A new direction
A host of leading female directors tell DQ about their latest projects and how their role behind the camera is changing in a television landscape where the pressure for series to stand out is greater than ever.
While film directors are used to seeing their name on billboards and posters trailing their latest work, the same cannot be said for those working in TV. But although the small screen is often described as a writer’s medium, the explosion of content over the past decade has meant directors are now more important than ever to the creative process.
They are joining projects earlier in development to help shape the look and style of a show from the script stage in the hope that it will stand out from the ever-increasing competition. And they’re also more likely to direct every episode of a miniseries, meaning they will have a significant voice across the entire production. But how else is the role of the director changing and evolving in TV?
“It’s a great time to be working in television, and the explosion of content with the streamers means there’s so much material,” says Jill Robertson. “It encourages more risk taking and more development, and certainly it’s nice to see so much different material and to work on stuff you really connect with.”
Robertson was recently the lead-off director on Acorn TV and Channel 5 detective drama Dalgleish, which is produced by New Pictures and sold worldwide by All3Media International. Adapted from PD James’ murder novels Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries, it stars Bertie Carvel as the titular enigmatic detective and poet who attempts to solve unusual murders in 1970s England. Her other credits include Pennyworth, Red Election, The Feed and Harlots, while her next project, airing in early 2023, is Barcelona-set drama The Diplomat (see page 26).
Asked whether her role behind the camera is changing, Robertson says it varies from one job to another. “But there have been a couple of projects where I’ve been brought on earlier or been approached without all the financing in place, which is a change,” she notes. “Once you get into it, it works similarly to how it did before. There’s just so much more of it. There’s a shortage of crew and those things come into it more. It was heading that way before the pandemic, but then suddenly everything picked up afterwards. There’s so much being shot, so people can pick and choose a bit more.”
Robertson also acknowledges how many more female directors are working in the business compared with five years ago: “It’s been an enormous change, which is really heartening.” And while she can’t say barriers to female directors have been removed entirely, Robertson believes opportunities are opening up for women beyond the types of projects to which she was restricted at the start of her career, when she worked on kids- and teen-focused shows such as Grange Hill, Hollyoaks and The Story of Tracy Beaker.
“I did children’s TV and that was great, but I know some female directors really got stuck there and they couldn’t get things like action shows,” she says. “But there are many more of those open to female directors now than there were, the darker and what were traditionally seen as more male dramas. There’s not that kind of stigma that was there when I started.”
Working in such a crowded drama marketplace mean directors like Robertson are under pressure to ensure their shows make an explosive start that will grab viewers from the first minute. “I definitely feel that,” she says. “David Lean [the director of Lawrence of Arabia] always said you’ve got to grab them at the beginning, so I’m a big believer in impactful openings and trying to give the audience something without being self-conscious, making sure it connects and trying to find something fresh and interesting in the storytelling, particularly in the detective genre, because there are a lot of detective shows.”
However, Robertson notes that directors must be sure to find that eye-catching opening within the script and not just create something that won’t connect with the story – or the audience. “You want people to be compelled and hooked,” she says. “That’s all to do with casting and performance as well. Then in editing, it’s about making sure the pace is there, that you’re not following clichéd cuts or routes or doing it for the sake of it. That’s the art of it.”
In her own words, MGM Studios “hunted down” Dennie Gordon to helm its globe-trotting environmental thriller Last Light after seeing her work on HBO’s martial arts crime drama Warrior. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Scarrow, Last Light follows a family separated around the globe as they try to survive the fallout from an oil crisis. That the series had the “whole bouillabaisse” of family drama mixed with eco-terrorism – with filming set to take place in Prague, Paris and Abu Dhabi – was enough to draw Gordon in.
“I’m a big action director and I saw this wonderful opportunity, just as this family is pulled apart, for some very exciting action, which we were able to do,” she says. “MGM supported me 100% and said, ‘Let’s make this as entertaining as it can be, despite its subject matter. Let’s make it relatable.’ We put together this dream cast and they were all so devoted and worked so hard during the height of Covid. There were days when we just thought, ‘Oh my God, can we possibly carry on?’ and we did. We just hiked up our socks.”
