Every so often, a film emerges from the fray to prove its popularity and warrant a sequel. More and more, franchises are planned out in advance, but when one film turns into a franchise, a cash register sound goes off in the ears of the studio.
Even though the kid stays in the picture, sometimes the director does not. Maybe the director is done working with the material. Maybe the producers want a more seasoned hand. Maybe a simple schedule conflict keeps him or her out of the chair for the next round up.
But the show must go on, so the producers find another director to fill the slot – a director who ostensibly inherits all the strengths and weaknesses of a franchise birthed by someone else. Cinematic sloppy seconds that could have easily turned into sloppy sequels if it weren’t for a steady, talented director guiding the ship.
Here’s a list of the ten best.
Since this appears to be a convoluted concept, I’d like to lay out briefly what went into my thinking in creating the list:
- These aren’t the best directors of all time, but out of the ones who stepped in to pick up someone else’s franchise, they’re at the top.
- Placement at the top mostly depends on how well they executed their entry into the franchise, and depends on the rest of their work (although quality usually is a major theme anyway).
Hopefully it’s more confusing now.
And here we….go:
10. Don Taylor/Planet of the Apes
After a success that rings even decades later with Planet of the Apes, director Franklin J. Schaffner left the director’s chair open for whomever thought they could follow his act. Ted Post took a shot next, and Guns of Navarone-director J. Lee Thompson would ignobly close out the franchise, but between them, Don Taylor created what is largely seen as the best sequel in the bunch – Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Beyond restoring some weight to the franchise after Beneath the Planet of the Apes filled the theater with camp, Taylor was known outside the series for both his acting (in films like Father of the Bride and, one my favorites, Stalag 17) and his directing (with movies like The Island of Dr. Moreau, and his other franchise inheritance – Damien: Omen II).
9. Steve Miner/Friday the 13th
It would be difficult to claim that Miner is a great director on his own. Despite his work on The Wonder Years television show and minor horror favorite House, he’s also the director behind Lake Placid, Soul Man, and the Day of the Dead remake from a few years ago. Still, Miner took over the job as head camp counselor at Crystal Lake from Sean S. Cunningham and proceeded to make a strong second showing that gave birth to a horror icon so memorable that most people (including blond girls being stalked via telephone by quizzing serial killers) forget that he wasn’t the killer in the first film. He also directed the third film which introduced the iconic hockey mask that still makes otherwise sensible adults wet themselves.
8. Renny Harlin/Die Hard
There’s no doubt that Die Hard was an amazing action movie. A simple premise with a charismatic hero who just wanted some aspirin and some shoes. It’s also no secret that John McTiernan delivered that film as well as the best sequel in the franchise – Die Hard With a Vengeance. However, it was Renny Harlin that carried the series through it’s second incarnation and continued to build a great tradition while raising the stakes without making things too ridiculous. Or, just ridiculous enough.
That may seem like a bold statement, but it’s not like he had John McClane throw a car at a helicopter or anything. Outside the franchise, he has a completely uneven career – delivering something as fantastic as The Long Kiss Goodnight while also being rightfully nominated on four separate occasions for a Worst Director Razzie Award.
7. Sylvester Stallone/Rocky
The Italian Stallion started his career in softcore pornography (just like most politicians) and had a few minor roles in big films, but he didn’t hit big until he wrote and starred in Rocky for director John G. Avildsen (who would later give the world the Karate Kid franchise). After the acclaim, Stallone decided to take the helm himself and delivered three incredible follow-ups that fulfilled the complete story arc of the fighter. Even if it seems strange to think of Stallone as a great director, Avildsen (despite delivering an awe-inspiring movie with the first film) was also the director that helmed Rocky V. Thus, Stallone was actually better at following up Avildsen than Avildsen was.
6. Nicholas Meyer/Star Trek
There are many, many movies in the Star Trek franchise, and it would be easy to think of J.J. Abrams for this list – but his inclusion seems false in the face of his film coming 30 years after the first film in a series that wasn’t exactly steady in its production or releases (unlike the Bond franchise). Plus, Nicholas Meyer probably has the most well-loved Trek film of them all – The Wrath of Khan.
