When Directors Do U-Turns
I watched Tony Scott’s debut Loving Memory over the weekend. Made at the tail-end of the 1960s (nearly a decade and a half before his ‘official’ debut, The Hunger), it’s a startling change of pace if you’re used to Top Gun and True Romance. No fast cuts, no flashy visuals, no wisecracks. Just two glum Northeners trapped in a cycle of grief and madness, filmed in monochrome with Bergmanesque austerity.
Just imagine if there’d been a British film industry worthy of the name during the 1970s. Tony – and, of course, Ridley – wouldn’t have jumped ship into the advert industry, they wouldn’t have discovered high-concept, and the entire history of both British and Hollywood movies might have been really different.
While it’s common for auteurs to arrive fully-formed even with low-budget debuts (Lynch, Raimi, Tarantino), Tony Scott isn’t the only one who seemingly changed his mind down the line. Here are five other directors whose early films, made before they’d settled on their iconic style, are wildly atypical in retrospect.
Famous For: Documenting the dark side of American politics, via coruscating thrillers and jittery warzone flicks like Salvador, Platoon and JFK.
…But Before That: Like many of his generaton of film school grads, Stone ploughed his trade in exploitation, debuting with low-budget horror Seizure. Even after winning an Oscar for writing Midnight Express, Stone still couldn’t get pet project Platoon greenlit, so to prove his directing chops he took on the camp-as-Christmas Grand Guinol of The Hand, starring Michael Caine in the days when only the paycheque mattered.
M. Night Shyamalan
But Before That: Shyamalan did what all American directors do when they’re young and don’t have the money to afford Bruce Willis. He made rites-of-passage tale Praying With Anger and melodrama Wide Awake, substituting dead people and aliens for spiritual ennui and family dysfunction.
…But Before That: In the late 1950s and 1960s, Rome’s Cinecitta studio was the centre of the craze for swords-and-sandals epics, with the Italians pumping out cheap knock-offs of Ben-Hur and the like. So what else was young Sergio to do, other than to helm toga’d thriller The Colossus of Rhodes? At least it taught him how to make big-looking films without spending any money, a valuable lesson for his later Spaghetti Westerns.
Famous For: whimsical, folsky ‘Capra-corn’ dramedies Mr Deeds Goes To Town, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life.
…But Before That: A hugely productive and versatile name throughout the silent era and early talkies. Notably, two films before his Oscar-winning breakthrough It Happened One Night, he directed Barbara Stanwyck in steamy, ‘exotic’ interracial* melodrama The Bitter Tea of General Yen. (* Although, this being 1933, the Chinese General Yen is played by Scandanavian Nils Asther).
Famous For: Bloody, operatic fan letters to his favourite directors (notably Alfred Hitchcock) like Dressed To Kill, Blow Out and The Untouchables.
…But Before That: De Palma discovered Godard and left-wing politics before he went pulp. His early films like Greetings and Hi, Mom! are angry, verite-style agitprop for the Vietman generation, quite unlike the glossy technique of his Hollywood hits. Weird exception that proves the rule: Scarface, which marries peak-era De Palma abandon to a scathing satirical subtext. The writer? One Oliver Stone, working on this at around the same time he made The Hand. Funny how things work out, sometimes.