There’s been quite a cool trend lately that Hollywood’s been pulling out of its sleeve and I think it’s been making our movies…better! Well, some of them, anyway. But it’s certainly not a rarity lately that a small-time director–sometimes with quite the cult fanbase–is brought on to helm a big ol’ mega-budget franchise or to head the lofty remake of a much-loved classic or simply just to give Hollywood filmmaking a go.
Take Gavin Hood, for example. Hood was known just a couple of years ago as the director of the Oscar-winning foreign language film Tsotsi and another reasonably small film (despite its cast) called Rendition. And now, this summer, here he is in the director’s chair of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s not quite the film you’d expect from the director of an Academy Award-winning foreign film, but that’s not to say it isn’t kinda fun.
Hood is just one of many small-time directors that’s taken the leap from minimal exposure to overexposure. Let’s take a look at a few more.
David Gordon Green
Few directors scream “indie” at the top of their lungs like David Gordon Green. (And of course screaming “indie” is always done so with a quiet whisper right up close to someone’s ear.) Green had quite the army of quiet, thoughtful character dramas going. His first feature was 2000′s George Washington, not a historical drama, but a poignant coming-of-age story. Then he made All the Real Girls, a sad rumination on young love that starred Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel. Undertow and Snow Angels both continued his penchant for thoughtful (yet thoroughly depressing) indie fare.
And then came Pineapple Express. A comedy. An Apatow comedy. An Apatow action-comedy. Woah. The film was scripted by Seth Rogen and his Superbad writing partner, Evan Goldberg and involved two stoners on the run from the mob after witnessing a murder. It’s an absolutely hilarious pot-addled fantasy of classic male machismo fully realized to absolutely cartoonish proportions and with it, Green proved that he is fully capable of doing more than just making people want to kill themselves. Next up is a full-on other-worldly comedic fantasy called Your Highness. Should be interesting.
This one’s just kind of obvious. Jackson started out making zero-budget splatter movies with his buddies in New Zealand. They did, however, go on to become pretty widely-adored cult classics. Why, Bad Taste, his gore-centric 1987 sci-fi comedy about aliens coming to earth to harvest human flesh as fast food for their planet, was made over the period of four years on the weekends when the cast and crew weren’t working their day jobs. It’s a thoroughly whacky and disgusting movie that features a character played by Jackson himself who keeps having to shove his own brains back into his skull because they keep falling out. In other words, it’s awesome! Dead-Alive (or Braindead, if you’re not from America) is cut from the same cloth, as well. A man with an overbearing mother has to hide her in the basement when a disease-carrying monkey bites her and turns her into a zombie. Gore ensues. So much so that this one usually tops most lists of goriest films ever made (and if amount is the only thing basis of judgement for that, then that’s probably accurate). It’s all played for laughs, though, and it earns every one of them. And don’t get me started on Meet the Feebles, suffice it to say that if you’ve ever heard of this movie and heard it described as “Muppets on acid” then that’s about the size of it.
And then one day, after a few other films that have a little bit more prestige to them (like 1994′s Heavenly Creatures), someone over at New Line decided to give the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to that Meet the Feebles guy. Oh, how this might have gone wrong…but boy how it didn’t! Jackson’s Rings trilogy swept the nation picking up loads of awards (and loads of money) and eventually went on to win good ol’ Peter “shovin’ my brains back in my head” Jackson his very own Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. Is it just me or is that totally awesome?
Of course, not all jumps into the Hollywood mainstream are quite as successful as Peter Jackson’s. Why, just look at Neil LaBute. LaBute had a great thing going making “Neil LaBute movies.” These included dialogue-heavy films about relationships and the battle of the sexes–movies like In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, and The Shape of Things. The films got critical praise (even though there are certainly some who hate them with a passion) and solidified “Neil LaBute” as something of an adjective among people who knew what you were talking about. He was just sort of quintessentially indie.
