As TV fills the gap left by increasingly hard to fund mid-budget movies, the medium is seeing an expanding crowd of filmmakers turn up as episode guest directors or creators of their own projects. But this new influx of directors are all playing catch-up with Michael Cuesta, who's been moving between quality dramas and indie films for over a decade, ever since he followed up his provocative, well-received 2001 debut "L.I.E." with work on HBO's "Six Feet Under." He's served as a formative creative force on acclaimed series like "Dexter" and "Homeland" (for which he shared an Emmy win), executive producing and setting the look and feel of each by directing the pilots and other important installments.
While TV, and cable in particular, is increasingly friendly to filmmakers, Cuesta's had an attention-worthy career in terms of finding places to express his creative vision in the more structured small-screen world. While none of the TV projects he's created himself so far (including zombie drama "Babylon Fields," written by his brother Gerald and critic Michael Atkinson) have made it to series, he's set a distinctive look for shows like "Dexter" and "Homeland" that have been milestones in the medium's move toward more ambitious, cinematic visuals.
While his work on "Dexter" and "Homeland," which went beyond just directing to at times serving more as a co-showrunner, were both major achievements, Cuesta still has a soft spot for "L.I.E.," which starred a teenaged Paul Dano in his first lead role, won two Spirit Awards and was nominated for five more. "That was life-changing," he said. "I made that movie in a vacuum."
Cuesta described "Tell Tale," the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired thriller starring Josh Lucas that premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, as "tough" because he didn't have full creative control. "It made me go back and make 'Roadie,' this smaller feature, a personal film."
Working in television has made Cuesta learn how to deal with studios and not always having final cut, which he sees as ultimately a positive skill to have acquired as he's moved up into larger projects. "Indie films and TV have helped me make a studio film for less money."
While "Second Sight," the CBS pilot Cuesta co-created with his brother Gerald, did not get picked up, Cuesta's already working on his biggest feature to date -- "Kill the Messenger," which Focus Features came on board to distribute in February. Jeremy Renner, who acted in Cuesta's 2005 film "Twelve and Holding," will star as Gary Webb, the real Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who exposed the CIA's involvement in helping Nicaragua's Contra rebels import cocaine into California during the '80s.