January 10, 2019
These Fine Actors Are Directing Movies in 2019
Audiences and critics alike have long been fascinated with the concept of the actor stepping behind the camera to write or direct. Considering how instrumental star appeal is to cinema, that’s not surprising; when a familiar face opts for invisibility and moves behind the camera, they seem to offer us the chance to achieve a level of intimacy we couldn’t reach after even the most exhaustive binge-watch of their filmography.
That’s not the whole picture, of course. Psychological intrigue is a great magnet for our attention, but it tends to work best when the actor-turned-director or -writer in question is particularly enigmatic in the first place. For some performers, that level of anticipation for a behind-the-camera debut might not initially be there, so it’s left to the fruits of their creative labor to do all the talking (it might not be true as often as we’d like, but the movies can still be a meritocratic business, after all).
Discovering a compelling, inspired directorial vision or original voice out of the blue is one of the great, precious thrills of cinema, and when it turns out to come from the mind of a recognizable face, the discovery is all the more exciting. Our appetites for such revelations had been thoroughly whetted by 2017, a year that had let slip to us the fact that two of the most indispensable voices in modern American cinema – Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele – had been staring us in the face this whole time.
Then 2018 one-upped even that banner year for actors-turned-writers and -directors with impressive debuts from Bradley Cooper, Paul Dano, Jonah Hill, and Bo Burnham enlightening us to the fact that some of our most familiar faces have been hiding more than one trick up their sleeves for a while, too.
For all their varying degrees of success – consider the plaudits for Burnham’s Eighth Grade versus the universal panning of Entourage star Kevin Connolly’s Gotti, for example – 2018’s cohort were largely and conspicuously of one demographic: white and male. Hardly surprising; 2018 was just a sample that proves what we’ve known for years: that it’s easiest for white men to get their movies made, especially those well-connected and of means, which big-name actors always are.
Looking ahead, though, 2019 offers a few hopeful inklings of change. The stars set to swap onscreen roles for behind-the-scenes work this year are a much more diverse cohort, a fact that’s reflected in the diversity of the stories they’ll tell. While it’s impossible to gauge just how well these projects will fare under the capricious climate of the moviegoing calendar, it’s worth taking a look ahead to the slate of projects directed and written by familiar faces we can look forward to seeing and hearing more about in the new year.
As an actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor has always resisted easy categorization. Starring roles in 12 Years a Slave, Kinky Boots, Doctor Strange and an upcoming turn as Scar in The Lion King bear as little resemblance to each other as is possible, so it makes perfect sense that his feature-length directorial debut would come via a project similarly distinct from the rest of his work.
By way of his own adaptation of the bestselling book of the same title, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of William Kamkwamba (played by Maxwell Simba), a Malawian boy who, at 13, was forced to leave school when his family could no longer afford to pay his tuition. Shot in Malawi and co-starring Noma Dumezweni, Joseph Marcell and Ejiofor himself, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind depicts an undeterred William as he continues to visit the school library, where he learns a feat of engineering that will save his village from famine.
The story behind Ejiofor’s film has already inspired several creative projects, but The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind looks set to be the most definitive of its visual retellings. It’s a clear passion project for Ejiofor, who sees William’s story as a particularly compelling means with which to ignite conversations about the environment and education. Sundance clearly believes Ejiofor has been successful in those efforts, because they’ve already awarded the film their Alfred P. Sloan Prize ahead of its premiere at the festival later this month. After Sundance, the film will hit Netflix and select theatres in the US and UK sometime this year.
Best known for his grittily emotional performances in movies like Slumdog Millionaire and Lion, Dev Patel’s choice of a directorial debut is somewhat surprising. Monkey Man, which will begin production in Mumbai this spring, is said to be a mythology-tinged revenge thriller set in modern India that revolves around a succinctly-named character – “the Kid” – who comes out of prison determined to confront the morally bankrupt, corporate greed-ridden society he finds on the outside.
Our own Hans Qu suspects Hanuman, Hinduism’s monkey deity who has inspired a line of superhero comic books in the past, will make up the mythological portion of Patel’s film. Whether he appears literally or as metaphorical inspiration for the plot (which Patel has co-written alongside John Collee and Paul Angunawela), one thing’s for sure: Monkey Man will be action-heavy, with the action design studio behind Atomic Blonde and John Wick set to choreograph its high octane scenes. And what with Chung-hoon Chung, the cinematographer behind IT and most of Park Chan-wook’s movies, lensing, it should look thrilling, too.
