Director Alan Arkush (Crossing Jordan, Ally McBeal) welcomed directors and critics to the DGA's Episodic Television Directors reception, held at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood, during the recent Television Critics Association's (TCA) winter press tour. Following Arkush's address, critics mingled with more than 30 DGA directors of both comedic and dramatic television.
Among the top items of conversation were too little time and money, too many requests to borrow old ideas for new series, and the now familiar topic of the impact of reality shows on television. Some directors who were new to the annual DGA/TCA get-together, quietly admitted they were hesitant about coming to an event where they would be face-to-face with television critics. By the end of the evening, however, those directors had changed their minds and were delighted by the interest the critics showed in their work.
Television shows are increasingly finding their ways into homes via DVDs that resemble those of feature films, including all the extras — deleted scenes, featurettes and commentary. Not surprisingly, it was also among the "hot" topics of conversation, and directors' opinions varied.
Jon Cassar (a 2003 DGA Award nominee for directing an episode of 24) believes that "it's a huge plus for us as television directors. Film people have always had their stuff come out on video and then DVD. Suddenly, for television directors, their whole career is on DVD. It's kind of exciting for us, being recognized a little bit more for the work we've done, and it gathers you a whole new audience."
David Nutter (Smallville, The X-Files) also applauds the visibility, along with the opportunity for audiences to discover shows they might have missed. He's received calls to provide audio commentaries on shows he'd done in the past and admits, "DVD has changed things."
But for Danny Cannon (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) it's a different story. "I end up on the commentary trying to give credit to everyone who has helped me, trying to mention names, because I think that's the best use I can find for it."
The issue heading Arkush's agenda is still runaway production. "All this production that's going out of L.A. and out of America is a terrible major issue! When I shoot in Toronto, it's not the same as shooting here. It's not the same legacy of people who came to L.A. to work in the motion picture business, now with the second and third generation — that's a family craft! It does not exist there! If you go to Toronto to make something, it's because some say it's cheaper. No one goes to Toronto because they love the look of Toronto!" Arkush blames media consolidation for part of the runaway problem and what he calls a "difference in our entertainment culture. It's the difference between doing something because you want it to be popular and (to) get fannies in seats at movie theatres or eyes in front of the television — and doing something that boosts the price of the stock."
Arkush said that, "lobbying efforts by the DGA are important in trying to make Congress and those people understand, 'Yes, there are big profits for all these multi-national corporations, but that doesn't affect the people below and above the line, and those are the people who need protecting.' "
Some critics bemoaned that television is not what it once was, finding support in ratings figures indicating that even the top shows today are drawing numbers that would have guaranteed cancellation a decade ago. However, while some wish that American television could be done the way it is in the U.K. and elsewhere, others commented that audiences, critics and those working in the industry in those countries are looking to these shores and wishing they had the variety and quality to be found on American television.
"There's always a temptation to think it's better elsewhere," suggested British-born Sarah Pia Anderson (Gilmore Girls, Profiler), originally a theatre director who moved into British television and such acclaimed series as Prime Suspect, before crossing the Atlantic about seven years ago. "I think there was a time when British television was truly extraordinary, but it was a much smaller community, a smaller business, and there was much less pressure on it to perform and make money. We made certain assumptions about making television — that people would understand what we were doing; therefore, we made challenging television. Now we live in an age where there's pressure on us to explain and over explain. Interestingly, I think American television has withstood that storm a little better than British television."
Anderson also noted that while "dumbing down" seems to be part of the culture, "American television has actually come up with some really extraordinary work in the face of commercial assaults. Whereas, I think British television has found it harder to withstand that kind of deregulation in the market."
Of course, England has always been a class-conscious society and for all creative talents in the U.K. industry there have been barriers. While less so now, it used to be that if you started directing in one area — say, the stage — then you didn't go into television or film, fearing cries of derision. Directing commercials was an even bigger and unforgivable sin.
Anderson, who's directing new season episodes of Showtime's Dead Like Me, admitted that when she first came into television via the stage, "yes, it was a snobbish attitude. British theatre has a huge history, great renown and rightly so. It's understandable that this 'television upstart' would be treated with a certain amount of circumspection. It's not the case here because theatre, television and film have occupied very different places in the culture."
