10 directors we want to see go back to their roots

With Sam Raimi leaving Spider-Man behind, Luke considers where next for him, and nine other directors who should go back to their beginnings...

It seems Sam Raimi has somehow managed to escape from the Spider-Man franchise with his pride intact. Surprising, considering the third instalment of the series seems to be held in similar regard to a particularly nasty degenerative venereal disease. Yet, however he may have bowed and bent over to studio pressure to shoehorn in unnecessary villains and plots then, he stuck to his guns with his vision for Spider-Man 4 and now he, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have done like a donkey’s dick and hit the road. Well done, Sam, we say. Glad to have you back.

Now film fans the world over are drooling into their own laps at the prospect of Evil Dead 4 (Bruce Campbell is probably currently housebound, lest the phone ring while he’s out buying chainsaws, wheelbarrows in which to carry all his awesomeness, or whatever else it is Bruce Campbell likes to buy when he’s out shopping). Plus, no one has yet said it won’t happen, which is just enough smoke to allow geeky optimists to tentatively assume there is a flame.

This, of course, would be great news. Drag Me to Hell, while no Evil Dead 4, was a maggoty reminder that Raimi’s first love was low(er) budget horror/comedy, and it showed more inventiveness in one jaw-sucking in-car encounter than in every spasmodic, overblown set piece Spidey 3 threw at our tired retinas.

The prospect of Sam Raimi back doing what he did first and what he does best, under the Evil Dead banner or not, with no studio pressures to focus-group his ideas into oblivion, is almost enough to make one wish high-fiving strangers in the street was somehow socially acceptable. Almost.

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Which makes you think: what about all the other directors who’ve gotten used to having an endless trough of cash to call upon? What would they do if they went back to their first loves and the genres that made their names in the first place? Would it reignite a creative fire in the bellies of the heavyweights, or show an early hit up as the fluke that is was?

Let’s have a look at a few contenders who may, hopefully, one day go back to their humble beginnings… 

Bryan Singer

Poor Bryan, where did it all go wrong for him? Actually, it’s quite easy to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong for him, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

It’s difficult to think of any better feature breakthrough than The Usual Suspects. A taut, meticulously plotted, frequently funny gangster mystery which, more or less, introduced both Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro to the world, complete with a twist delivery now so iconic it belongs in the annals of cinema lore along with Psycho‘s shower scene and Luke Skywalker being relieved of his wanking hand by his soon-to-be-revealed dad.

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Singer followed this up with Apt Pupil, a comparatively sedentary, frequently unsettling and never less than interesting tale of Nazi obsession, before announcing he would be taking on the reigns to the X-Men franchise; a decision of such brilliance that whoever is responsible should have been added to the annual Honours list.

X-2 was even better, both critically and commercially, and Singer could easily have gone three-for-three were it not for the dangling carrot that was Superman Returns, which turned out to be, in hindsight, very boring and a little bit shit. Then it was Valkyrie, blah, blah, meh.

If Singer did decide to go and tackle a smaller project without the baggage that a franchise or a Tom Cruise brings with it, he could perhaps flex his creative muscles a little more and rekindle the magic, but whether he ever would or not is a different story.

While he may never come up with another Usual Suspects, the news that he is soon to be returning to X-Men at least offers partial hope that he may seek to make up for The Last Stand and complete his triumvirate of brilliant films there.

Please, though, no more Superman. He died when Christopher Reeve did. Let it be.

Steven Spielberg

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With a net worth of $3 billion Ste-Berg is not likely to ever be found operating on a budget anything less than comfortable, and no amount of rubbish portmanteaus is likely to convince him to ever want to either.

A shame, to be sure, as both Duel and Jaws back in the 70s showed his deft hand at creating huge suspense on a shoestring. Only a battered truck was needed to fill the underpants in Duel, and a rubbish looking shark, presumably cobbled together from the remains of said truck plus a couple of condoms, turned swimming pools innumerable a deep shade of brown in reaction to Jaws. Hell, there are people who still won’t go in the water.

Whilst commendably choosing to direct more personal projects like the challenging and thoughtful Amistad or Schindler’s List, or genteel muted dullards like Terminal and Catch Me If You Can, the closest Spielberg has come to his suspenseful roots in recent years was that gripping cellar scene involving the mirror in War Of The Worlds  a relatively low-key sequence that stands head and shoulders above all the expensive noise and destruction in this groaning behemoth of a movie.

This one scene shows that he’s still got it, and relieved of the need to show the entire world exploding convincingly on screen, Spielberg could again do something scary and quite brilliant. He probably doesn’t want to, though, and with CGI-fest Tintin on the way it doesn’t look likely. Bah.

