'Henrietta Lacks' Director on How Oprah's Character Became the "Motor"

The Immortal Life  of Henrietta Lacks Still - Publicity - H 2017
Quantrell D. Colbert/HBO

The creators behind 'Sherlock,' 'Killing Reagan' and more TV movies reveal how they pack sharp emotional tales into just two hours.

Rather than tell a sprawling tale that has to sustain itself for several weeks, these TV movies took two hours to tell a story that was much more specific.

"Killing Reagan was about an incident that occurred in a few seconds," explains Rod Lurie, director of the NatGeo film, an examination of the 1981 shooting of the then-president. "The writer [Eric Simonson] was completely enamored with the political world surrounding the 1980 presidential campaign. We had to ask what the movie we were making was really about and, in the end, it was about that day he was shot."

There were plenty of avenues director Charles Sturridge could have wandered down with his film Churchill's Secret. But since Winston Churchill's life has been thoroughly explored on TV and in film, he opted to create a focused examination of the three months following the British prime minister's 1953 stroke. "The issue isn't length or how much you want to get into a project, but more what the natural lifespan of your story is," explains Sturridge.

As with Churchill, the tricky part for TV movies tackling historical figures often is determining precisely where the story lies when the subject matter has been pretty exhausted. Take HBO's The Wizard of Lies. Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme has been well chronicled since his 2008 arrest, so the movie needed to unravel the more personal threads in his tale. "We were more interested in this being very much the story of family and not the entire story of the Ponzi scheme," says executive producer Jane Rosenthal. "We wanted to put things in perspective and make it a story about trust, about a family that had ultimately been completely shattered, rather than go too deep into the personal disasters he'd caused for everyone else."

It can be equally daunting to narrow down a tale that isn't particularly well known. That was the situation George Wolfe faced when he directed HBO's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This was the story of an African-American woman whose cells were secretly harvested for medical research after she died, and Wolfe was particularly intrigued by the struggle of Lacks' daughter (Oprah Winfrey) to find out what happened. Since he only had two hours to work with, that quest became the movie's focus. "[Deborah Lacks] was so driven to know, and that pulsated with a vibrancy strong enough to hang an entire story on," explains Wolfe. "It's always important, when making a film, to determine who is your motor. Once you have that, you're there."

The engine that revs BBC/Masterpiece Theater's Sherlock, meanwhile, is always going to be the guy who lives at 221B Baker St. The challenges in making this past season's three episodes (one of which, "The Lying Detective," is competing in the TV movie category) are much more about logistics than about characters. According to executive producer Sue Vertue, there's the process "of cherry-picking from the original Sherlock Holmes stories because there's no shortage of ideas to choose from." Once the producers have decided what tales to tell, they not only have to figure out how to approach them in a different way, they also need to put everything together in a short window of time because the two stars — Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman — have extremely busy schedules.

"This wouldn't work if we had to do 20 episodes in a season," says Vertue. "We revel in the idea of doing three in a 90-minute [per installment] time frame. The actors come back because they want to, not because we've signed them up for a seven-year option. … If nothing else, at least we're probably not at much risk of overkill."

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.