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20 Indie Filmmakers Who Found Their Second Acts On TV

20 Indie Filmmakers Who Found Their Second Acts On TV

This Sunday sees the arrival of one of the most hotly anticipated TV series of this year. It might not have the A-list auteur cred of “Vinyl” or the giant following of “Game Of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead,” but we’re still hugely excited about Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” and not just because it’s executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and is based on his film of the same name.

The show, starring “Mad Max: Fury Road” actress Riley Keough as a woman who tries to pay for law school through “transactional relationships,” is directed by indie veteran Lodge Kerrigan (“Keane”) and up-and-comer Amy Seimetz (“Sun Don’t Shine”). Kerrigan in particular marks the latest example of the trend in which veteran indie helmers from the 1990s and 2000s find a second act to their careers thanks to the recent television boom.

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Kerrigan’s work has been adored by festivalgoers, critics and other filmmakers (Soderbergh has been a longtime fan and supporter), but audiences were always a little hard to come by, and his last film, 2010’s “Rebecca H,” never got a release after its Cannes premiere. But in the years since, he’s been building wider and wider audiences by directing episodes of acclaimed TV dramas like “Homeland,” “The Killing,” “The Americans” and “Bates Motel.”

It seems that, with the divide between film and TV crumbling, this trend will only increase —look at indie helmers Marielle Heller, Stacie Passon and Andrea Arnold helming episodes of “Transparent,” or Craig Zobel on “The Leftovers.” So in advance of “The Girlfriend Experience,” we’ve listed 20 notable indie filmmakers who, thanks to the new golden age of television, have been given second acts.

Allison Anders
The question “where are they now” is increasingly being answered by “Duh, on TV of course,”which holds true for Allison Anders. At the vanguard of that early ’90s false dawn in which female filmmakers suddenly seemed to be getting a bigger slice of the indie cinema pie, Anders made a succession of warmhearted low-budget movies between 1992 and 1999, starting with terrific sophomore title “Gas Food Lodging,” which picked up multiple Independent Spirit awards, and went on to “Mi Vida Loca,” “Grace of My Heart” and Sundance title “Sugar Town.” Since then, she and frequent collaborator Kurt Voss have only managed to get one real theatrical feature mounted, the very good, underseen “Strutter,” set like many of her titles in the LA rock music scene. Otherwise, Anders has been on TV, directing episodes of “Sex and the City,” “Southland,” “Orange is the New Black” and “Murder in the First” among others, but she’s also finding a home for some original TV features like “Things Behind the Sun” with Kim Dickens and Emmy-nominated Johnny Cash biopic “Ring of Fire.”

Jamie Babbit
If TV is often a feature director’s second act, sometimes the first act feels more like a brief prologue, and so it is with Babbit. Arguably a TV director before she was a feature filmmaker, Babbit helmed five episodes of MTV’s then-controversial show about teen sex and relationships “Undressed” the same year her feature debut was released. Yet that film “But I’m a Cheerleader” merits her inclusion on this list: the lesbian “corrective summer camp” comedy with Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall was a modest hit on release but has built a sizable cult following since, especially in LGBT circles. Her subsequent forays onto the big screen have largely failed to connect —”The Quiet,” “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” (despite that great title), “Breaking the Girls” and last year’s unloved “Addicted to Fresno” (our review). Instead, Babbit has perhaps found her true calling on the small screen, becoming a hugely prolific and stalwart member of the directing roster for shows such as “Popular,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Gilmore Girls,” “The Middle,” “United States of Tara,” “Drop Dead Diva,” “Girls,” “Looking” and “Married,” among many others.

Michael Cuesta

When we first discussed this feature, Cuesta was one of the first filmmakers that came to mind: he’s the platonic ideal of the indie filmmaker who reinvented his career with TV work. Cuesta broke out at Sundance in 2001 with his raw, provocative drama “L.I.E.,” about the uneasy relationship between a teenage boy (Paul Dano in his breakout role) and an elderly pedophile (Brian Cox). Further features followed, most notably 2005’s “12 And Holding,” but his debut had already brought him to the attention of “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball, who hired Cuesta for a second season episode after another helmer pulled out at the last minute. Cuesta went on to direct four further episodes for the HBO show, and then directed the pilots for “Dexter,” “Homeland” (after Ben Affleck dropped out) and “Elementary.” His “Homeland” work in particular helped him return to features with Jeremy Renner vehicle “Kill The Messenger,” and he’s sticking to similar territory with two upcoming projects, Michael Keaton-starring spy flick “American Assassin,” and “Code Name Veil,” with Ansel Elgort investigating terrorist bombings in Beirut.

