In his seminal book “Making Movies,” Sidney Lumet wrote, “I’ve done two movies because I needed the money. I’ve done three because I love to work and couldn’t wait anymore. Because I’m a professional, I worked as hard on those movies as on any I’ve done. Two of them turned out to be good and were hits.” As with any freelance job, few filmmakers are in full control of their destiny — they’re at the behest of what they’re offered, what they can actually get made, and, even once a film is in production, any number of factors that can make the difference between a creatively successful or creatively lacking film.
But even so, it’s hard to look at the choices of some directors and feel that they’re not squandering their talent somewhat with the wrong projects, the wrong picks, the wrong direction. After taking a look a few weeks ago at ten actors who need a little adjustment in their career trajectories, we’ve picked out five directors who’ve all done good work in the past, but could do with a little revaluation of where they go from here. There’s plenty more where this lot came from, so if there’s a filmmaker you’d like to see make some better choices in future, let us know who they are in the comments section below.
This is arguably a relative one so read before you fly off the handle, please. Few would have thought back in 1995 that the neurotically charming lead of indie hit “Swingers” — who also wrote the movie’s script — would have turned out to be a major tentpole filmmaker down the line. By the time of the release of megahit “Iron Man” in 2008, few would have suspected that Jon Favreau, by then established better as a director than an actor, would be having the kind of difficulties he faces these days. Favreau made his directorial debut with the solid “Swingers” spiritual sequel “Made” in 2001, but soon found himself with a huge surprise hit after directing Will Ferrell smash “Elf” just two years later. The film had a ridiculous premise, but Favreau walked the line carefully, keeping it smart, charming and sweet, with inspired directorial touches like Rankin/Bass-style stop-motion animation for the visual effects elements. Fewer people saw it, but follow-up “Zathura” was almost as good, a spacebound family adventure that captures the spirit of classic Amblin family fare. And by the time that “Iron Man” was busting blocks at the box office, Favreau was firmly ensconced on the A-list. And yet things haven’t been so happy since. “Iron Man 2” was allegedly beset by creative differences between Marvel and Favreau, and the results on screen sadly speak for themselves. And maybe Favreau shouldn’t take the fall for that one, but the same can’t be said for follow-up “Cowboys & Aliens,” a silly concept done in an overly serious manner with a too-many-cooks script and a generic orange-and-teal look. Worse, the film was also a big money loser. As a result, Favreau’s had problems getting other projects off the ground. Disney’s “Magic Kingdom” doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast, and musical “Jersey Boys” just got put into turnaround by WB. We’re not saying that Favreau isn’t talented. He is and he’s proven it. But as someone who shot up to the A-list so fast and so unexpectedly, he seems to be stumbling at the moment. There was a spot of brightness with J.J. Abrams-produced TV pilot “Revolution,” which Favreau directed. It was not great to be frank, but it was at least a huge hit. But we can’t be alone in thinking that maybe Favreau needs to take a tentpole break and go back to his “Swingers” roots for something that could reinvigorate him creatively. Failing that, maybe a big-screen collaboration with Abrams would be the answer?
Actor-directors don’t always have the easiest time of it, but like Jon Favreau, Peter Berg has been creeping towards the A-list over the years. The one-time “Chicago Hope” actor made his directorial debut with 1998’s enjoyably mean-spirited dark comedy “Very Bad Things” (coincidentally starring Favreau), and proved to be a consistently impressive filmmaker over his next few pictures. First, with underrated Dwayne Johnson actioner “The Rundown,” and more importantly with “Friday Night Lights,” the 2004 football movie that numbers among one of the best sports movies ever made. The film spawned a beloved TV series which was just as good, with Berg directing the pilot, and while it was never high-rated, it’s become something of a pop culture touchstone, to the extent that Mitt Romney tried to steal the “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” slogan of the show for his presidential campaign (Berg objected strongly). 2007’s “The Kingdom” wasn’t quite as strong overall, but was, nevertheless, a decent thriller with some cracking action sequences and some interesting political texture to it. But like with Favreau, the lure of the tentpole seems to have been Berg’s undoing. First up was 2008’s “Hancock,” a ludicrously uneven, tonally bonkers superhero vehicle for Will Smith. It was undoubtedly a creative failure, but we suppose kind of an interesting one, and it was at least a giant hit. The same can’t be said of this year’s “Battleship,” easily one of the worst films of the year; a laughable, noisy, dull blockbuster actioner that’s most notable for an absolute trainwreck of a script, and for Berg abandoning his own visceral action aesthetic to become a third-rate Michael Bay knock-off. Furthermore, the film lost a whole bunch of money for Universal. Berg, after the fact, admitted that the film didn’t work out, saying earlier this year, “It was a movie that I tried as hard as I could to get inside of. But the concept is so big and powerful, and the money is so big and so powerful, that the movie is going to run away with itself.” And follow-up “Lone Survivor,” currently filming with a good cast including Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Eric Bana and Emile Hirsch, will hopefully pick things up. It’s a bona-fide passion project for the director, which Universal financed in exchange for him making “Battleship.” But maybe it’s time for Berg to leave the gung-ho militarism alone for a while and tackle something else? Disability drama “Fathers’ Day” and the mooted “Friday Night Lights” TV series-derived movie both sound like they could be the antidote.
Twenty years ago, John Singleton became both the first African-American and the youngest person in history to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. The filmmaker picked up the Oscar nod (as well as another for the screenplay) for his scintillating, powerful directorial debut “Boyz n the Hood,” all at the tender age of 24. Indeed, when the film premiered at Cannes the previous year, the USC grad was only 23, and his South Central-set film remains an amazingly assured, thrilling and exciting piece of work to this day. And yet Singleton’s never lived up to the promise suggested by it. Follow-up “Poetic Justice” was something of a disappointment, but “Higher Learning” was a minor bounce-back. And 1997 period drama “Rosewood” remains the director’s second best film, even if it tanked at the box office. But since then, it’s been harder to get enthused about a new Singleton film, with the filmmaker becoming a sort of nameless action director-for-hire. Some of those films (“Four Brothers“) have a certain ludicrous pulpy charm. Some (“Shaft,” “2 Fast 2 Furious“) really don’t. Only 2001’s “Baby Boy,” a spiritual sequel to “Boyz n the Hood,” suggested the Singleton of old was still going, and that was eleven years ago. Instead, we got a six-year gap after “Four Brothers,” broken only by last year’s “Abduction,” a truly dreadful Taylor Lautner vehicle that would mark a career nadir for anyone who made it, let alone Singleton. It may be that Singleton, like many filmmakers with distinct storytelling voices, is finding it trickier to get more personal projects set up in the studio system. He was in the running recently for biopics of both N.W.A. and Tupac, but lost out on both cases. But maybe it’s time, as Spike Lee did this year with “Red Hook Summer,” for Singleton to go back to his roots again for something lower-budget, rather than taking the next C-level action programmer that comes across his desk.
Hardly a cinephile favorite, it’s easy to forget the quality of some of Mike Newell‘s work in the 1990s. Newell started off in the golden age of British TV drama, where acclaimed dramatists like David Hare, David Edgar and John Osborne would produce work for the long-since defunct “Play For Today” slot. But he really started to turn heads in the mid-1980s with “Dance With A Stranger,” the Miranda Richardson-starring biopic of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be given the death penalty, which won him an award for best young director at Cannes. Some solid work in the U.K. followed for the rest of the decade until “Enchanted April” (one of Harvey Weinstein‘s first successes with Miramax) kicked off a pretty terrific run of work in the 1990s: charming family comedy “Into The West,” rom-com classic “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” the undervalued “An Awfully Big Adventure,” and, best of all, “Donnie Brasco,” in our view one of the best modern-day mob pictures. Newell showed a diversity, skill with actors and tonal assurance that boded well for what more was to come. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. “Pushing Tin” felt like a minor misfire, and thought he helmed one of the better Harry Potter entries with ‘Goblet Of Fire,’ the work of the last decade has been pretty dismal. Treacly romance “Mona Lisa Smile,” the disastrous Gabriel Garcia Marquez adaptation “Love In the Time of Cholera,” the half-assed blockbuster “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” and, this year, an uninspired, by-the-numbers take on Dickens‘ “Great Expectations” has seen the helmer on a run of middling to terrible pictures. Newell’s seen as a safe pair of hands, but in the worst possible way; there’s a complacency and a disinterest in his recent films, unrecognizable as from the man behind “Donnie Brasco.” Maybe the upcoming Cold War peace summit film “Reykjavik,” with Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan and Christoph Waltz as Gorbachev, will turn things around, but we’re not holding our breath.
All the directors on this list have made films we like, but perhaps only John Singleton can claim to have made one of the best films of its respective decade. Fernando Meirelles can make that claim too; his firecracker debut “City of God” (co-directed with Katia Lund) came out of nowhere, an astonishingly made favela-set crime tale of staggering scope and skill, weaning magnificent performances out of a young, mostly non-professional cast, and doing so with a vibrancy and filmmaking proficiency that suggested the arrival of a major director. And things were almost as promising with the director’s follow-up, “The Constant Gardener,” a quieter, very different film, but one with many of the qualities of its predecessor, and featuring truly great performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (who won an Oscar for her trouble). But Meirelles’ success rate has plummeted with his two subsequent films. An adaptation of Jose Saramago‘s “Blindness,” set in a world where the entire population start to lose their sight, was always going to be a tricky one to get right. But this time, Mereilles’ style worked against him, making it hard to latch onto the film, not least because of an overly allegorical and grubby script. Still, the film’s a masterpiece compared to follow-up “360,” an international spin on “La Ronde” by “Frost/Nixon” writer Peter Morgan, which premiered on the festival circuit last year and swiftly imploded. It looked attractive at least, but a screenplay that alternated between being smug and pat and a throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks visual approach added up to something of a disaster. Meirelles has since been plotting a biopic of Aristotle Onassis, but it missed its mooted 2012 shooting date, so far at least. It doesn’t immediately sound like the right tonic, though. We feel that Meirelles needs to hook up with a really top-flight screenwriter, or even reunite with Lund, in order to regain his mojo.
Thoughts? Surely, you must have some directors in mind who, maybe shouldn’t fire their agent exactly, but perhaps should take a hard look at the projects they’re taking on and asking themselves why the recent ones haven’t worked. Yes, there are a million myriad factors at play when directing a film and lots can go wrong with even the best filmmakers in the world, but placing a closer eye on the material and hopefully not taking the gig just based on a paycheck (though, we get it, that’s a reality for many freelancers), can hopefully ensure the final product is something everyone can at least be reasonably proud of.