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11 Debut Films of Famous Directors

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Getty Images

Even the most cinematically inclined of us may not have heard of the debut films of some of today’s most well-known directors. Before Jaws, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars, these highly regarded directors made some films that don’t always fit in with the content or caliber of their later works. Read on to learn about the science fiction films, questionable sequels, and made-for-TV movies that paved the way for some of the most successful directors of the past hundred years.

1. Steven Spielberg, Duel (1971)

While Spielberg had directed several episodes of popular TV shows in the late ‘60s and very early ‘70s (and made a movie called Firelight for just $500 when he was 18), Duel was his first standalone feature-length film. Though it was broadcast as a TV movie in the United States, this story of a murderous truck received a theatrical release in Europe. The entire film consists of the Peterbilt 281 tanker, whose driver is never fully in view, attempting to run a terrified traveling salesman off the road. Though the salesman gets the upper hand in the end, he never does figure out the story behind the driver (truck?) who was to determined to see him dead. It’s safe to say he didn’t risk cutting anyone off for a long time afterward.

2. Peter Jackson, Bad Taste (1987)

Like Jackson’s other splatter horror comedy Braindead (or Dead Alive, if you’re watching it in North America), Bad Taste is not for the faint of heart—or stomach. This alien invasion movie features lots of alien-on-human eating, human-on-alien eating, and general guts and gore that led to numerous cut versions of the film being played in various countries. Over the years, Bad Taste has become a cult film of sorts, which is an achievement in and of itself considering the low budget used to produce the film and the fact that most roles were played by Jackson and his friends.

3. Danny Boyle, Shallow Grave (1994)

Boyle, who would go on to direct such popular movies as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire, began his directorial work—and his professional relationship with Ewan McGregor—with this dark comedy. A tale of friendship, betrayal, money, and murder, Shallow Grave helped launch the careers of McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, who would go on to play the ninth incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who.

4. Cecil B. DeMille, The Squaw Man (1914)

This silent western movie adapted from the play of the same name was DeMille’s first attempt at directing and producing. It holds the distinction of being the first feature-length film made in Hollywood, save for harbor scenes and a few others requiring varied landscapes. DeMille must have harbored an affection for The Squaw Man as he went on to film it twice more in the form of a 1918 silent remake and a 1931 talkie.

5. Stanley Kubrick, Fear and Desire (1953)

Kubrick’s first feature film came two years after he directed documentaries on Irish-American boxer Walter Cartier and New Mexican priest Father Fred Stadtmuller. Fear and Desire exudes an air of ambiguity throughout as it follows a group of soldiers, one of whom is clearly unstable, in a war between two unnamed countries. With a budget of $10,000 largely raised by family and friends, the film was lauded as a success—though not a financial one. After its initial showings, Kubrick tried to prevent it from being seen again, going so far as to call the film “a bumbling amateur film exercise.”

6. Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 (1963)

Known in the United Kingdom as The Haunted and the Hunted, Dementia 13 was Coppola’s first mainstream directorial attempt after working on several nude films. Producer Roger Corman initially brought in Coppola to make a gothic Psycho-esque movie, but during production stages the two disagreed so violently as to lead Corman to bring in another director to shoot additional scenes. Upon release, the film received mixed reviews and currently has 65 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Not bad for a cheap remake about a murderous lunatic.

7. James Cameron, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

Cameron has come quite a long way in the visual effects department since his debut. Piranha II, also known as Flying Killers, is the story of a school of piranha living in the wreckage of a ship in the Caribbean. The movie is exactly what you’d expect a sequel of the original Piranha to be: namely, man-eating, flying fish killing lots of people.

8. George Lucas, THX 1138 (1971)

Rising from the ashes of his 1967 student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, this film depicts a world in which drugs are mandatory, sex is banned, and the few who rebel are sent to a limbo-like prison even fewer attempt to escape. The film currently holds a rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 90 percent—higher than all but two of the Star Wars movies.

