PHILADELPHIA — The nominee dress code for Sunday’s Emmy Awards is “come as you are, but make an effort.” For Doylestown, Pa.’s Ben Semanoff and his wife, Erica, that’s likely to lean closer to black-tie than the designer PJs the show’s producers have deemed permissible this year, when host Jimmy Kimmel will be in Los Angeles and winners will be filming their acceptance speeches remotely, from multiple time zones.
“We’ll probably get all dolled up,” said the 41-year-old Semanoff, who’s nominated this year for his first Emmy, for directing an episode of the Netflix drama “Ozark.”
“Our ideal New Year’s Eve celebration isn’t going out. It’s staying home, but getting dressed up,” he said. “I’ll get into a tux and she’ll get in a gown and she’ll make a zillion fun hors d’oeuvres like we’re at a party, but it’s just the two of us.”
Yet one thing that makes this year’s Emmys special is that it won’t just be the two of them experiencing his big night, Semanoff said. Their children — Sean, 12, and Sophia, 10 — can be there, too. “Maybe even my parents … who I don’t get to see very often because they’ve been living in Florida. And that’s pretty exciting to me, that we can all kind of share in this in this and be in a comfortable space together.”
Semanoff is a veteran camera operator who’s spent most of his career working a Steadicam, the camera-stabilizer system invented by Philadelphia’s Garrett Brown that revolutionized the tracking shot. His extensive credits include Creed, Netflix’s House of Cards, and Showtime’s Billions, but he directed what was only his first episode of television in Ozark’s second season and is nominated for what was his second outing as a director, last season’s “Su Casa Es Mi Casa.” Directing wasn’t even in his sights until a few years ago.
A graduate of Council Rock High School and Temple, he was never “like the Steven Spielberg kid that at 8 years old was making 8 mm movies and always knew that they were going to pursue this,” Semanoff said. Though his degree from Temple is in film and media arts, he’d started at the University of Pittsburgh, intending to follow in the footsteps of his mother, Dr. Theophila Semanoff, and become a physician. He’d worked in the emergency room at Doylestown Hospital during high school and college.
When his career goals changed, medicine nevertheless gave him his start in the film industry.
Intending to head to Los Angeles after graduation to look for work, “I’d put everything in a storage locker and was ready to go,” when the hospital administration approached him about making some corporate videos. “So I thought, OK, I’m going to go to L.A., but … I’ll do these videos, and then I’ll go to L.A. with more money in my pocket.”
Instead, one commission led to another, “and next thing you know, I saw myself with a business,” he said. He lured his father, Ira Semanoff, out of retirement to partner with him and set out to acquire some equipment.
He had a vague idea that they might be able to use a Steadicam. “I didn’t have a lot of sense of how a Steadicam worked, but I knew … it offered this really unique ability to move a camera in a very kind of human way, in a very stable way,” he said. “So I find an inexpensive Steadicam and I buy it and it’s shipped to me and I put it on and I go, ‘Oh my God, this thing is the most complicated thing I’ve ever worked in my life.’”
He signed up for a workshop that happened to be taught by Brown, whose demonstration of the early Steadicam had included footage of the inventor’s girlfriend running up the steps of the Art Museum and led to its use in the filming of Rocky.
Semanoff and Brown became friends, “and I fell in love with kind of the culture of the Steadicam, and certainly the craft of it,” he said. He eventually found himself living “a double life,” professionally.
“I was running this business. We were growing, we had employees, we were producing bigger and bigger things. And at the same time, I was kind of trying to sneak away whenever possible to operate Steadicam on music videos or commercials or any kind of indie low-budget thing that was happening in Philadelphia,” he said.
About 12 years ago, he and his father started slowly shutting the video business so the younger Semanoff could focus on work as a camera operator. “The traveling really, really ramped up,” but with two children, he tried to focus on work that was closer to home, including New York.
He’d worked with Ozark star and executive producer Jason Bateman “on a movie that he was directing in New York (The Family Fang) and we … had a great time. And Ozark came up. And he asked me to do it. And I turned it down,” Semanoff said, because it was being filmed in Georgia and he didn’t want to be away from home.
But when Bateman returned a few months later to ask again, it led to a conversation about Semanoff’s desire to try his hand at directing, “a conversation I’ve tried to have several times with other people on other shows.” Bateman, who’s directed the first two episodes of each of the first three seasons of Ozark, was willing to give Semanoff his shot at directing if he joined Ozark as a Steadicam operator.
He doesn’t know if he’ll be back for the fourth and final season, which is scheduled to begin production in November, but said he isn’t planning to return as a camera operator. “This whole pandemic has really changed the dynamic of work and my expectations of where work will be coming from,” he said.
On Sunday, Semanoff will hear his name read along with those of several more experienced directors, including three he’s worked with in the past: Lesli Linka Glatter, nominated for Homeland, Mimi Leder, nominated for The Morning Show, and Alik Sakharov, who’s nominated for a different episode of Ozark.
“It’s intimidating, certainly,” he said. “And quite an honor to be amongst them.”
72nd Emmy Awards. 8 p.m. Sunday, ABC.
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