bottle episode, I was actually able to rehearse it like a play, and had the actors over to my apartment to really dig in and explore. Later, we were given time on set to discover blocking and find nuance. We had alternating DPs, so the incredibly talented and wonderful DP, Carmen Cabana, was able to join me during rehearsal. This rehearsal process was such a rare gift and allowed us to be super creative in the space, move quickly on the day, and to find a ton of emotional beats and resonance. 

For the finale, I had the opposite challenge – now instead of making a small space come alive, I had to create massive spectacle while honoring the heart and soul of the characters as their world was torn apart.  To add to the challenge, I began some of my prep remotely in the US, with a team in South Africa. There was a huge zombie apocalypse sequence that required we tie 4 different locations together, and I had to commit, remotely, to all the locations because the director before needed them too, and then I had to figure out a way to make it all work. I also had to shoot a huge action sequence on a boat, where two people are finally reunited after a horrific battle. It is an emotional moment that required stunts, wire work, and the unique challenge of hiding 360 degrees of the horizon (I could only shoot up and down, because none of the horizon matched our story). Filming on the boat commenced the moment I arrived in South Africa, after traveling for 3 days, completely jetlagged, without knowing any of the cast or crew, having never set foot on the set before.  But it was GLORIOUS and I had sooo much fun! 

I also had the chance to film a ton of action sequences which built upon my previous skill sets to create something new – massive explosions, rooms on fire, clones played by a single actor, King Kong-size monster attacks, giant helicopter battles, a gazillion zombies, and more and more. I learned so much, not only about how to execute some of this awesomeness, but I also learned a little bit about life/work balance. I am a total workaholic, and rarely take a break, even on the weekends, using all my free time to prep and plan. But Carmen insisted that we were not allowed to talk shop on the weekends, and instead we swam with penguins, climbed mountains, went on safari and had the most incredible time. 

Managing complex scenes, such as action sequences in projects like Cloak & Dagger or Resident Evil, demands precision. How do you approach the unique challenges these scenes present, especially in the limited television schedule?

There are a few different ways that I approach action sequences. I start by compiling a lot of visual references for myself – for instance, in one episode of MAYANS M.C., I had a huge car chase. So, I watched a TON of car chases in film and television shows, identifying what is powerful and what resonates, and seeing if it sparks inspiration. I also make sure to identify the “moments” in the scene/sequence, because it’s not just about the action – it’s about the emotional beats and resonance and stakes for the characters. So, I want to be sure I isolate those moments to tell the story in the best way possible. That way, as I am designing the sequence, I can be sure not to lose the moments of decision, or fear, or suspense, or heightened emotion, and tell those parts of the story in the best way possible. 

Then, once I have an idea of how I want to approach the sequence, I either work with a storyboard artist and/or create a pre-vis (essentially an animated version of the sequence with the help of a VFX artist, or a live-action rough draft with the help of a stunt choreographer) so that you can really see if your ideas are working, streamline, and then break it down into shots. If something is VFX heavy, I’ll collaborate with my VFX supervisor to be sure that what I am imagining is both possible and affordable, and if not, we come up with ways to achieve the same idea for less. If it is stunt heavy, I work with my stunt choreographer to design the sequence. It is always a collaboration. And sometimes, it’s as simple as, “This sequence is IMPOSSIBLE on paper! How can we do this? What are all the options available to us to pull this off?” and then we will brainstorm and come up with ideas before we start boarding or pre-visualizing.  

I also learned, early on, that toy cars are very valuable 😊 When I am designing a car chase, being able to show the moves to my storyboard artist with little toy cars and then show where the camera is and how it moves, helps a lot. But the key, in all of this, is collaboration. The bigger the sequence, the more collaborators you need. For CLOAK & DAGGER, it was a well-oiled machine, and they had already figured out how to make Cloak disappear. So rather than starting from scratch, I used the methods they had already designed. For RESIDENT EVIL, some of the action sequences were so big that we had multiple meetings with SFX (special effects), VFX, stunts, costumes, make-up, prosthetics, props, etc. to be able to pull it off.  It’s not just about designing the sequence, but being sure all the moving parts work together, and that you can actually achieve it on the day, in the time you have. 

How do you balance your roles as a director and writer, and how do these roles complement each other?  

