Welcome to the sixth edition of Director’s First Theatrical Movies. Whether directors were given big budget movies or had to raise money to make low-budget passion projects, the fact remains that the director’s drive to direct their own project shines through. Today we look at the varied talents of Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, and Tim Burton.
Stanley Kubrick has directed some of the most influential movies of all time, including Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the violent A Clockwork Orange, and the historical epic Spartacus. But in 1951, Kubrick was a Look photographer who had directed two short films. Based on the positive response from those short films, Kubrick was able to secure funding for his first feature film. Based on a screenplay by Howard Sackler, a high school classmate of Kubrick, and starring a total of five actors, Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky, Steve Colt, and Virginia Leith, Fear and Desire (with the working title The Trap) started filming. The story concerned an unknown war between two unknown countries. Four soldiers, a general, a sergeant, and two privates, fall behind enemy lines. They capture a peasant girl and the youngest soldier starts to befriend her… Fear and Desire was released on March 31, 1953, in New York City and April 1, 1953, in the rest of the US. The movie is now regarded as “old shame” by Kubrick, who did not approve of attempts in the early 1990s to rerelease his early work. He said Fear and Desire was a “bumbling amateur film exercise.”
James Cameron has directed some of the most expensive and most successful movies of all time, including Terminator, Terminator 2, Titanic, and Avatar. In the late 1970s, after making his own short film, Xenogenesis, he was able to use that to have various roles on different projects, including a production assistant on Rock and Roll High School (1979), art director on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), special effects work design and direction on Escape from New York (1981) and production designer on Galaxy of Terror (1981). James Cameron was originally hired to be the special effects director on Piranha II: The Spawning. When the original director, Miller Drake left the project, Cameron was placed as pretty much the puppet director for the Italian executive producer, Ovidio G. Assonitis. Shortly into production (some accounts say a week, some two and a half weeks), Cameron was fired, but his name remained on the director credit because the contract required an American director. The story is about mutant flying piranhas (obviously) who are attacking a seaside town, and it’s up to the diving instructor and biochemist to try to stop them. While Cameron later claimed The Terminator, made in 1984, was his first true movie, he did also say that Piranha II was “the best flying piranha film ever made”. There is also an account that Cameron broke into the editing booth and tried to re-cut his film, but that Assonitis found out and cut the film again. The movie was released in December 1981 and on November 5, 1982. (http://www.ew.com/article/2010/08/18/cameron-piranha-3d-dante).
Tim Burton’s dark comedic style is well known throughout his movies, including his early efforts Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, the 1989 version of Batman, Batman Returns, and he also directed such big budget movies as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). In the early 1980s, Tim Burton had directed three shorts, Vincent, Hansel and Gretel (30-minute special for the Disney Channel) and Frankenweenie and was recently fired from Disney Studios. Paul Rubens, the star of a stage show (which was turned into an HBO special) called The Pee-Wee Herman Show, saw Vincent and Frankenweeine and felt Burton’s style meshed well with his character, Pee Wee Herman. Paul Rubens was given the chance to write and star in his own Pee-Wee Herman movie and asked Burton to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The movie was filmed around California and Texas with a budget of $7 million. The story concerns Pee-Wee, a childlike man who loves his red bike. His neighbor Francis paid someone to steal Pee-Wee’s bike because he wants it for himself. But Pee-Wee desperately wants his bike back, so Francis sends the bike away, and Pee-Wee has to travel to the Alamo in Texas to get his bike back, and has several crazy adventures along the way. The movie was released on August 9, 1985, and was a surprise hit, grossing $45 million at the worldwide box office.
Two of these directors’ first films are not well regarded, and Kubrick would rather you forget about his first feature, while Cameron has a more humorous approach to his (supposed) first movie. Burton, like J.J. Abrams for Mission Impossible III, was noticed for his talent with other projects and was given his chance to direct his first feature. Each of these directors used their first film to springboard onto later, more successful films.