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SWITCHING CHANNELS
Peter Bowen looks at the opportunities afforded independent filmmakers by television.

Since the arrival of television, film culture has often treated this new medium as a debased, even prostituted, model of itself. With the writer/producer – not writer/director – as the controlling force, television is rarely taken seriously by auteurist directors seeking to exercise their artistic chops.

In recent years, however, a few television producers have reached out to the independent filmmaker community. Shows like Homicide, Oz, Law and Order, Sex and the City and the recent Six Feet Under have regularly employed independent filmmakers to give their stories the verve that traditional television lacked. In turn, television is giving these directors experience, career visibility and gainful employment.

But why hire finicky indies as opposed to small-screen hacks? Tom Fontana, writer/producer of Homicide and now Oz, feels that non-TV directors give his shows a new direction and feel: "With Homicide we try to conceive each episode as its own little film. This allows us to hire directors and say, ‘Here is the film language of the show and the camera movement, but within that, what else have you got?’" For the directors, Fontana says, "It is a nice chunk of change and it gives them more time to [develop their own projects]."

To gain a sense of Homicide’s impact on independent filmmakers, one need only review its alumni of directors: Nick Gomez, Kathryn Bigelow, Joe Berlinger, Steve Buscemi, Mary Harron, Barbara Kopple, Alison Maclean and Whit Stillman, to name a few.

Miguel Arteta, who worked on both Homicide and Six Feet Under in between his feature films Star Maps and Chuck & Buck, explains, "I think it is mutually beneficial for both parties. Independent directors bring a fresh approach to the acting. Actors in television can grow stale since they are doing the same characters week after week. To bring in an independent director who is not jaded, who is excited by the craft, can really energize the cast and crew. It helps the shows become more alive. As an indie director, when you are doing television, there is just such good writing talent involved, it can be kind of exciting. Even though you are not the ‘visionary’ of the project, you are collaborating with people who are real visionaries."

What most directors fear in going into television is giving up their own sense of style and working, instead, to service the formal constraints of the series itself. Alan Ball, writer/producer of Six Feet Under, suggests that the more creative shows are willing to open up to independent directors: "The one thing that we have stayed away from are the episodic cookie-cutter TV directors. I don’t feel that every episode needs to be a carbon copy of the previous one." At the same time, Ball works to maintain some consistency with each show. "When I have my ‘tone meeting’ with a director, I explain that I want to save the close-ups, and that our style is more painterly. I do a pass on each script, and I tend to write very visually. The tone meeting is just a starting point. Our director of photography has a very clear idea of what the show looks like and what the program’s style is."

In post, Ball says, "directors have four days to work with the editor on their cut. We have made changes to every person’s cut along the way, but I don’t think that we have angered anyone. I know this is a thorn in the side of directors working in TV, but that is just the way it is."

On the other hand, for producers like Ball working to expand the dramatic range of television, film directors can provide a sense of depth sometimes lacking in TV drama. Notes Ball, "The main thing I look for [when hiring directors] are people who are performance oriented, who understand the notion of subtext, an idea almost invisible from most network television, where everything is so spoonfed and everybody says exactly what they are feeling all the time. Another reason we like independent film directors is because of their speed. Because of the constraints of time and money they have working on their independent features, the pace of TV doesn’t overwhelm them. The fact that we have to do six or seven pages a day – they are kind of used to that."

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