It remains one of the well worn clichés in the film business: ask a writer or actor what they want to do, and if they don’t answer “be a rock star”, they invariably say “direct”. Yep, the seat behind the camera, the voice of implied reason during what is often the cinematic equivalent of herding cats, seems to be what every non-director in Hollywood (and elsewhere) wants.
In some ways, it makes sense. There’s no better way to get your vision of a script or a character across to the audience then handling the interpretation yourself. There’s also the concept of power for the often powerless. For many first timers, the rewards can be astonishing. Such familiar names as Ron Howard, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, and Robert Redford have turned their time behind the scenes into pure Oscar gold.
Of course, some of them go on to make more movies. Others, however, don’t get so lucky. Indeed, the history of Hollywood is written with the names of those who stepped in to make a film, and then never did so again. Some did go on to helm shorts and work in TV, but for the most part, their experience as the boss on motion picture set (and the less than stellar box office as a result) cured them of ever wanting to do so again. Listed here are 10 examples of one-and-done directors, including a few famous names and many gone and not completely forgotten figures. Not every title listed below is a gem, but most are a direct result of one person’s palpable aesthetic drive. In the end, their efforts endure, even if their desire to repeat them didn’t.
By day, he was (and is) an Academy Award winning Sound Designer and Editor. But as the old joke goes, what Walter Murch wanted to do was… you know what. Disney gave him the opportunity when they were looking for a way to keep the rights to L. Frank Baum’s famous tomes about Dorothy Gale and a certain Emerald City in-house. The novice filmmaker pitched his idea, the House of Mouse said “Yes”, and the result was either a misunderstood masterwork, or an atrocity that sullied the sainted reputation of the mighty MGM musical classic. While he says he would love to step behind the lens again, his services are is such high demand that he just can’t find the time to do so.
After the whole MTV-inspired hoopla over The Young Ones died down (the show had already been off the air in the UK for an entire year before the former music video channel picked it up), comedy partners Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson decided to bring a darker, more disturbing form of slapstick back to English televisions with the sensational ’90s show Bottom. After running for three series, the duo spun-off the property into stage extravaganzas, one-off specials, and this amazingly insane movie. While they tried to hide the link to their previous TV success, fans saw through the charade. Today, it holds a sacred place in their Mayall/Edmondson obsession.
He is credited with making the first “all greenscreen” movie, predating 300, Sin City, and other like-minded efforts. He’s also been known to burn bridges and (allegedly) alienate potential employers with his egotistical attitude. Perhaps the less than stellar reaction to this otherwise inspired bit of ’30s/’40s pulp was the reason behind his lack of directing opportunities. He was considered for John Carter of Mars before Disney took over, and there are hints of a return. Still, for someone whose work has inspired an entire post-millennial boom in digital design and environs, Conran’s MIA status seems very strange indeed.
It actually seems unfair to include this horror pioneer on the list. After all, before he discovered an abandoned amusement park (and was inspired by it), he was making industrial and corporate films for the famed Centron Company. Still, few would know who Herk Harvey was had he not taken that rundown space and turned it into a nightmare of death and decay. Carnival is often cited as inspiring such films as Night of the Living Dead, but it was not a hit initially. The lack of success meant that Harvey never return to feature films, though he had several ideas that never really got off the ground.
This one is just confusing. She’s Hollywood royalty (Google her lineage for proof) and she’s been involved behind the scenes in several sensational films (she produced Never Been Kissed, Donnie Darko, and the Charlie’s Angels efforts, among others). Yet when she turned out this terrific, female-centric action comedy, focusing on one young woman’s desire to be part of the Professional Roller Derby circuit, audiences and critics yawned. To her credit, Barrymore showed an innate skill with her actors and with the various competition sequences. There is talk that she will step back behind the lens again, but like many choosy artists, the “right” project has to come along.
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Talk about being ahead of your time. Way back in 1999, Marvel still had no control over the creative approach to its properties, DC was still deciding what to do about Batman post-Joel Schumacher, and the entire superhero genre had yet to become an international ATM. Into this confusing fray came a send-up of all the various comic book tropes, handled by a commercial director turned first time feature filmmaker. Though Usher had experience behind the lens (he was an in demand Steadicam operator), Mystery Men was his first stab at working with a studio. When the film failed to ignite the imagination of audiences, he returned to Madison Avenue.
Way back in 1938, the controversial writer (and future victim of McCarthy’s blacklist) wrote this insightful anti-war novel, hoping to show the errors of the past during the rise in tensions across Europe. Decades later, after surviving the horrors of a Commie-crazed Hollywood, Trumbo decided to adapt the material himself. The film was a flop, garnering little notice and something of a harsh reputation (the Medveds cited it in their Golden Turkey Awards book) before being revisited in the era of home video. Along with the cool cred that comes from being part of a memorable Metallica video (“One”), it turned Trumbo’s effort into a forgotten classic.
You’ve seen his work — at least, you have if you watched any movie credits made by Hitchcock, or Otto Preminger, or Martin Scorsese in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Indeed, Bass was a brilliant designer of title sequences, his cut and paste jazz-inspired style bringing a great deal of ambience and attitude to the films he was introducing. When given a chance to make his own movie, he decided to tackle this odd science fiction parable where ants gain super-intelligence and challenge man for dominance on the planet. After it bombed, Bass never directed again. Today, the film has earned a respectable reputation among discerning critics (like yours truly).
Driven by the real life story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, also known as the Lonely Hearts Killers, producer Warren Steibel hired his roommate, composer Leonard Kastle, to research the couple. After an already hired Martin Scorsese proved too slow for the limited budget, he was fired. Suddenly, Kastle was behind the lens, doing his best to bring his vision of a craven couple murdering spinsters for their money. Marketed as an exploitation film, it didn’t have the requisite sex and violence to keep the raincoat crowd happy. Now, it’s among the hallowed films in the Criterion Collection, considered one of the great works of American cinema.
By the mid-’50s, Charles Laughton was considered to be perhaps the best actor in the world, a status he would share with Laurence Olivier. Befriending famed critic James Agee, the two decided to draft a script based on David Grubb’s 1953 novel. Using German Expressionism as his visual inspiration and his own experiences in front of the camera for the performances, Laughton delivered what many, including several scholarly sources, consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Of course, when it was originally released, audiences and critics hated it. Laughton was so hurt he never directed again. One look at this amazing movie and you’ll lament what we lost with that decision.