Nine Stunted Film Directing Careers

Douglas Trumbull

As I approach 40, I have been thinking about my mortality. More specifically, I find myself wondering if I will ever get to direct a third feature film. If I never do, I will find myself in the company of the following nine individuals who, for various reasons, never had the opportunity to helm many features, talented though they may have been. For this list I am not including cult directors notorious for taking a long time to make their films, such as Andrei Tarkovsky, with seven features to his name, Alejandro Jodorowsky with six, and Terrence Malick with only four, though a fifth is due next year and a sixth is reportedly in development. Perhaps Malick, at 66, is thinking about his own mortality too, and wants to get as much work done while he can.

  1. JEAN VIGO, two features. Vigo made two idiosyncratic French classics – Zero for Conduct and l'Atalante – before dying at 29 in 1934. One of France's most prestigious cinematic awards is named in his honor. Not bad for a guy who only made two movies.
  2. STEVE GORDON, one feature. Steve Gordon is so obscure that he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, but Arthur, the witty 1981 Dudley Moore comedy which Gordon both wrote and directed, was a box office smash and earned him an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. He died of a heart attack just a year later at 44.
  3. DOUGLAS TRUMBULL, two features. Not every director with a truncated output owes his shortened career to the Grim Reaper. Take, for example, special effects pioneer Trumbull, still alive and well today even after helming just two sci fi flicks: 1972's Silent Running and 1983's Brainstorm. Better known for his groundbreaking work in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Trumbull's flair for practical effects and modeling might have made him a dinosaur once CG took over the visual effects world; his last credits were in 1996, for a couple of "ride" movies for the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
  4. HERK HARVEY, one feature. This guy has one of my favorite names in show biz. But as he spent his career in Lawrence, Kansas, directing a large number of short industrial and educational films, he never got his Hollywood break, so he left us with just one feature to his name: the creepy 1962 cult classic Carnival of Souls. He died in 1996.
  5. ADRIENNE SHELLY, three features. Shelly was a semi-popular indie film actress often associated with the early films of Hal Hartley. In a memorably grim tragedy, she was killed by a would-be thief while she was in post production on her breakout 2007 romantic comedy Waitress.
  6. FABIÁN BIELINSKY, two features. The portly Argentinian director of the art house hit Nine Queens and the more obscure (but, in my opinion, better) The Aura died of a heart attack in 2006. He was 47.
  7. RÉMY BELVAUX, one feature. This Belgian was one of the three director/stars of the disturbing 1992 mockumentary Man Bites Dog, which still has a strong following. Belvaux committed suicide two months before his 40th birthday in 2006.
  8. CHARLES LAUGHTON, one feature. It's not really fair to list the Oscar-winning Hollywood star among these struggling directors, but although it's common for famous actors to try their hand at directing – usually quitting after one try (Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts, Eddie Murphy's Harlem Nights) – none have created anything as strange, as memorable, or as brilliant as Laughton's Southern Gothic masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. Sadly, the movie bombed and the actor was never allowed to direct again.
  9. ROBIN HARDY, two – or three? – features. Like Harvey, Laughton, and Belvaux, Robin Hardy belongs to that category of filmmakers who manage to squeeze out one great if unclassifiable indie film, then find themselves unable to follow up, presumably for financial reasons. Hardy directed the original Wicker Man in 1973, a weird but wonderful story about a Christian policeman infiltrating a pagan community in search of a missing girl. (Let's just forget the remake.) It took Hardy 13 years to make another movie, the obscure 1986 British thriller The Fantasist. He hasn't thrown in the towel, though: he reportedly has just completed a new feature, The Wicker Tree, a "reimagining" of his 1973 classic, with Christopher Lee returning to his role as Lord Summerisle. Hardy is now 70. You're never too old to make your third feature! (Get back to me in thirty years.)