A tentpole studio movie with a budget north of $100 million has to have a famous director to match, doesn’t it? Well, not necessarily. In recent years there has been a particularly pronounced trend in Hollywood of independent filmmakers having massive projects land in their laps after directing just one low-budget feature.
To name just a few examples in recent memory: Gareth Edwards, after directing the $500,000 sci-fi movie Monsters, was hired to direct Warner Bros.’ $160 million Godzilla reboot; Josh Trank jumped from helming low-budget superhero movie Chronicle to being placed in the director’s chair for Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot; Marc Webb made his feature directorial debut with $7.5 million rom-com 500 Days of Summer, and his second movie was Sony’s franchise reboot The Amazing Spider-Man; and Colin Trevorrow directed offbeat indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed shortly before finding himself knee-deep in dinosaurs on the set of Jurassic World.
Marvel Studios has achieved a meteoric rise in success within the space of just ten years, but not one of Marvel’s chosen directors had ever helmed a big-budget superhero movie before. That’s not to say that Marvel’s directors are inexperienced, but they tend to have cut their teeth on different fare. Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo, for example, had only directed comedy films like You, Me and Dupree before, and Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn was best known for oddball genre films like Super and Slither.
Hollywood has a well-earned reputation for being absolutely terrified of taking risks – which is perhaps understandable when there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake and plenty of horror stories to go around – so why are so many ‘untested’ directors being handed huge franchises? Moreover, how do these directors respond to such a drastic transition?
There are some key benefits to hiring a largely unknown indie filmmaker to helm a big budget studio blockbuster. A director whose only experience thus far is making a low-budget romantic comedy is not only going to be cheaper to hire than Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan or Martin Scorsese, they’ll also (theoretically) be easier to control. And for an established property like Jurassic World or Star Wars or Godzilla, the name of the director isn’t going to be what sells millions of tickets anyway.
Helming a $150 million movie might be more responsibility than making a $500,000 movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more difficult. Speaking in an interview with Pajiba, Gunn recalled thinking on the first day of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s production:
“‘Really? This is what you do?’ You wait, and you set up the shot and then I get to come back and… sit down. And have a cup of coffee and talk to my friend. And then I go back and do a bit more work. It’s not like ‘arrrrggghhhh’ the whole time. The difference is it went on for 85 days. So the marathon aspect of it is very important. But there are some things about it that are definitely more pleasant than making low budget films.”
A director making their first indie film will often have to perform a juggling act of doing five jobs at once, calling in favors from friends, being acutely aware of how much each delay is costing them, and ultimately being unsure if the movie will even find a distributor once it’s completed. By contrast, studio movies could be considered an easier undertaking, if only because so many of the things that the director would have to think about on an indie project are being taken care of by other people. The stakes are much higher, but the safety net is proportionally bigger.
In most cases, hiring little-known directors for big studio movies doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on their box office success. Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed made a meager $4.2 million at the box office, while Jurassic World is the third highest-grossing movie of all time. Yet there’s an argument to be made that hiring fairly inexperienced directors who can be kept on a tight leash limits the extent to which they can imprint their own creative stamp on these films. In an interview with FirstShowing, Trevorrow insisted that “[nobody] had a gun to our head at all. I made the movie that I wanted to make. There certainly was no studio pulling strings. I didn’t get a studio note on this movie.”
Trevorrow also said, however, “I answered to Steven [Spielberg] and that’s where the notes came from.” He described this process as “collaborative,” but it’s hard to imagine that Trevorrow, with one indie feature under his belt, felt comfortable telling Spielberg that he was wrong about how to make a Jurassic Park movie. This is especially true in light of Trevorrow’s feelings when Spielberg first approached him.
“I was very hesitant at first… I skipped four or five movies in between my first film and my second film. That was the first thing I said, was: ‘Look. I’m kinda being robbed of something to a certain extent here.’ And not to make it sound like a negative, but robbed of the ability and the time to make myself better and to get good, and just really, really good.”
If the studio wasn’t breathing down Trevorrow’s neck, it sounds like his executive producer might have been. When asked if there was anything that he really wanted to do in Jurassic World but had been told he couldn’t, the director recalled that Spielberg had effectively vetoed a scene that Trevorrow would have loved to include.
“There was one scene where the Indominus Rex gets surprised by an animatronic T-Rex, like an animatronic that’s in the park that they had. He bites its head off. So it’s like a real dinosaur biting the head off a robot dinosaur. It looked so awesome. And Steven was really against it. He was saying, ‘No. You are saying CGI dinosaurs are destroying Stan Winston’s dinosaur.’ I was like, ‘Oh, no. that’s not what I meant, but you’re right. I don’t want to say that at all.’ So we didn’t do it. But, man, I’m telling you. That image was the coolest.”
Regardless of whether the image of a CGI Indominus Rex chewing off the head of an animatronic T-Rex would have been seen by audiences as incredibly cool or horribly disrespectful, it would have at least been a mark made by Trevorrow on his Jurassic Park film – a mark that was ultimately scrubbed off by Spielberg (who also had final cut privilege). In fact, many moments in Jurassic World feel like a subservient nod to its predecessor – from Jake Johnson’s character wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt to the two kids finding and restarting an old Jeep from the first edition of the park.
At the other end of the success spectrum from Jurassic World is Fantastic Four – another case where the studio hired a director who had only directed one indie sci-fi film so far. Trank, unlike Trevorrow, was not working in the shadow of a critically-acclaimed existing movie franchise. Fantastic Four was ideally going to be a fresh start after the false start of Fox’s previous two Fantastic Four movies, but that doesn’t mean that Trank was given any more freedom than Trevorrow.
The details of Fantastic Four‘s disastrous production and release are well-documented, and it seems that at the heart of the movie’s problems was a studio that was clumsily trying to micromanage everything, and a neophyte director who wasn’t willing to meekly put up with such treatment. The clash escalated to the point where, according to many corroborating accounts, Fox shunted Trank off the project altogether once initial filming was complete and hastily tried to piece together a new third act, with Fantastic Four‘s director stripped of all creative control in post-production.
In theory, the idea of handing major studio projects to creative indie directors could create Hollywood blockbusters with individuality, freshness and diversity (well, as diverse as it’s possible to get from a selection of thirty-something white guys), but the evidence suggests that this isn’t the reason behind this spate of hirings. Far from being an uncharacteristically bold move from an industry terrified of taking risks, hiring humble and inexperienced directors may simply be another act of risk-mitigation.
That’s not to say that this practice is inherently a bad idea, but there’s weight to Trevorrow’s suggestion that it forces directors to make their most high-profile movies before they’ve had a chance to really perfect their craft or find their voice. After all, it’s not like Spielberg jumped straight from Duel to Jurassic Park.
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