After watching Hot Fuzz a million times between the theater, cable, and at home on DVD, I finally bought the Blu-ray. Clearly, the purchase was long overdue. But the actual feature film wasn’t the biggest reason I was excited. That honor belongs to one of the bonus features on the disc- Dead Right (1993), the 48-minute short film that a precocious Wright directed at age 18 (that’s 18-year old Wright in the header, in a still from the film). Seeing Wright’s debut film made me think a lot about other directorial debuts.
Specifically, it made me realize how much fun it is to travel back in time to take a look at cinematic masters as they were learning to hone their craft. It’s impossible to watch Dead Right and not notice the seeds of Wright’s future success, even with a miniscule budget. The frenetic editing, the self-aware humor and overall mastery of how humor works, and the pop culture references all permeate the short.
The same could easily be said for P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight (1996), another directorial debut that I watched earlier this week; Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), a mish-mash of Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave in a perfectly American context; the Coen brothers’ oaf-riddled neo-noir, Blood Simple (1984); David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), a psycho-sexual bodily assault; or Peter Jackson’s hilariously visceral Bad Taste (1987). Pick any notable director from the last 70 years and the odds are good that if you watch their debut effort, you’ll learn a lot more about who they are and how they arrived at their reputation.
These films were made by great filmmakers at the age closest to the inciting incident, as it were- whatever act it was in their lives that spurned them on to make films. As such, their youthful ideas about originality and entertainment are at their most raw. Their strong early opinions about what movies can and should be are on full display. The films may be unpolished but the director’s enthusiasm is as great as ever. There are loads of aspects to notice with directorial debuts. Maybe it’s their film technique, like Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket (1996). Still other times, there are unmistakeable themes. Ingmar Bergman’s angsty early works, full of lovesick youth unable to form meaningful relationships, come to mind. More obviously, the casts in some of these early films give a road map to future troupes for each respective director. Hard Eight featured John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, all future frequent collaborators of P.T. Anderson.
Obviously, these films won’t be the director’s best work. They’re often low-budget and very unpolished. After all, practice makes perfect and these early films present us with the “practice” portion of that equation. But watching those early films will give you a greater appreciation of the perfection that came later.