12 Great & Not-So-Great Debuts From Screenwriters-Turned-Directors

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by The Playlist Staff
June 6, 2013 4:03 PM
24 Comments
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Mike White - "Year of the Dog"
Maybe one of the purest expressions of "screenwriter-turned-director" (though he’s also an actor given to appearing in character roles in some of his films) Mike White had, in years leading to 2007, carved out quite a distinctive place for himself as an indie screenwriter dealing more in low-key human dramedy than some of the more bombastic Shane Black-types, or more mainstream Steve Zaillian-types on our list. But after TV stints on “Dawson’s Creek," “Freaks and Geeks” and the short-lived “Pasadena” and screenplays for “Dead Man on Campus,” “Chuck and Buck,” “Orange County” and “The Good Girl,” White really stepped up a league when his screenplay for “The School of Rock” became the endearing and successful Richard Linklater picture. After penning “Nacho Libre” for “School of Rock” star Jack Black, White took his own first turn behind the camera, with the self-penned “Year of the Dog.” The film didn’t do much on release, and it’s not hard to see why -- starting out as a sweet quirky comedy and devolving into something with a much sourer heart and quite the pessimistic streak (at least as far as humans are concerned) it’s a film that is difficult to categorize, and therefore sell, without disappointing the audiences who show up expecting something a bit more straightforward. However, leaving genre expectation aside, it’s really kind of a great little picture, in which “SNL” regular Molly Shannon, a dog lover grieving the death of her beloved beagle goes through, essentially, a slow breakdown that may see her end up a less likable, supportive friend, sister, employee and aunt than she once was, but perhaps a more true-to-herself person instead. The film kind of got it in the ear from all sides: pet lovers expecting a sort of “Marley and Me” sweetness were unhappy with the very dark turn the film takes, while many others were put off by a perceived “pro-PETA agenda,” and still others found the tonal shift from comedy to near-tragedy just too big a stretch. But we see in it a great, if tiny and hyper-stylized, character study of a woman struggling against and finally accepting her own marginalization from the mainstream. In which it’s a good primer for White’s underrated and now sadly cancelled TV show “Enlightened.”

Subsequent career: Well, aside from the Laura Dern-starring “Enlightened,” and leaving the perenially empty director’s chair on “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” White has recently signed on to adaptThe Good Luck of Right Now” the forthcoming book from “Silver Linings Playbook” novelist Matthew Quick.

4 Not-So-Great Debuts

Dustin Lance Black - “Virginia
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black shot into prominence fast, winning a WGA award for his work on "Big Love" and then an Academy Award for Gus Van Sant's Harvey Milk story, "Milk." When you hit it big this early on, you can usually do whatever you want and so Black used that cachet to score funding for his directorial debut, “Virginia” (originally known as "What's Wrong with Virginia”). Penned by Black and starring a strong ensemble cast of Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Emma Roberts, Carrie Preston, and Toby Jones, “Virginia” had everything going for it, but whatever anticipative buzz it had going for it slammed dead in its tracks when it debuted at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival to unintentional laughs and scattered applause and coughs at best. About too many damn things at once, the movie followed a psychologically disturbed woman (Connelly) with whom the local sheriff (Harris) has engaged in a two-decade-long affair. But it’s also a coming-of-age tale that centers on her son Harrison Gilbertson who begins to date the sheriff’s daughter (Roberts) which begins to affect his state senate bid. A quirked-up tonally mangled mess of a movie, with kooky comedy sitting next to drama, audiences actually didn’t know whether it was meant to be funny or not. And while Black did try and salvage it with an overhaul, retitling it “Virginia” and finally releasing it two years later in 2012, the movie was only marginally better and anyway, by then the damage had been done.

Subsequent Career: Dustin Lance Black’s screenwriting career doesn’t seem to be in any jeopardy, however. He was hired to write Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” and he also wrote an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" for Gus Van Sant to direct which hasn't been made yet. Journeyman film and TV guy Paris Barclay was slated to direct his screenplay “A Life Like Mine” at one point and he probably has no shortage of work. Yet, we’d be surprised if he got behind the camera again any time soon if only because the critical sting of “Virginia” probably hasn’t quite gone away yet.

