10 Directors Whose First Movies Were Their Best

6. Mike Nichols – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Whos Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966)

Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky as a Jew in 1931 during the Nazi’s rise in Germany, Mikhail and his family fled to the United States at the age of 7. He received a vaccine for whooping cough at the age of 4, which caused him to lose almost all of his hair.

This wig-wearing son of a bitch lived near Central Park in New York, where he didn’t have many friends. In college is where he started to figure out his place in the world and was chosen to direct the stage play Barefoot In The Park, which earned him a Tony Award and credibility.

At the age of 35, Warner Bros. invited him to direct a screen adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with lovebirds Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The world’s most famous couple would take most of the day to get ready; drinking cocktails and taking long lunches. This caused Nichols to go 30 days over schedule and doubled the $7,500,000 budget.

When it was finished, it was very controversial and the first film to receive the label “No one under the age of 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.” It became the most expensive black and white film ever to be made in the US and the first film to be nominated for every Academy Award category in which it was eligible; taking home 5 Oscars.

Nichols didn’t blow his wigwam, yet. He directed The Graduate the following year, taking home more awards and nominations. For the span of his career, he directed 17 actors to Oscar-nominated performances. Nichols has a very impressive filmography (being one of twelve who are an EGOT), but directed nothing as controversial or captivating on screen afterwards. Mike Nichols wasn’t afraid of anything – except a strong wind.


7. Terrence Malick – Badlands (1973)


Terrence Malick, the farm boy from Illinois, was born in 1943. His parents wanted the best for their children to succeed, so much so that his brother Larry broke his hands to avoid the pressure of becoming a guitarist. He eventually committed suicide in Spain, which more than likely fascinated Terrence with a passion to pursue the deeper meanings in life.

When Terrence was in his 20’s, he directed a short film, which opened the door to many contacts in the film industry. He would do freelance work to revise scripts like Dirty Harry and Drive, He Said. With his scripts not gaining any traction, Terrence had started writing down an idea at 27 about the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate. In order to acquire funding for the film, he contacted doctors and dentists, people outside of the industry, raising $300,000 to make his film.

With Terrence’s deeply engrained mindset of perfection, the shoot lasted 16 weeks, in which half of the crew up and quit. Being 30 years old and submitting to the New York Film Festival, it received rave reviews. Warner Bros. purchased the film for $1,000,000, but ended up showing it as a double feature with Blazing Saddles. What a pairing. It was the film debut of Martin Sheen’s kids, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

The film’s tagline also inspired the Zodiac Killer, since it read, “In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.” Quentin Tarantino also wrote 2 scripts based on the same killers with True Romance and Natural Born Killers.

The film didn’t win any Oscars, but it is on many lists as one of the greatest American films ever made and the Criterion Collection scooped it up to be preserved. With Malick’s work deviating from the norm, this film is arguably his best and most critically praised.


8. David Lynch – Eraserhead (1977)


David Keith Lynch is another simpleton born in Missoula, Montana back in the year 1946. He would move around with his family in the Northwest to small towns, where Lynch would adapt to making friends quickly, but his love for learning was stifled in these quaint places.

Eventually finding his love for painting and art, he went to various colleges and even over to Europe to study as a painter. However, the dream faded and he decided to paint a new canvas and got married, having his first child. In the crime-filled streets of Philadelphia and a new baby to protect, Lynch felt pressure to pursue a tangible dream and started on his first short film at the Pennsylvania Academy.

After a few attempts with AFI and various short films, Lynch moved out to LA with his family. As one of the best students at the AFI Conservatory and doing a great job at networking, he was able to acquire a $10,000 grant to make his film Eraserhead.

The script was only 21 pages long and took 5 years to make. During that time, a cinematographer died, Lynch divorced his wife, and he lived on the set. He would work a paper route to get money to keep the dream alive. It took nearly 5 years to complete the film. When it was finished, Lynch showed the film to a friend of Terrence Malick (connecting the dots), who was a financial backer. The financial backer was infuriated and called the film “…bullshit”, but it became popular at the midnight movie underground circuit. Eventually, being noticed by people like Francis Ford Coppola and Mel Brooks.

Stanley Kubrick even showed this film to his cast and crew before filming The Shining to get them in the right mood. It has since been picked up by the Criterion Collection and is one of the most important films to be made; being very influential.

David went on to get offered to direct a Star Wars film from George Lucas because of this film, but David stayed true to himself and his quirky storytelling. He has been nominated for 4 Oscars, directed 3 actors to Oscar-nominated performances, and Eraserhead went on to make roughly $7,000,000 on a $30,000 budget. David Lynch has some other great films, but nothing as influential as the infinitely deceiving Eraserhead.


9. Frank Darabont – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)


Darabont Ferenc Arpad was born in a refugee camp in 1959, France. His parents had just fled Hungary, since the Revolution in 1956. They eventually came to Los Angeles when he was just 5. Being in the City of Plastic Angels, Frank’s love for cinema naturally grew. He worked at a movie theater and wrote endlessly in his spare time.

The first short film he wrote and adapted was shockingly Stephen King’s The Woman In The Room, which was a semi-finalist to be Oscar-worthy. This opened the door, since Stephen King gave him the old west handshake rights to Shawshank Redemption.

Since Rob Reiner’s success of King’s Stand By Me was a hit, he offered Darabont $2,500,000 to write and direct Shawshank. Reiner’s film would have had Tom Cruise as Andy fighting off the Sisters and Harrison Ford as Red. We still have yet to see a film where Tom takes it in the keester. However, Darabont still had a pair of working balls at 35 and decided to do it himself.

Shawshank Redemption became one of the most beloved films of all time and has remained the #1 film on IMDb.com for probably the lifespan of the site since 1990. It was nominated for 7 Oscars and Frank Darabont went on to adapt 2 more feature films by legend Stephen King; The Mist and The Green Mile. Frank has been nominated for 3 Oscars and has yet to live up to his greatest achievement with Shawshank Redemption.


10. Sam Mendes – American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty bath

Samuel Alexander Mendes was born in 1965 on a little island called England. He directed several plays, while playing competitive games of cricket. They call them “cricketers”. At 24 he directed a little number with Judi Dench.

After several successful productions, Alan Ball was working on a stage play and sold it to greenhorn company DreamWorks. Since Mendes had already made a name for himself in stage direction, he was given the opportunity to direct American Beauty, which refers to a breed of roses that while pretty and appealing in appearance, is often prone to rot underneath at the roots and branches of the plant.

With a modest budget of $15,000,000, Mendes used his knowledge of stage direction to create shots full of dramatic tension. This film ended up winning 5 Oscars with 8 nominations. It’s currently ranked on IMDb.com as the #65 greatest movie of all time. American Beauty and Silence Of The Lambs are the only non-period pieces to win Best Picture in the 1990’s.

Sam Mendes has only won 1 Oscar, but has directed a few great films. However, he will always be remembered for this film. The last words he will mumble on his deathbed will be “Rosebud”, referring to this film he directed at the age of 34.