Out of the Box

Indie film directors invade the TV screen

It's a great time to be a couch potato—if you have cable, that is. Why pay for a movie ticket and popcorn when you can stay at home and watch strikingly original, beautifully filmed drama, directed by some of the country's most talented independent filmmakers, on your very own TV set? While the networks wallow in reality-TV and makeover pablum, the "highbrow" end of the medium—HBO, Showtime, etc.—has remade itself as the natural habitat for drama that's as inventive and daring as many films.

TV's new artistic credibility is making the small screen an alluring alternative for directors, offering freedom from the stresses of financing and distribution that beset any adventurous filmmaker. "Up until a couple of years ago, if you went to direct TV, you didn't tell anyone because there was such a stigma attached to it," says indie film producer Christine Vachon. "But now some of the HBO and Showtime series show more provocative things than we can get into movie theaters." According to film and TV director Barry Levinson, "Movies these days are less and less about characters and behavior. All that's gone out the window. It's television that's taken over the role of capturing the small moments of human behavior—a role that's been abdicated by theatrical films."

The number of indie movie directors discreetly infiltrating the cable TV world has reached saturation point. Just take The L Word. It premiered last season on Showtime with filmmaker Rose Troche (Go Fish) as co-executive producer. The slate of directors already on board for the upcoming second season reads like a Sundance festival Who's Who—Neil LaBute (The Shape of Things), Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon), Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down), and Alison Maclean (Jesus' Son). The L Word's creator, Ilene Chaiken, planned it this way from the start. "I wanted a film director for the pilot," she says, "and if you look at my shortlist it was mostly people who'd be classified as indie directors. That was the sensibility I was going for. I was excited by the idea of getting a lot of interpretations of experience in relationships, and all the directors I've used talk about relationships and character in very quirky, naturalistic ways."

HBO prepared the ground for the indie-fication of TV—series like Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and Deadwood have brought cachet to the merger of big- and small-screen vision. "When you think of Six Feet Under, any two hours of that show would add up to a very original, interesting independent movie, shot on the same schedule," enthuses Miguel Arteta. Although best known for Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, Arteta has regularly stepped in to direct series like Six Feet Under—something you wouldn't even know unless you happen to have a fetish for opening credits. "The risks Six Feet takes," says Arteta, "the caliber of the writing, the approach to storytelling that defies category or genre—it's everything that we look for in independent cinema, except that it lasts 13 hours over the course of the year, instead of two hours in one night."

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photo: Stacipop
As if to prove Arteta's point, Six Feet Under hijacked its viewers last month with an episode as devastating as any recent movie. The mundane, self-absorbed minidramas that plague the Fisher family were torn asunder, when halfway through a normal-seeming episode, the plot was derailed: David, the show's most gentle, reliably endearing character, picks up a harmless-looking hitchhiker who subjects him (and us) to a prolonged form of psychological torture. While many viewers felt this was some of the most powerful TV they'd ever seen, others felt violated. This highlights one of the problems with translating an art-house aesthetic to the living room: When you go see an "edgy" movie, you usually have some idea about what's in store. The deep understanding and affection for television characters that build up over a number of years makes the experience more intense. Arteta, who directed the episode "Terror Begins at Home" that dealt with the aftermath of the attack, says, "Six Feet Under has taken such risks this season; we get to see David's character from so many more different angles than you would have time for in film. That's what TV can do that film can't."

With the success of these high-end cable shows, many in the industry predict that networks will follow suit. But rather than hiring indie directors, the networks are playing it safe by bringing in a whole horde of blockbuster names to direct pilots for upcoming series: John Woo has done a new version of Lost in Space, Barry Sonnenfeld's at work on a detective series, Rob Reiner took on a family comedy—even Mel Gibson got in on the trend with a pilot for ABC called Complete Savages.

Movie directors working in television is not a new thing, of course. Back in the early years of television, directors like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer cut their teeth on small-screen drama. Robert Altman worked on everything from Route 66 to Bonanza in the 1950s, later creating his own TV miniseries, Tanner '88. (He's currently shooting a sequel to be broadcast this fall on the Sundance Channel). Even John Cassavetes directed and starred in Johnny Staccato, a '50s private eye series. But for a long period in the '80s and '90s, the crossovers were few and far between. Which is why Twin Peaks, for instance, felt like such an event at the time, and a landmark in retrospect. TV execs chickened out when faced with Lynch's next series, Mulholland Drive, forcing Lynch to recut and release it as a movie.

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!"

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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