This weekend, the Johnny Depp-starring “Transcendence” opens in all its technophobic glory, across the nation, and while the reviews, ours included, so far, have ranged from mildly poisonous to all-out toxic, the proof will as ever be in the box office pudding. But not only is it a litmus test for whether or not Depp’s star power can carry a film outside the Disney/Tim Burton blockbuster ghetto he’s painted himself into, the film is also the testing ground for the tricky horse-change pulled by its director, longtime Christopher Nolan Director of Photography (DP) Wally Pfister.
Pfister is immensely respected in his previous role, and is indelibly associated with the noirish grit of the Nolan Batman movies, as well as the slick effects-driven sheen of “Inception,” which have become something of the styles du jour for big Hollywood movies — the gold standards that others must try to emulate. But even the most lauded cinematographers are not immune to the siren call of the director’s chair, and this was Pfister’s time to strike, to step out from the cold of Nolan’s shadow and feel the sunlight on his face…
Whatever the results are for him, it’s a path well travelled. But even with the advantage of a wealth of on-set experience and basic filmmaking competence that a cinematography career will no doubt instill, there is no guarantee that overall storytelling chops come with that package, and, rather like screenwriters who direct or actors who direct, it’s a gamble as to whether the attempts will hit or miss. So we thought we’d take a look through a few case studies, that may comfort or chasten Pfister by example; other men (yes afraid they’re all men, women being even more underrepresented here than in other filmmaking professions) who’ve tried the same maneuver, and how they fared first time at bat (not counting documentaries, TV outings or shorts). So here are 15 people who’ve well, we can’t say stepped behind the camera, for once, but instead have stepped out from behind the camera and slightly to one side — cinematographers turned first-time directors.
Highlights as Cinematographer: Roeg rose from lowly camera operator to 2nd unit head on “Lawrence of Arabia” and received a partial credit for “Dr. Zhivago” and “Casino Royale” while serving as main cinematographer on atmospheric B movies “The Caretaker” and Roger Corman’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Then came DP duties on Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the wacky “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and two films with Julie Christie, “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Petulia."
Directorial Debut: “Performance” (1970)
Co-directed by Donald Cammell (who also scripted), it’s impossible to sum up “Performance” in 100 words, but you’ll either find it nauseating chaos or a work of unbridled genius, and we’re dues-paying members of the latter group. The startling tale of a petty gangster (James Fox, amazing) whose identity conflates with a creatively blocked rock star (Mick Jagger), it’s a delirious whirl of imagery so provocative it feels like it’s poking you in the eye. Woozy, decadent, violent, sexy, absurdly cool: it may induce a sense of drunkenness about the elasticity of narrative and the sheer possibility of cinema.
Subsequent Career: Roeg is one DP we can state was always a director-in-waiting, as he followed this stellar debut with the equally incredible solo outing “Walkabout” (done in a more austere, but no less experimental register) and went on to classic mindfucks like “Don’t Look Now,” “The Man Who Fell To Earth” “Insignificance,” “Bad Timing” and later even delivering the rather terrific adaptation of “The Witches.”
Jan de Bont
Highlights as Cinematographer: De Bont came stateside after establishing himself in his native Netherlands, working with (among others) Paul Verhoeven there, for whom he’d shoot “Flesh and Blood” and “Basic Instinct,” in Hollywood. He also shot ex-DP Michael Chapman’s debut “All the Right Moves” (see below), but it was films with John McTiernan, (“Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October”) as well as “Flatliners” for Joel Schumacher and “Black Rain” for Ridley Scott that consolidated his slick action credentials.
Directorial Debut: “Speed” (1994)
De Bont delivered an action movie for the ages in his debut, a terrifically engaging thrill ride, which takes the central of three action set pieces — the wired-up bus is actually sandwiched between rather good elevator and subway sequences — and spins it into an entire movie. De Bont delivers the tension and the action in spades, but it only works as well as it does because we care for the characters especially Keanu Reeves, suddenly a viable action star, and Sandra Bullock for whom megastardom beckoned.
Subsequent Career: De Bont never quite attained those heights again as director (and didn’t return to DP duties as others did) but he came closest with follow-up “Twister” a satisfying riff on the disaster movie that again is anchored by some winning performances. Sadly, his feel for character abandoned him for the dire “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” remake “The Haunting,” and “Tomb Raider 2: Cradle of Life,” and he’s struggled to get anything going for over a decade now. Fun fact: the chain continued, as De Bont’s “Speed” DP, Andrzej Bartkowiak, made his directorial debut in 2000 with “Romeo Must Die.”
Highlights as Cinematographer: Wexler, one of the most influential cinematographers of all time, boasts the stunning work on Elia Kazan’s “America America” as his breakthrough as a DP and went on to shoot “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for which he won the first of two Oscars, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “In the Heat of the Night, among many others. He also famously replaced friend and eventual Oscar-winner Nestor Almendros on Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”
Directorial Debut: “Medium Cool” (1969)
A curious documentary/narrative hybrid, Haskell’s directorial debut is defiantly of its time, experimental and overtly political (the climax takes place during the riots in Chicago during the ‘68 Democratic National Convention). It’s also often preachy, a little unfocused and unpolished in style from the creaky acting (Robert Forster, so young and so … big) and perplexing editing, to the shooting style, which ranges from shaky verité to psychedelic indulgence, often drenched in music. Watch it for the passion and dynamism of its kinetic style, rather than the threadbare narrative or undeveloped intellectualism.
Subsequent Career: Wexler never stopped DPing, and won his second Cinematography Oscar for 1976’s “Bound for Glory,” though the 90s and 00s saw him involved less frequently in high-profile narrative pictures, the likes of “Mulholland Falls” and his ongoing collaboration with John Sayles notwithstanding. As director too he subsequently concentrated primarily on social documentaries, also making a film version of the labor-rights movement play “From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks” in 2007.
Highlights as Cinematographer: Coming to prominence as DP for the Coen Brothers (on “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing”) Sonnenfeld’s talents were otherwise often put in service of comedies: rehabilitated teen “classic” “Three O’Clock High,” “Throw Momma From The Train,” “Big” and “When Harry Met Sally,” with his last DP credit being for 1990’s “Misery.”
Directorial Debut: “The Addams Family” (1991)
Those studio comedies were a useful testing ground for this film recreation of Charles Addams’ cartoon, which also served as inspiration for several TV shows and movies. The film is well shot, and probably better than it should be, especially when it came to casting (Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christina Ricci, Christopher Lloyd) but there’s painfully little substance, so it lurches, if stylishly, from one gag to another, all premised on some pretty, well, cartoony characterization. It also suffers by comparison with the surprisingly superior sequel, which Sonnenfeld returned for two years later.
Subsequent Career: Outside of that creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky family, Sonnenfeld, who never went back to being DP, has one major claim to fame: the “Men in Black” franchise. ‘II’ was a step back, while 2012’s ‘Men In Black III’ was a partial return to the silly fun of the first, but outside those, Sonnenfeld’s biggest film was “Get Shorty.” More recently he’s migrated to TV: “Pushing Daisies” (which he also exec produced), “Notes from the Underbelly,” and last year’s not-picked-up “Beverly Hills Cop.” Next up: the pilot for comedy “Dead Boss” is in the pipeline.