For more than a quarter-century, Variety has been canvassing the field of emerging filmmaking talents for the artists whose voices set them apart: directors with an original point of view and the chops to go the distance. The idea is to identify talent before they “pop,” although in some cases, they’ve already started racking up awards — like Charlotte Wells, who won the Gothams’ Breakthrough Director prize shortly after being selected for the list.
Six of these filmmakers have yet to unveil their latest work to the world, and we’re grateful to them for giving us an early look. Three — Elijah Bynum, Laurel Parmet and Niza Mansoor — will debut their films later this month at the Sundance Film Festival. Others, such as Eva Longoria and Jingyi Shao, have made crowd-pleasers that will be released later in the year. And we fully expect to see Maggie Betts (and star Jamie Foxx) in the awards conversation this time next year.
The 10 directors will be honored in person on Jan. 6 at the Palm Springs Film Festival, where a couple of last year’s alumni (Aitch Alberto and Goran Stolevski) will also be screening their films.
“Novitiate” director Betts has been busy in the six years since her nutty nun drama stunned Sundance: She worked on an adaptation of “The Days of Abandonment,” then a Pussy Riot movie, followed by a Shirley Chisolm project with Viola Davis, “but then that fell off a cliff.”
A true David-vs.-Goliath courtroom drama that stars a typically understated Tommy Lee Jones opposite a positively electric Jamie Foxx, “The Burial” was not the film Betts thought she’d make next. “You want your second movie to be a personal one that establishes you as someone who has a voice. But I’d never been someone who watched a lot of courtroom dramas.”
Getting a movie made is tough, but Amazon believed in this one — and in her. Betts got hooked on movies as a teen, then carefully planned out how to break into the Hollywood boys’ club. “Back then, it was like, only dudes could make an amazing independent film and show up at Sundance” expecting it to launch their careers, whereas she felt “I have to make a superb documentary, and then I have to make a perfect short,” and only then could she make a feature.
“Novitiate” was designed as a film with a novel concept and a small, all-female ensemble that could be made in a tight location. A big step forward, “The Burial” was a project that multiple directors, from Alexander Payne to Stephen Frears, had tried to crack.
“Nobody could quite figure out what to do with it,” says Betts, who abandoned the white-savior element — now, Jones’ character must persuade Foxx to represent him — and gender-flipped the defense lawyer (played by Jurnee Smollett). “The most important thing was to rewrite the wives and have a really important female character. She’s like a villain, but she should be the most evolved.”
— Peter Debruge
Influences: Bernardo Bertolucci, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Field
Reps: Agency: CAA; Management: Brillstein Entertainment Partners; Legal: Sloane, Offer, Weber & Dern
Bratton grew up loving big movies. “Spielberg was a huge influence. ‘E.T.’ was a huge movie for me ’cause I really identified with that kid,” he says. “Even now, my favorite movies typically have some sort of lost boys quality to them.”
So do the movies Bratton makes, including 2019 doc “Pier Kids,” about a community of queer teens who connect on the Chelsea Piers. In Bratton’s narrative debut, “The Inspection,” old-fashioned rock-solid storytelling and a “lost boy” merge into a compelling tale of Ellis French, a homeless gay man, rejected by his mother, who finds a kind of surrogate family in the Marine Corps. “And all families are dysfunctional,” he says.
The portrait derives from Bratton’s past, when he was homeless and served in the Marines for five years (“three years as a ‘Combat Camera’”) during the “don’t ask don’t tell” period.
Bratton speaks passionately about the complicated politics in America and how it’s impacted his life as a gay Black man.
The director says he watched a lot of HBO in the 1980s, connecting with popular movies. “At the end of the day, you know, with ‘The Inspection,’ my new logline is, ‘It’s gay, Black ‘Rocky,’” he says.
His next project, documentary “Hellfighter,” illuminates even more of the Black experience in America. The story’s of James Reese Europe, leader of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters band, battle-hardened fighters and musicians. Europe was the “first Black man to conduct a show at Carnegie Hall,” says Bratton, who will use animation and archival footage from the teens to the present day “because there’s not a lot of footage of Black folks from that time period.” Herbie Hancock, Danny Glover and Drew Dixon are among the doc’s participants.
Bratton says, “No matter what our political fates have been, in this country, what has always been guaranteed is that Black entertainers occupy a much more essential role in the representation of Black American culture and American culture overall.”
