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15 Cinematographers Turned Directors

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 17, 2014 at 3:07PM

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.
6
Juice

Ernest R. Dickerson
Highlights as Cinematographer: Dickerson’s second credit as DP was on the seminal John Sayles film “Brother from Another Planet,” but it was his collaborations with firebrand Spike Lee that really established him as a talent: “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze” the epochal “Do the Right Thing” “Mo Better Blues,” “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X” — when you think of Lee’s films, most likely you think of Dickerson’s photography.

Directorial Debut: “Juice” (1992)
Having contributed, as DP with Lee, to the establishment of a new black cinema, Dickerson made a pretty convincing bid for its vanguard, releasing “Juice” the year after “Boyz n the Hood” hit. Since then, the film has been reclaimed as an artifact of the quasi-Messianic Tupac cult (and Shakur is very good, as is Omar Epps), but it does stand up on its own merits. The story of four friends growing up in Harlem and responding to growing pains, family issues and police harrassment in different ways is not the most original, nor does it go in any very surprising directions, but it’s heartfelt and authentic-feeling, and even more interesting if you consider it, as does Dickerson himself, as a hip-hop film noir.

Subsequent Career: After less distinguished genre fare like Adam Sandler’s “Bulletproof” and DMX’s “Never Die Alone” Dickerson moved into prestige TV, and has delivered one or two episodes on almost every big show for the last decade or so, becoming a series regular director for “The Wire,” “Treme,” “Dexter” and “The Walking Dead” among others.

Lost Souls

Janusz Kaminski
Highlights As Cinematographer: The Polish-born Kaminski emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 21, attending Columbia before working his way up the lighting department on films like, uh, 1989’s “Stripped To Kill II: Live Girls.” Kaminski broke through to features in the unlikely shape of Vanilla Ice vehicle “Cool As Ice,” before his work on TV movie “Wildflower” brought him to the attention of Steven Spielberg, who selected him to shoot “Schindler’s List.” Kaminski has shot every one of the director’s films since, winning two Oscars in the process.

Directorial Debut: “Lost Souls” (2000)
One of a string of religion-themed horrors at the turn of the millennium (see “Stigmata,” “End Of Days” et al), “Lost Souls” sees Winona Ryder attempt to convince Ben Chaplin that he’s been chosen to serve as a vessel for Satan. The film looks handsome enough (Kaminski used “Avatar” DP Mauro Fiore for the project) in Kaminski’s trademark bleach-bypass manner of the time, but the script is dim-witted and highly derivative, and the execution at no point scary. It probably didn’t help matters that it was released on the same day as the re-release of “The Exorcist.”

Subsequent Career: The reception of “Lost Souls” seems to have mostly convinced Kaminski to stick to the day job: he’s continued to work with Spielberg, as well as shooting “The Diving People And The Butterfly” and “Funny People.” He did return to directing though, with the Polish-language, never-released-in-the-U.S. “Hania” in 2007, an episode of short-lived TV series “The Event,” and an uncompleted indie called “American Dreams” starring Nick Stahl.

Red Sorghum

Zhang Yimou
Highlights as Cinematographer: Zhang only has four cinematographer credits prior to turning director, notably “The Old Well” for Wu Tianming, a successful director of the Chinese “fourth generation” who nurtured Zhang as well as fellow “fifth generation” pioneer Chen Kaige, and “Yellow Earth” and “The Big Parade” for Kaige himself.

Directorial Debut: “Red Sorghum” (1987)
Zhang established himself instantaneously, and arguably overtook contemporary Chen Kaige, with this tremendous debut, in which his astonishing eye for a sumptuous, almost lustfully sensuous image more than compensates for the somewhat hesitant storytelling. The tale of a young woman who inherits her husband’s rural distillery and makes it a success prior to the Japanese invasion of the area, the film also broke out its lead star Gong Li, and was the first of six consecutive films they’d make together. Her timeless beauty, and the lush grace of Zhang’s shotmaking haven’t aged this film a day: it remains as bewitching to watch as ever.

Subsequent Career: Simply put, Zhang’s subsequent films defined Chinese cinema especially internationally, for the next decade: “Ju Dou” “Raise the Red Lantern” “The Story of Qiu Ju” and “To Live” in particular, while later efforts like “Hero” and “The House of Flying Daggers” starring new muse Zhang Ziyi were further international arthouse blockbusters. Whether Zhang really had gone off the boil recently or whether his romanced, lyrical style had fallen out of fashion, “Flowers of War” was a disappointment but we’re anticipating his reunion with Gong Li, the aptly-titled “Coming Home” which will play in Cannes.

