What I Really Want To Do Is Direct…But Just Once

June 21, 2018
Deep down, all actors really want to be directors, right? Well, for this collection of performers, one visit to the director’s chair proved to be more than enough.


As one-time-only directing efforts go, Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter (1955) is probably the most accomplished of all time. Indeed, in 1992, The US Library Of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, despite the fact that it tells of a serial killer and potential child murderer roaming the West Virginia countryside in search of a stash of money. As a director, Laughton took as his inspiration the look of German expressionist films of the twenties, and transported it to the American Midwest. The result is a stunningly unique work that has grown in stature to become a genuine classic, and a major influence and inspiration on filmmakers such as The Coen Brothers and Terrence Malick. Laughton’s use of lighting, warped angles and dreamlike sets all promote an unsettling, otherworldly atmosphere that all feeds back into the film’s nightmarish tone. Robert Mitchum was rarely better than as self-appointed preacher and killer Harry Powell, his knuckles famously tattooed with the words love and hate. “I wanted to do it right down the fuckin’ line,” Mitchum said in an interview for French TV in 1982. “Charles Laughton said no, because women would take their children off the streets. He didn’t want me to be that horrible, but I wanted to be just that horrible. I’m sorry that it was the only film that he ever directed; he’s the best director that I’ve ever worked with.” The Night Of The Hunter now stands as a Hollywood classic, but on its release, the film was tragically dismissed by critics as a mere potboiler, while audiences stayed away. The sensitive Laughton (who was beginning to experience the onset of cancer while shooting the film) took the response to heart and, coupled with his failing health, couldn’t muster the strength to direct again.


As an actor, Johnny Depp has never trodden a predictable path, so it came as no surprise in 1997, when he directed his debut feature, The Brave, that the subject matter was unusual and confrontational. Depp plays Raphael, a poverty-gouged Native American who decides that the only way that he can financially provide for his family is to take a large fee for starring in a genuine snuff movie. The film is by turns staggeringly slow moving, and gut-wrenchingly emotional. “I have absolutely no idea why I wanted to direct the film,” Depp said at Cannes in 1997. “But I felt somehow driven to do it.” The experience, it turns out, 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?” Though Depp did piece together a still unreleased, conversationally based documentary on Keith Richards, he has stayed away from feature directing since his debut. 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.’”


There are many adjectives that come to mind when discussing Oscar winning actor Gary Oldman’s sole foray into directing, Nil By Mouth (1997): uncompromising, depressing, ferocious, astonishing. This slice of life drama set on a London housing estate microscopically scrutinises those who exist within its brutal confines, and the violence that pervades it, and infects everyone. The reasons that Oldman chose this as his subject matter are not too surprising – he has lived in this very world. “I wanted the film to represent the culture and neighbourhood that I came from, which is why I breathed a sigh of relief when it went down so well with the British people who’ve seen it,” he said. “I made it for Britain; in my arrogant way, I said, ‘Fuck the rest of the world! Fuck America! I’m not watering down the accents.’” Oldman elicits from Ray Winstone his greatest performance, as an abusive alcoholic bully, slowly being torn up by his own demons. “The idea for it had been swimming around for a long time,” Oldman told Venice Magazine. “It took 35 years in development, and five weeks to write. It wasn’t about a desire to play with the toys, so to speak. There’s no short film, no MTV videos.” Sadly, Oldman’s spirit as a director appears to have been broken. He tried for some years to get another self-penned script, entitled Joe Buck, to the screen, but it never happened. “I have a certain process that I like to work with,” he told Venice Magazine. “And if I can’t make my movie my way, I won’t do it, as simple as that. ‘Can’t you do it like this? Can’t you do it like that? Can’t you get him? He’s a star! Do you really need that many days?’ It’s hard.” Maybe, hopefully, not too hard, as Gary Oldman is allegedly attached to directing Flying Horse, a biopic of pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge…


