To break into Hollywood, you must be prepared to spend years of your career working on movies that only a few people may see. Just ask the famous directors on this list. Whether it’s up and coming filmmakers taking any project they can, or already established ones fighting to break out of their mold, even the most celebrated of auteurs have projects that fall through the cracks.
Some of these are low-budget horror films, some made for TV, one is even a student film with ideas that eventually developed into one of the most well-regarded movies of the 90s. This list is a celebration of those weird, obscure, and hard-to-find nuggets of cinematic treasure from your favorite directors.
Here are 13 Unknown Movies From Famous Directors.
13 Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
Most directors get their start in sub-par conditions, and Steven Spielberg is no exception. One day, on a tour of Universal Studios, a young Spielberg ditched his fellow tourists by hiding in the bathroom. He emerged afterward, took his own tour of the lot, and began making the connections that lead to a seven-year deal with Universal.
This culminated in 1971’s made-for-TV movie Duel. The movie stars Dennis Weaver as a traveling salesman who is targeted by a deadly semi-truck driver, who continually tries to drive him off the road. The 72-minute film became so popular that the studio called Spielberg in to shoot new sequences in order to give it a 90 minute runtime, and sent it overseas for theatrical exhibition.
Spielberg almost went to court over the movie in 1978 after discovering that sections of his footage were reused in the episode Never Give a Trucker an Even Break in the Incredible Hulk TV series. Instead, he opted to have it put in his contract that such reappropriation be banned.
12 The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999)
Lynch is known for his surreal, avant-garde films, which use nightmarish imagery and narratives to strike a feeling of dread in audience-members. So how does a weird, independent, iconoclastic filmmaker like Lynch make this list? By directing a straightforward, linear film for Disney that tells a simple, family-friendly story, appropriately titled The Straight Story.
Based on a true story about a man who traveled 240 miles on a lawnmower to visit his brother, who suffered a stroke, The Straight Story stars Richard Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton. The heartfelt tale was co-written by Lynch’s longtime editor and collaborator, Mary Sweeney. Though the movie has largely been overlooked by many, the film was a critical hit. Not only was it nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but Farnsworth received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
11 After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)
These days, it’s hard to imagine Martin Scorsese on a losing streak. However, after his 1983 film King of Comedy failed at the box office and funding on his next picture, which would eventually become The Last Temptation of Christ, was yanked away weeks before production, Scorsese was left in a deep, dark place. Fully convinced he would never work again if he couldn’t prove he was able to do a movie on a small budget, he immediately circled back to the script he had previously turned down, After Hours.
After Hours is a frantic black comedy starring Griffin Dunne as a man attempting to enjoy a night out, which instead results in his wishing to return to the safety of his home. Throughout the course of the night, he encounters an ensemble of crazy, interconnected characters (such as Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, John Heard, and even Cheech and Chong) all hell-bent on ruining his life.
Originally planned as a Tim Burton movie, the then unknown filmmaker stepped aside once Scorsese showed a renewed interest following the collapse of Last Temptation. Scorsese decided to tackle the project as if he were still in film school. Shooting overnights for eight weeks on a $4.5 million budget, he and the crew were forced to work fast and dirty on what would become one of Scorsese’s few comedies.
10 Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
Before making Black Swan and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Director, Aronofsky attended Harvard, where he studied social anthropology. It was there that he met aspiring animator Dan Schrecker, who encouraged him to switch over to film. After graduation, Aronofsky did exactly that and joined the American Film Institute’s directing program. Once he received his Master of Fine Arts, he reteamed with Schrecker to tackle his first film, Pi.
Pi is a cerebral, psychological thriller filmed in high contrast black and white. It stars Sean Gullette (who Aronofsky also met at Harvard) as a man obsessed with a 216 digit number that may not only have the ability to predict the stock market, but may represent the unspeakable name of God himself.
Filmed largely in Schrecker’s mother’s apartment, Aronofsky financed Pi through securing a series of $100 contributions from both friends and family, promising them $150 in return if the picture sold. With a budget of $68,000, the film grossed $3,221,152 in box office alone, so hopefully he made good on his promise.
9 Dementia 13 (Francis Ford Coppola, 1963)
Many directors in Hollywood got their start by working for Roger Corman, the legendary schlockmeister, including the future director of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola. Story has it that Coppola was acting as a sound man on Corman's production of The Youth Racers in Ireland. Once the film wrapped, Corman discovered that he had $22,000 of the budget remaining. Instead of using it on his own picture, he gave it to Coppola with the stipulation that he remain in Ireland and produce a full movie with the limited crew that remained. Being a quick study of Corman’s shrewd business tactics, Coppola pre-sold the European rights to the film behind his back, essentially securing an extra $20,000 for the budget.
