Long gone are the days where TV was seen as the lesser cousin to movies. Now, bigger and bigger names are jumping into TV, encouraged by trailblazing shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, or tempted by successful franchises that may not win many awards, but in front of millions of eyeballs every week. And the trend is increasing as more and more directors call the shots, so we’re taking a peek ahead…
Spielberg has a long history with television, making his start on the goggle box with episodes of Columbo and Night Gallery back in the early '70s. Even his first film, Duel, began life as a TV movie. He’s been producing TV for years now and shows no sign of slowing down, and while he doesn’t usually direct any of them himself (he’s a little busy, after all), his fingerprints are all over them.
What To Watch: He most recently delivered The Pacific, a follow-up to his earlier smash Band Of Brothers. He’s got several shows bubbling away in various stages of production, including the pilot for Locke & Key, based on Joe Hill’s comic series (directed, of all people, by Mark Romanek) and another for Smash, which features Anjelica Huston in the tale of a troupe trying to stage a Marilyn Monroe musical. Epic (and troubled, given that its launch date has just been shoved back to the autumn thanks to effects issues), time-twisting, dino-filled sci-fi adventure Terra Nova is in production and he’s already wrapped Falling Skies, a miniseries about humans battling invading aliens starring ER’s Noah Wyle.
Scorsese isn’t quite as involved in TV as Spielberg, though he did direct an episode of Amazing Stories (Mirror, Mirror) back in 1986. Since then, he’s mostly produced documentaries and found time to play himself on the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and even Entourage. But all that changed last year...
What To Watch: Boardwalk Empire, which sees Scorsese working in a milieu with which he’s intimately familiar: gangster drama. Created by Sopranos veteran Terence Winter, Empire features Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, an Atlantic City entrepreneur and political player who also happens to be as crooked as the day is long. Set in the 1920s, it weaves a tale of prohibition, murder, betrayal and revenge. Scorsese signed on to direct the first episode, giving the series its defining look, a visual appeal that's been continued by the other directors. He’s also lent his support via an executive producer credit, with US channel HBO throwing plenty of weight behind it.
Sir Rid worked his way up as a production designer on TV to direct episodes of Z-Cars and Mogul. Tony, meanwhile, was briefly an actor but really made an impact on the small screen with the series based on lady-on-lady love horror The Hunger. Their Scott Free production company has been in the telly business for a while now, with one of their biggest successes to date landing squarely in Procedural Land thanks to the adventures of FBI agent Rob Morrow and his maths whiz brother David Krumholtz in Numb3rs. And yes, you have to write the “3” in there, or Tony Scott blows up your car.
What To Watch: Numb3rs hit the cancellation wall after six years, but Scott Free was already diversifying, hatching miniseries The Pillars Of The Earth based on Ken Follett’s novel and their most recent hit series, The Good Wife. The legal drama finds Julianna Margulies as a lawyer who heads back into practice after her state attorney husband (Chris Noth) is caught up in a sex scandal. Offered a job by an old law school friend (Josh Charles), she fights the good fight while dealing with the family fallout from her hubbie’s infidelity.
Another film director whose career owes a lot to the small screen, Mann has history as a writer on shows such as Starsky And Hutch and Police Story, and moved on up to become a creator/producer for Crime Story and Miami Vice. He just can’t stay away from the mean streets, either. Telly movie LA Takedown is essentially a dress rehearsal for Heat, while Miami Vice is one of those rare film adaptations to feature one of its original producers as a major guiding hand.
What To Watch: Mann’s most recent dabble with criminal elements exploded in his face when his attempt to sex up the police procedural with 2002’s Robbery Homicide was cut down after half a season. But this year, he’s teaming up with Deadwood creator David Milch for Luck, a chronicle of chancers, gamblers and crooks who gravitate around a horseracing track. Mann directed the pilot from Milch’s script and it boasts the talents of Dustin Hoffman (making his first stab at TV for decades), Nick Nolte and Dennis Farina.
Shortly after he set The Terminator on us, Cameron took to the small screen for TV short Reach. But Cameron’s first big TV project was Dark Angel, the futuristic tale of genetically enhanced Jessica Alba, who fought evil while also working as a messenger. Since then, the big JC has largely confined himself to documentaries about diving to the Titanic and other wrecks, plus seeing his name attached to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (though only because he created the characters).
What To Watch: Cameron embraced his reputation - though only to a certain degree - by agreeing to show up on Entourage as himself, in a plotline that saw him agreeing to make a movie of Aquaman starring the show’s lead, Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier). Suffice to say, it makes a lot of money. But the biggest telly news to have his name attached is the planned series based on 1994’s Arnie action comedy True Lies. Don’t get too excited, though – it’s still just a pilot and Cameron isn’t even really involved. “I’m not developing it directly. I’m just putting my name on it so to speak,” he told Empire at an Avatar event last year. That way he gets part of the credit if it works and zero blame if it doesn’t! Smart man, that one...
Boon. Yes, the 1980s handyman/private eye series starring Michael Elphick. Wondering why we bring it up? It was one of Winterbottom’s early jobs, before film became his main career. In his telly directing days, he was also responsible for helping to launch the superb drama Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane, with his mark on the first two episodes. He also worked on the slightly less successful (and definitely less well known) Time Riders.
What To Watch: Never one to resist the chance to experiment, Winterbottom created The Trip last year, which finds Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (co-stars in the director’s film of Tristram Shandy) journeying around various UK locales as a food critic and his friend. Largely improvised, the series has brought such viral video delights as the Michael Caine impersonation face-off and riffing on Richard Gere’s technique. The series has been edited into a film for American audiences, which has been doing the festival route and will arrive in cinemas on June 10.
