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 About.com, 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.