Most directors complete a body of work before they try their hand at a feature film and even a finished feature with ‘A’ or ‘B’ list talent doesn’t guarantee box office gold or streaming success in the competitive landscape of the film world in 2022.
However there is the odd filmmaker whose first project hit a home run. Some of those directors include Kevin Smith with his convenience store saga, Clerks, Neil Labute’s In The Company Of Men, Korine’s Gummo, Larry Clake’s Kids, and Woody Allen’s, “What’s Up Tiger Lilly.” Unfortunately, most of us need to direct a couple of shorts, maybe a music video, a documentary, a couple episodes of television and even a few Tiktoks before we direct our first feature film and I’m not even talking about award-winning features or movies that last more than a week in cinemas. Below are a plethora of well-known Canadian filmmakers who directed short films, music videos and television, before their cinematic visions were truly discovered. Most of these artists waited between 10 and 20 years before they were discovered by either movie studios or independent producers or distributors who changed the trajectory of their careers.
Dennis Villeneuve might be known today for his blockbuster Hollywood movies like Dune, Dune II, and Blade Runner 2049 but those weren’t his first works by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. Denis directed a short doc and a plethora of music videos before his first feature which was a great effort but by no means a box office hit. The film was entitled, August 32 on Earth and told the story of Young Simone who is involved in a near-fatal car crash. As she questions her mortality, she also decides to have a baby. Her candidate for a father is her best friend Phillipe who happens to be seeing someone. He agrees, as long as they conceive in Salt Lake City, in the desert. The trip teaches many lessons about love, solitude, and self-discovery
Almost 20 years later he directed Prisoners with Hugh Jackman.
Perhaps Egoyan’s coming out party was the feature film, The Sweet Hereafter. Previous to that he’d directed a few Canadian films and a myriad of shorts but couldn’t seem to attract mainstream audiences. His first indie film Family Viewing was loved by the arthouse crowd but for the most part, the average audience member stayed away. In 1994 he came out with the film Exotica which seemed to be a bit of a crossover film for him. Next was his coming out party The Sweet Hereafter then came Felicia’s Journey which also did well at the box office. My favourite Egoyan work is, “Chloe”, starring Liam Nilsson, Jullian Moore and Amanda Seigfried. Over twenty years went by between Adam’s first short, Lost of Eunuch and the Sweet Hereafter.
Bruce’s first film was 1 hour and 2 minutes called Knock Knock. At Ryerson, he made the short films Merge and Let Me See…, the latter of which won the Norman Jewison Award for best student film at the 1982 Canadian National Exhibition and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
However, it was his film RoadKill which won audiences over. Roadkill was the first of a trilogy of road movies—including Highway 61 (1991) and Hard Core Logo (1996)—which launched his reputation as a maverick independent. Roadkill was a success with audiences and critics. Highway 61 (1991) was named Best Canadian Feature at the Vancouver International Film Festival and won awards at festivals in Brussels and San Sebastiàn. In 1996, Hard Core Logo won the award for Best Canadian Feature at Sudbury’s Cinefest and at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Deepa’s first feature film was released in 1991. Sam and Me tells the story of Nikhil Parikh (Ranjit Chowdhry) a young man living in India, but he’s not interested in the life his mom’s planned for him. So he takes a trip to Toronto, where he starts working for a hospital supply company, and eventually forms an unlikely bond with old Jewish man Sam Cohen (Peter Boretski). Nikhil even calls Sam “Zayda,” or father. But while their friendship grows, the relatives of both men become unnerved by the closeness that exists between Sam and Nikhil and decide to intervene. Sam and Me won a Special Jury Mention in the Camera D’Or section at the Cannes Film Festival. Between 1992-1994 she directed two episodes of The Young Indiana Jones, produced by George Lucas for ABC. In 1993, Deepa directed her second feature film Camilla, a Canada-UK co-pro starring Jessica Tandy, Bridget Fonda, Elias Koteas, Maury Chaykin, Graham Greene, and Hume Cronyn. Fire, which Deepa wrote and directed, is the first film in her Elemental Trilogy (Fire, Earth, Water). Fire opened Perspective Canada at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was runner-up for the People’s Choice Most Popular Film Award. Before Sam & Me, Deepa mainly directed television and short docs.
In 2006 Sarah Polley the director was introduced to the world with her first feature film Away From Her. Previous to that she was known to most Canadian as one of our best actresses as she’d starred in such prolific work as the television series Avonlea, The Sweet Hereafter, Last Night, Dawn of The Dead and many other well-known pictures. Away From Her, starring Gordon Pinset and Sarah Polley tells the story of A man coping with the institutionalization of his wife because of Alzheimer’s disease and faces an epiphany when she transfers her affections to another man, Aubrey, a wheelchair-bound mute is also a patient at the nursing home. Sarah was born into a show business family: her stepfather, Michael Polley, appeared with her in the movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and on the television series Avonlea (1990); and her mother, Diane Polley, was an actress and casting director. It was her mother’s connections that launched Sarah, at her own insistence, into an acting career at the age of four.
David Cronenberg’s first film’s running time was 62 minutes. The Sci-Fi film was titled Stereo. Synopsis: the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry is investigating the theories of parapsychologist Luther Stringfellow. Seven young adults volunteer to submit to a form of brain surgery that removes their power of speech but increases their power for telepathic communication. An unseen group of students observes the results. As the experiment progresses, Stringfellow’s theories come to fruition. Later, aphrodisiacs and various other drugs are introduced to the subjects to expose an inherent polymorphous perversity. In the end, they are isolated from each other, provoking antagonism and violence between them, which results in two suicides.
The film was not a commercial success but did keep Cronenberg working. Perhaps his two hits which put him into a different stratosphere as a filmmaker were The Fly and Dead Zone starring Christopher Walken.
The commonality between all of these first-time directors was, they spent years honing their crafts, film after film, hoping one day they’d be discovered. Hoping one day the world would notice their talent and they’d be celebrated by audiences worldwide for their vast talents.