By Katie Chambers
When NYWIFT Board Member Kathryn O’Kane headed off to direct season two of The World According to Jeff Goldblum for Disney+ it was, in her words, “the worst of times” – the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, before vaccines were available and film production felt particularly dangerous and fraught.
But the difficult work paid off, and has led to the best of times! Season two of the docuseries, which follows the beloved quirky actor as he pulls on the thread of a familiar topic to unravel a world of fascinating secrets, has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special.
We checked in with Kathryn to offer our congratulations, learn more about the filming process, and discuss what’s next for her.
Congratulations! Season 2 of the Disney+ series The World According to Jeff Goldblum, which you directed, has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special. How does it feel? You must be flying!
It’s really exciting to be a part of an Emmy nominated show. I had the most amazing crew – a motley group from Los Angeles, New York, and London, many of whom were a tight group who had worked on the first season as well, which made me feel incredibly supported. We made this show during the worst of times, in the early pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, which were legitimately terrifying. The fact that the Academy members only saw joy on the screen is really gratifying.
What were your favorite moments of filming the show?
You know you’ve made the right career choices when your first day on the set requires Jeff Goldblum to be in the middle of a pile of puppies. For a scene with an animal behaviorist discussing how dogs are uniquely attuned to the needs of humans, I had envisioned Jeff and the scientist trying to have a serious conversation while covered in a pile of puppies squirming around and chewing their shoelaces. And that was funny for the first 10 minutes until the puppies got tired and started napping in the corners of the room. So for the rest of the scene, the crew was depositing sleeping puppies into their laps.
I also really loved a big dance sequence that we did to kick off the episode on dance. The crew transformed a modest dance studio in Glendale into a Fosse-like stage with rich, red velvet curtains. Jeff and his wife Emilie are professionally trained dancers, so we choreographed a Big Band number for them. Emilie is also an aerialist, and I had her twirling into frame on silks from above. I’m really pleased with how dramatic it all looked.
What were some of the challenges of filming during a pandemic? Especially on a show that I would think thrives on a little spontaneity….
You’re right, the first season of the series was all about spontaneity. If Jeff was at a convention center and his eye caught something out of frame, the crew could literally follow him on that side trip. During covid, that wasn’t possible. Making the adjustment from spontaneity to super-produced without feeling prescriptive was the challenge. We aimed to create spaces of discovery even within the restrictions.
Adjusting to the covid compliance measures meant that everything took so much longer. Also we were working with real people in real situations so we couldn’t just bubble up like studio crews. Real people had to quarantine for three days before we filmed with them. Everyone recognized that these rules were in place to keep us safe, and we kept adjusting to the realities. I’m proud of the fact that no one on our crew got sick.
And I have to ask – what was it like working with Jeff Goldblum? You have spoken to me before about how incredibly prepared he always is.
Whenever I get this question, I always think of that scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when he’s describing how much he loves driving a Ferrari: “It’s so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” If you ever have the chance to work with Jeff Goldblum, I highly recommend you say yes.
Jeff is really fun and funny. He is genuinely interested in people and having an authentic interaction with them. So much of his career has been scripted, and this show provided an opportunity for him to flex a different muscle, to be more improvisational, which requires being incredibly present. To that end, he was always really prepared and even arrived to location early. In short, he has probably ruined me for any other host-driven show!
He is such a force and quite the character. How do you approach that as a director, coming in to guide a project or even a person that already has such an established sensibility? How do you let that shine while also infusing the project with your own creativity?
I came on to direct episodes for the second season of the show, so to a certain extent, I was the custodian of a look and feel that was already established. And Jeff brought a lot of that tone himself. To get up to speed, I paid a lot of attention to his point of view and even his cadence because he has such a unique way of speaking. He loves jazz and plays piano, and I began to notice that he brings a musical quality to his interactions.
One of the best things about the show is that every single scene was completely different. There was no talk show set that we had to film in or format that we had to follow. If DP Sara Kinney and I wanted to shoot something as a oner, we tried it. If we wanted to do it on roller-skates, we did it. I also appreciated Jeff’s enthusiasm. If the producer Aisling Browne and I developed a story that required Jeff to climb a giant sequoia, he climbed it, despite the fact that he doesn’t love heights.
We’d love to hear a little more about what you have been up to! I know you recently did a spot for Apple… Between that spot and the “Dogs” episode of Jeff Goldblum, it seems like you’re establishing an unexpected niche for yourself in pet content!
Yes, my goal is to corner the market on canine content! That was a fun spot for Apple – how to take Pet Portraits with your iPhone. Note to tech companies, if you want a viral video, put puppies in there. I think we had 4 million views within a few days.
This also – sadly – is the month you are closing out your two three-year terms on the NYWIFT Board of Directors, where you were at one point VP of Communications and are now VP of Advocacy. We are so grateful for all you have done for NYWIFT over the years, which among other things has included work on Creative Workforce Summit and our Representation Matters panels with the National Democratic Institute. We know it’s certainly not goodbye, but it’s a transition, nonetheless. How will you look back on your time on the NYWIFT Board?
NYWIFT has given me so much: connection, community, confidence. I think I’ve become a better leader and director because of the people I’ve met and the programs I’ve worked on at NYWIFT. I’m much more sensitive to other points of view because of important conversations with my colleagues. I’ve learned that there are times to speak up and times to listen. And I know there’s always room for improvement. Twenty years from now I know I could call on any of my colleagues for advice, and I hope they would do the same with me.
What is next for you?
I continue to work on corporate projects in the tech space. And I have several documentary projects in various stages of development. I think we’re all waiting to see what happens with the streaming world which has been expanding so quickly for the past few years and now seems to be merging and consolidating into something different.
Kathryn O’Kane is a director and producer with over 20 years of experience in television and advertising. Recently, she directed season 2 of the Emmy-nominated series The World According to Jeff Goldblum for Disney+.
O’Kane was the showrunner of the James Beard award-winning Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and she produced Iconoclasts for Sundance and Oprah Presents Masterclass for OWN, both of which won NAACP Imagine awards. O’Kane has crafted narratives as diverse as Mission Juno, documenting NASA’s probe to Jupiter, segments of AMC’s Talking Dead, and commercial assignments for Apple, United Airlines, and SAP.
Having started her career supporting democratic initiatives in Latin America, O’Kane learned the power of messaging while organizing election observations in the Dominican Republic with former President Jimmy Carter. She seeks to celebrate different cultures through art and storytelling.
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