Michael Bay sticks to action. Christopher Nolan prefers elaborate thrillers. Quentin Tarantino will stick with any genre that allows him to film an exploding head. Almost every creator in every medium fills a comfortable niche, and cinema is no exception; there are some slippery stylistic ninjas, like Steven Soderbergh, but they’re few and far between. Every once in a while, though, a filmmaker will step outside their established zone and make something vastly dissimilar from their usual work. It might be a one-off thing, and it might fail spectacularly, but there’s no doubt the following directors have taken some big risks at varying points in their careers.
6 For Love of the Game, by Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi is one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood who can say they’ve directed more than one trilogy. His first was the Evil Dead series, starring Bruce Campbell as the increasingly mutilated and mentally unstable demon-killer Ash Williams. The series became famous—or infamous, take your pick—for its graphic dismemberments, fountains of blood, and Campbell’s catchy one-liners. Raimi’s second trilogy consisted of his three Spider-Man films. While the two franchises couldn’t have been any more different in tone, success and MPAA rating, they both possessed Raimi’s brand of wackiness, quick cuts and, of course, Bruce Campbell (he appears in three cameo roles throughout the trilogy).
It’s harder to draw comparisons to For Love of the Game, Raimi’s 1999 baseball drama starring Kevin Costner as an aging pitcher throwing a perfect game (i.e. striking out all opposing batters). Somewhat surprisingly, Raimi’s drift to the mainstream was not very well received, and it wasn’t before long that he returned to his usual wackiness with Spider-Man in 2002.
5 The Keep, by Michael Mann
Michael Mann is known for his slick, often action-heavy thrillers that emphasize realism and technical accuracy over the usual bombastic flare of Hollywood movies. His 1995 heist epic Heat pitted Al Pacino against Robert De Niro as a detective and professional thief, respectively. Manhunter was the first adaptation of a Hannibal Lecter novel (Red Dragon) and had a more signature 1980s aesthetic than Miami Vice (which Mann executive produced and later directed a film adaptation of).
The Keep, released in 1983, was Mann’s second directorial feature and entirely unlike anything he has helmed before or after. Starring Scott Glenn (The Silence of the Lambs) and Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot), it was a supernatural horror film based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson. Set during World War II, it centred on a fortress inhabited by a vengeful Romanian spirit and the attempts of occupying Nazis to control said being. The film was panned by both critics and the author, currently holding a 31% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, and as of this writing is available neither on Blu Ray nor DVD. To this day, Mann has yet to return to the horror genre, though he has explored different time periods as recently as 2009 with his John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies.
4 Elvis, by John Carpenter
John Carpenter created iconic fictional serial killer Michael Myers. He turned the Big Apple into a dystopian penal wasteland for Escape from New York. He even made quantum physics horrifying with Prince of Darkness. With his driving synthesizer scores and sadly underappreciated cinematography, has repeatedly delved into the grungy and the horrific during his several decades-long career.
Elvis, a TV movie directed by Carpenter early in his career, was a biopic of the then recently deceased king of rock and roll. Kurt Russell portrayed Presley in one of his first major roles as an adult actor (he had been a live action Disney star in his younger years), and it marked the first of several collaborations between the actor and Carpenter, with Russell later starring in Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape from L.A. Russell would eventually portray Elvis—or at least an Elvis impersonator—again in the non-Carpenter crime film 3000 Miles to Graceland.
3 The Straight Story, by David Lynch
David Lynch has been an auteur of the weird, dreamlike and utterly inexplicable since his debut feature film, Eraserhead, hit the art house circuit in 1977. Common threads and motifs in his work, from Blue Velvet to the TV series Twin Peaks to Mulholland Dr., have included surreal dialogue, backwards-talking dwarfs, and old Hollywood. Even his lone sci fi film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune, featured some of these (not to mention Sting in a metal bikini).
The lone exception in Lynch’s filmography to date is his 1999 docudrama The Straight Story, which tells the true tale of elderly veteran Alvin Straight’s journey across country on his John Deere tractor mower. The understated and poignant film was an unusually usual, given Lynch’s standards, but it netted the director wide acclaim. Even the late Roger Ebert, who was normally quite critical of Lynch’s work, gave it a full four stars. With an aggregate score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s one of his highest-rated works.
2 Red State, by Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith was on the forefront of independent cinema in the 1990s with his raunchy, dialogue-heavy comedies Clerks and Chasing Amy. His dark religious comedy, Dogma, and stoner road movie Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (co-starring Smith himself as the often silent titular character) have also become cult hits. While his films have varied in scope, budget and success, they’ve always relied on his patented, if divisive, brand of pop culture comedy. Red State, his independently produced and distributed horror film, couldn’t have been any more a departure.
Set in the rural south, and mainly taking place over the course of a single, bloody night, Red State sees a trio of sex-hungry teenage boys caught up in an extremist local church’s violent plot. The Five Points Trinity Church, led by pastor and patriarch Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), is revealed to have been brutally murdering local gay youths, and after a shooting incurs the wrath of the nearby sheriff’s department the Cooper clan finds themselves in a standoff with the ATF, paralleling the 1993 Waco siege. The film received mixed reviews, and incited some controversy for the depiction of religious violence, but it’s hard to argue the director didn’t step outside his comfort zone.
1 Hugo, by Martin Scorsese
A king of cinema since the 1970s, Martin Scorsese has excelled in painting nuanced, intimidating and even appealing pictures of criminal communities with films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Departed. Even when he’s ventured out of this genre, his output has usually been solemn (such as his controversial Biblical film The Last Temptation of Christ) or possessed a dark undercurrent (like his overlooked 1985 black comedy After Hours).
The major exception is his most recent feature film, Hugo. Released in 2011, and based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it’s a decidedly lighthearted story of an orphaned boy, his interactions with the inhabitants of a 1930s Parisian train station, and the early days of cinema (Ben Kingsley co-stars as a fictionalized Georges Méliès, one of the very first film directors). It was the first of Scorsese’s movies to be filmed in 3D, and was made at the behest of his young daughter Francesca, who ordinarily wouldn’t be allowed into her dad’s frequently R-rated flicks. While a commercial disappointment, Hugo was still overwhelmingly critically acclaimed. Scorsese fans concerned that the director would consequently tone down his work needn’t have been worried, either; he followed up Hugo with his darkly comedic biopic The Wolf of Wall Street, which contains the highest number of F-words to date. Francesca probably didn’t get into that one.