Tom Jolliffe takes a look at some of cinemas most hated directors…
When all is said and done with a film, everything boils down to one thing: The individuals verdict. You’ll love films, you’ll hate them, you’ll be totally indifferent to some. This then rings true of individual aspects in a film, from cast, to perhaps the music, the visuals, the editing. I could point to a film as glorious looking as Legend (the Tom Cruise and Ridley Scott 80’s fantasy) as something eminently watchable on a visual level, but also pretty risible as far as content. Then of course there are the directors.
As director you take the first wave of bullets from any critical storm. You are overseer of the final product, and even if you don’t end up getting your vision due to producer interference, distributor recuts, or any other number of reasons, you still take the blame. Some directors seem to be able to do whatever they like, largely without reproach. Every director will of course have haters, but by the same token someone like Christopher Nolan almost seems to be deified in many circles (you need only look at his IMDb ratings).
There are many directors but they boil down to two types. The auteurs and the functional. Functional directors can still orchestrate an good film, but they’re better at pulling departments in unison, and engaging their cast for the overall benefit of a good film. You take a film with fairly unobtrusive direction and you could change the director for another functional one without losing the effect. However if you took something as distinctly auteur as John Woo’s Hard Boiled and replaced him with a functional director, it wouldn’t work.
We are coming to a time where it has become increasingly easy for the world and wife to create narrative film. You can shoot and edit on a phone now. Whilst software is becoming ever more user friendly (and affordable). The trouble is, so many people know how to use every technical aspect of a piece of editing software, but increasingly, not how to edit without being overly functional, or worse, intruding too much on the film (this is particularly prevalent in micro budget indie cinema). As we see competition for places in film increase exponentially, we see a huge increase in a lack of filmic understanding. It’s similar with directors and every other discipline to be fair. You may be able to function a screenwriting piece of software but it doesn’t make you Charlie Kaufman (and I wouldn’t claim to be either). With directors it’s similar. Being functional when you’ve got a good grasp of cinema language is good. When you don’t really have a grip of your overall vision and how everything pieces together (‘leave it to the editor’) the film will normally come out lifeless.
So directors with stronger vision and stubbornly singular approach will always, for better or worse, put themselves in the firing line. Michael Bay or Zack Snyder for example. Both have a long line of bombastic blockbusters with a visual aesthetic that has their name stamped all over it. Say what you might about Messrs Bay, Snyder, or Guy Ritchie too, but they are Auteurs. You can distinctly spot one of their films from miles off. Along with the great wall, they’re visible from space. As much as I find watching those Transformers films about as enjoyable as hammering a nail into my left teste, I have to give praise to Bay for being so unashamedly, balls out, full on, and stylistically Bay. There may be directors stepping back and giving the limelight to their actors, the script or the DP, but a Bay or indeed a more creatively successful auteur like Nolan step out, front and center, unzipped and proudly pulled out on display to say ‘this is one of my films.’
Bay and Snyder in the end both stay largely within crowd pleasing genre films, with the express intent of entertaining the masses in the way they feel will satisfy them most. Box office would suggest that they do okay. Defiant apologists of Snyder’s DC films would likewise also suggest a tap into the minds of many viewers and more depth than he might get credit for (I personally don’t see that in his DC films).
There are some directors however, who have no interest in audience enjoyment or engagement. Their films, good, bad and ugly, are totalitarian in their delivery. Every couple of years we get something new from the likes of Gaspar Noe, Lars Von Trier or Nicolas Winding-Refn that slash critics through the middle (if they’re lucky). Refn is just delivering his new TV show to the world via Prime (Too Old To Die Young), but even stepping into TV, (though he insists the whole thing is more like a film anyway) he’s no less divisive than he is in his film work. Some of the most extreme auteurs look with fascination at themes of sex and violence, and cast their unique visual gaze upon them. Refn’s most crowd-pleasing film, which by his standards was fast paced, was Drive (perhaps not surprisingly, one he didn’t write). He’s kept many of the sensibilities since, with neon infused lighting, 80’s inspired synth soundtracks and luridly gorgeous visual palettes, but Drive, aided by more colourful characterisations in the support cast, actually gathered a strong fan base. It still, because of his style, also had its share of detractors.
