10 Famous Directors on Making Their First Feature Films


It’s been five long years since we’ve been treated to a new Paul Thomas Anderson film. The 2007 Daniel Day-Lewis drama There Will Be Blood left an indelible impression on audiences, but fans of the Boogie Nights director are ready to see his 1950s-set, Scientology-inspired tale The Master about a cult leader (Philip Seymore Hoffman) who rises to prominence, with a drifter as his right-hand man (Joaquin Phoenix).

Although Anderson quickly established himself as a wunderkind, the road to the filmmaker’s first feature wasn’t an easy one — as website This Must Be the Place pointed out. See what the talented director had to say about making his first movie Hard Eight past the break. Then, click through for more words of wisdom, anxious confessions, memories, and the early hopes and fears of other famous directors, reflecting on their first feature films.

Paul Thomas Anderson on Hard Eight

In lieu of going to school, a young Anderson put everything he had into making his calling card, the short Cigarettes & Coffee, in 1993. It quickly got him noticed, and he was invited to join the Sundance filmmakers’ lab. He started working on his 1996 film Hard Eight (retitled from Sydney), struggling with reedits imposed by Rysher Entertainment. Thankfully, with a lot of support and an extra $200,000 he was able to release the original cut and launch his career — with no help from Rysher to promote him. “The very first film, I had to fight to finish,” Anderson said. “It was baptism by fire. I learned all the lessons I needed to learn on the first film, about protecting myself and how to keep a lock on the editing-room door.”

Angelina Jolie on In the Land of Blood and Honey

You’d expect the making of an intense wartime drama centering on the love story between a Serbian soldier and a Bosniak prisoner of war to be an emotional rollercoaster for everyone on set, but for first-time director Angelina Jolie it sent her reeling. “I just wanted to tell this story, and I ended up by default being the director,” the star recently told Marie Claire . “I suddenly felt the responsibility, and I felt very small and, who am I to take this on? And think that I could make a difference? What have I done? I had a complete meltdown.” Jolie’s film — which she also wrote and produced — won a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Pedro Almodóvar on Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón

The beginning of Pedro Almodóvar’s female-centric movies started with Pepi, Luci, Bom in 1980. The filmmaker was already a staple in Madrid’s alternative cultural scene known as La Movida, busy creating a series of weird and wild short films with a super-8, playing in a punk rock band, and drafting pornographic photo-novellas. He brought La Movida’s nightlife to the big screen after an 18 month-long shoot plagued by financial and technical obstacles. “Pepi, Luci, Bom… is a film full of defects,” the director later recalled. “When a film has only one or two, it is considered an imperfect film, while when there is a profusion of technical flaws, it is called style. That’s what I said joking around when I was promoting the film, but I believe that that was closer to the truth.”

Joel and Ethan Coen on Blood Simple

There’s something extremely satisfying in knowing that the director of The Evil Dead influenced two of the biggest art-house filmmakers of our time when they were trying to get their careers off the ground. (They also collaborated with Sam Raimi on Crimewave.) In My First Movie , the directors talked about how their Texas-set neo-noir film Blood Simple was conceived. It was the first time the directors worked on a professional set, but according to them, no one else there really knew what they were doing.

On choosing their story:

“JC: We wrote a little thing for Frank LaLoggia, one of the directors I was working for as an assistant editor; we wrote a screenplay with Sam Raimi. So we just sat down and thought what kind of movie could we make that was sort of producible on a really small budget like these horror movies, but that isn’t necessarily a horror film.

EC: The inspiration was these movies that Joel had been working on which had been done mostly by young people like us who didn’t have any credentials or credibility in the mainstream movie industry. But they’d gone out and raised money underground for their little exploitation movies, got the movies made and subsequently wandered into the place where Joel was working to have them cut. It was that evidence that it could be done that led us to try it ourselves: notably Sam’s movie, The Evil Dead, because Sam was the most forthcoming in sharing all his experience with us.”

“JC: On the one hand, we were both interested in and had read a lot of pulp fiction like Caine and Hammett — and Caine especially when you think about movies that involve murder triangles. On the other hand, as Ethan Said, the sort of financial model for the film was also, to a certain extent a creative influence on it. So it was kind of a mix of those two things.

EC: Also, there were a couple of notorious Texas domestic murder stories that had just happened in the early eighties. I’m sure that figured.”

On the process of arriving at Blood Simple’s “complex structure”:

“JC: …Blood Simple started something else that we’ve done pretty much on every subsequent movie, which was that we’ve always written parts for specific actors. And as we’ve made more and more movies and got to know more and more actors, they’re frequently people we know personally from one place or another or that we’ve worked with in the past. In Blood Simple, we wrote the part that Emmet Walsh played for Emmet just because we knew his work. The other parts were written without knowing who would play them.”

