Regardless of his work in the entertainment business beforehand, you still have to look at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a masterpiece first feature film directed by the late, great Mike Nichols. He went and followed that up with The Graduate. There have been many great film-makers out there over the decades, but even the nerdiest of us movie buffs would struggle to find many directors who began with two such top of the line motion pictures. John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), and Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men) also started with a bang, and although I suspect the debut features of David Lean (In Which We Serve), Stanley Kubrick (Fear and Desire), and Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) might not slip off the tongue so easily, they too had prosperous careers on the horizon. If we are going that far back and talk about era of cinema, then one of my own guilty pleasures is Sunday in New York, the first film directed by Peter Tewksbury, a classic romantic comedy featuring a terrific trio cast of Jane Fonda, Rod Taylor and Cliff Robertson. Charmingly funny.
I would wager the first name that came up amongst the modern day fan boys regarding a prolific debut and subsequent filmography would be Quentin Tarantino, whose remarkable debut Reservoir Dogs was followed by the stupendous Pulp Fiction. His buddy Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) also made a great crime caper, and went onto a series of films that had less hold of the sanity reigns, before they later teamed up again on more than one occasion. The complex and weird David Lynch (Eraserhead), the crime architect Michael Mann (Thief), and ambassador of one corner of ethnic cinema Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It) all have their own fan bases too. The Wachowskis first movie Bound was an extremely energetic, immaculately executed crime thriller, skills they took to full visual effect with The Matrix (the latter two of the series I can do without). A special mention also has to go to Looper creator Rian Johnson, whose first feature Brick looked and felt nothing like it was directed by someone doing this for the first time. A kind of modern murder mystery like no other, and stocked with vivid moments throughout.
A more subtle, British addition to high-energy cinema would be Danny Boyle‘s Shallow Grave. A remarkable suspense thriller about betrayal and greed. The heroin-injected adrenaline ride that is Trainspotting would be next for Boyle. Wow. Here in the UK we have our own brand of incredible directorial debuts. In the nineties newbies like Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) really upped the pace in British cinema, going some way to extinguishing the costume drama myth. Though Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) is possibly the most modern example that the Brits can still give anyone a run for their money in that genre. Directors like Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), Armando Iannucci (In the Loop), and Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone) have proved respectively that British cinema has been able to compete with dramas, comedies, and musicals too. Right now, you could argue that Steve McQueen (Hunger) is breaking grounds with bold, important narratives some still see as taboo, including his most recent Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave – an essential American story.
There are some directors that make a movie so huge, so influential, that in spite of their later work, that is all they or we talk about. That the director’s name becomes synonymous to that movie. I can’t go on any further without mentioning Orson Welles and Citizen Kane of course. George A Romero is known for Night of the Living Dead, and when we think Sam Raimi we think The Evil Dead. Richard Kelly and Donnie Darko. Right? And how on Earth were the likes of Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) expected to improve on, or even match, their first features as directors? On the furthest end of the spectrum then, how about a movie whose reputation claimed cult status because it was so bad. Tommy Wiseau‘s The Room is possibly the worst movie I simply have to recommend. See it, and you will understand. Genuine and intentional to the comedy genre, we have evidence of popular movies that started the feature ball rolling for household names like Harold Ramis (Caddyshack), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap), or even Bobby and Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber). Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), too, are examples of hilarious starts behind the camera.
Some directors have had such huge success over their career, they rightly earned their reputation as top tier authors of cinema. Even Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water), Bob Fosse (Sweet Charity), or Steven Spielberg (Duel), to name three, had to debut somewhere. As did British directors like Ridley Scott (The Duellists), and Mike Leigh (Bleak Moments). Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat) and Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields) may have promised much with their first efforts, and much more sporadically so with Terrence Malick (Badlands). Some of those were consistently compelling with their movies, hardly ever putting a foot wrong. Some stood out for a handful of unforgettable films, regardless of periods of their careers when perhaps they were considered not quite up to scratch. Perhaps considered the greatest director of the last forty years, in Martin Scorsese‘s first film Who’s That Knocking At My Door you can see elements of Mean Streets, of Goodfellas, it was almost a template for the mastery that was to come.
As Scorsese knows too well of course, we have actors that take to directing. Like Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Gary Oldman (Nil by Mouth), Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) Todd Field (In the Bedroom), and Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait). Women, too, have stepped over to the role of director, Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), or Sarah Polley (Away from Her) being two very good examples. We have to mention Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, both actors in different times opening their directing accounts with Henry V. Some actors-turned-directors, like Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me), or Mel Gibson (The Man Without a Face), will eventually be showered with Academy Award success. Peter Jackson played multiple parts in his wacky cult splatter horror Bad Taste, a movie so deranged, but you can still get a heavy whiff of his hunger for fantasy perhaps not more so than his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for which he too would make a clean sweep come Oscar time.
Recent, more unknown directors have come from nowhere to stand in good stead of winning Oscar coverage for their first feature. Some break in the way Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) did, others are shut out after such promise, for example Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station). As Oscar writers and fans alike will tell you, it is sometimes about right time and right place, rather than right movie. Ask Oscarwatchers about how they feel about actors Robert Redford (Ordinary People) or Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) winning Best Director. You’ll get a varied response believe me. A similar heated opinion may have gone more so in the way of first-time directors like Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) and Rob Marshall (Chicago) had they won Best Director – both lost in spite of the movies taking Best Picture. I’m not sure many, though, can argue with the awards acclaim of Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and James L Brooks (Terms of Endearment). John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) made history with his isolated Oscar nod, while Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) started his magnetic Oscar appeal with arguably his best movie. Not winning until Rain Man, Barry Levinson started his directorial campaign with the brilliantly original Diner – a movie that also brought to our attention, with most of its main cast actually, some of the most popular actors of that and proceeding decades.
And what of today’s directors like Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), Cameron Crowe (Say Anything), and Gary Ross (Pleasantville) – they all started well. Lesser well known movies from the current crop of film-makers might include Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson), The Cruise (Bennett Miller), and Following (Christopher Nolan). Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth), Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight), and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) also made terrific, and perhaps more well known, opening features. Very recent Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu crashed into the industry with Amores Perros, and you would have to be from another planet to have not seen and loved Blood Simple by Ethan and Joel Coen. Oh, and I have to mention David Fincher (Alien 3) – done. J. C. Chandor (Margin Call) and Neill Blomkamp (District 9) are good examples of very new kids on the block, and I would have to shout out to the gripping Animal Kingdom, from Australian director David Michôd, a starting debut feature about inner family betrayal.
Lastly, but by far not least, if we talk about directors we have to talk about just some of the talented women that found success in this industry behind the camera. (The only) Best Director Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Loveless) made history and controversy respectively with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Barbara Streisand (Yentl), Jane Campion (Sweetie), and Nora Ephron (This Is My Life) are three other females at the helm that have had a whiff of Oscar success, but did not won the Director prize. Gillian Anderson (The Singer and the Dancer) has been in the business for decades, as has Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Nancy Meyers (The Parent Trap) – though the latter has only made half a dozen movies surprisingly. Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker) has had more success with TV, while Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) showed real promise early on. Last year, another member of that movie family / dynasty, Gia Coppola, began her venture into directing with the vibrant, angsty teen tale Palo Alto – my final recommendation for now. Go, see these movies, and feel free to comment on any of your favorites or those I have not mentioned here.