Weekly Geeky Question #19: Influential Film Directors

Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #19, and this week’s questions is…

Who are ten film directors who have influenced me personally?

So this is similar to the post about comic book creators I wrote about a while ago, except that there should really be more filmmakers who have influenced me artistically than comic book people, simply because I actually make movies.  But even so, it’s a bit elusive to think of specific ways that other, usually really famous filmmakers have influenced me in my little corner of cinema.

But let’s try.  Everyone here has had some impact on me and my movie making, although for some the influence is limited to more what I wish I could be.

This is post is late (according to my self-imposed schedule) so no time to proofread, let’s get it out there!

Maya Deren (1917-1961)

Notable Work:  Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Maya Deren was born in the Ukraine, but made movies in America, and is considered a pioneer in the area of avant-garde filmmaking.  Indeed, Meshes of the Afternoon is apparently considered to be the first ever narrative American avant-garde film.

As a young and impressionable film student, I was introduced to Deren’s surreal, subjective dream-like story.  I was blown away by what were new-to-me techniques of extending or compressing time and space via editing, and also using movement and basic composition to match shots when there is narrative discontinuity.  It completely shaped my early experiments with “more serious” filmmaking.  My efforts were clumsy at best, but it was the start of me thinking about visual storytelling in a new way.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)

Notable Work:  2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick might be the first director that I was really aware of as a director, thanks to the fact that my parents showed me 2001: A Space Odyssey on TV as a kid, and later brought me to see it in a movie theatre.  Since then I’ve seen it a number of times, including on the big screen where I now live in Australia.  Kubrick’s visual style, full of strange symmetrical shots, made me aware of the deliberate quality of filmmaking for the first time, and also found its way (in a cheap, amateurish form) into my early filmmaking work.

Since then I’ve been exposed to a bunch of other of Kubrick’s films.  The most memorable to me was A Clockwork Orange which I saw in the middle of the night as the end of a bizarre triple feature which also included David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup (!!), and horrified me to no end.  Looking back at it highlights how much my movie tastes and priorities have changed, wherein I’m a lot more deliberately put off stuff that’s sexually explicit in content, or even extremely violent, which means consequently that there’s a lot of Kubrick’s work that I’m not likely to visit or revisit.

Brian De Palma (born 1940)

Notable works:  The Untouchables, Mission:  Impossible

Brian De Palma is actually often known for a genre of films I have no intention of touching with a ten foot pole, which is the “erotic thriller”.  People who know me, I believe, know that while I can find skill and quality in all sorts of film, I ultimately value the impact that different types of stories have on myself and others even more highly, and I just don’t believe that it’s beneficial for me to watch an “erotic” anything.

Still, I include De Palma because his work certainly influenced me, at least in terms of clumsy imitation.  First, I found the visual choreography of The Untouchables to be riveting.  I’m talking especially about the editing and the movement of the characters on screen.  It’s an action film, but it’s sort of like slow dance as well…a slow dance in which lots of people get shot.  It’s beautiful to watch, and something I tried my hand at once or twice (albeit, badly).

Also, his Mission Impossible led me directly to producing a spy movie, which is one of the longest narrative films I’ve made.  I found myself including my own version of De Palma’s plot twists, as well as his use of abrupt flashbacks to reveal information and move the scene forward. And I don’t even like his Mission: Impossible all that much.

Woody Allen (born 1935)

Notable Works:  Crimes and Misdemeanors, Purple Rose of Cairo

There was once upon a time that I’d have listed Woody Allen as the filmmaker whose talent I most wished I had, if such a thing could be completely divorced from character and personality.  Allen’s work contains a melancholy fix of comedy and drama, often with a layer of philosophical musing.  All of that appealed to the blend of manic and morose that personality seemed to be built off of when I was at college.

Another part of the appeal is the way that Allen has been able to retain artistic individuality even while enjoying commercial success.  I’ve also appreciated his connection with New York City, which while not exactly my home town, is almost close enough to call as such when I’m traveling internationally.

