After years writing television shows such as “Starsky and Hutch,” “Vegas” and “Crime Story” and producing the series “Miami Vice,” Michael Mann left television for film with little intention of returning. The director of such movies such as “The Insider, “The Last of the Mohicans” and most recently “Public Enemies,” Mann had fully embraced the world of film: Its long shooting schedules, big budgets and creative autonomy were a perfect fit for his exacting personality.
Then a new HBO script, set in the world of horse racing and penned by David Milch (“Deadwood,” “NYPD Blue”), landed on Mann’s desk. “I really didn’t want to get back into television, but the script was just so damn good,” Mann said of the series “Luck,” which stars Dustin Hoffman and will air on HBO next year. “It was one of the best things anyone has ever given me to direct.”
Irish writer-director Neil Jordan had a similar experience: After spending the majority of his career in film (“Interview With a Vampire”), DreamWorks convinced him that his concept for a movie based on the 15th century papacy would be better suited for television, with its older, more sophisticated audience. The Showtime series “The Borgias” was born.
“Hollywood isn’t doing anything like this material anymore,” Jordan said. “With cable, there’s this wonderful domain that’s emerged for film directors like me who enjoy the kind of material that Hollywood finds too boring for words.”
There always have been a few film directors who have floated successfully between television and film — Barry Levinson and Robert Altman, to name two — but often the move to the smaller medium was regarded by directors as a backward step, taken only when in need of a payday. Now, A-list directors including Martin Scorsese, Mann and Gus Van Sant are jumping into TV, not solely for financial gain but as a way to explore a more expansive narrative than film allows.
It helps that television — specifically cable — has become more innovative in recent years, with deeper character development and edgier story lines, while the major movie studios largely have abandoned intricate, character-driven stories for superheroes and pirates.
Further blurring the lines is changing technology, with large high-definition televisions, iPads and Netflix making the actual viewing experience between television and film more similar than ever. And actors seem to swim more freely between the pools — it’s hardly surprising these days to see an Oscar winner like William Hurt or Melissa Leo on TV regularly.
“The line between film and television directors has really almost eroded,” said Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO. “When Martin Scorsese directs a pilot for you and still has an enormous feature career, it allows any filmmaker to view television as a place where you can work successfully and not at all diminish your success in the film area.”
HBO has become such a draw recently that the cable programmer has even said no to acclaimed directors. Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” but her pilot about a Broadway producer, “The Miraculous Year,” was turned down by the network for a series. Bill Condon experienced a similar fate — despite landing the job directing the two-part film adaptation of the final “Twilight” book, “Breaking Dawn,” his buzzed-about pilot “Tilda,” centered on a snarky Hollywood blogger, was not picked up.
To be sure, many of the Hollywood heavyweights are not helming an entire season of a series; in television it is common to switch directors from week to week because of production demands. But after directing pilots, many top filmmakers are keeping a hand in the projects as executive producers: Such is the case with Mann on “Luck” and to a lesser extent Scorsese on “Boardwalk Empire.”
A few directors are creating entire television projects themselves, such as Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), who has spent years directing various TV episodes in addition to her film work and is developing an unnamed series with HBO.
“Increasingly, we’re talking filmmakers at very early stages. It’s not just hiring directors once you have a script. They are increasingly embracing the medium and birthing projects here,” said Lombardo.
Van Sant finished his television directorial debut on the Starz original series “Boss,” starring Kelsey Grammer, just weeks before flying to Cannes to unveil his most recent theatrical endeavor, “Restless.” “Salt” director Phillip Noyce helmed an episode of “Luck” along with “Brotherhood” for Showtime and the ABC pilot “Revenge,” which just got picked up for series. “Superbad” director Greg Mottola’s most recent movie “Paul” opened in March, and he will next helm the pilot for Aaron Sorkin’s cable newsroom series “More as the Story Develops” for HBO.
“It used to be that you only did television if you couldn’t get a movie going.... And then you’d get stuck,” said Curtis Hanson, director of “L.A. Confidential” and “8 Mile,” who directed the recent HBO movie “Too Big to Fail,” starring William Hurt, which debuted May 23. “Now excellent directors are choosing to do certain things in television.”
