There are directors with styles so distinctive, they have their own adjectives. David Lynch can’t help but make movies that are Lynchian, and Steven Spielberg’s work will always contain a hint of the Spielbergian. Then there are the journeyman types who can work in any genre, invisibly and without a hint of directorial flair. Some directors fall into neither of these categories; they built their reputation on making one kind of film, then turned to making another, less distinctive type after becoming absorbed into the Hollywood system.
These are not directors who take a “one for you, one for me” approach, alternating personal projects with work for hire; nor are they directors for whom blockbuster filmmaking was the natural progression from their earlier work. These 11 filmmakers showed great promise in one area of filmmaking, only to alter their voices in the service of commercial success. And although the results aren’t bad—at the very least, they’re competent, and some have done their best work on blockbusters—in each case, something was irrevocably changed in the process.
Once upon a time, Peter Jackson was the mad man of New Zealand, running around the countryside with a little money, a lot of fake blood, and a boundless imagination for gore. With movies like Meet The Feebles, Braindead, and the aptly named Bad Taste, Jackson managed to surpass even Sam Raimi in his dedication to Looney Tunes-inspired slapstick horror. And then that madness suddenly vanished, sacrificed in the service of a dream: faithful adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord Of The Rings. Part of it was simple maturity—sledgehammer battles and ass-kicking kung fu priests are a young man’s game—but there’s an energy and insanity that runs through Jackson’s early films and his output in the mid-’90s, and they ended the moment his campaign to direct The Lord Of The Rings bore fruit. The Fellowship Of The Ring was undeniably a risk—if Jackson had botched it, he’d be remembered now as the man who killed the trilogy’s cinematic fortunes for at least another 20 years. But in many ways it was his last risk, with the irreverence and genuine danger of movies like The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures losing ground to panoramic effects shots, lighthearted banter, and safe, crowd-pleasing grandeur. Even when Jackson tried to return to his earlier style, as in the smaller, more intimate The Lovely Bones, something was missing, an element of bravery and trust in his audience that he now seems to have permanently lost. [William Hughes]
The name Kenneth Branagh used to be synonymous with highbrow literary fare, particularly his film adaptations of Shakespeare classics like Hamlet and Henry V. Then he got an offer to direct Marvel’s Thor, which seemed like an odd choice at the time. But being at the helm of a big-budget production must have suited Branagh, because since his encounter with the God Of Thunder he’s gone on to make an action movie (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and a live-action Disney remake (Cinderella). And although both of those are arguably based on literature, spy novels and fairy tales just don’t have the same cachet. [Katie Rife]
With Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Guy Ritchie was supposed to be the second coming of the down-and-dirty British crime flick. More importantly, he brought fresh, new material to the cinematic landscape. But a string of critical and commercial flops (including the total disaster Swept Away, featuring Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna) led him to a strange place: blockbusters. The success of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows means Ritchie is not returning to the out-there crime thriller genre, or any original stories for that matter, any time soon. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is based on the 1964-’68 TV series and will hit theaters August 14, and Sons Of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam will join Ritchie in treading some very well-worn territory in 2016’s Knights Of The Roundtable: King Arthur. [Molly Eichel]
Director Peter Weir was once one of the guiding lights of the Australian New Wave. A gifted director with a sharp eye for composition, his Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) was the arthouse masterpiece whose international critical and commercial success opened the floodgates for Aussie cinema. From there, the director filmed The Last Wave and Gallipoli, both regarded as classic Australian films, the latter helping launch Mel Gibson to stardom. This period came to an end with The Year Of Living Dangerously, another Gibson-starring vehicle that suggested his Hollywood days were already a gleam in Weir’s eye. Sure enough, from there he transitioned to American blockbusters, and helmed everything from actioners like Master And Commander to awards-bait weepies like Dead Poets Society, and perhaps his most surprising achievement, The Truman Show. His talent never faded, but the possibility of Weir ever again doing anything not in line with Hollywood’s “crowd-pleasing” dictum seems long gone. [Alex McCown]
James Mangold has had one the more unpredictable careers in modern Hollywood history, lurching between genres and styles while delivering product of wildly varying quality. He’s attempted a historical romance (Kate & Leopold), a dopey psychological thriller (Identity), an over-the-top spy comedy (Knight And Day), and a superhero picture (The Wolverine), among others. But while he’s directed some good movies during this run—in particular the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line and the Western remake 3:10 To Yuma—nothing Mangold’s done since 2000 really seems to connect with where he began. His 1995 debut, Heavy, is a beautiful, low-key character sketch, about a shy middle-aged diner cook (played by Pruitt Taylor Vince) looking for love, and Mangold followed that with the star-laden but still artful and personal mystery-drama Cop Land. Those two films, along with the solidly crafted 1999 adaptation of Girl, Interrupted, pointed toward a very different career for Mangold as a director of small, sensitive movies—or at least work recognizable as “a James Mangold picture,” as opposed something that could’ve been helmed by anybody. [Noel Murray]
