Nine Films Directed by Production Designers


Production designers are the unsung heroes of showbiz. If you really want to know about all the thought and care that goes into a film, then talk to these folks. They are the true "artistes" on a crew. They can tell you more about a film's characters, themes, and intentions than anyone else – even directors. Of all the crew positions that yearn to cross over into directing, production designers are in many ways the best suited for the job: they know how to share a cohesive vision with a large group of creative people and they are typically very communicative and articulate. Unfortunately, they're not that good at picking scripts, to judge by these nine films.

  1. MALEFICENT, directed by Robert Stromberg. Stromberg's rise has been rather meteoric: After twenty years as a matte painter and visual effects supervisor, his first gig as production designer came in 2009. It was for Avatar, and he won an Oscar for his work. His second was for Alice in Wonderland, and he won an Oscar for that, too. His third and so far last was for Oz the Great and Powerful. No Oscar for that, but no matter, because Stromberg had already lined up this stylish Angelina Jolie hit as his directorial debut.
  2. THE CAT IN THE HAT, directed by Bo Welch. Welch is best known for designing an important trio of films for Tim Burton: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns. He also designed less eye-popping affairs such as The Accidental Tourist and Primary Colors, but Universal execs remembered him for those Burton films when they hired him to direct this wretchedly awful Mike Myers vehicle. That was in 2003. As you might guess, Welch has yet to direct again, though he's still a top production designer.
  3. TWILIGHT, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Hardwicke had an impressive rise as a production designer, from silly low-budget outings like Tapeheads and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka to prestige pictures like Vanilla Sky and Three Kings. She quit for good after 2002's Laurel Canyon and made her directorial debut a year later with the grim Sundance favorite Thirteen. Thirteen eventually led to the plum assignment of helming the first Twilight picture. Hardwicke was to direct the sequels as well, but she was fired from the franchise, supposedly because she didn't want to make the films as quickly as the studio wanted to release them. She's still directing, but hardly at the blockbuster level one would have expected after Twilight's success.
  4. INVADERS FROM MARS, directed by William Cameron Menzies. This is the 1953 Invaders I'm talking about. Menzies had an odd career: he started out as an art director in the 1920s, directed studio programmers for a spell in the early '30s (including the stylish, if goofy, sci fi epic Things to Come), then made his name as a production designer on Gone with the Wind. He designed a few high-profile pictures in the '40s, directed (or helped direct) a few more, and finally got to the point where he was both director and production designer. He served this dual role on his last four pictures. Invaders from Mars is the least obscure of them.
  5. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, directed by Eugène Lourié. This Frenchman established his career as Jean Renoir's production designer (The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion, La Bête Humaine). When Renoir went to Hollywood, Lourié followed. Charmingly, after all those highbrow dramas, what Lourié really wanted to do was make a monster movie. And thus his first film as director was this 1953 B-movie about a giant lizard attacking New York (this was a year before Godzilla), where he also handled the production design and special effects. After helming a few similar entries – Gorgo, The Giant Behemoth – Lourié retreated back to the art department in 1961.
  6. RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR, directed by Chris Gorak. This unnerving, Twilight Zone-inspired indie about an LA couple separated after a dirty bomb explodes is worth a look. Gorak was previously the production designer for Lords of Dogtown – directed by Catherine Hardwicke – and Blade: Trinity. His second film as director was another disaster flick: 2011's The Darkest Hour.
  7. SAW V, directed by David Hackl. Hmm, who should we get to direct Saw V? Well, how about the production designer from Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV? Since the Saw franchise is all about creepy settings and horrific props, it made sense to put Hackl in the director's chair. In 2012, he also made an angry-bear thriller called Grizzly, which, despite having big names like James Marsden and Billy Bob Thornton in it, has yet to be released.
  8. RAGGEDY MAN, directed by Jack Fisk. Sissy Spacek was a top draw in 1981 after she won the Oscar for Coal Miner's Daughter. The director of that year's Spacek drama Raggedy Man was, in fact, Spacek's husband (they married in 1974 and are still together). Fisk directed one other Spacek vehicle (Violets Are Blue...) and a forgotten comedy called Daddy's Dyin'... Who's Got the Will? before giving up on his directorial career in 1992. His resume is still impressive: he's been either the production designer or the art director on all of Terrence Malick's films, he did The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive for David Lynch, There Will Be Blood and The Master for Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alejandro Iñárritu's next film The Revenant.
  9. DETOUR, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer didn't do a whole lot of production design before he began directing features in 1930, but he is credited as such on F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1922), one of the greatest films of the silent era. As a director, Ulmer has become a major cult figure in recent years, thanks mainly to Detour (a film noir from 1945) and the other odd and intriguing B-movies he helmed in the '40s and '50s.