Small Screen Drama Kings: Not Long Ago Hollywood Directors Would Rather Have Worn Dockers Than Work in Television. Now That HBO Is Hip and TV Is Hot, the Networks Are the Place to Be
Horn, John, Newsweek
Byline: John Horn
Any A-list movie director asked to film at the Oasis Hotel would look around, climb into his SUV and high-tail it to a soundstage to rebuild the motel in all its seedy glory. The downtown Los Angeles hotel's swimming pool is encircled by razor wire. The motor inn's roof is littered with syringes. Abandoned crack pipes lie underneath stained mattresses. The ceiling of one guest room is splattered with human blood. But director Jon Avnet ("Red Corner," "Up Close & Personal") doesn't have the time or money for such feature-film relocation. That's because Avnet, stepping past a used condom, is directing his first television series, NBC's police drama "Boomtown." "We really have 12 pages to shoot today? Oh, my God," Avnet says to an assistant, laughing at what would take at least two weeks to film on most movie sets. "Well, let's work fast before we get to the fancy stuff."
It used to be Hollywood's top movie directors would no more slum in TV than wear Dockers--network series were the boot camp through which you had to pass to reach the promised land of studio features. Now the equation has been turned on its head. In the just-launched season, established film directors are either producing or directing episodes in three new series. Blockbuster maven Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pearl Harbor") is producing no fewer than four shows. In addition to Avnet, Michael Mann ("Ali," "The Insider") is the executive producer on CBS's "Robbery Homicide Division," and McG ("Charlie's Angels") made the pilot of Fox's "Fastlane." The reverse migration was sparked by two coinciding events. Moviemaking has turned increasingly corporate, governed by multimillion-dollar superhero franchises and extravagant McDonald's marketing campaigns. At the same time TV has grown much smarter, from HBO's "Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" to NBC's "The West Wing." Mann, who launched his career making "Miami Vice" but hasn't worked in TV for more than a decade, says: "TV has really changed in the last 10 years. The writing is much, much better. And there's definitely a kick to it."
Part of the kick for these directors is getting to make a little movie every week, rather than plodding through years of frame-by-frame nitpicking on just one feature. "It's so much faster, it's blinding," says "Boomtown" creator and executive producer Graham Yost, whose movie-screenwriting credits include "Speed" and "Broken Arrow." What's more, networks still may have their own crazy rules--like continuing to employ Jim Belushi--but its executives know better than to second-guess Hollywood's top filmmaking talent. "You just get to do more on TV," Yost says. "In features, all the eggs are in one basket, and it's not your basket. You get more control in TV."
In bringing their cinematic sensibilities to prime time, these Hollywood interlopers are expanding the look and feel of network fare. "Fastlane" is a high-octane undercover-cop story with slick camera moves and editing like "The Fast and the Furious." The sophisticated "Boomtown" features multiple--and sometimes conflicting--storytelling perspectives, imitating a device made famous by Akira Kurosawa's 1950 cinema classic "Rashomon." "I've always liked the multiple point-of-view structure, but I've never been able to do it to this degree in a feature," Avnet says. The stylish police drama "Robbery Homicide" delivers a gritty visual tone reminiscent of Mann's heist movie "Heat," in part because the episodes are shot on state-of-the-art digital cameras. The show ignores many TV conventions, even going several minutes without any dialogue. …