John Dahl 
The name might yield a “Who dat?” from younger cinephiles, but many of us oldsters remember when Dahl was one of the most exciting working filmmakers. His first three features essentially defined ’90s neo-noir — “Kill Me Again” with Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer was the least, but it was followed by Nic Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle steaming things up in “Red Rock West” and Linda Fiorentino as possibly the greatest femme fatale ever in the brilliant “The Last Seduction,” and Dahl seemed a fixture in the cinematic firmament. But then “Unforgettable” did not exactly live up to its title, poker drama “Rounders” was fine if anonymous, while “Joyride,” “The Great Raid” and “You Kill Me” saw him sliding further off-radar. He never made a bad film, but he’s a stellar example of career rejuvenation: since 2007 he’s worked exclusively on TV, directing multiples episodes of nearly every Golden Age show across all genres —”Battlestar Galactica,” “Breaking Bad,” “United States of Tara,” “True Blood,” “Terriers,” “Shameless,” “Homeland,” “The Bridge,” “House of Cards,” “Justified,” “Hannibal,” “Ray Donovan,” “The Affair“… in fact, it’s maybe easier to point to shows he’s never worked on ( no”Game of Thrones” yet).

Carl Franklin
A familiar 1970s/1980s TV actor, Carl Franklin (“Fantastic Journey,” “McClain’s Law,” “The A Team“) made his feature directorial debut with “Nowhere to Run” in 1989. That David Carradine-starrer was perhaps not the most auspicious entree, and his next couple were undistinguished enough. But then came the terrific, sultry neo-noir “One False Move” starring and co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, followed by two very underrated pics —defining early Denzel Washington film “Devil in a Blue Dress” and gentle dramedy “One True Thing” with Meryl Streep. But after “High Crimes” and “Out of Time,” again with Washington, failed to set the box office on fire, Franklin started mixing in the odd episode of TV like “Rome,” “The Riches” and “The Pacific.” And since his last, completely overlooked but very solid film “Bless Me Ultima” in 2013, he’s been exclusively small-screen, directing multiple episodes of House of Cards,” (for which he picked up an Emmy nod) “Homeland,” “The Affair” and “The Leftovers,” and one each of “The Newsroom,” “Bloodline” and “Vinyl.” 

James Foley

Neither the most consistently indie director on this list nor the most consistent, Foley’s pre-TV career was one of peaks and troughs. Starting out with the none-more-’80s “Reckless,” Foley zigged and zagged in quality, with the relative high of Sean Penn‘s “At Close Range” as his next feature, only for the plunging low of Madonna‘s “Who’s That Girl” to follow. But after his middling 1990 Jim Thompson adaptation “After Dark My Sweet,” Foley directed his first TV episode for Season 2 of the nonpareil “Twin Peaks.” And he followed up with his one bonafide big-screen masterpiece: the excoriating, meme-spawning David Mamet drama “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Then came a bad period, involving “Fear,” “Confidence” and “Perfect Stranger,” before Foley reinvented himself with “Hannibal” and then 12 episodes of “House of Cards.” He’s worked on “Wayward Pines” and “Billions” more recently and earned his ticket back to the big screen with the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey‘ sequels —which you can look at as either a vindication of his talents or an indication that his penance continues.

Keith Gordon

Having reinvented himself once from actor to director (his credits on screen included “Jaws 2,” “All That Jazz,” “Dressed To Kill” and “Christine”), it’s probably no surprise that Keith Gordon has taken to TV with gusto. He made his directorial debut aged just 27 with Catholic school drama “The Chocolate War,” and helmed a number of often deeply underrated features after that: excellent World War II pic “A Midnight Clear,” Kurt Vonnegut adaptation “Mother Night,” and Billy Crudup starrer “Waking The Dead.” His controversial remake of “The Singing Detective” with Robert Downey Jr. seemed to land him in the director’s chair, but TV busted him out again: he was one of the most prolific helmers of “Dexter,” and has also worked on ”The Killing,” “The Leftovers,” and most memorably two great episodes in the second season of “Fargo.” He’s not yet returned to features, but has been developing one that none other than Christopher Nolan, who’s presumably a fan, could produce.

