There are some directors whose work you can identify on the spot because of their films’ style, look, music, or the actors involved. (Think Wes Anderson or Tim Burton.) And then there are some who can be I.D.d by recurring motifs that pop up again and again in their work. Alfred Hitchcock had a weird thing for blondes, yet compared to some of these other filmmakers’ recurring obsessions, Hitch seems downright clean-cut. Let’s take a look at some of our favorite directors and their … well, interesting proclivities.
Dead wives (Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception)
Nolan is beloved by his fan base for the tightly calculated precision of his screenwriting and shooting styles. In that cool detachment, he may have been unaware of an increasingly disturbing trope that shows up time and again in his films: dead wives. The entire plot of Memento is driven by the protagonist’s search for the man who murdered his wife (whose credited character name is literally “Leonard’s Wife”), along with a sidebar story of another wife named Mrs. Jenkins killed by her husband. The Prestige gives us two dead wives for the price of one in Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall, while Leonardo DiCaprio is haunted by the dream memory of his dead bride Marion Cotillard in Inception. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in The Dark Knight is blown up seconds after agreeing to marry a man. The jury’s out on Nolan’s forthcoming Interstellar, but in previews, the daughter Matthew McConaughey’s character leaves behind looks decidedly motherless. Has any of this given Nolan’s actual wife/producer Emma Thomas pause?
Guillermo del Toro:
Clockwork (All movies)
“I love anything clockwork,” the director of Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim said in 2007. “I have an automaton that plays the cello and another that has a little funnel and whistles a tune. I like to open them up and check the mechanisms. And I have, in my day, taken a couple of watches apart.” This passion is evident from his debut feature Cronos (in which the titular vampire-making device amounts to a clockwork insect). From then on, it became a prominent motif throughout his filmography, whether it’s a clockwork Nazi made of sand in Hellboy or the sea of hot glowing gears underneath the Jaeger pilots of Pacific Rim. This fetish reached its zenith in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, in which the climactic battle takes place in a throne room made of giant gears, surrounded by clockwork robots. You can practically see the jolly Mexican auteur smiling behind the camera with glee.
Little people (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Zero Theorem)
Call him a champion of the little guy. After kicking off his Trilogy of Imagination with 1981’s sleeper hit Time Bandits (about a team of time-traveling dwarves), Gilliam used actor Jack Purvis twice more in Brazil and Munchausen. Little people appear among the extras in The Fisher King, and before Verne Troyer co-starred prominently in Doctor Parnassus, he popped up in 1998’s Fear and Loathing — along with a slew of other little people — much to the chagrin of producer Laila Nabulsi. “Terry has an obsession with midgets,” Nabulsi said in a commentary track for the film’s Criterion Collection edition. “I wasn’t particularly happy about having a lot of them in the movie … They were showing up on set for auditions, hundreds of them every day. It was driving me crazy.”
Absentee fathers (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)
The world’s most successful filmmaker may have the golden touch, but Steven Spielberg’s fixation on dads who flew the coop — either via divorce or neglect or for the chance to meet aliens — borders on monomania. Whatever his Oedipal hangups may be, Spielberg has gotten a lot of mileage out of them, and it’s no surprise that his real-life dad Arnold fell into the absentee/workaholic category — although it wasn’t until years later that he found out it was actually his mother who sparked his folks’ divorce. “Even after I knew the truth, I blamed my dad,” Spielberg told 60 Minutes in 2012. “For some reason, it was easier for me to blame him than it was to [blame] someone who I … already exalted.”
Women’s feet (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds)
“Don’t be telling me about foot massages, I’m the foot fuckin’ master.” That may be Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield talking in Pulp Fiction, but it might as well be Quentin Tarantino himself, seeing as how his cinematic worship of the female foot has gone way beyond a motif. If at any point in one of his films you see a woman walking around sans shoes, there’s a good chance we’re in for a gratuitous cutaway at the very least, though an entire subplot is also likely (i.e., “Wiggle your big toe” in Kill Bill Vol. 1). Tarantino’s unbridled foot lust is no secret; during a 2010 Friars Club roast, Uma Thurman even let QT drink Champagne out of her high heels. Of course, there’s also that questionable viral email floating around in which Beejoli Shah dished out all the dirty toe-sucking details of the director’s sexual proclivities, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t already have guessed from watching the man’s films.
