Creative Passion: Five Filmmakers and Their Inspirations

Written by Film

A smart film critic (possibly Ken Hanke) once wrote, “Filmmakers start by remaking things they admired in childhood.” I am not able to find out exactly who wrote this, partly because it could be applied to any film critic. Every filmmaker has their ideas and obsessions implanted into them at an early age. No matter how much they change or how their subject matter may shift, they’re looking to recreate that moment they saw John Carpenter’s The Thing to experience that feeling they felt when they first saw the opening scene of The Lion King. It’s why Jordan Peele devoted several moments in Us to referencing Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and why Martin Scorsese has shown his characters watching The Jazz Singer long after that would make sense.

Most filmmakers, while they acknowledge the past, try to downplay just how much they’ve been influenced by other filmmakers. But there are a few filmmakers who acknowledge the direct influences films from their youth had on the first few movies in their filmography. Or, in some cases, the directors were smart enough to look at what was popular at the time and realize they could emulate it for a different market. After all, it is called show “business.”

But how much of the source material did these innovative filmmakers borrow? It’s something that will likely be debated for however long movies exist as a medium. I plan on adding myself to the debate with an analysis of the films listed below. The second film in each example is a famous debut or sophomore effort from a famous filmmaker. The first movie is what each director claimed was their primary inspiration behind that film. By watching both, we can see how much one movie influenced another.  

Carnival of Souls/Night of the Living Dead – George Romero is a director who has inspired more filmmakers than I can possibly count. But Romero was also inspired by other filmmakers when he made Night of the Living Dead – specifically, Herk Harvey, who spent most of his career producing safety videos. His one film, Carnival of Souls, did not make any sort of critical impact for almost 20 years.

But Romero saw it and realized that it was possible to make a low budget film with some thought to it. Romero’s horror interests weren’t tied to the supernatural like Harvey’s, but there are still some undeniable visual similarities between the two films.

Carnival of Souls is about a young woman who survives a car crash and finds herself being haunted by images of a ghostly man who seems to draw her to an abandoned carnival pavilion. Night of the Living Dead is Night of the Living Dead. You know what it’s about. One is a character study of a traumatized woman; the other is about the apocalypse.

But while Romero gets credit for making female protagonists the focus of horror films, that honor really belongs to Herk Harvey. In fact, Carnival’s Mary is a much more interesting character than Night’s Barbara. The latter spent most of the movie doing nothing but screaming. (Granted, she did watch a zombie murder her brother and then had to escape from the same creature, but she doesn’t contribute much to the story.) All of Carnival is told from Mary’s point of view. We understand what’s happening through her trauma. Additionally, although Romero gets a lot of credit for Night’s social awareness due to Ben’s character, Mary is a character that seems tailor made for the #MeToo era. She’s openly disdainful of the creepy neighbor she has in her new boarding house and was depicted as a single woman able to support herself at a time when that really was not viewed as acceptable.

So, Romero realized that what made Carnival of Souls unique was its progressive viewpoint. But there were many more elements that inspired Romero. The look and behavior of Night’s zombies is identical to the ghouls in Carnival. Both films also have a twist ending, although the ending of Night is more poignant and thematically appropriate.

What was it about Night of the Living Dead that caused it to resonate with the public while Carnival of Souls was doomed to obscurity? Part of the answer has to do with the release dates. Romero was able to capture the division of America during the Vietnam War and capture the tense race relations of the times. Carnival of Souls’ abstract approach to horror seemed weird to contemporary audiences. Romero was able to capture the tension of the late 1960s and present it in a way that audiences would understand. Herk Harvey’s film was more of a David Lynch arthouse project, which even today would be risky. But Harvey’s film lead to one of the most important American films of all time. I believe that’s enough of a success story.

City on Fire/Reservoir Dogs – Quentin Tarantino doesn’t try to hide his references to other films. He borrows so much that he’s been referred to as a cinematic DJ instead of a director. That is, he takes elements from other films and sticks everything together in a way that creates a new work. In some ways, this has worked as a net positive. Tarantino has made people take another look at films and genres that, for decades, were considered trash and had no redeeming qualities.