David Lynch on Eraserhead

After leaving art school and applying for a filmmaking grant with the AFI, David Lynch eventually started developing Eraserhead. Budget restrictions and other roadblocks put the film in development hell for years, but the messy production of the director’s haunting, black and white feature taught him to be more perceptive about his surreal, made-up universe. “Because the rules were so strong and the world was so real to us, it was real easy to tell when you were doing something wrong.” After Eraserhead was completed, Lynch admitted that “film had really gotten in [his] blood.” He talked about how Eraserhead inspired a profound love of filmmaking in this 1984 interview:

“Sound and picture: there are two senses involved. It can really do something. It covers so many different things; you can’t get the same feeling from any other art form. And no one has really figured out even yet how powerful it is. I don’t ever want to figure it out so it’s like a mathematical thing, but I really want to explore it in a ‘feeling’ way, really learn about this business of pacing and what goes next to what, and think in terms of sound and picture real close together.”

Sam Mendes on American Beauty

Once Same Mendes — director of the upcoming James Bond film, Skyfall — started production on the Alan Ball-written American Beauty, he realized he had made several big mistakes after looking at the first scenes he’d cut. ” …It was badly shot, my fault, badly composed, my fault, bad costumes, my fault … And everybody was doing what I was asking. It was all my fault.” He learned one important lesson from the experience. “I made a very conscious decision early on, if I didn’t understand something technically, to say, without embarrassment, ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about, please explain it.'” Eventually the film swept the Oscars, but the entire moviemaking experience and ultimate smashing success left Mendes paranoid and distrustful of people for a long time. “It’s gone now,” he said in an interview for My First Movie: Take Two .

Woody Allen on What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

Woody Allen doesn’t have much to say about his first directorial effort — apart from what he already explained in the actual movie — but his earliest works did teach him that certain artistic sacrifices had to be made. “If you look at my first films, they were very broad and sometimes funny. I’ve gotten more human with the stories and sacrificed a tremendous amount of humor, of laughter, for other values that I personally feel are worth making that sacrifice for,” he told the Paris Review in 1995. “So, a film like The Purple Rose of Cairo or Manhattan will not have as many laughs. But I think they’re more enjoyable. At least to me they are. I would love to continue that—and still try to make some serious things.”

Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino was a struggling screenwriter when he conceived of Reservoir Dogs, an idea that first came to him while working in a California video store. ” …I just kept at it and by the time I wrote Reservoir Dogs it was time. It was time,” he said in a 2010 interview. “And then as much as everything else was just this huge build-up to this tremendous let-down, this was… easy! I wrote the script quickly and we were making the film in, like, seven months.” He also stated that he wanted all of his later movies to “come from the same place as Reservoir Dogs,” and wanted to avoid creating “old geriatric colostomy bag movies.” Check out the below interview with the director for more of Reservoir Dog’s backstory, including how Harvey Keitel helped him get the film off the ground.

Christopher Nolan on Following

During the 1999 Rotterdam International Film Festival — where The Dark Knight Rises director Christopher Nolan won a Tiger Award for his neo-noir Following — Nolan talked about enjoying the creative freedom that came with his early picture:

“I don’t think I’m ever going to make a film this way again. And I think what is wonderful about this film is not having to answer to anybody in creative terms except myself. But that doesn’t mean I did things exactly as I planned. You know there’s this great collaboration between all these people involved, but I was free to do this for all the right reasons instead of having people tell me what to do. And I don’t think I will ever be able to do that again, to tell you the truth. The next film I raise money for will be someone else’s money and so immediately you have a responsibility to somebody else. So in a way I don’t think I will ever have it this good again. But I will be able to spend more money for what there is on screen. The next thing will be partly in color and will be 35 millimeter and all that sort of thing. It gives you technical advantages. I don’t know, ask me again in a year.”

Wes Anderson on Bottle Rocket

“We weren’t really thinking about it being a stepping stone to anything, because the thing itself was just everything in the world to us then,” Anderson shared in a 2008 interview regarding his debut Bottle Rocket. “I think by the end… I understood that these things have their shape, and part of that shape is that they end.” What revelation did the 1996 comedy inspire?

“I remember when we were shooting Bottle Rocket that there were a couple of times when I thought, ‘I’m not sure exactly how to do this, so we’re just going to do something and get through it.’ Then I remember on Rushmore thinking, ‘I am never going to approach a scene that way. I don’t care if we’ve worked 18 hours and it’s 5:30 in the morning and we have 45 minutes before the sun is going to come up and we’ve got to get this thing. I am going to make sure that we do everything we can to get it right. Because eventually the shoot is going to be over and we’re just going to have what we have, and I’m going to have to live with it for the rest of my life.’ That’s probably something that should be obvious, but it wasn’t to me then. It’s sort of revealed itself to me.”