And then came his 2006 remake of the horror cult classic The Wicker Man. Not exactly a big-budget movie (although certainly bigger than the shoestring budget of the original), but it was nevertheless a classic example of Hollywood trying to cash in on the old by making it new…and with Nicolas Cage. And things did not turn out well for him. The movie was universally panned and is often used as the ultimate punchline when discussing how monstrously bad horror remakes can be sometimes. After that one, however, he gave us last fall’s mainstream thriller Lakeview Terrace with Samuel L. Jackson and Patrick Wilson playing feuding neighbors caught in the throes of racial tensions. It’s actually not that bad, although it’s not really that good, either. Personally I’m still waiting for Neil LaBute to make another “Neil LaBute movie.”
Christopher Nolan is a beautiful man and he’s done some beautiful things that he should be infinitely proud of. His first film was the very tiny black-and-white thriller called Following in 1998, which he followed up in 2001 with the highly-admired Memento, a brilliant thriller about a man with no short-term memory hunting for his wife’s killer. To properly put you in the mind of the protagonist, Nolan tells the story in reverse order, with each scene taking place before the one that preceded it. It was a fairly small indie flick that earned him some decent attention as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Next he upgraded a bit, making the thriller Insomnia for Warner, which starred Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and recent Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. It was a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name and while it garnered some outstanding reviews, it went mostly unseen.
And then it happened. Warner put all their faith in his ability to make a great film and handed him the Batman franchise, telling him to start it the hell over. And it was then that he made Batman Begins. And what an absolutely terrific film that was. Nolan made an excellent casting decision, sticking Christian Bale in the title role and placed other brilliant and capable actors all around him–including Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman. Why the only thing that could have possibly been better than that movie was its sequel, last summer’s The Dark Knight, which not only quickly became the most highly-revered superhero film of all time, it went on to become the 2nd-highest-grossing movie ever, pulling in $533 million and it won an Oscar for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. Pretty damn cool.
Sam Raimi’s been a cult favorite ever since he came on the scene with his low-budget 1981 horror opus The Evil Dead, which made a cult icon out of its star, Bruce Campbell, and taught us all that trees–though seemingly harmless–only want to rape you. It’s a pretty balls-out crazy movie, so of course it needed a sequel, right? Right! Cue 1987′s Evil Dead II, which took the subtle black humor of the first film and brought it out into the sunshine. Slapstick horror starts here. Evil Dead II may as well be a Three Stooges movie with gore–and thus it’s an even bigger cult classic than its predecessor, which paved the way for the straight comedy that was Army of Darkness in 1992, where the hero of the series, Ash (Campbell) found himself stuck in Medieval times (and I don’t mean the dinner theater). Raimi also punched out a few more flicks, including the pitch-black Liam Neeson superhero film, Darkman, the crazy western, The Quick and the Dead, the inexplicable Kevin Costner baseball drama For Love of the Game, the absolutely excellent thriller A Simple Plan, and the Cate Blanchett fortune-teller mystery The Gift.
And then someone decided that the Spider-Man franchise–which had yet to see its way to the silver screen in any capacity–would look good in his hands. And they were right! (For the most part.) Spider-Man, released in 2002, was an immediate success and probably played a big part in Warner’s decision to give Batman to an indie director. 2004′s Spider-Man 2 was even better. Worlds better, in fact! And the first one was pretty good, to boot. Easily one fo the best superhero films out there, Spider-Man 2 graced us with thrilling action, a great story, and one of the most fully realized superhero characters in the history of the genre. It’s really a great movie. And then came Spider-Man 3. And I think we’d all like to forget that movie ever happened. Spider-Man 3 was an absolute mess. It was so bad that I seriously thought that Sam Raimi himself was going to stop the film while we were watching it at that midnight screening, step out and tell us that we had been watching a fake version of the movie and we had all been duped. Yeah, that didn’t happen. My nightmare was real.
But now he’s back to old-school horror this Friday when Drag Me to Hell gets unleashed upon American audiences. I’ve heard nothing but great things about this movie and I have loved every bit of advertising leading up to it. The trailer was fantastic, the poster is wonderful, I am all kinds of jazzed! Now that Raimi has some weight to pull around (and a respectable budget, brought on by his leap to mainstream Hollywood) I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us! Be sure to check back with us on Friday for out review of Drag Me to Hell!