I love looking at filmmakers’ early work. Sure, it might be juvenile or lacking the grace of experience, but it’s also the artistic eye before fame, celebrity personas or narrowly honed visions. It’s the work they made before output was partially (if not totally) influenced by investors, studios and critics. First films can be like cinematic diaries of the directors’ vision – like David Lynch’s iconic Eraserhead, which is now on Criterion Blu-ray with almost all of his short films – or whiffs of artistry before the mainstream.
Some, sadly, are still out of reach to the Internet masses, though they’d be fascinating first glimpses at cinematic themes and techniques. Long before 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen debuted with a revealing video installation, Bear, which only makes the rounds at live events. Kathryn Bigelow “plays down” her first film from 1978, The Set-Up, where Gary Busey and another guy fight each other as semioticians deconstruct the images – a film that certainly speaks to her future work, but hasn’t been released for modern audiences. And though someone who thinks they’re clever put up a slave scene on YouTube, insisting it was Spike Lee’s first film, his debut – the Super 8 film Last Hustle in Brooklyn – is actually about “Black people and Puerto Rican people looting and dancing.”
Those three might remain out of reach, but here eight filmmakers’ early visions that speak to humor, darkness, unexpected twists, and for one – an artistry before an obsession with Star Wars.
Lynne Ramsay started at the top, when her stunning debut grad short Small Deaths hit Cannes and won the Cannes Prix de Jury. But watching it now is bittersweet – a gorgeous short that teased what was to come, and what would be repeatedly complicated.
She won three leading Jury awards for the shorts that led to her feature debut, Ratcatcher, in 1999. Between that and her sophomore film Morvern Callar, Ramsay was poised to be a leading name in British cinema. It earned her the opportunity to helm The Lovely Bones, but after adapting, she had to leave because producers wants a more faithful adaptation (which ultimately became a faithful and rousing failure from Peter Jackson). After a long hiatus, she soared with We Need to Talk About Kevin, only to have to leave an even more plagued feature, Jane Got a Gun, which has left her future in the business unknown.
The man behind the uber machismo of Fight Club, who strived to make Lisbeth Salander a sexy heartbreaker and journeyed through many forms of murder, got his start with Rick Springfield and the concert documentary The Beat of the Live Drum. It’s not a classic of the genre, but for a first feature, the director did what he could to make a feathered-haired soap opera star strutting back and forth on stage and music video clips seem more dynamic. (Although an ET-inspired moment is super tacky.)
Of course, a Springfield doc wasn’t the only thing that helped make Fincher’s career – he directed a bunch of music videos and ads through the ’80s, before jumping into big-budget intrigue in 1992 with Alien 3.
I’m not sure what George Lucas would have done with his time if Star Wars never existed, but I like to imagine. He hasn’t directed a different world since American Graffiti forty (!!!) years ago. If we think about how Eraserhead evolved in David Lynch’s brain, it’s fun to imagine an alternate trajectory for Lucas, based on his early work.
His first film was the 1965 short film Look at Life, which you can see part of here. He was at film school and testing the camera, recording a number of still images that were a lot more provocative and a lot less sci-fi fantastical. His eye gets more interesting a year later with his second, Herbie. Set to Herbie Hancock’s music, Lucas and Paul Golding play with a dark landscape and zoomed shots of reflected lights that distort into beautifully surreal landscapes gelling with the music.
Sadly, Sofia Coppola’s first short, Bed, Bath, and Beyond is nowhere to be seen. But her follow-up, Lick the Star, is, and it’s a film that fits perfectly in her exploration of girlhood, isolation and environment, while also immediately boasting her celeb access as a member of one of Hollywood’s leading families: Peter Bogdanovich plays the school principal.
The film follows a group of girls who, in only 12 minutes, completely embody the teen angst of the time. They become wildly invested in Flowers in the Attic, make earnest pacts with each other, and when one ignorantly babbles about something she doesn’t understand, they turn on her with speed and precision. Coppola would go on to use some of this film’s shots and themes in her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, but sadly never return to such a universal exploration of girlhood.
Before he was the man who made Batman into a serious dramatic figure, Christopher Nolan’s work wasn’t so typical, all the way down to his first film, a 3-minute short called Doodlebug. As Scott said a few years ago, his early potential shines in the short, where a man chases a pest in his apartment with his shoe, only to discover that he’s part of a larger, and smaller, whole.
Even how Nolan plays with his title card is inspired, the shifting eyes of the “doodlebug” o’s being a hint of what’s to come. Of course, it’s also a bit bittersweet – Nolan might be one of the few filmmakers who can bring his unique vision to life, but it’s also tempting to imagine what creativity would continue to surface under restraint.
The only thing Jessica Yu hasn’t done is helmed a hit mainstream movie. She’s won an Oscar for her short film about Mark O’Brien (long before The Sessions), managed to mix skillfully mix Euripedes and masculinity in Protagonist (and helm a diverse mix of documentary films), directed episodes of hit television shows like The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy and even whipped up a sweet story about ping pong.
Her first film, Sour Death Balls, is beautiful for its humor and human simplicity. Perez Prado’s lively “Ciliegi Rosa” scores a group of diverse children and adults tasked with keeping a sour ball in their mouths for as long as possible. It works because it doesn’t try to do anything more than watch, and it’s arguably the only film that gets close to invoking an actual sense of taste as each person’s look of torment slowly activates the tongue into empathic sympathy.
Lynne Ramsay wasn’t the only woman to immediately explode at Cannes. 1982 marked Jane Campion’s first short, Peel, An Exercise in Discipline, which won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film four years later at the festival, making Campion the first woman to ever win the award.
Like others on this list, her short is a peek at her future artistry, as a father stops his car and disciplines his young son for throwing orange peels out the window. The short mixes humor and horror as Campion juxtaposes young belligerence with scenes of adult aggression. It’s a film with a basic storyline that engages at its most superficial, with layers that can be peeled for further study.