Double Act: Great Director/Actor Partnerships

September 27, 2018
In this special feature, we look at some of cinema’s greatest director/actor collaborations.

BRYAN SINGER & SIR IAN MCKELLEN “I’m a huge admirer of Bryan Singer’s, and a bit of a friend,” Sir Ian McKellen told FilmInk in 2014. “I’ve done more films with him than any other actor. The first was Apt Pupil. Then we did two X-Men films. Then I did a little contribution to Jack The Giant Killer. And I’ve just done my fifth [X-Men: Days Of Future Past], and I don’t think anybody else has done five movies with him.” Along with Peter Jackson and his Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings, Bryan Singer was also responsible for turning McKellen – a veteran character actor and longtime legend of the British stage – into a pop culture superstar. Casting McKellen as the highly complex and often sympathetic metal-moving mutant villain, Magneto, in the X-Men movies was a masterstroke from Bryan Singer, who first worked with the actor on the aforementioned (now retrospectively highly controversial) 1998 thriller, Apt Pupil, in which McKellen played a Nazi war criminal. “We were actually introduced by a mutual friend early on,” Bryan Singer told Venice Magazine in 1998 of how he cast the then little known McKellen in Apt Pupil. “I had a list of obvious older, European actors, but I wanted to have this character played by someone who wasn’t as familiar to mainstream audiences. Ian also brought a degree of British charm and flamboyance to this otherwise stoic German character.” McKellen then of course brought much needed gravitas to Magneto in Singer’s X-Men, and along with Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier, provided the essential drama at the heart of the eventual series.

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MARTIN SCORSESE & ROBERT DE NIRO For his sophomore feature, Mean Streets (1973), director, Martin Scorsese, offered young actor, Robert De Niro, four parts, and he wisely took the role of the manic, scene stealing Johnny Boy. “We were brought up in the same area, and we see things the same way,” Scorsese has said of De Niro. “We also had the sense of being outsiders.” Their next collaboration was on Taxi Driver (1976), with De Niro in the lead role as deranged cabbie, Travis Bickle. Scorsese had been working on the film for three years with screenwriter, Paul Schrader. De Niro, meanwhile, was coming off the success of The Godfather: Part II, and was being labelled the new Brando. “Bob was so determined to get the character of Travis down that he drove a cab for a couple of weeks,” Scorsese has said. After a critical and box office misfire with New York, New York (“a heartbreak,” according to Scorsese), the pair reunited for Raging Bull (1980). The story of true life boxer, Jake La Motta, the film was De Niro’s idea, and initially, the exhausted Scorsese didn’t want to do it. The final product was a masterpiece, and the film rates as one of the finest acts of director/actor collaboration ever committed to film. Next, De Niro brought The King Of Comedy (1983) to Scorsese’s attention. “Bobby and I were as close as Siamese Twins emotionally,” Scorsese reflected at the time. “We were tied together for the good and the bad…for everything.” Cape Fear (1991), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) followed.


JOHN FORD & JOHN WAYNE “My name’s John Ford,” the great director once famously said. “I make westerns.” His partnership with actor and American icon, John Wayne, lasted over fifty years. Ford saved Wayne from the no-budget westerns that he had been making for ten years when he cast him as The Ringo Kid in his first sound western, Stagecoach (1939). “I just looked up to this man,” Wayne said of the director. “He was a big hero of mine. He was intelligent and quick thinking.” The two made 24 films in 36 years, and were great friends off screen. Wayne’s screen persona has come to stand as the embodiment of Ford’s ideal of the rugged American individualist. Arguably, their greatest collaboration was the brilliant and complex western, The Searchers (1956), in which Wayne portrayed a racist outsider tracking his kidnapped niece, and intent on purging America’s prairies of its indigenous inhabitants. The duo’s famous “cavalry trilogy” included Fort Apache (1948), Rio Grande (1950), and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), in which Wayne played an aged soldier. The critics announced in advance that Wayne wasn’t up to the task of playing an old man. “They didn’t bother to judge for themselves,” Ford retorted. “But he did it, and beautifully. It was a very moving performance.” According to Wayne, it was “the best thing I’ve ever done.” Their final masterwork together was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – appropriately enough, an elegiac contemplation of the western hero – which was regarded as Ford’s last important film. John Ford made 112 movies in a sixty-year career, but his best works were unquestionably the ones that he made with John Wayne.


