10 Music Video Directors Turned Feature Filmmakers

Many years ago, The Playlist started off as a blog dedicated to soundtracks, scores, music movies and the rest of the middle part of the Venn diagram where the worlds of music and film collided. Though we’ve evolved since then, that overlap is still something close to our hearts. One way those worlds are inextricably interlinked is in the number of directors who come from a music video background to work in features, and with most of us being that precise age that we can still remember the first heyday of the music video, it never ceases to surprise us how many of the promos we remember best were shot by filmmakers we now associate primarily with features. Arguably the form is experiencing something of a renaissance in relevance these days, not just via YouTube, but also with high-profile bands like Arcade Fire embracing and expanding their music videos’ artistic potential, even while the Robin Thickes of the world grab some extra headlines with risque or provocative content.

This weekend, Fredrik Bond, a commercials director but with a notable music video in Moby’s “Bodyrock,” makes his feature debut with “The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman,” a film that owes a large aesthetic debt to the music video form, not always to its credit (our Sundance review is here, though apparently Bond has re-edited the film somewhat since then). With music video alumni Jonathan Glazer, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry as well as the tentpole likes of Gore Verbinski and Zack Snyder all having films that premiered this year, and everyone from Simon West to Mark Romanek to Michael Bay to Tarsem due to have films out in 2014, we thought it’s high time we took a look at the phenomenon in a little more depth--and to query just how true is the cliche that promo directors tend to favor style over substance throughout their careers? So here are 10 music video directors who turned to features: how their first film stacked up, what they brought from one form to the other, and how things have gone for them from there.

Spike Jonze, Her, set photo

Spike Jonze
Selected Videography: Really, no one bestrides the world of the 90s/noughts music video in quite such colossal style as Spike Jonze. Picking favorites is hard, but there’s no doubt that among any list of the most memorable music videos of the past two decades, Jonze’s work is going to figure prominently, with hallmarks that include: seemingly unprofessional dancing, a skewiff, humorous retro feel, and occasionally woozy, hallucinatory imagery. The higher profile include: Fatboy Slim's “Praise You,” and “Weapon of Choice,” Bjork's “It’s Oh So Quiet,”  Tenacious D's “Wonderboy,” Weezer's “Buddy Holly,” Beastie Boys's “Sabotage,” Arcade Fire's “The Suburbs,” LCD Soundsystem's “Drunk Girls,” and many, many more.

Debut Feature: “Being John Malkovich” (1999)
As consistently surprising and engaging as Jonze’s video work had been, he still managed to exceed expectations with his brilliant, gonzo debut, not least thanks to it also marking the feature debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The film, benefiting from Jonze’s off-kilter eye (the puppetry scenes, for example, can be seen as another iteration of his interest in the the point where ungainliness meets gracefulness), felt completely fresh and original and unlike anything to that point: meta-on-meta funny, but sad and soulful too. Starring John Cusack and Cameron Diaz at their dowdiest, Catherine Keener at her vampiest and John Malkovich in a brilliantly straight-faced performance that completely proves Krusty’s adage that “it’s only funny when the sucker’s got dignity,” the film is a giddy treatise on the perils of puppetry and what might happen if you found a portal into a celebrity’s brain. Still retaining its freshness and balls-out weirdness to this day, neither Jonze nor Kaufman could possibly have hoped for a better manifesto for future intent, and while they were at it, they made a film that’s little less than a millenial touchstone.

Film Career Since Then: Jonze has consistently worked in both forms since his feature debut, but his next immediate credit was as the off-camera co-creator of epochal TV sketch show “Jackass,” after which he reteamed with Kaufman for “Adaptation” a perhaps slightly less lovable, but no less brilliant (and brilliantly messy) film about the torture of the creative process. Next on the big screen was the fond adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” before Jonze returned this year, to widespread acclaim with “Her.” Most recently, however, he was the Creative Director of the inaugural YouTube Awards, in all their shambolic, um, shambles, but if that showcase didn’t really do it for us, then there are a clutch of other side projects which really do, especially his two recent half-hour long shorts: the Arcade Fire short film “Scenes from the Suburbs” and 2010’s Absolut Vodka-sponsored “I’m Here.”

Anton Corbijn Inside Out

Anton Corbijn
Selected Videography: Photographer turned filmmaker Anton Corbijn has directed music videos since the mid-eighties, but it is his image-defining work with Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen and especially U2 that is the most  instantly recognizable. With Bono reportedly saying that he hopes one day to be as cool as Corbijn makes him look, it’s clear that for a certain type of artist, Corbijn’s enigmatic, grainy, impressionistic imagery, that uses a lot of close ups, flashes and is often presented as a series of moving tableaux, when it’s not performance footage, is more or less the platonic ideal of music video aesthetics. Yup, he’s that influential. Highlights of a long career include: U2’s “Pride” and “One,” Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box,” (which was heavily edited for MTV airplay but you can see the fully restored version below) Mercury Rev’s “Goddess on a Highway,” The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida,” and Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor.”

