The Top 10 Best Indie Writer/Directors

By Preston Garrett · August 6, 2010

Indie writer/directors.  The funny thing about this quaint little phrase is that basically anyone can say this about themselves if they don't have studio funding.  I mean… I'm an indie writer/director for crying out loud. It's like my unemployed friend who sits on his butt all day, then goes out to bars and tells gullible bimbos that he's an "independent film producer."

In so many words, "indie" can mean a lot of things, namely that you don't actually do anything – it can be a total copout.  But for some filmmakers in this world, there's actually clout behind the phrase – it's an adjective that dictates style, story, and market more than anything.
This list is dedicated to the top 10 indie writer/directors.  Note that the people on this list aren't necessarily making true indie films anymore.  These are the writer/directors that blew up on the indie scene, turned something cheap, and at least borderline experimental, into something huge.  So yes, a lot of these people are making bigger studio films now, but their roots are in the independent spirit.

10) The Duplass Brothers

These are really the only newbies on this here list, but for good reason.  Jay and Mark Duplass were 2 seminal co-founders of the Mumblecore film movement at the turn of the century (if you're unfamiliar with Mumblecore, check out the Wikipedia breakdown here.)  The down and out, grittiness of Mumblecore certainly has its detractors, but the Brothers Duplass have certainly made it their own, and have successfully pierced the veil of "mainstream."  With the super low budget, somewhat positive critical successes of The Puffy Chair  and Baghead, the Jay and Mark D. got enough clout to get their first "real" film off the ground this year with the John C. Reilly/Jonah Hill valentine to awkward midlife crises, Cyrus.  Ultimate props for really nailing the middle class, semi-artsy world of single guys who haven't been laid in way too long (check out my review of Cyrus for more on this.)  They're next slated film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, goes back to their ultra lo-fi roots, but in 2011 we'll see yet another traipse into the mainstream realm with the Jason Segel/Susan Sarandon/Ed Helms comedy, Jeff Who Lives at Home.  Go brothers go.

9) Charlie Kaufman
Now if this were solely an indie writers list, Mr. Kaufman would most definitely be at the top of the list.  He's the head trip screenwriter, and arguably, the screenwriter who's had the most offbeat, non-mainstream material produced, and somehow made mainstream.  Yeah, that's a mouthful and a half, but methinks that's the way Kaufman would want it – jumbled, slightly incoherent, but totally endearing.  He's only penned and directed one film, 2008's Synecdoche, New York, but the Czar of the Bizarre proved that he most definitely has the chops to make the ultimate labor of love into celluloid artistry (though Syn, NY doesn't quite fit the profile of "mainstream," but that's not what this list is about anyway.)  Again, low on the list because he's only done the one film, but even with just one more under his belt, I certainly have faith that he'll bump up significantly.  The only thing – "mum" is definitely the word in terms of any upcoming projects.  Don't fall off the map, Charlie K – you owe us more!

8) Michel Gondry
Again, another guy who would be at the top of the list… but if this were just for directing, and for the simple fact that he's the guy that directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Anyway, Gondry has graced us with a couple totally original endeavors – The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind.  Neither were that well received, but as the nature of indie "success" dictates, a cult following is all you need to get that freakishly religious film nerd following.  But that's not even really why Gondry's on here.  His music video work totally changed the music videos at large, taking generally poppy tunes and turning them into high art on a budget.  Every film school Douche Toddler owns Gondry's Director's Label DVD, and every aspiring nerdball director (including myself), have poured over the Cibo Matto "Sugar Water" video to figure out exactly what turns your brain into mush when you watch it.  Total indie innovator with a lot of mainstream copycats.  Next up is his first big studio movie, The Green Hornet.  Kind of intrigued by this, but methinks it won't have so much Gondry in at as Seth Rogen.  

