The road of cinematographers becoming film directors is a bumpy one. For every director of photography (DP) who directs a great film, there are three who deliver subpar films and instinctually revert back to cinematography. In the wake of Oscar-winning DP, Wally Pfister, releasing his first directed film, Transcendence, I thought it’d be fun to list a few of the DPs who’ve successfully crossed over to the director’s chair.
Note: Directors who shoot their own films were not considered.
Note: Directors who shoot their own films were not considered.
Dickerson’s notable works as a DP: She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X
I love any opportunity to talk about Surviving the Game. The film is about a handful of wealthy men (who are all played by amazing character actors) who lure a bum (Ice-T) to their weekend cabin and spend the next few days hunting him. The film is an absurd action romp fully aware of what it is. And sure, while Dickerson as a director is better known for his film debut, Juice, and his subsequent work on shows like The Wire, The Walking Dead and Dexter, his finest effort as a film director will, for me, always be Surviving the Game.
9. Nicolas Roeg – Witches (1990)
Roeg’s notable works as a DP: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Casino Royale (all as second unit)
I loved Witches when I was a kid. Loved, loved, loved it. When I see a frame from this film, I’m five years old again, sitting anxiously in front of the TV, watching as a boy (who has been turned into a mouse, naturally) tries to outrun the grasp of a bunch of evil witches. Witches is as creepy and fun as kid-themed fantasy films get. I mean, my God, just look at that makeup (namely, that chin). Priceless.
8. Ronald Neame – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
Neame’s notable works as a DP: In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, One of Our Aircraft is Missing
Neame had a remarkable tenure with the film business. Initially breaking in as a cinematographer, Neame evolved to an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and finally a talented director. And while Tunes of Glory may be more acclaimed, and The Poseidon Adventure certainly more popular, my favorite Neame film is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The film is about a young, determined teacher (Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for her performance) who uses untraditional methods to get through to her students. It’s a film we’ve all seen dozens of times over, but the fact that Jean Brodie was one of the first, and thereby most influential, certainly speaks to its appeal.
7. Rodrigo García – Nine Lives (2005)
Notable works as a DP: Four Rooms, Gia, Body Shots
Apparently, giving up cinematography was the best decision Rodrigo García ever made. In 1999, he ceased worked as a DP and has since developed a prolific and routinely excellent career(s) as a film director, and developer, creator and executive producer of more than a dozen TV shows. My favorite García show is the American version of HBO’s In Treatment, which remains one of the best, most criminally ignored series I’ve ever seen. But his best feature film has to be the wonderful anthology, Nine Lives. The movie is essentially nine short films (each shot in one long take), that showcases a woman in disarray. I broke down each segment here, but in short, Nine Lives is a fascinating display of technical proficiency and emotional collapse.
6. Jan de Bont – Speed (1994)
De Bont’s notable works as a DP: Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Basic Instinct
I hadn’t seen Speed in years, but last month, just for the hell of it, I decided to give it a fresh spin. And although it is completely over the top and laughably geographically inaccurate, it is inarguably one of the best action films ever made. While De Bont’s subsequent work as a director fell flat, nothing will take away from the impact of Speed. I honestly love everything about it.
5. Nicolas Roeg – Performance (1970)
Roeg’s first film as a director (which he co-directed with Donald Cammell) is the raw and classic exploitation film, Performance. After a risky hit goes down, gangster Chas (James Fox) changes his identity and moves in as a house guest to a former rocker named Turner (Mick Jagger, acting for the first time). Chas and Turner’s relationship is… interesting, to say the least. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll dominate their time together, making for one of the most significant British films of the ‘70s.
4. Jack Cardiff – Sons and Lovers (1960)
Cardiff’s notable works as a DP: Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The African Queen, Fanny
Sons and Lovers is one of those films that I’m stunned was even able to get made. The film is a rather bold retelling of the Oedipus story, in which an insanely manipulative mother controls every aspect of her son’s life. Wendy Hiller as the mother is a sheer force of nature, prohibiting her son, Paul (Trevor Howard) from having any kind of sexual relationship. When Paul finally elects to fight back, irreversible havoc is wrecked. The film is a little dangerous today, so for 1960, I can’t imagine the stir it caused.
3. Barry Sonnenfeld – Get Shorty (1995)
Sonnenfeld’s notable works as a DP: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Misery
Get Shorty is one of the great films about contemporary show business. It’s so confident and aware of what it’s doing; from its lacerating dry humor, to its sudden, hilarious violence. When Sonnenfeld was casting the film, he had a hell of a time finding his lead, Chili Palmer. It was Danny DeVito who recommended John Travolta, as DeVito was producing both Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. The result is one of the greatest one-two punches in Hollywood comeback history. Travolta carries Get Shorty, but damn if he doesn’t have ace material to work with.
2. Sven Nykvist – The Ox (1991)
Nykvist’s notable works as a DP: Winter Light, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander
Sven Nykvist is my favorite cinematographer of all time. His flawless and fruitful collaboration with Ingmar Bergman produced some of the best (and best looking) films ever made. Sadly, Nykvist’s work as a director wasn’t nearly as revered. But he did reach directorial greatness with his final film, a devastating character study about the consequences of desperation. The Ox is about a man who kills an ox that doesn’t belong to him, all in an effort to save his family from starvation. Co-starring Bergman regulars Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, The Ox is essential viewing for fans and students of the Bergman school of filmmaking.
1. Nicolas Roeg – Don’t Look Now (1973)
Honestly, this post could’ve been solely dedicated to Nicolas Roeg. In addition to his films listed above, Walkabout, Insignificance, and The Man Who Fell to Earth all deserve mention here. But in an effort to share the wealth (and, yes, bask in the greatest that is Surviving the Game), I chose to limit myself to just three Roeg films. And I saved the best for last: the splendid psychological thriller, Don’t Look Now, which remains one of the best films about the emotional anguish that consumes a couple after they lose a child. You’ve likely heard of the film’s infamous sex scene, which cross cuts Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie making love with them getting ready for dinner. But there is far more to discover here. Don’t Look Now is a seminal art house film that continues to inspire talented filmmakers. It’s a staple of ‘70s cinema, and a fine example of the greatness that can occur when someone decides to step out from behind the lens, and control all aspects of a film production.