Hey! Now I’m A Director!

August 29, 2018
We look at some very high profile big screen career changes…

For many filmmakers, making movies has been a desperate, long held dream – in short, something that they were born to do. For others – like the collection of occasional and one-off movie directors assembled here – it’s a gig that they’ve attempted whilst in the middle of a successful, high profile career in another creative field.

 STEPHEN KING: THE MASTER OF HORROR MAKES A HORRIBLE FILM

“I’ve been a fan of the movies all my life,” titanic horror author Stephen King told Horror King. “I grew up on them. We used to look forward to it as a big deal. I went every chance that I got. Anybody who grows up with the movies, and who becomes a writer, wants the chance to write cinematically.” Though the hugely successful Stephen King watched with interest from the sidelines as a number of his popular books were made into films both good (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Christine) and not-so-good (Firestarter, Cujo, Children Of The Corn), he didn’t make his cinematic bow until 1986, when he directed the action/horror/thriller Maximum Overdrive, which was based on his short story, Trucks. Starring Emilio Estevez and boasting a hard-driving score by AC/DC, the film tracks a disparate group of people who must fight for survival when machines start to come alive…and become homicidal. Featuring violent vending machines and marauding semi-trailers, the film is a loud, silly symphony of crunching steel and nonsensical motivation that today boasts a very, very small cult following at best. In the book, Hollywood’s Stephen King, the author turned filmmaker stated that he was “coked out of his mind all through production, and didn’t know what I was doing.” Though absurdist and uncomfortably camp in tone, Maximum Overdrive is not completely without merit, but the film still copped a critical drubbing, and King was even unceremoniously nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director. It remains the author’s only directorial effort. “I’d never say never,” King replied when asked by Movies Online if he’d ever like to direct again. “It would be great sometime to direct a movie when I wasn’t coked and drunk out of my mind to see what would come out of it. But, uh, I’m not crazy to do it.”

NORMAN MAILER: POETRY IN MOTION

“In America, all too few blows are struck into flesh,” Norman Mailer once said. “We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell.” In his various essays, books, plays and poems, New Journalism pioneer Norman Mailer proved himself a near unequalled documenter of American culture, politics and gender warfare. A towering figure who inspired almost uninterrupted controversy, the late Mailer’s finest works (The Executioner’s Song, The Naked And The Dead, The Barbary Shore) are also some of the finest in his nation’s literary canon. The late Norman Mailer, however, was also an occasional filmmaker. And while the three films that he made in the late sixties and early seventies (Wild 90, Beyond The Law, Maidstone) are largely forgotten, the icon’s 1984 effort polarised critics upon its release, and now remains a much debated footnote in Mailer’s career. An adaptation of his own “favourite novel”, Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a bizarre meld of noir and melodrama, with Ryan O’Neal starring as a drugged up writer who wakes one bleary morning to find a severed head in his stash. Almost incomparable in its weirdness of tone, the film failed miserably at the box office, but now has a small cult following thanks to its heady originality. O’Neal’s absurd reading of the equally absurd line, “Oh, man! Oh, God! Oh, man! Oh, God! Oh, man! Oh, God! Oh, man! Oh, God! Oh, man! Oh, God!” (which he sputters upon learning that his wife has been unfaithful to him) has also become a YouTube favourite and unofficial candidate for worst line reading ever. Mailer knew that the take was bad, but kept it in because he felt that it “added something” to the film; an infuriated and embarrassed O’Neal never forgave him. “There is no force more powerful in filmmaking than the fear of an audience’s boredom,” Mailer told journalist David Nicholson when asked about making the move into directing. “It is remarkable how quickly things which seemed vital to the novel can be forfeited in the film. In a film, the unconscious does a lot of the timing work.”

