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10 Great Modern Day Actor/Director Collaborations

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 17, 2013 at 2:17PM

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 Stewart—no matter what time period of movies you look at, no matter whether it be high or low art, the classic collaborations are countless.
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Wright Pegg
Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg
Number of Films Together: 3 — "Shaun of the Dead" (2004), "Hot Fuzz" (2007) and "The World's End" (2013)

History: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's relationship started way back in 1996, when Pegg worked with Wright on "Asylum," a short-lived Paramount Comedy Channel series that combined a narrative with threads of stand-up material (Wright directed and co-created the six episodes). When Pegg and Jessica Stevenson were cooking up their BBC series "Spaced," they thought of Wright and had him brought aboard. Wright ended up directing all 14 episodes of "Spaced" and the bond between Pegg and Wright was solidified. When it was time to direct his first proper feature, the zombie farce "Shaun of the Dead," Wright enlisted Pegg not simply as the star, but also as a co-writer. "Shaun of the Dead" feels very much, in that sense, like a feature-length extension of "Spaced," all of the editorial tics and crackling dialogue that was developed for the series blossomed, beautifully, in the feature film. It was then that Wright and Pegg started talking about it being the first part of a trilogy, something they dubbed "The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy," named after a popular British ice cream treat that also serves as an effective hangover remedy. (It's also a reference to the "Three Colors Trilogy" by Krzysztof Kieslowski.) Two more films have followed: the action movie send-up "Hot Fuzz" and next month's beautifully melancholy sci-fi ode "The World's End." Wright also had a hand co-writing Steven Spielberg's "Adventures of Tintin," which featured Pegg and his "Three Flavours" co-star Nick Frost. Their working relationship seems to be based purely on the things that they mutually enjoy; this isn't something that has been fraught with hardship or creative differences. They're a particular kind of amiable geek. And it's very sad that the trilogy is over. 

Key Film: While we want to give a shout-out to "The World's End," we're technically not allowed to talk about it yet and anyway "Shaun of the Dead" is still tops. The reason that "Shaun of the Dead" is so powerful is that it was such a surprise. Not only is it scary and funny, but it's also an effective romantic comedy, and a sharply incisive look at the way that relationships function (or dysfunction), especially when best friends are involved. (The Pegg/Frost dynamic was developed years before the odious "bromance" term was coined.) There's something so positive and joyful about "Shaun of the Dead;" it really did mark the arrival of a major new talent. And every film that they've done subsequently has built upon what was established in "Shaun of the Dead." Part of what makes their relationship so powerful is that Pegg both stars in and co-writes each movie, which makes them even more personal. It's hard not to wonder how much of the Pegg/Wright dynamic is built into whatever on-screen friendship unfolds between Pegg and Frost. While the trilogy of films might be over, we hope that it doesn't mean that Pegg and Wright's working relationship is through. For two men who have made a tiny collection of excellent comedies, the end of their partnership would be downright tragic.

Soderbergh Damon
Steven Soderbergh/Matt Damon
Number Of Films Together: 7 — "Ocean's Eleven" (2001), "Ocean's Twelve" (2004), "Ocean's Thirteen" (2007), "Che: Part Two" (2008), "The Informant!" (2009), "Contagion" (2011), "Behind The Candelabra" (2013)

History: He might be associated more widely with George Clooney, with whom he made six films and ran a production company, but Steven Soderbergh actually hasn't worked directly with the star since 2007's "Ocean's Thirteen" (a seventh film, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," fell apart due to an injury to Clooney). In fact, the filmmaker had another A-list playmate who cropped up more often in the director's "final" run of movies; namely, Matt Damon. The pair could have ended up never crossing paths: Mark Wahlberg was initially down to play fresh-faced pickpocket Linus Caldwell in "Ocean's Eleven," but bailed to star in "Planet Of The Apes," causing Damon to step in instead. That said, despite Soderbergh initially approaching Damon about “The Informant!” way back in 2001, it took a while for them to sync up; the pair continued to work together on 'Ocean's' sequels (in which Damon was a reliably funny highlight), and with a brief cameo in "Che: Part Two," but their major collaborations all came quite late: 2009's "The Informant!," Damon's touching regular turn in ensemble disaster piece "Contagion," and, most recently, a near-career best, vanity-free performance in "Behind The Candelabra." Soderbergh said to the Huffington Post recently that he was drawn to Damon from "a combination of intelligence, integrity and fearlessness," expanding on the latter to add, "One of the things I think people will appreciate about Matt's performance [in 'Candelabra'] is his absolute commitment to jumping off the cliff and not looking back. There aren't a lot of actors of his age and caliber who would read this and say yes without hesitating." Damon, meanwhile, who broke the news of Soderbergh's retirement, knows more than most how much he'll be missed. "After I worked with Clint [Eastwood]," he told the LA TImes, "I went back and said, ‘Look, Clint is having a blast and he's going to be 80 years old.’ And Steven says back, ‘Yeah, but he’s a storyteller and I’m not,’” Damon recounted. "If you're an actor or a writer or someone working in film, it's such a waste. For me, I'm going to spend the next 40 years trying to become a great director and I will never reach what he's reached. And he's walking away from it."

Key Film: Damon is terrific in "Behind The Candelabra," but he's equally great in "The Informant!," which is much more of a one-man show. Soderbergh's absolutely working in service of the actor's performance, without which the film simply wouldn't work; Damon's mix of integrity and pathological fibbing is both hilarious and deeply tragic.

