While in recent years we’ve seen plenty of crossover between the film and television worlds, there have been a number of film directors whose engagement with this quasi-new medium has been truly groundbreaking, as they’ve found TV to be a far more creatively satisfying place than film. Thus, while they still may actively work in film from time to time, their TV efforts have proved unforgettable.
For the record, because we limited this to the 21st century, directors Nicole Holocenfer, Mimi Leder, David Lynch, and Tommy Schlamme were ineligible. But their accomplishments cannot be undersold.
Oscar winner Susanne Bier made her American television debut with the stylish and sexy John le Carré miniseries “The Night Manager.” Unlike Tomas Alfredson’s barren aesthetic for the Carré film “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” Bier opted instead to bring a golden-hued sensuality to nearly every frame of her Carré vision. As a result, she brought an elegance and a swagger to “The Night Manager” that has made fans desperate for a rumored sequel. Bier won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special for her work on the series.
Given the opportunity to stretch out her storytelling across multiple episodes, Campion has been able to move critics and audiences on a deeply profound level. “Top of the Lake” and its follow-up installment “China Girl” has given the filmmaker the sort of universal acclaim many could argue she’s deserved for years, and the moody drama has become a must-watch for any connoisseur of great television. Her film work has always been impressive, but her presence on TV has been a game-changer.
The most recent works of the director of “The Kids Are All Right” have all been television, and it’s impossible to understate how heartbreaking and affecting “Olive Kitteridge,” her Emmy-winning HBO miniseries, ended up being. Cholodenko has been relatively underground of late, but her small screen experience, which also included episodes of “Six Feet Under,” “The L Word,” “The Slap,” and “Hung,” makes a strong argument for her being a valuable presence on any television set.
The chief girl of “Girls” would never have made the transition to television without her initial descent into indie film, most notably with the 2010 feature “Tiny Furniture,” which did a great job of capturing her aesthetic and voice while also showcasing why television might ultimately be a better home for her work — given an episodic structure and the ability to focus stories around character, not plot, Dunham (in collaboration with Judd Apatow, Jenni Konner and many others) created something truly singular. “Girls” was never a universal favorite, and Dunham herself has become a controversial figure in recent years. But she was a truly unique voice that was born in film, but lived best on TV.
Mark and Jay Duplass
The Duplass brothers made their television debut with HBO’s “Togetherness,” which was canceled after two seasons but remains a small miracle of human storytelling, and have since moved on to the more ambitious “Room 104” anthology series for the network. In both series, the brothers have managed to preserve the mumblecore intimacy and humanism of their indie films while beefing up the plots and upending conventions. The Duplass brothers have a gift at building characters who remain interesting even when they’re at their most familiar, and that made them ideal storytellers for television since their “Togetherness” characters could live, breathe, and change across multiple half-hours.
Ava DuVernay was already one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when she joined forces with OWN to create and direct the drama series “Queen Sugar.” While the filmmaker already had TV experience having directed an episode of “Scandal,” “Queen Sugar” gave her the opportunity to set the directorial voice of a TV drama from the very first episode. DuVernay’s blocking heightened the oppression of her characters while connecting them to the oh-so important Southern setting where the series takes place. Even more than her directorial contributions, DuVernay has made “Queen Sugar” a place where female directors of all ages and races shine. Some of the filmmakers who have been behind the camera on the series include Julie Dash and Cheryl Dunye.
David Fincher’s jump from film to television is so monumental because “House of Cards” more or less jumpstarted the era of binge-watching as we know it. Fincher launched Netflix’s first original drama series with the kind of cinematic precision he is widely celebrated for, making Washington D.C. look and feel like a sterile kingdom of corruption, lies, and betrayal. His preference for static shots and sleek surfaces made “House of Cards” feel like it was set in a soulless battleground from the very beginning. Fincher set the tone of the series before handing future episodes off to Carl Franklin, Robin Wright, and more. He has since returned to Netflix bringing a similar vision to the serial killer series “Mindhunter.”
Indie movie lovers already knew who Cary Fukunaga was by the time HBO debuted “True Detective” Season 1. The director was coming off two acclaimed dramas, “Sin Nombre” and “Jane Eyre,” when he moved to television for the first time, but it would be his work on “True Detective” that would put Fukunaga on the radar of the masses. The director was behind every episode of the first season, including that acclaimed six-minute long take heard around the TV world. It was the long take that won Fukunaga the Emmy, but his work on “True Detective” was rarely as showy. His polished compositions turned the show’s grimy Southern gothic setting into a more clinical study of the serial killer genre. There was a stately tone to his images that made the dark events going on inside them appear even more chilling. After returning to film with Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation,” Fukunaga will come back to TV as executive producer of TNT’s “The Alienist” and the creator and director of Netflix’s “Maniac,” starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.
English filmmaker Andrew Haigh firmly stayed in his wheelhouse when following-up his breakthrough indie film “Weekend” with the HBO comedy-drama series “Looking,” but in doing so he proved himself as one of the most empathetic and humanist directors working today. Like a descendant of Richard Linklater, Haigh excels at heightening his character’s conversations through his direction. His camera placement and shot length provide an intimacy between the viewer and the characters, making the sight of two people talking feel fragile, vulnerable, exciting, and thrilling. No wonder viewers became so invested in the love story between Patrick and Richie.
It’s a testament to Rian Johnson’s skills behind the camera that he can make this list having only directed four episodes of television to date, one for the short-lived FX series “Terriers” and three for AMC’s Emmy-winning “Breaking Bad.” Honestly, Johnson would still be included here if “Ozymandias” was the only television episode on his résumé. The climactic episode of the entire “Breaking Bad” series is monumental television in every sense of the word. The way Johnson ratchets up tension with every camera push and sharp cut is something of a miracle.
Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz
These two indie film favorites truly broke out to the next level when Steven Soderbergh tapped them to adapt the basic concept of his 2009 film “The Girlfriend Experience” as an anthology series. But more interesting than the way in which the two filmmakers have brought their individual voices to television is the way in which they seem interested in challenging the basic format itself. For Season 2, they were given the creative freedom to split their 14-episode order into two distinct series, one written and directed by Kerrigan and one written and dreicted by Seimetz. It’s a fascinating experiment which not only has been engaging viewing in Season 2, but makes us genuinely excited about what they might do with a Season 3.
The pioneering director’s first major foray into television — the new Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It,” riffing off Lee’s first feature film — has yet to come out as of publishing this list. But honestly, the director’s personal style feels like a sweet fit for the episodic world, so seeing him play with the freedom Netflix offers is a genuine treat. He’s played in TV before, but “She’s Gotta Have It” represents a whole new level of commitment to the medium.
The writer/director of “Love and Basketball” is soon going to join the extremely small club of women who have directed a superhero movie — but before she introduces the characters of Silver Sable and Black Cat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2019, she’s directing the pilot episode of Marvel’s “Cloak and Dagger” for Freeform, which looks promising given its teen romance approach to the format. In addition, she and partner Reggie Bythewood co-created the hard-hitting limited series “Shots Fired” for Fox earlier this year; Prince-Bythewood definitely seems poised to become the sort of medium-agnostic creator which leads to great work in both film and TV.
To be clear, Dee Rees has not abandoned the world of film, as her critical favorite “Mudbound” enters the Oscar race this winter and she has a number of other movies in the works. But following the release of her breakout film “Pariah,” Rees strugged to find the right project in Hollywood until HBO brought her on to direct Queen Latifah in the television movie “Bessie” and following that, she got opportunities to work on series like “Empire” and “When We Rise.” The next project we may see from her may not be her Blumhouse horror film, but her episode of the Amazon series “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” — and we hope that she continues to enjoy working in both mediums.
Justin Simien has made his mark on film and television with the same property, “Dear White People,” and his Netflix comedy represents a masterclass in how to adapt a movie into a TV series. Simien decided to take his breakout Sundance hit and turn it into a half-hour, “Rashomon”-style study of racial politics and identity: He expanded the plot but kept his distinct cinematic style, which includes engulfing his characters in negative space and avoiding eye lines when characters speak to one another. Simien visualizes how racism disenfranchises every character in each frame, and in just one season he was able to make one of the best directed comedies on TV. We’re anxiously awaiting Season 2.
The majority of the reason Steven Soderbergh’s move to television was so buzz-worthy was because it followed his official retirement from moviemaking after the release of “Side Effects” in 2013. The director was planning to move into other arts like painting, but he simply couldn’t turn down “The Knick” when the script came his way. Soderbergh directed all 20 hours of the series across two seasons, utilizing intricate handheld camera movements and long takes to create a grounded intimacy that separated “The Knick” from nearly every period drama on television. His shot selection was so specific that the show often only needed one or two edits per scene. “The Knick” felt like it was unfolding in real-time as a result and had the kind of lived-in presence that some documentaries don’t even achieve. Soderbergh has since returned to filmmaking but is an executive producer on Netflix’s “Godless.”
Jill Soloway began their career as a television writer, specifically the heartbreaking drama “Six Feet Under,” before writing and directing the Sundance award-winning “Afternoon Delight.” But instead of going deeper into the film world, Soloway took a different path after their parent came out as trans, Soloway turned real life into the deeply affecting “Transparent,” an award-winning favorite which has become an opportunity for the creator to explore serious questions about gender identity and sexuality. Ultimately, they have embraced a format which allows for experimentation and deep character development — areas where Soloway excels.
A filmmaker who makes creating new work in any medium seem effortless to a degree, Swanberg is still making films — but from his early experiments with the digital series “Young American Bodies” to his latest venture, the second season of Netflix’s “Easy,” Swanberg represents why so many filmmakers have migrated to TV in recent years. For someone who just wants to tell character stories, an anthology approach like “Easy” is a perfect fit, and one he seems to relish. Whether “Easy” continues beyond its second season or not, TV will always be a natural home for his talents.
Jean-Marc Vallée has been having quite the success as of late. His movies “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” earned a handful of Oscar nominations (Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won for the former), while his television debut “Big Little Lies” dominated the Limited Series categories at the Emmys with eight wins. Television and its elongated pacing proved wonderful for Vallée’s directing style, which is marked by an editing style that infuses the present with flashes of the past and gives his material a stream-of-consciousness edge. “Big Little Lies” allowed Vallée to use this trademark and adapt it to a seven-hour murder mystery, which turned out to be an ideal pairing between subject and style. HBO has not confirmed Season 2, but it’s only a matter of time and Vallée has expressed interest in returning. He’ll back on HBO for the Amy Adams-starring limited series “Sharp Objects,” based on the book by Gillian Flynn.
The Wachowskis have only created one TV show, it’s true, but “Sense8” is one fascinating TV show. Its insane approach to production (shooting in multiple international locations), its truly unique premise (eight strangers discover a psychic bond that unites them on a global level), and its achingly good heart made it a fan favorite from the start. The show has had a tulmultous path of late — initially canceled after Season 2, but given a second life with a two-hour special now in production that may spell the end of “Sense8.” But seeing what the creators of “The Matrix” were able to achieve with the opportunities provided by Netflix was fascinating, and it’s hard to imagine them returning to film, after getting the chance to go crazy on an even bigger playground.