Ben Stiller directs Benicio Del Toro through prison bars in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora.
Jean-Marc Vallée and Amy Adams on the set of HBO’s Sharp Objects
Matthew Weiner confers with Isabelle Huppert on Amazon’s The Romanoffs.
Ben Stiller didn't plan to do it. Nor did Matthew Weiner and Jean-Marc Vallée, or even Sam Esmail, and he's sort of famous for it.
None of them set out to direct the entire season of a show or a limited series, but they all did. All those projects have been highly acclaimed, some even winning Emmy Awards. It's a telling development in this so-called Golden Age, as filmmakers come to television to tell stories that are too long for feature films.
Take Stiller, for instance. When writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin approached him about the famed 2015 prison break at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, he initially passed. But when the State Inspector General's report on the escape and subsequent manhunt came out in 2016, the expanded details piqued his interest.
Stiller contacted the writers and together they crafted Escape at Dannemora, a seven-part series that debuted in November on Showtime. Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano starred as the convicts, and Patricia Arquette played the prison employee who helped them escape (in January she picked up a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her performance).
While putting the project together, Stiller initially thought about handing off some episodes to another director, but at a certain point it became clear that the best way to shoot it was all at once.
"The reality is, when you're making something like this, you can't shoot it episode by episode," he explains. "You had to shoot it like a film, and we had to shoot the last part first, because of the weather.
"With that in mind, we really couldn't break it up. If you have more than one director, it's not really possible to shoot all this material that's going to appear in all these different episodes. It was either doing it that way, or not doing it."
The writers both loved the notion of Stiller coming on board, not just for his vision, but for the practicality he offered. "Ben is an accomplished director," Johnson says. "We wanted somebody who could do drama and comedy, because [Dannemora, though a drama] has a sense of humor to it. Ben's movies are comedies, but they're very cinematic.
"Meeting him, and seeing how passionate he was about it, made us see that he was the guy." Tolkin adds: "We also thought he'd be able to put together the best cast of any director we met. The connections, the friendships — we didn't think anyone else could do what he did."
The duo had only worked on shows where directors, in Johnson's words, "come and go" and the writer-producers are in charge, so this was a big change.
Ever since Cary Fukunaga directed the whole first season of True Detective on HBO in 2014 and Steven Soderbergh helmed both seasons of The Knick on Cinemax around the same time, directors have increasingly been overseeing an entire season of a show, or a whole limited series.
Sam Esmail , the creator and showrunner of USA Network's Emmy-winning Mr. Robot, decided to direct every episode of that show's second season, and then he did it again for the third. When the show starts shooting its fourth and final season later this year, he'll direct all those episodes, too — as he did for the first season of Amazon's Homecoming.
"It expands the world of TV and the possibilities of how to make it," Esmail says, noting that Fukunaga and Soderbergh both influenced his decision to direct all of Mr. Robot.
"I in no way think it replaces what has worked so well before in the past, where you have multiple directors coming in and handling their own episodes. I just think now there is another way to look at it. Not just on the filmmaking side, but on the audience side, too. Watching a series that is directed by one person is a different experience than watching one directed by multiple people."
For Amazon's Homecoming, he'd planned to executive-produce with the show's creators, Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, and maybe direct the pilot and second episodes. But then he spoke to executive producer and star Julia Roberts, who was really only interested in working with a single director on the 10-episode first season.
That pushed him in a whole new direction, and suddenly, he was doing them all. The writers were perfectly fine with that decision. "It seemed like such a good development," Bloomberg says. "It just never occurred to us that there would be another way." Horowitz adds: "Having a single director actually gave us more freedom to do what we wanted with the show.
"We could focus on the stuff that we knew about — and that we were good at — without having to worry about the stuff we didn't." For these TV first-timers, that list was long, so having Esmail on board greased the wheels considerably.
Process was what made Jean-Marc Vallée take on not one but two HBO limited series back to back — a challenge he laughingly says he will never undertake again.
