They say that nobody gets famous overnight and everyone has to start somewhere. Many famous directors of our day had to make films that weren’t that great, or work on someone else’s project, or do what the studio asked of them before they were able to truly pick the kinds of projects that they had a passion for. For many directors, their early work was just a means to earn money that would fund their own projects later in their careers. Most would agree, that when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, the quality of your work tends to increase exponentially. For this reason, some high quality directors have some surprisingly bad early films, or at least films that seem to be way outside of their usual genre of choice.
On the other side of the coin, you have directors that seem to have never done any wrong and always seemed to have the option of making the films they wanted to make. Usually these filmmakers are independents like Quentin Tarantino that start small and create a name for themselves. For this reason, we see some directors with surprisingly good first films for a director’s first time out.
Not all independent filmmakers are geniuses though. Some of them have to play around with genres and styles before they hit that mark that just seems to work. For this reason we see some films that some directors try to keep under wraps, and it’s a bit of surprise when you find out the film exists.
For whatever the reason, these twelve directors have created some surprising first films in the early days of their careers that you may have forgotten about (or never even heard of).
12. Wes Anderson – Bottle Rocket (1996)
Most recently, Wes Anderson received a lot of acclaim for his film The Grand Budapest Hotel and it was his best performing film to date in terms of box office dollars. Anderson is the type of director that people either love with an excessive obsession or hate. Generally, the people that dislike him feel that his films all tend to look very similar (he does have a particular aesthetic), which lends to the complaint that he makes the same movie over and over again. For those who feel this way, they should take a look at his first film Bottle Rocket. It stars Luke and Owen Wilson and doesn’t have the same feel or aesthetic as the bulk of his movies, starting with Rushmore. Unless you were a fan of Anderson, you wouldn’t even recognize Bottle Rocket as one of his films.
11. Jonathan Demme – Caged Heat (1974)
Jonathan Demme is best known for serious and heavy-hitting drama with films like Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and his adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. His most current project is a Meryl Streep film about an aging rock-star trying to reconnect with her children. Knowing this, it might be hard to believe that one of Demme’s earliest films was a production from one of the kings of bad drive-in cinema, the one and only Roger Corman.
In his early years, Demme directed Caged Heat under Corman as producer. The film is just one in an almost endless library of grindhouse female prisoner movies that presupposes female prisons are 24-hour female-only brothels.
10. Oliver Stone – Seizure (1974) (mention The Hand)
Oliver Stone is mainly known for his biopics like The Doors and W and high drama films like Natural Born Killers or Wall Street. It may come as a surprise to many people that a number of Stone’s earlier films are actually in the genre of horror. His first feature length film was a not-so-great horror flick from 1974 called Seizure. It was about an author terrorized by a few of his characters that had come to life. Stone would follow this up with another horror film called The Hand about a man whose severed hand follows him around and kills those that anger him. Eventually, Stone would move past horror and make waves with Platoon.
9. Steven Spielberg – Duel (1971)
Spielberg had some early work in television shows and a small independent film that he made for $400, but his first actual movie was a made for television flick called Duel. The surprising thing about Duel is it showcases the fact that Spielberg was a solid director very early in his career. The flick was worth a theatrical release, a feat that’s not very common as far as TV movies go. This film about a business man being terrorized by a faceless truck driver on the open desert road is acclaimed by both critics and fans of cinema alike.
8. David Fincher – Alien 3 (1992)
David Fincher is currently known for films that garner a large amount of critical acclaim, such as this years Gone Girl, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He’s also the man that made the much referenced Fight Club.
What you might not know (and what Fincher probably doesn’t want you to know) is he’s also the man behind the terrible third installment in the Alien series of films. Fincher claims the whole process of making the film was a nightmare but it did teach him to not try to please everyone working on the project. Since then, he’s taken most of the control over his films and it seems to have worked out rather well for him.
7. Alfonso Cuaron – A Little Princess (1995)
Alfonso Cuaron set a new darker tone for the Harry Potter films with The Prisoner of Azkaban. He’s also the man responsible for the highly acclaimed Gravity. Before these films, Cuaron directed the violent and dark drama Children of Men, and even earlier still, Cuaron made a very adult film about a relationship between two young men and an older woman call Y Tu Mama Tambien.