— Carole Horst
Influences: Gillo Pontecorvo, Pedro Almodóvar, Claire Denis
Reps: Agency: WME; Management: 2AM; Legal: Granderson Des Roches
“When you first show up in town and say, ‘I want to work in entertainment,’ they tell you to start at an agency,” says Massachusetts-born Bynum, who did exactly that. Instead of studying film, he moved to Los Angeles and got an entry level job at CAA. “It’s the best crash course you can get. I would read a stack of scripts and watch a stack of films every weekend, just so I would have an opinion.”
Studying those scripts inspired original story ideas and eventually the confidence to try writing his 2017 debut, “Hot Summer Nights.”
According to Bynum, “I finished it, put a fake name on it and said, ‘Some buddy of mine wrote this,’” handing it off to a colleague at CAA. “He said, ‘This isn’t half-bad. Who’s your friend?’” The co-worker sent it to a former contact, Sean McKittrick, who was running Richard Kelly’s company, Darko Entertainment, and before he knew it, Bynum was directing his first film with a still-unknown Timothée Chalamet.
“In many ways, ‘Hot Summer Nights’ was my film school, warts and all,” he says. “It was me figuring out how to make movies, because I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t make shorts, I didn’t get to mess up and bury it away.”
Afterward, Bynum says, “I wanted to run as far away from that [first] movie as I could and tell a story that was much closer to my heart.” He wrote several scripts, including the Sundance-bound “Magazine Dreams,” a portrait of an obsessive, socially awkward bodybuilder, played by Jonathan Majors (who bulked up for “Creed 3”).
“Anyone who’s obsessive and deeply passionate about what they do is deeply lonely,” he explains. “Here’s someone who has one goal in mind. Where does he put all of that energy?”
— Peter Debruge
Influences: Kelly Reichardt, Andrea Arnold. “I wish I could tell a story that simply and that beautifully with that much compassion.”
Reps: Agency: CAA; Management: Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment; Legal: Myman Greenspan Fox Rosenberg Mobasser Younger & Light
Some directors make the transition from doc to fiction filmmaking, but Diop doesn’t draw hard lines between the two.
“I think I will always make films at the intersection of the two forms,” says the French director, who studied anthropology and history at university before specializing in “visual sociology” (a discipline focused on documentary filmmaking). “Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman were both filmmakers who didn’t give up their documentary work when they made fiction films, and that’s what I love about them. ‘Vagabond’ is such an important film for me, and it has that mix.”
Diop’s third doc, “We,” won the semi-experimental Encounters section at the 2021 Berlinale, while her subsequent narrative debut, “Saint Omer” — a courtroom drama based on the case of Fabienne Kabou, a French woman of Senegalese descent charged with the drowning death of her 15-month-old daughter — has been shortlisted for this year’s international feature Oscar.
For “Saint Omer,” Diop says, “Fiction was the best form to say specifically what I wanted to say, which I couldn’t have done if I had made a documentary film about the real accused person.” Instead, she invented a character, novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame), who observes the trial and shares much of the personal experience Diop revealed in “We”: “By approaching it from the perspective of a Senegalese woman roughly the same age as Fabienne Kabou … it’s configured to situate who is looking and to specify the issues that are central to the film: questions of Blackness, exile and motherhood.”
So far, Diop has prioritized immigrant stories, working to expand the range of representation on film: “I’m putting at the center all those bodies that have been marginalized in so-called legitimate narratives,” she says. “It’s a question of the missing stories, of all those who haven’t been given the right to speak — as a woman, as a Black woman, as a descendant of colonialism. This is a huge territory to investigate and open up.”
— Peter Debruge
Influences: Claire Denis, Frederick Wiseman, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Reps: Agencies: CAA, VMA
How long has the “Desperate Housewives” star wanted to direct?
“I’ve always been a director who fell into acting,” insists Longoria, adding, “I feel like I’m more comfortable behind the camera. I’ve really touched every rung of the ladder: I started with short films, I did a documentary, I did half-hour TV, I did multi-cam, I’ve done one-hours and pilots.” But starring on the hit series gave Longoria a special understanding of how the process works, a chance to learn at a budget far bigger than she would have to make her debut. “I used ‘Desperate Housewives’ as my film school. I paid attention to where the lights go, cameras, lenses. That was a decade of my life,” says Longoria, who found mentors along the way, including Ron Howard, who produced her second short film.
“My first feature was supposed to be this comedy at Universal with me and Kerry Washington.” But another project she was preparing came first, one rooted in a side of Los Angeles she insisted on showing authentically: “Flamin’ Hot,” about Richard Montañez, the former gangbanger turned Frito-Lay janitor who came up with the idea for the company’s super-spicy (and ultra-profitable) line of snacks.
