Newborn Filmmakers: Great Directorial Debuts

September 29, 2020
A director’s first film can often set the tone for their entire career, and as this handful of brilliant directorial debuts shows, you don’t always need a wealth of cinematic experience to turn out an instant classic.

ORSON WELLES: CITIZEN KANE (1941)

That Citizen Kane is habitually cited either at the top, or near to it, on various All Time Greatest Films lists is, and has always been, Orson Welles’ blessing and curse. Having written, produced, directed and starred in such a milestone of cinema with one’s first film is at once a staggering achievement – virtually unequalled in the history of film – and a pinnacle of success impossible to improve on. Such a staggering debut left Welles with virtually no alternative but a gradual slide into mediocrity and self-parody, with only a smattering of inspired films (The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch Of Evil among them) along the way to slow the descent. Welles was an experienced and highly talented theatre director and actor on stage and radio. In 1939, he was offered an unprecedented deal by studio RKO – complete artistic control on a two-picture deal, covering everything from casting to final cut. Welles’ first idea was to film Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, but when that turned out to be too costly, he turned to an idea that he and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had developed called American, later retitled Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz had based his treatment on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, whom he both knew, and detested. Welles elected to broaden the character traits of Hearst by adding in elements of Howard Hughes and Joseph Pulitzer, but most critics and the public immediately recognised Hearst in his portrayal. The film is widely regarded as one of the most influential in history, because of its highly innovative approach to filming techniques, not least cinematographer Gregg Toland’s bravura experimentation with lenses and lighting. Welles no doubt peaked too early, however, and he made no allowance for his distaste of the filmmaking process. “It’s about 2% movie-making and 98% hustling,” he once sighed. “It’s no way to spend a life.”

QUENTIN TARANTINO: RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)

Quentin Tarantino’s beginnings as a video store geek are the stuff of legend, and are almost now the stuff of cliche. That said, the importance of a cine-literate mind let loose with a limitless range of movies both old and new shouldn’t be underestimated. “Video Archives [the store where he worked] was basically my college experience,” Tarantino has remarked, “not in so far as higher-learning, even though it kind of was higher-learning for what I ended up doing.” His first film, Reservoir Dogs, still retains its raw, fuck-the-world insouciance as a dialogue driven heist movie that played with linear convention and carved a new bloody trench in the aesthetics of on-screen violence. Although not original (it more than echoes Ringo Lam’s City On Fire), it was the execution and visual style that audiences responded to in Tarantino’s tale of double-crossing thieves holed up in an abandoned warehouse after a heist. The audacity to not show the heist itself was a major sign that Tarantino was hell-bent on confounding genre expectation, and his brilliantly written, random, and sometimes narratively meaningless dialogue was another. It was these flourishes that immediately marked him as a director with huge potential. Some may argue that, despite delivering films as polished as Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, he has yet to equal the ferocious brilliance of his first film. Reservoir Dogs remains one of the most viscerally enjoyable, superbly written, and refreshingly un-PC directorial debuts ever made. Tarantino, however, won’t be drawn on how Reservoir Dogs compares to his other films. “For years, I said that Reservoir Dogs was my best film, and then I said that Kill Bill: Vol. 2 was my best film. I won’t really, truly be able to rank my work until I retire…then I’ll be able to give them to you in complete order.” With Quentin Tarantino long proclaiming that his tenth (that is, next) film will be his last, that list may come to us depressingly soon…

CLINT EASTWOOD: PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971)

Having just starred in two big budget studio features, Paint Your Wagon and Where Eagles Dare, then Hollywood star-on-the-rise Clint Eastwood was keen to use his recently formed production company, Malpaso, to make a film his way – leaner and quicker. In late 1969, Malpaso was still a small production company, but the staff were working hard to find Eastwood a promising vehicle. Story editor Sonia Chernus and producer Robert Daley discovered Jo Heims’ script, Play Misty For Me. Eastwood liked the story of a casually libidinous DJ who picks the wrong girl to bed and forget. Eastwood saw it as a good suspense yarn, and hustled the story around town to no avail. “I was still the kid from Europe,” Eastwood has said, noting his prior success in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. “I didn’t have quite enough juice to pull it off.” Nobody seemed interested in seeing him play a DJ in a thriller where the female was by far the stronger character. The more rejections that Eastwood got, however, the more determined that he became to see the project to fruition, and in the end, he decided to make Universal – the only studio that didn’t snub him outright – an offer that they couldn’t refuse. He would direct and star, and receive no payment. “I knew exactly what they were saying behind my back,” Eastwood recalled. “‘We’ll let the kid fool around with it; he’ll do that and then he’ll probably do a couple of westerns for us.’” That didn’t matter to Eastwood; this was a chance to make a movie that he could control from the ground up. Although only a modest success upon its release, Play Misty For Me was practically the blueprint for the eighties smash Fatal Attraction, and ultimately remains a far more effective thriller.

