In 2015, 20th Century Fox released Fantastic Four, allegedly both a reboot and a brand new take on the popular Marvel Comics superhero team that, back in 1961, launched the modern Marvel Universe as we know it and changed the course of pop culture history.
Despite the Four’s importance and success on the page, the property had yet to land a definitive screen incarnation despite several attempts. The 2015 film was not necessarily meant to be that version: instead, it was conceived and positioned as a dark, almost horror-like approach to the material — not unprecedented but also not quite the tone most fans envisioned when they thought of the comic-book Four and their colorful, often cosmic and wildly fun adventures.
Fantastic Four was directed by Josh Trank, at the time a 31-year-old filmmaker who had scored an instant hit three years earlier with Chronicle, a found-footage tale of three teen friends who discover an alien artifact that imbues them with superpowers. The film’s box office success and fresh approach to superhero and sci-fi tropes landed Trank on every studio’s radar, and he was offered projects like Venom and the video game adaptation Shadow of the Colossus.
Trank ultimately chose to direct Fantastic Four, for which scripts had been written by Jeremy Slater and the team of Zack Stentz and Ashley Edward. Writing his own script, Trank proceeded with his vision of the movie — one that was not just at odds with most fans’ perception of the Four (who were played by Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell), but also that of the screenwriters, producers and film studio involved with the project.
The result was a now legendary Hollywood failure: Fox execs were not happy with what they were seeing from the shoot, prompting them to begin meddling and sending out producers/writers like X-Men scribe Simon Kinberg to course-correct. Trank, meanwhile, allegedly went on a spree of bad behavior (much of which he denies) and was eventually sidelined while the entire third act of the film was reportedly reshot. By the time the movie limped out in early August of 2015, it was derided by critics and rejected by fans, a massive bomb at a time when the superhero genre was ascendant.
Trank’s woes didn’t end with the flame out of Fantastic Four. Along the way, he was hired by Lucasfilm (by this time a Disney brand) to develop and direct what would have been a standalone film about the bounty hunter Boba Fett. But he left the project after less than a year — an amicable, voluntary parting according to him but an abrupt dismissal according to the press. He then retreated for the next several years, only to re-emerge this week with the polarizing, surreal biopic Capone.
Speaking with Trank earlier this week as he did publicity for Capone, we had a chance to ask him about his thoughts now on Fantastic Four and its impact on his career and his approach now to making films.
“I don’t regret it because it happened and it led me to where I am,” he says, adding that if even if the comic book staple of time travel was deployed, he wouldn’t necessarily go back and change anything: “If there’s such a thing as destiny or fate, it is what it is and I’d rather continue to go down this interesting path and see where it leads me…that’s life, and we make choices, we’ve got to stick by them and learn from them and become better, more evolved people because of it.”
But Trank can’t resist a little “what if” speculation.
“If I was forced, for whatever reason, into that time machine…” he begins. “I would have to do it the right way, and I don’t know what the right way means. I think the right way would have been to probably make a film that embraced all the directions that Jeremy Slater had brought to the table, or for instance, both wonderful and extremely passionate scripts that Zach Stentz and Ashley Miller wrote, which were born directly from Mark Millar‘s (Ultimate Fantastic Four) series, which I arrogantly discarded as soon as it appeared in my inbox.” (Many elements taken from the Ultimate run, including a more youthful team and a re-imagined origin story, made it into the finished film.)
The more traditional comic-book approach reportedly envisioned in those scripts — especially that of Slater, who tried to incorporate numerous Fantastic Four icons into his many drafts of the script, including Annihilus, Galactus, and others — did not sit well with Trank, who was much more interested in a personal, psychological view of the gang.
“Was it too ambitious for me to impose such a personal take on the Fantastic Four?” he asks now. “My answer is simply yes, it was, but how would I have known unless I had taken that swing for the fences. Like I’ve said, it was an expensive miscalculation, it was an expensive mistake that I made, but I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that we all as an industry haven’t learned something from that to some degree.”
Trank doesn’t elaborate on what the industry might have learned, but he says that for his part, he only wants to work on films going forward in which he is “involved with other people who are as personally invested in the same vision.” He counts Capone as a perfect example of how he wants to make movies in the future.
As for whether a “Trank cut” of Fantastic Four exists — which he famously alluded to in a now-deleted tweet he fired off just before the movie opened — the director is clear: “I mean there was because I showed it to the studio and they didn’t like it,” he says. “It was something that I felt very passionately about and I was really excited about finishing it up. It was obviously a huge bummer for me in that moment that things ended up turning into what they’ve turned into. There certainly was at one point a ‘Trank cut’ but…it’s just nothing that I’m really thinking about.”
In other words, don’t start firing up the online petitions to see the “Trank cut” of Fantastic Four, because even the director himself won’t sign up. “I’m actually far more interested and excited about what Kevin Feige and Marvel are going to do with the Fantastic Four because that’s what people do really want to see,” he says (Marvel got the rights back to the Four when parent company Disney bought 20th Century Fox last year).
He continues, “I think it would actually be a disservice to Marvel fans and Fantastic Four fans to go back and see what it was that I wanted to do. To me it no longer feels relevant and I don’t feel like it would be good for the people who do care about the Fantastic Four the most.” (Asked if he’s met Peyton Reed, who has directed both Ant-Man movies for Marvel and has wanted for years to tackle the Fantastic Four, Trank says he doesn’t know him personally, but adds, “I’m rooting for him.”)
Before we end our call, I ask Trank if he’s seen the hit Star Wars series The Mandalorian on Disney+, and whether he can detect any direct line of development between the show and his abandoned Boba Fett film. He responds that he hasn’t seen the series yet since he’s been immersed in finishing Capone, and that non-disclosure agreements prevent him anyway from speaking too specifically about the work he did on the Star Wars movie.
“All I can say is that, I had a lot of fun working with Lucasfilm,” he recalls. “They are really cool people. Kiri Hart, who was the head of the Story Group over there, is a really close friend of mine to this day. Stephen Feder (another member of the Story Group) is a very close friend of mine to this day. In fact, one of the people who checked in on me the most throughout these years has been Kiri Hart, because we had so much fun working together.”
In fact, Trank says that a key piece of advice he got from Hart helped put his Fantastic Four and Star Wars experiences into perspective, and set him on the path to make the movies that he wants to make: “The advice that Kiri gave me was that everybody is destined to make different kinds of films,” he says. “Her parting words were, ‘I just can’t wait to see the kind of film that you want to make that comes from your heart, and I’ll be there the first day it opens.’”
Josh Trank’s Capone is available via streaming and on demand now.