A television pilot is like a first date. It’s a sales pitch where a great first impression hopefully sets up weeks — if not years — of loyal companionship. A pilot is shiny, exciting and dressed to the nines. This is why series premieres traditionally dominate the Emmy directors category.
Although a series can change as it creatively finds itself, TV directors agree that a pilot often is the best representation of a show. “It’s where you really establish tone,” says Tucker Gates, who directed the “Bates Motel” (A&E) pilot. “You establish look. You establish performance and characters and the rhythms of the show. It’s a chance for a director to come in and create that. That’s why those episodes are nominated more than others.”
But can a so-called regular episode compete against the double-the-budget-and-schedule openers? Michael Cuesta, who is responsible for “Homeland’s” (Showtime) pilot as well as second-season finale, thinks a good show should fare well, even without the added theatrics of a pilot. “You trust that the scripts are good enough that you don’t have to pump it up with too much cinema to make it seem bigger than it really is,” he says. “I think once you get into the series, you’re trusting that the characters are taking the story and we just have to capture it.”
When Cuesta directs a pilot he gives little thought to what comes after. “I always put the blinders on and think of it as just one piece. You have to as a director, because that helps you really carve out the cinematic movie nature of it,” says Cuesta, who last year was Emmy-nominated for the pilot of “Homeland.” “When you watch the pilot, it almost feels like a half a film.”
Showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon encouraged Cuesta to bring his vision to the table. “They know that they’re hiring a cinematic director — ‘Let him do his thing,’ ” Cuesta says. “I’ve always worked with people that wanted what I was going to bring. It would be crazy to get in the way of a director that has a vision. He’s ultimately responsible for the way it ends up on film.”
Once Cuesta had set up the Langley universe, episodes that followed were able to do more with less. “You don’t have to shoot as much coverage or do giant set pieces,” says Cuesta. “You can really rely on just telling the story in a simple way and letting the camera linger on Claire Danes or Damian Lewis.”
For the pilot of “Revolution,” “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau directed a visually complex calling card that could have doubled as a summer blockbuster. “The movie business is shifting in a way that is beginning to more closely emulate the television world as you get more and more franchises,” Favreau says. “What you’re really establishing is a style, a sensibility and a cast and once you create that template, it becomes easier for other people to keep the ball rolling.”
Charles Beeson had the unenviable task of following up the visual effects spectacle with episode two. “If you look at the scripts of ‘Revolution,’ you get to page 20, and you think, ‘We’re out of money already. There’s another 27 pages…’ By the time you get to page 47, you’re looking to get a plane ticket out of town,” he jokes. But Beeson wouldn’t want the initial director to aim any lower. He loves a challenge — like delivering a real steam train to set halfway through episode five when one didn’t exist within 200 miles, or creating a tanker for episode seven. “We finally got the train, and the tech scout says, ‘It looks like we need a tanker.’ ” In the end they used CGI for that. “We’re finding ways of achieving higher and higher production values,” says Beeson. “It’s amazing what we did in season one.”
While a director is seen as the auteur of a movie, a TV series represents the vision of its creator. Even when a feature film director is hired to helm a pilot, he knows going in that it is going to be a collaborative effort.
“Ray (McKinnon, creator) already had a certain kind of imagery in mind, he really knew this world and these people inside out. My job was to help bring his vision to life,” says Keith Gordon, who directed the pilot of ‘Rectify’ (Sundance). “I come out of independent features, so my films were much more my own. On some level, of course, there’s a real reward to filling your own vision, but there’s also something wonderful about working with somebody that you really respect and being a collaborator.”
In hiring directors for the rest of the inaugural season Gordon felt it would be interesting if each episode played like a mini-movie, for example episode three directed by Nicole Kassell (“The Woodsman”), in which we meet the mother and brother of the teen girl Daniel was convicted of killing. “While I was invited to watch episode one and the dailies for episode two, I was specifically asked not to fit a prescribed mold,” Kassell says. “Keith and Ray were wanting each director to add to the feeling that each day in this man’s life was so distinct and unique an experience. So I approached my episode as I do any of my work, really examining the material for point of view, mood, tone, and then pulling references to share with the d.p. to convey my idea for each scene.”
Even when a show knows it is going into production, some would argue that the first episode serves as the welcome wagon for what’s to come. “It’s the most important episode of the series because it kicks it off,” says Tucker Gates who directed the pilot and an additional four episodes of “Bates Motel” (A&E). “It draws viewers and gets the critics involved. Also, we wanted to really take the time to deal with the iconography and get it right tonally before we rushed into series.”
Because the show was already greenlit, the cost of the pilot was spread across 10 episodes, allowing production a bigger budget to re-create the famous motel and house. “For us, the real challenge was how to work that into a show that could live and breathe in a way that didn’t feel like we were trapped with it.”
“I think that “The Americans” found itself as the season unfolded,” says Adam Arkin, who directed three episodes including the season finale. “By the time we did (episode 10) ‘Only You,’ the show was more grounded in what its style became and a little more sure-footed,”
Arkin says the series’ style became grittier as the season progressed. “The pilot had a certain gloss to it that made it very attractive and interesting but was going to be harder to re-create week to week. … There was a lot more handheld work when the show was up and running on an episode by episode basis and a lot more use of available light.”
Gavin O’Connor, who directed the pilot, applauds Arkin and the first season’s directors for maintaining the tone he created, though he had 16 days to shoot and a significantly larger budget. “I was trying to create something that in some way, could be captured week in and week out, and I think they’ve honored that,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to have to pull this off in seven days.”