The movie directors who could use a good boss

Odd List Simon Brew Ed Kegenof
20 Jun 2014 - 06:41

They're talented, individual, but could, possibly, do with a bit of editorial guidance. Could these directors use a boss, we wonder?

In truth, we're a bit frightened about this one. Several times in pub/coffee shop/cider drinking in the park conversations, we've chatted about film directors who perhaps have got too powerful, that they seem to be able to get their own way without having someone to call bullshit on them - be it a good boss, or a very good friend that they trust and listen to.

This can be a very good thing. After all, we want film directors to be free to tell their stories. We don't want studio suits calling the shots. And some directors use their independence wondefully well, without losing what bought it to them in the first place (so, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Robert Zemeckis and such like).

Still, there's merit in the argument that filmmaking is a collaborative process, and there's a sense that some particularly individual directors could use, from time to time, a tap on the shoulder and a quiet word in their ear. We don't know for certain that that hasn't happened of course.

So then: we've put the case for and against each of these entries (the majority of which, inevitably, relate to running time of features), as we're not even sure that we agree with them all ourselves. And it's important to note: in every case, there are things - sometimes lots of things - that the director in question has done that we legitimately love. But we felt that there were still discussions and debate worth having here, and this piece is written very much in that spirit.

Now if you'll excuse us, we're off to get our flame suits on. We've a funny feeling we might need them...


Why he works well without a boss:

Zack Snyder is, whether you like him or not, a visionary director. The vision may be divisive, but few tackle big films in quite the same way as he does. He came to attention firstly for the surprisingly strong remake of Dawn Of The Dead. Working with limited resources, he was the closest to a director for hire on that as he's ever going to be, and turned in an impressive horror that paid due respect to the original.

Yet 300 changed everything. Snyder pushed his style through, made a star of Gerard Butler, and turned the film into a monstrous hit. Using the currency he built up from that, he got Watchmen made. And, at times, Watchmen has some of his best filmmaking in it. It's a muddled, almost impossible film certainly. But there are lots of flashes of brilliance to it.

Why might he need a boss:

Because Snyder untethered is no longer working quite as well.

Sucker Punch was pure, 100% Snyder, and while one or two warmed to the film an awful lot, the majority seem to regard it as an unimpressive, sexist failure. It's visually excellent at times, but as a complete film? It surely could have used someone with a bit of clout calling bullshit on it a few more times.

With Man Of Steel, he sort of had a boss, having been given the nod to make the film by Warner Bros director of choice Christopher Nolan. The cloak of Nolan gave Snyder the space to reboot Superman, and reboot it he did. A harsher film that the five that preceded it, Snyder correctly argues that it touches on areas of Superman that the comic books venture into but the films hadn't.

Yet it's another case of excess going unchecked. Does someone at Warner Bros have the power to stand up to Zack Snyder and rein him in a little? Right now, it doesn't feel that way. And given that Snyder has the keys to Batman, Superman and Justice League for his next two films, his individual style arguably needs a little tempering sooner rather than later. We suspect that won't happen.

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

Outside of a fair comment about what's the point of having a visionary director if you want to temper that vision, we'd say about 3/10.


Why he works well without a boss:

The one-man hit machine, with the power to take not very good films, turn the volume up on them, and turn them into billion dollar juggernauts.

Again, history tells that as Bay has enjoyed more and more success, it seems that more and more control has been ceded to him. That's the way the business works. Pearl Harbor was probably the real turning point. Until then, there was an element of restraint, and a whole lot more fun, to Michael Bay features. Bad Boys? The Rock? Armageddon? We've got time for all of them. Lots of time for a couple of them. But off the back of Armageddon, Bay had the power to do pretty much anything. Sadly, he pretty much did.

Why he might need a boss:

Pearl Harbor has occasional flashes of inspiration, but it's hard to think of a more crass retelling of such a haunting story of war. This was supposed to be Bay taking on board what made Titanic work, and growing into a director with more pathos. Instead, the action worked, yet everything else fell flat. And then you remembered that this was all a true story, mangled. It still leaves a bit of a sour taste.

Further evidence followed. Bad Boys II showed what Bad Boys would have been had Bay had more clout back then. There was a sense of control, and the ongoing running time creep of Bay films was really kicking in too. To be fair to Bay, he used his growing Hollywood power to get The Island made, the only problem being it didn't turn out too well in the end.

