Can TV Showrunners Become Cinematic Visionaries?

AMC's Mad Men

by HakSnider33
Ever since HBO’s groundbreaking series The Sopranos changed the television landscape forever with its debut in 1999, the cable television drama has rapidly developed into a vital art form that has, in many ways, stolen a substantial amount of thunder from the Hollywood motion picture industry. Cable television series, such as Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Wire, have deservedly received critical acclaim, while pushing the envelope of cinematic storytelling. Among the most influential of the series currently airing is AMC’s Mad Men, a dramatic series created by showrunner Matthew Weiner. With its unique brand of dark, edgy drama and black comedy, Mad Men has made an indelible mark on pop culture, both in terms of fashion (the return of the 60’s) and the creation of new stars, such as Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks.

However, Weiner will make his feature film directorial debut in 2013 with You Are Here, which will star Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson and Amy Poehler. Will Weiner’s skills translate from television to the big screen and can a visionary TV creator/showrunner become a visionary feature film director?

Before analyzing Weiner’s filmmaking skill set and potential to achieve visionary status as a film director, let us first take a look at the track record of television showrunners who have made the transition to feature filmmaking in a directorial capacity. Top-of-the-food-chain television visionaries, such as David Milch (Deadwood) and David Chase (The Sopranos), have not yet made this jump (although Chase recently directed Not Fade Away, a feature that will be released this fall). However, J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon are two highly successful network television creator/showrunners who have been able to transition between the worlds of film and television. An analysis of their careers may shed some light on what it takes to make the TV-to-film transition.

I. Joss Whedon Case Study
II. J.J. Abrams Case Study
III. Analysis of Matthew Weiner as Writer/Director
IV. Conclusion


I.  Joss Whedon

Joss WhedonThe creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly has never successfully replicated his television success on the big screen. Although I would not go as far as to say that Whedon is a true television visionary, Buffy succeeded for several seasons as a genre-bending hit, combining horror, action, comedy and teen drama in a beautifully written and produced package. The series also demonstrated Whedon’s ability to create a very rich original mythology and universe (“The Whedonverse”).

His most successful feature film Serenity, which was the film follow-up to his short-lived cult classic series Firefly, earned just under $40 million at the box office. However, Marvel Studios is betting big that his knowledge of the comic book medium and his success as a television creator will translate to great success as the director of the upcoming mega-blockbuster film The Avengers. Although it appears very risky to entrust a $260 million budget to a director with such an unproven track record of big budget success, Marvel has been spot-on with almost all of their recent directorial choices…well, aside from Louis Leterrier, that is.


II.  J.J. Abrams

JJ AbramsAlthough most of his success has come as an executive producer, J.J. Abrams has also successfully co-created original television series such as Felicity, Alias, Lost and Fringe. Known mainly as a screenwriter, Abrams made his film debut in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III, a relatively unremarkable sequel very loosely based on the television series.

In 2009, Abrams hit the cinematic equivalent of a home run by executing flawlessly with his film Star Trek, a massive financial and critical success. His follow-up film, the 2011 Spielberg-ian Super 8, failed to meet the lofty expectations placed on it, but it displayed evidence of Abrams’ talent as a filmmaker able and willing to work effectively within the expansive canvas provided by big budget filmmaking.

As both the co-creator of numerous successful television series, including the landmark science fiction hit Lost, and an accomplished director of big budget features, Abrams has come the closest to demonstrating that a TV showrunner can become a cinematic visionary. However, he will need to direct a few more exceptional feature films, on par with the excellent Star Trek, in order to achieve true visionary status as a feature filmmaker.


III.  Analysis of Matthew Weiner as Writer/Director

Weiner unquestionably possesses the writing ability to smoothly transition into the world of feature films. However, we need to also examine his skills as a director in order to more completely analyze his potential to become a visionary film director. In order to do so, we will break down a few scenes from the final episode of season one of Mad Men, an episode titled “The Wheel.” I chose this episode because it was written and directed by Weiner.

Although the episode is best known for a scene where Don Draper makes his pitch to a bunch of ‘suits’ from Kodak, we will focus on two scenes involving the Peggy Olson character, played by the wonderful Elisabeth Moss. Peggy Olson has rapidly developed into one of the most memorable characters on television as she has made her ascent from naive secretary to upwardly mobile copywriter at the fictional 1960’s ad agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

In the following two scenes, Peggy and her colleague Ken Cosgrove, an account executive at the agency, review actresses for a commercial for the “Relax-a-Cizor”, a device purportedly designed for use as a weight-loss device by women. Of course the device, a belt-like contraption, contains vibrating properties that make it useful for other purposes as well.

Ken Cosgrove and Peggy Olson

INT. STERLING COOPER - ENGTNEER'S BOOTH - (DAY 2)
PEGGY, Ken and an engineer, TODD, 20's, sits behind them.
There is a board of sliders and buttons, they look through a
window into an adjacent recording studio. Inside stand
NORMA, 20's and plain, ANNIE, 20's and a classic beauty, and
RITA, 30's, zaftig. The women stand in a line facing the
booth. A ribbon microphone on a stand before them.

