British-Australian director Stephen Hopkins burst onto the scene in the 1980s when style was tantamount, and he had it to burn. But rather than becoming an icon of the era like, say, fellow British-Australian Russell Mulcahy (with whom Hopkins frequently worked, eventually taking the assistant director role on his hit Highlander), Hopkins’ career has bounced around in a variety of fascinating directions, with the director moving from big screen horror and genre flicks through to much more serious-minded work in film and television. And though he’s made big franchise pictures and other high profile works, Stephen Hopkins remains decidedly under-celebrated for his behind-the-camera skills.
After making his start designing album covers and directing music videos (with clips for the likes of Icehouse and Eurogliders), Stephen Hopkins debuted with the highly effective Australian thriller Dangerous Game in 1987. Grafted out on a low budget, the film stars Marcus Graham as a computer hacker who disables the security system of a department store, and then rolls in for a night of fun and thrills with his buddies (played by future names like John Polson and Miles Buchanan). Unfortunately for them, the store’s security guard (Stephen Grives) is an ex-cop with an axe to grind, which leads to all manner of murder and mayhem. Slick and highly entertaining, Dangerous Game is a tasty but now largely forgotten slice of Aussie horror.
Clearly showcasing Hopkins’ directorial skills, and also highlighting how effectively he could work on a limited budget, Dangerous Game functioned as a blood-stained calling card for the filmmaker, snagging Hopkins a surprisingly early take-up from Hollywood. Famed for recognising nascent talent, mini-major studio New Line snapped up Hopkins to direct 1989’s A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Though a creepy, stylish, and imaginative installment in this frequently loopy franchise, Hopkins has since disparaged the movie. “The film had a rushed schedule without a reasonable budget, and New Line and The Motion Picture Association of America came in and cut the guts out of it completely,” told Fangoria in 1990. “What started as an okay film with a few good bits turned into a total embarrassment. I can’t even watch it anymore.”
Obviously not turned off the idea of jumping into already rolling film franchises, Hopkins’ next film was Predator 2, a rock-solid sequel which took the alien hunter from the jungle-set Arnold Schwarzenegger original and imaginatively dumped him into a distinctly urban setting. Though something of a financial disappointment, Predator 2 is a strong and original take on the original material, with Hopkins’ creation of a weird, dystopian Los Angeles a real highlight of the film, as cop Danny Glover fights the predator against a backdrop of keenly imagined urban decay. Predator 2 is underrated as a sequel, and the absence of Arnold (who was initially set to appear, but understandably opted to do Terminator 2 instead) really hurt the film. “It was a very exciting time for me,” Hopkins told Sci-Fi Now. “I was in my late twenties and it was a big leap up in Hollywood. It was a demanding and political film. There are lots of things in it that you just wouldn’t be able to do now. You wouldn’t be able to shoot explosions in downtown LA or helicopters landing in the middle of the street – we did it all for real!”
From Predator 2, Hopkins moved through a series of thrillers, with some tepid (1993’s urban chase flick Judgment Night), and others middling (1994’s Blown Away, with Jeff Bridges bomb squad cop battling Tommy Lee Jones’ madman; 2000’s Under Suspicion with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman). There was also 1998’s very disappointing Lost In Space, a wrong-headed revamp of the classic 1960s TV series, and perhaps Hopkins’ most cruelly overlooked work in 1996’s The Ghost And The Darkness. An African take on the Jaws trope (penned by no less than Hollywood legend William Goldman), this wonderfully entertaining adventure follows an earnest engineer (Val Kilmer) and a veteran big game hunter (Michael Douglas has a ball with the over-the-top role) on the trail of two marauding lions. A truly engaging actioner jammed with great sequences, funny dialogue, and winning characters, The Ghost And The Darkness should have been a much bigger hit.
Hopkins’ eventual stab at fully-fledged auteur status, however, came from a surprising place: TV. Usually seen as a medium that saps the creative juice of its practitioners in favour of churning out cookie-cutter hit product, television actually allowed Hopkins the chance to heighten his cinematic flair. His work on the gritty, highly energised and often radically violent real-time terrorist thriller series 24 saw Hopkins put a tidy spin on small screen espionage, and he followed this coup with the epic mini-series Traffic. “The TV networks want TV to be something that the cinema isn’t any more, which is controversial,” Hopkins told FilmInk in 2004. “They want people to talk the next day at work about the TV that was on the night before. They want people to talk about how unusual it was.”
At around the same time as Traffic, Hopkins also made the exceptional 2004 biopic The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, which stars Geoffrey Rush as the legendary British comic actor. Though made for HBO, the deeply moving film eventually made its way into cinemas. “I think a lot of people wanted to do a really dark version of this film,” Hopkins told FilmInk in 2004. “I wasn’t interested in that because I’m such a huge fan of Sellers. I didn’t want to make a tabloid film about this guy. I wanted to try and understand him. Geoffrey had the guts to give it a go. I don’t think the film judges anything. I don’t think we try to make anyone out as a good person or a bad person. And though it’s obviously principally about Peter Sellers, it’s also about a lot of other artists in general. I try to be an artist myself, and I think how some people just can’t express themselves through their work, and that must be really difficult.”
Since The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, Hopkins has directed consistently in TV, on episodic instalments (Shameless, House Of Lies, Californication, In Plain Sight, and the follow-up 24: Legacy) and excellent prestige mini-series and telemovies (Houdini & Doyle, World Of Trouble, Maggie Hill). Hopkins also directed the disappointing 2007 thriller The Reaping with Hilary Swank and 2016’s Race, a powerful biopic on pioneering African-American athlete Jesse Owens, who disproved Hitler’s Aryan bullshit at The 1936 Olympics in Berlin. “It’s not just about African-American racism; it’s also about anti-Semitism and really the idea of racism in itself,” Hopkins told The Upcoming upon the film’s release. “There’s something about human nature that wants to separate and find a reason to blame someone else.”
Nothing less than a TV pioneer (the influence and importance of 24 cannot be understated) and a director with a fistful of daring, top-tier films on his resume, Stephen Hopkins is an unassuming master when it comes to mixing style and substance.
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