Action isn’t a prerequisite for Gordon taking on a job, however. Having trained at the heels of David E Kelley (Ally McBeal) and Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night), she says “story comes first,” having learned to follow great material. Her credits include the US version of The Office, legal drama Goliath and thriller Jack Ryan, showing a breadth of material beyond any action pigeonhole.
In the case of Last Light – produced in partnership with Peacock, Nordic streamer Viaplay, Australia’s Stan and MBC in the Middle East and distributed by MGM International – bringing cinematographer Patrick Murguia on board was a key early decision. He and Gordon worked together to imagine what the world might look like if the lights started to go out, as happens in the series.
“For me, it’s always important to get my visual team together, my cinematographer and my production designer, and then we start to navigate our way through it,” Gordon says. “I like to create an image system or a mood board. I work with a graphic artist I love in LA, and before we even got the green light, we were pulling together images. That was very important because when I land wherever I’m going to be shooting next, I love to arrive and say, ‘Let’s start the conversation with this. Let’s look at these images. This is what we’re thinking.’ That’s one of the most fun parts of the job.”
Australian director Corrie Chen (pictured top) is also feeling a change in the industry down under in the way directors are treated as creative partners, although she adds that it depends on how other people like to work. “I’m sure there are writers out there who might not enjoy a director coming in so early. But setting the tone of how a collaboration happens on a series becomes pretty clear early on and I can only hope that, moving forward, writers and producers can see the benefits that it could bring to a series,” she says.
From a beginning in short films, Chen filmed episodes of Sisters, Five Bedrooms, SeaChange and Wentworth before taking full control on Chinese-Australian period drama New Gold Mountain. A historical murder mystery set during the gold rush of the 1850s, the story introduced European, Chinese and Indigenous Australian characters who live together in a frontier town as they seek to strike it rich by finding gold – until the murder of a woman sparks the hunt for a killer.
With New Gold Mountain, produced by Goalpost Pictures for SBS and distributed by All3Media International, Chen was high on the idea of making a period drama in Australia and the ambition shown by the creative team to dramatise this previously unexplored period of history. And now she is filming all four episodes of Bad Behaviour, from Matchbox Pictures and NBCUniversal Global Distribution for streamer Stan. With themes of friendship, ritualistic rites, sexuality and power struggles, the story centres on a group of students at an exclusive girls’ boarding school as they embark on a yearlong wilderness camp.
“When I’m watching as a fan of other shows, a series stands out when there’s a clarity of the emotional experience, which often has nothing to do with the plot. Actually, it’s that journey you want the audience to have. To me, that’s directing,” Chen says. “It’s both a forensic and an organic investigation into emotion, which is exhausting and wonderful. On a television schedule, often that is not something you want to be discovering on set or in rehearsal. That’s the work of a director. The more time I have, the better it is for the show.”
Also tackling a small-screen western is Francesca Comencini, lead director on Sky and Canal+ drama Django. With a cast that includes Matthias Schoenaerts, Nicholas Pinnock, Noomi Rapace and Lisa Vicari, it is loosely based on Sergio Corbucci’s film of the same name and sees the eponymous Django on an eight-year search for his daughter, only to discover her grown up and about to marry in outcast city New Babylon. Atlantique Productions and Cattleya produce the 10-part English-language series, with StudioCanal distributing.
“The role of series directors is changing thanks to greater collaboration among the myriad other people involved in the creation of a series,” says Comencini, who partnered with creators Leonardo Fasoli and Maddalena Ravagli on Django. “I enjoy such collaboration. I love to participate in projects with a very high level of demand on everyone’s part, which pushes us to do more and better, but it is important to acknowledge the roles of each individual and to respect them.”