Mitch Glazer -- “Passion Play
A writing veteran whose work goes all the way back to the early '80s when he wrote for "SNL," Mitch Glazer's first major screen credit (and most well-known film) is 1988's "Scrooged" starring Bill Murray. Other credits include 1991's "Off and Running" starring Cyndi Lauper, 2003's and "The Recruit" starring Al Pacino and Colin Farrell, but it wasn’t until 2010 when Glazer mounted his first directorial effort, “Passion Play” (which he wrote as well). And boy, was it a doozy, savaged at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival by critics -- our own review called the film an “excruciating unbearable disaster.” It doesn’t get much worse than films like this. A ridiculous tone-deaf fairy tale, the film has a hell of a cast, but it doesn’t help. Mickey Rourke stars as a down-and-out jazz trumpeter whose luck isn't getting any better. But his life changes when he comes across a mysterious, sideshow freak woman with angel-like wings played Megan Fox. Co-starring Bill Murray as a gangster who's out to kill the two of them and Rhys Ifans, "Passion Play" was easily one of TIFF’s biggest debacles and reminds us of a similar disaster, "Boxing Helena." Laughed out the door at the screening we were at, it’s a risible, brutal experience to say the least and the film limped onto DVD a year later without much fanfare (even Rourke himself publicly dogged the film before it came out). Cliche-riddled, and filled with dumb contrivances, you’d expect much more from a veteran screenwriter.

Subsequent Career: Glazer went on to create the Starz show "Magic City" starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Danny Huston and Olga Kurylenko, and it was recently renewed by the network for a second season and that should keep him busy for a while. In the end, “Passion Play,” as bad as it was, hasn’t hurt Glazer’s screenwriting career and as “Magic City” attests, there’s plenty of work to be found in TV, but the stain of that stinker will be hard to wash out and we wouldn’t be surprised if he has to wait several years before he gets behind the camera again.

William Monahan - “London Boulevard
William Monahan started out as a magazine, alt-weekly writer and then became a novelist and in 2000, and Warner Bros. optioned the film rights to his book "Light House: A Trifle," and that got the ball rolling on his Hollywood career. 20th Century Fox bought the spec script "Tripoli" which Ridley Scott was interested in making, but he soon became entranced by Monahan’s pitch to make a movie about The Crusades that became “Kingdom of Heaven,” his first properly produced screenwriting credit. And Monahan soon hit paydirt with “The Departed” in 2006, an adaptation of the highly regarded Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs,” that not only won him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, but finally gave Martin Scorsese his first Academy Award for Best Director. Monahan would go on to write 'Body Of Lies" for Ridley Scott and "Edge Of Darkness," commanding high figures and generally being much in demand. But his career definitely got tripped up by his directorial debut “London Boulevard,” a film in the would-be mold of the classic British gangster films from the ‘60s and early ‘70s like “Get Carter," Nicolas Roeg’s “Performance,’ and even Antonioni’s “Blow Up.” In fact, it so desperately wants to capture that beatnik-y place and tone where crime films and swinging London met that it just seems to try too hard, slathering the movie with music, trippy visuals and other elements that just can’t make up for the deficit of a weak and blandly told story about a ex-con (Colin Farrell) hired to look after a reclusive young actress (Keira Knightley) who finds himself falling in love, which of course puts himself in direct confrontation with one of London's most vicious gangsters. It doesn’t really help that the two leads don’t have a lot of chemistry. If you want a much better modern take on the ‘60s British crime flick, just dial up “Sexy Beast.”

Subsequent Career: Despite this misstep, Monahan's career hasn't been hurt too badly. He's still in demand (he rewrote "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" for Robert Rodriguez) and unlike some of these other writers who may never direct again, he's already in pre-production on his next filmmaking effort "Mojave" starring 'Inside Llewyn Davis" co-stars Garrett Hedlund and Oscar Isaac.

