For Monitor this week, Aaron Yap looks at the increasing flow of filmmakers across to television, and asks why New Zealand has resolutely avoided the trend.
Remember that one seemingly event-worthy time when Quentin Tarantino, after establishing himself as a fully formed auteur with Pulp Fiction, took time out to direct an episode of E.R.? It looks positively quaint now.
Recently, and on more than one occasion, he’s expressed interest in delving into television in a more substantial way. In this meaty, internet-breaking interview with Vulture, Tarantino reiterated that desire once again: “If ever there’s been a chance for somebody to truly do a filmed novel, it’s in this area.”
It’s become one of the great ironies of the cinephile director: for someone whose outspoken passion for cinema is second-to-none, it’s television that might end up being his kindred medium. Tarantino’s strength has always lied in his wordsmithery, and he’s never hid the novelistic nature of his films (see the chaptered structures of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds). But his writing’s tendency to loquaciousness is also a major contribution to the flabby, indulgent runtimes – something that he himself is aware could translate more suitably to a serialised and roomy format such as a mini-series.
He’s just one of many directors representing a shifting tide within the mediums. It’s not just that TV is more cinematic these days, with production values to match any blockbuster currently playing at your local multiplex. It’s that those working in cinema are now attracted to the creative possibilities afforded by TV.
Mainstream filmmaking of today favours the risk-free, surebet of franchises and sequels. TV, however, is increasingly viewed as a mecca for writers and directors to explore edgy, provocative, ambitious storytelling, and for actors to inhabit rich, complex roles that will exist for more than two hours.
So while we may live in an era where someone of Steven Spielberg’s stature nearly had to make Lincoln with HBO, it’s also turning into an era where Steven Soderbergh can direct, edit and shoot all ten episodes of the turn-of-the-century medical drama The Knick.
A film-to-TV career switch for a director isn’t without precedent, although historically much less discussed than if it were an actor doing it. Traditionally, TV, like commercials or music videos, will function as a training ground of sorts for a director before jumping into film. Spielberg, Robert Altman, Michael Mann and J.J. Abrams all started directing on the small screen. But the reverse is lot more curious and warrants mention. Like, how and why did Tim Hunter, who made one of the best films of the ‘80s in River’s Edge, come to forge a career path as a prolific TV director of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad?
Indie filmmakers from the ‘90s such as Allison Anders (Gas, Food Lodging), Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity), Alison MacLean (Crush) and Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven) showed promise with their early features, but now appear to exclusively work in TV. There are others like Brad Anderson (The Machinist) and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright) who bounce back and forth between the small and big screen on a regular basis.
If this growing trend of film directors migrating to TV is notable now, it’s because it’s the big guns who are migrating. Your Finchers, Tarantinos, Scorseses. But more specifically, the auteurs – those directors whose body of work can be classed as one unified personal vision.
What’s particularly interesting about the shift is it could prompt a re-evaluation of roles as the lines begin to blur: in film, the director/auteur is boss, but in TV, the boss is the showrunner, whose primary roles include, but are not limited to, writing and executive-producing.
It is rare in a TV environment for an auteur, in the cinematic sense, to exist, because the directors are usually hired. As Tarantino says in the interview, you will have a Cary Fukunaga directing all episodes of True Detective, but situations where the director is also writing everything are few and far between. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, a colossal 14-hour mini-series about an ex-con trying to fit into the Weimar Republic, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, a deeply philosophical 10-episode interpretation of the Ten Commandments, are as close to pure film-auteur-TV I can think of. But even then they’re aided, at the very least, by a co-writer.
Perhaps Tarantino’s auteur-TV pipe dream is just that. He’s an exception – a writer/director who retains final cut on all his films. He has that luxury.
We’re already seeing hints of what auteur-driven TV could mean. Yes, much remains unknowable at this stage, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that whatever the issues and merits of auteurship in the film world would hold the same for TV too.
Auteurs like creative control. They can be demanding. David Lynch initially backed down from committing to the forthcoming Showtime resurrection of Twin Peaks over money. David Fincher’s remake of UK conspiracy thriller series Utopia is now dead, as the notoriously perfectionist director could not reach an agreement with HBO over – yes – money.
While it’s exciting to think that Showtime president David Nivens is allowing Lynch such flexibility for the new Twin Peaks, I’m less enthused thinking about how his last feature – almost ten years ago – was Inland Empire, a complete, self-indulgent mess which alienated even dyed-in-the-wool Lynch-heads. One only need to look at the much-maligned second season of True Detective to see the pitfalls of an auteur given too much freedom. Its awfully unwieldly execution suggests a writer who probably needed another writer beat the narrative into shape.
But the results can be beautiful when everything clicks. Soderbergh brought a fresh, super-stylish modernity to the period piece trappings of The Knick. Fukunaga’s exemplary evocation of atmospheric, eerie Bayou-noir made the first season of True Detective pop. Shows that display such aesthetic uniformity really bridge that film-TV gap.
Closer to home, Jane Campion – arguably New Zealand’s foremost auteur – achieved something similar with the masterful crime mystery Top of the Lake. Though directing duties were shared on some episodes with Garth Davis, it’s hard not to see this six-part miniseries, with its themes of patriarchy and abuse, as a piece of her filmography that’s rife with gender politics. The kicker is that we can’t claim the series – a co-production between the BBC, Australia’s UKTV and the Sundance Channel – as our own.
Given that our film industry is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, it begs the question why local TV isn’t doing the same. In theory, if we have the talent and resources to facilitate half-a-dozen Lord of the Rings movies, surely we can make a Top of the Lake: a much smaller product, but a distinctly New Zealand story told by a true auteur voice and of an international calibre. It could be that we don’t have a history of fostering auteurship in either mediums. Many of our directors, such as Roger Donaldson, Martin Campbell and Lee Tamahori, go off to carve careers as gun-for-hires in Hollywood.
Is it too hopeful to think that NZ on Air might feel adventurous one day and approach Vincent Ward, as BBC did with Campion, and say “Here you go, here’s some money, tell whatever story you want”? Possibly. But taking a few risks could make our local TV look less like the run-of-the-mill mediocrity the rest of the TV world seems to be running away from, and more in line with the “new frontier” Campion, and her peers, rightfully imagines it to be.
If you’re needing a Scando-crime fix, look out for the new French show Witnesses… a Sons of Anarchy spin-off is being developed by Kurt Sutter, centering on the Mayans Motorcycle Club…. apparently Robert De Niro has never watched The Sopranos… the plot of Homeland’s next season will focus on hackers… speaking of hackers, there’s chatter of an Ashley Madison TV show… and is it too early to declare Mr. Robot the best new show of the year?