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10 Great Modern Day Actor/Director Collaborations

by The Playlist Staff
July 17, 2013 2:17 PM
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10 Actor/Director Collaborations

The hallowed halls of cinema are littered with iconic and unforgettable director/actor collaborations. The muses that feed the filmmaker, the director that inspires the actor. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Ingmar Bergman and half his repertory including Bibi Anderson, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, Werner Herzog and his toxic relationship with Klaus Kinski, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Monica Vitti and Michelangelo Antonioni, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewartno matter what time period of movies you look at, no matter whether it be high or low art, the classic collaborations are countless.

A new relationship seems to be brewing, one that’s only two movie deep, but feels like it has the potential to go on to develop into something fruitful and potentially classic. It is that of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and his muse Ryan Gosling. The two have already worked together on 2011’s taciturn thriller “Drive” and this week sees the release of their second team-up, "Only God Forgives," a brutal thriller set in Bangkok that makes Gosling’s rather silent stuntman character seem positively chatty in comparison. “I've been doing this for twenty years. At a certain point you have to put your trust in somebody if you want to have a different kind of experience other than trying to sort of hijack someone else's vision in order to realize your own,” Gosling recently told IndieWIRE about the mutual appreciation society thing he has going with the director.

These two violent, style-soaked movies serve as a testament to the power of their working relationship, one that at one point was set to crossover into the mainstream with a glitzy remake of "Logan's Run," and one that we're sure will continue, in some form, in the not-too-distant future (they’ve also discussed the idea of a romantic comedy together and musicals). The pair and their blooming bromance was enough to get us thinking about other great actor/director pairings, in which creative synchronicity gave way to some truly memorable films. As noted, the list of timeless collaborations is utterly endless, staggering and humbling so we thought instead of running down the classic pairings with directors like Michael Curtiz, John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich, Luis Bunuel, Hal Hartley, Sidney Lumet or Sam Peckinpah (the list is utterly impossibly long...), we decided to focus in ten modern examples of what happens when a pretty face and a big brain work in perfect harmony.

Caine Nolan
Christopher Nolan/Michael Caine
Number Of Films Together: 6 — "Batman Begins" (2005), "The Prestige" (2006), "The Dark Knight" (2008), "Inception" (2010), "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012), "Interstellar" (2014)

History: Even if Michael Caine had retired a decade ago, he'd still stand as a true cinematic legend, who'd had one of the widest ranging and most interesting careers around. Fortunately, he didn't, and Caine's found a whole new generation of fans after becoming the frequent collaborator and self-described lucky charm (he told Empire last year "We're each others' good luck charms. I always say to him, 'I'm not your good luck charm, you are mine!' ") of one of the most acclaimed and successful directors in modern cinema, Christopher Nolan. Caine, as a fan of Nolan's "Memento," recalled to Hero Complex his excitement when Nolan turned up at his house with a script for him to read: "My instant thought was, I'm going to be in one of these wonderful little dramas, murder thrillers. I'd love that." When it emerged that he wanted him to play Alfred in "Batman Begins," Caine saids he wasn't keen, "I immediately thought I'll be spending the entire series saying 'Dinner is served' and 'Would you like a coffee?' I thought, well, I'll read it and turn it down." But instead, Caine was so impressed by both Nolan and his take on the character that he took the role, which proved to be the beating heart of Nolan's Bat-trilogy. Luckily for us, their association has continued long beyond that; Caine has appeared in every one of Nolan's films since "Batman Begins," including stand-alone films "The Prestige" and "Inception," and will soon feature in sci-fi mind-bender "Interstellar" too. Caine, who's compared Nolan to David Lean and calls him "the great new director of our time," says the director hasn't changed much over the years, telling Empire "It's always the same... He's very quiet and he just wanders around looking at everything and then he comes up and whispers something to you and everything is very controlled. Everybody knows exactly what they're doing." As for Nolan, he told AMPAS, via the New York Times, that "I think being able to say, 'My great friend Sir Michael Caine' is one of the great pleasures of my life."

