Tag Archives: Bruce Robinson

Top Ten: Directorial Debuts

Every director starts somewhere. There’s always that first picture. For many directors, their first movie is either a trial-by-fire (see David Fincher and Alien3), a promising start (see Neil Marshall and Dog Soldiers) or something that they, and we, would rather forget ever happened (see James Cameron and Piranha II: Flying Killers).

There are some debuts, however, that announce a new talent completely. These are not just first movies, but manifestos. They scream out ‘this is what I can do, keep watching this space’. After this, the filmmaker either makes good on his promise or spends his career struggling to escape the shadow of it. That is the double-edged sword of a great debut. It really can be a blessing or a curse.

Here, for your delectation and sport, are my ten favourite directorial debuts. It was a tough one to whittle down. What would you have added, or subtracted, from the list?


10. Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero (1968)

The movie which, along with Psycho, is credited with giving birth to the modern horror film, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a master class in low-budget success. With its simple premise and unpretentious style, Romero creates a gripping, chilling experience which has influenced every zombie movie since. Made for only $114,000, Night of the Living Dead was also one of the first movies to feature a black lead actor in a predominantly white cast.

Romero has continued adding to the zombie movie canon with no less than six entries in his ‘Dead’ series, inspiring the likes of Edgar Wright who paid homage with Shaun of the Dead.

Went on to make: Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival….of the Dead


9. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

George Clooney (2002)

When original director Bryan Singer dropped out of making this story of the life (fictional or otherwise) of game show host, and CIA spy, Chuck Barris, actor George Clooney stepped in. Clooney brought to the movie not just a keen eye for a shot, and a some entertaining panache with his scene changes, but also a refined sense of 60s and 70s period detail brought with him from his childhood spent with father Nick Clooney, who actually had his own game show during that period. Look out for the quick, very funny, cameo appearances from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

Clooney followed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind with the equally accomplished Goodnight and Good Luck, again paying homage to a magic era of television.

Went on to make: Goodnight and Good Luck, Leatherheads


8. This is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner (1984)

Rob Reiner, son of director Carl, didn’t just direct his debut movie, but also shared the writing credit with its three stars as well as taking a lead role. The now legendary mockumentary follows fictional English band Spinal Tap on tour in the US to promote their album ‘Smell the Glove’. Along the way the pretentious, dim-witted trio paint an hilarious picture of the shallowness and ridiculousness of the music industry. With endlessly quotable dialogue, mostly ad-libbed, This is Spinal Tap is the very definition of ‘cult movie’.

Reiner enjoyed a fantastic spell for the next decade, but his output has waned in the last ten years.

Went on to make: The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery


7. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles (1941)

Having terrorised half of America with his radio production of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles turned to cinema and produced what has become the default No.1 in many a movie critic’s list of top movies. The tale of a fictional newspaper magnate, Citizen Kane is an astounding debut feature. Welles’ extensive use of deep-focus and low-angle shots was innovative, as was the non-linear narrative told from multiple viewpoints. And, despite the real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst’s attempts to kill the project through his own media empire, Citizen Kane has gone on to become one of cinema’s greats.

Although Welles made some other great movies, topping Citizen Kane was a very tall order. A lot of crap followed.

Went on to make: The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil


6. Airplane!

Jerry and David Zucker, Jim Abrahams (1980)

An extremely rare triple debut here, with the two Zuckers and Abrahams (or ZAZ) sharing both writing and directing duties on their hugely successful and influential comedy. Spoofing the disaster movie genre in general, and the 1957 movie Zero Hour! in particular, ZAZ created one of the most popular and oft-quoted comedies of all time. Featuring inspired turns from an array of 60s and 70s icons and a joke at least every 30 seconds, Airplane! has an inexhaustible energy which doesn’t let up until the credits have stopped rolling.

The movie set the pattern for the bulk of ZAZ’s work, but only Jerry Zucker achieved the same level of success again with Ghost.

Went on to make (between them): The Naked Gun movies, Ghost, Hot Shots


5. Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton (1955)

Actor Charles Laughton’s one and only movie still counts as a debut. And what a debut it is. Dark, brooding and nasty, Night of the Hunter features a career best performance from Robert Mitchum as the psychopathic Reverend Harry Powell, who charms his way into the family of widow Willa, in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of her executed husband’s stolen loot. Heavily influenced by German expressionism, Laughton paints stark, surreal vistas and fills the movie with a cloying sense of paranoia and fear.

