The only thing more obscure than the meaning of Terrance Malick’s fifth film, The Tree of Life, is his biography. His Wikipedia page offers two possible locations for his birth. It is known that he has directed five feature films since his stunning 1973 debut Badlands. His sixth film, To The Wonder, will have its North American premiere at TIFF on September 10.
It is also known that prior to his career as an obscure director Malick was a philosophy professor at MIT and a translator of Heidegger. Not exactly a pre-requisite for being a film-maker. Here’s a look at some other films directed by people with day jobs that wouldn’t lead one to assume that they’d be comfortable in a director’s chair.
1. Mike Nichols & Elaine May: The comedy duo hit it big in the 1950s working on stage and on television. After the huge success of Woody Allen and with Louis CK recreating himself as a sitcom-auteur, it seems natural that a comedian would become a director, but it must have been unimaginable when Mike Nichols directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966. While Nichols would have more commercial success as the director of such hits as The Graduate, Primary Colors, and Charlie Wilson’s War, Elaine May would create a small but distinct body of films including the Cassevetes-esque Mikey & Nicky, starring none other than John Cassavetes.
2. Bernard-Henri Levy: The controversial and wildly French Public Intellectual made a name for himself as a philosopher and social critic. Known as much for his political stands as he is for his philosophy, he also worked as a journalist before deciding to make the film Le Jour et la nuit. From all accounts it was a real debacle: the film was the subject of cat-calls and antagonistic questioning when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1997. The only other blunder in his career that rivals Le Jour et la nuit was when he relied heavily on a spoof system of philosophy to refute Kant. Whoops.
3. Julian Schnabel: Artists have been using film since Louis Bunuel and Salvidor Dali dragged a razor across an eyeball and called it art. But plate-smashing, pajama-wearing Julian Schnabel has managed to create a body of feature films that aren’t contemporary art, in the way that Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a shot of the Empire States Building is, but are actually highly regarded narrative works. While his debut film, Basquiat, may have seemed like a one-off cannibalization of a period and a moment in the art world, his second feature, Before Night Falls, proved that Schnabel was arguably better behind the camera than in front of a canvas. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly received four Academy Award Nominations.
4. Banksy: The graffiti artist has perpetually beguiled the art world. From his ascendancy to international fame without ever painting a canvas to his record auction sales, Banksy has been as much a question mark as a cultural figure. So it made sense that his sham documentary Exit Through the Giftshop was entertaining, inconclusive and contemptuous of the cult of money and the artist.
5. Madonna: She can dance. She can sing. She can write children’s books. She can promote mystical Judaism to mass heights. Why couldn’t she direct a film? In 2008 Madonna got behind the camera for Filth and Wisdom, an ensemble comedy. Last year she released the high profile W.E., riding the wave of royal-mania induced by The King’s Speech and the actual royal nuptials, and finally put her English accent to good use.
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