Programs Thu 3.13.2014

Directors Break Down the Brave New World of TV at Directors Close-Up

The fifth and final night of the 2014 Directors Close-Up brought together a group of independent filmmakers who have also made their mark directing for television: Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under, Transparent), Miguel Arteta (Enlightened, Freaks and Geeks), Carl Franklin (House of Cards, Homeland), Jessica Yu (Scandal) and Jeremy Podeswa (American Horror Story, The Newsroom). Between the five panelists and moderator Alan Poul (executive producer/director, The Newsroom, Six Feet Under), the room was brimming with talent and experience. On stage were the minds behind some of the most successful shows in recent television history as well as in independent films.

Still, Poul kicked off the panel by reminding attendees that there has been a history of downgrading the television director and it’s only now that television is going through another golden age that the medium is drawing quality filmmakers to the director’s chair. After each panelist presented clips from episodes they have directed, the conversation evolved quickly to cover the technicalities of directing for TV (handling actors, planning your shoot), the new models for episodic TV (distribution platforms, social media and the second screen) and the general difference between directing for the small screen and the big screen. It became evident that everybody had a different story to share but also a lot in common to relate to.

The panelists agreed that directors who come into a show should look forward to a tone meeting with the show runners and producers; It’s the moment when you get to discuss what exactly they want the director to bring to the table and which scenes are the most important to highlight. Arteta and Podeswa shared having worked with producer and show runner Ryan Murphy on American Horror Story and explained how his particular dedication to the tone of the show was helpful in figuring out what direction to take. “Make your day” is a popular expression in television, Poul reminded the audience, which refers to the way directors have to strategically plan how they’ll organize what they shoot. While Yu shared she always chooses one specific scene in an episode that she really wants to get right, the thrill and challenge for Arteta, he shared, was how to make all the other scenes “not bad.”

The topic of television replacing film as the quality-driven medium also brought up different perspectives. While Franklin noted that event-oriented films that dominate the box office are meant to draw in kids and their parents, he said mature audiences turn to television shows that are even better than the movies in the theater and that they can conveniently watch at home. Podeswa, however, said he misses the days when film was the center of the cultural conversation. Arteta, who has made smaller films like Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, joked that “he never understood why he was making movies that were going to be seen by only 20 people at the Sunset 5.” He’s just fine with reaching a wider audience with television, he revealed.

Soloway, who is working with Amazon Studios to develop her series Transparent, stood out as the writer, director and producer of her own show, unlike the other panelists who have worked as solely the director of other people’s shows. Still, she started as a writer on Six Feet Under and worked on pitching her own material to network executives for close to 15 years, she said. The imaginary white male network executive on the golf course, she said, had no interest in the shows she was pitching about “a Jewish chick having too much sex.” But when Amazon came around, she said her more provocative content resonated better with the Silicon Valley CEOs—who have all been to Burning Man—than it resonates with Hollywood. Amazon Studios, she said, seems to truly believe that giving her the creative freedom means a higher quality television show and she’s grateful for the unique opportunity.

Pressed to reveal how they had been able to break into directing for television, Yu recounted that fear had been a motivating factor for her. As one of the only Asian-American women working as a director, once her experience in documentary filmmaking took her to television, she learned mostly by being on the set and immersing herself in the environment. Poul highlighted the importance of shadowing programs that allow less-experienced filmmakers to sit in on the shoot of a show and learn.

For filmmakers without an established career Podeswa acknowledged that it’s hard for [show runners] to see the invisible. “Have a calling card,” he urged, and Arteta chimed in: “Please make a short film once a month for a year.” Soloway suggested you gather a crowd to show them your work and ask them to please tell you what’s wrong with it and listen. For Franklin, it was simple: “Declare yourself a filmmaker now, start doing it.”

Diana Buendia / Marketing Assistant