Another pilot season filled with big-name directors begs the question: Is the director or the show runner in charge?
Film is a director’s medium, and TV belongs to writers — except during pilot season.
This pilot season features a barrage of directorial talent including James Mangold (“Walk the Line”), Jonathan Demme (“Silence of the Lambs”), Stephen Gaghan ("Syriana") and Mark Romanek (“Never Let Me Go”).
So when A-list film directors work with A-list TV writers, who gets the last word?
“I can’t imagine a worse scenario than for the writer and director on a television show, on a pilot, to not agree on what the show is,” Veena Sud, the show runner for AMC’s “The Killing,” told TheWrap.
Sud worked with “Monster” director Patty Jenkins, and was grateful that they were “attached at the hip” creatively.
Also read: The Writer's Room: Veena Sud
But not all her colleagues have such good fortune, she said. “People absolutely disagree creatively about what the story is. The worst things I’ve heard are just silly things, like they’re on location scouts together and they’re not talking to each other — and they’re sitting in the same van.”
A new golden age of television has drawn many top directors to the medium in recent years. But the influx has required the writers who created that golden age to cede some of their control.
That became obvious to former “Sopranos” writer Terence Winter, the show runner of HBO's acclaimed "Boardwalk Empire," as he watched Martin Scorsese direct the prohibition drama’s pilot.
On the first day of shooting, Winter noticed that actor Michael Pitt’s character was wearing a hat in a room full of women — which a 1920s man would be rude to do. Winter sat through two takes and decided he had to say something.
“Finally I said, look, I’ve got a note for Marty. How do I do this?" Winter recalled telling the assistant director. "He said, ‘I don’t know, no one’s ever given him a note before.’
“I said, ‘Oh, s—, well this is awkward.’”
Show runners — the people responsible for guiding the writing and overall direction of a show — usually have the last word on their sets, barring intervention from network executives.
And the emergence of show runners with the same kind of creative freedom as auteur directors has led to an explosion of celebrated shows, from "The Sopranos" to "Mad Men" to "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to "Breaking Bad."
That, in turn, has drawn top film directors who usually have the last word on their sets, barring intervention from studio executives.
Successful TV collaborations — like the ones between Winter and Scorsese, and Sud and Jenkins — begin with mutual admiration. Scorsese and fellow executive producer Mark Wahlberg invited Winter, a former “Sopranos” writer, to join them on “Boardwalk Empire.”
Mangold (left), who wrapped filming on the pilot of CBS’s “Rookies” on Thursday, said he was thrilled to work with novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, of “Clockers” and “The Wire” fame. Price’s northern New Jersey-set novels influenced Mangold’s own script for “Copland,” Mangold said.
“It’s all people who have a very similar vision, so I don’t think there’s ever a question of who is in charge,” he said. “I think the whole point was that Richard and I share an incredible set of common values about acting, about writing. The idea of working with him was closing the circle with someone who had been a driving inspiration for me as a writer and director for years.”
He said he was drawn to TV, like many directors, by the chance to develop characters and story.
“Right now,” Mangold said, “the really great character work is generally on television. Character pieces in features have not, in the last few years, been something that studios are going to jump at.”
With the creative rewards come financial ones. Directors may be paid residuals for years for helping create the world of a show, and pilots usually take just weeks to shoot, compared to months for most features.
Howard Gordon, the former “24” show runner who now runs the NBC pilot “REM,” joined it after “Eclipse” director Slade. He said Slade’s involvement was a “tipping point” to help get the pilot green-lit.
“I think there’s a reason so many people go to feature directors — because they’re used to starting a new world with every movie,” he said.
Gordon, a fan of Slade’s even before they worked together, says he welcomes differences of opinion rather than seeing them as a threat.
“I think reasonable people who are secure in their vision can argue things through,” he said. “The best idea wins.”
Winter says his intervention over Pitt’s hat during the “Boardwalk Empire” shoot ended happily. The assistant director pointed him toward Scorsese, who was behind a monitor.
“I sort of steeled myself and I went in, and – it’s a very different thing to be in pre-production and in an office and then to see Marty on the set behind his monitor,” Winter said. “It’s very clear who the captain of that ship is. I had to walk into the captain’s quarters and up to the captain and I said ‘Marty, I’m so sorry to bother you, I noticed something and I just wanted to bring it to your attention… it’s 1920, he’s not taking his hat off.’
“He said, ‘Oh my God! You gotta take the hat off! Tell him to take it off!’” said Winter, doing a solid Scorsese impression. “He said, ‘If you see anything like that, please, don’t hesitate for a second, come tell me.’”
Winter added: “I breathed a huge sigh of relief.”