9. John Carpenter, Dark Star (1974)

Described by Carpenter as “Waiting for Godot in space,” Dark Star is a dark science fiction comedy surrounding a bored crew’s travels through space. Most of the film consists of the crew members’ attempts to fill their time with stargazing, target practice, making music, or chasing a small alien around the ship. (Interestingly enough, this alien would later be the inspiration for the much more frightening one in Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was written by Carpenter’s co-writer, Dan O’Bannon.) Dark Star ends in a kind of philosophical tailspin. Note: Don’t teach Cartesian doubt to sentient bombs.

10. Ridley Scott, The Duellists (1977)

This movie, which won the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, could not have been more different from the movies for which Scott is most famous. It is based on Joseph Conrad’s short story The Duel, and it features Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as enemies in Strasbourg in the early 1800s. Praised for its historical accuracy, The Duellists marked the beginning of a varied and successful career for Scott, who would go on to make the aforementioned Alien as well as Thelma & Louise, Blade Runner, and Black Hawk Down.

11. Christopher Nolan, Following (1998)

Like others on this list, Nolan was working on an extremely short budget with his first film. He paid for the 16mm film out of his own pocket, and he insisted on extensively rehearsed scenes so as to not require numerous takes. Additionally, he largely eschewed professional film lighting in favor of whatever light was readily available. The black-and-white movie involves a young writer who makes a habit of following strangers, only to one day become engrossed in following a man who ends up confronting him. Seduced by this man’s dangerous lifestyle, the protagonist turns to a life of crime that ultimately derails and leaves him the victim of his fellow thieves’ manipulation.

Mad Magazine
12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  


MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  


But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.


From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.


Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.


Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  


With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.


MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  


In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.


In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

Paramount Pictures
10 Tantalizing Tidbits About Star Trek: The Next Generation
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

by Kirsten Howard

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in September 1987, no one was quite sure what to expect. After all, this was a new Enterprise with a new crew trying to revitalize a franchise that had only lasted three seasons the last time it was on television. And while the movie series was still bringing in solid box office returns, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy would play no part in this new Trek.

The Next Generation was a gamble for Paramount, and for the first few seasons, it looked like one the studio was going to lose. But once the series got over some initial behind-the-scenes chaos, it blossomed into one of the most popular sci-fi TV shows of all time. Even as bigger and shinier installments in the franchise continue to come out, this is the definitive Star Trek for countless fans. So lean back in your captain's chair and enjoy 10 facts about Star Trek: The Next Generation.


Things were tumultuous at best behind the scenes during the first season of the show, as writers and producers clashed with creator Gene Roddenberry over themes, characters, and ideas on a weekly basis. The in-fighting and drama became such a part of the show's legacy that William Shatner himself chronicled all of it in a 2014 documentary called Chaos on the Bridge (which is currently streaming on Netflix). In it, producers, writers, and actors recounted anecdotes about the difficulties they had dealing with Roddenberry's somewhat overbearing mandates, including his infamous rule that there never be any direct conflict between the Enterprise crew members (unless one was possessed by an alien, of course) and his habit of throwing out scripts at the last minute. This led to 30 writers leaving the show within the first season, according to story editor and program consultant David Gerrold.

As Roddenberry’s health began to deteriorate after the first season, his influence over the writers waned, freeing up ideas that were departures from the creator's original vision. He would pass away in 1991, but his presence would never completely leave the series. For years, a small bust of Roddenberry sat on executive producer Rick Berman's desk with a blindfold wrapped over its eyes. "Whenever they come up with a story I don't think Gene would like," Berman said, "I blindfold him when we discuss the story."


'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For years, William Shatner had cast the mold by which all future Star Trek captains would be judged. And it was that image of the confident, swashbuckling James T. Kirk that Roddenberry wanted to preserve when bringing a new captain in for The Next Generation. So when Berman wanted to cast Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the issue was clear: he was no Shatner.

Roddenberry was completely unconvinced that Stewart was right for the role, with Berman saying the Trek creator didn’t like the idea of “a bald English guy taking over.” But after countless auditions with other actors, Berman continued to bring Stewart up to Roddenberry, who eventually caved and agreed to bring him in for a final audition under one condition: he wear a wig. So Stewart had a wig Fed-Exed from London and auditioned for Roddenberry and Paramount Television head John Pike one final time. 

