January 30, 2018
Sundance 2018

The Rise of the Actor-Director at Sundance 2018

There was a big batch of new films directed by actors at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

There are many reasons why someone with a background in acting could make a good director: familiarity with how a script comes to life on set, experience under different directors and directing styles, and an understanding of what it takes to get a great performance out of an actor.

Of course, from a marketing perspective, it's hard to ignore the fact that having a director who also happens to be a celebrity due to an acting career would open a lot of doors. If you're feeling particularly cynical as an independent filmmaker, you might look at this as an unfair advantage for getting films made and seen. However, that all depends on what the actor-directors are attempting to do with their films. Are they well suited to tell this story? Are they bringing their background and connections to accomplish something bold that might not otherwise get made?

Take a look at these films helmed by actors that just premiered in Sundance 2018, and see what you think.

Blaze (Director: Ethan Hawke, U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Benjamin Dickey and Alia Shawkat appear in BLAZE, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Steve Cosens.

Having successfully transitioned to director with a few films before (Seymour: An Introduction, The Hottest State), Ethan Hawke's Sundance debut casts an unknown but very talented Benjamin Dickey to tell the partly mythical true story of outlaw country pioneer Blaze Foley.

Wildlife (Director: Paul Dano, U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould and Jake Gyllenhaal appear in Wildlife by Paul Dano, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The directorial debut of Paul Dano brings to life the eponymous novel by Richard Ford, translated for the screen with co-writer Zoe Kazan to share the perspective of a teenager watching his family slowly fall apart in 1960s America.

Burden (Director: Andrew Heckler, U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Garrett Hedlund appears in Burden by Andrew Heckler, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Michael Muller.

Andrew Heckler has spent nearly twenty years trying to get this extraordinary true story into a feature; it tells of Mike Burden (played by Garret Hedlund) who defects from being a white supremacist member of the KKK and is taken in by a black Baptist minister (played by Forrest Whittaker).

Yardie (Director: Idris Elba, World Dramatic Competition)

Aml Ameen appears in Yardie by Idris Elba, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alex Bailey.

Idris Elba uses cult novel by Victor Headley to bring a gangster story set between 1970s Kingston, Jamaica and London, England to life in an evocative tribute to the era.

Clara's Ghost (Director: Bridey Elliott, NEXT)

Isidora Goreshter appears in Clara's Ghost by Bridey Elliott, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Markus Mentzer.

Bridey Elliott creates a strange and humorous night of drunkenness and hauntings by casting her family, including her dad and sister, former SNL stars Chris and Abby Elliott, in this dramatic horror comedy.

The Happy Prince (Director: Rupert Everett, Premieres)

Rupert Everett appears in The Happy Prince by Rupert Everett, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Wilhelm Moser.

Using rich period detail in his directorial debut, Rupert Everett creates a moving portrait of Oscar Wilde from 1897–1900, which happen to be the last three years of his life and the most prolific writing. 

Damsel (Directors: Nathan Zellner, David Zellner, Premieres)

Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson appear in Damsel by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Adam Stone.

What we have here is more of a director-actor story than actor-director; using the film to turn audience expectations of Westerns and damsels on its head, it's fitting that the Zellner Brothers would flip their roles as directors by acting in the film themselves.

Maude (Director: Anna Margaret Hollyman, U.S. Shorts)

Anna Margaret Hollyman appears in Maude by Anna Margaret Hollyman, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Victoria Will.

Shorts and episodics continue to be a place where we see the role of actor and director intermingled and experimented with, and one great example is Anna Margaret Hollyman’s comedy, Maude. Nash Edgerton's action series, Mr. Inbetween, also premiered in the Indie Episodics section.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.     

Header image of Carey Mulligan in Wildlife by Paul Dano, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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