“I like to produce with purpose,” she says. “Contributing to the world, to our art form, to societal and cultural change. This is a really important film because we Latinos don’t get a lot of bites at the apple.”
Technically, the Searchlight-backed comedy is a biopic — a genre with a tendency to be boring. “Flamin’ Hot” is never dull, but that took work. “When I read the original script, it had no point of view. It was like a documentary,” Longoria recalls. So she said, “This should be in his voice. He’s the smartest uneducated guy you’ll ever meet. It’s Scorsese meets Adam McKay.”
A twist on the American Dream shot in just 35 days, the result is inspirational and engaging, but also authentic, owing to the care Longoria took in representing a community she knew well. “Opportunity is not distributed equally. Talent is. All his life he was told, ‘No, ideas don’t come from people like you.’”
— Peter Debruge
Influences: Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese
Reps: Agency: WME; Management: Brillstein Ent.; Legal: Jackoway Austen Tyerman Wertheimer Mandelbaum Morris Bernstein Trattner & Klein
For years, the industry tried to make Manzoor’s characters a little sadder and a little more miserable. That used to be the way it went, she explains, when you were writing South Asian stories.
“The idea of South Asian women would be, ‘What’s the trauma here?’ It was almost this idea of misery porn,” says the British writer-director.
Manzoor, who is of Pakistani heritage, broke out with the Working Title-produced sitcom “We Are Lady Parts,” which centers on an all-female Muslim punk band. Joyful and edgy in tone, with a hilarious musical backbone, it’s the show South Asians in Britain never dreamed of seeing on U.K. TV screens, which have been slow to diversify.
And yet, it wasn’t an easy sell, and got rejected most places,” Manzoor says. Similarly, “Polite Society,” her feature film debut, took 10 years to get made. It took finding a champion in Working Title co-founder Tim Bevan to open studio doors for the project.
The Focus Features-distributed movie, which screens as part of Sundance’s Midnight section, follows martial artist-in-training Ria Khan who is hell-bent on saving her older sister, Lena, from her impending marriage by pulling off a wedding heist.
“I wanted to explore a relationship between two sisters, and tell that story of sisterly love while using this overarching vessel of an action movie,” says Manzoor, who was keen to use the tropes of action to explore sisterhood and agency for young women.
“I haven’t had many experiences of seeing South Asian women in the cinema,” Manzoor says. “Even now, the main comparison people point to is ‘Bend It Like Beckham.’ And how many years ago was that? It just shows you how we still have a long way to go.”
— Manori Ravindran
Influences: John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Reps: Agencies: WME, Independent Talent Group (literary)
“The Starling Girl”
Parmet may not have been a born director, but she was raised to be one. “I grew up on film sets,” says the daughter of DP Phil Parmet and costume designer Lisa Parmet. “They feel like home to me, where I feel most like myself.”
Still, it took years at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, plus attending the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Intensive and creating several shorts that played the fest circuit, before she was ready to write and direct her first feature, “The Starling Girl,” which will premiere in competition at Sundance. The naturalistic tale of a conflicted evangelical Kentucky teen (Eliza Scanlen) who gets involved with her youth pastor (Lewis Pullman) might seem a stretch for the New York-born, Los Angeles-raised Parmet, yet it’s personal.
“When I was in Oklahoma researching a project, I met women in a fundamentalist community who believed their sexual desires were sinful,” she says. “I realized how much we had in common. When I was a teenager, I had a relationship with an older man and had a lot of guilt about it. Spending time with them was a meaningful turning point for me.”
So was meeting her New York University professor and mentor, director Todd Solondz, who along with Sundance Lab partner Catherine Hardwicke inspired Parmet and helped the fledgling helmer find her voice. Most of her works have been coming-of-age dramas, including a screenplay she adapted for “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson’s shingle, Little Lamb, but she doesn’t want to limit herself to anything.
“I love making films that explore moral ambiguities and complicated people,” Parmet says. “I like to inspire audiences to ask questions rather than provide them with obvious answers.”
— Gregg Goldstein
Influences: Jane Campion, Miloš Forman
Reps : Agency: UTA; Management: 2AM Legal: Granderson Des Rochers
Born into a military family in Pakistan, Sadiq often felt his style of masculinity was out of step with the norm. Thus, the long-gestating narrative of his nuanced first feature, “Joyland,” became a means of investigating his place as someone who never felt man enough for a patriarchal society. He describes the tale of a timid man secretly joining an erotic dance troupe as a backup dancer and falling for an ambitious trans starlet as an “entirely fictional yet emotionally autobiographical story.”
