In a flag-planting piece for Vulture this May, New York Magazine television critic Matt Zoller Seitz argued that the now decade-long conversation about what’s been dubbed the Golden Age of Television contains a critical perception error. “Even now, in the era of think pieces calling The Wire the Great American Novel and insisting that television is somehow ‘better than’ movies, the notion persists that TV is not a director’s medium—that any creativity comes from the writer or producer, whose jobs fuse in the P.T. Barnum–esque title ‘showrunner,'” he noted. “But here’s the thing: It isn’t true and maybe never was.”
That sentiment has been controversial, though it’s more balanced an idea than it might seem: Seitz was essentially arguing that in television, directors aren’t merely producers of little widgets, but people with distinct stylistic contributions to the end results we see on-screen. It was an idea that a group of directors associated with FX television shows embraced at a panel at the Television Critics Association press tour on Sunday, with newly-elected Directors Guild of America president Paris Barclay calling Seitz’s piece “one of the best I’ve seen, and everyone should read it.” And their on-stage conversation made clear that the directors on the panel are looking for new ways to flex their creative muscles in television, and to seek roles that allow them to make greater contributions to the shows they’re associated with.
One of the common perceptions is that directors in television are simply translating the on-page vision of the writers and show-runners. But Barclay said it was important to remember that many directors are producers or executive producers on the shows with which they’re most closely affiliated, and as such have much wider responsibilities–and much greater creative influence, including giving guidance to freelance directors who are working on individual episodes.
“I guess I’ve been an executive producer on several shows now where this has been the case it’s my job to prepare the directors and try to give them all the information they need sometimes to facilitate communication with the writer-producer,” he said. “I’m in the scouting vein. I’m on the technical scouts. I’m helping choose the locations. I’m in every casting session even if I’m not directing as the producer, and I’m making sure the show is on budget and on time and is reasonably good. But I’m not usually on the set. Usually, once the shooting starts, I like to give the director the space to actually now direct. I’m really heavy in prepping them, but I don’t like to be there when they’re directing.”
Michael Dinner, who works on Justified, said that he encourages guest directors to innovate, rather than to adhere to a rigid house style. “The greatest thing that a producer director can say to a director who you’ve basically cast into the show,” he said, is “’Understand the history of the show, what came before, but do something great because then we’re going to steal from you.’…what you’re asking someone who’s coming in, you’re asking someone to put a piece of themselves into the show, but also have respect for what got the show there.”
And Daniel Sackheim, who worked on The Americans this season, said that his conversations with other directors on a show are often oriented towards how he can best help the actors he’ll be working with.
“Whenever I go onto a series, I always try to huddle with the director who either precedes me or someone who has had some experience with the show. In fact, I did it recently with the series called Longmire, and Gwyneth was on that show just before me, and we sat down, and we talked at some length about approaches to dealing with the actors because each actor has you have to approach performance and direction with each actor oftentimes differently,” he said. “And it’s sort of a soup, where all you have to treat all the ingredients differently to end up with the right recipe.”
The panelists acknowledged, though, that there were differences between working in features and in television, and that the balance of power between writers and directors, as well as the production timetable, were real factors.
“I think a lot of directors, it takes some getting used to if they’re coming from the feature world, to know that you really have to love and respect writers,” Barclay said. “It’s not going to be all about you here. You’re going to have to deal with someone else who is going to have a strong point of view and is going to give you something that they’re going to expect to more or less see. And a lot of directors in the feature world just aren’t really used to that kind of a relationship with their writers.”
The League‘s Jeff Schaffer said that he thought feature comedies were learning from television comedies, because coordination between writing and directing is so critical to successful joke execution.
“The reason why a lot of comedy writers become comedy directors is because you want to make sure that the joke that you wrote is actually captured on screen. So there’s and I think you go through the processes, and some directors are amazing and get it exactly, and then this happens a lot on the movie you write this thing, and they don’t actually want the writer there. And, well, that’s a giant mistake…movie comedies are actually looking a lot more like comedy TV shows in that sense.”
The directors all agreed that improvements in technology have given them substantially more creative freedom to capture shots from unusual angles, and to stay in the moment with actors during critical takes. Wilfred director Randall Einhorn said that the comedy was shot on “a stills [camera] you can buy at Costco and it looks like what you saw last year…They’re beautiful. Also, the flexibility of being able to put them in strange places and being able to move them in new ways is really interesting.” Jackie Marcus Schaffer, the co-creator of The League, said that her show has three cameras rolling at all times, because “For an improvisational comedy, having the flexibility of smaller cameras and being able to capture everything,” is important. “We shoot every episode in three and a half days. You only have [guest stars like] Jeff Goldblum and Sarah Silverman for maybe five hours that day, and so you have to get in and out quickly and they’re brilliant and you don’t want to miss anything and don’t want to ask them to repeat it because they’ve got to go.”
Barclay said that the move from film to digital had allowed him to work more deeply with actors on their performances.
“One of the great advantages of that is we don’t have to cut as often. And, you know, I’ve gone 14 minutes doing several takes in a row, with actors really staying, you know, very much in character and in the moment, and that last performance is so much richer and better, often, because of it,” he explained. “And when I did In Treatment, we used even longer takes. We went right to, basically, a hard drive. And so we could do 20 minutes between, you know, whoever it was on the couch and just film it almost as if it were a play and then come in and just fix the little things we had to fix and walk away, and it’s made it not only more efficient production-wise, but to me it’s made it more vivid, in that case, because we shot it faster and you got the first thing. And on [Sons of Anarchy], more vivid and better because you keep going and you don’t stop and there’s not people powdering the actors’ faces and twisting their hair. You just don’t allow it to happen. You say we’re going again right away and you get the better and better performance each time.”
And Dinner said it was important to remember that television’s revolution in directing precedes the Golden Age of dramas.
“I actually go back to Michael Mann in a way, because television was kind of cookie cutter until they did Miami Vice and all of a sudden there was an explosion of point of view in television,” he said. “So I think that the role of the director’s become more and more important, and I think that people are starting to recognize it now.”