Before They Were Famous: How 9 Directors Got Their Starts

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In the film industry, you’ll get a thousand rejections before that fateful “yes.” But that’s easy to forget when the glare of those famous directors still shines bright. While some had a swifter trajectory than others, allow us to remind you that even the top guns had to start somewhere. From apprentice animators to adult theater ushers, find out below what these filmmakers did before they became famous.

Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez

In his classic how-to-guide/memoir, Rodriguez tells of how he subjected himself to a Texas medical experiment for almost a month to afford the film stock and other essentials on his debut feature, El Mariachi. With only $7,000 in the budget, Rodriguez was able to make a film that was good enough for commercial release and land him a deal with Columbia.

Tim Burton

In the early 1980s, Tim Burton graduated from CalArts, a college which Walt Disney helped found and which inevitably provided a great stream of talented graduates to Disney. Burton went from new college graduate to apprentice animator at Disney to blockbuster director in just three years. He turned two short films, Vincent and Frankenweenie, into a real job, in no small part thanks to Paul Reubens, who sought Burton out with the idea for a Pee-Wee Herman big screen movie.

Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Selma' with David Oyelowo
Ava DuVernay on the set of ‘Selma’ with David Oyelowo

Ava DuVernay

As an intern at CBS News, DuVernay covered the O.J. Simpson murder trial and realized she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with journalism. (She’s currently up for an Oscar for Best Documentary for The 13th, a wide-ranging, investigative look at the American prison-industrial complex.) She then paid the bills for years with her own PR company, The DuVernay Agency, before trying her hand at documentaries, then at indie features. DuVernay went on to become the first African-American woman to be named Best Director at Sundance (for Middle of Nowhere) and, although she was snubbed for an Oscar nomination for Selma, she’s now directing the big budget A Wrinkle In Time, which is sure to keep her on the A-list.

Mel Gibson

Before he was the Oscar-winning Braveheart director, did you know Mel Gibson was actually just some lowly actor? In all seriousness, he is one of the luckiest stars in all of Hollywood, landing his first job right out of school and then following it up with Mad Max, which is arguably the most commercially successful indie film of all time. However, it took the movie’s sequels, as well as leading roles in the Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously, before Gibson truly broke into the A-list.

Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino

Adult film theater usher. Film extra. An Elvis impersonator in the background of an episode of The Golden Girls. A recruiter for a corporate aerospace company at a whopping $1,200 per month. And a fantastic video store clerk in Manhattan Beach. Could I be talking about anyone other than Mr. Quentin Tarantino? Tarantino rose above these (and many other) humble beginnings to land gigs writing scripts for From Dusk Till Dawn and True Romance before a guy on a treadmill hit Harvey Keitel up with a script for Reservoir Dogs.

George Lucas

His first love wasn’t film, but cars. After a series of speeding tickets prevented him from joining the Air Force (and diabetes kept him out of the Vietnam War), George Lucas enrolled as a grad student in film production at USC. There, while teaching Navy men how to shoot documentary footage, he won a student award and ended up as a crew member on a Francis Ford Coppola production. With that and a camera assistant gig on Gimme Shelter under his belt, Lucas received the financing to turn a short of his into a full-length feature. THX-1138 then lead to American Graffiti, a movie about, of course, speeding cars.

Martha Coolidge

Martha Coolidge

Martha Coolidge has quite an incredible history – she was the first ever film major in the history of the Rhode Island School of Design, studied acting with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, and was the first-ever female head of the Director’s Guild – but her career really started after a series of documentaries lead to her first narrative feature. When that went nowhere, she spent years in turnaround for every project she seemed to work on at Zoetrope, Coppola’s studio. But her 1983 script for Valley Girl attracted an exciting newcomer – Coppola’s nephew, Nicholas Cage. When that feature became a sleeper hit among teenagers, Coolidge became a top small-budget director, helming Real Genius, Rambling Rose and the multiple-Emmy-winner Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitch was first a military cadet during WWI, although he was later excused from service due to an unknown medical issue. After the war, he worked for a newspaper, even contributing early versions of his salacious style in the form of short stories, including one about a young man looking for a brothel and another in which a woman hallucinates her own molestation while strapped into a dentist chair. From there, he became a title card designer for Paramount’s London division, before gradually making his way up the ranks of art directors and assistant directors, and then to the director’s chair, just in time to make what is arguably the first “talkie” in British history, 1929’s Blackmail.

Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins

With “no car, no money,” Barry Jenkins, a failed young filmmaker, worked for Oprah’s Harpo Films for two years, serving as an assistant – not assistant director, just an assistant. This, however, didn’t lead to bigger things, according to his interview last year with Deadline, and he ended up working at a San Francisco Banana Republic and just writing scripts that went nowhere. In 2007, however, a friend gave him the $15,000 that represented his life savings and Jenkins made the critically-lauded Medicine For Melancholy. The film was a triple Independent Spirit Award-nominee starring Wyatt Cenac, and launched him into the world of TV commercials – until Plan B Productions agreed to help launch the adaptation of a play, now retitled Moonlight.

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