NB: The following contains spoilers for Fantastic Four.
Casting controversy. Months of rumors about a torturous, troubled production. Director Josh Trank’s already infamous (now deleted) tweet. The unrelentingly negative reviews.
Having already lived through all that, sitting in a darkened multiplex and actually watching Fox’s Fantastic Four feels less like a normal viewing experience and more like archaeology.
Where is Trank, the director of the superb Chronicle, in among all this? What happened to the David Cronenberg fan who wanted to make a “science fiction tale of something happening to your body and it transforming out of your control” according to a Collider interview? The superhero movie that would fit into the “science fiction, or horror, or even drama sections” of the old Blockbusters video chain?
Among the rubble of knife-and-fork editing, jarring tonal jumps, obvious reshoots and a risible final reel, there are only occasional glimpses of that film Trank talked about earlier this year. The opening act, about a young Reed Richards, how he meets his friend Ben Grimm and starts working on his fateful dimension-hopping technology, are beguilingly restrained.
Some of the body horror jabs that do remain are highly effective. I even quite like the notion of an interior superhero movie, one that plays out in claustrophobic labs rather than against the usual backdrop of sprawling cities.
The fissures in Fantastic Four’s troubled production are, however, in evidence from beginning to end. Kate Mara’s performance as Sue Storm is marred by a distractingly ill-fitting wig in several sequences. Miles Teller’s Reed Richards flees the movie at one point, only to be dragged back again by The Thing (Jamie Bell, hidden under a mountain of CG rock). I can only assume this whole detachable plot point – and accompanying “one year later” subtitle – was introduced to explain why all the actors look so different in what are some clearly significant reshoots.
By the time the Fantastic Four gather together to fight Dr Doom (Toby Kebbell, face by now clad in a weird plastic mask), the film’s descended into a quagmire of flat computer effects. The intriguing idea of the heroic quartet being pressed into service as military drones is skipped over. Dr Doom’s unexpected and legitimately scary rampage is over before it begins.
Clearly, something went horribly wrong.
A troubled production
Shortly before Fantastic Four’s release, the film’s cast and crew seemed to be bracing themselves for impact. A Fox boss admitted that there had been “bumps in the road” while making the movie, but insisted that his studio was happy with the results. Miles Teller went on the defensive and, perhaps anticipating Fantastic Four’s critical onslaught, made the rather weak argument that “rarely are films of this size well received.”
What was particularly interesting about the Teller interview was his admission that neither he nor the rest of the cast had seen even a rough cut of the movie. Was Fox still agonizing over a final cut mere days before Fantastic Four’s release? Certainly, the July news that the movie’s planned 3D post-conversion was being dropped adds weight to this theory.
As Fantastic Four’s August 7th debut arrived, the behind-the-scenes tension bubbled over into public view. In a tweet which was widely shared and screen-grabbed before it was deleted, Josh Trank wrote, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality, though.”
That tweet sparked a fresh wave of stories about exactly what went on during the making of Fantastic Four. First came Collider’s John Campea, whose anonymous sources claimed that Fox executives had forced Trank to remove three major action set-pieces from the movie:
“I’ve got a source, fairly close to the production of this film, who told me that the movie Josh Trank and Fox had agreed on making included three really big action set-pieces […] And days before production began, Fox came in and made him pull three main action sequences out of the film.”
Campea’s sources also said that Trank had effectively removed from the film creatively; the ending wasn’t Trank’s idea, while the editing was “done without him.” These stories chime with the Hollywood Reporter’s claims in May that Stephen Rivkin had replaced Trank’s chosen editor, Elliot Greenberg.
Even setting the rumors aside, there’s plenty of evidence of hasty editing choices both within the film and in its marketing materials. Look back at Fantastic Four’s second trailer, and you’ll see several shots that aren’t in the finished movie. While this isn’t necessarily all that unusual, the promo’s dying seconds seem to tease a major action sequence – of The Thing leaping from the belly of a mid-flight stealth plane – that was absent from the final edit.