FRANK MILLER: MAKING COMICS MOVE

“Frank drew Sin City because he was tired of Hollywood,” director Robert Rodriguez told FilmInk in 2005. “He made something that would never be a movie. It’s what he called the anti-movie…and that’s what I wanted to make.” The great irony, of course, is that comic book writer and illustrator Frank Miller’s brutishly violent graphic novel, Sin City, eventually turned him into a film director, and landed him right in the middle of Hollywood…metaphorically at least. When Rodriguez finally convinced the movie-shy Miller (“Sin City is my baby,” Miller told FilmInk. “I wasn’t going to do a Moses and send it down the river to Hollywood”) to allow him to adapt Sin City for the big screen, the production rolled out in the director’s home state of Texas. To further convince Miller, Rodriguez invited the comic book author to be his co-director. This, in turn, saw Rodriguez leave the Directors Guild Of America, because they wouldn’t recognise the pair as a legitimate directing partnership. Rodriguez wanted Miller right there on the set, mixing with the cast and making creative decisions. “I found the job description that I wanted, which is not screenwriter,” Miller said. “If you’re a director, you’re an authority, and Robert said, ‘You’ve got to be in there with me, because if you’re just a writer, you’ll be sitting in the corner with the sandwiches.’” The resulting film was nothing short of stunning, with Sin City literally playing out like a comic book come to life. Away from Robert Rodriguez, however, Miller has been far less successful, with his 2008 solo debut, The Spirit – an adaptation of Wil Eisner’s classic comic character – rating as a major disappointment. “It’s very close,” Miller replied when asked by The Scotsman about directing and making comics. “But this is a new adventure, so I try not to compare the two.” Miller and Rodriguez reunited in 2014 for the sequel, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, which failed to enrapture audiences in the way that its predecessor so deliriously had.

ANDREW JARECKI: FROM MOVIEFONE TO DOCUMENTARY MADNESS

In the era between checking newspaper listings and surfing to cinema websites, the way that most people got their movie session times was over the telephone. The man who pioneered this service was Andrew Jarecki, whose previous claim to fame had been as the composer of the theme music for the television series, Felicity. As one of the founders and eventual CEO of Moviefone (his business partner, Russ Leatherman, provided the voice for the service, which was memorably lampooned in an episode of Seinfeld), Jarecki hit the mother lode when the company (which he’d started “by accident” after getting frustrated while trying to find movie session times himself) was sold for more than $400 million. For a creative type like Andrew Jarecki, however, that kind of coin did not lead to yachts on The Riviera or mile-high mountains of coke. He decided that he’d use the money (or some of it, at least) to make a movie. “I wanted to make something light and manageable, so I started making this film about professional children’s birthday party entertainers in New York,” Jarecki told Indiewire. “It’s this strange group of people who live among children, and who call each other by their clown names. It’s a little bit of an Errol Morris world, and I thought that would be an interesting place to go.” Jarecki’s research, however, took him to popular clown David Friedman, who eventually revealed to the filmmaker that his father, Arnold, a popular science teacher, had been arrested and convicted of child molestation some years before, along with David’s younger brother, Jesse. Jarecki’s “light” piece on clowns eventually became Capturing The Friedmans, a powerful, Oscar nominated documentary about one family’s closet full of skeletons. Forever leaving Moviefone behind, Jarecki has now moved into feature films, with 2010’s highly regarded dramatic thriller, All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. He was also the man behind the 2015 zeitgeist-tapping TV documentary series, The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst.

LOU ADLER: RECORD LABELS, REEFERS AND CULT SENSATIONS

In the American music industry, Lou Adler is a part of the firmament, a long serving producer, manager and songwriter who had a firm hand in guiding the careers of artists such as Jan & Dean, The Mamas And The Papas, and Carole King, as well as founding the record labels, Dunhill and Ode. Adler’s first involvement with film came when he saw the stage play, The Rocky Horror Show, in London in 1974. Adler snapped up the American rights, and eventually became executive producer on the 1975 film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which went on to become a groundbreaking cult hit. It was Adler’s involvement with two spliff-toting comedians, however, that eventually led him to the director’s chair. In the seventies, the music producer discovered Latino potheads Cheech & Chong, and went on to produce their hit comedy albums, Big Bambu and Cheech & Chong’s Wedding Album. Sensing that the duo could be a cinematic hit too, Adler got behind the camera for 1978’s Up In Smoke, a roaring success that sent Cheech & Chong into the comedic stratosphere. “I still get enormous residual cheques,” Cheech Marin told The Guardian in 2006. Despite the comedy’s popularity, Adler only directed one other film, with the 1982 cult gem, Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, a wonderfully entertaining, fictionalised critique on the exploitation at the heart of rock music. “I was on both sides of it,” Adler told IFC of his dissection of the music biz. “I was one of those that exploited, and one of those that had seen exploitation. I produced and managed groups, and I did those things. That’s why they were easy to put on film.” Moving away from film, Adler has since devoted himself to children’s charities, and can often be seen sitting with his buddy, Jack Nicholson, at LA Lakers games.