7) Sofia Coppola
The darling daughter of Mr. Francis Ford is probably the most endeared indie writer/director on the scene.  Her first film, The Virgin Suicides, had an all-star cast, but the film as a whole was slightly awkward – in my opinion it didn't really add up to be a totally solid movie.  It seemed as if she was putting style and soundtrack ahead of story and character – a glorified, long form music video of sorts.  But her eye and ear for great music and beautiful color palettes hooked plenty of indie hounds to see what the Godfather of cinema's kid could do next.  In so many words, she made her eye and ear work wonders once again, and put character and story at an even keel with style.  Lost in Translation marked the first-ever Directorial nomination for a woman, embedding Sofia into film history without being in the shadow of Dad.  Lost is one of the truest examples of an indie feature totally permeating the culture without any prior anticipation (in the same vein of Good Will Hunting, and even American Pie.)  Next up for Sofia is Somewhere, the celebrity doldrum pic featuring Stephen Dorff in what's likely to be the best role he's ever had.  Keep on it Sophie baby – we're loving you.

6) Spike Jonze
Oddly enough, #6 is the ex-husband of #7, and Lost in Translation is apparently Sofia's postcard from the past – the "fictional" document that shows the beginning of the end of the nuptial bliss between her and Jonze.  Spike's career has been keenly similar to Gondry's in the vein that he really became part of the indie consciousness with his iconic music video portfolio (namely the "Buddy Holly" video for Weezer, and the "California" video for WAX.)  It's kind of a trend you see in the indie world – big guy music video directors transitioning to tinier, offbeat film endeavors (Mark Romanek and Jonathan Glazer have followed similar suit.)  Though he's only had a writing credit on his latest Where the Wild Things Are (shared with Dave Eggers), Jonze has penned most of his short film work, and has been a huge contributor to the adolescent phenomenon that is Jackass.  He's credited as a writer for the first 2 full length films, and continues to conceptualize and write for his first passion – skateboarding (documentaries.)  He and Gondry are really and truly the torch carriers for DIY production.

5) Robert Rodriguez
If you haven't read Rodriguez's memoir/how to book Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, drop everything you're doing and read it now.  When Rodriguez released El Mariachi in 1992, it astounded critics and audiences alike; not because the movie is particularly amazing for the type of film that it is (a hyperviolent shoot 'em up contemporary Western revenge flick), but because it was made for 7 Gs.  This film alone launched Rodriguez into the studio system, giving him the chance to flex his mainstream muscles on Desperado in 1995.  It was of course a hit, and Rodriguez steadily rose to the A-list of directorhood in tow with confidante and fan Quentin Tarantino.  But what keeps Rodriguez so relevant to this list now is that he's more or less moved away from the big studio system, back to the more independent production route (he still gets big studio distribution.)  After he severed his tie with the DGA back in the 2005 when and Frank Miller teamed up for Sin City, he began doing all production in house at his own Troublemaker studios – a kind of Weta (Peter Jackson's FX house) for the US.  He's set the precedent for high end special FX done on an indie budget, paving the way for the budding talents for chaps like Neill Blomkamp (District 9), Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), and the soon to be huge Fede Alvarez (Panic Attack – the YouTube video made for around $800 but looks like it was made for around $20 million.)

4) Jim Jarmusch
Like Kaufman, Jarmusch hasn't really jumped over to the mainstream camp like many of the others on the list, but the guy's set the standard for the indie scene since the early 80s, and is still rocking it.  When Stranger Than Paradise was traveled the festival circuit in 1984, it was assured that Jarmusch was the new offbeat voice for the blossoming generation of disenchantment, confused priorities, and the meandering spirit.  He's continued with these themes throughout his career (from Down By Law to The Limits of Control), and carried the torch of the likes of Mike Nichols by casting musicians as lead actors in his films – John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Raekwon to name a few.  Though Jarmusch is a very particular, acquired taste, he's so historically relevant simply because he was making strange films at just the right time, and made it possible for contempo-beatnik types to get financing for their films.  Watch Ghost Dog – that's all I'm saying.