Then there’s the behind-the-scenes footage released by Comic Book Resources, which reveals an entire sequence involving the heroes’ flying Fantasti-Car. It looks as though the vehicle would have crashed and injured Johnny Storm – though again, the sequence didn’t make it into the finished film.
Was this a sequence deleted because of script rewrites, or was it excised simply because there wasn’t the time (or perhaps the budget) to finish the effects? That a prop as expensive as the heroes’ vehicle was constructed, shot but never used in the final cut is yet more proof – if any were needed – of a worryingly fraught production.
There’s also Fantastic Four‘s curtailed duration to consider. In January, Trank told Collider that he expected the movie to weigh in at around the 120-140 minute mark. Ultimately, the version of Fantastic Four we got was closer to 100 minutes in length.
Where did it start to go wrong?
So if Fantastic Four was so heavily altered, at what point did everything start to go so drastically wrong?
Certainly, relations between Trank and Fox were relatively rosy at first – and Trank’s ideas for a body horror superhero film were positively embraced by Fox’s head of production Emma Watt. Fox, it seemed, liked the idea of taking a 360-degree turn away from the technicolor breeziness of Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movies, released in 2005 and 2007. In his LA Times interview, Trank talked about the moment when, while finishing his first film, the acclaimed Chronicle, he described his take on Fantastic Four to Watts:
“I pitched her a movie where we’d make the science modern and the accident where they get their powers would play out as a horror scene,” Trank said. “In high school, I wrote Cronenberg-inspired short films about people in a hospital with telekinetic powers. This movie felt like an opportunity to explore this canvas that I’ve always dreamt of.”
It’s a leftfield approach to say the least, particularly given the upbeat tone of the Fantastic Four comics, but Watts was clearly impressed with Trank’s ideas. So too was Simon Kinberg, who would step in as producer and co-writer.
“…the thing that really hooked me was: what would the honest reaction be if you suddenly didn’t have control over your body anymore – if you were uncontrollably on fire or invisible or you were a rock creature? That just seemed so original in a genre that it’s hard to be original in.”
Some of those concepts are certainly present in the final film, at least in some form. The accident which leaves the Fantastic Four with their powers really does have a Cronenbergian edge, and the addition of alcohol into the equation could be a further nod to the director’s 1986 film, The Fly, where scientist Seth Brundle climbs into a matter transporter after drinking too much champagne. And then there’s Dr. Doom’s penchant for detonating heads, which owes as much to Cronenberg’s Scanners as it does Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime, Akira.
An ever-changing script
Story elements were clearly being switched around, changed or dropped even after the initial bout of filming ended in the summer of 2014.
In an interview with Collider last November, Toby Kebbell revealed that his character was no longer called Victor Von Doom, but Victor Domashev. “I’m a programmer – a very anti-social programmer,” Kebbell added. “And on blogging sites, I’m ‘Doom’…”
That same month, what purported to be a plot synopsis leaked on the internet. Fox claimed that it was fake, but the studio’s lawyers still sent scary cease-and-desist letters to several outlets, including this very site.
It’s fair to say that the reaction to both the script leak and Kebbell’s interview about Dr. Doom’s new origin story wasn’t particularly favorable among comic book fans. Given that Kebbell’s character name was changed back to Victor Von Doom in the final movie – and mention of his online habits crudely edited around – it seems likely that this element of the plot was changed because of that negative online response in November last year.
My guess is that the studio, already rattled by the response to the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm from some quarters, were growing increasingly wary of Trank’s very personal approach to Fantastic Four, and wanted to turn the story back to the comics wherever they could. Make no mistake, Trank clearly put a lot of himself into the story he was attempting to craft.
In his interview with the LA Times, he talked about his difficult adolescence and how that informed his love of writing and directing. “I was made fun of by a lot of kids in such a way that I didn’t feel like I was human,” Trank said. “That fueled my desire to want to prove people wrong by just writing things and shooting things and being proactive.”
