Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Tim Van Patten: The Man Who Made HBO

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. Francis Ford Coppola. Tim Van Patten.

At first glance, at least three of those names will be familiar to the majority of the population. It's the lattermost that's confusing. Who is Tim Van Patten? Why am I including him in this list of some of the most iconic American filmmakers from the "golden age" of cinema in the 1970s? What has he done to earn that distinction?

It's not like you should recognize him right off the bat. Van Patten is a television director, having worked in the industry for several decades and is nominated this year for a Best Directing of a Drama Series Emmy for his work on Boardwalk Empire ("Farewell Daddy Blues"). But you've seen his work. Here's a handful of shows he's worked on, with notable episodes in parentheses:

- Homicide: Life on the Street ("Nothing Personal")
- Sex and the City ("An American Girl in Paris, Parts Une and Deux")
- The Wire ("Stray Rounds")
- Deadwood ("Childish Things")
- The Sopranos ("Whoever Did This," "Unidentified Black Males," "Long Term Parking")
- The Pacific ("Okinawa")
- Game of Thrones ("Winter is Coming")

All of these shows have gone on to be considered some of the greatest the medium ever produced. And Van Patten was behind some of those shows' best episodes, especially when it comes to The Sopranos (he also had a writing credit on that show's classic episode, "Pine Barrens").

That alone would be enough to make Van Patten a memorable television director, but the reason I put him in league with Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola is because he arrived in the midst of a golden age, and he greatly influenced the visual language of the medium through his work. His style is marked with distinct compositions, often framing a character off-center while keeping everything in the frame in focus. His camera is steady, even when it follows characters as they move from one location to another. Most importantly, his visuals often serve symbolic purposes; repeated close-ups of an eye, for example, when a character is finally seeing the damage they've caused.

It's not particularly flashy direction, but it's almost always noticeable when it's Van Patten at the helm. More importantly, it's permeated into other shows, having established the visual grammar that many dramas - particularly HBO dramas - utilize to this day. In fact, you could make the argument that Van Patten was just as influential in establishing the HBO brand as creators David Chase (The Sopranos), David Milch (Deadwood), and David Simon (The Wire). But it's not limited to HBO either: you can see his influence in the work by fellow nominees Carl Franklin (House of Cards) and Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), the latter of whom made a name in film beforehand.

It was only in 2012 that Van Patten finally won an Emmy for his direction (for Boardwalk Empire), but his fingerprints are all over the visual style of many acclaimed dramas. He may not win again this year, but his influence is hard to ignore.

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