Peter Jackson

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The other brain behind Tintin, Jackson’s career has not had the same ubiquitous longevity as Spielberg’s, yet his recent output – while still being pretty bloody good – still lends itself to the reminiscent hindsight of bloodier, funnier days.

Discounting the nasty musical Meet The Feebles, Jackson’s two early films, Bad Taste and Braindead (aka Dead-Alive), were gory explosions of guts and black humour, not entirely dissimilar to the Evil Dead films, actually, suggesting that all that delicious gore was perhaps because of, not in spite of, the lack of available cash.

Peter Jackson’s entrail-drenched humour now seems all but absent from his films, understandable when dealing with well established properties like Lord Of The Rings and King Kong, but a sad loss to the world of slimy B-moviedom all the same.

Smaller scale, but still effects heavy, The Lovely Bones does seem to share some of the more sinister tonal parallels with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, yet, with his own special effects studio at his beck and call, it seems likely that money will be thrown at all his future projects and we’ll have, sadly, seen the last of silly lo-fi zombies and jaunty inter-rat rape scenarios. Harrumph, indeed.

Ridley Scott

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Ridley Scott’s first film, The Duellists, was a period piece set in the Napoleonic Wars. So, with Gladiator, Kingdom Of Heaven and the upcoming Robin Hood, it could be argued that Scott hasn’t really strayed far from his origins at all; he’s just now given enough cash to make all the costumes look a bit more convincing. Presumably, though, most readers of this site would be more interested in a return to the themes of his two films which followed The Duellists: namely, Alien and Blade Runner.

While neither were troubled by cripplingly low budgets, the sheer amount of work going into design and effects made every scene into a battle between Scott and his financers (Scott had to fight tooth and nail to secure extra funding necessary to film the final scenes in the shuttle as the studio wanted the alien to die aboard the Nostromo, and then there is Blade Runner‘s infamous voiceover).

The bleak model and set work of Alien and the pre-CGI effects forced Scott to keep shots of the creature quick and dark, making the film both much more unsettling as a horror movie and hugely believable as sci-fi.

Blade Runner cemented Scott’s reputation as an acclaimed sci-fi director when, 30 years after its poorly received release, it is considered one of the most important films ever made and has influenced almost every sci-fi film produced since.

Over the past couple of decades, Scott has busied himself with period and action fare, and that’s all well and good, for the most part, but his best two films still remain Alien and Blade Runner. Luckily for fans of these films, he seems to realise this too, and currently on his slate are the long-mooted Alien prequel and an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s seminal Brave New World, which is about as close to another Philip K. Dick adaptation as anyone could realistically hope for.

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So then, huzzah! The old boy’s not getting any younger, though, and sometimes you get the impression that he’s just not trying as hard as he used to. But Scott on autopilot with one hand up his arse could make better films than Alien 3 and Resurrection

Tim Burton

Admittedly, the trailer for Burton’s Alice In Wonderland does look awesome, but that doesn’t change the fact that, by far and away, his best film to date is Beetlejuice, which hit cinemas a startling 22 years ago.

It had the great concept, which worked for cheeky scares as well as laughs, coupled with kitsch effects and a garish palette, all held together by Michael Keaton’s manically brilliant turn as the titular bio-excorcist.

Beetlejuice reeked of fun and it seemed to pack in so many great ideas and little touches that even Burton’s best later works, Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, seemed scant in comparison.

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Burton’s Batman films were hugely successful and he was an inspired choice to gothicise Gotham, and following Edward Scissorhands, he did take on a couple of other bigger budget projects with, unfortunately, mixed results. Mars Attacks! was great in its own way while Planet Of The Apes simply stank. What was that bloody ending all about!? I still just don’t get it.

Planet Of The Apes aside, the Noughties saw something of a return to form (The Corpse Bride) but Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd, in particular, seemed cold in comparison to Beetlejuice.

It would be great to see Tim Burton find a smaller project close to his heart again, instead of just being hired to inject a bit of ‘weird’, like a tame studio-friendly Terry Gilliam. His next film is another Johnny Depp collaboration but there is also the animated Frankenweenie to look forward to. Or, it may turn out, maybe not.

Robert Rodriguez

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with making a children’s film. Not even three of them. Three hugely successful ones. Not, at least, when the chap behind them also made the brilliant Sin City. Nothing wrong with Spy Kids at all. Nope. Nowt.

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For the sake of those who might for some reason hateSpy Kids with every fibre in their soul and being though, in such a fashion they have to put some time aside each day to sit somewhere quiet just to hate it enough, it is worth casting memory back to El Mariachi and Desperado. There are  two hyper-violent, tongue-in-cheek shoot-em-ups through the bullet-pocked streets of Mexico which introduced the world to Puss In Boots and the luuurvverly Salma Hayek.