In this shot, we see the three actresses behind the glass as they are reviewed and given directions by Peggy and Ken. Note the reflections of both Peggy’s and Ken’s faces on the glass.

                      RITA
                (reads)
       "I never thought it would happen to
       me, but I regained my youth and my
       happiness.  Just ask my husband.  I
       swear, he looks at me like the
       night we met."

                      PEGGY
                 (to Todd)
       Todd?

Todd turns down the monitor.

                      PEGGY (CONT'D)
       I think we're both going to agree
       on Annie.

                      KEN
       Which one is Annie?
           (smiles off Peggy's look)
       Believe it or not, I like Rita.
       Older or not, she's got that voice.
       It's randy and knowing.  Like the
       Relax-a-Cizor.  Annie belongs on TV
       with Rita's voice dubbed in.

Surprisingly, Ken goes against the fratboy-ish mentality that the young male executives at the firm are known for, and expresses a preference for the older and less attractive actress.

                      PEGGY (CONT'D)
                (to Ken)
       First of all, women don't want to
       be seduced by another woman.

                      KEN
       What about the product?  It makes
       you all sexed up, right?

                      PEGGY
       Whatever the special properties of
       the Relax-a-Cizor are, what we are
       selling is confidence.  A better
       you.  That woman is not a better
       anything.  Annie is confident
       beautiful woman.  You could hear it
       in her voice.

Peggy has learned throughout season one to equate confidence with attractiveness. Hiding her pregnancy, which was the result of a one-night-stand with a co-worker, Peggy has gained weight that has made her less attractive to men, making the correlation even more salient in her mind. Furthermore, the halo effect brought on by what Peggy perceives as beauty leads her to hear Annie’s voice as sounding more confident than Rita’s, despite Ken’s comments to the contrary.

                      KEN (CONT'D)
                (to Peggy)
       If I get a hard time about this,
       I'm telling people it was your
       idea.

                      PEGGY
       It was my idea.

Peggy, despite feeling very unattractive herself, demonstrates confidence by standing behind her decision to go with Annie to end this first scene.

In the second scene, we return to the studio a day later and see Annie (the attractive actress selected by Peggy) reading for Peggy and Ken. In the screenshot below, note that as in the previous scene, we see Peggy and Ken as reflections on the glass.

                      ANNIE
              (through monitors, sweet)
       Now?  "I never thought it would
       happen to me, but I regained my
       youth and my happiness.  Just ask
       my husband.  I swear, he looks at
       me like the night we met."

                     PEGGY
               (presses the button)
       Annie, I'm sorry.  We have to set a
       level here.

                     KEN
       No we don't.

                     PEGGY
       She doesn't sound very confident.

                     KEN
       She just started.  Give her a
       direction.

                     PEGGY
                (presses button)
       Okay, Annie.  Confidence.  Okay?

Peggy’s feedback has done nothing to improve Annie’s performance and has become visibly frustrated. Note that this time the camera is focused on Peggy and we see Annie’s reflection in the glass.

                      PEGGY
              (presses the button)
       Annie?

                      ANNIE
       Yes?

                      PEGGY
              (presses the button)
       Are you married?

                      ANNIE
       No.

                      KEN
       I could have told you that.

                      PEGGY
              (presses button)
       Well try and imagine you're you,
       Annie.  And now you have
       everything.  You are beautiful.
       You are slim.  You are the beloved
       prize of a handsome man.  You have
       everything when you use the Relax-a-
       Cizor.

In this exchange, Peggy reiterates her belief that beauty equals confidence and also expresses the 1960’s notion that a woman can only achieve true happiness by becoming a prized wife. As a career woman striving for professional success in a man’s world, this belief is the polar opposite of what Peggy has worked towards, but that does not mean the belief is not still ingrained in her mind.

Peggy’s direction has failed once again. Annie’s performance becomes a very unnatural caricature of what a confident person should sound like.

                      PEGGY
              (presses the button)
       Hold on, we have a problem with the
       the tape recorder.
          (to Ken)
       She's not convincing.  She doesn't
       believe it.

                      KEN
       She sounds just like the audition
       to me. She might look a little
       better.

                      PEGGY
       Say something to her.  Make her
       feel beautiful.  You know that
       confidence that comes with beauty?

                      KEN
       Pegs, a woman who looks like that
       will never sound confident, because
       she never is confident.

Ken states what many pickup artists claim – that the most attractive women are the most insecure and vulnerable prey for their antics. This of course, once again, goes completely against what Peggy believes is true.

Undeterred and determined to make it all work, Peggy tries again to give Annie direction.

                      PEGGY
              (presses the button)
       I'm sorry.  Annie.
              (Annie nods)
       How do you feel right now?

                      ANNIE
       Nervous.

