Famous Film Directors First Features

They all had to start somewhere, from low to no budget films and artsy pretensions, to out of the ballpark Oscar winning hits:

Famous Filmmakers & First Features

thelovelessKathryn Bigelow
The Loveless (1982)
Country: US
Distribution: Atlantic Releasing

Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director, co-wrote and directed her debut in 1982, The Loveless. The film was not only a striking entrance to the big screen for Bigelow; it was also the premiere feature performance by a fresh-faced Willem Dafoe. Beloved by motorcycle film enthusiasts, The Loveless is a nod to the campy genius of Kenneth Anger and takes a fresh look at the classic motorcycle gang wreaks havoc on small town story. Alongside Dafoe is Robert Gordon, who also did the music for the film, notable for it’s emotive 1960’s Americana soundtrack.The Loveless reveals the art-house sensibilities of one of Hollywood’s most powerful women known today for hard-hitting, historically based films as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

shallowgraveDanny Boyle
Shallow Grave (1994)
Country: UK
Distribution: Film4
Budget: 2.5 Million

In this Hitchcock style thriller, Ewan McGregor (in his breakout role), Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox star as three friends sharing a flat in Edinburgh. When their fourth roommate dies of a drug overdose, they discover a large amount of cash stashed away in his suitcase. The three friends decide to dispose of the body and keep the money, which leads down a dark path to the destruction of their friendship and sanity. The film received positive reviews, as well as winning the 1995 Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the BAFTA’s.


James Cameron
Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
Country: US & Italy
Distribution: Columbia Pictures

A couple found with a sunken ship along the Caribbean Islands did not just drown. As their dismembered remains suggest, they were devoured by man-eating piranhas that had a taste for human flesh. The film was inspired by the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but didn’t quite hit the mark. In fact, it has been cited as “a strong contender… for anyone’s list of all-time horror turkeys.” Though James Cameron does consider it, “the finest flying piranha movie ever made.” While the directing credit is given to Cameron, most of the work was actually done by Executive Producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, who was dissatisfied with Cameron’s performance.

sweetieJane Campion 
Sweetie (1989)
Country: Australia
Distribution: Filmpac Distribution

Jane Campion has consistently impressed the film world with her beautiful features such as The Piano and Bright Star, but it all started with her debut feature Sweetie. The film traces the tumultuous relationship between Kay, a careful and superstitious young woman, and her wild sister, Sweetie. Kay’s family has refused to address Sweetie’s mental illness, and we soon realize that this has had a profound effect on Kay’s own life. Campion tells this captivating tale in style with colorful cinematography that lends a wonderful aesthetic to the beloved film.


virginsuicidesSofia Coppola
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Country: US
Distribution: Paramount Classics
Budget: 6 Million

The Virgin Suicides marks the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s successful film career. A haunting coming of age tale, The Virgin Suicides follows the doomed lives of the five Lisbon sisters. Set against a suburban neighborhood in 1970s Detroit, the Lisbon sisters are kept on short leash by their over-protective Catholic parents. Beautiful and enigmatic, the sisters captivate the interests of their teenage boy neighbors, who serve as the narrators of their tragic tale. Coppola adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides. Even in her first feature, Coppola’s eye for an aesthetically beautiful film and ear for a great soundtrack are utterly apparent.

CagedHeatJonathan Demme
Caged Heat (1974)
Country: US
Distribution: New World Pictures
Budget: 180,000

Not your run of the mill women-in-prison film, Caged Heat is the story of a rabble-rousing group of incarcerated women. The prisoners incur the wrath of their oppressive warden for which they are punished with electroshock therapy. The sequels Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom (1994) and Caged Heat 3000 (1995) borrow the name and setting, but are otherwise unrelated.



chocolatClaire Denis
Chocolat (1988)
Country: France
Distribution: Orion Classics

Not to be confused with 2000’s Chocolat featuring a pony-tailed Johnny Depp, Claire Denis’ first feature explores the effects of colonialism through the childhood experiences of a young woman named France. Upon France’s return to Cameroon as an adult, she meditates on her childhood spent there while her father worked as a colonial administrator. The young France befriends her family’s “houseboy” Protée, and through this relationship Denis examines the racial boundaries in colonized Africa. The film screened at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.


felliniFrederico Fellini
The White Sheik (1952)
Country: Italy

Fellini’s first solo feature (he had previously co-directed Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada) is the story of two young newlyweds, Ivan (Leopoldo Trieste) and Wanda (Brunella Bovo), who come to Rome for their honeymoon. Upon their arrival, Wanda sneaks off in search of the “White Sheik,” the hero of a popular soap opera photo strip, leaving a frantic Ivan to hide her disappearance from his strait-laced relatives who their to see the Pope. Guiliette Masina appears briefly in the film as the prostitue Cabiria, a role she would later return to in Fellini’s iconic Nights of Cabiria. Italian film critic Giulio Cesare Castello wrote, “Fellini should find his tone in future works if he is to avoid the discontinuity we found here.”

thirteenCatherine Hardwicke
Thirteen (2003)
Country: USA
Distribution: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Budget: 2 Million

