10 Great Filmmakers Who Sold Out


It isn’t often that you get as clear a consensus about the Super Bowl ads as there appears to have been this year. Everybody seems to pretty much be on the same page, at least according to Twitter and the media blogs: the best ad was Volkswagen’s “tiny Darth Vader” spot, and the worst was Groupon’s borderline-offensive “Save the Money” ad, in which Timothy Hutton makes light of the troubles of Tibet because hey, they can still “whip up an amazing fish curry.”

In spite of the company’s blog post noting that their ads were parodies — never a good sign, when you have to announce that — and that they would be donating matching funds to three featured charities (including the Tibet Fund), the general distaste for the campaign was swift and unanimous. The general tone-deafness of the ads was all the more befuddling when The AV Club and others noted, on Monday, that the commercials were helmed by Christopher Guest, the director/star of such brilliant “mockumentary” comedies as Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind (not to mention the granddaddy of them all, This is Spinal Tap , which he co-wrote and co-starred in).

So what on earth was Guest thinking? Did this creator of some of the most uproarious films in recent moviedom think these ads were funny? Or — and we’re just spitballing here — is it worth noting that he hasn’t had a movie out in almost five years and has a family to feed?

Yes, it’s quite possible that the “Save the Money” spots were just Christopher Guest’s “sell-out” moment gone wrong —an unfortunate turn of events for any filmmaker. The fact of the matter is, the business of show is a business, and while “art for art’s sake” is an admirable way to live, sometimes filmmakers gots bills to pay. Many of our most consistently interesting filmmakers (and Michael Bay) come from the world of music videos and television commercials — David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Tony Scott — and continue to float back and forth from the ad world to the film world, frequently without anyone noticing.

And sometimes these filmmakers bring their distinctive visual and storytelling sense to their paycheck projects, making them a win for everyone. Not all “sell-outs” are created equal. So with that in mind, let’s take a look back at a few of our favorite filmmakers’ bill-paying moments in advertising, music video, and film — the moments when they “sold out,” for better or worse.

Ridley Scott, “1984”

One of the most memorable advertisements in Super Bowl history—indeed, one of the ads that forwarded the notion of “watching the game for the commercials”—was Apple’s one-minute promo for their soon-to-be-released Macintosh personal computer. The 1984 spot, budgeted at a then-astronomical $900,000, was directed by Ridley Scott, the stylish Brit whose now-classic Blade Runner (mostly a critical and financial bust on its original release) used similar dystopian-future iconography. The spot aired only once in prime time — during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII (Raiders vs. Redskins) and won countless advertising awards, only bolstering the rep of its auteur.

Baz Luhrman, “No. 5: The Film”

“It’s a film, not an advert,” a publicist for Chanel No. 5 insisted to The Telegraph. “As he says himself, Baz Luhrmann doesn’t do adverts.” Uh, okay. What can we can be sure of is that, whatever it is, it’s expensive — “No. 5: The Film” cost £18 million, with £2 million alone going to pay star (and frequent Luhrmann muse) Nicole Kidman’s salary. The three-minute ad — er, film — (two minutes of content, one minute of credits) tells an epic Luhrmann romance in miniature; whatever you think of the Australian filmmaker (suffice it to say that some of us are a tad skeptical of his gifts), it’s certainly a stylish little exercise.

David Lynch, “Clearblue Easy”

Now, here’s one of our more befuddling items. Oddball filmmaker David Lynch has done plenty of commercials, and most of them are about as strange as you’d expect: a stylish and spooky black-and-white Playstation spot, a Nissan commercial starring a pair of free-floating blue lips, etc. But there’s just no logical explanation for his 15-second ad for Clearblue Easy, a home pregnancy test. It’s just so… not strange at all. Not even a little bit. A woman is waiting her results. The numbers on a watch turn to “YES” and “NO” responses. A calm, female voice assures us that Clearblue Easy gives you “a clear yes or no in one minute.” Yes, Lynch, but what else are you up to? Is the female voice a woman in a rabbit suit? Would a slight pan reveal that the woman’s impregnator is dead on her bed? Is the voice-over woman’s personality about to merge with the possibly-pregnant woman in the mirror? Well-played, Lynch. Well-played.

Spike Lee, “Absolut Brooklyn”

Spike Lee has been making commercials for nearly as long as he’s been a known filmmaker — in fact, his witty, stylish Air Jordan spots featured Lee reprising his “Mars Blackmon” character from his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It . Through the marketing division of his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks company, he’s directed spots for Taco Bell, Converse, Jaguar, and others. But his recent collaboration with Absolut Vodka met with some controversy, after some Brooklyn residents (including a trio of teens, who took their concerns to the New York Daily News ) complained that the “Absolut Brooklyn” campaign — seen in print ads and spots designed as a Valentine to Lee’s home borough — was promoting alcohol consumption in a neighborhood that already had too much of it. The criticisms seemed especially poignant considering that Lee himself had targeted urban-targeted alcohol ads in his 2000 satire Bamboozled.

