What is success for a filmmaker? Is it creating a critical acclaim, multi-million dollar commercial success, or simply making a film that they enjoy? For most directors, it is the combination of all three, which can lead to their fame and reputation. In this article, we will look at some of the most successful and famous filmmakers of all time. This includes those of the modern-day and how they have turned themselves into prestigious names in the corridors of film history.
There is a line that these famous filmmakers stand beyond. They have each changed how film was looked at in their tenures as creators. These changes have been brought about with true passion. Passion, vision and drive are some of the qualities that make a great filmmaker.
No tale (although this story resides in the realms of cinema urban legend) signifies this passion more than that of Martin Scorsese on the night ‘Taxi Driver’ received its first age classification. It received an NC-17 (similar to an 18 in British classification). The filmmaking legend was enraged, and a studio executive told him they wouldn’t release the movie at that age rating. The legend goes that Scorsese sat in his apartment all night, filled with rage. The director stayed up all night also, but as the sun rose, the sky changed colour, and he was struck. Because of this, he changed the colour grading on the film so that the blood was harder to see and more brown in the final edit. Scorsese took the changed film to the classification board the next morning and it was rated R (15).
Whether this incredible story is true or not is one thing. But this tale of passion for his own piece of art which he (and many others since) deemed perfect, would fit straight into one of his films. This shows that Scorsese, just as every director on this list, lived and breathed their own movies. It hasn’t mattered if they have gone to film school or never held a camera before. This is evident in this list, as in each of the filmmakers’ creations, there is a slice of them. So, let’s take a look at our picks for the best famous filmmakers of all time!
A list of all-time great directors normally comes with a few names guaranteed. Many would argue that famous filmmaker Tarantino with his stylised dialogue, endless homage and gory shootouts, is the first of those names. Stooped in controversies and classics alike, Tarantino has honed the art of becoming the biggest star of his own movies. The famous “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” stamp brings more people to his films than any actor could. Tarantino dropped out of school at age fifteen. He has been quoted during a masterclass as saying: “trying to make a feature film yourself with no money is the best film school you can do”.
Modern film would not have been where it is today without Buster Keaton. In the world of cinema, he personifies the word pioneer. Keaton grew up performing in Vaudeville theatre, giving him an understanding of comedy from a young age. Unlike any other filmmakers on this list, Keaton was almost always the main role of his films. This helped raise his status in the 1920’s, where he was only rivalled by Charlie Chaplin in terms of fame.
This silent film star is also the only director on this list to make motion pictures before both the Academy’s creation in 1929 and the concept of film school began. Keaton’s ability with film was all self-taught. His innate ability to make his audiences laugh relentlessly with classics like One Week (1920) and Cops (1922) earned him an honorary Oscar award in 1960. To this day, he still sits as one of the Grandfathers of Cinema.
A century forward from Buster Keaton, Bong Joon Ho’s filmmaking style couldn’t be more different. However, Joon still proves that a good story will always be the beating heart of Cinema. Joon-Ho’s most recent feature Parasite (2019) is among the most celebrated in modern history. The movie has sharp, hilarious and unflinching storytelling, and received endless accolades. It also became the first ever foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Bong Joon-Ho comes from a family of creatives. His grandfather was an author and his father an illustrator, inspiring him to achieve degrees in both film and sociology. His early years in the industry in which he faced extreme poverty helped inspire his class-commentary in widely-received pictures like Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017). Joon-Ho’s groundbreaking achievements make him unmissable on this list.
From one modern pioneer to another, Christopher Nolan is one of the highest-grossing filmmakers of the last century. His movies have made over $4.7 billion worldwide! He has directed 11 films to consistently high critical acclaim. A highly unique filmmaker, he did not attend film school, and yet has received 34 Oscar nominations for his films. Nolan is also a family man. His wife Emma Thomas has co-produced all of his feature films, with his brother Jonathan as his screenwriting partner. It is unsurprising that his favourite film is Blade Runner (Final Cut), as its influence can be seen in his time bending, atmospheric and moody action films.
Asif Kapadia’s observational style of documentary-making has influenced a new generation of documentaries composed of archived footage. He burst onto the scene with Senna (2010) – a documentary about the rise of Formula One legend Ayrton Senna. He continued to grow from there into a documentary filmmaking sensation with Amy (2015). This became the highest-grossing documentary of all time in the UK. In 2019, the Financial Times deemed him “the director who reinvented the documentary”. It is safe to say that would be difficult for anyone to dispute that claim! Although a silent voice in his films, his painstaking selection and restoration of footage to reconstruct and chronicle tragic fame stands out as an identity card of its own. He truly is one of the most famous documentary filmmakers nowadays!
In film circles, David Lynch is inescapable. The abstract artist and filmmaker is known for his impressionist and mysterious films which leave an impact on viewers. Blue Velvet (1986) and The Elephant Man (1980) are both films packed to the brim with his signature dream-like style. Lynch attended film school in the ‘70s. From a young age until his 20’s, he also struggled with speaking. He experienced what he described as “pre-verbal years” during this time. This may link to the low amounts of dialogue and high levels of interpretation in many of his films.
Greta Gerwig is the youngest director on this list. Her films often center around themes of youth (Lady Bird, 2017) and family (Little Women, 2019). She has only made two feature films, yet has received Oscar nominations for best picture for both. Gerwig was also nominated for best director for Lady Bird. Unlike others on this list, Gerwig learned her craft through acting and watching crew operations after being rejected from film school. She also cites her own experiences as her biggest inspiration for her screenwriting, which has garnered similar critical acclaim.
