Next Gen Directors: 10 Wunderkinds Everyone in Town Is Watching

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Justin Simien, Rebecca Thomas, Damien Chazelle

Yep, Ryan Coogler ('Fruitvale Station') and Damien Chazelle ('Whiplash') are on the list, as they and eight other new helmers 35 and under talk about taking TIFF, Sundance and the studios by storm.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Film festivals are often where new filmmakers are discovered for the first time, and the past couple of years have been no exception. These 10 helmers, who wowed at Sundance, Cannes and — hopefully for some — the upcoming Toronto Film Festival, comprise The Hollywood Reporter's Next Gen directors list. Meet the wunderkinds who've used talent, passion and perseverance to make a name for themselves, many with their directorial debuts. Now, they’re at the top of every producer's wish list. 

CAA, Bloom Hergott

Watts went from making parody shorts and the 3D supernatural horror-drama Clown to the Kevin Bacon-starring indie thriller Cop Car (which premiered in January at Sundance and hit theaters Aug. 7) to landing one of the biggest directing gigs in Hollywood: Sony and Marvel's Spider-Man reboot, starring Tom Holland.

My first job: "Video store clerk, but I only lasted one day because the manager wouldn't let us watch PG-13 or R-rated movies during work."

Moment I knew I wanted to direct: "When I saw Tim Burton's Ed Wood. I thought, 'Oh, that doesn't seem too hard. I should try it!' "

Movie that changed my life: "Eraserhead. It was like seeing into someone's subconscious."

Director I admire: "Swedish director Roy Andersson for his singularity of vision and having the absolute best sense of humor since Buster Keaton."

Worst habit as a director: "Laughing during takes."

Actor I’m dying to work with: Tom Cruise

Classic film I'd love to reboot: "Spider-Man?"

CAA, Principato Young, Hansen Jacobson

Raised Mormon in Las Vegas, Thomas revealed her potential as a talented filmmaker while attending Columbia's film school by directing the whimsical Electrick Children, starring Julia Garner. Now she's beat a slew of other directors to nab the hot gig directing the adaptation of John Green's debut novel, Looking for Alaska, for Paramount.

Moment I knew I wanted to direct: "I started learning Final Cut Pro in high school to cut rap music videos my best friend and I made — we apparently didn't realize we were white Mormon girls. Film editing was one of the only activities that could keep me hyper-focused."

Movie that changed my life: "My older siblings snuck me into Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet as a kid. The loudness of the experience, the flashiness, the soundtrack, the stars — I fell in love with movies then."

Director I admire: "Nicolas Roeg. His movies are incredible mosaics, both beautiful and foreboding. And also: David Bowie alien sex."

One item I have to have on set with me: "Shotlist and a Sharpie marker."

Best advice: "The great photographer Thomas Roma told me to have contempt for my materials."

Actor I'm dying to work with: "Michael Fassbender. He's my [Mormon Church founder] Joseph Smith."

WME, Cohen Gardner

When injury sidelined Coogler from playing football at Sacramento State, he directed his first short film and fell in love. "Directing filled the hole that was left in me from not being able to be out on the field with my teammates," he says. The Bay Area native's 2013 Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan, put him on the map, and now he's reuniting with Jordan on Creed, the MGM and Warner Bros. Rocky spinoff that will hit theaters Nov. 25.

My first job: "I helped my uncle with his landscaping service when I was 12. It was just the two of us, so he would call me the assistant manager."

Worst habit as a director: "During principal photography, I don't really eat much. I always lose a ton of weight and everybody starts freaking out. Then I get into postproduction and gain it back."

Director I admire: "Stanley Kubrick. He made films that felt somehow bigger than the genre."

Movie that changed my life: "City of God. It was my first experience with foreign cinema, and I was amazed at how I felt like I knew and understood these characters even though they were from a different time and lived thousands of miles away."

If I weren't a director: "A part of me wants to say I'd be playing football, but the truth is, I wasn't tall enough, fast enough or talented enough."

One item I have to have on set with me: "Coffee thermos."

Classic film I’d love to reboot: "Within Our Gates"

Actor I'm dying to work with: Keith Stanfield.

WME, Frankfurt Kurnit

Eggers made his directorial debut with The Witch, a horror film set in 1630s New England. It premiered to glowing reviews at Sundance in January, earned the Brooklyn-based filmmaker the best directing award and will play next at the Toronto Film Festival. Thanks to the heat from that project, Eggers is attached to write and direct a remake of the 1922 vampire tale Nosferatu for Studio 8 and also is writing a medieval tale called The Knight for the studio.

Moment I knew I wanted to director: "When I saw [the 1983 documentary] From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga."

Worst habit as a director: "Writing scripts with animals in them."

One item I need on set: Coffee.

Director I admire: "Ingmar Bergman. At his best, his technical precision is in perfect harmony with the performances, making his technique invisible and inimitable — and you can feel his deep compassion for his characters in every frame."

Industry pet peeve: "Perfect teeth and fake faces."

If I weren't a director: "I'd be a painter."

Actors I'm dying to work with: Mark Rylance, Daniel Day-Lewis, Max von Sydow, Vanessa Redgrave.

UTA, Ziffren Brittenham

It all began with a Christmas gift. In 2007, Heller's younger sister gave her Phoebe Gloeckner's 2003 graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and she immediately fell for the tale of sexual discovery in 1970s San Francisco. Heller made her directorial debut with the project, putting British actress Bel Powley in the lead role opposite Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard. The coming-of-age drama became a Sundance sensation and was scooped up for $2 million by Sony Pictures Classics, which started the film's platform release in early August (it's earned $925,000 in just 795 theaters).

