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6 Directors Who Should Have Failed But Didn't
Directors Who Have Earned Their Paycheck
By Matt Hoffman
October 16, 2009
6 Directors Least Likely to Succeed Who Have
© Mania/ Robert Trate
So, you want to be a major Hollywood movie director? Well, you could go to film school, work crew jobs on big-budget productions and spend years building your reputation and moving up the ladder. However, that was not the path taken by Spike Jonze, director of the new movie Where the Wild Things Are. Jonze is one of several American auteurs who have found highly unusual paths to cinematic success.
6. Spike Jonze
It’s now been 10 years since the premiere of Spike Jonze’s acclaimed feature debut, Being John Malkovich, and it may feel as though Jonze has always been a part of the filmmaking elite. In fact, he began about as far out on the fringe as you can get.
Jonze was originally obsessed less with film than with BMX biking; born Adam Spiegel, he received the nickname “Spike” at a Maryland bike shop where he worked during high school. He was rejected by most of the colleges he applied to, including UCLA and NYU, so instead of pursuing higher education he moved out to California in 1987 to write for a BMX magazine called Freestylin’. It wasn’t until 1991, when Jonze was offered the chance to direct a promotional video for a skateboarding company, that he became heavily involved in filmmaking.
Jonze’s video, Video Days, was so successful and innovative (the soundtrack features the Jackson 5 instead of hardcore punk, and one scene depicts a group of drunk skaters driving a car off of a cliff) that it attracted the attention of bands like Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, who hired Jonze to direct music videos for them. He ended up spending much of the ‘90s directing music videos, including such classics as the Beasties’ Sabotage and Weezer’s Buddy Holly, but most of the feature offers he received didn’t interest him. In 1997 the script for Malkovich finally intrigued him into making the jump to features, but even that film was almost shut down mid-production for being too dark and strange.
Fun fact for those looking forward to Where the Wild Things Are: He almost made his big-screen debut in 1995, four years before the release of Malkovich, with an adaptation of the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon. The studio pulled out of that project because, according to producer John B. Carls, it found Jonze’s vision for the movie too “bold.”
5. Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi, director of the Spider-Man franchise, studied English at Michigan State University but left school before graduating to pursue filmmaking with his friends. Although Raimi is known to many horror fans as the director of the beloved Evil Dead movies, he originally had no interest in horror films. It was his filmmaking partner/roommate Robert Tapert who pointed out that at that time (the late ‘70s), the only low-budget movies that made any money were drive-in scare flicks.
Raimi and company still had severe budgetary restrictions, even for a horror movie. They started by making a half-hour prototype film called Within the Woods, which they then showed to as many potential investors (including friends, family members, local businesses and complete strangers) as they could find. They even screened the short in the soap aisle of a local grocery store. Finally they managed to scrape together about $90,000 and shot their full-length movie, The Evil Dead, on 16mm film in the woods of Tennessee.
The movie first premiered in 1981 and after positive reviews and the endorsement of Stephen King, went on to be considered a horror classic. Sam Raimi, an English major with little money and no interest in horror, became known as one of the genre’s best directors.
4. Robert Rodriguez
Unlike every other director on this list, Robert Rodriguez actually did graduate from college with a degree in film. hat didn’t come easy though: He was originally rejected from the his school’s film program for having poor grades, and only got in after one of his home-made videos won first place in a local film festival. He is on this list for two reasons, both of which are related to his debut film, El Mariachi, which won the Audience Award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.
First of all, the first cut of the 81-minute feature film was made for $7,000, which is around the same cost as many ten-minute student films. It’s amazing that Rodriguez was able to display any technical ability at all within that budget. Second, Rodriguez raised much of that $7,000 by working as a lab rat in medical research, so it’s amazing that he was even alive to make his movie.
3. George A. Romero
George A. Romero, father of the zombie, studied art and drama at Carnegie-Mellon University, but left school in 1962 without a degree. Having developed an interest in film during college, Romero bummed joblessly around Pittsburgh for a while before getting together with some of his friends to form a production company called Latent Image. For several years Latent produced advertisements and commercials (one of which can be seen HERE ).
However, the company’s founders had always seen Latent as a way of building up experience and funding for their real passion: feature films. In 1968 they, along with a few other local investors, formed another company called Image Ten, which managed to scrape together a $114,000 budget. In today’s dollars, that’s about equal to the final cost of The Blair Witch Project. Faced with such limited resources, the people of Image Ten (like the makers of The Evil Dead) decided that making a horror movie was the only chance they had to actually turn a profit. Their film was directed and co-written by Romero and released into theaters as Night of the Living Dead.
Today, Night is widely regarded as a classic and has been acquired by both the Museum of Modern Art and the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. When it was first released, however, many critics hated its graphic violence; Variety’s review, for example, said that the movie “rais[es] doubts… about the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism.” Ironically, these reviews helped make the film a hit on the “midnight movie” circuit, once again proving the appeal of unrelieved orgies of sadism. Romero, for his part, tried to branch out into other genres but found little commercial success until he returned to zombies with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. His latest film, Survival of the Dead, is due out this year.
2. Quentin Tarantino
By now the story of Quentin Tarantino’s rise to fame has reached myth-like status, and although you may have heard it before, it would be wrong to leave it off of this list. While many of these directors never received film degrees, Tarantino took things to the next level by dropping out of school in ninth grade, before finishing junior high. After that he worked briefly as an usher in a porn theater before taking his now-legendary clerking job in a Los Angeles County video rental store. There he shared his encyclopedic knowledge of film with customers, and gorged himself on the grindhouse/arthouse films that would influence his work.
Meanwhile, Tarantino was struggling desperately to break into the L.A. film industry, occasionally pretending to be a UCLA film student in order to arrange interviews with directors he idolized. He picked up a few odd jobs, such as playing an Elvis impersonator on Golden Girls and writing the script for From Dusk Till Dawn (which wasn’t produced until Tarantino had become famous). However, he didn’t gain much attention until his friend Lawrence Bender, who would go on to produce many of Tarantino’s films, managed to get a copy of the Reservoir Dogs script into the hands of actor Harvey Keitel. Keitel ended up starring in and co-producing the film and the rest is history.
1. Steven Spielberg
Yes, seriously. Steven Spielberg, possibly the most commercially successful filmmaker in the world, began his directing career with almost no academic or professional experience.
Spielberg is often considered part of the “Film School Generation,” but that’s only because he achieved success around the same time as famous grads like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas. Spielberg himself never went to film school; he was rejected from both USC and UCLA. (USC granted him an honorary degree in 1994.) Rather, he Long Beach attended California State University Long Beach, which had no film department and only a few low-level film courses. He dropped out after three years (though he returned in 2002 to complete his degree), since a short film he had made, called Amblin’, had earned him a few jobs directing for television. Those jobs led to his first feature, Duel, which paved the way for the long and prestigious repertoire he would amass over the following decades.
So how did Spielberg learn to make movies? By making them, and making them, and making them. He made his first home movies around the age of ten, and by sixteen he had made a two-hour science fiction film called Firelight that played at his local theater. In college he recruited his fraternity brothers as actors and worked as an unpaid intern at Universal Studios. Put simply, Spielberg is and always has been a film nut. Given that fact, perhaps his success (and that of the other directors on this list) isn’t so surprising after all.
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