B-Movies Extended: Ten Great Directorial Debuts

The RZA impressed them so much with The Man with the Iron Fists that Bibbs and Witney are picking out their favorite first movies.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (our motto: “Take Those Pez Bricks Out of Your Nose!”), William “Platinum Shark” Bibbiani and I, now known as “Iron Yeti,” reviewed The RZA’s directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists, a delightfully bizarro, action-packed kung-fu pastiche which proved to be, even through its shoddiness, a surprisingly crafted debut feature. Whoda thunkit? The RZA, known to date for his work with The Wu-Tang Clan, amongst other music projects, is actually a halfway capable director? The phrase “directed by RZA” had me a little cautious entering the theater. I was lucky that the film proved to be so awesome (a word which has now been printed on the internet a nice round one billion times). No other words really fit a film that has sexy killer prostitutes, a superpowered man with a brass body, a man with a switchblade suit of armor, and Russell Crowe extracting anal beads from a gleefully willing bathtub-bound charge with his teeth.

I’m not going to claim that The RZA is a bold new upcoming voice in the world of cinema or a daring enfent terrible of a new generation of filmmakers, but The Man with the Iron Fists was one doozy of a debut. If he does choose to make more films (and he’s already been attached to a Genghis Khan movie), I look forward to what he has to say. He’ll never be Werner Herzog, but he could be an important footnote to Quentin Tarantino at the very least.

It’s always nice to see a strong debut. In past generations, filmmakers would have to build up a reputation, proving they can handle heavy studio product by directing a string of studio-dictated genre films and money-making commercials. Even Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films were only somewhat notable genre films and silent B films. Steven Spielberg is known as the giant behind Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List. Few think of him, first and foremost, as the director of Duel or The Sugarland Express.

But there are constantly new important filmmaking voices entering the scene; the filmmakers who charge out of the gate with a new, strong, refreshing movie, and stay at a constant level of creative greatness, eventually proving to be a unique auteur. Citizen Kane, to get it out of the way, was famously a debut effort that constantly proves one of the better films ever made. The RZA did not make a necessarily important or groundbreaking piece of art like Citizen Kane (and what a surprise if he did!), but he did make a strong debut, and proved that he may be capable of having a voice.

Others did so as well. Let’s take a look back through some notable debut features that proves to unleash proper auteurs into the world.

May (dir. Lucky McKee, 2002)

Lucky McKee has only made a few scant features in his career, but they have all been rather good, or at least unique and notable. His 2011 film The Woman proved to be one of the best films of that year. And even though he isn’t yet known for his ubiquity or volume of output, he is still often discussed in recent discussions of important new directors, or is, at the very least, considered a “modern master of horror,” as proven by his participation in the cable TV series “Masters of Horror.” McKee is largely known at all because of the greatness of his debut feature film May, released in 2002 to modest success and frothing critical acclaim. May is about a weird young woman (Angela Bettis), of completely stilted social capacities and amorphous sexuality, who becomes increasingly disturbed and unsettled by the social mores of ordinary people, and the casual lies and betrayals therein. Eventually she will commit a few horrible acts of violence that actually seem understandable and logical to the audience. It’s a disturbing horror film, a dark drama, a fascinating character study, and a plaintive plea in favor of the weirdo outsider. And it is clearly McKee’s brainchild.

Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977)

Speaking of mutant brainchildren. These days, David Lynch has more or less retired from filmmaking, but for many years, he was a byword for the bonkers auteur run amok in his own imagination. While he was active, many audiences used the word “Lynchian” not only as a shorthand to describe a film that depicted square, blue-collar suburbia as a mask resting gently on a nightmarish soup of hatred and violence, but often just to describe anything that was weird or surreal. It should not come as a surprise, then, that Lynch’s debut was a bold, dark, and nightmarish odyssey in itself. Described by Lynch himself as “a dream of dark and troubling things,” his 1977 debut Eraserhead (easily one of my favorite movies) is a dream sequence within a dream sequence involving a fright-haired man (Jack Nance) who must deal with stifling urban blight, an hysterical girlfriend, and a mewling newborn child that looks more like a calf fetus than a human being. The images of Eraserhead are indelible to anyone who has seen them, and it proves to be just as in-keeping with Lynch’s sensibilities as any of his following films (well, Dune perhaps notwithstanding). Eraserhead played the midnight circuit for many years.