Martin Scorsese, “Bad”

Like his fellow New Yorker Lee, the great Martin Scorsese has directed several fine commercials — most notably his wonderful Hitchcock homage champagne ad. And it would stand to reason that he would create solid music videos, since he has directed (The Last Waltz, New York New York) and edited ( Woodstock ) terrific musical sequences throughout his career. Michael Jackson, releasing his first music video since perfecting the form for his Thriller singles, certainly felt the pressure to match those spots, if not top them. So Scorsese was hired to helm the “Bad” video, bringing several of his frequent collaborators: director of photography Michael Chapman, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and screenwriter Richard Price. The resulting 18-minute opus was seldom seen at its full length, with the moody, black-and-white narrative section usually lopped off in favor of the shorter, color dance sequence that accompanied the song itself. It’s not a great Jackson video or a great Scorsese movie, but it has its moments, and makes for an interesting footnote in the careers of both artists.

Brian DePalma, “Dancing in the Dark”

Brian DePalma is one of the cinema’s most distinctive tricksters, a pure aesthete in love with jazzy camerawork, long takes, split-screen, and overhead angles. So it’s shocking to discover that he was at the helm of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video, because it’s so… well, dull, really. It’s an absolutely adequate mid-’80s performance clip, catching The Boss performing one of his less distinctive pop hits in front of a cheery audience, before pulling Courtney Cox up to the stage for some unfortunate dancing. You keep waiting for a DePalma twist, like Cox turning out to be a knife-wielding John Lithgow in drag, but no such luck; the clip fades out, and DePalma presumably takes his check and gets back to work on Body Double.

Sam Peckinpah, “Too Late for Goodbyes”

After years of hard drinking and bitter battles with studio executives, Wild Bunch director Peckinpah was a Hollywood outcast. He had done uncredited work on the Bette Midler flop Jinxed! ; his 1983 film The Osterman Weekend , vastly re-edited (as his films almost always were) by producers, fizzled. In poor health and badly in need of money, Peckinpah was hired to direct two music videos for Julian Lennon. As with DePalma’s foray into the world of music video, the resultant spots are memorably mostly for not being terribly memorable — they’re fairly typical of the time, with none of Peckinpah’s distinctive visual touches. Then again, it’s not like either song was particularly crying out for slow-motion violence or stark examinations of the nature of masculinity. At any rate, the Lennon videos were Peckinpah’s final works; he died in December 1984, just two months after their completion.

Francis Ford Coppola, The Rainmaker/ Robert Altman, The Gingerbread Man

Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman were among the most financially and critically successful filmmakers of the 1970s, but the 1990s were a very different time in the moviemaking landscape. Altman was working steadily, to mostly good reviews, but hadn’t made much noise at the box office since his 1992 comeback film, The Player . Coppola hadn’t put out much, and though Dracula and Jack made some money, they weren’t the kind of hits he’d had in his glory days. Perhaps both men had witnessed the recent success of their contemporaries Sidney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula, who’d scored major hits in 1993 with The Firm and The Pelican Brief , respectively. That’s about the only logical explanation for how two of Hollywood’s most fiercely independent filmmakers ended up directing the most commercial of 1990s films: John Grisham movies.

Coppola’s movie was a fairly straight-ahead adaptation of Grisham’s 1995 novel, with a large ensemble cast led by a pre- Good Will Hunting Matt Damon as a young attorney. It’s a fairly entertaining little yarn, though it often feels like what it basically is: Coppola slumming it. Altman, of course, couldn’t even play nice in a commercially friendly enterprise like this one; his film, based on an original Grisham screenplay, was reworked so heavily by the director that Grisham only took a story credit. Altman eliminated most of the courtroom scenes, made Kenneth Branagh’s lawyer character morally ambiguous, and filled it with Altman-esque atmospheric touches. The studio, Polygram, was so unhappy with the project that they tried to re-edit it behind Altman’s back and only relented when their version tested worse than his. Ultimately, neither director reaped Grisham-sized box office. The Rainmaker grossed a disappointing $45 million, while The Gingerbread Man — which was barely released theatrically — only returned $1.5 million of its $25 million budget.

Darren Aronfsky, The Wolverine

We’re treading lightly here, because we really shouldn’t judge films until we’ve seen the finished product, right? Still, it seems strange that Aronfsky — the visionary director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream — should follow up his two most critically acclaimed efforts to date ( The Wrestler and Black Swan ) with… the sequel to a spin-off of a comic book movie. Huh? Yes, Aronfsky’s next picture is The Wolverine, the follow-up to 2009’s critically drubbed X-Men Origins: Wolverine , which recycled Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character from the X-Men films. That pedigree doesn’t exactly promise a wealth of original thought, no? Aronfsky, for his part, is insisting that his film will not be a sequel to the previous Wolverine movie — that, in fact, it will be “a stand-alone piece that has nothing to do with anything in the whole franchise or in that universe.” And, he claims, “We’re definitely going to make something great.” Here’s hoping!