The mysteriously controversial descision to cast Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm was also informed by his own family, and his desire to reflect the ordinary reality of mixed-race families in a film. “I thought it would be interesting to take the family dynamic of the Storms, which is brother and sister, and bring that more into the 21st century in terms of what we consider the norm,” Trank told Collider. “I have mixed family in own family, and it’s something that isn’t out of the ordinary anymore but we don’t really see it portrayed in the casual reality of the movies.”
The reshoots begin
Fantastic Four went back before cameras for reshoots in January – almost six months after Trank’s initial shoot wrapped in August 2014. By this point, the movie’s marketing team finally broke its silence and released the first trailer, which, given the stories already circulating about the film’s production at that point, was cautiously well received.
Behind the scenes, however, there still appeared to be a tug-of-war going on over the direction of Fantastic Four’s story. According to Entertainment Weekly’s sources, “the script wasn’t finalized until late in pre-production,” and was revised even while those reshoots were going on in early 2015.
“This created confusion and stress from the get-go,” Anthony Breznican writes, “that often boiled over among department heads trying to put together pieces of a movie that was still in flux.”
The sources cited by Entertainment Weekly’s latest piece chime with the rumors which surfaced much earlier in Fantastic Four’s making; there are grim stories about smashed up sets and damaged rental properties, frayed tempers between director and studio bosses, budget cuts and a growing roster of producers. There are even unconfirmed reports that Matthew Vaughn, one of Fantastic Four‘s many listed producers, may have stepped in to assist with the direction of the extensive reshoots – something Trank rigorously denied on Twitter.
Accounts vary over exactly what happened in those months of filmmaking, but from an outside perspective, it’s evident that things went unusually wrong.
The bitter aftermath
In many ways, Fantastic Four bears a resemblance to Jonah Hex, Warner Bros’ comic book adaptation from 2010. That film, initially directed by Jimmy Hayward, had a difficult production of its own; Francis Lawrence, director of I Am Legend, was brought in for reshoots by Warner’s concerned bosses. The result was an 81 minute tonal mosaic that failed to make more than a quarter of its $47m budget back at the box office.
Fantastic Four isn’t a financial failure of that magnitude (at the time of writing, it’s managed to claw about half of its $120m investment back), but its takings are still far below even the lowly estimates made before the film’s release. In response to Fantastic Four’s dismal opening weekend, Chris Aronson, Fox’s head of domestic distribution, told the New York Times, “I have never seen a confluence of events impact the opening of a movie so swiftly.”
Nor has a director turned quite so vocally against his studio, at least on such a high-profile movie. Tony Kaye may have engaged in a public spat with his bosses on American History X, but that was a crime drama with one sixth of Fantastic Four‘s budget. Speaking to The Wrap, one lawyer recently speculated that Trank may have “breached his contract” through that one solitary tweet on the 6th August. It’s grimly ironic that, just a few months earlier, Trank had talked about his lack of interest in using Twitter as an outlet for his opinions.
“I don’t think you’re going to see me tweeting up a storm anytime soon,” Trank said. “It’s just not really my personality.”
There’s an oft-repeated mantra that nobody sets out to make a bad movie, and that’s certainly the case with Fantastic Four. Indeed, what makes the story of Fantastic Four’s making such a downbeat one is Trank’s clear enthusiasm both for the source comics (“I love Fantastic Four”) and his unusual yet clearly good-intentioned desire to inject his story with more than a touch of Cronenberg-like horror.
Somewhere along the line, Fox’s plans for Fantastic Four diverged from Trank’s, and the sorry result is a film that satisfied neither the filmmakers nor, it’s now clear, the public. As a result, the Fantastic Four property’s future at Fox looks uncertain. The studio has said that it will “remain committed to these characters,” but there have since been rumors that Fantastic Four 2, once planned for June 2017, will be replaced by a Deadpool sequel.
While he may have burned his bridges with Fox (and that Star Wars movie is no longer happening), there’s the chance that Trank will recover from his experience and again make something great; David Fincher, who suffered through a troubled early film of his own with Alien 3, is testament to that. But for those of us who were genuinely intrigued by Trank’s concept of a body horror-infused superhero movie, we’re faced with the disappointing reality that we may never know exactly what his original, uncompromised film might have looked like.