Breakout Films Birth Future Filmmaker Stars

James White
Christopher Abbott, best known for his role in the HBO series “Girls,” gives a breakthrough performance as the film’s troubled namesake in “James White.”

The perceptive independent drama “James White,” the January 8 selection for Filmworks at the historic Tower Theatre, has been a festival breakthrough for both its lead actor Christopher Abbott and writer-director Josh Mond.

Critic Stephen Holden of The New York Times calls the movie an “abrasive portrait of contemporary New York as a place of noise and nerve-rattling turmoil [that] captures the mood of the city more accurately than any recent film I can think of.” Holden observes too that “the jagged camera work exacerbates the film’s jarring sense of immediacy.”

Already a winner at both the 2015 Sundance and AFI festivals and now nominated for multiple honors at the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards, Mond’s debut feature plays as a haunting semi-autobiographical portrait of a dying mother and her son’s struggle with coming to terms with reality.

Mostly known in indie circles as a producer, Mond’s mounting success with “James White” seems to indicate bigger things to come. Here’s a look at three filmmakers whose breakout freshman films paved the way for industry success.

“Reservoir Dogs”

It seems fitting to start this list with Quentin Tarantino, one of the most polarizing and game-changing filmmakers making movies. He exploded onto the scene with his 1992 cult hit “Reservoir Dogs.

Tarantino’s genre-bending film of a heist gone wrong encompasses dark comedy, unabashed violence, and future trademarks of the American filmmaker: jumpy soundtracks, brash language, jumbled chronology, and clever pop culture references.

Written and directed by a then relatively unknown filmmaker, the former video store employee seemed to have absorbed everything he knew about films and churned out a neo-noir flick with a stellar cast including Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, and even himself.

Nearly every film of Tarantino’s since Sundance has been a widely applauded work from both audiences and critics, not to mention successful at the box office.

“She’s Gotta Have It”

The films of Spike Lee have been a force of nature when it comes to truly examining modern, urban life in the Black community. Shot in two weeks — an impressive feat in itself — the 1986 portrayal in “She’s Gotta Have It” of a young, independent New Yorker represented a woman of color’s voice previously unheard of.

Nola Darling is a beautiful Brooklynite who strives to attain what most men her age already have: guilt-free sexual independence. Darling’s multiple suitors — the courteous Jamie Overstreet, the vain model Greer Childs, and the childish chatterbox Mars Blackmon (played by Lee himself) — seek to change her bold attitude.

The film led to multiple honors at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Cannes Film Festival, as well as high praise from The New York Times as “a groundbreaking film for African-American filmmakers and a welcome change in the representation of Blacks in American cinema, depicting men and women of color not as pimps and whores, but as intelligent, upscale urbanites.”

“The Virgin Suicides”

Coming from a famous family can be a lot of pressure, but for second-generation filmmaker Sofia Coppola, her directing debut in “The Virgin Suicides” took many by surprise in the best of ways.

Coppola faithfully adapted the 1999 drama from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name and subtly captured a stark moment of teenage transformation. Set in the suburbanite world of Detroit during the 1970s, the five Lisbon sisters capture the imaginations of a group of boys and leave them obsessed decades after tragedies strike the Lisbon family.

Coppola’s filmmaking abilities marry style and substance, sensibly combining a refined aesthetic with themes of crisis. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert described Coppola’s stripped-down direction as having “the courage to play it in a minor key. She doesn’t hammer home ideas and interpretations. She is content with the air of mystery and loss that hangs in the air like bitter poignancy.”

It didn’t take long for Coppola to join her family’s award-winning success. Her sophomore 2003 feature “Lost in Translation” soon received four Academy Award nominations, with Coppola winning Best Original Screenplay 2004.


Yvette Mancilla studies multimedia journalism at Fresno State. In fall 2015, she served as the Filmworks marketing intern.