|A trio of seasoned filmmakers who cut their teeth on some of the earliest projects for the small screen are heading not into retirement this fall, but rather back into the TV biz.|
Under the watch of now 69-year-old feature film director Ted Kotcheff, the first year of Dick Wolf's NBC drama"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" went so well, per Wolf, that he invited directors Arthur Penn, 77, and Michael Ritchie, 61, to do the same for "Law & Order" and "Deadline," respectively, this fall.
Their titles are New York exec producer, but they can also direct some of the shows.
In what may be a sign that TV circa 2000 may be winning the ongoing debate over which medium -- film or TV -- is more alluring to work in, the film vets took Wolf up on his offers.
Ritchie, director of "The Candidate," "Bad News Bears" and "Fletch," has since dropped out for personal reasons and is expected to be replaced by legit and TV director Don Scardino. Kotcheff is known for directing the first "Rambo" installment, "First Blood," as well as "Fun With Dick and Jane" and "Weekend at Bernie's."
Kotcheff, Penn and Scardino are generals on the ground in New York, not showrunners. The Los Angeles-based head writers run the shows.
Because the scripts are written in L.A., Wolf makes the New York-based exec producer job a mandatory budget-line item on his New York-based productions. They're there to handle episodic casting, get the best perfs out of the actors and control overall quality.
Wolf says that as the East Coast-based "drama cop," Kotcheff enabled the show to find its voice more quickly than usual for a first-year TV series.
One shot in the season finale of "SVU," which Kotcheff also directed, is an example of the filmmaker's impact, Wolf says.
"I almost fell off my chair when I saw the dailies," Wolf says. "He came up with a shot that's going to be emblematic of the show: a sort of visual, signature shot. It's a closeup of Chris Meloni (who plays Elliot Stabler) that's much tighter than you ever go in television and is slightly off-center. It goes behind his eyes, showing what we've been trying to get at -- the effect crime has on these cops."
Penn, the Oscar-nommed director of such classics as "The Miracle Worker" (for both stage and screen) and "Bonnie & Clyde," started out doing live television. He says Wolf's idea of using experienced feature directors is a smart move.
"These are three pretty talented guys, and there's a lot of years of experience and talent between them. Why not take advantage of it instead of going for something called the youth market, which nobody has been able to adequately identify?" Penn says.
Hollywood's perennial clamoring for so-called "youth appeal" is part of the reason the vets say they agreed to take on the day-to-day rigors of network television.
"There's no question in film that youth is their market, so everybody thinks younger directors will create material that appeals to younger people. I still think older directors are working, but films seem to have gone off in a direction that directors like Arthur Penn don't want to go in," Kotcheff says.
Indeed, Penn refers to the preoccupation with youth as a "terrible disease that has struck the movie business."
"They're suffering from it: They're making lousy movies," he says.
Kotcheff has taken to TV because of the opportunity it offers to address ripped-from-the-headlines issues in a more immediate way than film, he says, as the time between producing and airing a TV episode is a mere fraction film's.
"I like that our series deal with topical, societal issues that films don't do. The nature of television allows you to respond much more rapidly than film," he says, offering an example from "SVU."
One episode featured a story-line that followed law enforcement officers as they chased down a rapist while the statute of limitations on the rapist's crime expired for one victim after another.
In reality, when the episode aired, a proposal was being discussed in New York that would extend the time given to catch and prosecute rapists. While the TV gig turned out to be "energizing," Kotcheff says he wasn't keen on it initially.
"I said to my agent that I don't know anything about television; I'm a film director," he says.
"It was a learning experience. The hours were long, as we created the style of the show and the characters were being molded," Kotcheff says. "Now I see each season, each 22-part series, as one long film. I shot `First Blood' for six months, after all."
All three New York exec producers signed three-year deals with the shows.
Wolf -- who says no one accuses him of being a kid at 53 -- doesn't worry whether the old pros have the stamina for their jobs.
"I've seen no senior moments, I assure you," he says.