The Coen Brothers:
Screaming fat men (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou)
At one time, Joel and Ethan Coen were more dedicated to employing bellowing fat guys than they were to winning Oscars. To quote Raising Arizona: “These were the happy days, the salad days, as they say …” — and indeed, that movie alone features entire scenes of John Goodman and William Forsythe’s flabby fugitives yelling their asses off like babies, while Mario Todisco howls continuously before, during, and after Jon Polito’s mobster “puts one in the brain” of The Dane in Miller’s Crossing. Charles Durning’s shouty jump off the Hudsucker building actually inspired a whole Eminem video, while an enterprising fan compiled a six-minute supercut for anyone who doubts the Coens’ commitment to “howling fat men”:
Rich girls being indulgent (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring)
Accusations of nepotism have trailed the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola throughout her career as both an actor and filmmaker, but Sofia has more than earned her place as one of the leading cinematic visionaries of her generation. If only that vision could embrace another type of character besides the spoiled rich girl living in luxury. Scarlett Johansson’s character spends the entirety of Lost in Translation dining out and karaokeing with Bill Murray in and around a fancy-ass hotel — which is not far from the plot of Somewhere, in which Elle Fanning lives it up with her movie-star dad at the Chateau Marmont. So much ennui, so little time! Don’t get us started on Marie Antoinette or its title character lounging around her castle for two hours. (Even in The Virgin Suicides, the solidly middle-class Lisbon sisters languish like royals confined to suburbia.) We fully expect Sofia Coppola’s upcoming live-action version of The Little Mermaid to be filled with scenes of Ariel blissing out to New Order on her Walkman while ordering massive amounts of underwater room service.
People jumping off buildings (The Omen, Superman, Superman II (Donner Cut), Inside Moves, Lethal Weapon (twice), Scrooged, Lethal Weapon 2, Conspiracy Theory)
Donner may be the least auteur-ish, most conventional director on this list, but that doesn’t preclude him from quirks, tropes, and people falling off buildings like there’s no tomorrow. For some of them, there isn’t: The prostitute plunging to her death at the opening of Lethal Weapon is calibrated to prime us for the second jump later, when Riggs handcuffs himself to a rooftop jumper. The nanny who hangs herself on the ledge of a mansion for Damien’s amusement in The Omen, or John Savage doing a failed suicide attempt that leaves him crippled at the start of Inside Moves, even Bill Murray dangling from a ghost hand off a New York skyscraper in Scrooged … all of these characters suggest a strange psychological underpinning for the otherwise wholesome Donner. Not to pathologize the guy, but he does have Mel Gibson equate suicide with love in Conspiracy Theory: “Love gives you wings. It makes you fly. I don’t even call it love. I call it Geronimo. When you’re in love, you’ll jump right from the top of the Empire State and you won’t care, screaming ‘Geronimo’ the whole way down.”
People in blowing grass (All movies)
Since his auspicious debut with 1973’s Badlands, Terrence Malick has demonstrated a well-known penchant for capturing miles of magic-hour footage featuring actors (and the occasional swarm of locusts) moving, sulking, or simply standing idle in endless fields of tall grass. Pocahontas in The New World, the mother in Tree of Life, and the French wife in To the Wonder are all children of nature spinning carelessly in said grass, reveling in the freedom of it all. In the book The Cinema of Terrence Malick, Ron Mottram writes: “Malick’s use of nature and natural beauty rises to the level of a powerful sign for a higher good … that links Malick to Thoreau’s transcendental vision of nature as a link to a deeper reality.” That said, Malick’s men fare less well in the grass: In Days of Heaven, Sam Shepard’s farmer torches his wheat field after errantly swinging a lantern at Richard Gere, while Jared Leto and Jim Caviezel’s characters are both gunned down in billowing grass in The Thin Red Line.
Filming his daughter in sexual situations (Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome, Phantom of the Opera, The Mother of Tears, Dracula 3D)
Asia Argento’s dear old dad Dario was the king of Giallo cinema in Italy after his classic Suspiria, but he shocked his home country with 1993’s Trauma, where he scandalously featured his then-16-year-old daughter in the buff. Dario later had Asia’s characters get it on in Phantom of the Opera, suffer rape in Stendhal Syndrome, and shower in Mother of Tears. In his recent Dracula escapade, the filmmaker throws in scenes of her character being fondled and bathed in her birthday suit as if it were perfunctory. “In The Phantom of the Opera, I lose my virginity in front of my father,” Asia said in 2001. “It’s the Electra complex to the maximum! Although there is also a bit of the Oedipal, because my father was a mother figure to me in many ways, perhaps even more than a father figure.”