Designed to be a Psycho knockoff, Dementia 13 stars Luana Anders as a woman who inadvertently causes her husband to die of a heart attack. Fearing she will not receive his inheritance, she claims he’s been called away to New York while trying to get into his mother’s will… until an axe murder comes calling.
Though Dementia 13 is often regarded as his first directorial effort, it should be noted that Coppola actually produced and directed two “nudie cuties” (essentially softcore porn) that predate this picture.
8 The Dirk Diggler Story (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1988)
Every student filmmaker inevitably turns out a movie with sub-par lighting, poor camera work, and bad acting. Paul Thomas Anderson, most recently of Inherent Vice fame, is no exception. The difference here is that The Dirk Diggler Story, a 33-minute short film Anderson made at the age of 17, would ultimately become one of the most critically successful films of the 1990s, Boogie Nights.
After becoming infatuated with famed mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap and Exhausted (a documentary on John Holmes), Anderson combined the two into a 33-minute mockumentary, chronicling the life of the fictional Dirk Diggler. Though the result isn't a great film by any stretch of the imagination, it's fascinating to see what carried over into Boogie Nights, including some verbatim dialogue.
Paul Thomas Anderson is the son of Ernie Anderson, who, after becoming famous in Cleveland for his portrayal of late-night horror host Ghoulardi, moved to Hollywood and became an announcer for ABC (best remembered for his introduction of The Love Boat). As such, not only did Ernie narrate the film for his son, but he gave him the camera and steadicam to shoot it. The production budget, however, was raised by Paul Thomas himself by cleaning cages at the local pet store.
7 Elvis (John Carpenter, 1979)
One could argue that, after the success of Halloween, John Carpenter was anxious to break out of horror and action and prove his worth in a different genre. However, Carpenter’s own rationale for taking on the movie is much more simple: “I loved Elvis Presley”. Either way, the two and a half hour hour dramatic biopic was not only a thematic departure for Carpenter, but was the first of many films he made starring Kurt Russell.
Airing only 18 months after Elvis died, Carpenter and Russell (who previously played opposite Presley in 1963’s It Happened at The World Fair) attempted to rebuild a legacy that had been tainted by drug addiction, diabetes, and weight gain. Russell looked the part, but he didn't sound it, so country singer Ronnie McDowell was brought in to record 36 original songs for Russell to lip sync. In the end, the film was a success, and a hit with fans of The King.
However, this didn’t mark the last time Kurt Russell played Presley. Though unmentioned in the credits, he dubbed the voice of the king when the title character met Elvis in 1994’s Forrest Gump. Additionally, he starred as an Elvis impersonator in 2001’s 3000 Miles to Graceland.
6 Slither (James Gunn, 2006)
Before Gunn pulled off the greatest trick in modern tent-pole filmmaking by turning a little known comic book into a box office juggernaut, he got his start working for Lloyd Kaufman at Troma Pictures. In his years working there, he not only developed his writing chops, but figured out the comedic sensibility that made genre films so revered. That was the knowledge that he took and spun into his directorial debut, Slither.
Slither is one of those few films that perfectly splits the difference between gory, gross-out horror, and incredibly well-performed comedy. The film stars Walking Dead fan-favorite Michael Rooker as he becomes infected by an alien parasite, and the man whose job it is to stop him is none other than Firefly’s Nathan Fillion.
Only recovering $12.8 million of its $15 million budget, the film was, unfortunately, a flop. Despite the disappointment, Gunn still has fond memories of his first movie, so much so that in Guardians of the Galaxy, the slug-like monsters of the movie can be spotted in a glass cage in the background of The Collector’s museum.
5 Music of the Heart (Wes Craven, 1999)
Wes Craven was undeniably a king of the horror genre, so much so that he only made one brief foray out of it. Due to the success of Scream, Craven was offered a three-picture deal with Miramax. Contractually, two of the movies would be sequels to Scream, but the third he was allowed to pick for himself, and he chose Music of The Heart.
The film stars Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari, a real life violin teacher who, after a painful separation, creates a violin program for under-privileged youths in East Harlem. When asked why he felt uncharacteristically attached to the dramatic story, Craven stated "It just appealed to so many things, I'd been a teacher. I'd been divorced. I'd lived in New York and loved New York. I love all sorts of music, including classical music.”
