If television, as the well-worn phrase goes, is a not a director’s medium, why the hell do so many big-time directors have an episode or twenty to their name? While it’s difficult to definitively label the chicken and the egg here, the gradual rise of prestige TV has seen more and more of our favorite auteurs find a second home, or in cases like Steven Soderbergh with “The Knick,” more or less relocate there entirely (check out our feature 15 Filmmakers At The Forefront Of The TV Revolution). Of course, it’s still rare for any A-list director to commit the way Soderbergh has, or the way Cary Fukunaga did with “True Detective” and helm every episode of a given season, or several episodes the way Jill Soloway did with her self-penned “Transparent.” But whether it’s dipping in for the pilot and then handing the reins to a showrunner and moving into a producing capacity, as per David Fincher and “House of Cards,” or merely coming on board as a director for hire to give a project a profile boost, it seems every week or so we’re reporting on another big-screen directing star spinning the small-screen roulette wheel.
But a surfeit of projects along these lines means that many fall by the wayside, and in recent years no name seems big enough to be immune from the vagaries of the network selection process. Which is to say that many of our favorite name-brand directors have TV pilots they shot but that were never picked up and have never aired. Here are the stories behind ten such projects, the coulda/shouda/woulda beens, also-rans and what-ifs of our increasingly competitive quality TV landscape.
Show: “Da Brick”
Synopsis & Cast: 18-year-old Donnie (John Boyega, from “Attack The Block”) is released from juvenile detention and sets out to build a life from himself through boxing.
What Is There To Know? Aside from the now-departed “The Wire” and “Treme,” and Michael K. Williams appearing in seemingly everything, HBO is a pretty pasty-white looking network, but things might have been better if they’d moved forward with this drama, executive produced and directed by Spike Lee. He’d flirted with television before: his little-seen TV movie “Sucker Free City,” starring a young Anthony Mackie, was originally intended to continue as a series on Showtime, and he also helmed the pilot for James Woods-starring legal drama “Shark” and another un-aired project for political drama “M.O.N.Y” starring Bobby Cannavale. The director has had a longtime home for his non-fiction work —like “When The Levees Broke” and “4 Little Girls”— at HBO, and that’s just one of the reasons that “Da Brick” seemed like a no-brainer. Lee directed a script by “12 Years A Slave” writer John Ridley, who would have been showrunner, “Entourage” mastermind Doug Ellin was also producing, and the show was based on the early life of Mike Tyson (boxing having been HBO’s bread-and-butter back in the day). Surprisingly, HBO passed on the series after it was shot in 2011, with “The Newsroom” becoming their only new drama in 2012. They may feel especially sheepish now, given that Boyega is set to appear in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” He told Metro in 2013 that “the pilot was made, but finding it now is like finding the crystal skull from “Indiana Jones.’ There are so many films that get made and never seen. I understand why it happens, but it would be good if people got the chance to make up their minds for themselves.”
Show: “The Vatican”
Synopsis & Cast: A politically ambitious New York cardinal becomes embroiled in machinations at the heart of the Catholic Church. “Friday Night Lights” star Kyle Chandler took the lead role, with “Downfall” actor Bruno Ganz as the Pope. The cast also included Matthew Goode, Anna Friel, Sebastian Koch (“The Lives Of Others”), Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission Impossible 5”) and Ewan Bremner (“Trainspotting”)
What Is There To Know? Scott was involved in television long before it became trendy among filmmakers. His Scott Free shingle has produced shows including “The Company,” “Numb3rs,” “The Pillars Of The Earth” and most memorably “The Good Wife.” But his only directorial effort for the small screen to date is one that’s never seen the light of day outside a network boardroom or two. Described as a contemporary thriller, “The Vatican” was hotly tipped during Showtime’s development season in 2013: not only was Scott producing and helming the pilot, but it was based on an idea by Sony chief Amy Pascal, penned by Oscar-nominated “Quiz Show” and “Donnie Brasco” writer Paul Attanasio (who was intended to be the showrunner) and starred a very hot cast. But religion is still something of a taboo subject (one lobbying group had called it “an assault on the Catholic Church”), but perhaps more importantly the series ran into creative trouble: Pascal had apparently been hands-off with Scott on the pilot, and the studio were reportedly unhappy with the finished cut. Reshoots were ordered but didn’t meet muster, and friction with Attanasio (described by one source as “failing to meet deadlines and clashing with numerous people behind the scenes”) didn’t help matters much. Attanasio quit and options on the cast ran out before a replacement could be found, but more importantly, the show (which reportedly also included a supernatural element) was seen as a risky prospect versus rivals “The Affair” and “Penny Dreadful” (which have both since arrived to critical acclaim).
