The Unexpected Movies of Famous Filmmakers

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We were all a little surprised when we heard that Steven Soderbergh’s next film was Magic Mike, a beefcake comedy/drama inspired by star Channing Tatum’s early days as a male stripper, and its trailers have been a little worrisome, at least in terms of what we’ve come to expect from even Mr. Soderbergh’s more crowd-pleasing efforts. Thankfully, the film itself is an enjoyably fizzy and funny entertainment — and, true to form, Soderbergh keeps things interesting by making the entire picture into a sly subversion of traditional on-screen gender roles.

Soderbergh is far from the first famous filmmaker who threw audiences for a loop by directing a film that seemed far removed from their usual style; after the jump, we’ve got ten other directors and the out-of-character movies they made.

David Lynch, The Straight Story

Lynch is a filmmaker who has carefully cultivated a body of work that is, to say the least, a little weird. From Eraserhead to Blue Velvet to Twin Peaks to Wild at Heart, the Lynch universe is one of frothing freaks and fever dreams — not the stuff of G-rated Walt Disney movies. But that’s exactly what he made in 1999, when he directed The Straight Story, a film co-written by his wife (and frequent producer) Mary Sweeney, based on a true story. Richard Farnsworth stars as Alvin Straight, a wily old coot who takes a 240-mile journey on a tractor (his vision is too poor for a driver’s license) to visit his dying, estranged brother. It’s a charming, likable picture, with a marvelous, Oscar-nominated performance by Farnsworth, but watching it is a bit unnerving; you keep waiting for the idyllic events on-screen to take a dark, Lynchian turn, for Sissy Spacek to discover an ear or for Farnsworth to start talking backwards. Lynch later said that Straight was “my most experimental movie,” which sounds like a gag, until you realize that, for the guy whose brain hatched Eraserhead, The Straight Story probably seems like pretty far-out stuff.

Alfred Hitchcock, Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Hitch hadn’t quite established his iron-clad “brand” as the Master of Suspense in 1941, but his films to date — including The 39 Steps, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, and the original Man Who Knew Too Much — were certainly well within the mystery/suspense/drama range. That’s why Mr. & Mrs. Smith (which is in no way related to the Pitt-Jolie movie) is such an oddity in the Hitchcock filmography — it’s a straight-up romantic screwball comedy, with nary a killer, kidnapper, or spy in sight. He made it for one reason only: to work with the great Carole Lombard, whom he’d become friends with socially. Smith doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock movie, not really, but it is a charming and entertaining little comedy, and Lombard is as enjoyably fizzy as ever.

Steven Spielberg, 1941

Spielberg was not yet 30 when he made Jaws, which became the biggest-grossing movie in cinema history and kicked off the trend of mass-marketed summer blockbusters (so, thanks?), and his follow-up film, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was a critical and popular success as well. Having made followed a great action/horror hybrid with a terrific sci-fi drama, Spielberg next decided to do… a comedy. He went all out, hiring SNL’s Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, as well as Belushi’s Animal House co-star Tim Matheson and such up-and-coming comedy talents as John Candy, Michael McKean, and Joe Flaherty. Trouble was, it wasn’t all that funny. There are a few chuckle-worthy moments — the best of them the first, a shot-for-shot parody of the opening of Jaws (with even the same actress) — but Spielberg’s meticulous style and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis smothered the jokes in bombast. Spielberg went back to action and sci-fi with his next two movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., and pretty much stuck with those genres (and, later, serious drama) for the next quarter-century; he wouldn’t make another all-out comedy until 2004’s The Terminal.

Martin Scorsese, Kundun

Mr. Scorsese has frequently strayed from the tough guys and goodfellas that are his bread and butter, with efforts like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ, and New York, New York. But all of those films had undercurrents of the themes that have pulsed through all of his work — be it faith, guilt, or emotional violence. But between the very Scorsesian Casino in 1995 and Bringing Out the Dead in 1999, the filmmaker helmed the very atypical Kundun, a lavish biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama. Most directors would have trouble segueing from a movie where someone’s head is put into a vise until an eye pops out to a quiet, introspective profile of one of the world’s biggest advocates for peace, but Scorsese pulled it off — the film occasionally drags, but it is a visual feast, and Scorsese’s fascination with the rituals of the Buddhist religion creates several breathtaking sequences.

Wes Craven, Music of the Heart

Craven never really wanted to be known solely as a horror-master; the English professor-turned-filmmaker made his first feature, Last House on the Left, because producer Sean S. Cunningham convinced him that horror movies were easy to finance and easy to make a profit on. Decades later, Craven finally found himself in a position powerful enough to make a non-horror movie; Miramax desperately wanted a third installment in Craven’s Scream series, so he made a deal with the company, agreeing to direct the film if they would let him do a non-genre drama. The result of that deal was Music of the Heart, the true story of violinist and Harlem music teacher Roberta Guaspari. Though Meryl Streep was nominated for Oscar, SAG, and Golden Globe awards for her leading performance, and critics were impressed by Craven’s easy transition to drama, the film barely earned half of its $27 million budget. Before its release, Craven told Entertainment Weekly that he wanted Scream 3 to be “my last genre film,” but it didn’t shake out that way; he’s spent the years since cranking out horror and suspense films, from the highs of Red Eye to the lows of Cursed and My Soul to Take.

