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Television directors might call the shots during filming, but when it comes to singling out the best work among their peers, the decisions are not so clear-cut. Many directors find that the choice lies in choosing between the pilot chapter of a new series that maps out uncharted territory or a standout episode made within an existing story line template. But no matter how they look at it, it’s not an easy decision, and this year’s roundup indicates directors are fairly split down the middle in choosing the best of their own kind.
This year’s seven (yes, seven!) nominees in the directing drama category feature three pilot episodes, all on NBC: one for high school football drama/critical darling “Friday Night Lights,” one for sci-fi hour “Heroes” and one for the canceled “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Yet over on the comedy side, only one freshman series, ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” was recognized for its premiere.
Walter Hill, winner of the drama directing Emmy in 2004 for helming HBO’s “Deadwood” pilot, has a special affection for pilot directors, calling them show auteurs in every sense. “I do weight pilots more heavily than continuing episodes because the director really creates the world of the show,” he explains.
Hill is nominated this year in the miniseries category for directing the AMC Western “Broken Trail.”
“At the same time,” he adds, “I don’t think there should be a rule or anything like that (separating pilots and other episodes into different categories). You just have to stay open to the quality of the work, who got the most out of the story and how they interpreted things.”
There is a bias toward pilot helmers among other directors, notes “Studio 60” executive producer Thomas Schlamme, who picked up three directing trophies for his work on “The West Wing” and “Sports Night.” To Schlamme, directors of pilots do have “an unfair advantage.”
“I’m not so sure that it shouldn’t be like cinematographers’ ASC Awards, which has separate categories for pilots and the continuing episodes,” he says.
Regardless, Schlamme is pleased that TV directors’ profiles are shooting upward. Director awards at the Emmys might still be considered minor categories (as opposed to their elevated treatment at the Academy Awards), but he says network executives and producers have gradually become discerning bunches.
“People are starting to understand that we all do what we do in different ways,” he explains. “Certainly the networks are aware of it. They are very specific about who can direct their pilots. They don’t just say, ‘Send it to this guy. He’s good.’ There’s a real effort to try and match the project with the sensibilities of specific directors.”
Director Felix Alcala, nominated for Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica,” isn’t interested in pilot/nonpilot director parity; he’s adamant about separating the two styles into different categories and believes comparing pilots to regular episodes boils down to cost. Pilots, especially on the broadcast side, can cost several times what any one episode of the regular season does. As he says, “Networks will get a big movie director or spend $12 million and 14 days on a pilot — how wouldn’t they get nominated?”
More importantly, “a first episode doesn’t get to the heart of the storytelling yet. A pilot is a great show, but the episodes that follow is where the real drama is.”
But pilot or not, going through the Emmy submission process is a painstaking affair for working directors trying to make a fair judgment. Schlamme looks for numerous technical and creative elements.
“The very first thing I ask is, ‘Did (the director) tell the story? Did they get to the end?'” he says. “My whole concept of directing is to take the audience by the hand and guide them through this journey. The director makes sure you, the viewer, know why you sat through 42 minutes of story.”
He also says a sense of personalization is key: “Did I feel as though the director was entrenched in this world? Is this his expression?”
This last bit, in an age of HBO series and features, has become especially important. Visual style as much as storytelling ability now ranks in the minds of voting directors. “The networks realized that HBO shows look a certain way and thought, ‘Maybe we can compete with them,'” Schlamme says. He credits series like “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue” and “E.R.” (for which he was nominated in 1998) for their distinct high-end style. “The expectation now is much higher.”
A former cameraman, Alcala’s tastes are also highly visual. “What I like to see in a show is a story being enhanced by a look and an environment,” he says. “So many TV shows look great, but they look like TV shows.”
Despite the growing industry respect for better production values, Alcala said he has actually avoided submitting episodes for the past several years, deeming the entire Emmy voting process too political. “You vote for yourself, and then you get your friends to vote for you. It seemed like it wasn’t about if the episode was any good or not, just about how many friends you have.”
But “Battlestar,” he says, is a show he was exceedingly proud of. His episode, “Exodus: Part 2,” is an adrenaline-pumping hour in which the last of the human civilization makes an explosive evacuation of New Caprica and escapes Cylon control. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, the death of a main character, lots of action sequences, just really good storytelling.”
Over in the comedy arena, the process seems to be less political, with the same general set of shows nominated in all the major comedy categories: single-camera affairs “Ugly Betty,” HBO’s “Extras” and NBC’s “Scrubs,” “30 Rock” and “The Office.” The ability to handle the wince factor is in vogue this time around, with contenders “30 Rock,” “Extras” and “The Office” all specialists in the art of the uncomfortable laugh.
“A lot of the big moments in ‘The Office’ make you cringe, and I think that’s a very valuable thing,” says Ken Kwapis, who directed the episode “Gay Witch Hunt,” in which Michael accidentally outs Oscar to the whole staff, then tries to make up for it by kissing him on the mouth.
“I look for laughs as well as character development, vulnerability — not just joke, joke, joke,” he says. His favorite scene from the nominated episode is a final shot of Pam. Tim, who has moved to a new office, mails Dwight a machine that measures “gaydar,” which, of course, goes off when Dwight holds it in front of his belt.
The camera sweeps to Pam, capturing her hidden melancholy. “That was the grace note that made the whole scene. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s also more.”
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