Though you might not realize it, you likely know tons of directors who didn’t go to film school. You don’t need to attend a traditional university to study film if you want to make your mark as a director.
61 Directors Who Didn’t Go to Film School Everyone Should Know
There are many ways to learn the skills necessary for crafting compelling films. Some of our favorite directors started school then dropped out, while others are completely self-taught. Many of the best classic directors made their marks on film before film schools even existed. You’re sure to find many directors you recognize on this list!
- Christopher Nolan: Nolan made his share of low-budget films before creating some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, such as “Interstellar“. He studied English literature at University College London, but he never received formal training in film.
- Terry Gilliam: Gilliam honed his skills making “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” going on to make films such as “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He actually has a bachelor’s degree in political science.
- Stanley Kubrick: A self-taught director, Kubrick made the first big Hollywood hit in 1956. Before making “The Killing,” Kubrick acted as a director, cameraman, editor, and more for films like “Killer’s Kiss” and “Fear and Desire.”
- Quentin Tarantino: Tarantino is well known as the director of films like “Reservoir Dogs,” and he’s the son of actor Tony Tarantino. The younger Tarantino famously shared his opinion on film school, and once told people he “went to films” instead of film school. He worked on writing films like “True Romance” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” and found success at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 with “Reservoir Dogs.”
Scene from “From Dusk Till Dawn”
- Wes Anderson: The director, writer, and producer is famous for movies like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Isle of Dogs.”
- Steven Spielberg: Spielberg is simply one of the biggest names in the industry today.
- Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski: The siblings, who dropped out of college and wrote comic books for Marvel while running a house painting and construction business, named Hitchcock movies and Billy Wilder as early influences. They also looked to Roger Corman’s book, “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.” The pair produced “Assassins” and made “Bound” before making one of the most successful sci-fi films worldwide: “The Matrix.” The siblings are also the duo behind 2012’s “Cloud Atlas.”
- Ethan Coen: This half of the Coen brothers didn’t attend school for film, but he sure produced some compelling work.
- Paul Thomas Anderson: Anderson is famed for directing films such as “There Will Be Blood.”
- James Cameron: The director behind plenty of big-name films like “The Terminator,” “Titanic,” and “Avatar” taught himself about special effects and production design.
- Julie Taymor: This director drew inspiration from puppetry and movement.
- Akira Kurosawa: Kurosawa actually trained as a painter before getting into the film industry. He even creates storyboards for his films that are full-scale paintings.
- John Waters: Waters enrolled at NYU, but he didn’t stay long. He doesn’t picture himself teaching in a traditional classroom, either. After getting kicked out of NYU, Waters returned to the Baltimore area and made films such as “Multiple Maniacs,” “Desperate Living,” “Female Trouble,” and “Pink Flamingos.”
- Miranda July: Acclaimed for indie films, July is also a short-story writer and performance artist.
- Ridley Scott: Scott has worked on a number of acclaimed films, such as “The Martian” and “Black Hawk Down.”
- David Fincher: Famous for films like “Se7en,” Fincher started working for John Korty when he was 18.
- Peter Jackson: This director is pretty much synonymous with “The Lord of the Rings” franchise.
- Tim Burton: Burton has made his mark with his distinctive style in films like “Corpse Bride” and more.
- Steven Soderbergh: Soderbergh is known for directing films like “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic.”
- Spike Jonze: Jonze worked as an editor for magazine publications, but now he’s known for movies such as “Being John Malkovich.”
- Ava Duvernay: This director’s first narrative feature film, “I Will Follow,” was made in 14 days. Duvernay was the first African American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance for her film “Middle of Nowhere.”
- Guy Ritchie: Ritchie knew he wanted to make films after seeing “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in his younger years. He’s made some pretty big movies as well, such as “Sherlock Holmes.”
- Tom Tykwer: The German composer, director, producer, and writer is known for films like “Run Lola Run.”
- Trey Parker: Parker met South Park‘s co-creator, Matt Stone, while studying music and Japanese at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Fun fact: He based a South Park character on his father, Randy Parker.
- Leni Riefenstahl: As a dancer, Riefenstahl (of “The Blue Light” fame) attracted film director Arnold Fanck‘s attention.
- Sergio Leone: Son of Italian-cinema pioneer Roberto Roberti and actress Bice Valerian, Leone worked as an assistant director for both Italian and American directors. You know him for “Once Upon a Time in America.”
- Keenen Ivory Wayans: Wayans met Robert Townsend, of “The Meteor Man” fame, and learned about comedy from his mentor. It’s no wonder Wayans went on to create comedic hits like “In Living Color,” the “Scary Movie” series, and “White Chicks.”
- Catherine Hardwicke: This director (and production designer) is known for movies like “Lords of Dogtown,” “Thirteen,” and of course, Twilight.”
- Harold Ramis: One word: “Ghostbusters!”
- Wes Craven: Craven is known for bold takes on horror, like in the films “The Hills Have Eyes” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” “The Last House on the Left” was his first feature film.
- Kevin Smith: The director of “Clerks” thanks his father in film credits.
- Luc Besson: Besson wrote early drafts of “The Big Blue” and “The Fifth Element” when he was young.
- Howard Hawks: This director’s resume is incredibly expensive, spanning films like “Scarface,” “Twentieth Century,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” “His Girl Friday,” “Sergeant York,” “To Have and Have Not,” “The Big Sleep,” “Red River,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and “Rio Bravo.”
- Frank Capra: Have you seen “It’s A Wonderful Life“? Then you know this director.
- Alfred Hitchcock: Hitchcock transformed film with movies like “Psycho.”
- Robert Rodriguez: Rodriguez made a name for himself with “El Mariachi.”
- Federico Fellini: Fellini is another industry great who transformed cinema.
Other directors of note include:
- Richard Linklater
- D.W. Griffith
- Erich von Stroheim
- Josef von Sternberg
- John Ford
- Fritz Lang
- Ernst Lubitsch
- Rouben Mamoulian
- George Cukor
- Tom Ford
- Paul Verhoeven
- Satyajit Ray
- Bimal Roy
- Mani Ratnam
- Yash Chopra
- Manmohan Desai
- Prakash Mehra
- Karan Johar
- Ram Gopal Verma
- Anurag Kashyap
- Imtiaz Ali
- Farha Khan
These directors honed their skills by studying movies, working in film, and more. You can learn things like Adobe After Effects outside the classroom, too.
Whether you dropped out of college or never got started, you can take inspiration from these notable directors and continue to hone your craft today. There’s no one path to become a great director. You can learn more about film and how you can improve your skills by applying to the Nashville Film Institute.