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10 Directors Who Made Giant Leaps Into Big Budget Film-making

We look at 10 directors who found themselves thrust onto the blockbuster stage.

Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)


This year we've seen two directors transition from the world of indies to helming high profile, big budget, tent-pole movies. Colin Trevorrow made the leap successfully, going from 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed, with a budget of $4.4 million, to Jurassic World (budget: $150 million), which currently stands as the year's highest grossing movie and the third highest grossing of all time. The transition didn't go so well for Josh Trank, who went from 2012's $12 million budgeted found footage flick Chronicle to the $120 million comic book reboot Fantastic Four, set to be the year's biggest box office casualty, with Trank publicly disowning the film on twitter.
Trank and Trevorrow aren't the first filmmakers to make giant leaps of this nature, as these 10 examples show.



Michael Bay
When we hear Bay's name now we think of huge budgets and film shoots that resemble military campaigns. Some call him a genius of action cinema, others a hack who represents everything that's wrong with modern Hollywood film-making. But before his 1995 debut with Bad Boys - a movie as packed with Bay tropes as anything he's made since - Bay was completely untested as a narrative filmmaker, having established himself in the world of music videos and commercials. You can argue this background helped Bay bring a new dynamism to cinematic storytelling, or conversely that he reduced narrative cinema to a series of glossy but superficial images. Regardless, the former ad man is now the king of Hollywood excess.

Francis Ford Coppola
Before accepting the job of adapting Mario Puzo's crime saga, Coppola was the very definition of an indie filmmaker, even setting up his own studio, American Zoetrope, to allow him to work independently outside the realms of the major Hollywood studios. By 1972, however, it had been three years since Coppola's last film, the intimate road movie The Rain People, and American Zoetrope was in financial trouble. Producer Robert Evans wanted an Italian-American to direct The Godfather, and though initially reluctant, Coppola accepted the job as a means of keeping his studio afloat. He couldn't have known the movie would become the biggest hit of 1972, and launch the modern blockbuster era. The success of the film and its 1974 sequel allowed Coppola free reign to work on personal projects like The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, cementing his place in the canon of great American filmmakers.

David Fincher
Like Bay, Fincher established himself in the world of commercials and music promos before being chosen to direct the highly anticipated sci-fi sequel Alien 3 in 1992. Unlike Bad Boys, Fincher's debut wasn't well received. Ultimately, thanks to the appeal of the franchise, the movie fared reasonably well at the global box-office, but critics and fans of the series failed to embrace the film. Over the years, Fincher's debut has been reassessed, thanks mainly to the release of an 'Assembly Cut' in 2003 that improves the film's coherency, and is now looked on far more favorably than on its release.

Stanley Kubrick
In the 1950s, Kubrick became a critical darling with The Killing and Paths of Glory, two modestly budgeted character dramas. In 1960 he found himself in charge of the then colossal $12 million budgeted historical epic Spartacus. The film's original director, Anthony Mann, had either been fired or quit himself, depending on which account you believe, and Kubrick was quickly hired, thrust into film-making on a scale completely alien to him. Kubrick grasped the reigns and delivered a masterpiece of its genre, making him one of Hollywood's most coveted filmmakers, and allowing him a freedom to work on projects of his own choosing that made him the envy of directors the world over.

George Lucas
Following his low budget sci-fi debut THX 1138, Lucas's sophomore effort, American Graffiti, became one of the most profitable movies in cinema history, grossing $140 million from a budget of less than $800,000. This allowed Lucas to garner a budget of $11 million for the first installment in a planned sci-fi series. That movie, Star Wars, was released on an unsuspecting public in 1977, changing American pop culture forever and ultimately making Lucas one of America's richest men.

David Lynch
Sci-fi didn't prove such fertile ground for Lynch, who, having impressed with 1980's acclaimed black and white drama The Elephant Man, was chosen to direct the big screen adaptation of Frank Herbert's cult space opera novel Dune. Lynch was given a budget of $40 million, an almost unheard of sum in 1984, but little of that expenditure is visible in the resulting film, which flopped at the box office, failing to make its money back and ending Lynch's career in mainstream Hollywood. While there are those who passionately defend the movie, most find it an incoherent mess.

The Russo Brothers
Though they had helmed the films Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me & Dupree, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo had spent most of their careers working in TV, primarily on the sitcom Community, before landing the much sought after job of directing Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The brothers are currently busy directing Captain America: Civil War and are lined up to direct both parts of Avengers: Infinity Wars, as well as a possible Ghostbusters spin-off.

Steven Spielberg
Spielberg's Jaws is the quintessential (no pun intended) summer blockbuster. Until the release of Star Wars it was the highest grossing film of all time when not adjusted for inflation, but its director came from a relatively humble film-making background. Spielberg started out in TV, giving us arguably the most cinematic 'movie of the week' ever in 1971's Duel, before making the theatrical feature The Sugarland Express. Like Coppola, Spielberg went from a relatively low profile road movie to one of the '70s biggest grossing and most iconic blockbusters. Spielberg would go on to dominate the global box office for the next couple of decades.

Richard Stanley
Thanks to his low budget features Hardware and Dust Devil, South African born Stanley developed a cult following among '90s sci-fi fans. He seemed like a natural fit for a big budget adaptation of HG Wells's novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, but less than a week into shooting the $40 million Marlon Brando starring project, Stanley was fired and replaced by veteran director John Frankenheimer. The experience killed any chance of Stanley working in Hollywood again, and a recent documentary detailing the troubled production, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, makes for a fascinating watch.

Orson Welles
While the other directors on this list had film-making experience of some nature behind them, Welles found himself the toast of Hollywood without ever having worked in film, thanks to his Mercury Theater radio adaptation of HG Wells's War of the Worlds. Light years ahead of its time, the radio play was structured as a fake news report of an alien invasion on the U.S East Coast, and many listeners took it at face value, widespread panic breaking out across the nation. 'If Welles could capture the public imagination in such a manner with radio, imagine what he could do with movies,' was Hollywood's thinking. Welles was given free reign to make his debut, Citizen Kane, though it was a luxury he would never be afforded again. Welles spent his career struggling to assemble budgets and left behind a host of incomplete projects. Kane, however, still tops most lists of the greatest movies ever made.


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