Thirteen certainly isn’t eponymous with the age of the intended viewer of this film.  16 year-old Evan Rachel Wood plays Tracy, a teenager frustrated with her home life and her recovering alcoholic mother, played by Holly Hunter who received a Best Support Actress Oscar nod for her performance. Tracy, who is often teased at school and who is miserable at home seeks companionship with the most popular, beautiful girl in school, Evie. Evie encourages Tracy to experiment with drugs, alcohol, sex and various other teenage taboos.Thirteen chronicles the tumultuous formative experiences of two young girls as they explore the perilous world of adulthood, which they thrust themselves too quickly into.

badtastePeter Jackson
Bad Taste (1987)
Country: New Zealand
Distribution: NZ Film
Budget: 255,000

When aliens invade a small New Zealand town, it is up to Peter Jackson and his real-life friends to save the day. A film that has achieved cult status, it took Jackson four years to complete (filming on weekends), which left one of his friends unable to shave for the duration for the sake of continuity. Jackson proved that you don’t have to have fancy film equipment to craft more complex shots, as he was able to construct his own counter-weighted steady-cam for the very low budget of $15.


americanbeautySam Mendes
American Beauty (1999)
Country: US
Distribution: DreamWorks
Budget: 15 Million

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is tired of his bane existence amongst the white picket fences and mini-vans of suburbia while stuck in a job he hates, and with a wife (Annette Bening) and daughter (Thora Birch) who hate him. Lester decides to turn his life around after he develops an infatuation for his daughter’s young and attractive friend. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, and ended up winning for Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay.


indian-cabaretMira Nair
India Cabaret (1985)
Country: India

This documentary is Mira Nair’s debut feature, offering a look into the life of female strippers in the suburbs of Bombay, India. While the film is only 60 minutes long, it is an intimate glimpse into the lives of two dancers in a cabaret club, who value view their work as a liberation from the position of many Indian women who are financially at the mercy of their fathers, husbands or brothers. India Cabaret presents a comprehensive perspective of the dynamics between men, women and the stereotypes of “respectable” and “immoral” women in India.


theslenderthreadSydney Pollack
The Slender Thread (1965)
Country: US

In The Slender Thread, Sidney Poitier plays Alan, a college student who volunteers at a crisis call center. During one of his shifts, Alan receives a call from a woman called Inga (Anne Bancroft) who has taken a lethal dose of pills, but wants to have someone to speak to before she dies. The film follows their efforts to find the woman before it is too late. The Slender Thread was nominated for two Oscars.



who'sthatMartin Scorsese
Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967)
Country: US

Originally entitled “I Call First,” the film explores themes of Catholic guilt as J.R. (Harvey Keitel) tries to deal with the secrets of his girlfriend (played by Zina Bethune). The film was shot over many years, using a combination of 35 mm and 16mm cameras. It finally premiered in 1967 at the Chicago International Film Festival. Robert Ebert suggested, “It is possible that with more experience and maturity Scorsese will direct more polished, finished films.”



clerksKevin Smith
Clerks (1994)
Country: US
Distribution: Miramax Films
Budget: 27,000

Clerks is a day in the life of two store clerks. When Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is reluctantly put in charge of the Quick Stop on his day off, comedy ensues. Kevin Smith scraped together funds for his film by selling a large portion of his comic book collection, using money set aside for his college education, and reappropriating insurance money from a car he had lost in a flood. Clerks was shot in black and white over the course of 21 days at the convenience store where Smith worked. It seems that Smith’s sacrifices paid off as the film has grossed over $3 million in the US, and Total Film lists it as the 16th greatest comedy of all time.

sex,liesSteven Soderbergh
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Country: US
Distribution: Miramax Films
Budget: 1.2 Million

Sex, Lies, and Videotape tells the story of a man who decides to film women discussing their sexuality, and his subsequent impact on a troubled couple. The film has been hugely influential and revolutionized the independent film movement in the early 1990s. It won the Palm d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival  and was added to the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2006 as a film deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”


SugarlandExpressSteven Spielberg
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Country: US
Distribution: Universal Pictures
Budget: 3 Million

The Sugarland Express dramatically re-imagines the true story of husband and wife, Robert and Ila Fae Dent, who are trying to outrun the law for fear that their son will be placed in the care of Ila’s mother. The film won best screenplay at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, and also began the long and beautiful friendship between Spielberg and composer John Williams.

While some consider Duel (1971) to be Spielberg’s first feature, it was originally released as a made-for-TV film in the US, and only later received a theatrical release in Europe.


Raindance Alumni

followingChristopher Nolan
Following (1998)
Country: UK
Distribution: Momentum Pictures
Budget: 6,000

Following follows (see what we did there?) a bored young writer living in London who decides to follow people at random as possible inspiration for his characters.He soon becomes entangled with one of his potential sources of inspiration, a serial burglar named Cobb who invites him into his life of thievery. Though the young writer is happy enough to rifle through strangers’ possessions at first, all is not what it seems. The film was written, directed, filmed, and co-produced by Christopher Nolan on black and white 16 mm film stock over the course of a year using only available light. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed the film as “startlingly original.”

lock,stockGuy Ritchie
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Country: UK
Distribution: Universal Pictures & PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Budget: 1.35 Million

Four London lads find themselves heavily indebted to Hatchet Harry, a local villain who set up a crooked card game in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. After Hatchet Harry threatens to remove their fingers from their person if he is not paid the money owed to him, the boys attempt to gather the money by stealing from their neighbors. Needless to say, the whole operation spirals out of control. Total Film lists it as the 38th greatest British film of all time.



*Edited on 24/03/2013*



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