In recent years, we’ve seen more and more classic films like Scream, Taken and Fargo garner a more extensive fanbase with movie-to-series remakes. Marvel is particularly good at this, often taking the opportunity to expand its cinematic universe through cleverly-planned TV series like Loki, Wandavision, Hawkeye, and more. Within, new characters and easter eggs are introduced to keep the excitement alive, keeping the audience guessing if they will get to see more in upcoming movies.
And it’s not just Hollywood, either – cult favourites like Taiwanese horror movie Detention, as well as South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Parasite, have also received the same treatment. After raking in nearly 200 awards and becoming the first foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Parasite is said to get its own spin-off series on HBO. While the exact details have yet to be revealed, Bong said that the series will cover many more ideas that he could not fit into the original film, which viewers were given a tiny glimpse of. “My goal with this series is to create a six-hour-long film. For example, when the original housekeeper comes back late at night, something happened to her face. Even her husband asked about it, but she never answered. I know why she had the bruises on her face, and I have a story for that” he explains.
One has to wonder – how different is it to direct a film, compared to a series? Spencer Loutitt, who has been in the film industry for over twenty years, answers: “Perhaps the best way to understand the difference is ‘film is a director’s medium, while television is a writer’s medium’. A film director is usually hired to bring their own voice and vision to a project, telling the story as they see it. They are also much more involved in editing and post-production. On the other hand, a television director is hired to direct one or a few episodes of a series. All the major decisions on the storyline will have been made by the producers with a view to tell the story as a whole.”
Nicole Holofcener, who has directed feature films like Enough Said and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, as well as acclaimed series Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City, Parks and Recreation, and Orange is the New Black, explains that both roles are not the same. In an interview with Vulture, she says, “There are so many meetings on a television show. On a film, too many decisions have to be made quickly. But even if the television meetings veer toward excess, they’re valuable, because fewer mistakes happen. Communication is so clear, because you’ve beaten a subject to death.”
Unlike movies, series often have a longer runtime, allowing the director to tell a story in greater detail without being bound by time constraints. With more and more movie directors dipping their feet into the pool of TV series pool, we get to enjoy the best of both words from the comfort of our own homes: think film aesthetics and stunning visuals, with a new episode to look forward to ever so often.
With that said, let’s take a look at some of the most engrossing examples of film directors turning to the television space.
Directed by Taika Waititi
Notable films: Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit
Originally a 2014 movie of the same name, What We Do in the Shadows was created by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. In typical ‘the Kardashians’ fashion, a documentary film crew follows several vampires who live in the same flat, as they go about their daily lives. The 2019 series retains the same mockumentary concept, this time featuring four vampire roommates in Staten Island.
Clueless as to how modern life works, Nandor the Relentless is the self-proclaimed leader of the group, assisted by his human familiar Guillermo, who has been serving Nandor for more than a decade in the hopes of being turned one day. Living with Leslie (an English nobleman vampire), Nadja (a Greek Romani vampire), and Colin (an energy-sucking vampire), what ensues is a hilarious look into their daily lives as these undead beings struggle with mundane everyday things like cleaning, shopping for groceries, and going to the nightclub.
Critically acclaimed for its cast and writing, What We Do in the Shadows completed its third season in October 2021 and has been renewed for a fourth season.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Notable films: Moonlight
Barry Jenkins might not be a familiar name, but you’ll remember the 2017 Oscars snafu when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announced the winner of Best Picture as La La Land, only to realise that they had been given the wrong envelope. The actual winning film, Moonlight, was Jenkins’ second feature film, a poignant coming-of-age tale about a young man exploring the three stages of his life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
True to Jenkins’ signature style, the 10-episode The Underground Railroad (which is based on a novel by Colson Whitehead) demonstrates a poetic tenderness that creates a huge contrast with its plot, where two Black slaves plan their escape via the legendary Underground Railroad, which is depicted in the series as an actual railroad. In real life, the “Underground Railroad” is a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the early- to mid-19th century, used by slaves to escape into free states and Canada.
After its premiere in May 2021, The Underground Railroad bagged the Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film, with additional nominations for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and Outstanding Directing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie.
