Director Curtis Hanson, standing, with Paul Giamatti, center sitting,… (Macall B. Polay, HBO )
After years writing television shows such as "Starsky and Hutch," "Vegas" and "Crime Story" and producing the series "Miami Vice," Michael Mann left television for film with little intention of returning. The director of such movies such as "The Insider, "The Last of the Mohicans" and most recently "Public Enemies," Mann had fully embraced the world of film: Its long shooting schedules, big budgets and creative autonomy were a perfect fit for his exacting personality.
Then a new HBO script, set in the world of horse racing and penned by David Milch ("Deadwood," "NYPD Blue"), landed on Mann's desk. "I really didn't want to get back into television, but the script was just so damn good," Mann said of the series "Luck," which stars Dustin Hoffman and will air on HBO next year. "It was one of the best things anyone has ever given me to direct."
Irish writer-director Neil Jordan had a similar experience: After spending the majority of his career in film ("Interview With a Vampire"), DreamWorks convinced him that his concept for a movie based on the 15th century papacy would be better suited for television, with its older, more sophisticated audience. The Showtime series "The Borgias" was born.
"Hollywood isn't doing anything like this material anymore," Jordan said. "With cable, there's this wonderful domain that's emerged for film directors like me who enjoy the kind of material that Hollywood finds too boring for words."
There always have been a few film directors who have floated successfully between television and film — Barry Levinson and Robert Altman, to name two — but often the move to the smaller medium was regarded by directors as a backward step, taken only when in need of a payday. Now, A-list directors including Martin Scorsese, Mann and Gus Van Sant are jumping into TV, not solely for financial gain but as a way to explore a more expansive narrative than film allows.
It helps that television — specifically cable — has become more innovative in recent years, with deeper character development and edgier story lines, while the major movie studios largely have abandoned intricate, character-driven stories for superheroes and pirates.
Further blurring the lines is changing technology, with large high-definition televisions, iPads and Netflix making the actual viewing experience between television and film more similar than ever. And actors seem to swim more freely between the pools — it's hardly surprising these days to see an Oscar winner like William Hurt or Melissa Leo on TV regularly.
"The line between film and television directors has really almost eroded," said Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO. "When Martin Scorsese directs a pilot for you and still has an enormous feature career, it allows any filmmaker to view television as a place where you can work successfully and not at all diminish your success in the film area."
HBO has become such a draw recently that the cable programmer has even said no to acclaimed directors. Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for "The Hurt Locker," but her pilot about a Broadway producer, "The Miraculous Year," was turned down by the network for a series. Bill Condon experienced a similar fate — despite landing the job directing the two-part film adaptation of the final "Twilight" book, "Breaking Dawn," his buzzed-about pilot "Tilda," centered on a snarky Hollywood blogger, was not picked up.
To be sure, many of the Hollywood heavyweights are not helming an entire season of a series; in television it is common to switch directors from week to week because of production demands. But after directing pilots, many top filmmakers are keeping a hand in the projects as executive producers: Such is the case with Mann on "Luck" and to a lesser extent Scorsese on "Boardwalk Empire."
A few directors are creating entire television projects themselves, such as Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right"), who has spent years directing various TV episodes in addition to her film work and is developing an unnamed series with HBO.
"Increasingly, we're talking filmmakers at very early stages. It's not just hiring directors once you have a script. They are increasingly embracing the medium and birthing projects here," said Lombardo.
Van Sant finished his television directorial debut on the Starz original series "Boss," starring Kelsey Grammer, just weeks before flying to Cannes to unveil his most recent theatrical endeavor, "Restless." "Salt" director Phillip Noyce helmed an episode of "Luck" along with "Brotherhood" for Showtime and the ABC pilot "Revenge," which just got picked up for series. "Superbad" director Greg Mottola's most recent movie "Paul" opened in March, and he will next helm the pilot for Aaron Sorkin's cable newsroom series "More as the Story Develops" for HBO.