When Movie Directors Do TV

TV used to be the medium that film types looked down on as a lesser sibling.

But in the last decade or so, it has matured into a place for some of the more exciting creative work - and even before then could sometimes attract big name talent.

We thought we'd take a look at some of the megaphone-wavers who made the leap back for an episode or two - including some who created entire shows and one who switches easily between the worlds of cinema and telly...

Quentin Tarantino

The Show: CSI

TheKey Episode: Grave Danger (Season 5, May 2005)

While QT had motor-mouthed his way into a gig on a favourite TV show before (he called the shots for ER's episode Motherhood back in 1995), CSI was a driving passion for him.

Working from a story by the man himself, the writing staff concocted a tale of CSI team member Nick Stokes (George Eads) getting kidnapped and buried alive in a coffin.

The Trademark Flourishes:
It's full of 'em. Not only does QT play around with different film formats (a nightmare scene of the show's coroners happily slicing into Nick is shot in black and white), it's also bloody, frenzied and loaded with the close-ups that are all over his regular work.

And keeping with the director's love of pop culture, the episode has cameos from Tony Curtis and the original TV Batman Riddler, Frank Gorshin.

Not to mention that it has a huge link to Kill Bill with the buried alive plot, though The Bride didn't have the advantage of a webcam in the coffin to help people find her - she had to scrape her way out.

Finally, the episode's two parts were broken up into Volumes One and Two. Yeah, they went there.

Next: JJ Abrams


JJ Abrams

The Show: Alias/Lost

TheKey Episode: Truth Be Told (Alias, Season One, September 2001), Pilot (Lost, Season One, September 2004)

Abrams is an anomaly among the names on our list, as he got a truly solid start in TV (yeah, Spielberg did some TV work, but he was a director-for-hire and quickly jumped to the big screen).

JJ created shows like Felicity and Alias and helped Lost, and launching them both by directing their pilots. Alias he stayed around to guide more, but by the time of Lost, he was getting busier with films.

The Trademark Flourishes: It's actually truer to say that his flourishes were born in TV, which is a point some of his critics make when they say movies such as M:I:III look like shows.

But he knows how to craft a suspenseful action sequence blended with emotional stakes that he brought over from the Jennifer Garner-starring show to Mission: Impossible.

He's also adept and handling big casts - which meant that he could juggle the hefty Star Trek ensemble and still give them all screen time without the pic overbalancing.

And he loves big, red mysterious balls of matter - see Alias' pilot and Trek's planet gobbler...

Next: Steven Spielberg


Steven Spielberg

The Show: Amazing Stories

TheKey Episode: Ghost Train (Season One, September 1985)

These days, The Beard is still involved with TV, though mostly as a producer on miniseries like Band Of Brothers and upcoming companion piece The Pacific.

But back in the '80s, when he'd struck it big with the likes of Close Encounters and Jaws, he helped make Amazing Stories, paying tribute to the medium that nurtured his young brain.

Writing several episodes and directing a couple, he was a big presence on the show, even when he wasn't directly involved.

The Trademark Flourishes:
He brought the series to life with Ghost Train, the tale of an old man terrified of the past, worried that locomotive will come careening though the family home after he caused one to crash years ago.

The Spielberg touches are clear - nostalgia and family meets fantasy and wonder.

And with ET cinematographer Allen Daviau on board, the show is brimming with the director's warmth, glow and gloss '80s style of filmmaking, all underscored by John Williams' lyrical music work.

Next: Peter Berg


Peter Berg

The Show:
Friday Night Lights

TheKey Episode: Pilot (Season One, October 2006)

Berg brought over the basic plot of his 2004 movie and expanded it to fill the first few episodes of the small-town American football show.

It didn't hurt that he also brought the awesome Connie Britton to play the coach's wife, either.

And while he got his start as an actor on TV, it also served to kick-start his helming career, having crafted an episode of hospital drama Chicago Hope.

The Trademark Flourishes:
The staples of the show evolved from the movie and some of Berg's style - urgent, nervy handheld work that give it a realistic, near docu-drama feel without talking heads.

Berg also has a good ear for actors that can deliver dialogue naturalistically, a talent he occasionally uses on the big screen.

Next: Barry Sonnenfeld


Barry Sonnenfeld

The Show: Pushing Daisies

TheKey Episode:
Pie-lette (Season One, October 2007)

Sonnenfeld worked with prolific TV writer/producer Bryan Fuller to forge this quirksome story of a man who can bring the dead back to life with just a touch - but only for a minute, or someone/thing else must die in its place.

Unfortunately, while the show proved to be a critical darling, it got slaughtered in the ratings and earned just two seasons before its US network bosses put it down.

It wasn't his first crack at TV, either - he's been involved in the likes of short-lived series Maximum Bob, a new take on Fantasy Island and the one we miss most of all, the live-action version of comedy superhero The Tick.

The Trademark Flourishes:
Did we say quirksome? Yeah, Sonnenfeld's love for a charmingly warped story is fully in place here, blended with a slight death obsession (not shocking from a man who loved making The Addams Family films).

Off-kilter camera angles? Check? Abundance of fantastical CGI? Check? Lovable but offbeat characters? Checkaroonie. We still wish it had gotten another season.

If only for Anna Friel's ultra-cute back-from-the-dead heroine.

Next: David Lynch


David Lynch

The Show: Twin Peaks

TheKey Episode: Pilot (Season One, April 1990)

Encouraged by his agent - and a friendship with writer Mark Frost - Lynch ditched his usual stance against doing TV and made a series based on his vision of America as seen in Blue Velvet.

The concept was that a seemingly normal girl next door was leading a double life that would result in her murder - and all the ramifications of the crime.

The Trademark Flourishes:
It's a simple, honest chronicle of hardworking folk in a small Americ.... Nah, we can't keep that up. It's twisted.

It's Lynch. Go figure. But his obsession with peeling away the layers of seemingly ordinary suburbia is in full effect, mixed with an investigation by suitably strange FBI Agent Dale Cooper (played by Velvet's Kyle MacLahlan).

When Peaks eventually sputtered out, Lynch took the plot back to the film world to wrap it up (in plastic) for Fire Walk With Me.

Next: Kevin Smith


Kevin Smith

The Show: Reaper

TheKey Episode:
Pilot (Season One, September 2007)

Film might be a director's medium, but TV belongs to writer/producers, so it's unusual for a helmer so used to control over his own output to switch back.

But Kevin Smith was tempted by the chance to direct someone else's work as he began to branch out (he's just made A Couple Of Dicks) based on a script he didn't write and also to try his hand at more effects work.

Reaper also spoke to his yappy slacker talents too - while it does follow a young man who discovers his parents have sold his soul to satan and now he must work for the devil, it's loaded with snappy dialogue.

He'd made one shot at TV before, too - the cancelled-too-soon Clerks cartoon series.

The Trademark Flourishes: Smith himself admits he hasn't been the world's most visual director, so this was another example of him stretching himself a little.

And co-star Tyler Labine was the perfect foil for his attention to comedy detail. Smith liked working with him so much, he scored him a small role in Zack & Miri Make A Porno.

But while he pulled off the required demonic events and stunts, it was still his ear for well-chewed chat that shone through and helped the show to land successfully on the air.

For two seasons, at least.

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.