My Favorite Recurring Director Gags
by Matt Sills
It’s not unusual for filmmakers to drop secrets and surprises into their movies. Whether overt, like Johnny Depps’s cameo in “21 Jump Street”, or subtle, like Pac-Man showing up on a computer screen in the original “Tron”, it’s these little surprises that make going to the movies even more fun. Some filmmakers have taken this to a whole different level, throwing in “Easter eggs” that they carry on throughout their careers. Here’s a list of five filmmakers who reward their fans with recurring gags and surprises:
Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the greatest film directors ever, an innovator whose style is still being copied today. Among Hitch’s many innovations, he might have single handedly created the director cameo. Now, I doubt he was the first director to appear in his own film, but he certainly took it to a place no one before or since has dared. His first appearance was in his 1927 film “The Lodger”, where he appeared not once but twice. He would go on to briefly appear in 38 more films. In the beginning, his appearances were subtle, but he always found a way to work himself in. Even in his film “Lifeboat”, which takes place completely on a lifeboat lost at sea, he put himself into the film by putting his picture in a newspaper. As his audience caught on to his appearances, he made them more prominent. He even started a recurring gag within his cameos by sometimes carrying a musical instrument. His cameos became so popular that audience members made a game out of finding him. Worried that his short appearances were distracting the audience and overshadowing the films themselves, did Hitchcock stop doing these cameos? No! He just moved them closer to the beginning of the movies. Here’s a compilation of some of Hitchcock’s cameos:
“See You Next Wednesday”
Even if you saw Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, you probably don’t remember the line at all. I’ve seen the film over 20 times, and I don’t even remember it. Frank Poole, the soon to be dead astronaut, watches a birthday video from his parents, at the end of which his dad says, “See you next Wednesday.” That’s it. It has no deeper meaning to the film, and would have been easily forgotten had John Landis not latched onto that piece of dialogue and turned it into his own pop culture catchphrase. Rumor has it a teen-aged Landis wrote a screenplay called “See You Next Wednesday”, but it was so bad he tossed it out, and instead used the title as a running gag in almost every single one of his films. It’s first appearance in a Landis film came in his first movie, “Schlock”, where the fake film was promoted on a couple of movie poster and on a TV newscast. Since then, fake movie posters for the fake film have been the most frequent way Landis has included the line in his movies, like on a billboard in “The Blues Brothers”, a subway poster in “Coming To America”, and on the wall of Jamie Lee Curtis’s apartment in “Trading Places”. My favorite appearance, and the one that still sticks in my head, was in the Landis directed video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, where a character in the movie Michael and his girl go to says it. I may not remember the line from one of the greatest movies ever made, but I do remember it from some music video in which Michael Jackson turns into a zombie. Such is the power of Landis’s running gag.
As a film student at USC, George Lucas wrote and directed a short film called “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB”. The acclaim the student film received allowed Lucas to make a feature film based on it, the mercifully shorter titled “THX 1138″. While the feature did not do well financially, it was well received by critics, and allowed Lucas to make “American Graffiti”, which was a huge success. Lucas would go on to have just a little more success with the franchise his next movie would spawn, but he never forgot his first feature. Lucas has scattered references to the number 1138 throughout many of his projects, starting, in a slightly altered form, as a license plate number in “American Graffiti”:
In “Star Wars”, it’s the cell block Han and Luke are supposedly transferring Chewbacca to on the Death Star. You’ll find a reference in every Star Wars film, and many of the video games the series has spawned. You’ll find it in Lucas produced films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, where the numbers are announced over a loud speaker in German, as well as that film’s sequels. He’s even thrown it into the Disney ride “Star Tours”, where a PA announcement asks, “will the owners of a red-and-black landspeeder, vehicle ID THX-1138, please return to your craft.” Find any Lucas production and you’re likely to find 1138 in there somewhere.
Some filmmakers have an affinity for their family members, and they show this love by putting them in their movies. Martin Scorsese featured his mom in several films, Francis Ford Coppola was famously drubbed for featuring daughter Sofia in “The Godfather Part III”, and I highly doubt Clint Howard would have a career if it wasn’t for his brother Ron. But no one has taken the love of a family member to the extremes that Sam Raimi has. Unlike his fellow filmmakers, Raimi has featured this particular loved one in every single one of his films, and that cherished family member is… a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88. When I say every film, I mean every film the man has made. Luckily, someone with some time on their hands put together this video of its appearance in almost every Raimi film from before 2007:
Since then, it has also appeared in his two subsequent films, “Spider Man 3″ and “Drag Me To Hell”. The one film missing from that video is “The Quick And The Dead”, Raimi’s 1995 Western. You might think to yourself, “That movie took place in the late 1800s. No way Raimi put that car into that movie.” But you would be wrong. Raimi has stated in interviews that the Olds does appear in “The Quick And The Dead”, but it’s covered up to fit in with the period surroundings. Don’t ask him where it is though, because he’s not telling.
The Many Surprises of Pixar
Pixar Animation Studios are the undisputed kings of the movie Easter egg. A company that makes such richly detailed and deep films would be expected to throw little surprises into their movies, and they don’t disappoint. Go back to “Toy Story”, their first feature length film, and you’ll find the basis of a couple of their running gags. Check out the license plate on Andy’s mom’s mini van, and you’ll see it reads A113, which refers to an animation classroom at Cal Arts, alma mater of Pixar head John Lasseter. Here’s just a few of the appearances of A113 in other Pixar movies:
The Pizza Planet truck was also first featured in “Toy Story”, and has appeared in every Pixar film except “The Incredibles”. Pixar even references their own movies in different films. In “Toy Story 2″, look closely as Buzz chops through a branch, and you’ll see Heimlich the caterpillar from “A Bug’s Life” walking across it, or look at Andy’s wall in “Toy Story 3″, and you’ll see a postcard from Carl and Ellie Fredricksen, who were featured in “Up”. These geniuses have even found a way to give us sneak peaks into their future films. In “Finding Nemo”, a boy in the dentist office reads a comic book of “The Incredibles”, though that film would not be released for another year and a half, and in “Cars 2″, you’ll even find a picture of the star of Pixar’s next film, “Brave”. For movies already packed with so much detail, it’s just an added treat to have all of of these inside references and sly nods to their other work.