“I think we have to get beyond the idea that we have to categorize people,” Roger Ebert once said. It is an idea that is no more felt than in the realm of cinema and celebrity, where our compulsion to categorize merges with the worst of typecasting and image-making. The minute a person excels at something they are defined by it, so much so that any and all departures become shocking diversions rather than relatable human actions.
It doesn’t make sense to be shocked (we all have diverse interests that don’t fit into one neat mold), but we are, time and time again. Generally, it defines our actors as talents are typecast into one very specific sort of role that either makes us forget all that came before (like Christopher Walken being a trained song and dance man before a creepy villain), or keeps them narrowly cast until someone dares to showcase their other talents (like the countless comedians who shock people when they offer stellar dramatic work).
It also happens with directors. If they dare to slip into a certain visual style or approach, we expect every film to follow suit. It can be downright shocking if they diverge from their norm, no matter how many times it happens, and no matter how many times we acknowledge how much Hollywood requires someone to manufacture an image rather than just be themselves. We forget the fact that image is what gets money, and sometimes style is the only thing that gets a filmmaker paid. Today’s studio remake was yesterday’s directorial vision.
What follows are eight directors who shocked audiences when they broke tradition to try something new. For some, it was a quick diversion in an otherwise categorically similar career, while for others it was the beginning of new boundaries and styles. All offered something refreshingly new, and are yet more reasons why creating one particular image isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
David Lynch’s The Straight Story
On one level, it’s not so weird to think of David Lynch directing the story of a man who takes a lawnmower on a 6-week journey to his ailing brother’s bedside. The idea is full of the strange, interpersonal melodrama Lynch is generally attracted to – a story that merges some universal elements with some very idiosyncratic quirk.
What’s astonishing about Straight Story is that it remains the only feature Lynch has ever filmed without some level of atmospheric weirdness. Rather than give Alvin Straight’s adventure his own spin, Lynch let it exist as is, free of his usual finger-snapping strangeness. Because of this, it’s a welcome reminder that Lynch’s skills stretch farther than we’ve grown accustomed to, and that there’s beauty in taking a vacation from your style and letting a subject thrive on its own merit.
David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express
David Gordon Green’s first directorial path wasn’t very long, but it was distinct. The independent filmmaker was known for his exploration of childhood with George Washington, and the dramatic All the Real Girls before star Zooey Deschanel became the face of retro quirk. But just as he wrote an essay praising the singular vision of Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake, lamenting the lack of boldness in cinema – “Let’s lift our voices and cheer for those annual ‘independent cinema breakthroughs’ that are nothing more than the poor man’s version of some bullshit studio retread,” – he joined that very system.
The same year his essay was published on Rohal’s DVD, he made Pineapple Express, one of the many “retread” action comedies featuring funny guys like Seth Rogen and James Franco. He’d follow it with the flop Your Highness and collaborate with Jonah Hill on The Sitter before returning to fare that hewed closer to his directorial roots.
For Green, it seems to be a matter of money. In a 2011 interview, Green talked about the many projects that stagnated because of financing. “People want to make safe, boring zombie movies and vampire movies and comedies. Literally if I walk in the room with a really funny script or a zombie movie or aliens, they’ll say, ‘We want to see more of that, forget about those other things.’”
Gregg Araki’s Splendor
Before Splendor, Gregg Araki was very focused on his brand of New Queer Cinema, where his characters focused on their angst, their dissatisfaction with the world, and a sense of highly quotable doom. In 1999, however, he decided to offer his spin on a candy-colored screwball comedy. Veronica’s relationship with Zed and Abel in Splendor nodded back to his thematic roots while being bright, fun and atypical.
The turn prompted an ongoing exploration for the director, who defied expectation again with the tense drama Mysterious Skin, and then again with the cheery stoner comedy Smiley Face. There are few cinematic areas Araki hasn’t covered over his almost 30-year career, other than some hard-core action and animated fare.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor
For years, Kenneth Branagh was the man of Shakespeare. Any directorial turn that wasn’t written by the Bard saw him exploring similar themes in more modern contexts, like Dead Again or Peter’s Friends. Then, out of nowhere, he was tapped to helm Thor. The assignment, like Lynch’s Straight Story, was one that seemed apt yet surprising. Thor’s story reflected storylines and treatments from Branagh’s past like Hamlet and Frankenstein, but also thrust the director into new, heavily computer generated territory.
Now the actor/director has a much more expansive directorial career. From Thor, he moved to the action thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and his work will next screen in 2015’s Cinderella. The only downside to the openness that allowed him to nab the gig and move into other high-profile projects: that other filmmakers haven’t been extended the same faith.
Spike Lee’s 25th Hour
From film number one, Spike Lee focused on race. After the success of Do the Right Thing, he became Hollywood’s go-to director for films about African Americans and inner city struggles, from his commentary on race in Bamboozled, to exploring iconic figures like Malcolm X.
In the new millennium, however, he helmed what many called his (surprise) masterpiece: 25th Hour, about a white drug dealer who has one day left before a long prison sentence. Lee would challenge accounts that this was his most “accessible” film, especially in light of previous efforts starring actors like John Turturro and Danny Aiello. What looked like a shift in his filmmaking (that would continue with films like Inside Man and Oldboy) spoke more about racial barriers in the industry than actual thematic surprises.
Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz
Few directors boast careers as long as Sidney Lumet, whose first, breakout film was the classic 12 Angry Men, and last film was the crime drama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead fifty years (and dozens of credits) later. For the most part, he focused on dramas that had some sliver of darkness. And then there was a racially unique musical, The Wiz.
When director John Badham left the production after disagreeing about the casting of Diana Ross (as a thirty-something playing the young Dorothy) producer Rob Cohen tapped Sidney Lumet, fresh from the likes of Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus (the story that would later inspire Harry Potter to drop trou onstage). It was a surprising turn by any account, and one rumored to be made for the director’s ability to stick to time and budgetary constraints. He did, however, have a familial tie to the production, even if his hiring seemed out of place: while the film was being shot, he was in his last year of marriage to Lena Horne’s (Glinda the Good) daughter, Gail.
Wes Craven’s Music of the Heart
Out of 29 film and television credits, 27 of Wes Craven’s projects are horror movies, one is an early skin flick under a presumed name (The Fireworks Woman, as Abe Snake), and one is a dramatic musical starring Meryl Streep. The 1999 film completely defies Craven expectation. Where one can see why Lynch would be interested in The Straight Story, there are no thematic ties between Craven’s horror work and his drama. The film is one of Hollywood’s typical white-savior narratives, starring one of the most accomplished actresses of all time, which earned Streep her twelfth Oscar nomination.
He wasn’t randomly picked for the gig. As EW reported in 2000, he leveraged his success with the Scream franchise to nab it. He even admitted that he’d “prefer my future movies not to involve fake blood,” but the desire never came to life, as he followed Scream 3 with four more horror features.
See also: John Carpenter’s Elvis
Related Topics: Filmmaking