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12 January 2005



I take your point about the director’s medium vs. writer’s medium issue--though we could quibble, given the way that show runners (not always designated as writers) like David Chase have their fingerprints on every frame. It’s my fault for lobbing the word “auteur” into the discussion, since I’m really more interested in the resulting narratives than in the proper names we attach to them.

In many ways, the American 22-episode model is an anomaly, speaking Globally. In Britain and elsewhere, the short-run series is the norm, whether conceived of as a stand-alone narrative (as with Dennis Potter, whom I was happy to see you cite) or as a potentially renewable series (Monty Python, The Office, etc.). We’re seeing that shorter run more frequently in the States now, not just on HBO (the co-Brit-produced Ali G, and Entourage), but with reality series and the like.

Given the cultural prominence of the Lord of the Rings cycle, the Matrix series and the bifurcated Kill Bill--movies that blur the distinction between the continuous and the episodic--it’s become harder to separate TV and film, on the level of structure. After all, Kieslowski’s Decalogue involves ten stories connected by the loosest of conceptual frameworks--closer to Rohmer’s Tales than to Peter Jackson or the Wachowski brothers.

The old shapes we used to rely on to separate cinematic objects don’t seem to work so well any more. That makes it trickier to have a Conversation about filmed stories--but it’s also more fun.


I don't necessarily disagree with any of the above, although it's funny that you mention Kill Bill Vol. 2. I think the flaw with that film is specifically that it doesn't successfully stand completely on its own. I believe a combined, complete, non-volumed Kill Bill with tighter editing and less unnecessary excess (maybe an oxymoron, but in relation to Tarantino, I emphasize the "unnecessary" part) would be a much better movie than either Vol. 1 or 2 turned out to be. Instead, what we got was Tarantino's ego saying, "Oh, I've got so much cool shit, I'm just going to split it into two movies rather than disciplining myself to create one epic story." There's nothing wrong with a 2-1/2 to 3 hour film if it's made well, entertaining and is devoid of fat.

Personally, I think there is a very different style of storytelling between movies and series television. Kieslowski's Decalogue, while wonderful, actually falls into a grey area, as far as I'm concerned, because it's more like an anthology series than a traditional one. It really is 10 separate one hour films. I'm not drawing a distinction between work produced for television versus for the theater -- I would call HBO movies "movies" -- but rather individual films versus continuing or even finite series.

And while your mention of the "show runner" is completely valid, that position is actually almost always occupied by a writer, usually starting with the show's creator. They may not receive "Written by" credits on any episodes, but you better believe they have heavy input in the writing process of each script. My point was simply that, while the distinction is tricky, a film director generally has the freedom to take a screenplay and turn it into whatever he wishes while a TV series is much more locked into pre-established constraints that are influenced more so by the world created by the writers.

Jay Seaver

Still, many of the best TV shows do have strong directorial hands. [i]24[/i] is something of an anomaly, but I wouldn't be surprised if Stephen Hopkins had a great deal of effect on how that first season (which created the style John Cassar would hold to in later years) was presented. I also wonder how much of [i]Boomtown[/i]'s initial achronological structure came from the writer and how much came from Jon Avnet.


Let me make clear that I have no desire to fully erase the differences between film and TV--clearly, some narratives benefit from, and are shaped by, one medium more than the other.

But I think hard and fast distinctions (writer’s medium vs. director’s medium) have always been illusory. I visited the set of a Peter Greenaway film a few years ago, and I was surprised to discover that a lot of the last-minute decisions about camera, set dressing, and performance were democratic, or at least left in the significant control of each specialist. As Greenaway explained it at the time, he always envisions a perfect version of his film in his mind--but he realizes that, due to limitations of physics, technology, or budget, the final product will never approach that Platonic ideal. So he accepts the fact that he has to cede responsibility in a number of vital areas.

You can’t get more old-school auteur, by common reckoning, than Greenaway. If that kind of flexibility is happening on a lot of sets (and editing and recording studios), then we can’t assume the traditional rules are inevitable.

This is probably a separate topic, but: what about dialogue? Recently, that’s been prized more in television--from sitcoms to HBO dramas--than in feature films. (A dangerous generalization, but I think roughly true for the last decade. Exhibit A: the disappearance of Woody Allen. Exhibit B: the shock to the system of a talkfest like Before Sunset.) Television may very well be a writer’s medium, but writing means something very different from writer to writer, if we’re talking about words, as opposed to images and events. Dennis Potter’s dialogue ends up being bits and scraps of recycled language from pop culture; surely he’s not a writer in the same sense as Aaron Sorkin. (Sorkin is no way better, or even equal. But what he’s doing, as an artisan, barely resembles what Potter is doing.)

Chiming in with Jay Seaver: it’s interesting to see Walter Hill’s re-emergence celebrated, in more than one place. When Nicole Holofcener, Miguel Arteta, and Lisa Cholodenko direct episodes of “Six Feet Under,” are they just slumming it, or picking up a check? Perhaps. But what does Alan Ball think he’s purchasing when he buys their services? There are plenty of “TV directors” who could do the job. Are Holofcener et. al. “movie-ing” television, or are they getting tee-veed?

Jay Seaver

When Nicole Holofcener, Miguel Arteta, and Lisa Cholodenko direct episodes of "Six Feet Under," are they just slumming it, or picking up a check? Perhaps. But what does Alan Ball think he's purchasing when he buys their services? There are plenty of "TV directors" who could do the job. Are Holofcener et. al. "movie-ing" television, or are they getting tee-veed?