Ratcatcher (dir. Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

We Need to Talk About Kevin was declared the best film of 2011 by William Bibbiani, and that film’s director, Lynne Ramsay, is a talent to be reckoned with. Like Lucky McKee, Ramsay has only directed a few feature films to date (Kevin was only her third), but each one is hugely striking and aesthetically bold in a way that few films are. Her debut feature Ratcatcher is one of the best films of 1999, and shows her penchant for magical realism and grimy kitchen sink drama. With this one film, she proved to be a dreamy counterpoint to the dour realism of Mike Leigh. Ratcatcher take place in Glasgow during a famed garbage strike in the 1970s, and follows the day-to-day lives of the children who are forced to live amongst the ever-accumulating filth. But rather than being a dark examination of garbage and entropy (a la Harmony Korine), Ratcatcher is a surprisingly tender and sensitive look at the world from a child’s perspective. When you see a young boy freely playing in a field by himself, you will weep.

A Single Man (dir. Tom Ford, 2009)

Tom Ford is well-known in the world of high fashion, and, thanks to his single directorial effort to date, is also well-known to the film community. While his 2009 film A Single Man is impeccably designed, and the male leads are sharply dressed in period-accurate 1960s American suits, Ford stretched beyond mere aesthetics to bring us a heartbreaking tale – based on the book by Christopher Isherwood – of a gay man (the amazing Colin Firth) who loses his longtime lover, and is driven into a suicidal despair at his loneliness and his outsider status as a homosexual in early 1960s America. His only balm in such a period is the attentions of an impossibly attractive twentysomething impresario (Nicholas Hoult), and the drunken ravings of his loving (and drunk) neighborhood confidant (Julianne Moore). Touching, wrenching, heartbreaking, and awesome to look at, I hope it proves to be the debut feature of a long filmmaking career. Ford may never direct again. At least he gave us one great movie.

Henry V (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1989)

The Thor director was once known, at least to people my age, as the modern master of Shakespeare on film. Fond of bombastic theatrical melodrama, Kenneth Branagh got his start in the theater, playing many Shakespearean roles, and directing many Shakespeare productions. When he moved to film, it would only make sense that he adapt a Shakespeare play. In 1989, the indie film world was shaken up by Henry V, one of the first films to make Shakespeare in such a causal idiom. It’s a film that feels epic, yet grounded. It was filmed outdoors in the actual muddy battlefields where the original King Henry V fought, but is ratcheted by the Bard’s ebullient language. Branagh would go on to make several other Shakespeare adaptations, including 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing (which might be the best production possible of that play, although the guy who made The Avengers is working on one as well), and 1996’s Hamlet, which is the only film version to include the entire text of Shakespeare’s complex magnum opus.

From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

Witney liked The Man with the Iron Fists a hell of a lot more than I did. I suspect, as I mentioned on this week’s podcast, that I’ve seen a few more of the films that The RZA took his inspiration from than Witney has. That’s not a problem, per se. I’m glad he enjoyed the movie. It’s fun. I just happened to have seen it all before, in more coherent and sometimes even more gleefully manic packages. The Man with the Iron Fists is fun. Last Hurrah for Chivalry is sublime.

But he’s right when he says that, as a directorial debut, it’s an impressive film. The RZA put his money where his mouth is, and he has a lot of money and a pretty big mouth. He didn’t make an actor’s showcase or a flouncy comedy. He made a mother of a blow out, full of crazy ideas, memorable characters, challenging action sequences and overlapping storylines. That he didn’t 100% succeed is irrelevant. He succeeded enough that I respect him for trying, and look forward to whatever film he makes next, even if The Man with the Iron Fists’ relatively unimpressive opening weekend means he won’t be able to do whatever the hell he wants next. He may still do Genghis Khan, he may still get to do that diamond heist movie, but I suspect a $7 million opening weekend won’t write him any blank checks in an industry dictated by box office receipts.

