When you think of a given director, a certain type of movie usually comes to mind. If you say Tim Burton, immediately you think of a twisted world filled with pasty-skinned people with wild hair usually played by Johnny Depp. With Michael Bay, you get ‘sploidy things that go boom. But when you say Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, John Ford, or Walt Disney, you may be surprised at what you get.
There are some directors who make a big splash with their first or second films like Steven Spielberg did with Jaws: Christopher Nolan’s Memento, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs come to mind. But other times directors are best known for movies that they’ve made once they become established. When you look back at some of their early films, it makes you wonder how they became the filmmakers that they are known to the world to be.
Woody Allen Overdubs Japanese Spies
Woody Allen worked in television during its Golden Years before transitioning to motion pictures. He became one of the best-respected independent writer/directors of our time, winning Academy Awards for writing and directing Annie Hall and for writing Hannah and Her Sisters, in addition to being nominated 18 other times. Anyone who is familiar with his body of work knows that his early films were rather silly and slapstick, in contrast to the more serious work that has dominated his later years. However, his first directorial effort was What’s Up Tiger Lily? which had very little directing actually done from Allen. He took footage from two Japanese James Bond knock-offs, re-edited them with some new scenes he actually did film, and then overdubbed all the dialogue using American actors to make the plot seem like the spies were searching for the world’s best egg salad recipe. That’s a funny concept, but replacing dialogue for comedic affect is hardly new; the TV show Fractured Flickers predated Tiger Lily by several years. It’s just strange that Allen, a man who has been praised repeatedly for decades for his witty characters, started off his career in film by doing a cheap schtick.
Richard Donner’s Jail-bait Rom-Com
Richard Donner also got his start in television, helming one of the most popular episodes of The Twilight Zone of all time and an on-going adventure serial as part of a pyschodelic children’s series. He later found himself a cult following with the original The Omen and Superman: The Movie (prior to being booted off Superman II). His great success came in the ’80’s with the Lethal Weapon series and The Goonies, among others. It was when he was first making his transition from TV to film that he directed Lola, which starred grizzled Charles Bronson as a middle-aged porn author who falls in love with an underage teenage girl. It’s the kind of fun that Chris Hansen would have at the theater.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 3D Nudie Film
Francis Ford Coppola dominated the Oscars with The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now. He has made a career of being a strong independent filmmaker with his production company, American Zoetrope, set in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. He has a penchant for breaking the prime directive of the movie industry–use other people’s money–and has gone bankrupt numerous times due to self-financing his films. His early work wasn’t quite as auspicious as his Oscar winners, however. In 1962, Coppola was hired to take the black and white German film The Bellboy and the Playgirls and shoot color scenes featuring Playboy playmate June “The Body” Wilkinson (no relation to Jesse “The Body” Ventura). The nude romps he filmed were done in 3D, no less. Take that, James Cameron.
Bob Clark Tells a Very Different Christmas Story
Anyone who grew up in the ’80’s (or had their TV set turned on during Thanksgiving since the ’80’s) is very familiar with A Christmas Story, the nostalgic tale of little Ralphy and his desire to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas despite everyone’s protest that he’ll shoot his eyes out. For those who were a bit older in the ’80’s, you’ll probably look back with similar fondness at Porky’s, but for a different reason. That film ushered in the teen sex movie craze that seems to be with us to this day (even if that genre’s been hijacked by Judd Apatow). It may surprise you to know that both A Christmas Story and Porky’s were directed by the same man, Bob Clark. Of course, you can see a similar style of comedic filmmaking, even if one movie is targeted to children and the other is meant for adults with juvenile minds. It’s hard to imagine that his directing career started with a series of low budget horror films, including the original version of Black Christmas (also known as Silent Night, Evil Night–not to be confused with Silent Night, Deadly Night). This one starred Olivia Hussey, Kier Dullea, and Margot Kidder about sorority girls being murdered during the holidays. Did any get their eye shot out?
