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TV’s showrunners outrank directors

There's no easy way to navigate power hierarchy

For film directors, it’s all about control.

Realizing it will be their vision that appears on the bigscreen, and knowing they’ll be judged on whether the film is successful or not, helmers fight for final cut, casting choices and answer to no one — except, possibly, the visiting studio suit or producer — while ruling on the set.

With episodic television, however, directors walk a fine line between their own creative muse and the expectations of the showrunners.

“It can be anything from a collaborative experience to, shall we say, challenging,” says Allen Coulter, nominated for directing the pilot for FX’s “Damages.”

“You can’t come in doing your own thing,” adds fellow nominee Arlene Sanford, who directed “The Mighty Rouges” episode of ABC’s “Boston Legal.”

Showrunners are often open to a director’s input, particularly on pilots, when the look and tone of the show is being established. Especially then, communication between helmer and scribe is paramount.

Paul Feig has been on both sides. Before receiving his Emmy nom for directing the “Goodbye, Toby” episode of NBC’s “The Office,” Feig was creator and exec producer of the Peacock’s “Freaks and Geeks.”

“I saw it on the other side first, which was to get really good directors that you like but you are still the one calling the shots. Once I started directing other people’s shows, I always wanted to come in with ideas by having studied the show, but then never being above it when somebody goes, ‘This is exactly opposite of how I saw it,'” says Feig.

In television, the life of a director is somewhat similar to that during the so-called “golden age” of Hollywood, when helmers were kept under the massive thumbs of studio moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn, folks who often had final cut on many of the projects they produced.

“Just reading about Capra now,” Coulter says, “he suffered the same way — and he had a good relationship with Harry Cohn. So he had some clout, but not complete control. Ultimately, no matter how good that relationship is with a showrunner, there’s going to come a point where you’ve got to get out of the room.”

Separating from the material

Letting go can be the most difficult part.

“You have to fall in love with the material in order to care,” Coulter says. “Then once you fall in love, you have to quickly revert to a kind of one-night-stand relationship with the material –I loved her last night, but I don’t give a shit today. That’s the attitude that you have to take if you’re going to survive the whips and lashes of outrageous fortune in television.”

Having an added role on the show helps. As an exec producer on ABC’s “Pushing Daisies,” Barry Sonnenfeld keeps tabs on dailies, scripts, previews of director’s cuts.

“It’s very important if you’re in it for the long run and want the show to stay on for five or six years. If you don’t stay involved, as soon as you leave the show the tone changes. It was a mistake early in my career not to do that because if I did I think ‘The Tick’ would still be on,” Sonnenfeld says.

Emmy-nominated director Jay Roach of “Recount” found himself in “a rare situation” on that film, having complete creative control while still working closely with writer and co-producer Danny Strong.

Roach wanted Strong on set “to help in this sort of graduate school course I had,” he says. “It was so complicated: 100 speaking parts, 200 scenes, kind of an epic story squashed down into this one location. I needed Danny by my side.”

“In all of the (telepic) projects that I’ve worked on, none of the writers were producers,” adds Mikael Salomon, miniseries nominee for TNT’s “The Company.” “To me, it functions the same way as a feature, in that you’re sent a script, and you start working with the writer on that script but they don’t get involved in the same way (as episodic series).”

At the end of it all, it’s all about making the written word pop.

“My job,” says Sanford, “is to take what’s in that script and make it even better than the writer thought it could be.”

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