Sanaa Hamri

Moroccan-born filmmaker Hamri is likely used to switching up mediums; she started off in music video, helming clips for Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child and Prince before making her feature debut with 2006’s romantic comedy “Something New.” Further features followed —“The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2” and Queen Latifah 2010 vehicle “Just Wright”— but she’s arguably more notable for her TV work in recent years, beginning with a 2007 episode of “Desperate Housewives” and taking in “Nashville,” “Glee” and “Elementary.” She’s moved on to more prestigious and acclaimed shows since, including “Rectify” and “Shameless,” but has probably gotten the most attention as a director and executive producer on megahit “Empire.” It’s likely the latter that’s helped her return to features: she’ll next direct “Taking Flight,” a biopic of Sierra Leone-born ballerina Michaela DePrince.

Nicole Holofcener

It’s perhaps a slight cheat to have Holofcener here, as since her debut feature “Walking and Talking,” which more or less defined her humanist, observational, relationship-based sensibility, she’s largely alternated indie features with stints directing the kind of TV shows that fall into that same sunny dramedy wheelhouse. So her film “Lovely and Amazing” came after four episodes of the epochal “Sex and the City,” while “Friends with Money” followed work on “Gilmore Girls” and “Six Feet Under” and so on. However, since 2013’s terrific “Enough Said,” Holofcener has worked exclusively on the small screen, whether because of the well-known difficulty of mounting the kind of female-focused, grown-up, mid-budget indie that is her area of expertise, or maybe simply because she’s becoming more in demand as a TV director. Whatever the case, she’s worked consistently, directing four episodes of “Parks and Recreation,” and one each of “Togetherness,” “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and “Inside Amy Schumer,” and she also helmed the proof-of-concept pilot episode of Tig Notaro and Louis CK‘s “One Mississippi” which was picked up to series by Amazon late last year.

Reginald Hudlin
If there’s a more beloved artifact of the early ’90s nostalgia cult than Hudlin’s feature directorial debut “House Party,” we can’t really think what it might be, but even the stratospheric goodwill it engenders can’t really excuse follow-up “Boomerang.” The comedy got broader and flatter with “The Great White Hype” and “The Ladies Man” before getting a lot whiter too with the pretty dire Matthew Perry/Liz Hurley vehicle “Serving Sara.” But since then, Hudlin has gone from strength to strength on the small screen, directing installments of “The Bernie Mac Show,” (which he also produced) as well as “The Office,” “The Middle,” “Modern Family,” “Are We there Yet” and “Murder in the First” while also expanding his producer credentials, notably on Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” All this consistent work, as well as his producing chops, will see him back at the helm of a major theatrical feature this year for the first time in a decade and a half —Hudlin is directing the currently shooting “Marshall,” the biopic of a young pre-Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall starring Chadwick Boseman

Patty Jenkins

Spectacular proof of the gender double standard in Hollywood, Patty Jenkins hasn’t made a single feature since the success of her uncompromising debut “Monster” in 2003. That film may have won Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar and have picked up heat for Jenkins as a writer and director, but she’s spent the intervening decade and a half on the small screen —and even that has been intermittent at best. A single episode of “Arrested Development” and two of “Entourage” were basically all we got from Jenkins before a subsequent 5-year fallow period ended with a bang when she directed the pilot episode of “The Killing,” for which she was nominated for an Emmy and for which she won a DGA award. It seemed she might return to the big screen with “Thor: The Dark World,” but she left that project in 2011, citing “creative differences.” Ironically, that was also the reason that TV superdirector Michelle MacLaren vacated the director’s chair on 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” which will now mark Jenkins’ long overdue return to the big screen.

Nicole Kassell

The Woodsman,” a sensitive and finely honed drama starring Kevin Bacon as a child molester, was one of the more striking indie debuts of the 2000s, but perhaps because of its difficult subject matter didn’t quite find the audience it deserved, and as such it’s taken a little while for Nicole Kassell to get the level of work she deserves (that her feature follow-up, the sappy romantic drama “A Little Bit Of Heaven” with Kate Hudson wasn’t great didn’t help). But Kassell’s been quietly building up TV credits since the turn of the decade, going from grim procedurals like “The Killing” and “The Following” to some of the most acclaimed shows presently airing: she’s helmed episodes of “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” “Rectify,” “The Leftovers” and “American Crime,” to name but a few, and she’s behind the sixth episode of “Vinyl” as well.