Anderson Murray
Wes Anderson/Bill Murray
Number Of Films Together: 7 — "Rushmore" (1998), "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001), "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (2004), "The Darjeeling Limited" (2007), "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009), "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012), "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014)

History: Wes Anderson's another director who's been steadily building an ever-growing repertory company over the years, but while the likes of Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are undeniably associated with the filmmakers' works, it's Bill Murray who marks the defining relationship of the director's career. Anderson, inspired by the work that the comic star had been doing in films like "Mad Dog and Glory" and "Ed Wood," reluctantly approached Murray for his sophomore film, despite feeling that he didn't have a shot. Anderson told Deadline, "I didn’t want to send him the script because I understood that it was futile, that he would not respond at all and that it would be impossible to get him." Fortunately, the notoriously picky actor's agent (back when he had one) had been a big fan of "Bottle Rocket," passed the "Rushmore" script onto Murray, and the actor agreed to work for scale to play the besotted, regressing millionaire Herman Blume in the picture. The two got on famously—Murray even wrote a blank check to Anderson to fund a scene that was being cut for budgetary reasons—and Murray's the only actor to have featured in every one of Anderson's subsequent films. Sometimes it's a significant part, sometimes a mere cameo (as with his clever framing appearances in "The Darjeeling Limited"), but an Anderson film simply wouldn't be the same without Murray's avuncular hangdog charms cropping up somewhere. Anderson's been upfront about wanting to work with his regular collaborators, telling The Guardian last year "there's an energy that comes from people who are friends. Whatever chemistry is on set is going to be there in the movie, and you want some electricity that you don't really control." And clearly, the two continue to be great friends, with Murray saying, self-deprecatingly, at a Cannes press conference "Sometimes, when you work with a director you know you not only may never see him again, sometimes you hope you never seen him again. And that goes for the director as well. They can't wait for you to leave. They drive you to the airport to make sure you leave. That happens. With Wes, I've never gotten a ride to the airport. I'm just so happy with how Wes just gets better." The two will be reunited once more on the upcoming "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

Key Film: "Rushmore" might be their finest hour together, but the defining Anderson/Murray film has to be "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." It's arguably the director's weakest, or at least most unruly and indulgent effort, but it's the one that centers most on Murray's character, an egotistical, self-absorbed marine biologist. And for all the film's flaws, Murray gives a textured and, eventually, deeply moving performance as a selfish asshole who borders on being too irredeemable to like.

Cruz Almodovar
Pedro Almodóvar / Penélope Cruz
Number Of Films Together: 5 — "Live Flesh" (1997), "All About My Mother" (1999), "Volver" (2007), "Broken Embraces" (2009), "I'm So Excited" (2013)

History: Having fallen out with previous muse Carmen Maura in the early 1990s, there was certainly something of a void in the work of Pedro Almodóvar, one of the great directors of women of the modern age. Fortunately, soon after, the filmmaker watched Bigas Luna's "Jamon Jamon," which starred a 17-year-old actress called Penélope Cruz. The actress had been a fan of his work since childhood (saying once, "He changed the way I looked at the world before I even knew him"), so an offer to audition was a dream came true, but he couldn't initially find a role for her, telling The Guardian in 2009 that "She was always too young for my characters." But after five years, the stars aligned, and briefly featured in 1997's "Live Flesh" as a teenage prostitute who gives birth on a bus. Two years later, came a far more substantial part, as the young HIV-positive nun pregnant by the now-deceased Lola, in "All About My Mother." The film was perhaps Almodóvar's finest up to that point, and Cruz cemented the rising star status she'd had for a few years. Hollywood came calling, and so the two were separated for a few years, but they were soon reunited swiftly, for 2007's "Volver" and 2009's "Broken Embraces." Cruz turned down the chance to star in Almodóvar's "The Skin I Live In" in order to appear in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," but there are clearly no hard feelings; she has a fun cameo in Almodóvar's latest, "I'm So Excited!" The two clearly have an incredibly close bond—Almodóvar has discussed how the two had an almost sexual chemistry, telling GQ, "The desire was controllable in the sense that I don't usually have sexual relationships with women. But we did both feel that the desire was present. Penélope was aware of it and we talked about it," and describing their relationship to the Guardian as "a couple who don't sleep together." And Cruz is unrestrained in her praise for the director, saying, "In terms of personal experience, being in his films have been some of the best times in my life. Growing and learning. I don't just see them as movies. I feel he could give his life for a movie, and so could I."

Key Film: "Volver," is still, in our minds, just about Almodóvar's finest hour. Notably, the film also unites his two muses: Cruz and Carmen Maura, with whom he was reunited after eighteen years of estrangement. Maura's terrific, but it's very much Cruz's film—for the first time, he wrote the role, of a woman who stabs her abusive husband who ends up accidentally opening a restaurant and seemingly encountering her mother's ghost, specifically for the actress. He was right to do so; it's still her greatest performance, and she shared Best Actress at Cannes with the rest of the ensemble, and was rightly Oscar nominated for the turn.

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Michael Fassbender, Steve McQueen, Christopher Nolan, Michael Caine, Steven Soderbergh, Matt Damon, Pedro Almodóvar, Penélope Cruz, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Jeff Nichols, Michael Shannon, Wes Anderson, Bill Murray, Paul Thomas Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman


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