Big canvas, small screen

A look at three top longform helmers

Longform and miniseries directors suffered a status blow this year when the TV Academy nearly cut them from the Emmy show — part of an attempt to tighten the telecast and boost ratings.

“Each year, we’re marginalized more and more,” declares veteran small-screen helmer Joe Sargent.

In the end, a compromise was struck — a pre-taped acceptance speech will play while winners stride swiftly to the stage to grasp their trophies.

Regardless, Emmy-level helmers who forego features for the smaller screen say the satisfactions include substantial, even literate material, and an audience far bigger than the one for theatrical features. Herewith, three directors making their mark in recent and upcoming longform projects:

Joseph Sargent

The critical raves for “Warm Springs” are bringing director Joe Sargent something he’s a little unused to in the press — recognition. Winner of four previous Emmys for directing made-fors, including one last year for “Something the Lord Made” (HBO), Sargent attributes the lack of recognition for the longform director to the nation’s mainstream TV press and its relentless emphasis on actors — particularly those in episodic series. His deep background includes episodic TV, network features and theatricals. “Warm Springs” is his fifth project for HBO.

THE DIM SPOTLIGHT: “I’ve walked off the stage with an Emmy in my hand four times. In the press room, you have the reporters and paparazzi pouncing on whomever’s next in line, and usually that’s a star from episodic. They get through snapping away and asking questions and then, the minute it’s your turn, everything goes silent. I was shocked the first time, way back in the ’70s. It made it clear to me how distinctly segregated the director had become.”

AUTEUR THEORY: “The DGA right now has a very active committee working toward lifting the consciousness of TV editors around the country. Every once in a while I pick up a foreign newspaper and see my name in the listings, which is incredibly encouraging, when you think how this never happens in America. Here, we have simply left the creative team — the director and the writer — out of the equation.”

HBO VS. THEATRICAL: “With HBO it’s not a movie of the week. It’s a feature, from the content to the cast to the marketing. The DVDs don’t say on the cover that ‘This is a feature for television.’ They say ‘HBO,’ and that’s the only thing about them that suggests they first played on what we like to call ‘an electronic delivery system.’ ”

TV MOVIES VS. STUDIO FARE: “Frankly, the content was dramatically more fulfilling and meaningful. That kind of substantive stuff wasn’t happening for me in theatrical features — I was being offered all kinds of schlock. Like so many of my colleagues, I held on to it just to keep my theatrical franchise alive, until I realized I’d had it with ‘Jaws 4’ and some of the other stuff I’m very sorry for. In TV, from year to year I’ve been able to do the kind of material I believe in, and we’re reaching far more people in television than in theatrical features.”

— Amy Dawes

Robert Dornhelm

Transylvania-born documentary film director Robert Dornhelm is fast becoming the go-to guy for many of television’s biggest projects. He recently took on the American West in the Steven Spielberg-produced 12-hour “Into the West” for TNT (Dornhelm directed the first of the mini’s six episodes). He then flew to Morocco to begin production on the Robert Halmi Sr.-exec produced remake of “The Ten Commandments” for ABC. After launching his career with a spate of docs, Dornhelm moved into features (“Cold Feet,” “Requiem for Dominic.”). But it’s his work in telefilms — among them “Anne Frank: The Whole Story,” “Sins of the Father,” and “Spartacus” — that has brought him particular satisfaction, and landed him in Morocco remaking none other than Cecil B. DeMille.

LONGFORM TV VS. FEATURES: “I’m a filmmaker, so it’s not a question of the medium, it’s about reaching the people. I had got bored with television early on and moved to features, but then I found projects on television that were more interesting than the meaningless formulaic stuff happening in features.”

THE WESTERN SAGA: “When I first heard about ‘Into the West,’ my reaction was that it was an incredible undertaking. I just wanted to be able to do some justice to the story, because I’m Transylvanian and because I grew up with the John Wayne type of westerns.”

THE BIBLICAL EPIC: “At the end of the day it’s a film. If I can bring something personal to it, then I’ve done my job. Cecil B. DeMille created beautiful tableaus rather than tell the story of one person (Moses) talking about survival. Sure, the background is the Bible, but I’m still telling a personal story — if I can’t relate through my main character, then I don’t go there.”

— Kathleen O’Steen

Fred Schepisi

Feature film veteran Fred Schepisi made his debut in the miniseries format with HBO’s “Empire Falls,” a two-parter that debuted Memorial Day weekend. The 62-day, $25 million shoot took place in Maine, where Richard Russo’s novel was set. “We had to do less in terms of re-creating things, and the actors were living amongst the people they were playing, so they were really soaking up the atmosphere,” he notes.

MINISERIES VS. MOVIE: “I kept thinking of it as a film, and to have the opportunity to do something at this length was great. I don’t think you could do the book justice in any other way. Doing it in chapters, as well, takes pressure off the need for ever-increasing narrative drive. (In a first, the mini’s eight episodes will be available separately via HBO On Demand). You do a little teasing, but you’re not building to a point you can’t sustain.”

HBO VS. THEATRICAL: “HBO acts very much like a film studio — there are none of the constraints I understand a normal network would put on your material. No one’s there trying to make you pander down or back off from the more controversial things. They’re encouraging you all the time to go for it. The most challenging thing is trying to get movie quality at an HBO shooting rate. (He says full-cast rehearsal time helped.) That’s the least expensive time, and if you can get people to do that, it gives them a chance to understand the essence of the scene, to feel the emotion and start to see it working.”

CABLE VS. THEATRICAL: “Of course there’s nothing like seeing it with an audience, and that’s always going to be my preference. But I must say, on HBO it’ll probably get seen by four times as many people as it would otherwise. If anybody else really wants to see it, they’ll go out and get the DVD. Rick Russo (author and screenwriter) and I did a commentary track for the DVD. Having to go on for 3½ hours, I’d have to say it’s quite a master class!”

— Amy Dawes

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