As with other actors on this list, Thandie Newton’s directorial debut has long been in the works. Specifically, she’s credited Hollywood’s evolving attitudes towards diverse filmmaking with the recent momentum behind the project, which will finally begin production this month after several years of gestation. When first announced, Newton described her debut as an adaptation (which she also penned) of a YA novel set in ‘60s Oakland, drawing a thematic link between the story and Newton’s Westworld role: “It’s about revolution. And again it’s the theme of freedom, which keeps coming up for me. Personal freedom.”
Although an official title has yet to be given, a casting call site lists the film as One Crazy Summer, which also happens to be the title of an award-winning coming-of-age novel by Rita Williams-Garcia. That book revolves around three young African American sisters who spend a month living with the mother who abandoned them in Oakland in 1968, during which they undergo an eye-opening, formative experience as they attend a Black Panther-run day camp and find themselves caught up in the tumultuous events of that summer. Casting details are yet to be revealed, but it’s possible that, as elsewhere on this list, Newton may appear in front of the camera, too; namely, as the girls’ revolutionary poet mother Nzila.
During a recent podcast interview, Newton affirmed her conviction in the project – “It feels like this is the moment for it, without a doubt” – a sentiment that certainly rings true. Hollywood still has a poor track record for telling stories like this and getting them seen, so it’s deeply encouraging to see Newton champion this project for her first foray into directing.
From Suspiria and Climax to Madeline’s Madeline, dance proved all the rage in the movies of 2018. Ralph Fiennes’ latest directorial effort follows that lead: The White Crow is a biopic of Rudolf Nureyev, the world’s first real male ballet star, and is choreographed to the hilt, whether taking in Rudolf’s first ballet lessons or the astonishing moment of his defection to the West in the midst of the Cold War. Real-life dancers and relative acting newbies Oleg Ivenko (as Rudolf) and Sergei Polunin (as Rudolf’s roommate Yuri) share the stage with their director himself — Fiennes playing ballet master Alexander Pushkin — while rising French star Adèle Exarchopoulos, most familiar for her bolt-from-the-blue performance in Blue is the Warmest Color, plays the Parisian heiress who orchestrated Rudolf’s flight from the East.
The film, which premiered at Telluride last summer, has received mixed reviews so far, with critics applauding performances but finding fault in its stylistic complexity: renowned playwright David Hare’s screenplay sees The White Crow hop borders as often as it does timelines, switching color palettes and aspect ratios along the way. You’ll be able to judge whether The White Crow’s non-linear structure is an inspired flourish or not when it’s released in the US sometime early this year (a UK release date has already been set for 22 March).
Shia LaBeouf’s involvement in Honey Boy would keep even Freud up at night. He scripted this fictionalization of the difficult relationship he experienced with his own real father. LaBeouf is also – unbelievably, even for someone as artistically unpredictable as him – co-starring as the latter, while Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe play the older and younger versions of LaBeouf’s proxy, Otis.
As our own William Dass noted when news of Honey Boy first broke last year, LaBeouf wrote the screenplay as a therapeutic exercise during a 2017 stint in rehab, which makes his involvement here feel even more like a piece of performance art a la #IAMSORRY, especially given that “honey boy” is a nickname LaBeouf’s real father uses for his son. The film takes place across two timelines: the first revolves around a child star who suffers abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father, while the second story strand takes in their attempts at resolution.
Aside from premiering later this January at Sundance, the reality-blurring Honey Boy – which marks the scripted feature debut of documentary visionary Alma Har’el – has yet to receive a theatrical release date. But given the psychological intrigue it’s likely to inspire, it’s almost certain to be picked up.
Chloë Moretz revealed her directorial ambitions as part of a festival panel on The Miseducation of Cameron Post last year, citing Post helmer Desiree Akhavan as a driving influence behind her decision to try her hand behind the camera on a two-hander short she’ll co-direct with one of her brothers (presumably Trevor Duke-Moretz, who is an actor, producer, and Moretz’s manager).
There’s no word on genre or plot yet, but given how instrumental Post seems to have been, and the fact that Moretz has been vocal about her desire to make movies that incorporate her feminist and LGBTQ+ activism, it’s likely her directorial debut will continue in that vein.
