Notbusters: Shoestring Movies that Launched Careers

Small movies that made big careers.

Before you start, no, Robert Rodrigues’ El Mariachi is not on the list. The epitome of an oak-like career sprouting from the teeniest of cinematic acorns it may be, but its astounding gestation has been well documented elsewhere, mainly in Rodrigues’ excellent book Rebel Without a Crew. Here instead are ten other examples of humble and exceptionally frugal beginnings that, via dogged determination, inspired ingenuity, raw talent, good old-fashioned elbow grease, and the odd sprinkling of blind luck, paved the way for spectacular, movie-centric success.

BREATHLESS (1960), dir. Jean-Luc Godard

“We barged into the cinema like cavemen into the Versailles of Louis XV,” said Godard of his and his associates’ feature debut. Which would be a grandiose claim for a low-budget crime flick with a schoolboy crush on American film noir, if the low-budget crime flick in question was anything but this one.

A story of young lovers on the lam (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg), BREATHLESS not only announced Godard as the most provocative filmmaker of his generation, but also laid the stylistic foundations for the French New Wave, changing the face of cinema in the process. Its influence (second only to CITIZEN KANE (1941), according to Roger Ebert) transcended the boundaries of film, seeping into the worlds of music, fashion, art and beyond. It made an international star of Belmondo and is still, sixty years on, shorthand for timeless rebel chic, referenced and imitated endlessly across the ever-shifting plains of pop culture. All-in-all, $80,000 well spent.

PI (1998), dir. Darren Aronofsky

Fitting for a film about the mystical nature of numbers, every dollar of the $60,000 Aronofsky managed to prize out of family and friends to fund his first feature was meticulously accounted for – literally. The final entry on the balance sheet reads: ‘Total Other $1,761.’ Pinching pennies is, of course, as much a part of no-budget filmmaking as McDonald’s coffee.

A taught psychological thriller masquerading as an art-house mind-fuck, PI was primarily shot in a Brooklyn warehouse owned by producer Scott Franklin’s father, and (illegally) on the streets of New York. A huge critical hit on the festival circuit, it earned extravagant praise for Aronofsky’s uniquely disquieting vision, if not his brilliant head for figures.

THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS (1962), dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Although it’s certainly true that we all have to start somewhere, you have to wonder why Coppola, then a student at UCLA film school, chose to start here, a cheapo German sexploitation movie shoddily retooled for the American market. The answer is probably that a couple of days shooting 3D footage of naked women to be woven into the film’s already tawdry fabric was preferable to a summer job at the malt shop. It was also a bona fide credit, enough to get him hired by Roger Corman, under who’s wing a clutch of other budding auteurs would flourish– Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and James Cameron among them.

AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), dir. Werner Herzog

A budget of $350,000 doesn’t exactly qualify as shoestring. But considering Herzog’s insanely ambitious historical epic, the tale of conquistador Lope de Aguirre’s doomed quest for El Dorado, was made entirely on location in the Peruvian rainforest, it’s peanuts – especially since a full third of it went straight to lead actor Klaus Kinski.

Herzog cut costs by eschewing stuntmen, flying the world’s most lethal budget airline, and using a camera he stole from the Munich Film School. The shoot, with cast and crew careering down the Amazon on rafts built by local natives, made APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) look like the Henley Regatta. But if the treacherous terrain was forbidding, Kinski was worse. A man who redefined the word ‘volatile’, he was only dissuaded from walking off the film when Herzog threatened to shoot him. Kinski stayed, and an extraordinary career was born.

BAD TASTE (1987), dir. Peter Jackson

The legend that Jackson’s cult alien-invasion splatterfest was made for just NZ$25,000 is only partially true. The New Zealand Film Board kicked in NZ$235,000 to ensure its completion, but only at the very end. Prior to that, Jackson had written, produced, directed, and filmed the whole shebang. It was shot in and around his hometown of Pukerua Bay over a four-year period using an ancient 16mm Bolex camera. Displaying the kind of dedication that would one day bring Oscar glory, Jackson also designed the film’s blood-spewing special effects, played two leading roles and lovingly baked the alien invaders’ masks in his mum’s oven.

CLERKS (1994), dir. Kevin Smith

This ultra-indie springboard for Smith’s stellar career followed the low-cost movie playbook to the letter. To raise the $27,500 budget, Smith sold off his treasured comic book collection, raided his college fund, maxed out a deck of credit cards, and spent the insurance money owed to his best friend and co-star Jason Mewes for a car he lost in a flood.

Characters, action and (filthy) dialogue were drawn directly from Smith’s life, and he further economized by shooting at night in the New Jersey convenience store where he worked during the day. The plot point of vandals jamming the locks with gum was invented by Smith to explain why the shutters are never open.


Short of funds for his NYU graduation project, a brutally graphic rock-doc on punk provocateur Allin (dubbed “the most spectacular degenerate in rock & roll history”), Phillips hatched a cunning plan. When Allin told him he was friendly with serial killer John Wayne Gacy, the notorious ‘Killer Clown’, Phillips contacted Gacy on death row in Illinois and struck a deal. In exchange for $50 and a compromising photograph of Phillips, Gacy, a keen amateur artist, agreed to paint a portrait of Allin for the film’s soundtrack album cover. When Phillips received the painting, he had 100 posters of it printed, got Allin to sign them, then advertised them in the classified sections of punk rock magazines. They sold out in seconds, netting Phillips both the $10,000 he needed to finish the film and a one-way ticket to the big time.

NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS (2008), dir. Greta Gerwig

While still enjoying a successful career as an actress, Gerwig first hefted the megaphone for this endearingly guileless mumblecore rom-com. Made for a negligible $15,000, and co-directed by indie luminary Joe Swanberg, it stars Gerwig and Swanberg as a long-distance couple trying to keep their relationship alive despite the miles and the time zones between them.

Reviews were mixed and it failed, conspicuously, to set the box-office alight, but it put Gerwig firmly on the map as a filmmaker.

FOLLOWING (1998), dir. Christopher Nolan

The king of the cerebral blockbuster began his steep ascent of the greasy pole with this downbeat neo-noir about a reclusive Londoner whose hobby of following strangers lures him into the city’s criminal underworld. Written, produced and directed by Nolan, it was shot in glorious black-and-white on 16mm film stock that was strictly rationed so Nolan could pay for it out of his weekly pay-packet. Other cost-cutting measures, such as using friends’ homes as locations and meticulously rehearsing scenes so they could be shot in one take, ensured a budget of just $6,000, a mighty spindly shoestring even in this company.   

A FISTFUL OF FINGERS (1995), dir. Edgar Wright

Wright’s feature debut, made for a piffling $15,000, was, in effect, the big-budget remake of an earlier film he had made while still at school on little more than lunch money and spit. A wily send-up of Spaghetti Westerns, that tips its sweat-stained hat to the genre even as it gives it the goose, A FISTFUL OF FINGERS enjoyed modest success on its UK release. “Best seen after a couple of beers,” was Time Out’s backhanded verdict. Other critics, a few ales to the good or not, noted astutely that it promised great things to come. Whether they could’ve predicted anything quite as great as Nick Frost bleating “He is not Judge Judy and executioner!” in HOT FUZZ is, however, debatable.

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On InstagramVisit Us On Linkedin