3 Directors Who Started From the Ground Up

Posted on: Jul 11, 2023

Photo courtesy of Frame Stock Footage // Shutterstock

By Mary Scraggs

Aspiring directors can find motivation in the stories of Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee and Ava DuVernay, who all started at the bottom before becoming the powerhouses they are today. Their paths to success were far from easy, as they confronted societal expectations, gender biases and racial barriers. Their determination, creative genius and unwavering passion allowed them to transcend limitations and pave their own way to the top. 

1. Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow’s journey to success is a testament to her indomitable spirit and unwavering passion for filmmaking. Born in San Carlos, California, Bigelow’s artistic inclinations were evident from an early age. Despite facing initial skepticism and limited opportunities as a woman in a male-dominated industry, Bigelow refused to be deterred. Starting as a production assistant on various films, Bigelow immersed herself in the industry, gaining valuable insights into the mechanics of filmmaking.

Bigelow ventured into uncharted territories, seeking out unconventional projects and exploring unexplored genres, allowing her to hone her craft and experiment with different storytelling techniques. Bigelow’s exceptional talent propelled her to the forefront of the film industry with films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. These critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies brought her widespread recognition, earning her the distinction of being the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director with The Hurt Locker in 2010. Bigelow’s meticulous attention to detail, gripping narratives and ability to capture raw human emotions solidified her status as a groundbreaking filmmaker.

Best Known Credits:

  • Director: The Hurt Locker (2008)
  • Director: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
  • Director: Detroit (2017)

2. Ang Lee

Ang Lee’s artistic vision, innate talent and passion for storytelling propelled him forward on his directorial journey. Hailing from a small town in Taiwan, Lee’s entry into the entertainment world began with his studies in theater and acting at the Taiwan Academy of Art. Upon realizing his passion lay behind the camera, he started his career as a production assistant and later as a director in Taiwanese television, honing his skills and gaining invaluable experience in the industry. 

Embracing the diversity of storytelling, Lee delved into different genres, pushing boundaries and defying expectations. His experimentation with unconventional narratives paid off as he began to garner attention and acclaim for his work. Lee’s breakthrough moments came with films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, which earned him numerous accolades, including Academy Awards for Best Director.

Best Known Credits:

  • Director: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
  • Director: Brokeback Mountain (2005)
  • Director: Life of Pi (2012)

3. Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay’s journey illuminates her resilience and unwavering commitment to telling stories that matter. Growing up in Compton, California, DuVernay’s background instilled in her a deep understanding of the power of representation and the need for diverse voices in the film industry. DuVernay’s path in entertainment began with her love for storytelling. DuVernay earned bachelor’s degrees in English and African American studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her passion for filmmaking led her to pursue a career in publicity for a few years before starting her own public relations agency, working with clients in the music and entertainment industry. This hands-on experience gave her a valuable insight into the inner workings of the industry and paved the way for her to make her directorial debut.

DuVernay sought opportunities outside the traditional Hollywood system. This included directing independent films and creating her own independent distribution company, ARRAY, which aimed to amplify underrepresented voices in filmmaking. DuVernay’s relentless pursuit of diverse storytelling and her commitment to championing marginalized voices opened doors for herself and others in the industry.

Best Known Credits:

  • Director: Selma (2014)
  • Director: 13th (2016)
  • Creator, Director and Executive Producer: Queen Sugar (2016-present)

These visionary directors teach us that starting from the bottom should never be seen as a setback but rather an opportunity for growth, learning and unyielding determination. Their stories serve as a testament to the fact that success knows no boundaries and that the path to greatness is often forged through unconventional avenues. The journey to becoming a director may be arduous, but with passion, perseverance and a refusal to be defined by limitations, you have the power to create your own narrative of triumph.

Mary Scraggs holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and is an avid fan of film and television, both through her own passion and her sister’s involvement in the industry as an actress.

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