There comes a point in every budding director’s career, usually a few movies in, where the circumstances align to allow for a breakthrough. The backing is there, the level of control is reasonable. The director is young and hungry and vibrant, wholly convinced that he or she has got something to prove. The script is strong, the setting right, and the stage is set to launch that project into overdrive.
It is by way of these breakthrough events that one can see the early seeds of a director developing his voice, some trademark way of communicating with the audience that will echo – in one form or another – throughout the rest of his career. Think Hitchcock with the Vertigo Effect or early Coppola with Technicolor imbibition. On the surface, these are watermarks, an editorial flair designed to complement each piece. Yet combined with an auteur’s vision and the ongoing ability to convey it, these flairs possess the power to elevate an esteemed director into an icon.
Regarding the seven directors who have been included on this list, the pool has been relegated to either British or American directors, each of whom is still putting out full-length work on a regular basis. This is not to say that all of the directors who’ve been included are young (countless dues must be paid before one can be considered an icon). But it is to say that these directors have released at least one significant piece of cinema during the past five years, and that each is busy working on some other full-length project at the moment.
In that spirit, here are seven of the most iconic directors of our time, as evidenced by their most iconic films:
Paul Thomas Anderson
Fun fact: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam both introduce their main stories by way of a complex tracking shot that follows a car as it winds around a bend in 1977, slowing down to park in front of a busy discotheque. Anderson’s version features “Best of My Love” by The Emotions; Spike Lee’s features “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave. How’s that for homage?
Boogie Nights may not have ended up exactly how Anderson envisioned it (Leonardo DiCaprio as Dirk Diggler, Warren Beatty as Jack Horner), but happy accidents have never proven more fortuitous. Regardless of whatever animosity arose between Burt Reynolds and Anderson (Reynolds infamously abandoned the publicity tour for Boogie Nights; Anderson, in turn, let fly that Reynolds was suffering from a painkiller addiction). The two of them owe each other an immeasurable debt of gratitude.
Born out of a 30-minute film entitled The Dirk Diggler Story that Anderson wrote and directed when he was 17, the genius of Boogie Nights resides not so much in its ongoing level of camp as in its ability to categorically reflect the feelings one might experience while watching an actual porno film – laughter, intrigue, excitement, arousal, climax, and, ultimately, depression. Boogie Nights showcases The San Fernando Valley (the area of Anderson’s upbringing) between the years of 1977 to 1984 (Anderson’s preteen coming of age), along with the movie industry, resplendently documented in all its whorish glory. The finished product rendered Anderson a wunderkind, and it re-branded Burt Reynolds a star (until his ego interfered a second time). While there are nods to Jonathan Demme throughout, Boogie Nights remains the innovative brainchild of Paul Thomas Anderson – a director who has since gone on to one-up almost every early mentor whose films he once aspired to.
What’s next: Anderson’s Inherent Vice, a Thomas Pynchon adaptation starring Joaquin Phoenix, opens in theaters on December 12th.
Joel & Ethan Coen
Cult classic is a term that maybe you’ve said or maybe you’ve heard, but it rarely applies in quite the literal way as it has to The Big Lebowski – a stunningly brilliant box-office flop that soared upon the wings of die-hard fans; aficionados are so dedicated, there is both a documentary and an annual festival dedicated to their cause. Watch The Big Lebowski once, and you’re likely to laugh a handful of times, perhaps even emerge from it intrigued. Watch The Big Lebowski a number of times, and it may begin to feel as if you’re deciphering a code; so twisted are the sociopolitical leanings of this film. Lebowski remains fascinating, one of those rare gems that reveals critics for the patronizing flock they are (the film originally met with lukewarm reviews, but has since ascended to an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Lebowski arrived on the heels of Fargo, at a time when studios were still crediting Joel Coen as the lone director, and Ethan as the writer. The Coens infamously credited “Roderick Jaynes” as their editor on Big Lebowski – a ruse eventually 1,000x more satisfying, given the fictional Jaynes was nominated for an Academy Award.
Joel and Ethan regularly scale down production to keep the studios at bay. They defy convention for the most honorable of reasons, and in the most honorable of ways. They consistently resemble what William H. Macy once referred to as, “a [couple] of hippies, who somehow managed to slip through the cracks.” – a distinction which begs the question: why should anyone this talented have to?
