|In between the features
High Art and Laurel Canyon, director Lisa
Cholodenko has kept busy directing episodes of Homicide and Six Feet Under.
|Jeremy Podeswa has directed episodes of Six
Feet Under and Queer as Folk, in addition to the
indie features The Five Senses and Eclipse.
Just a few years ago there were two types of directors:
those who made feature films and those who worked in episodic television.
Seldom was there any crossover between the two. Then, in 1995, fresh
off his success with Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino broke
ground by directing a much-publicized episode of the television
series ER. Suddenly, the film-to-TV barriers began to crumble.
Since then, numerous independent feature directors
have journeyed into series television, particularly on many of the
critically-acclaimed shows on pay cable. “The feeling of stepping
down is not true anymore,” says Jeremy Podeswa, who has directed
episodes of Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk, in addition
to the indie films The Five Senses and Eclipse. He
sees television as a way to hone his skills while preparing for
his next feature project. “Feature films take a long time to get
off the ground,” says Podeswa. “You could be writing for a year.
[And] shooting on set for five weeks every two years is not directing
much. TV is immediate and you get to do your craft.”
the writer and/or
producer calls the shots. Directors
are hired hands brought in for a
few weeks to prep and shoot the episode they’ve been
Alan Taylor, who has directed episodes of Six Feet
Under, The Sopranos, Oz and Sex and the City and the features Palookaville and The Emperor’s New Clothes,
also likes the speed of TV and the way it helps his big screen directing
skills. “There’s a high return rate of learning. You get to try
things—camera moves, editing approaches,” he says. “And it’s
[also] a way to pay the rent while pursuing your dream project.”
DGA minimums on a pay cable show are just over $31,000 for an hour
episode and $18,000 for a half-hour, plus residuals.
Yet those who make the jump from features to television
must be aware of the distinct differences. In film, the director
is king: he or she approves the script, carefully chooses the cast
and crew, shoots at a reasonable pace (usually), then spends weeks
or months in post-production until satisfied with the final product.
In television, the writer and/or producer calls the
shots. Directors are hired hands brought in for a few weeks to prep
and shoot the episode they’ve been assigned. The casts and crews
stay constant, the budgets are generally tight and first cut lasts
all of a few days. Then the director moves on to his or her next
project and the producers take over.
“The opportunity for emotional turmoil [on TV] is
high,” says Taylor. How involved a director becomes on a show depends
on the particular series. “Some shows look for directorial input;
others want [you to stay] neutral,” says Taylor. The trick is to
know which areas you can have a say in, and on which shows. For
instance, “On Six Feet Under you have tremendous latitude
in transition of scenes, but stricter guidelines on camera lenses,”
Podeswa points out that even with guidelines, “There’s
a lot to bring as the director. You can make [the episode] really
your own. That’s something people don’t understand.” Podeswa prepares
for his work on a television show by watching all of the previous
episodes. “You need to do your homework, know the language and tap
into the vision of the creators,” he says. “The look of the show
is very important to them.”
|Alan Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Nick Gomez and
Lee Tamahori are just a few of the feature directors who’ve
come on to helm an episode of HBO’s hit series, The
Seldom has Podeswa run into problems expressing his
creativity. In fact, producers encourage inventiveness. It’s the
reason they’re hiring feature directors in the first place. “Most
of the times I propose things, [the producers] usually go for it.
Everyone gets excited. They like to liven [the show] up,” says Podeswa.
In general, the only time a director’s creativity is stifled is
when it creates a budgetary problem or goes against the tone of
the show. Lisa Cholodenko, a director who has worked on Six Feet
Under and Homicide, in between the features High Art and Laurel Canyon, recalls that while directing an episode
of Homicide, “I wanted to do a crane shot but was told, ‘It
will never make the cut. Do you really want to do it?'” She decided
Alan Poul, executive producer of HBO’s Six
Feet Under, has hired both feature directors and episodic veterans
to helm his show, but there are certain qualities he particularly
likes in big screen directors. “Directors who have made indie films
are more accustomed to having a voice,” he says. That voice, or
point of view, has been a key characteristic of the series from
the beginning. “When Alan Ball and I did the pilot, we knew the
crucial element in directing the show was to maintain the tone of
the pilot. Most shows don’t operate on tone; they fit into a template
of genre. Our intent was to break that genre. We used to say ‘quirky.’
Now we say ‘ironic.'”
Finding someone to bring out the show’s tone is what
Poul looks for when hiring a director. It’s also what draws him
to feature directors. “From a practical level, to see an episode
of a network show and extrapolate from that what the director did
or didn’t bring to it is hard to do,” says Poul. “It’s much easier
to feel secure with a director who has delivered a film of his own
that had nuances and ironies.” But Poul is quick to note that directors
who do episodic television for a living have done a brilliant job.