Key Film: Caine's roles haven't been hugely substantial, in terms of screen time, in any of Nolan's films (perhaps the biggest role came in "The Prestige," in which he's excellent, again as the film's moral center), but the defining moment of the partnership can be placed down to one scene: Alfred's tearful exit in "The Dark Knight Rises." Caine had been a quiet, wisecracking presence throughout the trilogy, but it boils over here, and his paternal love for Bruce Wayne, and the way he's prepared to burn his bridges for the smallest chance of saving him, is heartbreaking.

Marty Leo
Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio
Number of Films Together: 5 — "Gangs of New York" (2002), "The Aviator" (2004), "The Departed" (2006), "Shutter Island" (2010), "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)

History: Scorsese had been trying to get "Gangs of New York," his epic tale of territorial violence in Civil War-era Manhattan, made for decades (the first draft was written in 1977 and a splashy trade ad for the project emerged in the '80s that touted Robert De Niro as its star, with an original score by The Clash), but a rejuvenated version of the project only started to gain traction again once Leonardo DiCaprio became interested in it. As far as the foundations of a relationship go, getting your long-delayed dream project off the ground is a pretty good one. While the first part of Scorsese's career had been defined by his creative partnership with Robert De Niro, the 2000s were firmly Leo's. In 2006, Scorsese described his relationship with DiCaprio to The Guardian by saying, "I sense something about him. There's a great deal emotionally going on inside of him. For me it was interesting - I felt comfortable with the emotional process he was going through, and it reminded me very much of De Niro. It was a different frame of reference: I'm 30 years older, but he approached emotional subjects in a very similar way and he also thinks about things in life the way I do." After 'Gangs,' Scorsese cast him as Howard Hughes in his dizzying biopic "The Aviator," and most famously as a cop pretending to be a criminal in his twisty, Oscar-winning "The Departed." DiCaprio described his relationship with Scorsese to, admitting that he had wanted to work with Scorsese ever since he did a movie with De Niro and summing up their relationship succinctly. "I don't have an exciting term for it other than we have a good time working together and we have similar tastes as far as the films we like. He certainly has broadened my spectrum as far as films that are out there and the history of cinema... It really brought me to different levels as an actor. I look at him as a mentor." DiCaprio was all aboard Scorsese's brilliantly bizarre horror throwback "Shutter Island" and the upcoming "Wolf of Wall Street," undoubtedly one of 2013's most highly anticipated films.

Key Film: "The Aviator," Scorsese's underrated (but still Oscar-nominated) biopic that concerned Howard Hughes' Hollywood years. For many, it was the movie that showcased DiCaprio in a "grown-up" role after years of being defined by his youthful exuberance and "boyish" good looks. With "The Aviator," Scorsese gave DiCaprio the opportunity to be a man; and not only a man, but a man fraught with obsessions and ambition and psychological ill-health. John Logan's razor-sharp script wisely avoids Hughes' crazier years (although it certainly alludes to them), instead focusing on the time the industrialist and pilot spent as a Hollywood impresario. It's this framing that makes "The Aviator" one of Scorsese's most deeply personal works, as his mania and attention to detail are only a couple of degrees off from Hughes' (the director shot the different sections of "The Aviator" in the film stock that was available at the time, which is why the peas in an early scene have a bluish hue). While their work together on "Gangs of New York" was stunning, it was still very much an ensemble piece, and while the supporting cast of "The Aviator" is jaw-dropping, it's totally DiCaprio's movie; he appears in almost every scene and is the eternal focal point, even when he's not. It proved that DiCaprio could handle a movie of this size and heft all his own and cemented his place as one of Scorsese's most valued and talented creative collaborators. 

