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Film directors are embracing TV

Let the major movie studios have their superheroes and pirates. Cable TV has become more innovative, and top moviemakers such as Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Gus Van Sant are taking advantage.

June 05, 2011|By Nicole Sperling and Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times

"It used to be that you only did television if you couldn't get a movie going.... And then you'd get stuck," said Curtis Hanson, director of "L.A. Confidential" and "8 Mile," who directed the recent HBO movie "Too Big to Fail," starring William Hurt, which debuted May 23. "Now excellent directors are choosing to do certain things in television."

For Hanson, the script for "Too Big to Fail" stood out from the others he was being offered. "They were all the same," he said of the movie projects landing on his desk. "Either with elements of fantasy or they are all trying to be what was last successful. 'Too Big to Fail' stood out in a big way."

Still, for some directors, television is not the first choice when shopping a project. Director Oliver Stone is back to dabbling in the medium, prepping a 10-hour documentary called "The Untold History of the United States" for Showtime. He's also working with FX and Virgin on a series called "The Dark Side." But if he had a choice, he would work only in features.

"Television would not be my first place to go. Absolutely not," said the Oscar-winning director, who has been working for the last three years on "Untold History," a project he calls the most ambitious of his career. "You go to television when you need the long form or when you can't get the subject done in a theatrical manner."

Jordan, in contrast, says he came for the challenge. "We're getting bored, honestly," said Jordan. "Directors like myself and probably Michael Mann, we find it so difficult to get our personal projects through the studio system."

It also might be that their projects no longer fit the finicky tastes of the moviegoing public. Jordan's last film, 2009's "Ondine," was critically acclaimed but made only $500,000 at the box office, and even though Mann's "Public Enemies" pulled in $214 million worldwide, it didn't meet studios' hopes for commercial prospects or Oscar statues.

"Movies are in all kinds of trouble at the moment," Jordan said. "I think it's very difficult for an independent director like me. If you're given a $200-million 3-D enterprise, there's only a specific kind of animal that can make that movie, and it's rare that the commercial aspects and the artistic aspects meet in a very satisfying way."

Hanson noted that "Too Big to Fail" wouldn't have been made if not for HBO. "Smart dramas are very hard. It's been bad for a while, [Hanson's 2000 film] "Wonder Boys" was only made because Michael Douglas wanted to do it and he cut his fee. But it's worse now. The studios just shy away from dramas. And on the surface, this was about a bunch of bankers sitting around talking."

Television does come with some thorns. The pay is less (sources say the high-end directors who also executive produce can earn around $250,000 for a broadcast pilot plus series residuals), the budgets are smaller and the schedules are tighter. Hanson had only four weeks to prep his two-hour film and 32 days to shoot it. "It would have been nice to have more prep time and more rehearsal time," he said. "Any director would want to have a longer schedule."

But the hardest lesson might be learning to cede some control of the creative process, especially when it comes to series. Lombardo admits that film directors' biggest challenge is adjusting to playing nice with your lead writer, who is often the creator of the series.

"The film world is definitely a director's medium. The writer writes the script, goodbye, writer, the director comes and makes the film wholly their own," Lombardo said. "There is a very different relationship on a series. It is a writer's medium, the writer of the pilot shapes the series, shapes the tone, is very involved in casting."

Sharing has proved tricky for Mann, who Lombardo said "doesn't like working by committee." He added that Mann and Milch had to clearly delineate who was in charge of what to avoid clashes on the set. (The two did have disagreements early in their collaboration.)

Mann today calls his working relationship with Milch "very good." He said, "When David has an issue about story, he and I get our heads together and solve things. With the writing, there can only be one captain of the ship, and that's got to be David. On the directing side, it's me."

Jordan has found that he maintained more creative control working in television than in film. "I'd been told that in television, the writer is in charge, so I wrote all the episodes of the first season myself and I was also the director of the first two episodes," he said. "Showtime has allowed me to develop this series in ways I would never have been able to do with a movie."

Now that cable channels such as HBO and Showtime have found critical success, they are continually pressed to up their game. For directors like Mann, it's an ideal environment.

"Here if something doesn't have real edge, if it isn't really challenging, different, original, doesn't pull punches, if it doesn't have those characteristics, it doesn't work," he said. "And that is exactly 180 degrees opposite to the experience I had years ago on network television."

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