Whatever Happened To…? Disappeared Directors

An item in a recent article mentioned a film that was being made called The Angriest Man in Brooklyn.  The story is promising: A misinformed doctor (Mila Kunis) tells an annoying patient (Robin Williams) he has 90 minutes to live. When the doctor realizes her mistake, she goes on a whirlwind search for the patient, who has set out to try and quickly right all the wrongs in his life. It could work. The supporting cast was solid, too: Peter Dinklage, Melissa Leo and James Earl Jones.

What really was attention-getting, however, was the name of the director. It was Phil Alden Robinson. His name hasn’t appeared on a film for years, his last screen directing credit being for The Sum of All Fears, the Ben Affleck/Jack Ryan picture, released a decade ago.   Before that, Robinson was best known for writing and directing the baseball classic Field of Dreams, and was behind the camera for such films as Sneakers and In the Mood.

Some directors work a lot; others don’t. And still others, like Robinson, go MIA for long periods of time. That’s just the nature of Hollywood. Projects go into turnaround, studios have changing of the guard fairly regularly, and story ideas that are hot today are sometimes below freezing tomorrow.

What other filmmakers, though, have been MIA recently? Here are some other curious examples of former filmmaking forces and what they’re doing—or not doing—lately.

Francis Ford Coppola: The 73-year-old director of the Godfather films has stuck to his guns, insofar as his pledge that he would go back to making artier films. His first two digitally-shot, low budget independent films, Youth Without Youth (2007) and Tetro (2009), received mixed reviews and tepid box-office results. He has continued to produce films, like his daughter Sofia’s projects Somewhere and Marie Antoinette, and the upcoming On the Road, based on the Jack Kerouac classic. But his latest experimental film Twixt, a ghost story with 3-D sequences starring Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern, seems to have dropped off the face of the Earth, following some less-than-enthusiastic response at film festivals. At one time, Coppola was going to do a city-by-city tour presenting the film to audiences in an interactive style. That seems off the board now. We’d be happy just with a good film from the man who gave us three Godfathers, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now!

Brian De Palma: The former Sultan of Suspense, now 72 years old, has had a rollercoaster career with giddy highs (Carrie, Blow Out, The Untouchables, Scarface and dreadful lows (The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Black Dahlia). In fact, Black Dahlia is the last feature film he helmed, issued to theaters way back in 2006. In recent years, especially, you’re not quite sure you will get with De Palma, but Passion, a remake of the 2010 Kristin Scott Thomas/Ludivine Sagnier French thriller Love Crime, has the potential to get De Palma back to the stylistic, in-your-face heights of his earlier erotic thrillers. Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace assume the lead roles.

Rob Reiner: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The director of such critical and box-office hits as Stand by Me, A Few Good Men, Misery, The American President, and When Harry Met Sally, as well as the cult classic This is Spinal Tap, has had it rough of late. His most recent film, The Magic of Belle Island, with Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen, got an extremely limited theatrical release and mostly negative reviews. His 2010 nostalgic dramedy Flipped suffered a similar fate. While 2007’s The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Freeman was a surprise hit, his films from 1996 on include Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story of Us, Alex & Emma and Rumor Has It.  We think there’s a rebound in Rob, yet, but then again we thought he was bound to win an Academy Award for Best Director at one time, too.

Paul Brickman: Now, here’s a curious case of serious J.D. Salengeritis. Since the ‘70s, Brickman’s name has appeared on a few scripts, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Jonathan Demme’s terrific satire Citizens’ Band, and the powerful TV movie Uprising among them. But his two writing-directing credits are really impressive, to say the least: Tom Cruise’s 1983 coming-of-age classic Risky Business, and the powerful 1990 divorce drama Men Don’t Leave with Jessica Lange. After that? Nada. It’s been 22 years since Brickman headed back behind the camera for a feature—his name is on a recent short, however.  We don’t know the problem is, Paul, but we’d love to see what ya still got.

Nancy Savoca: Has it really been 23 years since Nancy Savoca made her debut with 1989’s True Love, a terrific comedy about an upcoming Italian-American wedding in the Bronx (dyed mashed potatoes, anybody?), which was welcomed with terrific reviews heralding the filmmaker as the next big  indie voice? Interesting works followed, including the Lili Taylor-starring features Dogfight and Household Saints, but her name seemed to have dropped off the radar screen. Then, a few weeks ago, Savoca had a new film in the theaters—Union Square, a New York-set domestic drama with Tammy Blanchard and Mira Sorvino—and a play with music, based on Dogfight, opening in an off-Broadway theater. Let’s hope this talent doesn’t go underground again for any length of time.

Philip Kaufman: Now 76 years old, the Chicago-born, San Francisco-based writer-director has been known to push the envelope at times. Aside from his credit for writing the early scripts for The Outlaw Josey Wales and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and helming such well-received efforts as the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff, Kaufman courted controversy with his screen adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and with Henry and June, the first film to receive an NC-17 rating. His last theatrical credit has been 2004’s Twisted; he’s recently returned to filmmaking after an absence to direct the HBO real-life drama Hemingway & Gellhorn with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. There was talk of a film based on the life of eccentric Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray, which we would certainly welcome.

