TV Directing: Not Exactly Hackwork, Not Exactly Art

Joanna Weiss’s article on TV directors, which includes interviews with the likes of Rod Holcomb (who did the pilots of The A-Team and ER and is still very busy), Jack Bender (Lost) and Lesli Glatter (Mad Men), does a very good job of explaining just what directors do, how they influence the shape of a scene and even add things to the script. The article has been interpreted in some quarters as a plea for TV directing to be taken as seriously as movie directing; I don’t think that’s the point of it. As Weiss admits early on, the auteur of a continuing television series is usually the writer/producer. The director is always aware that the vision of the show is someone else’s, that the showrunner has final approval of everything. The director’s decisions are not being made in the service of his or her own vision, then, but in the service of someone else’s: the director is asking “how can I best convey what [fill in name of creator] is trying to say?” The same applies, of course, to most of the staff writers, who are normally being paid to express someone else’s creative personality rather than their own. And since single-camera shows can’t have one director for every episode, the director is further hemmed in by being a “guest” dropped in among people who work on every single episode (the exceptions are producer-directors, who direct some episodes and work on finding locations and other non-writing producer duties in the other episodes).

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But with the larger budgets of modern single-camera TV shows, and the increased visual ambition, the director can’t afford to be just a traffic manager either, and that’s what the article is getting at. We’re no longer in the days when a director could just shoot the same three angles for every scene, and maybe have one “artsy” shot in the whole 50 minutes. (Even then, TV directing wasn’t just hackwork, and directors who started in TV, like Robert Altman, found it an interesting and challenging experience. But it was simpler and cheaper to shoot a TV episode then.) The director now has to choose from an array of visual options — e.g. Jack Bender’s decision not to have a lot of hand-held on Lost — and figure out how to translate the words on the page into shot length, camera placement, lighting and mood. So the television director isn’t and usually can’t be an auteur, but must display craftsmanship that’s at a higher level than just telling people where to stand. It’s comparable, one might say, to the position of a writer on a movie where the director is in control: it is not the writer’s movie, because he or she is writing to someone else’s specifications and creating the kind of script the director wants. But hired-gun writing is a difficult job; it’s just a different kind of job from more personal writing, and the same applies to directing.

There have been occasional shows that tried to position themselves as directors’ shows, but most of them haven’t worked out that well. Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories was an explicit attempt to do an anthology show where most episodes would be defined by the personality and style of the directors (ranging from famous people like Spielberg and Scorsese to younger directors like Brad Bird and Todd Holland). It was hideously uneven, even for an anthology show, because what it didn’t have was a guiding hand who could give the series a style and a reason to exist. In TV, that usually needs to be a writer-producer.

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