Lodge Kerrigan

With a feature career that sounds like the first line of a riddle: “I’ve made five features but you’ll only see four; of my four features one’s beyond obscure —who am I?” Kerrigan’s short, experimental filmography comprises brilliant debut “Clean, Shaven,” starring character actor Peter Greene as a schizophrenic, “Claire Dolan” with Katrin Cartlidge, “Keane” with Damian Lewis and 2010 Un Certain Regard curio “Rebecca H: (Return to the Dogs).” But in the middle came “In God’s Hands,” produced by Steven Soderbergh and starring Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal and which had to be wholly scrapped due to negative damage. Kerrigan bounced back impressively with “Keane,” but six years of silence until ‘Rebecca H’ debuted to his most muted critical response ever seems to have convinced him to move to the small screen. Since 2011, he’s worked on “Homeland, “”Bates Motel,” “The Americans,” “The Red Road” and “The Killing.” Most excitingly though, he recently teamed with Amy Seimetz to write and direct “The Girlfriend Experience,” based on buddy Soderbergh’s 2009 film, which will debut this weekend on Starz.

Larysa Kondracki

Not many people saw Larysa Kondracki’s debut feature “The Whistleblower” (at least outside her native Canada, where it won three Genie Awards), but it was a pretty decent thriller with an important real-world theme and a terrific central performance by Rachel Weisz (and a notable just-pre-fame turn by Benedict Cumberbatch). As yet, Kondracki hasn’t returned to film directing, but she’s been proving herself an increasingly valuable asset to all kinds of shows since the movie hit. Beginning with swiftly forgotten BBC America show “Copper,” she’s helmed episodes of shows including “The Walking Dead,” “Halt And Catch Fire,” “Reign” and ‘The Americans.” Just last night, she returned for a second episode of “Better Call Saul,” and it’s one of the most exquisitely directed pieces of television we’ve seen all year. Next up is an upcoming episode of “Gotham,” and we’re almost tempted to tune in on the basis of her name alone.

Karyn Kusama

Few Hollywood careers have had such steep ups and downs as Kusama’s in such a small space of time, but rest assured that a spate of quality TV work sees her firmly on the upswing. Kusama broke through with her smash Sundance hit “Girlfight” (which also launched the career of Michelle Rodriguez and which was financed entirely by Kusama’s then-boss John Sayles), but came unstuck with ill-conceived big budget sci-fi “Aeon Flux,” starring Charlize Theron. The Diablo Cody-penned “Jennifer’s Body” didn’t improve things hugely, but her imminent horror “The Invitation” reportedly marks a significant comeback, and it’s been preceded by a pretty great run of small screen directing, with “Halt & Catch Fire,” “The Man In The High Castle,” “Casual” and “Billions” all letting her shine in a big way. Kusama’s not always had the material to match her talents, but recent efforts should remind people of what she’s capable of.

Neil LaBute

In contrast to some of these filmmakers, LaBute has been working fairly consistently in film until recently. But whereas new work from the playwright-turned-director felt like genuine events in the late ’90s and early ’00s, recent pictures like “Some Velvet Morning” and “Dirty Weekend” have gone mostly unnoticed. Once again, TV has come to the rescue: alongside his own show “Billy & Billie” (for which he wrote and directed all ten episodes and which seemed to suffer a similar fate as his films), LaBute has been helming episodes of AMC Western show “Hell On Wheels” and most recently “Billions.” The latter show in particular (which has had a stellar selection of directors in general, including a number on this list as well as people like Neil Burger, Susanna White and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck) saw him deliver an episode that might be the best LaBute-related project since “Your Friends & Neighbors” eighteen years ago.

Neil Marshall

At one point, it seemed like Marshall was one of the great up-and-coming genre hopes: his thoroughly enjoyable B-movie debut “Dog Soldiers” was a hit at home in the U.K, while follow-up “The Descent” was one of the best-crafted and most genuinely terrifying horror films of its time. But his later films —ropey “Mad Max” rip-off “Doomsday” and Roman battler “Centurion,” which caught Michael Fassbender just before people knew who he was— seemed to stop things in their tracks for a moment. But his facility for getting epic scope out of slim budgets paid off when he was picked to helm “Blackwater,” the first huge battle in Season Two of “Game Of Thrones.” Since then, Marshall’s been a genre-TV fave, helming pilots of “Black Sails” and “Constantine” and a memorable episode of “Hannibal.” He’s now straddling both worlds, with film and TV projects developing simultaneously: next up is NBC sci-fi pilot “Time.

