The Films of Frank Capra III, Ranked

As The Fate of The Furious enters theaters, a ranking of its 1st Assistant Director’s oeuvre.

Friday brings us the release of The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in The Fast & The Furious series. Thus, there could be no better time to look back and rank the previous works of one of the films most notable craftsmen, a man whose name is legendary. I speak of course of First Assistant Director Frank Capra III.

Capra III is the grandson of director Frank Capra, a Hollywood legend whose work includes It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. How did that pedigree fare two generations removed? This exhaustive look at Mr. Capra III’s 1st AD career will tell the tale.

While the film’s director often gets the lion’s share of the credit, the First AD is one of the most critical positions on set. In fact, it’s the most important person “below the line.” (In other words, the most important of the people who aren’t “important.”) He or she is the one who keeps the trains running on time, the taskmaster who sets the schedule and then keeps everyone on it. They oversee the entire crew and essentially do all the hard work so the director can focus on the minutiae of their job. A true student of film can probably stop the distinctive work of an AD everywhere without even checking the credits.

21. Oscar (1991) – Mr. Capra the Third’s maiden voyage as 1st AD was the rather unremarkable mob comedy from Stallone’s brief foray into lighter fare such as this and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! Capra’s background directing seems stranded in the stagy production design.

20. North (1994) – This film began life as one of the notoriously great unmade scripts. It ended as a dog so bad that Roger Ebert’s legendary negative review is more historically relevant than the film itself. It’s also the first Rob Reiner film that is worse than “very good,” making for an epic plunge rarely seen. Most directors favor the slow decline.

19. The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) – I swear this filmography won’t read like an index of Ebert’s most aggressively negative reviews.

18. Honey, I Blew Up The Kid (1992) – After a lot of relatively grounded films, Capra gets to mix things up with some VFX and forced-perspective work. At the time, it seemed like it might signal a shift in his style, but the majority of his resume after this remained grounded and realistic. It’s an odd fit with most of the next decade of his work.

17. Murder By Numbers (2002) – In making this list, I realized I confused this film with Murder in the First, and I think we were all better off for that mistake.

16. Flipped (2010) – Loyalty to Mr. Reiner isn’t worth much when it gets one’s name attached to this little-seen flop from 2010. Capra may have felt that was, as this was their last collaboration after he worked as 1st AD on every Reiner film since A Few Good Men.

15. The Deep End of the Ocean (1999) — Capra took a producing credit on this film, which was roundly panned for everything except the performances from the lead actors. It’s not one of Capra’s better efforts at running a set.

14. Alex & Emma (2003) – Another of Reiner’s efforts at telling a film with multiple perspectives and different levels of reality. It tries hard, very hard, but I don’t think any of the blame lies with the professionalism Capra’s craft shows here.

13. I.Q. (1994) — Some fine production work and excellent period atmosphere is let down by some leaden attempts at comedy and a ridiculous-looking Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein. Capra is blameless, though as the only thing that might have saved this was setting fire to a few of his background players.

12. Jack Frost (1998) – Fake snow is hard to direct, but coming from the grandson of the man who made one of the greatest Christmas movies ever, not to mention the man who himself was 2nd AD on a modern Christmas classic (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), this should have been more of a slam dunk. After a couple films without Rob Reiner, this possibly landed Capra in Assistant Director Jail, until their next collaboration.

11. Eraser (1996) — It’s the mid-90s. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger film produced by Arnold Kopelson and Anne Kopelson. John Millius, Frank Darabount and Bill Wisher all took uncredited turns at the script, and the film was directed by the only man to make a great Nightmare on Elm Street film other than Wes Craven. And it sucks. So where are you gonna put the blame?

10. The Story of Us (1999) – I guarantee you’ve clicked past this film on cable and you can’t remember anything to say about it either.

9. Rumor Has It (2005) – It’s a premise that doesn’t really work (Jennifer Aniston learns her mother and grandmother might have been the inspiration for The Graduate.) Reiner at this point was still big enough that people couldn’t tell him “no,” but I bet Capra had enough candor with him that he could have offered counsel, had Reiner asked.

8. The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) — An underrated entry in the Eddie Murphy canon, that surely owes a great deal of its success to Capra’s management of the schedule that includes several cameos from veteran character actors like Kevin McCarthy, Noble Willingham and star James Garner. The location work feels real, surely the result of Capra’s steady hand. It starts off feeling like a cynical rebuke of Capra’s grandfather’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but by the end, that edge has been dulled away to expose how authentic that sentimentality would be in a post-Watergate climate.

7. The Bucket List (2007) – It’s… okay, but everyone here is coasting, and having been on a set, that’s what happens when things are running TOO smoothly. The artistry of the 1st AD is to allow just enough chaos into the workplace to shake people out of their complacency, particularly when everyone else on set is a total professional. If there’s a case of someone being too good at their job to the detriment of the film, it’s probably this.

6. The Ghosts of Mississippi (1996) – Sure, it’s Oscar bait, but it’s got an all-star cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg and a nearly unrecognizable James Woods as a murderous southern racist on trial for killing civil rights leader Medgar Evars. By this point, there’s little in the courtroom work to challenge either Capra or director Reiner, but hey, if you were making a movie about dinosaurs in the present, you’d probably call Spielberg first, so I’m disinclined to knock Reiner and team for playing too much to their strengths.

5. My Cousin Vinny (1992) — The comedic timing is never interrupted by Capra’s background artistry, and it’s that nearly-invisible work that earned Marisa Tomei an Oscar. One of the most rewatchable in the canon.

4. A Few Good Men (1992) – one of the best film’s in Capra’s canon, it would rank higher if more than half of it didn’t take place in a courtroom with few extras to direct and even less background action to coordinate. Still, it is a highlight of Capra’s numerous collaborations with Rob Reiner and the first time he’d run the set for Reiner. That this first collaboration was the last in Reiner’s incredible seven-film streak that began with This is Spinal Tap is probably a coincidence.

3. The American President (1996) – It’s the perfect marriage of the Washington insider knowledge Capra inherited and then later honed on The Distinguished Gentleman and the smooth working relationship Capra enjoyed with director Reiner. Borrowing that sweet D.C. mojo from Capra, Reiner gets some of his groove back, managing a brief recovery from North.

2. Bulworth (1998) — As good as The American President is, Bulworth is even better, and Capra didn’t even need Reiner on this one. Today this one feels far less like satire and would probably play as tame and toothless in our current political climate. At the time, Capra was ahead of the curve and firing on all cylinders.

1. Drive (2011) — Credit for the action scenes can’t entirely go to Capra, as the second unit likely handled a lot of that work, but working with the challenge of a low budget and tight schedule likely tested Capra’s ability to accurately guess how many pages could be shot a day, and work out the logistics of the memorable car chases.