Depp Burton
Tim Burton/Johnny Depp
Number of Films Together: 8 — "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), "Ed Wood" (1994), "Sleepy Hollow" (1999), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), "Corpse Bride" (2005), "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007), "Alice in Wonderland" (2010), "Dark Shadows" (2012)

History: When Tim Burton was working on his highly touted project "Edward Scissorhands" (the follow-up to his smash "Batman"), he chose an unlikely actor to star: Johnny Depp, then still an achingly handsome teen heartthrob from the popular television series "21 Jump Street," who had been caked in kabuki make-up, given Burton's trademark mop-top hairstyle, and outfitted with prosthetic gloves to create the titular look. In a 2010 back-and-forth with Esquire, Burton noted that he and Depp formed an instant connection, based on a "suburban white trash-y connective strand." They both knew (and loved) the one Humphrey Bogart horror movie he made ("The Return of Dr. X") and had similar childhoods, even though they were miles apart (Burton grew up in sunny California, Depp in the deep south). Super-producer Scott Rudin said that Depp is playing Burton in all of their movies together, something Depp agreed with but Burton refutes. It's hard not to see it though, from the lonesome outcast in "Edward Scissorhands" to the cheeseball filmmaker in "Ed Wood" (it's harder to see the analogy in later years, when both actor and director have gone for more fancifully arch material). The years spent apart in between features do not speak to some kind of contentious, volatile relationship between the two. Burton told the Huffington Post last year that, "I can see him every day and then I can not see him for a couple of years. Everyone is gypsy and nomadic in the film world and they have to be right for the part, so nobody takes offense." With Burton, Depp seems to know that he can push himself into areas of the grotesque more freely than with other filmmakers, both physically—the scissorhands of 'Scissorhands,' elongated fingers in "Dark Shadows," computer-enlarged eyes in "Alice in Wonderland"—and performance-wise (his 'Sweeney Todd' was fearless and he has mentioned that Ichabod Crane in "Sleepy Hollow" was partially inspired by Angela Lansbury on "Murder, She Wrote"). Their partnership is also one of the most successful in cinema history; "Alice in Wonderland" alone grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.    

Key Film: "Ed Wood," Burton's R-rated, black-and-white masterpiece from 1994. It's easily Burton's most personal film and one in which the Depp-as-Burton reading holds the most water. In telling the story of B-movie icon Ed Wood, whose "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is widely regarded (at least until "The Room" came along) as the worst movie of all time, and his relationship with faded horror icon Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, in an Oscar-winning performance), Burton was opening up about his own relationship with a horror mainstay: Vincent Price. Price and Burton had been friends since Burton made a short film for Disney about a young boy obsessed with Price called "Vincent," and scored a coup by getting Price to narrate it. He convinced Price, who was in failing health, to co-star in "Edward Scissorhands" as the inventor who creates the titular character, and at the time of Price's death, was working on a feature-length documentary about their relationship. (Burton never returned to the project.) "Ed Wood" was Burton's way of working through that relationship and it amounts to his best, most personal, and most deeply felt movie. Depp, for his part, has never been more electrically alive; his line delivery is absolutely hilarious as he conjures a perfect mixture of wide-eyed optimism and an almost childlike naivete. In omitting some of the darker aspects of Wood's life, including a perilous relationship with drugs and alcohol, they cemented the film as Burton's autobiographical fairy tale and elevated the character beyond the usual Burton/Depp oddball outcast.    

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  • Paul | July 29, 2013 3:33 AMReply

    John Ratzenberger and Pixar... Anyone?

  • John | July 27, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    I just...don't understand why this list is so heavily skewed male. There are so many notable director/female actor collaborations. It's not surprising, but no less disappointing to see it represented this way.

