5 Surprising Personal Passion Projects of Legendary Directors

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Article Banner - Stanley Kubrick, Hugh Jackman, Jean Rocheforte, Terry Gilliam, Leonardo Di Caprio & Martin Scorsese

There’s something inherently lonely and tortured about being a director. Yes, you’re the tyrant of the set and dictator of the vision, but you’re also the man (or woman) behind the curtain, the puppet master who never appears on stage….unless you’re Clint Eastwood or Quentin Tarantino. Or Alfred Hitchcock….or Roman Polanski…ANYWAY, the point is that you may be the genius behind a film, and celebrated as such, but you’re no superstar. There’s a reason why they are often referred to as voyeurs.

But the upside is that, once you’re an established money-maker, you can afford to be creative in your guises. That is, to put your dream on screen. Most directors have at some stage championed their baby, a cherished passion project which is their love letter to their craft. However, it’s quite galling how this endeavor often falls on deaf ears. Chances are, unless you’re eternally celebrated and given that freedom (ala Woody Allen, Chris Nolan), you’re known for other efforts which were more mercenary, or simply not as cherished. A film maker can spend years trying to get his pet made, go through heartbreak and failings, and then finally succeed (or not, in some cases…) only to find most people don’t notice.

Well, here’s a chance to change that. Here are some of the most celebrated directors of all time, and their surprising personal picks.

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese

Best Known For:

Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Departed

His Personal Vision:

Gangs of New York

A real corker of a surprise to kick us off here.

Everyone’s heard of Martin Scorsese, surely. He’s known for alot of things, among them his New York love, mafia seduction techniques, Oscar drought, his ongoing ‘De Niro2DiCaprio’ project and bearing a loveable resemblance to Sam the Eagle. But despite being best regarded for his portrayal of mobsters and Italian-American life, it’s actually his historical epic Gangs which was the project he championed for years, starting in 1978 on the back of Taxi Driver and New York, New York.

It went through countless scripts, ideas and potential presentations. Although it’s eye catching seeing the names attached at various points, including Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe, terrifyingly it was once conceived as a vehicle for Blues Brothers duo John Belushi and Dan Akroyd. Scorsese’s fascination with his city’s origins, and the gritty and murky phase of culturalization it went through, kept the fire burning for a full 24 YEARS before finally a satisfying incarnation was reached, a script agreed upon and riches thrown at it. Di Caprio and Daniel Day-Lewis were cast, filming began. Evidencing his own obsession with the material, Scorsese built a massive fully authentic set of downtown early NY in Rome. Just how much had changed since he’d come up with the idea is crystallized by his friend George Lucas’s blowhardiness, when upon visiting the on location lot he commented “sets like that can be done with computers now”.

The result of all this dedication was a well received, positively rated slice of turn of the century shock and awe, albeit with occasionally dodgy accents and long on time. The film picked up 10 Oscar Nominations, though no wins, which included nods for Scorsese, Day-Lewis and best picture. It grossed well, made its money back and remains a respected though not quite adored flick, a cult following that is dwarfed into insignificance by his classic crime capers.

Gangs of New York (Brendan Gleeson)

So Why No Love?…

Simply put, because it ain’t a ‘Scorsese film’.

The harsh reality is that if you’re a genre specialist, or have certain trademarks or niches, you’ll always be associated with them. The cracking flair and pace of Goodfellas is a Scorsese styling, as is the setting and time period, the mood. By contrast, Gangs most certainly is not; the truth is that a lot of people forget that Scorsese even directed it. On top of that, it’s a very specific field and the era it portrays isn’t a hotplate for film. So most movie goers were there to see his spin on a historical epic, not the history, and some may have been mildly disappointed to see that the great auteur had abandoned his usual style and adapted to the piece. Noble an effort it may be, but also self defeating on an unmanageable level.

When you’re a legend for one thing, but pour your heart and soul into something completely different, it’s inevitable that something’s got to give. Sad, really.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola

Best Known For:

The Godfather films, Apocalypse Now

His Personal Vision:

The Conversation

Another genre hitcher, but one going in the opposite direction.

Despite making three of the most highly regarded films of all time, all epic in scope and huge in terms of story, production and budget, Coppola isn’t really that kind of a director, and he’s always been fully aware of the Director’s dilemma. Truth is the man who sits atop one of Hollywood’s biggest families prefers small, modest movies.

