10 times great directors left very long gaps between movies

Mind the gap: here are some of the finest filmmakers who kept us waiting years for their next feature.

14 September 2016

By Ben Nicholson

El sur (1983): Victor Eríce’s second film was completed nine years after his 1973 debut The Spirit of the Beehive

In the hundred-mile-an-hour modern world we expect everyone to be at full throttle all the time and things are no different for film directors. Interviews about a new film regularly conclude with a question about what they’re working on next, and film festival programmes are eagerly anticipated to see if our favourite filmmaker has a fresh picture ready.

Sometimes, though, directors work at a far slower pace, or struggle to get a succession of films made before returning triumphantly to screens.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Spanish director Víctor Erice, whose El sur (The South) is rereleased in UK cinemas this month, is famous for taking his time between films. Primarily working on shorts, television and adverts, as well as writing and teaching, he’s only made three features in a 40-year career. El sur, his beguiling sophomore film was released in 1983, a full decade after his lauded debut The Spirit of the Beehive – and it was nearly the same amount of time again before his third and final feature to date, the docu-fiction hybrid The Quince Tree Sun (1992).

All three of these features are classics of Spanish film, with no less than Pedro Almodóvar calling El sur “one of the best in Spanish cinema history”. Yet, rather like Carl Dreyer before him (whose later career was defined by long gaps), Erice sure liked to keep us waiting between each finely crafted missive. In descending order of waiting times, here are 10 more examples of directors who – for varying reasons – went below the radar for years before making a triumphant comeback.

=8. Lynne Ramsay

The nine-year gap between Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

It was Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones that became the failure between two resounding successes for Lynne Ramsay. After her enigmatic and mesmerising Morvern Callar in 2002, which featured a stunning performance from Samantha Morton, it would be nine years before she topped it with the sensational take on Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin.

In the meantime, she spent four years developing The Lovely Bones, working from a manuscript pre-publishing. When the book was released and became a bestseller, Ramsay’s auteurist leanings were no longer mainstream enough and Peter Jackson swooped in.

=8. Jacques Tati

The nine-year gap between Mon oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967)

Playtime (1967)
Image credit: Les Films de Mon Oncle

For some directors, a single mammoth project can be the cause of an extended break between films, as was the case for Jacques Tati. Mon oncle, in which Tati’s on-screen alter-ego Monsieur Hulot visited the confusing modern world, was released in 1958 and although the similarly themed follow-up Playtime began production in 1964, it was not completed for a further three years.

This was in large part due to the construction of the infamous ‘Tativille’ set, an enormous soundstage city that required hundreds of construction workers, its own power plant, and saw the already sizeable budget skyrocketing. Fortunately, many would consider Playtime absolutely worth the trouble.

=8. Wojciech Marczewski

The nine-year gap between Shivers (1981) and Escape from the Liberty Cinema (1990)

Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema (1990)

Similar to many filmmakers working in central and eastern Europe throughout the 20th century, Wojciech Marczewski found his ability to make films curtailed by the restrictions of Poland’s communist government. His astonishing 1981 sophomore feature Shivers, about self-delusion and the corruption of the youth by the party, premiered the night before martial law was enforced. It has naturally taken on symbolic connotations and was immediately banned.

Refusing to co-operate with the regime in any way, Marczewski wouldn’t make another film until 1990. That return took the form of his incredible Woody Allen-inspired satire Escape from the Liberty Cinema, which clearly laid out his scathing position on film censorship.

7. Lucile Hadžihalilović

The 11-year gap between Innocence (2004) and Evolution (2015)

Innocence (2004)

Speaking about her most recent film, Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilović has attributed some of the blame for the length of time needed to finance it to the fact that it’s not enough of a genre piece. Those that have seen it might disagree, but the French director’s second feature is certainly more wilfully obscure and arty than traditional genre fare tends to be.

Evolution’s release came 11 years after that of her beguiling debut, Innocence (2004). Struggling to get it made, Hadžihalilović and co-writer Alanté Kavaïté had to work to unravel some of the original screenplay’s enigma so that investors would find it more palatable. Fortunately, they weren’t forced to strip the mystery back too far.

