When Luck premieres on HBO this Sunday, it won’t just be the latest contender for the title of next Wire/Sopranos/Breaking Bad/ big-themed drama of your choice. And it won’t just be the latest example of an established actor (Dustin Hoffman) going for the meatier characters of the small screen. It will also be the latest show to feature a big name film director, in this case Michael Mann, for its opening episode.
Movie directors and screenwriters have been drawn to TV for decades as a canvas for their more elaborate ideas. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is probably the most famous example, and now as much a part of his oeuvre as any of his films. More recently, writer Alan Ball created Six Feet Under and True Blood, while director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) is behind the two-season old The Borgias.
But what’s becoming equally prominent is the use of famous film directors as guns for hire and establishers of an artistic vision who often remain attached to the show afterward in some capacity, though rarely as a writer or director. In the case of Luck, Mann only directed the pilot episode but kept his visual mark on the whole show through a detailed style manual that the other directors followed. But when someone like Martin Scorsese stays on as executive producer, just where his continued influence is found is harder to ascertain.
Directors can bring press and credibility and in the best case scenario also raise the artistic level of the whole show, instantiating a style and vision that gets drawn out throughout. But the effect can also be opposite: either not good enough to improve weak material, or contributing to a show’s faults. In most cases, the directors bring not just their reputation but a recognizable visual and storytelling style, which can be fun to watch in condensed form.
Mann began his career as a writer and producer for TV shows, most notably Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice, but the pilot episode of Luck will be his first time in a TV director’s chair. In honor of Mann’s achievement, here are the five most celebrated directors to have directed TV pilots, from the botched to the successful.
5. Gus Van Sant — Boss
It’s not that Gus Van Sant did a bad job on the pilot, but rather that his artistic flourishes were all too indicative of the show’s deadly combination of high ambitions and poor material, where contrived dialogue and paper-thin characters were drabbed in the look and feel of a complex show. At the very least, Van Sant’s episode came first, when it still felt like Boss could live up to its style. But in retrospect, the stairwell sex scene, shot in extreme close up and overwrought slow motion, should have been fair warning of what was to come.
4. Walter Hill — Deadwood
Although probably the first example of a film director signing up for a series pilot in the modern HBO television era, the fact that Walter Hill directed Deadwood’s opening episode is in some senses little more than good trivia knowledge. In the episode, the lighting is dark and the plotlines already convoluted, neither of which would change as the show went on. Hill’s presence is felt more in his reputation. As a director with a cult following, not to mention one who described all his movies as Westerns at heart and who had already made a movie about Wild Bill Hickok, a central character in Deadwood, Hill brought instant credibility to the show that was created by the same man behind Luck, David Milch.
3. Martin Scorsese — Boardwalk Empire
Martin Scorsese’s episode of Boardwalk Empire is not that different from every other episode of Boardwalk Empire, which says more about the show’s indebtedness to the director’s lavish style than Scorsese’s powers of adaption. If by the show’s second season the characters have come to seem eerily like those in The Sopranos, the feel has always been straight from a Scorsese underworld, where swagger is the necessary cover up for deeper insecurities and gun blasts are the inevitable catharsis to dramatic tension.
2. Steven Spielberg — Amazing Stories
Amazing Stories was the short-lived sci-fi and fantasy show created by Steven Spielberg in 1985, a mix almost of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Over its two seasons, various writers and directors (including Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, Martin Scorsese, and Brad Bird of future Pixar fame) were featured, but the pilot, “Ghost Train,” was directed by Spielberg. It features a characteristically Spielbergian young boy — wide-eyed and innocent—who steadfastly believes in the magical qualities of the universe. It even includes “The Face” and a John Williams score. Amazing Stories varied depending on the creative team behind each episode, but “Ghost Train” is remarkable for just how much it looks and feels like Spielberg.
1. Frank Darabont — The Walking Dead
Darabont’s pilot for The Walking Dead, a series that he developed for TV, is the best outcome you can hope for from a star director: not only a great beginning to a show but one of the most visually spectacular, if grotesque, TV episodes from recent memory. At once suspenseful and cinematic, the centerpiece of the episode is the practically dialogue-free ten minute sequence where Rick Grimes wakes up from his coma and slowly emerges into a world suddenly populated by hordes of zombies.
As good as it was, it appears that Darabont`s slower approach was not what AMC wanted, and when he proposed an equally original (and HYPERLINK “http://www.aintitcool.com/node/52526″fantastic sounding) premiere episode for the second season, his relationship with the show came to an end. Fortunately, Darabont is not done with TV; his new show, LA Noir, was just picked up by TNT.
Honorable Mention: Homicide: Life on the Streets
Homicide: Life on the Streets was the biggest precursor to the modern golden age of television. It’s well known that Wire creator David Simon and was involved in the show, but so was Tom Fontana, who would go on to create Oz, and Timothy Van Patten, who went on to direct numerous episodes of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. On top of that, it counted Kathryn Bigelow (pre-Hurt Locker) and Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) as episode directors. Not as star-studded as Amazing Stories, and not exactly within the parameters of this list, but certainly worth mentioning.