Crimes and Misdemeanors came out during that time and stuck with me over the years (though I’ve never seen it since), as a story about situations that are really sand and unjust, but in which one can still find hope and goodness if you look for it.  And I didn’t see Purple Rose of Cairo until much later, even though it came out earlier, and it’s one of the most enjoyable “love letters” to cinema that I’ve seen, even while it still retains Allen’s trademark bittersweet quality.

Like Kubrick, I’ve gone off Woody Allen quite a bit for a variety of reasons, which is obvious when I realize I the most recent film of his I’ve seen is Everyone Says I Love You and that came out in 1996.  I’d still be interested in seeing Moonlight in Paris, though.

Buster Keaton (1895-1966)

Notable works:  The General, Seven Chances

Talking about Woody Allen brings to mind Buster Keaton, the great silent film actor and movie maker (although he also acted in films in the talking era).  I missed learning about Buster Keaton when I was in college (thanks to, for some reason, not enrolling in the first semester of the History of Cinema class that was offered, the one that covered the silent era).

I discovered Keaton’s work years later when I attended a screening of The General, accompanied by live music, and was completely blown away.  The story was straightforward and the characterization without nuance; but the pace, the action and Keaton’s own stuntwork so captivating that it easily lifted me right out of normal life and brought all my focus onto the world of the screen.

Indeed, that’s what happens fictionally in Keaton’s Sherlock Junior, a film that I didn’t see until much later.  But as much as I enjoyed that and The General, the movie I’ve revisited the most has actually been Seven Chances, a quirky little comedy about a guy who must marry somebody by 7:00 pm that day or forfeit a huge inheritance.  I’ve written about it a number of times (here and here and here).  It contains a couple of the most amazing images ever put to film, including a man being chased down the street by a mob full of angry jilted brides, and also Buster’s character dancing with a pretty good looking landslide.  It’s classic and hilarious, and while Keaton’s work it’s not necessarily where I first learned that film didn’t have to naturalist in its aesthetic, it may be the place that cemented that understanding.

Joel (born 1954) & Ethan (born 1957) Coen – aka the Coen Brothers

Notable  works:  O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo

Speaking of film not having to be naturalistic, we have the Coen Brothers, who have been creating sort of sideways realities of cinematic worlds for years now.  I’m not sure where I first saw them–it might have been in Raising Arizona.  Later, it was Fargo that earned them my ongoing respect (even though the “adult” content of that film now puts it on my list of movies that I probably won’t be revisiting).  What I do love revisiting is O Brother, Where Art Thou? as an example of a masterpiece of comic timing and absurd imagery & plot developments which still feel connected sufficiently to reality to stay relatable.

I just wrote about this movie last week as an example of a non-fantasy, non-scifi visit to an “alien world”, and this is thanks to the Coen’s incredible attention to detail.  Even the minor characters are wonderfully specific.  You also see this in another one of their films that I like, The Hudsucker Proxy.  That one is not so popular, but it’s a winner for me.  Even the Coen’s less successful projects are interesting, and often you find that whatever reaction you’re having to their storytelling–be it laughter, or shock–is accompanied by a sort of dumbfounded stare, because what they’re doing is so out of the ordinary.

Frankly, I wish I was more inspired by them in my own work than I am.

Preston Sturges (1898-1959)

Notable work:  The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Talking about the Coen Brothers brings to mind Preston Sturges, a screwball comedy writer-director whose work directly inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou?  In Sturges’ Sullivans Travels, a film maker laments his inability to create a work which will inspire his country to weep at the plight of their fellow men.  The name of his proposed project is O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie is set in the same rough time period as the Coen Brothers project and features a scene of prisoners coming into a movie theatre.  I can also see elements of Sturges work coming through in the Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a film of Sturges that I saw a bit later in my life, but it now stands out to me as my favorite of his work.  It’s an uproariously funny film of comically difficult situations and an intricate plot, all layered with Sturges’ trademark verbose and literate script.  It’s the kind of movie where there’s just so much to laugh at, because there’s so much talking and so much going on.  Like much of Keaton and the Coen’s, the effect is to demand my attention in such a way that it lifts me out of the present and brings me to someplace unexpected and new.

Christopher Nolan (born 1970) 

(Whoa, Christopher Nolan is a few weeks younger than me.  Far out.)

