Famous Filmmakers Who Started Late

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They say it’s never too late to start something new. This rings especially true for late-in-life filmmakers who found success despite starting their careers later.

Most had some film production experience before they moved to direct their first feature. Many have created short films and music videos, worked as screenwriters, and production designers, or had other roles in motion pictures.

In this article, I look at 12 famous filmmakers who directed their debut feature at a late age. They were all over 30 before they had their directorial debut.

1. Alejandro G. Inarritu

Alejandro G. Inarritu is a Mexican film director, producer, and screenwriter. He was born on August 15, 1963, in Mexico City, Mexico.

He began his career as a radio host before transitioning to film in the 1990s. He directed his debut feature film Amores Perros (2000) at 37.

Inarritu’s films often explore themes of love, death, and human suffering and are known for their non-linear storytelling and intense emotional impact. 

He has won numerous awards for his work, including four Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for his films Birdman and The Revenant.

Inarritu is considered one of his generation’s most important and influential filmmakers.

2. Ang Lee

Ang Lee is a Taiwanese-American film director, producer, and screenwriter. He has directed a diverse range of films, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Life of Pi,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Hulk,” “Lust, Caution,” and “Gemini Man.”

He made his directional debut with the movie Pushing Hands (1991) about Tai Chi martial arts at 38.

He has won numerous awards for his work, including two Academy Awards for Best Director, a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and a BAFTA Award for Best Direction. 

Lee is known for his ability to blend different genres and styles seamlessly, and his films often explore themes of identity, family, and cultural clashes.

You might also enjoy Can A Screenwriter Be A Director? The Pros And Cons Of Being A Writer-Director.

3. Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was a British actor, comedian, and filmmaker who gained worldwide fame and recognition for his slapstick comedy performances during the silent film era. 

He was born on April 16, 1889, in London, England, and began his career in the entertainment industry as a child actor. He later joined a theatre company and began performing in vaudeville shows, where he developed his signature character, “The Tramp.”

Chaplin debuted in 1914 and quickly became a popular figure in Hollywood. 

He went on to write, direct, and star in many successful silent films, including “City Lights,” “The Great Dictator,” and “Modern Times.” His feature debut as a director was “The Kid” in 1921 at age 32.

Chaplin was also known for his political activism and social commentary in his films, which often highlighted the struggles of the working class and criticized the capitalist system. One of the best examples is his monologue at the end of “The Great Dictator” (1940), which I’ve covered here.

Chaplin’s personal life was often turbulent, with multiple marriages and controversies surrounding his political views. He was accused of being a communist sympathizer during the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s and eventually left the United States for good.

Despite the controversies, Charlie Chaplin remains iconic in film history and is regarded as one of the greatest comedians ever. He died on December 25, 1977, in Switzerland, at 88.

4. David F. Sandberg 

David F. Sandberg is a Swedish filmmaker known for his work in the horror genre. He gained recognition for his 2013 short film “Lights Out,” which went viral and was later turned into a feature-length film. 

As a feature film, “Lights Out” became his directional debut when he was 35.

He has since directed several other horror movies in the United States, including “Annabelle: Creation,” “Shazam!,” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” 

Sandberg is known for his use of practical effects and inventive storytelling techniques. He often collaborates with his wife, actress Lotta Losten, who frequently appears in his films.

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5. Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant is an American film director, screenwriter, and producer known for his work on independent films such as “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” and “Good Will Hunting.” 

He was born on July 24, 1952, in Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up in Oregon. Van Sant attended the Rhode Island School of Design and later moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in filmmaking.

Van Sant made his directional debut at 33 with the movie Mala Noche.

He gained critical acclaim in the 1990s for his work on films that dealt with alienation, addiction, and identity themes. 

In addition to his film work, Van Sant has directed music videos and commercials. He continues to be a prominent figure in independent cinema.

6. Kurosawa Akira

Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) was a Japanese film director, screenwriter, and producer who is widely regarded as one of the most influential and important filmmakers in cinema’s history. 

He directed over 30 films, including some of the most acclaimed and influential works in Japanese and world cinema, such as “Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon,” “Yojimbo,” and “Throne of Blood.” His directional debut was Sanshiro Sugata (1943) at 33.

Kurosawa’s films often explored themes of loyalty, honor, and the human condition. He was known for his meticulous attention to detail, innovative use of camera techniques, and ability to tell compelling stories.

He was also influential in introducing Japanese cinema to the West, and his films profoundly impacted many directors worldwide, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese.

Kurosawa won numerous awards, including four Academy Awards and the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award. He passed away in 1998 at 88, but his legacy inspires and influences filmmakers today.

7. Maurice Pialat

Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) was a French film director, screenwriter, and actor. He is known for his realistic and raw portrayals of human relationships and emotions in his films. 

Pialat began his painting career before transitioning to filmmaking in the 1960s. Pialat was a late bloomer in the movie industry and had his directional debut at 44 with his movie “The Naked Childhood” from 1969.

His films often explore complex family dynamics and the struggles of ordinary people. Some of his notable works include “Loulou” (1980), “À nos amours” (1983), and “Under the Sun of Satan” (1987), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Pialat’s films have been praised for their honesty and authenticity, and he is considered one of the most important figures in French cinema of the late 20th century.

8. Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott is a British film director, producer, and writer. He was born on November 30, 1937, in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England.

Scott started his career in advertising before transitioning to directing commercials and music videos. He debuted his feature film with the British period drama movie “The Duellists” in 1977, winning the Best Debut Film award at the Cannes Film Festival.

He gained widespread recognition for directing the science fiction classic “Alien” in 1979, followed by the neo-noir thriller “Blade Runner” in 1982. Other notable films in his career include “Thelma & Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000), “Black Hawk Down” (2001), “The Martian” (2015), and “All the Money in the World” (2017).

Scott has been nominated for numerous awards, including three Academy Awards for Best Director. He was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship in 1995 and a knighthood in 2003 for his contributions to the film industry.

9. Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen is a British filmmaker and director known for his critically acclaimed movies such as “12 Years a Slave”, “Shame”, and “Widows”. 

He was born on October 9, 1969, in London, England. McQueen started his career as a visual artist, creating innovative video installations and experimental short films. He made his feature film debut 2008 with “Hunger,” which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 

McQueen’s work is known for its raw and uncompromising portrayal of personal struggle, social injustice, and human suffering. 

He has received numerous awards and accolades for his work, including an Academy Award for Best Picture for “12 Years a Slave”.

10. Susanne Bier

Susanne Bier is a Danish film director and screenwriter. She was born on April 15, 1960, in Copenhagen, Denmark. She is best known for her work in the Danish film industry but has also had success directing films in the United States.

Bier made her feature film directional debut with “Freud’s Leaving Home” (1991) at 31.

Bier has won numerous awards for her work, including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for her 2010 film “In a Better World.” 

Some of her other notable films include “Brothers” (2004), “After the Wedding” (2006), and “A Second Chance” (2014). Bier is known for her emotional and character-driven storytelling, often exploring grief, loss, and redemption themes.

11. Takeo Kimura

Takeo Kimura (1918-2010) was a Japanese movie director and art director. He started his career in the film industry in the 1950s as an assistant art director for Daiei Studios.

He made his directional debut at age 90 with the feature film “Dreaming Awake” (2008). Despite his late start as a director, Kimura received critical acclaim for his debut film, which was praised for its beautiful cinematography and poetic storytelling.

Throughout his career, Kimura worked as an art director on over 200 films, including classics such as “Tokyo Drifter” (1966) and “Zigeunerweisen” (1980). 

He was known for his attention to detail and his ability to create immersive and realistic sets for the films he worked on. 

In addition to his work in the film industry, Kimura was also a successful painter and illustrator, and his artwork was exhibited in galleries both in Japan and abroad. 

He passed away in 2010 at 91, leaving a legacy as a talented and versatile artist.

12. Terry George

Terry George is a Northern Irish film director, screenwriter, and producer. He was born on December 20, 1952, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. 

George has directed several critically acclaimed films, including “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Promise,” and “Some Mother’s Son.” He has also written and produced many films, including “The Boxer,” “Hart’s War,” and “Reservation Road.” 

George has been nominated for several awards, including Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Awards. 

He is known for his socially conscious films that often deal with political and human rights issues.

Conclusion

So there you go! Those were twelve movie directors who were all over 30 before they directed their first feature-length movie with a theatrical release.

Their stories remind us that it’s never too late to start something new, no matter how daunting the challenge may seem. 

These filmmakers inspire anyone who has ever felt it’s too late to pursue a passion. 

Oh, as promised, below is a table with information on the theatrical feature debuts of many famous directors.

Up Next: See tips and tricks on how to be a good director.


Table with the directional debut of filmmakers who started late

Director (Birth Year)Best Known forTheatrical Feature Film Debut (year)Age at DebutNationality
Alejandro G. Inarritu (1963)21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Birdman (2014), The Revenant (2015)Amores Perros (2000)37Mexican
Alfred Hitchcock (1899)Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), The Birds (1963)The Pleasure Garden (1925)29British
Andrea Arnold (1961)Wasph (2005) – short film, Red Road (2006), Fish Tank (2009), American Honey (2016)Red Road (2006)45British
Ang Lee (1954)Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hulk (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Life of Pi (2012)Pushing Hands (1991)38Taiwan
Ava DuVernay (1972)Selma (2014), 13th (2016), A Wrinkle in Time (2018)I Will Follow (2010)38American
Brian De Palma (1940)Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Mission: Impossible (1996)Murder a la Mod (1968)27American
Charlie Chaplin (1889)The Great Dictator (1940), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936)The Kid (1921)32British
Claire Denis (1946)Beau Travail (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), White Material (2009)Chocolat (1988)42French
David Mamet (1947)The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) & The Untouchables (1987) as a writer, The Spanish Prisoner (1997) & Heist (2001) as a directorHouse of Games (1987)40American
David F. Sandberg (1981)Lights Out (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), Shazam! (2019), Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023).Lights Out (2016)35Swedish
Éric Rohmer (1920)My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire´s Knee (1971), The Green Ray (1986)The Sign of Leo (1962)42French
Francis Ford Coppola (1939)The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)Dementia 13 (1963)28American
George Lucas (1944)Star Wars (1977), American Graffiti (1973), THX 1138 (1971)THX 1138 (1971)27American
Georges Méliès (1861)A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Blue Bird (1908)Playing Cards (1896)35French
Gus Van Sant (1952)Good Will Hunting (1997), Milk (2008), Drugstore Cowboy (1989)Mala Noche (1985)33American
Jacques Tati (1907)The Big Day (1949), Play Time (1967), The Illusionist (2010) as screenwriterThe Big Day (1949)42French
John Cassavetes (1929)Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977)Shadows (1959)29American
John Ford (1894)The Searchers (1956), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Stagecoach (1939)Straight Shooting (1917)23American
Kurosawa Akira (1910)The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) & The Untouchables (1987) as a writer, The Spanish Prisoner (1997) & Heist (2001) as a director.Sanshiro Sugata (1943)33Japanese
Lars Von Trier (1956)The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), Nymphomaniac (2013)The Element of Crime (1984)28Danish
Lynn Shelton (1965) Humpday (2009), Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Laggies (2014), Sword of Trust (2019)We Go Way Back (2006)40American
Martin Scorsese (1942)The Departed (2006), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990)Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)25American
Maurice PialatLoulou (1980), Under the Sun of Satan (1987), Van Gogh (1991)The Naked Childhood (1969)44French
Melvin Van Peebles (1932)Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Watermelon Man (1970), A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM Story (2008)The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968)37American
Michael Haneke (1942)The Seventh Continent (1989), The White Ribbon (2009), Amour (2012)The Seventh Continent (1989)47Austrian
Orson Welles (1915)Citizen Kane (1941), Othello (1951), Touch of Evil (1958)Citizen Kane (1941)26American
Peter Bogdanovich (1939)The Last Picture Show (1971), Paper Moon (1973), What’s Up, Doc? (1972)Targets (1968)29American
Quentin Tarantino (1963)Pulp Fiction (1994), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Inglorious Basterds (2009)Reservoir Dogs (1992)29American
Ridley Scott (1937)Blade Runner (1982), Alien (1979), Gladiator (2000)The Duellists (1977)41British
Spike Lee (1957)Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), BlackKkKlansman (2018)She’s Gotta Have It (1986)29American
Steve McQueen (1969)Hunger (2008), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Widows (2018)Hunger (2008)39British
Steven Spielberg (1946)Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982)The Sugarland Express (1974)28American
Susanne Bier (1960)The One and Only (1999), Brothers (2004), Bird Box (2018)Freud’s Leaving Home (1991)31Danish
Takeo Kimura (1918)Dreaming Awake (2008) as director, Gate of Flesh (1964) & Tokyo Drifter (1966) as art director.Dreaming Awake (2008)90Japanese
Terry George (1952)In the Name of the Father (1993) – writer, Hotel Rwanda (2004), The Shore (2011) – short film.Some Mother’s Son (1996)44Irish
Thomas Vinterberg (1969)The Celebration (1998), Submarino (2010), Another Round (2020)The Biggest Heroes (1996)27Danish
Tim Burton (1958)Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)27American
Table 1: Notable movie directors and the year of their first feature film debut.

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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2 thoughts on “Famous Filmmakers Who Started Late”

    • Hi Zach

      Nice catch! I guess I was already thinking of his sci-fi movies, when I wrote that. You know, when you sometimes write what you think 😀

      Of course, the Duallists isn’t a sci-fi movie… although that would have been a fun twist! 😀

      Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

      Best, Jan

      Reply

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