Originally set to star Madonna, the star departed after having “creative differences” over how to tackle the character, leaving Streep to step into the role. To nail her performance, the notoriously hard studying actress took lessons for four to six hours a day in the two months leading up to production.
4 Piranha II: The Spawning (James Cameron, 1981)
Cameron is another director that got his start in Hollywood under the tutelage of Roger Corman. Originally hired to build props on the film Battle Beyond the Stars, Cameron rose quickly through the ranks, becoming 2nd unit director on Corman’s film Galaxy of Terror. He ultimately landed his own movie with 1981’s sequel to Piranha (a film that itself was a parody of Jaws).
Not much needs to be said about the film’s plot, as it takes off exactly where the previous one left off. Basically, a group of biologically engineered piranhas are again attacking scantily clad teenagers. However, this time, they’ve grown wings and are beginning to feed on one another, signaling that they have run out of food and will soon be coming to feast upon humans.
Cameron, a director that has developed a reputation as a filmmaker who exercises control in nearly all facets, was hired by Executive Producer Ovidio Assonitis in order to procure a “yes man” that he could easily control. Things went south right away and, after not being allowed to see the footage in the editing room, an upset Cameron waited until the producers went away to the Cannes Film Festival, broke into the editing room, and recut his movie, even though he was fired three weeks into the production.
3 A Fistful of Fingers (Edgar Wright, 1995)
Before Scott Pilgrim and his Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, & The World’s End), Wright made his feature directing debut at 20 years old with a micro-budget western comedy shot in Somerset, London.
Wright initially wrote to UK talk show host Jonathan Ross requesting £10,000 to make A Fistful of Fingers. He was of course, denied. However, the editor of his local paper (who always reported on the student filmmaker’s projects) had just received an inheritance and needed to lose some money as a “tax dodge”. He financed the film to the tune of £11,000 and production got underway.
The film is largely a parody of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" trilogy. In it, the gun slinging protagonist named No-Name rides into town in order to find his rival, The Squint. After a toss-up results in the death of his horse Easy, No-Name seeks revenge. Though underfunded, the tongue-in-cheek film gloriously pokes fun at its own cheapness by (among other things) having the stars ride fake horse heads on sticks.
Though the project was a commercial failure, but it got the attention of Matt Lucas and David Walliams, who hired Wright on as director of their television show Mash and Peas. This led to his rising through the ranks of the British television, and eventually becoming the director he is today.
2 Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson, 1989)
Before making a hexalogy of films starring hobbits, orcs and wizards, Jackson made a $750,000 movie starring a group of Jim Henson-esque puppets who take drugs, fornicate, and commit murder. As strange as that may sound, the film would only be considered a departure for him if you’re unaware of his early work in horror comedy.
The film is essentially a dark, behind the scenes version of The Muppet Show. In it, we follow the newest member of the group, an innocent and well-intentioned hedgehog named Robert, as he wades the water of the more sinister side of show business. Throughout the 97 minutes, we encounter a host of characters, all of whom mirror the Muppets in someway. The best example is a very Kermit-like frog who, after serving in Vietnam, became addicted to heroin.
While accepting the 2004 Best Picture Oscar for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Peter Jackson briefly mentioned Meet the Feebles, stating “A special thanks to Peter Nelson and Ken Kamins, who were with me right from the days of Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, which were wisely overlooked by the Academy at that time.”
1 Hansel and Gretel (Tim Burton, 1982)
Looking back, Tim Burton’s gothic style of art must have been a weird fit in Walt Disney’s family-friendly animation department. Regardless, that’s where he got his first job in the industry. During his stint there, Burton created shorts such as Vincent, Frankenweenie, and even planted the seeds of what would eventually become The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, what is most often forgotten about his stint at Disney is that he directed his first live-action film, Hansel and Gretel, which only aired once on The Disney Channel before being largely forgotten
This $116,000 adaptation of the classic children’s fairy tale was shot on 16mm and starred an entirely Japanese cast. Even by Tim Burton standards, the movie is extremely weird. In it, you watch the children deal with an ultra-creepy gingerbread-man and get manhandled by candy-cane claws. It’s no wonder Burton got fired from Disney in 1986.
Though the film was thought to be lost, in recent years, it has been screened several times at sanctioned events celebrating the work of Burton. About two years ago, a copy of it even surfaced online.
Can you think of any other little-known works of well-known filmmakers? Let us know in the comments!