Sunday, 12 December 2010

15 Directors Who Went Outside Their Comfort Zone (and Succeeded)

Ah, the inevitable sequel. I felt my list of 15 directors who went outside their comfort zone (and failed) gave off a far too negative message. After all, if directors never went outside their comfort zones, our film history would be far less rich. The 15 directors that failed are at least to be commended for trying something different, rather than sticking to what they know with every new film (a topic that will be covered in a future post). But for every spectacular failure there is a success story and plenty of directors have taken a voyage into the unknown and emerged clean at the other side. Here are 15 that pulled it off.

Danny Boyle

The Film: Slumdog Millionaire

Throughout Danny Boyle's career he has proven he can cut it attempting a variety of different genres. Having burst into the public consciousness with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, Boyle widened his scope, enjoying critical, but not necessarily commercial success with films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine. With Slumdog however, Boyle took things to the next level, creating an epic feel-good tale whilst retaining the harsh reality and brutality he has displayed in his previous films. Working with a limited budget, a cast of relative unknowns and in unfamiliar territory, Boyle took a risk with Slumdog Millionaire but it paid off massively.

Alfonso Cuarón

The Film: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

This is a strange one. Compared with his other work, Harry Potter seems a step down for Cuarón; it will most likely not be remembered as one of his great works and it is indeed the most lightweight film on this list. Similarities could be drawn with his work on The Little Princess but it seemed a strange choice for Cuarón to do a Harry Potter movie after Y Tu Mamá También. However, he emerged from it with his head held high. The step up in quality for this film compared to previous Potters is obvious, and it is purely because, no disrespect to Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron is a much more talented director who was able to put his own mark on what should have been a uniform family movie. Cuarón wisely left the franchise after this one movie but his brief diversion into big budget family films still stands up well.

David Fincher

The Film: The Social Network

There was a time when The Social Network was being looked upon with very sceptical eyes. Despite the presence of Aaron Sorkin, there was still a perception that this would just be Facebook: The Movie with very little substance. That was until Fincher came on board. David Fincher has built a career on dark themes such as murder, anarchy and obsession and whilst he had made a slight change in direction with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he seemed an odd fit for a tale about the bloke who invented Facebook. However, the themes that emerge from the film such as Zuckerberg's obsession, ruthlessness and betrayal were perfect for Fincher. He may not have been dealing with serial killers but the Social Network is still an intense study of human actions. Its core story may have been a world away from what we've seen from Fincher before, but he still found the perfect tone and atmosphere for this film.

Mel Gibson

The Film: Apocalypto

Mel Gibson's career may well be on life support at the moment, but somewhere between enraging a bunch of people with The Passion of the Christ and enraging even more people with revelations about his private life, Mel Gibson made a very good film. Apocalypto managed to enrage its fair share of people too but Gibson managed to combine his experience with historical epics and his experiments with making films in authentic languages to present us with a very different kind of action movie. A brutal and bloody Mayan epic using unknown actors, the history is a bit off in typical Gibson style but he presented us with a culture and era we've seen very little of on screen. We knew Gibson can do historical epics, sure, but with Apocalypto he took a risk and gave us something that's a long way from your typical historical action movies. Whilst other directors were playing it safe with sword and sandal movies, Gibson made something unique. He should have built on Apocalypto, but instead he went into self-destruct mode. It's a shame because on his day, Gibson is a very talented director.

Terry Gilliam

The Film: Brazil

Brazil changed everything for Gilliam. His talent was undoubted and as a director he was incredibly imaginative but his post-Python efforts still relied heavily on the troupes glorious comic style. Time Bandits, fun and unique as it was, seemed a lot like a more family friendly version of Python for example. Then came Brazil. Yes, Michael Palin showed up in it, but this was a clean break. Terry Gilliam was showing what he could do as a director with an enormous amount of vision. His sense of humour was still alive and well but Brazil is a great sci-fi film on its own merit. Without it, Gilliam would not have gone on to make the likes of Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was the moment where a director said a fond farewell to his past and went it alone.

Peter Jackson

The Films: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Now that he is one of the biggest names on the circuit, it is quite easy to forget what a big step into the unknown Peter Jackson made when he got the job making The Lord of the Rings. Up until that point, Jackson could best be described as a cult director, his most mainstream film being the 1996 effort The Frighteners. He was talented, there was no doubt about that, but there were more than a few eyebrows raised when he was tasked with making such a tricky and expensive trilogy. It was Jackson's passion and vision for the project that helped get it made however, and what resulted was a success that producers could not have dreamed of.

Stanley Kubrick

The Film: Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In my introduction to the article on directors who had failed when going outside their comfort zone, I marked out Kubrick as an example of someone who did it constantly and succeeded. Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the finest example of this. Kubrick had made some great films before this (Paths of Glory, The Killing etc.) but with Strangelove he took a step into the unknown. He was hardly known for comedy and was often regarded as quite detached and Peter Sellers, genius though he was, was a difficult actor to work with. But Kubrick made one of the finest comedies ever made and certainly the finest satire we are yet to see. From this point on, Kubrick's career began to be remarkably varied and he excelled in almost everything he tried his hand at.