Another unmissable name, it is difficult to know where to begin with Stanley Kubrick. A man who in his life, tackled nearly every genre. War, Sci-Fi, Historical epics, Drama… you name it. While also a creative driving force with his films, his revolutionary technical achievements in film cannot be overlooked. His unprecedented use of slit scan photography and front screen projection in the final sequence of his space epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey will not be forgotten for as long as film is still being made. Despite not going to film school, Kubrick’s startling intelligence was an important factor in his ascendancy to the top. His IQ is reportedly sitting at an astounding 200!
The highest grossing famous filmmaker of all time, Spielberg has truly changed film and the way cinema is seen as an event through the course of his incredible 30+ feature film career. Spielberg transitioned the modern movie world from that of the dying old Hollywood of the ‘50s and ‘60s. His fantastic understanding of audience pathos and catharsis has led him to the hearts of millions of families. He has so many classics that even somebody who doesn’t watch movies could name them! Spielberg has also impressed in his career with his ethical decisions, such as taking no pay from the film Schindler’s List (1993) and setting up The Righteous Persons Foundation (to which he donated $53 million). Spielberg did not get a film degree until 2002, which was 20 years after the release of E.T in 1982!
Jordan Peele is another young filmmaker with only a few features under his belt (Get Out, 2017 and Us, 2019). However, like Greta Gerwig, Peele has an incredibly high success rate. Get Out won large at the 90th Oscars too, with Peele becoming the first person of colour to win the award for best original screenplay. Promoting diversity in his films, Peele’s importance in the film industry cannot be underestimated. Peele transitioned from a comic and actor in his earlier career to a filmmaker, and has mentioned in interviews that he sees no turning back to acting as directing for him is “just more fun”. Peele’s time on the Key and Peele show and roles in Toy Story 4 among other hit movies may make him one of the most famous directors on this list.
James Cameron knows how to make a hit film. Titanic, Avatar, Terminator… the list is seemingly never ending. So much of Cameron’s reputation comes from his ability to make films that have widespread accessibility to all of their potential viewers. Most of his tales are timeless, whilst simultaneously being steeped in atmosphere. He has less of a signature auteur style than many other big names on this list, however his adaptability may just be his greatest achievement, never failing to provide success to the studio with his films grossing $6,000,000,000 worldwide. Cameron did not take a degree in film, but studied English and Physics at Fullerton College.
Lynne Ramsay’s films combine David Lynch’s fever dream atmosphere with real grit and harsh reality. This can be seen in her movies such as the unyielding and emotional We Need To Talk About Kevin amongst other modern standouts. Ramsay fully embraced the concept of film school in her youth, graduating with both a degree in photography and later, at the National School of Film and Television, a degree in Film. Ramsay has sporadically made films, with only 4 in the last 20 years, but each one as prolific as the next. They received huge critical acclaim such as multiple BAFTA and Palme D’or nominations. A filmmaker who creates with such detail, but with concentration on quality over quantity, her rebellion against the status quo means every one of her movies demands anticipation.
Francis Ford Coppola was a defining voice of the 1970’s, and New Hollywood in general. IMDB rates two of his all time classics The Godfather and The Godfather II as number 2 and 3 in the popular all time rankings, only behind The Shawshank Redemption. The Godfather Part II was also the first sequel of all time to win Best Picture, and one of two sequels ever to have won it (the other being Lord of the Rings: Return of The King). Coppola retired in 2015, but his ongoing impact on the film industry is forever noteworthy. He comes from a very film driven family, with his nephews being actors Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, and his daughter Sofia Coppola being a successful filmmaker in her own right.
In an era of stagnation, Alfred Hitchcock started a film movement. Specifically, that of the camera, so much so that the term ‘Hitchcockian’ is one of the most used in the annals of film studies. He defined the perspective of the spectator, using point of view angles in legendary pieces of cinema such as Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959), breaking free of the studio system’s firm clench on creativity. Hitchcock was knighted only a year before his death. It was deserved, as Hitchcock was someone who took bold steps towards what would be a future that so many names on this list would revel in and make their own.
So, the list ends where it began, at the conception of Taxi Driver, where a young Martin Scorsese began his rise to cinema superstardom. Taxi Driver would be nominated for Best Picture, and in his career, he would garner 90 Oscar Nominations for his films and win 20. Scorsese has not been afraid of controversy in his career, but it is truly undeniable to call this man anything other than a master of the big screen with his unwavering talent for creating lively and interesting characters. Martin Scorsese went to the School of the Arts New York University, graduating in 1966.
So, there it is – the list showing just how many brilliant minds have graced the camera over the last decade. This list could go on for a hundred pages and tell thousands more stories like Scorsese’s rage, Spielberg’s charity and Keaton’s circus upbringing and include thousands of masterpieces. That truly is the joy of filmmaking. Film school will matter to some and not to others, as will so many other factors. This is why we have included famous filmmakers who didn’t go to film school.
The ultimate truth is that what separates each of these filmmakers from the crowd is their unique voices and how they bring them to life. All of these famous filmmakers deserved their spot on this list, which will never be full. There will always be more space on the cinema screen. Check out our article for tips on how to finance your own movie as an independent filmmaker!
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