From a dealmaker’s point of view, telefilms and features look like completely different animals. Bigscreen pics offer big money and prestige that made-fors can’t match.
For the directors who must go to the set and see them through a viewfinder every day, though, telepics and features look much more alike.
“Once you say action and the camera’s rolling, it doesn’t matter if it’s for television or the bigscreen,” says Mick Jackson, whose credits range from “L.A. Story” and “Volcano” to the recent “Tuesdays With Morrie” for ABC. “Getting it right is what counts, a movie is a movie.”
Jackson and his colleagues may agree on that, but they also concur that telefilms always offer one unique challenge: short schedules. Where a feature shoot might run for months, telefilms are shot in a few weeks.
“That restriction dictates a certain way of working,” says Ivan Passer, who has directed several telefilms, including “Picnic” for CBS, after beginning his well-respected career with features such as “Winter Kills.” “You really don’t have too much time to attend to details. The bar you’re trying to reach in all departments has to be lowered, because if you go for 100%, you just don’t have the time.”
That means that made-for-TV directors have to delegate more responsibility to their department heads. “On a telefilm you’re freed up from micromanagement,” says Jackson. “You don’t have time to stay in a briefing with the props people, a briefing with the art department, a briefing with costumes. So they tend to take their initiative under a broad directive from you, and go make decisions on their own, rather than asking you, because they can’t find you.”
It also means that prep is a telefilm director’s best friend . “If you’re going to do a telefilm, you’d better damn well be prepared,” says Jackson. “There’s nothing as important as that. Know what you’re doing.”
Peter Yates had seven months of prep for before shooting “Don Quixote” for TNT. The time proved essential. “You have to be ready,” says Yates. “Certainly you can’t leave anything to chance, or leave anything to inspiration, which you might do if it was a feature movie.”
It was Yates’ first television work since the 1960s, and in between he directed such features as “Bullitt” and “Breaking Away.” After seven months of location scouting and shaping the script, he was able to follow his usual process during the short schedule. “I wasn’t aware of working any other way than I’ve always worked and have trained to work and that I like to work,” says Yates, “which is with the writers and the actors.”
Jackson, on the other hand, says that his preparation gives him the freedom to be spontaneous on the set.
“I’m overly anally fixated I think,” he says. “I prepare everything just so that I have the freedom to try it another way on location. That does actually free you up in the middle of this tremendously chaotic experience of telefilm making to say, ‘OK, we’ve got that. We’ve got five minutes. Want to try something else?'”
The short schedules also mean that telefilm directors are under more pressure, minute by minute, than the directors of $100 million features.
“On a TV show,” says Passer, “you must rely on your instincts much much more, and your experience. You know how things should be done instantly. You don’t have time to hesitate.”
Passer and Jackson both say they have learned to love the intensity and camaraderie of a telepic shoot, though. Jackson enjoys the change from star-driven features, where the crew might easily spend hours waiting for a star or a methodical d.p.
“There’s no sitting around in television,” says Jackson. “I like to run the set in television like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t sit down. My director’s chair is sitting there gathering dust. Everybody on the set is into the work experience from the word go.
“It’s a fire that you go through. It burns away unprofessionalism, it burns away unpreparedness, and it burns away insincerity. You can’t bluff your way through a shoot that’s happening this fast.”
For the director who is up to the task, though, Jackson says telefilms are a very rewarding experience.
“You get the sense of having conquered something. You’ve conquered entropy,” he says. “For those few weeks you’ve held the natural tendency of the universe to fall into disorder in place. Against all the odds.”