As a director, I have the utmost respect for the script. I know how much time and effort and thought went into creating it, so I really value my collaboration with the writer. I look for nuance and themes and emotional beats and arcs, the same way I try to incorporate them as a writer. I feel like the script is a beautiful blue print with lots of answers hidden in the pages, so my job as a director is to analyze and dig into the script to find all that magic. 

As a writer, even though I know someone, someday, will have to bring these words to life, and therefore I really should make the script as produceable as possible – I am not so great at that. I love to just write as I see it in my head, and tell the story I want to tell, but because of that, a lot of my own work is too expensive to produce. So, I have to really work on that! 

How is the approach different when working with a writer to bring their script to life on screen, as opposed to when you’re directing a project based on your own script?  

The challenge when bringing my own scripts to life is that I have to forget what I first imagined, and just approach it with what is possible given the time and resources we have. It’s always a bit heart-breaking because the final product is never what I originally saw in my head. That being said, I have the distinct advantage of fully understanding these characters and this world, so no matter the time or resources, I can really honor the characters and the choices they make. 

When I am working on someone else’s script, I don’t bring any of those preconceived notions. I get to look at it fresh, and that is really exciting. But I don’t have the insight that the writer has, so a lot of my work, early on, is to break down the script and write up all of my questions.  I want to fully understand the world and the people inhabiting it, so I always have a ton of questions that I like to ask. It’s really important to me that I immerse myself as much as possible so that I can make really strong and motivated directorial choices. 

What do you find most rewarding about directing, and what keeps you passionate about this profession? 

It is incredible getting to create something with a group of talented, like-minded people. To me, it feels like magic. And if you can create something that resonates with an audience, that has something to say, that is incredible! I also love that I get to constantly learn and push myself. Every single project I work on teaches me something new about myself, as well as the human mind, condition or experience, while simultaneously instilling a new skill and challenging me as a director. When I worked on AGATHA, I went down the rabbit hole of witchcraft, and the history of witchcraft; for A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY, I was floored by the Jan Broberg case, and how someone could infiltrate a family and embed themselves so deeply to destroy it from within – I read books, FBI documents, doctor’s notes, interviewed detectives and more; for AMERICAN HORROR STORY, I dove into the world of Valerie Solanas and Andy Warhol – devouring the SCUM manifesto, photographs, art work, and documentaries. Each and every project gives me something new to explore and discover.  And every single project presents a new challenge – how do you film a zombie apocalypse? Motorcycle chases? Objects floating around a room, lightning strikes, tractors being overturned, colossal rain storms, intimate sex scenes, huge fight sequences, direct young actors in emotionally challenging scenes, work with animals, large crowds, a gazillion extras, and more and more. All of these challenges fuel me and make each and every project exhilarating.

Amid the current challenges facing the industry, what creative strategies or practices are you doing to stay inspired and motivated?

I am using this time to read and write and watch as much as I can. When I am on set, I am not able to compartmentalize and write my own work because I am so fully immersed in the current project. So, I am using this time to develop my own work in film and television, read books that I have been dying to read, and to catch up on a ton of shows and feature films. I am also trying to explore as much of the world as possible – visiting friends and family, and taking time for myself to revisit dance and movement. 

Photo credit Ethan Wilson

As an Emeritus Board and Icon Member of the Alliance of Women Directors, how do you advocate for and support women in the directing field?

I think it is incredibly important to give back. I would not have my career if it were not for so many different people who helped me along the way. We all need each other, so I do everything I can to help other people who are trying to break in. To that end, I say yes to almost every single person who reaches out to me – I give advice on applying to fellowships and labs, feedback on scripts and films, try to be a sounding board when people are having a hard time on set, and in general, try to mentor as many people as I can.  

Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations you’re excited about that you’d like to share with AWD?

I’m excited for AGATHA ALL ALONG to drop in September!!! And I am currently working on a feature for Fox’s Tideline Productions called THE BM, about a young woman’s desperate search for a bathroom that gets her inadvertently caught up in a bizarre heist in LA with her best friend. It’s written by FAMILY GUY scribes, Artie Johann and Shawn Ries, and makes me very happy. I am also currently pitching a TV show that I don’t think I can say too much about, as well as two other features.

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