By CHRIS STANTON
In 2013, Steven Soderbergh retired from filmmaking. The news came as both a shock to many, as the then 50 year-old — a relative youngster amongst established Hollywood directors — had just completed a prolific hot streak that saw the release of four well-received films (Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects) in the span of two years. A critically lauded wunderkind, Soderbergh has earned a unique respect over the years for his technical mastery in all aspects of filmmaking. Equally talented as a cinematographer, writer, producer and director, Soderbergh famously competed against himself for the Best Director statue at the Oscars in 2000 (his work on Traffic won out over Erin Brockovich). As the textbook example of a visionary filmmaker in modern Hollywood, what does Soderbergh’s departure suggest for the changing shape of the industry?
To clarify, Soderbergh has only retired from the mainstream studio arena, and has publicly vowed never to make another Hollywood-produced movie until the industry is less “fear-based in its decision-making.” He has since switched his focus to television, directing HBO’s Liberace film Behind the Candelabra, as well as Cinemax’s 10-episode series The Knick. In other words, his work ethic has hardly diminished. Yet while he receives well-earned credit as a trailblazer in other ventures, Soderbergh’s move into television represents only the latest in the trend of high-profile directorial talent flowing freely between T.V. and film.
There’s a general consensus amidst critics and audiences alike that we are living in a New Golden Age for television. Starting around 2000, the era is defined partially by the sheer amount of content, as well as focus on long-form storytelling, the prominence of “showrunners” (show creators who often serve as director, producer, screenwriter and ditor) and the recurrence of certain thematic tropes. By now, you might be familiar with names like David Simon (The Wire), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men). If not, you know their muses: Jim McNulty, Walter White, Don Draper — charismatic, morally ambiguous men struggling with (mis)conceptions of the American Dream. Each of these shows has a refined aesthetic and creative cohesion that’s relatively new to the medium.
Not only is this amount of individual authorship unheard of in television, some would argue it’s becoming unique to it. As far as on-set reports and interviews go, it seems that each of these showrunners (along with their writing staffs) held vast creative control of their shows for the entire five to ten years of production. In contrast, Hollywood studios frequently shut down month-long film shoots over “creative differences” with the directors they hire. Fear-based decision-making, indeed.
“This is really auteur T.V.,” Soderbergh recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s like what I’m doing on The Knick, what Cary Fukunaga did on True Detective. One filmmaker doing the whole thing — there’s unification that comes with that [and you] can’t do it any other way.”
Soderbergh’s invocation of auteur theory opens a whole can of worms to pretentious critical analysis, but it certainly accounts for the number of high-profile directors foraying into television at the moment. Until recently, David Fincher (Fight Club, Social Network) — who already serves as executive producer and occasional episode director on House of Cards —was in talks to develop not one, but two new shows over at HBO. His initial involvement with season one of House of Cards, before it became the ratings behemoth that it is today, was to grant Netflix some legitimacy as a creator of original content. Fincher toured with the show, doing speaking engagements across the country to build anticipation and help Netflix’s big bet pay off. It was a ploy, really, designed to capitalize on the prestige of the Fincher brand. The tables have turned, as big-name movie directors are now pitching their show ideas to networks, hoping to prove themselves in this new arena.
Ideal conditions may have ignited our current Golden Age of Television, but the enduring appeals of films and filmmaking will always drive the cycle back toward Hollywood. The first Golden Age of television began soon after the device’s popularization, reaching a peak in the 1950s. While that content was wildly popular at the time, the era’s enduring legacy is as a training ground for some of Hollywood’s iconic writers and directors — Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen and Paddy Chayefsky, to name a few. Studio filmmaking is undoubtedly in need of revamping, but the creative flow between T.V. and movies will inevitably, eventually reverse.
In the end, the lasting effect of this cross-pollination of talent may be its contribution to the death of decade-long T.V. shows. Viewers crave the instant gratification of binge-watching, and the time crunch of that demand caters well to the expected work schedules of a film director. Guys like Soderbergh and Fincher may see the appeal in taking six months to direct a ten-episode single season, but it’s hard to imagine them setting aside ten years to craft a Mad Men.
Chris Stanton is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Really Terrible and Such Small Portions! appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.