5 Directors Who Failed Their Way to the Top

This April, The Frida Cinema is celebrating the career of Tim Burton. While Burton is most well known for his works in Disney adaptations and reboots, his most critically acclaimed film is a celebration of the creative passion of famously inept director Ed Wood. With Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood coming to the Frida Cinema, we decided to look back at some of the most famous directors who found fame and fortune through making spectacularly bad movies.


1. Uwe Boll

Uwe Boll is unlike anyone else on this list. He doesn’t make “so-bad-they’re-good films,” watching an Uwe Boll film doesn’t give one pleasure from the cheesy incompetence on display; Boll’s films instead provide a painful, joyless experience so miserable that viewers must share his films with others to avoid being alone with such unpleasantness. His films range from modestly-budgeted video game adaptations — in 2007’s Postal, Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush skip across a field holding hands — to a “serious” indie film about the genocide in Darfur. He has even managed to get respected actors such as Ben Kingsley and JK Simmons to act in his films. His 2005 film Alone in the Dark is routinely listed as one of the worst films of all time. Boll has directed 20 films since, earning him the title “Worst Director of All Time.” Perhaps his success is because his films are funded using a loophole in the German tax code, but he might also be bolstered by the handful of defenders who claim Postal has satirical merit (it doesn’t). Regardless, Uwe Boll’s films have made more at the box office than Orson Welles and Werner Herzog combined.


2. James Nguyen

James Nguyen has the success story every guerilla filmmaker dreams of. An immigrant from Vietnam, Nguyen grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock films and began funding his own Hitchcock-inspired films after establishing a successful Silicon Valley career. When his third film Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) was rejected by Sundance Film Festival, Nguyen showed up to the festival in a blood soaked van adorned with stuffed birds, passing out flyers to promote the film himself. Birdemic has since gained a cult following, spawning a sequel. Nguyen is currently in the process of funding Birdemic 3: Sea Eagle with a planned budget of $20 million.

Unfortunately, Birdemic is longer than a crow’s flight from good. Featuring some the worst CGI monsters in film history, wooden acting, and bizarre references to An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Birdemic’s unique aspect of awfulness made it the subject of a Vice documentary and a RiffTrax commentary. While Birdemic is Nguyen’s best-known work, his debut film Julie and Jack (2003) has all the classic James Nguyen tropes — plus it stars Tippi Hedren!


3. Claudio Fragasso

Claudio Fragasso is an Italian filmmaker whose best-known film Troll 2 (1990) contains no trolls and is not a sequel to the 1986 film Troll. The problems do not end there.  Fragasso and his Italian-speaking crew shot the film in Utah with English-speaking actors who had little-to-no acting experience. The result is best described as hallucinatory, anti-vegan propaganda delivered in broken English and featuring magic popcorn and evil expired milk. Troll 2 quickly gained a reputation for being one of the worst films ever made. 29 years after the film’s release, Troll 2 has built up a sizable following. Michael Stephenson, the child star of the film, went on to direct the 2009 documentary Best Worst Movie, which recounts the experiences of Troll 2’s cast and crew. When asked about the film’s reputation, Fragasso responds simply “Being considered the worst movie is almost as much a compliment as being considered the best. It means I’ve made an impression.”


4. Tommy Wiseau

Most “so-bad-they’re-good” movies gain their quirks from the limitations characteristic of a small budget. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) is a major exception. Like Uwe Boll, Wiseau’s film was made on a modest budget and has decent sound and set design. Unlike Uwe Boll (and aside from imported Korean leather jackets), the source of the film’s funding remains largely a mystery. The enigma of Tommy Wiseau only begins there. Watching The Room is like watching a character study that leaves more questions than answers: Where is Wiseau’s country of origin? What is his accent? What’s up with his laugh? Who is Chloe?

Wiseau is singular in this list in that he has only one film in his resume… but what a film; The Room deserves its label as “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.” In addition to Wiseau himself turning in possibly the worst acting performance in film history, his film is filled with non-sequiturs, casual misogyny, and a hefty spoonful of bizarre one-liners. According to co-star Greg Sestero, Wiseau madeThe Room to give himself acting exposure after being rejected by Hollywood — a move that succeeded in a way no one could have possibly expected. Since The Room, Tommy Wiseau has starred in three films, two television series, and a number of short films. What a story, indeed.


5. Ed Wood

The king of Z movies. Ed Wood paved the way for the other filmmakers on this list. His magnum opus Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) won the Golden Turkey Award for Worst Film Ever Made, spawning a theater adaptation, 3 film remakes, and a video game. Wood himself has been reevaluated in recent years by fans and critics, with some unironically praising his films for their eccentric ideas and enthusiastic tone. Drive a bit south and you might find yourself attending the University of Southern California’s annual Ed Wood Film Festival, where students direct short films inspired by Wood. Drive further east to Seminole, Oklahoma, where The Church of Ed Wood — Woodism is a legally recognized religion — was founded. While successful directors of his generation have been long forgotten, Ed Wood’s legacy continues to grow, reaching new heights with the 1994 Tim Burton film Ed Wood (1994) which posthumously gave Wood the mainstream recognition he yearned for.

Sammy Trujillo does not like writing in 3rd person. Follow him on Letterboxd.