Anderson acknowledged that as a director, "you develop by doing. It's an excellent way of training and a great way of continually learning to work with a camera and performers in different genres. This would not have happened to me if I'd remained in England, because naturalism is pretty much what British television was about when I was growing up. American television has given me the opportunities to confront the genres. It's like being an honored guest helping to push the boundaries of television." The situation is further helped because, she said, the DGA has created, "effective safeguards and conditions on our behalf, (establishing) a viable, creative environment for directors to work in," which is, "very important and quite successful."
Fellow U.K. transplant Danny Cannon echoed many of Anderson's thoughts about the industry in both countries. He came to television from film and commercials. "What they do in England reflects an English experience, but Americans are really good at reflecting an international experience. That's what really drew me to American television. It's unbelievable here, the ideas and talents are so good, there's just so much of it and it gets copied so quickly. What they manage to accomplish, production wise, is spectacular ... inspiring! It's unbelievable; it's the fastest thing in the world. I think television's better in America than it's been in a very long time; and I think in England, while there's some great writers and great ideas, not a lot of them get realized quite as well as they could be in America."
Cannon admitted he didn't watch television until he directed in the medium, and that happened by accident. "And I'm glad it did. Tony Scott always used to say to me that commercials were his 'finger exercises' and they were very good for him to keep shooting. I prefer directing television as my 'finger exercise,' because I actually get to tell a story and have actors in it and do drama. Television is much better lensed and better lit. I think directors respect television more now. It's made me a better director by testing me, not only with time but also with scripts, being precise and economic and going on instinct, because you don't get time to try different ways. It's a great way to hone my skills."
Cannon said he owes his career to the wave of English directors who broke through in the '70s — Ridley and Tony Scott, Alan Parker (his mentor) and Adrian Lyne. "They're my heroes, they're my inspiration. Everyone has said they had no choice but to come here; they needed to expand their palette, and that's how I felt."
Cannon is about to direct the pilot for a third CSI series. With the first two being so successful, he said, "the pressure is on to make this show different, to get the casting right and get it to have its own identity, which we've done twice in a row."
He's hoping to get 14 days in which to shoot this pilot, having done his previous CSI pilot in 12. The schedule for each episode is 8½ days. Such a limited time frame has been something he and Anderson have had to adjust to, along with the difference in episode requirements for each season — six in the U.K., compared to the 20 plus here. In the U.K., a director is more likely to helm every episode in the season, generally resulting in a better relationship with the cast and a very different experience all around. The pace of American television is another matter.
In episodic television, he said, "there's a very short space between thought and action, there's not much room for prevarication. And I think in some ways, if you've done the preparation — and this is key — it's one of the most exciting ways to film."
Jon Cassar is another director who believes television is breaking new ground, "and it's fortunate for those of us that get to play on that new ground." Cassar is now into the third season of 24 and said that this season is different because, "It's a little more liberating, more chances are being taken. I think it's our job, as sort of the new vanguard of television, to push as much as we can. I think we're freer now than we've ever been. I think they trust what we do. And from a director's point of view, that's wonderful — and it's liberating to do the show."
Each episode of 24 is shot in 7½ days "which is probably one of the tightest in town," Cassar said. "There's no real standard second unit ... maybe once in a while, but we try to do it all in that schedule. (Using) two cameras has really helped."
The show established a reputation for its use of multiple images on screen. "That's new television," Cassar said. "The amount of footage we shoot is huge. We have two-camera coverage all the time, and we try to design and block the scenes so they're top to bottom.
Because of that, we shoot various angles and by the time an editor gets that scene, even though it may be only two people talking, they have probably got 30 or 40 shots to pick from to do the double screen — there's a lot there."
As critics and directors discovered, there was also "a lot there" to talk about during the evening. Schedules may be telescoped and budgets may not increase, but most agreed that life as a television director will still be rewarding as long as there are opportunities to make the entertaining and thought-provoking scripted television anywhere on the planet.