The Student Films of 20 Famous Directors
We all have to start somewhere. Before they conquered Hollywood, these famous directors made student films.
1. George Lucas // Freiheit
The creator of Star Wars has become an industry unto himself, but George Lucas had some inauspicious beginnings. He first enrolled at Modesto Junior College in his hometown of Modesto, California, but soon transferred to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where he made Freiheit (German for “Freedom” and credited to “LUCAS”), a student film about an unnamed man trying to escape an unspecified territory across an ambiguous border. Lucas also made even more abstract student films like Look at Life, which was an assignment for an animation class and is made entirely out of still photos. Then there’s Herbie, a three-minute black and white short composed only of lights streaking across the bodies of cars set to a lilting jazz piece by Herbie Hancock.
When Lucas graduated in 1967, he immediately re-enrolled as a USC grad student and eventually made a film called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which won first prize at the 1967/68 National Student Film Festival, and was adapted into Lucas’ first full-length film, THX 1138.
2. Steven Spielberg // Amblin
Contrary to popular belief, Spielberg did not attend USC with his buddy George Lucas. Instead, Spielberg enrolled at California State University, Long Beach, but he soon focused his attention on becoming a full-time, unpaid intern at nearby Universal Studios. He eventually made a short film called Amblin that led to him dropping out of school. The forlorn love story is a silent short that depicts a free-spirited hippie couple who hitchhike through Southern California to the Pacific Ocean. Sid Sheinberg, then-vice president of production for Universal Television, saw the film and signed the young Spielberg to a seven-year contract for the studio—the youngest person ever at the time to receive such a long-term contract. Spielberg would eventually name his production company Amblin Entertainment, after the film. Much later, he went on to graduate from Cal State Long Beach in 2002 after re-enrolling in the department of Film and Electronic Arts.
3. Martin Scorsese // What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?
Before movie brats like Lucas, Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola went to school and made films on the West Coast, Martin Scorsese stuck around in his hometown of New York and enrolled at NYU in 1960 under the tutelage of film professor Haig P. Manoogian (to whom Scorsese would eventually dedicate his 1980 film Raging Bull).
Scorsese’s earliest student film is What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? about a writer who becomes unexpectedly drawn to a photo on his wall. The film features nascent forms of the director’s eventual stylistic trademarks such as staccato editing, direct voiceover, and fluid camera movements. Scorsese went on to make other student films like It's Not Just You, Murray! (it seems he had an early preoccupation with grammatical titles) in 1964 about a middle-aged mobster reflecting on his rise to fame and fortune. His most notable student effort was the anti-Vietnam parable The Big Shave in 1967.
4. Robert Zemeckis // A Field of Honor
For his application to USC’s film school—the only college program he applied to—the eventual Back to the Future and Forrest Gump director pooled together all the money he made while working as a gopher at a local Chicago production company and shot a short film set to a Beatles song (something he later alluded to as a precursor to music videos). Zemeckis wasn’t accepted, but he called up the department to plead his way in, saying that he’d do anything to get his grades up to join the program. His emotional appeal worked.
During his time at USC, Zemeckis directed shorts like The Lift, a dialogue-free black and white film about a man’s mundane struggle with an elevator (it also included eventual Back to the Future producer and fellow student Bob Gale as a production assistant). But it wasn’t until Zemeckis’ final student film, a 14-minute absurdist Vietnam War comedy called A Field of Honor, that he was given real recognition. It took home a Special Jury Award at the Second Annual Student Film Awards held by the AMPAS—the same organization that gives out the Oscars. It was there that A Field of Honor caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who would go on to executive produce Zemeckis’ first two feature films, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (a film that expanded the Beatles-inspired theme of his USC application film) and Used Cars, as well as later efforts like the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Zemeckis and Gale would, in turn, go on to write the screenplay of Spielberg’s big-budget World War II flick 1941.
