Film Camera image
Image: Unsplash

“Does he even know how to direct?”: When actors become directors

It’s no secret in Hollywood that everyone wants to direct. Writers become directors, editors become directors and even sometimes title sequence designers become directors (in the case of Maggie). So, it is no surprise that actors become directors. Some discover a brand-new career path, while others should definitely have stayed in front of the camera, where their pretty faces were all the public ever wanted from them. Either way, an actor becoming a director is more often than not a very interesting viewing experience.

Countless actors have taken the directing mantle as an opportunity to get their passion projects off the ground, allowing for a level of control that wouldn’t be afforded if they simply remained in front of the camera. Actors such as Ed Harris, George Clooney and Jonah Hill have all taken advantage of this method. Harris especially benefitted, as directing himself in Pollock garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Many times, an actor will cast themselves in their directorial efforts, conveniently giving an excuse to demonstrate their acting talent. The most recent example is Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, whereupon Norton directs himself as a detective with Tourettes Syndrome. It’s quite an impressive performance, even if it does come across as “look at me, where’s my Oscar?”.

Sometimes, when the temptation of awards and the novelty of an actor being behind the camera wears off, the directing can open up a career all of itself, almost making the acting secondary

Of course, projects directed by actors often have incredible success when it comes to awards. Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People won Best Picture and Director in its respective year, as did Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. In Costner’s case, he managed to beat Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with his first attempt, though the world would be less kind to his second effort, with The Postman winning Worst Picture at The Razzies. It’s no surprise that performances in films helmed by actors receive such acclaim – after all, who would have more experience at actually being directed than actors? – but other accolades can’t help but feel like friendly bias on behalf of voters made up by their peers. When not passion projects, films that actors decide to direct can feel like awfully safe bets, whether they’re based on true stories of heroism like Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, or more serious prestige dramas like Dead Man Walking by Tim Robbins, the films often scream Awards Bait. This approach can backfire, however, and doesn’t always end with glory. Just ask Ewan McGregor, who chose to adapt Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, one of the most acclaimed American novels of the past 25 years, as his debut. I’m not even sure he remembers seeing it.

Sometimes, when the temptation of awards and the novelty of an actor being behind the camera wears off, the directing can open up a career all of itself, almost making the acting secondary. The best example of an actor having better success as a director is Ron Howard. Perhaps the most obvious in that he has no real stylistic or distinctive directorial eye, it’s clear he understands actors, and gets the job done – even if it’s done so as pedestrian as possible. This approach has clearly worked for him, though; no one is making jokes anymore referring to his films as the new ‘Richie Cunningham Joint’. Clint Eastwood fits into this category nicely as well (though he has a directorial style), even if he will always be best known as The Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Largely casting himself in lead roles (though not exclusively) throughout his career, Clint’s filmography has consisted of the Westerns that helped make him famous (High Plains Drifter), romantic melodramas (Bridges of Madison County) and the patriotic ‘all American heroes’ of his twilight years (American Sniper, Sully). His directorial films help shine a light on aspects that actors take from their own experiences when they direct, notably that of star power and inspiration. An actor knows the true capabilities of a performance, and they know what good filmmaking feels like – Clint’s work is full of inspiration from Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. Interestingly, his approach would come full circle, as Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born takes clear inspiration from Clint’s work; working on American Sniper certainly left a mark.

Some actors seem to be content with their work as director to be less in the spotlight, almost appearing as more a personal hobby than a craving for control

A major issue that is presented when an actor turns to directing is the question of ego. If being front and centre of the film is not enough, directing gives them control of the film. It runs the risk of them pulling a Ziggy Stardust and ‘making love with their ego’. Sylvester Stallone taking directing duties of the Rocky series after Rocky II helped shape the public perception of him as a person. The desire for control extends so far that rumours have often circulated that Cobra was actually ghost directed by him, and not by George P Cosmatos. Considering Kurt Russell claims that he actually directed Cosmatos’ Tombstone, hiring him after Stallone’s recommendation, only adds further evidence. James Franco’s excessive output as a director can only really be viewed as showing off his apparent intellect and stroking of his ego. Adapting multiple literary classics from authors such as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy comes across as merely pretentious exercises in trying to remove himself from his comedic performances – an attempt to try and be taken more seriously. It would probably help if he was good at it.

Some actors seem to be content with their work as director to be less in the spotlight, almost appearing as more a personal hobby than a craving for control. Denzel Washington’s career as a director is rarely mentioned, if at all, in comparison to his career as an actor, and the same could be said for Jodie Foster. Actors deciding to not star in their own work may have this effect, though it certainly doesn’t detract from the films. Greta Gerwig’s directorial efforts, in the form of Lady Bird and Little Women, are two of the best films of their respective years, and so seamlessly Gerwig. The same can be said of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and we can only pray that Wilde continues to direct.