Oliver Stone Is Disarming
Oliver Stone made a name for himself making politically-charged, theme-driven movies like JFK , Wall Street, and Nixon. He won the Best Director Oscar for the Vietnam War dramas Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. His first Academy Award was for writing the controversial Turkish prison flick Midnight Express in 1978. How did he follow up this major boost in his career? By writing and directing The Hand, a horror thriller starring Michael Caine about a man whose hand is cut off in a car wreck and proceeds crawl around on its own murdering people who get Caine mad. Think of it as Thing from The Addams Family turning Hulk. How do you go from winning a major award for dramatizing a tortured drug trafficker to a murderous, disembodied appendage?
Peter Jackson’s Feeble Taste
Peter Jackson became a household name with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Oscar for the third film in the series didn’t hurt. His first brush with the Academy came with Heavenly Creatures, which gave him a nomination for the screenplay. The New Zealander helped create Weta Workshop in 1994 and was instrumental in pioneering digital effects, in particular motion capture with the character of Gollum (played by underrated actor Andy Serkis). It’s no surprise that his movies have been special effects heavy, even dramas like The Lovely Bones. What is surprising is that his first films were shocking in their offensiveness. His first feature film said it all: Bad Taste. It was about aliens hunting humans to use in their chain of fast food restaurants. His next movie, Meet the Feebles, featured drug addicted, sex obsessed muppets (years before Avenue Q or Wonder Showzen.) With that history, it’s amazing that Jackson was able to convince New Line to pony up a reported $285 million to produce the trilogy.
During WWII, the U.S. government turned to prominent filmmakers to help with the war effort by making propaganda films and other such work that was to help soldiers or civilians back home. It’s interesting to see some of the results.
Walt Disney Cleans up America
Walt Disney was no stranger to helping the country in its time of need. From 1941 to 1945, the animator oversaw production on a number of shorts that were either educational or pure entertainment, but had the purpose of focusing everyone’s attention on defeating Hitler. What is surprising is that Walt himself decided to direct a health video in the Health for the Americas series called “Cleanliness Brings Health.” This animated short depicted two families, one of which practiced good clean family fun while the other was dirty. What’s even more intriguing is that this is the last thing that he’s credited as having directed. It seems he wanted to make a clean getaway.
John Ford Teaches VD
John Ford is synonymous with widescreen vistas of the American West and John Wayne riding a horse into the sunset. He is a four-time Oscar winning director whose career spanned the silent film days to the ’60’s, when he was still going strong with movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance and Donovan’s Reef. In addition to his Westerns, Ford gave us such classics as The Quiet Man, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln and Mister Roberts (who may or may not have been young). With these and many other amazing films on his resume, it’s surprising to see that he found time to do a sex education video for the Army. In 1942, he was compelled to direct the short “Sex Hygiene” that instructed servicemen how to avoid venereal disease. Maybe he did it in order to work with Batman and Superman (George Reeves and Robert Lowery).
Directors often try to expand their abilities by attempting different genres. Spielberg, for instance, has a very schizophrenic career bouncing from escapist blockbusters to award bait (Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List were literally made back to back). But some filmmakers are so entrenched in a particular genre or style that it’s disconcerting when they turn 180 degrees and do a movie that’s completely different.
Alfred Hitchcock Does a Screwball Comedy
Alfred Hitchcock is called the Master of Suspense for a good reason. Look at his body of work and you’ll see classic tales of suspense and terror–Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Psycho, The Birds–the list goes on. For decades, Hitchcock thrilled audiences…and made them laugh? Of course, any Hitchcock aficionado knows that Hitch had a dark sense of humor, as is often displayed in his movies. But in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, he went all out for hilarity (and no, this wasn’t the Brangelina bullet fest). The plot involves a married socialite couple played by Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery who discovers that their marriage is not legally valid due to a state boundary dispute and wackiness ensues. Here’s an example of Hitch’s hilarity:
Clint Eastwood’s Inappropriate Love Story
When you say Clint Eastwood, two things usually come to mind–Dirty Harry or the man with no name drifting through countless westerns. His directing career has been varied, but usually has a grittiness to it, such as with the doomed female boxer in Million Dollar Baby or the old racist tough guy in Gran Torino. But one of his earlier directorial efforts was a film called Breezy, about an old dude played by William Holden who falls in love with a teenaged hippie. It seems that Richard Donner is not the only director interested in showing May/December romances. It wouldn’t be surprising if he announces a remake of Harold and Maude with a reverse in genders with himself cast in the lead.
