Why film is facing a brain drain of directors

Please can franchises stop stealing our top indie talents, pleads Nicholas Barber

Nicholas Barber
Monday 28 December 2015 13:35
Universal Pictures’ Warcraft: The Beginning
Universal Pictures’ Warcraft: The Beginning

Next year looks set to be an exciting one for fans of fantasy thrillers made by innovative indie directors. In June, there’s the new film from Duncan Jones, the mind-bending sci-fi auteur behind Moon and Source Code. In December, there’s a second team-up between Justin Kurzel, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the stars of his Macbeth – and due that same month is the latest from Gareth Edwards, the visual-effects maestro who stunned with his low-budget alien-infestation debut, Monsters.

What more could any geek ask for? Well, we could ask for Jones, Kurzel and Edwards to make films which didn’t tie them to colossal corporate franchises. As it is, Jones’s new film, Warcraft, is adapted from a series of Tolkienesque video games; Kurzel’s film, Assassin’s Creed, is a video-game tie-in; and Edwards’ Rogue One, is a Star Wars spin-off. Instead of surprising us with their own stories, they’re telling ones dictated by multi-media conglomerates with toys and T-shirts to sell.

And they’re not alone. When it comes to CGI-packed, merchandise-minded blockbusters, the go-to directors are now men in their thirties and forties once known for cool, alternative sensibilities. After Rogue One, for instance, the next Star Wars film is to be directed by Rian Johnson, maker of the genre-twisting Brick and Looper. And Marvel Studios’ third Thor film has been handed to Taika Waititi, the New Zealander who co-directed the brilliant vampire mock-doc, What We Do In The Shadows. It’s starting to feel as if the trend has something vampiric about it, too as ancient franchises suck the vitality out of talented film-makers.

It wasn’t always thus. Traditionally, if you wanted a shot at a Bond movie or a Star Wars instalment, you had to be a greying journeyman, usually on action movies. Offbeat humour or a knack for cut-price special effects was not required. There were exceptions, of course, but they were undoubtedly exceptions: some of us can still recall how strange it was when the bird’s-nest-haired weirdo behind Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice was picked to direct Batman in 1989. And when reports emerged that both Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg had angled in vain for a Bond movie, the idea seemed preposterous. Why would they submit to the 007 house style? But then Jon Favreau was chosen to direct Iron Man (2008), Joss Whedon to direct Avengers Assemble (2012), and Sam Mendes to direct Skyfall (2012). They were all known for initiating their own independent projects rather than sign on for other people’s. Marvel Studios pushed the policy further when they employed James Gunn for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Joe and Anthony Russo for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), even though all three directors had nothing on their CVs except oddball cult comedies. And the phenomenon became truly astounding when Colin Trevorrow went straight from Safety Not Guaranteed, a Sundance-approved curio with a budget of $750,000, to this year’s Jurassic World, which had a budget of $150m. And Trevorrow has now been enlisted for Star Wars Episode IX.

This counter-intuitive hiring strategy represents a good deal for all involved. The studio gets a director with a fanboy’s energy, the director gets to realise his nerdiest dreams, and the viewer gets a movie that’s fresh. But there is a Faustian aspect. Waititi, Edwards et al may make entertaining films with Marvel’s heroes and Star Wars’ rebels (both franchises owned by Disney), but they won’t be as interesting as the films they would have made without them. If a blockbuster’s release date is set in stone, its mythology established, and its storyline fixed so that it can segue into a sequel with a similarly immovable release date, how can you put your own authorial stamp on it?

And there’s a lot to be said for having to concoct your own pulp-fiction adventure rather than put your spin on someone else’s. Lest we forget, George Lucas created Star Wars only because he couldn’t secure the rights to Flash Gordon, and Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark because he wasn’t allowed to direct a Bond film. If the policy of recruiting wunderkinds for blockbusters was in place in the 1970s, some iconic figures in cinema history might never have existed.

It’s worth remembering that, as tempting as it may be to revel in the big bucks and broad canvas of a Marvel/Star Wars deal, marriages between hip indie directors and trademarked properties don’t always end amicably. Edgar Wright wasted years developing Ant-Man for Marvel before the company elbowed him in favour of Peyton Reed. Josh Trank, while still in his twenties, made the leap from a found-footage superhero drama, Chronicle, to a zillion-dollar reboot, Fantastic Four, but the resulting film was a reviled flop. Marc Webb had slightly more luck. With one quirky romantic comedy to his name, Webb directed The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel. But both films felt like rehashes of what Sam Raimi had done with Spider-Man.

Speaking of Raimi, he is just one of the older directors to have gone on record about the frustrations of toiling in a franchise factory. He spent months working on Warcraft before he fell out with its parent video-game company. Duncan Jones, beware. But the most famous director to complain about blockbuster duty is none other than George Lucas. In November, the writer-director of Star Wars told Vanity Fair: “You go to make a movie and all you do is get criticised. And people try to make decisions about what you’re going to do before you do. You know, it’s not much fun. And you can’t experiment. You can’t do anything.”

So there you have it. When the man who invented Star Wars is moaning about making a Star Wars movie, maybe the next generation of directors should stick to their own galaxies – far, far away.

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