To an extent though, Drive was a means to an end. A ‘crowd-pleaser’ that would allow Refn carte-blanche for a few years and the ability to make something as back alley, helicopter-dick-flashing as Only God Forgives. It’s a film I’ve seen three times, and to this day can’t decide whether I hate it, whether it’s got anything to actually say, or whether it’s a work of art. Certainly aesthetically it is. Still, the fact I’ve gone back to try again twice suggests the magnetic quality of Refn and his work. The Neon Demon was far more accessible, but still fairly divisive (and indeed another film I’m still not sure entirely my stance on).
It’s a similar case with Noe, forever courting controversy with films like Irreversible and Love, or smashing convention and narrative norms with the likes of Enter The Void or his most recent offering, Climax. You may sit and watch something that causes a reaction of repulsion within you, all the while admiring the boldness and unrestrained singularity on display.
Still, one thing is evident with many of these directors, particularly the most insular and artistically minded such as Noe, Refn, Von Trier etc, and that is a desire from top talent to work with them. A run through of Von Trier’s casts of recent times sees an interesting selection of talent and stars you’d perhaps not have associated with wanting to work with him. Indeed, whilst Dogville is far from Von Triers most extreme work, the presence of a then top of the A-list heap, Nicole Kidman was quite surprising. Nymphomaniac also had an interesting cast and it was a surprise to see Uma Thurman appearing. Refn himself has pulled in an array of incredible talent and occasionally surprises like Elle Fanning (whose youthful innocence was a perfect fit for the lurid, vampiric world of Neon Demon). Indeed, Miles Teller an actor riding pretty high has been drawn to a director who’s only assured promise is probably division. Actors go into films from the likes of Noe, Refn etc, probably knowing half the audience will hate it (almost vehemently).
There’s been an historical love/hate relationship throughout cinema history with directors. Many a B movie merchant ended up with masses of detractors, be they Russ Meyer, Roger Corman or Lloyd Kaufman, but likewise there has always historically been antipathy toward rule breakers and ground breakers. Orson Welles for example who rebelled against the conventions of film-making and in the process still influences directly, or indirectly, almost every modern film. All would find a progressive flip into either cult acclaim, or legendary status (in Welles’ case).
Then of course you have a man like Uwe Boll. A case unto himself and totally unique. Not only did he garner dreadful vitriolic reviews for pretty much everything he’s ever made, but Boll actively clawed back at critics, viewers, and even famously challenged one critic to a boxing match. Here’s the thing, Boll still created a stamp. It may have been objectively awful to many, but regardless he was producing and maintaining near full control over films costing upwards of 80 million dollars, and loaded with big actors. If Boll proved anything, it was that Ben Kingsley isn’t picky as long as there’s enough zeroes on the cheque. He’s pushed extreme ideas, and pushed the boundaries of directorial free speech to its limits with blustering self-belief and he’s even put himself in direct firing line to stand behind his work in the square circle. Boll was ready to rumble. Whether you’ve seen his more underground work (including the Rampage series, accused of glorifying terrorism/violent rebellion) or just the iconic(ally) bad video game adaptations, one should acknowledge that his determination, unwavering self belief and aggressively stubborn streak will undoubtedly mean his work is looked over still in 50 years (even if for the pouring of scorn).
I’ve said it before, and as an epiphany which came to me having made, or worked in films myself, is that just getting one of these bastards made is hard enough. Barriers meet you from beginning to end, without any promise at the end that anyone will even watch it. Certainly it’s almost nigh on impossible for most mere mortals to get creative carte blanche on their work, so for these directors, whether it’s tentpole specialists like Bay or Snyder, arthouse dividers like Von Trier, Refn or Noe, or simply an entity unto himself like Boll (or with more amiability, Tommy Wiseau), the fact they’re so ready to put their face through the hole to be pelted with rancid tomatoes means they will have a more lasting legacy than many accomplished but functional directors.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.