The man who made Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night and (whisper it) Twilight: Eclipse doesn’t really have a background in TV – his history is much more wrapped up in the music videos he created for acts such as Stone Temple Pilots, Rob Dougan, System of a Down and Muse. Known for his stylish methods and original eye, Slade also worked on short films, including Do Geese See God?, an odd story about a man looking for salvation who is sent on a hunt around Los Angeles.
What To Watch: The director has recently been tweeting about his latest gig, directing an episode of the excellent drama series Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston has been winning awards aplenty for his portrayal of cancer-stricken high-school chemistry teacher Walter White, who turned to making meth to support his family. After three seasons of increasingly dark and dangerous behaviour, Walter’s become something quite different. We can’t wait to see what Slade does with the show, which features some of the most beautiful cinematography on TV thanks to the talents of Michael Slovis. Slade is also gearing up to shoot the pilot for REM, about a police detective (Jason Isaacs) who crosses realities in an attempt to save his family and catch more criminals.
If Spielberg has real competition when it comes to prolific telly work, it’s Abrams, who, even though he’s since moved from being an active TV titan to movies, continues to churn out the concepts. Though he started in movies as a composer and via the odd acting stint, it was his script doctoring work and screenplays for the likes of Armageddon that pushed him to the small screen. He created and ran shows such as Felicity and Alias before being tempted away again. But even then, he helped launch Lost, produced Six Degrees and the lesser-seen comedy drama What About Brian.
What To Watch: Despite some recent disappointments, such as married spy series Undercovers failing to capture the US viewing audience’s imagination, Abrams is still able to get a TV show pilot commissioned as easily as the rest of us sneeze. At this point he could probably write random words down on a napkin and an executive would throw a cheque in his direction. He’s specialised in finding talented people to run shows, with Fringe still holding on and new series Alcatraz drawing plenty of interest. The time-warping drama boasts Sam Neill and Robert Forster heading up its cast. Plus there's crime thriller Person Of Interest, co-created with Jonathan Nolan.
Apted might be best known for his TV documentary work with the landmark ongoing series Seven Up (now 49 Up given the age of the interviewees). He started as a lowly researcher on the first programme and is now its director and producer, as well as conducting the interviews. TV also helped birth his directing career with stints on Coronation Street and Play For Today.
What To Watch: Though he’s more likely to be found at the helm of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and other big movies, he’s not so busy that he can’t slip in the odd telly job. He was a consulting producer and occasional director of the HBO/BBC series Rome and also took a gig as a director on one episode of J.J. Abrams’ series What About Brian. But his latest assignment will see him directing a script from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry called Hallelujah, which finds a small US town torn apart by the forces of good and evil. Donal Logue, Jesse L. Martin and, in another Abrams link (he gets everywhere), Lost veteran Terry O’Quinn are starring.
Berg’s background is in acting, and he launched his career in front of the camera on TV and movies almost at the same time. As a director, however, the goggle box just about scoops the big screen, as he began directing episodes of Chicago Hope before he moved onto Very Bad Things. His TV directing/producing jobs have included Wonderland, a short-lived show about life on a mental ward and an equally brief stint with fellow medical drama Trauma. But one series will live above all his other work – the telly adaptation of Friday Night Lights, which became something great. "Clear eyes, full hearts..."
What To Watch: Let’s hope the love and appreciation shown to him for Lights can carry over, because his next telly plan has met with a lot more controversy. He’s on board to launch and produce an American take on Prime Suspect, with Maria Bello aiming to be the next Jane Tennison (or, as she’ll apparently be called, Jane Timoney). Aidan Quinn and Toby Stephens are aboard that one, which is just a pilot for now. Can it match up to the Linda La Plante/Helen Mirren legacy? We’ll find out...
Like his fellow David on this list (Slade), Fincher doesn’t have a real history with TV. Though chances are you’ll have seen his commercials on the box, and his music videos for artists including Madonna, Aerosmith and George Michael certainly have.
What To Watch: But if Fincher hasn’t shown much interest in the telly before, things have certainly changed now. It was reported last year that Fincher and Charlize Theron are developing an adaptation of John Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s book Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Serial Crime Unit. HBO are said to be interested, though at last reports it was only at the script stage. But even more exciting is his plan to remake the political drama House Of Cards with Kevin Spacey playing a scheming scoundrel. Writer Beau Willimon is converting it for US politics and while it’ll face a similar challenge to Prime Suspect because the original was so highly regarded, it’s certainly intriguing.
Stephen King’s best buddy, Darabont made his name with his film adaptation of King’s short story, ‘Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption’ from King’s collection ‘Different Seasons’. Prior to that he was an accomplished genre screenwriter (See also: The Fly II, The Blob, and so on), also writing for Lucas’s spin-off TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and directing a TV movie called Buried Alive. Then, after Shawshank, The Green Mile, The Majestic and The Mist came last year’s… The Walking Dead.
What To Watch: The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead. That’s the TV output of Frank Darabont you should watch. Everyone’s favourite post-apocalyptic horror TV series, it stars Andrew “Him Off Teachers” Lincoln as Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy who wakes up from a coma to discover that the whole goddamn world has gone zombie. A film-quality drama series that just so happens to be about the undead, it’s an outstanding piece of television from the get-go, with arguably the finest first episode of any show in recent memory – no great surprise considering it was directed by Mr. Darabont himself. October is when we’ll next see Rick and co. fighting for their lives – which is about seven months too far away, by us.