What’s next: The Coens are currently in preproduction on a drama entitled Hail, Caesar!, which, ironically, promises to be a commentary on Hollywood’s studio system, set during the 1950s.
Make no mistake, Se7en is a motion picture that riffs on torture, regardless of whether that figures into one’s enjoyment of the film. The photos of each crime scene, purposely shown in black and white, appear nearly identical to the photos that would eventually surface out of Abu Ghraib eight long years later. Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The Seven Deadly Sins. Fincher is dabbling in archetypes here, all of them leading up to a harrowing climax, featuring a ritual beheading, in a desert, followed by an act of revenge, all of which is filmed between a series of high-tension wires.
Crazy, right? Crazier still when one considers all that subtext went unnoticed.
The role of Detective Somerset was originally written with William Hurt in mind (others who passed on the role included Al Pacino and Robert Duvall). The climactic sequence, which represents a master class in direction, features handheld footage of Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt), while every shot of John Doe (Kevin Spacey) remains incredibly still, clueing Fincher’s audience into the fact that the balance of power has suddenly shifted. Fincher unleashed what has since become known as his traditional palette (muted browns and yellows meant to suggest a classic sepia feel) in Alien 3. Yet it was Se7en that established that onscreen look as something hauntingly cerebral. As a director, Fincher has only gotten much better over time, joining an incredibly tight circle of directors (Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.) who can take an average book and adapt it into a vastly-superior motion picture. The primary difference being that unlike Spielberg and Coppola, David Fincher still has at least a third of his best work in front of him.
What’s now: David Fincher’s Gone Girl is currently in theaters.
1989, a number, another summer. One block, one day, one hood in Brooklyn. A hot day. A scorcher, a snow-cone day (no, Mister Softee), a day for buckets and cold beer, a day for beach umbrellas and unplugged hydrants, midday showers and Love Daddy; a day for Buggin’ Out and Mother Sister, Da Mayor and his doctors, M-M-Mookie, Booboo the Fool, Radio Raheem and Night of the Hunter, Famous Sal and Sweet Dick Willie, Alberta Hunter, Dexter Gordon, Oliver Nelson, Dana Dane, Marley Marl, Marcus Miller, Terry Lewis, Jimmy Jam, McCoy Tyner, Fred Wesley, Wayne Shorter, Roland Kirk, Monk and Ellington, Armstrong and Basie, Wynton and Branford, Mahalia and Janet, Whitney and Dionne, Miles Davis and Coltrane; Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha and Pendergrass; Al Jarreau, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and James Brown; Keith Sweat, Big Daddy, Rob Base, Salt-n-Pepa, Sugar Bear, Biz Markie, Kool Moe Dee, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Public Enemy, Bobby Bland, The Isley Brothers, Tracy Chapman, Bobby McFerrin, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie, Bob Marley, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, Prince, Anita and Sade; Quincy Jones and Vic Damone, Frank and Dean, Bruce Springsteen; Perry Como, Pavarotti, Al Pacino, Bobby D., Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta; Bird and Magic, Tyson/Ali, Cain and Abel, Kunta Kinte, Tawana Brawley, Eleanor Bumpurs, Jesus Christ and Pope John Paul, Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad, Jesse Jackson and Mandela, Malcolm X and MLK; Donald Trump and Mayor Koch, Bull Connor and the Reverend Moon. Just another day in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, here today and gone too soon.
What’s next: Spike Lee is currently in postproduction on Go Brasil Go! – a feature-length documentary that will focus on the socioeconomic and political shift of Brazil.
It’s interesting that a director who has since become known for sci-fi would also be the one to develop a deeply grounded story about a man who is not so much a superhero, as he is a highly-motivated, hyper-intelligent, psychologically-damaged human being. Consider this: when Christopher Nolan agreed to (re)take on Batman, he was also agreeing to (re)take on one of the highest grossing franchises of all-time, less than 10 years after the fact, no less. By way of comparison, it’s been 35 years since the original Superman and motherfuckers still can’t get that right. When it came to The Dark Knight, Nolan was up against the specter of Jack Nicholson; his portrayal of The Joker universally regarded as a classic feat of cinema. And yet, looking back now, it’s as if those early Burton films were nothing more than Goth confetti. The Dark Knight built upon a new franchise model: first film tells the origin story, second introduces the arch-nemesis, third resolves all plot points, while transforming the aging hero into legend. From the opening frame to the final searing beat, The Dark Knight kept coming at you like a pulse, forever rising and falling, accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s score. When it was over, Heath Ledger had reinvented The Joker, while Christopher Nolan had created not only the single greatest superhero movie of all-time, but what would go on to become part of the second-greatest trilogy of all-time, as well.
