Humble Beginnings of Prominent Directors

It seems like these days, new directors are pulled out of obscurity to helm major studio blockbuster.  For instance, Universal Pictures put $170 million in the hands of first-time director Rupert Sanders to make Snow White and the Huntsman.  Why?  His IMDb page literally only has two other entries besides this film, and they’re “playing” himself in two TV shows, one about Hollywood and the other something from Portugal.  Oh, he was nominated for an award for directing television commercials.  Apparently according to studio executive philosophy, one award nomination is good enough to put someone in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars for a summer tent pole release.  Sure, other directors have hit it big on their first film–Orson Welles had Citizen Kane, Quentin Tarantino had Reservoir Dogs, and Zack Snyder had the remake of Dawn of the Dead (yes, Citizen Kane was just compared to Dawn of the Dead)–but most directors have to pay their dues.  Their early films were not necessarily instant classics, as the following proves:

Steven Spielberg

If you ask people what Steven Spielberg‘s first movie is, most would probably say Jaws, though his true fans may proudly proclaim that Duel holds that title.  Both are wrong.  Spielberg famously convinced Universal Studios honcho Sid Sheinberg to take him under his wing after showing off 16mm films he made as a teenager.  His first professional directing job was for the pilot of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, which in itself is pretty impressive.  He knocked around television for a few years, directing episodes of shows like Columbo and Marcus Welby, M.D. before graduating to TV movies like the aforementioned Duel (which was released in the theaters in Europe with additional footage) and the little-seen Something Evil (a precursor to Poltergeist with Sandy Dennis and Johnny Whitaker).  Finally, he broke into theatrical motion pictures with The Sugarland Express starring Goldie Hawn as a mother who breaks her husband out of jail, kidnaps a cop, and goes on the run to retrieve her baby from Social Services.  Not many people are familiar with this movie nowadays, and it didn’t make a huge splash at the box office when it was released, but it did win an award for its screenplay at Cannes.  It was while working on that film that Spielberg came across a manuscript for an as-yet-unreleased novel about a killer shark on the desk of producer David Brown that was to be his next film.

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese continues to impress audiences and critics alike with films like The Departed and Hugo, but of course he made a name for himself directing gritty, violent films with Robert De Niro like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull (not to mention Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which was the basis for the ’70s sitcom Alice)Scorsese went to film school at NYU, and the first film he did upon leaving school established his long-term relationship with actor Harvey Keitel and editor Thelma Schoonmaker with a little black and white movie called Who’s That Knocking on My Door (originally titled I Call First) that no one saw.  However, it got him noticed by producer Roger Corman, who was known for low-budget exploitation films.  Originally Corman wanted Scorsese to do a sequel to Bloody Mama, but changed his mind and asked him to direct Boxcar Bertha, which Scorsese accepted–with the instructions of having sex, violence, or explosions every 15 pages of the screenplay.  This film allowed him to learn more about the craft of filmmaking while having fun on the set, paving the way for his next film, the critically acclaimed Mean Streets.

Robert Wise

The late Robert Wise walked away with two Oscars each for directing and producing The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but is also known for such classics as The Haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still (the non-Keanu Reeves version), The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain, The Hindenburg, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, not to mention the fact that he was nominated for an Academy Award for editing Citizen Kane.  However, few people know that his first credited film as a director was Curse of the Cat People (even though IMDb lists Mademoiselle Fifi, which came out the same year).  Wise had a successful run as a film editor, and it was this job that he was to do on the sequel to the hit horror flick The Cat People; though when the film’s first director, Gunther Von Fritsch, was fired, Wise stepped in to finish it.  Both shared directing credit, but that started a decades-long career for Wise as a director/producer, proving that he could shift genres smoothly, going from science fiction to musicals to thrillers easily.

Francis Ford Coppola

Like Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola is known for mobster movies from the ’70s with Robert De Niro–The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are legendary.  Also like Scorsese, he was a film school graduate (though from UCLA) who knocked around in the low-budget arena before hitting it big–primarily doing nudie films like Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls, where he shot new color footage to a black-and-white German film.  Then he moved up in the world by working for Roger Corman (again, like Scorsese) with an uncredited directing job on The Terror with Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff and on Dementia 13The Godfather is actually the ninth film listed on IMDb for Coppola.  Apparently, the training those un-famous movies gave him paid off, considering he won five Oscars (plus an honorary one) with nine additional nominations.  He is also known for taking chances with his films, often financing them himself, and often going bankrupt as a result.  At least he has his wine as a backup.

Alfred Hitchcock

The “master of suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock has created some of the most memorable films of all time–Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, and Dial M for Murder, just to name a few.  Any one of those movies would be enough for most directors to envy him, let alone his entire body of work.  Of course, most people have never seen his entire body of work; in fact, it would surprise people to find out that he actually directed a screwball comedy.  Hitch didn’t even start making movies in Hollywood until 1940 with the Oscar-winning Rebecca starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, his 26th feature film as a director.  Until then, he worked in his homeland of England, having started out in the days of silent films.  In fact, he began his film career as a writer and also designed title cards for silent films before moving into the directing chair himself.  His earliest work has been lost, however; half of his silent film The White Shadow was recently discovered in New Zealand.  It wasn’t until his tenth film, Blackmail, that sound was introduced, and that was in the middle of production.  Mostly in that film, he played around with sound effects to add to the suspense he created with the visuals.  Many of these early silent and sound productions are in the public domain, and can be found in box sets in most video stores.

copyright © 2012 FilmVerse


4 comments on “Humble Beginnings of Prominent Directors

  1. As a filmmaker, this list is invaluable. It’s very inspiring to see that some of my movie idols started from the same roots as I am. Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  2. In fact, a lot of directors – not to mention actors, writers, and pretty much everyone else – got their careers going under Roger Corman, or passed through his hands at least once. James Cameron worked on BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and GALAXY OF TERROR, before debuting with PIRANHA II and then making a major breakthrough with THE TERMINATOR (a film where the Corman-influence is apparent). Peter Bogdanovich had worked on TARGETS and VOYAGE OF THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN. Ron Howard’s directing career started under Corman (I believe it was GRAND THEFT AUTO). And the list goes on. Jonathan Demme. Joe Dante. Monte Hellman. John Sayles. Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda. Robert De Niro.

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