SOFIA COPPOLA: THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999)

Film debuts have been made by younger people, and certainly by people whose fathers aren’t world famous directors, but, at nineteen-years-old, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides is undoubtedly an auspicious first film. Taking as her subject Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Coppola (who had infamously appeared to great derision as an actress in her father’s The Godfather: Part III) fashioned an engaging and thought provoking tale of a group of teenage boys whose lives are changed forever one summer due to the death of the adored and dreamy Lisbon sisters by suicide. Thought un-filmable by many commentators, Coppola managed to keep the book’s fragile sense of time, space and character wholly intact, while also infusing it with passion, empathy, grace and style. With a superb cast headed by James Woods and Kathleen Turner, and great turns by Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett and Scott Glenn, as well as a score by the French group Air that perfectly complements the film’s fragile tone, Coppola dodges any charges of riding on her famous father’s coattails to get a vanity project up on the screen by delivering a mature, insightful, and engrossing film with a directorial signature all her own. Eugenides was ultimately pleased that the film had been directed by a woman, and especially Sofia Coppola. “Jeffrey Eugenides got accused of being misogynistic because he has this violent act happen to these girls, but he always loved the girls,” Coppola has said. “I get that when I read the book. He was writing from the boys’ point of view, and he also had empathy for the girls. He knew about their inner world from afar.” Coppola would deliver on the promise of The Virgin Suicides four years later with the masterful Lost In Translation, for which she picked up a well-deserved Best Director nomination. She now one of America’s most consistently fascinating filmmakers, with titles like Somewhere, The Bling Ring, The Beguiled and now On The Rocks on her resume.

DONALD CAMMELL & NICOLAS ROEG: PERFORMANCE (1970)

Screenwriter and painter Donald Cammell had been drifting toward the film world for a decade, whilst roaming the bohemian set of sixties London. Nicolas Roeg was also part of that bristling city’s “in-crowd”, and had carved himself a highly regarded career as a top cinematographer for the likes of Francois Truffaut and John Schlesinger. He was friends with Mick Jagger and The Beatles. Actor James Fox was also good friends with Jagger, and had just completed a film in Spain written by Cammell, called Duffy. Thus, Cammell, Roeg, Jagger and Fox were thrown together in the summer of 1968, and they decided to make Performance, one of the most uncompromising mainstream studio pictures ever produced up that point. The film that emerged is as accurate an evocation of the end of The Swinging Sixties as it’s possible to get. It’s a hedonistic, hallucinogenic trip to the outer edges of sexual and psychological excess, while also cogently representing sixties London’s criminal underworld, with its seedy clubs, casual brutality, and tacit acknowledgement that homosexuality was rife amongst these so-called hard men. The film examines gender issues, androgyny, psychological domination, and death. “Kick-starting the day with a five-skinner and a bath with two naked girls has never seemed so domestically routine,” said Jagger at the time. Performance wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Warner Bros. executives were so bewildered as to what to do with it that it sat on the shelf for two years until hitting cinemas in 1970. It now stands as one of the most audacious and riveting British films of the sixties. Roeg (who passed away in 2018) went on to huge critical success with films such as Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, but Cammell only directed three more films (the little seen Demon Seed, White Of The Eye and Wild Side) before sadly committing suicide in 1996.

JOHN CASSAVETES: SHADOWS (1959)

Although not the first actor-turned-director, John Cassavetes was certainly one of the most exciting, when – armed with $40,000, almost boundless energy, and a burning desire to direct – he filmed his debut feature, Shadows, in 1959, and kick-started the American indie movement. As an actor, Cassavetes was a potent figure on film and TV. His rough-hewn Italian looks ensured him a constant stream of roles, and eventually a leading part on the series Johnny Staccato. He eventually achieved stardom as an actor with The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby and The Fury, but Cassavetes’ real love was filmmaking. In order to make films his way, the nascent director financed them by channelling the salaries from his acting gigs into his own productions, which explains his often wayward sense of quality control when it came to the films in which he starred. Shadows was controversial for its matter-of-fact depiction of the ups and downs of a group of characters, and its central interracial relationship. What really distinguished the film, however, was its verite style, with Cassavetes using the camera as a virtual protagonist, and getting the viewer right in amongst the action. The semi-improvised dialogue and the loose narrative structure were equally audacious for the time. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn have voiced their indebtedness to Cassavetes’ groundbreaking style, and in particular, this movie. Cassavetes himself was not giving his audiences an easy ride with his films. “Films today show only a dream world, and have lost touch with the way that people really are,” he said. “In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger…my responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21. The films are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual terrain that provides a solution on how to survive pain.”



