Film and Television Features

The Secret of a Successful Directorial Debut

Hollywood is a closed shop; the independent film route is tortuous and heartbreaking; self-financing will send you to the poorhouse for life. Whether you come from industry ranks, possess a graduate film degree, or have done myriad live-action shorts, the chances of landing a feature film are virtually nil. A lucky break may be a mixed blessing, though, because that first film must have qualities that will raise your profile among producers and keep you employed.

So how do you build reputation and longevity? What makes a director the darling of Cannes and the Oscar runway year after year? Film schools are good at teaching the visual crafts, but style is something you develop on your own, and that’s where film students lose the plot. To put it simply, filmmakers are storytellers, and the best ones shape the material in accordance to the imperatives of personality to add depth and resonance. None of the following movies made a big splash at the box office, but the filmmakers’ craft and intelligence kept them locked in my memory and made me a fan.

Let’s start with Stephen Frears, whose Philomena was a recent Best Picture Oscar nominee. Frears was a law student when he stumbled into the magical world of the theatre. He learned his craft as a stage director before landing film gigs as assistant to Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, and he would carry the British New Wave spirit into his work as TV director. His first feature film was Gumshoe (1971), a rare mix of film noir and comedy. It follows the misadventures of Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), a dreamer obsessed with detective films.

Frears’ style isn’t flashy. His strengths are atmosphere and character layering. In Gumshoe, it allows him to jump smoothly from kitchen-sink realism to hardboiled banter. The script wouldn’t work without the investment on its main character, a psychiatric patient whose foothold on reality isn’t strong. Working in a seedy Liverpool nightclub keeps Eddie off the dole, but its not enough to vent his fertile imagination. This moves him to advertise himself as a private detective, which entangles him in a murder-attempt plot. As he uncovers the workings of a crime organization and solves the puzzle, Eddie finds himself more trouble than he ever imagined.

Frears wouldn’t hit his stride until the mid-eighties with My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), but his early work for film and TV merits a review. Like Frears, Steven Spielberg’s outstanding work for the small screen led to a film career. His calling card was Duel (1971), a movie-of-the-week that got theatrical release in some countries. There’s nothing small-scale about The Sugarland Express (1974), his debut feature proper, a cinematic tour-de-force that holds well today. Based on a true story, it stars Goldie Hawn as Lou-Jean Poplin, a loose-cannon of a woman whose child is in the custody of the State of Texas. Lou-Jean persuades her husband Clovis (William Atherton) to escape from prison, involving him in an ill-conceived plan is to kidnap their own child, who has been placed with foster parents. Along the way, they take a highway patrolman (Michael Sacks) as hostage, which helps keep the law at bay. This results in a long caravan of police cars following in their wake and a Texas-style media circus.

Notwithstanding the sizable contribution of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, there are strong stylistic traits that belong to Spielberg: panoramic vistas worthy of John Ford and a fascination with pure movement. Spielberg’s camera moves aren’t there to show off but to follow characters and action, and they cut seamlessly, but more remarkable is his staging of scenes, which focuses on energy and spontaneity. The film won a best-screenplay prize at Cannes and made a modest profit, which got Spielberg the opportunity to direct Jaws (1975), his first blockbuster success.

Joel and Ethan Coen hit the ground running with Blood Simple (1984), which still ranks among their best films. This is a misanthropic crime thriller in the vein of Clouzot’s Diabolique. A simple premise starts the precise plot: Julian Marty, a bar owner played by Dan Hedaya, hires a shady private detective to kill his wife Abby (Frances McDormand), who is having an affair with his bartender (John Getz). But the detective, played masterfully by M. Emmet Walsh, has designs on the money that’s kept in the bar’s safe. He steals Abby’s gun and shoots Marty with it. This implicates Abby in the murder, which leads to a macabre plot twist.

The Coens plan their films meticulously, shunning long expository scenes and redundant dialogue, confident that the plot structure and the characters will be compelling enough to move an audience. In fact, Blood Simple’s original theatrical version is longer that the directors’ cut. The Coens trust the moviegoer’s intelligence, which explains their growing number of fans. Their impact on the culture is undeniable, and they keep raising the bar with one-of-a-kind projects like Inside Llewyn Davis.

All these directors have had a remarkable rate of success. In contrast, studio heads keep chasing their own tails with rehashes of old movies. The lesson here is that originality and stylistic continuity are essential to the preservation of film art, and that’s also bankable, because brand-name directors draw a strong fan-base. This bodes well for the future. Newcomers won’t find the door wide open, but finding it ajar is good enough. They’ll fight the same old battles between art and commerce, but good films will continue to be made.