I’m going to do something a little different today. As an aspiring filmmaker, there are obviously lots of influences that I can look up to, but I think one of the more important things to do as a director is to craft your own unique voice, while also recognizing and paying tribute to the artistically-minded people who helped you develop your craft.
So without further ado, in no particular order, here are 10 favorite directors who have, in some way or other, influenced me. Some I don’t like as much as others, but all have directly or indirectly inspired me, given me a fantastic film to add to my collection, etc.
- Nationality: American
- Born: March 27, 1963 (age 55)
- Bio: One of the most defining cinematic voices of the past two decades, Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and grew up in Torrance, California. A high school dropout who was a major cinefile as a teenager, Tarantino was largely self-taught and self-funded as an amateur filmmaker; he went through many setbacks before his first film, Reservoir Dogs, was an unexpected hit at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. Two years later, Pulp Fiction became a massive critical and commercial success, earning multiple Academy Award nominations, and propelling Tarantino to international stardom. Tarantino almost always writes his own films, and is known for frequent collaborations with actors and crew alike. He has been nominated for seven Oscars, winning two (both for Best Original Screenplay), and his films have grossed over $649 million worldwide.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: Tarantino films are synonymous with graphic violence and black comedy, but they’re also always intriguing from a plot standpoint. Many of his films feature large ensemble casts (Jackie Brown), are based on historical fiction (Django Unchained, Inglorious Basterds) or are told in non-linear fashion (Pulp Fiction). His use of music is always excellent. I personally love both Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds, which are eminently quotable movies. I also really loved Django Unchained, a hugely entertaining flick that features one of Jamie Foxx’s best performances.
- Nationality: American
- Born: August 28, 1962 (age 56)
- Bio: Fincher got his artistic influences from his father, a journalist/author, and began making Super8 films when he was still in elementary school. Born in Colorado, Fincher spent his pre-teen and teen years in northern California and later in Ashland, Oregon, where he graduated from high school. Originally working in visual effects, Fincher later transitioned into film, primarily working in commercials and music videos for prominent artists, such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Rolling Stones. His big break was with Se7en, the 1995 psychological thriller starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. Following the financial and critical success of Se7en, Fincher directed several other notable films in the 90s and 2000s, including Fight Club, The Social Network, Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher’s wife, Céan Chaffin, serves as his co-producer on many of his films.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: It’s a three-way tie for me. Fight Club has all the elements of a psychological thriller, but it’s also a fun black comedy and a scathing social commentary. Se7en has one of the most memorable twist endings of all time and an intensely creepy villain who never actually commits his crimes onscreen. And The Social Network brilliantly encapsulated the struggle over a website that changed the world, while featuring breakout performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. All of Fincher’s films feature beautiful cinematography and distinctive production design, while also boasting sharp dialogue and outstanding performances. Some of Brad Pitt’s best movies have come in his collaborations with Fincher.
- Nationality: American (lived most of his adult life in England)
- Born: July 26, 1928
- Died: March 7, 1999 (age 70)
- Bio: The Bronx native made some of the 20th century’s most defining films. Despite earning mediocre grades in school, the young Kubrick was a wunderkind as a photographer and eventually made a number of classic films as well. Known as both a perfectionist and a recluse, Kubrick’s films frequently feature both optimistic and melancholy tones, with characters that can be either violently emotional or not emotional at all. Despite being highly-acclaimed as a master of the cinema, Kubrick eschewed the spotlight and primarily lived and worked in England for the majority of his career. Nearly all of his films were adapted from novels or short stories.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: Like Tarantino, Kubrick may be an obvious choice on this list, but I’ve always enjoyed his films. While 2001: A Space Odyssey is widely-regarded as Kubrick’s crowning achievement, I’ve always preferred A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, as both are challenging films that speak much about the human condition (in addition to being extremely well-made in general). Controversial during his time, Kubrick nonetheless had many major critical successes, including The Shining, which received polarizing reviews at the time, but is now considered one of the first epic horror films. Kubrick even dabbled in domestic drama (Lolita, Barry Lyndon) and also made Dr. Strangelove, a brilliant political satire; it’s often said that the director “never made the same picture twice.” Kubrick’s films have exquisite cinematography and were also known for their evocative uses of music.
- Nationality: British
- Born: April 18, 1974 (age 44)
- Bio: Born in Dorset, England and raised in Somerset, Wright first made his mark in British TV, creating the comedy series Asylum and Spaced. Both became cult classics, while the latter began Wright’s extremely fruitful collaborations with actor/writer/comedian Simon Pegg. The two Brits teamed up again for 2004 horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, which received a limited release, but was a big box office success that brought them both into the international spotlight. They followed it up with Hot Fuzz, a 2007 action-comedy, and The World’s End, a sci-fi parody, in 2013. Together, the three films are known as the Cornetto Trilogy, because all three films feature different types of Cornetto ice cream. In addition, Wright also directed 2010 cult classic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, as well as the critically-acclaimed 2017 action-caper Baby Driver.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: I adore the Cornetto Trilogy. Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are among my favorite comedies; they both blend graphic violence with hilarious jokes and gags, while also having an authentic feel to them. Hot Fuzz is a parody of over-the-top buddy-cop flicks, but still looks and feels like a real action film and has a fun plot with lots of twists and turns. Similarly, Shaun of the Dead looks and feels like a classic zombie movie, but is still uproariously funny and has great characters to boot. Baby Driver was an incredibly entertaining ride and featured some memorable performances as well as an extremely likable protagonist.
Nicolas Winding Refn
- Nationality: Danish
- Born: September 29, 1970 (age 48)
- Bio: Both of Refn’s parents were in the film industry, so he knew what to expect. He was born in Copenhagen and also spent some time in New York as a kid. A film school dropout, Refn made several indie films in his home country, attracting a notable cult following on the arthouse circuit. His 2008 film Bronson featured a non-linear storyline and a riveting performance from Tom Hardy, while Refn gained significant critical notice for Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), both violent revenge movies which starred Ryan Gosling. In 2016, Refn made The Neon Demon, which received mixed reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, but was praised for its acting and cinematography.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: Drive will always be one of my favorite action movies, while I really enjoyed the cinematography and experimental nature of Only God Forgives. Bronson was not a perfect film by any stretch, but it was still a great, micro-budget character study that featured plenty of Tom Hardy charisma. The Neon Demon featured extreme violence and disturbing images, but still had some stunning visuals and solid performances. His films also have euphoric soundtracks, usually composed by frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez. Refn is unafraid of going against the grain, which can sometimes miss the mark, but I still have a lot of respect for his filmmaking methods.
- Nationality: American
- Born: May 31, 1930 (age 88)
- Bio: Eastwood grew up all over the West Coast and first got into the film industry in the 1950s. He soon became an icon due to his portrayal of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, as well as his ubiquitous Westerns. Eastwood first got into directing while at the height of his fame in the 1970s, and has since made numerous acclaimed films, including Oscar gold such as American Sniper and Million Dollar Baby, as well as Invictus, Changeling, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and Gran Torino. As a director, Eastwood works at a rapid pace, rarely rehearsing and trying to complete most scenes in two or three takes. Many of Eastwood’s movies feature smooth cinematography and minimal lighting in order to convey a film noir feel.
- Favorite films/Why I like their work: Letters from Iwo Jima is one of the best war films of the 21st century, and I also count Gran Torino (in which Eastwood also starred) as one of his best works. Mystic River is an underrated film that featured an excellent, Oscar-winning performance from Sean Penn, while Unforgiven stands out as a modern-day Western classic. Eastwood’s streamlined style of filmmaking frequently works to his advantage, and I’ve always thought his movies are undeniably entertaining and beautifully shot.
- Nationality: American/Irish (permanent resident of Australia)
- Born: January 3, 1956 (age 62)
- Bio: One of 11 children, Gibson was born in New York and moved to Sydney, Australia with his family at the age of 12. Straight out of drama school, he starred in the post-apocalyptic classic Mad Max, as well as several other major films in what was dubbed the “Australian New Wave” of cinema. The first Aussie actor to ever receive a million-dollar salary for a movie, Gibson pursued a mixture of drama and action roles throughout the 80s and 90s, most notably with the Lethal Weapon series. Later on, he got into directing, starting with 1993’s The Man Without a Face and culminating in the multiple Oscar-winning Braveheart two years later, in which he also starred. Gibson spent nearly a decade away from the director’s chair before making a huge return with the controversial Biblical drama The Passion of the Christ (2004), an unprecedented box office success. Shortly thereafter, he made another splash with Apocalypto, a foreign-language action film that focused on the decline of the ancient Mayan civilization. After another hiatus from directing (plus well-publicized personal problems) Gibson came back again in 2016, directing war film Hacksaw Ridge, which received several Oscar nominations.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: It’s safe to say that all of Gibson’s films are visceral experiences, featuring intense violence and breathtaking cinematography. Braveheart is undeniably a classic that helped rejuvenate the historical epic genre, while Apocalypto pushed many boundaries in terms of narrative storytelling. Gibson should be praised for using visuals to convey so much; many of his films feature sparse dialogue and — in the case of The Passion and Apocalypto — foreign languages. Much of Gibson’s filmmaking influences come from Aussie New Wave directors, particularly Mad Max creator George Miller, who famously quipped that his movies were like “silent films, but with sound.” Similarly, Gibson lets his films’ images do the talking the majority of the time, to frequently powerful effect, and his movies also have deceptively simple plots told in unique ways.
- Nationality: New Zealand
- Born: August 16, 1975 (age 43)
- Bio: Born to a Māori father and a Russian-Jewish mother, Waititi grew up in Wellington, New Zealand before attending film school at nearby Victoria University. There, he met future collaborator Jemaine Clement, and the duo performed in comedy ensembles together. Waititi directed an Oscar-nominated short film in 2004 called Two Cars, One Night and later followed it up with several indie box office successes in his home country, including Boy and Eagle vs Shark. He and Clement teamed up to direct horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which got rave reviews at Sundance. In 2016, Waititi made the universally-acclaimed adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople before heading to the Marvel cinematic universe, directing Thor: Ragnarok in 2017.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: A perennial darling at Sundance, Waititi has an entertaining batch of films. My personal favorite is What We Do in the Shadows, a larger-than-life passion project that is destined to become a cult comedy classic. Boy succeeds as both an exploration of adolescence as well as the challenges of growing up in a difficult family situation. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is both entertaining and beautifully shot, using its fish-out-of-water premise as more than just a one-off joke. Waititi’s use of humor punctuates everything he does, even in larger-budget fare such as Thor: Ragnarok. The director’s endearing goofiness and down-to-earth personality serves him well in a film landscape that needs voices like his.
- Nationality: American
- Born: November 17, 1942 (age 76)
- Bio: Scorsese is a living legend in the world of cinema. Born and raised in New York to Catholic parents, he suffered from asthma as a child and couldn’t play sports with his friends; therefore, he found a second home at the movies. After briefly considering entering the priesthood, Scorsese chose instead to attend NYU, earning both a Bachelor’s and Master’s before entering the world of cinema. Scorsese has always managed to make entertaining, brilliantly-written fare with indelible images. You never forget a Scorsese film when you’ve seen it, and there’s a reason he’s managed to stay relevant as long as he has. Many of his films focus on violence, crime, and Italian-American identity, but also feature somber, philosophical musings on life, faith, and family. Scorsese’s surprisingly diverse filmography also includes satire (The King of Comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street) and even a children’s movie (Hugo).
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: Both Goodfellas and Taxi Driver rank among the all-time classics for a reason, and The Departed is another brilliant Scorsese power-punch. I also think that The Wolf of Wall Street is an outstanding black comedy that features a tour-de-force performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, while the low-key religious tearjerker Silence also deserves more credit.
- Nationality: Canadian
- Born: October 3, 1967 (age 51)
- Bio: Villenueve, a Quebec native, began making films as a 30-something in local competitions before successfully directing his first feature in 1998. Villenueve dabbled in both English and French language productions before making his first major studio film, Prisoners, in 2013. The movie, a domestic thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, was a major success and marked Villenueve as a newcomer to watch. Since then, he’s made one film per year, most recently Arrival — which earned him a Best Director nomination at the 2017 Oscars — and Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited successor to the 1982 sci-fi hit starring Harrison Ford. He also directed the action-thriller film Sicario, which starred Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: Villenueve knows how to mesmerize. All of his films have stunning cinematography and powerful performances. Prisoners is an intense story with some eerie images. Arrival is a philosophical sci-fi movie that grew on me — the more I thought about its deeper meaning as the credits rolled, the more I loved it. And Blade Runner 2049 was a fun, well-crafted adventure that did exactly what it should have done. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he does in the years to come.
- Nationality: American
- Born: January 19, 1985 (age 33)
- Bio: The son of two college professors, Bernard and Celia, Chazelle was born in Rhode Island and raised in New Jersey. Originally aspiring to be a jazz drummer, Chazelle began to take an interest in filmmaking while in high school. He graduated from Harvard in 2007 and made his first big impression with Whiplash, a multiple Oscar nominee in 2014. Chazelle followed it up with La La Land, a free-spirited musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The film takes a whimsical and sincere approach to life, love, and career choices in the Hollywood industry and ended up winning seven Oscars (infamously, Best Picture was not one of them). Earlier this year, Gosling and Chazelle reunited with First Man, the official biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: La La Land and Whiplash are two very different films, but both are beautifully shot and have outstanding performances. Chazelle’s innovative spirit and rapid-fire dialogue complement each other well. His musical background allows him to take special interest in film scoring — Chazelle’s frequent music collaborator, Justin Hurwitz, was his roommate at Harvard. From the manic intensity of Whiplash to the soaring musical numbers of La La Land, Chazelle is able to draw upon so many different emotions in his audience. And First Man was a realistic, harrowing look at the dangers and triumphs of the Apollo moon landing with another fantastic Gosling performance.
- Nationality: Australian
- Born: September 1, 1967 (age 51)
- Bio: Born and raised in Sydney, Gillespie moved to the US to study advertising at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. He moved from advertising to directing commercials in the mid-90s and made his first feature film in 2007. His breakthrough was Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling as the dopey-but-good-natured title character who falls in love with a sex doll. Gillespie later helmed the 2011 horror remake of Fright Night, as well as baseball drama Million Dollar Arm. In 2017, he directed fellow Aussie Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, which explored controversial figure skater Tonya Harding and the infamous 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan that led to Harding’s ban from professional skating.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: Lars and the Real Girl was my first exposure to Gillespie. Despite being a box office flop, the movie had a tone that was simultaneously humorous and sincere, and had a real heart in spite of its oddball premise. “Dramedys” are a famously hard genre to grasp as a director, and Gillespie nailed it. I also really enjoyed I, Tonya, which was both entertaining and funny despite featuring a plethora of unlikable characters.
- Nationality: Australian
- Born: August 21, 1944 (age 74)
- Bio: Weir is another product of the Australian New Wave movement. The Sydneysider made Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli in his early career; the latter film was a landmark picture focusing on the exploits of Aussie soldiers at the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I. Weir later directed the political romance The Year of Living Dangerously, as well as Witness, a mystery-thriller starring Harrison Ford. However, Weir’s best known films might be the legendary Dead Poets Society starring the late Robin Williams, The Truman Show with Jim Carrey, and 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which starred Russell Crowe and received 10 Oscar nominations.
- Favorite film/Why I like their work: Obviously, Master and Commander, Witness, The Truman Show and Dead Poets Society are bound to get all the love if you’re familiar with Weir’s work (to be sure, all four are outstanding). But his earlier films are also a must-see. Gallipoli captures a watershed moment in WWI, when Australia and New Zealand came into their own as countries. The Year of Living Dangerously captures a wartime romance in 1960s Indonesia and features several stirring performances.