TERRENCE MALICK: BADLANDS (1973)

The son of an oil company executive, Terrence Malick grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. He went to Harvard and later to Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. After failing to complete his thesis, he drifted around doing various jobs, including working wheat and oil fields, as well as attracting writing gigs from Life and The New Yorker. In 1969, Malick arrived in LA to study at the AFI, and started getting work polishing scripts, including Dirty Harry and Pocket Money. In 1972, he wrote and hoped to direct an original screenplay called Badlands, loosely based on the famous Charles Starkweather murder spree of the fifties, and shot from the perspective of Holly, the girl that Kit (the fictionalised Starkweather) takes with him across the American Midwest. “She seems at times to think of her narration as like what you get in audio-visual courses in high school,” Malick said of his central protagonist. “When they’re crossing the badlands, instead of telling us what’s going on between Kit and herself, or anything of what we’d like and have to know, Holly describes what they ate and what it tasted like, as though we might be planning a similar trip and might appreciate her experience, this way.” The actual shoot was an ordeal. Made in an intensely hot summer, with a small budget and non-union crew, the filming was beset with problems, not least the destruction of all the cameras while shooting a flaming farmhouse sequence. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek played the doomed couple to perfection, never hitting a false note. Beautifully shot, Badlands is a haunting, disturbing and unflinching journey into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. It’s also one of the most assured and highly original cinematic debuts of the seventies.

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ROMAN POLANSKI: KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962)

For many, Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water remains the finest film in a career littered with masterpieces such as Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Cul De Sac and The Pianist. It’s a tight, efficient and coldly disturbing thriller shot almost entirely on a sailboat, and involving the psychological and sexual drama that unfolds when two men are drawn to one woman in a confined space. The film is unflinching as the camera restlessly probes each character in this claustrophobic setting. Emerging from Poland’s state-run Lodz Film School in the late fifties, the young Polanski, along with other filmmakers who studied there (including Andrei Wajda, Jerzy Skolimowski and Kryzysztof Zanussi) rejected the orthodox Communist doctrine, and the entrenched view of film as a medium for state propaganda. The imprints of Polanski’s highly individual style were already present in this debut feature. As one critic at the time wrote: “The weapons are glances and words. Polanski is a holy terror of intelligent restraint – detached, ironic, and playful as a cat with a mouse, encompassing with ease his alternations of the deathly serious and the deadpan comic.” Polanski himself is quick though to recognise the invaluable contribution of Skolimowski to the film. “Skolimowski was a stimulating and inventive collaborator,” he said. “He snatched every moment that he could spare to help me develop the screenplay, toiling nonstop into the small hours while moths flew at us from out of the hot summer night. His contribution to Knife In The Water was a major one. It was he who insisted that the action – originally spread over three or four days – should be compressed to 24 hours.” The film, although denounced in his native Poland as anti-communist propaganda, was rapturously greeted elsewhere, garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, and winning the coveted Critics’ Prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival.

JEAN-LUC GODARD: BREATHLESS (1960)

Seen today, fifty years on, Breathless still startles. Maybe not for the reasons that it shocked audiences in 1960, but for the way that in 2020, it still seems so contemporary in its filmic language and insouciant style. The French New Wave was a movement set in motion by a group of French film students and academics who at once embraced the attitudes of a certain group of American directors from the forties and fifties (and invented the term “auteur”), but who also determined to make films with a new cinematic vocabulary. Breathless was emblematic of that intent. The film took a typical Hollywood noir trope – the chase movie, and specifically, the lovers on the run sub-genre – and infused it with this new style, which manifested itself with sudden jump-cuts, both spatial and temporal. Godard almost stumbled across his shooting style. “Breathless began in this way,” he has said. “I had written the first scene, and for the rest, I had a pile of notes for each scene. I said to myself, ‘This is terrible’, and I stopped everything. Then I thought that in a single day, one should be able to complete about a dozen takes. Instead of planning ahead, I would invent at the last minute!” In lead actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard found a perfect existential hero, a feckless petty criminal who worships only himself and Humphrey Bogart. Jean Seberg plays his girl, a transcendentally beautiful blonde whose blind adoration of Belmondo – who treats her casually – is affecting and memorable. The film barely pauses for breath, and rushes us headlong toward Belmondo’s ultimate fate with verve and style. It also signalled the beginning of the career of one of the cinema’s greatest and most daring experimenters, who to this day continues to dazzle, beguile and confused cineastes like nearly nobody else.

