Cinema was irrevocably changed in the late 1960s and 1970s when a group of young filmmakers came together and decided to move the medium forward. As the dominance of the studio system waned, alongside the abandonment of the rigid censorial Hays Code, there was opportunity ripely available for filmmakers to experiment with new ideas. Inspired by the low-budget creations of French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Jacques Rivette, the New Hollywood movement emerged, which included a close-knit group of directors lovingly labelled the ‘movie brats’. These filmmakers were not interested in providing happy Hollywood endings. Rather, they freely depicted gritty violence and sexuality and experimented with form, pioneering a whole new mode of American cinema. So who were the movie brats?
At the forefront of the New Hollywood movement were individuals rather than big studios. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius and Paul Schrader were all considered part of the ‘movie brats’ group. The term was coined in an essay written by Michael Pye and Linda Myles, who identified these filmmakers as close collaborators that worked together to transform American cinema. The movie brats were slightly younger than some of their fellow New Hollywood directors, like Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman and Dennis Hopper. Instead, the movie brats all studied filmmaking at university (minus Spielberg, who taught himself the art of filmmaking from an early age), honing their craft in the 1960s. For example, Scorsese attended NYU, De Palma studied at Columbia, and Coppola went to UCLA, all training themselves for a dedicated career in the industry.
One of the most popular films from the movie brats is Coppola’s The Godfather, released in 1972. Starring actors such as Marlon Brando, James Caan, Al Pacino, and Diane Keaton, the epic crime demonstrated that a new, young wave of filmmakers was ready to take over Hollywood. The grand scale of The Godfather was more than impressive, and Coppola’s depiction of gangsters had never been depicted like that before. His film was simply revolutionary, and it paved the way for more entries into the genre, such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
A year later, Scorsese released his crime drama Mean Streets, starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, which put the young director on the map. The film was praised for its personal nature and detailed exploration of religion, masculinity, guilt and familial relationships. Upon its release, critics such as Sight and Sound’s David Denby claimed that Scorsese used improvisation “better than anyone in American movies so far”. Despite only being his third feature, Mean Streets, with its stunning cinematography and emphasis on themes and characters rarely explored in modern American cinema, represented the movie brats’ imminent reign. Scorsese released Taxi Driver in 1976, also starring De Niro and Keitel, which soon became a defining movie from the period. The director’s portrayal of a disillusioned war veteran suffering from PTSD was groundbreaking. It’s a bleak yet beautiful film that encapsulates an era of filmmaking that was not afraid to push away from the conventions of traditional Hollywood.
The film was penned by Schrader, who, following his career as a film critic, began writing movies, receiving his first credit as the co-writer of Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza. Despite the film’s commercial failure, it garnered the attention of the movie brats, and soon enough, Schrader was writing for Scorsese and De Palma, even drafting a script for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. De Palma was another core member of the movie brats, gaining recognition for his 1976 horror movie Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek. In fact, it was De Palma who, after working with an unknown De Niro on 1969’s The Wedding Party, introduced the actor to Scorsese, cementing a fruitful creative partnership between the two. De Palma went on to direct other classics such as Scarface and Blow Out, and the impact he had on cinema, particularly the crime genre, was immeasurable. Quentin Tarantino now cites him as one of his cinematic heroes, finding particular inspiration in De Palma’s incessant use of violence.
Thanks to the movie brats, the blockbuster as we know it took shape. Spielberg’s 1975 feature Jaws paved the way for the explosion of blockbuster movies, with its summer release reeling in hundreds of millions at the box office. The film captivated audiences with its fast-paced action and clever special effects, demonstrating that there was a whole new market ready to be cashed in on. Two years later, Lucas’ Star Wars debuted, which rode the wave of Jaws’ success, further establishing the blockbuster as a staple of American cinema. Both Spielberg and Lucas continued making lucrative blockbusters as the years progressed, from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the two often collaborating with each other.
As the movie brats came to know each other through collaboration, often using the same actors, composers and crew, Hollywood filmmaking took on a new form, no longer rigidly dictated by the demands of studio executives. Working together, the movie brats realised that seeing each other as competition wouldn’t get them anywhere. Instead, a shared love for creating cinema meant that they often worked on each other’s films. Lucas was an assistant editor on The Godfather, De Palma helped Lucas rewrite the opening of Star Wars, and Spielberg assisted in the post-production of Taxi Driver – the list goes on. Lucas, Spielberg and Milius (co-writer of Coppola’s Apocolypse Now) even agreed to swap percentage points for their films – Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Big Wednesday, respectively, although the latter ended up being an absolute flop.
Nevertheless, the influence that each member of the movie brats had on cinema was enormous. They suggested that incredible films could be created on low budgets without the demands of a studio shaping the narrative. An exploration of the darker side of society, portrayed in a wholly realistic yet stylised way, was hugely influential on every filmmaker that followed them. From Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright and Bong Joon-ho, the current cinematic landscape would not exist if it wasn’t for the dedicated group of movie brats.