Martin Scorsese and the Dalai Lama
Martin Scorsese had made a career directing realistic urban dramas usually about gangsters or tough guys–Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York, and so forth. For years he kept Robert Di Niro in business. Every now and then, he dabbles in documentaries about rock stars with the likes of The Last Waltz, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, and the recent George Harrison: Living in the Material World. His films tend to have raw acting, wild camera work, and often over-the-top violence set in places where people talk in alleys. Scorsese directing a sprawling, epic chronicle of the life of the dalai lama is quite a shock. Apparently, audiences didn’t quite understand why he made Kundun since it only made $5 million in the United States (with a budget of $28 million). Of course his next film is the upcoming 3D kid flick Hugo, so he’s still not averse to trying new things.
John Huston Makes the Austin Powers Prototype
John Huston started off his career as a director in a big way by making the film noir classic The Maltese Falcon and followed it up with such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Key Largo and even a bunch of movies that didn’t star Humphrey Bogart. Even late in his career he made films of high quality like Prizzi’s Honor (which earned his daughter Anjelica a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and The Dead, which he directed while connected to an oxygen tank. He can even be forgiven for 1982’s Annie, which was pretty entertaining despite having never directed a musical (see GOTTA SING, GOTTA DANCE below). The disconcerting entry in his filmography is being one of five directors on the non-canon James Bond film Casino Royale, which came out during the height of the Sean Connery Bond days. It played like a spoof with David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen all contending for the 007 mantle in a confused plot amid psychedelic art direction. Mike Myers satirized this film more than the real Bond films, using scenes like the round rotating bed and Burt Bacharach songs on the soundtrack. Why this film took five directors is a mystery, and why anyone of Huston’s caliber would participate (he even acted in it) is beyond anyone’s comprehension. It’s ironic that his next film is the romantic thriller Reflections in a Golden Eye with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Ian Fleming would approve.
Rob Reiner Goes South
Rob Reiner made the transition from Meathead to A-list director with six hits in a row starting with the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, and including two Stephen King masterpieces Stand By Me and Misery, and concluding that run with the military courtroom drama JAG…or rather A Few Good Men. He proved his skills by handling genres from romantic comedies to swashbuckling fantasies to historic dramas. The one common denominator with his films is the humanity depicted; the characters are treated as real, conflicted human beings dealing with issues that affect all people. That’s why it was so inexplicable that Reiner would choose to make North, a nonsensical live-action cartoon hurling one stereotype after another at the audience. It featured a cavalcade of celebrity cameos vying to be the parents of young Elijah Wood, who divorced his obnoxious biological parents and searches the globe for better ones. Oh yes, and Bruce Willis keeps popping up as some sort of conscience for the kid in random characters–one dressed as the Easter Bunny for no particular reason. The critics and viewing public alike loathed this film, and Roger Ebert took a quote from his review of it as the title of one of his books. It’s not that a high-profile director made a bad movie; every director has a turkey or two on their resume–it’s that a man known for his liberal views as well as consistent track record for the content in his films would decide to do something so offensive to so many people. At least this setback was temporary, as he continued to make decent films (for a while at least), and it didn’t seem to hurt Elijah Wood’s career any.
