Genius Contemporary Directors and the Women Who Became Their Muses

Only a couple of directors have been lucky enough to find them: actresses that understand their vision so profoundly that they were able to elevate a film to another level. Hand in hand, they have co-created multiple movies together, “the muses” immersing themselves into a different character created by the same person again and again.

How do such seemingly symbiotic relationships look off-screen? Some of these duos have unsurprisingly fallen in love, some of them are close friends — but in some cases, a flourishing creative connection doesn’t automatically translate into a harmonious personal one.

Lars von Trier & Charlotte Gainsbourg

Collaborations: Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), Nymphomaniac (2013)

Lars von Trier is arguably one of today’s most controversial directors whose films tend to polarize audiences divided into those cheering and those angrily walking out. It’s a man who doesn’t want his work to be universally loved, who was banned from Cannes Film Festival for saying he sympathizes with Hitler, and who was accused of sexual harassment by Björk. Still, several loyal actors gladly collaborate with Trier over and over again: Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt… and the unforgettable risk-taker Charlotte Gainsbourg. She was instrumental in creating Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” and interpreted some of his most complex characters, such as a sex addict Joe and a mother grieving her dead child who, consumed by guilt, cuts off her clitoris with scissors. “What’s attractive about working with Lars von Trier is actually him. The experience of being directed by him is so special. I’d never expected anything like it, and I would like that experience again. For me the relationship with the director is more important than the script,” she elaborated for Berlingske Tidende.

Tim Burton & Helena Bonham Carter

Collaborations: Planet of the Apes (2001), Big Fish (2003), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2010), Dark Shadows (2012), Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

They were a fascinating couple for 13 years — the quirky director and his eccentric leading lady seemed to be made for each other. They famously lived in their own houses connected by a tunnel, decorated according to their distinct personal tastes, seeing each other only when they wanted to. Their fruitful professional collaboration started at the same time as their romance: on the set of Planet of the Apes (2001), where Bonham Carter portrayed a monkey. From then onwards, she has become an integral part of Burton’s filmography, notably appearing as Ms. Lovett, baker of human meat pies, in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and a maniacal Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland (2010). The actress explained that it made perfect sense to cooperate with her husband, as it meant their family remained united. “And also, it’s Tim Burton. He’s a genius. You can’t turn him down just because you go out with him and have two children together,” she said for the Interview Magazine.

Quentin Tarantino & Uma Thurman

Collaborations: Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Kill Bill Vol. 2

They’ve done films that have become cult classics as soon as they were released, and have carved out their rightful place in the history of cinema. Behind the scenes of Kill Bill, things were a bit more complicated. In 2018, Thurman revealed that Tarantino has choked and spat on her in the crucial scenes, which he defended. Moreover, she was assaulted by the now infamous Harvey Weinstein who produced Tarantino’s films. She has also permanently damaged her knees and neck because she was forced to drive a car even though she deemed it too dangerous, and she crashed into a tree. Nevertheless, Thurman and Tarantino had remained close throughout the controversies to an extent when they were rumored to be dating in 2014. “We’ve had our fights over the years. When you know someone for as long as I’ve known him, 25 years of creative collaboration, yes, did we have some tragedies take place? Sure. But you can’t reduce that type of history and legacy. It would have been reduced to my car accident if I died,” Thurman said for Entertainment Weekly, adding that she would collaborate with Tarantino again if he “wrote a great part.”

Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig

Collaborations: Greenberg (2010), Frances Ha (2012), Mistress America (2015)

Baumbach’s movies are iconic in the indie community, while stars such as Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Adam Driver often embody his usually flawed, neurotic, authentic characters. There is one special leading lady both in his personal and professional life: Greta Gerwig, his partner, an esteemed actress as well as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. She admitted that she wasn’t thrilled when public viewed her as Baumbach’s muse, especially since she co-wrote their films. “I did not love being called a muse. I didn’t want to be strident about it or say, ‘Hey, give me my due,’ but I did feel like I wasn’t a bystander. It was half-mine, and so that part was difficult. Also, I knew secretly that I was engaged with this longer project, and wanted to be a writer and director in my own right, so I felt like the muse business, or whatever it was, was a position that I didn’t identify with in my heart,” she said for Vulture.

David O. Russell & Jennifer Lawrence

Collaborations: Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013) and Joy (2015)

Both Russell and Lawrence are very vocal about how fond they are of each other: over the years, they have become close friends. “David and I will never, ever, ever, ever not do movies together. I love him so much that sometimes I can’t talk about him without tearing up. I understand every look, every eyeball move, every word he says or doesn’t say. We were made for each other,” Lawrence said for Entertainment Weekly. Their apparent connection has resulted in four Oscar nominations for Russell, while Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook and was nominated for both American Hustle and Joy. The director thinks they have a special bond, so it’s only natural that they regularly collaborate: “If you really have a soul connection with someone, you tend to reproduce it. We share a sense of humor. We share a sense of what we cry about. We share a sense about what we love. We really like each other and like to laugh together and have fun,” he explained for The Hollywood Reporter.

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