DGA Movies for Television Award nominee Jeff Bleckner, moderator Mick Garris and nominee Jane Anderson.

Meet the Nominees: Movies for Television

56th Annual DGA Awards
This year's nominees for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television — Jane Anderson for Normal; Jeff Bleckner for Meredith Willson's The Music Man; Rod Holcomb for The Pentagon Papers; Richard Loncraine for My House in Umbria; and Mike Nichols' ambitious, six-hour adaptation of the Tony Kushner play, Angels in America — provide persuasive evidence that compelling work and diverse subject matter is alive and well in movies for television.

The recent "Meet the Movies for Television Nominees" symposium carried the tagline "Directors Taking Chances" for a reason as DGA Secretary Treasurer Gil Cates, who welcomed attendees and panelists, explained: "Directors who take chances are not afraid of controversy, not afraid to invent or reinvent, not afraid to get up close and personal, very personal. The directors you will hear shortly will most likely skip over the constraints of making movies for television and tell you instead about the rewards of their being able to push the envelope and to experiment."

Moderator and director Mick Garris, whose longform work includes such Stephen King miniseries as The Stand and The Shining, concurred with Cates, adding, "This is all about taking chances. I think you'll agree that all five of these [nominated] films are unconventional films, even when it comes to an iconic musical like The Music Man, it's not what you would expect for television. It's especially such a grand production."

Current nominee Jeff Bleckner concurred with Garris' assessment. "I had never attempted to direct a musical before," he says, "and that may have worked to my advantage in that I had no idea how difficult it was, going in. After I'd agreed to do it, I went and watched the 1962 movie version and I completely freaked out. It was like, 'Oh my God! What have I done?' But I made it work because I accepted that I was entering a world of true collaboration. In a musical, collaboration is what it's all about. That, and prep."

The Music Man, Angels in America and Normal emerged from stage plays. Nominee Jane Anderson, who wrote and directed Normal as an adaptation of her play Looking for Normal — about a midwestern couple and the husband's desire to undergo a sex change operation — called the act of adapting it for film "hard. Theater is a very literary medium. It's a medium of dialogue. Film is a moving, visual kind of medium. And those can obviously clash... My actors would insist that I cut lines. Tom (Wilkinson) would say, 'You know, Jane, this can be taken care of with a look.'"

What Anderson didn't love quite so much about directing Normal was the painfully short production schedule. She had a mere three weeks of prep and 30 days to shoot, which she admits was "dreadful."

The logistical challenges were perhaps even greater for Bleckner in adapting The Music Man to the constraints of a network television time frame and budget. He told the audience gathered at the DGA Theater, "We had six weeks of rehearsal to get down 23 musical numbers. And we were barred by agreement from changing even a single word of dialogue."

On top of this, Bleckner had to replace his Canadian AD, because he wasn't getting the job done, after a week of shooting and fight to get a DGA AD.

The packed house gave Bleckner a round of applause as he detailed the event. "My good friend and wonderful 1st AD Richard Schroer got his permit and he was up there and literally saved the show. What he did on no prep, coming into a huge, huge production was astounding. When you see what he did contrasted like that with people who are working there, who couldn't figure out how to get one group of people who were called for a number and have another group of people come later for wardrobe. Richard did a remarkable job."

Meanwhile, Richard Loncraine — nominated last year for a DGA Award for his HBO film The Gathering Storm — endured his own logistical challenges in trying to reinvent old Italy for My House in Umbria. He noted comments taped specially for the DGA event. "We had to create an Italy that is perhaps no longer there. The railway station we use in the film had been abandoned for 25 years. The olive trees that you see in the movie are 750 years old. There once was a time when there were thousands of them. But that's no longer the case. So one of the challenges clearly surrounded enacting some fanciful visual re-creation."

Moderator Mick Garris stressed that the market for Movies for Television surely isn't what it once was and blames the advent of reality programming at the networks for the down cycle. "But cable is doing its part to keep the longform ball rolling," he says.

Indeed, there are a plethora of cable networks making original films in both the premium (HBO, Showtime) and basic (USA Network, TNT, Lifetime, A&E, FX, Hallmark Channel, Sci-Fi Channel and others).

Nonetheless, a trio of cable executives contacted for this story expressed unflagging support for the Movie for Television genre. Gerard Bocaccio, FX's senior vice president for entertainment, stressed how proud the network was of Holcomb's DGA nod and noted that FX remains committed to doing four original movies a year, along with a six-hour limited series.

"Longform is definitely a part of the plan for our network," Bocaccio says. "Our movies have clearly been credited for launching FX in terms of our profile, which led to shows like The Shield and Nip/Tuck emerging. And we'll spend $6 million on a movie if it makes sense from a standpoint of talent, production and location."

Jeff Wachtel, USA Network's executive vice president for original scripted programming, concurs that the commitment to movies for television hasn't changed even if the approach to them and the market for them appear to have evolved.

"There's no doubt that Movies for Television are a troubled genre," Wachtel notes. "But there is still a place for specific and/or highly promotable 'one-shots.' What we're trying to do is focus on the projects that will create a dialogue outside of television, stir things up, bring in new audience, maybe even win a couple of awards. We are doing fewer movies, but better."

While Showtime has greatly reduced its number of made-fors from a high of 45 and 50 a year in the late 1990s to six or eight annually, its president, Robert Greenblatt, maintains, "TV movies are still very important to us and remain a programming staple. There may not be as many, but they're an important part of what we offer. We look for them now to be big events and really extraordinary. And we still have much more latitude in the kinds of things we'll do than the networks."

DGA's Movies for Television Host Committee member and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Frank Pierson has directed such movies for television as Citizen Cohn and Conspiracy (2001 DGA Award winner) and finds that the huge budgets of features tend to have a crushing effect on creativity "because there's so much money on the line you become risk-averse. On the other hand, TV is a wonderful place to work for all reasons. It isn't that there's no pressure. There's plenty of it surrounding both time and budget. But I like pressure. I believe in stress. It makes you better. And for a lot of us not in the mainstream of theatrical motion pictures, cable in particular is a great place to work."

Director Mick Jackson, Host Committee member and a three-time DGA Award winner Live From Baghdad (2002), Tuesdays with Morrie (2000) and Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1996), admits unabashedly, "I love the TV movie market. I'm a kind of passionate evangelist for it. It turns me on. I mean, you get to do real issues — and you get less time than it's possibly human to make a movie in. And that's energizing. It focuses your mind. You know, panic is energizing. Fear is a great creative factor. When you're on a feature set, you wind up waiting all day for the lead actor to show up and maybe get a few setups in if you're lucky. You can't do that in TV. You can't even sit down. All you ever hear on a TV movie set is, 'We're doing it now.'"

Jackson compares much of what's being done in cable longform to guerrilla indie filmmaking. "And really, features and TV movies now inform one another," Jackson believes. "You can go back and forth between directing the two fairly seamlessly."

DGA Movies for Television Committee Chair Robert Markowitz, who was nominated for the Movie for Television DGA Award in 1996 for helming The Tuskegee Airmen, agrees. "There are a lot fewer walls and more doors now for directors between big screen movies and small screen," he says. "What TV movies have always done well, and will continue to do well, is tell people in this country the story of their lives. Whether it's something as current as Jessica Lynch or Elizabeth Smart, or something even more significant in its breadth like Angels in America, the Movie for Television continues to be a great prism through which to tell stories."