Show: “Locke & Key”
Synopsis & Cast: After her husband’s murder, Nina (Miranda Otto) and her three children move into the old Locke family home, only to discover that the house contains sinister secrets. Sarah Bolger (“In America”), pop star Jesse McCartney and Nick Stahl (“Terminator 3”) were also in the cast.
What Is There To Know? He comes from true horror pedigree (his father is Stephen King), and one story has since reached the big screen in the somewhat unfortunate form of Daniel Radcliffe vehicle “Horns,” but writer Joe Hill could have reached a wider audience if this project had moved forward. Based on his long-running comic book, which debuted in 2008 before wrapping up at the end of 2013, “Locke & Key” would have combined a classic haunted house tale with complex and rich mythology, and as such managed to attract some heavyweight names: “Star Trek” duo Kurtzman & Orci were writing with “War Of The Worlds” scribe Josh Friedman, Steven Spielberg was producing and “Never Let Me Go” helmer Mark Romanek was brought on to direct the pilot, which reportedly cost as much as $10 million. It’s said to have turned out well, but Fox ultimately passed on the series in favor of shows like “Alcatraz,” “Touch” and “Terra Nova.” The executives might have ended up kicking themselves: that fall, sister network FX premiered the similarly-premised “American Horror Story,” which turned into a blockbuster hit. Unusually for one of these projects, some material has seen the light of day: a trailer was released on the internet and the full pilot was screened at Comic-Con at 2011 to a warm reception. But the project isn’t entirely dead: Kurtzman and Orci are now developing Hill’s comic as a movie trilogy at Universal.
Show: “The Corrections”
Synopsis & Cast: Based on the immensely acclaimed Jonathan Franzen novel (which was the subject of controversy when the author declined an Oprah’s Book Club endorsement), this is the story of the Lamberts, a midwestern family whose grown children have moved away to the East Coast, while the parents (Chris Cooper and Dianne Wiest) remain at home, dealing with the father’s encroaching Parkinsons. The cast included Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Greta Gerwig and Rhys Ifans.
What Is There To Know? Ostensibly a perfect fit of director and material considering this was “Greenberg“-era Baumbach, before he’d embraced the looser, lo-fi approach of his last couple of films, this potential HBO series was mooted after the film adaptation, which had David Hare attached as screenwriter and Stephen Daldry and then Robert Zemeckis attached to direct, fell apart. The pilot was shot but never wholly completed, which sounds a shame as Gerwig certainly was enthusiastic at the time, calling it “‘serious but there’s an almost farcical element to it. It’s very ‘After Hours‘ meets ‘Hannah and Her Sisters.’ ” Baumbach had already proven himself adept at mining awkward family dynamics in both “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding,” and the plan for four 10-episode seasons would surely have given him terrific scope. The scripts were co-written by Baumbach and Franzen himself, and MacGregor had been entirely won over from his initial reluctance towards TV, saying “It’s lovely writing… it’s a quality piece of work and having the opportunity to play a character at that length will be really interesting.” So what on earth went wrong? Baumbach expressed regret about how it shook out but never went into specifics, so we can only assume that the price tag attached to this potentially very costly project put HBO off, and with pricey renewals of “Game of Thrones,” “Girls” and “The Newsroom” already in place and the recent bath taken on “Luck,” this apparent home-run was likely simply rationalized out of existence. Meanwhile, Baumbach has gone from strength to strength, most recently with Sundance hit “Mistress America.“
Synopsis & Cast: A Hollywood-set comedy-drama focusing on a powerful yet reclusive Hollywood blogger (Diane Keaton) and her ambitious assistant (Ellen Page). Jason Patric, Sanaa Lathan, Wes Bentley, David Harbour and Leland Orser also appeared in the pilot.