Michael Cimino: Michael Cimino seems to have disappeared. The man who won the Academy Award for The Deer Hunter and destroyed a studio by way of Heaven’s Gate appears to have gone AWOL from society as well as filmmaking. His last feature is the little-seen 1996 drama The Sunchaser, a philosophical kidnapping picture with Woody Harrelson and Anne Bancroft; his last screen credit came for directing a segment of an Italian anthology film in 2007. This much we know: He lives in Europe and has written a book published only in French; he has a number of unrealized projects including a new version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Pearl, about Janis Joplin; and he’d been attached over the years to films such as The Pope of Greenwich Village, Michael Collins, and Footloose before they were assigned to other helmers.  For the most part, Cimino—who was once rumored to have renamed himself “Michelle Cimino” after a sex change operation, and hasn’t granted an interview in years—seems to have left the cinematic building.

Sondra Locke: An Oscar-nominated actress and one-time long-time companion of Clint Eastwood, the blonde-locked Locke went behind the camera for three feature films: the sordid crime thriller Impulse (1990), with Theresa Russell; the sordid sex drama Do Me a Favor (aka Trading Favors) (1997), with Patricia Arquette; and the oddball fantasy Ratboy (1986), with Robert Townsend and herself. A rollercoaster ride of a personal life—highlighted by a nasty breakup with Eastwood followed by a palimony suit and a major lawsuit against him, a tell-all book, treatment for breast cancer followed by a relationship with her surgeon, and an largely unheralded return to acting—may have had some effect on curtailing the doe-eyed Tennessee native’s again assuming the directorial chair.

Charles Burnett: Making a film considered “one of the greatest of all time” can be a blessing and burden. If Orson Welles were still alive, you could ask him. But Charles Burnett, now 68 years old, has lived through similar things as Welles. The first feature film of the African-American Mississippi native and UCLA graduate was 1979’s Killer of Sheep, a neorealist study of an impoverished family living in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Shot in striking black-and-white, the focus is on the family’s patriarch who works in a slaughterhouse, and while the scenes shot at a real slaughterhouse are disturbing, so, too, is the film’s depiction of ghetto life. The film received all sorts of accolades and was even added to the National Registry of Film, although it barely saw distribution for decades because of musical rights problems. Over the years, Burnett has made some fascinating features such as 1990’s To Sleep with Anger, a drama with mystical overtones starring Danny Glover, and 1994’s racially charged cop saga 1994 The Glass Shield, which was reedited against Burnett’s wishes. Burnett has also done some notable TV work (including a documentary on Nat Turner and an entry in The Blues PBS doc series), but, sadly, a new feature doesn’t seem in the cards for the near future.

Joe Dante: In the 1980s, Joe Dante was THE man, with hits such as The Howling, Gremlins and the best reviewed segment (“It’s a Good Life”) of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Since then, his career has careened, with some terrific work (Innerspace, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Matinee, and the incredibly underrated Looney Tunes: Back in Action)  mixed with disappointments (The ‘burbs, Small Soldiers), plus some interesting TV work (for Amazing Stories, Eerie, Indiana and Masters of Horror). Dante’s last feature, 2009’s The Hole, was shot in 3-D, but has yet to receive distribution in the United States. Since then he has kept himself busy with helming more TV episodes (Hawaii Five-0 and the cable series Splatter among them), serving as curator for the www.trailersfromhell.com website, and looking to stage a cinematic comeback with such projects as the anthology Paris I’ll Kill You and the vampire film Monster Love. His wit and style are sorely missed.

James Glickenhaus: The name is synonymous with such adrenaline-fuelled independent action movies as The Exterminator, The Soldier, Shakedown and McBain. But Mr. G hasn’t received a directing credit since 1995’s Timemaster, a kid’s sci-fi opus starring his son Jesse Cameron-Glickenhaus, Pat Morita and a 15-year-old Michelle Williams. It seems like James has not only retired from calling the stunt-heavy shots behind-the-camera, but moved onto to greener pastures—as in the investment, stock and money management industry where his father, Seth Glickenhaus, has run a firm for decades. Jim gave up the movie business shortly after Timemaster came out (he also produced several films directed by Frank Henenlotter like Frankenhooker) and finds time to dabble in expensive sports cars like Ferraris when not caring for his clients’ money.

Savage Steve Holland: The mid-1980s one-two punch of the John Cusack starrers Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer (with a young Demi Moore) certainly put Savage Steve Holland on the map. But then he seemed to fall off of it. Sure, there was How I Got Into College and the direct-to-DVD feature Legally Blondes, as well as the short-lived Fox series The New Adventures of Beans Baxter. But the curiously named on-the-rise former animator—he invented and animated the whammies for the Press Your Luck quiz show—seemed to have disappeared without a trace. Or at least he did in terms of movies. Actually, Holland took his quirky sense of humor and irreverent style to a new home on television, where he directed scores of kids and ‘tween-oriented shows for Nickelodeon and other channels. Among them: The Lizzie Maguire Show, Phil of the Future, Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide and Big Time Rush. In addition, he produced the animated series Eek! the Cat and Sabrina: The Animated Series. While you hear about him returning to the big screen for a dream project called The Big One 3, he seems to be keeping himself pretty busy in TV-ville.