John Landis

The Film: An American Werewolf in London

John Landis was on a roll when he made this film. Coming off the back of the zany energy of Animal House and the Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London was something a bit different but still one of Landis' best films. The humour was still there, although much blacker, but the horror and romance elements of the film worked just as well as the comic side of the story. In truth, Landis had been planning the film long before Animal House or the Blues Brothers but the film was still a big risk and financiers initially baulked at a film that was not a good fit for the comedy or horror genre conventions. Landis managed to create a great atmosphere for the film, which he would go on to recreate for Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Ang Lee

The Film: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was the film that introduced many people to the modern Chinese martial arts movie and made Ang Lee a true household name. However, it was vastly different from Lee's previous work. The likes of Sense and Sensibility and the Ice Storm were much more intimate character studies and though Ride With The Devil had a bigger scope and budget, Crouching Tiger was a big step up. What we got was a thing of beauty. Made for a fairly small budget, Lee created a classic martial arts film. The action scenes were as graceful as they were kinetic but Lee never abandons story for the sake of action. A return to the genre would be very welcome.

Spike Lee

The Film: Inside Man

Spike Lee does mainstream, and Spike Lee does it well. Inside Man is a very solid film. It's not a classic but it's a smart bank heist film. Of course, Lee couldn't make the film without bringing some racial politics into it but the usually very vocal messages of his films are toned down considerably to make a well crafted popcorn thriller. It was a very interesting experiment for Lee, perhaps something he wouldn't want to make a career out of but he proved there was a lot more to him than meets the eye. The directing of Inside Man is exemplary and if Spike Lee ever wants to make another movie to appeal to the masses, he is more than welcome to.

Christopher Nolan

The Film: Inception

It's strange to think of this as a director going outside his comfort zone when he has constantly displayed an unrivalled level of creative vision in his previous works. However, you have to remember that it took his huge success with his Batman reboot for producers to take a punt on this work. Inception is Nolan's first work since Following that was not adapted from any other material and to create such a high concept, ambitious project from scratch for such a huge budget is the mark of an extremely confident director and studio striding out of their comfort zone. Batman already had a huge fan base, and there was much less to lose with The Prestige and Memento but for Inception, Nolan took a risk and followed his vision. What resulted was a box office success and the film of the year, proving more directors and studios need to take the plunge and go into the unknown.

Bryan Singer

The Films: X-Men and X-Men 2

Bryan Singer was no action director when he stepped in to make X-Men. The Usual Suspects had proved he could craft a great story and it was comforting that the project was being taken seriously with a talented director on board but Singer came with no guarantee he could give the popcorn crowd what they wanted. The first X-Men film was solid but cautious; after all, the comic book movie boom was yet to take off so it always felt like Singer was holding back a little. With X-Men 2 however, Singer made a classic in the genre. His lack of action movie experience never seemed to be an issue but the strength of the film lies in Singer's understanding of key central themes such as isolation and stigmatisation. Singer was regarded as such a sure hand with the comic book movie genre that he was tasked with rebooting Superman. It didn't exactly go to plan but it was evidence that Singer had carved out a new niche for himself as a big budget genre director.

Paul Verhoeven

The Film: Black Book

in the late 80's and 90's you knew what to expect with Paul Verhoeven. His films didn't hold back. They were highly sexual, relentlessly violent and very much in your face. When he got things right, they went very right (Total Recall, Robocop). When things went wrong, they went very wrong (Showgirls). Then, all of a sudden, everything went quiet. Verhoeven didn't make a film for 6 years after the relative disaster that was The Hollow Man, but when a new film did show up, it was a very different side of Verhoeven. Returning to his native Holland, it hardly showed Verhoven becoming a shrinking violent, but the tone was much more serious, dealing with war and Nazi occupation in admirable fashion. It was Verhoeven's best film for years.

Martin Scorsese

The Film: The Last Temptation of Christ

This was not the last time Scorsese would make a film you wouldn't expect (see The Age of Innocence), but having built a career on lowlifes, gangsters and psychopaths, Jesus Christ seemed an unlikely next target for Scorsese. Naturally his take on the matter was hugely controversial, and like the novel, it presented ideas that vary quite a bit from Biblical interpretations but Martin Scorsese has never shied away from controversy. Scorsese had always wanted to make a movie based on Jesus, and though it was a departure from his previous work he did exactly that. What we got was one of the better acted and more intriguing interpretations of the life of Jesus.

Alfred Hitchcock

The Film: Rebecca

We all know Alfred Hitchcock as the master of suspense, but he was a master of a few others things besides that. Adapting much loved novels proved to be one of them, and Rebecca, Hitchcock's first Hollywood film, is a classic quite unlike any he had made before or since. It feels so different from Hitchcock's other output partly because Hitchcock was kept on a much tighter leash for this adaptation. Producer David O. Selznick wanted a faithful adaptation so Hitchcock had less freedom to display his revolutionary tricks and plot devices. Nevertheless, despite working within tighter constraints and beginning a voyage into Hollywood film-making that would change cinema forever, Rebecca is a beautifully made and crafted adaptation. It proved that no matter what situation Hitchcock found himself in he could deliver the goods.

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