It was always only going to be a matter of time before Max Minghella, son of the late, great Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), followed in his father’s footsteps. Teen Spirit marks the first of what will likely amount to more than a few writing and directorial efforts for the junior Minghella, who has kept busy in recent years with a lead role in The Handmaid’s Tale. His debut couldn’t be further from that show, however: where Handmaid’s Tale is all solemnity and dour design, Teen Spirit’s trailer reveals it to be a neon-hued, buoyant take on modern talent shows.
Teen Spirit sees Elle Fanning star as Violet, a Polish-British teenager living a monotonous life on the Isle of Wight, a somewhat socially claustrophobic island off the southern coast of England. After a chance meeting at an open-mic night, Violet comes under the tutelage of has-been opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who coaches her budding vocals and pretends to be her guardian so that she can enter an X Factor-adjacent competitive singing show called Teen Spirit.
Given the subject matter, Teen Spirit will likely draw comparisons with Vox Lux, but the two don’t look to share more than surface-level similarities. Teen Spirit’s trailer is keen to establish its electro-pop sensibilities – its final frames proudly advertise the fact that Fanning covers songs by Robyn, Ellie Goulding, and Carly Rae Jepsen throughout – and to that end, it looks to be unabashedly positive where Vox Lux proves starkly critical. Reviews out of TIFF have varied wildly, which suggests Teen Spirit has suffered somewhat from critical preconceptions. So long as it fulfills the modest promise of its trailer, though, this should be a finger-snapping, foot-tapping crowd-pleaser.
After helming a few music videos for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Olivia Wilde is expanding her directorial portfolio with her feature-length debut Booksmart, a coming-of-age comedy set for release on May 24. Starring Kaitlyn Dever and Lady Bird breakout Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart follows two studious best friends who resolve to make up for four years of missed fun on the last night before they graduate high school. There’s a distinctly anarchic air about that concept that evokes memories of last year’s female-centric teen comedy Blockers, which proved to be both raucous and gratifyingly sweet. And it’s difficult not to think of Lady Bird, either; Feldstein’s involvement aside, Booksmart’s synopsis suggests an emotional core akin to the thoughtful exploration of female friendship in Gerwig’s movie. Given that we’re still desperately short of authentic, sensitive and genuinely funny portrayals of adolescence, Wilde’s debut is a welcome addition to this year’s roster.
When All-Star Weekend drops later this year, multi-hyphenate Jamie Foxx will be able to add “director” to his long list of day jobs. Becoming a director is an ambition he’s had for years, one that seems to have been kick-started by his participation in a 2012 project for Canon, for which he helmed a short film under the mentorship of Ron Howard. It was then that Foxx first revealed his idea for a buddy-comedy-style face-off between two basketball fans – one an admirer of Kobe Bryant, the other a Lebron James fan.
It’s a concept that has clearly stuck: apart from swapping out Bryant for Steph Curry, All-Star Weekend is more or less the same movie Foxx dreamt up seven years ago. It stars Foxx and Jeremy Piven as the aforementioned basketball fans and follows their attempts to score tickets to an All-Star game in LA amidst a host of obstacles thrown at them by Eva Longoria’s Asia. Other key roles are being filled by Robert Downey Jr., Gerard Butler, Benicio Del Toro, and Jessica Szohr, with cameos also due from Floyd Mayweather, The Game, French Montana, and DJ Khaled.
Like Minghella, Rebecca Hall hails from visionary director stock. Her late father, Sir Peter Hall, was one of Britain’s most influential theater directors, having founded the Royal Shakespeare Company. He dabbled in film, too, an arena Hall is now set to make her directorial debut in with Passing, a ‘20s-era thriller based on her own adaptation of Nella Larsen’s distinguished novel.
As the title suggests, Hall’s film will deal with the concept of people of color “passing” as white by following the story of two childhood friends (Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson) who reunite in adulthood. While both women are of mixed race, Clare (Negga) actively conceals her racial identity from her racist white husband. Her reunion with Irene (Thompson) threatens to disturb that fragile state of affairs and also adds further layers of complexity to the story, with the novel containing a queer subtext in its depiction of the women’s friendship.
Passing, which is currently in pre-production, looks set to reckon with all the original nuance of Larsen’s much-analyzed novel, making it a bold choice of a debut for Hall, who selected the project in part because of her own family history. That she’ll be joined in this passionate effort by two of the most quietly brilliant actors working today certainly makes Passing one of the most interesting directorial debuts set to get underway this year.