When Spielberg, Raimi & Others Took a Backseat: The Five Most Famous 2nd Unit Directors of Recent Memory

Sometimes a way of keeping creative control or a friendly favor, the second unit director has sometimes been more famous than the person in the main director's chair. Here's...

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More than a few eyebrows raised last week when it was reported that Steven Soderbergh would be serving as the second-unit director on “The Hunger Games,” especially since the director announced he would be retiring soon and also because it’s not every day a Best Director Oscar winner decides to do pickup shots and inserts for another filmmaker. However, it’s not as uncommon as you’d think.

Because of its title, second-unit directing is often seen as a way for those aspiring to the director’s chair to make their mark and in fact, many famous auteurs got their start on the unlikeliest of features — “Never Let Me Go” helmer Mark Romanek’s first gig on a movie set was for Brian De Palma’s “Home Movies” and Darren Aronofsky made an inauspicious debut as the second unit director on “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin’s lone directorial effort “Phat Beach.” However, just as many (such as the legendary Vic Armstrong) make it the end of their career path as opposed to the beginning, establishing themselves as specialists at staging stunts and creating memorable action sequences.

In the case of “The Hunger Games,” Soderbergh is likely just doing a solid for his pal Gary Ross, who has frequently sought out the filmmaker’s help whether it was as a partner for the commentary track of “Seabiscuit” or as a producer on his directorial debut “Pleasantville.” And often that’s been the way it’s gone when the director handling second unit is as famous if not more so than the director who gets the greater glory. Here are five famous directors who’ve lent a helping hand in recent years:


Steven Spielberg on George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith"

For someone of his stature, Spielberg has a surprisingly extensive record of second unit direction, though that’s mostly due to his prolific second career as a producer. “The Haunting,” “Arachnophobia” and “The Goonies” have all been said to have benefitted from his touch. But the only time he’s received an actual credit for backing up someone else might simply be considered friendly advice. According to J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of ‘Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” Lucas brought Spielberg in to look at the animatics of the film’s fight scenes, including the Yoda-Emperor Palpatine duel below, and do some punch-ups. One suspects it resulted in far less influence than Lucas had during the one time he was a second unit director on “Return of the Jedi,” but still it marked the only time these longtime friends ever both served in some directing capacity on the same film.

 

The Wachowski Brothers on James McTeigue's "V For Vendetta"

Thanks to the boom in productions in Australia during the late ‘90s and early 2000s, James McTeigue quickly became a well-decorated second unit director first on local productions and then on big-budget blockbusters such as “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “The Matrix.” His work on the latter would not only result in a steady paycheck as there were “Matrix” sequels to be made, but his association with Andy and Lana Wachowski also gave him a leg up towards switching seats with them to make his directorial debut. When they gave him that chance on “V For Vendetta,” the Wachowskis took it seriously, not only giving McTeigue the adaptation they wrote of Alan Moore’s anarchic graphic novel, but taking the uncredited role of second unit direction, which led some to rumors they actually were actually directing it. While one can definitely see their influence in some of the slo-mo swordfight action, it was McTeigue’s film all the way.

Sam Raimi on the Coen Brothers' "The Hudsucker Proxy"

Although they’ve both firmly left their cult status in the rearview, for whatever reason, the collaborations between good friends Raimi and the Coen Brothers never sparked the imagination of their respective followings in the same way their films separately have. Raimi’s 1985 Looney Tunes-like caper comedy “Crimewave,” co-written by the Coens (after Joel was an assistant editor on “Evil Dead”) remains unavailable on DVD in the U.S. and referenced by fans mostly as that weird hitman one he made between “Evil Dead” films, and the Coens’ “The Hudsucker Proxy,” co-written by Raimi, may be the brothers’ most whimsical film, but mostly referred to by fans as that weird, big-budget one about inventing the hula hoop they made between “Barton Fink” and “Fargo.” (Fun fact: Both were written at the same time while the Coens stayed at Raimi’s apartment in Los Angeles in 1984.)

However, only Raimi would crossover from his primary gig to oversee some second-unit photography on the latter, which has never been detailed, but could include the type of sped-up shot that ends abruptly known as a “rush” that the brothers nicknamed “Raimi cam,” exemplified by the film’s “Blue Letter” sequence. Since we can’t be sure, the clip below is of Raimi’s other contribution to the film: a cameo as one of the shadowy execs behind the frosted glass window brainstorming names for the new invention. (Raimi's character prefers the “Hipster.”)     

 

Paul Thomas Anderson on Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion"

The appropriately rabid fan base of Paul Thomas Anderson went into overdrive in 2005 when it was reported from the Minnesota set of “A Prairie Home Companion” that Anderson was “ghost directing” what would sadly be Robert Altman’s final film, the adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s popular radio hour. There were plenty of reasons to believe this was true, considering that Altman has always been cited as a major influence on the “There Will Be Blood” director’s work and Anderson’s significant other Maya Rudolph was part of the film’s cast while pregnant. However, Anderson’s role was actually defined by pragmatic reasons not artistic ones since the film’s insurers wanted assurances the film would be completed in case the 80-year-old Altman’s health deteriorated during the shoot. Anderson was said to have relayed direction between Altman and the cast and crew at times, but insisted to the New York Times that it was still completely Altman’s film, saying, “Whatever chef is going to take credit for it, it is going to be a very spicy dish that I will be more than happy to dine on.”

Robert Rodriguez on Guillermo Del Toro's "Mimic"

Though they’re reportedly good friends, Rodriguez is the only filmmaker on this list who wasn’t doing a favor for a fellow director, but rather his friends at the studio, namely Bob Weinstein at Dimension, when he came into work on Guillermo Del Toro’s notoriously troubled 1997 bug flick “Mimic.” Following “From Dusk Till Dawn,” Rodriguez quickly became the genre label’s favorite helmer, not only directing features such as “The Faculty” and “Spy Kids,” but also the film-within-a-film “Stab” for “Scream 2” (after he passed on directing the first “Scream”) and the reshoots on “Mimic” once the studio decided to take the film away from Del Toro. Now that Miramax is no longer in the hands of the Weinsteins, a director’s cut due in late September from Lionsgate will restore Del Toro’s original vision for the film, but whereas his atmospheric slow burn style wasn’t a good fit with what the studio had in mind for a creepy crawly thriller, Rodriguez was brought on for scenes like this assault on two mischievous kids to amp up the scares.     

 

Are there more famous second-unit directors that we couldn't think of? Let us know in the comments below.

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