The first thing we need to do is define a few terms. First, a movie director “controls a film’s artistic & dramatic aspects and visualizes the screenplay while guiding actors & the crew in the fulfilment of that vision”. A cinematographer or director of photography (the two terms are interchangeable) is “the person responsible for the photographing or recording of a film, television production, music video, or other live action piece and is chief of the camera & light crew working on such projects, responsible for making artistic & technical decisions and for selecting cameras, film, lenses, filters, etc”. Today’s subject has achieved success doing both jobs, having a hand in creating some very memorable films.
All the Right Moves
When you look at de Bont’s filmography you see that one of the earliest movies he worked on that you’ve actually heard of is this overlooked 1983 gem about high school football in the kind of small, economically depressed town that many people are either trapped in or dream of escaping (oftentimes both). You may have wondered why we didn’t include it in the Tom Cruise weekend marathon since it might be one of his best performances, and now you know. Several years ago I ranked it as my 6th Favorite Sports Film, and, while my appreciation for Rebecca DeMornay on the El train in Risky Business has been duly noted I must opine that there is a scene in this movie with the lovely Leah Thompson that pre-pubescent Me liked even better.
I’m sensing a theme. Okay, I’m lonely…sue me. Basic Instinct is one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of things, like Cabbage Patch Dolls, the 1960’s Batman TV show, or disco. It made Sharon Stone a star, and was the sixth highest grossing film of 1992, besting more deserving fare like Aladdin, A League of Their Own, White Men Can’t Jump, My Cousin Vinny, & Father of the Bride. Sex sells & life isn’t fair. Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Ellen Barkin, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathleen Turner, & Geena Davis all turned down the role that eventually went to Stone. Perhaps they didn’t want the world to see their cooter. As the cinematographer I guess we have Jan de Bont to thank for that famous scene.
One of the best Christmas movies of all time!! Okay okay…I couldn’t resist. I feel like I have praised it effusively thru the years, and I’m quite sure that most have an understanding of the plot & other factoids. Whether or not you agree with my assessment of Die Hard as a holiday classic I think we can all agree that it’s one of the best action films of all time, highly regarded as a genre altering work of art.
After achieving success in the 1980s & early 90s as a cinematographer de Bont moved into the director’s chair and hit a couple of early home runs. I’m not usually into disaster flicks, but there’s something about Twister that suckers me in every time it’s on television almost three decades later. Perhaps it’s the cast…Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Jami Gertz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck. Not big movie stars individually, but an ensemble of good, charming actors. You may be surprised to learn that Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, & James Cameron were all in the running to direct, but somehow de Bont jumped the line. I’d love to know more details about how that happened.
Although I’m sure there’s more to the story, one of the reasons de Bont landed the Twister gig was that his directorial debut was such a rousing success, and he got the chance to direct Speed because the director of Die Hard recommended him. John McTiernan didn’t want to do something that he perceived as too similar to Die Hard, so he passed & suggested de Bont. I believe Shakespeare referred to such situations as the slings & arrows of outrageous fortune. Even more interesting, the lead role eventually played by Keanu Reeves was almost given to Stephen Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Wesley Snipes, Tom Cruise, or Woody Harrelson. Of those, I can only see Cruise as possibly being as good as Reeves ended up being. As for the role that made Sandra Bullock a household name, she was almost portrayed by Halle Berry, Meryl Streep, Kim Basinger, or Ellen DeGeneres. Wow…could you imagine a world in which Speed had made Ellen a movie star while Bullock’s career stalled after Demolition Man?!?!?? And speaking of stalled (to put it kindly), the sequel Speed 2 didn’t seem to affect Bullock & Reeves didn’t even participate, but de Bont has only directed two movies in the ensuing 25 years and most fans wouldn’t be able to name them if their life depended on it. Speed 2 is widely regarded as the worst sequel of all time, but that shouldn’t tarnish one’s regard for the original.