GUEST COLUMN: When Film Directors Do TV

Photo: ABC

Photo: ABC

Chris Zois

The world of television is usually looked down on by others in the entertainment industry, but TV has hit its stride over the past few years and movies may have to watch their backs.

Movies tend to be a director’s medium and television a writer’s medium. You’ve got your Milchs, Sorkins, and Weiners, who run their shows with iron fists. And you’ve got hired-gun directors who are just trained to keep the ship afloat. But Andy Greenwald of Grantland recently wrote that there are a few A-list TV directors out there. Some major filmmakers have tried their hand at directing episodes for the idiot box, notably Steven Soderbergh with The Knick.

The Knick recently premiered on Cinemax and has been a rousing success so far, even garnering a second season. I mean, you don’t need to tell me twice to watch something from Soderbergh, and his fingerprints are all over the show, but it got me thinking about how other filmmakers have fared on TV. These are a few standouts, both as successes and failures.


Notable films: Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive
Notable TV gigs: Twin Peaks

Lynch jumpstarted the trend of film directors doing TV. He simply could have done the job for a paycheque, but the first season of Twin Peaks and the series finale are essential Lynch, from the warped interpretations of Americana to the quirky characters that inhabit the town. Fun fact, though: Lynch had very little, if anything, to do with the second season, as he was busy directing Wild at Heart. That may have been the downfall of the show, as the plot devolved into a more generic police procedural in the second season.


Notable films: The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady, Bright Star
Notable TV gigs: Top of the Lake

Speaking of police procedurals, what would you think if I told you to watch an action cop show from the director of The Piano? Pretty awesome idea, right? Well, that’s what you get with Top of the Lake. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss stars as a detective investigating the disappearance of a girl in a New Zealand town. Whereas The Killing and True Detective try to act smarter than they are by posing questions about the duality of man, Top of the Lake instead highlights the trials and tribulations of working on a case. It’s definitely a slow-burn show, but the acting and directing make Top of the Lake seem more like a movie than TV.


Notable films: Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network
Notable TV gigs: House of Cards

You would think a show starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher would be a slam dunk, but House of Cards is more of a showcase for Spacey’s performance as opposed to showing off Fincher’s technical skills. Fincher is only around for the first two episodes, but you definitely see some of his trademarks, including dim lighting and lots of Steadicam usage. It’s a waste of talent, in my opinion, for the director.


Notable films: Heat, The Insider, Collateral
Notable TV gigs: Miami Vice, Vega$, Luck

Michael Mann began working in television by writing for Starsky and Hutch and then became the showrunner for Miami Vice, which he later adapted into a polarizing film in 2006. Mann had been a prolific film director for many years, but returned to TV in 2011 with the horse racing drama Luck. While that show had plenty of Mann’s directorial touches, it was cancelled after its first season amidst reports of animal mistreatment.


Notable films: The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist
Notable TV gigs: The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, The Walking Dead, Mob City

Like Mann, Frank Darabont got his start in TV before hitting the silver screen. Darabont worked on the underrated The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which led to him becoming a sought-after script doctor and Stephen King adapter. Darabont hit the small screen again two decades later, bringing The Walking Dead to TV, but was fired after the first season. And if you’ve stayed with the show, you know the quality has dropped significantly since Darabont’s departure.


Notable films: The Rundown, The Kingdom, Hancock
Notable TV gigs: Wonderland, Friday Night Lights, The Leftovers

There are a handful of directors who are much better at directing TV than films and one of those people is Peter Berg. During his film career he’s made some real stinkers including Very Bad Things and Battleship, but he seems to have real talent in casting actors and setting the tone for the smaller scope of television. Berg has pretty much made a career of doing pilots and then jetting, but look at that first episode of Friday Night Lights and tell me it’s not fantastic.