Gilbey on Film: From big screen to small

Actors and directors are turning from film to TV.

Perusing the Best Director nominations in last Sunday's Emmy awards, you would be forgiven for thinking that there had been a mix-up with the paperwork from the Oscars: Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes, Neil Jordan, Curtis Hanson (with the French director Olivier Assayas also nominated for Carlos, which received a cinema release in the UK). Would it have been such a shock if one of these film-makers had begun an acceptance speech by mistakenly thanking the Academy?

It is well known by now that US television has been receiving a transfusion of film acting talent for some time -- Kate Winslet, who won Best Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her lead role in Mildred Pierce, was only the most tearfully effusive example. Not too long ago, this would have looked like a knock-out cast list for a mid-budget, grown-up Hollywood movie: Glenn Close, Alec Baldwin, Forest Whitaker, Kelly Macdonald, Steve Buscemi, James Woods, Guy Pearce, Michael Pitt, Gabriel Byrne, Kathy Bates, Minnie Driver . . . Now, it represents a cursory roll-call of US television.

The Emmy's directing categories show that the exodus has come from behind the camera, too. Are all the best directors heading to TV? I'm not suggesting there would be any shame in it -- how can there be, when the quality of so much television, especially cable shows, remains so dazzling? Besides, any snob who feels like railing against film directors who "defect" to television can be swiftly silenced with two words: Berlin Alexanderplatz (the 14-part, 941-minute TV series directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1970s).

But it's a sea change worth noting. The Wire incorporated into its roster a fair amount of directors who had made their name in cinema (Ernest Dickerson, Agnieszka Holland, Brad Anderson, Peter Medak). The Sopranos, too (cast member Peter Bogdanovich, as well as Mike Figgis and Lee Tamahori). Six Feet Under is probably the show that accommodated the largest number of movie directors (among them Rose Troche, Migeul Arteta, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Jim McBride). Walter Hill directed the pilot of Deadwood and acted as the show's consulting producer. Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, the first two X-Men films) and the screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco) have both had executive-producer credits on the hit medical drama House since the show started. The list goes on.

Happening upon an interesting New York Times article on the phenomenon of film directors developing pilot TV shows, I found this quote from Allison Anders, whose movies include Gas Food Lodging and Grace of My Heart: "'My friends told me, if I could get past the vanity of having a theatrical release, so many more people would see this movie on television than they would in a theatre." Of course -- I hadn't considered that the immense and immediate audience would be such a draw. "'I was, like, 'If I have another movie come out and die in the theatres in two weeks, I am going to die' . . . Five million people saw [Things Behind the Sun, her film about a rape survivor for the Showtime network] on the first night that it aired . . . I've never had five million people see one of my films in the theatres."

I called Anders to discuss the subject; she is now a fully fledged TV baby, having directed episodes of Sex and the City, The L Word and Southland among others, though she still makes cinema features, too. She told me she thinks the influx of heavyweight movie directors into TV is a mixed blessing:

"It's a little scary. In the Directors' Guild, if you want to have something nominated that you directed for episodic television, you have to actually nominate it yourself -- you have to physically send it in to be considered. I was so proud of an episode of Southland which I directed that I sent it in. Then it occurred to me: 'Oh, this'll be interesting, I'll be putting myself up against Martin Scorsese and God only knows who else. Maybe Steven Spielberg will be in there too!' I was laughing about it but if I were exclusively a TV director, you know, a TV journeyman, I'd be so pissed at having to compete with Oscar-winning directors.

"But I know why people like Martin wanna do TV. It's the same reason I do -- you get to develop these characters; and if you're a character-based film-maker, you wanna develop them over long period of time. And since none of us can make money off movies any more, TV is, in many ways, more reliable: if you have a hit TV show, well, you've got a nice life. The size of the audience is the amazing thing -- the people you can reach. And that's where movies have become a bit heartbreaking if you're someone who wants to say something to an audience. We don't make these things in a vacuum. You want people to see your stuff, and that's tough."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

WILDSCOTPHOTOS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Show Hide image

That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism