10 great American debuts by British directors

When UK directors first feel the pull of the USA – from Alfred Hitchcock to Christopher Nolan.

Oliver Lunn
Updated:

Lean on Pete (2017)

Lean on Pete (2017)

A poignant tale of horses, hardship and heartbreak, Lean on Pete is the new film from Andrew Haigh, director of acclaimed British indies Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015). It stars Charlie Plummer as a lonely teen who moves to a dusty Oregon town and stumbles into the world of horseracing. After striking up a friendship with a horse called Lean on Pete, tragic events lead the boy to steal him and set off on a journey east into the epic American landscape.

Although he had already earned his American stripes with his San Francisco-set HBO series Longing, Lean on Pete is Haigh’s first feature film on US soil, following a trail that many UK filmmakers have made before him. Tempted by bigger stars, bigger budgets and bigger landscapes, directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Ridley Scott, and from Steve McQueen to Lynne Ramsay, have all felt the lure.

Given that Lean on Pete is a British rather than a Hollywood production, reports of Haigh’s defection to team America may be exaggerated. Yet its release is a good excuse to look back over classic examples of British directors making their first films in the US and examine how this change of climate affected their moviemaking.

Rebecca (1940)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Rebecca (1940)

Twenty-four films into his career, Britain’s young master of suspense was lured to Hollywood to shoot Rebecca, a romantic psychological thriller based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 spine-chiller. Made under contract with bigwig producer David O. Selznick, this tale of a woman haunted by the memory of her husband’s dead first wife is set on the Cornish coast but filmed in Big Sur and Palos Verdes in California.

Like many UK directors before and since, Hitchcock found himself working with his biggest budget and highest production values to date – and at 130 minutes Rebecca was also his longest film yet. But those 5,000 miles did nothing to reduce the Hitchcockian touch, with the result proving as rich and suspenseful as his best British films. His obvious talents were warmly embraced by the Hollywood community, with Rebecca winning the Oscar for best picture. No other director in Hollywood – then or now – conjures impending doom quite like this man from Leytonstone.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Director Alexander Mackendrick

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

In this searing late-50s noir, director Alexander Mackendrick lays bare the sleazy side of Manhattan and its gutter press, with Tony Curtis playing Sidney Falco, a slimy press agent in the pay of brutish columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).

A Scotsman in New York, Mackendrick had made his name at home with Ealing comedies such as Whisky Galore! (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), though it was 1951’s The Man in the White Suit that gave the best warning of this film’s biting satire. Also carried across the Atlantic is his taste for location shooting: Sweet Smell of Success is littered with real locations, including Broadway, Queensboro Bridge and Times Square at rush hour. The result is a fascinating visitor’s-eye view of NYC at the tail end of the 1950s.

Point Blank (1967)

Director John Boorman

Point Blank (1967)

After a slew of docs for British TV and the Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch Us if You Can (1965), Shepperton-born filmmaker John Boorman made the transition to Hollywood with this story of an underworld criminal (Lee Marvin) on a mission to retrieve a ton of cash that was stolen from him.

Boorman was fascinated by the west coast’s modernist architecture, choosing to shoot on locations he thought were particularly stark. In epic widescreen, he shot an intersection of LA flyovers and, in one of the film’s most celebrated scenes, a terminal walkway at San Francisco International Airport, where we follow Marvin’s character, his footsteps echoing loudly as the shot cross-cuts back and forth between the terminal and his wife at home. Point Blank is rooted in classic film noir, but updated with a swinging-60s cool and arty fragmentation that quickly established Boorman as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Director Nicolas Roeg

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Nicolas Roeg had already brought trippy, otherworldly textures to west London (Performance, 1970), the Australian outback (Walkabout, 1971) and Venice (Don’t Look Now, 1973) when he made his US debut with this cult sci-fi oddity starring David Bowie as a humanoid alien who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet.

The Man Who Fell to Earth was characteristically artful, bringing Roeg’s heady visual sensibility and trademark zoom-pans, jump cuts and lens flare to the dusty landscapes of New Mexico. Through his camera, America is viewed from a suitably alien-like perspective, in a cool blue colour palette that gives the film a surreal, clinical edge. Like other European arthouse auteurs landing in the States (think Michelangelo Antonioni with Zabriskie Point or Wim Wenders with Paris, Texas), Roeg saw the country with a fresh pair of eyes, resulting in a vision that’s tinged with both wonder and scepticism.

Memento (2000)

Director Christopher Nolan

Memento (2000)

Born in Westminster, Christopher Nolan shot his 1998 London-set directorial debut Following for a mere £3,000. It was on the back of that film’s critical success that he eventually pulled together a budget of $4.5m for his first American movie and breakthrough hit, Memento. Shot in and around LA, and penned by his brother Jonathan, the film follows a man with anterograde amnesia (Guy Pearce) who uses scribbled notes, polaroids and tattoos to hunt the man who murdered his wife.

