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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, production designers or had other roles in motion pictures.
But you no longer have to start as a runner at 16 and work your way up to succeed in the film industry. There is room for late bloomers too.
In this article, I look at 12 famous filmmakers who directed their debut feature at a late age. In fact, they were all over 30 before they had their directorial debut.
At the end of the article, you’ll find a comprehensive table of famous directors, including the name and year of their first movie (feature) and more.
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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.
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 made his film debut 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 widely 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 work in film, Van Sant has also 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 the history of cinema.
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, and 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 and accolades, 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 career as a painter 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 made his feature film debut with the science fiction movie “The Duellists” in 1977, which won 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 in 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 ‘Dreaming Awake,’ praised for its beautiful cinematography and poetic storytelling.
Throughout his career, Kimura worked on over 200 films as an art director, 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.
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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 are a reminder 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 you can find a table with information on the theatrical feature debut of many famous directors.
|Director (Birth Year)||Best Known for||Theatrical Feature Film Debut (year)||Age at Debut||Nationality|
|Alejandro G. Inarritu (1963)||21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Birdman (2014), The Revenant (2015)||Amores Perros (2000)||37||Mexican|
|Alfred Hitchcock (1899)||Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), The Birds (1963)||The Pleasure Garden (1925)||29||British|
|Andrea Arnold (1961)||Wasph (2005) – short film, Red Road (2006), Fish Tank (2009), American Honey (2016)||Red Road (2006)||45||British|
|Ang Lee (1954)||Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hulk (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Life of Pi (2012)||Pushing Hands (1991)||38||Taiwan|
|Ava DuVernay (1972)||Selma (2014), 13th (2016), A Wrinkle in Time (2018)||I Will Follow (2010)||38||American|
|Brian De Palma (1940)||Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Mission: Impossible (1996)||Murder a la Mod (1968)||27||American|
|Charlie Chaplin (1889)||The Great Dictator (1940), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936)||The Kid (1921)||32||British|
|Claire Denis (1946)||Beau Travail (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), White Material (2009)||Chocolat (1988)||42||French|
|David Mamet (1947)||The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) & The Untouchables (1987) as a writer, The Spanish Prisoner (1997) & Heist (2001) as a director||House of Games (1987)||40||American|
|David F. Sandberg (1981)||Lights Out (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), Shazam! (2019), Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023).||Lights Out (2016)||35||Swedish|
|Éric Rohmer (1920)||My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire´s Knee (1971), The Green Ray (1986)||The Sign of Leo (1962)||42||French|
|Francis Ford Coppola (1939)||The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)||Dementia 13 (1963)||28||American|
|George Lucas (1944)||Star Wars (1977), American Graffiti (1973), THX 1138 (1971)||THX 1138 (1971)||27||American|
|Georges Méliès (1861)||A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Blue Bird (1908)||Playing Cards (1896)||35||French|
|Gus Van Sant (1952)||Good Will Hunting (1997), Milk (2008), Drugstore Cowboy (1989)||Mala Noche (1985)||33||American|
|Jacques Tati (1907)||The Big Day (1949), Play Time (1967), The Illusionist (2010) as screenwriter||The Big Day (1949)||42||French|
|John Cassavetes (1929)||Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977)||Shadows (1959)||29||American|
|John Ford (1894)||The Searchers (1956), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Stagecoach (1939)||Straight Shooting (1917)||23||American|
|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)||33||Japanese|
|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)||28||Danish|
|Lynn Shelton (1965)||Humpday (2009), Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Laggies (2014), Sword of Trust (2019)||We Go Way Back (2006)||40||American|
|Martin Scorsese (1942)||The Departed (2006), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990)||Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967)||25||American|
|Maurice Pialat||Loulou (1980), Under the Sun of Satan (1987), Van Gogh (1991)||The Naked Childhood (1969)||44||French|
|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)||37||American|
|Michael Haneke (1942)||The Seventh Continent (1989), The White Ribbon (2009), Amour (2012)||The Seventh Continent (1989)||47||Austrian|
|Orson Welles (1915)||Citizen Kane (1941), Othello (1951), Touch of Evil (1958)||Citizen Kane (1941)||26||American|
|Peter Bogdanovich (1939)||The Last Picture Show (1971), Paper Moon (1973), What’s Up, Doc? (1972)||Targets (1968)||29||American|
|Quentin Tarantino (1963)||Pulp Fiction (1994), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Inglorious Basterds (2009)||Reservoir Dogs (1992)||29||American|
|Ridley Scott (1937)||Blade Runner (1982), Alien (1979), Gladiator (2000)||The Duellists (1977)||41||British|
|Spike Lee (1957)||Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), BlackKkKlansman (2018)||She’s Gotta Have It (1986)||29||American|
|Steve McQueen (1969)||Hunger (2008), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Widows (2018)||Hunger (2008)||39||British|
|Steven Spielberg (1946)||Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982)||The Sugarland Express (1974)||28||American|
|Susanne Bier (1960)||The One and Only (1999), Brothers (2004), Bird Box (2018)||Freud’s Leaving Home (1991)||31||Danish|
|Takeo Kimura (1918)||Dreaming Awake (2008) as director, Gate of Flesh (1964) & Tokyo Drifter (1966) as art director.||Dreaming Awake (2008)||90||Japanese|
|Terry George (1952)||In the Name of the Father (1993) – writer, Hotel Rwanda (2004), The Shore (2011) – short film.||Some Mother’s Son (1996)||44||Irish|
|Thomas Vinterberg (1969)||The Celebration (1998), Submarino (2010), Another Round (2020)||The Biggest Heroes (1996)||27||Danish|
|Tim Burton (1958)||Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)||Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)||27||American|
About the author:
Jan Sørup is a 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.