'The Morning Show' director Mimi Leder on moving the show past 'catfighting' in Season 3: 'Our focus is on women's agency'

Mimi Leder's career behind the camera has encompassed The Morning Show, Deep Impact and ER. (NBC/Everett Collection, Getty Images, Paramount/Everett Collection)
Mimi Leder's career behind the camera has encompassed The Morning Show, Deep Impact and ER. (NBC/Everett Collection, Getty Images, Paramount/Everett Collection) (NBC/Everett Collection, Getty Images, Paramount/Everett Collection)

There's no crying in baseball — and there are no catfights on the set of The Morning Show. At least, not anymore. When the high-profile Apple TV+ streaming series premiered in 2019, one of the central storylines followed the bickering, backbiting relationship between newly-matched breakfast-time TV hosts, Alex Levy and Bradley Jackson, played by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon respectively.

Flash-forward to The Morning Show's currently-airing third season, though, and Alex and Bradley no longer enter the studio with their claws out. While maybe not the best of friends, the duo have become close acquaintances and supportive colleagues, having weathered such storms as a sexual harassment scandal and the COVID pandemic.

And Morning Show director Mimi Leder tells Yahoo Entertainment that she and the show's stars — who memorably played sisters on blockbuster sitcom Friends — couldn't be any happier about putting those Season 1 catfights in the rearview. "What's so great about the show is working with these two powerhouses who are beautiful human beings and beautiful actors," Leder says. "Bradley is this truth-teller and Alex wants to be a leader and find her voice. We see her find her voice this season, and it's quite remarkable."

Naturally, fresh conflicts will arise this season that test Alex and Bradley's new bond. "Even though they're not catfighting, they force each other to stop and look at their lives and the truth," teases Leder, who directed the first two episodes of Season 3 and serves as an executive producer. "That's a really incredible thing to do — tell your friend and colleague what they're not seeing and to take a look inside themselves. They both have to do that this season, and it's pretty powerful."

The Morning Show's third season is putting other storylines in the rearview as well. With Steve Carell's serial harasser, Mitch Kessler, written out last season, Jon Hamm joins the cast as tech guru, Paul Marks, who is plotting to purchase the titular show's fictional network, UBA, with the aid of Billy Crudup's wily CEO, Cory Ellison. "Cory discovers it's not that much fun to be a CEO, and so in walks Paul and Cory wants to level up," Leder says. "Cory is trying to save himself and he's trying to win. A lot of our characters are navigating through that maze."

Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston are moving beyond catfighting in Season 3 of The Morning Show. (Courtesy Apple TV+)
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston are moving beyond catfighting in Season 3 of The Morning Show. (Courtesy Apple TV+) (Apple TV+)

In addition to the dicey future of the media business, Leder says that "female autonomy" is The Morning Show's other driving theme this season — a theme that's particularly resonant one year after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. "Our focus is on women's agency, reproductive rights, minority rule and the state of the truth," the director says. "It's quite a lot of ground to cover!"

Leder has covered a lot of ground herself in a directing career that's spanned over thirty years and encompasses both blockbuster TV shows and blockbuster movies. In our latest Director's Reel, the filmmaker looks back on some of her signature works, discussing the magic of George Clooney's famous head-tilt and how working on the beloved HBO drama The Leftovers changed her life forever.

China Beach (1988)

Dana Delany, Marg Helgenberger and Robert Picardo in the groundbreaking TV series, China Beach. (Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Dana Delany, Marg Helgenberger and Robert Picardo in the groundbreaking TV series,China Beach. (Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection) (©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Leder made movie history before she even stepped behind a camera, becoming the first woman to graduate from the American Film Institute in 1973. While her specific degree was in cinematography, the new graduate found her way into the business as a script supervisor on feature films and TV movies with titles like Spawn of the Slithis and The Boy Who Drank Too Much. In 1983, she boarded the hit NBC police drama Hill Street Blues where she met the director who became her mentor — Gregory Hoblit. Four years later, Hoblit moved from gritty Hill Street to the sunny boulevards of L.A. Law and offered Leder her first opportunity to step behind the camera with a pair of 1987 episodes of that signature Me Decade drama.

More directing gigs followed on shows like Crime Story and Midnight Caller, culminating in the chance to get in on the ground floor of an ambitious new series — ABC's China Beach. Set during the Vietnam War, the series followed the personal and professional dramas of the doctors and nurses at an Army hospital located by the My Khe beach. M*A*S*H had aired its record-breaking series finale five years before China Beach's 1988 premiere, and Leder says that groundbreaking Korean War series had a definite impact on what the China Beach creative team hoped to achieve.