5. Brian De Palma // The Wedding Party
Filmmaker Brian De Palma has the distinction of making a student film that includes the first on-screen appearance of Robert DeNiro. The film, titled The Wedding Party, was a joint effort between De Palma, his Sarah Lawrence College film professor Wilford Leach, and fellow student Cynthia Monroe. It was shot in 1963 but not released theatrically until 1969 (which explains why it’s normally listed as De Palma’s third feature, chronologically). In the film, a groom interacts with his fiance’s family and friends (one of whom is played by DeNiro, improperly credited as “Robert Denero”) two days before he’s supposed to get married. Aside from the young DeNiro, the film is most notable for its jump cuts—which were a nod to De Palma’s infatuation with the Nouvelle Vague—and silent film homages like title cards and sped up comedic gags. You can stream the entire film on Amazon.
6. James Cameron // Xenogenesis
George Lucas’ Star Wars inspired the then 22-year-old James Cameron to make movies. In 1977, Cameron was making a living as a truck driver delivering lunches to schools in Orange County, but in his free time he also wrote sci-fi stories and built models like the ones he saw in Lucas’ movie. To emulate—and potentially one-up— Star Wars, he got a group of Southern California dentists to invest $20,000 in a sci-fi short called Xenogenesis about a man and a woman who are sent to a sentient starship to search for new life and wind up battling a gigantic robot. While not technically a student film in the strict sense, Cameron essentially taught himself how to make the movie by buying cheap film equipment and spending days on end scouring the USC library to read about film production and special effects.
Cameron set up the shoot in his living room, using bright lights and a little track to roll his camera along for dolly shots. The climactic battle between the woman operating her spider-like exoskeleton and the robot was meticulously created by Cameron himself using stop-motion models. If you look past the low budget cheesiness and bad acting, Cameron’s brilliant and intuitive inclusion of special effects—the kind that anticipated his later films like The Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar—really shine through.
7. David Lynch // Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times)
Nobody makes movies quite like David Lynch, and that’s evident from his very first student film, Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times). It's a plotless, four-minute short depicting a one-minute loop of macabre animation created by Lynch that is repeated over and over again. The film was made while Lynch was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Lynch purchased a 16mm camera at a photo shop in downtown Philly and had the staff teach him how to use it, and then rented out a hotel room owned by the Academy to shoot his unorthodox short. With the help of friend and collaborator Jack Fisk (who would help Lynch with his debut full-length film Eraserhead), Lynch animated single frame shots which would then be projected onto a screen that included plaster casts of heads (including one taken from Lynch’s own face). Lynch has since claimed the entire budget for Six Men Getting Sick came to $200.
8. David Cronenberg // From the Drain
Like filmmaker David Lynch, Canadian director David Cronenberg has always marched to the beat of his own very weird drum, with psycho-sexual thriller classics like Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and Scanners. But for Cronenberg, it all began with science. In 1963, he enrolled at the University of Toronto in an honors science program, but within a year he grew restless and transferred to the university’s English literature program. There he saw the film Winter Kept Us Warm by former U of Toronto student David Secter, which was the first English-language Canadian film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.
Cronenberg was inspired to learn everything he could about filmmaking and founded the Toronto Film Co-Op with eventual Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman (Reitman also went on to produce two of Cronenberg’s films, Shivers and Rabid). Cronenberg soon made two 16mm student shorts. One, entitled Transfer, was a surrealist film about a patient who follows and harasses his psychiatrist, and the other, Under the Drain, was about two men sitting in a mental institution bathtub who are later terrorized by a tentacle coming from the drain. Both would anticipate the assured creepiness of his most well-known films.
9. Ridley Scott // Boy and Bicycle
Ridley Scott has had a varied career. From his early sci-fi masterpieces like Alien and Blade Runner, to his big-budget epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, he’s carved out a remarkable body of work. It all began when he was a student at the Royal College of Art in 1962 with his film Boy and Bicycle, a nearly half-hour short that featured his brother Tony Scott (who went on to become an accomplished director in his own right) as the main character. Though his student film was successful and was completed using generous financing from the British Film Institute, Scott wouldn’t go on to direct another film until his debut feature The Duellists in 1977.
