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.