ROB REINER: THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)

When all’s said and done, This Is Spinal Tap may well be the funniest film ever made. Its pseudo-documentary foundation has been copied many times since, not least by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in Bruno and Borat, but Reiner’s is still the better film. Its ability to be both incredibly witty and also to not trash its subject matter is utterly unique. We laugh at the film’s ageing rock stars as they head back on the road for one last tour, but we also have affection for them. They may be buffoons, but they’re eminently loveable, and we actually care about what befalls them during this brief but brilliant film. Rob Reiner’s father is legendary comedy writer, actor and director Carl Reiner, who worked with Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and others in the comedic heyday of US fifties television. Rob Reiner first found fame as an actor (after toiling as a TV writer), appearing on the classic American sitcom, All In The Family, and gaining iconic status in the seventies as the put upon Michael “Meathead” Stivic. Reiner approached his directorial debut as if it were an actual documentary, encouraging actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer to stay in character as he filmed hundreds of hours of footage. Although virtually all of the group’s dialogue was improvised, Reiner and the players had worked on the film’s narrative direction meticulously before the cameras rolled. “That whole film was improvised,” said Reiner. “I just turned up and pointed the camera.” The genius of the film is in Reiner’s judicious editing, as he literally cherry picked the best moments from a huge amount of footage, and turned out a comic masterpiece that sits atop a subsequent resume that includes such seminal works as When Harry Met Sally and Stand By Me.

THE COEN BROTHERS: BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

Winning The Grand Jury Prize at The Sundance Film Festival is as good a way to start your career as any, and for Joel and Ethan Coen, 1985 was their year, and Blood Simple was the film. Joel, who had gone to film school, and Ethan, a philosophy major from Princeton, elected to write, edit, produce and direct a film together, spurred on by Joel, who had immersed himself in the creative and technical aspects of his craft. This collaborative relationship has continued, with harmonious calm, to this day. Taking the noir thriller trope as a starting block, the brothers deconstructed the genre and re-assembled it to suit their particular world view, with the resulting film rating as a total original. “We’ve always been big fans of James M. Cain, who was an American hard-boiled pulp fiction writer of the thirties and forties, so it was the kind of story that we wanted to do,” remarked the brothers. The plot – a rich jealous husband hires a seedy private eye to kill his cheating wife and her boyfriend – is nothing new, but The Coen Brothers infuse the standard plot with a level of emotional involvement and a building of genuine suspense rarely seen. The narrative, seemingly complex but actually a model of streamlined efficiency, speaks of a control far in advance of a movie debut. Blood Simple is one of the best American films of the eighties, and unlike many directors, the Coens have built on this remarkable start and created a canon of work that grows in stature as the years pass. Their subsequent films – which include comedies (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, Inside Llewyn Davis), thrillers (Fargo), neo-westerns (No Country For Old Men), genuine westerns (True Grit, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs), dramas (The Man Who Wasn’t There) and unclassifiable oddities (Barton Fink) – have cemented their reputation as being nothing less than modern masters.

AMY HECKERLING: FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982)

There are disappointingly scant few female directors in Hollywood, and fewer still who have directed several big money-spinners, but Amy Heckerling is certainly one of them. Her debut feature, 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, is for many the defining movie of their teenage years, and speaks of their experiences even more so than teen specialist writer/director John Hughes did with his brilliantly observed films. With a script by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) and co-starring Sean Penn (who is a revelation in one of his earliest and most memorable roles as goofball surfer dude Jeff Spicoli), the film is based on one-time journalist Crowe’s experiences while going undercover at a California high school to write a feature for Rolling Stone. The script initially given to Heckerling, however, was vastly different to the movie that she eventually made. “The studio showed me the script that they had developed,” the director has said. “It was a wonderful script, but there was a lot of ‘studio stuff’ in it – a lot of gangs and fighting, and I’m like, ‘C’mon guys, we’re not making West Side Story here!’ I checked out the source material, and Crowe’s book was a revelation – it was all the stuff, all the characters, all the real things.” The film that emerged is a pitch perfect depiction of Californian high school life circa 1982, and is peppered with terrific performances from then young and emerging talents such as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates. The film also features early minor roles for the likes of Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage and Eric Stoltz. Heckerling’s deft direction is incredibly assured for a debut, and brings out the best in Crowe’s slyly observational script. It’s undoubtedly the best film in Heckerling’s impressive career, which is littered with hugely successful Hollywood comedies such as European Vacation, Look Who’s Talking and Clueless.

If you liked this story, check out our features on great debut movies from Australian directors; movies that made their leading stars famous; and great final films from great directors.

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