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Top TV Directors Put Their Creative Stamp on Series

Hed: Vision Quest
Dek: Directors work with showrunners to put their creative stamp on series

A showrunner might have overall creative authority over a TV series, but the director has a lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to putting her defining stamp on each episode. Showrunners don’t usually helm every episode, and they rely on directors to drum up their own personal vision and bring the storyline to life in a way that enhances the overarching themes and esthetic of each show.
Kari Skogland, who most recently directed episode 7 (“After”) of Hulu’s Emmy-winning dystopian-set series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” works closely with showrunner Bruce Miller to create an episode that reflects her own artistic sensibilities while also staying true to Miller’s.

“‘Handmaid’ has a signature look overall,” says Skogland. “There are certain kinds of lenses, certain kinds of esthetics. So you want to honor that which has been established, and a lot of that is embedded in the writing. No matter what, the strength of the writing really guides you, and then it’s a bit of a conversation back and forth with [Miller]. Obviously, there are budget issues, always, and you have to fit within a certain box. And then there’s making sure that I fully understand Bruce’s vision on an episode-per-episode basis. There are layers and layers of emotions, storyline, and you want to make sure you are honoring the emotional space that each character is in.”

When shooting “Dear White People,” Justin Simien’s subversive comedy about racial discrimination at a mostly white Ivy League college, the process works similarly. Simien, who is showrunner and directs
several episodes per season, says he is not only open to directors with their own creative spin, but also encourages it.

“The philosophy of the show is that we treat the world very cinematically,” says Simien. “First, out of the gate, I want a filmmaker. Whether or not they’ve been working in TV or film or wherever, I want people who have a cinematic sensibility. I want people who aren’t looking to paint by numbers.”
Working with the actors on the series is also key, says Skogland.

“Elisabeth Moss guides us as well,” she says. “She’s a very strong collaborator. Bruce and I always go to her for continued collaboration to bring it all together. Even though I may spearhead the day, the series is very team oriented. Bruce is extraordinary, as is Lizzy, and both of them really support the creative [process], so you really are encouraged to be as creative as you can possibly be and leave no stone unturned.”

Without the originality that comes from directors, Simien says TV risks becoming banal and ordinary.
“I am looking for people who can take the distinctive look that I have created, and not feel intimidated by that and then riff on it. I really want filmmakers who will bring their own stamp, because each episode comes from a different point of view. We have to feel like they exist in their own little world.”

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