DQ speaks to a number of television directors about their latest work and how their role behind the camera is evolving, from working closely with writers to penning and even acting in the shows themselves.
While film is the director’s medium, television has always been writer-led. But times are changing – and in today’s booming drama landscape, the role of the director is evolving far beyond the hired gun that was once brought in to helm single or multiple episodes of a series.
The rise of serialised drama, in particular, has had an effect on those behind the camera, and many directors now equate making such shows to completing an eight- or 10-part movie in a single stint, with one person at the helm throughout.
In many cases, drama directors also have a hand in creating, writing and producing shows, with involvement stretching from the initial conception of a story until the final episode has been locked and delivered to a network.
“The role of directors in television is changing like it is across the board, probably for everybody,” says Jeffrey Walker, who steered four-part Australian miniseries Lambs of God. “At the heart of it, it’s just because television is getting better and better. I can do episodic television shows where you might be given episode 213 and it’s good luck and there you are. Then on this one, I was on it for a year. They’re both television, but Lambs of God is at the highest end being made in Australia in terms of budget and ambition.
“The greater involvement means it’s a nicer journey to go on, because you’re seeing this thing go from our first chats about what it is to the sounding and the grade. Going on that journey certainly gives you more ownership, but it also [means the project] has to speak to you a lot more as a director than if you were the gun for hire.”
Lambs of God, produced by Lingo Pictures for Foxtel and distributed by Sky Vision, is described as a gothic and gripping tale about a trio of nuns living on an isolated island. But the three Sisters of St Agnes – played by Ann Dowd, Essie Davis and Jessica Barden – must defend their very existence when a young priest with a hidden agenda arrives at their dilapidated monastery.
Walker spent a few days with writer Sarah Lambert going through her scripts, which are based on the book by Marele Day. “The scripts are beautiful, as good as reading any great literature, and that was the great appeal of doing it, before thinking about the visuals and how on Earth were we going to achieve them,” he says.
“By the time I signed on, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to achieve it. But the first job was philosophically getting in step with Sarah. Production is like a crazy, wild beast that takes over. But certainly the biggest part, and one of the most enjoyable parts, was sitting down and hearing what was a very personal story told by Sarah, even though it was an adaptation. It was very much from the heart, and I could just ask her everything about it.”
Walker’s biggest challenge on the series was bringing the world of the Sisters of St Agnes to life alongside production designer Chris Kennedy (Lion) and cinematographer Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet). But once that was settled, “we could turn up in this place and then completely dismiss the beautiful production design and all the work that had gone into it to fully focus on what was at the heart of the scene and those characters at that time,” the director says.
“Being in the heads of the characters, which came from our early discussions, dictated where our camera needed to be. We wanted to be right in that world with them. It has a traditional cinematic approach; it’s not handheld or gritty. It was all lit with candles, with extremely fast lenses and cameras. The actors found it more intimate and real.”
On the other side of the world, British director Gurinder Chadha made her name with films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice and Viceroy’s House. She has now co-created, written and directed Beecham House, a six-part drama for ITV set in Delhi at the turn of the 19th century.
“I wouldn’t say TV is any less a director’s voice than film, particularly these days,” she says. “What I’ve ended up doing is shooting six one-hour movies, because that’s what I’m used to; I’m used to shooting movies. So in each episode, it has great scale. It feels like a movie. I’ve scored it like a movie and the questions it asks are big. You are getting the movie experience over six hours on TV.”
Produced by Chadha’s Bend It TV and distributed by Fremantle, Beecham House stars Tom Bateman as John Beecham, a former soldier who buys the eponymous property to start a new life with his family. Though haunted by his past, he is inspired to become an honourable member of the region’s trading community.
“I’ve made nine movies and this was my first longform series. It’s a beast,” Chadha says. “It was hard to keep all those storylines and performances in my head, and to keep the continuity for all those actors in my head. I found it quite hard and unruly.
“Having said that, I ended up having to do very little ADR [automated dialog replacement] or reworking, so I was obviously doing something right. What I found hardest was making sure every character’s story was compelling enough to warrant a space – because when you read them in the script, it’s one thing, but when you shoot them, it’s another.”
It was only through “distilling, cutting and shredding” during the editing process that Chadha found the heart of the series, which she admits ended up being slightly different from what she had initially imagined. “It’s very moving in places, very touching in places, and there it is,” she adds. “People who have seen it have cried. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so profound, so I’m delighted.”
Moving away from English-language drama, Dejate Llevar (Perfect Life) marks the first television series written and directed by Spanish actor Leticia Dolera. She has previously written comedy Bloguera en Construcción and starred in a number of film and TV shows such as Bajo Sospecha (Under Suspicion) and Mad Dogs.
