Friday, December 30, 2016

Famous Director's First Theatrical Movies, Part 12

Welcome to the twelfth edition of Famous Directors First Theatrical Movies.  Today, we are discussing the versatile Ang Lee, the famous western director John Ford, and the actor-director Mel Gibson.  For one last time, let’s look at the first theatrical movie of these famous directors.
                Ang Lee’s most famous American Films include Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi.  His most famous foreign films include Eat Drink Man Woman and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  In the early 1990s, however, Ang Lee was unemployed for six years after graduating from NYU with an MFA in Film Production.  He stayed busy writing screenplays, and in 1990 submitted two screenplays to a competition sponsored by his home country Taiwan’s government.  His screenplay Pushing Hands won first place and attracted the attention of film producer Li-Kong Hsu, who offered for Lee to direct his first feature film.  Pushing Hands is about an elderly t’ai chi ch'aun teacher who emigrates to New York City from Beijing to his son, American daughter-in-Law, and grandson, and the culture clash that occurs between the traditional grandfather and the American life that his son and family lives.  The movie was a huge success in Taiwan, and received eight nominations at Taiwan’s premiere film festival, the Golden Horse Film Festival.  Lee made two more films exploring the culture clash between the old and new generations, The Wedding Banquet and the most famous, Eat Drink Man Woman, forming what is referred to as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy of movies.
                John Ford’s legacy is generally considered westerns, including Stagecoach, The Searchers, and the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he also directed the film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath and the award-winning How Green Was My Valley.  In the 1910s, John Ford was a prolific silent director, making multiple two and three-reel films (short films).  In 1917, John and his collaborator writer-actor Harry Carey, decided to ignore orders from the studio and make a five-reel movie instead of a two-reel film, thereby making Ford’s first feature-length movie.  That movie was called Straight Shooting.  At the beginning of Straight Shooting, a cattleman cuts off Farmer Sims’ water supply.  When Sims’ son goes in search of water, he is killed.  Cheyenne (Harry Carey) is sent to kill Sims but he switches sides when he sees his son’s grave.  Universal boss saved Straight Shooting from being edited down to a two-reel film, and today prints of the film are in the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House.
                While Mel Gibson has been mostly a prolific actor, rising to prominence with Mad Max films and starring in four Lethal Weapon movies, he has directed a few movies, most famously Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ (his most recent, Hacksaw Ridge, has been winning awards, including many AACTA awards).  In the early 1990s, Gibson read a script based on a novel by Isabelle Holland.  He liked it enough to decide to direct it.   Gibson tried to ask other actors to play the main role, but none were interested, so he took on the main role himself.  The movie was called The Man without a Face and was filmed on location in Deer Isle, Maine.  Gibson plays Justin McLeod, a recluse and former teacher who is disfigured from a car accident.  Chuck Nordstadt is a 12-year-old boy who has a difficult relationship with his family and wants to join the military academy.  After meeting McLeod on a ferry, Chuck convinces McLeod to help him pass the academy’s entrance exam, and McLeod begins to meet Chuck in secret at his house to learn how to pass the entrance exam, but when Chuck’s mother and the townspeople find out, they begin to suspect McLeod was molesting Chuck...  It should be noted that the script did not have the more controversial aspects present in the novel, with (spoilers here) McLeod’s relationship with Chuck shown as nothing more than a misunderstood mentor-son relationship in the movie.  The movie was released on August 25, 1993, and received mixed reviews, holding 67% score at Rotten Tomatoes,  It made $24 million at the box office.
                In this entry of famous director’s first theatrical movies, each of these movies is not nearly as well known as the movies which followed in the director’s career.  However, each director used their first movie as a springboard to bigger and better movies following their first movie.  Check out these first theatrical movies of these famous directors.  

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Famous Director's First Theatrical Movies, Part 11

Merry Christmas Eve and welcome to the eleventh edition of Famous Director’s First Theatrical Movies.  Today our three subjects are as different as they come.  We are exploring the first work of z-grade low-budget director Ed Wood, Texan writer/producer/director Robert Rodriguez, and the comedic Kevin Smith.  Let’s get started!
                Ed Wood, considered by so many to be the worst director of all time that he was posthumously given an award with that distinction, nevertheless made several cult hits.  These, including his most famous movie, Plan 9 From Outer Space, are considered in the so bad it’s good category, a special kind of awful.  But in 1952, Wood had only directed a few shorts.  Christine Jorgensen had made national news in the US with his sex reassignment surgery into her, and George Weiss, a producer of low-budget films, sought to make an exploitation film about her.  Wood was a cross-dresser and convinced Weiss to let him star in and direct the movie.  Wood then successfully asked former Horror film star Bela Lugosi to star in his movie.  He played a scientist who is one of two narrators, though another narrator handled most of the movie.  The movie was shot in four days and made for $20,000.  There are two segments: 1. Glen or Glenda (Wood), a man who is a cross-dresser but is not a homosexual, and 2. Anna/Alan about a man who was raised as a girl and decides after his service in WWII to have a sex change operation.  Glen or Glenda also has several vignettes about several aspects of transsexuality, interspersed with the main plot added by Weiss to increase the running time.  The movie was released in 1953 and along with Wood’s other films, is considered among the worst films of all time.  In fact, famous critic Leonard Maltin considered it the absolute Worst Film. 
                Robert Rodriguez’s most famous films include the Spy Kids films, the Sin City films, From Dusk Till Dawn, and his Mexico Trilogy: El Mariachi (his first movie), Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.  In 1991, Rodriguez made the short film Bedhead, and that convinced him to make his first feature film, El Mariachi.  Rodriguez raised $7,000 to shoot the movie, raised partly from the star, Carlos Gallardo, and partly from Rodriguez participating in drug trials.  Gallardo plays El Mariachi, a man who wants to be a mariachi player but gets caught up in a violent war between escaped criminal Azul and drug lord Moco and falls in love beautiful bar owner Dominó.  Rodrigez tried to cut corners whenever he could, for example, recording from a wheelchair instead of a dolly and using desk lamps for lighting.  He used 16 mm for filming and transferred the film to video, avoiding the costs for editing on film.  When Rodriguez tried to distribute to various direct-to-video Latino distributors, he was rejected.  So he decided to send his film to bigger distribution companies, including Columbia Pictures.  Columbia Pictures bought the American distribution rights, transferred the movie to 35 mm and spent a lot more than $7,000 releasing and marketing the movie.  El Mariachi eventually made $2 million at the box office.
                Kevin Smith’s comedies include Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but his first film, like Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, is considered one of his best.  Kevin Smith, living in New Jersey, saw Slackers, which was filmed on location in Texas rather than in Hollywood, and was inspired to make his own film.  After attending Vancouver Film School for four months, he returned to Leonardo, New Jersey, and his old job as convenience store clerk…where he got the idea to make Clerks.  The movie Clerks revolves around Dante, a convenience store Clerk who is called on his day off to cover a sick employee.  His friend Randal, who works at the RST Video next door, stops by and Dante and Randal create all sorts of trouble to pass the time, including playing hockey on the roof, closing the store to go to Dante’s ex-girlfriend’s funeral, and another of Dante’s ex-girlfriends showing up while Dante is dating another girl, Veronica.  Kevin Smith’s famous recurring characters Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) make a cameo appearance here.  Kevin Smith shot the movie at night was still working in the store during the day, and by the end of the shoot, he was unable to stay awake.  Smith maxed out credit cards to shoot the movie for $27,575.  Clerks premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax bought the film rights.  The film made $3.2 million at the box office.

                All three of these filmmakers threw themselves into their first movie, for better or worse.  Ed Wood never left his low-budget and exploitation roots when making films.  However, both Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith made their films knowing there were bigger and better things in store for the future.  They kept growing expanding their talent, and their movies are well-regarded today.  

