One Director, One Miniseries

Posted on Feb 6, 2016 in Madoff
One Director, One Miniseries

(Reposted from the Director’s Guild)

by ANN FARMER

Not only does having a single director on a miniseries assure a unified vision, it can help the logistics of a complicated production. We asked five solo directors to describe their experience doing it all.

A smoke machine wasn’t enough for Raymond De Felitta.

While directing a furtive, backroom scene for the upcoming ABC miniseries Madoff, which features Richard Dreyfuss as the notorious American swindler Bernie Madoff, De Felitta instructed a crew member to blow actual cigarette smoke onto the set. It curled languorously and seemed to suspend in the lights. It also imparted a subtle film noir feel, which De Felitta deemed appropriate to the subject matter.

While directing a furtive, backroom scene for the upcoming ABC miniseries Madoff, which features Richard Dreyfuss as the notorious American swindler Bernie Madoff, De Felitta instructed a crew member to blow actual cigarette smoke onto the set. It curled languorously and seemed to suspend in the lights. It also imparted a subtle film noir feel, which De Felitta deemed appropriate to the subject matter.

“I love the Madoff story. I love New York true crime stories,” says De Felitta, an independent filmmaker (Rob the Mob, City Island) who jumped at the chance to make this four-hour miniseries, his first foray into television. “I went after it and sold myself,” he says. To his delight, the ABC executives who hired him were “very supportive of me making it like one of my movies.”

“And it was all mine to direct,” he adds. “So I felt I could impose a style and a special feel for the material, which is what I do on my independent movies.”

An increasing number of directors these days are seizing opportunities like this to solo-direct entire television miniseries and limited series. They like the creative freedom and control it affords. Unlike episodic assignments, in which a director works at a fevered pace and usually picks up where the previous director left off, single miniseries directors get to set the look and tone, and usher their vision through to the very end.

Being the sole director on a miniseries also has advantages in terms of story unity, logistics, and cost. This year, David Wain (Childrens Hospital, Wainy Days) was able to pull an entire eight-episode limited series for Netflix, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, out of what was originally intended to be a feature-length film, and it took only five extra days to shoot. As the sole director, he could readily shoot scenes out of order, shaving time off the schedule whenever feasible.

“I think there is a bit of a trend to realizing the creative cohesion and cost savings in having one director who can cross-board the whole season of something,” says Wain. “It’s happening more and more.”

Miniseries were hugely popular in the ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s, but by the turn of the century, the expense of producing them precipitated a decline. More recently, the success of the three-episode Hatfields & McCoys (2012), among others, helped revive the form as the various network, cable, and streaming options competed for viewers.

“Miniseries was a four-letter word for a while,” says David Von Ancken (Salem,Californication), a director who has benefited from a resurgence of the form. He recently directed Tut, an epic miniseries for Spike that the cable and satellite channel dubbed its “most ambitious project to date.”

In recent years, the format has come to include limited series, which are built around a closed-ended narrative and a cast of characters, as in the case of True Detective.

“That’s how it was packaged,” says Cary Fukunaga, who directed the first season ofTrue Detective, about two Louisiana detectives (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) pursuing a serial killer. The next season was set in California with a new story and different directors and actors. “The idea was to get a feature filmmaker and get feature film talent in a kind of anthology show,” says Fukunaga. “That was the concept we sold to HBO.”

Whether it’s a dramatic production, a crime series, or even a comedy, miniseries and limited series can allow a single director to stamp a production with his or her own vision. To explore the creative and logistical challenges, the Quarterly interviewed five directors who have worked in this way.

Raymond De Felitta | Madoff

Raymond De Felitta was itching for a television directing gig when he landed Madoff, a four-part ABC miniseries. “I wanted to do it very much,” said De Felitta, as he directed Richard Dreyfuss as Madoff in some final scenes at ABC Studios in upper Manhattan last July.

De Felitta circled around Dreyfuss, seated at a small conference table opposite Michael Rispoli, who plays Frank DiPascali, Madoff’s right-hand man, who later turned on him.

“This is a man-cave kind of office,” says De Felitta, referring to the smoky, darkish room. Although the public offices that Madoff’s unsuspecting investors visited were sleek, this space, where Madoff and his co-conspirators cooked up their Ponzi scheme, appears ordinary, even a tad ramshackle, with storage boxes stuffed into corners and discarded candy wrappers lying about. A telling sign on a closet door states, “Do Not Enter. Do Not Clean.”

Getting those set details right was critical for De Felitta, who lobbied to bring on board the same production designer, DP, costume designer, and editor he uses on his indie film crew. Most of them had never worked in TV either. But De Felitta was impressed by ABC’s flexibility in allowing him to bring in his team. “That was bold of them,” he says.

Similarly, many of the actors, including Blythe Danner, who plays Ruth Madoff, and Rispoli were people he’d worked with before and wanted to cast. De Felitta had to win approval for his ideas from more producers and executives than he was accustomed to. However, he says, “It wasn’t nearly what I thought it would be. I thought they welcomed me and my style of work.”

Before shooting the smoky office scene—in which DiPascali surprises Madoff with an expensive watch in gratitude for making him filthy rich—De Felitta let the actors try some moves. Dreyfuss flashed a Cheshire Cat grin that suited his inscrutable character.

“When I heard he was attached, I was excited,” says De Felitta. “To make the story interesting, you have to make the story human. Dreyfuss is lovable. You’re going to want to give him your check.”

De Felitta was also pleased by how ABC indulged his preferred mode of rehearsing. “It may not have been the typical way that TV gets done,” he acknowledges, “but they let me spend time with the actors.” He took Dreyfuss and the two actors playing his sons to the beach-house location ahead of time to build rapport. “They talked about vacations and their real families,” says De Felitta. “It gave everyone a nice warm feeling with each other.

“I’m very into naturalistic performances,” he says. “I find that if you improv and then go back to the scripted scene, the scripted scene comes alive in a way that it wouldn’t if you’d just rehearsed it normally.”

De Felitta suspects that his shooting style was also atypical of TV directors. “I shoot loose. I like scenes to run on.” At the same time, he studied what sets other ABC shows apart in order to capture the house style. “Specifically,” he says, “ABC has a very distinct style in terms of their pacing and editing. They come at you and they don’t let up. It’s quite riveting. Especially in a story like this.”

For De Felitta, it was satisfying to have jumped into this television miniseries project and been given so much freedom. But he also relished the opportunity to adapt his indie aesthetic to television. “It’s been a real merging of the two worlds in this movie,” he says.

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