Poorly received on its release, Laughton never made another movie and died seven years later. This was a real loss to the medium, such is the wealth of talent on evidence here.

Went on to make: Nothing


4. The Evil Dead

Sam Raimi (1981)

It’s amazing what you can achieve with just $375,000, a swimming pool worth of fake blood and Bruce Campbell. In Sam Raimi’s case you can achieve one of the most successful, and creative, horror movies of the 80s. When five friends go to stay in an old cabin in the woods, they become possessed by demons, one by one, until only one of their number remains to survive until morning. With no access to expensive special effects or equipment, Raimi demonstrates remarkable ingenuity with his camerawork.

The Evil Dead gave cinema its first glimpse of Raimi’s love for over-the-top, slapstick violence, dizzying camera movement and torturing Campbell.

Went on to make: The Spider-man trilogy


3. Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly (2001)

Given his big break by Drew Barrymore’s production company, Richard Kelly produced one of the most original movies to have come along for years. Donnie Darko is a strange brew, mixing time-travel, high-school angst, 80s nostalgia, existentialism and Patrick Swayze in a haunting, complex and sometimes downright bemusing tale. This was Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout role and he’s the perfect fit for the troubled, intense and disjointed Donnie. Kelly later released a Director’s Cut which didn’t really improve on the original.

Kelly’s penchant for inscrutable storytelling continued with his next two movies, but escaping the shadow of his debut has proven difficult so far.

Went on to make: The terrible Southland Tales and the intriguing The Box


2. Withnail and I

Bruce Robinson (1987)

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 directorial debut is one of those that can curse a subsequent career. Not because it is bad, but because it is brilliant. An extremely tough act to follow. Based on Robinson’s unpublished novel, which in turn was based on his own experiences as a young actor, Withnail and I is without doubt one of the best British comedies of all time. Anchored by a magnificent performance from Richard E. Grant as the manipulative, drunken Withnail and littered with an array of bizarre characters, Withnail and I has since gathered a huge cult following.

Robinson reunited with Grant for 1989′s How to Get Ahead in Advertising but, as yet, has not achieved the same success as he did with his debut.

Went on to make: Very little.


1. Duel

Steven Spielberg (1971)

Fresh from directing stints on various TV shows, the young Spielberg was handed his first feature-length assignment, a made-for-TV movie based on a Richard Matheson short story, which was in turn based on the writer’s own experience with a particularly nasty truck driver. Spielberg took the story of a travelling salesman’s (Dennis Weaver) relentless pursuit by a truck and crafted a tense, stylish movie which was eventually rewarded with additional shooting time and a cinema release.

Duel demonstrates much of the themes that would become signature for the director; the everyman protagonist in an extraordinary situation, action scenes on the move and the relentless, pursuing monster. It is to the movie’s credit that you never see the face of the truck’s driver.

Went on to make: Everything




Screenplays I Wish I’d Written: Withnail and I

London, 1969. Two unemployed actors, the self-centred Withnail and the self-conscious Marwood, decide to escape the squalor of their Camden flat and head to the country for a holiday. Travelling to the small cottage, owned by Withnail’s eccentric Uncle Monty, the two men find themselves completely unprepared for the mild horrors of non-suburban life and the trials self-sufficiency. Then Uncle Monty himself joins them, with less than noble intentions for Marwood.

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 directorial debut is one of those that can curse a subsequent career. Not because it is bad, but because it is brilliant.  An extremely tough act to follow. Based on Robinson’s unpublished novel, which in turn was based on his own experiences as a young actor, Withnail and I is without doubt one of the best British comedies of all time. Anchored by a magnificent performance from Richard E. Grant as the manipulative, drunken Withnail and littered with an array of bizarre characters, Withnail and I has stood the test of time perfectly and gathered a huge cult following, not to mention its own drinking game, along the way.

However, it is one of a long line of classic movies that almost didn’t get made. Three days into shooting one of the producers threatened to close the film down, so unimpressed was he with the script. This seems insane in retrospect since Robinson’s screenplay is one of Withnail and I’s biggest strengths. Full of rich, eminently quotable dialogue, all delivered with utter panache by the likes of Grant, Paul McGann and Richard Griffiths, there is an inherent Englishness to Withnail and I that I adore. These are the kind of characters, and style of speech, which you would not find anywhere else in the world.

