The general concept of change can really divide people, especially when it comes to artistic endeavours. Whether these changes are due to trends that are a way for the artist to move with the times, or simply for the artist to get out of their comfort zone and try something different, viewers will react differently. Some viewers want more of the same from a filmmaker they feel they could rely on, while other viewers will get bored of the filmmaker’s methods and want something fresh.
Film directors can have a long career making certain types of films, who usually work in a specific genre and are known to often use the same visual aesthetic, character traits, and other patterns seen throughout their filmography. However, like with life itself, things change, and so do the filmmaking styles and techniques of directors. As much as directors make films for audiences, directors are artists who want to evolve and explore new methods of working and storytelling for their own artistic satisfaction.
This article will talk about the filmmaker’s history as well as the films themselves. Many of the films that marked the director’s change in filmmaking were received with mixed results; some were heralded as masterpieces that marked a new golden era in the director’s career, while some left much to be desired and were considered inferior to the director’s previous work. Either way, these filmmakers should be admired for not resting on their laurels and actually trying to do something different.
This list is different from how some directors have made the odd film that is different from their usual style, like Wes Craven with Music of the Heart and Sidney Lumet with The Wiz, so such films will be excluded from this list. This list contains films that forever changed the director’s style that never looked back on their previous films.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Stanley Kubrick is rightfully considered one of the best and most innovative filmmakers to have ever lived. While he was already a big player in Hollywood by the 1960s with acclaimed hits like Paths of Glory, Lolita, and Dr. Strangelove, it was Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey that changed both his filmmaking style and science fiction films.
2001 is a technical achievement that still holds up nearly 50 years after its theatrical release. Kubrick insisted on making the film as accurate as possible with regards to the realities of living on and operating a space station.
A lot of research went into achieving accurate depictions of the subject matter of all of Kubrick’s following films, something that Kubrick and his staff put a painstaking amount of effort into and collected huge amounts of documents and photographs, as seen in the documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.
Kubrick became more innovative with cinematography when making 2001. The first big change was making films in color rather than in black and white, which was necessary to capture the breathtaking moments in 2001, such as the use of split-screen photography to create the ‘star gate’ sequence towards the end of the film when many vibrant colors are coming towards the protagonist.
Kubrick later used the Zeiss camera lens used in Barry Lyndon that were originally designed for NASA satellites and only used candlelight lighting to give the film the look of an 18th century painting. The Shining was one of the earliest films to use Steadicam to follow the actors as they moved throughout the Overlook Hotel. All of these methods would have been very time consuming for the film crew to achieve, but the great results are still spoken about all these years later.
The plots of Kubrick’s films became denser and more philosophical, whereas the plots of his earlier films were more straightforward. From detailing the evolution of man in 2001, the issues of violence and freewill in A Clockwork Orange, the consequences of past violence and the supernatural in The Shining, the effects of war in Full Metal Jacket, and the difficulties of being faithful to your spouse in Eyes Wide Shut.
The performances from the actors are intentionally more cold and calculated, with gaps of silence between each actors’ dialogue that created an eerie vibe. The sets were grander and more lavish; his films prior to 2001 were typical of 1960s films, in that it was apparent that the action was happening on a sterile film set.
But after making 2001, even the littlest detail was carefully constructed. The use of classical music throughout the rest of Kubrick’s career started in 2001, and was most noticeably used again in A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut.
Everything Kubrick did to make 2001 perfect was the origins of his reputation as a perfectionist that included actors doing numerous takes, and the overall film taking years, from the start of pre-production to completion.
2. Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
It goes without saying that David Lynch has always been an eccentric man and filmmaker, and movie buffs would not want him to be any other way. Lynch’s first feature was his self-made film Eraserhead that utilized eerie sounds and bizarre visuals with stark black-and-white cinematography.
Once Eraserhead gained Hollywood’s attention, Lynch got to make surrealist masterpieces such as The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and the television series Twin Peaks. Despite their Lynchian traits, the films he made in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s had the traditional three-act structure most films have, which provided Lynch with a middle ground between mainstream and arthouse cinema.
However, Lynch seemed to return to films with less emphasis on a coherent plot and more focus on creepy visuals and dark lighting, starting with Lost Highway. This film is a wild ride of intense sex, violence, and eeriness where not everything makes sense.
How the protagonist transforms into another man with a completely different life is never explained, which is the start of Lynch’s theme of identity crisis. All of these plot devices and motifs were later used in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, showing Lynch’s future films were now more about how they make viewers feel than the plot.
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s first four feature films were all acclaimed, especially Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but Anderson became even more of a critical darling with the new direction his films took, starting with his Oscar-winning period piece There Will Be Blood.
