There are a lot of risky things about being a director, like pesky deadlines, limited budgets and not being able to spin the story in a way that keeps viewers awake. But coming in at the top of the list has got to be making that mistake that costs you your career. Or worse, your public respect.
I know one way to fix it is just to play it safe and make films that have proven to make money, and that’s a boring choice. But you can take an industry hit for stepping too far outside the box, and most directors don’t want to take that hit. But lest us not forget those fantastic few whose title soon changed from respected filmmaker to movie goof.
This article is about the promising ideas that grew into disappointing failures. The greatness that sadly proved a facade all along. Please be warned: as you read this, you’re probably going to be reminded of a cinematic moment or two you rather soon forget.
M. Night Shyamalan
Though I try not to choose the obvious, M. Night Shyamalan is too much of a character to be left out. Or rather, too many characters. The tale of Shyamalan’s self-proclaimed arrogance can begin with his insatiable need to find time onscreen. The 'Great Night' has a credited appearance in each of his feature films. A good thing, I think, as with each film he makes the pool of interested actors willing to star in them dries up a little more.
Don’t get me wrong, many of us still think about The Sixth Sense today. It was well-acted, tense and mysterious at all the right times, and it introduced you to the infamous plot twist at the end. Two complex, interesting characters, and on either side of their haunting relationship, we’re treated to the best Shyamalan action ever to hit the screen.
After the following Unbreakable, and the debatable Signs, Shyamalan’s pacing went to hell and every character and plot became a stranger stereotype. Fragmented narrative structure. The twist ending. Every cast is star-studded, but it doesn’t really matter, because his films wouldn’t be any worse if he saved the budget and got rid of half the cast.
It’s really easy to look at a bad movie or two and talk about how much better it could have been. But failures, directors or otherwise, at one point need to be recognized. Because with fame and fortune should come accountability, right? Shyamalan may have had the ingredients for greatness, but somewhere along the way he lost the recipe. Or arrogantly tossed it in the trash.
Talk about the less obvious. I didn’t even know Kevin Costner had a director credit to his name before doing research for this article. Thus, the reason he’s number two. Making a film isn’t as simple as pointing a camera at a person and hoping he or she isn’t horrible. Costner, it seems, strived to make an argument against this very theory.
This is a delicate issue, though. We’re not dealing with a new face or a written-off old one. After all, this is the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Hollywood heartthrob we’re talking about. But if you were born in the 80s or afterwards, Costner is probably as memorable to you as an actor, as he is today in the directorial community.
The Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves was one of the best things to happen to Costner in his career. Critics called it one of the most impressive debuts of any novice filmmaker in decades. It was an emotional romance, a capturing adventure, and a well-acted drama that left Costner basking in compliment-soaked glory. Part of the fun were the action-packed battle scenes. Being there amidst the exciting buffalo hunts. You may even remember the high acclaim and emotional Oscar speeches covering this film back in 1990. That’s how big of a deal it was.
But, after Dances with Wolves, Costner ran into a little directorial demon who damaged everything. Although the demon I refer to is obviously Costner’s own lack of judgment, I have enough respect for the "Sexiest Man at Age 50" (People Magazine 2005) to ease the blow with a little fantasy fabrication.
A long string of embarrassing flops like Waterworld and The Postman undid the reverence he once experienced, undid Costner’s chance to prove himself, and undid any hope of his directorial career recovering. All the big and exciting things to ever happen to Costner were thrown out the window, as if they’d never even happened.
The Waterworld curse seemed to hit co-director Kevin Reynolds with a similar blow. Reynolds has only made three films in the 17 years since the film was released.
As you can imagine, it’s not unheard of for a director to falter here or there on the decisions regarding a project. It’s another thing to experience one of the most sudden and memorable career shifts in recent memory. For Michael Cimino, the studio golden child behind The Deer Hunter and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, this was sadly the case.
Despite all the talent and innovation in the world, somewhere between The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Cimino got a sweet taste of mainstream success and lost his mind. He wandered from studio to studio, from one project disaster to another until he directed his last disappointment The Sunchaser and found himself jobless. But before that happened, Cimino had the chance to ruin two studios and mark the end of the New Hollywood era. What a unique privilege.
Back in the 70s, Cimino was praised as a king of the industry for his creativity and dedication to his craft. But any great thing, thrown into a blender with egotism, vanity, and self-indulgence, will most likely produce an unappetizing brew of failure. And Cimino was no vanilla milkshake.
You know how in every classroom there’s usually someone that doesn’t quite fit with the others? Well, in this class’ case the lucky winner is Roman Polanski.
I fully believe that Roman Polanski is a great and talented director in the history of filmmaking. But at that point when Polanski is no longer judged for his modern work and instead pursued for his historical legacy, he will undoubtedly be remembered for his sexual assault against then 13-year-old Samantha Geimer. Somehow, I don’t even think the great Polanski will be able to rub this one off his resume.
I’m not sure how these scandals keep happening amongst public figures. These actions have no virtue. They have no winner. There is nothing to actually gain, just some cruel and unusual association to oneself. It’s the stupidest idea for someone to risk their career and self-dignity only for a chance to destroy it. Sadly, it happens anyway.
Polanski might be many people’s filmmaking hero, but he is no God. This is one legacy forever laced with disappointment.
Every mistake is an intriguing story worth exploring. With that in mind, keep a look out for the next Costner or Shyamalan to grace us with their brilliant failures. Even though quality film is the best part of the overall viewing experience, we don’t always want to see the next Oscar sensation. I want to laugh at “Those We Do Not Speak Of” (The Village) or remain completely uninspired as the antogonist proclaims “Dry land is not just our destination, it is our destiny!” (Waterworld). That's half the fun.
But that’s just me.