In many ways, motion picture directors have become as much of a star as the lead actors who appear in their movies. It doesn’t matter much who stars in films by Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, or Tim Burton, because the audience has brand name recognition with those directors and has certain expectations from their films. The director is the creative force behind a movie, making decisions regarding the acting, cinematography, art direction, costumes, editing, and every other element that appears on screen. It must be frustrating, therefore, when a director does not receive accolades for their work, but instead the movie is credited in the eyes of the movie-going public to the producer. This has happened more than once, and history does little to change this perception.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
John Carpenter hit a high point in his career directing a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, about a group of scientists trapped in the Arctic with a thawed-out alien that wreaks havoc on their outpost. The problem is that the original was not directed by Hawks, but by Christian Nyby–or was it? Hawks took no credit in co-writing the screenplay and apparently set Nyby up as the director so his long-time editor could join the Director’s Guild. This was Nyby’s first directing credit, and he went on to work almost exclusively in television with the exception of a couple forgettable feature films. Even among the cast and crew of Thing, there were varying reports of who exactly directed. Hawks took a producing credit, but it’s clear that his influence was strong, as it fits in with the style and theme of his previous works.
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Powerhouse producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Brian Grazer have been around for as long as the movie industry has been in existence. One example is Mike Todd, who put on sometimes controversial Broadway shows before pushing the widescreen Cinerama process and Todd-AO into movie theaters. Spectacle was the name of the game with this producer, trying to draw people away from the burgeoning TV landscape and keeping them buying movie tickets. One such film that he made was Around the World in 80 Days, for which he took full credit, using his name in the possessive form on all the marketing material. In reality, the film was directed by Michael Anderson, who later went on to direct Logan’s Run. But considering that the Michael who’s name was above the title was Todd and not Anderson and that it was released in Todd-AO, is it any wonder that people forgot who the actual filmmaker was?
Kidnapped (1960), The AbsentMinded Professor (1961), Mary Poppins (1964)
Walt Disney knew a thing or two about how to market his films, and was probably the most successful filmmaker in branding his own name as a product. He rarely actually took credit personally as a producer, but rather released feature films with the header of “Walt Disney presents”–which was changed to “Walt Disney Pictures presents” after his death. That’s all people needed to know, that it was a Walt Disney film; it didn’t matter who actually directed it. One of the most prolific directors who worked for Disney was Robert Stevenson, who had a long list of films and TV shows under his belt before Uncle Walt hired him to make Johnny Tremain and Old Yeller, both in 1957. He went on to do many other classic (and not so classic) Disney pictures as Kidnapped (from the book by Robert Louis Stevenson–no relation), Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The AbsentMinded Professor and its sequel, Son of Flubber, In Search of the Castaways, The Love Bug, and a little movie called Mary Poppins. That last film won five Oscars, and Stevenson himself was nominated for Best Director–being the only director of a classic Disney film to receive such an honor. Yet Stevenson is largely forgotten as a director, being overshadowed by his boss.
Play It Again, Sam (1972)
Woody Allen is a prolific director, churning out an average of one movie a year. He’s pretty much a one-man band–writing, directing, and often starring in his films. While most actors in Tinsel Town beg and plead their ways into his films, it’s rare that he acts in films directed by other people. This is the case with Play It Again, Sam, which most people think he directed. This came out in the midst of an early streak of comedies–Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask, and Sleeper. Based on a stage play that he wrote, Play It Again, Sam was about a man obsessed with Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca. Allen adapted the play into the film’s screenplay and starred in it, but turned the directing duties over to Herbert Ross, who would later be nominated for an Academy Award for directing The Turning Point. While Allen was not the actual producer of the film (he never took producing credit for any of the movies he made), it is clear that it is his project. It usually falls under into the category of Woody Allen films, and not Herbert Ross films (are there any Herbert Ross followers out there?).
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)& Return of the Jedi
As any Star Wars fan knows, George Lucas turned the directing duties of his beloved series over to others for the second and third outings, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi–something many argue he should have done for the prequels. Lucas famously hated the actual process of shooting a movie, preferring instead to handle the pre-production and post production (most actors he’s worked with agree that he should not be calling action). While taking Executive Producer credit on these two installments, there is no question that he is the creative force behind the films; he developed the stories, oversaw character design, storyboarding, art direction, make-up, editing, and special effects, and even kept a close eye on the directors themselves. He recruited a former college professor, Irvin Kershner, to helm Empire (a smart move), while the late Richard Marquand took the reins for Jedi. These two were in reality hired hands carrying out one job on the movies that Lucas delegated while still keeping creative control.
