Nine Friends of Mine Who Have Actually Directed Features

Stephen Hillenburg

Although I've fraternized with dozens of would-be filmmakers over the last two decades, an astonishingly small number of them ever went on to actually direct a feature. Having done so twice myself, I can tell you that it's not that hard to do, if you really want it. So what I'm saying is that few aspiring directors really want it. Except for the following nine friends of mine – brave, committed souls who are working at all levels of the budgetary spectrum.

  1. Jay Woelfel. Jay was the first accomplished indie filmmaker I got to know. He directed an interactive CD-ROM documentary about the Titanic, and I did the graphics for him. Years later, the tables were turned when he edited my first feature Foreign Correspondents. I don't know how he does it, but Jay's cranked out at least ten low-budget genre pictures so far, each with his own quirky spin.
  2. Stefan Avalos. In the handful of film festivals that I have attended, I've met quite a few accomplished feature filmmakers. But unlike Stefan, most are not my Facebook friends. Stefan has directed three features: something called The Game, 1998's micro-budgeted The Last Broadcast (which likely inspired The Blair Witch Project), and a chiller called The Ghosts of Edendale.
  3. Shelli Ryan. Shelli is a cross between Jay and Stefan in that I met her at a film festival (neither of us had a film there, but she and her husband Joel Watson gave me a ride back to LA from Slamdance in 2003) and that she's edited one of my films (the short Party Pooper). Shelli's first feature is a fascinating zombie horror/family drama hybrid (really!) called Jake's Closet.
  4. Mark Osborne. This old CalArts classmate of mine is ambitious, to say the least: He shot a stop-motion animated short... on IMAX. (It won best short film at Sundance and was even nominated for an Oscar.) After that success, Mark directed a live action feature called Dropping Out, which played at Sundance but unfortunately was not picked up. Returning to the world of animation, Mark worked behind the scenes for years before co-directing the box office hit Kung Fu Panda. His future looks bright.
  5. Stephen Hillenburg. Another member of my CalArts graduating class, Steve has a permanent place in the animation pantheon as the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. Though he's basically a TV guy, he helmed The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (in which Mark Osborne reportedly shot the live action sequences).
  6. Brian McLaughlin. From Hollywood success back to the indiest of the indies. My friend Brian made, with almost no money, two feature-length comedies just for the heck of it: 1998's Hives and 2008's Inspiration Point. He also directed a 2010 featurette called Little Lotto – written by yours truly.
  7. Aron Campisano. Aron and I worked together at a doomed video game company in the mid-'90s. I was a graphic designer, he was a video editor (I think). It took him a long time to get his first feature, a religious satire called The Master Plan, out the door. But he did it.
  8. Angela Garcia Combs. Angela has been toiling away in the indie film world for quite a while. I first met her when she was set to make a feature with my Foreign Correspondents producer. That relationship didn't work out, but Angela eventually made the film anyway, 2001's Random Acts. In 2010 she directed her second feature, Nothing Special, starring veteran actresses Karen Black and Barbara Bain.
  9. Bilge Ebiri. I first got to know Bilge when he interviewed me for an article in the now-defunct print magazine Yahoo! Internet Life. Subsequently, he invited me to the magazine's first (and possibly only) film festival, which he helped run. Today, Bilge is that rare thing: a professional critic (he reviews movies for New York magazine) who has also directed a feature – in his case, the 2003 satirical indie thriller New Guy.