Why Do Good Directors Go Bad?


January 5, 2016

(Shyamalan Month logo is shown. It's a scene from NC's After Earth review, featuring Shyamalan in a top hat dancing with a cane behind a Looney Tunes background with "Merrily We Roll Along" in the background)

Shyamalan: (singing) Why does everybody keep on hiring me? / All of my work is shiiiit!

(Iris out. Cut to NC at his table)

NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. Well, seeing how we just started Shyamalan Month, it only figures to ask the question: How do good directors go bad?

(Images of M. Night Shyamalan and his movies are shown)

NC (vo): Yes, it's easy to point at Shyamalan as a prime example of this, seeing how one of his earliest films, The Sixth Sense, was a huge, huge hit, and his movies got increasingly worse after. (Posters of The Last Airbender, Lady in the Water, and The Happening are shown)

NC: But, what about the others? You know who I'm talking about.

(Images of various directors, including George Lucas, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis, Barry Sonnenfeld, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Wachowskis, are shown)

NC (vo): Directors that, even today, are praised as maverick game-changers, but many people feel have lost their touch in later years. Is it just an inevitable part of getting older? Are all artists doomed to fail if they stay around too long? It's a question a lot of people who love movies have been asking for years.

NC: Well, the best way to look at this is probably in groups. So let's start off by looking at the group you most likely want to hear the most about, the ones that went completely downhill.

(Posters of Signs, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and The Matrix Revolutions are shown)

NC (vo): The Shyamalans, the George Lucases, the Wachowskis, the directors we thought were going to change the world, but then somewhere down the line, went completely south.

NC: What do all these directors have in common? Well, a couple of things, surprisingly.

(Several images of those three directors are shown, as well as an image of a famous writer)

NC (vo): All of them, we declared were gonna keep making great things. If that one thing they made was amazing, surely, all the other ones afterwards will be just as amazing if not greater. Writer Ralph Ellison wrote a novel called Invisible Man in 1952. It was so good and so praised by everyone around him that he never wrote another novel again. He became a perfectionist, and the pressure of following up such a masterwork intimidated him so much that he never released another one.

NC: That's just one example of how certain attention can get in the way of good progress.

(Images of Star Wars are shown)

NC (vo): When George Lucas made Star Wars, people were blown away, saying it would change film forever, and, in some respects, it did. Every big blockbuster is trying to do what Star Wars did, whether in style or the amount of people they're trying to attract. But if you look at a lot of the deleted scenes and original scripts, you'll find that a lot of it was very similar to the now-despised prequels. There were a lot of political talks, there were a lot of pointless scenes. And admit it, some of the dialogue has an eerie corniness of what was to come years later.

Princess Leia: I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.

NC: Couldn't you just hear that alongside...?

(A scene from The Phantom Menace is shown)

Queen Amidala: Either choice presents great danger...to us all.

NC (vo): But one of the things was he had people giving him advice, telling him what would probably work and what wouldn't. He wasn't a star yet, and a lot was riding on this film, so why not listen? This is possibly what helped make this movie such a big game-changer. But even early on, the signs were there. After the first run of the film, Lucas immediately went back and put Episode IV in the opening scroll. So as much as people like to say he's changing things and altering the films only recently, they were done when they were first shown. And remember that Empire and Jedi were not directed by him, and the scenes that people have the most problems with are usually the ones he pushed the heaviest. So, years of not directing a film, not really doing that much storytelling, and nobody talking against him but instead praising him as a genius, can we really be shocked we got what we got?

NC: History repeated itself almost identically with the Matrix movies.

(Footage of the Matrix trilogy are shown, showing first the poster of the directors' first movie)

NC (vo): The Wachowskis started off with a pretty damn good first movie (Bound), but then hit mega-blockbuster status when they directed The Matrix. Much like Star Wars, it had groundbreaking effects, an interesting style, and an environment that allowed for a lot of interpretation.

NC: So, knowing Hollywood, what happened? The exact same thing except faster.

NC (vo): They wanted two more Matrix movies, bigger and better than the original, telling the Wachowskis to do whatever they wanted. But as we learned with Lucas, doing whatever you want isn't always the answer. The Wachowskis also had to take advice on their first movie, and as I pointed out in my review, it's not like the writing was exactly perfect.

