If you had a sense of imagination growing up (and if you didn’t, I feel bad for you), you probably made up stories. Often shamelessly ripped off from movies and TV you were watching, you wrote these fantasies in notebooks during math class. They often became games you played with your friends, stories you told around a campfire, or plots that your toys would act out. In the end, you most likely threw such (literally) child’s play away to move on to the wonderful joys that came with adolescence.
Whatever happened to those stories, I guarantee none of them turned into movies. However, there were a select few kids who took such dreams and years later, they ended up as movies. Most of these “kids” would go on to become giants in the movie business, but I’m not trying to give them a child prodigy tag. They were often just ordinary, bored suburban kids just like you. The difference was that they became hell bent on turning those dreams into Hollywood celluloid.
Why 9? Because I know you don’t care enough to read 10.
1. The Fifth Element- Luc Besson
Growing up in a country town about forty miles outside of Paris with no TV, 16-year-old Luc Besson had little entertainment at his disposal. So what is he going to do? Since it’s two years before Star Wars, he makes up a science fiction story about a wild cab driver of course! Besson originally wrote the story as a book, but it differed from the finished product; it was set in the year 2300 and Bruce Willis’ character was named Zaltman Bleros. The Fifth Element wouldn’t be the only story he would write in this bored state; according to IMDb, he wrote 30 scripts before he reached the age of 20!
Throughout the intervening years he turned it into a screenplay (a draft in 1991 ballooned to 400 pages!). The Fifth Element became a film in 1997, and launched Besson into international notoriety. Even if it did come out 20 years after Star Wars, the hipster in Besson can say that he revived science fiction before Lucas did.
2. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind- Steven Spielberg
What? The most influential director of all time started making movies at the age of 11? Yes. Big shocker. What should be a shocker is that at 17, Spielberg made a feature length movie. That movie was Firelight (the main image for this article is Spielberg filming a scene from that movie). Firelight is about a fictional town in Arizona called Freeport (Spielberg was living outside of Phoenix), where residents are being abducted by UFO’s; the aliens are trying to create a human zoo. Although Spielberg became successful at a young age (Jaws came out when he was just 28), watching the available clips on YouTube from the film don’t exactly show an auteur in the making; it more closely resembles something made by Ed Wood.
Spielberg would go on to say that Firelight is one of the five worst movies ever made, but he kept reworking his UFO story. Possibly the most important element he added to the story was making the aliens benign instead of malevolent. One could say that in doing so, Spielberg was shaking off his early science fiction influences. Most 1950s science fiction films (apart from a few exceptions) were about malevolent beings.
What started out as a weekend project morphed into a film that along with Star Wars, redefined science fiction cinema in the same year. Although Star Wars was more successful, Close Encounters was definitely more personal, and arguably the most personal film he ever made.
3. An American Werewolf In London- John Landis
Unlike Besson and Spielberg who were using their imaginations to try to escape, Landis unwittingly escaped into another world. Having worked as a production assistant since dropping out of high school, the 18-year-old went to the former Yugoslavia to work on the World War II comedy Kelly’s Heroes. One day while driving, Landis and a crew member witnessed gypsies on the side of the road. They found out they were burying a dead man feet first, so he doesn’t get up and “cause mischief.” For a self-proclaimed fan of the classic Universal monster films, it must’ve been shocking for him to deal with a scene that could’ve been right out of one of those films.
Terrified by the idea of the man getting up, Landis dealt with this incident by writing the first draft of An American Werewolf in London during the remainder of the shoot. When he took it back to Hollywood, he had difficulty selling it; studio executives called it “too funny to be scary” or “too scary to be funny.” In addition, his pal Rick Baker was working on how to make the werewolf transformation scene work.
Twelve years later in 1981, Universal released An American Werewolf In London (it must’ve been a thrill for Landis that Universal was responsible for HIS monster movie). It must’ve been a shock to people who knew him as the director of Animal House and The Blues Brothers. To their credit, Universal did market the film with the tagline: “From the director of Animal House…a different kind of animal.”
4. Edward Scissorhands- Tim Burton
When most filmmakers make a movie, it tends to be an escapist venture. Not for Tim Burton. He’s one of the few filmmakers where it seems that the worlds of his movies and his own personal world collide. They must’ve collided very early, because the conception of Edward Scissorhands came to Tim Burton when he was an alienated teenager living in Burbank, California.
Burton was always more of a visual artist than a writer, so it’s no surprise that Edward Scissorhands came to him as a drawing. Nothing complicated either; it was just simply a drawing of a tall, thin man with blades for fingers. Burton said he wrote it to depict how he felt as a social outcast. He wasn’t able to fit a story with it the drawing until he met novelist Caroline Thompson during pre-production on Beetlejuice. When the movie was released in 1990, it accomplished two main things for Burton; it became his most personal movie to date and it started his collaboration with Johnny Depp (can you believe that Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks were considered?!).
