Every movie has its own style and its own voice. And much of this voice is dictated by the vision of its director. Many famous directors have become known for their work in certain genres. Martin Scorsese revolutionized the mob movie. Steven Spielberg makes blockbusters. Peter Jackson makes movies about hobbits. From watching one film you can have a pretty good idea of the style of a filmmaker's other offerings.
With that in mind, it can be a shock when we learn that our favorite sci-fi director made a romantic comedy. There are many instances when those acclaimed for their work in one field step away to work in another. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but we've compiled a list of some of the best examples of popular directors trying their hand at something new.
So, sit back, put your feet up, crack open a bag of kale chips, and enjoy Screen Rant's list of 13 Directors Who Stepped Out of Their Comfort Zones.
13 Kenneth Branagh - Thor (2011)
Sir Kenneth Branagh is a Northern Irish actor and director with an extensive filmography. He’s best known for his film adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare, including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), and Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000). Throughout his career, Branagh has found time to act on stage, direct his own films, narrate audiobooks, and still show up in Hollywood films like Valkyrie and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He’s a renaissance man, with a grounding in theater.
And so it came as a surprise to many when in 2008 he shared that he had been tapped to direct the forthcoming Thor film. The world of Marvel Comics and the prince of Asgard seemed, at first glance, a million miles away from the elegance and polish of Shakespeare. But Branagh was able to pull it off. While Thor is considered to be one of the weaker Marvel films as far as plot goes, it was competently directed, featured a breakout performance by Tom Hiddleston as lovably evil brother Loki, and it scored nearly half-a-billion dollars at the box office. Thor was always a notoriously difficult stand-alone character for the studio to get off the ground, and Branagh probably did as well with the concept as one could have done.
12 Alfonso Cuaron - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Alfonso Cuaron is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, best known for surreal, gorgeous films like Children of Men, Gravity, and Y Tu Mama Tambien. His movies are overtly oriented towards adult audiences, and he seems to like to surprise with spurts of violence, action, and romance.
So it comes as a bit of a wonder that the Mexican director would sign on to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. No doubt, the film features his storytelling acumen. But Harry Potter is a clear departure from anything the director has done, before or since.
In the third installment in the ridiculously popular series, Azkaban focuses on Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) as he returns to his third year at Hogwarts. He is dealing with fainting spells, and is once again joined by his pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) emerges from years in prison, and it's assumed that he’s seeking revenge against Harry for what he has done to his mentor, the wizard Voldemorte.
It feels nothing like the rest of Cuaron’s canon, but Azkaban’s a fantastic movie that the whole family will love, and many consider it to be the best film in the Potter series.
11 Alfred Hitchcock - Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Alfred Hitchcock is best known for his tightly wound potboilers, movies that look, at first glance, like fly-by-night serial thrillers, but upon closer inspection are exceptionally made works of art. Hitchcock’s most famous films include Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and The Birds. He is known, simply, as the master of suspense. With Psycho he introduced a more violent and disturbing film than American cinema had seen prior.
As well, it's interesting camera angles, great characters, witty dialogue, and superb set design that mark Hitchcock works. And Mr. and Mrs. Smith benefits from all of the craft that the director can offer. It is well-paced, expertly crafted, and just a joy to experience.
But oddly, what it's missing is the carnal horror and suspense of the master’s other film works. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a happy-go-lucky little film, wherein a couple duke it out not with knives or fists, but with their banter. It is a lighthearted romantic comedy, of all things, from a man known for his supremely scary masterpieces.
10 Woody Allen - Interiors (1978)
Woody Allen was fresh off of making a string of comedy hits when he made Interiors, a somber endeavour into the emotional lives of the adult children in a privileged but troubled family. The story centers around the aging parents telling the kids that they are getting a divorce. Mother Eve (Geraldine Page) is a suicidally depressed woman, whom the children look after with some bitterness, while father Arthur (E.G. Marshall) gallivants around Greece with his new girlfriend. All of this activity creates tumult in the lives of their sensitive daughters — Renata (Diane Keaton), Flyn (Kristin Griffith), and Joey (Mary Beth Hurt). The film features many scenes where family members hurl resentment towards one another.
Up until Interiors, Woody Allen had only been known for making exceptionally funny comedies that usually centered around a nebbish, neurotic character played by himself. Interiors was Allen’s first movie that he didn’t act in, and it was his first and furthest departure from the comic format into drama. It broke even at the box office and received generally good reviews. Still, Allen’s 1986 flick Hannah and Her Sisters is a better film, exploring family dynamics with a bit of levity.