I wonder if there's the possibility that DVD is affecting some of these choices. When you do a show for HBO, you can be sure that there will be a DVD set issued; does being able to advertise these directors add to sales? For all I know, Ball and the show's producers just want a top-notch program and these guys are available to do some work-for-hire between film projects that they have a bigger stake in. It's relatively low-pressure money, and, hey, people notice when TV is directed well but not poorly.

And, of course, then there are folks like Stephen Hopkins, Ron Underwood and the like whom studios may not trust with a feature any more, but are still a cut above most TV guys.


I'm glad you all are discussing TV (though apart from "The Daily Show" I didn't see much of it in 2004.) I wanted to find a place on my own year-end list for the single best thing I watched last year: "The Office Christmas Special," which was the most sharply-drawn, humane, bitterly- funny and genuinely moving comedy I've seen in years. Clocking in at 90 minutes, it had just as much narrative drive as any movie I saw in 2004. And ironically, it felt less like "TV" than crap like "Meet the Fockers."

Whether it's the advent of the DVD, the rise of product placement or simply the ubiquity of the watered-down, test-marketed PG-13 movie (my pet theory), the distinctions between the TV aesthetic and the movie aesthetic seem to be vanishing. Even a movie like "Sideways" which I admired with some reservations, feels like an inflated sitcom. And don't get me started on the reality-TV cheapness (not just a technical cheapness) that pervades "Open Water."

stu willis

I dig a lot of great TV. I consider it a wonderful medium for longform stories, the visual equivilent of a novel, regardless of who is doing the telling. Curiously, my sister is upset that Firefly is becoming a movie rather than beginning as a TV show again. She sees the movie as the poor offshoot of the TV show, rather than vice versa. How times have changed.

From a director's standpoint, speaking from very limited experience... I'm directing my first TV pilot in a few weeks. My job is partly just logisitical. I gotta run the set. Its an important thing and someone has to do it and I'm very good at it (which was why I was asked). But on a deeper creative level, my job is to set the tone of the entire series from a directing standpoint. If we get picked up, I ain't interested in directing every episode, so I pity the poor director who has to follow my shooting style [weegee style compositions, contrasty lighting, zooms-buried-within-zooms, a big emphasis on spaital relationships, almost improvised performances, etc.]. If I had the budget to shoot this show like I was David Fincher meets Cassavetes I would. In a way, directors on TV are ALL second-unit. They have to mimic the 'house style'. Its a skill and a craft that's largely ignored by cinephilias and wannabe film auteurs, but an extremely important one. How many directors shoot their own second unit?

That said, Joss Whedon's episodes on Buffy/Firefly/etc. standout from a directing perspective, because as a director he didn't have to satisfy the EPs or the Producers. He shot each episode to satisfy himself, so he DIDN"T have to play it safe. He could shoot scenes in "ones". He didn't have to get safety CUs or bad cutaways. He could push the boundaries of composition, performance, and sound design. Part of the reason that TV has looked like 'TV' for so long, is the director is merely shooting elements for the producers + editors to sort out in the editing room, rather than take the scene by the balls and shoot it the way it should be shot. Nor did they have the authority to -change- the script while shooting, because they weren't assuming artistic helmship.

Just my 5c. [PS like the site!]



Stu: You're very right, and your points about Joss Whedon are well-taken. Of course, Joss was also the show-runner and main creative force behind those shows, so when he actually directed them with his own visual style, he was answering to the man in charge -- himself.

I never meant to insinuate that there aren't plenty of similarites between movies and series, especially these days. I think that is due in large part to a much greater degree of crossover in directors moving from film to TV and vice-versa. The reason you see so many indie directors (Arteta, Holofcener ... I'd throw Nick Gomez in there too, as he's done a ton of HBO stuff) is because some of those shows have relatively huge budgets without tons of interference from the networks. HBO gives their series a lot of creative leeway, so, on The Sopranos for instance, as long as it's OK with David Chase, these directors can do whatever they want, and they're not trying to do a whole film on $3.75.

And going back to Jay Seaver's comment: I think you're correct about 24 and Stephen Hopkins. I also think it's unfortunate because while his sensibilities were great for a show like 24, now people are letting him direct features again, and as he already proved with HBO's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, not to mention all his earlier films, that's a huge mistake. Please make him go back to fantasy, spy, TV-land.


You didn't like Life and Death? What'd you think of Rush's performance?

Personally, I liked the film, but thought that it could very well have consisted solely of its final scene and would have made its point.


I thought Rush was the only reason the movie was worth watching. He was fantastic, and totally embodied Sellers. But I thought the movie was relatively dull, and just an exercise in trying to recreate all those moments we know so well. I think Hopkins really mangled it, in fact. What was the point? That he was such a performer, that's all he knew? So much so that he could never stop performing? So nobody can know who he really was? The only person who knows is the one who can get into his trailer with him, a place from which we're shut-out at the very end of the movie. Great. Big deal. That could have been accomplished in a 15 minute short.


Not even a short; the closing of the trailer door would have sufficed.

Personally, I was more than able to get through on the performances. Well, some of them anyway.


I agree with Aaron on this one. It's a problem with many bio-pics -- too much time spent recreating moments we know all too well, too little time spent telling a story. It's what ruined Man on the Moon, IMO. Instead of really getting into Andy Kaufman (a fascinating subject) it was endless recreations.

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