Fall 2015

One Director, One Miniseries

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 of True 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.

CHARACTER STUDY: Lisa Cholodenko (left), working with Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins, enjoyed unprecedented creative freedom in making Olive Kitteridge. (Photos: Jojo Whilden/HBO)

Lisa Cholodenko | Olive Kitteridge

Any humor in Olive Kitteridge is decidedly acerbic. The acclaimed HBO miniseries, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, presents an intimate portrait of a flinty, brusque, unsparing woman played by Frances McDormand and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout.

"I love a great character study," says Cholodenko, who won the 2014 DGA Award for Movies for Television and Mini-Series and a primetime Emmy for her work on Kitteridge, a project that grew out of her previous relationships with HBO and McDormand, whom she had directed in the film Laurel Canyon. "So I think it was kind of organic that it came my way," she says.

Although there were early discussions about making Kitteridge into an ongoing series, Cholodenko felt unprecedented creative freedom as she fashioned it into a richly spun-out four episodes. Despite having been shot in only 12 weeks, it looks and feels unhurried. "The luxury [of a miniseries] was allowing me to let these characters really live and breathe and become three-dimensional and show a complexity that I don’t feel is easily told in a traditional feature-length film," she says.

But Cholodenko did have some concerns going in. "There was some heavy sticking to my guns around shooting on film," she says. She also lobbied to drop the voice-over in the original script. "I felt it was distracting and detracting." And she wanted to steer the music away from a buttoned-up, classical repertoire and toward something with wider demographic appeal. All of her music choices made it into the final cut.

If she got pushback, she says, it was almost always tied to budget. "It was about, ‘Do you need that?’" she says. "But I never felt like I was getting notes from HBO like, ‘Hey, we received this week’s dailies and we’re concerned that you’re using too much color.’ There was nothing like that. They were very respectful of what I was doing."

Rehearsing, she would initially sit down at a table with the actors and have them read their lines and ask questions. "Does that work? What does that mean?" Once on set, however, she backed off. "I’m very fussy and precise in many ways," says Cholodenko. "But I also hold space in many ways and let them do their thing and kind of own it." At the same time, she adds, "I won’t walk away unless I have what I need."

Cholodenko’s task was to get viewers to embrace an off-putting character who immediately throws her husband’s valentine into the trash and views happy-go-lucky types as "saps." "Yeah, we struggled. It would have been strange had we not," she says, recalling scenes in which McDormand had to play fuming mad and Cholodenko, who worried that it might come off as histrionic or satirical or farcical, would encourage her to play with it.

The director says she would tell McDormand: "‘It’s probably authentic. But maybe it’s going to feel too big. This is television. Let’s try a different way. Where it comes out sideways. Or it’s understated. Or you cry here rather than yell.’ Whatever it is, I tried not to crowd her too much."

Cholodenko also had to calibrate the performances in the context of the whole miniseries. "I would just look at the scene and think about where it was in the arc of the piece, in the architecture of the whole thing of four hours, and in the architecture of that one hour."

"To me," she says, "it would have been a whole different thing as a series. It could have been great on its own terms. But I can’t imagine it now as anything except for these four hours. For me it needed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was such a complete life arc, it was rich that way. It was a life-changer. It was a really hard job."

ENSEMBLE CAST: David Wain had to juggle a star-studded cast, including Amy Poehler, on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. (Photos: (top) Gemma La Manna/Netflix; (bottom) Saeed Adyani/Netflix

David Wain | Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was first envisioned as a movie prequel to David Wain’s 2001 cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, a zany spoof about the antics of kids and counselors at camp.

As Wain and his co-creator, Michael Showalter, began developing the prequel, however, they concocted so much material and imaginative directions, "it would have been bursting at the seams," says Wain. So they decided that spinning their ideas into eight episodes for a Netflix limited series was the perfect platform. "It really seemed to be what it was destined to be," says Wain.