In an insanely ambitious gambit for his first US movie, Nolan chose to wrongfoot the audience by telling the story in reverse, giving viewers a taste of the protagonist’s own fractured and confused perspective. It paid off though, and Nolan successfully laid the ground for further movies that weave complex stories and action into cerebral entertainment. Memento was a box office hit, and received an Academy nomination for its screenplay. The rest is history. 

Birth (2004)

Director Jonathan Glazer

Birth (2004)

Following his feature debut Sexy Beast (2000) and a string of critically acclaimed music videos, London-born filmmaker Jonathan Glazer set foot in Manhattan to shoot Birth, a jaw-dropping drama about a young boy who tries to convince a woman (Nicole Kidman) that he’s her dead husband.

While many British filmmakers tend to go bigger and louder in their US debuts, Birth actually tones down the visual swagger of Sexy Beast, creating something that’s subtler and more distinctive in the process. Take the opening shot of a hooded jogger in a snowy Central Park. Filmed by Harris Savides in one long take shot from behind, and accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s haunting orchestral score, its haunting beauty is enough to send shivers down your spine. Since this, Glazer has only made one more feature – 2013’s Scotland-set Under the Skin – and it remains to be seen whether he’ll feel the lure of the US again.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Director Edgar Wright

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

For the Dorset-born director responsible for cult late-90s sitcom Spaced, apocalyptic zombie classic Shaun of the Dead (2004) and riotous west-country cop comedy Hot Fuzz (2007), a transition to Hollywood seemed inevitable – even if there seemed to be something typically British about his humour and reference points. The leap was made with apparent ease, however, with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a comedy caper featuring Michael Cera as the bass-playing slacker who battles the seven evil exes of his new girlfriend.

Incorporating split-screen, slo-mo, pacey cutting and vibrant colour, Wright’s energetic style here reaches dizzying heights, bolstered by a $90m budget. Wright produced, directed and co-wrote the sharp script, turning the visual language of the source comic into thrilling cinema and paving the way for the high-wire visuals of his recent follow-up hit, Baby Driver (2017).

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

Director Lynne Ramsay

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

After wide acclaim for her first two features, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), there was quiet from the Lynne Ramsay camp for nearly a decade. But the Glasgow-born director returned triumphantly in 2011 with this American-set drama adapted from Lionel Shriver’s book about a mother’s emotional estrangement from her difficult son.

Working with more money and name stars, We Need to Talk about Kevin still shows the same sure-footed confidence and fiercely imaginative sensibility that made Ramsay’s name. It’s full of bold and often disconcerting images – that red paint splattered like blood on the family house; Tilda Swinton standing in front of rows upon rows of tomato soup in a supermarket – which linger in the mind long afterwards. Her career has continued its American phase more recently with the brutal revenge thriller You Were Never Really Here.

Shame (2011)

Director Steve McQueen

Shame (2011)

Having exploded onto the movie scene with Hunger (2008), his minimalist drama about Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike, one-time Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s first US-set film was hugely anticipated. With Shame, the London-born filmmaker landed in NYC to capture a heartbreaking tale of a sex addict’s struggles with intimacy.

Significantly, McQueen continued with the same producer (Iain Canning) and cinematographer (Sean Bobbitt) from his first film, explaining that it was like a band coming back together for another album. Despite the very different setting, it’s an album with a similar aesthetic to Hunger, comprising the same unflinching long takes and another blinding performance from Michael Fassbender. McQueen stayed Stateside (and won an Oscar in the process) for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, but wherever he sets up his camera, his unique signature is stamped on every frame he shoots.

American Honey (2016)

Director Andrea Arnold

American Honey (2016)

Following her very English, very windswept Wuthering Heights adaptation in 2011, Andrea Arnold hit the sun-kissed roads of America. The Dartford-born director’s road movie follows a teenage girl (Sasha Lane) who joins a travelling magazine sales crew and gets caught up in a whirlwind of drink, drugs and love on the run. Shot on a 12,000-mile road trip with mostly non-professional actors, American Honey again has that freshness of perspective that comes with a European filmmaker intrigued by the romance and freedom offered by an open stretch of American highway – that feeling of cruising in an open-top car, swept up in the vastness of a country 40-times the size of England.

It’s an American film that only Arnold could have made, from her characteristic use of the 4:3 aspect ratio to her signature sensitivity to nature, such as the quiet moment when Lane’s character is mesmerised by the ripples on a lake’s placid surface. In moments like these, you sense Arnold’s own wonder and curiosity about this foreign land.

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