“I was going to star in Sonny over fifteen years ago, and I couldn’t find a director,” Oscar winning actor Nicolas Cage told UGO. “Any script that stays with me that long must have a connection with my psyche.” In 2002, Cage decided that the time was right to make the picture, though he felt that he was now too old to play the title character. Within an astonishing two weeks, filming began on the streets of New Orleans. James Franco was cast as the gigolo ex-army son of a whore who returns home from the service full of ideals and dreams, but soon finds that he is drifting inexorably toward his tawdry past. Sonny is an outstanding character study, and Franco is superb in a role that could easily have tipped over into caricature. As a director, Cage enjoyed the process immensely. “I was very adrenalised by the experience,” he has said. “I was excited to be surrounded by so many creative people. I like the idea of being reignited myself as an actor by being able to work with such great performers, and to be re-stimulated again. I liked the editing process very much. I liked being in the room and trying to work this puzzle out. I’ve never seen a movie so many times in my life!” For Cage, the compulsion to direct seemed to really come out of his desire to freshly inform his career as an actor. “I went into my next film as an actor full of energy, and I think that I did a better job,” he told Independent Film Quarterly in hindsight. “I’ll direct again if I can find the right script. I’m still trying to find my identity as a director. My interests are not necessarily the ones that many people have. I like taboo subject matters.”


In 2002, Matt Dillon not only decided to direct, but also to co-write (with author Barry Gifford) and star in an unusual crime drama, City Of Ghosts. The film makes terrific use of its location, Cambodia, as the setting for this tale of a con man who arrives in the country to collect his share of an elaborate insurance scam. Like many actors-turned-directors, Dillon came to the project out of frustration at the roles that he was being offered. “I’d always had an interest in directing, which came from a combination of things,” he has said. “I remember that I was disappointed because I didn’t get a job in a film that I didn’t even want to do! And I said, ‘Wait a minute! I’ve lost my way somewhere here!’ I was upset about not getting a part in a movie that I didn’t even want! So, I figured that I better do something that I wanted to do. Directing was something that I was interested in doing anyway, and I wanted to branch out and do something different.” Dillon assembled a terrific cast (James Caan, Gerard Depardieu, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Rose Byrne) for the film, which takes you to a place that you haven’t seen before, and weaves a compelling and original story. Unfortunately, City Of Ghosts failed to make much impact, going straight to DVD in many territories, and perhaps dampening the actor’s excitement about getting behind the camera again. Dillon actually seemed to be done with directing as early as the press rounds for the film itself. “I would like to direct again, I really would,” he told Cinema Confidential in 2002. “But I want to act for a while so I can get back to the basics: make my life easy again and make a little cash.” The directing bug has, however, gripped Matt Dillon again to some extent, with the busy actor currently at work on a documentary called El Gran Fellove, which traces the life of Cuban scat musician, Francisco Fellove.


In 1951, Hungarian actor Peter Lorre revisited Germany, where he had first become a star, to direct a film. He returned very much a different person to the one who had fled the Nazis in 1933. Although he made a significant impression in Fritz Lang’s serial killer film M (1931), since his arrival in Hollywood, Lorre had risen to become a genuine star thanks to roles in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1943). His trademark simmering intensity and odd, bug-eyed presence made him instantly recognisable in countless Warner Bros. melodramas. Lorre had a caveat written into his contract that allowed him to direct one film, and in 1951, he felt that the time was right. Lorre was in danger of becoming a caricature of himself, and Warner Bros. agreed that it was a brilliant idea to have him direct a film in Germany, with the persecuted Jew returning to the country where he made his name before being persecuted, and directing a feature for an American company. Der Verlorene, a late noir entry with Lorre playing a Nazi mad-doctor sex-killer, was hardly a stretch either as actor or director, but he imbued the film with a hypnotic, dreamlike quality. As to why Lorre never directed again, his biographer, Stephen D. Youngkin speculates that his lifestyle wasn’t up to the rigours of helming a film. “Lorre’s drug use was certainly on the upswing during the making of Der Verlorene,” he wrote in The Lost One: A Life Of Peter Lorre. “The accumulative effects of chemical addiction and assorted other health issues were beginning to catch up with him.” Der Verlorene is bleak, chilling and pessimistic, but possessed of a modern narrative technique that makes it irresistible to contemporary viewers, and points to Lorre as a possible director of bold, audacious talent.


