5 Award Winning Directors Who Got Where They Are - Raindance

Every director once had the dream to make movies when they were younger, and decided to go and chase after it. Starting out as a filmmaker can be terrifying and difficult. Getting your name out can be a long process that takes a lot of effort and patience to get your big break. Every award winning director have gone through this process, but each story is different. Here are some famous film directors who got where they are in the film industry.

Kathryn Bigelow

Before becoming the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow started out at the San Francisco Art Institute as a painting student. Before she enrolled in Columbia University’s graduate film program, Bigelow was living in New York as a starving artist for a few years. She began her career with the short film, The Set-Up (1978) that was submitted as part of her MFA at Columbia. Her fascination with manipulating movie conventions and genre began after directing Near Dark (1987), a story of a man who becomes involved with a family of nomadic vampires in his small midwestern town. Most of her films were rated poorly by critics and did not receive much box office revenue until her big break in 2008. Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker, a film that follows an explosive disposal team in the Iraq War and their psychological reactions to combat. The film received much positive feedback and resulted in her winning the Academy Award and New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director. She won the same Critics Circle award again in 2012 for Zero Dark Thirty, making her the first female director to win this award twice.

Damien Chazelle

Although filmmaking was his first passion, Damien Chazelle started out as a musician in his teenage years. After high school, he realised that he did not have much talent as a musician and started to pursue filmmaking again. The French-American director went on to graduate from Harvard University with a filmmaking degree in Visual and Environmental studies in 2007. He wrote and directed his debut feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench as his senior thesis project at Harvard. The film premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival where it received various awards. Chazelle moved to Los Angeles after graduation to work as a “writer-for-hire” in Hollywood. His writing career in Hollywood later led him to direct his film Whiplash (2014), which depicts the relationship between a jazz drumming student and an abusive instructor. The film was submitted to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it received numerous awards as well as earning five Academy Award nominations, and winning three.

Due to the success of the film, Chazelle was able to attract people to help finance La La Land (2016). The story is a musical about a jazz pianist and an inspiring actress who fall in love while trying to pursue their dreams in Los Angeles. The film opened at the 2016 Venice Film Festival in August and began its release in December of 2016 in the United States. The film received many great reviews and led Chazelle to receive both the Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Director, making him the youngest director to win both awards at the age of 32. Chazelle gave some advice in a 2015 interview for aspiring young artists. “Hopefully, there’s a sort of simple message: Don’t give up. It takes fifty or a hundred or a thousand ‘No’s’ before you hear a ‘Yes.’ Certainly, that applies to both music and my experience as a writer/director”. 

Alfonso Cuarón

Being the son of a doctor and a pharmaceutical biochemist, Alfonso Cuarón travelled a different career path than his parents. Cuarón studied filmmaking at Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC) in Mexico. He later began working as a technician for television in Mexico, which later led him to be an assistant director for many film productions in the country. Cuarón landed his first big screen film as a director with Sólo con Tu Pareja (1991). After his success in Mexico with the film, Alfonso was hired to direct an episode for the Showtime series Fallen Angels (1993). Cuarón’s success in both the US and Mexico in the 90s lead him to directing the third film in the Harry Potter Series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). A few years later, Alfonso directed Gravity (2013), a story of medical engineer and veteran astronaut getting stranded in deep space with no hope of rescue. This film resulted in Cuarón receiving both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Director. He also won the Academy Award for Best Director again for Roma (2019). In his acceptance speech, Cuarón says “As artists, our job is to look where others don’t. This responsibility becomes much more important in times when we are being encouraged to look away”.

Tom Hooper

British-Australian film and television director Tom Hooper knew he wanted to get into filmmaking since his teenage years. His first professional short, Painted Faces broadcasted on television when he was just twenty years old. Hooper directed plays and television commercials during his time as an Oxford University student, and continued to direct television episodes on British television after graduating. His father introduced him to television producer Matthew Robinson, who gave Hooper his first TV directing work and became his mentor. Hooper began to direct many television shows for BBC over the years, but made his debut with Red Dust in 2004. His debut led him to work for HBO, where he directed the British miniseries Elizabeth I (2005),which covers the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Hooper also directed the film Longford (2006), which demonstrates the failures of Lord Longford to secure parole of Moors murderer Myra Hindley.

The success from both of these productions led Hooper to be selected by Tom Hanks to direct the miniseries John Adams in 2008, which won many Emmy awards that year. After directing and releasing The Damned United in 2009, production for The King’s Speech began that same year. Hooper discovered the play from his Australian mother who attended a reading in London. The play covers the relationship between King George the `Sixth and his Australian speech therapist and decided to take action. The film was completed in August 2010. Hooper won the Director’s Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures and the Academy Award for Best Director for the film. In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, Hooper states, “The funny thing about being a director is that you are not seeking your own pleasure. Your own pleasure is beside the point – it is deceptive. A lot of the time when you shoot, you are pained. It is quite masochistic – you have to be in touch with your unhappiness because that is part of the early radar system that tells you when something isn’t working. So you go between unhappiness and joy. It is what is in the frame when you turn over, that is all that matters.”

Christopher Nolan

At just eleven years old, Christopher Nolan aspired to be a professional filmmaker. The British-American film director started making films in college while earning his bachelor’s in English literature from University College London. In 1998, Nolan personally funded, wrote, directed, and edited Following. His success with the film resulted in his directing of Memento in 2000, which received many award nominations and was later selected by the Library of Congress in the US National Film Registry in 2017. Nolan became more successful as the years went on, later directing the Batman series Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). This trilogy has won many academy awards, made record breaking box office records, and are considered some of the best superhero films ever made. The success of The Dark Knight  led Nolan to direct Inception in 2010, which ended up grossing over $820 million worldwide. After the end of the Batman trilogy in 2012, Nolan directed, wrote and produced Interstellar (2014). The film won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and received nominations for Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design.



Katy is Senior at James Madison University back in the United States. She is a Communications major with a Public Relations concentration and a General Business minor. Katy is studying abroad for the semester in London and is excited to travel and learn more about the film industry.