His undergraduate studies in anthropology also inform the film, particularly in terms of his relationship with the trans community. “There’s an ethos you need to go in with especially if you want to build a lasting relationship,” Sadiq says. “Respect for other people — how they behave and what they do — has to take precedence over what you want it to look like.”
“Darling,” his prize-winning 2019 thesis short from Columbia U.’s MFA program, attracted an international team of producers, offering a proof of concept for the feature with its humanized,
dignified characters. Leveraging the momentum created after “Joyland” won the Queer Palm and a Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Sadiq hopes to continue an international career. “Right now, I’m based wherever I need to be,” he says.
Before finishing “Joyland,” he penned the original pilot “It Never Rains in Cairo” for MakeReady, with Brad Weston and Scott Silver executive producing. He also finished writing the film adaptation of the the New York Times bestseller “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” which Bing Liu is attached to direct.
Sadiq is fairly certain that his next project will be based out of Pakistan and would follow a similar pattern to “Joyland.” He says, “Bringing money, resources, people and more experienced producers on board, to Pakistan, while working with local talent is easier. Everyone is happier, and there’s something of a safety net.”
— Alissa Simon
Influences: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Paul Thomas Anderson
Reps: Management: Modern Literary Arts
“Chang Can Dunk”
“I never thought I would write a sports film,” says former NYU psychology student turned filmmaker Shao. Perhaps that’s why he created one that feels so different from the Disney+ originals that preceded it with “Chang Can Dunk”: Ostensibly the story of a hoops fan (Bloom Li) who wagers with a classmate on his vertical leap, Shao’s debut feature examines teenage social hierarchies and family dynamics from the perspective of people of color living in communities where they’re a minority population.
“In a town where there aren’t a lot of other Asian American families, sometimes you don’t know why people are treating you a certain way,” Shao says. “That’s why the dunking was so important, because it’s an objective goal — it doesn’t matter how people perceive you or how you perceive yourself. You can or you cannot.”
After enrolling at USC for film school, Shao took a four-year sabbatical in Shanghai to explore its film community and connect with family. “My time abroad really helped solidify the idea that even if I wanted to be Chinese, I’m not. I’m American. I feel like much more of a third culture kid now, and I want to write and tell stories in America.”
With upcoming projects that include a Netflix series he describes as “a Gen-Z ‘Entourage’ with high school basketball stars” and writing the screenplay for a remake of cult action comedy “3 Ninjas,” Shao charts a path to explore adolescent lives with empathy and cultural specificity, including by incorporating the techniques of social media into his filmmaking. “A younger generation that has grown up with the internet have that visual language very much ingrained in the way they perceive and absorb stories. I always wanted to incorporate that into my film, and I think that the younger audience especially would understand it,” he says.
— Todd Gilchrist
Influences: Ang Lee, Stanley Kubrick
Reps:Agency: WME; Management: Redefine Ent.; Legal: Johnson Shapiro Slewett & Kole
“Aftersun” may mark the end of something for main characters Sophie (Frankie Corio) and Calum (Paul Mescal) — her childhood innocence and his ability to deflect the pressures of adulthood. But the daughter-and-father summer holiday is just the beginning for writer-director Wells, who took inspiration from her real-life experiences and transformed it into one of the 2022’s most celebrated feature debuts. “It began as something more conventionally structured and plotted,” she says. “And it was just over the course of writing that I gradually realized what my creative and personal ambitions for it were.”
Encapsulating the sensation of a moment that the people involved don’t realize is pivotal until after the fact was a challenge that taught Wells lessons she perhaps appropriately plans to take with her into future projects. “A thing I’ll think about in the future is, when you’re writing a detail, is it film-friendly? Because sometimes you lose things that are really important to you because you couldn’t quite articulate it in a way that could really be sufficiently captured on film, because some things can’t.”
Despite the specificity of the story, Wells insists that she didn’t intend for “Aftersun” to be directly autobiographical. “I was drawn to this because I needed to ask myself some questions I hadn’t been willing to ask myself before,” says the director, who hasn’t decided what her next project will be. “But I’m not really able to give myself partially to anything, so it needs to be something I’m willing to give this much of myself to again.
“I’m a believer that we’re all making the same film over and over again, no matter what shape it takes,” she says. “I think your interests betray themselves as you go. So I suspect it will be true that memory and grief are two things that I’m grappling with, in films as in life for, for always.”
— Todd Gilchrist
Influences: Terence Davies, John Cassavetes, Lynne Ramsay
Reps: Agency: UTA; Legal: Jodi Peikoff