It was unsurprising that in 1980, like many stars, James Caan decided to try directing a feature. What was perhaps unexpected is how good the film turned out to be. Based on a true 1967 incident, Hide In Plain Sight tells the story of Thomas Hacklin, a blue collar worker whose wife leaves him for another man. The other man, however, is a mobster who has turned state’s witness and entered into the Witness Protection Programme, and as such, Hacklin’s wife and kids effectively disappear into the ether. The film charts Hacklin’s increasingly frustrated attempts to locate his children, and how he’s thwarted at every turn. Hide In Plain Sight is low key, but still manages a slow burning buildup of indignation, and ultimately achieves a satisfying denouement. “I had no intention of directing it,” Caan has said. “MGM came to me with this script, and it was a semi-documentary. It would take a special director to make this thing work, somebody like Hal Ashby, and I told them that it’s very episodic in nature, and it’s got 149 scenes, so if you shot it conventionally, it’s going to look like a ping-pong match, you know? My idea was to do it mostly in master shots. So, anyway, they couldn’t get Ashby, and they asked me if I wanted to direct it.” When James Caan was asked in 2008 why he didn’t direct another feature, his answer was typically down the line. “I just couldn’t afford to do it,” he replied. “I had four wives and five kids. But I would direct again, if I had a passion for something. At the time, I was Sonny Corleone [from The Godfather]. Everybody was going, ‘Ha, ha, let’s see what this moron did.’ So it was rewarding. I’m still very proud of it.”


By 1971, Richard Harris was an international star. Having exploded onto the scene with This Sporting Life (1963), he had risen to stardom in a wide range of genres including westerns, spy spoofs, war movies, musicals, and art movies. Apart from Paul Newman, it was still relatively rare for actors of his generation to be directing films. It was fairly unusual then, for him to decide to write and direct the atypical story of an Israeli football player, Eitan (Harris), nearing the end of his career and finding inspiration from a young fan, Nimrod (Kim Burfield), to get into training for The Last Big Game. Bloomfield (1971) is an unashamedly sentimental film, and Harris the director indulges Harris the actor, allowing for a full-on onslaught of sympathetic mannerisms and situations that amp up the impossible-odds aspect of the story. In truth, ignoring the film’s marginal appeal (Israeli soccer films were hardly box office gold back then, or ever), the underdog sports movie has been a mainstay over the years. Rocky (1976) is an obvious example; and Harris’ own This Sporting Life is obviously an inspiration for Bloomfield. The film never quite escapes its cliched approach (it comes complete with slow motion training sequences, a saccharine score, and a tacked-on romantic subplot), but still, despite everything, it pulls itself up by its soccer bootstraps to deliver a lump-in-the-throat climax that leaves one wondering why Harris never directed again. It’s probably the sheer physical and emotional pressures that put him off, not least the loss of his DOP Otto Heller, who died during the editing phase of the production. “There were so many little and big things against me,” Harris recalled. “But I kept one thing in the centre of my vision: innocence. I tried to keep Eitan and Nimrod true all the time. I tried to hold on to….to magic.”


The Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau partnership is well known. 1968’s The Odd Couple is but one of many classic films that the pair made together, and their perfect chemistry is the stuff of legend. A slightly less known production of theirs is Kotch (1971), starring Matthau, and marking the directorial debut of Lemmon. The film sees Matthau as Kotch, a doting but eccentric 73-year-old grandfather. He lives with his son and daughter-in-law, and refuses to go to an old-age home. Into their lives comes a babysitter, Erica (Deborah Winters), who has to quit high school after falling pregnant. “This is a film about an old man who wants to be needed and wants to be useful,” Lemmon commented at the time. “It’s about his ability to help a young girl who has a problem, and it’s the kind of film that we need.” As the film progresses, it moves from comedy to more dramatic territory as the unlikely duo take off across country to find meaning in their lives. The film reveals painful truths about the generation gap, but never strays into sentimentality. Kotch is aided immeasurably by Walter Matthau, who saves it from ever becoming mawkish. “Walter will take direction well,” said Lemmon, “unless something goes totally against his instincts. But I directed mostly by leaving him alone.” For an in-demand actor like Jack Lemmon, the rigours of directing a film may have just proven too much. “It took Jack six years to get this film finally made,” co-star Deborah Winters told Cult Film Freak. “Nobody would give him the money, but he really loved the story and thought that it should be made. So he kept working on it and working on it. Actors don’t usually end up liking to direct, because it’s extremely difficult to direct a picture. It’s very, very hard work.”