Frank Miller -- "The Spirit"
Sometimes there can almost be a sense of relief when we get to write about something that has absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. So we’re really rather glad that Frank Miller, otherwise known in the screenwriting world for the ‘Robocop’ sequels and for gifting other screenwriters with comic book fodder in “Elektra,” “Sin City,” “300” and his gritty take on Batman, chose “The Spirit” as his solo directorial debut (he’s credited as co-director with Robert Rodriguez on “Sin City” but we believe that even less now having seen what he did when left to his own devices). Asinine, patronising to the viewer, unpardonably full of itself and thumpingly, thumpingly dull, “The Spirit” is one of the absolute worst times we’ve ever had at the movies, in a long life of movie watching. Ostensibly employing a similar comic-book-inspired aesthetic as “Sin City” yet making that film seem like a masterpiece of rich characterization and deep philosophical thinking by comparison, “The Spirit” features a cop (Gabriel Macht) returned from the dead who has to track a villain (Samuel L Jackson) across a city but is waylaid by a bunch of unlikely females in various fetish outfits (Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johannson, Sarah Paulson, Jaime King) who want to seduce him to stop him from carrying out his mission. Or something. It’s absolutely incomprehensible tripe and everyone involved should be completely ashamed of themselves.

Subsequent Career: Miller’s position in the comic book pantheon is assured, so we doubt he’s too worried about not having another solo directorial project lined up (though he’s back as co-director on “Sin City 2”), and frankly, we thank our lucky stars. Word on an adaptation of his comic "Ronin" has gone quiet of late, but hopefully the bundles and bundles of cash he must be making from the “Sin City” and “300” franchises, among others, mean he’ll stick, directing-wise, to the odd perfume commercial from now on.

Somewhere In The Middle
Of course, there are a huge number of debuts that neither plumb the depths we’ve just been to, nor scale the heights of the first list, but fall somewhere on the spectrum in the middle. Profile-wise, one of the biggest disappointments, that apparently put him in “director’s jail” for more a decade, was Christopher McQuarrie’s “The Way of the Gun.” It’s hard to believe that any film that starts so promisingly, with Ryan Phillippe full-on punching Sarah Silverman in the mouth, can go so far downhill, but despite its gonzo and engaging opening half hour, the film soon sinks under its own weight, hampered by thin characterization, ludicrous overplotting and a director way, way too much in love with the prose on the page to bother trying to make it sound like dialogue from a human mouth. He kind of redeemed himself with "Jack Reacher," though. Better, and actually just missing out on the top list was “The Lookout” from Scott Frank (“Out of Sight,” “Minority Report”) a very nicely handled low-key Joseph Gordon-Levitt-starring drama that makes us look forward to his next time at the helm with “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

All-time great screenwriter Robert Towne made his first foray into direction with “Personal Best” which is still a pretty decent drama set among the women competing for a place on the US athletics Olympics team, even if it’s now become something of a pop-culture byword among men who felt early stirrings at its scenes of hardbodied lesbianism. And superstar “Blade,” “Batman Begins” and “Man of Steel” writer David S.Goyer’s “Zig Zag” has at least one champion among us, but we couldn’t track down a copy in time to watch, while David Koepp’s (“Mission: Impossible,” “Panic Room”) “The Trigger Effect” is an underrated little B-movie thriller documenting relationship and societal breakdown during a power blackout.

LA Confidential” and “Mystic River” writer Brian Helgeland’s first time in the chair was the pretty tough and nasty Mel Gibson thriller “Payback” (which shares source material with “Point Blank” to give you an idea of the tone) and he recently hit a homerun with "42.". Glenn Ficarra & John Requa graduated from writing partners on “Bad Santa” and “The Bad News Bears” remake to directing partners on the famously dithered-over-then-not-really-released “I Love You Phillip Morris,” while George Nolfi’s (“Ocean’s Twelve,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) “The Adjustment Bureau” had terrific elements (we could have watched Matt Damon and Emily Blunt fall in love all day) but also had these dumb guys in hats running around and got really silly in its latter stages. Speaking of Emily Blunt, “The Jane Austen Book Club” was the directorial debut of Robin Swicord, the woman behind scripts for “Matilda,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Practical Magic” and it’s unlikely to change anyone’s life, but it’s a pretty decent romantic comedy nonetheless. And Alan Ball, who is probably better known as TV showrunner on “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” but who of course is behind the screenplay for “American Beauty,” did big-screen directorial duty on “Towelhead” which we’re ashamed to say we haven’t caught up with yet, but we’ve heard some good things about.