JOHN MELLENCAMP: MAKING MOVIES HURTS SO GOOD

John Mellencamp (previously Johnny Cougar, and then John Cougar Mellencamp) was one of the eighties’ most unlikely rock stars – a rootsy, gutsy, populist, no-frills singer/songwriter influenced by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan in an era characterised by synthesizers and excessive amounts of hair gel. Though dismissed by many as a sub-Bruce Springsteen, Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh, Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee were amongst the decade’s best albums. In 1992, at the height of his popularity, Mellencamp made the surprise decision to debut as both an actor and director with the drama, Falling From Grace, scripted by acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms Of Endearment). Moody, gritty and honest, the film tells of a country music superstar (effectively played by Mellencamp) who returns – with consequences both dire and amusing – to his small hometown in Indiana. Boasting strong performances from underrated actors Kay Lenz, Mariel Hemingway and Claude Akins, and a quiet brand of down home realism, Falling From Grace sadly sank without a trace at the box office, and though he would act again intermittently over the years, Mellencamp would never return to the director’s chair. “I’m a guy who runs real close to the edge of the cliff, and doesn’t know when he’s about to fall off,” John Mellencamp replied when asked by The LA Times what made him think that he could direct a feature film. “That signal in my head doesn’t work. I’m not afraid of what I’m supposed to be afraid of. I had directed a lot of music videos. I wasn’t surprised by anything. I couldn’t say that making the film was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but it wasn’t one of the worst things. Sometimes I watch the film and I think, ‘It’s not too bad.’ Sometimes I watch it and can’t stand to look at it.”

MADONNA: MATERIAL GIRL IN A MATERIAL WORLD

When eighties superstar Madonna made the move to acting, the results were, to say the very least, mixed. There were good performances in good films (Desperately Seeking Susan, Dangerous Game, Dick Tracy, A League Of Their Own), and admirably ambitious failures (Evita), but there were also flat-out disasters (Body Of Evidence, The Next Best Thing, Shanghai Surprise) of a rare and truly ugly pedigree. Not surprisingly, when Madonna’s debut directorial effort, Filth And Wisdom, was released in 2008, you could practically hear the critics sharpening their knives. A long time cineaste and aspiring filmmaker, Madonna said in the film’s press materials that she had finally decided to “put my money where my mouth is. Filth And Wisdom was essentially my way of putting myself through film school.” This tale of three characters struggling to achieve their diverse dreams quickly blunted the critics’ intended barbs when it played at The Berlin Film Festival, and received largely positive reviews. “I love directing,” Madonna told Indiewire, “and having a say in all aspects of the production.” But when Madonna’s second film, W.E (telling the infamous tale of King Edward’s abdication to be with divorcee, Wallis Simpson), screened at The Venice Film Festival in 2011, the critics were far less kind, and even got personal in their attacks. “I know that I did the best that I could do,” Madonna has said in response. “I pay attention to reviews where people are reviewing my work. When they’re letting me – the person – get in the way, then I don’t really give it much credence. I made the film to be judged as a film, and not for people to compare it to me.” But when you’re Madonna, that’s not easy…though the diva certainly planned to continue her parallel careers at the time of W.E’s release. “I’d like to make more films,” she told Indiewire. “But what’s next for me is a record.” Apart from a 2013 short (Secret Project Revolution), the pop icon appears to have signed off on her directing career.