Man: (to Neo) You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.

NC: Subtle!

NC (vo): But now imagine that writing with nobody advising them and instead a fanbase praising that their words are incredible. "I get lost in how deep they are!" Like Lucas, the following movies reflected that, trying to make the world seem more vast and meaningful while forgetting to focus on basic essentials, like enjoyable characters or a coherent story.

NC: But think about it. If you were a writer/director in that situation, wouldn't that possibly happen to you, too?

(Footage of Christopher Nolan's movies are shown)

NC (vo): Even directors that are still popular, like Christopher Nolan. It's totally understandable how people can still like his work, but even his strongest fans are starting to notice a little repeat. A lot of philosophical talk, resulting in a very long running time, leading to a super-complicated story.

NC: Now these are criticisms that have always been in his movies, all of them.

NC (vo): Memento, Batman Begins, Inception, these films had very similar patterns. Some claim it's the same thing over and over and they're sick of it. Others claim that it doesn't matter because he just does it so well. But everybody agrees they've seen it a lot. The point is, sometimes, it's not giving us something different that's a noticeable problem, sometimes, it's just giving us the exact same thing.

NC: But not all directors are given almost complete creative freedom. Look at horror directors like John Carpenter and the late Wes Craven.

(Images and footage of both directors' movies are shown)

NC (vo): Both of them started off with creative ideas and promising careers, but somewhere, they started to feel a little stale. After Halloween, John Carpenter directed almost a movie a year. (Posters of Escape from New York, They Live, Escape from LA, Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, and In the Mouth of Madness are shown) And most of them were awesome and badass. But then they started to go on repeat. We were seeing stuff we thought we saw before, except not as innovative. He basically left directing and instead soaks up the praise of his past projects, which, given his age and how much cool stuff he's done, that seems fitting enough. But as much as people praise Wes Craven after his passing, they usually forget he's kind of been on the decline for years as well. Sure, we know him for his early work, but aside from the Scream movies, which even mocked itself in how lame it was getting, he hasn't made that many films that people remember.

NC: One of the reasons may be, Wes Craven didn't want to do horror.

(A poster for Music of the Heart is shown)

NC (vo): Ever noticed a few romantic films snuck their way in there? That's because he always wanted to do love stories. But after the success of his scary films, he was labeled as the Master of Horror for a while, and that seemed to be what kept him popular, as well as continue to get him work. He even made fun of this in Scream 3 when the director admits he doesn't even like doing horror films and instead wanted to do romances. He managed to get one or two in there, but can we really be shocked that not all his scary movies are masterpieces when it wasn't even his original intent?

NC: There is also a group of directors that don't make that many good movies because they don't make that many movies in general.

(Francis Ford Coppola and his movies are shown)

NC (vo): The legendary Francis Ford Coppola clearly just kind of directs whatever he wants. We all know him for The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, but did you know he also directed (posters of...) Captain EO, or Fairy Tale Theatre, or Peggy Sue Got Married, or Jack? Whether you like these or not, you have to admit, these are rather strange choices for a guy like this. But part of it is understandable because he's been busy with other stuff. From producing to theater work to friggin' wine-making, he seems like a guy who likes to do a lot, just not all in one field. But when you do that, the chances of making constantly good films are usually lessened as you're simply not making them as much. But then again, if he's happy, he's happy. Who says he has to keep making films to appease us?

(William Friedkin and his movies are shown)

NC (vo): William Friedkin went from directing something every year to every three years, and half the time, it wasn't even movies, it was TV. And even then, the choices were usually very odd and not winning over that many critics or audiences. But to his credit, it was those bizarre choices that gave us masterpieces like The Exorcist or Live and Die in LA and so forth. Sometimes, that weird style can peak at just the right time, but then, not really be ready for a different generation. Bug, for example, a film about a couple going crazy from paranoia, would've worked great in the 70s, but today, most audiences just find it annoying and confusing. Neither opinion is right or wrong, but timing is everything when it comes to making popular art.

NC: Which comes to the next group of directors you see quite often: the hit or miss directors.

