Road to the Emmys: The Director - Big dreams on small screens

Starting in the late 1950s, television invaded the movies in a two-fold attack.

First, it seized the moviegoing audience, offering up enough free entertainment in the comfy safety of home that the notion of bothering to go out to theaters became a burden that had a simple solution: Stay in. Second, TV style infiltrated the cinema, from directors like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer to actors like Steve McQueen bringing their smallscreen talents to the bigscreen.

Now, the invasion has reversed course. Filmmakers from the cinema world are shifting to TV with unprecedented speed and gusto, giving up little if any of their artistic vision in the process and snatching Emmy noms along the way.

No fewer than 11 of the 15 directing nominees in the drama, nonfiction and miniseries-movie categories are feature film helmers, including such world-class filmmakers as Olivier Assayas (“Carlos”), Martin Scorsese (with twin noms for the pilot of “Boardwalk Empire” and the doc profile on Elia Kazan, “A Letter to Elia”), Todd Haynes (“Mildred Pierce”), Neil Jordan (“The Borgias”) and Curtis Hanson (“Too Big to Fail”).

Add to this impressive roster the likes of Canadian filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa (the “Boardwalk Empire” episode, “Anastasia”), “Monster” director Patty Jenkins (“The Killing” pilot) and feature doc filmmakers Josh Fox (“Gasland”), Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (“Cinema Verite”) plus Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“Becoming Chaz”), and the roster begins to resemble the Oscars more than a traditional Emmy rundown.

And as these directors note, their tube projects were, for all intents and purposes, movies with fewer strings attached.

“I approached this like a regular movie, in terms of its shooting,” says Hanson of “Too Big to Fail,” his HBO drama based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book-length account of the 2008 fiscal crisis that verged on economic meltdown. “The challenge was that it was largely contained to offices with guys talking, so how do you make that visually interesting? My choices weren’t to compromise for the television screen at all, but to come up with the most interesting camera setups I could find.”

Haynes’ adaptation (with screenwriter and novelist Jon Raymond, who usually collaborates with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt) of James M. Cain’s novel “Mildred Pierce,” may prove to be a test case in how a highly developed cinema language and style cedes no ground to the supposedly limiting TV confines. Effectively a five-hour and 40-minute movie, it emphatically reduces the impact of Michael Curtiz’s Oscar-winning version with Joan Crawford, while displaying all of Haynes’ exceptional gifts for aesthetic textures in color and light.

As a sign of its inherent cinematic punch, the film will screen in its entirety at the Venice Film Festival.

“Cain had written his ‘Madame Bovary’ with ‘Mildred Pierce,’ a social novel with a domestic narrative,” Haynes says. “Jon brought the novel to my attention, and it was such a shock to discover since I so much loved the movie. I jettisoned any noir touches, and turned to the American style in ’70s films like ‘Chinatown,’ ‘Klute’ and the ‘Godfather’ films, many shot by (cinematographer) Gordon Willis, which stressed a cool, sophisticated camera that was more observant and less intrusive.”

Assayas, whose films from “Summer Hours” to “Irma Vep” consider a host of topics from genre to economic and cultural globalization, was offered “Carlos” by Canal Plus. The Euro cable giant, he says, “understands cinema, since they have one foot producing in the film world and one foot in television. They allowed me not only a budget far exceeding anything I had before ($15 million), but also the chance to make a film without compromising an inch.”

When “Carlos” appeared last year, it premiered in an out-of-competition Cannes slot, and its astonishing screening inspired many observers to note that had the festival’s rules not applied — that a pic set for tube play can’t compete — “Carlos” may very well have won the Palme d’Or.

Docmakers like Fox made “Gasland” for the bigscreen first — it preemed at last year’s Sundance Film Festival — and then was picked up by HBO. But fellow docmakers Pulcini and Berman, who shifted from docs to narrative movies a few years ago with “American Splendor,” made “Cinema Verite” for the premium cabler, and even further, determined to “make a movie that was TV commenting on TV itself,” Berman says.

“We never conceded to filming for the TV screen,” she adds, “except for perhaps a few more closeups than we’d normally do.”

ROAD TO THE EMMYS: THE DIRECTOR
Film directors reign at Emmys
Drama | Comedy | Minis, Movies and Dramatic Special | Nonfiction | Variety, Music and Comedy

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