Joss Whedon, Josh Trank, and the pressures on directors

Has being the director of a film in a major franchise become a high-stakes gamble? Ryan looks at the pressures faced by modern filmmakers.

The process of making the behemoth that is Avengers: Age Of Ultron has clearly taken its toll on Joss Whedon. In each successive interview with the press, he’s talked with surprising openness about the process of making the superhero sequel and his battles to places an individual stamp on it; this culminated in a recent podcast with Empire, in which he described the “really, really unpleasant” fight to keep certain scenes in the film.

For an established writer and director like Whedon, who’s been working in TV and film since the ’90s, taking on a project as huge and loaded with expectation as a Marvel film is evidently punishing, both physically and psychologically. Imagine how difficult it must be, then, to make the jump from a low-budget indie film to a major studio feature for the likes of Marvel.

Recent years have seen studios pick up fresh-faced young directors straight from the success of their first, often low-budget movies. Marc Webb went from the offbeat rom-com (500) Days Of Summer to The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel. Gareth Edwards, whose road-trip sci-fi drama Monsters made a huge critical impact, went on to make last summer’s Godzilla and is about to make the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One.

Colin Trevorrow, who made the indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, has just finished Jurassic World, out this summer. Josh Trank made the leap from the relatively small-scale, found-footage Chronicle to the much bigger Fantastic Four, also out this year.

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In terms of career progression, these are the kinds of stories that many aspiring filmmakers dream about. One year you’re in Central America with a camera and a couple of actors making a run-and-gun sci-fi flick, the next, you’re in a plush office in Los Angeles talking about the possibility of making a summer movie with an eight- or nine-figure budget attached. It’s an opportunity few directors would turn down; yet conversely, not all filmmakers are necessarily suited to the intense scrutiny and pressure that comes with making a multi-million dollar Hollywood film – at least not so early on in their careers.

In an interview at the Tribeca Film Festival, Christopher Nolan talked about the difficulty of moving from his debut, Following, to his much larger second film, Memento; it was, he said, “a huge leap.”

“That was the moment,” Nolan said, “in which you had to just turn up for work and see all these trucks, and all these people hanging around and this huge machine, and go, ‘Okay, I’m just diving in now.’”

It should be pointed out that Memento was itself still a small film in mainstream moviemaking terms; at around $3.5m, its budget was a fraction of the money Warner Bros would later throw at, say, Batman Begins. But within those indie confines, Nolan continued to establish his style as a filmmaker, forming creative partnerships with some of the crew members (not least cinematographer Wally Pfister) he would go on to use in his subsequent movies. The acclaim met by Memento led to a larger studio picture – the remake of the Danish thriller Insomnia, starring Al Pacino – which in turn led to the Dark Knight trilogy and the non-franchise movies The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar.

Nolan has suggested that his success has been due at least in part to the relatively smooth scaling of his films from the small to the very large. Of moving from Memento to Insomnia, Nolan said, “[It was a very comfortable first step up – as a first studio film, my first time working with huge stars like Robin Williams, Hilary Swank […] Doing my first studio film in that way was a key part of gaining the confidence to ignore the huge machinery, and not feel the weight of that every time you told somebody where to put the camera.”

Inevitably, directors who’ve been plucked from relative obscurity to make something like a Marvel sequel don’t necessarily have the benefit of the experience Nolan enjoyed; the growth in confidence, technical knowhow and a support group of fellow filmmakers and artists. When faced with the task of moving from the small to the very large, it’s little surprise that some directors might find the transition difficult.

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Although by no means officially verified, there have been repeated stories that the production on Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four has not been a pleasant one; according to The Hollywood Reporter, a spokesperson for Fox simply said that, while the studio’s “very happy” with the resulting film, there had been “some bumps in the road.”

Whether or not Josh Trank’s experiences on the set of Fantastic Four have had a direct bearing on his departure from the 2018 Star Wars spin-off is currently the subject of much speculation; the Hollywood Reporter’s sources suggest that Trank and Disney’s parting of ways was due to Trank’s alleged “erratic” behaviour during Fantastic Fours difficult shoot.

Whatever happened on the set of Fantastic Four, it’s fair to say, I think, that the makers of today’s most franchise movies have an unbelievable amount of pressure on them. They’re dealing with larger budgets with each passing year. They’re having to cope with the pressure placed on them by producers, studio heads and financiers. They have to try to square their own storytelling style with characters and plotlines they’ve inherited from previous movies or comic books. And then there’s the Greek chorus of social media and the web in general to contend with.

That’s a lot to think about even for a seasoned, safe pair of hands like Whedon – or JJ Abrams, who’s currently putting the finishing touches to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When you’re a director who’s come straight from commercials (as David Fincher had way back at the start of his career on Alien 3) or from your first, low-budget feature, it must be terrifying. And not just terrifying in the sense that there are plenty of plates to spin; terrifying because you’re performing a high-wire act with no safety net.

If you’re a seasoned director with a catalogue of acclaimed (or at least lucrative) films behind you, as Nolan had when he started to make on Batman Begins, or Michael Bay had when he set to work on Transformers, you’ll at least have a hint of self-assurance – the understanding that, if the would-be blockbuster you’ve been hired to make doesn’t perform as expected, you’ll still be able to find work even if your reputation (not to mention ego) takes a bit of a battering.

Part of the problem new directors face these days is the huge gulf between indie films and the sorts of things Hollywood wants to invest its money in. There are fewer and fewer mid-budget thrillers like Insomnia being made these days, which pretty much forces up-and-coming filmmakers to either risk the leap to a $150m franchise movie or work on $3m indie films or television instead.

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The movie business has always been one of high-stakes gambles, but I do wonder whether the current moviemaking climate puts too much pressure on new and upcoming filmmakers – particularly those hoping to get their individual voices across in mainstream cinema – too early in their careers. If someone like Joss Whedon has found the process of making a blockbuster unpleasant and exhausting, what hope is there for a relative newcomer?

These days, being a Hollywood director requires the fortitude of a superhero.