WOODY ALLEN & DIANE KEATON Woody Allen’s 1969 stage play, Play It Again, Sam, marked the beginning of the writer/actor/director’s love affair with actress, Diane Keaton, but by the time the film version was made in 1972, they were no longer in a romantic relationship. They did, however, remain firm friends. “Keaton was in a class by herself,” Allen has said. The seventies were a golden age for Allen and Keaton, with the pair producing their best work. From the hilarious slapstick of Bananas (1971) and Love And Death (1975), to Keaton’s Oscar winning performance in Annie Hall (1977), the pair appeared to have The Midas Touch. “I’ll sacrifice some of the laughs for a story about human beings,” Allen said of Annie Hall, which marked a stylistic departure. “It will be richer, and a better experience.” Allen’s unlikely follow-up to Annie Hall – the deadly serious, Ingmar Bergman inspired drama, Interiors (1978) – went for broke, but the film misfired. Allen, however, had nothing but admiration for his lead actress. “She’s intelligent,” he said. “A lot of actresses, who are, say, 35, refuse to play mothers, for example. They want to be glamorous. Diane goes for the good roles. In the long run, that’s what pays off.” Allen’s next film, Manhattan (1979), featured Keaton as a snobby intellectual, and the movie’s most unforgettable moment shows the actress with her director and co-star under the 59th Street Bridge watching the sunrise. It has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Their last film together, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), had commentators amusingly arguing that Allen and Keaton were playing Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer and Annie Hall in middle age.


BILLY WILDER & JACK LEMMON In the spring of 1958, director, Billy Wilder, ran into actor, Jack Lemmon, at a restaurant in Hollywood. “I have an idea for a picture that I’d like you to play in,” said Wilder. “It’s about two men on the lam from gangsters, running for their lives, and they dress up in girls’ clothes and join an all-girl orchestra.” The eventual film, Some Like It Hot (1959), opened to tepid reviews but great box office, and is now considered a comedy classic. Lemmon claims that he literally fell off the couch laughing when he first read the script. Wilder’s next picture, The Apartment (1960), was offered to Lemmon on the way to a screening of Some Like It Hot.  Biographer, Ed Sikov, noted that in Jack Lemmon, “Billy Wilder saw new potential – the endearing comedy of an American loser.” The Apartment swept the Academy Awards, winning Wilder three, including writing and directing. “He is certainly one of the most fascinating and intelligent people that I have ever known,” Lemmon has said of Wilder. “His body of work is unequalled by any other filmmaker.” The pair reteamed for Irma La Douce in 1963. “He has the greatest rapport with an audience of anyone since Chaplin,” the director said of his star. Lemmon – and his regular acting partner, Walter Matthau – then joined Wilder for his remake of The Front Page (1974). “Billy and Walter and I were going to be partners in this thing, and split it three ways,” Lemmon said of the film. Sadly, the lowlight of the Wilder/Lemmon partnership was Wilder’s last film, Buddy Buddy (1981), a lifelessly morbid comedy that fails on every level.


RIDLEY SCOTT & RUSSELL CROWE Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe’s first film with director, Ridley Scott, was something special. It garnered Crowe a Best Actor Oscar, and started a five-picture collaboration between the actor and director. It reinvigorated the sword-and-sandals epic, and fused a fiercely intelligent actor with an equally fierce director. “He said that he noticed me in one of the very first films that I did, Romper Stomper, and that he also liked my acting in L.A Confidential,” Crowe has said. At the Gladiator premiere, Scott praised his star: “I just thought that Russell was fresh, and from a new generation – he’s a man definitely on his way up.” Next, the light comedy, A Good Year (2006) – a major change of pace for the pair – featured Crowe as an uptight English banker and bond trader. The press was unkind. “We had fun on A Good Year, and even though we got beaten up for it, I still think it’s a good movie,” Scott retorted. “Russell was excellent in it.” “Let’s make this work,” the director said to Crowe on the set of A Good Year about their next project, American Gangster (2007), a seventies-set crime thriller. The political espionage thriller, Body Of Lies (2008), followed. “People make the assumption that we agree on everything,” Crowe has said of his director. “That’s ridiculous.” Robin Hood (2010) opened The Cannes Film Festival, but couldn’t overcome a problematic script. Reports of tensions on set were dismissed. “I like his artistic vision, and his ability to create worlds, and to give them uncommon authenticity,” Crowe reflected on his working relationship with Scott. “The great actors are never easy,” Scott countered.