After a project he worked on with Amy Adams fell apart, she asked him to join her and showrunner Marti Noxon on an adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel Sharp Objects. Before those scripts were ready, though, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman asked him to direct the first episode of Big Little Lies, for which they were both executive producers and stars.
Vallée, after all, had just directed Witherspoon to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, so it was a natural fit. "After working with him on Wild, I knew he was the perfect person to explore violence and sexuality through memory," Witherspoon explains. "The way he films and edits people's memories and uses music to evoke memory is truly unique."
Once he got started, the French-Canadian director realized he didn't want to surrender the reins. "At first," he says, "I was only going to do the first one or two and work with another director, or two other directors. But then I thought, 'Well, why don't you do it?' I felt like I would be abandoning the project, the cast, the crew, if I walked away.
"It's tough, it's long, but it's doable. I've now done it twice, and I loved it." He also won his first Emmy as a result, taking home the trophy for Outstanding Directing of a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special (and his second, as executive producer, when Big Little Lies was named Outstanding Limited Series).
Kidman had more faith than he did that his job would expand. "We were hoping for a single director," she says. "We got lucky, because Jean-Marc could feel the material so strongly. We knew once he took hold of it, he'd want to do all seven."
For Neil Gaiman, the directing decision evolved from a solemn vow. Thirty years ago, Gaiman — considered something of a deity by fans of his comic books and science fiction and fantasy novels that cover mythology, history and the unknown — teamed with author Terry Pratchett to write the fantasy-comedy novel Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.
When Pratchett was dying of Alzheimer's, Gaiman promised him that he would make sure the book was adapted into a film or limited series. Pratchett died in 2015, and Gaiman set about adapting the book himself. Once it was done and Amazon Studios was on board to produce the six-episode series, he insisted that he work with only one director. That's how he ended up with BBC veteran Douglas Mackinnon.
"The idea of working with more than one person, having to explain what I wanted and getting on the same page more than once, was not something that interested me at all," Gaiman says. "There's also this: working with Terry was a unique partnership that allowed me to write something together with someone I respected. This experience, turning it into a TV show, with a single director, was similar."
Of course, not every A-lister is following the trend. Consider John Wells . Having been a showrunner on megahits like ER and The West Wing, he now runs Showtime's Shameless, which just wrapped season nine. He understands the idea that one director offers a visual continuity and singular fabric that multiple directors might not, but he maintains that's only effective in specific circumstances.
"I think it depends on what you're doing," Wells says. "Usually, when there's a single director, [the scripts are] written in advance and you're cross-boarding, with overlapping locations and actors who are coming in, based on the financial aspects and requirements of the piece. They get written and boarded as a huge movie, or a miniseries of 20 years ago. That's when that works best."
With its 12-episode seasons, Shameless could work with a single director, but Wells employs several throughout the show's run to vary the perspectives and interpretations. "For us, the shows have an ongoing serialized version where we are learning as we go, and we haven't written them all in advance," he continues. "For example, Homecoming was written all in advance, and that is a smart way to do it.
"Personally, though, I like having different voices in the writing of the piece, and different visual contributions in the way people shoot it," he says. "I think it makes it a little richer. Just as I don't want to write every episode myself, because I want to hear what other writers have to say, I think those additional voices bring a great deal."
Similarly, Peter Gould, cocreator and showrunner of AMC's Better Call Saul, prefers a rotation of directors who can bring new ideas, angles and interpretations to an established group of characters.
"We've benefited from our approach in that we get so many fresh and different points of view," he says. "It may seem like the show is very consistent, but from my perspective, you see that each director is bringing their own artistic point of view. It's kind of magic."
There's also the physical aspect: not everyone is made for that kind of arduous cinematic journey. "I can absolutely see advantages to having a single director for a single season," Gould says, "though I don't understand how folks can physically do this. To direct 100 to 200 days in a row — and how it gets prepped — it's a mystery to me."
