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Fire Your Agent? 5 Directors Who May Need To Rethink Their Career Choices

by Oliver Lyttelton
November 8, 2012 2:26 PM
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John Singleton
John Singleton
 Twenty years ago, John Singleton became both the first African-American and the youngest person in history to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. The filmmaker picked up the Oscar nod (as well as another for the screenplay) for his scintillating, powerful directorial debut "Boyz n the Hood," all at the tender age of 24. Indeed, when the film premiered at Cannes the previous year, the USC grad was only 23, and his South Central-set film remains an amazingly assured, thrilling and exciting piece of work to this day. And yet Singleton's never lived up to the promise suggested by it. Follow-up "Poetic Justice" was something of a disappointment, but "Higher Learning" was a minor bounce-back. And 1997 period drama "Rosewood" remains the director's second best film, even if it tanked at the box office. But since then, it's been harder to get enthused about a new Singleton film, with the filmmaker becoming a sort of nameless action director-for-hire. Some of those films ("Four Brothers") have a certain ludicrous pulpy charm. Some ("Shaft," "2 Fast 2 Furious") really don't. Only 2001's "Baby Boy," a spiritual sequel to "Boyz n the Hood," suggested the Singleton of old was still going, and that was eleven years ago. Instead, we got a six-year gap after "Four Brothers," broken only by last year's "Abduction," a truly dreadful Taylor Lautner vehicle that would mark a career nadir for anyone who made it, let alone Singleton. It may be that Singleton, like many filmmakers with distinct storytelling voices, is finding it trickier to get more personal projects set up in the studio system. He was in the running recently for biopics of both N.W.A. and Tupac, but lost out on both cases. But maybe it's time, as Spike Lee did this year with "Red Hook Summer," for Singleton to go back to his roots again for something lower-budget, rather than taking the next C-level action programmer that comes across his desk.

Mike Newell
Mike Newell
Hardly a cinephile favorite, it's easy to forget the quality of some of Mike Newell's work in the 1990s. Newell started off in the golden age of British TV drama, where acclaimed dramatists like David Hare, David Edgar and John Osborne would produce work for the long-since defunct "Play For Today" slot. But he really started to turn heads in the mid-1980s with "Dance With A Stranger," the Miranda Richardson-starring biopic of Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be given the death penalty, which won him an award for best young director at Cannes. Some solid work in the U.K. followed for the rest of the decade until "Enchanted April" (one of Harvey Weinstein's first successes with Miramax) kicked off a pretty terrific run of work in the 1990s: charming family comedy "Into The West," rom-com classic "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the undervalued "An Awfully Big Adventure," and, best of all, "Donnie Brasco," in our view one of the best modern-day mob pictures. Newell showed a diversity, skill with actors and tonal assurance that boded well for what more was to come. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. "Pushing Tin" felt like a minor misfire, and thought he helmed one of the better Harry Potter entries with 'Goblet Of Fire,' the work of the last decade has been pretty dismal. Treacly romance "Mona Lisa Smile," the disastrous Gabriel Garcia Marquez adaptation "Love In the Time of Cholera," the half-assed blockbuster "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," and, this year, an uninspired, by-the-numbers take on Dickens' "Great Expectations" has seen the helmer on a run of middling to terrible pictures. Newell's seen as a safe pair of hands, but in the worst possible way; there's a complacency and a disinterest in his recent films, unrecognizable as from the man behind "Donnie Brasco." Maybe the upcoming Cold War peace summit film "Reykjavik," with Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan and Christoph Waltz as Gorbachev, will turn things around, but we're not holding our breath.

Fernando Meirelles
Fernando Meirelles
All the directors on this list have made films we like, but perhaps only John Singleton can claim to have made one of the best films of its respective decade. Fernando Meirelles can make that claim too; his firecracker debut "City of God" (co-directed with Katia Lund) came out of nowhere, an astonishingly made favela-set crime tale of staggering scope and skill, weaning magnificent performances out of a young, mostly non-professional cast, and doing so with a vibrancy and filmmaking proficiency that suggested the arrival of a major director. And things were almost as promising with the director's follow-up, "The Constant Gardener," a quieter, very different film, but one with many of the qualities of its predecessor, and featuring truly great performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (who won an Oscar for her trouble). But Meirelles' success rate has plummeted with his two subsequent films. An adaptation of Jose Saramago's "Blindness," set in a world where the entire population start to lose their sight, was always going to be a tricky one to get right. But this time, Mereilles' style worked against him, making it hard to latch onto the film, not least because of an overly allegorical and grubby script. Still, the film's a masterpiece compared to follow-up "360," an international spin on "La Ronde" by "Frost/Nixon" writer Peter Morgan, which premiered on the festival circuit last year and swiftly imploded. It looked attractive at least, but a screenplay that alternated between being smug and pat and a throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks visual approach added up to something of a disaster. Meirelles has since been plotting a biopic of Aristotle Onassis, but it missed its mooted 2012 shooting date, so far at least. It doesn't immediately sound like the right tonic, though. We feel that Meirelles needs to hook up with a really top-flight screenwriter, or even reunite with Lund, in order to regain his mojo.

Thoughts? Surely, you must have some directors in mind who, maybe shouldn't fire their agent exactly, but perhaps should take a hard look at the projects they're taking on and asking themselves why the recent ones haven't worked. Yes, there are a million myriad factors at play when directing a film and lots can go wrong with even the best filmmakers in the world, but placing a closer eye on the material and hopefully not taking the gig just based on a paycheck (though, we get it, that's a reality for many freelancers), can hopefully ensure the final product is something everyone can at least be reasonably proud of.