Perfect Life follows three women – María, Cris and Esther – who are each looking to achieve their dream existence but find that things don’t always go according to plan. The show, from Movistar+ and distributed by Beta Film, debuted at French event Canneseries in April, where it was named best series and also received the special performance prize.
“I just wanted to write and talk about what matters to me and the women around me, the issues that concern us,” Dolera says. “Perfection for women, especially, is very stressful. It’s an ideal that’s very hard to maintain. Through the show, I explore different aspects of that supposed perfection – the superwoman role model, a woman who’s a great mum, wife, lover and friend.
“I talk about how stressful that can be and how sometimes, even if you are that superwoman, something can be missing – that’s Cris. Then, through Esther, I wanted to talk about what success is and how hard it can be to accept you cannot be successful. Maria, who I play, is a control freak. She’s obsessed with the idea of the family. She has to confront this need to control, because you cannot control life. She has to understand new models of family.”
Dolera admits writing, directing and acting in the same project is “very intense,” but she believes each discipline is part of the same process – telling the story. “You can tell the story from the script, from directing or by giving a real voice to the characters,” she says. “I find it natural because I’ve been acting for 15 years and had the need to tell my own stories. Finally, I’m talking about things I know – I talk about women my age.”
In practical terms on set, Dolera would use a stand-in actor to prepare a scene before taking her place in front of the camera once the setup was complete. “Sometimes I would go to check what I’d recorded, but not often because the time it takes to check a take is the time it takes to do another take,” she says. “So sometimes I prefer to do another take rather than check it.”
In Israeli drama Asylum City, meanwhile, a violent attack on an activist supporting asylum seekers’ rights has far-reaching consequences, with the series focusing on clandestine migrants in Tel Aviv and those who help them.
Director Eitan Tzur co-created the show with writer Uzi Weil and author Liad Shoham, who wrote the book on which the drama is based. “I was influenced very much by [seminal HBO drama] The Wire to do a cop show or a thriller that deals with political and social issues,” he explains.
“Then, when [Shoham] came to the offices of our production company July August, he invited us to make a series. We started to develop it and it took between four and six years for us to find a broadcaster and widen the plot.”
That broadcaster was Yes TV, whose sales arm Yes Studios distributes the drama worldwide. Asylum City marked the first time Tzur had been involved in creating a series, and he was adamant that the show pushed beyond the book’s thriller style to focus more on the political story at its heart.
“Here, the most important thing was realism. Even though it’s a thriller, I tried not to use scary music too much and the shooting was not suspenseful. It’s basic, clear, realistic,” the director says.
“Sometimes I wanted a documentary feel, because the series features a lot of places in south Tel Aviv where normal people live. I wanted to show the difference between the background of where they live and where lawyers live in the north of the city in nice apartments, to show the differences in environment and locations.”
Acknowledging that Israeli drama budgets are small compared with those of other major drama hotspots, Tzur says careful planing in the pre-production period is crucial to make the most of the available funds.
“As a director, I’m usually much more interested in working with actors and having a good cameraman who will allow me to concentrate on directing,” he adds. “Especially in TV, it’s much more important to concentrate on directing and having time with the actors. I’m less concerned with the shooting after I’ve decided on the general look of the scene.”
Over in Sweden, Måns Mårlind is well established as both a writer and a director, having worked on local dramas such as Sjätte Dagen, Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and Midnight Sun, a copro between Sweden’s SVT and Canal+ in France. His latest series, Shadowplay, is a Berlin-set historical thriller in which an American cop arrives in Germany to help set up a police force in the aftermath of the Second World War. The cast includes Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), Michael C Hall (Dexter) and Logan Marshall-Green (Quarry). The show is produced by Tandem Productions and Bron Studios for Viaplay and ZDF, and distributed by StudioCanal.
“As a writer-director, I divide being both people in one body,” Mårlind says. “Directing is a healthy and good continuation of the writing process; when I write, I try to be as specific in direction as I can. I’m not writing ‘close-up’ and stuff like that, but I want the actor – because I always write for one person – to understand what I’m doing.
“As a writer, the big plus when you direct a scene that doesn’t work is that the actors can look at you and say, ‘This doesn’t work.’ Then you can throw them a new line, remove four lines or decide to have no dialogue at all.”
Echoing Tzur, Mårlind focuses on the actors. “They are everything. If you don’t connect with the actors, you have nothing,” he says. Once the plot is laid out and the characters are fully formed, he says his key responsibility is to “help the actors all the time to go where, hopefully, they have a problem reaching, pushing them all the way.”
Beecham House’s Chadha is already planning further seasons of the series, and the appeal of tackling other long, more detailed stories on television, as opposed to 90-minute films, has led her to enter development on other dramas.
“I think in today’s world, we all enjoy longform TV. I certainly do,” she concludes. “We’re all binge-viewing, watching drama like we did movies. So for me, it was a great experience making this.”