Michelle MacLaren, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, And How TV’s Female Action Directors Are Showing Up Movies


One of Michelle MacLaren's many directing credits. Credit: HBO

If your heart was in your throat during the final moments of this week’s episode of Breaking Bad, you’re not alone. The shootout between Uncle Jack’s crew and Hank and Gomez, which cut to black before its conclusion, was the work of Michelle MacLaren, roundly acclaimed as one of the most effective action directors working in television today. Want to stage a terrifying fight between a human woman and a bear, trapped together in a pit and surrounded by vicious mercenaries? Or a drug lord mercilessly executing a subordinate in front of his other employees? Maybe you’ve got a barn full of zombies who need to be mowed down en masse by our heroes, who, in that process, will have to kill a little girl they came to care for? MacLaren has become the director you want to call.

That success has some writers, me among them, hoping that more mediums might have their shot at getting MacLaren-ified. As Alan Sepinwall wrote in his Breaking Bad recap on Sunday, “If Alan Taylor can use his work on ‘Sopranos,’ ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Game of Thrones to land a blockbuster movie job like the ‘Thor’ sequel, why can’t MacLaren (who’s also done impressive “Thrones” work) pull off the same jump? Tell me she’s directing a big-budget action movie, and my ticket is purchased within seconds. Hey, Hollywood: please watch the last 20 minutes of this episode — at the way she composes her shots, at the way she squeezes every possible bit of tension and emotion and despair out of the circumstances and her actors—and tell me she doesn’t have the chops.”

BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur asked MacLaren yesterday if she’d be interested, and her answer says a great deal about the rise of television in relation to film.

” Would I like to? If the right thing came along, absolutely,” she said. “I love television. Television is a great medium; I’m fortunate enough to direct amazing television. Would I like to do a feature? Absolutely. I will never leave television. Am I looking? Yes. I’m looking. Have I found anything? Not yet. I haven’t yet. I’d like to do both.”

That no movie studio has approached MacLaren for a project she’d be interested in, or expressed interest in her after she’s identified a project she’d like to work on, while more and more of television’s best shows are bringing her on board, is revealing. It’s not as if the television industry is vastly superior to movies when it comes to the employment of women behind the camera, but you’d think that someone with MacLaren’s resume would have found a high-profile movie project right now if she wants one. This isn’t even a case where Kathryn Bigelow could plausibly be treated as an exception to a rule, the one woman who can direct a compelling action sequence, much in the same way that Will Smith is treated like one of only a few black men who can open an action picture. If MacLaren can provide the visual grammar for television shows that draw millions of viewers, it would take some exceptional logic to argue that she suddenly wouldn’t be effective on a bigger screen.

And MacLaren isn’t the only woman who’s been able to find success as an action director in television, either. Earlier this summer, I spoke with Gwyneth Horder-Payton, a director with a long record on anti-hero and action-oriented shows like The Shield, The Unit, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, and now The Bridge. Clearly, a whole bunch of male showrunners see something in Horder-Payton and her ability to direct tense, exciting sequences.

It’s always a mistake to see the success of a couple of individuals as proof that everything is working properly in an industry that’s had consisten trouble employing women at anywhere near the levels at which they’re represented in the population. But the work MacLaren and Horder-Payton have done in an industry with that problem, and that they’ve done at a time when there’s been a particular cult of the showrunner as sole defining creative voice on television shows, suggests that something is working in television. Maybe it’s only that the sheer number of television episodes produced in a given year dwarfs the number of movies–particularly small-budget ones that might provide directors opportunities to break in–in the works in the same time period, and that simply means more opportunities for good directors. But it would be awfully nice if movies looked to television, and to the rise of directors like MacLaren and Horder-Payton, and considered whether it could benefit from some new directorial voices in the mix.