Directors who stand out while fitting in
Big screen or small, a director's job remains the same -- pull everything together. But the best directors manage to do it while establishing their own unique style, a task made even more challenging thanks to television's inherent limitations. But this year's Emmy nominees for outstanding direction in five major categories all manage to stand out while fitting in, whether courting documentary realism, reflecting Hollywood glamour or visualizing a mysterious island where an ancient battle of good against evil plays out against a backdrop of verdant green. Here, an analysis of this year's five directing races:
Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series
Scott Ellis, "30 Rock" ("The Breakup") (NBC)
Julian Farino, "Entourage" ("One Day in the Valley") (HBO)
Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, "Extras" ("Orlando Bloom") (HBO)
Ken Kwapis, "The Office" ("Gay Witch Hunt") (NBC)
Will Mackenzie, "Scrubs" ("My Musical") (NBC)
Richard Shepard, "Ugly Betty" ("Pilot") (ABC)
The six-nominee logjam in this category -- seven, if you count the Gervais-Merchant combo as two -- isn't generating an obvious winner. Mackenzie's musical episode of "Scrubs" is perhaps the greatest technical achievement in this bunch, but the academy has never been generous to the medical sitcom. The rest of the pack mirrors the outstanding comedy series category, so a win in one might foreshadow a win in the other.
"The Office" is both a critical and audience favorite, but it would be the first directing win for TV vet Kwapis, should he hear his name on Emmy night. "I've submitted shows for many years, and they've never been nominated. I absolutely was not expecting this. I'd forgotten that the nominations were even coming out until my wife said, 'Well, I guess I'm going to have to start shopping for an Emmy dress.'"
Kwapis' season-opening episode, "Gay Witch Hunt," follows an attempt by Steve Carell's clueless boss character, Michael Scott, to show his acceptance for a gay employee via several hilariously awkward displays of accidental bigotry.
"I feel like this episode does what the show does best," Kwapis notes. "It shows Carell's character behaving utterly idiotically and immaturely and thoughtlessly ... and you love him for it. He's so committed to his point of view about 'gayness,' and yet he's so wrong. It's a terrific way to expose narrow-mindedness in a way that's really disarming."
Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series
Felix Alcala, "Battlestar Galactica" ("Exodus: Part 2") (Sci Fi Channel)
Bill D'Elia, "Boston Legal" ("Son of the Defender") (ABC)
Peter Berg, "Friday Night Lights" ("Pilot") (NBC)
David Semel, "Heroes" ("Genesis") (NBC)
Jack Bender, "Lost" ("Through the Looking Glass") (ABC)
Alan Taylor, "The Sopranos" ("Kennedy and Heidi") (HBO)
Thomas Schlamme, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" ("Pilot") (NBC)
The overstuffed comedy-directing category has nothing on drama directing, where seven separate nominees are up for consideration, including academy favorite Thomas Schlamme (for the underperforming-on-all-counts "Studio 60") and appearances by three critically acclaimed shows excluded from the best drama category: "Friday Night Lights," "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica."
As for the latter Sci Fi epic, director Alcala is pleased with any attention his underdog show can get. "It's such a great drama that people have sort of found it," he says. "I was so happy when they called me." The nominated "Galactica" episode is the second of a two-parter (the end of a four-episode arc) in which a colonial party flees their new home planet to avoid being subjugated by series villains, the Cylons.
Says Alcala: "They gave me so much freedom to expand the original episode. I got up there and had so much fun and shot so much footage that we called Ron and said, 'Let's make it a two-hour.' We shot for two more days. It's a testament to the energy of the crew
and the actors, because everybody wants to be there. It's rare that happens anymore. Every drama has its own drama, you know? And these guys are all about making a great show. When you get into that environment, you just want to fly."
Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special
Walter Hill, "Broken Trail" (AMC)
Yves Simoneau, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (HBO)
Susanna White, "Jane Eyre (Masterpiece Theatre)" (PBS)
Philip Martin, "Prime Suspect: The Final Act (Masterpiece Theatre)" (PBS)
Bharat Nalluri, "Tsunami: The Aftermath" (HBO)
With 16 total Emmy nominations, "Broken Trail" has to be considered the favorite in every race it's nominated in, but perhaps most especially in the directing category, where feature film vet and prior Emmy winner (in 2004 for HBO's "Deadwood") Walter Hill will likely and rightly be considered the architect of the miniseries' success. Hill, however, credits "a good story, which is exactly why I wanted to do it."
Still, "Broken Trail" has to go up against another Western-based epic in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," and both will have to battle the Brits in the twofer of "Masterpiece Theatre" presentations; "Tsunami" remains the wild card. But Hill still thinks his genre has a leg up on the competition.
"It's very difficult to get Westerns on," he says. "There's a kind of collective entrepreneurial fear that they're not going to do well. At the same time, I think there's a tremendous interest out there in the form. And I think people like to know something about the ideas that shaped the country. Who we became. Who we are."
Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming
Rory Kennedy, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" (HBO)
Kevin Burns, "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed" (History Channel)
Lauren Greenfield, "Thin" (HBO)
Christopher Wilcha, "This American Life" ("God's Close-Up") (Showtime)
Spike Lee, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (HBO)
It's going to be hard for the academy to ignore Spike Lee, whose documentary on the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina is a towering achievement in journalism and in drama by the veteran rabble-rousing director. But at the opposite end of the spectrum from "When the Levees Broke" lies an equally compelling option: Showtime's version of the public radio favorite "This American Life," whose submitted episode, "God's Close-Up," was directed by low-budget independent documentarian Christopher Wilcha.
According to Wilcha: "The biggest job was for the (director of photography), Adam Beckman, and I to figure out what the show was going to look like. This is a radio show that has a lot of devoted fans who really like the fact that it's just language and doesn't have pictures. Our first obligation was to figure out how exactly to design the look so that it would translate what they do on the radio and also use the power of TV to make images. It took us a while to figure out, and I felt like, again, by that episode, we'd found our stride and a vocabulary for what we were trying to do."
Outstanding Directing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Program
Bruce Gowers, "American Idol" ("The Finale") (Fox)
Jim Hoskinson, "The Colbert Report" ("Show #2161") (Comedy Central)
Chuck O'Neil, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" ("Show #12061") (Comedy Central)
Don Roy King, "Saturday Night Live"("Host: Alec Baldwin") (NBC)
Rob Marshall, "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" (NBC)
Comedy Central's friendly rivals "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show" face stiff competition from America's most popular TV show, "American Idol," with all its flashy production values, as well as from "Tony Bennett" stager Marshall, who already has an Emmy for choreographing the 1999 TV version of "Annie," plus a 2003 Academy Award nomination for directing best picture winner "Chicago." But Comedy Central general manager Michele Ganeless thinks her directors deserve a closer look.
"The director on these shows makes it all look effortless," she says. "Both Chuck and Jim are masters. They take all the pieces and put it together so the audience has no idea how hard it really is."
And which one will Ganeless be pulling for? She can't possibly choose. "I love all my children equally," she laughs.
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