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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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PTA Philip Seymour Hoffman
Paul Thomas Anderson/ Philip Seymour Hoffman
Number Of Films Together: 5 — "Hard Eight" (1996), "Boogie Nights" (1997), "Magnolia" (1999), "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002), "The Master" (2012)

History: Over his first few films, Paul Thomas Anderson built up something of a repertory company—John C Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters et al.—but the greatest constant across the director's career has been Philip Seymour Hoffman. The theater veteran started out with a small role in "Hard Eight"/"Sydney," but soon graduated to a scene-stealing turn in "Boogie Nights," playing Scotty, the poor lovelorn boom operator in unrequited lust with Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler; a funny and heartbreaking turn that's one of the best things in the movie. Hoffman returned again to join the ensemble of "Magnolia," with a very different turn, dedicated nurse Phil Pharma, a generous, unshowy performance that exists mostly to serve Jason Robards's titanic effort. Another change in direction followed with "Punch-Drunk Love," in which Hoffman plays the mattress-store owning phone-sex line operator harrassing Adam Sandler's Barry, before the pair took a decade long break before reuniting for "The Master," in which Hoffman finally took center stage with the title role. As Anderson says, that film was written for Hoffman, the director telling QuickFlix, "the biggest reason for this film, for me, was to make something with Phil that we built from the ground up. Like you said, we'd worked together before, and it was a couple weeks here, or ten days. It never felt satisfying enough. I wanted to work with him on a larger scale and in a deeper way. I would just start sharing pages with him and showing what I was up to. It was a great way to work." The admiration is clearly mutual, with Hoffman saying that he enjoy both the director's unpredictability, telling the New York Times, "Every time I work with him, I’m always surprised, he’s allowed himself to go further and not to always think he has the answer," and his truthfulness, saying to Esquire, "I think Paul's honest about who humans are. I think you gotta have an honesty and a humility about human nature and that it's not about you at the end of the day. He knows what he's good at. That's the thing about Paul. And what he's good at he's better at than probably anybody." Ultimately, though, Hoffman says their friendship is more important to him than their working relationship, telling Little White Lies last year, "I get concerned when we don’t talk for a few months, not when we don’t make a movie together for a few years. I make sure that we stay close as friends and that’s what we concern ourselves with. In his meanderings of trying to put stories and scripts together – because he writes all the time – if he comes upon something that he decides suits me then we’ll talk about it, but otherwise I’m not constantly looking to work with him. I’ve already worked with him enough for a lifetime, in a lot of ways. But I hope we keep working together, I hope I’m still a part of his stories. But if not then that’s okay."

Key Film: Unquestionably "The Master," last year's extraordinary film that saw Hoffman as author/religion-founder Lancaster Dodd, one half of an unlikely friendship/platonic romance with Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy Quell. Hoffman might give his very best performance in the film, showing both the charisma of a self-appointed leader like Dodd, and more subtly, the flaws and weaknesses too.

Nichols Shannon
Jeff Nichols / Michael Shannon
Number Of Films Together: 4 — "Shotgun Stories" (2007), "Take Shelter" (2011), "Mud" (2013), "Midnight Special" (2014)

History: It might be one of the youngest partnerships on the list, but Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon have swiftly formed a potent cinematic partnership that we're always happy to see more of, even if they're only three films in (with a fourth on the way). The two first came together on Nichols' debut "Shotgun Stories," though interestingly, the director says that Shannon was the only person in the cast he didn't know at the time, telling Indiewire back in the day, "The casting for this film was made up mostly of people I knew. Michael Shannon, our lead, was the one exception. I knew his work and had written the part for him, but I didn't know him personally. I did however have a connection to him through a friend. This is how he got my script and eventually came on board." But come on board he did, and the actor gives an unforgettable performance in the still-underseen 2008 picture as the appropriately-named Son, who instigates a feud with his half-brothers. The two became friends during the shoot, but interestingly, Nichols didn't write the lead in his next film, "Take Shelter," with Shannon in mind. The actor told Cinema Blend, "The first time I read the script was just as a friend. As Jeff was saying, it was a very personal story for him, and he just wanted someone to read it and see if it translated" before the director realized, as he says "at the end of the day, I happened to be friends with this amazing actor. I had his cell phone number." Fortunately, the two did work together on that picture, as well as on Nichols' follow-up "Mud," in which Shannon has a smaller supporting role, but still proves to be one of the highlights of the picture. Shannon says that Nichols was nervous when they first worked together, telling In Contention "Jeff would do a lot of 'What do you think we should do? Should we rehearse?'," but adding that "we've always had a kind of unspoken understanding." And with a fourth film on the way—a sci-fi film at Warner Bros. to co-star Joel Edgerton—the pair look to work together for a long time to come, Shannon joking to Cinema Blend, "As long as he keeps paying me more each time I work with him," and Nichols promising "I'll keep writing stuff for Mike and giving it to him."