(Footage of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is shown)

NC (vo): These are the directors who used to make nothing but hits, but suddenly make misses that are so bad, you can't possibly believe they were from the same person. Tim Burton used to be a unique visionary, with Ed Wood, Batman and Edward Scissorhands. But then, films like Mars Attacks, Dark Shadows, and Planet of the Apes are part of his lineup, too.

(A poster for Ang Lee's Hulk is shown, as well as an image of Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho and a poster of Milk)

NC (vo): Ang Lee was well known for losing his path in a big way once in a while. Gus Van Sant seems to go back and forth between making annoyingly unfocused art house experiments and reasonably good films at the same time.

(Footage of Robert Zemeckis' The Walk and posters of his other movies are shown)

NC (vo): Robert Zemeckis walks the tightrope both literally and figuratively with giants like Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit, but then backfires with What Lies Beneath and Contact.

(Footage of Robert Rodriguez's movies are shown)

NC (vo): Robert Rodriguez is amazing in how back and forth he goes with the likability or hateability of his movies.

NC: Most recently, we've seen Ridley Scott practically lampoon his own style...

(Posters of Robin Hood, Prometheus and The Martian are shown)

NC (vo): ...with Robin Hood and Prometheus, but within one film, win back everybody with The Martian.

NC: What do all these directors have in common? Well, they all have pretty extreme styles.

NC (vo): As much as we love extremes, people forget they can just as easily backfire as hit bulls-eyes. The style of these filmmakers, though, seems to be just relatable enough that even when they do make a big miss, we're still willing to jump right back on because they can still make a connection with us that seems timeless. It's hard to say what the secret is that keeps us coming back to them, but all of them have it in their own unique way.

NC: Which brings us to the most impressive group of directors who have gone bad: the ones who come back.

(Several famous directors are shown, among posters of their bad movies and their comeback movies)

NC (vo): Remember when the Coen Brothers made a long line of bad films? They returned to pleasing us and as strange as ever. Remember when Woody Allen suffered an embarrassing personal life as well as creative life? He retaliated with intelligent comedies (Midnight in Paris) that even had a hint of magic to them. Barry Sonnenfeld was making bomb after bomb (Wild Wild West and Big Trouble), but then, he made Men in Black 3, the surprising sequel that nobody knew they wanted. Master filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, both giants of cinema in their own unique way, veered into a long stream of disappointment (Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and War of the Worlds), but found themselves making great work again in completely new ways (Hugo and Bridge of Spies).

NC: And, yes. Even Shyamalan has made...

(Footage of The Visit is shown)

NC (vo): ...a little bit of a comeback with The Visit, getting both critical and box office praise. These are directors that started off strong, veered into dark paths, and then seemingly came out creatively rejuvenated. Did they just need time to heal? Did they just need to try something new to discover the old ways, or were the old ways getting in the way of something new?

NC: Honestly, we can't know for sure, and it's all subjective. Really, this is just speculation.

(Scenes from The Matrix)

NC (vo): We can't know for sure what's going on behind the scenes any more than we can know what's going on inside somebody's head. Everything listed here are possibilities that seem likely, but aren't certain. I guess what I'm trying to get to is that there's no perfect way to make continually great art. Everyone's gonna have their ups and downs. Some stay down, others come back up, and many hover somewhere in between. With filmmaking requiring as many people as it does, there's no one method that's proven to always work. Sometimes, the studio gets in the way; other times, they save a movie. Sometimes, an artist should be allowed to do whatever they want; other times, they need more restraint.

NC: You can never know for sure, but honestly, that's what makes art so exciting.

NC (vo): There is no one answer. It can come from any style, anywhere, from anyone. Will Shyamalan ride the success of The Visit into better work, or was it just a lucky shot in the dark? Nobody knows, and thank God for it. The unpredictability of what a product is going to do is part of what makes it so thrilling. A well known director can make crap, and a well known bad director can make gold. So just remember: When it comes to art, there is no certainty, and you don't have all the answers; none of us do. It's just interesting to speculate and guess to help figure out what can make something better. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you always remember it's just speculation. So keep experimenting, keep discovering, and keep an open mind for where the next Citizen Kane or The Room could possibly come from.

NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic, and don't worry. I won't be this fair the rest of the month.

(NC laughs maniacally, and lightning flashes as he gets up to leave. The credits roll)

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