Do interesting directors get lost to big movie franchises?

What are we missing out on, wonders Simon, when an interesting director ends up committed to a major blockbuster and its sequels?

It was, as legend tells it (and if memory serves), Brian De Palma who said that when Star Wars hit big, America lost one of its best and most interesting directors. For, at the point when A New Hope went ballistic at the box office, the George Lucas who had given us THX-1138 and American Graffiti – two of his three best films – was gone, and gone forever.

That proved to be the case. With A New Hope under his belt, Lucas has only directed three movies since (four, if you subscribe to the view that he effectively directed Return Of The Jedi, too). Meanwhile, he’s been behind the Indiana Jones movies, Radioland Murders, Howard The Duck and Willow, amongst others. Yet, he’s taken on producing and writing roles there, rather than taking control of the camera himself. And I can’t help feeling that we lost something when that happened.

That’s not to say that George Lucas’ career has gone wrong, per se. Far from it. The man’s achievements speak for themselves, and he’s given us, in one form or another, many films that we continue to cherish. But, with the backing of the success of the first Star Wars film, there’s an argument that the edge started to go off his film making. That he was taking fewer creative risks. That he was being swallowed up by a massive franchise of his own making. Heck, that he wasn’t directing anything new.

Harsh? Yes, arguably so. But just imagine what films Lucas may have made had Star Wars proven just a moderate box office success. What other ideas were going around his head? How many more films would he have directed, had Star Wars not made him financially secure for life?

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It’s an interesting question, and one that shouldn’t just be applied to Lucas. For there’s an argument that, as more and more interesting directors get attracted to franchises (and they’re certainly attracting a lot of more interesting names than they once did), we’re missing out on many lower profile, but potentially more interesting movies that they may have made.

The appeal of a franchise to a talented director is clear. Firstly, people are most certainly going to see your work. Secondly, there’s a creative challenge in making a film with some kind of personal footprint in the midst of a massive blockbuster machine. And thirdly, it doesn’t half help pay the bills.

Is it a combination of those three factors, for instance, that lured Kenneth Branagh to Thor? Did he see something in the material that he wouldn’t be able to realise on the budgets his movies usually work on? We may get a chance to ask him that at some point next year.

However, let’s look at some other directors whose focus moved away from the kind of movies they had been making while being attached to major blockbuster franchises. For it’s when you’re locked into more than one movie in a series that it’s effectively blocking out directing any other project while you do so.

I can’t help thinking of Sam Raimi here. I really enjoyed Drag Me To Hell last year, finding it a lovely throwback to the Raimi movies many of us grew up with. It wasn’t perfect, certainly, but while Raimi’s attentions have been elsewhere, nobody has been making films like Drag Me To Hell with quite that level of flair.

And yet, Raimi’s focus for at least a decade was the Spider-Man trilogy. Longer than a decade, arguably. And, let’s face it, had Spider-Man 4 followed three years after Spider-Man 3, Drag Me To Hell would, at best, have been tackled by a different director. At worst, it wouldn’t have been made at all.

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As it was, it was only when Raimi took a breather from the Spider-Man series (a permanent one, as it turned out) that his schedule allowed him to tackle something smaller, and arguably more interesting than Spider-Man 3.

Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie hit in 2002. He was working on it from at least 2000, and he finally left Spider-Man 4 at the start of this year. That’s a decade dominated by a franchise. Granted, he gave us the outstanding Spider-Man 2 in the midst of all of this. But the demands of doing a back to back franchise may yet have cost us the fourth Evil Dead movie. They may have stopped him directing, rather than producing, Boogeyman (I for one would love to have seen what he’d have done with that). They may have led to him simply making fewer films, given how many years it takes to make a massive blockbuster.

Ironically, Spider-Man might just be about to repeat the trick. (500) Days Of Summer was one of 2009’s most interesting mainstream movies, and announced Marc Webb as a real directorial talent, with many great films in front of him.

Yet we’re not going to get the early few films of his career even, as off the back of his major debut movie, Sony snapped him up to direct a new trilogy of Spider-Man films. That’s ten years of filmmaking potentially eaten up right there, and I’d love to have seen what Marc Webb would have tackled next, had the webslinger not arrived in his life (although again, that’s not to say I’m not interested in his Spider-Man movie, too).

There’s David Yates, too. His take on Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix was terrific, I thought, and left me looking forward to whatever he was going to tackle next. As it turned out, the answer was three more Harry Potter movies. I’m convinced that, by the time the Harry Potter cinematic franchise concludes next summer, that Yates will have four fine trips to Hogwarts under his belt. But I can’t help but be interested in where such a directorial talent goes next, and it’s – selfishly – frustrating having to wait to find out.

And let’s look at a more contentious choice, too. Right now, appreciating that he’s got a fair collection of detractors, Michael Bay is working on his third and final Transformers movie. Bay has been working on these films since 2005 at the earliest (with the first movie arriving in 2007). By the time the third film is out, he’d have spent the last six years, at least, working on generally not very good Transformers movies (appreciating we’ve no idea how the third one will turn out).

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Ironically, he’s heading to the most commercial phase of his career after he struggled with his most challenging movie to date, The Island. But at least, for all its flaws, there was a sense there that he was trying with The Island. That there was a risk. That there was something more than computer graphics smashing each other up.

And personally – feel free to shoot me for this, if you like – I’d have much rather that Bay had concentrated on films of the ilk of The Rock (a deliriously enjoyable actioner) than blocking off such a continuous chunk of his career for one franchise.

Sometimes, of course, a massive franchise success does pave the way to explore other projects. Peter Jackson would have struggled, for instance, to get his challenging adaptation of The Lovely Bones to the screen had he not tackled the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Yet even he is potentially being lured back to Middle Earth to direct two Hobbit movies. Don’t get me wrong: I love Peter Jackson, and the thought of him helming the films brings me out in the requisite geekbumps. But I’d simply love him to have the space to fire out something like The Frighteners or Heavenly Creatures again. Meet The Feebles too, of course. There’s been nothing quite like that since.

Big franchises can gobble up interesting careers. That’s not to say it does them terminal damage, and the way that Christopher Nolan has alternated his Batman movies with a very different project inbetween is perhaps the perfect example of how to balance things.

But still, look at the likes of Martin Scorsese, at Paul Thomas Anderson, at Alexander Payne, at Clint Eastwood, and at Brian De Palma, himself, even. These are directors who have continually followed interesting new projects, and come up with an enviable body of work as a result (and, to be fair, most have failures to their name, too). They’ve not gone down the franchise route (certainly not as directors, anyway), and their body of work is stuffed full of varied, arguably smaller yet more intriguing films as a result.

I wouldn’t want a movie world without films such as Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings and Spider-Man 2 for anything. But I do sometimes wonder what different movies we would have been treated to had Messrs Raimi, Lucas, Jackson et al continued to make the small, interesting films that defined the early parts of their career.

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Because the problem is, more often than not, a big franchise – at least for a substantive period of time – tends to be an all-or-nothing commitment. And it can’t just be me wondering if we might have lost a few potentially classic movies along the way because of it.