And thus Transformers came calling. The first one is okay if you're in the mood for it, but since then, they've got longer, more exhausting, louder and less controlled. If Bay's not leering at his latest female lead, he's messing around with his computer or putting together action sequences where it's virtually impossible to see what's going on. Yet we're clearly in the minority here, as the box office numbers have kept growing. Transformers 3 is the seventh biggest film of all time.

Even Bay's smaller project that he sandwiched in between Transformers 3 and 4  - Pain And Gain - turned into something of a carnival of excess, albeit a cheaper one. Next up? Next month's sort-of-reboot-but-not of Transformers where we'd be amazed if he hadn't been calling the shots from top to bottom for the past couple of years. The now confirmed 166 minute running time for Transformers: Age Of Extinction - once mooted to be the shortest film in the series, and now the longest - suggests that he has.

And we've not even touched on his producing work...

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

We think you might have our backs on this one. 2/10 at most. 0/10 if you're Mark Kermode.


Why he works well without a boss:

Because without question, Woody Allen's best work has come when he doesn't have one. He makes economical, quick films, on his own terms. It works more often than not too, even accepting that Allen tends to go through very pronounced peaks and troughs. At the moment, he's very much near the peak, thanks to two of his last three films being Midnight In Paris and Blue Jasmine, both of which have lots going for them. The one in-between was To Rome With Love, which doesn't have so much to praise about it, but we're coming to that later.

Basically, if Woody Allen retired tomorrow, he'd have a body of work that very few directors in the next 100 years would ever be able to match. In the past 20 years, he may have lacked the consistency of a Scorsese, a Spielberg or a Paul Thomas Anderson. But every year, he steps back up to the plate, and writes and directs another movie. Very few of them are outright bad.

Why he might need a boss:

Because it hurts when Woody Allen goes through a rough patch. His films have given us so much pleasure over the years, that when he gets stuck in a run of a couple of disappointing films, you can't help but wonder who, if anyone, he listens to about it. Across the 2000s, until recently, he's been down to two bad films for every good one (Hollywood Ending is genuinely terrible too), although even in his weaker films - such as the aforementioned To Rome With Love - he finds things to say.

Maybe we've just been spoilt. Allen's career has always been marked by a run of successes, with fallow moments in between. And just because the fallow periods are a little more obvious now, does the man who just directed Cate Blanchett to another Oscar need us to tell him who he should be reporting to? He does not.

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

High, and deservedly so. 8/10 at least.


Why he works well without a boss:

The world needs more John Lasseters. His drive, enthusiasm and vision gave birth - over a long period of time - to Pixar. His feature film directing debut, Toy Story, was a prolonged labour of love that Lasseter fought for. It came off the back of years of experimentation in animation, leading to an Oscar for his incredible short film, Tin Toy. Lasseter is a filmmaker who pushed at the boundaries of technology, without ever losing sight of telling a story. How many others can say that?

The result of this was the aforementioned Toy Story, a film that - with no exaggeration - changed the face of mainstream animation forever. He then co-directed Pixar's next two films, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2, proving that it wasn't a fluke. Lasseter was truly a brilliant filmmaker.

And what's more, he's a brilliant filmmaker who's surrounded himself with brilliant people. Granted, behind the happy image there must be a degree of steel, and a side we don't get to see, as the push for better intensifies. But he's put across a passion and love for his work, that makes him arguably the most revered figure in modern day feature animation.

Further proof? Not only Pixar's incredible run of hits - in spite of some critical tumbles, the studio has never had a flop - but also what he's overseen at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lasseter has, bluntly, been pivotal in turning it around. Could Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, The Princess And The Frog et al have happened had Lasseter not reversed many of the decisions of the previous regime there? Plus, he killed the awful straight to DVD sequel culture that was poisoning Disney. In short, Lasseter is a modern day filmmaking legend.

Why he might need a boss:

The Cars films. The irony isn't lost on many that the two weakest films that Pixar has put out to date are Cars and Cars 2. Both of these were John Lasseter projects, and they were the last two films he directed.

Cars 2 in particular is a muddled mess. It has moments where it catches fire, but they're few and far between, and for all the exquisite animation, the film itself simply wasn't very good. It makes you fear for the already-announced Cars 3.

When Lasseter made Cars, he was just heading up Pixar, although that in itself is a full time job and a half, surely. With Cars 2? He was juggling Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios (and the retooling of many of its projects behind the scenes), and trying to direct a nine-figure blockbuster movie as he did so. Lasseter reportedly directed chunks of the film remotely via iPad. That in itself wouldn't be a problem, were it not for the fact that the film didn't work as well as we'd hoped. As such, you can't help but point at something like that and wonder if it was a good thing.