The world of cinema is filled with impressive directorial debuts. Many of the best directors in the world rose to prominence because their first movie raised eyebrows. First impressions may not be everything, but they amount to a lot. Would we have had the French New Wave if François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard hadn’t started with The 400 Blows and Breathless? Not the way we know it, we wouldn’t have. Many of the great directors experimented with short films before their proper theatrical debuts, but when the time came to make a feature-length picture, they knew that they had to hit a home run their first time at bat. If they succeeded, or at least made some money making something wholly their own, they got the chance to do more as an artiste, not just a work-for-hire filmmaker. And so we have David Lynch, Lynne Ramsay and Kenneth Branagh, to cite some of Witney’s examples.

I’m going to provide a few of my own favorites (again, besides Orson Welles; I think I’ve harped on about Citizen Kane enough for one career), but this is scratching the surface. What are your favorite directorial debuts? I’d love to read about them in the comments below.

The Evil Dead (dir. Sam Raimi, 1981)

Sam Raimi’s first movie, like many young independent directors, was a horror movie. They’re inexpensive and easy to sell, even if they suck. He could have coasted on genre familiarity and gore, but that would have been too easy. Oh, no. Sam Raimi – who went on to direct those Spider-Man movies the world loves so much – struck out with a handful of money, a Bruce Campbell and a dream to make The Evil Dead, an incredibly ambitious motion picture for a filmmaker with no experience making features.

The story has since become cliché: a pod of teenagers go to an isolated cabin, where they are besieged by supernatural creatures. On paper, the only thing the outsider observer might find unusual about The Evil Dead is that the “survivor girl” is actually a survivor guy, played by a young, handsome and talented physical performer called Bruce. On screen, it’s impossible to watch The Evil Dead without recognizing that it’s the debut of a major talent. Sam Raimi invented new camera techniques on a shoestring budget, using them to elevate his tiny story with an air of genuine madness that gradually infects his cast, and the exact nature of the horror manifests in alarmingly inventive ways. The Evil Dead has a rape tree. That’s completely messed up and original. Raimi eventually perfected many of his raw techniques in the increasingly slapstick Evil Dead 2, but that film simply fulfilled the original’s promise. That Raimi was a force to reckoned with, and right out of the gate.

Blood Simple. (dir. Joel Coen, 1984)

The Coen Bros. were the thinking person’s filmmakers long before they became fashionable. Before Fargo they were perceived as unique and quirky auteurs, but after Fargo critics began to reexamine their earlier output and recognized their genius, in hindsight at least, right from the beginning. Blood Simple. is anything but, and the fact that the title ends in a period, implying otherwise, is just the first indication that all is not as it appears. The film starts out as a fairly straightforward, albeit strange and confidently paced film noir. Dan Hedaya’s wife, Frances McDormand, wants to leave him for one of his employees, John Getz. So Hedaya hires a shady private investigator, M. Emmet Walsh, to kill them. Walsh decides to fake their deaths photographically and then kill Hedaya after the money has been received, but Getz discovers the body and thinks that McDormand did it, hiding the body to protect her. When she clais she knows nothing about it, Getz thinks he’s being set up. When Getz starts acting strange, McDormand thinks he’s the murderer. When Hedaya’s alibi for the original, faked murder comes up in conversation, everyone begins to suspect he’s not really dead at all.

Only the audience knows what’s really going on; everyone else is operating on hearsay, leading to a complex but remarkably easy to follow storyline that changes every time you watch it and associate with a different character. The Coens got more ambitious cinematically, but rarely achieved such incredible, easy to consume complexity ever again. Blood Simple. is still my favorite Coen Bros. joint, which is of course saying quite a lot.

