Nine Forgotten First Features by Major Filmmakers

Steven Spielberg’s Firelight (1964)

I was annoyed recently when several film critics, in their reviews of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, kept referring to The Sixth Sense as his "first film". It would've taken them 30 seconds to go to the IMDb and learn that Shyamalan directed not one but two features before The Sixth Sense. In light of this, I started thinking about all the well-known filmmakers who, once upon a time, put months or even years of struggle and heartache into early projects that are now rarely seen or discussed.

  1. M. Night Shyamalan's PRAYING WITH ANGER. Shyamalan's debut was finished in 1992 and stars the director as an American student who goes to India to find his roots. "In a land torn apart by hate, he found the strength to love..." goes the tagline. Shyamalan didn't make another film until 1998, with the somewhat well-funded Wide Awake, starring Rosie O'Donnell as a nun. It tanked at the box office.
  2. Steven Spielberg's FIRELIGHT. Spielberg named his production company "Amblin" after his first "official" film, Amblin', which was shot in 1968 and helped establish his career. However, Amblin' was a half-hour short; Firelight, completed four years earlier, was Spielberg's first actual feature - and quite an ambitious project it must have been for the 17 year old auteur: though it was a sci fi cheapie (about alien invasion!) shot in his backyard with friends, the film clocks in at 140 minutes. I don't know a soul who's seen it.
  3. Jane Campion's TWO FRIENDS. Oscar-winning writer/director Campion (The Piano) made this no-budget 1986 drama about two teenage girls in New Zealand. Fans of Memento will appreciate Campion's similar reverse-chronology structure. Although the audio is poor, I still think this is her best work: it's touching, tender, and honest.
  4. Todd Solondz's FEAR, ANXIETY & DEPRESSION. Indie provocateur Solondz (Happiness) made this neurotic comedy in 1989, in which he starred as a grating Woody Allen-esque character searching for love. Its critical and commercial failure depressed Solondz so much that he quit filmmaking and turned to teaching foreigners English. It took him six years to reemerge with his acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse.
  5. Stanley Kubrick's FEAR AND DESIRE. Kubrick himself buried his 1953 war drama, and as a result most critics still refer to his 1955 follow-up Killer's Kiss as his "proper" feature debut. The late director's estate sits on the hour-long Fear and Desire to this day. [2013 update: Kino International released the film on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012.]
  6. Martin Scorsese's WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? This 1968 release was also the big screen debut of frequent Scorsese collaborator Harvey Keitel. Boxcar Bertha would come out four years later; Mean Streets a year after that. The rest is history.
  7. James Cameron's PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING. It's fun to chuckle over this silly skeleton in James "Titanic" Cameron's closet, released three years before The Terminator (1984) made him an overnight sensation, but it's an early display of the director's obsession with filming in and around water.
  8. Steven Soderbergh's YES: 9012 LIVE. This is a concert video, but I had to mention it because of the unlikely pairing of the future Oscar-winning director with the twee prog rock/pseudo-new wave noodlings that was mid-'80s Yes. 9012 Live is worth seeing, however, for Soderbergh's creative if cheesy video effects.
  9. Francis Ford Coppola's TONIGHT FOR SURE. How could I resist ending this list with Coppola's hushed-up 1962 debut - a soft core porno? Frankly, he should be far more embarrassed by his 1996 Robin Williams stinker Jack than by this harmless nudie.