Don Siegel Curses Sam Peckinpah
Don Siegel had a long and illustrious career in both film and TV spanning four decades. He directed of such hard boiled classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz, and John Wayne’s last movie, The Shootist. Unfortunately, he died from a heart attack while filming 1982’s Jinxed. His buddy Sam Peckinpah, who re-defined cinematic violence with controversial movies like The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs stepped in to finish it for him. Peckinpah’s alcohol and drug abuse that resulted in a string of poorly received movies led to him practically being barred from the film industry, so this gave him a chance to return to the director’s chair, even if it was uncredited. The movie was a wacky comedy about a gambler with a literal curse on him that featured Bette Midler as a lounge singer. According to reports, she caused so many problems that co-star Ken Wahl made no secret of his hatred for her. Peckinpah himself died two years later. It makes one wonder if the title of the movie was self-referential.
Roman Polanski Gets Lost at Sea
Roman Polanski became a critical success with such films as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown. He was part of a new wave of neo-realistic directors of the ’60’s and ’70’s that forever changed American cinema. Unfortunately, after a personal tragedy and statutory rape conviction, he was forever barred from returning to the United States (despite the American courts wanting him to this day). He took a seven-year sabbatical and returned with 1986’s Pirates starring Walter Matthau as a swashbuckler. Let that sink in–Walter Matthau, who made a name for himself as a curmudgeon even years before Grumpy Old Men–as a dashing, debonair desperado of the seas. It would have made sense for Polanski to have made a remake of Lola or Breezy. The budget bloomed from $15 million to a then-astounding $40 for the production crew to build a full-sized Spanish Galleon. The film brought in a meager $2 million at the box office. It’s easy to understand why Polanski’s next film was named Frantic.
Sidney Poitier Gives Up the Ghost
Sidney Poitier must have split personalities. He is known mostly for his riveting dramatic performances in such ground-breaking movies as The Defiant Ones, To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, making him the most well-respected black actor of several generations. He inspired many of our contemporary stars with his realistic character portrayals. It’s only fitting that a man of his stature follow in the footsteps of many actors and direct his own films. Rather than go the route of his acting career, he instead decided to focus mostly on comedies starring black actors like Uptown Saturday Night and A Piece of the Action. It’s only fitting that he open doors for other actors and made movie stars of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. He also teamed up with Gene Wilder for two movies, Stir Crazy (with Pryor) and Hanky Panky. While his directorial efforts were not as substantial and culturally significant as the movies Poitier acted in, they were still funny and entertaining. It’s too bad that his final film, Ghost Dad, is so lame. Bill Cosby was riding high on his family friendly image from his TV show, so apparently he thought that would parlay onto the big screen–as a corpse. Yes, he plays, as the title suggests none-to-subtly, a father who is killed in an accident, but returns from beyond to continue trying to raise his young children. Cos apparently convinced his old pal Sidney to direct this pablum, and for some perplexing reason Mr. Tibbs allowed himself to get suckered in, thereby ending a fairly successful run behind the camera. But hey, at least Poitier got to act in Sneakers after this fiasco.
GOTTA SING! GOTTA DANCE!
The ’70’s were the last big hurrah when it came to musicals before the ’80’s ushered in an era of quasi-musicals like Flashdance, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing (and of course, let’s not forget Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) that used hit music and found an excuse for characters to dance. In the ’70’s, movies became cynical and reality-based, so it was strange to have people breaking into synchronized musical numbers on screen. Despite the success of Grease, most musicals that came out at this time suffered from personality disorder. The studios figured the best way to produce a musical in this new era was to hire the directors who defined the era. That logic led to the production of some absurdly bizarre cinematic experiences.
Sidney Lumet Eases On Down the Road
Why? Why? Why? Known for intense dramas like 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, Sidney Lumet would not be the first choice to do a remake of The Wizard of Oz with an all black cast. Maybe the studio got him mixed up with Sidney Poitier. The Wiz was a film adaptation of the hit Broadway play that won seven Tony Awards. When Hollywood got their hands on it, they made some major changes, like casting 33-year-old Diana Ross to play Dorothy, who was now a school teacher in Harlem. Original director John Badham thought this was a stupid decision and quit the production, so Lumet was hired in his place and erased Kansas from the storyline. After all, why do we need Dorothy being transported from Kansas by a tornado? It’s not like that’s an aspect of the plot anyone expects. Production costs skyrocket, coming in second for that year to Superman: The Movie with a budget of $24 million and only made $21 million back. Perhaps this was due to Lumet directing the musical numbers with the actors’ backs to the cameras in wide shots. But hey, at least Michael Jackson is immortalized as the Scarecrow.
