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.