For Hanson, the script for “Too Big to Fail” stood out from the others he was being offered. “They were all the same,” he said of the movie projects landing on his desk. “Either with elements of fantasy or they are all trying to be what was last successful. ‘Too Big to Fail’ stood out in a big way.”
Still, for some directors, television is not the first choice when shopping a project. Director Oliver Stone is back to dabbling in the medium, prepping a 10-hour documentary called “The Untold History of the United States” for Showtime. He’s also working with FX and Virgin on a series called “The Dark Side.” But if he had a choice, he would work only in features.
“Television would not be my first place to go. Absolutely not,” said the Oscar-winning director, who has been working for the last three years on “Untold History,” a project he calls the most ambitious of his career. “You go to television when you need the long form or when you can’t get the subject done in a theatrical manner.”
Jordan, in contrast, says he came for the challenge. “We’re getting bored, honestly,” said Jordan. “Directors like myself and probably Michael Mann, we find it so difficult to get our personal projects through the studio system.”
It also might be that their projects no longer fit the finicky tastes of the moviegoing public. Jordan’s last film, 2009’s “Ondine,” was critically acclaimed but made only $500,000 at the box office, and even though Mann’s “Public Enemies” pulled in $214 million worldwide, it didn’t meet studios’ hopes for commercial prospects or Oscar statues.
“Movies are in all kinds of trouble at the moment,” Jordan said. “I think it’s very difficult for an independent director like me. If you’re given a $200-million 3-D enterprise, there’s only a specific kind of animal that can make that movie, and it’s rare that the commercial aspects and the artistic aspects meet in a very satisfying way.”
Hanson noted that “Too Big to Fail” wouldn’t have been made if not for HBO. “Smart dramas are very hard. It’s been bad for a while, [Hanson’s 2000 film] “Wonder Boys” was only made because Michael Douglas wanted to do it and he cut his fee. But it’s worse now. The studios just shy away from dramas. And on the surface, this was about a bunch of bankers sitting around talking.”
Television does come with some thorns. The pay is less (sources say the high-end directors who also executive produce can earn around $250,000 for a broadcast pilot plus series residuals), the budgets are smaller and the schedules are tighter. Hanson had only four weeks to prep his two-hour film and 32 days to shoot it. “It would have been nice to have more prep time and more rehearsal time,” he said. “Any director would want to have a longer schedule.”
But the hardest lesson might be learning to cede some control of the creative process, especially when it comes to series. Lombardo admits that film directors’ biggest challenge is adjusting to playing nice with your lead writer, who is often the creator of the series.
“The film world is definitely a director’s medium. The writer writes the script, goodbye, writer, the director comes and makes the film wholly their own,” Lombardo said. “There is a very different relationship on a series. It is a writer’s medium, the writer of the pilot shapes the series, shapes the tone, is very involved in casting.”
Sharing has proved tricky for Mann, who Lombardo said “doesn’t like working by committee.” He added that Mann and Milch had to clearly delineate who was in charge of what to avoid clashes on the set. (The two did have disagreements early in their collaboration.)
Mann today calls his working relationship with Milch “very good.” He said, “When David has an issue about story, he and I get our heads together and solve things. With the writing, there can only be one captain of the ship, and that’s got to be David. On the directing side, it’s me.”
Jordan has found that he maintained more creative control working in television than in film. “I’d been told that in television, the writer is in charge, so I wrote all the episodes of the first season myself and I was also the director of the first two episodes,” he said. “Showtime has allowed me to develop this series in ways I would never have been able to do with a movie.”
Now that cable channels such as HBO and Showtime have found critical success, they are continually pressed to up their game. For directors like Mann, it’s an ideal environment.
“Here if something doesn’t have real edge, if it isn’t really challenging, different, original, doesn’t pull punches, if it doesn’t have those characteristics, it doesn’t work,” he said. “And that is exactly 180 degrees opposite to the experience I had years ago on network television.”