STEVEN SODERBERGH & GEORGE CLOONEY Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney have made six films together paired as director and actor (three Ocean’s movies, Out Of SightSolaris, and The Good German), and many more as producing partners. Out Of Sight (1998) arrived post Batman And Robin (1997), and Clooney recalled that he and Soderbergh (whose previous films – Kafka, King Of The Hill, and Underneath – had failed to live up to the promise of his groundbreaking 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape) were both “coming off really low points in our careers.” The slick, savvy Out Of Sight kicked off a working relationship between the two that would last six years. They started the production company, Section Eight, which fostered both mainstream Hollywood films and more personal, cerebral works. This “one for the studio, one for us” strategy, as Clooney once described it, was a means of financing more “difficult” films, such as Michael Clayton and Syriana. “The film business is a very strange place to work, and when you find people that you feel you’re in sync with, you hang on to them, because they can be a calming influence,” Soderbergh told FilmInk in 2002. “George and I share an attitude about the way that we should work, and the way that you should treat people. We share a similar taste in films, and we’re also believers in – in any situation – getting to the solution with a minimal amount of drama. It’s that simple. There are different kinds of Hollywood, and early on, you have to make the decision of what strand of it you want to be in. So you find someone who deals the way that you do, and you hang on to them.”

Sweeney Todd

TIM BURTON & JOHNNY DEPP “When we first met, we were both connected on all these super absurd levels,” Johnny Depp has reflected on his working relationship with director, Tim Burton. After the 1989 blockbuster, Batman, Burton – who had first made his name with Beetlejuice (1988) – was perceived as a “hot” director. His collaboration with Johnny Depp – who was trying to break free from the teen idol image that had been cultivated during his run on the cops-in-high-school TV series, 21 Jump Street – was formed on Edward Scissorhands (1990), the story of an outsider who cannot touch what he loves for fear of destroying it. “I’d been rescued from the world of mass product, by this odd, brilliant guy who had spent his youth drawing strange pictures,” Depp says of working with Burton for the first time. Next came Ed Wood (1994), a film about the extraordinary life of the eponymous Z-grade film director. “It was interesting, after working with Johnny before, to explore a more open kind of thing,” Burton noted on their second collaboration. “He did a great job.” Their third collaboration, Sleepy Hollow (1999), featured another idiosyncratic performance from Depp. “Tim is particularly amazing: he will give you suggestions, and he’ll plant certain seeds. Then you take that and use that,” Depp has observed. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005) was a phenomenal success, and after the inventive animation of Corpse Bride (2005), the duo took on the challenge of bringing the musical, Sweeney Todd (2007), to the big screen. The film proved that the versatile Depp could sing. After another massive success with Alice In Wonderland (2010), Burton and Depp reunited for the disappointingly retro Dark Shadows (2012).


THE COEN BROTHERS & FRANCES McDORMAND Friends with Holly Hunter from Yale University, Frances McDormand was introduced to The Coen Brothers by her fellow actress when the directors were casting their first film, the low budget thriller, Blood Simple (1984). The only professional role that McDormand had before scoring the lead in their grim, violent tale of murder and betrayal was a small recurring part in the TV series, Hill Street Blues. “Blood Simple was my first audition for a film, and I was just out of drama school,” McDormand told FilmInk in 2002. “I had no idea what the movie was about. I thought that they were weird, geekish, intellectual guys. I asked Joel a question about the character, and he went into a twenty-minute monologue from a writer’s point of view.” Released in 1984, Blood Simple was a watershed moment, starting both a professional and personal relationship between McDormand and Joel Coen that continues to this day. Ten years later, after small parts in Raising Arizona (1987) and Miller’s Crossing (1990), the role of Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996) arrived, with McDormand unforgettably playing a pregnant Minnesota police chief. “It’s the first time in twelve years of sleeping with the director that I got the job, no questions asked,” McDormand laughed of the career-defining role. On eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, she praised the producers for allowing the directors to make “autonomous casting decisions based on qualifications, and not just market value.” Their next collaboration was the black-and-white slow burner, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) co-starring Billy Bob Thornton and James Gandolfini, which was then followed by the ensemble black comedy, Burn After Reading (2008), and the Hollywood satire, Hail, Caesar! (2016).