This got him in trouble at first. After Reservoir Dogs premiered at Sundance, critic Mike White created a ten-minute documentary about all the plot points and shots that Tarantino took from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire.

That documentary makes this entry a little different from the others because it brings up the age-old question, “When is something a homage and when is something a rip off?”

But Reservoir Dogs is more complicated than that. Tarantino unquestionably used City on Fire as an influence on his story. But he greatly improved on the original film and created something that was uniquely his vision.

Ringo Lam’s City on Fire is a fairly standard Asian crime film. Even White said that it’s “less than spectacular.” It’s about an undercover police officer who is hired to help take down some jewel thieves – just like Reservoir Dogs. But Tarantino tells the story in a completely different way. For one, we never see the robbery in the movie. We just hear characters talking endlessly about it and trying to piece together what went wrong. Second, almost the entire run time of Reservoir Dogs takes place in a warehouse where the characters are supposed to meet after the robbery. That’s a scene that only takes ten minutes in City on Fire.

Finally, and most importantly, City on Fire is a movie that could have been made by anyone at any time. What I mean is that all the characters feel like they’ve been taken from any number crime films. When watching it I didn’t think of them as people that existed in 1980s Hong Kong.

Reservoir Dogs is a perfect reflection of Tarantino’s sensibilities and it makes the characters seem like real people. The opening scene has pop music obsessed Mr. Brown talking about “Like a Virgin,” immediately followed by Mr. Pink’s explanation on his refusal to tip. It’s exactly the sort of conversation that would happen in that situation and brings us closer to the characters.

That’s why Tarantino has been celebrated as a more daring and adventurous filmmaker. He may use Asian action films and spaghetti westerns as his starting point, but he’s also able to create worlds that these characters would inhabit. He wants to explore the genres he loves, not just recreate their base elements.

Rio Bravo/Assault on Precinct 13 – Precinct 13 was not John Carpenter’s directorial debut, but it was his first significant hit and got him hired to direct Halloween. It was also the first film where Carpenter was able to explore his love of classic westerns.

However, the Rio Bravo/Assault on Precinct 13 connection baffles me. Carpenter has always claimed that Rio Bravo was his primary influence on Assault on Precinct 13, but you sure could have fooled me.

I must surrender myself – I am not a fan of classic Hollywood westerns. I much prefer the more subversive spaghetti westerns. John Wayne movies have always seemed sterile to me. I never get the sense that I’m being transported to the old west or seeing people that could possibly inhabit it. Also, most of them are too long and don’t have the content to justify their length.

But there have been a lot of people who viewed those same westerns and used them as a template to explain the urban landscape that had replaced the vast swaths of desert in the United States. Cities were home to a new generation of black hats, and many wanted to see the old white hat heroes back.

That sensibility, rather than its content, is how Rio Bravo influenced Assault on Precinct 13. Both movies are about a law enforcement unit with limited resources trying to stop a gang from retaking a prisoner. But Assault on Precinct 13 is focused entirely on that single fight that practically plays out in real time. Rio Bravo has a more epic scope. The “limited resources” in Rio Bravo isn’t the police station being shut down. It’s about the inhabitants in the town being shells of what they want to be.

In contrast, Assault on Precinct 13 is all about the fight. We don’t get a lot of time to spend with the characters, but the film makes us more tense about their situation than anything that happens to John Wayne in Rio Bravo. With the studio support, director Howard Hawks could indulge in a more epic production. John Carpenter had to be quick and make sure he was able to keep an audience’s attention.

Besides, the final shootout in Rio Bravo is undeniably great. It has John Wayne shooting dynamite in order to drive the villains out of an abandoned house. It’s easy to see a young John Carpenter watching that scene and realizing that the movie would be a lot more tense if it was John Wayne trapped in the house as it was getting blown up. And he was right.

Slacker/Clerks – Director Kevin Smith has been very open about the influence Slacker had on his debut Clerks. Specifically, the film showed Smith that anyone could make a film. Richard Linklater’s Slacker didn’t come from Hollywood or New York – it came from Austin, Texas. By his own admission, Smith didn’t know the cultural relevance Austin still retains to this day. All he saw was a film about a town and the weird denizens who inhabited it.