Although it’s a low-budget satirical comedy, the series features a whopping number of top-level, in-demand actors. Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Jon Hamm are among the star-packed cast. Many had to peel time off from Spanx-tight work schedules to play their roles.

Therefore, to plug them in on their available days, many scenes had to be shuffled up and shot piecemeal. If all the actors for a scene couldn’t be on set at the same time, no problem. Body doubles, green-screen comps, split screens, and other sleight-of-hand devices were employed. And Wain maintained the continuity.

"We had some scenes," he says, "where there was real dramatic energy between two actors who, in fact, never crossed paths on set." This patchwork process became so routine that by the time Wain sat down to edit, he says, "we often forgot which actors were really in the room together and which weren’t."

Even though Wain didn’t initially plan to direct all the episodes, he and Showalter decided early on that he could bring more cohesion to the project by taking full charge. It was easier "if I didn’t have to constantly wonder what the intention was, or have to go backward and figure it out." Otherwise, he adds, "the only other way to do it was to have eight directors all hanging around for the entire shoot until it was their time for a scene that day."

Wain never felt as if the producers were cramping his style. "With Netflix," he says, "there’s a lot less of a traditional creative-oversight-by-committee mentality. And so we were essentially just left alone a lot more, or courted in the right way, instead of having restrictions."

On the set, Wain says, "I try to move fast," although directing comedy, particularly this shaggy humor, can be hard to get right. "You always have to build in the fact that you don’t know for sure."

ANCIENT TALE: Amid massive sets, David Von Ancken tried to maintain the intimate drama of Tut. (Photos: Jan Thijs)

David Von Ancken | Tut

David Von Ancken first pitched his vision of Tut to Spike executives, describing how he would shape this three-part miniseries, which portrays the life of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, who died young and whose crypt and gold burial mask were discovered in 1922.

"It’s going to be an in-camera look. It’s going to be a gritty look. It’s going to be a natural-light look," Von Ancken told them. Ten minutes later, Spike called him with the go-ahead.

With that came the responsibility of directing a $30-million, blood, sand, and sex epic costume extravaganza, to be shot in Morocco with high drama, plagues, fires, palace intrigue, and desert battle scenes.

"When I decided to do the whole thing," says Von Ancken, comparing it with directing episodic television, "the biggest difference is that you have to understand you are going to block-shoot not two or three scenes, but two or three hundred scenes. And we had a 250-page script that we essentially shot out of order. You have to get the entire six hours into your head, rather than an hour at a time."

Von Ancken knew at the beginning what the last shot would be. And because the ambitious undertaking required choreographing multiple battle sequences involving dozens of stunt performers and upward of 1,000 background actors, he could organize the shooting schedule in the most practical way possible. And to avoid expensive reshoots, he says, "you have to make very sure that you understand exactly where you’re taking the story at any given moment."

The sets, one depicting the city of Thebes, were massive: 750 feet long by 400 feet wide and four stories tall. Von Ancken had to fill the space effectively without overwhelming Tut’s more intimate, coming-of-age story. "It was very much an exercise in trying to distill where your story is without focusing too much on the spectacle, so that the spectacle almost becomes a throwaway."

Although there were financial constraints, he got two full units for nine of the 15 weeks of shooting. And because they were depicting ancient period garb and weaponry, a metal and leather shop set to work constructing 750 shields, 500 bows, and many more arrows. And though the production eventually decided on using visual-effects arrows, it still required directorial oversight. "You have to make sure they are pulling back right," Von Ancken notes.

Filming in the desert, nothing went exactly as planned. Tents were blown down. "You’re in the northern Sahara with a 30-knot wind coming from the south that feels like two hair dryers in your face. How do you keep your background from dying?" he says. "How do you keep 800 guys, who are dressed in thick leather, watered and fed, let alone the 1,000 other people who are supporting all this? So it was a great big logistic thing."

