Featured Directors

James Cameron

James CameronName: James Cameron

Essential DVDs: The Terminator (1984); Aliens (1986); Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991); True Lies (1994); Titianic (1997); Avatar (2009)

Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Editing (Titanic, 1998)

In His Own Words: “Less isn’t more. More is more.”

The future is what we make for ourselves,’ is a refrain repeated throughout James Cameron’s first film, The Terminator, and it’s a phrase he’s clearly taken to heart. But Cameron doesn’t just see the future coming; he makes it happen. He deserves to be known as more than just the master of the big budget, the huge grosser, and the high concept, or even the self-styled King Of The World, but instead as one of the most progressive and important technological innovators in cinema history.

Perhaps, second only to George Lucas, Cameron has been directly responsible for the staggering development in visual effects capabilities over the last fifteen years. The Abyss, TitanicAvatar, and everything in between featured effects that hadn’t been possible until Cameron pushed the envelope, while he’s recently developed a brand-new 3D camera system. Because he can.

And yet for a man who’s so clearly in love with the possibilities of technology, his movies constantly warn against the dangers of becoming enslaved to machinery (what is Titanic if not a lecture on man’s folly writ large?), while his preoccupation with nuclear weapons (there’s an atomic explosion in every Cameron film, bar Titanic… and yes, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning) burns throughout his movies. As does a great humanist streak, which sometimes gets lost amid the brouhaha about his occasionally clunky dialogue, financial excesses (Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic were all, at the time of their release, the most expensive movies ever made), and his innate skills with an action sequence (he’s as influential in the action genre as Peckinpah or Woo). After all he took the measure of Ripley and turned her into the font of strong, modern female leads, from which he mined his own Sarah Connor, Rose in Titanic, and Jamie Lee Curtis’ ballsy housewife in True Lies.

Part of Cameron’s appeal is his go-for-broke nature—an enormous personality with a legendary temper (crews on his movies often sport T-shirts having wry pops at his demanding ways), no challenge is too great. You want a great sci-fi movie? He’ll knock out Terminator 1 and 2. A great sequel? How about Aliens, one of the greatest of them all. A great love story? Hell, he only went and made the most successful frickin’ film of all time.

Ah, Titanic. Since its immense success (11 Oscars, $2.2 billion worldwide), some snarly critics have perceived his failure to direct a full-length, live-action movie as a failure of nerve. In fact, it’s given him enormous freedom to do what he wants to do: make hundreds of deep-sea dives, produce films for other directors, and develop technology for his forthcoming fully 3D manga adaptation, Battle Angel. And to cap it all off, he’s planning to shoot a film at some point soon—in space. His career up to now has been brilliant, but Cameron prefers to focus on the future—and right now his is bright as it’s ever been.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford CoppolaName: Francis Ford Coppola

Essential DVDs: The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), The Godfather: Part III (1990)

Oscars: Best Screenplay (Patton, 1971); Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture (The Godfather, 1973); Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture, (The Godfather Part II, 1975)

In His Own Words: “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Age 35, Francis Ford Coppola departed the 1974 Academy Awards clutching statuettes for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, a place in film history assured. At the forefront of a precocious pack of film school auteurs — Scorsese, Bogdanovich and Lucas were his acolytes — Coppola had just directed three back-to-back classics: the elegant and epochal The Godfather (which, at the time, became the biggest grossing film in history); taut post-Watergate paranoia trip The Conversation; and the sublimely orchestrated sequel The Godfather Part II. His next film, the feverish Vietnam fable Apocalypse Now, would apply indelible gloss to his entry in Hollywood’s pantheon.

Come 1992, and the director/producer was filing for his third bankruptcy, a golden seventies having been sullied by a disastrously leaden eighties. High-budget follies One From The Heart and The Cotton Club had destroyed his bank balance and ruptured his once watertight credibility. Whether it was the ravages of battling executives, egos and the elements during the five-year making of Apocalypse Now, or the obsessional — many would say megalomaniac — quest to carve out his own empire with the ill-fated studio-cum-artistic-haven American Zoetrope, Coppola was never the same director once the seventies drew to a close.

But those four consecutive era-defining classics alone staked his claim for greatness. They combined majestic productions with themes that underpinned the post-war American experience: immigration (Coppola was the son of Italian migrants); family in a baby-boomer nation; political corruption following Watergate; and the war in Vietnam. Coppola stands as a cornerstone of Hollywood’s sadly short-lived seventies golden age.

Oliver Stone

Oliver StoneName: William Oliver Stone

Essential DVDs: Salvador (1986); Platoon (1986); Wall Street (1987); Born On The Fourth Of July (1989); JFK (1991); Natural Born Killers (1994); Nixon (1995)

Oscars: Best Director (Born On The Fourth Of July, 1990); Best Director, Best Picture (Platoon, 1987); Best Adapted Screenplay (Midnight Express, 1978)

In His Own Words: “I consider my films first and foremost to be dramas about individuals in personal struggles and I consider myself to be a dramatist before I am a political filmmaker. I’m interested in alternative points of view. I also like anarchy in films.”

Where do you start with a problem like Oliver? He is Hollywood’s coruscating conscience, part madman, part genius, entirely troublemaker. He just can’t help himself. JFK had critics fired and death threats landing across his desk, Natural Born Killers appalled and aggravated the liberals and hard-liners alike, and with Alexander he sprawled in every direction picking up hoots of derision for his trouble. Inconsistent he maybe, but Stone continues to scratch away at boundaries while the likes of Scorsese or Coppola, are either clutching for the mainstream or dozing on their veranda somewhere in the Napa Valley. If he’s going to falter, he’s going to do it in the full glare of the limelight. Stone is so public a persona, his stars tend to feel like second billing.