Debut Feature: “Control” (2007)
Fittingly, when Corbijn finally turned his hand to feature filmmaking, it was to tell the story of the early years of Joy Division and of lead singer Ian Curtis. Corbijn had been a lifelong fan of the band, and had met and photographed them (some of those images he used when he directed the video for “Atmosphere” in 1988), so the authenticity he brought to the film was perhaps to be expected, along with the gritty/beautiful aesthetic. But the film also boasted some terrific performances, not least from then-near-unknown Sam Riley as the tortured, tragic Curtis but also from Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton and Samantha Morton as Curtis’ wife Deborah, on whose book the film was based. The film received glowing reviews and won the top prize at Cannes' Director’s Fortnight, among many other laurels, and firmly established Corbijn as a restrained yet fascinating talent, who could bring a rare kind of thoughtfulness even to the most potentially sensationalist material.

Film Career Since Then: Corbijn returned to the big screen with 2010’s “The American,” starring George Clooney. An exceptionally cerebral and wilfully anti-actiony hitman thriller, it was a film we liked a great deal more than many, and while it turned a decent profit overall, the disappointment of audiences who felt they’d been sold a different movie (Clooney! Hitman!) tainted its reputation a little. But it’s the kind of film that we can see growing in retrospective acclaim: again, there’s that quality of deliveration and thoughtfulness that anyone who’s seen the documentaryAnton Corbijn: Inside Out” will recognize as being part of the director’s definite modus operandi. It’s something we can’t get enough of, so we’re hugely excited for his next outing, 2014’s “A Most Wanted Man,” based on a John Le Carre book, and boasting the exceptional cast of Rachel McAdams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe and Daniel Bruhl. Cannot wait.

David Fincher

David Fincher
Selected Videography:  Fincher initially made his name in the mid 80s with a string of videos (back in the day when music channels actually played them) for pop acts like Paula Abdul, Johnny Hates Jazz,and Foreigner. However it was the late eighties when he hit his stride and started to hone his visual style into an embryonic version of the Fincher look we know today, and landed some high-profile collaborations which culminated in a 1990 MTV music awards in which he netted three of the four nominations for Best Director--for Madonna’s “Vogue,” Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” (he took the statue for “Vogue”). Other big gigs included Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” The Rolling Stones' “Love Is Strong,” Billy Idol’s “LA Woman” and George Michael’s inescapable “Freedom ‘90.”

Debut Feature: “Alien3” (1993)
Having established a certain tone and style in his music videos (a kind of hard-edged darkness, a fondness for black and white/high contrast imagery, a hint of cynicism), Fincher landed a pretty enormous gig for his feature debut. Taking on the mantle of the hugely successful 'Alien' franchise, and thereby stepping into the shoes of James Cameron and Ridley Scott, was never going to be an easy task, but Fincher also inherited a script that had been through several different writers, and reportedly clashed with 20th Century Fox over both it and budgetary issues. The resulting film was a critical and commercial disappointment, received more or less poisonously by franchise fans, not least for the decision to again isolate Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) by killing off the other survivors of “Aliens” offscreen. Fincher certainly embraced the darkness of the story, but even now the balance feels off, with the film becoming grimy and murky rather than ‘dark’ per se, and the prison planet idea, while promising on paper, comes over as grimness overkill in practice. Subsequent years have seen its reputation somewhat ameliorated though, mainly because of the further erosion of the franchise’s cred with “Alien Resurrection” and “Alien vs Predator.” Still, it’s still by some distance Fincher’s worst movie, something he seems to agree with, saying in 2009 “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”

Film Career Since Then: The experience burned Fincher on Hollywood (and possibly vice versa) for a while afterward, during which time he went back to commercials and music videos. This was until he roared back onto the big screen in 1995 with the brilliant grainy noir “Se7en” which made everyone forget he’d had anything to do with “Alien3.” Following that up with the stylish but maybe overly tricksy “The Game,” his next real splash was with “Fight Club” a much funnier, seedier and more satisfying movie that initially received a mixed reception, but almost immediately became a cult classic. “Panic Room” felt a bit minor after that, but “Zodiac” just gets better and better as time goes by, and while “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”’s magic realism was not a tangent that we particularly enjoyed, Fincher returned to our black hearts with the biting, bitter “The Social Network,” picking up the second of his two Best Director nods and firmly establishing his “superstar director” status. Recently he went back to black with an adaptation of literary phenomenon “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” that, while perfectly attuned to his sensibilities felt a little rote by comparison with his best work, and next up he takes on another celebrated book, in 2014’s “Gone Girl.”