Chris Connor on filmmakers venturing out onto the small screen…
As television has come more and more into its own in recent years, the gaps between what we might have seen exclusively on the big screen and less so on TV has become less apparent. Certainly big budget TV series feel more cinematic and can tell a story in a different way to that presented by a film. The changing dynamic can perhaps be reflected by marquee directors moving from one format to the other , with Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) the latest name to work on TV with his acclaimed Amazon series The Underground Railroad, adapting the equally well-received novel by Colson Whitehead which won its fair share of awards.
It is worth acknowledging that this is not an entirely new phenomenon and in the past several directors have made their big breaks on TV, Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) as well as Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye, Nashville) and Michael Mann (Heat, Thief, Collateral), but it seems to be more of a conscious choice for directors to move in the other direction and it has certainly led to some intriguing results that can often differ from the work these directors present in film format.
Martin Scorsese has dabbled frequently into the world of TV being an executive producer and director on the very well received Prohibition era crime drama Boardwalk Empire starring Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon and Stephen Graham. Scorsese also directed the pilot episode of 2016’s Vinyl which ran for a single series. The episode bore many traits of Scorsese’s films and with music forming an important aspect of his films it seemed a logical project for him to be involved in recounting the record industry of the 1970s.
The British director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, High Fidelity, The Queen) has made the jump to television frequently appearing to feel equally comfortable between the two mediums. In recent years especially he has made several very highly reviewed series including Hugh Grant’s A Very English Scandal, and Quiz recounting the Charles Ingram Who Wants to Be a Millionaire scandal. Frears also collaborated with Nick Hornby on the award winning State of the Union, a series of short episodes recounting a married couple (Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd) and their pub meetings.
Edgar Wright began his career and indeed his collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost on the cult TV series Spaced focusing on a pair of twenty somethings in London, Tim and Daisy, played by Pegg and Jessica Hynes. The series sowed the seeds of the hugely successful Cornetto Trilogy which starred both Pegg and Frost and helped establish Wright as an artistic force to be reckoned with. Spaced continues to have a fan-base over 20 years after finishing its two series run and acts as a fascinating springboard for all of the talents involved who have gone on to find success in their own right.
David Fincher is perhaps one of the best known directors to move to television in the 2010s working on House of Cards and Mindhunter. House of Cards is an adaptation of the British series of the 1990s and focuses on the rise and fall of President Frank Underwood, while Mindhunter depicts criminal profiling and efforts to catch some of America’s most notorious killers. Fincher acted as an executive producer and director on both series. Mindhunter perhaps can be seen as a successor to his previous work on dark thrillers like Zodiac, Se7en and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
There are few directors who have become as synonymous with both television and film as David Lynch. Lynch made his name with his unique surrealist style in the 1980s with The Elephant Man, Wild At Heart and Blue Velvet. Perhaps Lynch’s defining work remains the landmark television series Twin Peaks which ran for two series in the 1990s and spawned a film spin off that served as both a prequel and continuation of the story, with a hugely successful follow-up Twin Peaks: The Return airing in 2017. Twin Peaks followed FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer. Many have noted how the series blended the lines between cinema and television with Cahiers Du Cinema and Sight and Sound naming the revival among the best films of 2017.
There are numerous other directors who have dabbled in both film and television and it would be remiss not to mention Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol, Dark Waters) and his work on the award-winning miniseries of Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet, whileRian Johnson of Star Wars, Knives Out and Looper fame was also responsible for some of the most acclaimed episodes of Breaking Bad.
The Underground Railroad represents the latest example that directors can offer exemplary work in both the mediums of film and television. With some fantastic recent examples of directors crossing between the two it certainly seems this is a trend we will see more of in the years to come and it will be intriguing to see which directors are the next to move from the world of film to television and the fascinating results that will no doubt ensue.