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Why do actors become directors?

We asked Ryan Gosling, Zach Braff and Jon Favreau why they put their reps on the line to get behind the camera

Mark Wahlberg’s namesake burger chain. Eddie Murphy’s Billboard-charting banger “Party All The Time”. Everything James Franco does. Actors’ vanity projects: they’re all one big eye-roll, right? Before taking that brash step and registering the copyright for ‘Wahlburgers’, the expected first baby step outside of an actor’s comfort zone is to move behind the camera. Or, better yet, to have it both ways. The perks are obvious: aside from getting to star in their own movie, actor-directors can add ‘producer’ and ‘story by’ credits to their films, as if the whole thing rested squarely on one pair of muscle-bound A-list shoulders. But with harsh reviews lobbed at their efforts as a matter of routine, the potential drawbacks are equally apparent. Why, then, do they do it? I asked actors-cum-directors Ryan Gosling, Zach Braff and Jon Favreau why they chose to warm the folding chair. 

“It was just something that happened,” suggests Gosling when we meet. His feast-for-the-senses directorial debut, Lost River, came out over the weekend to mostly sour reviews. “I was filming by myself in Detroit and I had shot so much stuff. I realised halfway through that I was making a movie. I needed more people to help me. I needed actors, a script and some money – it was happening.”

Gosling got the idea to set his Lynchian American nightmare – about a family struggling to save their home from foreclosure – in Detroit after working on political thriller Ides of March there. After all, there aren’t too many places you can buy a house to set ablaze for less than $500. He kept going back over the course of a year to film and take pictures; the script, which he penned himself, took a few months. Next he recruited his dream-team of collaborators: Spring Breakers cinematographer Benoît Debie to capture the neon-soaked ‘ruin porn’, Drive producers Michel Litvak and Adam Siegel, and animator David Spafford, the man behind the “Under the Sea” sequence in The Little Mermaid. Call Gosling derivative, but good directors know that reeling in the best in the biz usually equates to quality.

“People who are actors have an advantage. They have some marketing value that makes people more comfortable taking a risk on them as a filmmaker, as they know if they’re involved it may draw an audience” – Jon Favreau

Whatever people made of his career lane-change, Gosling meant business. Even down to his working process which, for the Drive star, was paramount. For actor Iain De Caestecker, who plays the lead in Lost River, it meant Gosling getting all up in his grill or shoving headphones in his ears to evoke a certain emotion before a take. To give the film its otherworldly feel, the cast would bring their dream diaries on set every day and share dreams they had had the night before. “He works in a lot of exciting ways,” says Matt Smith, who also stars in the film. “It’s about process and character. Ryan is all about the subconscious and dreams and that sort of thing.” 

“Sometimes you’re on set listening to people talk about lunch and you’re trying (in a scene) to cut the head off a monster or something, you know?” Gosling says. “You’re asking somebody to get somewhere emotionally. Sometimes you need to zone out and help the actors disconnect from the crew.” Maybe it’s not a novel assertion, but I’d be tempted to take odds on an actor-director being the most capable of pulling out an off-piste performance from an otherwise script-hugging actor.

But, presumed ability to bring the best out of performers aside, what do actors-turned-directors have that nobody else does? In Gosling’s case, a name you can put in lights. A trustworthy, bleached grin that has investors reaching for their wallets, and fans flocking enthusiastically to social media. 

“People who are actors have an advantage,” says Jon Favreau, who was a jobbing actor before making his screenwriting debut with Swingers (1996). “A successful actor’s involvement might make securing financing easier with investors. They have some marketing value that makes people more comfortable taking a risk on them as filmmakers, as they know if they’re involved it may draw an audience.”

As well as investors, actor-directors can often exploit close relationships with agents who can help with casting other A-list talent. Favreau’s epicurean road movie Chef nabbed ScarJo and Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. Lost River stars Gosling’s baby mama Eva Mendes and The Place Beyond the Pines’ Ben Mendelsohn. Zach Braff buddies up with Scrubs co-star Donald Faison in Wish I Was Here.

Favreau wrote Swingers (1996), a buddy comedy which gave Vince Vaughn his career break, because not a lot of scripts were coming across his desk and he needed some acting work. His father gifted him the screenwriting software Final Draft, and his script got shopped around before getting picked up by Doug Liman (the Bourne series, Edge of Tomorrow). “When I set out to write Swingers, it wasn’t something I was doing necessarily to launch a career behind the camera,” he says. “It was just something I had done because I was inspired to do it.”

There was no executive to please, no bottom line to adhere to. He did it for the love of the game, to sit in the driver���s seat with a newly administered creative licence, and because, well, why not? “I always liked the idea of eventually getting to be a filmmaker of some sort. That all got really ‘leap frog’ very early when I made Swingers.”

Favreau then pinballed from his directorial debut Made (“It was well received but was not a hit by any stretch”) to now-Christmas classic Elf. And then came the opportunity to helm a small film which had been in production purgatory that Marvel owned: Iron Man. “It was an exercise in making a film on a modest budget,” he chuckles of the superhero hit, which went on to gross nearly $585 million and helped to relaunch the career of Robert Downey Jr. “I was given an enormous amount of creative freedom in casting and developing the story. The script wasn’t very far along when I was hired.”

Not every actor who pursues directing has managed to follow a similar Yellow Brick Road to success, however. Plenty of vanity projects gather dust on the bottom shelves of studio backlots, usually due to a lack of funds.