9 Wes Craven - Music of the Heart (1999)
Music of the Heart is an affectionate drama based on the incredible true story of Roberta Guaspari, a teacher who helped change the lives of her underprivileged students. The story starts with Guaspari as struggling musician whose husband just walked out on her. Her friend recommends her to a school in Harlem, where she is hired as a substitute music teacher. Guaspari had no teaching experience, but through her determination and care, she built a world-class music program for the school. Fast forward ten years: Her program is in full-swing, and the school board decides to cut funding. Guaspari and her friends decide to throw a concert event, a fundraiser to save the music curriculum. It gains the attention of famed musicians Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman, among others, who rally to bring the concert all the way to Carnegie Hall. Funding is re-established, and the Opus 118 music program continues to this day.
Okay, so this sounds like a touching, if run-of-the-mill story about an everyday hero. That’s fine. But what is slightly mind-blowing about this whole thing is that the director of it is none other than Wes Craven. A revered horror auteur, Craven’s most famous films include The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the Scream series. He’s one of the forefathers of the slasher subgenre, and apparently also a competent director of dramas about violin teachers.
8 Roman Polanski - Pirates (1986)
Two of Roman Polanski’s best films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), are masterpieces of horror-suspense and mystery, respectively. One is a wonderfully frightful tale of a young woman whose kindly old neighbors are actually demonic cultists, while the other is a net-noir thriller which intertwines small-time infidelities with sweeping conspiracies.
Polanski is a master storyteller of anything that’s dark and builds slow. So it’s kind of amazing that he wrote and directed an action-comedy about a plucky pirate. After the success of Chinatown, Polanski wrote Pirates’ script, which sat unfunded for twelve years before being made. With a budget of $40 million, the film was to be a pirate movie done in a big way. But the whole think sunk with the miscasting of Walter Matthau, clunky dialogue, and, frankly, an uninspired story.
7 Francis Ford Coppola - Jack (1996)
Francis Ford Coppola was a master filmmaker, no doubt about it. He took Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather and turned it into one of the greatest movies of all time. He dealt with unbelievable production issues in getting Apocalypse Now made, and it is now considered the definitive war — and anti-war — picture. He made a sequel to The Godfather that was just as good, and his haunting, paranoia-fuelled surveillance flick The Conversation brings with it the best Gene Hackman performance we’ve ever seen. So considering the greatness of his filmography throughout the seventies, it is slightly head-scratching that in 1996 Coppola decided to direct the overly sentimental dramedy Jack.
Robin Williams stars as Jack, a ten-year-old with a growing disorder that makes him age at a rate of four times that of his peers, making him look like a forty-year-old while still in elementary school. He must deal with many different problems as a kid trapped in an adult’s body, and the movie predictably offers the default power fantasies and anatomical humor to complement the family-friendly schmaltz. It’s an unremarkable fossil of the VHS era, with the only surprise being Coppola's name in the credits.
6 Clint Eastwood - The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Based on Robert James Waller’s bestseller, The Bridges of Madison County is set in the 1960s and is the story of an Italian woman living in Madison County, Iowa, who meets a photographer and the two fall into a brief love affair.
While her husband and children are away at the Iowa State Fair, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) happens to meet National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), who is in the area to snap the local covered bridges. He asks her to show him the different bridges of the area, and through the course of their time together she opens up about her life and they fall into a short but consequential affair.
Of all the people to direct such a movie, Clint Eastwood would probably be the last person to come to mind. Eastwood is a talented actor and director, best known for his roles in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, Unforgiven, and other decidedly masculine movies. But somehow, the grizzled guy who famously portrayed The Man with No Name and later Dirty Harry was the director, producer, and star of a really good and financially successful romantic film.
5 Gus Van Sant - Good Will Hunting (1997)
Gus Van Sant’s style deals a lot in minimalism and realism, with most of his films being dark and character driven. When film buffs hear his name they may think of Drugstore Cowboy, My Private Idaho, or Last Days. But what probably won’t come to people’s minds is, ironically, far and away his most successful film — Good Will Hunting.