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho
Notable films: Train to Busan, Peninsula
Over the past two decades, South Korean film and TV production has become increasingly advanced. Taking a leaf from Hollywood and Hong Kong formats, today’s K-movies and K-dramas are markedly more realistic from the heavily filtered, cookie-cutter romance fluff of yesteryears. Before Train to Busan, director Yeon Sang-ho focused primarily on animated films. Much like his debut film, The King of Pigs, which touches on bullying, violence, and systemic poverty, Yeon’s work is often based on social commentary. In Train to Busan, the media is seen covering up reports of zombie attacks, which Yeon describes as “the world we live in right now” in an interview with Korea Joong Ang Daily, “we are deluged with information, much of which conflicts itself. In the film, the government is also portrayed sardonically.”
In 2021, Yeon directed Hellbound, a dark fantasy thriller where monsters appear on Earth to condemn specific individuals to hell. Within one day of its release, it surpassed Squid Game to become the world’s most-watched Netflix series. Starring Yoo Ah-in as the slightly unhinged leader of a cult, the six-episode series explores the possibilities of blind faith and unfounded beliefs. On one hand, people in the city are fraught with fear, wondering if they will be the next one to die a bloody death in the hands of these supernatural beasts. One the other hand, some pounce on the opportunity to capitalise on the chaos by adding fuel to the fire.
With a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes, things are looking good for Hellbound – while no official statement has been made, many are optimistic that there will be a second season.
Directed by Susanne Bier
Notable films: Bird Box
Hailing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Susanne Bier is the first female director to collectively win a Golden Globe Award, Primetime Emmy Award, and European Film Award. Apart from her extensive portfolio, Bier is also known for her directness, having said this when asked to give advice to fellow female filmmakers: “Trust your vision and know that you are just as talented as – and are probably better than – your male counterparts. I’ve sat at numerous panels at film school with a lot of self-assured guys in leather jackets and sunglasses who knew how to talk about films as if they were small masterpieces. Then, after the panel I’ve gone into the cinema and looked at the things they were doing, and it was really crap.”
Intending to take a break from film, Bier took on the role of directing The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. Based on a 1993 novel of the same name by John le Carré, the six-part series revolves around Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), the night manager of a luxury hotel, who is recruited to infiltrate the inner circle of a notorious arms dealer. ScreenRant calls it “that stylish spy thriller you didn’t know you needed”, while film critic website Roger Ebert describes it as “fresh and engaging; nearly everything about The Night Manager works, from the high-powered cast to the gorgeous locales.”
The Night Manager was nominated for 36 awards, ultimately winning 11 (including two Primetime Emmy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards). After that, Bier went on to direct post-apocalyptic thriller film Bird Box.
Directed by Shinsuke Sato
Notable films: Gantz, Bleach, I Am a Hero
Among his fans, Shinsuke Sato is known as the “father of live-action adaptations” – almost his entire portfolio consists of manga and anime adaptations from the likes of The Princess Blade, Death Note, Inuyashiki, Kingdom, and more. As a student, Sato’s ambition was to become a novelist or painter, but had a hard time choosing. One day, he came up with the idea to combine both his interests into one profession – by bringing pictures and stories together, he decided to become a movie director.
Sato’s first TV directorial ‘debut’, Alice in Borderland, premiered on Netflix in December 2020, attracting a massive fanbase across the globe thanks to its dystopian survival game premise. Think The Hunger Games meets Battle Royale – at a time when lockdowns were in place and the future seemed bleak, Alice in Borderland offered an escape from pandemic-related worries.
What makes Alice in Borderland different from other Japanese TV series is its tightly weaved plot, clever details, and realistic acting. The cinematography is well-executed, especially the opening scene where the Shibuya Scramble Crossing was shown completely devoid of people (recreated from a combination of open sets and CGI extensions). With the intention of maintaining a consistent tone throughout all eight episodes, Sato thought of the movie as “one very long film”, shooting it over five consecutive months.
Cover Credit: Jakob Owens / Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Having spent the past decade turning her passion into profession, Michelle is a freelance writer/translator based in Malaysia. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.