Daniel Sackheim’s Dark Spaces
Raised in Los Angeles, Emmy Award-winning director and producer Daniel Sackheim began his career as a motion picture editor. While pursuing a directing career he had the opportunity of being mentored by acclaimed filmmakers John Cassavetes and Michael Mann. Sackheim began directing for television in the ’90s but is best known for his more recent work on series “Game of Thrones”, “True Detective” and “Ozark”, for which he received a best director Emmy nomination. Other directorial credits include the new Apple series “Servant”, which was stemmed from an original idea by M. Night Shyamalan, “The First” which starred Sean Penn, “Better Call Saul”, HBO’s “The Leftovers”, “The Walking Dead”, “The Man in the High Castle” as well as “Law & Order” and the cult classic “The X-Files”.
In addition to his work as a director, Daniel Sackheim has produced a number of critically acclaimed series including “The Americans”, Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” and NBC's "Life" which starred Damien Lewis. He most recently produced and completed multiple episodes for the new HBO series “Lovecraft Country”, which just dropped on HBO. Along with his motion picture work, he also has his own body of photographic work that dives into more personal territory allowing Daniel Sackheim to apply his passion for visual storytelling to still photography.
“A camera is like a keyhole through which one can peer into dark spaces in search of a hidden narrative I’ve come to define as the unknown. Using photography, I am endeavouring to shine a light on that narrative, bringing it into sharper relief.”
Inspired by film noir, Sackheim is particularly drawn to the shadowed areas of anonymous cities, encapsulating ambiguous narratives within a single frame, and exploring what he calls the "unknown" within these images. A lot of these photographs speak to Sackheim's personal fears and anxieties about living in a metropolis and in alienation, offering an intimate look into his world even more than his directing and producing.
Here & There Magazine met up with Daniel Sackheim (via Zoom), to talk about everything from TV to his first school crush, film noir and the spark that started it all for him.
Here’s the odd story of it all. I was an engineering student at school. I was really terrible at it - owing to my dreadful math skills. There was a girl in the cinema department who I had a huge crush on. I really didn’t know about film, so I thought it would improve my chances by learning everything I could about movies. I made it a point to see a movie a night and learn everything I could about film directors. But at the end of the day, I never had much luck with the girl. However, I fell in love with movies. That was actually what got me this passion for film editing and telling stories. I think directing is the next evolution from film editing because in short, it’s just one version of how to figure out how to tell stories.
How did you switch to directing and producing?
I started in film editing, really, and then I turned over to producing initially. I worked on “Miami Vice”, that’s where I was a music supervisor. It was on that show that I met Dick Wolf, who was the head writer, he obviously went on to create a number of TV series, including “Law & Order” which is the one he’s the most famous for. I ended up being a producer on the pilot of “Law & Order”. From that point forward, I hired myself to direct “Law & Order” (laugh). After that, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Greg Hoblit, who was at the time a producer and director of “NYPD Blue”. Greg hired me to direct one of the initial episodes of the series, which I was blessed to receive an Emmy nomination for. After that, my career sort of veered in that direction.
How did you start street photography?
The story is a little backward. As a teenager, I picked up a camera with no real direction. And when I got into film, I put the camera down and focused on my career. Then in 2007, there was this writer’s guild of America strike, so film and television production shut down. Initially, I was looking to find a way to fill that creative void that existed in my life because I was unable to work as a director or producer. I experimented with a number of styles of photography: architectural, landscape, environmental, portraiture, but I never really found my voice. I was never able to sort of ‘own it’ on a style that felt uniquely or personally mine. One day, I was invited by a friend of mine, a cinematographer, who was a Leica shooter for many years to an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was certainly aware of his body of work but I wasn’t intimately familiar with it. d I just felt this immediate connection to what he did and that kind of storytelling with stills. The next day I went out and I bought this used Leica rangefinder and 50mm lens because that’s what Henri Cartier-Bresson used. I started this journey of street photography, which evolved over many years, in terms of trying to find something that was very specifically my style or more specific to the idea of creating a certain kind of narrative.
How would you define your photography work? What’s your main inspiration?
I consider myself to be an observational photographer that focuses on finding a distinct point of view. Unlike traditional street photography that is somehow more objective or unbiased in its perspective, I really want to bring a specific point of view to the work. And I think that’s what gives it a more filmic or narrative approach.
In terms of inspiration, I don’t rely on the singular medium of photography. There are a lot of photographers who I’m a huge fan of and whose work I’ve studied. But, I do take a lot of inspiration from films–film noir to be specific. In terms of both the aesthetic as well as the psychological component of it. How the psychology of film noir affects the viewer. I would also say that I’m a big fan of painters like Edward Hopper. Hopper’s work, even though he’s considered to be a realist, out of context has this almost noir-ish quality. If you look at his most famous painting “Nighthawks”, it really captures these emotionally isolated figures in these anonymous spaces. I look at his paintings and then I go out.
“My work occupies a space dominated by shadows. This attraction to the dark and ambiguous stems from my love of film noir and the heightened reality this filmic language personifies. Like noir, my photography aims to access the subconscious, exploring a world of omnipresent solitude and alienation.”
What is your process of creation?
When I have an idea of something that I’m looking to do, an image that’s in my head that I try to capture, I go out scouting for a day or an evening with a cellphone and notebook. I look for a way that light is playing in a certain area, building at that time of day and take snapshots with my cellphone. Then I can return to the location at a later date when I have a better idea of what I’m looking to capture. I just return over and over again at that time of day with my still camera until I’m lucky enough to find something. Sometimes I will, and other times it just leads to some other kind of discovery that is not what I expected. How that differs in some respect from traditional street photography is that you go out and you don’t know what you’re going to find as you turn a corner, the joy of traditional street photography as embodied by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In photography, what diverges from your work as a TV director/producer?
I think that they have similar attributes in terms of trying to convey a narrative in both mediums.. To me, directing is really about knowing how to harness and exploit the tools that are available to a director. These would be knowing how to work with dialogue and performance, staging, how to approach a scene with a specific point of view, how to utilize sound design and music: all those elements that go into constructing a cohesive and hopefully compelling narrative. Still photography, on the other hand, is not burdened by the weight of a detailed narrative in the same respect, because the essence of a still photograph lies in the fixity of that image.