  • Manuel | July 23, 2013 10:10 AMReply

    Charlotte Rampling - Francois Ozon ( Swimming pool, Sous le sable, and Angel)
    Christian Bale - Christopher Nolan ( Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises)
    Uma Thurman - Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill 1, Kill Bill 2 + Kill Bill 3)
    Brad Pitt - David Fincher ( Se7en, Fight Club, TCC of BB)
    Tony Leung - Wong Kar Wai ( Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood For Love, 2046, The Grandmaster)
    Park Chan-wook - Song Kang-ho ( J.S.A.: Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengance, Thirst)
    Bong Joon-ho - Song Kang-ho ( Memories of Murder, The Host and upcoming Snowpiercer)
    Meryl Streep - Mike Nichols (Silkwood, Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge, Angels in America)

  • Philip Concannon | July 18, 2013 5:14 PMReply

    If we needed any more proof that Nicole Holofcener is the most underrated filmmaker working today, the fact that her collaboration with Catherine Keener has been totally ignored by this article (which somehow finds room to mention Denis Dugan and Adam Sandler) surely confirms it.

  • Rada | July 18, 2013 1:40 PMReply

    Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are also starting to blossom. Both young talents I'm looking forward to seeing more from for a long time to come.

  • Drew | July 18, 2013 11:22 AMReply

    Interesting list and arrangement. I would have thought that McKay and Ferrel would be on it, so I was happy to see them in the afterword. Great job!

  • Sean | July 18, 2013 12:51 AMReply

    Blomkamp and Copley is starting to blossom. I'm sure they'll stick together for a while.

  • Duddi | July 17, 2013 7:08 PMReply

    Is there any particular reason why Fincher-Pitt collaboration is not included on the list ??? - To my knowledge they've made 3 marvelous movies, starting back on 1995 with "Se7en", than came "Fight CLub" and than on 2008 "The C.C. of B.B.". IMO this is truly one of the strongest collaboration of all times... I'm looking forward to the "slow" developement of "20.000 Leagues Under the Sea", and hoping that Pitt will step in, after he declined the role once, but since the production of the movie has been pushed, there is still hope that he will be available. Also to not include Cronenberg-Mortensen on the main article makes this list a little bit weaker. Anyway, other picks were fantastic !!!

  • Bill Murray | July 23, 2013 7:24 AM

    Right? But Christopher Nolan/Michael Caine is included?

    Christopher Nolan/Michael Caine is a serious fucking stretch.

  • kris | July 17, 2013 6:51 PMReply

    Samuel L. Jackson / tarantino
    apatow crew : franco , rogen , segel ,rudd
    J.K. Simmons /jason reitman
    laura dern / david lynch
    tom hanks /ron howard - spielberg
    bruce campbell/sam raimi

  • kris | July 17, 2013 6:58 PM

    +scarlett johansson - woody allen

  • Mary | July 17, 2013 6:21 PMReply

    Also just 1 actress on here w/ Penelope Cruz. What about Uma/Tarantino? Now with 4 movies (including Waking Life) Delpy/Linklater? Only 2 movies but Moore/Haynes are pretty dynamic as well. McDormand/Coens? After Raising Arizona and Fargo alone her collabs are better than half this list. Maggie Cheung/Wong Kar-Wai? Soon to be Lawrence/David O. Russell too if they keep going after American Hustle.

    (another overlooked male combo Denis Levant/Leos Carax)

  • Mary | July 18, 2013 3:08 PM

    Yup them too. Well there's already a PTA up there and arguably his collaborations with PSH are greater just because of the number of great roles. But the Moore and PTA combo is just as dynamic. Really PTA and any of his early crew of actors works. Reilly, Baker Hall, Melora Walters.

  • Anton | July 18, 2013 6:09 AM

    how about Julianne Moore and PTA ??? Boogie Nights and Magnolia

  • yer | July 17, 2013 5:22 PMReply

    This title should be changed to "A List of 10 Modern Day Actor/Director collaborations". You guys literally just looked for the 10 most prominent you could find and put a list together regardless of "greatness".

  • Rod | July 17, 2013 6:09 PM

    Agreed. This list is lame-o. Mostly the mainstream actor/director duos. Goodman/Coens or Buscemi/Coens, or Turturro/Coens combos take most of these others out but you can't go against the mainstream enough to put them on the list only an 'honorable mention'. Jackson/Tarantino? Hawke/Linklater............A very "safe" list from the Playlist.