Notable work:  Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Dunkirk

Now here is a guy whose work is basically the complete opposite to what I was just talking about.  I don’t mean that his films are not engrossing, however, I just mean that they are in a very different way.

Nolan’s films are often about crazy things (just pick any moment in Inception and you’ll see what I mean) but he tells his stories in a way that is…grounded in reality.

Actually, I don’t like that phrase because of how it gets used, but what I mean is just that he doesn’t disregard naturalism–he creates basically “normal” worlds as the foundation for all his stories, and then adds layers of the extraordinary on top of them.  So the effect is that you can kind of imagine that the crazy stuff (like entering dreams, or time traveling, or being Batman) is actually happening, even if it clearly never could.

The result is a different type of immersion–not the type that demands that you watch it because it’s going to be so out of the box that you daren’t miss a second.  But rather the type that so so effectively communicates the experience of its story that you can’t help but to feel that you are right there in the thick of it.  What this means it that I almost love watching one of the Nolan’s films for the first time because the experience is just so powerful, even if I end up deciding later on that I didn’t really like the story.

Now, the last two I’m going to do together, even though they are quite different filmmakers, and they’ve never met, and they’ve never done any film work together.  But…they do share a link that’s very important to me…

Dave B (born 1970)

Notable work:  No Day, No Night

JR De Ford (born 1981)

Notable work:  Gold from the Sky

One connection that these guys have is that you probably never heard of them, but another one is that I have…indeed, I’ve met them both, and have been privileged to have them both as friends.

I met Dave B (I’ve no idea why he doesn’t use his full name in his movies, but whatever, he doesn’t, so neither will I) when I went to college, when were still teenagers just figuring out what we were doing in life.  Dave and I were both interested in filmmaking, but Dave was way ahead of me in the game, having made all sorts of shorter and longer video / film projects in his youth, along with his friend and collaborator, who was also named Dave.  I had done a lot by that time as well, but the two Dave’s impressed me deeply with their diligence in their creative efforts, and the confidence with which they pursued their visions.  Dave B made a bunch of films on his own, as well.  I starred in one of them, a piece called Here Comes Your Man, and had small roles in others (I played an activist for the arts in an interesting video called The Forgetful Baby Killers). 

So it’s not too much to say that Dave B had a pretty major influence on me, since he certainly galvanized me to consider how I could take my filmmaking to another level.

And in some ways he’s continued to do that, even though I haven’t seen him for over 25 years.  Since we graduated, Dave went on to do a whole lot of other stuff, including a number of very interesting experimental avant-garde films.  The most effective for me is called No Day, No Night, which is made up of three semi-narrative vignettes all dealing with issues of disconnection and identity.  The imagery and editing are jarring and discordant, but arresting as well.  I also like his other films, particularly Kuboå and a more recent piece, The Miami Dentist.  They share some of the same qualities while remaining quite unique.  You can see Dave’s website here.

JR De Ford, on the other hand, is someone I met much later, after I’d graduated college, done a bunch of filmmaking, and then joined the missionary organization that I am still part of.  JR was one of my media students, but he came to me with an interest and a level of experience in film production already.

It’s not too much to say that when I met JR, I was in something of a creative rut. I did a lot of filmmaking for my organization, but out of habit and maybe out of insecurity I was pretty un-risky with it.  Almost every shot sat on a tripod, almost every scene was constructed the same way, and almost every story ran along the same pattern.  JR came with me on one of those projects when he was still a student, and while there were things he learned from me, his more immediate and emotive approach to camerawork and editing impacted me and made me realize that there was a world of filmmaking techniques that I had largely avoided because I was fearful they were too unprofessional, or something.

That enthusiasm was part of what led me to make Stingray and launch me into pretty much all the personal filmmaking I’ve done in the intervening 11 years (pretty much everything you can see on this site).  So there were others involved in that as well, but JR was key, and he went on to feature in and collaborate with me on a bunch of projects.

JR is still making movies and I’m particularly excited to see the completed Gold from the Sky.  The web series is currently a really cool trailer and a vision, but he’s working away on it and I think the results will be worth the wait.



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