Key Film: It has to be "Take Shelter"—while the film's not quite a one-man show (Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham are also excellent in it), Shannon gives his very best turn to date as a family man who thinks he's losing his grip on his sanity and is terrified at what that might mean for his wife and child.

Fassbender McQueen
Steve McQueen/Michael Fassbender
Number Of Films Together: 3 — "Hunger" (2008), "Shame" (2011), "Twelve Years A Slave" (2013)

History: Back in 2008, Steve McQueen was a well-known British artist, but virtually an unknown in the wider world of filmmaking, while Michael Fassbender was an actor who'd been tipped for a while, but was best known for a small role in "300" and a British 'Buffy' rip-off called "Hex." Now, the former is a lauded filmmaker and the latter is a legitimate star. While their partnership is still young, the duo are imminently teaming up for a third time on "12 Years A Slave," which looks to be a serious awards contender this fall. McQueen had never worked with actors before he made "Hunger," about the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, and must have felt spoiled to have cast Fassbender, telling The Guardian of the actor, who fasted for 10 weeks during the filming to reach his gaunt frame in the film's final third, "He committed himself totally to the part, and I think it changed him somehow. He became very inward, very philosophical. At one point, he became like Bob Marley in a way, philosophising about the meaning of life and shit. I was like, what the fuck is going on here?'" That it was their first film seemed to bond the pair, with Fassbender later telling Collider "Together, we were experiencing a lot. I could see, on Steve’s face, the passion and wanting to get it right, and I wanted to get it right, too. We just formed a language, very quickly." McQueen designed his next film, "Shame," about a sex addict in New York, with the intention of Fassbender playing the lead, and by the time they came to shoot it, an almost wordless telepathy had developed in their process. When we spoke to McQueen at NYFF two years ago, he told us,"He would do a take, and it would be not exactly what I wanted, and I'd walk up to him, and as soon as I walked up, he'd be 'Yeah, I know.' We'd grunt and groan a lot, it's like falling in love, it's shocking and surprising. When it happens, you hold on to it, and it's something I'm grateful to have." They're clearly still incredibly close, and McQueen calls it "one of the most important relationships I’ve had in my life. My mother, my sister, my wife, my twin children, further friends, and Michael. That’s how deep it is, really," in an interview with the AV Club. So even after the release of "12 Years A Slave," we're sure we'll see the two continue to work together; Fassbender said at the release of "Shame," "When I was seventeen and I started off doing this, my dream was to meet a director, and to have a relationship with a director, like Scorsese/De Niro, Lumet/Pacino. That would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that, and to be on a wavelength that powerful with somebody, and that's what I was so lucky to find with Steve with 'Hunger.' "

Key Film: With Fassbender in a supporting role in "12 Years A Slave," we'd still likely go with "Hunger," not just for the actor's alarming physical commitment, but for his absolute dedication to the role on every level, and not least in the amazing 22-minute sequence with Liam Cunningham's priest. 

Honorable Mentions: Like we said, we've tried to stick with active and current partnerships, in part because the wealth of options from classic cinema is so great. That said, there were still some others that are worth mentioning. The Coens, for instance, have long-standing relationships with the likes of John Goodman and Frances McDormand, while James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix have a major double-act that continues with this year's "The Immigrant." Similarly, Wong Kar-Wai and long-time leading man Tony Leung Chiu-Wai have teamed up again for this year's "The Grandmasters"

Other notables also include Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor, David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall, Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon, Guy Ritchie and Mark Strong, Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Duntst (yes, she recently popped up in "The Bling Ring" in a cameo), Dennis Dugan and Adam Sandler, and the inspiration for this feature, Nicolas Winding Refn, who also has a long-standing relationship with Mads Mikkelsen. Plus, there are plenty of newer but promising collaborations that we hope will continue: people like Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and Lars Von Trier and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The list, as usual, goes on and on. If there are any pairs you love that we've omitted, please let us know in the comments section below.

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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