Matt Shakman was trying to get his four-year-old daughter dressed on the morning of July 28, when his phone started pinging with notifications that he was nominated for an Emmy.

“My daughter was yelling at me saying ‘Daddy, pay attention to me,’ and I told her ‘I just got nominated for this really cool award,’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t care!’” Shakman says with a laugh. “And that was, of course, the best lesson in life.”

The veteran theater and TV director earned a directing nomination for his work on the pilot of Hulu’s The Great, Tony McNamara’s wild, satirical romp through the 18th century court of Russia’s Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult) and his new wife, the Empress Catherine (Elle Fanning). As the 10-episode series weaves together comedy, drama, absurdity and the macabre, nailing the complexity lay mostly in the hands of Shakman, who had to set the tone clearly in the pilot for later directors to follow.

The first thing, Shakman says, was to cast the right actors. “We needed actors who were willing to be incredibly playful because I think one of the things that I learned over the years working on shows that play with tone like this, like Fargo or Succession, you need to give yourself options,” he explains.

Shakman and McNamara both returned to their theater roots (Shakman is the artistic director of Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse), and surrounded Fanning and Hoult with an ensemble drawn from the stage world, including Adam Godley (Archbishop), Douglas Hodge (Velementov), Charity Wakefield (Georgina) and Phoebe Fox (Marial).

He then brought the cast together to rehearse as if they were staging a play, workshopping the script together so that “we could all feel like we were talking about tone in the same way and we were all approaching the world in the same way.”

Finding that careful balance between the full spectrum of genres is something that Shakman has carved a career of doing, from helming plays on stage to directing shows that are anchored in irreverence or dark humor or sci-fi fantasy or gritty drama – his work includes episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Game of Thrones, Fargo and Succession.

The next thing was to make the show visually represent the irreverent style that McNamara brought in his reimagining of Catherine the Great’s legacy.

“I really wanted to give it a contemporary energy without feeling chronistic,” Shakman says. Part of that was the way that they chose to use the period costumes on the show, using historically accurate clothing but changing the way they were worn to be more contemporary. “The chaotic leader wears what he wants to wear so the people in his circle can do what they want, so we were constantly pulling layers of clothes off people, making things messy, things are always broken and thrown around. It was about creating that sense of imagining living in that place, even though it’s lit by candles and photographed in a historical manner and everything is done as you expect for a period show, but we tried to give it that contemporary energy.”

Once we enter the court of Peter, we quickly see the shenanigans of the unruly, petulant Emperor through the raucous welcome banquet for Catherine, and the fiery tempers and passions of his inner circle.

“It’s ridiculous with the bear and everyone throwing glass after glass, we just went through so many breakaway glasses in that scene, but I also wanted to sell the richness of that court. Here, Catherine is coming into a whole new world, her eyes are wide open at the excitement of becoming an Empress, and then slowly realizing that it’s not quite what she thinks,” Shakman says. He credits the work of his director of photography, Anette Haellmigk, for bringing out the luxury of that setting; “the beautiful gold candlelit is really something.”

It was also an important sequence to set the tone for Peter’s leadership style, which Shakman compared to a Mick Jagger-esque rockstar. To really harness that tone, he and McNamara worked closely with Hoult, whom the director said is “equally adept at comedy and drama,” to find that balance of Peter’s horrific and careless antics and yet making him affable.

“He had to be equal parts wounded child, this guy who has serious parent issues … who needs to be approved of, and the root of all of his anger moments comes from not feeling loved and not feeling approved of,” Shakman explains.

“He thinks he’s living the perfect life and making everyone else’s life better, and that’s part of his charm, he’s breaking down the formality of this life at court and he thinks everyone is incredibly grateful for that.”

McNamara’s world of The Great is richly detailed with complex characters, chaotic situations and a frenetic pace. Shakman wanted to make sure we experience it all through the eyes of the show’s protagonist.

“It’s all about establishing who Catherine is,” he explains. “In the beginning [of the pilot], she’s so full of hope and optimistic, and I wanted it to be her story and I wanted everyone to know we’re watching it through her eyes, so there’s that camera locked on the swing, locked on her face.”

But by the end of the pilot, Shakman knew he needed to get Catherine into a much darker place, in order for Catherine to be pitted against Peter and to set the stakes of survival for her.

“We had to slowly strip away that innocence and hope so that we can get to the end of the episode so that she’s at her rock bottom and considering suicide and she decides to throw that knife in the bucket and look up and the camera again is looking right at her face and she’s looking right at us, right into the lens and she takes Peter’s word and says ‘Huzzah’ and we know she’s now going to take what she’s learned and she’s going to own this kingdom in her own way.”