Pilot director Kremlinology

U.S. pilot season is a dog-eat-dog world where huge amounts of money are wasted on shows no one will ever see, and it is, all in all, a pretty good thing. (In theory it might be more efficient to make fewer pilots, and networks are always talking about it – but the huge number of pilots is part of what keeps the U.S. TV industry humming, because there’s a lot of work out there around this time. If we had more pilots in English Canada, even more failed pilots, we’d probably have a stronger TV industry.) But since most of these pilots will never see the light of day, at least until the networks do the sensible thing and put failed pilots online, it’s hard to know what to say about them until we know which ones made it and which ones didn’t.

What I do like to look at around this time of year is which directors got to do pilots and which ones didn’t. As you know, episodic TV directing is not and never will be a glamour job: these directors do amazing things on tight schedules and budgets, but it usually can’t be a creative enterprise like film directing sometimes is. The TV director must stick to a visual template created by someone else and shape the performances to fit in with the way the characters behaved in the other episodes; those decisions, the heart of directing a film, are really made before he or she shows up on the set. Which means that the closest thing TV directing has to a glamour job, especially now that TV movies are not very prestigious, is the TV pilot. Even there, the director does not have full power – a Martin Scorsese is a hired gun on Boardwalk Empire in a way that he isn’t on most of his feature films. (Update: I am told that Scorsese originated the project through his production company, so this was not the right example to use; here’s an article from a couple of years ago with some examples of feature-film directors doing pilots, and at least some of them were hired after the script was picked up.) But the pilot director gets to set the look of the series and shape the performances from scratch. Every subsequent director will be to some extent imitating the pilot director. Plus the pilot director often gets residuals from the series.

But there often doesn’t seem to be a system by which episodic TV directors are “promoted” to pilots. I get the impression it happens more often outside the U.S. industry: the pilot of Lost Girl (just picked up for a fourth season) was by frequent episodic TV director Erik Canuel, and the first episode of Luther was by Brian Kirk, a director who handles a lot of TV episodes on both sides of the ocean. But in the States, it sometimes seems like the people who are trusted to handle episodes, even very complicated episodes, are different from the ones who are trusted to do pilots. Take for example Tim Van Patten, the former White Shadow actor who is now one of HBO’s most valuable episodic TV directors. Van Patten has directed many episode of many different shows for HBO, but he rarely does pilots. He is credited with the first episode of Game of Thrones, but he was not hired to direct it originally – HBO called him in to re-shoot it after they dismissed the original director, Thomas McCarthy.

I don’t know what kind of considerations go into deciding who is pilot-director material and who isn’t; there are, after all, different skill sets involved. But it’s clear that networks and studios often prefer to go with feature directors. Sometimes their names are more impressive and can help a show sell, like Scorsese or Jonathan Demme. And even when they’re not big-name directors (like Gavin O’Connor, who directed the pilot for The Americans) feature people may have the creative directing experience that an episodic director might theoretically lack; the director of a feature film has created something from nothing, rather than building on other directors’ work and a cast that’s already in place.

Sometimes the choice of a feature director can backfire, as it apparently did with McCarthy. And sometimes there are reasons to doubt whether a feature director understands television as well as an episodic director: if the purpose of the pilot is to create a template that other directors can follow, then a director with a particularly flashy or expensive-to-reproduce style can be a disadvantage (two episodes of David Fincher is fine; 13 episodes of imitation Fincher can be a bit much). HBO allowed David Chase to direct the pilot of The Sopranos himself – his insistence on directing was supposedly one of the things the broadcast networks objected to – and it’s hard to argue that a feature director would have done it better.

Three-camera comedy is a somewhat separate thing, because feature directors can’t do it and wouldn’t want to; it’s a specialized discipline that only a few directors know how to do. Even there, though, there’s a clear pecking order: James Burrows is the star, the only traditional sitcom director whose name alone means something to a network executive, and he probably gets most things sent to him first. (This year he chose to do three at CBS and one at NBC for his former Will & Grace star Sean Hayes.) After that, you get to see who is next in line to take over as the big cheese in this field after Burrows retires, if he ever does. Pamela Fryman, director of How I Met Your Mother, scored a coup this year when Chuck Lorre – whose last three shows have all been Burrows pilots – gave her the pilot of his new show. And here again, we see that pilot directing and episodic directing are different things: all of Lorre’s three shows have their own directors, but none of them were chosen for this pilot. Being trusted to direct a weekly series and being trusted to do a pilot are different things.

Back to drama, there are a few directors who are not feature people, basically episodic directors, who have somehow managed to establish themselves as pilot guys. Allen Coulter is one of them: He does lots of individual episodes of any TV drama with a “dark” feel, but he also did the pilots for Sons of Anarchy, Damages and Nurse Jackie. The pilot of Motive was given to Bronwen Hughes, who has established himself by directing a number of pilots including two USA shows that got picked up (White Collar and Fairly Legal). And the king of TV directors may be David Nutter, who rarely directs anything except TV but is so much in demand for pilots, and has such a great track record of getting pilots picked up to series, that insiders watch to see which pilot he accepts and just assume it’ll be on the schedule in the fall.

I don’t know, artistically, what I prefer when it comes to a TV pilot – it’s always hard to tell what the director’s contribution is in TV, so it’s just tricky to figure this out by merely watching the show. (We at home can tell the good writing from the bad writing, but when it comes to directing, this may be something only the insiders can judge: an episode that was poorly-directed on the set can be saved in editing and come out fine.) Just as a matter of rooting interest, I usually prefer it when an episodic director gets the nod over a feature director: TV people have enough trouble getting respect without movie people coming in and taking over. But no one, for example, would argue that David Lynch shouldn’t direct his own pilots.

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