What Is There To Know? Sadly not a miniseries biopic of the great Ms. Swinton, but this HBO project, co-written and with a pilot directed by “Dreamgirls,” “Gods & Monsters” and “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” helmer Bill Condon, did focus on a surrogate for another Hollywood figure: the once-much-feared, now seemingly vanished Nikki Finke, founder of Deadline Hollywood. The famously hermit-like entertainment journalist, who allegedly ruled her roost much like a mob boss, was the thinly veiled subject of the project, which starred Keaton as Not-Nikki, was co-written by Condon and “Tell Me You Love Me” creator Cynthia Mort, and set up at the premium cable network back in 2011, and was the recipient of much attention from the trades (Finke wasn’t intially aware of the project, but eventually struck a deal with HBO, seemingly mostly to ensure her silence). But the project soon ran aground: reportedly, Condon and Mort clashed loudly and publicly (with Mort also apparently feuding with star Keaton as well), and HBO ultimately sided with the director. Additional scripts were ordered from “The Player” writer Michael Tolkin, with Condon sticking around as showrunner, but HBO programming president Michael Lombardo and his deputy Sue Nagel were split on the pilot, and the network ultimately passed in favor of “Girls” and “Veep.” At the time, Deadline optimistically reported that “word is HBO is still interested in a show about her, this time with her on board from the beginning,” but with Finke’s reign of terror seemingly over, it seems pretty unlikely to resurface at this point. Frankly, it always seemed inside-baseball even by the standard of the network behind “Entourage” and “The Comeback.”
Show: “The Miraculous Year”
Synopsis & Cast: A dysfunctional but prominent New York arts family (father played by Frank Langella, son by Norbert Leo Butz, daughter by Hope Davis and daughter’s husband by Linus Roache) find their lives intersecting with the Broadway set when the celebrated composer son mounts a new play. Eddie Redmayne, Patti LuPone, Lee Pace and Susan Sarandon were also to feature, and there would have been singing —fabled Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim was reportedly on board to pen the musical numbers for the show-within-the-show.
What Is There To Know? While shooting this pilot was Bigelow’s first gig since winning her historic Best Director Oscar for 2008’s “The Hurt Locker,” the driver behind the project was writer John Logan, whose biggest credits at that time were “The Aviator,” “The Last Samurai,” “Gladiator” and “Sweeney Todd.” In fact, it was the latter Tim Burton film that is reported to have inspired this show, as Logan collaborated with Sondheim on the script, and apparently then based the Butz character on him. Too closely, as reportedly Sondheim disliked some of the obvious parallels so details were changed. However, it appears that HBO ultimately felt the premise was too narrow in appeal to continue. Bigelow may have been there as more or less a director-for-hire, and it must have been a significant change of pace for the director, sandwiched between her two muscular, spartan war stories, and we would have loved to have seen her negotiate an entirely different register. But don’t cry too hard for Logan, who landed the next two Bond movies after penning “Skyfall” and scratched his TV itch by creating the successful “Penny Dreadful,” which probably took some of the sting out of this failed attempt.
Show: “The Missionary”
Synopsis & Cast: A young, idealistic American missionary (Benjamin Walker, in a role originally rumored for Aaron Paul) gets caught up in Cold War intrigue when he tries to help a young woman (“Lore” star Saskia Rosendahl) escape 1960s East Berlin. Jesse Plemons also starred.
