First Films: Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese & Lucas

This is the beginning of a series of articles on the First Films by great directors. We are starting with what some call the Film School Generation; Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas. These four directors have changed the industry and craft of filmmaking forever, but they didn’t start out that way.

We get members post videos their early efforts on IQ all the time. Many are full of bad lighting, bad audio, grainy pictures and terrible dialog. After watching the films below maybe some of those member videos are worth a second look. You never know where a genius may be hiding.

Escape to Nowhere (1961) by Steven Spielberg ~ age 13

In 1958, he became a Boy Scout, and fulfilled a requirement for the photography merit badge by making a nine-minute 8 mm film entitled The Last Gunfight. Spielberg recalled years later to a magazine interviewer, “My dad’s still-camera was broken, so I asked the scoutmaster if I could tell a story with my father’s movie camera. He said yes, and I got an idea to do a Western. I made it and got my merit badge. That was how it all started.” At age 13, Spielberg won a prize for a 40-minute war film he titled Escape to Nowhere which was based on a battle in east Africa. In 1963, at age 16, Spielberg wrote and directed his first independent film, a 140-minute science fiction adventure called Firelight (which would later inspire Close Encounters). The film, which had a budget of US$500, was shown in his local cinema and generated a profit of $1. He also made several WWII films inspired by his father’s war stories.

Dementia 13 (1963) by Francis Ford Coppola ~ age 24

Dementia 13 is a 1963 horror thriller released by American International Pictures, starring William Campbell, Patrick Magee, and Luana Anders. The film was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by Roger Corman. Although Coppola had been involved in at least two nudie films previously, Dementia 13 served as his first mainstream, “legitimate” directorial effort. The plot follows a scheming young woman who, after having inadvertently caused the heart attack death of her husband, attempts to have herself written into her rich mother-in-law’s will. She pays a surprise visit to her late husband’s family castle in Ireland, but her plans become permanently interrupted by an axe-wielding lunatic who begins to stalk and murderously hack away at members of the family.

Corman offered Coppola the chance to direct a low-budget horror movie in Ireland with funds left over from Corman’s recently completed The Young Racers, on which Coppola had worked as a sound technician. The producer wanted a cheap Psycho-copy, complete with gothic atmosphere and brutal killings, and Coppola quickly wrote a screenplay in accordance with Corman’s requirements. Although he was given total directorial freedom during production, Coppola found himself fighting with Corman after the film was completed. The producer declared the movie unreleasable and demanded several changes be made. Corman eventually brought in another director, Jack Hill, to film additional sequences.

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) by Martin Scorsese ~ age 21

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? is a 1963 short film that Martin Scorsese created while a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It is a comedic piece about a writer who becomes obsessed with a picture he has on his wall.

Freiheit (1966) by George Lucas ~ age 22

Freiheit (German for “freedom”) is a 1966 short film by George Lucas. It follows a student’s attempt to escape to freedom. This student (Randal Kleiser) tries to run across the Berlin border, but ends up being shot in the chest and side gut and is mortally wounded. While he dies, he thinks about dying for freedom. It was made while Lucas was a film student at the University of Southern California.