What’s even more interesting is that, for a while, Smith and Linklater followed the same career path. They were both hailed as Gen X auteurs who were exploring areas of America that were mostly overlooked (Slacker/Dazed and Confused/Clerks). Then both tried to balance their sensibilities to the Hollywood mainstream only to stumble (The Newton Boys/Mallrats) before regaining their footing with more philosophical films (Waking Life/Dogma). Unfortunately, both went fully mainstream with embarrassing failures (The Bad News Bears/Cop Out). But while Linklater fully recovered and his films now receive Oscar nominations, Smith has largely retreated from directing features. Instead, he’s become far more well known for his multiple podcast series. Now, the most important thing for Smith is to get interesting people to hang out and just talk.

The most interesting thing about where Smith ended up is that the podcasts are far more like Slacker than Clerks. The latter is about the day in the life of a young man named Dante who is dissatisfied with his life. His only escape is to talk about his contempt for his customers to his friend Randall.

Dante is in almost every scene and the film is told entirely from his point of view. Additionally, the film’s scope is very limited. We only ever see a few locations in the town and only a few characters. Richard Linklater borrowed many of his techniques from Robert Altman and his ensemble films. Slacker doesn’t really have a plot, nor does it have a protagonist. It’s essentially about a bunch of random Austin residents interacting with each other, spouting off ideas about life, the modern era, and who they think really killed John F Kennedy.

The result shouldn’t work. But it’s strangely addicting because Richard Linklater happened to be in the right place at the right time.  In Slacker, he captured Austin’s weirdness before it became a meme. The result is the feeling of a weird travelogue to Austin. The town is the main character.

It’s difficult to see how this film influenced Clerks. But the similarities to Slacker and all of Smith’s View Askewniverse films are present. For one, they are largely plotless. The characters are also similar – they’re more archetypes to represent Generation X than they are flesh and blood human beings. And they waste time talking about pop culture conspiracies.

The strangest thing is that, as time went on, Richard Linklater abandoned his own demographic to focus on new generations. It’s what made his Boyhood work. When Kevin Smith tried to do that, we ended up with the much-maligned Yoga Hosers. Although Kevin Smith has become one of the most prominent podcasters working, so maybe he still is trying to figure out what the youth are into.

The Virgin Spring/The Last House on the Left- Wes Craven started his career with one of the most controversial films ever made. It’s also one of the few times someone has ever remade an Ingmar Bergman film. It’s the very definition of bold.

The Virgin Spring tells the story of a young woman in 13th century Sweden who is raped and murdered by goat herders. Those herders unknowingly seek shelter in her family’s home. And when the family finds out what they’ve done, things get messy. The Last House on the Left has the exact same plot but set in 1970s America.

The Virgin Spring fits very well in the rest of Bergman’s filmography. It’s about man’s relationship with religion and questions why God would allow bad things to happen. It also doesn’t focus too much on any graphic violence. It still manages to be very scary. When Karin, the young woman, realizes what the goat herders intended to do to her, her fear is palpable.

The Last House on the Left ignores those elements and Craven’s viewpoint is far more misanthropic. There’s a sense that the girl’s parents in The Virgin Spring will redeem themselves even though they’ve committed the same crime as the goat herders. (The father promises to build a church where his daughter was murdered.) The parents never receive that redemption in The Last House on the Left. Yes, we in the audience feel vindicated when we see one of the parents chainsaw one of the rapists, but what does it say about the characters? They’ve devolved into the same savages as the people who killed their child.

The point of Last House is much more nihilistic than Bergman’s original, so why look to Bergman for inspiration? Maybe Craven wanted to lend his film some more clout with the critics. (It didn’t work, and apart from maybe Roger Ebert, the film attracted terrible reviews.) Or maybe Craven simply had a far more cynical view of humanity. “Building a church isn’t going to reverse the murder your characters committed, so why bother?” It’s a reflection of the growing cynicism against the counterculture of the time. No one could take “peace and love” seriously after several violent incidents. It’s why the new villains look like hippies and why their victim has been replaced by a teenager on her way to a rock concert who meet their attackers while trying to buy pot. If The Virgin Spring had to be updated, Craven wanted it to reflect the world he saw around him. And his vision lead to a long career, so he was onto something.