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  • Michael Scully | November 13, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    It isn't "Hollywood" and it isn't the agents. Roger Donaldson, a man always forgotten when good directors are mentioned could turn coal in to a diamond. We are our own saviors. Stop talking about the motion picture business as if it were anything else than another field of battle where personal responsibility is the rule. If these men failed, they ….ed up. BTW, in the reverse, would someone mind telling me why the Iraq bomb defuser movie won anything? Also, the comments on Spielberg are true for the most part, except that Lincoln is rather good. Pompously yours, MJS

  • ali | November 10, 2012 11:22 AMReply

    I agree about M. Night Shyamalan. He needs a serious career change.

    Spielberg should stop directing and just produce.

  • Mitchell | November 9, 2012 1:45 PMReply

    Stephen Frears, M. Night Shyamalan, Rob Reiner, Lawrence Kasdan, Alex Proyas, Andrew Niccol and I think most would disagree but I wasn't a fan of "The Grey", so Joe Carnahan.

  • james | November 9, 2012 8:43 AMReply

    Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck... should fire his Hollywood agent. As should Gela Babluani, and all the other European directors who get sucked into the machine, and end up making a f*cking pudding that sinks their careers.

  • Aksel | November 9, 2012 6:44 AMReply

    Spielberg.. Definetely Spielberg.. I'm still waiting to see an interesting movie from him.. His last good effort was Schindler's List.. Just because your name is Spielberg doesn't mean you can get a free pass for all the A.I's - War Horse's (ok, maybe "Catch me if you can" can be the exception)

  • Angela | November 9, 2012 1:39 AMReply

    I agree with Spike Lee. I'd also add Jane Campion; personally, I thought The Piano was excellent, though it's definitely a movie that demands a particular taste, but since then, she really hasn't done a whole lont.

  • Jim Tushinski | November 9, 2012 5:05 PM

    Actually, Bright Star was very good and even In the Cut is worth revisiting. "Not doing a lot" is very different than making bad movies. For years Terrance Malick "didn't so a lot" or so it seemed to moviegoers.

  • YUP | November 8, 2012 8:39 PMReply

    Fernando Merielles and Dana Carvey, separated at birth?

  • George | November 8, 2012 7:17 PMReply

    Shaft 2000 remake may be a linear action thriller. It sure gave us one of many great Jeffrey Wright performances. Also had Sam Jackson foul mouth mode. I wouldn't minded a sequel

  • Marko | November 8, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    Just watch. One of these guys is going to wind up directing the new Star Wars film.

  • DJ | November 8, 2012 3:47 PMReply

    Only reason Spike Lee isn't on here is because he continues to be prolific with his output; but that's his Catch-22: in his obsession to be 'culturally' relevant, his works have become tone deaf, uneven and in some cases, like Red Hook Summer, dreadful. But he still seems to tweet a lot to retain a good chunk of loyalty from fans, so maybe he's onto something.

    And don't forget to add Kevin Smith, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch (pick your decades old indie filmmaker) to the list.

  • BBBH | November 13, 2012 2:51 AM

    "Red State" is the best film Kevin Smith ever made. And although he says his next film is his last, I think that -- as is the case with all creative folk working in any medium who state "this is my last" -- it'll only be his last if he dies before he makes another one.

  • Stephen B | November 8, 2012 6:16 PM

    To be fair, Kevin Smith clearly has rethought his career choice, unfortunately, he seems to be in our lives more than ever now.

  • Pedro | November 8, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    This list ends up having really two certified talents, namely Mike Newell and Fernando Meirelles. Though "Blindness" had it's issues, it was a film that featured strong performances from Julianne Moore and Mark Rufallo (and it succeeded in building a very bleak portrait of humanity). Mike Newell's films though not achieving brilliance, have always been good showcases for the performers, even if sometimes they feel standard and uninspired ("Prince of Persia" being the more immediate case).

  • J | November 10, 2012 6:08 AM

    @Bogart - By "Mike Newell" directing Charlie Wilson's War, I'm guessing you mean Mike Nichols, who actually directed it.

  • Bogart | November 10, 2012 1:38 AM

    Sorry but everyone seems to be forgetting Charlie Wilson's War... the last great performance from Hanks, yet another superb turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman (which he was nominated for), and a cracking script by Sorkin. Mike Newell's last great film...

  • Rizzo | November 8, 2012 2:43 PMReply

    I would go with Jim Sheridan who went from directing great tales like My Left Foot, The Boxer and In America, to making that 50 Cent biopic and Dream House. That should get anyone fired.

  • MAL | November 8, 2012 3:08 PM

    Yep. Jim Sheridan is the first director that came to my mind as well. As much as I liked "My Left Foot", it was "In America" that made me think he was the real deal. What happened?

  • Francisco | November 8, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    David Gordon Green.

  • Cribbster | November 11, 2012 6:44 PM

    Disagree. Green wants to be making those movies. In fact, I would imagine he did them against the advice of his agent (if his agent is any good). That's probably over though. I would expect most of the goodwill generated by "Pineapple Express" has expired. Although "The Sitter" is a pretty standard teen comedy that any Hollywood studio would be happy to make. But Green tried to slip in some '80s style in there.

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