Good news in a troubled economy: The man who has been a veritable human resources department for television directors has no plans to close up shop.
“Once you’ve declared the bar as high enough, it’s time to retire — which I am not ready to do at all,” says “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, who is being recognized tonight at the DGA Honors in New York City.
Just through his “Law & Order” franchise, which includes spinoffs “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” Wolf has provided more than 750 directing opportunities since the flagship series premiered Sept. 13, 1990, with John Whitesell behind the camera.
“Between the ‘Law & Orders,’ ‘New York Undercover’ and half a dozen other series, we’ve basically employed everyone in New York who has a DGA card,” Wolf says. “That’s quite an accomplishment.”
“Criminal Intent,” the youngest of the three series, has completed seven seasons, while “SVU” recently kicked off season 10. The original “L&O,” with 18 campaigns under its belt, is two away from catching “Gunsmoke” as the longest-running primetime TV drama in U.S. history.
“(Wolf) has created a lot of work,” says DGA president Michael Apted. “The idea of these awards is to represent all aspects of the business, not just directorial excellence in any particular genre.” Apted adds that the honor recognizes “a very wide canvas in our business … (and in this case) acknowledges (Wolf’s) importance on the East Coast to the whole industry.”
Though the formula for “L&O” is well known, and the series has never won a directing Emmy, its long-term success is testament to the skill of its many directors.
“The series are directors’ showcases because they depend on words and how the actors say the words,” Wolf says. “The ‘Law & Order’ brand is not focused on visual pyrotechnics but directorial expertise at eliciting performances from a huge cast of both world-class actors and day players.”
Wolf notes that the shows don’t offer unbridled freedom, saying that “over the years, we’ve had to tell some directors politely, ‘Please don’t change the show.’ ”
But the “L&O” industry also has been at the forefront of integrating directors’ voices into the traditionally writer-dominated TV production hierarchy.
“Directors who are associated with specific shows have an enormous capacity, because of their professionalism and discipline, to impose higher standards on A-level shows,” Wolf says. “A perfect example is the string of directors including Ted Kotcheff, who is still at ‘SVU,’ to Ed Sherin, who was indispensable for many years on ‘Law & Order,’ to Gus Makris, who started as our d.p. on ‘Law & Order’ and has directed countless episodes
(50 through the end of last season).”
In addition, Arthur Forney (co-exec producer on all three series), has been a repeat director, while David Platt, an “L&O” boom operator in 1991, has gone on to helm dozens of episodes.
“Life is sort of hard being a director in episodic television,” Apted says. “It’s not director-friendly. … But Dick is.”
As far as the next mountains to climb, Wolf has his sights set far beyond the stories of two separate yet equally important groups in the criminal justice system. Buoyed by the success of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which was nearly six years in the making but won six 2007 Emmys, Wolf has a feature-length docu on the Doors in the works.
He also is in pre-production on NBC pilot “Lost and Found.” “Chris Levinson has written a fabulous script,” Wolf says, “and this has the potential to be another television perennial.” Just what working directors want to hear.