Although the characters were important in Anderson’s previous films, it was with There Will Be Blood where the films became denser and less plot driven, demanding that viewers really pay attention to what is transpiring on screen. The sets became more elegant and the vibe was uncomfortable for both the characters and the audience, such as the dimness of The Cause’s base in The Master and the seedy side of the hippie era in Inherent Vice.
The emotions and motivations of the characters changed and showed the characters are deeply flawed people. Whereas Anderson’s earlier films were fast paced and the dialogue was spoken quickly, his latter films feel very drawn out and the dialogue spoken at a slower pace, both of which add to the bleakness of the plot and the situation the characters are facing.
The films were also period pieces. With the exception of Boogie Nights, Anderson’s films prior to There Will Be Blood had contemporary settings, but even then Boogie Nights has more in common with those Anderson films in terms of tone and filmmaking style than the latter films set in different eras. Anderson’s upcoming film set in 1950s London shows that Anderson’s films will continue this trend.
4. Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
It is no secret that the universe that Quentin Tarantino’s films are set in is a very movie-centric world, in terms of pop culture references and the mise-en-scene being reminiscent of other movies that Tarantino admires. While Tarantino’s first three films were violent and filled with movie references, they were firmly set in reality.
However, from Kill Bill onward, Tarantino’s films are set in a more movie-like world. They have become more stylized, more over-the-top, and less realistic, starting with Kill Bill: Volume 1. This gloriously violent revenge film combined the genres of martial arts films, grindhouse, Spaghetti Westerns, and blaxploitation. Obviously Kill Bill: Volume 2 was going to directly continue this new trend, since it is the second chapter in the Kill Bill saga, but it did not end there.
Tarantino’s earlier characters were criminals in 1990s Los Angeles, but his future characters started having more extreme backgrounds and intentionally became more stereotypical movie villains, such as assassins, Nazis, slave owners, and outlaws in the Wild West. Their dialogue is longer and more drawn out, whereas the dialogue in Tarantino’s previous films were shorter and got to the point quicker.
The sets became more grander (and definitely more expensive looking), going from the gritty streets of Los Angeles to lush Japanese bars, Nazi-occupied France, 1860s era cowboy and cotton picking towns, and the cold and isolated haberdashery in 1880s Wyoming.
So, gone are the days of Tarantino films being set in the present day and being low budget; everything Tarantino has made since Kill Bill will be gloriously violent and entertaining with big budgets to match such ambitious ideas.
5. Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)
David Cronenberg started his directorial career making sci-fi thriller and horror films, such as The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, and Naked Lunch, all of which had grotesque creatures and deformed people that are unpleasant to the eye, yet were captivating at the same time. These films were set in a completely different reality to the real world.
However, Cronenberg turned to the arguably more disturbing world that is the real world with his 1996 film Crash , where a group of sexual deviants get aroused by fatal car crashes. There are no weird creatures or anything science fiction related in this film; the only monsters are the disturbed sickos that gain sexual pleasure from seeing damaged cars and bloodied corpses. This idea proved to be confronting to audiences, making Crash a controversial film upon its theatrical release.
While his more recent films are still gory and violent, instead of telling the stories of weird-looking creatures and people, his characters were sinister people.
Cronenberg’s future films would now be about the perverse nature of humans, such as mental illness in Spider, instinctive violent tendencies in A History of Violence, organised crime in Eastern Promises, and fragile psyches in A Dangerous Method. These subject matters are actually much more confronting than any of the unrealistic gore and gross creatures in his previous films.
6. The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010)
On the surface, The Fighter was a boxing drama akin to Rocky and Raging Bull, but it also signified a new phase in director David O. Russell’s career. Before The Fighter, Russell had mostly made comedy films, such as Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees, and the abandoned film Nailed. It was his excellent war film Three Kings that is the closest of Russell’s older films that would indicate what his future films had in store for audiences.
Russell moved away from wacky comedy films that audiences had mixed feelings about and had average box office returns to focus on prestigious drama films that were very profitable. All of Russell’s film ever since were nominated for or even won Oscars. The Fighter had all-around great acting, including Oscar-winning performances from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo.
Russell himself has been nominated for the Best Director Oscar for The Fighter and his following films, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, although he has yet to win the coveted award. Perhaps drama is more Russell’s forte than comedy, as the results speak for themselves.
7. Planet Of The Apes (Tim Burton, 2001)
Despite his amazingly dark visuals, there is no denying that Tim Burton has always been a commercial filmmaker. That is not a criticism, but with having made two Batman films and many other hit movies, Burton is very Hollywood. But his unique and gothic visuals gave Burton a great reputation and critical acclaim.
