Emmy Watch: Writer-Director
Writers and directors find they have to readjust their thinking when they shift from film to television
Ted Kotcheff has more than 50 years under his belt as a director-producer (1977's "Fun With Dick and Jane"). But the executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" recalls that one of his earliest attempts to helm an American episodic television series didn't go as expected.
The show was "Buddy Faro," which in 1998 had been canceled by CBS but still had a few more episodes to shoot so it could be sold overseas. Coming on to direct in those circumstances was "perfect" for Kotcheff.
"I had my own shooting style," he says. "I said, 'OK, give me a 20mm lens, put it here, put the head of the dead body in the foreground and the detectives will come through the background.' And a voice behind me said, 'We don't do that on this show.' I snapped my head around -- what the fuck? Someone's telling me how to shoot? And it was the director of photography. I thought, 'Of course, it's their series. They've already invented the show. I'm merely a guest.' "
Kotcheff's experience should ring bells for any director or writer attempting to shift between feature film and series television. The technical requirements may be similar -- a writer still needs paper and pen, a director a crew and a camera -- but the nuances are enough to make behind-the-scenes of TV and film two completely different planets.
Increasingly, however, directors and writers are finding work on both Mars and Venus. Writer-director J.J. Abrams, in particular, has seen his star rise as he's seamlessly slid between the two. His latest film, Paramount's "Star Trek," has already grossed $222.7 million domestically, while his Fox series "Fringe" was renewed for a second season, and "Lost," the show he helped launch on ABC in 2004, has become a cult phenomenon.
"On a series, there's an ongoing element of story developing, an organic process that you can't anticipate," he says. "There's this amazing dialog between the actors and writers and audience and the show. On a film, you will work on scripts and do read-throughs, and things might adjust by degrees as you're filming, but you've locked your story."
This kind of shifting between worlds was never routine until recently; previously, a film director was often seen as slumming should he opt to work in television. When Ken Kwapis -- a producer and director on NBC's "The Office" whose latest film, "He's Just Not That Into You" was released this year -- was still at USC, he remembers that "film schools didn't regard work on television very highly. There was a feeling that if you were a series director, good luck in breaking over to the other side to direct features. And if you were a feature film director, why on earth would you want to direct television? That wall has come tumbling down -- there's a great fluidity of movement now."
What has helped is the rise of cable television, where traditional small-screen storytelling and directing has expanded during the past 20 years as networks have delved into original programming. Kwapis says after he worked on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," "I found I suddenly had credibility as a feature filmmaker; the series had values that made feature film people sit up and take notice."
Greater fluidity, however, hasn't meant that the transition has gotten easier, just more frequent. When writer-producer Vince Gilligan (2008's "Hancock") landed in series television in the late 1990s (he now has his own series, AMC's "Breaking Bad"), he realized that regular writing for TV meant he had to be in the thick of things -- the writers' room -- rather than his Virginia home.
"Being a movie writer, you can structure your life to your own liking," he says. "You can write pretty much anywhere if you have a laptop. That is something I miss, being able to jump on a plane to Paris to be inspired. You no longer have that freedom when you're on a writing staff in television."
On the other hand, he notes, "You're not living a monk-like existence anymore, either. Trying to write and not having enough people to bounce ideas off for me was a negative."
For Oscar-winner Walon Green, who didn't start in television until he was 45, the shift is an aesthetic thing for a writer. "The biggest difference is: Television is a writer's medium, and feature films are a director's medium," says Green, executive producer of USA's "Law & Order: CI." "If you're a writer who's interested in more authority and actually being in control of your material, you're much better off in television."
On a film set, a writer is often a fifth wheel, while on a TV set, the writer is an integral element to the process, constantly referred and sometimes deferred to for interpretations of lines, meanings and intent. Meanwhile, most TV shows' directors are migrants, and the rest of the cast and crew are long-timers who have an insiders feel for the material -- while on film sets the director is king and the story is set.
Peter Berg developed "Friday Night Lights" from a 2004 film to a DirecTV/NBC series on which he's written, directed, acted and produced, and says he's tried to bring a little consistency to his directing stable by hiring the same helmers repeatedly.
"We try to empower our directors and create a more equal creative working environment," he says. "Because we use the same group of directors, the actors trust and respect them -- we encourage improvisation not only from actors, but directors.
"Maybe ratings would be higher if we did it a different way," he continues, "but I believe that creative ownership and the responsibility should transcend the writing room and include actors and directors as well."
Time also remains an element, however, on any set. Although a film is constrained to specific shooting days, it's nothing like a television show, which has to spit out a half-hour or hour of content each week for 22 weeks.
"There's not enough time on television for anything to become precious," Kwapis says. "You have to move on and do another show. In feature filmmaking, the smallest decisions become the most precious -- the smallest choices are often given too much weight."
But for those writers and directors looking for fast results, time works on their side in television, says Green: "In television, you're writing with a gun over your head so they can shoot (your script), and after you write something about a month later you can see it. Your relationship with television is much closer, you can try stuff out, you can experiment."
And for some who have worked on both sides, the choice is clear: "If someone said to me this afternoon you have to decide and can only do one going forward," says Gilligan, "I'd have to choose television. The script you're writing this week is in front of the actors next week and will have an audience in a month or two."
Still, Abrams plans on keeping his options open. "I feel insanely lucky to get to do either (film or television)," he says. "They're both different, but they come down to the illusion of making people believe characters are real, alive and emotional. So I'm happy doing that, wherever I'm doing it. As long as they'll keep hiring me, I'll keep doing it."
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