History is littered with people who failed in endeavors prior to finding success. Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Walt Disney all had early businesses flop. Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton both failed to reach their full potential early in life but eventually became synonymous with the term genius. And Thomas Edison’s great claim to fame of inventing the lightbulb took 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before achieving success.
Those historic figures have provided countless educators and motivational speakers the needed rags-to-riches story that has inspired average people to aspire toward greatness, despite suffering setbacks and disappointments along the way. In fact, it really isn’t all that interesting to hear of someone who intrinsically never faced obstacles on their way to victory, which may ultimately be the reason this post is a failure. However, I wanted to look at directors whose first films were financial and critical successes. It might be blind luck or it could be great source material/phenomenal cast and crews that lead to a great directorial debut, but let’s look at a few directors who triumphed with their first feature-length film.
Alex Garland inspired this post after watching his 2015 debut Ex Machina. Garland benefitted from both a great story and superb acting from Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. The film was such a hit, it was recognized by the National Board of Review as one of the ten best independent films of the year, which the qualifier of “independent” isn’t really necessary as it is one of the best films of the year in general. It also received the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, beating out the big-budget movies The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and Vikander’s performance received BAFTA, Golden Globe, Empire, and Saturn award nominations. The film was also nominated for and won countless additional awards, but one in particular that stands out is the BAFTA nomination Garland received for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer.
So what are some other great directorial debuts? Let’s take a look at ten specific directors who saw initial success and see if a correlation can be found to predict the potential direction of Garland’s career.
District 9 (2009) – Neill Blomkamp
In 2009, South African-Canadian director, producer, screenwriter, and animator Neill Blomkamp hit the scene with a science-fiction film that could have been confused for a modern-day Star Trek episode in that the depictions of humanity, xenophobia, and social segregation were set against the backdrop of alien invaders being regulated to live in a South African ghetto. The film, adapted from an earlier short film Blomkamp had done, was highly praised and won the 2010 Saturn Award for Best International Film. It also received four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, and Best Editing.
Prior to District 9, Blomkamp made a handful of short films and since then has continued making thought-provoking science-fiction movies with 2013’s Elysium and 2015’s Chappie, but to less critical acclaim. It was planned for Blomkamp to continue the Alien franchise with a sequel that would somewhat reboot the series and ignore the third and fourth installments, instead focusing on a direct sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 entry, Aliens. However, those plans are currently on hold while Ridley Scott continues the prequel stories that began with 2012’s Prometheus and continued with Alien: Resurrection. Untitled third and fourth films will be released later on.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Frank Darabont
Despite ultimately receiving numerous Oscar nominations and becoming a quintessential must-see movie after countless broadcasts on TNT, Frank Darabont’s feature film directorial debut was considered a box-office bomb at the time. It has even garnered such a (mainstream) cult following that many consider it to be the best film of 1994. Along with its seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Actor, and Screenplay, it also received two Golden Globe nominations, two Screen Actor Guild nominations, a Writers Guild of America nomination, and Darabont also received a Directors Guild nomination. The Shawshank Redemption has even become such a significant piece of cinema, in 2015 it was selected to the United States Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry.
Darabont’s career prior to 1994 was made up of directing a short film and a television movie. Since directing The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont has gone on to helm The Green Mile, The Majestic, and The Mist, earning several accolades along the way. He was also a creative force behind the earliest seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Dances with Wolves (1990) – Kevin Costner
Having appeared in a handful of forgetful movies, being known as “the unseen dead guy” in The Big Chill, and riding the popularity he had generated from The Untouchables, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner bore the challenge of directing himself in 1990’s Dances with Wolves. The gamble paid off though with Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Score, Editing, Cinematography, and Sound. It also received nominations in the actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, art direction, and costume design categories. Other nominations and awards include the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, numerous critics associations, and multiple guilds.
Unfortunately Costner didn’t stop while he was ahead. He went on to star in several hit Hollywood films, but his directorial filmography is somewhat of a blemish on his career post-Dances with Wolves. The list of movies Costner directed after his award-winning directorial debut includes The Postman and Open Range. Only one of those is considered “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.
Ordinary People (1980) – Robert Redford
After 20 years of establishing iconic silver screen characters like the Sundance Kid, Jeremiah Johnson, Johnny Hooker, Jay Gatsby, and Bob Woodward, Robert Redford stepped behind the camera for 1980’s Ordinary People. The career move resulted in four Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor, with two additional nominations, five Golden Globe awards, and several other accolades.
Redford’s directorial career has been made up of hits and misses, which is pretty normal for anyone who has nine directorial features under their belt. The closest similar success to Ordinary People was 1994’s Quiz Show, which was up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, along with The Shawshank Redemption. Both would ultimately lose to Forrest Gump. I should note that I consider Quiz Show to be a more enjoyable picture than Ordinary People, but that is just a personal preference opinion.
Mad Max (1979) – George Miller
With three short films under his belt, Australian filmmaker George Miller burst onto the scene with the first feature in a dystopian series by the name of Mad Max. Not receiving the accolades others on this list have garnered, Mad Max was well received by critics from around the globe and did receive several nominations, and a few wins, from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. It has become a point of reference when discussing post-apocalyptic films and its 2015 sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road, also a Miller-helmed movie, would end up gathering ten Academy Award nominations that included the Best Picture category.
