Some film directors are able to maintain success over several decades and get bums on seats or haul awards for almost every film. A select few are able to do both. Whether successful or not, every director has to start somewhere. Steven Spielberg started promisingly with Duel in 1971 and Martin Scorsese’s debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door has its charms but neither film set the world alight. Some director’s though burst onto the scene with critically acclaimed works in what is their debut feature. With often minimal experience, little support and tight budgets, several directors have created debut films which astound audiences and critics alike. Here are Six of the Best…
1. Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Although he had shot the amateur My Best Friend’s Birthday in the mid to late 1980s, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was his first real feature. A dialogue driven heist movie, the film was a hit on its initial release and has since gained cult status. Many of the tropes that have come to define the director’s career are evident in the movie and a lot of people, including myself, still consider it amongst his best work. Its bold, violent approach set it apart from the action heavy thrillers of the time and an impeccably neat script not only impressed audiences but also the actor Harvey Keitel who liked it so much that he co-funded, produced and agreed to star in the movie. The direction is slightly more conventional than in his later work but is still recognisably ‘Tarantino’ with long, slow dialogue heavy scenes interspersed with frantic action and innovative camera movement. Reservoir Dogs was released independent of the major studios and as such it afforded the director the freedom rarely found in modern cinema to follow his ideas through to completion unmolested.
2. Frank Darabont - The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Before directing his first feature film, Frank Darabont had worked in Hollywood as a writer, production assistant, art department assistant and even set dresser. In 1978 he had also written and directed The Woman in the Room, an adaptation of a Steven King short story which was the first in a series of King adaptations by Darabont. His debut feature was another King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption, a prison salvation story set over several decades. Now famous for its poor box office, the film nevertheless was a critical hit from the start and has since become an all time favourite, currently sitting atop of the IMDb Top 250. Although I personally find the film slightly saccharin in its construction, there’s no denying that it’s a movie classic and the sort of familiar film that can be watched at any time. Frank Darabont went on to direct two further Steven King adaptations and is currently working as a writer, director and producer on the hit TV show The Walking Dead.
3. Sam Raimi – The Evil Dead (1981)
Writer/director Sam Raimi began shooting The Evil Dead barely out of high school. He funded the film with money begged and borrowed from friends and family and produced his first feature on a budget of just $350,000. The low budget, while evident was eclipsed by high production values, solid story and assured filmmaking which helped to produce one of the greatest horror movies in history. The movie just about broke even on its initial theatrical run and was met with strong reviews but has since gone on to win world wide acclaim and is credited with being one of the most influential horror movies in history. The movie spawned two sequels, with a long awaited third still rumoured, as well as a recent remake. From a couple of hundred thousand dollars, the director went on to helm films costing $200-300 million. I only saw the film for the first time a few months ago but loved its blend of scares, laughs and directorial ingenuity. It might be rough around the edges but for a first film and on such a small budget, it has to be one of the best debuts I’ve seen.
4. Sam Mendes – American Beauty (1999)
$350 million worldwide, five Oscars, six BAFTAS, three Golden Globes and nearly ninety major awards in total, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty wasn’t a bad start. Mendes is also the most recent of six directors to receive an Oscar for their debut feature. The plot focuses on Middle America, the infatuation of youth and beauty and the imprisonment of the Middle Class told through the eyes of a depressed, middle aged man. It works both as a metaphor for the country as a whole as well as on a simpler, story based level. Kevin Spacey drew critical acclaim and a second Oscar for his performance and if image searches finding my blog are anything to go by, Mena Suvari became an instant sex symbol. Clever lighting, interesting cinematography and a high concept story all helped Mendes to form his movie but his direction features a visual flare rarely seen in a debut. His style and knowledge seems to have transitioned from stage to screen without missing a beat.
5. Sidney Lumet – 12 Angry Men (1957)
Few debuts have as much of a lasting impact as Lumet’s. Before going on to direct the likes of Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network, Lumet began with an engrossing and claustrophobic court room drama unlike any other. Filmed almost entirely within one set, the movie is set in a jury deliberation room at the end of a murder trail. The case seems open and shut and eleven of the all male jury are ready to vote guilty and get home, out of the sweltering heat of the summer’s day. One man is unsure though and over the course of 96 minutes he creates doubt in the minds of several others. Lumet’s film is beautifully directed and he draws fantastic performances from his actors. The director slowly increases the cameras focal length as the film progresses in such a way as to build tension without the audience realising how. What begins as a wide and airy room ends up cramped, hot and tense. It shows wonderful skill and all in a debut film.
6. Orson Welles – Citizen Kane (1941)
What else? Not only was Citizen Kane Welles first film but in many people’s eyes it is also the best film. Ever. I could go on for pages about the technical craft and visual beauty as well as the spellbinding writing of Citizen Kane but I won’t. What I will say is that there can be no argument that Citizen Kane is not a good film and few would argue that it’s not a great film. It’s astounding that a movie of this quality and invention was made by someone making their very first film. The lighting, camera angles, inventive sound design, set design and cinematography are all astounding and despite only seeing the movie for the first time this year, I can’t wait to see it again and again. Though the film is now over seventy years old, even someone such as myself with only a passing knowledge of film can see what a masterpiece it is in its construction. Welles, like Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs, was given almost complete control over the production and created an undisputed masterpiece. Despite the critical acclaim, Welles found it difficult to recreate the success of Kane and only made another twelve films before his death. Even if he’d made only one though, his contribution to filmmaking would eclipse most directors whose work spanned several decades.