As part of the Berlinale Talents creative summit earlier this month, Irish director Neil Jordan (who created the now concluded Showtime historical drama “The Borgias”) and Hollywood producer Martha De Laurentiis (“Hannibal”), the widow of the late legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, joined moderator Peter Cowie for a panel entitled “Expanding Stories: Successfully Creating Television Series.” Its aim was to understand the secret alchemy that lies behind every successful television series, but, as we know, creativity, unlike medicine, is hard to prescribe.
While any discussion revolving around art cinema usually features heavy doses of pessimism, the debate around TV series is punctuated by uplifting considerations and a more general sense of possibility. The fact that the two guests present on the panel are veterans of cinema who’ve both recently lent their respective expertise to the small screen somehow embodied some of the issues that emerged during the discussion.
The growing interest in the debate around television was testified to by a large and largely under 30 audience who then engaged in a lively and participated Q&A. It’s not unusual for panels of this kind to fail under the burden of pleasantries and back-patting, but possibly due to the fresh relevance of the topic, many interesting points were raised. Despite their popular success and the critical approval they increasingly meet, TV series remain a largely unexplored territory (especially in terms of in-depth critical elaboration) raising more stimulating questions than definitive answers. Here are a few of them raised during the event — you can watch a video of the full discussion here.
Are TV series the modern equivalent of the classical novel? Coincidentally, both De Laurentiis and Jordan worked on TV projects that are literary adaptations. For NBC’s “Hannibal,” which kicks off its second season this week, De Laurentiis explained, besides having to acquire the book rights they also decided to involve author Thomas Harris in the writing of the series. TV is a writer’s medium, and writers get credit accordingly, the long list of producers in the end credits bookending each episode often referring to different writers involved. Whether original or adapted, it is unquestionable that today strong and complex narratives characterize TV series more than art cinema. As cinema shies away from the grand narrations that made it the most poignant chronicler of the 20th century, serials, partly due to their congenital traits, have continued and innovated the art of visual storytelling. TV series are reviving narrative art at a time when too many film directors don’t seem to have much to say and their claustrophobic existentialism is as far as they can travel.
Are movies and TV series distinct products or part of a technological and creative continuum? Often simplistically and over-enthusiastically hailed as the “new cinema” or conversely snubbed as cheap entertainment, TV series are in effect a more complex and hybrid product than both factions would have it. The very presence of Jordan on the panel made for interesting material insofar as he could expound on the differences, advantages and drawbacks that make cinema different from its younger spawn. The “Crying Game” filmmaker lamented the limitations that directing a TV series entail, given that sets, costumes, lighting and actors are already chosen and fixed, but stressed how as a writer he was given unprecedented freedom. De Laurentiis recounted how strongly she wanted a film actor to be involved in “Hannibal” — in the role that eventually went to Mads Mikkelsen — to give the series she’s executive producing the feel, confidence and breadth of a cinematic work. “We’re making cinema every hour” she enthused while pointing out how the expertise and craft from cinema allow TV to look as good as it does.
Why is it that over the past 10-15 years more money and talent has poured into TV? What are the cultural and economic reasons of this shift? When Indiewire asked the above question, both panel guests pointed to the internet as the main driving force behind this shift. Television series seem to be better suited to new viewing habits, and the binge-watching model inaugurated by Netflix makes the rigid scheduling of theatrical releasing even more obsolete. Jordan admitted that having his projects accepted by cable is far easier than with independent producers. Furthermore, putting things together is simpler and quicker in TV than in cinema, De Laurentiis added. Both agreed that cable TV is flourishing and resembling more and more what independent cinema used to look like. The fact that content ratings aren’t an issue on cable was also seen as a major reason behind the daring subjects people have come to associate with modern dramas. With less pressure from distributors, producers are encouraging the kind of content that has proved enormously successful in the last few years (like “Breaking Bad”). As a film director, Jordan did not hide the bitter aftertaste lingering in his mouth, claiming that as a creature of the movies, he still believed that there is an aspect of cinema that remains irreplaceable.
Is there a difference between acting for cinema and television and why is TV populated by so many antiheroes? What used to distinguish film from TV actors was their skills as well as depth of character, De Laurentiis noted. But as cinema actors have started migrating to the small screen — or, as in the case of Bryan Cranston, refined their craft in television — this difference is losing relevance. If anything, Jordan stressed, characters can be developed in more detail on TV, and their psychological depth can be explored and accurately rendered on screen. As for the soft spot audiences seem to have for flawed, often cunning characters, the pair said that goes to show how TV series relate to life outside the frame. The benevolent morality of Hollywood no longer resonates with audiences aware of the injustices and abuses the authorities that supposedly represent them carry out on a daily basis. Institutions are failing us, and TV series are not afraid to show that. Jordan pointed out that it is much easier to work with a bad character and thus accommodate the vicarious fascination that, according to De Laurentiis, always draws audiences to the “bad guy.”
How does screenwriting differ from the big to the small screen? Once again Jordan commended the creative room that television accords to writers. While writing for cinema is influenced by and takes into account the properties of directing, often merging with them in a creative whole, television allows for a more exclusive focus on the writing. When writing a film, one thinks of the story also in visual, choreographic terms, while small screen writing is almost literary in this respect. A case in point would be the new HBO show, “True Detective,” a visually stunning and cinematically conceived product which suffers nonetheless from an unconvincing plot — a writing flaw. In other words, while writing for cinema is a polymorphic practice that necessarily mingles with others aspects of the filmmaking process, in TV the pen (or keyboard, more realistically) becomes the leading creative tool, whose exclusive merits can determine the overall quality of an entire series.
Were there any lessons to be learned from “Breaking Bad”? “I don’t think there are thematic waves to ride,” reflected Jordan when asked about the AMC drama. If anything, he pointed out, what the enormous success of Vince Gilligan’s show demonstrated is that a good and well-told story always works. Another invaluable lesson to be taken from the series is that audiences do not want to be spoon-fed but provoked, and there is plenty of room for challenging content and, incidentally so, money to be made from it. Playing safe doesn’t always pay back — actually, as Walter White taught us, crime does pay, at least as far as ratings are concerned…