For the battle scenes, Von Ancken choreographed every move. Each of the 65 stuntmen was given a 10-beat action sequence: a blow, a move back, a parry, a comeback, a flip, and so forth. The cameras had to be poised just right, especially in scenes with six chariots peeling down a hill. "And you have to make sure, when it comes rolling by you, that you’ve got that shot. Because you don’t want to redo it."

Even the editing was tricky in terms of calculating commercial breaks and cliffhangers. "It’s almost like creating a score," Von Ancken says. "How to break it into three nights first. And then break it into seven acts each night. And it’s the same skill set, I think, that you use when you’re talking about creating the parts of a score."

Overall, being the one director on the series was a great experience for Von Ancken. "It was satisfying in the way Spike gave me the latitude to do the movie I wanted to make."

A STAR IS BORN: Laurie Collyer creating The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe with Kelli Garner as the legendary actress and Susan Sarandon as her mother. It was a challenge because people already feel they know Marilyn. (Photos: (top) Philippe Bosse/Lifetime; (bottom) Courtesy Laurie Collyer)

Laurie Collyer | The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

While Lisa Cholodenko had the task of bringing a fictional character to life, Laurie Collyer, who directed Lifetime’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, had to create a cradle-to-grave miniseries about one of the biggest icons in contemporary American history: Marilyn Monroe is someone viewers already feel intimately familiar with.

"It was a huge challenge," says Collyer. "She is one of the most photographed celebrities ever."

Collyer knew instinctively how to shape the material; the miniseries digs into lesser-known facts of Monroe’s life. It spotlights her relationship with her mentally ill mother and her own unyielding insecurities. Collyer had directed a similarly distressed tale with Sherrybaby, an indie film that caught the attention of Lifetime executives.

"I pitched," says Collyer, who had never directed TV before. "I showed them my look book," which included ideas for the tone of the series, locations, and ideas for each character. "They said they wanted me to approach it like film," she says. "I was excited. It’s a women’s channel and I like to tell women’s stories."

Her most critical decision was casting Monroe, who is scripted into almost every scene. The actor had to believably portray Monroe from ages 16 to 36, as she transformed from dark-haired ingénue to platinum-blond bombshell.

Her first choice was Kelli Garner. "I’d been watching her awhile," says Collyer, who thought Garner had the right body type and several good angles. "Kelli’s not hard to shoot."

Because so much of Monroe’s story is tied to her transformation into a sex symbol, Collyer constantly pivoted around hair, makeup, and costume issues. "We cast our Marilyn Monroe late in the schedule and Kelli had 95 costume changes, seven wigs, and very elaborate makeup for each time period and age she was representing," says Collyer, who got five weeks of prep and 42 days to shoot the 220-page script.

To ensure that viewers bought into Garner’s impersonation, Collyer did something she’d never done before—full page-turns of the script in which she closely analyzed Garner’s costumes and makeup for each scene.

"It was kind of like a special-effects makeup show because Kelli’s makeup design had to be so elaborate," says Collyer, whose office was covered ceiling to floor with images of Monroe through the different stages of her life. Costume re-creations included Monroe’s famous JFK birthday dress and her white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch, as well as other, lesser-known iconic pieces. "The checkered trousers ... the orange Pucci sweater," says Collyer. "I think the die-hard Marilyn fans will notice. That’s what we were going for, at least."

On some shooting days, as many as three wig changes were required, but the director couldn’t go overtime. "Covering scenes when you only have six shooting hours is like sprinting to the finish line," says Collyer, who at least got ample elbowroom when she was directing the performances. "No one gave the actors notes but me," she says. "That’s a huge freedom."

TRUE CRIME: Raymond De Felitta staging a smoky poker game in Madoff, starring Richard Dreyfuss as the scam artist Bernie Madoff. (Photos: (top) Eric Liebowitz/ABC; (bottom) Eva Kaminsky/ABC)

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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