10 Cult Filmmakers Who Went Mainstream

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The Avengers hits DVD and Blu-ray today, fresh from a theatrical run that placed it in the top three highest-grossing films of all time. Not too shabby for a second-time director. Yes, there are many reasons to be cheered by the success of The Avengers: it’s a big, loud summer blockbuster with a brain and a heart; it serves as a triple-exception to our resistance to a) sequels, b) superhero movies, and c) 3D; and most importantly, it has given cult phenom Joss Whedon the kind of crossover success most filmmakers can only dream of. After the jump, a look at how the Browncoats’ fave became Tinseltown’s, and nine other tales of cult filmmakers and the plays they made for mainstream success.

Joss Whedon

CULT FAVES: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity CROSSOVER FILM: The Avengers

Whedon had created and overseen two long-running television shows (one of them based on his first produced screenplay, the other a spinoff of said program), but his short-lived third series, Firefly, became such a cult fave after its untimely cancellation that it led to his first feature film directing gig. Serenity continued the story begun in those fourteen episodes of Firefly, and though it was wiser and funnier than any five sci-fi films, this Western/space opera hybrid failed to connect with filmgoers who weren’t already in the Firefly fold. So it was a big risk for Disney and Marvel to put The Avengers in the hands of a director who was more of a geek favorite than a box office one — they were, after all, turning over four different franchises (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) to a man whose only real film success to date was a screenplay credit for Toy Story. But the risk paid off, and he’s now got a full dance card of follow-up projects, including (of course) The Avengers 2 .

Peter Jackson

CULT FAVES: Dead Alive, Meet the Feebles, Heavenly Creatures CROSSOVER FILM: The Frighteners

New Zealand native Jackson made his name with a series of inventive low-budget films heavy on the gore and dark comedy, including the splatter tale Bad Taste, the zombie comedy Braindead (released here as Dead Alive), and Meet the Feebles, which is kind of like watching the Muppets while on some very bad acid. Those small commercial successes led to his first “reputable” film, the 1994 true crime drama Heavenly Creatures, which brought attention not only to Jackson but stars Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. That film’s art house success in the States got Jackson his first studio gig: helming the supernatural comedy The Frighteners. Co-produced by Robert Zemeckis and featuring his Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox, Frighteners was released in the Independence Day-dominated summer of 1996, and failed to earn back its $30 million budget. Jackson’s mainstream success wouldn’t come until his next project — the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Sam Raimi

CULT FAVE: Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman CROSSOVER FILM: A Simple Plan

Few filmmakers crafted as distinctive a style in the 1980s as Sam Raimi, who used a DIY inventiveness and the hard work of his friends (including the Coen brothers and star Bruce Campbell) to craft a low-budget hit with 1981’s The Evil Dead. Over the next decade and a half, he made two more Evil Dead movies, as well as the one-offs Crimewave and Darkman — none of them were big box office, but Raimi’s cockeyed visuals and sharply cinematic sense of humor won him plenty of affection among critics and moviegoers. His first film to break away from the horror and sci-fi realm was 1995’s The Quick and the Dead, but that studio Western was seen more as a Sharon Stone movie than a Sam Raimi one — though he included plenty of whizzy camerawork in his familiar style. It was 1998’s A Simple Plan that first indicated Raimi might have a few tricks up his sleeve; this morally murky drama (adapted by Scott Smith from his remarkable novel) showed the filmmaker taking on a mature and introspective tone, muting the snazzy visuals and telling the riveting story with modesty and restraint. For Love of the Game, the Kevin Costner baseball drama that Raimi directed the following year, wasn’t quite as enthusiastically received, but the craft Raimi displayed in A Simple Plan and his 2000 film The Gift (co-written by Simple Plan co-star Billy Bob Thornton) convinced Columbia to let Raimi take a shot at Spider-Man in 2002.

David Lynch

CULT FAVE: Eraserhead CROSSOVER FILM: The Elephant Man

Visual artist-turned-filmmaker Lynch spent something like five years making his debut feature, Eraserhead, a deeply twisted picture that came out of his time at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles. It was a cult sensation when it was finally released in 1977, bypassing most traditional distribution channels and becoming a favorite on the midnight movie circuit. But what the hell could he possibly do as a follow-up? The Elephant Man certainly sounds like an ideal Lynch title (and, indeed, he was originally attracted to that title without knowing what it was about); the film itself, however, was a period drama with a far less experimental bent than his debut. He got the gig by acquiring an unexpected fan: Mel Brooks, whose company Brooksfilms was producing the picture. (Brooksfilms produced his comedies, but also such prestige pictures as Frances and 84 Charing Cross Road). Brooks reportedly saw Eraserhead, embraced Lynch and pronounced him “a madman,” and offered him the job. The Elephant Man went on to received eight Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director); Lynch went on to direct the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a notorious flop that sent Lynch back into the world of independent filmmaking. But that retreat resulted in his biggest success yet, Blue Velvet, and the further development of brilliant weirdo we know and love today.

David Cronenberg

CULT FAVES: Shivers, The Brood, Videodrome CROSSOVER FILM: The Dead Zone

A few years later, Brooks would hire another distinctive cult filmmaker, this time to helm Brooksfilms’ remake of the horror classic The Fly, but David Cronenberg had already busted out of the low-budget ghetto with his 1983 film of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. But in spite of the critical and financial success of that film and The Fly after it, Cronenberg chose not to parlay those projects into further Hollywood paychecks; he spent the years after working on the indie fringe, making films like Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Crash (none of which are imaginable as studio pictures, of course.)

