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Directing – TV vs. Film

Dearbhla Walsh The Tudors 2009

Is there a significant difference between directing TV and film? For Film Ireland, Amanda Spencer talked to four directors with an experience of both, Dearbhla Walsh (The Tudors, Shameless), Daniel O’Hara (The Clinic, Skins), Ciaran Donnelly (The Tudors, George Gently), and Robert Quinn (Dead Bodies, The Clinic), and got their opinions, advice and preferences.

For budding directors, would you advise they set out their stall trying to make an initial break in film, or go the TV drama route?

Daniel O’Hara: I think for a director starting out, making short films is a great way to work in safe environment – but the next step is very tough. I got a break directing The Clinic. We need more long-running series like that, with producers who are brave enough to give new talent a chance.

Robert Quinn: TV would work for some and not for others. I think. What’s useful in TV is that you get to work on a wide range of things with a wide range of people very quickly and that’s been very helpful for me. I mean, if you were an auteur and couldn’t stand any other person’s opinion, I suspect TV wouldn’t be the place for you.

There’s a perception that the chief creative voice in film is the director, and in TV drama, it’s the writer who comes to prominence. Is that a fair perception?

Dearbhla Walsh: Irish and British TV drama are very producer-heavy, and very producer-driven because of the nature of getting something green-lit and getting the money. American TV drama is different in so far as the writer is king. I think film suffers in the same way as TV does in the sense that it needs to find an audience. I think often there’s a tradition, especially here, that it doesn’t particularly matter if films get an audience, which I think is an extraordinary indulgence. TV doesn’t have that arrogance. I think The Silence was a good example of that. In its writing and direction, it has its own clear voice. I do consider my role important and in my experience, which has been mostly in Britain, I find there is a deep respect and expectation for the director to bring something to it.

Daniel O’Hara: If the writer is also an executive producer, you should be very wary of changing any dialogue on set – it may come back to haunt you in the edit suite! I have been fortunate to have good relationships with writers who have given me great scripts. On George Gently, for example, Peter Flannery had no problem in principle with changing dialogue. He just wanted to be involved in that process, so that any changes were consistent with his script.

What is the future of drama? Big screen or small?

Dearbhla Walsh: I think a lot of American drama is proving something. Six Feet Under, Mad Men, The Sopranos; quality TV drama that attracts people from the film world. So, there isn’t the same snobbery about it there as here, particularly in Ireland, which is also why much of my career is in Britain. There is a set notion that there is a difference, that there must be a difference and why it’s important to keep the difference. From a director’s point of view, it’s about exercising ideas and storytelling. I suppose because there’s a higher turnover in television you get to hone those skills faster. Personally, I go through the exact same process on TV drama as I would with film. So, my interest in working in film would be to work on a broader canvas. I think the pain of the process can be similar in both, so it’s about how you hold onto your own through it all. I think the role of TV drama is massive in this country. There’s a need for it, and it has a responsibility to take chances. You have to take chances.

Daniel O'Hara on the set of 'Paddywhackery'

Daniel O’Hara on the set of Paddywhackery

Do you consider film and TV drama directing to be different disciplines?

Daniel O’Hara: You have to be aware of the medium that you’re working in and how it will be presented to the audience, but at the end of the day you’ve got a script, actors and a camera to tell a story! With TV drama you have to master the balancing act of delivering something that will satisfy producers and executives, while at the same time letting your own style come through. They will have their opinions but your style is the reason they hired you. You have a ‘brief’ but if you get too hung up on trying to please other people, your style will get lost.

In your experience of taking over a drama from another director, how much of a challenge is it to bring your style to it with established cast and crew?

Ciaran Donnelly: In the past I’ve sat into the driving seat of existing productions and driven my own way without rocking the boat. I try to make it my own. I call it evolving the show, not ‘changing it’. Everyone wants fresh ideas, new energy and improvements. The big mistake in TV for any director is to assume that what you’ve seen is what it should be. Talk with the producers and writers about your ideas. No one should be under the illusion that a TV series runs itself once it’s set up. It’s very easy for it to derail, lose its tone, its energy and become uninteresting. I had often found actors really engage with an energetic director who has the ability to develop their characters, freshen them up, dig for subtext and create new shots and approaches. The producers and audience will be thankful.

TV is an intense place, I try to bring something special to every episode I direct. It can be cruel and hard so you have to tame the machine and make it yours while you’re there. Also, TV directors make a lot more decisions every day than most film directors. You have less time to think so the mind needs to be sharp and tuned in, no fumbling or ‘what do you think?’ stuff. You have to know what you want and you also have to get it on time. Directing is many things and you have to tell the story you want to tell, message or not.

Given the difference in the pace of development, does film give more time to put your stamp on things?

Robert Quinn: I’ve heard this argument before. To be honest with you, both the films that I’ve shot have been shot in such a short period of time that I’d probably have had more time on a television shoot, anyway. I’ve got to say, I think the pace keeps you sharp. Most of my decisions are made in prep anyway and you try to be as prepared as possible for any shoot. I guess I don’t find the pace a difficulty. Certainly sometimes, when you’re trying to do something elaborate or tricky, it would be nicer to have more time in television, but that’s not the way it is. In film – on a bigger film, I guess – if you want to spend more time on a stunt or action sequence, you do have that time but that’s a luxury I haven’t yet had. You don’t get much time in rehearsal with TV, and certainly if you wanted to get into deep nuances, it would help. In television you rely on other professionals, camera people and the actors to be as like-minded as you. There’s a short-hand that needs to be developed very quickly.

Cinema versus TV, or are they mutually exclusive?

Robert Quinn: Nobody likes a good boxset and a glass of wine more than me. I also enjoy going to a darkened cinema and I think that’s an experience, that if it did die, it would be horrible. It’s a social thing that people need so I think there’s room for both. Absolutely.

Ciaran Donnelly on the set of Inspector George Gently

Ciaran Donnelly on the set of ‘Inspector George Gently’

The full interviews first appeared in Issue 132 of Film Ireland Magazine.