Shadows was John Cassavetes' directorial debut. The idea for the film grew out of an improvisation from a class he was teaching at his drama school, "The Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop." It involved a young African-American woman who was very light-skinned and dates a white man, and whose relationship leads to racial tension. Cassavetes was then promoting Edge of the City which he starred in as an actor on Jean Shepherd's radio show Night People, and he claimed that he could make a better film. He asked the listeners for funding and to his surprise they sent in $2,000 to start production. And with the help of other friends, including director William Wyler, Cassavetes began production on the film using actors from his workshop.
The film was shot without permits, an inexperienced crew and only an outline of a script that Cassavetes had prepared for the actors to work within. A year later in 1958 Cassavetes premiered the first version of the film during midnight screenings over three consecutive nights. Most of the 100 people who showed up each night to the 600 seat theatre did not like the film, with many walking out including Burt Lane who ran the acting workshop with Cassavetes and coached many of the actors in the film. This led Cassavetes to re-work the film. He created a script, changed the music and re-arranged scenes after extensive re-shoots. In all, the first-time director shot 30 hours of film, and after re-releasing Shadows in 1959, won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Shadows became highly regarded because it reshaped what could be done in independent cinema as it embraced the Beat Generation it was depicting in the film as its own style, even in the funding of the project. John Cassavetes would go on to be one of the most highly regarded independent filmmakers of all time after his debut, and Shadows has inspired viewers and filmmakers alike for its artistic expression and ability to be made outside the traditional Hollywood studio system.