George A. Romero

CULT FAVES: Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead CROSSOVER FILM: Creepshow

Some of these filmmakers had to radically alter or suppress their genre instincts when the studios came a-calling. But Romero, like Cronenberg, managed to get a Hollywood paycheck for doing what he’d been doing on a low budget for over a decade. His iconic 1968 zombie masterpiece Night of the Living Dead was one of the most profitable indies of all time, but his ’70s efforts were hit and miss, and he didn’t have another success of that scale until (predictably enough) he made a sequel. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead cost a mere half a million, and it grossed over $55 million worldwide — and that’s the kind of profit margin that gets people’s attention. In 1982, he teamed up with Stephen King to create Creepshow, an anthology horror film playing affectionate homage to the horror comic books of the 1950s. The film was a sleeper hit, grossing $21 million on an $8 million budget, but it didn’t manage to propel Romero into crossover success; his next film, three years later, was another Dead movie (1985’s Day of the Dead), and after two decades of less than stellar efforts, he again went back to the zombie well again with 2005’s Land of the Dead.

Penelope Spheeris

CULT FAVE: The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy CROSSOVER FILM: Wayne’s World

Spheeris directed several low-budget features, including Suburbia, Hollywood Vice Squad, and Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales (a lost, early Richard Pryor vehicle that we’d give our eye-teeth to see), but she’s best known for her definitive (and lamentably not-on-DVD) Los Angeles counterculture documentaries, The Decline of Western Civilization. She was two-thirds of the way through that trilogy when she was hired by Lorne Michaels and Mike Myers to direct the big-screen adaptation of Wayne’s World. It was a strange pairing (and one that led to some on-set tension), but it worked; Wayne’s World reset her career, and made her an in-demand director of big-screen comedy. Trouble is, she became a director of bad big-screen comedy, with the film versions of The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals (as well as the less-beloved Farley/Spade showcase Black Sheep) sending her back into the streets to finish up the Western Civ trilogy. She did one more torpid comedy, the forgotten David Spade/Marlon Wayans vehicle Senseless, and has since confined her energy to TV and indies.

John Waters

CULT FAVES: Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living CROSSOVER FILM: Hairspray

There may be no one (no, not even Lynch) who personifies “cult filmmaker” better than everyone’s favorite pencil-thin mustachioed dandy, John Waters. His “trash trilogy” of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living pushed the boundaries of cinematic good taste (and, let’s be honest, acceptable filmmaking technique), and their anything-goes nature and cheerful lack of morality made him a cult favorite throughout the seventies and eighties. But his 1988 effort was something else entirely: a charming period piece that was (gasp) rated PG. Its critical and popular success (and that of its follow-up, Cry-Baby) made Waters a far more mainstream figure, even if he would continue to juice up his counterculture rep with later films like Pecker and A Dirty Shame. Nice try, John — once your work has been turned into a Broadway musical (and subsequent movie musical version), you’re “family friendly.”

Susan Seidelman

CULT FAVE: Smithereens CROSSOVER FILM: Desperately Seeking Susan

You kids today — you don’t know what it was like making indie movies in the early ’80s. You couldn’t make a film that would be taken seriously on video, so you had to shoot on expensive 16mm, which was a particularly risky investment since there was, for all intents and purposes, no market for indie films at the time. And, as was and as always has been in the movie industry, it was even harder to get a film made if you were a female director. But Philadelphia native Susan Seidelman got it done, and the fruit of her labor, Smithereens (featuring a screenplay by future Philadelphia Oscar winner Ron Nyswaner and an acting appearance by punk legend Richard Hell), made history as the first American independent film invited to compete in the Cannes Film Festival. Seidelman didn’t win the Palme d’Or, but it got her a gig directing the mistaken-identity comedy Desperately Seeking Susan for Orion. And her casting instincts couldn’t have been better: for the role of Susan, Seidelman went with a rising young talent named Madonna over established actors like Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh for the role. Madonna became a superstar while the film was in post-production, and Seidelman had a hit on her hands. But her follow-ups (Making Mr. Right and Cookie) couldn’t match that film’s success, and in 1989, she had the misfortune of directing Roseanne’s ill-fated attempt at film stardom, She-Devil . Since then, she’s mostly concentrated on television work.

Michael Lehmann

CULT FAVE: Heathers CROSSOVER FILM: Hudson Hawk

Lehmann struck gold with his 1989 debut feature, Heathers, a gleefully dark comedy that we’ve all seen more times than is probably healthy. Its rather tepid box office was offset by runaway success on VHS; the film quickly became a cult classic, and Lehmann was a hot young filmmaker. His immediate follow-up (shot the same year as Heathers’ release but held until 1991) was the suburban misfire Meet the Applegates, but when the call came from Hollywood, it was a big one: a chance to direct a big-budget Bruce Willis movie with a primo summer slot. Unfortunately, it was Bruce’s doomed vanity project Hudson Hawk, which went over schedule and over budget but wildly underperformed at the box office, where the film’s lacerating notices kept audiences far away (it only earned $17 million on a $65 million budget). It took three years for Pulp Fiction to put Willis’ career back on track, but Lehmann had trouble recovering from the fiasco; his ’96 film The Truth About Cats & Dogs was a charmer, but most of his other pictures (Airheads, My Giant, Because I Said So) have fizzled, and he’s done his best work as a hired gun for television.