Better Off Dead… (dir. Savage Steve Holland, 1985)

Most teen comedies suck, don’t they? Maybe that’s because teenagers suck. They’re wrapped up in themselves, obsessed with nookie and bullies and little else. So most high school movies, even the really good ones, tend to feel a lot alike. Not so with Better Off Dead… a surreal exploration of the subjective high school experience from the mind of Savage Steve Holland, a unique comedy talent who, even at his best, was a little hit or miss, but had a tendency to hit so hard you bust your gut laughing or at least blew a synapse admiring his unique brand of madness.

His first feature stars John Cusack as a seemingly normal high school wallflower, unremarkable but decent, whose girlfriend leaves him for the most popular kid in school at the start of the film. Like many teenagers, Cusack thinks it’s the end of the world, and attempts to kill himself repeatedly, always failing in hilarious ways. Contemporary movies wouldn’t try to play that kind of dark downward spiral for laughs, but Holland makes it work because he’s satirizing the ways that teens think that life begins and ends in high school. Every other aspect of the film is equally extreme. Mom’s cooking isn’t just bad, it’s actually an alien organism that has to be destroyed. The old cliché of teens hating homework is viciously subverted when an entire class cheers at being given a semester’s worth of reading in a single night. Sometimes the concepts are funnier than the jokes themselves, but it’s never for lack of trying. Better Off Dead… is one of the most ambitious teen comedies ever filmed, and is beloved for the attempt.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (dir. Steven Zaillian, 1993)

Steven Zaillian won an Academy Award in 1993, but it was for writing Schindler’s List, not for directing Searching for Bobby Fischer, which is, and I think I’ve only publicly declared this once before, my very favorite movie. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that any true film lover has at least dozens of “#1 Favorite” movies, but if pressed, this would be it. Because it’s about as perfect as movies ever get. It’s about chess, incidentally.

Max Pomeranc stars as the real-life childhood chess wunderkind Josh Waitzkin. Joe Mantegna plays his father, who becomes so obsessed with his supporting son’s talent that he forgets to give him a proper childhood. He hires chess master Ben Kingsley to teach Josh how to win, ignoring the fact that Josh doesn’t actually care about chess as a contest. And as potentially dark and emotional as that storyline is, Zaillian pumps every frame with joy. The joy of filmmaking, yes, but also the joy of being a child, and that rare joy of truly loving something you’re good at. Inspirational and shot beautifully by director of photography Conrad Hall (Oscar-nominated for this, but he lost to Schindler’s List), the film ends with a chess match filmed so incredibly that I think it rivals any of the best “proper” sports movies ever made. It’s flawless, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and if you haven’t seen I invite you pick up a copy and discover something that feels effortless, rarely calling attention to itself, but was in fact the work of many gifted talents working at the top of their game.

Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998)

Gary Ross is perhaps destined to be known best for directing the blockbuster The Hunger Games, but his directorial debut was so much more ambitious. Ross, then best known for writing delightful modern fantasies like Big and Dave, chose for his first turn behind the camera an original screenplay of his own entitled Pleasantville, the premise for which sounds like an excuse for cheap comedy laughs but evolves into something much more meaningful, although it does get extremely blunt about it.

Tobey Maguire doesn’t fit in at school, and longs for the simple life espoused by a popular 1950’s sitcom called “Pleasantville.” He gets what he asked for, and then some, when he and his popular sister Reese Witherspoon are transported to the fictional town where everything is a little too perfect and color does not exist. As Witherspoon begins to affect the townsfolk with her modern ideas – she’s the first person in this world to ever have sex – the town and its culture begin to transform. Ross visualizes this transition by making isolated elements of the town turn to color, an effect that gradually begins to sweep the town along with new ideas. At first it seems like a tragedy, the Garden of Eden being sullied by too much knowledge, but the injection of contemporary values begins to illustrate just how far we’ve really come as a culture. The idyll of the 1950s “Pleasantville” masked ignorance, sexism and censorship, and the sudden existence of “sin” saves the townsfolks' souls at the cost of their safety. My god, it’s heavyhanded, but it works anyway, and the visual effects – which could be done quite easily today – made the production a serious challenge that a novice director like Ross could have easily screwed up. He nailed it.

You can follow Bibbs on Twitter @WilliamBibbiani