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.