As long as they shoot pictures, actors will turn to directing them

Lost River remains the most fascinating directorial debut of the decade, down to the fact that it is the last thing anyone expected from indie darling and far too handsome Ryan Gosling. Deciding to not feature in his own film, it stars Saoirse Ronan, Christina Hendricks, Ben Mendelsohn, Matt Smith and Eva Mendes, telling the story of a single mother pulled into a dark underworld. While it shares many similarities with other actor turned director films, the most obvious being a great cast made up of friends, and clear inspiration from director collaborations, it’s Gosling’s sheer artistic approach that separates it. Clearly not an attempt at awards or box office success, watching Lost River is like producing a cocktail by mixing David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn, Derek Cianfrance and Terrence Malick in a blender and then sipping it on a sweaty evening during the dog days of summer, and following it with Gaspar Noé and Harmony Korine as chasers. Many may criticise him for treating his DVD collection like a buffet table, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it, even if the borrowed stylistics don’t entirely blend together completely – it’s a debut, the rough around the edges is part of the charm. Gosling’s commitment to his ethereal dreamlike vision is only heightened by Johnny Jewel (of the Chromatics and entire ‘Italians Do It Better’ label) composing the score. Saoirse Ronan’s vocals on original song ‘Tell Me’ is what a child me always thought a visit from an angel from Heaven would feel like, a feeling of innocence the entire picture manages to encapsulate. Critics hated it, and audiences didn’t see it. The result is that Ryan Gosling will probably never direct again.

And now we must talk about Vincent Gallo. A mysterious case of actor-turned-director as he probably wouldn’t include himself in the discussion, instead choosing the word artist, his work ventures into painting, music and modelling that the only real occupational title you could label him is that of ‘Vincent Gallo’. Starring in indie films throughout the 90s, such as Palookaville, Arizona Dream and The Funeral, his 1998 directorial debut Buffalo 66 is the finest debut of the 90s. Gallo stars as Billy Brown, a man who, after being released from prison, kidnaps Christina Ricci’s Layla and forces her to pretend to be his wife when he visits his parents. It’s a film that presents its auteurist vision from the off, with deliberate editing choices and a visual style unlike anything else out there (being shot on a rare Ektachrome film stock, it was uncertain whether anywhere could actually develop the film). A sequence in a bowling alley as Christina Ricci tap-dances to King Crimson’s ‘Moonchild’ is ingrained in my mind.

Whether they appear as masterpieces or total disasters, it’s always a joy to watch someone’s apparent film education realised on screen

Buffalo 66 marked the arrival of a true new indie auteur… and then The Brown Bunny happened. Debuting at Cannes Film Festival in 2003, The Brown Bunny consists of Gallo’s Bud Clay driving across America to enter a race in California, and potentially finding the woman from his past (Chloë Sevigny) that will cure his lonely heart. Famed critic Roger Ebert called it “the worst film in the history of Cannes” and others weren’t any kinder, and to be perfectly honest it’s not hard to see why. The film features scene after scene of a depressed-looking Gallo driving through America, culminating in a scene of a non-simulated sexual act. You either stopped watching because you were bored or you were offended at how the film ended. Vincent Gallo has subsequently refused to release any directorial efforts to the public since, and his acting roles are mainly in lesser-seen art house affairs like Essential Killing and the bizarre Legend of Kaspar Hauser. If I may take a moment, The Brown Bunny isn’t deserving of the hate. While the fact that ego can’t be taken out of the equation – just looking at the credits reveals Gallo is practically responsible for everything – his casting of himself raises the question of just what the extent of ego is. Both characters in his directorial efforts are vulnerable and broken men hidden under a layer of ugliness and an awful human being, and yet this is at odds to the ego-driven actors-turned directors-who want to present themselves as the strong, manly types (Stallone) or highly talented actors looking to show off (Norton). The Brown Bunny isn’t a “look how great I am” film or performance, it’s a melancholic meditation on loneliness and regret.

As long as they shoot pictures, actors will turn to directing them. Whether they appear as masterpieces or total disasters, it’s always a joy to watch someone’s apparent film education realised on screen. I can only look forward to what the next generation of actors have under their directorial sleeves: maybe Ansel Elgort will finally offer some form of talent, or Zoey Deutch will blow us all away with her modern adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. For me, ‘A Timothée Chalamet Film’ just seems to reads right…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.