And in keeping with this, his personal favorite of his films, and the one he cared about the most, was the subtle and underplayed The Conversation. In fact, he made The Godfather so he could fund the comparable dwarf that is his paranoid espionage thriller. He does have a history of this after all: The Godfather: Part III, ill advised as it was, was also pure cash cow, something he has admitted to since. For what it’s worth, The Conversation is a top class film, low budget and concerning itself more with perception than presentation. Gene Hackman gives his best performance as a mild mannered, introverted listening device expert who becomes convinced he is involved in a murderous conspiracy. There are also small, effective roles for Coppola alumnus Robert Duvall, the late John Cazale and Harrison Ford.

TheConversation (Gene Hackman)

So Why No Love?…

The film doesn’t get the attention it deserves for precisely the same reasons that it deserves it, maddeningly paradoxical as that may be. Being so low key and suspenseful rather than bold and brash makes it hard to sell. For a more Hollywoodian effort on the same ground, take a look at the inferior Enemy of the State (which, ironically, stars Hackman in a very similar role), an enjoyable and well made thriller by the late Tony Scott which lacks the same dint of quality.

And, of course, it is diminished in the director’s form book because of the giants which border it on both sides. Coppola’s filmmaking vision may be purist, and on the smaller scale at its heart, but it’s also going to be less celebrated then his grander, conducting-of-an-orchestra style behemoths. It’s worth noting that The Conversation is adored by critics, and holds much acclaim, but is also ignored by the majority.

Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky

Best Known For:

Requiem For a Dream, Black Swan, The Wrestler

His Personal Vision:

The Fountain

This writer has written at length about both Aronofsky and his cinematic baby before (though not about his Christian Bale eyes…look at the photo), but this a story worth telling over and over. Along with Christopher Nolan, Aronofsky would seem to be Hollywood’s leading director at the moment, thanks to a winning run of successful and lauded films. So now, like Nolan was with Inception, he’s in a position of power, and could easily command a big pile of money for his big pile of ideas. How else do you explain Noah? It should be interesting to see what the modest character studying storyteller does with higher concept…except he’s already done it. And it was a masterpiece.

I’m talking of course about The Fountain, a project that went through several evolutions before finally being sanctioned in 2005, after it had originally been mooted as a $75m monster with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The film, which tears at the walls of conventional, linear storytelling in a mash up of sci-fi, history, drama, love and Buddhist philosophy, really is Aronofsky’s flagship. Much of the inspiration came after his parents were diagnosed with cancer, and during the years between conception and screen, he poured much feeling, emotion and theme into the script. It’s such a loaded film that there will always be small details you fail to notice.

The Fountain (Hugh Jackman)

So Why No Love?…

This is a case of an experimental film, one that takes a lot of heavy risks, and on many levels it didn’t pay off, quite literally.

Difficult to describe or bracket or comprehend, The Fountain was a commercial flop making back only half of its already downsized budget. Aronfsky’s street cred, which came from the sleeper hit Requiem for a Dream, wasn’t enough to make audiences shake off the mixed messages from critics, some of whom booed it a Cannes. Most troubling for anyone tentatively interested in the flick would have been turned away permanently by the indictment that it was ‘incomprehensible’.

The trouble with The Fountain’s nature is that it’s incredibly challenging, and forces you to follow it’s free-flow for its duration and then demands that you interpret what you saw in retrospect. Believe it or not, most people do not enjoy this process. It would rude of me to say that most film goers are stupid, but the fact is that most film goers are stupid. Aronofsky has grown in stature so much since that if he made the same film now, it would be lauded as genius. So there is an element of fickle nature in here too. Truth behind the notion that the film was written off, and as such is now forgotten or unheard of rather than ignored. Hardly fitting for such an astonishing feat.

Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam

Best Known For:

Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

His Personal Vision:

Don Quixote

Two things to know about Terry Gilliam. Number 1: He is one of the most unconventional directors in Hollywood. Number 2: He is the most unlucky directors in Hollywood.

The former Python boasts one of the most checkered careers in the game, with famous fights with producers (Brazil), budgetary problems (Baron Munchausen), and tragic death of his leading man during filming (The Imaginariam of Dr Parnassus). How he has survived, and flourished, as an auteur is a miracle, albeit one vindicated by his talents.