5. Boogie Nights- Paul Thomas Anderson
The idea for a movie about the porn industry could have only come to a 17-year-old. At the same time he was idolizing French auteur Francois Truffaut, Anderson idolized the porn films that starred John Holmes. Like Spielberg, Anderson actually took his idea and shot it. It’s called The Dirk Diggler Story, and he was so proud of it that he put a quote from it next to his high school senior picture: “All I ever wanted was a cool ’78 Vette and a house in the country- Dirk Diggler.”
However, he couldn’t have been that happy with it. According to the introduction to the screenplay of Boogie Nights, he tried in earnest to mold it into a feature idea in the mockumentary vein of This is Spinal Tap! Realizing that he couldn’t beat it, he got inspired by old time musicals like 42nd Street and decided to turn it into a rise and fall story. After the release of his first film Hard Eight, he wrote a 300 page version with that in mind.
145 pages cut and ten years after he made The Dirk Diggler Story, Boogie Nights was released in 1997. Anderson wound up getting nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Not bad for a testosterone filled idea!
6. The Abyss- James Cameron
It’s a cliche that most creative artists are terrible at school; James Cameron was one of the few exceptions to that. Although he was a science fiction connoisseur (he loved 2001: A Space Odyssey), he loved real science more; he got his idea for The Abyss from a biology lecture he attended when he was 17. The lecture was about a man named Francis J. Falejczyk, who became the first human being to breathe fluid through his lungs. Inspired by the lecture, Cameron wrote a short story about a group of scientists working in an underwater laboratory.
He revisited his idea years later when he saw a National Geographic movie about deep sea vehicles. Fortunately at that time, Cameron was a Hollywood hotshot; he had directed The Terminator and was in the midst of shooting Aliens. After changing the characters to be blue collar workers, he finished a script by the end of 1987. Compared to Cameron’s other efforts, it underperformed at the box office. In addition, the shoot was torturous and difficult; Cameron himself almost died during the shoot. I guess he felt that strongly about bringing his childhood dreams to life that he put his life on the line!
7. Platoon- Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone was one of many young, conservative American kids who wanted to follow their father’s World War II footsteps by fighting in Vietnam. While Stone escaped with his life, Platoon‘s tagline is “the first casualty of war is innocence” and he certainly lost just that. He did gain something from the jungles; before the war, he had aspired to be a novelist. Realizing that paper would get wet in the jungle, he decided to be a filmmaker instead.
Coming home, he wrote an autobiographical screenplay called Break. In his youthful bravado, he sent the script to Jim Morrison, front man for The Doors. Unfortunately, Morrison died in 1971, and the script was sent back to Stone. Spurned on, he eventually developed Break into The Platoon. The script became a blessing and a curse for him: on one hand, Hollywood didn’t want to make it because of Vietnam being an uncomfortable subject. When The Deer Hunter and Apocalpyse Now came out, Hollywood felt it didn’t need any more Vietnam films. However, he got hired on Midnight Express, the film that won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay because of The Platoon.
Eventually, Stone made El Salvador, and then everyone wanted to be in business with him. Platoon took home Oscars for Best Picture and Director, and for my money, it’s way better than The Deer Hunter.
8. Superbad- Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Rogen and Goldberg win the award on this list for being the youngest when they came up with their idea; they were 13 when they came up with the original concept for Superbad (if you don’t like Superbad, you could say that’s easy to tell). They met at bar mitzvah classes growing up in Vancouver, Canada, and decided to write a film based on their experiences there. They then spent the rest of their high school years polishing the script. What did you do in high school, huh?
Most of all, they just wanted to see if they could write a movie and because they never “saw themselves” when they were watching teen movies (yeah, I don’t remember any Canadian Jews in John Hughes films). However, when American Pie came out, they became concerned they were going to be accused of ripping the film off. They got around this, because according to Seth Rogen, American Pie “managed to totally avoid all honest interactions between characters, which is what we’re going for.”
It’s hard to think of a time when Rogen, Hill and Cera weren’t household names when it came to comedy. If you want to feel really old, this movie came out ten years ago.
9. The World’s End- Edgar Wright
The most recent film on this list, the idea of the The World’s End came into Edgar Wright’s head after most of these movies were released! When Wright was 19, he and his friends decided to go on an epic pub crawl in their hometown of Wells, Somerset, England. It didn’t quite work out that way; Wright gave up after the sixth pub and went to the house of a girl that he had been seeing. Terrified after being scared by her mother, he ran into a clothesline and knocked himself out. Two years later he wrote a feature script based on that event called Crawl. He intended to make it, but never did.
Despite his newfound success as a writer/director with Shaun of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright became nostalgic about Crawl. He wanted to revisit it, but just how Goldberg and Rogen were sidelined by American Pie, Wright was sidelined by Superbad! Persistent, he eventually decided to layer Crawl with science fiction elements. Imagine if you tacked on a genre to your favorite comedy: The 40 Year Old Virgin as a western! Not that Wright shamelessly tacked science fiction on; it emphasized the alienation he felt revisiting his hometown.
It’s too bad The World’s End marks the end of the Cornetto trilogy, but it easily stands as a final, personal statement. Looking forward to Baby Driver, Edgar!