Accomplished Filmmakers Who Also Work in Television

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Geek god Joss Whedon’s day has come. He’s trading TV slayage and vampires, for filmic mayhem with his horror writing endeavor The Cabin in the Woods , which hits theaters this Friday — the 13th, for added spooky cred. It’s a spoof of sorts on the horror genre, but not in the vein of goofy films like Scary Movie. Think Whedon’s clever brand of humor set in a remote cabin where friends gather for a getaway. The movie also has its share of scares — and hey, Ebert liked it, so that’s something. (Beware of spoilers.)

Whedon’s witticisms have always wooed us, and thanks to an early career as a television writer (Roseanne and Parenthood being his inaugural projects), the filmmaker was able to smoothly segue into a movie career — first with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992 and Toy Story in 1995 — both writing credits. From there, Whedon would flip back and forth from TV and film directing/writing/producing, bringing us gems like Firefly and Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along, the beloved Buffy television series, and most recently the highly anticipated Avengers movie — which hits theaters on May 4.

What other filmmakers have danced between TV and cinema, and vice versa? We look at a few multitasking creatives past the break. With increases in technology and more elaborate production values on display, TV no longer feels like a nasty two-letter word filmmakers see as beneath them. More and more accomplished moviemakers are spending time on the small screen, and many got their start there like Whedon. Check out our list below, and share any TV/film geniuses we missed in the comments.

J.J. Abrams

Creator of all things mind-bending, director J.J. Abrams was born into the television industry, thanks to his producer parents. His first big gig was in cinema, however, on the 1998 disaster spectacle Armageddon as a co-writer. From there, he created one of ’90s most popular shows that played during an angst-ridden young adult hour — Felicity. (Abrams even wrote the opening tune.) In-between his current day career with the Star Trek reboot, Super 8, two of the Mission Impossible films, and more — all of which he’s garnered various credits for — Abrams changed television with creations like Lost. He managed all this while still delivering other originals such as Alias and Fringe. The filmmaker has proven himself versatile, winning praise from mainstream and cult audiences alike, while dishing up solid TV/film genre efforts like Cloverfield. Even if you’re one of the folks that counts him as completely overrated — or a geek who has totally sold out — he still richer than all of us combined.

Michael Mann

After starting in commercials and small documentaries, Michael Mann was schooled in the art of television writing by Hawaii Five-O’s Robert Lewin. He went on to pen the first few eps of 1970s cop drama Starsky and Hutch, which undoubtedly prepped him for his biggest TV project, 1980s cult show Miami Vice. He executive produced the series. Audiences saw more of Mann’s dark neon stylings in feature favorites like early Hannibal Lecter film Manhunter. Mann’s Crime Story was a much loved, but less popular series that eventually won cult status. Early big screen hits like Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider kept things going strong for the filmmaker, whose most recent project brought him back to TV. Mann executive produced the unfortunate Luck (he also directed the pilot), which was recently cancelled due to several tragic horse deaths. Although he’s been busy producing for both film and TV, Mann’s last big screen directing project was way back in 2009 — Public Enemies. We’re curious to see where the New Wave-loving filmmaker will land next.

Neil Jordan

If you’ve been tuning in to watch a leering Jeremy Irons in Pope’s robes, you have Neil Jordan to thank for that. The director came to the television party late in his career after bringing us dark, thoughtful dramas like The Company of Wolves, The Crying Game and that Anne Rice adaptation that made you laugh the first time you saw Tom Cruise in a wig — Interview with the Vampire. Jordan tried to create a feature film out of The Borgias, but the project never came to fruition. Pal Steven Spielberg (now a producer on the series) suggested transforming the historical fiction tale into a cable drama. Have you found that Jordan’s a fine fit for television since the series premiered?

Barry Levinson

While we wait to see if the Gotti film In the Shadow of My Father actually comes to fruition — after much drama when actor Joe Pesci sued the production — let’s talk about Barry Levinson’s underrated executive producing television project, Homicide. Levinson started with TV movies, comedy variety acts, and classic baseball film The Natural — eventually directing, writing, and producing his way through pictures like Good Morning, Vietnam and Rain Man. He executive produced gritty cop show Homicide — featuring a bevy of fantastic performers, including Andre Braugher — and more recently, Oz. We’re anxious to see him back on the big screen with Gotti, which should prove to fit Levinson’s penchant for crime-savvy stories.

Robert Altman

Robert Altman started out in Hollywood almost on a whim, working in marketing and advertising. He began life as a screenwriter with little early success, started making industrial/commercial films and documentaries, and cut his teeth on 1957’s The Delinquents — where signs of his experimental style appeared. Altman was lucky enough to work on TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents after Hitch took notice of his film work. He then began a successful television career with popular western Bonanza. Altman reentered the film world with MASH, began exploring a career with indie studios after becoming creatively frustrated with Hollywood, and most recently returned to TV. He executive produced and directed several eps of Tanner on Tanner — a follow-up to his 1988 political satire Tanner ’88 (both with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau).

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese brought his signature wise guys to the small screen for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (as executive producer and sometimes director). Scorsese’s ability to set a scene/time period and craft deeply flawed characters full of heady drama is no different in TV land. We’re thrilled that the filmmaker has stayed on the series to continue providing invaluable creative input — one of the greatest American directors of our time, for a series that shows the dark side of America’s history.

Gus Van Sant

Like many filmmakers, Gus Van Sant started out directing commercials. He didn’t let early career rejection stop him from starting his own indie production company where he created projects like Drugstore Cowboy in 1989. He made My Own Private Idaho in 1990 (a film initially rejected by studios) through the indie arm of New Line Cinema, winning an Independent Spirit Award for his screenplay. He found mainstream success with Good Will Hunting in 1997 and has since gone back and forth from bigger to smaller/independent projects. Most recently, the filmmaker became an executive producer on Farhad Safinia’s Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago. He also directed the pilot episode for the Golden Globe-winning series.

Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme put the lotion in the basket with 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, and since then has gone on to direct critically acclaimed films like Philadelphia, and concert docs like the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. We’re most recently excited that the filmmaker tried his hand at directing on the HBO series Enlightened. Anyone who supports more Laura Dern appearances is OK by us. Demme has also recently focused on executive producing the afterlife TV drama A Gifted Man, starring Patrick Wilson.