Foreign filmmakers who mastered the English-language debut

Tom Kirby /
Aug 22, 2017 / Film & TV

The dominance of both Hollywood and the English language often means that the average cinema-goer can miss out on being exposed to talented foreign directors. 

Québécois actor, screenwriter and director Xavier Dolan is certainly one of these. At the age of 19, he directed and starred in his first feature length film debut, I Killed My Mother (2009), a semi-autobiographical story about a young homosexual named Hubert at odds with his mother. The film won several awards, including best French-Language Film at the Lumières Awards, as well as three awards at Cannes. Since then, he has directed a total of six feature length films including HeartbeatsTom at the Farm and Mommy, the latter of which being the first of Dolan’s films to achieve box office success, grossing $3.5 million domestically.

While many English-language directors have only one film debut, foreign directors have the possibility of two. When a foreign director creates, nurtures and solidifies their continuing success in their home country or even internationally, an opportunity arises to present themselves and their hard work to a wider audience in the form of an English-language debut. Xavier Dolan’s seventh film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, is looking to do just that. Scheduled for release early next year, the film follows a young actor reminiscing about the written correspondence he shared with recently deceased American television star (the eponymous John F.) and the impact it had on both of their lives. The film boasts an incredible cast including Kit Harrington as Donovan, as well as Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates.

The English-language debut is an opportunity to share one’s work with the international mainstream. While, for some, the transition can be rocky, many foreign director have gone on to make some of the most iconic and successful films – sometimes to the point of Oscar success. Here are the ones that we think did it best – if Dolan can follow suit, he’ll be in great company.

Yorgos Lanthimos – The Lobster 

2015 saw Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos release his English-language debut The Lobster, a black comedy based in a near dystopian future where single people are taken to ‘The Hotel’ by the laws of ‘The City’ to find romantic partners within 45 days. The plot twist? If they don’t, they face transmogrification into an animal of their choice (“a Lobster is an excellent choice”). Okay, so Tinder doesn’t exist in this dystopia, but the film itself won Lanthimos a host of Oscar nominations, the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the European Film Award for Best Screenwriter, all while rejuvenating Colin Farrell’s career in the process. The pair will next be seen together again later in the year, along with Nicole Kidman, in Lanthimos’ second English film The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. The psychological horror already secured the Best Screenplay award at Cannes Film Festival, so expect great – and suitably strange – things.

Foreign filmmakers who mastered the English-language debut

J. A. Bayona – The Impossible

It’s hard to believe that the Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster of 2004 was thirteen years ago. Fast forward to 2012, a powerful disaster film based on the experience of survivor María Belón and her family named The Impossible gave Spanish director J. A. Bayona his English-language debut. The film follows a tourist family on holiday in Thailand and the chaotic aftermath of the disaster and the destruction that followed. Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and a young Tom Holland all feature in the striking drama that, thanks to Bayona’s striking direction, helps to portray the intensity and horror of the disaster to viewers. The exposure and acclaim Bayona received from the success of his English-language debut propelled him straight into the thoughts of the Hollywood big league. You’ll next see him directing the fifth instalment in the Jurassic Park series – it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

Foreign filmmakers who mastered the English-language debut

Tomas Alfredson – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson had international success with his adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In. For his follow-up, he brought John le Carré’s critically acclaimed espionage novel to the big screen back in 2011, for his first crack at an English-language feature. Tinker Taylor, set during the high tension years of the Cold War, tells the story of spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman) as he is forced out of semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet secret agent within MI6. With a cast of big names alongside Oldman, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, it was a brave move from Alfredson for an English debut. Nonetheless, it was both a massive critical and commercial success earning three Oscar nominations and winning a further total of thirty-five awards. Alfredson is set to release another novel adaption The Snowman towards the end of the year, starring Michael Fassbender. Clearly, he’s got a taste for it.

Foreign filmmakers who mastered the English-language debut

Ang Lee – Sense and Sensibility  

We should all be familiar with Emma Thompson’s performance as Elinor when she’s proposed to by Edward (Hugh Grant) – or, more importantly, the noise she makes when asked to marry him. As Dawn French once coined it in the penultimate episode of the Vicar of Dibley: “it’s like she’s giving birth to some ginormous baby”.  It’s funny that something so quintessentially (and painfully) British was, in fact, the work of Taiwanese director Ang Lee. In Lee’s English-language debut, the 1995 film tells the story of three sisters – the Dashwoods – following the death of their fathers, having inherited nothing. The director’s incredible attention to detail in every scene allowed him not only to show how to make an English-language debut a success, but how to do a period drama correctly. The film was a commercial success, winning an Oscar and helping Ang Lee to become one of today greatest contemporary filmmakers,. Without Sense and Sensibility, we’d probably never have had Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi – and that just doesn’t bare thinking about. 

Foreign filmmakers who mastered the English-language debut

Alfonso Cuaron – A Little Princess 

Even if you don’t know the name, you’ll know the work. In 1995 the Mexican director released his English-language debut A Little Princess, after gaining some success directing his first feature length film in 1991 and episodes of several series including Fallen Angels in 1993 where he first worked with Alan Rickman. Set during the First World War, A Little Princess follows a young girl who is made to serve at a New York boarding school upon receiving news that her father has been killed in action. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards for best cinematography and art direction and won second place for best picture at the LA Film Critics Association Awards. This achievement helped launch Cuaron’s career and enabled him further success directing the third Harry Potter film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, Children of Men in 2006 and, most recently, the all-conquering space thriller Gravity in 2013. Need proof that things are going well for him? Metacritic recently named him the Best Director of the 21st century. 

Foreign filmmakers who mastered the English-language debut

Words by Tom Kirby

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