When deciding which movie to view at the theatre or to pick at the video store, most people will often rely on word of mouth recommendations, a review, or who’s starring in the feature. Perhaps the subject matter is intriguing. All are perfectly reasonable, wonderful ways of seeing great movies. I would suggest an alternative way, however, one that may spice up the selection process and deepen your enjoyment of cinema. I always find out who the director is. Chances are that if you like one of a certain director’s works, you will like the rest.
I’m sure that many people do this and have for many years before I discovered it for myself. I found it by accident in 1980 with a western by the name of The Long Riders. Walter Hill was the director. I loved everything about the film- the action sequences were stunning, the use of real siblings in the casting of the James, Younger, Miller and Ford brothers was innovative and the storyline was compelling. Two years later, 48 Hrs. took the country by storm by teaming Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy together as a cop and a crook in pursuit of a suitcase full of money and two cop killing maniacs. It is still one of my favorite films within the genre and holds up nearly thirty years after its release. I was hooked- Walter Hill has been one of my favorite directors ever since and his vision has led me to little known classics like Southern Comfort, Geronimo, Extreme Prejudice, and the all too short-lived HBO series Deadwood.
With the internet, you don’t have to pore through every container on the shelf of your local movie store or leaf through countless back issues of Premiere magazine for filmographies as I did in the old days. You simply Google a filmmaker and you will quickly find listings of not only feature films but short films as well. For instance, that Christopher Nolan has reached critical and popular success with the Batman series and Inception is widely known but how many people know that he is also responsible for lesser known gems like Insomnia and Memento, both well worth watching. His 1998 debut, Following, which I haven’t seen yet, has an intriguing premise and is a film that I will see at some point but one that would have been easily missed without doing this type of research.
You can take this technique even further, drilling down into a director’s body of work for the people he works with on his films. Cinematographers present the director’s vision of how the film will look. Often, a director will develop a fondness for these photographic mavens and collaborate frequently. However, directors of photography don’t exclusively work with one partner, so a look at other projects that they work on will often shed light on a distinctive style that you will enjoy and would not have otherwise been aware of. Walter Hill worked with cinematographer Ric Waite for the first half of the 1980’s on both The Long Riders and 48 Hrs. as well as Brewster’s Millions. Interspersed with his work with Hill, Waite also filmed other action fare such as The Border with celebrated British director Tony Richardson and cult classic Red Dawn (with frequent Hill collaborator John Millius) before morphing into comedies like Summer Rental, Volunteers, and Adventures in Babysitting toward the latter part of the decade.
Martin Scorsese has a couple of go-to cinematographers: Michael Ballhaus and Robert Richardson. Ballhaus’ resume includes five Scorsese productions including such notables as Goodfellas (1990) and Gangs of New York (2002). He has worked with a who’s who of other directors including Mike Nichols (Primary Colors), Robert Redford (Quiz Show), Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One and Outbreak), and Francis Ford Coppola (Dracula). Richardson has been director of photography on seven Scorsese films including Casino (1995), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010). From 1982- 1995, Richardson worked with Oliver Stone eleven times on such classics as Platoon, Wall Street, and JFK. Of late, Quentin Tarentino has been elbowing in on Scorsese and Stone, teaming up with the elite cinematographer for both Kill Bill’s as well as Inglorious Basterds.
Visionary creators and creators of visions notwithstanding, great writing is also found at the heart of great cinema. One of my favorite movies of all time in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I didn’t know it then but William Goldman penned the Academy Award winning screenplay. He would later produce an avalanche of notable scripts including another Oscar winner, All the Presidents Men (1976), in addition to Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery, and the underrated Hearts in Atlantis.
Sometimes, this type of research unearths someone whose work you should have known about but didn’t. While investigating Scorsese’s cinematographers, I began to examine the screenwriters for some of his biggest hits. Steve Zallian was a co-writer on Gangs of New York. Upon further review, Mr. Zallian’s list of credits included an abundance of superior work including The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Oscar nominated Awakenings (1990), Steven Spielberg’s universally acclaimed Schindler’s List (1993- which he won for Best Adapted Screenplay), Clear and Present Danger (1994), Mission Impossible (1996), and American Gangster (2007). While I had seen virtually everything Zaillian had written for the screen, the listing also provided current and future projects as well. One project caught my eye. Next year marks the release of the much anticipated Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, now filming in Sweden. David Fincher is directing the American adaptation of the late Steig Larsson’s novel with Zaillian attached as screenwriter. This film has attracted more critical and popular buzz than any movie in recent memory and with the movie in the capable hands of Fincher, Zaillian, and a stellar cast, it is easy to see why.
Hopefully, by using this technique, you can expand your movie viewing horizons and weed out any potential problems. There’s nothing worse than gambling on a movie that someone, novice or professional, recommends and finding out that it stinks. With this type of research, you can not only avoid this predicament, but you can steer your family and friends clear of it as well. Then, the only movie recommendations they will seek will be yours.