13 great directors whose careers went missing

Hollywood can be a difficult business, and sometimes it is hard for a filmmaker to get their projects off the ground. It is also a merciless environment, and as the saying goes ‘you’re only as good as your last hit’. Make too big a commercial failure, and the studios may simply stop knocking. I have no idea if it is true, but I have been told many times over many decades that the majority of feature film directors only make one film.

This list is not about them. This list is about another kind of director: the kind that actually enjoyed a critically acclaimed or at least commercially successful career and then simply appears to have stopped working. Perhaps they too suffered big commercial failures, or struggled to get their favoured project funded. At any rate, prepare the missing persons report as we dig into 13 directors whose film careers appear to have vanished.

dir_verbinski1. Gore Verbinski
Films: Mousehunt, The Mexican, The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Weather Man, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, Rango, The Lone Ranger.
Last Seen: February 2016 (A Cure for Wellness)

From his 1997 debut Mousehunt, Gore Verbinski demonstrated a strong visual eye and a rather un-Hollywood taste for the idiosyncratic and surreal. His career ramped up brilliantly – a Brad Pitt vehicle here, a horror remake there, until he managed to hit the stratosphere with his excellently and gloriously excessive pirate epic Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Verbinski bailed on that franchise with its third instalment, and attempted launching another. Sadly, his 2013 Lone Ranger remake broke different kinds of records – losing Disney an estimated $180-210m dollars. Since then he has directed one film: the 2016 psychological horror A Cure for Wellness, which was another – albeit smaller – commercial failure.

Around the time of Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, Verbinski announced his withdrawal from a proposed X-Men spin-off film about the character Gambit. Since then he has confirmed he is developing two animated projects with cinematographer Roger Deakins.

dir_gans2. Christophe Gans
Films: Necronomicon, Crying Freeman, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill.
Last Seen: February 2014 (Beauty and the Beast)

Superbly stylish French director Christoph Gans developed a strong cult following with his films Cryptonomicon, Crying Freeman, and particularly Brotherhood of the Wolf. When he directed the American feature Silent Hill it seemed a lucrative Hollywood career awaited. Sadly he hasn’t had a project come to fruition since 2014’s lavish French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast – and that was eight years ago.

He seems to be a victim of cancelled projects. An adaptation of videogame Onimusha was scuppered in 2008 when its proposed star Heath Ledger passed away. A 2015 remake of classic French serial Fantômas starring Vincent Cassel vanished without a trace. Most disappointing of all his 2018 adaptation of adventure comic series Corto Maltesewhich was to star Milla Jovovich, Michelle Yeoh, Mark Dacascos, and Tom Hughes, was cancelled over undisclosed legal issues. At last check he was developing a Silent Hill sequel and an adaptation of videogame Fatal Frame.

dir_copp3. Francis Ford Coppola
Films: Finian’s Rainbow, The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, Peggy Sue Got Married, The Godfather Part III, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Last Seen: September 2011 (Twixt)

It is fair to note from the outset that Francis Ford Coppola is 82 years old, and that more than anything may explained why it is coming up on 11 years since his last directorial project. On top of that, even if he never makes anything again the one-two punch of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now guarantee him a seat as one of the best directors in the entire history of cinema. What appears to be issue with Coppola’s career is the classic ‘unstoppable force versus immoveable object’ conflict with Hollywood. Arguably his last proper success was his 1992 adaptation of Dracula. Since then he went to court with Warner Bros over a Pinocchio film (he won), and again over Contact, and his much-anticipated Megalopolis project has bounced in and out of development for decades. In between the only projects that have eventuated have been modest: a Robin Williams comedy and a John Grisham drama, as well as the blink-and-you-missed-them Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and the horror film Twixt – which nobody liked but the French.

At last check Coppola had undertaken a re-edit of his film The Godfather Part III (retitled The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone) and was preparing to direct a re-envisaged version of the long-gestating Megalopolis. Fingers crossed it works out this time.

dir_carp4. John Carpenter
Films: Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In the Mouth of Madness, Vampires.
Last Seen: July 2011 (The Ward).

Even if you counted up all of the acclaim and influence gathered by John Carpenter’s numerous iconic science fiction and horror movies – including Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing – he would still likely be the most under-appreciated director in post-war Hollywood. Testament to his creativity is that most of his films have either been remade or are in developing to be remade. The big studios are happy to profit from his work, but have always been resistant actually funding new work.