We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.

Withnail and I is celebration of life’s eccentrics, in all their unkempt, unyielding and unproductive glory. But it also mourns the passing of an era, as all the hopes and dreams of the sixties breathed their last gasp. In the words of Danny the drug dealer, ‘We are at the end of an age. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is nearly over. They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths. It is 91 days to the end of the decade and as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black’.

Here is one of my favourite excerpts, the introduction of Uncle Monty as Withnail and Marwood visit him to try and get the key for his cottage. Uncle Monty’s dialogue is exquisite.


A battered Jag pulls up outside Monty's house and Withnail and Marwood
get out. There is a rather flash looking open-topped Rolls parked
outside. The sound of a Schubert piano sonata comes from the house.
Monty's car.
Withnail knocks on the door. Monty, a rather fat, effeminate, middle-
aged gentleman, opens the door. He is holding a very large fluffy cat
and a watering can. 
Oh hello. Come in. Sit down, do. Would you like a drink?
Monty moves to the sideboard and pours the drinks. 
Do you like vegetables? I've always been fond of root crops but I
only started to grow last summer. I happen to think the cauliflower
more beautiful than the rose.
Chin chin.
He drinks the sherry. 
Do you grow?
Oh, you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating
than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts.
Prostitutes for the bees. There is, you'll agree, a certain je ne sais
quoi, oh so very special, about a firm young carrot. Excuse me.
Do help yourselves to another drink.
Withnail turns and reaches a bottle over from the sideboard.
What's all this. The man's mad.
Eccentric? He's insane. Not only that he's a raving homosexual.
There is a yowl from the cat. Monty storms back into the room. 
You beastly little parasite! How dare you? You little thug! How dare you?
Ooohhhh, beastly, ungrateful little swine.
He deposits his considerable bulk on the other sofa. 
Shall I get you a drink Monty?
Yes. Yes, please, dear boy. You can prepare me a small rhesus
negative Bloody Mary. And you must tell me all the news. I haven't seen
you since you finished your last film.
Rather busy uncle. TV and stuff. My agent's trying to edge me towards
the Royal Shakespeare again.
Oh splendid.
He's just had an audition for rep.
Oh splendid. So you're a thespian too?
Monty used to act.
I'd hardly say that. It's true I crept the boards in my youth but I
never had it in my blood and that's what so essential isn't it?
Theatrical zeal in the veins. Alas, I have little more that vintage
wine and memories.
He stands and looks at a photograph on the mantelpiece. 
It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when he awakes
and quite reasonably says to himself [He puts his hand on his heart]
'I will never play The Dane'. When that moment comes, one's ambition
ceases. Don't you agree?
A part I intend to play, Uncle.
And you'll be marvelous. [He starts quoting from Hamlet] We do it wrong,
being so majestical. To offer it the show of violence...
As Monty rambles in the background I steps over to Withnail and whispers. 
He's a madman. Any moment now he's going to rush out and get into
his tights.
Ok ok. Give me a minute.
The house or out.
Withnail stands and moves over to Monty. 
Could I have a word with you Monty?
Oh forgive me dear boy, forgive me. I was allowing memories to have the
better of me.
Shall I get you a top up?
Indeed I remember my first agent. Raymond Duck. Dreadful little
Israelite. Four floors up at the Charing Cross and never a job at
the top of them. I'm told you're a writer, too. Do you write poems?
No, I wish I could. It's just thoughts really.
Have you published?
No no.
Where did you school?
He went to the other place Monty.
Oh, you went to Eton? 

The cat reappears on Marwood's chair.
Get that damned little swine out of here. It's trying to get itself
in with you. It's trying for even more advantage. It's obsessed with
its gut just like a bloody rugby ball. Now it will die, it will die!

He storms around ineffectually.
Monty, Monty.
No dear boy you must leave, you must leave. Once again that oaf has
destroyed my day.
Listen Monty. Can I just have a quick word in private.
Oh, very well.
Later they are leaving the house. Monty shows them to the door.
Good night, my dears.
Good night, Monty.
Monty closes the inner door to the porch behind them. 
What's all this going off in private business? Why did you tell
him I went to Eton?
Because it wouldn't have helped if I hadn't.
What do you mean by that?
Withnail [Showing him the key to the cottage]
Free to those that can afford it. Very expensive to those that can't.