Considering Cuaron has a knack for more adult films (and “adulting up” children’s films) you would probably be surprised to know that one of Cuaron’s earliest films is the remake of the Shirley Temple classic A Little Princess.
6. Quentin Tarantino – My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987)
The surprising thing about Tarantino’s first film is that people don’t really know about it due to the fact that he himself doesn’t seem to acknowledge it. Granted that My Best Friend’s Birthday was more comedic in tone than his other films, and granted that most of the original film was destroyed, it’s still a little surprising that Tarantino pegged Kill Bill Vol. 1 as “the fourth film directed by Quentin Tarantino” (as was stated on the box art and movie posters) when in fact it was the fifth. For Kill Bill Vol. 1 to have been his fourth film, Tarantino would have only been counting Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, at that point.
5. George Lucas – THX 1138 (1971)
In the case of THX 1138, a lot of people aren’t aware that Lucas has directed anything beyond Star Wars. This is largely due to the fact that Lucas directed one of the biggest movies of all time, so he tends to get hit with the title of director more than writer or producer. In fact, Lucas didn’t even direct all of the Star Wars films.
The really surprising thing about THX 1138 is that it’s a highly acclaimed film that everyone seems to have completely forgotten about. In fact, on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, the film is rated higher than all but two of the six Star Wars films, and those went on to become a global cultural phenomenon. Any fan of movies needs to check out this dystopian science fiction masterpiece.
4. Joe Johnston – Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989)
Joe Johnston is one of the handful of directors that turned the Marvel Cinematic Universe into what it is today. After Marvel attempted to make a Captain America film in the 1990s that turned out to be one of the worst movies ever made, many people wondered if Joe Johnston (or anyone for that matter) could pull off a Captain America film. That character was considered rather cheesy at the time, and the Cap wasn’t exactly the character little children were yearning to be. Luckily, Johnston pulled off a great film and Marvel and Disney would go on to make cinema history.
Outside of Captain America, Johnston is best known for more suspenseful films like Jurassic Park III, Hidalgo, and Not Safe for Work. Johnson’s earlier work was in children’s films. His directorial debut was Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
3. Kevin Smith – Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary (1992)
Everyone seems to think Smith started off his career by making Clerks with his friends. While this is essentially true since most of his films take place in the same universe as Clerks, Kevin Smith actually made another film for a film school project. A documentary actually.
When trying to make a documentary about Emelda Mae, a transexual entertainer, Smith and producer Scott Mosier ran into some difficulty. According to Smith and Mosier, that difficulty was working with Emelda Mae in general. Rather than just making a crappy documentary, Smith and Mosier changed their focus and made the documentary about how terrible of a time they were having making a documentary. It’s kind of a great idea and it’s surprising Smith didn’t do more to get it out there once his fame took off.
2. James Cameron – Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
Most people know James Cameron for making a handful of the highest grossing and most acclaimed movies of all time. The guy has quite an amazing list of titles under his belt. There’s box office record breakers like Avatar and Titanic, and then there are horror and action classics like Aliens and Terminator 2 that are still talked about to this day. Well, everyone has to start somewhere and Cameron paid his dues with B-Movie horror mega-cheese. Cameron’s first time behind the lens was working on the campy Piranha II: The Spawning. What’s even more unbelievable is Cameron would directly follow this with The Terminator and he wouldn’t stop making hits and classics from that point on. Cameron is either a natural or a very fast learner.
1. Peter Jackson – Meet the Feebles (1989)
At this point, Peter Jackson is really only known for epic films like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit Trilogy, and his very underrated take on King Kong. He’s also become synonymous with three hour long films, so just the fact he ever made a flick that hovered around the old-school 90 minute mark is surprising in and of itself.
What some people don’t know about Jackson is that he actually comes from horror. Unlike others on this list, Jackson wasn’t just taking jobs as a director on horror movies to get his start – Jackson was making these horror movies himself. Bad Taste and Dead Alive are horror classics that must be seen by any fan of the genre. The most surprising of all Jackson’s early work though is Meet the Feebles. The film was a demented take on shows like Sesame Street and done entirely with puppets. If you ever wanted to see a film about a puppets making porn, doing drugs, having threesomes, and getting AIDS, Meet the Feebles is definitely up your alley! It has to be seen to be believed, and the right person will absolutely love it.