Directors Discuss Cinematic Television at 2017 TCA Press Tour

TCA 2017

July 29, 2017

The DGA hosted a television directing panel, “The Director’s Vision: Cinematic Television,” during the Television Critics Association (TCA) annual summer gathering at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. The panel was a follow-up to the Guild’s inaugural TCA panel in 2015 showcasing the work of TV comedy directors.

DGA President Thomas Schlamme opened the event by thanking the audience of prominent TV critics and reporters who increasingly highlight “the enormous contribution that directors make in this collaborative medium.”

“I remember early on in my career, I always wondered why networks and studios and producers didn’t want directors to reach into their toolbox and use the best visual vocabulary they had to tell that story. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that anymore,” said Schlamme, pointing out the stark contrast with television today as he introduced the panel of four leading episodic directors representing series on basic cable, premium cable and high-budget SVOD programs — Anthony Hemingway (Underground), Michelle MacLaren (The Deuce), Daniel Sackheim (Jack Ryan) and David Slade (American Gods).

Journalists were eager to ask panelists questions about the craft, the changing nature of television, and the collaborative process of directing episodic television.

“Television has evolved. It’s very cinematic today,” reflected MacLaren. “When we’re fortunate enough to get great scripts, we’re hired with the responsibility to collaborate with all the other members of our team to put it on the screen in the most cinematic way possible, the best way to tell this story. On the set, we are the leaders of making that happen.”

When it comes to getting started on a new project, Hemingway noted the very personal nature of the process. “I really try to figure out my way into it, how can I color what my duty is and be a collaborator on this team effort, and give it a little of my spice and my sauce. How can I elevate it, in the way that I can find the truth in it? It’s really just sitting down and pouring myself into it.”

“The first thing I’m looking for is some cinematic language possibilities. That’s an important thing to me. As director, what I do is kind of everything, working with all of the various different departments … that can focus the entire thing, give it a big hug, if you like,” added Slade.

The panelists noted how the changing nature of television, particularly in cable and streaming, has heightened the prominence of episodic directors.

“You’re sometimes making six episodes or eight episodes of television and there’s actually now more room for the director on smaller orders to come in and bring their vision to the piece,” said Sackheim.

“I think in a perfect world, if you had all the scripts together, you have an ability to shoot a film, broken up into different installments. So that is definitely exciting, and really awesome,” agreed Hemingway.

Slade noted that the biggest factor driving the transformation in television all comes down to the changing tastes of viewers. “I think audiences understand when they see something cinematic or something visceral that they’re going through, that is different from a close up, wide shot coverage. And so as audiences get more sophisticated, the material itself is open to having a director’s vision.”

The panelists agreed that the gratifying work of creating cinematic television was not without its challenges.

“It is not as if the resources that you are given have kept pace with what is expected of modern, certainly, cable television. So we all have to be resourceful, in terms of finding tricks and things that we can use, to be able to tell sort of cinematic stories without having that time in which to do it,” said Sackheim.

“I always say that if you’ve got a roomful of directors, and you asked us all what is the one thing we would like more of, I can pretty much say everybody here would tell you that it’s time!” said MacLaren.

Photos by Elisa Haber