Though renowned for his fine taste and on-the-money discernment as an actor in the 90s, Johnny Depp came up snake-eyes when it came to his directorial debut. The Brave was never released in the US, and only received an under-the-radar straight-to-video release in Australia. Adapted from Gregory McDonald’s novel by Johnny and his brother, DP Depp, The Brave was initially to be produced by Jodie Foster, and Oliver Stone was also attached to the project at one stage. Don’t let the film’s nearly non-existent release put you off though…The Brave is a striking and sadly underappreciated film. “I have absolutely no idea why I wanted to direct the film,” Depp said at The Cannes Film Festival in 1997. “But I felt somehow driven to do it.”
Depp leads an impressive cast (featuring the likes of his 21 Jump Street co-star, Frederic Forest, Luis Guzman, Max Perlich, and the one and only Marlon Brando) as the quiet, withdrawn Raphael, a Native-American living with his wife and two children in a squalid trailer park perched on the edge of a town dump. Flat-and-busted to the extreme, the saintly Raphael ultimately sells himself to the makers of a snuff film to raise $50,000 to save his family from poverty. The man doing the buying is the strange, enigmatic, wheelchair-bound McCarthy (a wonderfully odd extended cameo from Depp’s friend and Don Juan De Marco co-star, Marlon Brando), who never explicitly discusses the details of the deal, but rather speaks in peculiar abstractions.
The Brave is bleak, harrowing, oddly fractured, and often strangely beautiful. Filled with dreamlike, abstract imagery and unusual characters, the film resonates powerfully with the spirits of the filmmakers that Depp had worked with previously, most noticeably Jim Jarmusch, Tim Burton, and Emir Kusturica. There’s a certain poetry at the heart of the film, and the wonderfully idiosyncratic score by godfather-of-punk and Depp associate, Iggy Pop, helps bring it out. Though he’s never directed a feature film since (save for a still in post-production doco about Keith Richards), The Brave is more than ample proof that Johnny Depp has real talent and imagination as a filmmaker.
The experience, however, nearly destroyed him. “I thought that I was going to die, every day,” he told Esquire. “I would shoot all day and act as well, then go home; do rewrites; do my homework as an actor; do my homework as a director. Go to sleep, and even then, I’d dream about the film. It was a nightmare.” The Brave received scathing reviews, even though it was well received at The Cannes Film Festival. Depp was so disgusted with the hostility of the American reviews that he refused to allow his film to be shown in the United States. “They just fucking destroyed us,” he has said. “It was like an attack on me – how dare I direct a movie?” In the end, it was perhaps Depp’s own sensitivity as an actor that has stopped him from directing again. “There are actors who did great work for me, and I had to cut them out,” he told Esquire. “I didn’t want to hurt the actors’ feelings. And you can’t be like that. You gotta say, ‘Fuck it.’”