=5. Stanley Kubrick

The 12-year gap between Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Warner Bros Pictures

Known for his meticulous and exacting nature, Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, had an especially protracted production. The 15-month shoot is renowned for being one of the longest and most exhausting on record, and it came at the end of a three-decade journey for the filmmaker.

He’d first begun considering an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story in the 60s but it was after finishing Vietnam war drama Full Metal Jacket in 1987 that Kubrick returned to the idea, alongside various other projects in development. He settled on the cooly brilliant Eyes Wide Shut over another passion project, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which Steven Spielberg would complete after Kubrick’s death.

=5. Kelly Reichardt

The 12-year gap between River of Grass (1994) and Old Joy (2006)

Old Joy (2006)

Gender was a defining factor for Kelly Reichardt in the struggle to make a follow-up to her 1994 debut feature, River of Grass. In 2011 she told The Guardian: “I had 10 years from the mid-1990s when I couldn’t get a movie made. It had a lot to do with being a woman.”

This period included a brief flirtation with Hollywood, but instead she forged an alternative path. She became a teacher to pay the bills and made Super-8 shorts in her spare time before managing to cobble together her minimalist second feature, the elegiac road movie Old Joy, which proved to be something of a breakthrough in 2006. She’s since completed four more features: Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2011), Night Moves (2013) and now Certain Women (2016), which screens at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

4. Whit Stillman

The 13-year gap between The Last Days of Disco (1998) and Damsels in Distress (2011)

Damsels in Distress (2011)

It is understandable that critic Philip French once likened Whit Stillman to Terrence Malick in reference to the “paucity of their oeuvre”. Stillman also apparently disappeared from cinema, after three films in eight years gave him a cult following in the 90s.

It equally enhanced his allure and, much like Malick, it seems the reality was less mysterious than the myth. Stillman refers to the 13-year period between 1998’s The Last Days of Disco and 2011’s Damsels in Distress as one of “failure”, particularly with regards to a continued and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to film George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

3. David Lean

The 14-year gap between Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984)

A Passage to India (1984)

Like the director in this list’s pole position, David Lean was another director whose career was purportedly affected by harsh reception – in his case that of 1970’s Ryan’s Daughter. The critics trashed Lean’s epic romance, from pacing to politics, and some stories suggest that Lean took it so personally that he vowed never to make another film.

Others dispute this claim and say that the 14 years between Ryan’s Daughter and his final film, A Passage to India, were filled with various stalled projects. A Passage to India itself had a difficult production history, at one stage earmarked for Satyajit Ray before finally being the project to hail Lean’s return. It went on to 11 Oscar nominations and two wins.

2. Terrence Malick

The 20-year gap between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998)

Days of Heaven (1978)

One director whose hiatus came after an undeniable success was Terrence Malick, who appeared to drop out of the industry entirely after the adulation afforded 1978’s Days of Heaven. His work wouldn’t appear on screens again for 20 years, until the release of The Thin Red Line in 1998. His absence between these films became almost mythic, prompting all manner of rumours, from him teaching at the Sorbonne, to having gone in search of ancient Assyria.

In reality, there were numerous projects that failed to launch, but Malick’s myriad other interests and the desire to work at his own pace seem to have been defining factors. Unusually, that pace has since famously quickened, and – beginning with 2011’s The Tree of Life – the 2010s have been by far the director’s most productive decade to date.

1. Roy Andersson

The 25-year gap between Giliap (1975) and Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

After the Oscar-nominated success of his debut A Swedish Love Story in 1971, few could have imagined that Roy Andersson would only have two films to his name almost 30 years later. Andersson blames the critical mauling of his second film, Giliap (1975), on the fact that it was such a departure in tone from his first.

Shunned by the Swedish filmmaking community, and fuelled by anger, he turned to (hilarious) commercials to make his living, before setting up his own production company in 1981. After some highly regarded shorts, he began a new feature in 1996, but this wasn’t finished and released until 2000. But, though ironically closer in tone to the reviled Giliap than the revered A Swedish Love Story, Songs from the Second Floor proved a fantastic comeback. Andersson has gone on to huge acclaim with You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).

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