What’s next: Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar hits theaters on November 7th.
A million-five. That was the initial budget for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – a-million-goddamn-five. Forget about inflation. Just consider that for a moment: a Martin Scorsese film shot in New York City, starring Robert De Niro, Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle and Albert Brooks. How do you make a movie like that for a-million-goddamn-five? Better yet, how do you make an all-time classic on that budget, a character study so intense it either stirs or comforts closet cases in the same way Holden Caulfield did? How do you develop a psycho so deluded he cannot even martyr himself correctly? Perhaps the more appropriate question should be: how do you develop that type of character unless you’re not prone to some of those same demons yourself (as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro have all admitted to having been throughout the production of Taxi Driver)? I mean, it’s right there during those opening moments, rising like vapors out of Times Square, a sprawling urban surrogate for hell. And then there is the aura: Jodie Foster being so young, her involvement had to be approved by the Board of Education; composer Bernard Herrmann dying on the very night he finished recording Taxi Driver’s score; the color of blood being desaturated throughout the final sequence to satisfy a puritanical ratings board. In A Personal Journey, Scorsese, who once considered pursuing a life in the priesthood, likened the communal experience of going to a movie to that of being in a church. “I believe there is a spirituality in films,” Scorsese explained. “Even if it is not one that can supplant faith … It’s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious; they fulfill a spiritual need that people have – to share a common memory.” While films like Goodfellas and Raging Bull no doubt contributed more to the Scorsese formula (beginning at the end, a series of quick cuts, a fast pace, frenetic energy, etc.), none of his films reflect a fracture in the American psyche quite like Taxi Driver did. Its grip has never loosened over time.
What’s next: Having just premiered a documentary about the New York Review of Books on HBO, Scorsese is putting the finishing touches on a Bill Clinton documentary. He is also developing an HBO movie about The Ramones, and a sprawling drama called Silence about a pair of 17th-Century Jesuit priests in Japan.
Right up and through the success of Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino remained much like a powder keg, perennially waiting to explode. Tarantino had the early accolades, a writing credit on True Romance and a story credit on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (an adaptation Tarantino would ultimately disown). Tarantino had been afforded a seat at the table, so to speak, thanks in large part to Harvey Keitel. But that moment – that combustible moment no one, save for Quentin Tarantino, could have possibly expected – did not occur until Pulp Fiction won the Palme D’or.
While the majority of 1990s directors were busy developing a body of work, Tarantino was constructing his own universe: a self-contained realm wherein each character had a back story, and several of those back stories overlapped; where the entertainment proved so rich, it never mattered if one understood the subtext; where the overriding goal – restated time and time again by Tarantino – was to “get the audience off.” This was a revival, highly indicative of Norman Mailer’s assertion that a genius is someone who “reveals the new possibility in the buried depth of the old injunction.” In the aftermath of Reservoir Dogs, Miramax lit a fuse beneath Tarantino, and “KA-BOOM!” if that long-burning spark did not explode.
Like any movie classic (see Jaws, The Godfather, Psycho, etc.), there was a mystique surrounding Pulp Fiction, one that continues to hold the public spellbound. That suitcase, the Band-Aid, Steve Buscemi as a waiter inside Jack Rabbit Slim’s; the 1964 Chevrolet Malibu that got stolen (then recovered 19 year later); that slightly altered passage from Ezekiel (by way of Karate Kiba); that plunging shot of adrenaline being filmed in reverse; those bullet holes and Fox Force Five, and on and on and on and on. Pulp Fiction is an industry onto itself, reaching back into the grand and even not-so-grand tradition of Hollywood. It possesses a self-effacing honesty that has pushed the medium forward, inspiring countless vain attempts at flattery. It is the movie that catapulted Tarantino, while re-launching John Travolta, and reimagining what mainstream films might be. Pulp Fiction gave life to an entire genre built on subgenres, and it also taught rude patrons that garçon is French for boy.
What’s next: Quentin Tarantino is currently in preproduction on The Hateful Eight, a Western that is scheduled for release in December of 2015.
– Article by Bob Hill for The Untitled Magazine