Fighting the system that profits from your work is an exhausting business, and Carpenter already retired once. Directing two episodes of the Masters of Horror anthology series re-inspired him, but that only lasted as long as the unsuccessful horror film The Ward, which was 11 years ago. Still, he may be getting back in the saddle. Late last year he told the Daily Beast, I’m working on a couple of things. But I’m not doing anything for a while, until the world comes back and rights itself. It’s insane now. It’s nuts! I’m not going to go out there and get sick.’ We can only cross our fingers and hope.

dir_weir5. Peter Weir
Films: Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poet’s Society, Green Card, Fearless, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Last Seen: December 2010 (The Way Back)

For my money Peter Weir is almost certainly the greatest Australian director of all time. He has always worked across a range of projects and genres, often pulling career-best performance out of his actors and proving it is possible to work with the big movie studios and maintain a strong level of artistic integrity. He has never been the fastest of directors – five years between Fearless and The Truman Show, another five until Master and Commander, and then seven between that and The Way Back. Since then? Crickets – and it’s been more than 11 years.

No one seems to know what has happened. Did he retire? Was his time wasted with failed projects? The uncertainty is torture: the chances of one more movie from Australia’s master filmmaker are just too tantalising to ignore.

dir_rom6. Mark Romanek
Films: Static, One Hour Photo.
Last Seen: September 2010 (Never Let Me Go)

This is perhaps an odd one, because after his 1985 feature debut Static, Mark Romanek focused on music videos. He is incredibly talented at making them. Past works include Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, David Bowie’s “Jump They Say”, Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”, Audioslave’s “Cochise”, and Justin Timberlake’s “Filthy”. He has only directed two other features: the 2002 thriller One Hour Photo, which featured a creepily against-type Robin Williams, and Never Let Me Go, a widely acclaimed adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel. That was 12 years ago.

Romanek’s feature directing career was going to see him take over from Ron Howard in directing the third Robert Langdon film The Lost Symbol. When the decision was made to adapt Inferno instead, Ron Howard returned and Romanek bowed out. Since then he has been working on corporate videos and the like, but hopefully at some point a fourth feature beckons.

dir_lyn7. David Lynch
Films: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive.
Last Seen: December 2006 (Inland Empire)

The question is not ‘where on Earth is David Lynch?’, as the massively acclaimed and wonderfully odd artist has been visibly keeping himself busy. For one thing his Twin Peaks revival in 2017 gave his fans more Lynchian wonder than probably four or five theatrical films. At the same time it feels like there is an absence there. Some of the best films of the past four decades have come from Lynch, and I for one would like to see him work in features again.

It has been more than 15 years since the release of his last feature, the experimental Inland Empire. That was a particularly strange and challenging film; to go back to his last conventional (using a broad definition of the term) feature you find yourself at Mulholland Drive in 2001 – and that’s 21 years ago. I definitely feel the desire for old school Lynch film at least once more.

dir_luc8. George Lucas
Films: THX-1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith.
Last Seen: May 2005.

Francis Ford Coppola famously mourns the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars. ‘Whatever benefits he got from it, he once explained, ‘he deserved and is welcome to. If I feel sadness, it is that he didn’t make the other movies he was going to make.’ You can sort of see his point: Star Wars was Lucas’ third feature, and followed the very different but very accomplished THX-1138 and American Graffiti. After Star Wars became the biggest film of all time, Lucas segued to producing – Irvin Kirschner directed The Empire Strikes Back and Richard Marquand Return of the Jedi. After a 22-year gap, he took the directing chair for three Star Wars prequels that were met with a mixed critical response at best.

When Lucas sold Lucasfilm Ltd part and parcel to Disney, many hoped he might use his newfound freedom to dabble in some smaller film projects. Instead he effectively retired from filmmaking, and concentrated more on setting up a major museum instead. Will he make a film again? Sadly it doesn’t seem likely. If nothing else, he seems emotionally burned by his own fans. In 2012 he said of Star Wars, ‘Why would I make any more, when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?’

dir_som9. Stephen Sommers
Films: The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Jungle Book, Deep Rising, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
Last Seen: February 2014 (Odd Thomas)

No one really remembers Stephen Sommers’ debut feature, Catch Me if You Can. A reasonably-sized family audience enjoyed his adventures films The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book, and Deep Rising got an immediate cult audience. It was The Mummy, however, that surprised a mainstream audience and made him the instant heir-apparent to Steven Spielberg. Then it all seemed to go wrong: The Mummy Returns was infamously rushed out by Universal Pictures before the visual effects were completed, and follow-up Van Helsing was a messy disaster that lost the studio millions. Sommers turned down a third Mummy film, and launched G.I. Joe for Paramount instead. It too was a commercial disappointment. Since then his only film has been the obscure and critically disliked Odd Thomas in 2014, 8 years ago.