What Is There To Know? Perhaps “A-list” is still a bit of a stretch to call Kormákur, director of “Contraband” and “2 Guns,” but this pilot cropped up just after his deservedly acclaimed Icelandic survival-at-sea tale “The Deep” turned heads, and he had been knocking at the door of top-flight Hollywood for some time already (perhaps 2015’s anticipated title “Everest” is the film that’s really gonna put him there). And during a period that saw a resurgence of interest in the spy genre, with several Le Carre (and other) adaptations making it to the big screen, the show, created by “Love and Other Drugs” “The Interpreter” and “The Life of David Gale” writer Charles Randolph and shepherded by big-name producers Stephen Levinson and Mark Wahlberg along with, oddly, Malcolm Gladwell, might have seemed like a surefire hit. But whether it was the expense associated with another period-set series, or possibly the similarities to FX‘s critically acclaimed but often somewhat overlooked “The Americans,” HBO got cold feet on the pilot and announced they would not be pursuing it back in September 2013, and there’s been no word of interest from other networks. In any case, Kormákur would likely not have been involved beyond the pilot and maybe a couple of episodes thereafter, though he did claim to have an eye on the long game when he told Collider, “you’ve gotta have in mind where the show is gonna go… that the cast can go to the places that the show is going to. I want the show to be successful, not only the pilot.”
Show Title: “Entry Level”
Synopsis & Cast: A recent college grad is dumped by his girlfriend, only to discover that she’s working at the same ad agency. Michael Angarano and Brie Larson had the lead roles, with Chris Smith (“Paranormal Activity 3”), Amanda Lund (“Goosebumps”) and Randall Park (“The Interview”) backing them up.
What Is There To Know? Not everything he’s made has been a hit, but the last few years have seen Nicholas Stoller establish himself as one of the more reliable comedy directors in the business, with films like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “The Muppets” (which he co-wrote) and “Get Him To The Greek.” Stoller got his start in TV, writing for Judd Apatow’s series “Undeclared,” and after his underrated rom-com “The Five-Year Engagement” flopped at the box office, he had his eye on a return to TV, with this semi-autobiographical project based on his own time at an ad agency, which he wrote, executive produced and directed. With the hot duo of Angarano and Larson in the lead roles, the project looked good on paper: Stoller described it to Vulture as being about “four twentysomethings who work in advertising in New York all sleeping with each other,” and said that “the pilot actually turned out really well and I’m excited about how it came out.” The show had excellent buzz but was surprisingly passed over, reportedly because CBS relies mostly on multi-camera comedy, and as a single-camera effort, the show was thought to be difficult to pair with the likes of “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory” (this is why network television is nosediving, for the record…). Still, at least it worked out well for all concerned: Stoller had his first mega-hit with “Neighbors” last year, Larson became one of the mostly hotly-sought-after stars around with “Short Term 12,” and Angarano ended up on one of television’s best shows, “The Knick.”
Synopsis & Cast: Based on the pulp novels by Max Allan Collins, the ’70s-set story follows Max Quarry (Logan Marshall-Green), a Vietnam vet shunned on his return to the U.S. and who becomes a methodical and emotionless hitman, carrying out the orders of a mysterious boss known as “The Broker” (Stellan Skarsgard). Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Noah Taylor co-starred.
What Is There To Know? Whether it’s because we’re particular fans of Hillcoat or because this cast feels so right, this hitman series is definitely one of the ones we’d be really sorry to see fall by the wayside. So the good news, in the sense that no-news-is-good-news, is that it’s still on the table over at Cinemax. At this delicate point in proceedings, there’s not a whole lot of word from the team, including series creator Michael D Fuller and co-writer Graham Gordy, whose partnership has also spawned six episodes of the excellent “Rectify,” so the best source of info is Collins. According to his blog, he was utterly delighted with all the casting and doubly so when he saw them in action in character on the set —Marshall-Green, claimed Collins “has the young Quarry nailed, and you have a real sense that this committed actor is the linchpin of the production.” And as recently as August 2014, he was saying “the meetings I took, both with the writers heading up the potential series and with the top execs at Cinemax, were encouraging.” So we’ll keep our fingers crossed for it, but remember that the network already has one pricey period prestige project on the go with Steven Soderbergh‘s “The Knick.” Then again, that show’s success may whet the appetite of the fledgling original production branch for more, and if so, it’s good to know they’ve such an exciting sounding project ready to go, from a director who also has one of our Most Anticipated Films of 2015 coming out in the shape of “Triple Nine.”