Doug Liman’s ’90s oevure, consisting of three edgy, youth-oriented comedies in a row, was very reflective of the decade in which they were made. (The trailers for both 1996’s Swingers and 1999’s Go describe the films as “the comedy that defined a generation.”) So maybe Liman’s just flexible, because beginning with The Bourne Identity in 2002, he made a sharp turn away from subcultural joy rides and into slick, star-studded Hollywood genre fare, including the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie action comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the Hayden Christensen sci-fi adventure Jumper, and the Naomi Watts spy thriller Fair Game. By the time he helmed the well-received Tom Cruise sci-fi movie Edge Of Tomorrow in 2014, the poster trumpeted him as the director of Bourne and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, his hip, drug-fueled nightclub scene days long forgotten. [Katie Rife]
There must be something about Swingers. Like his director on that film, Doug Liman, Swingers star Jon Favreau made a name for himself on the ’90s independent scene, largely after writing himself and his buddy Vince Vaughn into the 1996 comedy. Favreau’s directorial debut, Made, tread similar territory to Swingers, and 2003’s Elf further cemented him as a comedy director. Two years later he directed Zathura: A Space Adventure, the first hint at grander ambitions for Favreau, but it was the massive success of Iron Man that established him as an in-demand blockbuster director. Favreau gestured toward his indie-movie past in 2014 by casting himself as the owner of an L.A. food track in the dramedy Chef, but the fact that his next project is a remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book—and that Chef featured little-known film-festival favorites Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson—shows that Favreau is running with a different crowd these days. [Katie Rife]
In the ’90s, Bryan Singer was a promising indie director, winning accolades for intelligent, well-acted fare like Apt Pupil (1998) and The Usual Suspects (1995). In 2000, he was considered a bold choice to direct a big-budget adaptation of X-Men at a time when superheroes were considered a risky proposition. In the years since, comic book movies have come to dominate Hollywood, in part because Singer dove into the genre so wholeheartedly. His first two X-Men movies are still considered among the best superhero films ever made, and he left the series to make Superman Returns, only to return for two more X-movies and counting. While he has since directed the cape-free features Valkyrie and Jack The Giant Slayer, don’t expect Singer to go back to making small-scale thrillers any time soon. [Mike Vago]
John Singleton burst onto the filmmaking scene with 1991’s Boyz N The Hood, a critical and commercial success that some thought would herald a second coming of the kind of personal, introspective, and dangerous black cinema that audiences hadn’t seen since the ’70s. Boyz N The Hood garnered Singleton a best director nomination (a first for a black director) as well as a nomination for his screenplay. Singleton’s next feature, Poetic Justice, while perhaps a little more romantic, was very much in the same spirit as Hood. But after that, things changed—Singleton’s third feature, Higher Learning, fails to reach the heights of Hood and Poetic Justice, instead sinking into a heavy-handed morality play similar to 2004’s Crash. And Singleton’s entire 21st century output, with the exception of Baby Boy, has been nothing more than Hollywood action trash. (Albeit enjoyable Hollywood action trash, especially in the case of 2000’s Shaft.) Perhaps because of Singleton’s lack of involvement in the writing process—or simply because it’s easy to cash that check—Four Brothers and 2 Fast 2 Furious are indistinguishable from any other B-list Hollywood action flick. More recently, Singleton turned in a Taylor Lautner thriller and an episode of the soapy Fox drama Empire, although he showed a little bit of that fire he displayed as a 23-year-old auteur when he said that studios are “refusing to let African-Americans direct black-themed films” while giving a speech at Loyola Marymount University. [Mike Vanderbilt]
The first decade of Gary Winick’s career is composed of gritty indie movies that remained mostly unseen until his Sundance breakout hit, Tadpole, a comedy about a pseudo-sophisticated teenager that was picked up and released by Miramax in the summer of 2002. Tadpole didn’t necessarily herald the arrival of Winick’s distinctive voice—he didn’t write the movie, which has echoes of Rushmore without Wes Anderson’s wit or eye for composition—but it did show real specificity in following a Voltaire-quoting teenager besotted by his stepmother over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend. And although it wasn’t a big hit even by indie standards, Tadpole did well enough to serve as a calling card, and Winick subsequently became a director-for-hire on glossy Hollywood productions like 13 Going On 30, Bride Wars, and Letters To Juliet. There’s little specificity at work in Winick’s big studio movies, which tend to approach romance by relying on archetypes, with little of the genuine, human confusion of Tadpole (though 13 Going On 30 and Bride Wars do share Tadpole’s Manhattan setting). Sadly, there aren’t more movies to study for signs of Winick’s more idiosyncratic origins—he died of brain cancer in 2011, just shy of 50. [Jesse Hassenger]
It’s a bit early yet to tell if the directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo will return to its comedy roots, but considering that signing on to direct a Marvel film now involves roughly the same level of commitment as the average mortgage, it’s safe to say they will be making superhero fare for the better part of the next decade, at least. And yes, Marvel is not DC, and MCU movies are known for bringing witty dialogue and a comedic tone to stories of people in costumes throttling each other. But before they were recruited to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers were not gaining action-movie experience directing episodes of Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings (nor the 2006 rom-com You, Me And Dupree, for that matter), making their hiring something of a surprise. They seem to have been able to muddle through nonetheless. [Katie Rife]