As with Hawks and Lucas, Steven Spielberg found himself in a situation where he was making a movie that ultimately he did not direct, yet the creative aspects of the film were all his. He was in pre-production on two films, E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Poltergeist, but due to scheduling conflicts, he had to back out of one of them. Considering how much money and accolades E.T. earned, Spielberg chose wisely. But he wasn’t going to give up completely on Poltergeist; instead he hired Tobe Hooper, who had gained fame directing the horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while remaining onboard as a hands-on producer. It was so hands-on that rumors abounded that Spielberg himself was actually calling the shots (he did, after all, co-write the screenplay, design the storyboards, and visit the set quite often). The Director’s Guild even investigated to see who actually directed. Hooper’s name is listed as director, but everyone unofficially considers it a Spielberg film. Compare it to each of the directors’s bodies of work and see which it’s closer to in style and substance.
To Be or Not to Be (1983)
Like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks was a comedic writer and performer who moved from television in the ’60s into film. His first couple of hits, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, were ones he wrote and directed, but did not appear in. He took on two supporting roles in the tremendously successful Blazing Saddles before promoting himself to lead in such films as High Anxiety, Silent Movie, and History of the World, Part I (he later decided supporting roles were sufficient in Spaceballs and Dracula: Dead and Loving It while staying out of Robin Hood: Men in Tights completely). When he starred in To Be or Not to Be, a remake of a Jack Benny comedy set in Poland during WWII, it was assumed that he was also the director since, also like Allen, he was not known to act in other people’s films. The credited director was Alan Johnson, who had worked with Brooks repeatedly as a choreographer (his only other directing credit was Solarbabies). In fact, Johnson continued to work as Brooks’s choreographer until his Dracula flop. Much like the relationship Howard Hawks had with Christian Nyby, perhaps Brooks was just making it possible for Johnson to move into directing under his mentor’s tutelage.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Who else could have directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas except for Tim Burton? How about Henry Selick? As with Star Wars and Poltergeist, this animated classic was a pet project of a filmmaker who turned the directing duties over to someone else. Burton, who started out as an animator and worked on a couple Disney films, made a successful transition into live action and hit it big with Batman. With his new-found clout, he was able to put this bizarre stop-motion film into production. However, the long process of animating figurines was far too much for Burton, who had other movies to direct. In came Selick, who Burton knew from his days at Disney. The film was Burton through-and-through; it was his story, he designed the characters, his long-time musical collaborator Danny Elfman wrote the songs and music, and his distinctive visual style effused every shot of the film. Originally, his name was not in the title, but in the re-issue, Disney’s marketing geniuses thought it would sell more tickets if it seemed that Burton himself “owned” the movie. In a sense, he did, but Selick was overlooked as the person painstakingly shooting each and every frame. Fortunately, Selick has had success with James and the Giant Peach and Coraline (but please erase Mokeybone from your memory).
V for Vendetta (2005)
Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski caused a cultural tsunami with The Matrix (though disappointed fans with the sequel), so when they adapted the Alan Moore graphic novel V for Vendetta as a movie featuring similar high-concept visuals and a dystopian future, most fans assumed they were the directors. However, they wrote the screenplay and produced the film, but allowed their first assistant director from the Matrix trilogy, Aussie James McTeigue, to take the director’s chair. Unfortunately, marketing departments can’t do much with first time directors, so all the promotional material screamed “from the makers of The Matrix” (which is correct, since McTeigue did participate in the making of that film). As proof that the Wachowski brothers were not simply directing by proxy, McTeigue has since gone on to do Ninja Assassin and the recent The Raven, both of which drip with visual style. Perhaps he learned well from his bosses.
copyright © 2012 FilmVerse
- Bizarre Films by Prominent Directors (FilmVerse)
- Classic Movies Most People Don’t Realize Are Remakes (FilmVerse)
- Classic TV Shows Turned into Films (FilmVerse)
- 5 Fantastic SF TV Shows Based on Movies (FilmVerse)
- Was Tim Burton Ever A Good Director? (OPINION) (news.moviefone.com)
- Fun Time Open Thread: Mel Brooks (persephonemagazine.com)
- A Cheat Sheet to Woody Allen’s Best Films (collegecandy.com)
Very informative post, Jame.
Fascinating look at an interesting segment of the film making world. Insightful post. Thanks.