But then here's the other question: if your boss is making a bad film, what do you do about it?

Pixar has a reputation for putting projects into turnaround if they're not working, and replacing directors where necessary. You can't help but think had another director been making Cars 2 (and co-director Brad Lewis left the project, and Pixar, fairly early into the project), that different decisions would have been made. But with John Lasseter's name on the proverbial director's chair? The man with the power to put the project into turnaround was making the film in the first place...

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

If you've not seen the Cars films: 10/10.

If you've seen the Cars films: 3/10.

We still love John Lasseter though. He will be remembered and talked about long after us. And rightly so.


Why he works well without a boss:

Peter Jackson clearly has a brilliant brain. What's more, he's gradually built up his career, from the low budget ingenuity and horror of Bad Taste, Braindead and Meet The Feebles, to the outright stunning Heavenly Creatures. Who else could have made a film like that, one that still strikes hard today?

And who else would gamble absolutely everything on bringing J R R Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings trilogy to the big screen? It's easy to overlook now just what a massive risk that was all round. Stories of the first showing of footage at the Cannes Film Festival suggest that the pressures of Lord Of The Rings were immense, with nothing close to certainty of success. 

Yet Jackson pulled it off. More than that, he managed it three times, creating one of the most memorable trilogies of films in cinema history. He is clearly a brilliant filmmaker, and few would quarrel with that.

Why he might need a boss:

Because he seems to have lost a key skill that he once clearly possessed: the ability to tell a story with a degree of economy.

This isn't just about splitting The Hobbit into three movies either, although that certainly doesn't help. Even within each of the two Hobbit movies to date, they both feel really very long. They are long, of course, but back when he was doing Lord Of The Rings, Jackson had an ability to make lengthy films feel short.

However, since Lord Of The Rings gave him a lot more independence, we've had his three hour take on King Kong, and even his apparently smaller project, The Lovely Bones, clocked in at 135 minutes, with more prioritised over less.

The running times themselves aren't the core problem. The problem is that none of the films concerned felt like they should be that long. The stories didn't feel like they needed to be stretched. Appreciating that something like The Lovely Bones wouldn't have even made it to the screen without the power of Peter Jackson behind it, we still yearned for the economy of Heavenly Creatures.

The Hobbit has brought the running times of Jackson's movies into very firm focus, and rightly so. The internet has long since dissected the decision to split a relatively thin tome into three films. What's perhaps just as surprising, though, is that the films we've seen are so lengthy in themselves. And as much as we like Peter Jackson taking us around Middle Earth on the big screen, it would be fair to say that these days, he takes the very scenic route. Nobody seems to be advising him otherwise.

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

An even 5/10. Fans of genre cinema owe Jackson an awful lot, and nothing's going to hold us back from seeing the final Hobbit film on day of release. But in that first Hobbit film, it still took a sing-song, some washing up and 30 minutes of screen time to even get out of the front door...


Why he works well without a boss:

How could you possibly want to curtail a writer and director as individual as Quentin Tarantino? When he's on top form, there's nobody else who comes close to doing what he does as well as him. And yet there's a growing excess in his most recent films. Contrast the usually brilliant but sometimes bloated Django Unchained with the lean economy of Reservoir Dogs, for instance. Appreciating that budget, scale and the needs of the story have a huge part to play here, the difference is pronounced.

Perhaps a better comparison is 1994's Pulp Fiction against either Django or Inglourious Basterds. In Pulp Fiction, across its three interlocking stories, it rarely felt like there was a moment wasted. There was a vitality to what Tarantino was putting on the screen. The same applied to Jackie Brown: a taut, often brilliant adaptation of Elmore Leonard's book. Tarantino's earlier films, as he explored and pushed his directorial talents, are his tightest.

Why he might need a boss:

Because his films, more and more, feel like they go on too long.

In particular, as highly as we regard Django Unchained, it felt a good 30 minutes too long, even if we wouldn't pretend to know where best to cut it. We're just end customers when it comes to it. But still, Basterds also seemed to lose its pacing, dragging things out when perhaps a little more economy and some of the tightness that defined early Tarantino would have helped.

Yet who would stand up to Tarantino now? Always an individual filmmaker, and at his best because of it, Harvey Weinstein has all but said that he has a blank cheque to make whatever films he likes, once describing his former home Miramax as "the house that Quentin built". The Weinsteins now need Tarantino far more than Tarantino needs the Weinsteins, and with Django Unchained proving to be a major box office hit - as well as earning Tarantino another Oscar - he's a filmmaker with more power than ever before.