JEFF PROBST: HOSTING HIS OWN FILM CAREER

“The tribe has spoken.” With these four words, Jeff Probst has established himself as one of the most committed and instantly recognisable figures on American television, where he has served as the host of Survivor – the big daddy of competitive reality television – for over ten years. Though a natural when it comes to hosting the show, and navigating its often labyrinthine unscripted plot twists, Probst actually started out as an aspiring screenwriter, and had penned a number of scripts over the years, even starting a weekend writers’ unit where he would swap screenplays with fellow aspiring writers. He had his first screenplay, Finder’s Fee – the story of a flat-and-busted twentysomething who finds a winning lottery ticket worth $3 million, and has to decide what to do – in development before he broke out with Survivor. “There’s a natural assumption that because I’m now the host of a popular show that I suddenly got this movie dropped in my lap,” Probst told Salon in 2002. “But I’d actually been writing since 1994, and my goal was – and still is – to write first, direct my own stuff whenever possible, and control my own creative destiny. When I first started trying to get funding to get Finder’s Fee made, Survivor wasn’t even happening yet. The film’s producer said, ‘When I tell people who you are, I already have to tell them that you’re a first-time writer and director; I’m not going to tell them that you’re a TV host too.’ It was a big thing for me to hang on to directing at all, having no experience. And then when you tag it with, ‘He’s a television host’, people do think that you’re an idiot.” Far from it – though Finder’s Fee (starring James Earl Jones, Robert Forster and Ryan Reynolds) was far from being a hit, it was a more-than-solid debut from the ever likeable Jeff Probst. He followed Finder’s Fee with the equally little seen Kiss Me in 2014, and now seems to have temporarily voted his directing career off the proverbial island.

TOM FORD: FROM HIGH FASHION TO FASHIONABLE FILM

In the mid-nineties, Texas-born fashion designer Tom Ford was anointed Creative Director of Gucci, one of the world’s most instantly recognisable and influential brands. After ten years with the company, Ford pushed Gucci’s sales figures from the millions into the billions, and by 2005 decided that the time was right to strike out on his own, with the creation of the Tom Ford brand. At the same time, this New York University graduate and one-time art history and architecture student also kick-started his own film production company, Fade To Black. “Because I’m a fashion designer, people sent me very superficial scripts,” Ford told FilmInk. “Nothing was speaking to me. I was looking for something to make as my first film. But first, I had to figure out what I wanted to say. I knew what I was as a fashion designer, but why would anyone want to see a Tom Ford movie?” Not content with just producing or developing films, Ford wanted to direct, and he finally settled on an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, A Single Man, the sixties-set story of a gay college professor wracked with grief over the death of his young lover. “It spoke to me in a totally different way, being in midlife and reading a story about a man who can’t see his future,” Ford explains. “I had left Gucci. All of a sudden, I didn’t have a voice in contemporary culture.” The resulting 2010 film – featuring a brilliant lead performance by Colin Firth – was as stylish as it was emotionally affecting, and it instantly marked Tom Ford as a man with a very promising second career indeed.  “I hope that I’m lucky enough to be able to keep doing this every two or three years for the rest of my life. It’s something that I’m really serious about.” Tom Ford certainly seems to be on the right track. He followed up A Single Man with the equally acclaimed Nocturnal Animals in 2016.

