It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker. The Internet has extended the reach of budding directors, and the best technology is at our fingertips, inspiring people to carve their own path in the film world. Still, come September, many people wonder: “Should I go to film school?” Surprisingly, there are many famous directors who ditched the classroom and found their footing in Hollywood a different way. Here are ten filmmakers that took an alternative route to the big screen.
“Trying to make a feature film yourself with no money is the best film school you can do,” Tarantino told students during a master class at the Cannes Film Festival. After dropping out of acting school, Tarantino honed his craft by paying obsessive attention to movies. Working at a video store during the 1980s helped, too. “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘No, I went to films,'” he once remarked. “When you have tunnel vision, when you have very limited interests, you know, you better pick up a lot. I wasn’t interested in school. I wasn’t interested in sports. I was only interested in movies.”
Gilliam has said that he’s “opposed” to film school several times. The Brazil director started his career as an animator and cartoonist, slowly building experience and confidence to step behind the camera. In 2011 he restated his view that experience is the best teacher:
“Film school is for fools. Live and learn how to make films. I didn’t go to film school. I just watched movies in the cinemas. And probably my greater education was actually making films, so that’s all I would ever say: watch movies, get a camera, make a movie. And if you do it enough times, eventually you start learning how films are made.”
The Wachowskis dropped out of college after two years and ran a house painting and construction business while writing comic books for Marvel. The siblings were huge film buffs and have cited Billy Wilder and Hitchcock movies as an early influence. Roger Corman’s book on low-budget filmmaking, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, also inspired them to write a film script (Carnivore), sell a screenplay (Assassins — it flopped), and work toward their directorial debut (Bound). They filmed The Matrix soon after, which became their magnum opus.
The Titanic director had a love for art and science, but dropped out of college. He started driving a truck and taught himself about special effects and production design. Super producer Roger Corman gave Cameron his first shot at directing, and the rest is history. The director went into more detail about the years between odd jobs and getting his first big break in this interview:
“One of the best things that happened to me was that I didn’t go to film school. I used to go down to the USC library and read everything. I’d Xerox stuff. I made my own reference library of doctoral dissertations on optical printing and all that. I really studied technical stuff formally. But I didn’t study film aesthetics because I figured it becomes too solipsistic. It’s just about other movies. You need training; you need mentoring. And you need life experience. I was living life for a few years, hanging out with my druggie buddies down in Orange County, and studying physics and doing a lot of reading and traveling. So you have something to say, and some real-world experience that’s not just based on other movies.
The main thing is just picking up a camera and making a film. That’s the most important thing. People say, ‘How do you get to be a filmmaker?’ I say, ‘Go home, pick up your video camera, and make a film.’ Well, it’s on video, it doesn’t matter. But it’s an image; you’re deciding what goes into that image. People say, ‘Well, where am I gonna get the money?’ Fuck the money. Get some people and just make a film. Because if you make a film and you put your name on it that says ‘Directed by,’ even if it’s the worst piece of crap in the world and cost no money, everything after that, you’re a director. You’re just haggling over your price, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] And the budget. It scales up from there, but you’ve defined yourself in that role. If you can’t define yourself in that role to yourself, then you’re just chippin’ away at it, not really doing it.”
Films were always a part of Christopher Nolan’s life. “I used to noodle around with the camera but I didn’t go to film school,” the Batman director told DGA Quarterly. “I studied English literature at college and pursued a straight academic qualification, all the while making my own films and wanting to make more. I paid for my first feature, Following, myself and made it with friends.” Zeitgeist Films picked the movie up for distribution at a film festival, which started Nolan’s career in Hollywood. What did he learn by being self-taught?
“A very organic approach to understanding all the different bits of the craft. I’m interested in every different bit of filmmaking because I had to do every bit of it myself — from sound recording and ADR to editing and music. I feel very lucky to be a member of probably the last generation who cut film on a Steenbeck flatbed, physically taping it together and dropping out shots. It gave me a really good grounding in knowing overall what has to go into a film technically that was very valuable. And it meant that absolutely everything I did was simply because I was passionate and wanted to try stuff. You’re never going to learn something as profoundly as when it’s purely out of curiosity.”
The theater world was Taymor’s introduction to cinema. She spent her teen years living in Sri Lanka, India, and eventually Paris, where she studied mime at the school of Jacques Lecoq. “That gave me the beginning of an understanding of the power of the body and what you can do with physical and visual movement, masks and puppetry,” she told Interview. “It was very exciting, because you used yourself as a writing pad. You used your body, you used your brain and your emotions to put out the material. You weren’t just tools of a pre-written script. It was very exciting because you used yourself as a writing pad.” After making a name for herself as an international theater director in Japan and Indonesia, she went back to the States to stage Broadway and opera productions, including the successful Lion King. She directed her first feature in 1999, Titus, but didn’t win critical success until Frida several years later.
Kurosawa trained as a painter. He had a close relationship with his older brother, Heigo, who worked as a silent film narrator, which helped deepen his love for cinema and performance. When a new film studio (which later became the famous Toho studio) was looking for assistant directors in the 1930s, Kurosawa jumped at the opportunity. Director Kajirô Yamamoto, who created several war films, became his mentor. In 1943 Kurosawa made his directorial debut, steadily building his reputation and gaining creative freedom.
Wise beyond his years and with an aptitude for intellectual hobbies like chess, Stanley Kubrick felt unchallenged as a young student. After receiving a camera on his 13th birthday, his passion for learning was stirred, and he began to teach himself photography and the basics of filmmaking. The 2001 director discussed his self-taught start in Hollywood in a 1969 interview:
“After I quit Look in 1950 — where I had been a staff photographer for five years, ever since I left high school — I took a crack at films and made two documentaries, Day of the Fight, about prize fighter Walter Cartier, and The Flying Padre, a silly thing about a priest in the Southwest who flew to his isolated parishes in a small airplane. I did all the work on those two films, and all the work on my first two feature films, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, sound effects man — you name it, I did it. And it was invaluable experience, because being forced to do everything myself I gained a sound and comprehensive grasp of all the technical aspects of filmmaking.”
The Baltimore native was casting his friends in 8mm and 16mm films as a young man, drawing audiences the DIY way. He later enrolled at NYU, but didn’t stay long. “I was there for about five minutes. I don’t know what I was thinking about,” he once remarked. “I went to one class and they kept talking about Potemkin and that isn’t what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see Olga’s House of Shame. That was what I was more into.” He reiterated this sentiment in an interview with Bomb:
“I never went to film school. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to turn on the camera, you know, basically. Somehow my incompetence ended up right in the year 2004 in the contemporary art world.”
When asked if he would ever teach film school, Waters had this to say:
“Well, I teach in prison… no, I would have no desire to teach normal people, but I like having murderers as students very much. They’re my best audience.”
July spent her youth creating art, zines, and writing to prisoners. She attended the University of California at Santa Cruz for about a year, but dropped out to focus on her passions. “For me, school was taking away from getting to begin. I was never academic. I fight all conventions until they become useful to me,” she explained. Her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, opened after winning a spot in a Sundance workshop.