Vincenzo Natali

As both Marshall and Vincenzo Natali have proven, TV hasn’t just proven a salvation for Sundance indie types, but also for more genre-minded directors. The U.S.-born, Canadian-raised Natali broke through with his ingenious microbudget debut ‘Cube” and followed it up with Phillip K. Dick-ish spy thriller “Cypher,” the experimental “Nothing” and terrific Cronenberg-ish monster pic “Splice.” Natali had racked up some TV credits early in his career, on the Canadian-made “Earth: Final Conflict,’ but has fully embraced the small screen in the last few years with regular and impressive work on “Hannibal” along with shows like “Hemlock Grove,” “The Returned,’ “Orphan Black” and the second season of “The Strain.” Like Marshall, he’s kept his toe in cinematic waters in the meantime: he spent years developing a big-screen version of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” and while that isn’t happening, he’ll next direct Stephen King adaptation “In The Tall Grass.”

Lynn Shelton
Not only is Shelton a director of both TV and film, but she’s a writer, an actor and an editor as well, So we’re hopeful that her move to TV is not so much a second act as a track that can run in parallel to her feature career. While she’s somewhat associated with the mumblecore movement pioneered by the Duplass brothers (Mark starred in her 2009 film “Humpday,”), she had three very accomplished features to her name before that —”We Go Way Back,” “What the Funny” and “My Effortless Brilliance“— all of which proved she has more clarity and focus than that term usually suggests. More recently, she’s balanced increasingly polished feature filmmaking —we’re particularly fond of “Touchy Feely” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” but “Laggies” had its moments— with stints on episodic comedies and sitcoms like “New Girl,” “The Mindy Project,” “Maron,” “Master of None,” “Fresh of the Boat,” “Casual” and “Shameless.” It seems like she’s among the few women filmmakers who hasn’t compromised overmuch in order to keep working across both mediums. 

Mario Van Peebles

Once the director of major theatrical releases like “Posse” and “Panther,” actor-turned-director Mario Van Peeble’s movies seem to not get all that much attention (films like “We The Party” or “All Things Fall Apart” got the most minimal releases). But you’ve likely seen some of his work recently regardless: the polymathic director, who first got behind the camera in the 1980s on shows like “21 Jump Street” not long after breaking through as an actor, has been working consistently in television. He’s done everything from procedurals like “Law & Order” and “NCIS” to genre shows like “Lost” and “Once Upon A Time” to prestige-y cable fare like “Damages” and “Sons Of Anarchy.” Most recently, he’s been working on “Empire” and has the remake of “Roots” coming up. Hopefully those two gigs will be enough to get him back in the major movie game again soon for a movie of the quality of his debut “New Jack City.

This is a slightly nebulous category, but even then there are few filmmakers who are certainly in the wheelhouse of indie directors who’ve had a career boost from the golden age of TV that we didn’t quite have the space for. Those include Peter Medak, who went from “The Ruling Class” to “Hannibal” (among others), “Chuck & Buck” director Miguel Arteta, seen recently helming much of “Enlightened” and “Getting On,” “River’s Edge” director Tim Hunter, now a small-screen veteran, and “Fugitive Pieces” and “The Five Senses” helmer, now an Emmy-nominated “Game Of Thrones” stalwart (he’s helming the first couple of episodes of the new season).

Also worth mentioning, though not all quite qualify, are British horror helmer Tom Shankland, whose work across the pond on “The Missing” and “The Fades” landed him gigs on “House Of Cards” and “The Leftovers,” “American Psycho” director Mary Harron, whose recent TV gigs have included “Constantine” and “The Following,John Singleton, who’s warming up for his own FX show with episodes of “Empire” and “The People Vs. OJ Simpson,” and Stephen ‘dad of Jake and MaggieGyllenhaal, who has a long list of TV credits most recently including “Rectify” and “Billions.”

And that’s excluding the likes of Andrew Jarecki, Jill Soloway, Lena Dunham, Lisa Cholodenko, Roman Coppola, Mike White and David Wain, who’ve been showrunning their own shows, or the likes of Andrew Haigh, Alan Taylor, Cary Fukunaga, Whit Stillman, Mike Judge, Lee Daniels and even Woody Allen, who’ve embraced the TV/film divide coming down by repeatedly moving back and forth between them. Any one else you think does deserve a mention? Give them a shout in the comments section.

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