“Most people don’t know this,” says Zach Braff in his Kickstarter campaign video for last year’s Wish I Was Here. “Garden State would never, ever have been made had it not been for a sole investor, but most importantly, it became a very special film to a lot of you, who did understand what I was trying to say and related to my personal story in a way I never could have imagined was possible.”

Braff’s campaign drew $3 million in pledges, but his public money-grubbing sparked a backlash online, resulting in a “Don’t Back Zach” protest. If he didn’t take to crowdfunding and stuck with panhandling at the studio lot gates, what would have been different? A lot, says Braff: “Script changes, not shooting where I wanted to shoot. Not hiring who I wanted to hire. Not having final cut. Making it for a fraction of what it would cost to make it well.”

“Actors as directors need to get lucky,” offers Bruce Wagner, a multi-hyphenate Hollywood fixture who most recently wrote David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. “More than talent, they need persistence. As with anything. There aren’t too many actors who’ve directed films that are works of art.”

Fair play. Most actors-turned-directors suck. To trace the history of the actor-director, one needs a detailed road map and a tight seatbelt – there are many potholes. A maudlin Barbra Streisand famously directed herself into the flop hall of fame with her self-indulgent ugly-duckling-to-swan story The Mirror Has Two Faces, about plump university professor Rose (Streisand) who crash-diets to save her marriage. Eddie Murphy had some trouble swallowing back 1989’s Harlem Nights, starring himself and other funny comedians in unfunny roles.

But for every clunker there is a success story: Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, Ben Affleck’s 2012 Oscar winner Argo, and Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Ida Lupino, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack all enjoyed success behind the camera. More recently, first-time director Desiree Akhavan has drawn acclaim for her definitely-not-autobiographical story of a bisexual American-Iranian in Appropriate Behaviour, one of the funniest films in recent memory. Then she was snared to appear in Girls season four.

Call it the James Franco-isation of popular culture, if you will. Act, direct, basket weave: why choose? Franco has a PhD, writes the occasional New York Times column, stages gallery exhibitions of his work, options literary masterpieces of fiction to direct. Many a joke has been made about how many second helpings he’s had at the buffet of creative industry – successfully or not. He’s already clocked 28 director credits on IMDb, and while you’ve read this sentence, he’s probably added another.

“To change something that’s a personal story based on a bank or a corporation saying, ‘No, put this ending or change this line of dialogue because the graph shows that that will do better’ is something that I’ve experienced, and it’s horrible” – Zach Braff

“I remember when I was only acting people would ask me, ‘What is your dream role, what movie would you love to do if you could?’” Franco told Filmmaker magazine. “And for a long time my answer was I’d love to play a young Tennessee Williams or the poet Hart Crane. But then it would just sit there. I would sit around and wait for some filmmaker to make those movies and ask me to be in them and nobody ever did. So then I started directing my own films.” 

If taking matters into your own hands is an important first step, retaining final cut – the edit that makes it to the cinemas – is where a project lives or dies. You’ve got your funds, you’ve got your stars, your location. But if it’s a passion project, you need the last word. “You have to answer to studio heads if you make a studio movie,” says Gosling. “The cool thing about Lost River is that we didn’t have that, we just made it really inexpensively with friends so we could make it more personal. You have to have (final cut) or it’s not your movie.”

“I had final cut on Made, my first one, because it was so small,” says Favreau. “I had it on Chef, but the Iron Man films – every time we are dealing with a big brand or a big property like with Marvel or Disney – that was not something that I had. I don’t think I had it on Elf or Zathura, either. So I’ve had it only on the smaller films.”

Braff can attest from personal experience to the pain of being forced to compromise your vision. “To change something that’s a personal story, a piece of who you are, based on a bank or a corporation saying, ‘No, put this ending or change this line of dialogue because the graph shows that that will do better’ is something that I’ve experienced, and it’s horrible. It’s not what an audience wants. If you go to a museum, imagine a painting being changed by the curator, who says, ‘No, put green there instead of red.’ That’s not art! I don’t want to make my art that way if at all possible.”

The testing process, whereby audiences preview a rough edit of a film and offer feedback, is a good opportunity to demonstrate that a director’s tastes will be well received by the audience, but fat chance churning out something everybody will love. “It’s impossible not to be second-guessed by a studio or by financiers,” sighs Favreau. “Especially if you are trying to do something that’s not fitting within the very specific tastes of the establishment.”

And if baring your soul can sometimes lead to bruised egos, the flipside is that, if your film connects with an audience, the reward is that much sweeter. “I did something where I poured myself completely into it and people seem to be enjoying it, celebrating it,” says Favreau of his film, Chef. “There was really nothing to hide behind, it was all me: I wrote it, I directed it, I’m in it, so I was pretty much up to be judged on every front. I was very vulnerable on this one, so if people hadn’t enjoyed it and it was rejected, it would have been very painful for me.”

“It’s so hard to get a film made,” adds Braff. “I think a lot of people who are actors realise that you can actually create your own content. There are too many fish in the sea to just sit back and wait for someone to hire you. It’s a pretty crazy way to be in this business.”

Look closely, and the machine-gun volley of criticism aimed at Lost River can start to seem a little unfair. After all, manufacturing a masterpiece at first time of asking is a feat very few directors manage to achieve – and whatever its flaws, Gosling’s film shows an ambition that’s heartening in the face of another blitzkrieg of summer reboots and remakes. For all their occasional hubris, actors can make or break their careers on a whole lot less than birthing a titanic vision for all to see. Why not let them have their Wahlburger and eat it too?

Lost River is out in cinemas now