"M*A*S*H gave us the freedom to take it to the next level in terms of dealing with real issues in Vietnam and real people," says Leder, who directed 13 episodes of the series during its four-year run. "We would meet with advisors and we'd meet with Vietnam vets and have that real-life exchange and experience. I don't think you could make China Beach today on a broadcast network. It's definitely a high-end cable show, and at the time it was on ABC. I don't mean to trash any network television, but they should make shows like that now!"

"I became a real director on that show," Leder continues, crediting the cast — which included Dana Delany, Marg Helgenberger and Robert Picardo — with making the experience special. "It left all of these bread crumbs for me to follow. And being able to create that world of a Vietnam army base was extraordinary. It was a special time."

ER (1994)

From left to right: Anthony Edwards, Eriq La Salle, Noah Wyle, Sherry Stringfield and George Clooney on Season 1 of ER. (NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
From left to right: Anthony Edwards, Eriq La Salle, Noah Wyle, Sherry Stringfield and George Clooney on Season 1 of ER. (NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection) (©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speaking of getting in on the ground floor, Leder directed the second episode of the blockbuster NBC hospital drama ER after its ecstatically-reviewed series premiere. And that episode, "Day One," became instrumental in defining the show's relentless visual style going forward. "Rod Holcomb directed the pilot brilliantly," Leder says now. "He used about 20 percent Steadicam for that episode, and when I came in, I thought, 'I'm going to use 80 percent Steadicam and tell this story in a real-life way. I changed the look of the show in terms of using Steadicam as a real storytelling tool, combined with these big close-ups."

Even though "Day One" lent ER a documentary-like feel, Leder says the show was never shot like a documentary. "Everything was always choreographed," she notes. "We'd do eight-page scenes without a cut, but not just running down hallways — also outdoors and into absolute chaos. It was really fun to choreograph all of those sequences. Most TV shows back then were about 53 pages, and because we'd move so quickly, I believe we were up to 82 pages by the end of the first season. These days, there's a new hospital show every season, and they all kind of look a little like ER."

Leder won an Emmy for directing another standout Season 1 episode, "Love's Labor Lost," one of the most harrowing hours that ER ever aired and a standout showcase for founding cast member Anthony Edwards. "Everything I gravitate towards is always character-driven," she says. "Everything comes from what the character wants and what the character needs. And I always like to walk the line between dark drama and high comedy. That's always been a challenge, but it's also very rewarding."

The Peacemaker (1997)

Steven Spielberg was one of the producers behind ER, and handpicked Leder to direct the show's breakout star, George Clooney, in The Peacemaker — the first live action movie released by DreamWorks SKG, the company that Spielberg had recently founded with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Based on a non-fiction account of the perilous state of Russia's nuclear arsenal, the movie paired Clooney and Nicole Kidman as government representatives racing to prevent an attack on the United Nations building in Manhattan. With its timely story and largely CGI-free set-pieces, The Peacemaker is the kind of action movie Hollywood doesn't make anymore — and Leder misses them just as much as '90s moviegoers.

"I wish they would make more movies like that," she admits wistfully. "And I would make them, because that's what I'm interested in! It was a very exciting experience to be able to keep The Peacemaker grounded in the real world. We actually shot the New York chase sequences first, and we were working at such a high level. We were like, 'Is it too big?' But you can't be too big in a chase where you're trying to save the world from a nuke!"

Despite being a first-time feature filmmaker, Leder says that the studio left her alone to make the movie she wanted to make, never intruding to, say, suggest that Clooney and Kidman have a steamy love scene during the course of the film. And Spielberg even refrained from overruling her on allowing Clooney to indulge in one of his trademark acting tics — a head tilt heard 'round the world and that's seen frequently in The Peacemaker. Clooney himself has said that Spielberg once tried to get him to drop that particular bit of business, reportedly telling him on the ER set: "If you stop moving your head around, you’ll be a movie star."

"I think he lost the head tilt a bit because of that," Leder says with a laugh. "We put Doug Ross in a neck brace on ER once so he couldn't do it. But I think anything that George Clooney does works. He's a brilliant human being, a great actor, great director and great humanitarian. It was really fun working with George at the beginning of his success. I know he bummed around town for 10 years before ER, and I'm glad he found his success and his happiness."