Thus, it was an odd choice to have Burton direct the Planet Of The Apes remake that was released in 2001. Burton’s films are known for their whimsical and gothic characters and sets; none of those things are present in his version of the 1968 original. In fact, it would be understandable for the uninitiated to think this film was made by the likes of Michael Bay rather than the man who made Beetlejuice and Ed Wood.
After Planet Of The Apes, Burton made more commercial films, many of them being other remakes, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows. Although these films contained some of Burton’s older visual cues, they still felt more commercial than anything he made in the 20th century, therefore usually inferior and without the charm of his older films.
8. Serial Mom (John Waters, 1994)
John Waters made gross-out comedies throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s that made him a hit in the midnight movie scene. No one could possibly forget the disgusting things that happened in his debut feature film Pink Flamingos.
However, in 1988, seven years after he made his previous feature film Polyester, Waters made a clean-cut musical called Hairspray. It was a family-friendly musical with societal commentary on race relations that was a commercially successful film. This was the start of Waters’ more commercial films, but maintaining some of his distinct trademarks, such as certain actors appearing in these films and references to the 1950s and 1960s.
But Waters’ filmmaking style changed even more with Serial Mom, where a suburban housewife and mother is a serial killer. Besides being a black comedy about murder and family life, it is also a satire on society’s ills and the media’s fascination and glorification of serial killers, much like the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers, which was also released in 1994.
This trend of poking fun at society continued with Waters’ 1998 film Pecker that satirizes the pretentious art world, something Waters is sure to relate to, considering his earlier lowbrow work would have been frowned upon by critics. Then in 2004 Waters made A Dirty Shame about how scared and conservative society is about sexual freedom.
What is interesting is that A Dirty Shame is both a throwback to Waters’ gross-out sex comedies from the 1970s while also continuing his current critique of society. In any case, Waters was not afraid to point out the hypocrisy of society, while also still using toilet humor for laughs.
9. Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
When people think of Irish actor and director Kenneth Branagh, they normally think of the prestigious, historical, Shakespearian, and very British films like Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Hamlet. Three of those films are adapted from Shakespeare’s plays and all are set between the 1400s-1800s, making Branagh’s films quite distinct.
Out of those aforementioned films, Frankenstein would be the only indicator that Branagh had any interest in making films about fantastical beings like monsters and superheroes, which came into fruition in 2011 when he made Thor. The news of Branagh directing a superhero blockbuster as part of the Marvel universe came as a huge surprise to both fans of the franchise and fans of Branagh’s who may have felt a Marvel film was too commercial for him and not suited to his usual sensibilities as a director.
However, despite having a lot of CGI and explosions, the plot of Thor is actually akin to Branagh’s previous films. It has a very Shakespearian tale of the son of a king who must face his foes who seek to dethrone him and his father for their own power. The usual Branagh themes of betrayal, clashing family members, redemption, and regal sophistication are all present here.
Since making Thor, Branagh has more made action blockbusters like the spy thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the fantasy film Cinderella, indicating a leaning toward making commercial films.
10. Man on Fire (Tony Scott, 2004)
It is interesting to note that Tony Scott was an art student and his first feature film is the arthouse vampire film The Hunger; it is unlike any other film Scott ever made. Its failure at the box office is probably what made Scott decide to make more commercial films for most of his career.
He then starting making mainstream action blockbusters like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II in the 1980s that had the slickness of the type of commercials Scott was known for in that decade, but were very entertaining and profitable commercials nonetheless.
The 1990s saw Scott make more action films with Scott’s distinct touch, such as Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, and Enemy of the State. Scott’s previous films were fast paced and action packed, but overall most of them were generic action films. Although his first film of the 2000s was Spy Game, it was with his 2004 film Man on Fire that he seemed to go back to his art school originals and his filmmaking style changed.
The plot of Man on Fire is straightforward in that a jaded bodyguard vows to avenge the apparent death of the little girl he was supposed to protect. The disorientating fast cuts and use of cross-processing and photochemically manipulated film stock heightened the colors on screen, and displayed the rage and anger the protagonist feels against the villains.
Man on Fire contained on-screen subtitles of keywords characters said for emphasis, adding to the feel of the danger or urgency of the situation, especially in the nightclub scene where the protagonist is torturing someone for information, and the pumping dance music is perfectly used here. The faces of the actors would look smeared and blurred, then go to black and white, and then back again just as fast, adding to the intensity and madness of the situation on screen.
This trend continued into an even more frenzied state with Domino. It was produced by Scott’s own company Scott Free, giving him free reign to make the film as he pleased. It is a very visual film that gives the mind a stimulus overload and the cinematic equivalent to ADHD. Perhaps its poor performance at the box office led Scott to tone down these visuals as he did with his last three films Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Unstoppable, the latter of which had none of these bizarre visuals.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Saturay 6 May 2017