Paris Barclay’s decades-long, award-winning career directing for television is wide-ranging enough that he’s been Emmy-nominated in drama (winning twice for “NYPD Blue”), comedy (“Glee”), and now, with his nod for an installment of Netflix’s “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” he’s in the limited series/anthology category.
“I didn’t know it was a thing until the day after the nomination,” says Barclay, a former Directors Guild of America president who is the third person, and first Black director, to reach this milestone. “To me, it just shows I’m doing the right thing, working in different forms.”
He never thought horror would characterize that distinction, however. “I’ve seen very, very few horror movies in my time, and I’m not a connoisseur,” says Barclay, who admits to a squeamishness about the violence associated with the genre. “I know how it’s done, but I can’t separate what I see on screen from the reality.”
In other words, to work in the world of fear, Barclay had his own to overcome. But more important, he needed the assurance of creator-executive producer Ryan Murphy that he wouldn’t be glorifying a real-life serial killer, particularly one whose victims, like Barclay, were mostly Black and gay. “I lived through [learning about] Jeffrey Dahmer,” he says. “I didn’t want to do anything that would put him on a pedestal. But as Ryan told me the story, he seduced me. The show would focus on the victims, and my episode would be the turning point, where it came to the fore that the victims were the true protagonists.”
More specifically, in the “Silenced” episode, Evan Peters’ Dahmer [also Emmy-nominated] wouldn’t even show up until we’d gotten to know Tony Hughes, a gay, Black and deaf aspiring model, played by newcomer Rodney Burford (“Deaf U”). “I do think the race of a director becomes important when you’re dealing with a story that is sensitive. I could deal with Rodney in a different way than a lot of directors could. We had shared experiences, but some we didn’t share. I had the experience of gay, he had the experience of being deaf. We could teach each other, balance those experiences and values, and create a whole character. It was pretty awesome.”
Barclay, who had “Coda” ASL interpreter Gabriel Gomez on set, worked with the untested Burford on being natural with characterization, “to infuse Tony with himself,” he explains. “The less you do, the more real you’ll become, and the camera does a lot. So I had to make the set a comfortable place, keep everything slow moving and calm. Then Evan helped him with technical stuff, how to find your mark without looking, which is a skill actors have to acquire. The experience was oddly joyful.”
Showing Deaf people “in their fullness” — in this case, the victim’s humanity preceding the killer’s inhumanity — was foremost in Barclay’s mind. A warm, humorous pizza parlor scene between Burford and two other Deaf actors evolved to adapt to the performers’ and interpreters’ signing, which included dialect known as BASL (Black American Sign Language). “Signing is very idiomatic, it’s conveying concepts with your face and hands, so we ended up changing the script,” Barclay says. “Also, certain expressions used now wouldn’t have been used then. So the authenticity was important.”
The episode’s sound design was an added point-of-view consideration. “I’m a musician and composer, so I’m very attuned to sound, but I’ve never been challenged to do so much with sound,” says Barclay, “because we had to imply what it feels to be deaf.”
Approaches varied from the vibration-only thump Tony would feel dancing in a disco, to how sound designers approximated soundlessness — “you could hear the air shifting, with a little water, in it” says Barclay — to full-dialogue-with-subtitles exchanges with Tony’s hearing family. Introducing Dahmer, meanwhile, starts without sound, then gradually adds Dahmer’s voice, a perspective switch intended to invoke dread. “We tried all sorts of things to get the recipe right,” Barclay says.
That this wasn’t just another episode of television for Barclay was made even more apparent by the grimness of the final moment. Though Tony’s murder is never shown, Dahmer’s first instance of cannibalism is. Barclay dreaded its filming but knew what he wanted it to say — which had to do, once more, with sound, and the absence of it.
“I tried to be as artful as possible, and get through it as quickly as possible,” Barclay says. “He prepares the table, there’s noise from the street, the outside world. But once he takes a bite, it goes to silence. There was a need for him to keep people, to hold on to that. It brought silence to the noise in his head. Then it goes to black.”
Barclay isn’t done with sound, personal themes or exploring new directing avenues. He’s just finished his first feature documentary, about the gifted, closeted musician Billy Preston, and is prepping a television musical. “I’m in the middle of my career, so I’m always thinking, where do I go? What’s the next challenge? I’m just going to keep trying new and different ways to tell great stories that move people.”