Milos Forman Lets His Hair Down
By 1979, hippies were a thing of the past, though not quite long forgotten to become nostalgic. Why they felt it was a good time to do a film version of the hit Broadway musical Hair from a decade prior is questionable. Even more curious is the hiring of Milos Foreman to direct. After all, who better to depict the ’60’s American counterculture movement than a Czechoslovakian refugee whose biggest hit was the decidedly non-musical One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest? While he did win a Best Director Oscar for the psychiatric hospital drama, it still doesn’t make sense why he would be considered to choreograph scenes with dance numbers. The original musical’s writers were incensed by the direction the film took, providing scripted scenes that broke up the stage production’s wall-to-wall songs. Regardless, the film received favorable reviews and even earned a Golden Globe Award (though that doesn’t mean anything). One positive thing that came out of this film was Foreman fighting against Hollywood heavyweights on the issue of the moral rights of film alteration after half the musical numbers were cut from Hair for its television broadcast. It would’ve been interesting seeing what would have happened if this movie was directed by the studio’s original choice, George Lucas.
Robert Altman Crosses Into ToonTown
Robert Altman had a varying career: cutting his teeth in documentaries, spending a decade with television dramas, then becoming the premiere independent filmmaker until his death in 2006. He created a very distinctive style with using multiple cameras to cover a scene using many characters interacting at once–sometimes the actors didn’t even know what cameras were on them. His unique vision resulted in seven Oscar nominations, though the only golden statue he took home was an honorary award despite directing films like MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. He dabbled with music in 1975’s Nashville, a satire of the country music industry in which many of the actors wrote their own songs. Altman also used a technique unheard of when filming a musical number–he actually had the actors sing on camera rather than lip synch to a pre-recorded song to capture realism of the character actually singing. So how did he go from making a film like that to doing a musical based on a cartoon character? With Popeye, Altman went all out creating a cartoon world, even building an entire town in Malta. As with Nashville, he recorded the actors (including Robin Williams in his debut as a movie star) live on camera singing the songs (which thankfully they didn’t write) and used his trademark overlapping dialogue, which is very disconcerting in a live action cartoon. The movie made double its budget despite the lukewarm reviews and the fact that Altman nearly came to blows with producer Robert Evans during production. Hopefully Altman ate his spinach.
Alan Parker’s Kid Gangsters
Of all the directors in this list, Alan Parker has the most experience with musicals. Interspersed with dramas like Angel Heart and Angela’s Ashes are songfests such as Fame, Evita, and Pink Floyd: the Wall. He was nominated for two Oscars for directing Midnight Express (see Oliver Stone, above) and Mississippi Burning. It’s his first film that leaves one with mouth open wide, Bugsy Malone (qualifying this entry to also be in the category of Early Work). Despite the title, this movie isn’t a chronicle of Bugsy Siegel–Warren Beatty and Barry Levinson would make that one 15 years later. Instead, it’s a comedic look at 1920’s style gangsters with an all child cast starring Jodie Foster and a pre-Happy Days Scott Baio using cream-spewing “splurge” guns instead of ones with bullets. For whatever reason, Parker decided to not let the kids in the cast sing; instead, they lip synched to adult voices (making Parker the anti-Altman). This resulted in a very unsettling viewing experience. However, try watching the ending’s song and not get the urge to drink a Coke:
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I wonder if someone could get Christian Bale and Brandon Routh together for a remake.
Wow…Superman and Batman together in a VD training film. Does Superdickery know about this?
Great article, BTW.