Indie Directors Who Made The Jump: From Chloé Zhao To Ryan Coogler

With the release of Marvel’s Eternals, writer-director Chloé Zhao becomes the latest indie filmmaker to make the transition to Hollywood blockbuster spectacle.

Studios have long sought out unique cinematic voices to give a new perspective on big-budget entertainment, with the directors of some of the biggest Hollywood films in recent years coming from very unexpected places. For example …

The Rider
Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

A winner for Directing at the Oscars last year for Nomadland (which also took home Best Picture and Best Actress), Chloé Zhao proved herself a master of the incisive character study with this finely etched drama about a young man living on a Native American reservation whose rodeo career is endangered by an unexpected medical crisis. A favorite among art house viewers when it was released, the film paved the way for Nomadland, Eternals and much more to come from her creative voice.

El Mariachi
Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

First-time director Robert Rodriguez wore many hats behind the camera as the sole major crew member for this famously low budget ($7,000!) wonder about a wandering mariachi player mistaken for an assassin, with wild action-packed consequences. After raising money to finance the film by volunteering himself as a self-described “lab rat” for pharmaceutical testing, Rodriguez went on to much bigger things with From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), the Spy Kids series, Sin City (2005) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).

Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

Director Patty Jenkins received effusive thanks from Charlize Theron during her Best Actress acceptance speech for this unforgettable portrait of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, whose yearlong murder spree is contrasted with a tragic love story involving Christina Ricci. Jenkins would go on to bring one of DC Comics’ most beloved superheroes to life in Wonder Woman (2017) and Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), and she’s currently at work on the upcoming Star Wars film, Rogue Squadron.

George Washington
Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

Before he hit it big with Pineapple Express (2008), Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills (2021), writer-director David Gordon Green turned heads with his impressive debut film about a fateful summer in the lives of a group of childhood friends in North Carolina. With striking cinematography and naturalistic acting by a cast of unknown amateurs, the film paints a portrait of childhood lost that will stick with you long after the closing credits.

Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

The hardboiled world of film noir goes to high school in the stylish feature debut of writer-director Rian Johnson, who would go on to studio success with Looper (2012), Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) and Knives Out (2019). Here Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a young man investigating the mysterious death of his girlfriend only to uncover a web of crime and corruption all around him.

Safety Not Guaranteed
Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

An intimate sci-fi movie unlike any other, this quirky, award-winning comedy stars Aubrey Plaza as a magazine intern investigating a curious want ad that leads her to self-proclaimed time traveler Mark Duplass. The fun is in the details here with the characters expertly rendered by director Colin Trevorrow, making his debut here before moving on to reviving a major franchise with Jurassic World (2015) and the upcoming Jurassic World: Dominion.

Fruitvale Station
Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

The success of Rocky spin-off Creed (2015) and the Oscar-winning Black Panther (2018) shone a spotlight on the considerable talents of writer-director Ryan Coogler, but he’d already proven his chops with his powerful first feature. His regular leading man, Michael B. Jordan, excels here in the true-life story of Oscar Grant, a young man in the Bay Area whose fateful New Year’s Eve becomes a shocking catalyst for social justice.

Short Term 12
Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting caught on early to the talent of young writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, who was one of the five winners in 2010 and expanded his short film into this debut feature starring future Oscar winner Brie Larson as a supervisor facing life-changing choices at a center for troubled youths. Cretton went on to direct The Glass Castle (2017) and Just Mercy (2019) and recently entered the Marvel Universe with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021).

Dead Pigs
Icon_Audio-Video_-PlayCreated with Sketch.
Where to watch

An absurdist comedy with more than a dash of social commentary, this debut film written and directed by Cathy Yan was based on an unbelievable real-life incident involving thousands of dead pigs inexplicably floating downriver toward Shanghai (where this was shot on location). Yan’s distinctive voice put her on the radar of Hollywood, and she was quickly hired to direct the knockabout DC action-comedy Birds of Prey (2020).

Related Lists
© 2022 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences