The Film Critics Who Turned to Filmmaking
From the Pudsey The Dog movie to Joe Cornish and Roger Ebert, what happens when critics make films themselves?
Arts critics tend to get a rough time of it in the movies. Even looking at this year’s awards season hopefuls, Birdman casts a wonderfully scabrous Lindsay Duncan as a theatre critic who is determined to kill the hero’s play, and Mr. Turner presents John Ruskin as a lisping, pretentious fop, a representation that has led some to take mild umbrage.
To look even further back, at Ratatouille‘s sneering Anton Ego, or Lady In The Water‘s film-savvy ‘straw critic’, or Theatre Of Blood‘s gleefully murderous tract, there’s not a whole lot of love for critics in film. Any of this might give way to the preconception that critics, especially film critics, don’t actually like films and that they’re out of touch with both the filmmakers whose works they judge and the audiences who enjoy cinema.
Part of the reason why we’re bringing this up is a terrific article by games critic-turned-scriptwriter Paul ‘Mr. Biffo’ Rose on his site Digitiser 2000, on the subject of his experience of writing the Syco production Pudsey The Dog: The Movie.
From page to screen, (via a few thousand tweets that were incensed by its very existence) he describes a critic’s perspective on being critically lambasted, and we strongly recommend that you go and give it a read. But it’s got us thinking about the crossover between judging and creating cinema.
Some hold that there is a professional distinction to be observed between people who write about cinema and people who make it. Others have crossed that line by writing and directing films and often drawing upon their knowledge and enthusiasm for film in order to express themselves. From Oscar-nominated dramas to joyous genre schlock, here’s how a few of them got on.
The French New Wave
We couldn’t have an article about critics who made films without at least acknowledging the Nouvelle Vague, (or French New Wave) the collective term for the group of filmmakers whose number included a great number of critics for the French film publication Cahiers du cinéma.
Working from Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 creative manifesto The Birth Of A New Avant-Garde, the movement held cinema in the same regard as other forms of expression like paintings or novels, leading to more authored and experimental films that tackled the social issues of the moment.
The championing of the director’s personal vision in auteur theory led to a then-radical reassessment of Hollywood directors like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, who were upheld as greats and seen to have revealed their own artistic signature in their works.
Cahiers’ writers-turned-directors included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. The international success of films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960) led the New Wave to flourish and ultimately helped to modernise production in terms of getting artists to get out from the studio production line. The techniques and style pioneered are still hugely influential to the work of directors like Wes Anderson and Richard Ayoade.
There’s much more to say about the French New Wave, but as a short potted version to lend context to this article, the transition of Cahiers du cinéma critics to filmmaking goes to show how an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema history can be invaluable in actually changing its future.
Reviews: Bogdanovich started out as a film programmer at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and before becoming a director himself, he wrote articles and reviews for Esquire magazine.
Films: Many writing and directing credits, including The Last Picture Show, (1971) Paper Moon, (1973) They All Laughed (1981), and Mask (1985).
For those of you who don’t know the name Peter Bogdanovich, you probably know his work. As a personality, he’s well known enough that he has guest-starred on The Sopranos and The Simpsons and even played himself on How I Met Your Mother (“Willem. DAFOOOOE!”) Furthermore, as a reference to his trademark of vocal cameos in his films, Quentin Tarantino cast Bogdanovich in an uncredited vocal role as a DJ in his Kill Bill movies.
Of everyone on this list, he seems to be the one who has more comprehensively balanced the two different sides, better known overall as a film historian than as either a filmmaker or a critic. Inspired by Truffaut and that Cahiers du cinéma lot, he wrote on the subject of cinema before moving into directing his own films.
Starting out in 1968 on the back-to-back Roger Corman productions Targets and Voyage To The Planet Of Prehistoric Women, his real breakthrough was the Oscar-nominated high school movie The Last Picture Show.
His next two films were hits, and the next three after that flopped, but the filmmaker has kept going right through to this year, even filing for bankruptcy after putting his own money into producing and distributing They All Laughed in the wake of a real life tragedy.
“On They All Laughed I lost my mind, because [lead actress] Dorothy Stratten was murdered,” Bogdanovich told The Guardian at last year’s Venice Film Festival. “I lost my mind and then I lost my shirt. I tried to distribute the film myself and that was a big mistake. I ended up in a very bad situation.”
Peter Bogdanovich’s legacy marks him as one of the leading forces of the New American Cinema generation of the 1970s and all the while since then, between filmmaking and sitcom guest spots, he has continued to write about cinema. When it comes to both discussing and making films, perhaps nobody has (literally) put their money where their mouth is more than he.
C. Robert Cargill
Reviews: Cargill goes by many names online – Massawyrm on Ain’t It Cool News, Carlyle on the late lamented Spill.com and as himself on Film.com, Hollywood.com and Film School Rejects’ Junk Food Cinema podcast.
Films: Screenwriter of Sinister (2012)
Whichever of his pseudonyms you know best, C. Robert Cargill is one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic genre cinema writers on the web. As he tells it, his breakthrough into screenwriting came when he pitched Sinister to The Exorcism Of Emily Rose writer-director Scott Derrickson with a simple, but tantalising hook – “You know those found footage movies? Well, this is the movie about who finds the footage.”
To a lesser extent than something like The Cabin In The Woods, Sinister skewered horror audiences by presenting us with a true-crime author who discovers a demonic influence called Bughuul in a series of grisly super-8 movies, but keeps watching them anyway.
Cargill told IndieWire: “If you’re going to make a movie about the viewing, and ultimately the production, of terrible, hard-to-watch content, it’s hard not to take the opportunity to use it to comment on watching, critiquing, and making films.”
In the same interview, he recommended that more writers should make the leap into making films, whether screenwriting, producing or directing. “Some pretty great film movements were inspired by critics joining the charge rather than just commenting on them – the French New Wave chief among them. I’d love to see a blogger revolution overtake cinema trying to make it better.”
Since the global box office success of Sinister, Cargill has written a sequel, due out later this year, and has been tapped to work with Derrickson on a number of other properties, including film adaptations of the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the classic science fiction series The Outer Limits. Not bad for someone who started out writing about geeky and cult film interests – now he writes his own.
Reviews: Aside from certain conversations about films on BBC 6 Music’s beloved Adam & Joe podcast, Dr. Cornballs also presented Radio 4’s Back Row from 2002 to 2003.
Films: Screenwriter and director of Attack The Block (2011) and co-writer on The Adventures Of Tintin – The Secret Of The Unicorn.
From the early days of shooting sketches with Star Wars toys and epic plushy spoofs like Toytanic for Channel 4’s The Adam & Joe Show, Joe Cornish’s comedy seems to have been informed by the cinematic influences of his childhood. His feature début, Attack The Block was unabashedly influenced by the calibre of John Carpenter film that Cornish was probably too young to see when he did.
Of all the filmmakers on the list, he probably has the least connection to critics, and the least fondness for the time in which he did reviews. That’s if we go by his thoughts on the subject and his tenure on Back Row, to an infamous interview on Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review.
He said: “The beauty about film is that it lasts a long time and many great films that we love are misinterpreted. I was a critic for six months, I did Back Row and it’s tough, it made me dislike films. It started to distort my mind so I had to stop.”
Cornish worked with Edgar Wright and Steven Spielberg, re-drafting Steven Moffat’s script for The Adventures Of Tintin – The Secret Of The Unicorn after he departed the project for Doctor Who, and was also attached to Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man during Edgar Wright’s eight-year stint of development.
His second feature as writer-director, an adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash, is still in development, but since Attack The Block, Cornish has been on all sorts of studio wishlists for established properties, from a He-Man reboot, to what eventually became A Good Day To Die Hard.
For die-hard fans of his 6 Music show with Adam Buxton, the most amusing of these was JJ Abrams’ interest in having him direct Star Trek 3, if anyone remembers the discussion of nonsensical pull quotes from reviews of Star Trek back in 2009. As a fan of that show, you could even say that the rumors had me “Klinging ON to the edge of my seat… Trek.”
Off the back of positive reviews for Attack The Block, Joe Cornish has yet to grab the brass ring of a studio property, despite notable speculation, but we’re all eager to see what Snow Crash will hold.
Reviews: Cousins hosted the BBC interview series Scene By Scene from 1996 to 2001 and has written for publications such as Sight & Sound and The List.
Films: Various documentaries about cinema, including The First Movie (2009) and the 15 hour The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (2011)
Although plenty of critics make their own video essays or documentaries, and make contributions to such features made by others, Mark Cousins may have covered that transition most thoroughly of all.
Funnily enough, his breakthrough film was also called The First Movie, about introducing children in Kurdish Iraq to cinema via outdoor screenings of films like The Red Shoes and E.T, and handing out cameras so that they can then make their own shorts. Cousins relates movies to universal experience, drawing parallels with his own upbringing during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to moving effect.
His next documentary work was 2011’s epic A Story Of Film, which took him around the world in an attempt to make a biography of cinema itself – the result aired in 15 one-hour parts on More4. This and his other cinematic essays, What Is This Film Called… Love? and A Story Of Children And Film have both received great acclaim from Cousins’ peers and fellow critics all around the world.
What Cousins’ films demonstrate is how an observation from a life spent watching films can inspire artful and accessible analysis in cinema. On the topic of A Story Of Children And Film, he observed: “Children’s emotions are like film edits: they cut to somewhere entirely different. Walter Benjamin and Virginia Woolf talk about this: if you want to say something, say not the thing itself, but the adjacent thing.
I knew that if I wanted to talk about children, I would talk about cinema; and if I wanted to talk about cinema, I would talk about kids.”
Reviews: Considered the godfather of the current generation of film criticism, thanks to the At The Movies show he hosted with various partners from 1982 to 2010, and his pioneering online film reviews at RogerEbert.com, which continued up until he passed away in 2013. He was also the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
Films: Screenwriter of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) and Beneath The Valley Of The Ultra-Vixens (1979)
Few of us who write about films online can overstate the influence that Roger Ebert had on film criticism, online or otherwise. Through At The Movies, he and Gene Siskel tapped the current trend of audience-facing film criticism, and he then further went on to lend his credibility to his website, where a full archive of his written work still exists.
Perhaps slightly less well regarded were his screenwriting collaborations with sexploitation director Russ Meyer, starting with the satirical non-sequel Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Originally mounted as a follow-up to 1967’s Valley Of The Dolls, Ebert and Meyer turned in a much stranger musical melodrama.
As Ebert would later say in his notes for a 10th anniversary screening of the cult classic: “We wrote the screenplay in six weeks flat, laughing maniacally from time to time, and then the movie was made.”
I think of it as an essay on our generic expectations. It’s an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, clichés and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it’s cause and effect, a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message.”
The two also collaborated on 1976’s Up! – whose silly Nazi murder mystery must not be confused with the markedly more lovely Pixar film- and 1979’s Beneath The Valley Of The Ultra-Vixens. Ebert and Meyer also worked on Who Killed Bambi, which was intended as the Sex Pistols’ punk rock riposte to A Hard Day’s Night.
About two days into production, 20th Century Fox pulled funding and had all the sets destroyed after throwing out the script. If anyone’s curious about why, Ebert published the screenplay on his blog in 2010, so we could all enjoy the lunacy.
Since his passing, his love of cinema has inspired two more films- the acclaimed documentary Life Itself, which casts reverential light on his career as a critic, and the upcoming Russ & Roger Go Beyond, a comedic biopic about Ebert and Meyer’s collaboration that has Will Ferrell attached to play Meyer and Josh Gad lined up for the role of Ebert, set to go into production later this year.
Ebert’s forays into screenwriting speak to his great open-mindedness about genre. He didn’t go in for dramas, but instead for slightly trashy and hugely satirical flicks that skewed closer to what he considered to be pure cinema. It’s proof, if proof were needed, that critics really do love films.