20 Directors and How They Made It

MattFeatured, Filmmaking7 Comments

I wanted to investigate how various directors broke into film, how they “made it.” I tried to select filmmakers from a wide breadth of backgrounds, nationalities and experiences. Obviously, this won’t be a comprehensive list of everything that’s possible, but these examples cover many of the varied tracks into directing.

I think, often, we forget that the big name directors had to start somewhere…just like us. It’s not discussed nearly enough and, like filmmaking itself, famous director’s paths into filmmaking can be mysterious.

The end of a director’s career is discussed more than the beginning in most cases.

I hope this post sheds some light on haziness and gives readers a measuring stick of possibility.

Above all, this list means to stand as inspiration for what’s possible. This is how “they” did it…

Wim Wenders

He graduated from high school in Oberhausen in the Ruhr area. He then studied medicine (1963–64) and philosophy (1964–65) in Freiburg and Düsseldorf.

However, he dropped out of university studies and moved to Paris in October 1966 to become a painter.

Wenders failed his entry test at France’s national film school IDHEC (now La Fémis), and instead became an engraver in the studio of Johnny Friedlander, an American artist, in Montparnasse. During this time, Wenders became fascinated with cinema, and saw up to five movies a day at the local movie theater.

Set on making his obsession also his life’s work, Wenders returned to Germany in 1967 to work in the Düsseldorf office of United Artists. That fall, he entered the “Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film München” (University of Television and Film Munich).

Between 1967 and 1970 while at the “HFF”, Wenders also worked as a film critic for FilmKritik, then the Munich daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Twen magazine, and Der Spiegel.

Wenders completed several short films before graduating from the Hochschule with a feature-length 16mm black and white film, Summer in the City.

Ingmar Bergman

In 1937, he entered Stockholm University College (later renamed Stockholm University), to study art and literature. He spent most of his time involved in student theatre and became a “genuine movie addict”.

Bergman’s film career began in 1941 with his rewriting of scripts, but his first major accomplishment was in 1944 when he wrote the screenplay for Torment/Frenzy (Hets), a film directed by Alf Sjöberg.

Along with writing the screenplay, he was also given position as assistant director to the film.

In his second autobiographical work, Images: My Life in Film, Bergman describes the filming of the exteriors as his actual film directorial debut. The international success of this film led to Bergman’s first opportunity to direct a year later. During the next ten years, he wrote and directed more than a dozen films.

Mike Leigh

He studied theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and studied further at the Camberwell School of Art and the Central School of Art and Design. He began as a theatre director and playwright in the mid 1960s.

In the 1970s and 1980s his career moved between work for the theatre and making films for BBC Television, many of which were characterized by a gritty “kitchen sink realism” style.

In 1960, ‘to his utter astonishment’, he won a scholarship to RADA. Initially trained as an actor at RADA, Leigh went on to start honing his directing skills at East 15 Acting School where he met the actress Alison Steadman.

Leigh responded negatively to RADA’s agenda, found himself being taught how to ‘laugh, cry and snog’ for weekly rep purposes and so became a sullen student.

He later attended Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts ( in 1963), the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and the London School of Film Technique in Charlotte Street.

When he had arrived in London, one of the first films he had seen was Shadows, an ‘improvised’ film by John Cassavetes, in which a cast of unknowns was observed ‘living, loving and bickering’ on the streets of New York, and Leigh had “felt it might be possible to create complete plays from scratch with a group of actors.”

Dario Argento

He began his career in film as a critic, writing for various magazines while still attending high school.

Argento did not attend college, electing rather to take a job as a columnist at the newspaper Paese Sera. While working at the newspaper, Argento also began working as a screenwriter.

His most notable work was for Sergio Leone; he and Bernardo Bertolucci collaborated on the story for the spaghetti western classic Once Upon a Time in the West.

Soon after that film’s 1969 release, Argento began working on his directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which was released in 1970 and was a major hit in Italy.

Alfred Hitchcock

After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company called Henley’s.

It was while working at Henley’s that he first started to dabble creatively. Upon the formation of the company’s in-house publication The Henley Telegraph in 1919, Hitchcock started to submit short articles, eventually becoming one of its most prolific contributors.

During this period, Hitchcock became intrigued by photography and started working in film production in London, working as a title-card designer for the London branch of what would become Paramount Pictures.

In 1920, he received a full-time position at Islington Studios with its American owner, Famous Players-Lasky and their British successor, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies.

His rise from title designer to film director took five years.

Wong Kar-Wai

After graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic College in graphic design in 1980, he enrolled in the Production Training Course organized by Hong Kong Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) and became a full-time television screenwriter.

In the mid-1980s, he became a screenwriter/director at The Wing Scope Co. and In-gear Film Production Company, the production houses owned by renowned Hong Kong actor /movie producer Alan Tang.

Wong’s current nostalgic artsy style took shape during his apprenticeship with Alan Tang Kwong-Wing, who invested in the first movie Wong directed, As Tears Go By (1988).

Wong’s career took off when he directed the film Days of Being Wild (1990), despite losing Alan Tang millions of invested dollars.

Jean-Luc Godard

Godard attended school in Nyon, Switzerland, and at the Lycée Rohmer, and the University of Paris. During his time at the Sorbonne, he became involved with the young group of filmmakers and film theorists that gave birth to the New Wave.

After attending school in Nyon, Godard returned to Paris in 1948. It was there, in the Latin Quarter just prior to 1950, that ciné-clubs (film societies) were gaining prominence.

Godard began attending these clubs, where he soon met the man who was perhaps most responsible for the birth of the New Wave, André Bazin, as well as those who would become his contemporaries, including Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jacques Rozier, and Jacques Demy.

Godard was part of a generation for whom cinema took on a special importance.

He has said; “In the 1950s cinema was as important as bread — but it isn’t the case any more. We thought cinema would assert itself as an instrument of knowledge, a microscope … a telescope. … At the Cinémathèque I discovered a world which nobody had spoken to me about. They’d told us about Goethe, but not Dreyer. … We watched silent films in the era of talkies. We dreamed about film. We were like Christians in the catacombs.”

His approach to film began in the field of criticism. Along with Éric Rohmer and Rivette, he founded the short-lived film journal, Gazette du cinéma, which saw publication of five issues in 1950.

When Bazin co-founded the influential critical magazine Cahiers du cinéma in 1951, Godard, with Rivette and Rohmer, was among the first writers. They, along with several other writers for Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, started making brief forays into film direction.

Godard, while taking a job as a construction worker on a dam in 1953, shot a documentary about the building, Opération béton (1955).

As he continued to work for Cahiers, he made Une femme coquette (1955), a ten-minute short; All the Boys Are Named Patrick (1957) another short fiction film; and Une histoire d’eau (1958), which was created largely out of unused footage shot by Truffaut.

In 1958 Godard, with a cast that included Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anne Colette, made his last short before gaining international prominence as a filmmaker, Charlotte et son Jules, a homage to Jean Cocteau.

Werner Herzog

When he was 12, he and his family moved back to Munich. His father had abandoned the family early in his youth. Werner would later drop his mother’s surname for the German “Herzog”.

The same year, Herzog was told to sing in front of his class at school and he adamantly refused. He was almost expelled for this and until the age of 18 listened to no music, sang no songs and studied no instruments. He later said that he would easily give 10 years from his life to be able to play an instrument.

At 14, he was inspired by an encyclopedia entry about filmmaking which he says provided him with “everything I needed to get myself started” as a film-maker—that, and the 35 mm camera that the young Herzog stole from the Munich Film School.

In the commentary for Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he states, “I don’t consider it theft—it was just a necessity—I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with.”

He studied at the University of Munich despite earning a scholarship to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While in his teens he travelled to various exotic places.

In the early 1960s, Herzog worked nightshifts as a welder in a steel factory to help fund his first films. He has spoken of how, even before leaving school, he lived for a few months, buying a house, in what was likely the Moss Side area of Manchester, relating how it was there that he learned to speak English.” In 1966 he worked shortly in television under the auspices of NASA.

François Truffaut

It was the cinema that offered him the greatest escape from an unsatisfying home life. He was eight years old when he saw his first movie, Abel Gance’s Paradis Perdu from 1939. It was there that his obsession began.

He frequently played truant from school and would sneak into theaters because he didn’t have enough money for admission. After being expelled from several schools, at the age of fourteen he decided to become self-taught.

Some of his academic “goals” were to watch three movies a day and read three books a week.

Truffaut frequented Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française where he was exposed to countless foreign films from around the world. It was here that he became familiar with American cinema and directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray as well as those of British director Alfred Hitchcock.

After starting his own film club in 1948, Truffaut met André Bazin, who would have great effect on his professional and personal life. Bazin was a critic and the head of another film society at the time. He became a personal friend of Truffaut’s and helped him out of various financial and criminal situations during his formative years.

Truffaut joined the French Army in 1950, aged 18, but spent the next two years trying to escape. Truffaut was arrested for attempting to desert the army.

Bazin used his various political contacts to get Truffaut released and set him up with a job at his newly formed film magazine Cahiers du cinéma.

Over the next few years, Truffaut became a critic (and later editor) at Cahiers, where he became notorious for his brutal, unforgiving reviews. He was called “The Gravedigger of French Cinema” and was the only French critic not invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. He supported Andre Bazin in the development of one of the most influential theories of cinema itself, the auteur theory.

After having been a critic, Truffaut decided to make films of his own. He started out with the short film Une Visite in 1955 and followed that up with Les Mistons in 1957.

After seeing Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil at the Expo 58, he was inspired to make his feature film debut Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows).

John Cassavetes

After graduating in 1950, he continued acting in the theater, took small parts in films and began working on television in anthology series such as Alcoa Theatre.

By 1956, Cassavetes had begun teaching method acting in his own workshop in New York City.

An improvisation exercise in his workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, Shadows (1959; first version 1957).

Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to Jean Shepherd’s late-night radio talk show Night People. His stated purpose was to make a film about little people, different from Hollywood studio productions.

Cassavetes was unable to gain American distribution of Shadows, but it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import. Although the box office of Shadows in the United States was slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios.

Continue to Part II!

All information courtesy of Wikipedia.

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7 Comments on “20 Directors and How They Made It”

  1. Pingback: 20 Directors and How They Made It Part II – Filmmaking Lifestyle

  2. This piece of writing is truly a fastidious one it helps new filmmakers, who are wishing to get into the industry.

    1. Indeed, John M. If a piece like this can help people decide whether they want to get into the film industry, then I’ve done my job well.

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