JOHN CARPENTER & KURT RUSSELL In 1978, after making the indie horror smash, Halloween, director, John Carpenter, helmed the television film, Elvis, documenting the life of Elvis Presley. One-time Disney teen idol, Kurt Russell, was cast as The King, launching a collaboration that produced five films. “Great directors have a vision,” Russell has said of Carpenter. “They have a particular specific vision, and that’s what I appreciate most out of John as a director.” On the dystopian actioner, Escape From New York (1981), the studio originally wanted Charles Bronson to play the film’s outlaw anti-hero, Snake Plissken, but Carpenter fought for Russell, who delivered a truly iconic performance. In the imaginatively gory The Thing (1982), Russell comes up against a “shape-shifting” alien. Despite the critical backlash whipped up by the film’s extreme violence (“I was in shock,” Carpenter has said. “I didn’t work for about eight or nine months”), the Carpenter/Russell partnership was far from extinguished. Russell suggested the wildly comic fantasy adventure, Big Trouble In Little China (1986), which ultimately disappointed upon release. Russell’s “it’s all in the reflexes” John Wayne impression as tough guy truck driver, Jack Burton, was a comic highlight. “In terms of his talent for just playing the scene, I had never worked with anybody like that before,” Carpenter has said of Russell. “And he was Disney-prepared. If you didn’t say your line in a Disney movie exactly like it was in the script, they cut the camera. He was a consummate professional.” In 1996, they reunited for the much maligned sequel, Escape From LA. “I’ve never had as much fun on a film,” Carpenter said. “We were both really pleased with the result.”


DAVID CRONENBERG & VIGGO MORTENSEN Viggo Mortensen’s creative relationship with director, David Cronenberg, has netted a Best Picture nomination for their first film, A History Of Violence (2005), a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Eastern Promises (2007), and produced a unique take on the subject of Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method (2011). “One thing that I like about Cronenberg is that he’s been doing this for 35 years, and he seems to improve as he goes along,” Mortensen has said of the director. “A lot of actors and actresses have done their best work with David. He knows how to communicate with actors. He makes actors comfortable, and he gets the most out of them. He’s the kind of person that you want to do an especially good job for.” Surprisingly, Mortensen has revealed that he initially hated the script for the ultraviolent comic book adaptation, A History Of Violence, and that he took the job due to a need for money. But after speaking with Cronenberg, his feelings for the film changed dramatically. The duo reunited for Eastern Promises, which explored the Russian mob in London.  In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg cast Mortensen against type as renowned psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud. “I was taking on a role that if another director had offered it to me, I would have thought, ‘You’re crazy. I can’t! I’m not right for this part,’” Mortensen told FilmInk in 2011. “But with David, I knew that I would be in good hands, not only with this group of people, but with David too…he’s the captain of the boat. We have shorthand that only gets better the more that we work together.”


