Twentieth Century Fox's reboot of Fantastic Four isn't the best-reviewed superhero movie of 2015 and isn't going to be the highest-grossing superhero movie of 2015, but it looks like it might win the dubious accolade of being the most talked-about superhero movie of 2015.
Fantastic Four was controversial almost from its inception, but despite the comic book fan outcry over changes like Johnny Storm's race and Doctor Doom's name, it appears that far more troubling things were going on behind the scenes. In the wake of Fantastic Four's release, it has become the worst-reviewed Marvel Comics-based movie of all time, with a dismal 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Trank responded to the early bad buzz with a since-deleted tweet that said, "A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would've recieved [sic] great reviews. You'll probably never see it. That's reality though."
So, what exactly happened to Trank's "fantastic" version of Fantastic Four, and why will audiences never see it? Is there any truth to the troubling rumors that were floating around during the film's production? Moreover, what of the new rumors that have begun to emerge in the wake of its release?
We've rounded up the various accounts of what went wrong with Fantastic Four - old and new - in an effort to try and figure out exactly what spun this movie off the tracks.
Josh Trank's Behavior
Long before Fantastic Four was released, there were early signs of trouble when stories arose describing Trank's conduct during the movie's production. A poster on a Louisiana-based board called TigerDroppings passed on a description of the director's erratic behavior from a friend who had worked on the movie.
"A buddy of mine was on the crew. Trank showed up to set late or so high he couldn't speak almost everyday. Some days he didn't show up at all. He treated crew terribly. He trashed the house the production company rented for him. From what I'm told he did a couple hundred grand worth of damage... Trank did so much damage to the house that [Fox CEO] Jim Gianopulos came to Baton Rouge and personally apologized to the owners."
Another user said that they had heard similar stories from a friend about Trank's behavior on set, though they couldn't confirm the rumor about the production house. That same user said that they "heard [Trank] was fired after wrapping and others are working on it [in] post production." At the time all this was unconfirmed rumor from anonymous sources, but following the movie's release, the emerging narrative seems to indicate that these early claims were at least partially true.
A new report by EW includes accounts from several different sources close to the production, who were spoken to independently and offered versions of the story that match in some places, and conflict in others. According to EW, some sources described the "combative behavior Trank demonstrated toward the crew, producers, studio and even the stars." They also said that Trank's off-set disputes and incidents, like the alleged damage to the production house, "manifested on set as hostility and frustration."
If true, this stressful on-set atmosphere may have been a key factor in preventing the best possible version of the script from making it to the screen. The Telegraph's review notes, of the main cast, that "no one looks like they're having any fun," and it sounds like this may have been exactly the case. When cast and crew members enjoy the process of making a film and believe wholeheartedly in the project, that enthusiasm has a tendency to shine through in the end result.
The first half of the story doesn't make much sense by itself; it seems unlikely that Trank would just suddenly go off the deep end for no reason and sabotage his first big break. Now that Fantastic Four has hit theaters, critics and audiences alike have noticed that the movie feels disjointed, with many pointing out a distinct tonal shift in the third act.
According to the other rumors that have begun to emerge about the movie's troubled production, Fantastic Four was the victim of some very poor decision-making and interference on Fox's behalf. The EW article goes on to reveal that some sources painted a very unfavorable picture of the studio's actions.
"Some who worked on the film say Trank was driven to the breaking point by the studio, which delayed casting and script approvals, slashed the budget by tens of millions from what was originally promised, and tried to force last-minute changes to the film just as principal photography was beginning, creating confusion and stress from the get-go that often boiled over among department heads trying to put together pieces of a movie that was still in flux."
Collider's latest Movie Talk podcast outlines a similar picture, with host John Campea relaying accounts from multiple sources close to production who said that Fox essentially agreed to make a certain version of Fantastic Four with Trank - one that included three major action set pieces - and forcibly changed those plans at the last minute.
"Days before production began, Fox came in and made him pull three main action sequences out of the film. I was also told that the ending of the film was not even Josh Trank's... that at some point they hijacked the editing bay from him to the point where the edit of the film was done without him...
"Yesterday both Kristian [Harloff] and I spoke with another source - this is a second source - that confirmed everything we had heard from my first source... [Fox] had essentially put out a film that was not the film that they had originally sat down to make...
"I made some calls to some friends of mine, filmmakers, who had done business with Fox, and I just ran some of the facts by them that I had been hearing and said, 'Does this sound consistent with your experience with Fox?' And they said, 'You have no idea.' And then they proceeded to tell me a lot more stuff. I feel confident enough that I've heard this from enough places - enough reputable places - to tell you this: the film that we saw, in Fantastic Four, was not the film they were supposed to make. It was not the film that Josh Trank made."
While technically all of this is still rumor, it would take a pretty vast conspiracy for so many different sources to all deliver matching versions of the same story when quizzed independently. Movie Talk co-host Jon Schnepp, who had his own sources, also revealed another interesting claim: that Fox had hired an Oscar-winning "special effects guy" to work on the film, and subsequently fired him without telling him and also without telling Trank. That would certainly help explain the criticisms of Fantastic Four's special effects.
Just because various sources are now confirming Trank's implication that Fox took control of the movie away from him, it doesn't necessarily mean that Trank's version of Fantastic Four really was "fantastic" and "would've received great reviews." The film has also been criticized for its lack of humor, its muted aesthetic, and the decision to take a gritty approach to one of Marvel's kitschier superhero teams. Ultimately Trank did direct Fantastic Four, and has to shoulder the responsibility for a lot of what ended up on the screen.
It's important to note that we don't have the full picture just yet, and it's very likely that more details will continue to emerge over time. For the moment, however, we can speculate about how things went down, based on the information available.
It seems that Fox created the first ripples of disruption right before the start of production by demanding sudden changes to essential pieces of the movie. Faced with that kind of stress, Trank - a fairly young director who had enjoyed relative creative freedom while making his first feature - appears to have dealt with the situation poorly by lashing out at the cast and crew. In response, Fox took away creative control altogether as soon as the film went into post-production. Essentially, it sounds like a domino effect of bad decisions.
Some are speculating that Fantastic Four's reviews, the projected box office results and Trank's brief outburst will make Fantastic Four the movie that ends his filmmaking career, altogether - but it's really too early to say that for sure. Given the stories of studio interference that are now emerging, it's possible that Trank will come out the other side as a sympathetic party - though that doesn't necessarily mean that anyone's going to trust him with another big-budget blockbuster any time soon.
We'll keep you updated on this story as more details become available.
Fantastic Four is now in theaters. Deadpool opens February 12, 2016; X-Men: Apocalypse on May 27, 2016; Gambit on October 7, 2016; Wolverine 3 on March 3, 2017; Fantastic Four 2 on June 9, 2017; and some as-yet unspecified X-Men film on July 13, 2018. The New Mutants is also in development.
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