6. "28 Days Later" - Danny Boyle (2002)
Budget: $8 million
How Was Their Career Doing? The late career of Steven Soderbergh proved that there was only so much flexibility a filmmaker had by genre-hopping, and that the budgets had to be diversified too. When "Trainspotting" helmer Danny Boyle found high profile back-to-back failures with genre mashup "A Life Less Ordinary" and the moody "The Beach," he found it was necessary to retreat to more lo-fi filmmaking.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? Returning to England, he became one of the first filmmakers to embrace the cheap aesthetic of digital filmmaking with what may be the last truly great serious zombie film ever, "28 Days Later." The film was a massive hit stateside and abroad, bringing Boyle a whole new outlook and creative approach, raising his profile as a still-viable voice in mainstream filmmaking. Like Soderbergh, Boyle is a filmmaker not boxed in by any one genre or style and he has spent the decade since mixing it up with projects large ("Sunshine") and small ("Millions"). The films that have fared best ("Slumdog Millionaire" and "127 Hours") seem to be the ones that have fused the looseness of his intimate projects with the scale of his larger budgeted work. With a cast of mostly unknowns, Boyle pulled some favors to clear out entire sections of London, giving "28 Days Later" its strong hook, and creating a classic of the genre.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Easily his biggest hit thus far, Boyle could have gone on to cash a hefty Hollywood paycheck. Instead, he did a 180, and moved on to direct the low-key kids film "Millions" before re-teaming with "28 Days Later" writer Alex Garland for the sci-fi picture "Sunshine." He even had a heavy influence with "28 Weeks Later," a sequel that upped the ante under his influence as producer. Creatively he was re-energized, but sadly, it didn't pay off financially; "Millions" was mostly ignored, and "Sunshine" was poorly marketed and barely released stateside. He headed far east for "Slumdog Millionaire," a film with an initial profile so meager that when purchased by the now-defunct Warner Independent Pictures, the studio had planned a direct-to-DVD release, one that may have permanently grounded Boyle's career. It was Fox Searchlight who realized that the eclectic styles and visuals of "Slumdog Millionaire" were the work of a filmmaker who had been restlessly experimenting, gambling on low budgets and creating a new experience each time. A few Oscars later, Boyle was at the peak of his career. Tellingly, his big Oscar follow-ups were a low-fi true-life survival story ("127 Hours") and a shifty, unpredictable noir mystery ("Trance"); neither of these lit the box office on fire, which means we're only a movie or two away from Boyle's next reinvention.
7. "Redacted" - Brian De Palma (2007)
Budget: $5 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Once upon a time, Brian De Palma was rightly considered one of the great American filmmakers of his time. That time had long passed by the aughts, where his elaborately staged thrillers became increasingly difficult to market, the filmmaker delving further into his house of mirrors. As such, his work became boutique items, with "The Black Dahlia" laughed out of theaters after "Femme Fatale" barely reached an audience. The mainstream goodwill he had earned from helming the first "Mission: Impossible" had long been spent, and De Palma was facing his twilight years in the industry, and not by choice.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? The reinvention was swift and startling: Da Palma's films always had a smidge of political cynicism, but no one was prepared for the incendiary "Redacted." In the midst of the modern Iraq war, De Palma melded his shifting, questioning perspective with the more contemporary found-footage aesthetic to produce an angry picture about soldiers involved in a violent assault, the recollection of which only produces more questions to those who require answers. The film audaciously takes a stance against the morality of the US Army and their presence overseas, provoking intense reactions from both sides of the political spectrum.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? The question is whether De Palma's skill-set translated over to this format, and sadly the answer is no. "Redacted" is a fascinating film, one that will be observed and discussed in the future, but possibly more as a curio than as the filmmaker's finest hour. The camera work stretches the incredulity of the found-footage format, and the performances, from unknown and inexperienced actors, range from unconvincing to awful. De Palma needed to make something to stay in the game, and even with its low budget it was a massive disappointment. De Palma clearly needed to say something with the film, however, and the signal got out: a closing montage of photos of actual victims of military violence was censored by the government, ensuring that "Redacted" would ironically feature actually-redacted material. That controversy kept De Palma off screens for five years, before he returned with "Passion," a throwback project harkening to his early days. While "Passion" successfully melded his shifting perspectives and twisty, silly murder mysteries to a story involving newer technologies, the initial festival reception suggested critics may be done with De Palma for now.
8. "Bug" - William Friedkin (2006)
Budget: $4 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Like many of his peers, William Friedkin found himself becoming a go-to guy for middlebrow programmers, as if there was no way to accommodate their visions, and the industry was doing them a favor, putting the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman in charge of John Grisham novels. So it was for Friedkin, who saw modest success with military actioners "Rules Of Engagement" and "The Hunted," both of which feature excellent performances trapped in pedestrian pictures.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? To stay vital, sometimes a filmmaker needs to find a younger kindred spirit, and Friedkin's just happened to be playwright Tracy Letts. Letts adapted the play "Bug" for Friedkin to direct, and surprisingly much of the source material is preserved. No longer the reckless stylist of his youth, the formerly outspoken and sometimes self-destructive Friedkin simply got out of the way of the material, essaying a tense, horrific two-hander where paranoid war vet Michael Shannon convinces Ashley Judd that there are external forces out to get them, some belonging to the government, some belonging to aliens.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? "Bug" actually gained a mainstream release, becoming one of the weirdest films ever to debut nationwide. While it didn't set the world on fire, it kickstarted Shannon's reputation as a terrifying scene-stealer and gave an extra lease on life to Judd's career. The picture revealed a Friedkin that some thought was gone, a button-pusher who could vault the most mundane material into gothic horror territory. Friedkin didn't mess with success, opting to re-team with Letts on another adaptation, the play "Killer Joe." Friedkin's blackly humorous version of the story, which earned a surprisingly rare NC-17 rating from the MPAA, won him even more fans, and placed one of the last mavericks of the '70s back on the radar, hopefully for good.
Honorable Mention: Earlier this year Joss Whedon spent 12 days with friends shooting the black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation "Much Ado About Nothing," which was maybe less of a new direction and more of a palette cleanser between 'Avengers' movies. One could make a case for "Pan's Labyrinth" putting Guillermo del Toro back on track just as "The Wrestler" saw Darren Aronofsky peeling away at many of the stylistic tics that had become his trademark. Sam Raimi took a stab at returning to his horror roots with the funhouse ride "Drag Me To Hell" (though it was marred by the more modern CGI). Michael Mann was one of the first big-budget film makers to fully embrace the shift to digital with his sharp thriller "Collateral." David Gordon Green was an indie filmmaker who went the reverse route reinventing himself as a director of studio comedies ("Pineapple Express," "Your Highness"), though he's recently headed back in the other direction. Richard Linklater similarly went from super small to studio and back by following "Bad News Bears" with "A Scanner Darkly" and "Fast Food Nation" and hasn't looked back yet. After a few years lost in the studio wilderness, Kathryn Bigelow has rightfully been enjoying a successful second act to her career since "The Hurt Locker" took home Best Picture. A little earlier, Lars von Trier's career certainly took a sharp left turn when he joined the Dogme 95 movement and abandoned visually stylish 35mm for grainy digital video with "The Idiots." Who are we missing? Are there any other recent films by established directors that really took them out of their comfort zone? Sound off in the comments.
-- Cory Everett and Gabe Toro