“We don’t want to be film snobs,” he says.
|Allison Anders (l) directs Kristin Davis on Sex and the City.|
Ideally, Poul likes a director who has worked in both
film and TV. “TV is brutal,” he says. “You can’t do guerrilla filmmaking.
The hardest part is to get through the schedule.” When directors
come aboard, “We make it clear that we respect them and encourage
them to come up with ideas, but the choices are not theirs,” says
Poul. “They either understand this or [they] don’t.” Those who don’t
will not be directing any more episodes in the future. Some of the
show’s greatest moments have come from creative directors. If an
idea is particularly well-received, Alan Ball will even adjust the
script. Sometimes they’ll shoot things more than one way, deciding
which way is best later in the editing room.
The only real problem Poul has ever had is when a
director didn’t do his or her homework, resulting in such things
as suggesting inappropriate actions for an actor to take. “The cast
knows their characters so intimately,” says Poul. “Directors need
to respect that.” A problem some directors have had is that in TV,
the writer (often a producer) is on the set and has a level of authority
greater than that of the guy yelling ‘action’—something
a feature director needs to get used to.
Contractually, a director is given four days to cut
the show, which Poul acknowledges is an impossible task. The amount
of work the producers do afterwards varies tremendously. “[The directors]
give us a template. Sometimes we [re-edit] from scratch, other times
we fine tune,” he says. No matter what, the director benefits. “Even
when we completely re-cut, the director gets credit—and deserves
it. The work is still his.”
Since the pay cable season is only 13 episodes long—and Six Feet Under is so popular—Poul is now faced with
the pleasant dilemma of choosing who to hire. He feels an obligation
to use directors he feels comfortable with, but also knows the importance
of finding new talent to keep things fresh and shoot the show in
ways not seen before. “Between returning directors, respected directors
who want to do the show and newcomers, there aren’t enough slots.
Who am I going to say no to?” laments Poul.
John Melfi, executive producer of HBO’s Sex and
the City, who has hired such directors as Allison Anders and
Susan Seidelman to shoot episodes, describes his show as a hybrid:
“We’re somewhere between film and television,” he says. In film,
the director usually shoots two pages a day; in television it’s
six. Sex and the City shoots four. What Melfi looks for when
hiring a director is a person who can provide the look he desires,
but at the speed needed to do it in the allotted timeframe. That’s
why independent feature directors have worked out so well on the
show. “Our scripts are ambitious,” he continues. “We tend to have
large page counts, but want to be extravagant with the look.”
|l to r: Six Feet Under’s Matthew
St. Patrick and Michael C. Hall on the set with Alan Poul.
Some directors adapt well; others don’t. “Sometimes
film directors get suffocated by the sheer volume; other times they
can tell a lot of story in one shot.” But as with Six Feet Under,
the material is writer/producer-driven. “We turn it over to the
director to bring in their vision,” says Melfi, “[though] the tone
is set for the scene by [executive producer] Michael Patrick King.”
What’s important for a director on Sex and the
City to always remember is that he or she is shooting a comedy.
Things have to be visual, stresses Melfi. “We have to see the eyes
of the actors. [Directors] can’t be missing the beat on a shot.
It’s a problem if someone moves on a joke,” he says. Directors must
also make sure they’ve shot all the necessary coverage and lay down
a good base for editing. “After the director’s cut, we go in and
cut for pace and time,” says Melfi.
As with Poul, there are many directors for Melfi to
choose from. But Melfi notes, “Certain scripts call for different
approaches.” Which director is right for a particular script depends
on many factors, including speed and visual style. Though the director
of series television is the one person on the set who changes each
week, most have found their casts and crews to be quite open-minded
and easy to work with. Comments Podeswa, “Casts have come to me
and said, ‘We rented your movie and are happy to work with
you.’ They actively went out, wanting to know who I was.”
Cholodenko remarks, “There is a testing period. [The
cast and crew] all know one another and assess your skills and strengths.
They feel you out, are more tentative, more watchful.” Yet her experiences
have not been unpleasant. “People are generous,” she adds. “No one
[has ever been] out to derail me.”
Though most feature directors would ultimately rather direct their
own personal films, many find directing a television show to be
fun and rewarding, especially shows they admire. Taylor says, “In
TV you’re a cog in the machine—a machine that’s been up and
running before you ever got involved.” But he also notes that sometimes
“it’s a relief to just do a job and do it well.”
Cholodenko says, “TV is systematic and mechanized.
It’s more interesting to direct what I’ve written. There’s a passion
for the material.” But at the same time she adds, “Trying to crack
the nut of [directing] TV is challenging. I dig the challenge. There’s
an aspect of the craft I’d like to get better at.” With more quality
series appearing on the small screen each season, look for more
feature directors to cross over. MM