“Television has evolved,” said Michelle MacLaren (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad) . “It’s very cinematic today, and when we’re fortunate enough to get great scripts, we’re hired with the responsibility to take this script and put it on the screen in the most cinematic way possible and to tell this story.”
One key factor that helped build the film-like factor in today’s peak TV is the shorter run. With cable and streaming offering eight or ten episodes per season, directors can approach their projects more like a long-range film. “Back in the day there were three broadcast networks and they were making 24 episodes of a TV series,” Daniel Sackheim (Jack Ryan, Ozark, Better Call Saul) said. “By that nature, you would have 15 directors and you would have a central focus and vision and that was usually the showrunner — a person who would maintain a sense of commonality.”
But now, with less episodes and less directors involved in a single project, the machinations of making a TV show often feel closer to that of a film. Sackheim adds, “there’s more room for a director on a smaller order to come in and bring their vision to the piece. My sense of what people are looking for today is a more cinematic approach to storytelling — more than you would have found, say 10 years ago.”
With opportunities for a single director over the course of those shorter seasons, a single directorial vision only adds to the film-like quality of the experience. “If you could really own every choice and moment in there from start to finish, it’s kind of like doing a film,” Anthony Hemingway, (The Wire, Empire, Orange is the New Black) said.
“The writers who talk to us about doing all the episodes, they love the idea,” MacLaren added. “There’s consistency, there’s continuity, together you can create the whole eight episodes or whatever it is.”
With cinematic quality at the forefront, the cinematographer must be a key collaborator in television now – perhaps more than ever. “When you’re doing episodic,” MacLaren said, “the cinematographer is the most consistent creative person on that set. One of the first things I do as a guest director is to go talk to the cinematographer. It’s not that you’re not bringing your taste to it because you are — but that’s a really important collaboration.”
“Sometimes they push you to do something you hadn’t imagined,” said Sackheim. “A lot of directors would say by the time you get to day five of shooting you’ve run out of all the stuff you planned, well I do anyway,” he laughed. “I was doing this scene in Better Call Saul, and it was this sequence the majority of which takes place in a courtroom. I hadn’t figured out how I was going to shoot the scene.” It was the cinematographer that pointed out Sackheim’s on-the-fly approach was not in line with the style of the show.
“They are sort of the curator or the guardian of the style of the show,” he said. “The cinematographer busted me on not having a cohesive plan, and he helped me to figure out a way to do it.”
As for which the directors on this panel prefer – broadcast or cable – unsurprisingly, given the freedom, most leaned towards cable. “For myself it’s taste and what excites me,” Hemingway said. “I know for myself it’s starting from that place of where I feel I can be best used or what I respond to.”
“My sensibilities seem to be more cable,” MacLaren added, while Sackheim agreed. “They like being controverisal,” he said. “That’s how they get viewers, but the nature of broadcast television is they shy away from controversial material, so oftentimes the material is not as interesting to us as storytellers. In my experience of doing broadcast where they’re doing 24 eps a season, they just don’t have the time, they have to churn out an extraordinary amount of product.”
While David Slade (American Gods, Awake, Hannibal) said he had been lucky to have worked in cable and broadcast, on idiosyncratic projects he said he hadn’t seen that much difference between the two. “It’s really hard to make films,” he said. “You have to get the money to make films, so if the money’s going to allow me to make a film broken into eight episodes or whatever it is, I’m going to go where that is.”