10. Christopher Nolan // Doodlebug
Way before he gave us the Dark Knight Trilogy and thrillingly confused us with Inception, Christopher Nolan was a young literature student at University College London. But it wasn’t just books that Nolan had on his mind. Nolan, who was also the president of UCL’s film society, had chosen to attend the school because of its filmmaking facilities and eventually used the society’s equipment to film his shorts Larceny and Tarantella. The most widely available short film of his during this period is Doodlebug, a three-minute mind-bender that anticipated the way he would play with reality and time in his later works. He would go on to personally fund his debut feature Following in 1998, and then spark worldwide recognition with Memento in 2000.
11. Sam Raimi // Within the Woods
Like many a budding filmmaker, Sam Raimi and his pal Bruce Campbell made handfuls of cheap 8mm movies growing up. The practice continued when Raimi enrolled at Michigan State University. Raimi’s first stab at directing was a comedic detective film about a family’s murdered uncle that co-starred Campbell and eventual screenwriter Scott Spiegel called It’s Murder!
He followed that with a horror film called Clockwork about a killer stalking a wealthy woman alone in her house. He then directed Within the Woods, a low-budget precursor to his debut feature—the equally low budget cult classic The Evil Dead. Those schlocky early pictures would unexpectedly lead Raimi to cinematic success, and he went on to direct three Spider-Man movies and, most recently, Oz the Great and Powerful.
12. Tim Burton // Stalk of the Celery Monster
Tim Burton has made a career out of being an outsider with films like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, and it all started when he enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts in 1975. He was among a storied group of animators who first cut their teeth at CalArts that would eventually include such names as John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Henry Selick, Genndy Tartakovsky, Brenda Chapman, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter (As a bonus, you can view Lasseter and Docter’s own CalArts student films here and here).
It was there that Burton created his first animated short called Stalk of the Celery Monster, about an evil dentist and his goofy monster sidekick. The complete film is lost and it’s only available now in fragments as seen above. Another one of his animated shorts—also only presently available in fragments—called King and Octopus is available here. Burton’s films were so popular among his classmates that it led to Disney Animation Studios approaching him for an apprenticeship.
13. Seth MacFarlane // Life of Larry
Love him or hate him, Seth MacFarlane is now a force to be reckoned with. He’s primarily known for his animated shows Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, but let’s not forget that his directorial debut Ted grossed over half a billion dollars at the box office worldwide. His senior thesis film at the Rhode Island School of Design, called The Life of Larry, is remarkably similar to Family Guy—it features a middle-aged slob husband, a talking dog, a pudgy son, and a wife named Lois, and it's interspliced with MacFarlane’s trademark cutaways imbued with pop culture-based gags.
During his time at RISD, MacFarlane also appeared in a film by fellow students Syd Butler and Tim Harrington called Comedians. Butler and Harrington would later go on to form the popular indie-rock band Les Savy Fav.
14. Trey Parker and Matt Stone // Cannibal! The Musical
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone met while they were film students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. With $125,000 of their own money, they and their friends made a feature length movie called Cannibal! The Musical, a comedy farce loosely inspired by the true story of noted cannibal Alferd Packer’s trip from Utah to Colorado.
Shot on weekends and during their 1993 Spring Break, Parker and Stone allegedly failed their Intro to Film History class because they were too busy with their movie. Prior to Cannibal and during their time at UC Boulder, the two created a four-minute short film called The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Frosty, the animated precursor to South Park.
15. John Carpenter // The Resurrection of Broncho Billy / Captain Voyeur
Carpenter has become known as the “Master of Horror” and is credited for essentially creating the modern horror film. Before all that, in 1969, he wrote and directed a film while at USC called Captain Voyeur about a masked man who follows a woman home and attempts to kill her—a plot eerily similar to his seminal 1978 classic Halloween. The film was lost until a print was discovered in USC’s archives in 2011, and it’s slated to be preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Unfortunately, until they release it on home video someday, the film remains unavailable to the public.
At the same time Carpenter was creating Captain Voyeur, he was tasked with writing, editing, and scoring a short film called The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, a senior project for fellow student John Longenecker, who produced the film. Their friend Nick Castle—who later became a director himself, originally played Michael Myers in Halloween, and also co-wrote Carpenter’s Escape From New York—co-wrote the film as well. The Resurrection of Broncho Billy went on to win the 1970 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.
