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The 10 greatest actor-director collaborations of all time

The internet is showered with reels of outtake footage and accompanying comments sections, chocked full with remarks along the lines of “how do these lucky bastards get paid for this?”. On the flip side of that lucky lark-about coin are beleaguered movie productions so nightmarish in the making that it would seem if Dante was to rework his Inferno for modern times, then filmmaking would surely be reserved as a circle of hell. Thus, if you want to fall on the right side of that battle line, it helps to stack as many chips as you can in your favour. 

The Coen Brothers perhaps laid down the simplest and best reason for their constant recurring collaborations both in front and behind the camera, a time when they plainly said that making movies is what you spend most of your time doing, thus why wouldn’t you do it with people you enjoy working with. It is a basic catch-all with undeniable truth, for all the notions of a development of a short-hand and so on, getting on with someone is simply conducive to making good films. 

For all of the thousands of ‘Kinski-Herzog’ examples to the contrary, for the most part, a good frequent collaboration upheld by friendship produces great results. Below, we’re taking a look at ten of the best actor-director team-ups in movie history. 

The 10 greatest actor-director collaborations:

Laura Dern and David Lynch

David Lynch was so enamoured with Laura Dern’s work in his 2007 film Inland Empire that for some inexplicable reason he decided prop himself on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard with a canvas of her face over his left shoulder and over the right a dairy cow, in a demented bid to attract the attention of the Academy Awards committee. Aside from the berserk stylings of this stunt, it proved beyond any doubt the respect that Lynch has for Dern. 

Aside from Inland Empire, Dern has also starred in Blue VelvetWild at Heart and Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks. In each of these projects, she has humanised the madness and provided subtlety to complement the surrealism. And while Dern might not have tethered herself to a dairy cow, she did say that working with Lynch, “just gets better and better. He’s incredible. He’s everything you want him to be.” 

John Goodman and The Coen Brothers

As mentioned above, there are many on-screen collaborations within the vaguely alternate universe of the Coen Brothers that could’ve made it onto this list, not least Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand, but perhaps being bonded by matrimony makes that somewhat more profound than a “collaboration”. Of the rest of the recurring bunch, however, John Goodman has cut himself as the most synonymous to such a degree that his presence seems to define something about their style itself. 

Recently here at Far Out we explored the Coen Brothers unusual penchant for screaming fat guys and John Goodman is often filling that role with belly-aching aplomb. His humour is simultaneously absurd and dry, which makes him the perfect fit for the twisted realism that they alchemically craft.  

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese

It is a fact that has been illuminated a lot recently, that the majority of the biggest roles written in Hollywood go-to men of a certain age. Aside from the rather more nettlesome side of that fact is the realisation for directors that they can’t collaborate with the same people forever unless they look to change the style of picture that they make. Martin Scorsese collaborated with a recurring crew for years, but when he cast Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York, he not only found a suspect Irish American accent but a surge of new blood to infuse his future filmography.  

Since that debut team-up, the duo’s films have been nominated for 31 Academy Awards, winning nine of them. During that time, they have become vehicles to Hollywood greatness and now for fans Killers of the Flower Moon lingers large on the horizon as a tantalising cinematic dream that sees Scorsese direct both De Niro and DiCaprio in the same picture.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese

There is perhaps no finer quintessence of actor-director collaborations in Hollywood than that of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. The duo has worked on nine movies together and you’d be hard pushed to say that there has been a certified dud amongst them. 

Perhaps most impressive of all about the movies they have made with each other is not the quality contained therein but the diversity on display. From the profoundly complex stylings of the delusional Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy to the disturbed violence of Travis Bickle Taxi Driver, the pair have pushed each other on in terms of quality and daring over a number of decades. 

Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino

Much like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino has collected a slew of collaborators and welcomed them into his crafted cinematic realm. Central amid this melee of all-stars is Samuel L. Jackson – the eponymous laidback actor who works as the cool ying to the very violent yang that unspools on screen. 

When it comes to collaborations, rarely do two people sing off the same hymn sheet in the same way that Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino do; there is a kinship there that is detectable on camera and it is clear that Tarantino has etched punctuated each inflexion and sibilance in his script perfectly to pair with Jackson’s ice-cold and mercurial delivery. The result is a thrilling hand in glove match of two people harmoniously on the same wild page.

Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard

The French new wave movement had a profound influence on counterculture and in many ways, it can be argued that Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard crafted that aesthetic. You can’t look at a film poster for something like Vivre Sa Vie and feel the transportive effect of glimpsing at another era. 

For the pair, the on-screen passion was palpable not only owing to a shared love of movies and a cinematic vision but for a love of each other. As Karina told Vogue when looking back at their time together: “It really was a great love story, but very tiring in a way for a young girl because he would go away a lot. He would say he was going to buy some cigarettes and he would come back three weeks later.” The pains and the pleasure of this troubled love affair were always viscerally realised on screen in performances and movies that defined an era. 

David Fincher and Brad Pitt

David Fincher’s directorial style is not one that every actor enjoys. He is notorious within the industry for endlessly shooting the same scene until he gets it just the way that he wants it. Naturally, however, when the actors are on board with this level of perfectionism the results can be, well, perfect. 

Similar to Fincher, Pitt has also stated that when he watches his own movies back it is a case of intense self-analysis. Thus, aside from the fact that Pitt seems a perfect fit for the roles in which he has worked with Fincher, it would seem that their tireless ethics concoct a creative chemistry that translates into superb performances on screen. 

Wes Anderson and Bill Murray

If you were to describe the styles of both Wes Anderson and Bill Murray separately, you’d soon find that you were reusing a lot of the same adjectives. They are, simply put, Hollywood’s quirkiest couple. 

Once again, Wes Anderson is a director who leans on the same plethora are stars for just about every movie but none more so than Bill Murray. When asked whether he’d ever say no to working with Wes Anderson, Murray replied, “It’s an automatic yes. He’s made making movies his life and he’s made making movies a joy.” That simple joie de vivre of a creative spirit that the duo share, shines out in weirdly wonderful ways every time Murray appears on the screen.

James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock

James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock seem like the eponymous parents at the birth of modern cinema. The duo’s collaborations took the craft on a deeper introspective journey where thrillers coupled the diegesis of classic mystery with the horrors of the mind. With great skill they seemed to develop the narrative of cinema, layering subtlety with innovation and classic thrills to great effect. 

The history of culture, however, is a stupefying thing to study as what seems like an influential triumph in retrospect is often a piece of art that has soared up from the ash heap of history. Remarkably, the masterful Vertigo was met with negative reviews upon release and this adversely impacted box office takings, and Hitchcock ended the collaboration claiming that Stewart looked a little too old to capture a young audience these days. Therefore, he turned to Cary Grant to replace him in North by Northwest despite the fact Grant was actually four years older, hinting at a deeper rift between the pair. 

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman 

Liv Ullmann not only starred in ten Ingmar Bergman films, but she also directed two of his screenplays and she was married to him from 1965-70. Their relationship in a creative sense continued long after their romance subsided, right up until his final film in 2003. Along the way, it proved incredibly fruitful establishing them both as greats within their respective fields, while propagating innovation in both acting methods and directorial techniques. Collaborations don’t come much better than that. 

Both Ullmann and Bergman were pulled together because they put so much of themselves in their work, mixing metaphysics with fiction to pack a deeply effective punch. As Ullmann once told Little White Lies, “I’m not a character actress. I can’t just put on a nose or be Richard III. I’m still using Liv and my experiences, allowing them to come out through me.” 

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