Like everyone else, it seems like movie directors end up with labels attached to them. Dario Argento’s the guy who does splattery horror, James Cameron‘s brilliant, but hard to work with, and so on and so forth. But just because moviegoers know Peter Jackson as ‘that middle earth guy’ doesn’t mean he’s only directed big budget fantasy epics. Sometimes when directors depart from their text the results are interesting, well-made movies (and sometimes the results have critics and audiences alike going ‘wait- that was *that* director?’).
8) Wes Craven, Music of the Heart
Wes Craven‘s famous (or maybe that should be infamous), for his horror movies. He’s the creative force behind both the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, and helped bring the meta-horror genre into existence with Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare (Also known as A Nightmare on Elm Street 7), and the self-aware heroes of the Scream movies. Then, in 1999, after the release of Scream 2, Wes Craven stepped away from the bloodbath, and directed Music of the Heart.
Starring Meryl Streep, Aiden Quinn and Angela Basset, Music of the Heart was based on a true story of a music teacher’s struggle to teach the violin, and the joy of music, to children at her underprivileged school. It’s a far cry from Freddy Kreuger, that’s for sure. It wasn’t a smash hit, but it was nominated for two Oscars, one for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Roberta Guaspari, and one for Best Original Song, ‘Music of My Heart’ performed by Diane Warren. The film was well-enough received, and had grossed over 14 million dollars by January of 2000.
It wasn’t enough to garner a lasting genre change, though, and after Music of the Heart, Craven returned to his home genre, with Scream 3 and, as far as we viewers can tell, has never looked back.
7) Guy Ritchie, Swept Away
British director Guy Ritchie‘s made his name in crime capers. And I say ‘capers’ instead of ‘dramas’, because his movies, while dealing with corruption, double dealing and all manner of fraud, also have a sly sense of humor to them, which has delighted audiences around the world. Even his biggest movies, the two Downey–Law Sherlock Holmes, have kept the same tongue-in-cheek style found in Rocknrolla and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. However, in 2002, Guy Ritchie collaborated on a slightly different project with his then-wife, Madonna.
The result was a remake of the 1974 movie Swept Away, a romance about a spoilt socialite who is stranded on a desert island with a sailor during a cruise. The movie was an utter flop, grossing less than $600,000 in the US (off a $10 million budget) and Lina Wertmüller, who directed the original, reportedly left the movie crying ‘what did they do to my movie?’. The film did sweep away one awards show, though: The Golden Raspberry Awards, where it won the worst picture, worst actress, worst screen couple, worst remake and worst director razzies, as well as receiving nominations for worst actor and worst screenplay. After this, Ritchie returned to the film making world he was more comfortable in, with 2005’s Revolver, about an ex-con’s elaborate revenge scheme against the man who sent him to prison.
6) John Landis, An American Werewolf in London
Comedy is a picky genre; people have their preferences and trying to cater to them can end in disaster, but not catering to them means that no one will see your movie. Not that John Landis has this problem: as a director, he’s provided the world with both Animal House and The Blues Brothers, arguably two of the best films in the genre. So, when you’ve released two great comedies within three years of each other, the next step in your career is clear:
Direct a horror movie. Or at least, that’s what John Landis did. The end result was 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, one of the greatest werewolf movies ever made. The tagline capitalized on the genre leap, with one of them being ‘From the director of Animal House — a different kind of animal’. The movie grossed 20 million within a month of its release (doubling its $10 million budget), and won an extremely well deserved Oscar for Rick Baker’s makeup (the transformation scene is definitely the best I’ve ever seen, with apologies to Ginger Snaps).
Afterwards, Landis returned to comedy, but continues to make the occasional horror movie, directing films like Twilight Zone: The Movie, Innocent Blood and a few episodes of the Masters of Horror television show.
5) George Lucas, American Graffiti
George Lucas: now take a moment and hum through the theme playing in your head. The creative force behind Star Wars, and the director of Star Wars: A New Hope and those three…other… Star Wars movies that came out in the late 90s, he’s been almost exclusively a sci-fi director. Give a man like George Lucas a spaceship, and he’ll turn it into a multimillion dollar empire. But he’s tried other things as well. After the release of his first movie, the dystopian sci-fi THX 1138 (1971), his next project was 1973’s American Graffiti.