All the right moves

Michael Chapman
Highlights as Cinematographer: Indelibly associated with early Scorsese, Chapman shot “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” “The Last Waltz” and Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video for him, but he also shot '70s classics “The Last Detail” “Fingers,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” before getting a little fuzzier and funnier in the '80s flicks “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and “The Man with Two Brains.”

Directorial Debut: “All the Right Moves” (1983)
While his gritty, hard-edged visual style might have come about in the 70s independent scene, Chapman’s first film as director was teen sports drama “All The Right Moves,” the number two in the 1983 one-two punch (with “Risky Business”) that made Tom Cruise a star. And honestly, there’s not a whole lot to say about this one, it’s a totally formulaic, perfectly respectable film that only really suffers from its surprisingly uninspired camerawork and the fact that it’s plot feels like the crystalline distillation of every other '80s teen drama as a promising football player struggles to escape his dead-end home town.

Subsequent Career: Chapman’s next directorial outings were even less auspicious (the bizarre revisionist neander-romp “The Clan of the Cave Bear” and 1995’s honkingly dull “The Viking Sagas”) but he remained primarily a DP, often on rather soggy comedies like “Ghostbusters II,” “Doc Hollywood” “Evolution” and “Kindergarten Cop” as well as thrillers ”The Lost Boys,” “Rising Sun” “The Fugitive,” and “Primal Fear” most recently shooting traumatic kids movie “Bridge to Terabithia” in 2007.

A world apart

Chris Menges
Highlights as Cinematographer: Menges had an early highlight as DP on Ken Loach’s “Kes” before shooting the 1971 “Black Beauty” and then mostly working in TV for a spell, frequently as DP to Stephen Frears. In the '80s he grew in stature, shooting Neil Jordan’s “Angel,” and “Local Hero,” before coming to “The Killing Fields” in 1984 and “The Mission” two years later, both of which won him Cinematography Oscars, cementing his status.

Directorial Debut: “A World Apart” (1988)
Coming just a year after the higher-profile similarly themed “Cry Freedom,” Menges’ persuasive and compelling apartheid film is in many ways superior to Richard Attenborough’s broader, more self-consciously grandiose movie, though both are stories of the struggle for black equality told through the eyes of white protagonists. But Menges’ film, aside from being richly shot and marked with excellent performances from Barbara Hershey and Jodhi May, finds strength in the specificity of its story, and largely avoids dodgy representational issues by never laying claim to being a definitive statement on Apartheid, just a story told within its orbit. Intelligent, passionate and sadly underseen.

Subsequent Career: Menges has three more films to his name as director, but none are as well-realized as his first, and after a hiatus between ‘87 and ’96, he resumed more regular work as a DP, returning with “Michael Collins” for which he was Oscar nominated (with Roger Deakins) and since then lensing “The Boxer,” “The Pledge,” “Dirty Pretty Things” “Notes on a Scandal,” “The Reader” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” among others.

Intent to Kill

Jack Cardiff
Highlights As A Cinematographer: A man whose life spans almost the entire history of the medium, Cardiff’s second unit work on “The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp” won the admiration of Powell & Pressburger, for whom he then shot “A Matter Of Life And Death,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes.” He went on to work with Alfred Hitchcock on “Under Capricorn” and John Huston on “The African Queen.”

Directorial Debut: “Intent To Kill” (1958)
After an aborted attempt at directing with "The Story Of William Tell" in 1953 (Errol Flynn was producing and starring, but ran out of money), Cardiff finally got to call the shots with British thriller “Intent To Kill.” Based on Brian Moore’s novel, it follows a British surgeon in Montreal embroiled in an attempt to assassinate a South American leader. It’s fairly unmemorable, but a lot of fun in an unpretentious B-movie way, with Cardiff showing an immediate aptitude for handling tension.

Subsequent Career: Excluding 1961’s “Fanny,” Cardiff focused for the next decade or so entirely on directing. Among his most memorable efforts were 1960’s “Scent Of Mystery,” the first film to use ‘Smell-O-Vision’ (scuppered when the technology didn’t work), and the same year’s D.H. Lawrence adaptation “Sons & Lovers,” which received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Cardiff also helmed Marianne Faithfull-starring cult classic “The Girl On The Motorcycle,” but returned to cinematography at the end of the 1970s, with credits including “Conan The Destroyer” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” He passed away in 2009, and was commemorated in 2010 documentary “Cameraman.”


This article is related to: Features, Feature, Transcendence


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