Are we losing interesting directors to blockbuster films?

Directors who've made maybe one interesting, successful small film soon get snapped up by the system. But at what cost to the industry?

Director Marc Webb put together the guts of (500) Days Of Summer, his debut feature, in his house. He worked on it behind closed doors, and by the time he got to the point where he was filming it, he knew what he wanted, he’d made key decisions, and could get on with it. Interference was in short supply, and the result felt like a breath of fresh air in a very crowded genre.

Then there’s Gareth Edwards. When he came to make his first film, Monsters, he sat in his bedroom and did the visual effects work on his own computer. He didn’t have much budget to play with, but he had his brain, and nobody looking over his shoulder offering ‘creative input’. We suspect his computer wasn’t a bad one, mind.

Colin Trevorrow? When he was getting the brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed made, he could do so with relative independence, courtesy of a small budget (under $1m), and the protection of the Duplass Brothers (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), who took the project under their wing. The small budget and the firewall that the Duplass’ put up between Trevorrow and others further up the chain meant the director could set about making the film he wanted. And he did.

All three stories had happy endings. Webb, Edwards and Trevorrow all released debut films that attracted strong acclaim, and went on to make a good return for the investors in their respective projects. Everyone, especially us, won.

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So then: had this been pretty much any decade of film with the number ’19’ at the start as opposed to ’20’, the three would have gradually worked up the scale of their projects across several films, before landing at something you’d class as particularly expensive.

But times have changed. And, encouraged by the lessons taught when Warner Bros gave Christopher Nolan the keys to the Dark Knight franchise – although the modern seeds were sown arguably when Bryan Singer turned X-Men into a massive hit (if not Tim Burton with Batman) – each was approached by a major studio, looking for an interesting director to oversee a huge movie series.

As such, we wind forward to the present day. Webb has made three movies to date, two of them Spider-Man features. Edwards’ second film was Godzilla, his third will be 2016’s Star Wars spin-off movie. And Trevorrow’s sophomore effort is 2016’s Jurassic World. They’ve each jumped from proportionately smaller projects, to proportionately much larger ones, without the stepping stones in-between.

Once upon a time, it was a similar bunch of directors – many of whom we like an awful lot – who kept getting the call. Warner Bros had the often brilliant Richard Donner on speed dial for much of the 80s and 90s. James Cameron had a habit of getting bigger and bigger cheques signed (although he did scale up his projects over a period of time). Spielberg, Roland Emmerich, Robert Zemeckis, Barry Sonnenfeld, Michael Bay, Chris Columbus, Joel Schumacher, even Jan De Bont for a while: all of these were regularly trusted with big budgets, after working their way up.

Now? Studios aren’t just willing to gamble on emerging directorial talent instead, they actively seem to be seeking it out.

Looking through this summer’s blockbusters alone? James Gunn is going from the ultra-economical Super to the ultra-expensive Guardians Of The Galaxy. The Russo brothers went from Community to Captain America 2 (albeit with some earlier movies to their name) and Maleficent is from a first time director (Disney has form here too, having given debut director Joseph Kosinski the keys to TRON: Legacy). There’s no old guard, per se, nor a regularly list of names on speed dial. There’s a genuine effort to seek out newer talents.

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As encouraging as it is to see Hollywood studios giving major movie assignments to such interesting directors, it does beg a question as to how positive a move this is, though.

In the case of the films themselves, it’s generally been a good thing. You sense there have been battles – Gareth Edwards alluded to as much when we chatted to him about Godzilla, when he told us that “I’d be lying if I said it was two years of solid fun. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do times a thousand”.

Edwards further touched on the biggest concern when such an individual director gets a chance to make a blockbuster movie: just how much influence does he or she have (not that it’s women who have been getting the call)? As keen as he was to praise the support network around him at Legendary Pictures, he also said that “the reality is, if I’d been hit by a car and gone into hospital, the film would have finished itself. Everyone is so experienced that the film could just make itself to some extent, and maybe some films do. So your job as a director is to constantly try to stay at the steering wheel and pull it hard left or hard right. To try to give it a voice”.

Compare that to the subtle nudges that Edwards deployed throughout Monsters. But then, when your film costs over $100m as opposed to £250,000 to make, the people paying for it are going to want some input. At the very least, they’re going to send over a few notes. Potentially tons of them.

That said, we have to say that the majority of cases where a director has effectively been recruited from indie movies to blockbusters in recent times have turned out well. We’re certainly a long way from the horrors David Fincher faced when making Alien 3, having been hired off the back of his commercials work. Instead, directors such as Edwards, the Russos, JJ Abrams, Rupert Wyatt and such like went from smaller or TV projects to making accomplished and impressive films. At the very least, you’d have to say that the films themselves have tended to be real beneficiaries of the studios’ current recruitment process.

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The highest profile exponent of said process at the moment is Marvel Studios, which has looked consistently away from the centre in picking its helmers (the choice of Scott Derrickson to direct Doctor Strange being the latest example). But then Marvel’s approach also raises another question: is there an element of studios hiring directors they can exact a modicum of control over? Maybe. If you hire, for instance, a Steven Spielberg or a Michael Bay for a blockbuster, the power base is certainly with them as opposed to a producer or studio executive. At the very least, you’d assume a studio could collaborate more closely with a less experienced director.

But still: the quality of blockbuster films seems consistently quite good at the moment. And that wasn’t always so. It’s easy to overlook that.

Opportunity Cost

So, if the studios are doing well out of it, and blockbusters – on the whole – have improved, where’s the problem? Well, there’s the hardly insignificant matter of opportunity cost.

Brian De Palma apparently once lamented that when Star Wars hit big, America lost one of its most interesting directors. The George Lucas who made THX 1138 and American Graffiti was gone, and every film Lucas directed afterwards was a Star Wars movie. He never went back to the kind of projects that brought him to people’s attention in the first place, and we never got to see the natural progression of where his brain would have gone, had Star Wars not been the phenomenon that it was.

Could the same happen here? Granted, the success of The Dark Knight trilogy has afforded Christopher Nolan the trust, space and budget to make Inception and the upcoming Interstellar. But have we missed out on a raft of smaller, interesting films from the likes of Marc Webb, Gareth Edwards and now Josh Trank (who’s gone from Chronicle to Fantastic Four to a Star Wars spin-off), who instead got the call to make a huge film? Heck, Bryan Singer did The Usual Suspects and the underrated Apt Pupil immediately before X-Men, and he’s not touched a project of that size since.

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Part of the problem is that, again as we’ve discussed before, mid-budget filmmaking in Hollywood is still in decline. That directors are having to jump from $1m to $100m because there’s rarely anything in between. A studio now making 15 movies a year – as opposed to the 30 or so it used to – can’t afford to bet low. Duncan Jones getting to make Source Code off the back of Moon was the exception to a growing norm.

Interestingly, one or two directors are managing to dial things back a little. George Lucas himself is said to be making experimental smaller films now. Marc Webb was linked with comedy spy thriller Cold Comfort. And Jon Favreau has – at least temporarily – left behind the likes of Iron Man films and Cowboys & Aliens for Chef! The current trend may well even out if more directors gain the clout to follow their nose once blockbusters are made.

But still, with rumours of more up and coming directors being recruited to the Star Wars and Marvel universes, and with Warner Bros looking for fresh directors for its DC movies, the talent scouts are clearly still looking closely at independent and low budget cinema. They’re on the lookout for directors with a vision, who have enough about them to make those hard left and right turns that Gareth Edwards talks about count.

But longer term, wouldn’t it be best if studios could agree to fund a smaller project for said directors as part of the deal?

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