There’s always one film that lives inside the hearts of the cinematically minded—the one that opened their eyes, shook their world, and made them keen to the emotional, social, psychological, and physical possibilities that a movie can hold. For me, that was seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive for the first time. I remember feeling as if someone had hit me over the head with a frying pan, awakening something in me that I never knew existed. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life and remains a personal touchstone—a piece of cinema with which I have the most intimate relationship.
In The Film That Changed My Life, Robert K. Elder interviews 30 directors on their "epiphanies in the dark." After spending a lot of time recently thinking about the way in which my tastes have changed but what will always stay the same, I wanted to share some highlights from Elder’s book, that gives insight into some of the most acclaimed and brilliant filmmakers today, as they reveal the movies that ignited something in them and made them want to make films of their own.
So here are some of your favorite directors on the films that moved them the most—enjoy.
Edgar Wright: John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London
"I’ve always been fascinated by horror films and genre films. And horror films harbored a fascination for me and always have been something I’ve wanted to watch and wanted to make. Equally, I’m very fascinated by comedy. I suppose the reason that this film changed my life is that very early on in my film-watching experiences, I saw a film that was so sophisticated in its tone and what it managed to achieve.
It really changed my life. It’s informed both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. There have been moments of verbal comedy, physical comedy, and tonal comedy. And extreme violence, somehow. Something like AN American Werewolf in London, the idea of having this mix of socially awkward comedy prided by incredibly vivd Oscar-winning horror, was just astonishing—is really astonishing. Horror films never get considered for Academy Awards; it’s incredible that An American Werewolf in London won the first ever makeup Oscar."
Rian Johnson: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall
"It’s magical to me. To this day, I can watch the film and try to analyze it and try to figure out how this little movie works, and it’s almost impossible. I end up getting lost. For me, watching this film is like a kid watching a magic trick.
I’d put it up there with 8 1/2 in terms of a film that personally redefined for me what film was capable of. This was one of the first films I saw that played with form in a brave way, and it paid off.
If anything it has grown in stature in my mind. What it achieved has become even more remarkable. I hate the tendency to say, "Films today don’t do what they used to," because that’s bullshit. In any generation, people are reticent to take the risks that this film does. One thing I’ll say about today versus back then, the idea of taking risks that this film took is frightening because there is less tolerance on the part of audiences today. I’m emotionally affected by it each time I see it. I appreciate what it pulled off."
Danny Boyle: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now
"My relationship with it, and my relationship wit most films that I love, is not really an intellectual one at all. It’s a passionate, visceral, emotional, one and in a funny kind of way I learned to value and appreciate that more as I go on really, rather than try to ever understand the films.
it’s obviously made at the Everest of megalomania, the absolute peak of, ‘I can do nothing wrong, and I must just push myself.’ And that’s, of course, one of the things celebrated in the film. You do see a film made at the absolute edge of sanity, really. In terms of the indulgence that movies can induce in people. But there’s a great side to it as well because it is his ambition and its about bigness, and I think that’s something we have lost. We now watch big films in terms of impacts and scale. I’m sure we’ll get it back, hopefully. But we really lost big films, these slightly overwhelming, overly ambitious big films. We’ve lost them, for whatever reason: confidence, marketing, whatever other factors you build into it. We do see to have lost that ambitiousness, I think."
Richard Kelly: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil
"I think the greatest thing I learned from Terry is that every frame is worthy of attention to detail. Every frame is worthy of being frozen in time and then thrown on a wall like an oil painting, and if you work hard on every frame, the meaning of your film because deeper, more enhanced. New meaning emerges in your story because of your attention to detail. It is also developing a visual style that is your own, that is hopefully unlike anything that has been done before.
I think Terry has one of the most pronounced, specific visual styles of any filmmaker. He gave me something to aspire to as a visual artist but also as a storyteller, as one who aspires to be a social satirist.
In this film, what Terry was doing—the level of detail, the complexity, the overwhelmingness of it all—I guess it challenged me. I guess that’s how I’ve always been. Maybe I just saw part of myself there."
John Waters: Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz
"Girl leaves a drab farm, becomes a fag hag, mets gay lions and men that don’t try to molest her, and meets a witch, kills her. And unfortunately, by a surreal act of fetishism—clicks her shoes together and is back to where she belongs. It has an unhappy ending.
When they throw the water on the witch, she says, ‘Who would have thought good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?’ That line inspired my life. I sometimes say it to myself before I go to sleep like a prayer.
I was always lookin’ for something that other people didn’t like, or people were frightened of, or didn’t care for. I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter in the very, very beginning. The Wizard of Oz opened me up because it was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes. And great dialogue. "
Richard Linklater: Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull
"The film pulled me in so dark and deep. It was the boldness of the movie. in the era of feel-good movies, touchy feel stuff was all over the place, and man, this movie was unafraid. It was so brave to depict such a flawed, unlikable, scary guy.
It made me see movies as a potential outlet for what I was thinking about and hoping to express. At that point I was an unformed artist. At that moment, something was simmering in me, but Raging Bull brought it to a boil.
I remember telling people, some of my buddies, ‘Oh you gotta go see this movie,’ and they’re like, ‘Uh, yeah. Maybe.’ And even that girl I went with, we broke up shortly thereafter because she said it was boring. I was so mad. I’d had, like, this huge experience, and she walked out and goes, ‘Eh, it was kind of boring.’ I was like, ‘Who am I with? This is crazy!’ That was the end of that. A guy wants his girlfriend to at least appreciate that part of him. It’s every guy’s fantasy to have a girl who, if she doesn’t think that those films are great, at least can see why you like them, and tolerate it."