At the lower end of the register, Nora Ephron’s first time directing “This Is My Life” is a fine, but forgettable story of a woman forced to choose between family and her stand-up career and nowhere near as good as stuff she’d do later, while Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel,” “Amores Perros” scripts) went back to the old “interconnecting stories” well for his debut “The Burning Plain” but with diminishing returns. “Braveheart” writer Randall Wallace's take on “The Man With The Iron Mask” was handsomely mounted, competently acted and totally anonymous, directorially speaking. Regular Tim Burton collaborator John August took his first swing with “The Nines,” starring Ryan Reynolds, which tries just a bit too hard to be clever and tricksy without ever quite working out its own trick, but honestly, we’d take it over “Dark Shadows” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” any day. Susannah Grant (“Ever After” “Erin Brockovich” “In Her Shoes” sceenplays) directed “Catch and Release” as her debut, about a woman (Jennifer Garner) falling for her deceased fiancee’s best friend but it doesn’t hang together particularly well, despite chemistry between leads Garner and Timothy Olyphant. Finally, a sugary sweet duo for dessert: Zach Helm (“Stranger than Fiction”) tried a bit too hard to instil Awe and Wonder into his “Mr Magorium’s Magic Emporium,” overshot the mark and ended up in schmaltz. As did Mark Steven Johnson, writer of “Grumpy Old Men” who made his debut with “Simon Burch, ” an adaptation of John Irving’s beloved novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany” in which none of the book's acerbic wit or darker tones remain, leaving a film that cloys and annoys as it tries so very hard to warm your heart. Still, Johnson went on to direct "Ghost Rider" so no harm, no foul.

As a final note we should also mention that we excluded a host of classic directors who may have initially started as screenwriters, but whose subsequent output as director, or writer/director, may have overshadowed their early days, like Federico Fellini (directorial debut -- “Variety Lights”), Barry Levinson (“Diner”), Billy Wilder (“Mauvaise Graine”) Lawrence Kasdan (“Body Heat”)and Joseph Manckiewicz (“Backfire”). But of course, despite all this, we’ve missed out a load -- tell us who below.

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24 Comments

  • JG | January 26, 2014 5:57 PMReply

    Steven Gaghan won an Academy Award for TRAFFIC (2000) and followed that up with ABANDON starring Katie Holmes, which I don't know if anyone saw, much less liked. Seems to have righted ship with follow-up SYRIANA.

  • ronnie | July 15, 2013 6:31 PMReply

    frank miller's THE SPIRIT was definetely the kind of movie a watched and loved, but knew no one else would get. i thought jackson was great. i found the story totally understandable, and cool: jackson wants the blood of hercules to be immortal, eva mendes wants the golden fleece. you know, im gay, but i thought the t and a was quality.

    im afraid its the kind of film that people dont like because they overthought it. sin city gave people the wrong expectations for where this film would go.

  • Reini Urban | June 27, 2013 8:54 AMReply

    Come on, you really did miss two of the best and alive writer-turned directors out there!
    How could you miss Quentin Tarantino, who was quite successful in both but arguably is a better screenwriter than director.
    And even better, the famous novelist Lee Chang-dong who decided to go into directing (and later on into politics) with quite a breakthrough success also, similar to his books. He never did screenwriting for others.

  • Jeff Smith | June 17, 2013 8:56 PMReply

    The Fabulous Baker Boys, Steve Kloves's directorial debut should be up there with the good ones.

