Acclaimed directors on the small screen
Chris Connor on Filmmakers Venturing onto the Small Screen …
As television has grown more and more in recent years, the gaps between what we might have seen exclusively on the big screen and less on television have become less apparent. Granted, big budget TV shows feel more cinematic and can tell a story in a different way than a movie presents. The shifting dynamic can perhaps be mirrored by renowned directors switching between formats, with Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street could speak) the latest name to work on TV with his famous Amazon series The Underground Railroad, adapting the equally well-received novel by Colson Whitehead which won his fair share of prizes.
It must be recognized that this is not an entirely new phenomenon and that in the past several directors have made their big leap to television, Sidney Lumet (Doggy afternoon, Network) as well as Robert Altman (The long goodbye, Nashville) and Michael Mann (Heat, Thief, Collateral), but it seems like a more conscious choice for directors to go the other way and has certainly led to some intriguing results that can often differ from the work these directors present in film form.
Martin Scorsese has frequently immersed himself in the world of television as the executive producer and director of the highly-received Prohibition-era crime drama. Boardwalk Empire with Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon and Stephen Graham. Scorsese also directed the 2016 pilot episode. Vinyl which lasted only one series. The episode carried many traits from Scorsese’s films, and with music being an important aspect of his films, it made sense for him to get involved in the record industry narrative of the 1970s.
British director Stephen Frears (My beautiful laundromat, High fidelity, The Queen) made the jump to television, often seeming to feel equally comfortable between the two mediums. In recent years in particular, he has produced several popular series including that of Hugh Grant. A very English scandal, and Quiz telling the Charles Ingram Who Wants to Be a Millionaire scandal. Frears also collaborated with Nick Hornby on the award-winning State of the Union, a series of short episodes about a married couple (Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd) and their meetings at the pub.
Edgar Wright started his career and actually his collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on the cult TV series Space focusing on a pair of twenty-five in London, Tim and Daisy, played by Pegg and Jessica Hynes. The series sowed the seeds of the successful Cornetto trilogy that starred Pegg and Frost and helped establish Wright as an artistic force to be reckoned with. Space continues to have a fan base over 20 years after completing both series and acts as a fascinating springboard for all the talent involved who have found success on their own.
David Fincher was perhaps one of the best-known directors to appear on television in the 2010s working on Card castle and Spirit hunter. Card castle is an adaptation of the 1990s British series and focuses on the rise and fall of President Frank Underwood, while Spirit hunter depicts criminal profiling and efforts to catch some of America’s most notorious killers. Fincher acted as executive producer and director on both series. Spirit hunter can perhaps be considered as the successor to his previous work on black thrillers like Zodiac, Se7en and The girl with the dragon tattoo.
Few directors have become as synonymous with television and film as David Lynch. Lynch made a name for himself with his unique surreal style in the 1980s with Elephant man, The heart that is in Desert and Blue velvet. Perhaps Lynch’s defining work remains the flagship TV series Twin peaks which ran for two series in the 1990s and spawned a spinoff film that served as both a prequel and a continuation of the story, with an extremely successful follow-up Twin Peaks: the return released in 2017. Twin peaks followed the investigation of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper into the murder of Laura Palmer. Many have noted how the series blended the boundaries between film and television with Cahiers Du Cinéma and Sight and Sound naming the revival among the best films of 2017.
There are many other directors who have dabbled in both film and television and it would be remiss not to mention Todd Haynes (Far from the sky, Carole, Dark waters) and his work on the award-winning miniseries Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet, while Rian Johnson of Star wars, Knives Out and Curler the celebrity was also responsible for some of the most acclaimed episodes of breaking Bad.
The Underground Railroad represents the latest example that directors can offer exemplary work in the two mediums of film and television. With some fantastic recent examples of directors crossing between the two, it sure looks like this is a trend we’ll see more of in the years to come and it will be intriguing to see which directors are next to move from the world of film to TV and the fascinating results that will undoubtedly ensue.