  • G-Man | July 17, 2013 4:31 PMReply

    Good list! You all highlighted the ones I would have.

  • Fred | July 17, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    Funny that you use the term bromance straight up in the intro and then have it tagged "odious" in the Wright/Pegg section.

  • Alessandra | July 17, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    What about Joe Wright and Keira Knightley? You totally forgot about them!

  • Mike | July 18, 2013 7:36 PM

    Agree. Plus all 3 of their collaboration have Keira in a leading role which seems Wright trust her so much.

  • marshmeli | July 17, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    No David Fincher/Brad Pitt?

  • Nolan ZZZ Late Scorsese ZZZ Burton ZZZ | July 17, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Nolan and Caine can't be a great combo because all those moview they did together (except for maybe Prestige) stink. Don't get me wrong Caine rocks, Nolan not so much.

    The movies Scorsese and diCaprio have done together have been pale in comparison to Scorsese's earlier work. Shutter Island terrible. Departed best one. Aviator alright, certainly not underrated as many like to say. Dicaprio/Scorsese will never come close to De Niro/Scorsese.

    Burton zzz. Always making Depp into the intolerable quirky eccentric dude. give me a break. Sleepy Hollow one of worst all time movies.

  • Kent | July 21, 2013 6:57 PM

    There's a film made for $11 shot in a puddle. You'll love it.

  • cornersumsi | July 20, 2013 8:50 AM

    the hongkong original of the departed is much better than the scorsese movie....and shutter island was disappointing too. but gangs of new york is awesome. and the batman trilogy rocks!!

  • Skywater | July 18, 2013 9:28 AM

    Actually, Nolan is excellent. And Shutter Island was great.

  • Helluva | July 17, 2013 10:01 PM

    Funny but I actually agree with you on most of this except for your disdain for "Sleepy Hollow," loved that flick. Thought it was actually the height of the Depp/Burton collaboration. It's been downhill ever since (for me).

  • Jen | July 17, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    Zoe Bell & Tarantino? Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglorious Baterds, and Django Unchained

  • yod | July 18, 2013 12:10 AM

    stunt double lol

  • moviefan | July 17, 2013 3:11 PMReply

    God! Sorry about the repeats, you need an edit button. Got the Spinning Ball hiccup.

  • moviefan | July 17, 2013 3:10 PMReply

    God! Sorry about the repeats, you need an edit button. Got the Spinning Ball hiccup.

  • moviefan | July 17, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe: 5 movies: Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood

    Ron Howard and Russell Crowe: Only two movies but two stellar movies: A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Would love to see what they could do with a third pairing.

  • moviefan | July 17, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe: 5 movies: Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood

    Ron Howard and Russell Crowe: Only two movies but two stellar movies: A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Would love to see what they could do with a third pairing.

  • moviefan | July 17, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe: 5 movies: Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood

    Ron Howard and Russell Crowe: Only two movies but two stellar movies: A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Would love to see what they could do with a third pairing.

  • moviefan | July 17, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe: 5 movies: Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood

    Ron Howard and Russell Crowe: Only two movies but two stellar movies: A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Would love to see what they could do with a third pairing.

  • moviefan | July 17, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe: 5 movies: Gladiator, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood

    Ron Howard and Russell Crowe: Only two movies but two stellar movies: A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Would love to see what they could with a third pairing.

  • owdl114 | July 17, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    I find myself constantly updating this page. It upsets me (Yes, I don't have much of a life) when someone uploads a collaboration of only 2 films. Surely, it should only count once it's 3+:

  • Nick | July 17, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    Still pretty young, but Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon Levitt!

  • Rob | July 17, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    Wicked Teams.

  • AddictedAICN | July 17, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    What about Ron Perlman and GDT

  • lola | July 17, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    umm Joe Wright/Keira Knightley?

  • Hilarious | July 23, 2013 7:29 AM

    Christopher Nolan/Michael Caine is almost funnier than your comment.

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