Not many people expected Ang Lee to take home the Best Director trophy at the Academy Awards last month for Life of Pi. He’s defying expectations yet again with his follow-up project, a pilot for FX called Tyrant, scheduled to shoot this summer.
Tyrant tells the story of an unassuming American family drawn into the workings of a turbulent Middle Eastern nation, FX said in a release. Other than that, all we know is it comes from writers and producers of shows like Homeland and Lost, so yeah, we’ll be tuning in.
But Lee’s move to the small screen isn’t as unheard of as it might sound. Turns out several high-profile film directors have taken on TV projects, sometimes even at the very height of their powers. Here are a few (and you don’t know how badly I wanted to include the surreal 1986 SNL episode “Francis Ford Coppola’s Saturday Night Live,” but I guess that would be cheating):
Woody Allen — Don’t Drink the Water
New York’s favorite nebbish neurotic directs at least one movie a year, so who’s going to notice a little ABC remake he did of the screwball comedy? It’s not a project Woody-philes often bring up, but it did have a stellar cast, including himself, Michael J. Fox, Mayim Bialik, Dom DeLuise and Julie Kavner. It’s also noteworthy in that it was sandwiched between two of his more celebrated works of the ’90s, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite.
Martin Scorsese — Boardwalk Empire
The Goodfellas filmmaker started things off for the heavily hyped HBO crime drama by delivering a scintillating two-hour pilot that, frankly, the show didn’t recover from for quite some time. With some perspective gained by three full seasons, and all that “why don’t I like this show” sentiment seeming to have died down, I’m convinced it just took all of us awhile to realize that we weren’t going to get “A Martin Scorsese Picture” each time out.
Alexander Payne — Hung
Payne might not have quite the name recognition of some of the other names on this list, but he’s still pretty accomplished, with two Best Director Oscar nominations and wins for writing for Sideways and The Descendants. He brought his painfully honest lens to HBO in 2009 to kick off the comedy Hung, about a Detroit teacher who turns to prostitution to fight a tough economy. While I stuck with Hung till the bitter end, through all the meandering stories and bumpy shifts in tone, I always thought it would’ve worked better as a two-hour Payne movie.
Barry Levinson — Homicide: Life on the Streets
After an amazing hot streak in the 1980s and early ’90s — The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, Avalon, Bugsy — Barry Levinson could do no wrong. Well, he did direct 1992’s Toys, but that depressing vanity project was soon forgiven after he delivered the pilot episode of Homicide, which despite nabbing the coveted post-Super Bowl slot in 1993 was always more of a critical darling than a ratings giant. Still, the influence of that crime drama, which did end up running seven seasons, can still be felt today. In addition to direct cousins like The Wire and The Shield, Homicide’s complex characters and intricate structures paved the way for what has become the norm for cable dramas.
Quentin Tarantino — CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (“Grave Danger”) ER (“Motherhood”)
Who knows what the mad genius was up to when he decided to randomly take the director’s chair for a few TV episodes? There’s nothing particularly Tarantino-esque about any of the episodes, and they’re the only projects he’s directed that he didn’t also write. (He’s credited for the “story” on CSI, but that’s a bit different than writing the shooting script.) Chalk it up to an eccentric guy scratching a creative itch perhaps.
David Lynch — Twin Peaks
Who would’ve thought the world was ready for a weekly dose of David Lynch’s weirdness way back in 1990? But Twin Peaks dominated water-cooler conversation, with everyone dying to know who killed Laura Palmer. The Log Lady, the unintelligible dwarf, Agent Cooper’s cherry pie and coffee … it rivaled anything Lynch put on the big screen. Lynch directed the pilot, and six episodes in all, with the bulk of them coming interestingly enough in the largely forgotten second season.
Robert Altman — Tanner ’88
The legendary M*A*S*H director took quite a few detours into television, but his 1988 HBO miniseries that followed a fictional presidential candidate made the biggest splash. He even returned 16 years later with Tanner on Tanner, which ran on Sundance Channel. It came out just as premium cable channels were getting into producing original series, and I think we can all agree that turned out well.
Photo: (Boardwalk Empire) Credit: HBO/Craig Blankenhorn; (Homicide: Life on the Streets) © NBC Universal. Credit: Chris Haston