While many bigscreen producers and directors attach themselves to a TV project to round out their resume, their actual contributions are often a point of debate. Possibly they’re onboard only to raise production coin or to convince a network to greenlight the project.
When Steven Spielberg chooses to put his valuable stamp on work for TV, it means something more than name only — he’ll be involved from start to finish.
While there is a tendency for established film directors working in television to “attach their names to projects and walk away,” as Sci Fi network’s topper Bonnie Hammer puts it, Spielberg is a true collaborator.
The director was intimately involved in every aspect of production for his recent streak of critical and ratings successes, including HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” Sci Fi’s “Taken” and TNT’s “Into the West.” That included every aspect of production from casting to editing to very specific decisions about film stock and color desaturation levels.
For his small-screen efforts, he’ll be presented with the Intl. Emmy Founders Award for outstanding achievement in the field of television.
“He totally respects the medium and the strength of the larger canvas,” says Darryl Frank, Spielberg’s co-producer on “Taken,” “Into the West” and the forthcoming “Nine Lives.”
Spielberg’s helming career began with episodic television, in series such as “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Columbo.”
The widespread success of his telepic “Duel” opened the door to his film career.
Even after “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” raised his profile to superstar status, he continued his work for the small screen.
In the 1980s, he produced and directed the anthology series “Amazing Stories.” In the early ’90s, Spielberg exec produced, and also appeared a few times in animated guise, for the new series of WB cartoons beginning with “Tiny Toon Adventures” and continuing through “Animaniacs” and “Pinky and the Brain.”
As an executive producer, he helped launch Peacock staple “ER” in 1994, which continues to run today.
HBO president Chris Albrecht, for whose network Spielberg worked on the multiple-Emmy-winning miniseries “Band of Brothers,” emphasizes the filmmaker’s detail-oriented approach.
“The style for how ‘Brothers’ was shot was set by Steven. He set the film style for the whole piece,” Albrecht explains.
While there are certain subjects Spielberg seems repeatedly drawn to, reviews for “Band of Brothers” were more focused on how it improved and expanded upon “Saving Private Ryan” than simply repeating it.
“The essence of any story,” Albrecht says, “is getting connected to the characters,” something to which the 10-hour running time of “Band of Brothers” really lent itself. Spielberg’s upcoming HBO project, “The Pacific War,” promises yet another angle on the familiar WWII setting.
“It has particular resonance for today,” Albrecht says. “The war in the Pacific was a war between cultures.”
The multigenerational alien abduction tale of “Taken” is another good example of television allowing Spielberg the opportunity to return to a favorite topic on a broader canvas than ever before.
“With ‘Taken’ we wanted to tell the definitive tale of alien abduction,” says Sci Fi’s Hammer. “Taken” was a bit of a risk for Sci Fi, a television return to the epic miniseries more than 20 years after the heyday of “Roots” and “Shogun.”
“This was the first time since those limited series runs that it was being done again,” Hammer says. “Like most everything else Steven does, he was a trendsetter.”
The risk paid off, as “Taken” made Sci Fi the highest-rated network on basic cable for two straight weeks, earning record-breaking numbers even in reruns.
“Taken” creator Les Bohem echoes others’ thoughts about Spielberg’s commitment and attention to detail.
“He’s amazingly focused on the task at hand,” says Bohem, who also has some interesting thoughts on why Spielberg is so often drawn to working in science fiction, which the two of them will delve into again with next year’s “Nine Lives,” also for Sci Fi.
“Steven asks really good questions. It resonates more to ask the big questions in a metaphorical fashion.” “Nine Lives,” which concerns itself with reincarnation, takes on no smaller question than the very nature of life and death.
“I’m not promising I can answer that question,” Bohem admits. “But asking the question gets us somewhere.”
Whether it’s crossing dimensional divides, taming the American West or storming the beach at Normandy, ultimately, Spielberg’s television work is remarkable for the same reason his film work has captured so many imaginations.
As Hammer says, “I don’t think there is a better storyteller.”