Show: “Game of Thrones”
Synopsis & Cast: In a fictionalized, fantasy-tinged far past, rival dynasties and clans, such as the Starks of Winterfell headed by Nedd and Catelyn (Sean Bean and Jennifer Ehle), the Lannisters and the Targaryens (led by Daenerys played by Tamzin Merchant of “The Tudors“), jockey for power as dragons return to the world and an uncanny evil threatens from the frozen North.
What Is There To Know? You may have heard of this little show based on the George R R Martin books, or rather the show that “Game of Thrones” went on to become. Tom McCarthy’s unaired pilot was shot back in 2009 with a cast that differed in a few instances, like Ehle and Merchant, whose parts were taken by Michelle Fairley and Emilia Clarke respectively, on different locations and with what seems to have been quite a different approach. I09 have done a typically exhaustive run down of the differences between the first episode, as directed by TV stalwart Timothy Van Patten, which credits McCarthy as a Consulting Producer due to the few scenes retained, his casting work and a script for the 2009 never-seen version. In general, it seems McCarthy’s pilot was talkier, more disjointed and less elegant in its introduction of the various characters and their relationships to each other, which was so crucial to the show’s instant appeal. But this version evidently hewed closer to the book, and as such was probably a valuable interim step for show creators David Benioff and DB Weiss to work out how to wrestle the ambitious volumes into manageable hour-long episodes. Whatever the case, as much as we love McCarthy, hiring the director of low-key indies “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win/Win” to tackle this fantasy epic always seemed a counterintuitive fit (though perhaps his prior relationship to his “The Station Agent” star Peter Dinklage was a factor in the latter’s casting, in which case we all owe him a debt of thanks), and McCarthy himself said later “I just didn’t feel connected to it. It wasn’t a big decision. It felt right. It felt like more of it was [Van Patten’s] than mine in terms of what you see on the screen now. I think if you would talk to [Weiss and Benioff], they would say I was helpful in a lot of the process, but it certainly doesn’t feel like mine.” Instead, we’ll get to see McCarthy in his natural element behind the big-screen camera in this year’s highly anticipated “Spotlight.“
We decided not to cover any pilots that are/were available to watch, so the crop of Amazon Originals pilots from 2014 didn’t get a mention, and in any case David Gordon Green, Jill Soloway, Paul Weitz and Marc Forster all saw their pilots make it through to series order, while Whit Stillman was asked to deliver further scripts for his. From further back in time, we were tempted to include “Heat Vision & Jack,” directed by Ben Stiller and starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson, but since that’s been available on YouTube forever, it’s not quite the unknown quantity that the rest of these are.
Otherwise, further unseen pilots from biggish directors for shows that didn’t make the cut include Paul Feig‘s HBO project starring Sarah Silverman “People in New Jersey“; “The Money” from “The Other Boleyn Girl” helmer Justin Chadwick, written by David Milch and set to star Andrea Riseborough and Brendan Gleeson; “Gotham” from Francis Lawrence for ABC, not to be confused with the currently airing Batman universe-building “Gotham” which is on Fox (and awful); “Hoke” directed by “A Walk Among the Tombstones“‘ Scott Frank for FX starring Paul Giamatti; and an untitled political drama for ABC that Roland Emmerich directed. Know of any more? Somehow got the inside skinny on some of these? Let us know which ones you’d most like to be able to see, and what you think about the big-name pilot director phenomenon in general, in the comments.
–Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton