(Originally published 12/1/17)
Every aspiring filmmaker has a fantasy of how they would like their career to progress. Even those who wouldn’t admit it to their colleagues or family members have still spent hours daydreaming about directing an elaborate crane movement across a sea of costumed extras, delivering an inspired creative note that unlocks the potential for a brilliant performance, accepting a prize at Sundance or Cannes or on the glittering Oscar stage, fame, wealth, legacy, immortality... Wannabe filmmakers (even those with fiercely independent aspirations) who claim to have never visualized their own successes are, at best, lying to themselves. And while his name has become synonymous with a certain kind of mainstream, studio fare it would be hard to argue that Christopher Nolan’s career path has been anything but the Platonic Ideal of a creative and commercial Hollywood success story.
Nolan rose to prominence at the turn of the 21st century- “breaking through” with the kind of low budget fare that exemplified the spirit of the grassroots independent film movement of the 1990s. His perfectly-executed hopscotch from obscurity to golden boy anointment might be the most elegant example of the transition ever performed. He cut his teeth on the black and white, Super 16, DIY, shoestring, genre lark, Following when he was in his mid 20s. Following led to Slamdance, Slamdance led to industry attention, industry attention led to financing, financing led to Memento, Memento led to Sundance, Sundance led to studios, studios led to Insomnia, Insomnia led to movie stars and budgets, movie stars and budgets led to Batman Begins and so on... In less than seven years Nolan went from spending his weekends single-taking 16mm short ends to rebooting a superhero franchise with Oscar winners in the ancillary roles. And while the legend of Nolan’s rise to prominence is inspiring in its trajectory, it wasn’t necessarily uncommon at the time. Few careers have been as consistent or distinct as Nolan’s but there are scores of filmmakers from Linklater to Bigelow who dutifully climbed the ladder from indie ghetto to mainstream success to awards recognition to the holy grail of artistic autonomy.
But recently a disturbing trend has begun to develop in the spongey quagmire that separates the cinematic haves and have-nots. The period of maturation, conditioning, and evolution that used to define a young filmmaker’s second, third or even fourth directorial outing has been evaporating- replaced instead by a fast-track from “fringe” to franchise. Hasty financial consecration and overnight industry matriculation is becoming the new normal, particularly in the pipeline between “Sundance High” and “Tent Pole University.” The idea of a creative latency period has all but disappeared as studio heads scramble to put young, hot, cheap new talent on the payroll before the ink dries on their Sundance Grand Jury Prize certificate. But a dangerous precedent is being set and the recent slew of high-profile sackings behind the scenes of some big budget franchise properties may be an indication that a bubble is primed to burst.
In the category of modern franchise filmmaking, no names loom larger than Marvel and Star Wars. Both brands reside under the Disney banner and both have been willing to make brash, outside-the-box decisions when recruiting directorial talent. But while Star Wars has been forced to backpedal more than a few of their recent choices, Marvel’s track record has been defined by consistency and patience, thanks largely to the supervision of studio president Keven Feige. A “slow and steady wins the race,” long-con approach has been Feige’s mandate since the beginning and the dividends speak for themselves. In his oral history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Devin Leonard observes: “Feige’s films aren’t groundbreaking- they rely on epic showdowns at major landmarks, set to Carmina Burana-style angelic choruses, and the force of computer-generated graphics is strong with them. Still, they feel like a refreshment of the genre, so much so that instead of diminishing returns, Marvel’s sequels make progressively more money” (Leonard, 2). That last part is obviously important in maintaining the “no-end in sight” ubiquity that has swaddled the franchise since its inception. As such, it’s important to note that Marvel Studios has yet to produce a feature film that has made less that 200 million dollars in worldwide box office receipts (Box Office Mojo, 2017) or received anything less than a 67% on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator (Rotten Tomatoes, 2017). All of the mainline MCU films have been box office hits, all “fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes’ standards.
This unprecedented run of success culminated earlier this month with the release of Thor: Ragnarok- the second most critically-acclaimed film in the series which is already on track to make upwards of 750 million, worldwide. The film is directed by New Zeland-born Taika Waititi and in many ways the 42-year-old filmmaker exemplifies Feige’s approach to staffing his directorial roster. Ragnarok is Waititi’s fifth feature film but the budget is 72 times larger than Waititi’s next most expensive project- 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. These kinds of inequities have never seemed to rattle Feige. From John Favreau to Shane Black to James Gunn, Feige has always appeared to delight at inducing collective incredulity in the cultural conversation every time Marvel reveals another left-field directorial choice. He rarely seems as interested in “young,” “buzzy,” or “fresh” as much as he appears drawn to filmmakers with distinct personalities and track records of genre experimentation. It’s easy to forget that Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers—for all of their television cachet and hard-won geek-cred—had only three feature films between them (Serenity, Welcome to Collinwood, and You, Me and Dupree, respectively) when Feige handed them the keys to the Avengers castle. But Feige has always possessed a preternatural insight into what kinds of storytellers will bring the proper amount of artistic identity to each individual picture while still acquitting themselves appropriately within the regimented guidelines of the Marvel sandbox. In reference to Feige’s cinematic “Spidey Sense” as it pertains to his yeoman-like commitment to the MCU’s integrity, Derek Johnson wrote, in the fall of 2012: “Marvel executives like Avi Arad and Kevin Fiege [sic] claimed a unique, insider perspective into the tastes of a “fanboy” audience of adult and adolescent males targeted by Hollywood blockbusters. Fiege [sic], for example, claimed insight into fanboy skepticism... By self-identifying with this fanboy position in his self-reflexive pronouncements, Fiege [sic] not only called into question the studio’s ability to handle the material but also built up his own authority to handle the material” (Johnson, 19). As the self-appointed champion of the geeks, Feige gave himself permission to judicially police and audit the creative decisions being made under his own roof. Even if that meant cutting off a finger for fear of losing the whole hand.
A year and a half after Johnson’s article was written, director Edgar Wright “stepped down” from the opportunity to director Marvel’s Ant-Man- a scandal that became a lightning rod for MCU critics who had spent years waiting for an inevitable chink in Feige’s armor to materialize. Wright, something of a patron saint to the fanboy community in his own right, had been widely embraced by the MCU faithful. But the manner in which he was muscled out and replaced by director Peyton Reed spoke to the autocracy with which Feige now ruled over his domain. These may have been the individual director’s films. But this was Feige’s universe. In her 2015 article Does Marvel Studios have a director problem? Emma Dibdin writes: “Maybe Marvel never really deserved their director-driven reputation to begin with. And maybe blockbuster filmmaking simply isn't the place for auteurs, Christopher Nolan being the exception that proves the rule. After all, the expanded universe focus has paid off in spades for Marvel so far, and why wouldn't they expect their filmmakers to play ball? On the other hand, working with directors used to be ostensibly one of Marvel's greatest strengths, and as the studio has evolved it has become their most publicised [sic] weakness.” Dibdin was referencing not only the shakeup on Ant-Man but also directors Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay “ankling” the films Thor: The Dark World and Black Panther, respectively. DuVernay’s exit made room for Feige’s youngest recruitment when 30-year-old Ryan Coogler was brought on to helm the film. Despite his age, Coogler was flying high after the Sundance hit Fruitvale Station and the crowd-pleasing Rocky spinoff Creed. So he actually seemed like less of a gamble for Marvel than Jon Watts, who was 35 when hired to direct Spiderman: Homecoming and fresh off two films that barely saw theatrical exhibition and had a combined budget of seven million dollars. Does the hasty anointment of young directors like these two point to a desire on Feige’s part to adjust his compass toward filmmakers whom he can “control” or those more willing to bend to the confines of the “formula”? Spider-Man: Homecoming was a smash, Black Panther looks promising, and Captain Marvel, the MCU’s first standalone film with a female protagonist as well as a female co-director (40-year-old Anna Boden) just started production. Regardless, Feige need only look across the Disney lot to the Star Wars offices for recurring examples of the dangers in picking fruit off the Sundance “vine.”
Lucasfilm is three decades older than Marvel Studios. But so far the science fiction stalwart is only representing eight theatrical features compared to Marvel’s seventeen. George Lucas is responsible for directing half of the existing Star Wars films while Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand, J.J. Abrams, and Gareth Edwards are tied for second place with one film apiece. Since being named President of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy has personally sacked five different directors in as many years which means that more people have actually been fired from helming a Star Wars film than have ever completed the job successfully. Now, obviously, there’s a small hyperbole at work here- Gareth Edwards, who was 39 and coming off a successful reboot of the Godzilla franchise when hired to direct Rogue One actually did “finish” the film. But he was eventually replaced by Tony Gilroy, who was coming off a not-so-successful reboot of the Bourne franchise. The high-profile swap made headlines as bloggers seemed to be much more interested in Edwards’ removal from the job than they had been upon his receiving of it. The fact that he had shepherded a successful Godzilla update seemed to be enough qualification for him to be put in charge of the eighth film in the biggest film franchise of all time. But very little was made about the fact that the 200-million-dollar Rogue One was only two projects removed from Edwards’ directorial debut Monsters which he made for 500 grand and edited on his laptop. The online community kvetched right up until the film premiered, was critically embraced, and went on to become the second highest grossing entry in the series.
The enormous success of Rogue One seemed to justify Kennedy’s decision to oust Edwards six months before his film was to hit theaters. He retained sole directing credit despite the fact that Gilroy may have re-shot as much as 40% of the finished film. But in spite of Rogue One’s success, the specter of a larger issue seemed to be developing as precedents began piling up. Less than a year earlier, kindled by the bad press, bad box office, and bad vibes that clung to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot like a fetid stench, he was unceremoniously removed from the planned Boba Fett “spinoff.” Then, in June of 2017, in the most widely-reported sacking yet- directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were publicly fired from their Han Solo “origin story” with less than a month to go in production. The hat-trick was official- all three “anthology” films had officially undergone directorial restructuring at the pre-production, production, and post-production levels. When Colin Trevorrow left Episode IX over “creative differences” three months after the Solo-sacking, it suddenly seemed so clear: Not only were we all quite certain he was fired, but there was something epidemic happening behind the walls of Lucasfilm. Ben Child, reporting on the phenomenon for The Guardian writes: “One sacked director can perhaps be written off as poor luck, but three starts to appear an awful lot like abysmal planning.”
So, what accounts for all of this jockeying, drama, and intrigue? Is this kind of micromanaging, knee-jerk, replacement-strategy just a sign of the times? Or has the age of the 24-hour news cycle, coupled with the critical mass of Star Wars fever, combined to create a perfect storm of tabloid fodder? When creative overlords like Feige and Kennedy say they want “new blood” and “exciting voices” to galvanize franchise conventions what they likely mean is that they want cheap, young, malleable talent who will bring a modestly-fresh perspective while still adhering to template and formula. Comparing Kathleen Kennedy to Darth Vader, Ben Child writes: “Perhaps this is the key to directing Star Wars in the era of producer-controlled cinematic universes. If you are willing to submit to the will of a higher power without the need for a choke hold or two from on high, then the keys to the kingdom are yours. But if you question the will of Lucasfilm’s supreme leader, you may well find yourself staring into glassy-eyed oblivion.” Josh Trank and Colin Trevorrow have reputations for erratic behavior and being difficult to work with. As such, both lost their opportunities to play in the Lucasfilm sandbox while the congenial, tight-lipped, company-minded (or legally obligated?) Edwards got to keep his DGA-protected credit plus at least 50% of a Star Wars film to call his own. And what of the suspiciously similar timeframes between Trank and Trevorrow’s recent box office disasters and being summarily dismissed by Lucasfilm? Fantastic Four and The Book of Henry represent critical and commercial humblings for the fledgling filmmakers and this observer finds little evidence for coincidence in that their respective oustings followed subsequently. Neil Blomkamp managed to force Elysium AND Chappie through the meat grinder before Fox got wise and torpedoed his Alien reboot. I guess the stakes are a little higher and the patience is a little thinner in the Star Wars galaxy. Kennedy is only interested in winners populating her roster and is more than happy to publicly hack and slash in order to maintain the quality of her bench, bad press or not.
In the good ol’ days of the independent film movement, when the Kevin Smiths and the P.T. Andersons of the world were able to eke out careers and find their footing over the course of a handful of modestly-budgeted films, the industry had a cultivated a “farm system” that seemed to benefit everyone involved. You could break-out with a no-budget indie like Pi, cobble together some “mini-major” financing for a follow-up ala Rushmore, prove your ability to survive in the studio system ala Three Kings, then maybe take a swing at a franchise property ala Batman Begins. There was a logical evolution in the sophistication of a filmmaker’s technique and scope of ambition that exponentially evolved with the expansion of their budgets. The mid-level film tier used to be an egalitarian proving-ground for filmmakers who could become so comfortable and successful in that environment that they might choose to flourish there for the rest of their careers. Syndey Pollack used to do his best work there and David Fincher [mostly] still does. But that particular, cinematic “middle class” is certainly on the ropes and quite possibly dying for good.
Filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts was recruited off the independent trifle The Kings of Summer (reportedly produced on a 6-figure budget) at the age of 31 and sent to Vietnam with 185-million-dollars to make Kong: Skull Island. That film’s modest commercial success notwithstanding, the decision to employ a director with a single feature credit under his belt on a project like Kong is inappropriate at best and dangerous at worst. It isn’t that Vogt-Roberts is necessarily unqualified for taking on a project like that but there needs to be a natural evolution from the independent sensibility to the studio mindset that may or may not take many years but should certainly span multiple films. Janet Staiger writes, attempting to define the parameters of independent film practice: “...is this an ‘independent film’? And if so, what makes it independent? The reason this matters is that implicitly declarations are being made that this sort of film is ideologically better or more worthwhile than what it is not: a classical Hollywood film” (Staiger, 16). Franchise films aren’t inherently evil or soulless any more than indie movies are automatically sophisticated or noble or artistically valuable. But if muckety-mucks like Feige and Kennedy are adamant about having reliable visionaries on their payroll- the kinds of filmmakers who can tow the company line without sacrificing their hip, indie “street cred,” then perhaps it’s time that they induced the studios to re-cultivate the middleclass “farm system” again. A scant few good filmmakers may be born, fully-formed. But most GREAT filmmakers must be made. And perhaps they should be allowed to mature and evolve in a healthy fashion before being prematurely handed the keys to the franchise castle and all of the money in the cinematic universe.
Ben Child, 9/11/17. Why does Star Wars keep losing its directors? The Guardian. Retrieved on: 11/14/17. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/11/star-wars-lose-directors-trevorrow-lucasfilm
Emma Dibdin, 8/23/2015. Does Marvel Studios have a director problem? Digital Spy. Retrieved on: 11/14/17. http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/feature/a664341/does-marvel-studios-have-a-director-problem-why-a-list-filmmakers-are-fleeing-the-mcu/
Derek Johnson, 2012. Cinematic Destiny: Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Devin Leonard, 2016. The Pow! Bang! Bam! Plan to Save Marvel, Starring B-List Heroes. New York, NY: Bloomberg.
Janet Staiger, 2013. Independent of What? New York, NY: Routledge.
Box Office Mojo (2017) Retrieved on: 11/14/17 http://www.boxofficemojo.com/
Rotten Tomatoes (2017) Retrieved on: 11/14/17 https://www.rottentomatoes.com/
Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Following (Christopher Nolan, 1998)
Pi (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)
Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002)
Welcome to Collinwood (2002) Serenity (2005)
You, Me and Dupree (2006)
Elysium (Neil Blomkamp, 2013)
Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)
Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)
Chappie (Neil Blomkamp, 2015)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2019)
Fruitvale Station. Ryan Coogler. The Weinstein Company, 2013. RT: 94%
Creed. Ryan Coogler. Warner Brothers, 2015. RT: 95%
Clown. Jon Watts. Dimension, 2016. RT: 48%
Cop Car. Jon Watts. Focus Features, 2015. RT: 80%
Spider-Man: Homecoming. Jon Watts. Sony, 2017. RT: 92%
Monsters. Gareth Edwards. Magnolia, 2010. RT: 72%
Godzilla. Gareth Edwards. Warner Bros, 2014. RT: 74%
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Gareth Edwards. Disney, 2016. RT: 85%
Fantastic Four. Josh Trank. Fox, 2015. RT: 9%
Chronicle. Josh Trank. Fox, 2012. RT: 85%
22 Jump Street. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Sony, 2012. RT: 84%
The Lego Movie. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Warner Bros, 2014. RT: 96%
Safety Not Guaranteed. Colin Trevorrow. Film District, 2012. RT: 90%
Jurassic World. Colin Trevorrow. Universal, 2015. RT: 71%
The Book of Henry. Colin Trevorrow. Focus Features, 2017. RT: 21%
The Kings of Summer. Jordan Vogt-Roberts. CBS Films, 2013. RT: 76%
Kong: Skull Island. Jordan Vogt-Roberts. CBS Films, 2013. RT: 76%