Friday, December 16, 2016

Famous Director's First Theatrical Movies, Part 10

                Welcome to the tenth edition of the first theatrical movies of famous directors.  This time we are tackling the feel-good Frank Capra, the weird and otherworldly Guillermo del Toro, and the twist-reliant M. Night Shyamalan.  But what were their first movies?  What was their first theatrical release, the first movie that they tried to make a mark in the world? 
                Frank Capra’s movies tend toward comedy or feel-good drama, such as his most famous movies It Happened One Night, YouCan’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s A Wonderful Life (which, incidentally, was not a success on first release).  But Frank Capra was a prolific director all the way back to the silent era.  He made shorts and documentary shorts in the early 1920s.  At the time, he was also a prolific writer, and he started writing for silent comedian Harry Langdon, helping him create Langdon’s signature character.  When Langdon moved to First National Studios, he brought along Capra and after Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, which Capra co-directed, they made together Capra’s first theatrical release in 1926, a silent comedy called The Strong Man. Langdon plays Belgian immigrant Paul Bergot, who is searching for a blind woman named Mary Brown, who he was pen-pals with during the Great War.  The movie was released on September 19, 1926, and ran for 75 minutes.  Langdon and Capra made one more film together, Long Pants before they went their separate ways. 
                Guillermo del Toro’s most famous works include The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade II, Hellboy I and II, and Pacific Rim.  Guillermo del Toro was born in Mexico and from a young child had an interest in film-making.  He made 10 short films before being given the chance to direct his first feature, a vampire horror film called Cronos, released in 1993.  This movie was also his first collaboration with Argentinean Federico Lippi and American Ron Pearlman, who made several subsequent releases with del Toro.  Lippi plays Jesus Gris, an older man who finds a device under a hollow archangel statue.  When he sets it off, a needle stabs him and he becomes more youthful, but with a taste for human blood.  Meanwhile, the nephew of the millionaire Dieter de la Guardia, Angel (Pearlman) is sent by his uncle to buy the archangel because Dieter knows about the powers of the device.  What follows is a battle between Jesus, Angel, and Dieter for control of the device.  The movie went over budget to $2 million and Pearlman agreed to a salary cut.  It was released on May 3, 1993, at the Cannes Film Festival and December 3, 1993, in Mexico.  The movie was submitted as the Mexican entry for the foreign language film for the Academy Awards (but it did not get a nomination).   It made $621,392 at the box office.
M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are well known, but only his early movies are critical and box office hits (with the exception of the recent movie The Visit).  He is best known for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and The Happening (each of which has a “twist ending” to them), and the critically mangled big budget movies The Last Airbender and After Earth.  But in the early 1990s, Shyamalan was a student at NYU to parents from South India.  Like several other first time directors, he borrowed from family and friends for his first production.  M. Night Shyamalan wrote, directed, produced and starred in his first movie, called Praying with Anger. Shyamalan plays Dev Raman, an Indian American living in the US who is encouraged to make a trip to India by his mother.  Once there, he struggles with adjusting the culture in India and his friend Sanjay and prays to the Hindu pantheon with anger.  The movie played at film festivals and made $1.4 million at the box office.  It was since become a cult hit, with its exploration of the clash of Western (American) values with Indian life. 
All of these directors had to start somewhere.  Capra’s and del Toro’s collaborations helped secure their first theatrical success, while Shyamalan, like many on the list before him (Peter Jackson, for example), oversaw almost all aspects of production in order to get the film made.  Each of these directors went on to bigger and better things after their first film. Check out these first theatrical releases from famous directors.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

Famous Director's First Theatrical Movies, Part 9

               Welcome to the ninth installment of the Famous Director’s First Theatrical Releases series.  Today we look at the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sophia Coppola, Mel Brooks, the satirical comedian, and Robert Zemeckis, the director of popular movies.  Let’s begin!
                Sophia Coppola, best known for films like Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and Marie Antoinette, grew up under the influence of her father, the famous director Francis Ford Coppola.  She acted in several films, including The Outsiders and Godfather Part III.  In 1998 she made her own short film, Lick the Star, which played on the Independent Film Channel many times.  Follow the success of that short film, she wanted to make a movie out of Jeffrey Eugenides’ book The Virgin Suicides, even writing the script herself.  There was another script already written based on the book, but when Sophia showed her script, the production company agreed to use hers.  The Virgin Suicides was about five teenage sisters in the 1970s, the youngest of which attempts suicide early in the movie.  The parents start to put their teenage girls under such close scrutiny that they become depressed and isolated, to the point that…The Virgin Suicides was released on May 19, 1999, at the Cannes Film Festival and one year later throughout the US and the UK, and made $10 million at the box office.
                Mel Brooks’ career spans several decades, some of his biggest hits being Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  Mel Brooks had already had television success with the hit show Get Smart, spoofing the spy films at the time.  In the early 1960s, Mel Brooks was thinking of an idea about two men who decide to unscrupulously gain money by asking wealthy people to put up front money for an intentional flop.  When thinking of an idea that would cause people to get up and leave before the first act ended, he thought of Adolf Hitler…in a musical.  Mel Brooks wrote the script, at the time called Springtime for Hitler, but all of the major film companies refused, finding the idea obviously tasteless and outrageous.  But two producers took a chance on Brooks’ idea, on the condition that he change the title to something other than Springtime for Hitler, so Brooks changed the title to The Producers and decided to direct the film himself, despite having never directed a movie before.  Filming started on May 22nd, 1967 and lasted 40 days.  Being inexperienced, Brooks made several mistakes and lost his cool during filming.  The Producers starts with Max romancing older ladies in exchange for money for his next play.  Leo, an accountant, tries to audit Max for a $2,000 discrepancy but instead Leo convinces him to drop it and then when Leo surmises that Max could make a fortune if he oversold share in a production doomed to fail, Leo convinces Max to go along with his crazy scheme.  The Producers was released on November 22, 1967, in Pittsburg and nationwide on March 18, 1968.  While the movie was a modest success and received mixed to negative reviews at the time of release, over the years it has gained a cult following and many modern critics have praised it.
                Robert Zemeckis career span some of the most visually spectacular movies of all time, including the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and Flight. But in the late 1970s, Zemeckis had graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with a student film, A Field of Honor.  The movie attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, who agreed to mentor and be executive producer for Zemeckis’ first movie, which was titled I Wanna Hold Your Hand.  Nevertheless, Spielberg had to agree to step in if Zemeckis was doing a poor job (thankfully, that didn’t happen).  Zemeckis’ film (which he co-wrote) focused on a fictionalized account of several young people trying to get a ticket to the see Beatles at the Ed Sullivan show, using body doubles and archive footage to simulate the actual members of the Beatles.  I Wanna Hold Your Hand earned rave reviews and test audiences loved it…but only made $1.9 million at the box office, not even breaking even with the $2.8 million budget.  Zemeckis didn’t give up even after the second movie he directed, Used Cars, bombed and finally found success with his sleeper hit Romancing the Stone. 

