13 Directors Who Are Proof of Hollywood’s Longstanding Need for Immigration


The year’s most controversial subject may be immigration — and in Hollywood, the effects of an exclusionary immigration policy could have long-term ramifications. After decades of Hollywood studios collaborating with worldwide talent from the independent and major film scenes, the President of the United States is effectively slamming the door on the American dream for many filmmakers.

As Meryl Streep poignantly asked during her Golden Globes acceptance speech, “who are we, and what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places.” She went on to judiciously point out that many of our industry’s biggest talents—including many of those nominated and awarded that evening—had come from abroad.

The broader entertainment industry’s reaction to President Trump’s executive order barring visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries has been swift, with multiple actors, directors and industry organizations such as the WGA, AFI, and more publicly denouncing the order.

Perhaps the most explicit example of the order’s effects is an Oscar nominee boycotting the ceremonies because their home country is on the list of those affected—as is the case with Asghar Farhadi, the director of Iran’s Best Foreign Language Film nominee, The Salesman.

Lest we forget that Hollywood has been indebted to talent from abroad for decades now, cinemathread looks at 13 notable directors who were born overseas and have left an indelible mark on filmmaking’s landscape.


Charlie Chaplin is the ultimate immigrant story: Forced to toil in London’s decrepit workhouses at the age of nine, breaking into comedy with his family (and doing so in order to survive), being brought to America at the dawn of the motion picture era while still only a teenager, and becoming one of the most famous people of the 20th century.

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, he was exiled overseas and into obscurity, although an early 1970s reassessment and Honorary Academy Award once again pushed him to the top of many all-time greatest directors polls, where he remains to this day.

Ang Lee
Ang Lee


Born to Chinese parents living in Thailand, Ang Lee was an American immigrant by his 20s. Even now, as he told The Guardian in January, he feels “like an outsider looking in.” Referring to the soldiers in his latest film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the half-time show, Lee says “That’s just an exaggerated version of how I feel every day.” The two-time Oscar winner (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) has arguably become the country’s most respected Asian-born artist, and though his most recent studio film received mixed reviews, it probably won’t slow him down for long.


Pulled out of his rehearsals for a European stage play for a meeting with Hollywood producers, Otto Preminger life changed overnight when he accepted a two-year deal with 20th Century Fox. After a disastrous attempt to film the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Kidnapped, Preminger seemed likely to be deported and spent his time teaching drama at Yale. Then came an offer to make Laura, which he ended up writing, producing and directing his way to an Oscar nomination. From there, his career took off — he ended up being the brains behind such classics as Exodus, Anatomy of A Murder and the 1977 version of The Hobbit before his death in 1986.

Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang


The director of the groundbreaking, prophetic Metropolis paved the way for both artistic takedowns of the Nazis and Fritz Lang’s own escape to the U.S. But it was his 1933 feature The Testament of Dr. Mabuse that sealed his fate — after Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels banned the film, he offered Lang a job as the head of the country’s motion picture industry, which would have turned Lang into a collaborator with the regime.

He left his wife, decamped briefly for France and soon arrived in Los Angeles virtually penniless, but ready to make classics like Fury and The Big Heat. Over the course of a 20-year Hollywood career, his reputation as the visionary filmmaker behind M grew exponentially with time.


Forgotten today but widely respected and much awarded during his heyday, William Wyler started out at the bottom in Germany, then ended up homeless in Paris as a young man before being rescued by that old Hollywood standby: a cousin who knew a guy who knew a guy. He was invited to America, which he thought was “as far away as the moon,” but accepted and, in 1923, arrived in Hollywood.

His career was almost a catastrophe — as a second assistant director, he had no talent for the grunt work of filmmaking and was fired repeatedly. Then he met with Samuel Goldwyn of MGM and began to move into directing, which he quickly showed an eye-opening amount of talent for. Between 1936 and 1946, he was nominated for the Best Director Oscar six times, winning twice, and became the most nominated person in that category of all time. His career, which included The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, Funny Girl and Wuthering Heights, he taught both Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier how to act for the camera and, shortly before his death in 1981, sat for a career-spanning interview with PBS.

Mira Nair
Mira Nair


Born in India in the 1950s, Nair attended Harvard on a full scholarship (after turning down the same at Cambridge), made waves with her student films and decided to stick around the U.S. to make widely praised Indian-themed films like Salaam Bombay! (an Oscar nominee) and the indelible Monsoon Wedding, her birth country’s most successful movie ever. After garnering even more fame for a movie she did not make, (Nair turned down Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to do The Namesake), she’s still steadily working in Hollywood — including directing 2016’s Queen of Katwe — and living in New York.


Lubitsch was plucked from total obscurity in 1922 to emigrate from Berlin to L.A. to direct superstar actress Mary Pickford. In the mid-1930s, he became the first (and so far only) director to head Paramount — or any major studio. Only a year later, the experiment having failed, Lubitsch was ousted and went to MGM, where he directed the famed Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. His career rolled right on through WWII, during which time he made The Shop Around the Corner, To Be Or Not To Be and Heaven Can Wait. His busy life was tragically cut short in 1948, but not before he received an Honorary Oscar in 1946 for his contributions to the form.

Alejandro González Iñárritu


Alejandro G. Iñárritu is based out of wherever he’s filming — New York for Birdman, British Columbia for The Revenant —  but he has lived in Los Angeles since he emigrated from Mexico 15 years ago. Since then, he’s made Babel, his most recent film to feature his place of birth, and won two directing Oscars in a row. This lead to one of the most memorable public comments (a joke) about immigration.


The four-time Oscar winner’s life is full of tragic heartbreak. A Jew from what is now southeastern Poland, Zinnemann received a law degree but abandoned the practice for filmmaking while living in Paris. He then emigrated to the United States before World War II and the Holocaust, which claimed both of his parents.

Trapped in a studio contract, he was relegated to B-movies throughout the 1940’s but turned it all around during the McCarthy era with the unforgettable High Noon. Having already won Oscars for directing a short narrative and a short documentary, respectively, Zinnemann expanded his collection with wins for From Here to Eternity in 1953 and A Man For All Seasons in 1966. Altogether, his films gathered 66 nominations, winning two dozen times.


Billy Wilder went from a Jewish Austro-Hungarian childhood to Hollywood glory as the most celebrated writer-director in comedy. Along the way, he earned the second-most Oscar nominations for screenwriting and the second-most for directing of anyone in film history and launched  Marilyn Monroe, Shirley McLaine, and many actors into the stratosphere. He also brought alcoholism and stark realism to the screen in some of their first permutations with his Best Picture-winning The Lost Weekend. Wilder capped a career that began with writing  Ninotchka and then directing Sunset Boulevard, which was widely considered one of the best movies ever made, and The Apartment, one of the few romantic comedies to take home the big prize.

Any Lily Amirpour
Any Lily Amirpour


Born in the U.K., Ana Lily Amirpour moved to Miami, Florida at a young age. She’s now based in Los Angeles, and is making major waves in the indie scene. Her feature-length debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was billed as the world’s first Iranian vampire western and if that wasn’t intriguing enough, Amirpour’s latest film, The Bad Batch—starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna and Keanu Reeves, amongst others—was considered one of the most highly anticipated follow-ups of this year’s festival circuit. The cannibal love story competed for the Golden Lion at Venice and has since been acquired for distribution by Netflix.


Marc Forster is one of many German directors to go on to fame after arriving in the U.S., but he’s one of the few to do so after World War II. In 2000, he made the low-budget feature Everything Put Together, which lead to a gig writing the screenplay (later Oscar-nominated) and directing Monster’s Ball. From there, he’s been steadily working in Hollywood, with some huge success stories for his resume, including World War Z, Quantum of Solace and the Best Picture-nominated Finding Neverland.


Britain’s greatest ever director came to the U.S. after making his name as a director of silent film horror (including The Lodger) and soon became a household name with Rebecca, Suspicion and Notorious. Hitchcock then went on to host his own television show and directed some of cinema’s greatest works of art, especially Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window and numerous others before his death in 1980.


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