Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TCA coverage.
It’s long been a truism of entertainment that film is a director’s medium and television a writer’s medium. But a distinguished group of directors for FX original series gathered for an afternoon panel to TCA to insist that this is no longer the case and that directors have a greater influence on the set — and ultimately on the finished product — than ever before. So agreed a gathering headed by DGA president Paris Barclay (who works on Sons of Anarchy) and also featured Michael Dinner (Justified), Randall Eimhorn (Wilfred), Alfonso Gomez-Rejomn (American Horror Story), Gwyneth Horder-Payton (The Bridge), Dan Sackheim (The Americans) and Jeff and Jackie Schaffer (The League). Barclay confirmed at the outset that “this is a damned good time to be a director in television.” Why? Because directors in TV command greater respect and are permitted creative challenges once thought the exclusive domain of the writer. “In the world that we live in at FX, there’s now a major contribution that directors provide,” he maintained. “A good script really helps, of course. But even if it isn’t so good, we can move in and save the baby. In this brave new world, we’re making little movies.” Jackie Schaffer built on that “little movies” model when she pointed out that TV’s distribution model via Netflix and Hulu and the Internet “has turned television into a more lasting medium and given what we do as directors more of a lasting resonance. And thank God for that.”
Indeed, in the new Golden Age of TV Drama, Dinner believes that the director’s continues to escalate in importance. “Television has grown, just in the past few years, more ambitious, more cinematic,” he said. He credits Michael Mann and his work with Miami Vice in the mid-1980s for helping to launch TV directing away from its previous cookie-cutter approach, where directors were simply hired guns tasked to fulfill the writer’s vision. “I think people are starting to recognize how much more important we’ve become to the process,” Dinner emphasized. He shared that he often gets phone calls from his directing friends on the feature side asking how they can do what he’s doing on TV, demonstrating just how full circle things have traveled. “They’re frustrated in features because they things take forever and they don’t get to work,” Dinner explained, “Directors need to be able to direct. And you get that opportunity in television.” However, directors still can’t simply insert their own singular vision into a series, particularly when so many freelancers typically are used over the course of a season on a series. “You can put a piece of yourself in, but you need to have respect for what got the show there. And the thing is, TV is really hard. You have to make decisions very quickly.” That’s the down side.
The digital age also has helped to change the director’s job in television for the better. Barclay points out how not having to cut and begin scenes scenes nearly as often, and can let the film and tape roll, alters the game. He shared about how he has gone 14 straight minutes on Sons of Anarchy without cutting, allowing actors to do several simultaneous takes without losing their edge and momentum. “It makes for a more efficient production,” he said, “and that allows us to do our jobs as directors better.”