STEVE MCQUEEN: SCULPTING GREAT CINEMA

Steve McQueen – who tellingly has not tweaked his name to avoid confusion with the iconic American movie actor – has made a habit of jumping freely from one form of creative expression to another. A keen footballer in his youth, McQueen’s sporting dreams were curtailed by his love of art, and he eventually ended up studying briefly at the prestigious Tisch School in New York City. McQueen worked extensively in photography (famously creating 2006’s Queen And Country, a piece which commemorated the deaths of British soldiers in Iraq by collecting their portraits as a sheet of stamps) and sculpture (with 1998’s White Elephant being his most famous), while also developing a bold and confronting interest in experimental film. Aggressively attacking traditional approaches to form, structure and technique, McQueen won the coveted Turner Prize in 1999, and established himself as a daring artistic voice. In 2008, McQueen made his feature directorial debut with the gut-wrenching drama, Hunger, a searing take on the true story of Irish political prisoner and hunger striker Bobby Sands. “Someone asked me if I’d like to make a film, and I said yes,” McQueen told FilmInk. “This was the one that I wanted to do, and that was it. It was no big moment.” A multi-award winner at the world’s top film festivals, Hunger announced McQueen as a striking new cinematic voice, and he has now delivered on that initial promise with 2011’s critically acclaimed Shame and 2013’s multi-Oscar winner, 12 Years A Slave. “It’s all about the idea and how the idea is best translated,” McQueen replied when FilmInk asked him about making the transition to the big screen. “Maybe the idea is best translated through making something out of wood, or by making an installation. In the case of Hunger, it was best translated through being a feature film, and that was it. There was no real big obstacle to cross.”

ARNE GLIMCHER: TURNING ART INTO FILM

Though born in Minnesota, art world major player Arne Glimcher is as essential to New York’s cultural scene as Broadway or Greenwich Village. In 1960, Glimcher founded the Pace Gallery in Boston, but three years later, moved it to New York City, and quickly established himself as one of the great taste makers on the art scene. Today, there are four galleries in New York, and an additional site in Beijing, with The Pace Gallery representing contemporary artists including Chuck Close, David Hockney, Maya Lin and Kiki Smith, and the estates of Pablo Picasso, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, and Alexander Calder. While running his galleries, Glimcher has also dabbled in film, with producer credits on 1986’s Legal Eagles, and 1988’s Gorillas In The Mist and The Good Mother. These titles, however, appear to be little more than glorified art world deals for Glimcher, though they would pave the way for what would ultimately become his great passion project. When Glimcher heard that author Oscar Hijuelos was writing a book about mambo – a musical genre that he had loved since his youth – he wanted to read it immediately, before it was even published. “I called Oscar,” Glimcher told TCM, “and I said, ‘I understand that you’re writing this book on mambo. I’d love to read it.’ I read the manuscript that weekend, and bought the rights on Monday morning.” Hijuelos’ book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love, went on to win the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and Glimcher expertly directed it for the screen, guiding Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante to fine performances, and creating a film rich in colour and characterisation. The Mambo Kings received strong reviews, and Glimcher has continued to mix filmmaking with art dealing, directing the thriller, Just Cause; the comedy, The White River Kid; and the documentary, Picasso And Braque Go To The Movies.

JULIAN SCHNABEL: PAINTING CINEMATIC PICTURES

“I’m a painter, and you can’t substitute movie making for making paintings,” Julian Schnabel replied in 2000 when FilmInk asked him if he was ever frustrated by the way that the media pigeonholes him as an artist-turned-filmmaker. “The freedom that you have when you’re painting is immeasurable. They can say whatever they like, and I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.” It was with his first solo show in 1979 that Schnabel was first acclaimed as an exciting new force in the art world, before eventually becoming a major figure in the neo-expressionism movement. His famous “plate paintings” – large-scale paintings set on broken ceramic plates – polarised art critics, while his brash, cock-of-the-walk self-proclamations (“I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this fucking life”) infuriated his colleagues and gallery owners alike. For many, Schnabel came to symbolise the very excesses and arrogance of the eighties art scene. So it was no surprise that his debut feature film was met with disdain in many quarters. 1998’s Basquiat was a biopic of Schnabel’s close friend and fellow artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and even featured a too-cool Gary Oldman in a role obviously modelled on Schnabel himself, as well as a superb performance from David Bowie as a particularly diffident Andy Warhol. Though Basquiat was divisive, it heralded Schnabel as a highly promising director, and he has continued to make bold, fascinating, against-the-grain films with the acclaimed Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Miral, and the upcoming At Eternity’s Gate. “Painters march along in their own cadence,” Schnabel told FilmInk. “I’m just pleased with my life, you know? I’m very lucky that I’ve got a day job, and that I can support myself, because I don’t have to make a movie that I don’t want to make because I need a job. I have the best of both worlds, and people just seem to get confused by that.”

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