Penny Marshall, Awakenings

When Penny Marshall, who played Laverne DeFazio for eight seasons (and on several episodes of Happy Days), made the move from acting to directing, she did it as you’d expect: making comedies. Her debut, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, was received indifferently (not by this viewer, understand, but by those pesky critics); however, she hit a home run on her second at-bat, 1988’s smash hit Big. That film’s monster success put Marshall in a position to make just about anything she wanted — so she made the switch to very serious drama. Awakenings told the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ experimental use of the drug L-Dopa to revive catatonic patients after years of, basically, sleep-walking. Marshall crafted the film as an unabashed tear-jerker, but it was an effective one, boosted by strong performances by Robin Williams and an Oscar-nominated Robert DeNiro. Marshall’s subsequent output (A League of their Own, Renaissance Man, The Preacher’s Wife) leaned back towards comedy, though with more dramatic undercurrents than before Awakenings.

William Friedkin, Deal of the Century

Friedkin was one of the hottest directors of the 1970s, crafting films like The Exorcist and The French Connection that mixed jolts and thrills with fierce intelligence. Though he jumped genres frequently, his films shared a tight, relentless intensity — which isn’t exactly the kind of feeling you’re going for in a wacky Chevy Chase comedy. Deal of the Century capped off a series of duds for the former Saturday Night Live star, and co-stars Gregory Hines and Sigourney Weaver didn’t come out of it looking too rosy either. Neither, for that matter, did Friedkin, who was looking for a hit in the wake of his 1980 cause célèbre, Cruising. He didn’t get it; he made one more great movie, To Live and Die in L.A., then languishing in obscurity for something like 20 years before making something of a comeback with a pair of terrific Tracy Letts adaptations, Bug and the forthcoming Killer Joe. But he’s pretty much steered clear of comedy after Deal, and can you blame him?

Richard Attenborough, Magic

From the 1980s forward, Richard Attenborough was your go-to guy for big, epic, dramatic biopics — he made Cry Freedom, Chaplin, Shadowlands, and the young-Hemingway-in-love tale In Love and War (with, yikes, Chris O’Donnell as “Ernie” Hemingway, but we’ll deal with that some other day). But his biggest triumph was 1982’s Gandhi, which won him Best Picture and Best Director prizes at that year’s Oscars; his 1970s efforts included the Winston Churchill bio Young Winston and the all-star WWII extravaganza A Bridge Too Far. Between those films and Gandhi, however, came something altogether out of form for the distinguished dramatist: Magic, aka “that movie where Anthony Hopkins is the ventriloquist with the evil dummy.” Adapted by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) from his novel, the rather silly picture showed that while Attenborough was skilled at manipulating casts of thousands, he was nowhere near as at ease with genre thrills.

Mike Nichols, Wolf

Mike Nichols similarly faltered when “slumming” to horror/sci-fi; the man who deftly mingled comedy, drama, and venom in films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, and Working Girl tried to bring his sophisticated touch to the supernatural with the 1994 Jack Nicholson vehicle Wolf, with rather mixed results. The film played best in its early scenes of satire and back-stabbing in the publishing world, but once the wolf took over, Nichols (and writers Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick) stumbled; in fact, the film’s release was pushed back from its original fall 1993 date so that Nichols could re-shoot the entire third act after it tested poorly. That move inflated the film’s already large budget to a cool $70 million, and though it eventually made a profit, Nichols went back to his strong suit the next time out with 1996’s The Birdcage.

Charles Chaplin, A Woman of Paris

The formation of United Artists was something of a gamble for the four stars involved — director D.W. Griffith and stars Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford — as it put the weight of the company’s solvency almost entirely on the financial success of the films they made for it. Chaplin was in a bit of a spot in terms of contributing to that success, since he was still locked into a contract with the First National Company. Once free from it, he made the peculiar decision that his maiden effort for the company he co-founded would be a film that he not only didn’t appear in, but that was entirely out of his style. A Woman of Paris was a feature-length melodrama starring his frequent leading lady Edna Purviance, and Chaplin only made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as a porter (out of his customary “Little Tramp” costume). But audiences in that pre-hype, pre-Entertainment Weekly, pre-“behind the scenes” atmosphere weren’t prepared for either the film’s serious nature of his absence from it; they only knew it was a new Charlie Chaplin film, and were disappointed when it wasn’t a laugh riot. He’d worked dramatic elements into his films before (particularly his feature directorial debut, The Kid), but A Woman of Paris was too drab for 1923 audiences, and box office was tepid. Chaplin would continue to work serious themes and moments into his subsequent films, but he only made one more drama — and 1952’s Limelight included several on-stage comic set pieces to satisfy viewers looking for laughs.

Those are the directors who surprised us with their unexpected projects—who are yours?