The cast of EMPIRE, the new hit on Fox | © 2015 Michael Lavine/FOX

The cast of EMPIRE, the new hit on Fox | © 2015 Michael Lavine/FOX

Fox Network’s hit musical drama EMPIRE has been renewed for a fourth season. The series concerns the Lyon clan – often-warring patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) and matriarch Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and their sons – who all want to control their own musical destinies and the Lyon music conglomerate. EMPIRE creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are executive producers on the series, as is show runner Ilene Chaiken. Another executive producer is director Sanaa Hamri, who has personally helmed ten episodes and is the e.p. who helps other directors on the show find the right tone. A lot of EMPIRE’s lead and guest characters perform songs and even do music videos within the series, which means the episode directors need to be able to craft those sequences, in addition to handling the show’s dramatic demands.

Hamri, originally from Morocco, has directed music specials for the likes of Prince, Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj, features (THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2, JUST WRIGHT) and episodes of series including SHAMELESS, GLEE and ELEMENTARY. She talks with Assignment X about the unique demands of her job on EMPIRE.

ASSIGNMENT X: What kind of background prepares you for the kind of work you do on EMPIRE?

SANAA HAMRI: I came from theatre at Sarah Lawrence, and then I became involved in the music video world as a director, and then I started doing features. I went through as a director of music videos and features, and I came into the world of EMPIRE. So I had a vast background of music videos. I worked with a lot of big artists, I knew their lifestyles, I was on tour, I directed a few tours, and I just had the vocabulary that kind of worked within EMPIRE. And Ilene Chaiken, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, along with Imagine, brought me on, and I’ve been here ever since.

AX: Do you design your direction of the musical sequences separately than the way you design your dramatic sequences, or do you directorially approach everything – the preparation – in the same way?

HAMRI: Dramatic sequences versus music sequences are very different. You have to have the sensibility for that, and communication of emotion through music is different from words. Communication of emotion through music involves visuals and sound differently, so I definitely prep it differently. When I have my guest directors that we hire, I have to kind of train them into seeing it that way. But overall, I’m there to make sure that there is a through-line that makes sense, and that the story is constantly going. So I really enjoy that process, because it’s multi-faceted.

AX: When you’ve got a scene like the one, for example, with Lucious and Freda, played by Bre-z, at the piano, where they’re collaborating on the song “Boom, Boom, Boom, Bang, Bang, Bang,” with kind of sequence, does it fall more into drama or music?

HAMRI: Well, it’s both. The “Boom, Boom, Bang, Bang” specifically – Terrence wrote that song. I heard a scratch [demonstration track] of “Boom, Boom, Bang, Bang,” and I loved it so much that I wanted to incorporate it within the show, and I brought it to the attention of Ilene and the writers, and they kind of wove it in. But Terrence is part of that process, too. It kind of goes hand in hand, in tandem, having that area.

AX: But I mean, when you have a scene like that where, yes, it is music, but it’s not a music video or a public performance, but two characters working together, is it …?

HAMRI: It’s a scene. Here’s the thing. I try not to categorize. To me, it’s art, and it’s telling emotional story, and I think that’s what matters, ultimately.

This interview was conducted during Fox Network’s portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: Exclusive Interview: Director and executive producer chats Season 3 of EMPIRE


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