All great directors have a signature style. As chameleonic or versatile as one filmmaker can be, there are always themes and motifs that they circle back to throughout their careers. Other directors, although beloved, may continue to make the same type of movie over and over again.
However, sometimes directors deviate from their usual style. Whether to show off their ability working within a different genre or because a particular script or actor caught their eye, these directors chose to stray from their wheelhouse, gifting varied outcomes.
‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (2008)
Adapted from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name, the rights for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were originally bought in the mid-1980s. Nominated for 13 Oscars, it wasn’t until 20 years later that the film would hit the big screen. Directed by David Fincher, the film tells the story of the romance between Daisy and Benjamin Button, a man who ages in reverse.
Known for his dark psychological thrillers, Fincher was a strange choice for helming the period romance epic. This particularly shows when learning that directors such as Frank Oz and Steven Spielberg, who are far more commercially motivated than Fincher, were some of the original choices to direct. Despite having the most Oscar nominations of any film Fincher has done so far, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is widely considered one of his lesser films.
‘Swept Away’ (2002)
Known for films such as Snatch and The Gentlemen, English director Guy Ritchie has engrained himself as possibly the foremost British gangster film director. Coming into the consciousness with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie followed up with Swept Away, a remake of the classic Italian film of the same name about a housewife and her shipmate who get stranded in a thunderstorm.
Starring Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna, the film mostly acts as a star vehicle that further highlights the singing star’s lack of acting chops. While most of Ritchie’s other films are in the crime or action genre, Swept Away is an adventure romantic comedy. Seeing as it was a box office bomb and was critically panned, it’s unlikely Ritchie will be returning to that type of movie anytime soon.
With a career as varied as Robert Zemeckis’s, it’s hard to think that he has a defining style. However, there are mainly two overarching factors that Zemeckis is obsessed with, adventure narratives and pushing the boundaries of special effects. However, neither of those factors qualified for his 2016 picture, Allied, about two World War 2 operatives who fall in love.
Written by Steven Knight, the film marks one of the few box office misses in Zemeckis’ career. Furthermore, the film is mostly an earnest war period piece, both genres Zemeckis rarely turned to throughout his career. Seeing as his two most recent films, The Witches and Pinocchio are both visual effects-driven remakes, it seems Allied will remain an outlier for Zemeckis.
‘Light of Day’ (1987)
The pre-eminent filmmaker on self-destruction and repression, Paul Schrader’s films are characterized by their lonely male protagonists who seek cathartic redemption. Often incorporating violent, sexual, or religious imagery, many were perplexed to hear about the release of Schrader’s 1987 musical Light of Day about a brother and sister who dream of musical stardom.
Originally titled Born in the USA, the film was written with Bruce Springsteen in mind. Although it seems very different from Schrader’s other projects, Roger Ebert argues the film is “the most direct and painful statement” on themes that Schrader had previously explored such as characters denying themselves happiness. While it received mixed critical reception, Schrader himself has been more critical of the film, commenting on its plain visual style in his book ‘Schrader on Schrader’.
‘Intolerable Cruelty’ (2003)
The Coen Brothers’ 4th most financially successful film to date, Intolerable Cruelty is also their most expensive. Shot and scored by longtime Coen Brothers collaborators Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell, the film stars George Clooney as a high-profile divorce lawyer who finds himself attracted to a client’s soon-to-be ex-wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The film’s oddity in relation to the rest of the Coen Brothers’ filmography comes from the fact that it is their first script as writers for hire. Slated to be directed by Ron Howard or Jonathan Demme, the film was re-written over and over before the Coens decided to direct it using their original script. Not seen as one of their best films, perhaps Intolerable Cruelty proves the Coens should stick to writing films for themselves.
Before Baz Luhrman’s 2022 extravaganza, when people mentioned the Elvis biopic, they were most likely referring to John Carpenter’s 1979 epic. Almost 3 hours long, the made-for-television film was Carpenter’s first movie after Halloween. Starring Kurt Russell, the film follows Elvis as he looks back on his rise and how he became the king of rock and roll.
One of the leading science fiction and horror directors of his time, Elvis marks one of the few ventures for Carpenter out of his usual comfort zone. The film was also notable as it was the first collaboration between Carpenter and Russell, who would later team up on films like Escape from New York and The Thing. While Luhrman’s Elvis film may cloud due to recency bias, fans can’t forget who did it first.
‘Blue Chips’ (1994)
A box office disappointment, grossing $26 million against a $35 million budget, Blue Chips has endured as a sports cult classic. Written by sports movie maestro Ron Shelton, known for Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump, Blue Chips is led by future NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway as top prospects who are recruited by a Bob Knight-Esque college coach.
After being one of the defining directors of the 1970s, William Freidkin had made a few disappointments leading up to Blue Chips including Rampage and The Guardian. Post-directing the Oscar-winning The French Connection in 1971, almost all of Friedkin’s following films except Blue Chips would be crime-thrillers. Although a flawed movie, Blue Chips is ultimately a worthy addition to Friedkin’s filmography.
Woody Allen’s first fully-fledged drama, Interiors remains one of his most underrated films. Evoking Ingmar Bergman, someone Allen often communicates with in various films, Interiors follows a group of sisters who each react in different ways upon hearing of the divorce of their parents. Nominated for 5 Oscars, the film marked the first of Allen’s in which he didn’t act.
While many critics were supportive of the movie, comparing it to the work of Bergman as well as Eugene O’Neill and Chekhov, some found it was “as if Mr. Allen had set out to make someone else’s movie”. The predecessor to future understated Allen dramas like Another Woman and September, Interiors is up there with Allen’s best work.
Francis Ford Coppola was on a bit of a commercial comeback when the 1990s hit. After being one of the most celebrated filmmakers of the 1970s, the 1980s saw more mixed reception. Coming off The Godfather 3 and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to start to 90s, both grossing at least $130 million at the box office, Coppola next made Jack, a ‘comedy’ about a 10-year-old boy that looks much older than he actually is.
The film was met with disdain, nominated for Worst Picture at the 1996 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. At 17% on Rotten Tomatoes, Jack is Coppola’s worst-reviewed film of all time. Although universally lambasted, Coppola himself has defended the film, calling it “sweet and amusing” and stating that he “should be ashamed of it but (he’s) not”.
‘The Age of Innocence’ (1993)
I doubt few if any movie fans while watching Tommy and Jimmy beat Billy Batts to a pulp in Goodfellas, lamented for Martin Scorsese to make a G-rated historical romance. However, a mere 3 years later, Scorsese would do just that, releasing The Age of Innocence about a wealthy New York attorney who attempts to court his fiancé’s cousin.
Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel of the same name by film critic Jay Cocks, The Age of Innocence is an exercise in discipline. Adhering to its setting and time, the film is far more prudent than most of Scorsese’s other efforts. Although from the outside the sensitive romance seems incongruous with the rest of Scorsese work, he himself notes in his book ‘Scorsese on Scorsese’ that the film “pretty much covers all the themes I usually deal with”.