Comedy heist movies have to be handled almost as carefully as a well planned robbery – one false move and it’s all over. Quick Change (1990), which marked Bill Murray’s first attempt at directing (he co-directed with the film’s screenwriter, Howard Franklin), is the perfect caper. It’s a perfectly timed and executed comedy that hits not one false note, and contains one of Murray’s most fully rounded characters. After successfully knocking over a Manhattan bank dressed as a clown, Murray’s Grimm then spends the rest of the film trying to get to the airport and out of New York. The comedy of errors that ensues is almost unbearable in its excruciatingly tortured attempts to get from A to B in The Big Apple without some new calamity befalling the protagonists. Murray didn’t have a particularly burning desire to direct; it just kind of happened. “We couldn’t get anyone that we liked to direct Quick Change,” he has said. “We asked Jonathan Demme, and he said no. We asked Ron Howard, because he had made something that I thought was funny. He said that he didn’t know who to root for in the script. He lost me at that moment. I’ve never gone back to him since. I wanted to make a comedy like the ones that I used to like to make. And…well, I said, ‘I think that I can do it. I should probably direct it too.’” Murray easily handles the material with verve, wit and a real understating of his characters’ vulnerabilities. Though he still has a soft spot for Quick Change (“It’s great,” Murray told GQ in 2010. “It’s a great piece of writing.”), its failure to make its mark at the box office likely dented Murray’s confidence as a director, and prevented any further behind-the-camera outings.


Edward Norton emerged into the public consciousness with a devilish turn in the courtroom drama Primal Fear (1996), and quickly consolidated his position as an exciting-actor-on-the-rise with roles in American History X (1998) and Fight Club (1999). This made it all the more surprising when he decided to not only direct his first film, but to make a romantic comedy co-starring Ben Stiller. The plot of Keeping The Faith (2000), although seemingly contrived – dealing as it does with a rabbi and priest both in love with the same girl – is actually sensitively handled, and Norton and Stiller have a genuine chemistry that actually convinces you that they have been friends since childhood. Nothing in Norton’s resume up until that point had indicated that he had such a flair for comedy, or carried a desire to direct a film in that vein, but it was an ambition that he had nurtured for many years. “I’d always watched film from a directorial bent, and thought that it would be something that I would like to take on, because it’s a job that requires so many diverse skills,” Norton has said. “The main appeal for me was that it fell squarely in the tradition of the great comedies that I love, like The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Jules Et Jim (1961), in terms of the exploration of a dynamic between three people.” When asked in 2010 if he’d like to direct again, Norton responded in the affirmative. “I mean, at some point. I probably shouldn’t have waited so long.” It looks like that point may have finally arrived, with Edward Norton currently working on an adaptation of the crime novel Motherless Brooklyn, in which he plays a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, alongside Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, and Leslie Mann.


Now riding high thanks to an Oscar nod for Birdman, and for playing another Birdman – namely, The Vulture – in Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Michael Keaton also has one credit when it comes to behind-the-camera work in the form of the little seen 2008 thriller, The Merry Gentleman, in which he also stars. The tale of a suicidal hitman romancing a troubled woman (Kelly Macdonald), the film literally tumbled into Keaton’s lap. “The writer, Ron Lazzeretti, wanted to direct it, but he had to go into hospital and ended up staying longer than he thought,” Keaton – who had initially turned down the film – explained to FilmInk of how he ended up in the director’s chair. Despite this setback, the producers were keen to keep the project going, and Keaton was inspired to re-read the script. “I really thought that I knew how to make this movie, so I threw my hat in to the ring. What I actually said was, ‘I’m interested in directing this if Kelly Macdonald stays on and I get the director of photography that I want.’ They said, ‘Good idea,’” he laughed. “That’s how it came to be.” Though The Merry Gentleman only saw a minor release, the reviews were good, and Keaton initially had a chance at more directing. “I’ve had a couple of offers,” Keaton told FilmInk in 2008. The film, however, probably now stands as a dark memory for Keaton: the production company behind The Merry Gentleman actually sued the actor for failing to complete the project on time and then failing to promote it properly, blaming Keaton for the movie’s lack of success. The judge in the case, however, ruled in favour of Keaton, insisting that there was little proof to suggest that the director’s actions led to the flop. For the record, Michael Keaton actually did an interview with FilmInk for the film’s Australian DVD release, which instantly disproves the company’s claim that he failed to promote the film properly. Mr. Keaton, you should have called us to testify! Somewhat unsurprisingly, Michael Keaton is still to get back behind the camera…

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