Gone are the days when television was considered an inferior medium to feature films. Nowadays, Oscar-winning directors step onto the set of pilots with as much enthusiasm as they would a prestige picture full of A-list talent. David Fincher, Jane Campion, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee have all made the transition, just to name a few. Going from TV to features might prove to be a bit trickier, but directors like Thor: The Dark World’s Alan Taylor prove it’s not impossible to jump from Mad Men to Marvel.
Some of our most renowned feature helmers got their start on the small screen. Steven Spielberg directed a Marcus Welby MD episode called “The Daredevil Gesture,” and the early ‘70s creep fest Night Gallery. Elaine May directed TV specials before taking on The Heartbreak Kid and the bomb Ishtar, which proved to be her last project as feature director. Robert Altman directed TV for over 10 years; Michael Bay did the original “Got Milk” commercial before blowing things up on the big screen; and Sidney Lumet, James L. Brooks, and Edgar Wright also went from television to features.
Joss Whedon is a prime example of a small-screen director who went on to find success with big-budget features—a career trajectory that isn’t all that common in Hollywood. Unless a director is also the creator of a show, their authority on set is a bit different than on features. Sometimes they direct a cast that know their characters so well they don’t need weeks of prep and long discussions about motivation. Even though TV is regarded as highly as features today, studios and financiers aren’t exactly jumping at the chance to attach small-screen helmers to their summer tentpoles.
Whedon made his mark in the ‘90s with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which led to Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Even though he was building a brand with his TV projects, he didn’t step behind the camera of a feature until Universal’s 2005 flick Serenity—a feature sequel to the cancelled TV series Firefly. Whedon promised the studio he would finish the shoot early on a $40 million budget, and while it was considered fun by some, without recognizable names it was a tough sell.
Whedon’s next big-budget feature came out seven years later. Marvel’s The Avengers made over $623 million in the U.S., proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whedon can handle big screen franchises. He’s set to direct The Avengers: Age of Ultron next year.
Not all directors who jump into features fare so well. Danny Cannon changed the look of television procedurals with his work on CSI, and he’s also helmed episodes of Shameless, Nikita, and Alcatraz. He was considered a director to watch—a British import poised to flourish. In 1995, Cannon got his shot at a big screen actioner with Judge Dredd, which, amid hints of conflict between Cannon and star Sylvester Stallone, took in a mere $34.6 million at the U.S. box office. Cannon went on to direct the horror sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer,with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr. in 1998, which made $39.9 million. The 2006 soccer movie Goal! The Dream Begins was a flop, making just $4.2 million for Disney.
Goal! seemed doomed by the time Cannon came along. Director Michael Winterbottom and producer Andrew Eaton exited the project due to creative differences. Lawrence Bender Productions and A Band Apart Productions were previously attached, and little-known actor Kuno Becker replaced Diego Luna, who was set to play the lead role. The New York Times said of the film, “As the clichés mount, Danny Cannon directs as if he’s the one on trial, teasing tension out of every pass and dribble.” Since Goal!, Cannon has focused on TV, directing a Lifetime pilot called The Lottery and the CW pilot Players, a period drama executive produced by Ellen DeGeneres.
Another director with great success on the small screen and not-so great success in features is Julian Farino. In addition to Entourage, Farino has directed episodes of Hello Ladies, Big Love, and How To Make It In America. While the Entourage alum didn’t get tapped to helm the feature version of the show; that spot went to Doug Ellin, the show’s creator, he did get a shot at an indie feature with The Oranges—a flop that made a little over $360,000 domestically. Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener starred in the dramedy, which was written by Jay Reiss and Ian Helfer. The script landed on 2008’s Black List, but the funny, bittersweet writing didn’t translate well to the screen. Laurie and Keener, respected actors but not huge draws, did nothing to boost box office potential.
Farino is supposedly attached to direct the feature drama White Clouds, a project that once had Jude Law attached to star and John Maybury and Alan Taylor set to co-direct. We’ll see if Farino muscles his way out of director jail (as far as features go) with that one.
In contrast to Cannon and Farino, Steve Shill had a hit on his hands with the 2009 Screen Gems thriller Obsessed. The feature scored $68 million in the U.S.—much better than expected. It certainly didn’t hurt that Beyonce and Idris Elba were its stars. Still, Shill hasn’t directed a feature since. Instead he’s been busy on NBC’s Dracula, Shameless, and on past shows like Deadwood, The Wire, and Dexter.
When Thor comes out this Friday, we’ll see if Alan Taylor permanently moves into the feature world. Taylor directed the Mad Men pilot, and has worked on prestige shows like Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, and Nurse Jackie, and he no doubt landed the 3-D tentpole in large part to his work on Game of Thrones. But Thor isn’t his first time at the rodeo when it comes to features. He’s directed indies like The Burning Question, Palookaville in 1996 with Vincent Gallo, and The Emperor’s New Clothes in 2002. He’s currently in talks to direct Paramount’s Terminator reboot, and the supernatural period drama Black Wedding. When asked about the challenges of directing television versus features, Taylor told the site Den Of Geek, “In a way, it wasn’t that different a storytelling experience.”
The transition from TV director to feature helmer isn’t always a smooth one, but in Taylor’s estimation, a story is a story, whether it’s on HBO or in the multiplex.