Even the most cinematically inclined of us may not have heard of the debut films of some of today’s most well-known directors. Before Jaws, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, these highly regarded directors made some films that don’t always fit in with the content or caliber of their later works. Read on to learn about the science fiction films, questionable sequels, and made-for-TV movies that paved the way for some of the most successful directors of the past hundred years.
1. Steven Spielberg, Duel (1971)
While Spielberg had directed several episodes of popular TV shows in the late ‘60s and very early ‘70s (and made a movie called Firelight for just $500 when he was 18), Duel was his first standalone feature-length film. Though it was broadcast as a TV movie in the United States, this story of a murderous truck received a theatrical release in Europe. The entire film consists of the Peterbilt 281 tanker, whose driver is never fully in view, attempting to run a terrified traveling salesman off the road. Though the salesman gets the upper hand in the end, he never does figure out the story behind the driver (truck?) who was to determined to see him dead. It’s safe to say he didn’t risk cutting anyone off for a long time afterward.
2. Peter Jackson, Bad Taste (1987)
Like Jackson’s other splatter horror comedy Braindead (or Dead Alive, if you’re watching it in North America), Bad Taste is not for the faint of heart—or stomach. This alien invasion movie features lots of alien-on-human eating, human-on-alien eating, and general guts and gore that led to numerous cut versions of the film being played in various countries. Over the years, Bad Taste has become a cult film of sorts, which is an achievement in and of itself considering the low budget used to produce the film and the fact that most roles were played by Jackson and his friends.
3. Danny Boyle, Shallow Grave (1994)
Boyle, who would go on to direct such popular movies as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire, began his directorial work—and his professional relationship with Ewan McGregor—with this dark comedy. A tale of friendship, betrayal, money, and murder, Shallow Grave helped launch the careers of McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, who would go on to play the ninth incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who.
4. Cecil B. DeMille, The Squaw Man (1914)
This silent western movie adapted from the play of the same name was DeMille’s first attempt at directing and producing. It holds the distinction of being the first feature-length film made in Hollywood, save for harbor scenes and a few others requiring varied landscapes. DeMille must have harbored an affection for The Squaw Man as he went on to film it twice more in the form of a 1918 silent remake and a 1931 talkie.
5. Stanley Kubrick, Fear and Desire (1953)
Kubrick’s first feature film came two years after he directed documentaries on Irish-American boxer Walter Cartier and New Mexican priest Father Fred Stadtmuller. Fear and Desire exudes an air of ambiguity throughout as it follows a group of soldiers, one of whom is clearly unstable, in a war between two unnamed countries. With a budget of $10,000 largely raised by family and friends, the film was lauded as a success—though not a financial one. After its initial showings, Kubrick tried to prevent it from being seen again, going so far as to call the film “a bumbling amateur film exercise.”
6. Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 (1963)
Known in the United Kingdom as The Haunted and the Hunted, Dementia 13 was Coppola’s first mainstream directorial attempt after working on several nude films. Producer Roger Corman initially brought in Coppola to make a gothic Psycho-esque movie, but during production stages the two disagreed so violently as to lead Corman to bring in another director to shoot additional scenes. Upon release, the film received mixed reviews and currently has 65 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad for a cheap remake about a murderous lunatic.
7. James Cameron, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
Cameron has come quite a long way in the visual effects department since his debut. Piranha II, also known as Flying Killers, is the story of a school of piranha living in the wreckage of a ship in the Caribbean. The movie is exactly what you’d expect a sequel of the original Piranha to be: namely, man-eating, flying fish killing lots of people.
8. George Lucas, THX 1138 (1971)
Rising from the ashes of his 1967 student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, this film depicts a world in which drugs are mandatory, sex is banned, and the few who rebel are sent to a limbo-like prison even fewer attempt to escape. The film currently holds a rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 90 percent—higher than all but two of the Star Wars movies.
9. John Carpenter, Dark Star (1974)
Described by Carpenter as “Waiting for Godot in space,” Dark Star is a dark science fiction comedy surrounding a bored crew’s travels through space. Most of the film consists of the crew members’ attempts to fill their time with stargazing, target practice, making music, or chasing a small alien around the ship. (Interestingly enough, this alien would later be the inspiration for the much more frightening one in Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was written by Carpenter’s co-writer, Dan O’Bannon.) Dark Star ends in a kind of philosophical tailspin. Note: Don’t teach Cartesian doubt to sentient bombs.
10. Ridley Scott, The Duellists (1977)
This movie, which won the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, could not have been more different from the movies for which Scott is most famous. It is based on Joseph Conrad’s short story The Duel, and it features Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as enemies in Strasbourg in the early 1800s. Praised for its historical accuracy, The Duellists marked the beginning of a varied and successful career for Scott, who would go on to make the aforementioned Alien as well as Thelma & Louise, Blade Runner, and Black Hawk Down.
11. Christopher Nolan, Following (1998)
Like others on this list, Nolan was working on an extremely short budget with his first film. He paid for the 16mm film out of his own pocket, and he insisted on extensively rehearsed scenes so as to not require numerous takes. Additionally, he largely eschewed professional film lighting in favor of whatever light was readily available. The black-and-white movie involves a young writer who makes a habit of following strangers, only to one day become engrossed in following a man who ends up confronting him. Seduced by this man’s dangerous lifestyle, the protagonist turns to a life of crime that ultimately derails and leaves him the victim of his fellow thieves’ manipulation.