Most directors start their careers working on television before taking the plunge into moviemaking. When a director shifts their focus to the small screen, it is often seen as a step back in their career—but sometimes the transition revitalizes their creativity before they return to the big screen again. Here are nine big-screen directors who made forays into television.
1. David Lynch
After receiving an Academy Award nomination for The Elephant Man, David Lynch continued to push boundaries with the cult classic Dune and the neo-noir Blue Velvet. Then, in 1990, Lynch decided to turn his attention to TV with the strange crime series Twin Peaks. The series was a creative and commercial success for Lynch; the director returned to the big screen with the cinematic prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in 1992.
2. Jane Campion
Starting a successful career with the strange and eerie film Sweetie in 1989, Jane Campion went on to direct The Piano, In The Cut, and Bright Star. In 2011, Campion turned her attention to the seven-episode TV mini-series Top of the Lake—about a detective who returns to her small New Zealand hometown to investigate the disappearance of a local preteen girl—which had its debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will air on the Sundance Channel beginning March 18.
3. Martin Scorsese
In 2007, Martin Scorsese won an Academy Award for directing. He later decided to bring the Prohibition-era crime drama Boardwalk Empire to the premium cable TV network HBO. Scorsese won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for the series’ pilot episode in 2011.
4. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
One of the founding directors of the New German Cinema movement in the late 1960s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in 1982 at age 37 from a drug overdose. His career was short but prolific: He directed 40 feature films, two TV series, and 24 stage plays from 1970 to 1982. After releasing his masterpiece The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder created the 14-episode TV mini-series Berlin Alexanderplatz, which followed the life of an ex-convict during the 1920s.
5. David Fincher
Mostly known for highbrow, cerebral genre films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac, David Fincher produced and directed episodes of the American adaptation of the British political drama House of Cards. The series explored the behind-closed-doors dealings of Capitol Hill; the episodes were released in bulk through the Internet streaming service Netflix, rather than traditional broadcast or cable networks.
6. Alfred Hitchcock
After almost three decades as a movie director, Alfred Hitchcock created the mystery anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The original TV series run lasted from 1955 to 1965 as a way to tell thrilling and suspenseful stories that were too short to be full-length feature films. In the early 1960s, when Hitchcock couldn’t get funding to make movies, he turned to his TV crew to make low budget features—including the iconic horror film Psycho. Thanks to Hitchcock’s TV crew, Psycho cost a fraction of what a traditional movie would cost a studio.
7. Gus Van Sant
In 2009, Gus Van Sant was nominated for Best Director for the movie Milk; he next focused his attention on the TV series Boss for the Starz Network. It followed a fictional Chicago mayor as he tried to run a city and keep his family together, while coping with being diagnosed with dementia in the series' pilot episode. Boss was canceled after two seasons, but was nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Drama Series.
8. Robert Altman
Director Robert Altman started his career in television, then made the leap to the movies with the surprise hit MASH in 1970. Consistently releasing commercially successful but challenging films throughout the 70s, Altman hit a creative wall in the 1980s. To recapture his artistic flair, the director returned to TV, helming the political mini-series Tanner '88, which was written by cartoonist Garry Trudeau and aired on HBO. The show's 11 episodes followed a fictional politician as he campaigned during the 1988 Democratic primaries. Shot as a documentary, Tanner ’88 revolutionized the TV mini-series and the mockumentary film genre.
9. Michael Mann
One of the first directors to embrace the digital filmmaking revolution, Michael Mann realized he could find success with the new format on TV instead of at the movie theater. In 2011, Mann teamed up with NYPD Blue co-creator David Milch to create the horseracing crime drama Luck for HBO. The series received critical acclaim but low ratings, and was canceled after the deaths of racehorses used during filming angered animal rights groups.