Deep Impact (1998)

It's the end of the world in the 1998 disaster movie, Deep Impact. (Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
It's the end of the world as we know it in the 1998 disaster movie Deep Impact. (Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection) (©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection)

A planet-destroying space rock on a collision course with Earth sounds sounds like the premise for a far-out sci-fi adventure, but Leder approached it with maximum seriousness in Deep Impact one of two asteroid-based blockbusters that arrived in theaters during the summer of 1998. "I knew it was a big sci-fi movie, but I wanted to keep it grounded in science and reality," Leder explains. "That's the only way I felt I could tell the story. How will I live my life if I know it's going to take nine months for a comet to kill us? What will I choose to do? Who is going to survive? That's how I approached the film."

Deep Impact certainly paints a wide canvas of the looming disaster, checking in with multiple characters over its expansive two-hour runtime, from the United States president (played by Morgan Freeman) to a teen astronomer and his girlfriend (Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski), who get married so that they can secure a place in the underground shelters where 100,000 designated survivors will attempt to rebuild society. Leder says that she filmed a major set-piece that took place beneath the Earth, but that entire sequence was cut from the finished film. "It was too much," she says now. "It was already a big movie with a lot of area to cover, so we did not use that scene."

Deep Impact premiered in theaters in May 1998, and was followed seven weeks later by Michael Bay's Armageddon, which proved to be precisely the kind of over the top sci-fi blockbuster that Leder avoided making. "I would say it was annoying," she says when asked about the way media pitted the two films against each other before and after their respective releases. "I don't like to think of cinema as competition, but certainly people do like to make a big deal out of which of these two similar movies is going to tell the best story or make the most money. The truth is, they both made a ton of money! So the audience can decide which they enjoy or don't enjoy — it's not going to change my life."

The Leftovers (2014)

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 04:   Scott Glenn, Kevin Garvey, Sr., Carrie Coon, Nora Durst, Damon Lindelof, Executive Producer, Co-Creator, Kevin Carroll, John Murphy, Mimi Leder, Executive Producer, Director, Justin Theroux, Kevin Garvey, Tom Perrotta, Executive Producer, Co-Creator and Tom Spezialy, Executive Producer, Writer attend HBO's
Leder (center) and the creative team behind The Leftovers at a 2017 FYC event in California. (FilmMagic/FilmMagic for HBO) (FilmMagic via Getty Images)

The Leftovers was never one of HBO's biggest hits during its three-season run, but the series has cultivated a passionate fanbase that considers it one of the greatest TV shows ever made. For her part, Leder calls the series "life changing" and ranks the 22 episodes she directed among her finest accomplishments. "It was an extraordinary story," she says of The Leftovers, based on a book by Tom Perrotta that begins with 2% of the global population — that's 140 million people — vanishing off the face of the Earth.

"It was really this love story about how you survive in this world," Leder observes. "Who are the ones that benefitted from being leftover? How do you go on when you lose your family? It's a show about a lot of things, but deep down it was this profound love story between the characters played by Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux."

Speak to any hardcore fan of The Leftovers, and they'll tell you that the enigmatic Leder-directed series finale may just be the best ending to any TV show ever. But you'll also hear wildly different interpretations of what the final hour means. And Leder says that was intentional. "I have my own theory about the ending for sure," she says. "It touches on the truth and the lies we tell ourselves. That's a theme that I'm very attracted to and which ran through the whole series. I think we're all searching for the truth. If I find out what it is, I'll definitely let you know!"

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

After a nine-year hiatus from the big screen, Leder returned to multiplexes with this biopic about the early years of future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and her forward-thinking relationship with her husband, Martin. Felicity Jones played the younger version of the Notorious RBG, who Leder had the opportunity to spend time with while preparing to make the film.

"Her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, wrote the script, so I met with her several times," Leder remembers of her relationship with Ginsburg, who died in 2020. "The first time was a little like speed dating — there was an enormous amount of pressure to direct a film about such a trailblazer who changed the world for the better. But then I asked her, 'How did you know that Marty was the one?' And she said, 'He was the first man who looked at me and saw my brain.' You feel so intrusive speaking to an important public figure, but she was very human in that moment."

Ginsburg's death three years ago changed the balance of power in the Supreme Court, allowing former president Donald Trump to appoint Amy Coney Barrett, whose confirmation cemented a block of conservative justices who voted last year to overturn Roe v. Wade. "She's rolling in her grave," Leder says when asked about what's happened to the court in Ginsburg's absence. "It is a travesty what has happened in America. And to look at that court and see the power it still yields is really scary. We are divided — and we have to come together."

The Morning Show is streaming now on Apple TV+.