The other day, someone commented that Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t seem to love anything, and it was agreed that this was not true—he loves overwork and intricately meticulous background. However, it’s also definitely true that he loves airships. Airships, planes, moving castles—if it flies, he loves it. You can’t watch his movies and not be aware of that, because he puts it all over the screen. Not all of his movies involve flight; arguably, Ponyo goes exactly the opposite direction. However, you don’t have to see many of his films to recognize the love.
What we’re talking about here is not the foot fetish of certain well-established directors. What we’re talking about here is something that gives a director pure joy that appears in their movies because they’re the director and you can’t stop them. Miyazaki loves flying things. Spielberg loves aliens and Middle America and history. Herzog loves the perversity of human nature. If you watch one of their movies, you might not get that—well, you’re going to avoid the Herzog one—but the more familiar you become with their filmography, the more aware you are going to be of their love.
Which is fine. Unlike the fetish thing, there’s nothing wrong with making movies that share your love of whatever. If you want to present your love of the scenic beauty of Monument Valley over and over again, no one’s going to stop you, especially once you’re famous enough to film wherever you want. You might also help your audience find a love for that same thing. If airships ever make a big comeback, it’ll be driven by Miyazaki fans and we all know it. Monument Valley tourism is certainly driven by the film of John Ford, after all.
Not all directors really seem to have that same driving force. A lot do, but probably the more work-for-hire directors just do the job and don’t insert their own love into things. There’s nothing wrong with that, either—there are a lot of Pretty Good movies that are directed by work-for-hire directors that probably wouldn’t have gotten made if they’d been waiting for someone whose great love they are. Not everything is a passion project; not everything has to be. Even most directors with a known great love do things that involve something different.
Movies are communal art, which means they are art that people are more likely to do for the money. However, when you can make what you want, you’re going to do what you love. We hear a lot of talk about passion projects, and they can be fascinating. Great or a train wreck, but something is happening either way, and it’s happening because of love. Even more, though, you get some people who can incorporate their greatest love into an entire career, and good on them. Even if your greatest love is something completely bonkers, sharing it makes things about you.