Marti Noxon can relate. A writer-producer-creator whose credits include Lifetime's UnREAL, Bravo's The Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce and AMC's Dietland, she loved working with Vallée on Sharp Objects.
Still, she remains a staunch supporter of the multiple-director method. "I didn't have a strong bias toward a single director, but Jean-Marc was just coming off Big Little Lies, and it was his preferred way of working," she explains. "Amy was also really excited about working with him, so that made the decision easier. Who was I to argue with that?
"Once he said he wanted to do all of them, it wasn't even a conversation anymore."
Yet she makes a good case for varying the roster. "I happen to love when new directors come into the mix and push you in new directions. Also, as an advocate for diversity, we had eight of our 10 Dietland episodes directed by women. From a business standpoint, it makes more sense to bring in different people with different ideas."
Sometimes, though, directors bring themselves to a project. Korean auteur Park Chan-wook had fallen in love with John le Carré's 1983 spy novel The Little Drummer Girl, so when he heard AMC was adapting it into a limited series, he expressed interest in helming it.
The network jumped at the chance to work with him and then sought out Michael Lesslie, who had written several movies but no TV. He ended up writing four of the six episodes.
"The miniseries format allows a director with a single vision to explore an idea and a story in a way that film no longer does," says Lesslie, also an executive producer of Drummer Girl. "Coming on board a project where there is already a director with a true vision, it becomes an incredible collaboration. Everything is put together in concert with that vision, and it's remarkably fulfilling."
Greg Yaitanes knows that feeling. A 2008 Emmy winner for Fox's House, he has worked as a guest director and has also helmed entire seasons.
He was an executive producer and regular director of Cinemax's Banshee and then directed all eight episodes of Quarry for the network in 2016. He's also one of the few to have directed whole projects more than once. He directed the three-episode series Children of Dune for Syfy in 2003 and then the eight episodes of Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber in 2017. He understands both sides.
"It's all dependent on the material," he says. "I had two great experiences where the airdate was far enough away and we had enough material to get going. When you don't have the material to support it, you're asking for trouble."
He'd much rather oversee an entire season, he says. "It's hard now, because I feel like I'm just hitting my stride when we wrap a single episode. Thirty, 40, 50, 60 days in, you start to get a sort of runner's high, and everyone's plugged in to everyone. There's this continuity, and you come to count on people around you, because you need to have everyone's back.
"It's also more collaborative and creates a nice bond with everyone on set."
The bonds forged on set of the Amazon limited series The Romanoffs had to be continually reforged as the anthology leaped across foreign locations and assembled new casts.
For creator–executive producer Matthew Weiner, directing all eight episodes of The Romanoffs presented a unique opportunity to oversee an enormous project of his own making — an anthology of loosely related but very discrete hourlong stories. So he grabbed it.
"It has something to do with the structure of TV," says Weiner, who has won nine Emmy Awards as a writer-producer, including seven for his seminal AMC drama, Mad Men. "As an executive producer, I was going to have to be everywhere anyway — that's just how I am. I was going to have to travel to oversee things, and I had planned to direct a few of them.
"At a certain point, when so much of the producing overlapped with the directing, it just became clear that I was either going to have to let go of some of this stuff, or I was going to have to take over the directing of all of them," he recalls. "It was a creative reason, primarily, but it was also an expediency issue. It was a combination of the creative and the practical."
Weiner adds with a laugh: "I think I'm lying on some level, because it was really a creative urge that [led me to ask], 'Can we support it with practical reasons?' It was a joy to go through. Changing into a new story every three or four weeks, that's very difficult to do from a writing perspective, but incredibly exciting from a directing perspective."
Looking back, Ben Stiller didn't realize he was part of a trend.
"Though I know Cary Fukunaga did it very well on True Detective, it wasn't something I was tapping into," he says. "For me, the story and the material excited me. If there was a two-hour version of that story, I would have explored that, but the reality was that this story worked for this format, so it was just me following my excitement for the material. It had nothing to do with anything larger than that."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2019