Are movie trilogies better when they keep the same director?

Does it make for a better trilogy if the same director helms each instalment? Simon looks at the case for and against...

Men In Black 3 comes out today. You might have noticed this, thanks to the enormous pictures of Will Smith’s face that appear to be beaming out of every advertising billboard on the planet. It’s been a long time since the last one, and what’s surprising about the belated third chapter is that the same director is back.

The reason for the surprise? Well, Men In Black 2 wasn’t great, was it? And if you look at the rumoured issues over the director’s chair of Ghostbusters 3 (where apparently the studio didn’t want Ivan Reitman to direct again, but had no choice for contractual reasons), it’s clear that the belated sequel doesn’t always require the original people on the payroll. However, Men In Black 3 has proven to be a marked improvement, and it begs a question: does it make for a better trilogy if the same director is involved each time, or when the person calling the shots changes? Let’s take a look…

The Case For Keeping The Same Director

Straight away, the argument runs that some of the finest movie trilogies of all time have kept their directors in place. Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis), The Man With No Name (Sergio Leone), The Lord Of The Rings (Peter Jackson), The Three Colours Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski), Mad Max (George Miller), Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, and George Romero’s Trilogy Of The Dead (you sort of have to pass over the last couple) are standout examples. In fact, straight off the bat, most of the trilogies that top the most popular lists haven’t changed director once.

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The advantage is obvious. That the person who guides the project can keep it focused, understands the story, understands the context of the story, and understands where and how it all fits together. Look, in the Back To The Future films, at the way Marty stumbles across his new surroundings in the same style in each of the three films. Forensic details like that, as well as big story strokes, are always likely to benefit from having the same person at the pump. Look at Robert Rodriguez’s two trilogies to date, too.

At the very least, having the same director on board for all three films tends to give you an excellent second chapter, usually before the third drops off a little. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Godfather Part II and Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy all garnered richly deserved plaudits, before trailing off for the next and final instalment.

The Case Against

Ah, Mr Brett Ratner. It’s some achievement to make a trilogy of films without any single one of them being much cop, but that’s just what he managed with the Rush Hour movies. And we’re going to come to the films again in a moment, but the Star Wars prequels were, sadly, really badly directed. This is no George Lucas hate festival – heck, he’s given the world far more reasons to love him than hate him – but the prequels were calling out for something fresh behind the camera. Lucas wasn’t up to the job, and the drab tone continued throughout.

Then there’s The Matrix trilogy. The Wachowski Brothers steered all three films, but by the second and third, the cash and the grandiose of it seemed to have gone to their heads. Throw in Michael Bay and the Transformers movies, and the downside of keeping the same person on board is that as the franchise in question goes on, fewer people seem to challenge them. Thus, the films – while not necessarily getting worse – rarely get better. So then: is there a case for changing director?

The Trilogies That Changed Director

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We should acknowledge right now one of the very best, and most popular movie trilogies on the planet: Star Wars.  Unlike the subsequent prequel trilogy, George Lucas is only credited as director the first of these, although he’s widely rumoured to have had a particularly hands-on approach with Return Of The Jedi, too. But could Lucas have injected the necessary darkness into The Empire Strikes Back himself? The evidence suggests otherwise, and he made a wise call hiring Irvin Kershner.

The interesting thing here is that the original director, and the franchise’s parent, remained involved, though. And we’re not talking in some obligatory ‘executive producer’ way. Lucas chose someone who could tell the story better than him, but it was still his story.

You can’t help but feel that the bite of Paul Verhoeven could have helped turned RoboCop 2 at the very least into a much better film, but sadly, RoboCop is one of a long line of trilogies where differing directors kept making things worse, or at the very least inconsistent. The Blade movies, for instance, went from good to very good, before Blade: Trinity dragged things down.

The optimum choice, Star Wars aside, is to give one director two of the films in a trilogy. That seems to work well. Look at the Bourne movies. Doug Liman set things up well with The Bourne Identity, and Paul Greengrass built on that expertly with Supremacy and Ultimatum. Furthermore, John Lasseter was at the helm for the first two chapters of arguably the best movie trilogy of all time, Toy Story, before choosing Lee Unkrich to finish the story off.

Going beyond trilogies and into broader franchises, there are series where altering the director has also worked. Each of the Mission: Impossible films, four to date, has had a new director, and the styles have altered as a consequence. Brian De Palma’s remains the best for my money, though. Three directors have tackled Die Hard movies (with John Moore, the fourth, currently shooting A Good Day To Die Hard). Three have taken on Terminator films, four different faces have been behind the camera for Fast & Furious movies, and umpteen have queued up to tackle a Bond.

The Perfect Answer?

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If all of this proves anything, it’s that you can have a great movie trilogy, even if there’s a change of personnel. What’s crucial, though, in the best movie trilogies, is that there’s a strong, consistent storyteller at work across all of the films. Lasseter on Toy Story, Lucas on the original Star Wars films, someone like that. Without it, you end up with something like Terminator 3: a decent enough movie, but one that doesn’t feel like a proper Terminator film at all.

The mantle now passes to Barry Sonnenfeld, looking to learn from the problems of Men In Black 2, and Christopher Nolan, who is tying up his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. We’ll see how they do in the weeks ahead…

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