                      PEGGY
                (presses button)
       No, not you.  The woman who is
       talking.  You're married.  Eight
       wonderful years.

                      PEGGY (CONT'D)
       Maybe you put on a few pounds, but
       then you got the Relax-a-Cizor, and
       now you're back to being you.
       Right now.

                      ANNIE
       I don't know if I understand.

                     KEN
       Nice work, Lee Strasberg. 

                    PEGGY
               (presses button)
       Annie.  What don't you understand?

                    ANNIE
       I am being me.  Are you cross?
       Give me a second, I'll get it the
       way you want it.

In this exchange, Peggy overtly expresses her subconscious inner belief that if she were thin and beautiful like Annie, instead of secretly pregnant and heavy, she would feel much more secure and confident. Of course, Peggy’s direction only serves to confuse and fluster a teary-eyed Annie even further. I really appreciate how Weiner chooses to conclude this exchange, with Annie stating, “I am being me.”

                      PEGGY
              (through speakers)
       This is not working out.  We're
       going to have to let you go.

Annie covers her eyes with her hand as she really cries. She
gets her things and exits.

INT. STERLING COOPER - ENGINEER'S BOOTH - SAME DAY (Day 3)

Peggy sits there, shrugs.  Ken looks at her 

                      KEN
       You know, you could have gone in
       there and said that.

                      PEGGY
                (closes her eyes)
       In this order, I want you to go
       after her and console her.  Then,
       after you make plans, or whatever
       you need to do, I want you to call
       Rita -- the older lady you liked?
       She's probably home with the Relax-
       a-Cizor right now.

                      PEGGY (CONT'D)
                 (looks at her watch)
       Get her in here in the next forty
       minutes, the job is hers.

This commercial was Peggy’s first chance to prove that she could handle the responsibilities of a copywriter and hence, she swallows her pride and admits that she was wrong to choose the younger and more beautiful actress over the older one. The cold manner with which she treats Annie marks a turning point in Peggy’s character, as for the first time, she displays cold ruthlessness to rival her male counterparts in the corporate setting. Throughout the scene, Peggy had demonstrated the confidence that she erroneously attributed to Annie during the first scene, solely based on physical appearance. Upon the conclusion of the second scene, Peggy finally realizes what she truly wants – professional success – and gains a better understanding of how to achieve it.

Weiner packed both of these scenes with easily understandable dialogue, but also included a great deal of subtext related to social commentary and character development. Furthermore, this beautiful writing is greatly enhanced by the effective visuals, especially the artful use of reflections to enhance the two-shots and closeups. Through usage of these reflections, Weiner was able to include reaction shots without the use of editing, making both scenes feel much more fluid.

For further evidence of Weiner’s ability as a director, take a look at this scene from the same episode where Joan (Christina Hendricks), who taught Peggy many of the since-disproved notions about beauty, takes Peggy to her new office as a copywriter.


IV.  Conclusion

Weiner has proven with his work on Mad Men and The Sopranos that he possesses the tool set to become a visionary auteur. The impact of these series has been undeniable and nothing in his track record suggests that the skills he has displayed working in the world of cable television will not translate to the making of feature films. Whether or not we would be better off if he stayed in the world of cable television creating more groundbreaking series like Mad Men, instead of directing features, is perhaps the more intriguing question.

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5 comments

  1. Late Night · April 6, 2012

    Let me get this out of the way: I am anti-television. It’s a long story that will have to be explained over numerous comments and articles, but suffice it to say that I’m no fan of Mad Men, despite its popularity and cache of awards. There is a distinct difference in writing for shows that run on HBO versus shows that run on advertiser-supported cable channels: when the writer/producers are faced with interrupting their narratives with commercial breaks, they have to structure the story with mini-cliff-hangers and other tricks to make sure the viewers return to the program after they finish fast-forwarding or channel-surfing through the break. This type of artifice is not necessary in features (or HBO).

    I will allow that some film makers are creating great art for television, and the scene discussed above was filmed in a way that was creative and revealing. But I’d have to see more before I am ready to consider Weiner a visionary.

  2. Mr Ridley · April 8, 2012

    HakSnider33, great article and a very strong detailed example of character revelation to consider, but I’m with Late Nite on this. Television is not feature film – not even close. Of course, the mediums share much, but the lack of successful transitions to date is telling. It’s much more likely that feature film directors will do a “guest spot” on a high profile television series (than vice versa).

    Admittedly, Weiner is talented – I wish him only success.

    Although we have not yet seen his first film, You are Here is listed as a comedy and described as a “coming-of-age movie, but for grown-ass men.” I’m just not sure this will be the vehicle to establish his appeal as a visionary filmmaker. As they say, stay tuned.

  3. Pingback: The Cabin in the Woods… out with the old (school), in with the new (genre mashup)? « VOH
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    • Late Night · March 14, 2014

      No. You must remain with us forever. Bwah-hah-hah.

      Seriously?

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