It’s the movie that launched the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, both of whom also wrote the film. Damon stars as Will Hunting, a tough inner-city Bostonian with not a lot of money or education but a heckuva mind. The brilliant twenty-year-old fritters away his time working as a janitor at MIT and anonymously solving impossible math equations... when he’s not at a bar with his buddies or getting into fights and subsequently arrested.
As character-focused as this movie is, charting the emotional growth of gifted-but-troubled Hunting, Van Sant never lets things get too dark or strange. Residing close to family movie territory, it’s a warm and well-paced film nearly anybody would like.
4 David Lynch - The Straight Story (1999)
1999 seemed to be a year when many famous directors broke convention, and David Lynch was certainly one of them. Known as one of the great surrealists, Lynch enraptures audiences with dream-like films that are often strange and unsettling. His first feature film, 1977’s Eraserhead, has become a cult horror classic. And movies like Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and the TV series Twin Peaks are some of the best examples out there of brain-bending noir.
The Straight Story, on the other hand, is a warm and fuzzy little film released by Disney, which follows the real-life story of an old man who travels hundreds of miles on his lawnmower to see his ailing older brother. Alvin (Richard Farnsworth), determined by society to be unfit to drive, hitches a trailer to his John Deere and starts an epic journey, where he encounters wayward hitchhikers, packs of cyclists, and a priest, with all of whom he shares his home-spun wisdom. It’s a lovely family movie made by a capable director.
3 Neil Labute - Death at a Funeral (2010)
Neil Labute is known for making stirring films about the darker side of humanity. Most of his films focus on how regular people can act out in cruel and self-absorbed ways. His debut feature In the Company of Men was a low-budget, bleak film about a couple of male office workers with major woman issues. They plan to pick-up and take out a woman, only to unashamedly drop her without explanation at the end of the night. His follow-up films Your Friends & Neighbors, and Nurse Betty, continue the narrative of spurned love, obsession, sexual objectification, and narcissism. You get the idea.
So when Labute put out Death at a Funeral in 2010, it was a surprisingly upbeat change for him. The movie starred Chris Rock as Aaron, a young man home to attend the funeral of his father, and reuniting with his outlandish family. It’s a stock comedy that has a decently well-known cast — Zoe Saldana, Keith David, Peter Dinklage costar — but little else to offer. It is a huge step away from anything Labute’s become known for.
2 Spike Lee - Inside Man (2006)
For decades, Spike Lee has been making some of the most provocative, forward-thinking films out there, honing in on the subjects of culture, race, and politics in modern America. His first feature, 1985’s She’s Gotta Have It was a seminal independent film and a clear harbinger of Lee’s brilliance. His three-hour magnum opus Malcolm X stands as one of the best biopics of the latter twentieth century.
Lee’s dominance in modern movies about race and culture springs largely from his unique voice. He is a filmmaker who seems to do what he wants, driven by what interests him, and who is not beholden to anyone. His stories often deal with problems and characters that are politically incorrect, living right next to us but at the same time on the fringe of acceptable mainstream discourse.
But it is a totally different feeling that one gets when watching Inside Man. Lee-regular Denzel Washington stars as a police detective tasked with unraveling a daringly complicated bank robbery. Unlike the majority of Lee’s films, which are about people and their relationships, Inside Man is almost entirely plot-driven. Washington’s character is given clever dialogue, but he is a tool of the institution he works for. And the film’s title is a good metaphor for it being the director’s one film from inside the establishment, inside the big banks, inside the police force. It’s a slick Hollywood drama that’s a playful change of pace for Lee.
1 Michael Bay - Pain & Gain (2013)
Pain & Gain is a movie inspired by true events, a spate of kidnappings and robberies undertaken by amateur bodybuilders in Miami in the 1990s. Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, an ex-con and fitness buff who’s hired by a gym to up their membership. On his off-time, he attends seminars led by a wealthy businessman (Ken Jeong), who preaches the path of personal gain and pleasure above all else. Lugo is taken under by the fantasy, as are his two cohorts Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie). They resolve to kidnap and extort tycoon Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), but their amateurish mistakes get them into serious trouble fast.
It’s a farcical, dimwitted film that tries to pass itself off as a Coen Brothers movie in a muscle shirt. Director Michael Bay, who is known preeminently for his CGI-laden Transformers movies, makes the concerted attempt with Pain & Gain to make a more character-focused, dramatic film. But inane dialogue and unlikable characters make this impossible.
What do you think? Know of a director credit that surprised you, that we missed? Talk to us!