Aspiring filmmakers over a certain age can be hesitant about pursuing a career in film, falsely believing that starting late in life means they won’t succeed. But “late bloomer” filmmakers are extremely common, far more so than the young prodigies we all seem to glorify.
In fact, some of the greatest filmmakers of all time were late bloomers.
Ridley Scott, widely considered to be one of the greatest directors of all time, didn’t make his feature film debut until age 40.
Claire Denis made her feature debut, the now classic Chocolat, when she was 42.
Michael Haneke, another indie filmmaking powerhouse, made his first feature film at 47.
And then there are directors like Alfred Hitchcock, who started earlier in life, but only really hit his stride in his 50’s and 60’s, after he had already directed countless features. The vast majority of Hitchcock’s most notable works were created in this period – from Psycho to North By Northwest.
But no story is more inspiring than Manoel de Oliveira, who didn’t “make it” until he was 73 years old.
The Filmmaker Who Made It At Age 73
Manoel de Oliveira started making films at age 19, but it took him 5 decades before finally breaking through as a full time filmmaker at age 73.
And that was just the beginning.
He didn’t stop making movies until he passed away at 106 years old. Even after turning 100, he was still making a movie every single year.
The vast majority of his professional success – including countless awards at festivals like Cannes and Venice – occurred decades past the typical age of retirement.
Had Manoel retired from filmmaking at age 65 like his peers, he would never have been recognized as such a renowned artist.
By the time he “made it” as a director, many of his contemporaries were no longer working in the industry, if they were even still alive.
But Manoel just kept chugging along. So long that he become the only filmmaker in history to have a career that spanned from the silent era to the digital era. He worked from 1927 – 2015. Pretty remarkable!
The Truth About Late Bloomers
I think Manoel’s story proves Malcom Gladwell’s point about late bloomers –
For every child prodigy who was discovered for their genius at a young age, there is someone like Manoel whose genius took a lifetime to fully emerge.
If you haven’t read the Late Bloomers article, I highly recommend you read it here. Especially if you’re an “older” filmmaker, whatever that means…
Below is a quote from Late Bloomers that I synthesized for some context:
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at fifty-eight.
Gladwell goes on to state his thesis –
Creatives come in two forms: conceptual and experimental.
The conceptual artist knows exactly who they are and what they want to say from day one. This makes them more likely to break through at a younger age and be recognized as a ”genius.”
The experimental artists takes much longer. They throw themselves into the process of creativity, using their own curiosity as a guide to unearth their talent, which can take years or decades to fully emerge.
Unfortunately, we don’t talk about the experimental artist all that much. We’re too wrapped up in the next 19 year old to win an Oscar.
This is why so many filmmakers quit when their debut feature doesn’t blow up the way Citizen Kane did. They assume failure is a clear sign they should should stop making movies.
But if only they could see themselves more like Manoel, maybe they would keep going. Maybe all it would take is a second feature, or perhaps a third or fourth to hit their stride.
Or perhaps like Manoel, it would take them decades of experimentation before finding their voice and mastering their craft.
In the end, the timeline really doesn’t matter. What matters is the work that we create, and the discoveries we make along the way.
Age & Your Creative Voice
In my opinion, age makes you a better filmmaker, no matter how much (or little) prior experience you’ve had.
Filmmaking, and particularly directing, is all about understanding human emotions, communicating effectively, managing egos, and having humility (at least that’s how it should be!). These are things we all learn with age, regardless of what we do for a living.
A director making their first film at age 50 is – in my estimation – going to make a much stronger film than they ever could have at 20.
Yes, the technical aspects of filmmaking will create a learning curve, and that can be a challenge at first. But ultimately the craft is very learnable, especially with the wealth of resources we have available today.
Life experience though, is not something you can just get by watching a YouTube tutorial. It’s something you only get by actually living, which in a sense, gives filmmakers who start later in life a bit of a creative advantage.
Filmmakers Who Started Late
Below is a list of just a few of the directors who made their first feature later than the average filmmaker. Keep in mind, in some cases, it took many more years (or even decades) before these filmmakers truly hit the pinnacle of their careers.
Alejandro G. Inarritu, age 37
Ava DuVernay, age 38
Ang Lee, age 38
Éric Rohmer, age 39
Steve McQueen, age 39
David Mamet, age 40
Lynn Shelton, age 40
Ridley Scott, age 40
Jacques Tati, age 42
Claire Denis, age 42
Maurice Pialat, age 44
Andrea Arnold, age 45
Terry George, age 46
Michael Haneke, age 47
And these are just some of the more well known filmmakers who started on the later side.
There are countless others who broke through in their 50’s, 60’s, or even later.
Look no further than Takeo Kimura as a case in point, who holds the Guinness record for oldest debut as a feature film director. He was 90 years old when his film “Dreaming Awake” was released in 2008.
The “I’m too old” excuse is one of the most common reasons why would-be filmmakers never made their feature debut.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that filmmakers who started late have repeatedly been able to break through, in some cases rising to the very top of our industry.
So for those of you struggling with the idea of being a late bloomer yourselves, let this serve as a quick reminder to keep creating.
Take a page from Manoel de Oliveira, and don’t worry about how long it takes, or how quickly anyone else was able to break through. Just keep going, and maybe 50 years from now someone will be writing a story about your path too.
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Lisa N. Alexanderat
“A director making their first film at age 50 is – in my estimation – going to make a much stronger film than they ever could have at 20.”
Noam, such true words!