Since then, there’s not been hide nor hair of Stephen Sommers. He seemed a shoe-in for an early Marvel Studios featured – I have no idea if he was even considered – and despite multiple attempts by Universal Pictures to launch a shared universe of monster movies he’s been curiously absent. He genuinely appears to have simply retired from filmmaking.

dir_bre10. Martin Brest
Films: Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, Scent of a Woman, Meet Joe Black.
Last Seen: August 2003 (Gigli)

Not the most prolific of directors, maybe, but Martin Brest had some proper hits in the 1980s and 1990s, including Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman – which scored him Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. Then in 2003 he wrote and directed Gigli, a comic crime film starring Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. During production he lost control of the picture, with Revolution Pictures making numerous changes to his film including the ending. Once released theatrically, it was reviled. Some critics even described it as one of the worst movies ever made.

For Brest that appeared to be it. He vanished from Hollywood and, barring appearances at a few screenings of his older films, has never been seen or heard from again. Brest is 70, so there’s still a chance of a new film some day, but he seems to have simply packed up his toys and gone home. It’s been 19 years and counting.

dir_mct11. John McTiernan
Films: Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Thomas Crown Affair, The 13th Warrior.
Last Seen: March 2003.

It is a very different case with John McTiernan, the acclaimed director of Die Hard and Predator. His last feature was the John Travolta thriller Basic in 2003. Three years later he was arrested for lying to the FBI and later for committing perjury, all ultimately related to his participation in wire-tapping the producer of his Rollerball remake. At the end of a series of trials he was sentenced to a year in prison, eventually emerging in 2014.

That explains the first 11 years, but not the remaining eight. McTiernan made Die Hard, for goodness sake. He made The Hunt for Red October. One would think that somebody somewhere in Hollywood would want to give him another shot. Or perhaps not. If he was spying on one producer, maybe all of the others are too unwilling to risk working with him at all. It’s a deep shame. When filing for bankruptcy from prison, McTiernan did cite in-development works that he planned to release once released. It seems none of them eventuated.

dir_bar12. Clive Barker
Films: Hellraiser, Nightbreed.
Last Seen: August 1995 (Lord of Illusions)

Clive Barker is, of course, best known as an author of horror novels and stories, and one of the big names in the genre in the last few decades of the 20th century. His early career was dominated by works for the theatre, so it is no surprise that when the time came for his stories and books to be adapted for cinema that he would make an attempt at it himself. Hellraiser (1987) was an immediate cult hit, and while he declined to direct any of its sequels he did go on to direct the ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of his Cabal novel, titled Nightbreed. Then, after Lord of Illusions in 1995, he never directed a feature again. It has been 27 years.

For many years Barker collaborated with Disney on a series of dark fantasy novels, the Abarat books, which he planned to adapt into films himself. The project was cancelled in 2006. Another project, adapting a series of Barker-designed toys into a film for Universal Pictures, also fell by the wayside. Ill health has also been a factor, including a cancer scare and an incident of toxic shock syndrome in 2012. Even with just three directorial features to his name, Barker has made such an impact on horror cinema. It is a shame we seem unlikely to get a fourth.

dir_mil13. John Milius
Films: Dillinger, The Wind and the Lion, Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn, Farewell to the King.
Last Seen: January 1991 (Flight of the Intruder)

John Milius is an outstanding screenwriter. He established his original reputation with his writing. He contributed to Dirty Harry, Jaws, The Hunt for Red October, and Magnum Force, and he wrote the screenplays to Jeremiah Johnson, Apocalypse Now and Clear and Present Danger. As a director he was a major figure in 1980s popular cinema via Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. He last feature as director, Flight of the Intruder, was released into American cinemas in January 1991 – now more than 31 years ago.

The 1990s and 2000s were hard on Milius. He had a reputation for being difficult to work with, and for refusing to compromise on his projects. He was also vocally and aggressively conservative, in a manner that chafed with much of Hollywood’s higher-ups. An accountant embezzled millions of dollars from him. When Milius approached David Milch, begging for a writing position on Milch’s TV western Deadwood to pay for his son’s college tuition, Milch simply paid for the tuition fees. In 2010 Milius suffered a major stroke, although thankfully he has largely recovered. He has kept himself busy over the decades – he co-wrote HBO’s Rome, he worked on the videogame Homefront, and has consulted on advanced technology needs for military contractors – but it is a tragedy his gravelly, muscular brand of action films and thrillers cannot find anyone to support it. The films we could have had.

One note at the end: I am aware this list of 13 directors is exclusively male. Hollywood is not kind to women in director’s roles; it is 2022 and women remain thin on the ground. While the few female directors who do maintain directorial careers largely manage to stay in the game, it is a long road and the gap between films is often unfairly large. The scale of film projects is often much smaller too, leaving them without the opportunity to lose studios millions of dollars.

Thanks to Travis Johnson and Robin Pen for their assistance in this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.