So i recently banged out the first-ish draft of a feature screenplay. Not my first, but the first since i became a director with what’s considered a successful short film. Taking a look at the screenplay it’s a drama involving a revolving door of characters all going through one issue or the other in life. I started to think to myself “Do i want this to be my first feature debut.” That sprung another thought, which germinated a question “How important is your feature debut”? How much significance does it hold to how the rest of your career goes?
As a huge movie fan and now a director , i am curious and totally amazed at incredible feature debuts. Feature debuts that just amaze , and look like the director has been at it for years. The most recent being The Adjustment Bureau. I totally enjoyed the film and looked up the director on the way home. That was his directorial debut, as he had worked as a screenwriter till that point on The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s 13, two films that starred his leading man Matt Damon. If you’ve see the movie you’d know was totally amazing and a wonderful achievement for a first feature.
Going back a few years other directors have had amazing feature debuts. Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs a film many say is still his best film. He too had been a screenwriter up to that point , with screenplays for True Romance directed by Tony Scott , “From Dusk Till Dawn” directed by his pal Robert Rodriguez and Natural Born Killers directed by Oliver Stone. Tarantino has gone on to be one of the most well known directors of his generation .
Kevin Smith was another director that made his stamp on the industry with his low budget indie flick about working stiffs. Clerks set in motion his career and developed cult status, and from there he set a style and tone to the type of movies that he became known for, fast paced witty and more than often potty mouthed dialogue with riffs on pop culture. He gathered a following that have been with him most of his career, the same for Tarantino.
British film maker and former Mr Madonna Guy Ritchie exploded unto the scene with the incredible Lock Stock &Two Smoking Barrels, a fast paced,multi story rapid fire movie. written and directed by Ritche and produced by Matthew Vaughn Ritchie got a following and went on to make Snatch and several other films. But that debut remains in the memory of movie fans and it pretty much set him up as a director to look out for. His producer Matthew Vaughn went on to make his own directorial debut a few years later with the amazing Layer Cake starring pre bond Daniel Craig. That set him up as a director in his own rite and he went on to make Star Dust, Kick Ass and X-men:First class.
While still on the Brit scene, we have Edgar Wright. A TV director who had cut his teeth making short films as a teenager and the incredible tv sitcom “Spaced”, starring Simon Pegg , who he would go on to co-write with and direct in his feature debut “Shaun of the Dead”. A loving homage of George Romero zombie movies, which received critical acclaim and commercial praise. Attracting the attention and receiving praise from Romero himself , Quentin Tarantino praised it and veteran actor Jim Broadbent requested to be cast in whatever they were shooting next, that next was the amazing Hot Fuzz another homage ,but this time to the Cop movie genre. Wright went on to direct Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and recently co-wrote the screenplay for the TinTin movie produced by Spielberg and Peter Jackson.
Now all those previously mentioned are all writer/directors. Sam Mendez is not one of them,Till his debut he was a director in the theater .He stunned us with the amazing directorial debut American Beauty, which went on to win 3 Oscars , Mendez took home Best Director, and if you see the film you will understand why. That debut set the tone for the kind of projects he took on. Usually exploring the dark side of Sub Urban America with films like “Road to Perdition”,”Jarhead” and “Revolutionary Road”
Another director who many hold in disdain, but is a constant hit maker is Michael Bay. He had previously worked on various commercials and won many awards for them, and then he was discovered by Jerry Bruckhiemer and Don Simpson who hired him to direct Bad Boys , a cop movie vehicle for rising star Will Smith. Made for $19m and grossed $141m . It skyrocketed Will Smith who had only been a TV star and Bay to be one of the blockbuster directors of the decade. His next film The Rock(1996) is considered to be on of the best action movies of the 90’s. Since then he has been called on by Spielberg to direct the Transformers movies, and his films are consistently profitable. Hate him as you want but he’s worked with some of the finest actors around from Billy Bob Thorton, Ed Harris, Will Smith ,Sean Connery and many others . Bad Boys and it’s success set the tone for the kind of films we would become known for. High octane , adrenalin fueled simple plots.
Now several screenwriters have come from behind their Final Draft page to Behind the camera. Shane Black , once one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, and considered a pioneer of the action gene, while still in his 20’s. The mind behind of the Lethal Weapon movies, A Long Kiss Goodnight and The Last Boyscout, came out with his directorial debut with the modern noir “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” starring Robert Downey Jnr with his comeback and Val Kilmer. In my opinion not enough people know about that great outing. The man clearly showed his ability to tell an entertaining story as a director too. Chris McQuarrie, writer of Oscar Winning The Usual Suspects , made a modern western The Way of the Gun. It didn’t do too well, but i for one found it very entertaining and a fresh film.
These cited first films were amazing, and did two things for their directors. First they created an immediate following for all of these directors and secondly they pretty much guaranteed a green light for their next project. Partnerships formed between the studio and the directors, some like Tarantino,Smith and Nolan calling the shots and retaining full creative control of their projects, all because they did so well with their debuts and follow up movies. In an industry where great scripts are often watered down in an attempt to commercialize it, where great directors churn out mediocre films due to a flood of production notes , creative control is a very important and desired power for director to have.
Bringing it home
A few of the Nu Generation Naija Born Film makers of both home and abroad have come out with their feature debuts,like Chineze Anyaene with her debut Ije:The Journey,Thomas Ikimi with Legacy which starred Idris Elba(The Wire) ,Lonzo Nzekwe with Anchor Baby and a few others.Things seem to be off to a good start,these films showing promise a new breed of Naija film makers to the world. With the new crop of upcoming directors(home based), who have shown their skill with amazing short films , i look forward to seeing some of the feature debuts that this new generation of Naija film makers are going to come up and stun us with, going on to build amazing and lengthy careers.
Now i’ve mentioned a lot of stunning features that launched careers,and it sounds like a lot of pressure and maybe even a little intimidating. Although a mind blowing feature debut would be nice, some directors have succeeded without one.making it on their second, third or forth film. An example is Robert Zemeckis who had a few commercial flops before making Romancing the Stone and then blowing up to full recognition with the Amazing Back to the Future. M.Night Shamalyan had a movie that is not really known before he made us see dead people with “The Sixth Sense. Chris Nolan had made “The Following” still unknown to many, before stunning the world with the mind blitzing “Momento”. So fret not people, it ain’t over till you stay down cheek kissing the canvass and no shouts for Addrieeeene.
As for me? Well, as subsequent drafts are written and other scripts that are a work in progress develop, i’ll have to decide, what first i want to show to the world.