Miller’s directorial credits include all four Mad Max films, a portion of the Twilight Zone: The Movie, and a family friendly portion of his life that consists of Babe: Pig in the City and both Happy Feet pictures. Although a release date has not yet been set, Miller has continuously teased the fifth Mad Max film, claiming it will be titled Mad Max: Fury Road.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – Mike Nichols
Considered an auteur director, Mike Nichols was able to get the best out of his actors, which is clearly evident in his first feature film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Having made his start in theater and with multiple works on Broadway prior to 1966, Nichols acquired four Oscar-worthy performances from his four actors, with two of them winning their respective categories. Along with the four acting nominations, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also received nine other nominations, making it eligible in every category possible at the time of the ceremony. This was a feat only accomplished one other time in Academy history, with 1931’s Cimarron. The film also received seven Golden Globe nominations and three BAFTA awards.
Nichols certainly didn’t peak at the start of his career. He went on to have a prolific career in both theater and Hollywood. His films, which also include The Graduate, Catch-22, Silkwood, and Working Girl, have garnered a total of 42 and 56 Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, respectively, and seven and 17 wins.
The 400 Blows (1959) – Francois Truffaut
Mike Nichols may have been considered an auteur filmmaker, but Francois Truffaut wrote the book on auteur cinema, or better said he wrote the essay on it. Truffaut began his career as a film critic, and he took the critic part of the job very literally. In 1954, Truffaut wrote an article condemning screenwriters and producers in the mainstream French cinema industry and after several years of publishing film analysis, directing a few short films along the way, and being inspired by Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, he decided to make his feature-length directorial debut with The 400 Blows.
To say that Truffaut’s career started off well would be quite an understatement. The 400 Blows wound up winning numerous awards, including the Best Director Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the Critics Award of the New York Film Critics’ Circle, and the Best European Film Award at 1960’s Bodil Awards. It is also a film that holds the very rare 100% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Truffaut went on to make 20 more films following The 400 Blows, only one of which, Fahrenheit 451, was filmed in English. Many were well received and Truffaut is consistently in the conversation of most notable filmmakers of all time.
Marty (1955) – Delbert Mann
Directing more than 100 live television dramas prior to working in movies in 1955, Delbert Mann alternated between cinema and television throughout his career. Whilst having a successful career that spanned 45 years, Mann is most certainly best known for winning the Best Director Academy Award and heading the production of a Best Picture winner with Marty. Other Oscar accomplishments were Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine and Best Screenplay, as well as four other nominations.
Marty is another example of a 100% “Certified Fresh” film on Rotten Tomatoes and received extremely high praise upon its release. It was also the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. Despite the positive reviews and impressive accolades, Mann’s other films don’t really stand out as examples of the same impressive quality, with 1958’s Separate Table being the only real inspiring other work.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) – John Huston
One might consider directing one of the greatest film noir detective movies of all time as being the apex of a career, but John Huston was just getting started. Huston transitioned from screenwriting to directing with The Maltese Falcon, which today is considered an all-time great movie, but it had already failed twice before at Warner Bros. Studios. Huston was able to prove that third time really was a charm as his version has become a quintessential example of film noir, even being considered to be the first major film noir.
The Maltese Falcon was an immediate success, both financially and critically. It went on to receive three Oscar nominations, include Best Picture, and was one of the initial inductees to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
Huston’s career will likely always be linked to Humphrey Bogart since the two collaborated multiple times, but his filmography was made up of more than just Bogart hits. Among Huston’s great films are The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, and Prizzi’s Honor. He also had a short stint on the first big-screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, however, that movie ended up hiring five different directors, it’s a comedic spoof of the official James Bond film series, and it’s an unintelligible mess that I wouldn’t want anyone to suffer through. I only included that fact since I am a James Bond fanatic.
Citizen Kane (1941) – Orson Welles
Any regular reader of this blog, or even friends of mine who don’t normally make it to this website, already knows the high praise I have for Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. It’s the greatest movie ever made. He was a visionary at the young age of 21. Yada, yada, yada. Instead of highlighting all the great things about Citizen Kane I will simply include a snippet of information about Welles’ career after his directorial debut.
Prior to making his feature film debut, Welles directed some short films and a silent short for a play. Following Citizen Kane, Welles struggled to make another masterpiece, not due to lack of talent though. Instead, his troubles came from meddling studios and a passion for the craft, even to a fault. There were approximately 20 unfinished film projects Welles had worked on at one point or another at the time of his death. That is seven more movies unfinished than completed that Welles either directed or co-directed, and none of his completed films ever made a profit upon their initial release.
Orson Welles is a fascinating character study, as much so as his fictional character Charles Foster Kane. Although no other film has reached the pinnacle heights of master filmmaking that Citizen Kane did, the other movies that are widely considered to be successes include The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and F for Fake.
Here is a list of some other impressive starts from first-time directors:
Primer (2004) – Shane Carruth
Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Quinten Tarantino (did a partially lost black-and-white amateur film prior; Tarantino himself referred to it as his film school)
This is Spinal Tap (1984) – Rob Reiner (did TV movies prior)
Diner (1982) – Barry Levinson (did a TV movie prior)
Caddyshack (1980) – Harold Ramis
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – George A Romero (did a single short film prior)
The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Charles Laughton (only directing credit; went uncredited for work on The Man on the Eiffel Tower )