My first job: "Camp counselor for the Alameda recreation and parks department [in Northern California]."

Moment I knew I wanted to direct: "When I started imagining someone else directing my movie."

Worst habit as a director: "Letting takes go on really long. I love to see what happens after a scene ends, but sometimes the actors are like, 'OK, Mari, can we cut now?' "

If I weren't a director: "I'd be a fancy cheese store owner. This is my retirement dream."

One item I need on set: Comfortable shoes.

Actors I'm dying to work with: "Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet. Anyone named Kate."

WME, Oasis Media Group, Del Shaw

Simien's debut satire Dear White People won a special jury award for breakthrough talent at Sundance 2014 and earned the best first screenplay award at the Indie Spirit Awards. He's primed to direct the comedy Make a Wish starring Anthony Mackie for Paramount.

Moment I knew I wanted to direct: "I remember it dawning on me at around 9 years old that it must be someone's job to make all the things I loved watching on television and in movie theaters."

Movie that changed my life: "Watching Eyes Wide Shut was my introduction to Stanley Kubrick and to the notion that film can and should operate on many levels beyond just simple entertainment."

Director I admire: "Kubrick changed the medium with every film. He was relentlessly bold, unflinchingly daring and found a way to function within the film industry without compromising his artistic vision."

Worst habit as a director: "Mike & Ikes, by the fistful."

Classic film I'd love to reboot: "The Wiz. Sidney Lumet's take on it may have its critics, but it's the first film that captured my imagination as a child. I have so much love for the property and a killer concept I'm dying to make a reality."

UTA, 3 Arts, Jackoway Tyerman

After making his directorial debut with the much-loved The Kings of Summer at Sundance 2013, Vogt-Roberts helmed episodes of FXX's You're the Worst before landing Legendary's big-budget Kong: Skull Island with Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson.

My first job: "I grew up in Michigan, so whenever the seasons changed, I had a new racket. Shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing lawns, cleaning gutters. I was always trying to save money to buy the weird, harebrained inventions in Popular Mechanics magazine."

Moment I knew I wanted to direct: "I used to make stop-motion movies with my action figures as a kid. When I went to college, I couldn't decide what I wanted to do. I finally threw up my hands and said, 'I'm going to make good on that childhood fantasy.' "

Movie that changed my life: "I was one of those kids who saw Star Wars and had my brain blown into a million pieces."

Director I admire: "Lately, South Korean directors like Kim-Jee Woon, Chan-Wook Park or Bong Joon-Ho blow me away with their reinvention and elevation of genre tropes. It's incredible filmmaking and storytelling that happens to contain genre elements."

If I weren’t a director: "I'd love to try making video games. There's an indie game called Journey that is one of the most beautiful and meaningful experiences I've had in all types of media."


The son of Alfonso Cuaron found filmmaking at a young age, using his mother's beta-cam to shoot movies as a child, appearing in his dad's Solo Con Tu Pareja and A Little Princess and directing a 16mm short in high school. After co-writing Oscar winner Gravity with Alfonso and directing a companion short film, the Mexican writer-director is out on his own with the thriller Desierto, which screens at the Toronto Film Festival.

One item I need on set: "A compass my son gave me before I started shooting Desierto so I wouldn't get lost in the desert."

Director I admire: "Woody Allen. 'Admire' is an understatement."

Movies that changed my life: "Duel by Steven Spielberg, Runaway Train by Konchalovskiy and A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson. These three movies inspired the drive and concept of both Gravity and Desierto."

My worst habit as a director: "Biting my nails."

Industry pet peeve: "Superheroes."

Classic film I’d love to reboot: "It's better not to mess with the classics, but if I had to I guess I would chose The Wages of Fear by Henri-Georges Clouzot."

CAA, Plattform

Wingard made his debut with 2007 horror-slasher film Home Sick, following it up with the anthology pic V/H/S and Lionsgate's You're Next. But it was 2014's The Guest, an homage to 1980s slasher pics starring Dan Stevens, that's made him a go-to genre helmer. He's reteaming with Lionsgate for The Woods, currently shooting, and is attached to direct manga Death Note at Warner Bros.

My first job: "Dishwasher."

Director I admire: "Kubrick for his esoteric symbolism and precision, and Tarantino for his use of music and unique direction of performances."

If I weren’t a director: "Ideally I would be doing photography for those American Apparel billboards."

Industry pet peeve: "Actor availability."

Films I'd love to reboot: Big Trouble in Little China, Face/Off and The Bodyguard

Actor I’m dying to work with: "I would narrow down my top list to Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Cruise, Charles Dance and Dan Stevens again."

Career goals: "Making epic war movies."

WME, Exile Entertainment, Hansen Jacobson

As Chazelle's drumming drama Whiplash topped Sundance in 2014 and nabbed three Oscars, he went from an unknown to one of the most in-demand young helmers in town. He's focused on making his passion pro­ject next: Hollywood-set musical La La Land with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, now filming.

My first job: "Deli counter at a grocery store."

Movie that changed my life: "Beau Travail by Claire Denis. It opened my eyes to a completely different way of ending a movie."

Director I admire: "Jean-Luc Godard for never doing the same thing twice."

One item I have to have on set: "Chapstick."

Actor I’m dying to work with: Romain Duris.