Lived experience and a broader worldview I believe make for great storytelling! 20-year-old-me was in the thick of things and fighting for a better life.
I’m 53, Black, female, and trust me, I’ve got stories to tell! I started making short documentaries for clients and now I am in the process of fundraising for my first feature film—My Father The Queen. The screenplay has even won a few laurels.
“The experimental artists takes much longer. They throw themselves into the process of creativity, using their own curiosity as a guide to unearth their talent, which can take years or decades to fully emerge.”
Yes, to this! I loved commercials as a kid. It basically boils down to how can you tell a compelling story in 60 seconds or less and convert an audience member. But I didn’t go into advertising after high school and I was a nontraditional college student. Didn’t earn my degree till 2012. Instead, I went into graphic design, then marketing, and then finally found my way into storytelling through video. Always been a storyteller but as you said, I threw myself into the process of creativity and found my way back to stories on screens.
Thank you for this affirming article.
Appreciate you sharing your story, and am excited to see what you come up with! Thanks for reading this, too.
Noam… Thanks… So much! I was so sad because I hear about a 16 yo kiddo that made a backroom short film and all were fawning him saying he is a genius… Made me feel bad and old, I’m 7 year older and I haven’t achieved my first short film…
But I still have time, and no for losing! Thanks so much Noam!
7 years older than him* sorry for this bad English… Not native language… Y’know haha
Noam, such an inspiring article. I grew up on on the east coast dreaming of being a cinematographer. My first IMDB credit was at 22 years of age on a feature as an apprentice editor. From that time I’ve worked on countless jobs from camera to producing and directing, but never directed a narrative feature. I even lived in Portugal working for 13 years and met Manoel de Oliveira. I want to share a quote from Manoel.
“ Cinema is a mirror of life. I believe that it is not one simple mirror, there is no other! Film-making is the only reflection of life. And, as well as being a reflection of life, it is also a record of life.” ~Manoel de Oliveira
Now at 56, I’m close to getting a feature off the ground and hope to continue that journey. The older we get, the more experience and knowledge we have inside that mirror Manoel was talking about and that reflection if even brighter.
That’s so great to hear you are getting a feature off the ground. I hope to see it one day, and support it any way that I can! Thanks for reading this piece, and the great quote.
I have been a script supervisor for over 40 years and last summer, at age 68 and female, I directed and wrote a short film. The reception for that film so far has given me the opportunity to direct my first episode of television for show I’ve been on for the last four seasons as script supervisor. I have had great support from my coworkers, colleagues and producers. I’m just getting started. I have many stories I intend to tell on film and am anxious to get going.
I am so glad to read your article about those of us starting older but I must say, 40, is not older. I consider that the age I should have been able to make the jump. Life intervened so I had to wait. But I never gave up.
I hope to be inspiration to others, especially women, who have waited patiently for their chance.
Thank you so much for reading this, and sharing your story Faye. It’s inspiring!
Most inspiring, thank you for sharing. At 40 I decided that I wanted to make movies… I shot a number of promos and commercial projects over the years which was great. Alomost got John McT to direct a screenply of mine finance feel through. But last Sept I shot my first drama period piece with the lovely Kevin McNally. Still kissing frogs, lots of interest but I will get across the line my first full feature soon. I just turned 60! But I’m still that kid in my head. Thanks again for sharing.
So glad you enjoyed this, Philip. And thanks for sharing your story here. Hope to see some of your work in the future!
Prue Van der Craatsat
Your article gives courage to filmmakers who have found their way in their autumn years of their life. Like wine the film maker improves with age. Your article was an inspirational read, a necessity for all filmmakers – to have courage no matter the age. The timing of each filmmaker is in the making, as you say conceptual artist or an experimental artist, the pieces of the jigsaw will come together, for all to seeing the picture …conceptually or experimentally! Whether that be at 19, 47 or 100 years of living – filmmaking is a gift and a passion. Story telling is an ancient art and skill. I loved this story. Thank you Noam Kroll for the read.
So glad you enjoyed it! And thanks very much for the note.
Great article Noam. I shot my first feature at 34 and it went nowhere and I felt talentless after the experience. Then for the next 22 years I made an ok living shooting and editing hundreds of corporate vids and interviews. When I hit 50, I started to re-evaluate my life so now at 56, I’m in pre-production to shoot my next feature this Spring. It will be a micro-budget production. I NEVER would have been able to think of the things I think about now had I not lived a life. Thanks for the article, it’s inspiring to know that I am not alone, nor crazy for thinking I still have something to offer.
Of course you have something to offer. Thanks so much for reading this, Frank. And can’t wait to see what you do next!
Wonderful post, thank you for taking the time to write it — At 45 years old I co-directed my first feature film ‘Notes On The Cinematographer’ in 2020 during the height of the pandemic and had to direct it via skype, facetime, emails, and on the phone. I was stuck in los angeles while the film was shoot in Milan, Italy — I still have not been able to meet, in the flesh, the twin girls that starred in it due to travel restrictions. I hope to be able to get there by December 2021. The film was well received (accepted to few festivals, won some awards, and I got high praise from Mohsen Makhmalbaf who happens to be the contemporary filmmaker I admire most). I will be 46 when I start production on my second feature in the spring of 2022 — This time i will be present and directing solo — of course I still will have little ability to communicate in Italian — Am I too old to learn a new language!?!
So great to hear this, Christopher! An inspiring story. I hope to see your film soon, and look forward to keeping an eye out for more work in the future.