  • John Gilvray | June 8, 2013 11:44 PMReply

    If one wants to do a proper story on this subject, please go to the writer-directors you are writing about, and maybe manage to ask them the actual story about what happened, in script, in production, in post, to the pictures you are discussing. Then you would have something for people to read and discuss, probably blisteringly improved and informed by the subjects of the article. I should certainly like to see Christopher McQuarrie and William Monahan and Steve Zallian, among others, respond to the assertions in this piece about writer-directors. I suspect that most of them would have a word to say. This article does not go out for comment to the people it is talking about. Whether this is out of innocence, ignorance, or intentional deficit of elbow grease is for the writer to consider, because surely there was no trained editor involved.

  • jean vigo | June 7, 2013 12:50 AMReply

    While many of these examples reveal a lot of folks who come from a clear "non-directing" or even "non-filmmaking" (Frank Miller) background, there tends to be a running misconception in this "biz" about the screenwriter/director thing. It has to do with "intent" and actual background.

    Many of the folks on this list actually INTENDED to direct, made shorts, went to film programs and studied the craft, but "broke in" as screenwriters. Frank Darabont, on this list, is a good example of that; he made several shorts in his early 20s before going into screenwriting, then BACK to being a writer-director, NOT writer "turned" director.

    Funny, how the business sees a lot of this like a team sport (e.g. "you're a center fielder; you can't play 1st base.") Not like that. Of course, many intend to become writers and then become directors, but not strictly the case. (See: Paul Haggis.)

  • Red Stevens | June 6, 2013 9:27 PMReply

    What about Preston Sturges? I'm only saying this because didn't he start the trend of screenwriters-turned-directors?

  • Ted | June 21, 2013 5:26 PM

    Sturges' The Great McGinty is better than the "great debuts," listed here but his follow-ups: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story are so much better people forget about his debut's charm.

  • cirkusfolk | June 6, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Paul Schrader???

  • Stephen B | June 6, 2013 7:05 PMReply

    Worst "successful screenwriter turned director" movie: Kevin Williamson's Teaching Mrs. Tingle. This was before everyone realized Williamson was more or less a hack (or at least a one trick pony) and expectations were actually pretty high. It's awful. It plays like a bad ABC Family movie of the week.

  • DG | June 6, 2013 6:36 PMReply

    No mention of Diablo Cody or am I missing it? Also Harmony Korine, he's one of the craziest examples of screenwriter turned director, getting his first writing job by basically meeting a pervert in the park when he was 19. Also most of all I'm just happy that you can still make the jump from screenwriter to director in this day and age, as I believe all the best directors are writers too or have written

  • Carson Wells | June 6, 2013 11:51 PM

    Has Cody's directorial debut even been released yet? Some of us find it hard to judge films without seeing them.

  • yer | June 6, 2013 6:40 PM

    Korine only had one film as a screenwriter before directing, does that really qualify as a screenwriter turned director?

  • Theoc | June 6, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    Excellent list, some great stuff in there.

  • DG | June 6, 2013 7:00 PM

    Yeah I guess you're right

  • THOR | June 6, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    No mention of the Academy Award-nominated Steven Knight's (Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace, Eastern Promises) directorial debut that's one later this month?!

  • Rob | June 6, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    Alex Kurtzman's People Like Us?

  • eduardo | June 6, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    Throw me on the Way of the Gun-bandwagon. That movie's pretty damn good, and way more distinctive than Jack Reacher, which I still kinda liked.

  • Kyle | June 6, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    Avengers sucked.

  • Dale | June 6, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    Don't overlook James L. Brook's "Terms of Endearment" which won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress. Not a shabby directorial debut.

  • wes | June 6, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    I was disappointed with Synecdoche.

  • Tyrannosaurus Max | June 6, 2013 8:48 PM

    Dude, me too, Wes. I thought I was really gonna like it and I hated it.

  • Leonardo | June 6, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    I thought that "The Way of the Gun" was great, the last third makes it better again.

  • Terrence Aybar | June 6, 2013 4:15 PMReply

    Way of the Gun is pretty goddamn awesome but even I have to admit that the plot gets kinda convoluted as it moves along. It's one of those movies that you have to give your absolute undivided attention to while watching and even then it's really easy to miss an important detail or nuance.

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