Life should have been sweet for Ali Selim. The Twin Cities native dazzled the independent-film circuit four years ago with his Minnesota-filmed feature "Sweet Land," and prepared himself to be ushered into the mainstream. But the invitation never arrived.

"After I won a Spirit Award, my agent said, 'That was great, but nobody gives a crap,'" said Selim, who watched one film project after another fall by the wayside. "I think there's this fallacy that the industry will call you and give you something. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't frustrating and confusing."

Selim finally got help from, of all places, a psychiatrist's office.

He's directed six episodes of "In Treatment," the Emmy-winning HBO drama starring Gabriel Byrne as a not-as-steady-as-he-seems shrink with a steady stream of high-profile patients, which returns Monday for its third season. Not everyone would consider that assignment a gift. Even the most veteran directors might be hamstrung by a series in which almost all the "action" takes place within 50 feet of the doc's couch, and scenes rarely include more than two characters.

"It gives me such a headache," said co-executive producer Paris Barclay, who won two Emmys for his work on "NYPD Blue" and directed a dozen upcoming episodes of "Treatment." "You take away the toys and all you're left with is putting the camera in the right place and making sure the performances are the best they can be. Those things can be more difficult than playing with the toys."

Endearing himself to Winger

Selim came recommended by actor/producer Danny Futterman, who took over as one of "Treatment's" show runners this season. He's been friends with Selim since they worked together on a steak-sauce commercial. Barclay said he was impressed by Selim's preparation (he reads each script at least 75 times before shooting) and how smart and sensitive he was with the actors.

That's saying something when the cast includes Golden Globe winner Byrne and three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger, who plays an aging movie star struggling to deal with her dying sister, her estranged daughter and the fact that she keeps forgetting her lines. It's the first time Winger has done a TV series since she slipped into Wonder Girl's uniform on "Wonder Woman."

"I was not familiar at all with this sort of thing, so I hoped for the best, and got that in the form of Ali," Winger said via e-mail. "He was incredibly present, prepared and inspired. What more could a girl ask for?"

Selim said he wasn't at all intimidated by the star-studded cast. He couldn't afford to be.

"You have to quickly hurdle that notion that they're famous, or that they're a better actor than I am a director, or you'll fall flat on your face," he said. "If I had tripped up on my first note to Gabriel, I wouldn't be talking to you today."

Wait a second. Notes? For Gabriel Byrne? You betcha. Selim said even the best performers need feedback, especially one who doesn't want to know where the story is going until it gets there, so he can be as surprised as his character. Selim said one of his primary duties was reminding Byrne where they were in the story arc and keeping his character one step ahead of his patients, which this year include an angry gay teenager and a grieving immigrant from Calcutta.

Barclay believes the results are likely to be remembered come awards season. Winger, most notably, hasn't had this meaty a showcase since the mid-'90s.

"Debra's worked with some very big directors and Ali was able to rank right up there with them. She listened to him like he was James Brooks," said Barclay, referring to the "Terms of Endearment" director who made her a major star. "Her performance is going to get a lot of acknowledgment, and some of that will come back to Ali."

Move to L.A. paying off

The gig is already starting to pay off in other ways. Selim has co-written a script with "Sweet Land" star Tim Guinee for Philip Seymour Hoffman's company about the 1963 college basketball season in which Mississippi State finally agreed to participate in an integrated NCAA tournament. (Strangely enough, Guinee got the role of Olaf in "Sweet Land" after Futterman bowed out to write "Capote," the film that won Hoffman an Oscar.)

Selim also has a film project at Universal Studios, a special-effects-heavy fable about a teenage girl growing up in an industrial egg farm in the heartland.

"In Treatment" isn't the only reason more opportunities are coming Selim's way. He also credits moving his home base from Minnesota to Los Angeles three months ago.

"I somehow thought I could do it there, but the playing field is L.A.," he said. "If you're not standing on the sidelines, they're not going to call you in." • 612-673-7431 Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin