Out of the Box

Indie film directors invade the TV screen

The other exception during this period was Homicide: Life on the Street, which hit the air in 1993. Created by Barry Levinson, the series single-handedly introduced many of today's top American independent filmmakers to television: Mary Harron, Whit Stillman, Ted Demme, Steve Buscemi, Lisa Cholodenko, Barbara Koppel, and Arteta all directed episodes of the show. "Homicide was one of the great training grounds for indie directors—it was really a rite of passage for so many of us," says Arteta. "We were all broke after our movies and they gave us a chance and paid us. The show's style worked well—it was rough and handheld and it was about getting interesting performances."

The latest vogue for indie-flavored TV comes at an ideal time. After a boom in the '90s, American independent film is going through a lean period, and getting a picture off the ground can take years. "It's so hard to find indie film money," says Chaiken, "and we have to realize that our distribution outlets are always changing. So at the moment, TV is a great place to do our work." Television can be a perfect way to pay the bills while simultaneously developing your directorial chops. "It's like filmmaking boot camp," says Dan Minahan, who directed the movie Series 7 as well as episodes of The L Word, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood. "I have to tell a story in the most simple and economical way. And there's more money in TV, so I get to work with cranes and jibs and really cool stuff I couldn't do on my own. Like on Deadwood, I worked with 150 to 200 background extras and animals and stuntmen and firearms. It was very cool!"

Scenes from Six Feet Under: Auteurs, like Miguel Arteta, extend small-screen possibilities.
photo: Stacipop
Scenes from Six Feet Under: Auteurs, like Miguel Arteta, extend small-screen possibilities.

There are downsides to working in TV, though. Independent movies are the last refuge of the auteur director, offering as close as one can get to total control. TV is altogether less oriented around one artist's singular vision and drive. For a start, it's not the director who's king, it's the writer. Arteta argues that's why the quality of TV "has shot through the roof now—in television the writers make a lot of money and have all the creative power, so the talent gravitates there. You get these amazing writers running TV shows." Producers also expect guest directors to step on to the set for an episode, make their contribution and leave—almost like an anonymous gun for hire. Mary Harron, known for I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho, has two small children and says she appreciates the light commitment that TV offers. But, she warns, "you do have to check your ego, because you're not going to control the edit. The director is just not a very important person on an episodic TV show. The thing you can't get anywhere other than independent film is just sitting down and saying I'm going to write a script and I don't have to please anyone. That's why I would always come back to film."

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