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Big-Screen Directors Relish Small-Screen Opportunities

There’s a new rejoinder in Hollywood: “But what I really want to do is direct television.”

Established directors with nothing left to prove on the feature side have been flocking to the smaller screen at an accelerating pace, a migration reflected in the crowded Emmy race for director. Everyone from up-and-coming indie specialists to venerable A-listers is benefiting from the influx of billions of dollars into original content production, especially on commercial-free and notes-averse streaming services. Freed to execute their visions in six or more hours instead of squeezing them into just two, they are gleefully hopping over what for decades used to be a virtually impermeable wall between feature film and episodic television.

“I really like what’s going on,” says Jean-Marc Vallée, who has segued from such films as “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club” to making his TV debuts on HBO series including “Big Little Lies” and the forthcoming “Sharp Objects.” “It used to be like, ‘Hey, you’re doing film.’ Or, ‘you’re doing TV.’ But now there’s a continuum and the process is virtually identical.”

On the set of Netflix’s “‘The Crown,’ we joke about it being a TV program,” says director and executive producer Stephen Daldry, a three-time Oscar nominee.

“It’s just longform drama. It just gives you more time to tell stories.” Shoots for high-end shows “are complicated and take a long time. It will be nine months for a season of our show. A film is a fraction of that.”

Left, Jean-Marc Vallée directs “Big Little Lies,” while Tom McCarthy goes small for “13 Reasons Why.”
Courtesy of HBO/Netflix

Daldry’s crew, the artists whose collaboration with him makes the show a feast for the eyes and ears, is also largely imported from the feature side, a big plus for most feature emigrés. Over the past couple of years, they have included projects such as HBO’s “True Detective” and “Boardwalk Empire,” Cinemax’s “The Knick,” and Netflix’s David Fincher game-changer “House of Cards.” The pioneer a generation ago, of course, was David Lynch, whose original seasons of “Twin Peaks” unlocked the cinematic potential of TV.

Vallée says everything on “Big Little Lies” was shot in sequence and edited completely in post, so the crescendos leading up to the end of episodes, for example, took a lot of fine-tuning.

“It all happened in post,” he says. “We shot with one camera, available light. So it felt very much like a film, but we had to do a lot of cutting and make decisions in the edit room.”

Tom McCarthy, who has directed films such as “Spotlight,” found performing similar duties on Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” to be a tonic after the grueling period of making and then promoting the 2015 Oscar winner for best picture. “I wanted to get my hands dirty, but I didn’t want to dive into another feature,” he says.
He found the experience satisfying and, like any viewer, he has feasted on the high-grade series fare coming out these days. “Directors are still wrapping their heads around it,” he says. “It’s still a writer-driven medium.”

But much as he enjoys television, he still considers movie going a sanctuary. “There’s nothing quite like sitting in a movie theater. In the turbulent last three to six months, there is nowhere that’s been more comforting to me than a movie theater. I’ve thought, ‘Oh, I feel really good here. I can escape into a film.’”

Vallée can relate. Having done two series in a row, “I’m going back to features,” he says. “Television is too demanding physically and emotionally.”

Count Barry Jenkins as a big TV booster. The director of Oscar winner “Moonlight” was jazzed to be offered an episode of Netflix’s “Dear White People.” Speaking to Variety from Cannes, he gushed about another Netflix show, Aziz Ansari’s second season of “Master of None.”

“I do think the worlds are merging in a very organic way. It’s all storytelling. The difference is the speed at which you work.”
Barry Jenkins

“I do think the worlds are merging in a very organic way,” Jenkins says. “It’s all storytelling. The big difference is the speed at which you have to work in television. … What’s different about this moment right now is that there are just so many different formats and ways to tell stories.”

To Jenkins, “all this stuff is a blessing. The possibilities are endless. The story form, with what Aziz did on ‘Master of None,’ with some episode lengths 35 minutes, some 20 minutes,” he says. “You can’t program it. It’s like with a film adapting a short story. Art begets art begets art. Television is a younger medium.”

TV may be younger than cinema, but Ron Howard’s professional life has encompassed virtually the entire lifespan. He says the freedom to tell a story cinematically and with broad creative freedom, as he did with National Geographic’s “Genius” (and Hulu’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”) is a dramatic change from the late-1970s when he was getting his start directing TV movies.

“Even with the most epic miniseries then, like ‘Roots’ or ‘Rich Man/Poor Man,’ you couldn’t have the cinematic power and the narrative, the sophistication of the movies. They couldn’t be that frank about the characters because they were network television.”

On “Genius,” which tells the story of Albert Einstein, “I approached it with all the ambition of a feature film … and applied the same rigor” as on features like “A Beautiful Mind” or “Frost/Nixon.”

While nothing is booked for Howard in the series department, he says, “I’ve had the itch to do more TV. Don’t forget, I acted on ‘Playhouse 90,’ ‘Red Skelton Show.’” He neglected to mention “Happy Days” or “The Andy Griffith Show.”
More recently, as a producer and narrator, he is in the sitcom pantheon for “Arrested Development.” “That show came out of a video site we had invested in called Pop.com,” a failed venture that also involved filmmakers like Steven Spielberg. “I always like to think about what new grammar is being invented. That’s why TV is an exciting place right now.”

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