That audition was enough to win Roddenberry over, and Stewart was finally brought aboard as Picard with the wig cast aside. Roddenberry would eventually go on to fully embrace Picard’s follicular shortcomings, and according to Stewart, when a reporter at a press conference once asked him why there wouldn’t be a cure for baldness in the 24th century, Roddenberry responded by saying, “No, by the 24th century, no one will care."


Stephen Hawking was visiting the Paramount lot during the video release of the film A Brief History of Time when he requested a tour of the Next Generation set. After making his way onto the iconic Enterprise bridge, he stopped and began typing into his computer. Suddenly, his voice synthesizer spoke: “Would you lift me out of my chair and put me into the captain's seat?"

Hawking asking to be removed from his chair was basically unheard of, so his wishes were granted immediately. Later, with writers having become aware that he was such a huge Trekkie, Hawking himself was written into the sixth season finale episode “Descent – Part I” by Ronald D. Moore, who would later go on to reimagine the Battlestar Galactica universe.


Late actor and comedian Robin Williams was also a huge fan of the show and was desperate to appear in it, so an episode of the fifth season—"A Matter of Time"—was drawn up by Berman to allow Williams to shine at the center of a mystery about Professor Berlinghoff Rasmussen, a time-traveling historian from the future visiting the past to observe the Enterprise crew completing an historic mission.

Unfortunately, when it came time to shoot the episode, Williams found himself unavailable to appear in the episode. So Max Headroom star Matt Frewer was cast as Professor Rasmussen instead.


In the episode “Chain of Command, Part II,” Picard has been captured by Cardassians and is subjected to a variety of torture methods by his interrogators. As a member of the human rights organization Amnesty International, Stewart did not want to shy away from the realities of torture, so he watched tapes sent to him that included statements from people who had been tortured and a long interview with a torturer explaining what it was like to be the one inflicting pain on others. Stewart also insisted on being completely nude during the first torture scene, so as not to betray the experiences of those who had undergone similar horrors.


The transporter effect on the show may look completely computer generated, but in fact it’s all done quite organically. First, a canister is filled with water and glitter and then a light is shone through it. After stirring the liquid briskly, the resulting few seconds of swirling glitter are filmed and then superimposed over footage of the actor standing in the transporter area, with an added “streak down” effect to blur the glitter further.


Android Lieutenant Commander Data had many adventures during the series, on and off the Enterprise, but his evil twin brother, Lore, stands out for many fans as one of the show’s greatest antagonists. Surprisingly, Lore was originally created as a female android character for the show, but the actor who plays Data, Brent Spiner, came up with a different idea: an evil twin nemesis in the shape of a long-lost brother.


When Michael Piller took over as head writer on the show in 1989, an open submission policy was launched where absolutely anyone could submit up to two unsolicited scripts for consideration. Opening up the possibility of writing for TV to people outside of the Writers Guild of America and talent agency pool was unheard of at the time, and over 5000 spec scripts were received a year at one point. "Yesterday’s Enterprise," one of the show’s most popular episodes, was based off a spec script from the open submission policy.


A still from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'
Paramount Pictures

A decade before The Next Generation debuted, there was a failed attempt at a revival called Star Trek: Phase II. Though a first season was mapped out, it never saw the light of day, and the movie series was produced in its place. However, the scrapped scripts and concepts lived on in various Trek projects over the years. For the second season premiere of The Next Generation, producers reclaimed the script for "The Child" as a way to get a story quickly into production during the 1988 writer's strike. The season four episode "Devil's Due" was also taken from the backlog of Phase II scripts. 

More elements from Phase II would influence Trek for years, such as the pilot being reworked into Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the now-familiar elements of the Japanese-inspired Klingon culture being introduced in the shelved episode “Kitumba.”


In what was either a cost-cutting move or a sly Easter egg (or both), the ceiling of the Enterprise's transporter room in The Next Generation is actually the floor of the transporter room from the original series. That's far from the only recycling that went on between the Trek series. The orbital office complex from Star Trek: The Motion Picture was reused as the Regula I station in The Wrath of Khan, which was then itself reused as a number of different space stations on The Next Generation (plus Deep Space Nine and Voyager).


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