Amid intense competition among series, “there is no doubt that defining a powerful visual signature is very important,” the director adds. “But I don’t think anyone has a failsafe recipe for a successful product. We are always striving, in a way fortuitously, groping in the dark. We can only trust the honesty of our hearts and our emotions. I believe the most important feature of a hit series is its singularity, its personality, its uniqueness.”
From Grantchester and The Mallorca Files to Vera and Outlander, Christiana Ebohon-Green has had a busy couple of years behind the camera. She has also directed three episodes of the second season of BBC drama The Pact (see page 16), and says the level of creative freedom on set meant she didn’t have to stick rigidly to the script.
With a new story set over six episodes, The Pact S2 follows social worker Christine (Rakie Ayola) and her family as their loyalties are tested when they’re confronted by a mysterious stranger. Little Door Productions produces, with Lionsgate distributing.
“I’m interpreting the words somebody’s written in a room but, on the day, the location might be slightly different or the weather or something else has changed, so you’re adapting to bring it to life and make it work in this space and time,” Ebohon-Green says. “There is that feeling that it filters through me and it’s an interpretation of what’s been written.
“It might not be exactly what the writer had in their head, but I’m making sure I capture the essence of that and making it truthful. Where there is that marriage of a good script and the freedom to interpret it, that’s when you get great TV, because nobody wants to just sit in front of their TV and hear the words verbatim. You need that visual variety of shots and emotion and everything else to engage an audience.”
Meanwhile, Emmy winner Nicole Kassell says that when it comes to choosing her next project, “I definitely love working in different playgrounds.” Highlighting the variety among her recent credits, she adds: “If I direct The Woodsman and then The Killing, I’m also excited to direct something like Claws or Watchmen. I do not want to be put in a box in terms of what I can do visually or tonally.”
Kassell’s most recent project, Sky and HBO’s The Baby, was another step outside the box. The series blends dark comedy and horror in an examination of motherhood from the perspective of a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother but finds herself inexplicably in possession of a baby.
“I’m always looking for the opportunity to learn, whether it’s something new in the craft or the subject matter,” Kassell continues. “When you look at my credits, you’re seeing a period of growth for sure. I’m always looking for complicated, adult subject matter. And as I’ve moved into the realm of really being able to choose the projects I join as a pilot director, that’s much more like approaching something like a feature film.”
Leading off a series, as she did on The Baby, is “definitely my happy place,” Kassell says. It means she can be part of the DNA of a series, hiring the crew and being involved in the production from the outset. “That’s what I love about the whole medium from early pre-production through to the final post-production.”
Having broken out with Kevin Bacon-led The Woodsman way back in 2004, how has Kassell’s role behind the camera evolved? “It’s constantly changing. It started out one thing and then became another,” she says. “Maybe the pendulum’s swinging back again. It really is a case-by-case scenario in terms of what role each person will play. And you have to navigate that project by project. But as you see directors doing full miniseries, or feature directors moving into pilot directing, the expectations shift. There’s tremendous pressure, but that’s always been there, whether you’re making a feature or a pilot. You dream big, you want the best for the project, you want it to be a hit. But we all know we really have zero control over the reception. Enjoying the process is always most important.”
For Gordon, directing all five episodes of Last Light was “such a heavy responsibility, but also an incredibly exciting opportunity for a visual director like me,” she says. “It’s exciting and terrifying all at once. If it turns out good, great; if you blew it for any reason, you’ll take it hard. I was exhausted when we wrapped, but I loved every minute of it.”
Now at a stage in her career where she can pick and choose her projects, “this is a thrilling time to be a director,” Gordon adds. “There’s just great work coming out of every country. I’m having a hard time keeping up.
“For directors like myself, you just have to be really careful and say, ‘Man, if I’m going to devote the next year of my life to this, does it have legs and is it a team that we know can take it across the finish line? Also, the older I get, the more it’s like, what is the experience going to be? Is this something we can all really have a great time doing while we do it? What’s the quality of life going to be for my cast and crew? Ten days in the desert in Abu Dhabi, we can do that, but 50 days in the desert, that’s another story.”