Amongst my friends, I’m sometimes known as a prognosticator. If I see a tiny film that sends out a few ripples, or perhaps is unjustly ignored, and I can recognize a great deal of potential in the film’s director, I like to “sell” that movie and filmmaker to as many people as possible. When Shallow Grave came out, I was raving about Danny Boyle. After watching Reservoir Dogs, I tried my damndest to get my Middle School class to check it out. Once these directors make a bigger splash, often with their followup film, I hear “Damn, Phil! You’ve been talkin’ this dude (or chick) up for awhile!”.
My heart fills with pride. Both at my abilities to spot talent, and at the blossoming success of an artist that I appreciate.
Sometimes, however, things go awry. On occasion, I will point my finger at someone and declare them “The Next Big Thing”, after which they proceed to fall on their face.
I wanted to briefly take a look at a few recent directors who never quite “made it”, or possibly just haven’t made it yet.
Mr. Waller’s Wikipedia page simply states “Anthony Waller (born October 24, 1959) is a film director”. That’s it. Then, we get the short list of his films, starting with his thriller from 1995, Mute Witness.
I first read about Mute Witness in Fangoria magazine in an interview with the director, and found both him and the concept fascinating. The titular character is a female Special Makeup FX artist, working on a horror film, who stumbles upon a snuff film being made in the studio after hours. The killer pornographers are none too happy about this, and put her on the run for her life. Oh, did I forget to mention that she doesn’t have the ability to speak? And that she’s an American in Russia?
Also scripted and produced by Waller, Mute Witness opened to some fairly solid reviews. Despite being featured in Fangoria, it came out in an era where “horror” was a dirty word, and every horror film post-Silence Of The Lambs was selling itself as a “thriller” to gain a little critical traction. It worked, and even the mainstream critics seemed to enjoy it, for the most part. However, this was not a blockbuster, and several critics, even ones that liked it, pointed out that the comedic elements of the film and ridiculous third act twists left a lot to be desired. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but an enjoyable one. There’s an amazing, extended chase set piece right at the beginning, and also an amusing cameo from a revered actor which had been filmed by the director nearly a decade before, then awkwardly inserted into the narrative.
What Went Wrong?: A little movie called An American Werewolf In Paris. An ill-conceived sequel to the classic horror film An American Werewolf In London, this movie eschews make-up fx for CGI, and casts sometimes Tom Hanks stand-in Tom Everett Scott as a de facto David Naughton. For what it’s worth, I remember enjoying the film on it’s own terms, but the fx were horrible, and overall it’s pretty disappointing for a sequel to one of the greatest films ever made. Waller needed to knock this one out of the park to satisfy the fans, but it ended up more of a bunt. It also didn’t light a fire under audiences who were unfamiliar with the original film. A horribly reviewed flop (Currently at 8% on RottenTomatoes. Ouch!), this was a career killer.
Chances of a comeback: Low. Waller’s corpse came back in 2000 to make the Bill Pullman thriller The Guilty, which went straight to video (and blows). Since then, he’s made an Adrian Paul movie, and an upcoming documentary about Singularitanism featuring Tony Robbins.
Early on in his career, Boaz was living the dream as a screenwriter, having sold both an adaptation of The Punisher, and a Clint Eastwood directorial effort. Unfortunately, The Punisher film was a New World Pictures production that went straight to video in the US; and the Eastwood film was The Rookie, in which Clint is raped by Sonia Braga, his partner is played by Charlie Sheen, and Raul Julia is supposed to be German. These setbacks aside, Boaz rocked my world in 1994 with his first film as a director, Fresh.
Set in Brooklyn, Fresh is the story of a pre-teen drug runner with an addict for an older sister and a drunk father (Samuel L. Jackson, in one of his best roles) who spends all his time playing chess for money in the park. Life seems pretty grim for our protagonist. But as he learns more about the drug game, he begins to see who the pawns, kings and queens are. And with chess as his guide, he begins to move the various “pieces” around, always having to think two moves ahead to survive.
For being a coming of age story, this movie is the opposite of cute. The environment that the kid grows up in is brutal, as much so as the supporting characters, and the protagonists motivations are not even completely altruistic. It works very well as both a thriller, and as a family drama.
What Went Wrong?: A Price Above Rubies. Also set in Brooklyn, his follow up film starred Renee Zellweger, and revolved around sexual repression in the Hasidic community. It got mixed to positive reviews, but since Fresh didn’t get much mainstream attention, he needed more of a win with this. Plus, ask Mel Gibson how poking Judaism in the ribs has helped his career.
Chances of a comeback: Decent. It’s dismissive of me to say that his career died with Rubies, since he’s gone on to direct the highly successful and critically well received Remember The Titans. But people remember that film more for the cast than the director. He’s still active as a director, writer and producer, so I think there’s a chance that he could climb into the spotlight if he finds the right material.
May, a 2002 film that was barely released in theaters, is a fantastic character piece, romance (of sorts), comedy, and horror film. Angela Bettis gives a bravura performance in the lead role, and McKee shows a steady and able hand at both suspense and intimacy. The story is about a socially awkward young woman who becomes fascinated by a mechanic, played by Jeremy Sisto. They meet, they date. . . but is May’s social awkwardness a mask for something a bit sinister?
What Went Wrong: After that powerhouse debut as a writer/director, McKee then made a studio film, The Woods. With a diverse cast featuring Bruce Campbell and Patricia Clarkson, and an early Argento type of feel and photography, there was a lot to like about this film. There was also quite a bit to dislike, since the narrative becomes a mess. Horror fans are split on this one; I didn’t like it, but my fiancee did. Either way, it sat on a shelf for quite awhile, becoming a blip on the cultural radar when it forced M. Night Shyamalan to change the title of his film from The Woods to The Village.
Chances of a comeback: Medium. He’s an undeniable talent, as evidenced by the Masters Of Horror episode that he directed, Sick Girl, which completely transcended the series. He’s also equally a master of self sabotage. He took the starring role in a movie he wrote called Roman, directed by Angela Bettis, which was essentially a boring rehash of May. He directed the majority of the independent film Red, starring Brian Cox (Not to be confused with the upcoming studio film titled Red, ALSO starring Brian Cox), before abandoning it due to financial troubles. The film ended up being completed by a different director, to mixed results. He’s currently working on the sequel to a shitty, straight to video cannibal film, titled Offspring 2: The Woman. I think it’ll happen for him someday, but I’ve certainly been eating my words since declaring him a wunderkind back at the beginning of the century.
There are several more directors that I could mention, but I mostly just wanted to give you guys a taste of some of the people who haven’t yet made it big enough to land in director jail. Maybe I’ll do some more in a follow-up installment.