Every new filmmaker should study movies made in the 1970s as an example of what can be done with visceral storytelling and camerwork, and no special effects. The ’70s were an awesome time for gritty, realistic cinema. It was known as the heyday of the “Director/Auteur”, before Michael Cimino single handedly bankrupted United Artists with “Heaven’s Gate”.
A little context: in the 1970s the DIRECTOR was considered king in Hollywood, and its how Coppola and Lucas, etc. were able to get their visions realized even if the studios hated what they were doing. (Note: Paramount wanted Robert Redford to play Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”). Filmmakers like Coppola stuck with their guns and made great movies that made money, so the Producers and Studios were forced to play second fiddle.
Then, in 1980, Michael Cimino directed a movie called “Heaven’s Gate”. He was given free artistic license, as his previous film “The Deer Hunter” was a critical and box office smash. But Cimino choked: the budget bloated up to $44 Million (insane back then) and made about $3 Million in box office. It was one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history, and it actually destroyed the studio that funded it, United Artists.
After that, the Producers took over, leading to our current world of “Smurf” remakes. With Producers and Studios no longer granting that kind of freedom to directors (even Paul Thomas Anderson has to fight for his next gig), the quality of films has suffered, as has the authentic voice of the filmmaker. And the “grit” and “reality” of that decade gave way to the “Police Academy” movies of the 80s.
Here’s a list of 7 hard hitting movies from that lost decade that will light a fire under your ass.
1. The Deer Hunter (1978)
A group of Steel workers get sent to Vietnam. And things get really messed up. The movie spends the first hour at a wedding, getting to know the characters, including a young Christopher Walken, Jon Cazale (“Fredo” from “The Godfather”), and Robert DeNiro. The movie also has Merly Streep. By the time these guys are POWs being forced to play Russian Roulette, you really feel for them. Absolutely grueling; if you get into it, prepare to have a box of tissues handy after the ending scene.
This movie is so darn good, you can see why UA trusted Cimino with his next project in 1980.
2. Serpico (1973)
One of Al Pacino’s first roles was as Frank Serpico, the real life NYPD cop who refused to be bought. Back in those days the New York Police Department was infested with corruption. Serpico wouldn’t take any bribes, so he was shunned by the other cops and eventually got shot on duty. The movie features great tension, gritty scenes, and classic Pacino passion. Here’s a scene:
3. Deliverance (1972)
This is one messed up movie! And a classic. Simple story: 4 suburban middle aged guys go canoeing down a river in the Appalachian mountains. They end up being assaulted by 2 terrifyingly real hillbillies. Jon Voight has to turn in “Rambo”. Burt Reynolds bone pops out of his leg, Ned Beatty gets raped. I’ll spare you that scene, but this one below typifies the suspense and excitement and menacing feel of this movie. If you watch, look fast at the end of Ed O’Neil (Al Bundy!) in one of the final scenes as a highway cop.
4. The Conversation (1974)
Not as violent as the other movies in this list, it’s still an intense and well made example of a great 70s thriller, with foreshadowing to the future. Gene Hackman (it’s Gene Hackman!) stars as a surveillance expert who begins obsessed with a conversation he recorded while spying on a couple for a client, and soon he is in danger. It’s pretty creepy stuff.
Also features Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall.
Here’s the trailer:
5. The Marathon Man (1976)
Laurence Olivier plays a sadistic former Nazi War Criminal turned mad Dentist. What more could you want? Hoffman is the innocent shleb caught in the middle of a nefarious plot. His brother, played by Roy Scheider (from “Jaws”) is some kind of a secret agent. Olivier is convinced that Scheider told Hoffman something about his hidden diamonds, and this is bad news for Dustin. Featuring an opening car chase scene between an old Nazi and a Jew with explosions and one of the creepiest dental torture scenes every recorded.
6. The French Connection (1971)
Gritty detective drama. Gene Hackman (again!) is a tough as nails cop named Popeye Doyle on the trail of a heroin dealer. Featuring the following classic car chase scene:
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Okay, so technically it’s a horror movie. But it’s really a 1970s horror movie. Compare it to the many sequels and remakes and you will find this remains superior. The final chase scene alone still inspires me to panic attacks. It’s a classic setup, a bunch of kids happen upon an abandoned house inhabited by…. some crazy mofos. But the execution and debauchery, especially at the end, is just great straight up in your face filmmaking.
(Spoiler Alert: This clip is the ending).
Such great stories, such great filmmaking, no special effects! Add these same elements to your first feature and watch how it gets people in the gut.
To learn more about shooting your first feature and starting your directing career without film school, check out our upcoming webinar by going to filmschoolsolution.com.