Rather than focusing on far-flung galaxies, American Graffiti took a comedic look at a group of high school grads on the night before they leave home for college. The movie was a hit, the themes and treatment no doubt resonating with the audience, and grossed $115 million off a $777,000 budget. It was also the first project that Lucas worked on with Harrison Ford, who would reunite with Lucas four years later for Star Wars: A New Hope, and catapult to super-stardom from there.
4) Joss Whedon, Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon‘s pretty much the nerd-king of the universe. He’s a solidly genre-director, and has the legions of devoted fans to show for it. He’s the creative mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spinoff Angel), Firefly (the cancellation of which people are still angry about), Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog (made on the cheap for something to do during the 2007-8 writer’s strike), Dollhouse and The Avengers, which became one of those rarefied smash hits to earn over a billion dollars.
So, what’s a guy to do during his downtime while making The Avengers, one of the most anticipated comic-book movies of all time? Apparently, call up your actor friends and shoot another movie in your house. Maybe one of the lesser known Shakespearean comedies? Made in secret and finishing filming in just twelve days, Whedon released his version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, to quiet fanfare.
The black and white movie was well reviewed, winning one of the Top 10 Independent Films awards from the National Board of Review in 2013, and charmed audiences with its combination of heart and comedy. Here’s hoping he does Twelfth Night in between takes for Avengers: Age of Ultron!
3) Peter Jackson, Heavenly Creatures
He might have messed up the Battle of Helm’s Deep and left out Tom Bombadil, but Peter Jackson‘s fame for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is well deserved. Currently, he’s stretching The Hobbit into three movies, and like Whedon, is solidly a genre director. Even when not in Middle Earth, he’s focused on the fantastic, from the dark sci-fi comedy Bad Taste to 2005’s monster mash King Kong.
But, in 1994 he tried something different: the dreamily sinister Heavenly Creatures. The film chronicled the true story of two girls who, in order to keep from being separated, conspire to kill one of their mothers in 1950s New Zealand. Starring Kate Winslet, who won an Empire Award for her work in the film, the movie was a critical success, and the script was nominated for an Oscar. After the release of Heavenly Creatures, his next movie was the horror-comedy The Frighteners, followed by his ascendance into genre-heaven, with 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
2) M. Night Shyamalan, The Last Airbender
M. Night Shyamalan‘s made his name in contemporary supernatural films, usually with a shocking twist, breaking into the public’s mind with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, the highest grossing horror movie yet made. After The Sixth Sense, he went on to make Unbreakable, and Signs, both of which followed his formula of expertly directed, rich in atmosphere films, complete with a big twist. However, by the time of 2004’s The Village, people were getting a little tired of the same old same old (not in the least because The Village had some very hard-to-ignore similarities to Margaret Petersen Haddix’s young adult novel, Running Out of Time), and the M. Night Shyamalan buzz was officially wearing thin.
So, after 2008’s The Happening, he tried something else. Namely, the live-action adaptation of the beloved cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was the most expensive of Shyamalan’s films and almost universally panned. Not only was it felt the film failed to translate the complexities of the cartoon’s story and design onto the big screen, but it also drew major fire for its whitewashing, where characters who were definitely not white in the cartoon were played by white actors in the film (it actually lead to the creation of racebending.com, an organization dedicated to advocating for the casting of POC in POC roles).
Shyamalan has since returned to his speculative mysteries, with films like After Earth and the upcoming pilot of the show Wayward Pines.
1) Kenneth Branagh, Thor
Kenneth Branagh‘s start was in acting, and he’s a fine actor, with an admirable love for theater, especially Shakespeare. His directorial work shows that love, with a third of his directorial credits for adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Those that aren’t tend to follow theater rules (character studies that take place either over brief periods of time or in small locations), or they’re adaptations of other classics, like Frankenstein or The Magic Flute.
So it was a bit of a surprise that he was hired to direct 2011’s superhero smash Thor, the second hero to get a movie in the build up to The Avengers. This was a Shakespearean moviemaker, used to meditations on things like character and morality, but could he handle the joyful simplicity of ‘well-muscled hero hits bad guys with hammer’?
The answer was a resounding yes. In Branagh’s hands Thor not only hit the bad guys with a hammer, but deftly dealt with a terrible case of sibling rivalry and began to learn about the rigours of leadership, much to fans’ delight, grossing $181 million within a few months. And apparently Branagh enjoyed his jaunt into action-adventure, his latest project is the spy adventure Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.