                All three of these directors wrote or co-wrote the script for their first movie, showing their desire for creative control of their first movie they direct.  The first two, The Virgin Suicides and The Producers, have since become cult hits, while Zemeckis’ movie, while not unknown, has faded somewhat into history.  Check out each of these first theatrical movies from these famous directors.  

Friday, December 2, 2016

Famous Director's First Theatrical Movies, Part 8

Welcome to the eighth edition of Famous Director’s First Theatrical Releases.  Here we are exploring the first films of political and war filmmaker Oliver Stone, Japanese epic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and prolific film director Ridley Scott.  These directors have made their mark on filmmaking, and they all had to start somewhere.  Here are their first theatrical movies.
                Oliver Stone is famous for such movies as a trio of films about the Vietnam War, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth, a trio of films about US presidents, JFK, Nixon, W, as well as Wall Street, The Doors and Natural Born Killers.  In 1974, Oliver Stone was a young filmmaker with only a short film, Last Year in Viet Nam, under his belt, and Stone made his first movie, a Horror Film titled Seizure.  Seizure was filmed in a lakeside house in Québec, with the entire cast and crew also staying in the house as well.   Seizure follows Horror Writer Edmund Blackstone (Jonathan Frid) who has recurring nightmares that come to life: his visions of three menacing people (The Queen of Evil, a dwarf named Spider, a scar-faced strong man named Jackal) who one by one kill everyone he holds dear.  Both the actress who played the Queen of Evil, Martine Beswick and Stone admitted the production was difficult.  The movie was released for a limited run in 1974 in New York City. 
                Akira Kurosawa, the acclaimed epic Japanese filmmaker, made such well-regarded films as Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Kagemusha, and Ran.  In the early 1940s, Kurosawa was a successful second unit director on for five years in films such as Uma and Roppa’s Honeymoon.  He also had two of his film scripts printed, one of which won the Education Minister’s Prize.  Kurosawa asked to buy the rights to a new Tomita Tsuneo novel, called Sanshiro Sugata (American Title: Judo Saga) and direct the film based on the novel.  He was deliberately making a period piece in a time when Japan was at war (1942-1943).  Sanshiro Sugata follows a young willful man named Sanshiro who travels into a major Japanese city in order to learn Jujitsu.  But once there, he sees another martial art, Judo, and begs a Judo master to learn to master Judo, who also teaches him how to balance strength and control.  The movie features many of Kurosawa’s trademarks, including camera wipes, weather which reflects the mood of the characters and changing camera speeds, depending on the intensity of the scene.  It was released on March 25, 1943.  Unfortunately, the Japanese government cut 17 minutes from the movie to comply with “Japan’s wartime entertainment policies,” and the 97-minute director’s cut has never been found (though the complete script exists).
                Ridley Scott has a varied and prolific filmmaking career, having directed such movies as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and most recently, the acclaimed movie The Martian.  In the 1970s, Ridley Scott and his brother Tony were very successful commercial directors, and Ridley had also directed episodes for the BBC.  Ridley Scott’s first film was called The Duellists and filmed in and around Sarlat-la-Caneda in a region of France called Dordogne.  Scott tried to emulate Stanley Kubrick’s lush cinematography from Barry Lyndon.  The Duellists was a historical drama set in the early 1800s during the Napoleonic wars.  The Duellists is the story of two Hussar officers, D’Hubert and Feraud.  D’Hubert is sent to arrest Feraud for dueling the city’s mayor, but the way in which D’Hubert arrests Ferauld (in the house of a prominent lady, which Feraud considered an insult), causes Ferauld to challenge D’Hubert to a duel... The movie was praised for its historical accuracy, with its military costumes and conduct during the Napoleonic era.  The Duellists went on to win best debut film at the Cannes Film Festival.  It was released on August 31, 1977 in France.

                Oliver Stone, like many other directors profiled on this list, had a difficult time directing his first movie.  Nevertheless, he refused to give up, and went on to direct some of the most critically acclaimed war and political movies in the 1980s and 1990s.  Kurosawa and Scott, who had honed their skill as filmmakers before their debuts as directors, showed off their talent once their first film was finally released.  Check out these first theatrical films from these acclaimed directors.