3) Quentin Tarantino
Yeah, this is an obvious one, but I'm looking forward so much to your hate mail since he's not numero uno.  Anyway, Tarantino is certainly the landmark example of true indie success, both as a writer and a director.  We all know the story, but for those who don't, Tarantino was working at shanty-ish video store in Manhattan Beach, writing crazy scripts, and absorbing film knowledge like SpongeBob Squarepants.  Eventually he got the script for Reservoir Dogs into the hands of Harvey Keitel, and Keitel was convinced that he'd found the next unique voice in cinema – nice intuition, Harvey.  After the huge critical success of Dogs, Tarantino followed it up with a tiny film called Pulp Fiction made on a shoestring budget, but with one of the most incredible ensemble casts captured on film.  Along with Rodriguez, Tarantino essentially established the hardboiled indie film, taking old school story and stylistic cues from Roger Corman.  But where Corman had tripped up, Tarantino flourished – amazing dialogue.  Infectious dialogue.  Dialogue that changed the way people write, talk, and annunciate.  Since Fiction, Tarantino has obviously become a darling of studios, post the original Miramax tradeoff with Disney.  No longer operating on a shoestring, Tarantino continues to make quirky, indie-like cinema, but on a grand scale.  He's true to his roots.

2) Wes Anderson
In 1996, a recent college grad from Texas got the funds to expand a short film of his into a full length feature, from none other than James L. Brooks – big guy, extraordinaire.  That college grad was Wes Anderson, and that film was the (initially) critically lambasted Bottle Rocket.  The thing with Bottle Rocket is that I find that it's horribly under acknowledged.  Granted, many critics have done a 180 and hail it as totally clever and hilarious (one of the few that praised it thoroughly when it was actually released was Martin Scorsese – he apparently said it was his favorite film of the year.)  But Bottle Rocket represents a huge crux in the film universe.  It introduced the Wilson brothers (Owen, Luke, and the smaller role Andrew) to the world, and established that nuanced, eccentricity based humor was back in a big way (I contend that Wes Anderson is the new Hal Ashby – just saying)… but nobody really knew that yet.  Obviously the subsequent releases of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums poised Anderson to be one of the most hailed new filmmakers of the past 20 years.  And he didn't just influence the film world; like Tarantino, he kickstarted a cultural infatuation of style.  You can't go to a college campus and not spot an art student or film nerd or photography kid that doesn't look just like Max Fischer, Jane Yang, Richie Tenebaum, Margot Tenebaum, or even Pagoda.  He's finagled his way into our subconscious by creating an unmistakable style that doesn't hinge on violence, cynicism, or politics.  He's all about sentimentality – grasping onto and reconciling failure in a positive way.  This simply makes him unique.  He's still on the indie side of the tracks too, maintaining smallish budgets to make heartfelt films over anything that nestles him into the mainstream.  Conversely, he's the one director that all Hipsters actually agree upon as being great.

1) Paul Thomas Anderson
PTA, to those who admire his films as much as they do their own livelihood.  Because that's what his films are about – acknowledging mortality, the life people breathe into each others' everyday existence, and the tendency to for people to self-loathe to the point of narcissistic sabotage.  PTA is the ultimate indie auteur for a lot of reasons, but there's 2 major ones I'll hit on here.  First, his films are epic (even the 95 minute Punch-Drunk Love.)  They're not epic in the swords and sandals way though – like Wes Anderson, PTA he hankers on sentimental notions, and the ability for people to cope with mistakes, failure, revenge, unrequited love, and even success.  Though PTA one-ups Wes in a big way – style never trumps story.  Whereas Wes employs all the stops when it comes to Art Direction, PTA keeps his worlds much more honest – there's an overall mood to his films, as opposed to a distinct almost illustrative quality to them.  The other big thing about PTA's films, they're not extravagant in a dollars sense.  He can make a house in the Valley feel like a sweeping, vast location.  He can make a droll, filing cabinet-like apartment complex into Escher maze.  A nondescript bar into a dark haven of bad memories.  A nightclub into the center of the universe.  Etc.  Basically, he's the one on the list that can take a film further than anyone else, from a budgetary standpoint, as well as an emotional one.  Next up: The Master with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeremy Renner.  2011… please come more quickly.

1.1) John Cassavetes
He's not around anymore, hence him not making the "actual" list, but he's kind of the modern Godfather for indie cinema, self-distribution, guerilla filmmaking, etc.  Check this out.