16. Paul Thomas Anderson // The Dirk Diggler Story
When he was a 17-year-old student at Montclair College Preparatory School in Van Nuys, California, Paul Thomas Anderson decided he wanted to make a mockumentary about a porn star called The Dirk Diggler Story (which would eventually grow into his second feature film, Boogie Nights). He gathered his friend Michael Stein (who has an appearance in Boogie Nights as a customer who decides not to buy a stereo from Don Cheadle’s character) to be Dirk, his father Ernie Anderson as the narrator, and his father’s friend, actor Robert Ridgely (who would go on to play “The Colonel” in Boogie Nights).
Anderson eventually got into NYU film school, but he dropped out after only two days. Instead, he took his girlfriend’s credit card, money he made from gambling, and $10,000 from his father originally meant for college, and used it all to fund a short film that he envisioned as his own sort of film school. That film, called Cigarettes & Coffee—about the interconnected stories of five people who are all in possession at some point of the same $20 bill—earned him a spot at the Sundance Director’s Lab after being shown at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. The story was workshopped into a feature length film, which eventually became his debut, Hard Eight.
17. Spike Lee // Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads
Before he kickstarted his new film and before he Did the Right Thing, Spike Lee was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. During his time there, he made his first film, called Last Hustle in Brooklyn, about the Black and Puerto Rican communities in his native borough. After graduation, he came back to NYC and enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for his Masters in film production. His senior thesis film, called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, is an hour-long, neo-realist meditation about a man who takes over a barbershop after the owner is murdered. Lee’s movie went on to be the first student film ever showcased at Lincoln Center’s “New Directors, New Films” series, and it also garnered Lee the Dramatic Merit award at AMPAS’ Student Academy Awards in 1983.
18. Darren Aronofsky // No Time
Brooklyn native and Noah director Darren Aronofsky first enrolled at Harvard University as an anthropology student in 1987, but he soon switched his major to general studies and began focusing on filmmaking. His 1991 student film Supermarket Sweep (unavailable to the public) was a finalist for a Student Academy Award and motivated him to enroll at the AFI Conservatory a year after graduating.
He directed a trio of short films there. The first, called Fortune Cookie, is only available in fragments and is an adaptation of a Hubert Selby Jr. story (Aronofsky would go on to adapt another Selby book for his film Requiem for a Dream in 2000). The second, called Protozoa, starred a young Lucy Liu and marked the first time Aronofsky would work with his longtime director of photography Matthew Libatique. The last student short he completed at AFI was a bizarre ensemble comedy called No Time.
19. Roman Polanski // The Fat and the Lean
After being a refugee during World War II—a time during which his mother died in Auschwitz—Polanski entered the prestigious National Film School in Łódź, Poland, quickly becoming the school’s rising star. He directed student films at a constant pace, making the voyeuristic Teeth Smile, the anarchic Break Up the Dance (both in 1957), the absurdist short Two Men and a Wardrobe (in 1958), The Lamp (in 1959), and the surreal tragedy When Angels Fall (also in 1959).
The last film he made before his break-out debut Knife in the Water was 1961’s The Fat and the Lean, which features Polanski himself as a lowly slave doing his master’s bidding, which is seen by many as an homage to playwright Samuel Beckett.
20. Andrei Tarkovsky // The Steamroller and the Violin
Tarkovsky's placid meditations on memory and time took different forms from the ruminative sci-fi classics Solaris and Stalker to his semi-autobiographical film The Mirror. After high school he worked as a geologist, but soon enrolled at the State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow for directing. He adapted his first student film, The Killers, from the Ernest Hemingway short story, marking the first time the school allowed a student to make a film based off a foreign work.
His second student film, a collaboration called There Will Be No Leave Today—about a military unit disposing of unexploded bombs found in a small town—was a propaganda film that was eventually shown on Soviet Central Television. His senior thesis film, The Steamroller and the Violin, which focused on the unlikely friendship between a boy and a steamroller operator, was his first solo directorial effort. Tarkovsky received the highest possible passing grade for the film and was able to get his diploma to graduate. You can view the entire film here.