Desperado was essentially an English language remake of El Mariachi but that didn’t matter one jot; both were brilliant shooty little romps which led onto Rodriguez directing From Dusk Till Dawn, one of the best B-movies of the 90s, rolling a gangster road movie, a shitload of vampires and a nice chap called Sex Machine with a willy gun into one lovely little lump.

These films all had the mixture of silliness, humour and ultraviolence just right and were welcome breaks from the mainstream, leading Rodriguez nicely onto projects like the enjoyable Faculty and the aforementioned Sin City, the no doubt awesome sequel to which is currently in development.

Rodriguez did return to the Mariachi brand with the risible Once Upon A Time In Mexico, but it lacked any of the magic of the first two, something he will, hopefully, recapture in the upcoming Machete, based on the fake Grindhouse trailer and starring snarling Mexican man-mountain go-to guy Danny Trejo. Could be great. But then again, because it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint quite why those early films are so good, it could also be ballbag.

Quentin Tarrantino

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Inglorious Basterds was three or four outstanding scenes fleshed out by the meat of an okay-ish film. It has its fans, but few could have walked out of the cinema with the warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing they had seen Tarrantino’s best work to date, and as a result his own standards had, perhaps, set the water mark a tad too high to ever be reached here.

That first scene, though, as he cranked the tension almost intolerably to its brutal climax, is epic, and as a director he has never produced anything better.

Kill Bill before this also showed him to be casting his net into more daring terrain, somewhat successfully it has to be said. Yet while it is exciting to see someone who loves movies as much as he does strive to venture into new areas in his early films, it was his writing, particularly his dialogue, which took precedence over the shocks, and his chronologically schizophrenic storytelling style.

Reservoir Dogs still stands tall above the rest, with quotable characters and iconic scenes coming out of its black-suited derriere and Pulp Fiction would also still find a place in many Top 10 lists, despite its constant awareness of exactly how cool and quotable it actually is.

Jackie Brown seemed to be one little step too far, though, and Tarratino should be commended for switching genres to prevent staleness – something Guy Ritchie has popped a blood vessel trying to emulate this decade, while he wasn’t too busy being ‘a geezah’ and divorcing apoplexically stupid octogenarians.

Here’s hoping that one day ol’ Quentin does return to the magical scripting that made his name, but with an American Western on the way plus a sequel to Kill Bill, it may be a while yet, if it happens at all.

There is a rumoured film he’s planning to make before Kill Bill 3, however, so there’s still some hope…

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Guillermo del Toro

When it was announced that Peter Jackson wouldn’t be in the director’s chair for The Hobbit, everybody winced, all silently calculating the absolute worst case scenario (see dictionary under – verb ‘to Ratner’ = I Ratnered; you Ratnered; e.g. “he/she Ratnered that one right up” etc;  … or noun, ‘a Ratner’ = e.g. “I just done a fart with a lump in it, me undercrackers are cradling a proper Ratner”).

Then, when Guillermo del Toro announced himself as the director of, not one, but two LOTR prequels, you could almost hear the simultaneous sigh of relief echo across the globe. del Toro would have been most folks’ second choice after Jacko (no, not that one) as he has proved once and again just how terribly smashing he is.

After knocking Blade II out of the park and receiving almost unanimous acclaim for the Hellboy films and Pan’s Labyrinth, it seems a natural and welcome progression for him to tackle something as vast as The Hobbit, but here’s hoping that after they’re in the can he’ll return to more modest fare, as it would be a huge shame if he was lost forever to the studios’ big franchises.

Nasties like Cronos, and even Mimic to an extent, were great, but any fans of his like him best when he’s indulging his formidable inner geek, and his best work could all be considered fairly niche.

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Luckily, he has a history of turning down the megabucks in order to do what he wants to do (he turned down a Harry Potter film and The Chronicles Of Narnia to do Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II, respectively), so he’ll come back to us eventually. After all, Hellboy III won’t make itself…

George Lucas

Saved the best until last. Indiana Jones 4 was rubbish, thanks largely to George Lucas’ story. The Star Wars prequels were rubbish, thanks again to George Lucas’ abysmal writing. If Episodes 1 – 3 did have a saving grace, though, it would have to be the fact that many of the action sequences were directed with flair and energy (the lightsaber duel at the end of The Phantom Menace is awesome, for example), but whether it should be Lucas taking the credit, or whether he simply had some of the best choreographers and second unit directors in the business, is open to discussion.

Before Star Wars came American Graffiti, and before that THX 1138. Both had their faults for sure, but Lucas directed these and the original Star Wars to a commendable standard. Does a decent director lurk somewhere beneath the beard and second/third chins?

With Lucas now officially the richest man in the universe, will this director ever be seen again? Will he ever redeem himself?

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Who are we kidding. The man’s a hack.