So who, in truth, is going to have the power, clout and influence to say to Quentin Tarantino that his film is too long, and expect him to do something about it? 

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

Well, we're probably in a bit of trouble here, in truth. Let's go 9/10. But where do you draw the line? Nobody wants neutered Tarantino filmmaking, but surely there's more than one or two of us who think his films may be getting too long?


Why he works well without a boss:

Wes Anderson's track record speaks for itself: with such films as Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson's built up a remarkable body of work. Admittedly, his style of filmmaking isn't for everyone, but there's one thing that even Anderson's detractors would admit: you know you're watching one of his movies within a second or two, and that isn't something you can say about many directors currently working.

It's also important to point out that Anderson gets away with making defiantly individual films at a time when more and more filmmakers are having to make compromises just to gain financing. Who else but Anderson could get a film as quirky as The Grand Budapest Hotel through the American filmmaking system? Not many, we'd argue, and fewer still could attract such a star-laden cast: Andersons' reputation is such that he can afford to casually throw in great actors like Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel and his old friend Bill Murray in relatively minor roles.

Most importantly, The Grand Budapest Hotel has proved that Anderson can please audiences as well as critics: with a healthy return at the box office, the film's financial success, particularly in the UK, means that he'll almost certainly have the freedom to make his quirky films for many years to come.

Why he might need a boss:

Here's where we have to choose our words carefully.

We've long admired Anderson's films, and found something to enjoy or even love in every single one of them. Yet the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel felt like the culmination of his obsessively controlled style: the geometric shots, the handmade special effects, the arid, deadpan humour. It was a brilliant film, as crafted and alternately warm and sharp as anything Anderson's made.

At the same time, it left us quietly hoping that it marks the start of a new chapter for Anderson - one where he puts aside some of the tics and quirks we now associate with his filmmaking, and tries something surprising and new. This isn't to say that we'd like to see Anderson suddenly take on a gigantic summer film - far from it - but we would like to see him apply his talent to something different. What would a noir thriller directed by Anderson look like? Or a science fiction film, or a western? If Anderson went back to the budget level of say Bottle Rocket or Rushmore - still our favourite films of his - what would his films look like then? As much as we look forward to Anderson's films, we'd love to see him push his abilities into different avenues in future.

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

Incredibly high, we're guessing. We've sewn leather elbow patches onto our fire-retardant suits just to be on the safe side.


Why he works well without a boss:

There are lots of entirely correct reasons to be grateful for Judd Apatow.

His willingness to back talent has led to, for a start, the likes of Freaks And Geeks, Undeclared, Girls et al getting through the television system (although not for long in some cases). Furthermore, he's nurtured the people he works with - there's never a sense that he hires someone and doesn't invest time in them.

Freaks And Geeks - one of the best TV shows of the past 20 years for our money - generated three Hollywood screenwriters amongst its young cast of then unknowns (Seth Rogen, John Francis Daley, Jason Segel), along with three directors (Rogen, Daley, James Franco) and a producer (Samm Levine). Furthermore, Apatow backed its creator, Paul Feig, and did so again with movie projects, paving the way to Bridesmaids.

Without Judd Apatow, it's not certain that the likes of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Linda Cardellini, Steve Carell, Will Ferrell and such like wouldn't have found fame. But he certainly gave them a sizeable helping hand.

Why he might need a boss:

Because the films he directs are becoming way too long.

The 40 Year Old Virgin, his first, came in at just under two hours, and threatened to outstay its welcome. Knocked Up, his second, was 129 minutes, and for all the film's many qualities, it did feel it as well.

But it was with the sorely underrated Funny People that bum ache really set in. Funny People feels like two films uncomfortably welded together, and it comes in at just under two and a half hours long. And not for nothing was the title for his latest movie, This Is Forty, adapted into the running gag 'This Is Forty Minutes Too Long'.

Thing is, we like Judd Apatow. Both This Is Forty and Funny People in particular are willing to do things that mainstream comedy movies don't. They're brave films in different ways. But both really do outstay their welcome, and there's no sense that anyone's pointing this out when it matters.

On the one hand, you can't help but admire the fact that Apatow consistently gets his cut, on his terms, through the studio system. But on the other, a few more weeks in the editing room really wouldn't hurt.

Chances of us getting lynched in the comments section for suggesting he may need a boss:

2/10. We think you might be with us on this one.

Not included: George Lucas. He's retired. Andrei Tarkovsky. He's dead.

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