JOHN WOO & CHOW YUN FAT Hong Kong action maestro, John Woo, has always focused on romantic, soulful heroes, and he found the perfect representation in the form of his regular leading man, Chow Yun-Fat. “He is a great actor,” Woo says of the charismatic performer. “He looks great too…like a dream hero. He’s tall, elegant, and romantic. Chow reminds me of my idols, Ken Takakura, Steve McQueen, and Cary Grant.” The duo’s breakout film, A Better Tomorrow (1986), became a hit in Asia, and spawned three sequels. “When we did the casting for A Better Tomorrow, I wanted a modern knight,” Woo has said. “I read in the paper that he did a lot of work with orphans. This is what I was looking for. A strong man with a good heart.” Woo and Fat gained international recognition with The Killer (1989), which became the most successful Hong Kong film in American release since Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon. After Bullet In The Head (1990) and Hard Boiled (1992), Hollywood came knocking for both of them. Yun-Fat reflected on working with Woo in a 1995 interview. “John wants to show the audience that the world is in need of discipline,” the actor said. “Even if you’re a thief or a killer, you have your own discipline. He wants to say that men must have loyalty, purity, and responsibility.” The two have not worked together since 1992, except on the video game, Stranglehold (2007), which was promoted as a sequel to Hard Boiled. Chow Yun-Fat was, however, set to star in Woo’s 2008 historical epic, Red Cliff, but walked out just three days prior to the beginning of shooting, citing prior contractual obligations.


JOHN CASSAVETES & GENA ROWLANDS “What John gave you a script, he never said another word about your character, unlike almost any writer or director in the world,” Gena Rowlands has said of her husband, and famously independent director, John Cassavetes. Shooting his first film, Shadows (1959), left him $30,000 in debt. An attempt at directing a studio film with A Child Is Waiting (1963) – with Rowlands in a supporting role – was an unmitigated disaster. Their next collaboration, Faces (1968), defined Cassavetes’ gritty style. A Woman Under The Influence (1974), widely regarded as Cassavetes’ finest film, won an Oscar nomination for him as Best Director and for Rowlands as Best Actress for her haunting portrayal of a woman on the edge. “John has this great knack for writing language that people actually spoke,” Rowlands reflected in a 2011 interview. Of their partnership, Cassavetes noted that “we’re totally, diametrically opposed on everything. I admire the hell out of her, because this has led me into at least an understanding of the way that a person with a totally different background, a totally different cultural understanding of life, feels and thinks. The beauty of working with her is that I think she’s a great actress.” Their next collaboration – the mainstream thriller, Gloria (1980) – won Rowlands the Best Actress award at The Venice Film Festival, but the film was only a moderate success. Their last film together was Love Streams in 1984. “We keep learning how to play together, so that I can step on her toes gently, and she can step on mine gently, and we can make a lot of noise,” Cassavetes said of his relationship with Rowlands.


JEFF NICHOLS & MICHAEL SHANNON “Jeff Nichols is a good example of the old axiom – well, maybe the axiom that I made up – that it’s worth it to stick to your guns,” Michael Shannon told The Independent. “Because what I think people really respond to with Jeff’s movies is that they’re a singular vision; he doesn’t allow anyone to come in and go, ‘Well, this is great and this part’s a little confusing and maybe if you did this, people would like it more.’ He just doesn’t allow that to happen. The guy walks into Warner Bros and says, ‘This is my script, this is what I’m gonna shoot, and I get final cut. I really wanna work with you guys but if that’s not cool, I’ll go drop it somewhere else.’ That’s pretty badass.” That was indeed Jeff Nichols’ stance when shopping his script for his unconventional sci-fi drama, Midnight Special, to major studio, Warner Bros. Tellingly, the humble actor left out another of Nichols’ essentials: “I said, ‘I need two things: Michael Shannon and final cut. Well, three things, because I also need $20 million,’” Nichols told Indiewire. Nichols cast Michael Shannon in his 2007 directorial debut, Shotgun Stories, and then again in his intense 2011 psychological drama Take Shelter, which proved a breakout for the pair. “Everybody thinks that I wrote Take Shelter for Mike because we’d worked together on Shotgun Stories,” Nichols told FilmInk. “But I didn’t. I didn’t know who I was writing it for. I was really thinking about myself in these situations, as kind of an everyman. When I thought about Mike, I didn’t think of an everyman. I sent Mike the script because he’s my friend, and he wrote me back and said, ‘This is great. I want to do this.’ When Mike Shannon says that, you pretty much just say, ‘Okay!’ One of the reasons why he liked it was because we played it straight, and I find Mike to be the most fascinating when he’s being quiet and emotional. I found that in Shotgun Stories.” Michael Shannon is equally complimentary of his regular director. “I’ve latched onto this director since he started, since his infancy,” Shannon told Variety. “We came together in an almost mystical way.

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