Passion projects operate within their own economy. One where financial gain is beside the point, investments are expected to be lost, and purity of vision is valued above all else. Passion projects are pieces of art. They exist to exist. Getting them to exist can be the problem, too.
We’ve put together 6 incredible stories of filmmakers starting off their career with a film they truly cared about — and it just so happened to launch the career of a visionary.
Before his breakthrough feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, director Benh Zeitlin made this little gem of magical realism. Set in a world resembling post-Katrina New Orleans, it reads like a modern myth about hope, courage, and relentless love. If you’ve seen Beasts, you’ll recognize a lot of the same ideas at work here, although a bit less refined (which isn’t a bad thing). Glory at Sea! is a beautiful and devastating piece of low-budget sorcery that ultimately opened the doors for Zeitlin to make his Oscar-nominated feature.
Made for just $500 on 16mm film, this passion project would soon become the cult classic Napoleon Dynamite. The great thing about Peluca is that it doesn’t just show potential it already has all the charm, quirkiness, and lovability of the finished feature film. It’s all here, in black and white. Which just goes to show you: vision trumps resources. Your vision will always be your most valuable commodity.
Soon after making this short, breathtaking animation, Wes Ball was tapped to direct the blockbuster film series Maze Runner, as well as a feature-length version of RUIN. This was Ball’s passion project. Something he did on the side while doing client work. Or, as Ball describes it: “An excuse for me to make something for myself and just have fun again.” See, Mom? Sometimes it pays to have fun.
Alive in Joberg was such a striking little concept film that it got the attention of big-time filmmaker Peter Jackson. He immediately handed Blomkamp the reins to a Halo adaptation, despite Blomkamp having never directed a feature film. Even after the people at Halo backed out of the project, Jackson still believed in Blomkamp and let him make pretty much whatever he wanted. The result was District 9, an Oscar-nominated expansion of this visionary passion project.
Christopher Nolan made this passion project with borrowed equipment while he was majoring in literature at University College London. It may lack the polish and precision of his later work, but you can really see Nolan finding his voice here his first experiments in completely messing with our minds. No studio or breathtaking special effects required. Just a well-developed and very strange idea.
Now-legendary director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, The Master) spent his $10,000 college fund (plus, the story goes, some money he won while gambling) to make this short film. If Anderson is indeed a gambling man, this one paid off. The project earned Anderson an invitation to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, and it ultimately launched one of the most notable directorial careers in cinematic history.
Passion projects help us understand who we are as filmmakers. And they help others understand it too. In all of the films above, you can clearly see the filmmaker’s vision at work. Even without fancy studios or big budgets, it came through loud and clear. It stood out. And ultimately, that’s what studios noticed. Not the filmmaker’s ability to make a Hollywood-looking movie, but a filmmaker’s ability to bring his own unique vision to life.
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