Genius on a sitcom? Vilmos Zsigmond shot to fame among cinephiles as Robert Altman's photographic accomplice on McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, two samples of the stylistic experimentation that the early 1970s allowed.
Zsigmond also worked with Altman on Images, with John Boorman on Deliverance, with Jerry Schatzberg on Scarecrow, with Steven Spielberg on The Sugarland Express, with Brian DePalma on Obsession and Blow Out, with Michael Cimino on The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate, and on and on. Through the decades, the films themselves may have become more (or less) commercial, but his standard of quality has remained high, if less distinctive than in years past.
So his name jumped out at me this week as the credits rolled on the pilot episode of The Mindy Project, a new sitcom from Mindy Kaling (The Office) that will begin its first-season run on September 25. The episode itself, filled with movie references, was amusing and showed promise that Kaling's sharp-tongued dialogue could work well on a weekly basis. But I watched it late at night -- U.S. viewers can see it on the Hulu streaming service -- and the visuals didn't really stand out as anything different than any other single-camera sitcom.
More than anything, the idea that Vilmos Zsigmond, of all people, would be shooting a sitcom, apparently his first foray into the format, startled me. Established thought patterns die hard, however, even in the current environment in which TV is increasingly recognized as a more-receptive arena for provocative adult dramas (and certain types of comedies) than the feature film world.
The changing environment may have made television a more welcoming place for adventuresome, independent-minded cinematographers and other filmmakers. But dating back to the live television era of the 1950s, directors have benefited from the small screen. John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, among numerous other directors, honed their craft before taking flight in narrative features; in more recent years, indie directors like Rian Johnson (Breaking Bad) and Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones) have done impressive work in episodic TV.
Indie directors have already gained experience working on limited budgets and tight shooting schedules, which makes them ideal for the demands of a weekly TV show. Granted that Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are not commonplace series, but they are still more restricted, budget- and timewise, than the average studio production. If the episodes turn out well, both the directors and the shows win.
In these two examples, everybody won. Johnson's season 3 episode, "Fly," made brilliant use of a single setting, and he returned this season for "Fifty-One," which was less showy, yet equally effective from a dramatic standpoint. Those episodes have also kept him on the radar in the years that have passed since The Brothers Bloom, and have contributed to the anticipation for his new film Looper, which opens the Toronto film festival next week.
As for Marshall and Game of Thrones, our own Todd Brown noted: "Marshall here has been asked to execute the sort of large scale carnage that is difficult to achieve on a full feature budget and to do it on a television budget and schedule. With that understood, he's done well with what he had to work with. ... The battle sequence fared significantly better once it reached land but if you were paying attention there it was quite clear that Marshall had limited resources to play with."
In any case, Marshall has been hired to direct the pilot episode of Black Sails, a pirate drama for premium broadcaster Starz. Michael Bay serves as executive producer for the series, which is described as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Marshall has at least two other feature film projects in development, so perhaps his higher profile from his TV work will lead to those getting made sooner rather than later.
Of course, directors and cinematographers do not rule the roost in TV land. Experienced showrunners, the creative producers who get the series off the ground and keep it running at a certain expected level of quality, are highly-prized.
Joss Whedon, for example, will be writing and possibly directing the pilot episode of S.H.I.E.L.D., a live-action series, as part of his overall deal with Marvel/Disney. (I've already written elsewhere about that show's prospects.) Whedon is also providing creative consultation for other upcoming Marvel movies, as well as planning ahead for The Avengers 2, so he won't be a showrunner for S.H.I.E.L.D., although he will serve as one of the executive producers and will undoubtedly get the lion's share of the credit (or blame).
Shawn Ryan worked for a season as a producer on Angel, Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, and then created The Shield, a groundbreaking police drama. He's been much in demand since then (The Unit, Lie to Me, Terriers, The Chicago Code, the upcoming Last Resort), but his newest idea may be the most instantly recognizable: Beverly Hills Cop.
Eddie Murphy has yearned to move the Axel Foley story to the small screen for at least a year -- more probably, ever since he saw 1994's Beverly Hills Cop III -- and he has now teamed with Shawn Ryan to push it forward. Murphy shared in creating the animated show The PJs more than 10 years ago, but has pretty much stayed away from TV since his days on Saturday Night Live.
A year ago, Murphy wanted the series to revolve around Axel Foley's son, with him showing up from time to time as the chief of police in Detroit. Who knows if any of the networks will bite, or what kind of show will emerge; Ryan and any kind of comedy really hasn't worked too well in the past.
The prevalance of cop shows on TV has diluted the impact of movies that center on ordinary cops and detectives, so in a way it makes perfect sense for Beverly Hills Cop to go to Detroit on TV. Maybe, just maybe, he'll team up with Robocop ...
"Hollywood Beat" is a weekly column on the U.S. film and TV industry.