Summer 2006

The Invisible Director

Directors making movies for television are doing great work. Too bad the critics never notice.


tom hopper

Tom Hopper (top) directed HBO's acclaimed Elizabeth I.

The New York Times, in its review of Elizabeth I last month, noted that HBO’s movie made for television starring a “magnetic” Helen Mirren, is in many ways superior to the 1998 Cate Blanchett feature version, Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur. The Times review, in fact, lauds the television production, calling it “a richly drawn portrait of a powerful woman.” While the review bothered to name all leading actors, nowhere to be found was the leader of HBO’s Elizabethan pack–the director, Tom Hooper.

The only director singled out in the review of this television film was the guy who made the story eight years ago as a theatrical feature and, according to the critic, not as well. An inadvertent omission, perhaps? A rare slight?

Examine, as we did, the reviews for 12 films recently made for television, movies like Pope John Paul II (director, John Kent Harrison); Human Trafficking (director, Christian Duguay); and Empire (director, Greg Yaitanes). Know how many directors were named by the New York Times in their 12 reviews of these movies? None. Consider the Los Angeles Times’ reviews of these same 12 pictures. It’s the major newspaper in an industry town, glued to the medium; the sensitivity to the director is bound to improve, right? Four directors were identified, the remainder left to obscurity.

How can that be, in the age of celebrity? At a time when seemingly every contestant on a reality show is an object of national obsession, why are directors of television movies invisible?

Ask any director who’s labored both in features and longform, “what’s the difference?” You’ll hear a consistent retort: The job is the same. We revise the script with the writer, we cast to the last day-player, we lead the army through the shoot, we fuss with every loop in post, and most important–the gold standard that aligns us with every feature film director who ever called “Action!”–we tell the story through our own, unique prism. It is our voice. We are filmmakers.

Yet, when director Peter Markle’s powerful television film Flight 93 was reviewed by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times last January, the director went unnamed. Four months later, the feature film United 93 premiered. In their critiques, the same publications repeatedly cited director Paul Greengrass as the creative force behind the dramatization of the same true story. While Paul deserved the recognition for his fine film, the basic question remains–why was Peter not mentioned?

ON TRIAL: Mike Robe with Tom Selleck and William Macy on Reversible Errors.
ON TRIAL: Mike Robe on the set of Reversible Errors
with Tom Selleck and William Macy.

Given the rich legacy of American films made for television, you would think the men and women who direct them might earn more ink. From Buzz Kulick’s Brian’s Song in 1971, to Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols, the best TV films have, for decades, moved millions of Americans to tears, to outrage, indeed, even to action. Few films on any-sized screen had more impact on race relations than 1977’s Roots. Robert Greenwald’s telefilm The Burning Bed was a landmark study of domestic violence. Last season’s Our Fathers, helmed by the late Dan Curtis, dared to tread where very few films have gone before, taking a bold look at sex scandals in the Catholic Church.

Are longform directors ignored because we are perceived as serving small audiences? Movies made for television are seen by millions of viewers–and have larger audiences than many, if not most, feature films. For example, Flight 93 was seen by 6 million people the January night it premiered on the A&E network. That’s twice the viewers that watched United 93, considered a hit, in its first two weeks of theatrical release.

Look, not all films we cut are diamonds. As network executives over the years have ordered countless disease-of-the-week or women-in-peril flicks, we have been there to make them. We may spot in a feature film review that ultimate rebuke, “worse than a movie-of-the-week,” and we may resent it, but we must acknowledge we have made our fair share of turkeys. Not that a lot of features don’t gobble, but go ahead, smack us.

But, please, could you mention our role? Acknowledge our presence behind the camera, even if you’re roasting our celluloid. Because if we can establish that precedent, think where it could lead. People in Kansas City might look for another DVD by Stephen Hopkins, the same director who amazed them with The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Audiences jolted by the telecast of a film like Soldier’s Girl might realize it was made by an artist named Frank Pierson, and seek out his DGA Award-winning film Conspiracy. And they just might discover that there are many directors of movies for television that have a lengthy and rich oeuvre of excellent work–like Joe Sargent’s more than forty-four years of filmmaking, including the multiple-award-winning films Something the Lord Made, Warm Springs and A Lesson Before Dying.

AIRBORNE: Robert Markowitz (center) with the cast of Tuskegee Airmen.
AIRBORNE: Robert Markowitz (center) with the cast
of The Tuskegee Airmen.

The truth is, longform is not dying, it is evolving. Once doomed to a one-and-done airing, many films made-for-television now enjoy robust DVD sales and are readily available via video-on-demand. The old “miniseries” is the new “limited series,” and that genre is flourishing on cable. And new forms are springing forth. Warner Bros. recently announced it is making 15 new made-for-DVD films next year, and other studios and production companies have expressed an interest in creating longform programming to be distributed through the Internet.

Longform will endure. It’s an original American art form that will survive, because just like our primal ancestors huddled around the campfire, we need the stories. The films will be directed, as always, by skilled and passionate artists. One of them may even be the next Joe Sargent. They all will certainly deserve recognition–maybe even, praise.

Robert Markowitz has directed over 30 movies for television including The Tuskegee Airmen. Mike Robe has directed over 25 movies for television including Scott Turow’s Reversible Errors.

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