Welcome to the fourteenth edition of Famous Director’s First Theatrical Movies. Today we will be looking at the storied careers of Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Brian de Palma. All of these directors have received critical acclaim for their movies, and some of those movies have gone on to be nominated or win Academy Awards. Let’s look the first theatrical movies of these famous directors.
Spike Jonze’s films include Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are, and Her. He is also a very successful commercial director and documentary short director, many of them featuring skateboarding. Before he started directing movies, he also co-founded the short-lived magazine Dirt, aimed at young men. In the mid-1990s, Charlie Kaufman wrote the Being John Malkovich script. Francis Ford Coppola read the script and passed it on to his then son-in-law (he was married to Sophia Coppola at the time) Spike Jonze. Jonze agreed to direct his first feature film in 1997. Production began on July 20, 1998, and was filmed primarily in Los Angeles. In Being John Malkovich, an unemployed puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) doesn’t love his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz). He gets a job as a file clerk on floor 7 ½ of the Martin-Flemmer building in New York City and is attracted to his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener), who is not interested. Craig discovers a portal being a desk which puts Craig in the consciousness of John Malkovich for 20 minutes…from there follows the most bizarre love affair ever as Craig, Lotte and Maxine all experience being John Malkovich…who is also a participant with the three characters. Being John Malkovich was made with a $13 million budget and was released on October 29, 1999. It made $32.4 million at the Worldwide Box Office.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s diverse films include Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master. By the early 1990s, Anderson had directed two short films, the mockumentary The Dirk Digger Story (1988) and Coffee and Cigarettes (1993). Coffee and Cigarettes was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in their Shorts Program. Anderson received a feature film deal from Rysher Entertainment and Anderson used the deal to direct his first feature film, which at the time was called Sydney. In Anderson’s movie, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) is an aging gambler who runs into John (John C. Reilly), who needs money. Sydney convinces John to teach him how to win money at gambling. The gambling ploy paid off, and two years later John is still working with Sydney. But then John meets a cocktail waitress and prostitute named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow and they fall in love, leading to a dangerous situation for all three main characters. When Anderson finished Sydney, Rysher Entertainment re-edited and re-titled the movie, now called Hard Eight. Anderson was furious and submitted his work print to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was accepted in their Un Certain Regard category. Rysher Entertainment ultimately allowed Anderson to finish his film – if he would front the $20,000 to complete it himself. Anderson did with the help of several of the cast, and Hard Eight was released February 28, 1997, with a budget of $3 million. Rysher Entertainment did not promote the film, and it made $222,559 total.
Brian de Palma was one of the “New Hollywood” directors that rose to prominence in the 1960s-1980s and among his most famous movies include Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, The Untouchable and the first Mission: Impossible movie. In the 1960s, de Palma was enrolled in the theater program at Sarah Lawrence College. He and his teacher Wilford Leach in 1963 decided to shoot their first feature, called The Wedding Party. Starring Charles Pfluger as Charlie, a man who is about to be married and has to deal with his friends (one of them played by Robert De Niro), and his family and his bride-to-be (played by Jill Clayburgh) and her family as well on his family’s estate on Shelter Island. Unfortunately, after the film was shot in 1963, nothing happened to the completed film for several years. But in 1969, after De Niro was gaining more prominence as an actor, The Wedding Party was released on April 9, highlighting De Niro’s involvement (subsequent re-releases also played up De Niro’s role in the film), despite the fact that De Niro only plays a supporting role.
All three of these directors were able to get their first movie made through connections. Jonze made his film through his connection with Coppola, Anderson made his film through his connection with the Sundance Film Festival, and de Palma made his film through his connection with his teacher, Wilford Leach. What you know as a filmmaker is very, very important, but sometimes it’s who you know as well.