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Film directors’ new mantra: Think small

Special to The Times

Early last year, Taylor Hackford was getting restless. He’d spent months in a suit on behalf of his film “Ray.” Setting up the film’s distribution deal, taking studio meetings and campaigning for Oscars came with the territory, but what Hackford really wanted to do was ... direct.

So when longtime friend David McKenna asked him to helm the pilot for “E-Ring,” his NBC Pentagon drama that premiered Wednesday night, Taylor signed on. “I found myself almost a year and a half without being on the floor actually shooting and directing actors, and I didn’t like that,” Hackford says. “I loved the idea of jumping into something fast and getting intensely into it.”

The Oscar-nominated director has a lot of company. In what has become an annual rite of migration over the last few years, feature filmmakers flock to a once-scorned realm to direct (and often executive produce) TV series. This fall, the transfusion of feature film talent continues unabated with a new crop of drama pilots shaped by movie directors.

In addition to Hackford, who directed the “E-Ring” pilot immediately after steering Jamie Foxx to his lead Oscar trophy in “Ray,” the movie-to-TV converts include Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”), who directed the pilot for CBS’ “Close to Home; “Commander in Chief” creator Rod Lurie (“The Contender”), who directed the pilot for ABC; “Prison Break” co-executive producer Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour,” “Red Dragon”), who directed the Fox pilot; and McG (“Charlie’s Angels”), who co-executive produces the WB’s “Supernatural.”

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Aaron Kaplan, head of the scripted television department for the William Morris Agency, has seen big screen to small screen traffic increase from a trickle in the early ‘90s to a stampede in recent years. “The walls separating television writers and directors from movie writers and directors are gone,” he says. “It’s one business. Crossover from film to television used to be almost unheard of, but everyone kind of gets the drill: Scripted television right now is a really good place to be seen.”

David S. Goyer, who co-wrote “Batman Begins” and made the “Blade” film trilogy, is co-executive producer of CBS’ sci-fi thriller “Threshold.” He says that he was “excited by the ability to tell a story over the long range, where you end up at the end of the first season in a very different place from where you start off in the pilot.”

The challenge came in wringing feature film quality from a 13-day shooting schedule. “We spent $5 million and change on the pilot for ‘Threshold,’ which is a significant amount of money for television but less than a 10th what I spent on my last feature,” Goyer says.

Speaking from Vancouver, where he’s directing his next movie, “The Invisible,” Goyer says that while making “Threshold,” “a couple of times I heard the phrase, ‘But this is television.’ One time, I sort of screamed on the phone, ‘If I hear that one more time.... ' I understand, obviously, there are financial implications, but I don’t think the makers of ‘Lost’ or ’24' or ‘Arrested Development’ or ‘The Shield’ and all those shows on HBO are going around saying ‘OK, this is just television.’ That’s a cop-out. More and more, in reaction to HBO winning all these Emmys, the networks are sort of agreeing with that.”

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CBS executive Nina Tassler helped usher in network television’s Cinema Lite era when she greenlighted the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “CSI” in 2000. Since then, Bruckheimer and his head of television production, Jonathan Littman, have bumped up production values and championed signature styles for each of their shows, which include five returning scripted series for CBS and five new fall shows spread among NBC, CBS and the WB.

“Look,” says Tassler, “we’re honored to work with preeminent television directors as well, but a lot of times, the quality of the work [on a pilot] is influenced by that particular film director bringing people that they’ve worked with in the feature world, so you’re kind of mixing things up. I think the byproduct is exciting. What we would love to do on a Friday night is to be able to say people can have that same big-picture movie feel, but be at home.”

Tassler emphasizes that relatable characters and engaging story lines remain the key to strong TV ratings. The new breed of movie director-TV producers concurs: Week to week, the heavy lifting for series TV remains in the hands of show runners and writer-producers in the “created by” tradition of Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf and John Wells.

But increasingly, style matters. In exchange for an executive producer credit, which typically evolves into an advisory role, feature directors are expected to deliver cliche-free pilots larded with enough wallop to first compel a pickup from the network, then entice viewers to watch Episode 2.

For the quick-paced “E-Ring,” Hackford relied on “Ray” editor Paul Hirsch to cut the pilot’s globe-hopping scenario and thought outside the TV box to cast Dennis Hopper as an off-kilter Pentagon bureaucrat.

To lend “Threshold” filmic sheen, Goyer recruited director of photography Steve Bernstein, whose credits include “Like Water for Chocolate” and Charlize Theron’s “Monster.” Ratner, now shooting “X-Men 3,” made the “Prison Break” pilot with most of his film crew, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dante Spinotti (“L.A. Confidential,” “The Insider”).

While feature talent pushes for more cinematic texture on prime time, TV’s fast-paced production aesthetic, in turn, benefits directors in their feature work, according to West, the British director attached to CBS’ legal series “Close to Home.” During a break on the Culver City set of his new movie, “When a Stranger Calls,” West says his TV resume actually helps attract feature assignments.

“You can get pigeonholed. Since I tend to do big studio movies, people are quite nervous about giving a small film to what is perceived as a big, expensive director,” says West, who made “Con Air” in addition to “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” “Now I can tell them, ‘You know what? I just shot an hour for $4 million, so there’s no reason I can’t shoot two hours for $8 million.’ That’s helped me get access to material that may be more worthy, better scripts that have a much smaller budget.”

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Speaking of money, West points out another obvious incentive offered by series television: money. Since many of the directors take executive producer credits, if a show is successful the payoff can be both huge and ongoing. Directors of a pilot episode are guaranteed a one-time bonus fee if the pilot is aired by a network and it is commonplace for directors of pilots to negotiate ongoing royalties for that series, according to the Directors Guild of America.

“It can’t go without saying that, in success, TV is extremely lucrative,” West notes. “The financial benefits of TV versus film are incomparable, really.”

In fact, membership in the Movie Directors Who Make TV Pilots club may keep expanding if this summer’s desultory box office prefigures a contracting universe for Hollywood storytellers. “On the whole, I’ve been less than impressed with the movies that have come out this summer and far more impressed with what the networks are doing right now,” says “Threshold’s” Goyer.


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