While television directors might not have the high-profile cachet of their film counterparts, no savvy bizzer underestimates their importance in helping a show find its initial footing.
A well-executed pilot can help turn a series into a gold mine for a studio and network, and there are a handful of helmers who are especially adept at setting a show off on its proper course.
Two go-to helmers in whom studios have placed their trust over the years are Allen Coulter and David Nutter. Coulter directed the pilots of four shows currently on air: FX’s top-rated skein “Sons of Anarchy,” Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” NBC’s “Law and Order: Los Angeles” and “Damages,” which just moved over to DirecTV from FX. Nutter, who has a deal at Warner Bros., set the tone for CBS’ “The Mentalist,” the CW’s “Supernatural” and the Peacock’s “Chase.”
In examining what a pilot should look like, both take their cues from showrunners (though they understand that if this is the showrunners’ first series, they might not know the difference between Panavision and Activision).
“It all comes in the script,” says Nutter, who has directed 16 pilots, which have all been picked up to series. He says the key is collaboration — particularly with the people who came up and worked on the script.
“It’s vital for (me) to sit with the writer and examine the script and determine what’s going on with it,” he says.
Coulter agrees: “Once I read the script and decide to get involved, there’s usually a series of conversations about what I saw when I read it. I want to see if how I imagine it is how they (the writers) imagine it. I want to be sure we’re talking about the same show. Probably the reason I end up with the job is because the writer (sees a thing) the same way I saw it.”
All pilots are not created equal, however. Both directors agree that cable — particularly pay cable — allows for a bit more creative freedom when lensing a pilot. It’s the network’s way of putting a particular stamp on a show. In broadcast, and particularly among procedurals, the goal can simply be to strive to establish a consistent look that viewers can become familiar with as each series moves forward.
One broadcast pilot that was distinct from — and more expensive than — most others was ABC’s “Lost,” which ended its six-year run last spring. At two hours and an estimated $10 million-$14 million (Hawaii locales and plane crashes don’t come cheap), J.J. Abrams set out to create something grand in scope.
Then, however, like many pilot directors who gets a show off the ground, Abrams went on to the next new-program challenge, handing the directorial reins to Jack Bender, who had to duplicate Abrams’ template.
Exec producer Carlton Cuse says Bender’s history with Abrams on earlier shows paved the way there being few problems re-creating what Abrams had laid out. Bender was even able to include his own take on using the island as a major character.
“Jack had collaborated with J.J. on ‘Alias,’ and was very familiar with him and his aesthetic,” Cuse explains. “That made J.J. comfortable about Jack coming on board. … Jack rose to the challenge. If you watched all of season one, there’s a continuity to the style and approach. J.J. and Jack had developed a shorthand.”
Although he directs plenty of pilots, Coulter isn’t loathe to follow an established director to take on a midseason episode. He had the task of matching the look Martin Scorsese established in the pilot of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Coulter says the assignment wasn’t difficult because the cast and below-the-line staff were already well versed in the visual look of the skein, which focuses on the politics and personalities of Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era.
For each pilot, Nutter and Coulter try to find something unique that helps it break out from the pack. For “Without a Trace,” which Nutter helmed, that meant establishing the ticking clock that measures the progress of Anthony LaPaglia’s Agent Jack Malone and his team as they track down their latest missing person. On “Chase,” it was the unusual setup of revealing the villain at the beginning of the episode and then playing cat and mouse as Kelli Giddish’s Annie Frost and her crew circle in for the kill.
While Nutter has directed a handful of “Entourage” episodes and Coulter was behind the camera on several installments of “Sex and the City,” both are predisposed toward drama — and toward delivering a show that blends seemlessly with what’s gone before.
“I’m not a director with a style,” Nutter says. “I want (my contribution) to be invisible.”