There’s no way that Meyer stands up to the legacy of the incredible two-time Oscar winner Robert Wise – who directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture (as well as The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Want to Live!, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain, etc) – but even with that master filmmaker handing over the director’s chair to the relatively young Meyer, it’s the sequel fans love today even more than the original.
5. Alfonso Cuaron/Harry Potter
There have been several directors to tackle the best selling books, but Cuaron was the one who first took the job over from family-friendly Christopher Columbus to expand the world into something the young could appreciate while delivering something a bit darker and grittier for the older audience. Beyond the franchise, Cuaron secured his place as one of the most talented directors working today with both Y Tu Mama Tambien and the devastating sci-fi flick Children of Men.
4. Martin Campbell/James Bond
This may be the single toughest franchise to crack simply because of how many directors its hosted. Terence Young was the first to handle the character, personally embodied the character himself, and delivered three films in the series. Guy Hamilton was the first to take over, and although he directed Goldfinger, he also didn’t have much of a career beyond Bond. The same can be said for John Glen. Lewis Gilbert directed Alfie, but his Bond’s aren’t necessarily the best.
Peter R. Hunt made On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as his first film, but also doesn’t have a stellar career. Roger Spottiswoode has a steady action legacy (with some missteps), but Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t necessarily the best baton pass that ever happened. Michael Apted delivered the fantastic Coal Miner’s Daughter (and is currently directing the forthcoming Narnia films he’s inherited), but, again, The World is Not Enough isn’t the best example of Bond.
Meanwhile, Lee Tamahori directed Once Were Warriors, and did a good job with Die Another Day (except for the CGI), and Marc Forster couldn’t seem to mirror his other innovation with Quantum of Solace. That leaves Martin Campbell – a director who took over after five other gentlemen got a crack at it (sloppy sixths) and still managed to give birth to two different Bonds with GoldenEye (the first to feature Pierce Brosnan) and the highly praised Casino Royale (the first to feature Daniel Craig).
3. Paul Greengrass/Jason Bourne
It couldn’t have easy to follow up Doug Liman and the success of the first film, but Paul Greengrass did a phenomenal job with The Bourne Supremacy - so much so that he secured the job for the third film in the series. The quality of the films only seems to go up, a difficult feat when the usual cliche of sequels is the classic Law of Diminished Returns. Greengrass earned recognition for smaller films, and continues to build a strong career (even if Green Zone was a confused Bourne-style film with no Bourne in it).
Even with fewer films under his belt than others on this list, it’s undeniable the incredible job he’s done with someone else’s franchise.
2. Irvin Kershner/Star Wars
It’s difficult to fathom the popularity and impact on culture that Star Wars has had on the world. George Lucas, in no uncertain terms, changed cinema in a big way back in 1977. Even so, and even in the face of the rarity that a sequel is better than the original (save for the consistently Coppola-directed Godfather films), it was Irvin Kershner who directed The Empire Strikes Back – largely regarded as the best film in the entire series.
The plucky DIY nature of the first film gave way to a truly epic chapter that continued the story by delivering Yoda, Lando, Carbonite, betrayal, and the twist of all twists. If it weren’t for a lackluster career outside of this film (although he also directed the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again and another inherited franchise with RoboCop 2), he would probably be #1 simply because of this feat.
1. James Cameron/Alien
But that honor goes to James Cameron – a director who not only has the top two highest domestic grossing films of all time, but who also inherited a brilliant franchise of his own. Of course, that franchise entry is Piranha 2: The Spawning, but he was also privileged and daring enough to take over the reigns of the Alien franchise from Ridley Scott.
In doing so, he created Aliens – an unbelievably good film that took the story from horror to action without skipping a beat. It still stands as one of the best sequels of all time, and it was surprisingly not from the original visionary. Outside of that franchise, Cameron’s icon status speaks for itself.
Who did I leave out?