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.”