But by far the biggest curse upon him seems to revolve around the long mooted and attempted (and aborted) Don Quixote, or now The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. After considering the idea a dream for years, Gilliam finally got his chance with the help of European funding to make his opus, a satirical take on the classic tale, in which a modern day business executive finds himself stranded in the past, and gets caught up in the titular character’s adventures in medieval Spain. In 1999, production went ahead with Johnny Depp as lead, and French actor Jean Rochefort as Quixote…

Lost in La Mancha (Terry Gilliam & Jean Rocheforte)

So Why No Love?…

Because production lasted one week. Why? Well, remember who we’re talking about here.

Rochefort suffered a serious injury, meaning he was unable to ride on horseback, a pretty key thing for his character to be able to do. Because, well, it was the middle ages, horse riding was all the rage and bordering on obsession; sadly medieval alchemy bore no Prius’s. Plus the Spanish air force continually flew planes over the set, ruining audio tracks. Oh, and then a flood wiped out their set altogether. Amid an insurance claim for the damage done, Gilliam understandably threw in the towel. A documentary, Lost in La Mancha, was released that showed behind the scenes footage and what precious little material they managed to conjure up. Since then he and Depp have continued their commitment to the project, though precious little progress has been made. It doesn’t help that a 2000 TV movie about the Don starring John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins stole some of the thunder.

At least until recently, when it was announced they were back underway, with Red Riding trilogy scripter Tony Grisoni as co-writer. Then it broke down again, when funding fell through. As of the time of writing, it’s dead in the water, following another doomed pre-production session. Considering the pattern that is occurring here, if “the film that didn’t want to be made” ever does come to screen, presumably nobody will bother going to see it.

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick

Best Known For:

Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket…

His Personal Vision:

Napoleon

Quite rightly seen as one of the greatest auteurs of all time, Kubrick is practically worshiped by young filmmakers and fans of cinema. Although not prolific, the percentage of his films that are now undeniable classics is intimidating. Some claim he made the perfect film in every major genre. Though not in slapstick, obviously, it wasn’t his style.

Though considered to be incredibly harsh on cast and crew, as well as enigmatically reclusive and secretive, Kubrick is best defined as being one of the most passionate of his ilk. If he took on a project, he was committed to it with all the energy he had. The only mercenary work he ever did was stepping in to helm Spartacus, itself a classic. His determination is exemplified by the fact that on his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, he worked himself into the ground to make deadlines and maintain the film’s core, despite being 70 at the time. He died from a fatal heart attack just four days after the completion of editing.

A great loss which ensured his epic vision for a movie biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte never came to fruition, despite his best efforts.

The project first reared its head after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, never one to do things by half, Kubrick set about a preliminary screenplay. To prepare the story, he and his assistants catalogued every single detail about Napoleon’s actions and locations that was available for full authenticity, and read more than 500 books on the subject. When the go-ahead was given, he set out to film at studios in his residence, the UK, as well as in France, with battle scenes to be filmed in Romania, for which he managed to secure the use of 50,000 of their soldiers to use as extras. He openly stated that he intended to make Napoleon the best movie ever made.

Napoleon Bonaparte

So Why No Love?…

Again, pretty simple: Money.

Considering the location costs, compared with the money needed to make a War and Peace adaptation, the project was shelved. When another Naploeon biopic, named Waterloo, failed it made the subject matter untouchable for any financial backers. Much effort was wasted. However, Kubrick was still convinced he could make it work, and was desperate to try for it, but continually was unable to get production going for numerous reasons. Even by the late 80’s Kubrick still fully intended to make the film, stating as such. He felt it was an incredible story that had never been successfully carried across onto screen. And who would disagree? Considering Spartacus and Barry Lyndon, there’s no doubt he could vindicate his confidence. It’s a film this writer certainly wishes existed.

But, of course, he never got the chance. And nobody has in his wake, although a number of his jettisoned projects have been picked up by others (most notably AI: Artificial Intelligence). There’s something quite tragic about a movie he’d put so much effort into never even producing a foot of film, particularly given the long hiatuses in his later career.

Sometimes, it seems, even when you are at the peak of your powers, the magnum opus is still out of your reach. I think there’s a morality tale in there, somewhere….

Scott Patterson

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