His vision, sharpened by the frenetic lash of his edits and the full arsenal of camera tricks he uses to powerhouse his intrepid ideas, was born from his three tours of duty in Vietnam. It fed directly into his art, the modern, curdled history of America becoming the backbone of his muse. He is driven by a furious passion to deliver the truth, a fury that can be felt in every frame of every film. “People are suckers for the truth,” harries Donald Sutherland’s deep-throated X in JFK. “And the truth is on your side, Bubba.”

Ultimately, and beautifully, he refuses to be confined by ideology. He is both politico and bohemian (hell, why else make a film about The Doors?). As a filmmaker it is a unique voice, hectoring and heartfelt, and when they come to write his epitaph it should be quite simple: “Never bland.”

Sergio Leone

Sergio LeoneName: Sergio Leone

Essential DVDs: A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966); Once Upon A Time In The West (1968); Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Oscars: None

In His Own Words: “I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes, obviously; it fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.”

After the muscle-man quickie The Colossus Of Rhodes, Sergio Leone directed a mere six films, making up two trilogies, the ‘dollars’ films about Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) and a panoramic trio (Once Upon A Time In The West, Duck, You Sucker, Once Upon A Time In America) about corruption and power in the New World.

It was said that Leone’s Westerns were ‘realistic’ depictions of grim 19th century Tex-Mex frontier life, but actually they are stark, simple fables. Though the body counts are higher, his Westerns tend to be as morally cut-and-dried as any kiddie matinee oater. Appropriately, His world is divided into good, bad and ugly. Heroes gun down a great many people, but each and every one of them deserved what was coming to him. In his last film (Once Upon A Time In America), however, he took the good out of the equation, and showed only bad or ugly men while dividing women into angels or whores.

Leone was a lover of grotesque faces, wide screens, corrida-style gunfights, craggy landscapes, long shots, absurd comedy, earthy physicality and bursts of swift, ghastly violence. He signed up Ennio Morricone to provide a soundtrack for the Italian West and cut Eastwood out of the corral and made him the last great cowboy star, deciding how the Western would look and sound for the next four decades. Leone realised Westerns were also historical movies and obsessed over the precise types of gun, boot, pocket-watch or hat his characters should sport. Not to forget the various political readings of his movies.

John Ford

John FordName: John Martin Feeney aka John Ford aka “Pappy”

Essential DVDs: Stagecoach (1939); My Darling Clementine (1946); She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949); The Searchers (1956); The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance (1962)

Oscars: Best Director (The Informer, 1935); Best Director (The Grapes Of Wrath, 1940); Best Director (How Green Was My Valley, 1940); Best Director (The Quiet American, 1951)

In His Own Words: “Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals. Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eye.”

When John Ford self-deprecatingly introduced himself with, ‘My name’s John Ford, I make Westerns’, he had a canny sense of the way he would be remembered. Though he started cranking out silent quickies (his first director’s credit was Red Saunders Plays Cupid in 1917), his great Hollywood years found him hailed as an important, Oscar-worthy maker of significant films like The Informer, How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes Of Wrath. After the silent superproduction The Iron Horse, he stayed off the range until 1939, when Stagecoach revived a genre that allegedly was just for kids by mixing shoot ’em up thrills with literary merit (the inspiration is a story by Guy de Maupassant) and breathtaking pictorial skills.

He rescued John Wayne from the Bs, and showed him to be a better actor than we’d imagined in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. He managed the lyrical legendary of My Darling Clementine and the harsh revisionism of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The embarrassing Oirish belief that drunken brawling is the highest form of social interaction is blotted out by moments of beauty, sensitivity, heroism and sadness that are unmatched.

Few other directors can make male audiences cry in the way Ford manages in sober moments, as he mythologises the men and women who made the West and the loveliness of the savage landscape, but acknowledges those times are gone and there’s probably no room in the meagre modern world for the man who really shot Liberty Valance.

Billy Wilder

Bill WilderName: Samuel Wilder aka Billy Wilder

Essential DVDs: Double Indemnity (1944); The Lost Weekend (1945); Sunset Boulevard (1950); Ace In The Hole (1951); Some Like It Hot (1959); The Apartment (1960)

Oscars: Best Screenplay, Best Director (The Lost Weekend, 1946); Best Screenplay (Sunset Boulevard, 1951); Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture (The Apartment, 1961) ; Irving Thalberg Memorial Award (1988)

In His Own Words: “Some pictures play wonderfully to a room of eight people. I don’t go for that. I go for the masses. I go for the end effect.”

Wilder, a young screenwriter struggling to make a name amid the bohemian decadence of pre-War Berlin, heard a tap on his window. On the ledge outside he found a well-known film producer who had fled his mistress’s bed in the apartment next door when her husband arrived home unexpectedly. In exchange for his silence, Wilder extracted a contract from the hapless cuckold on the spot. Anyone with that kind of initiative is going to go far in Hollywood.

Billy Wilder was once described (reputedly by William Holden) as having, “A head full of razorblades.” It’s a wonderful phrase, one that Wilder had the good sense to steal, alluding not just to a legendarily keen mind but also to its versatility. If Wilder had made only comedies –if he’d written and directed nothing more than Some Like It Hot or The Apartment, in fact –he would still be among the immortals. As it is, his biting wit and gleeful misanthropy found a variety of triumphant outlets: ingenious WWII thriller Five Graves To Cairo (1943), peerless noir Double Indemnity (1944), dipso melodrama The Lost Weekend (1945), savagely expose Ace In The Hole (1951) and, of course, macabre masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950) to name a few.

Wilder’s career was summed up by another wag as: “Hating people for fun and profit.” A world-class cynic with a streak of self-deprecation a mile wide, he would not have disagreed. Asked his thoughts on his own films, he replied, “I loathe some of them less than others.”