Dear Freshman Filmmakers,
It is interesting, and a little alarming, that so many sophomore directors are being handed projects with potentially studio-destroying budgets. Marc Webb with the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man, Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World, Josh Trank with Fantastic Four (and, until recently, an iteration of the Star Wars franchise). Last year it was Gareth Edwards with Godzilla, this year it is Jon Watts and the Spider-Man reboot—Watts is, incidentally, a director whose first feature hasn’t actually been in wide release _yet.
While directing seems to be one of those professions that is only perfected through doing, what doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense is the immediate jump from zero funded indie to budgets that are the GNP’s of some countries. When even someone as savvy and experienced as Joss Whedon (although The Avengers really was just his second feature film) can be turned out because of the kind of terrible shearing pressure that these films can generate, it seems a awful lot to expect first-or-second timers to negotiate. Josh Trank, whose indie Chronicle (12 million dollar budget) led directly to The Fantastic Four (budget 122 million) just recently lost the Star Wars gig, at least partially, because of erratic behavior on the set of FF.
If it were only a question of money, or even logistics, perhaps a lack of practical experience would be less of an issue, but the pressures involved in these sorts of enterprises come from every angle imaginable. Anyone without a fair amount of experience, both as a director and just as a human, is likely to be pulled apart. (For an example of how badly this can go I would point everyone to the documentary Overnight. Troy Duffy was the writer/director of Boondock Saints and is the poster boy for the worst-case scenario in this instance.)
These budgets not only represent a huge investment on the part of the studio but they also come with any number of peripheral expectations: to serve the fan base, to meet unrealistic first weekend goals, to manage the inevitable, and often contradictory, demands that come with promotional budgets that often are as large as the production budgets. Sometimes these films even represent investments significant enough to topple whole studio—forget what a flop might do to the individuals involved. There are probably very few twenty-six year olds equipped to manage any one of these concerns, much less all of them.
Less important whether any particular film works, though, is what this approach may be doing to a whole generation of up and coming filmmakers. Not so long ago it was possible to build a body of work that allowed for a gradual maturing of the creative process. Directors like Scorsese, Cuarón, The Coen Bros., Kathryn Bigelow or even Guillermo Del Toro were initially involved in low budget, low stakes (at least in a fiscal sense) filmmaking. Films like Mean Streets, , Near Dark, Sólo Con Tu Pareja, El Espinazo del Diablo, Blood Simple, were, most importantly, all steps along a longer creative path and not just an audition for a place at the summer tentpole trough.
What that meant was the filmmakers in question could afford a mistake or two and it wouldn’t cost the studio millions of dollars, people their careers or even risk ending up being the punch line in a terrible joke. Q: What cost 200 million dollars and has four arms. A: John Carter. And let’s face it, you don’t hear Andrew Stanton being bandied about as the next big thing—but this was a guy, just three years ago, who was being touted as another Brad Bird.
Probably the best example I can give of the potential cost of all of this is not the most obvious one. If you compare Jurassic World to Mad Max: Fury Road (at least in the most reductive way possible) you might say one was a moderate success while the other was an unprecedented accomplishment. But if you watch all the interviews and other media that led up to both releases, only one of the two directors looked like they had just finished crossing the ocean in an open boat,while fighting off sharks the whole way. And it wasn’t the seventy year-old who had spent six months in the desert with a pissed off Tom Hardy.
Colin Trevorrow looks and sounds like he has a bad case of PTSD, and implicit in almost all his interviews is a kind of weariness that seems almost tragic. This is person whose first film, Safety Not Guaranteed, was a charming, low budget indie. His next film was Jurassic World, now one of the highest grossing films ever made. Trevorrow himself lamented his fate, in an article from Indiewire on July 7th 2015 “[Spielberg] had the privilege of being able to make a long series of original films—‘Sugarland Express,’ ‘Duel,’ and then ‘Jaws’—and from there, built up to something the size of [the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise]. And in a certain way, I felt like I was being robbed of that right of a filmmaker to make a bunch of mistakes and learn from those mistakes.”
Of course most directors will jump at the chance to helm one of these films. People who choose that profession often personify the term hubris (although notably, Ava DuVernay has turned down Black Panther, specifically citing her desire to continue developing her own voice—so it is not always the case). Certainly it is ridiculous to expect the studios not to continue along this path as long as the success rate is over a certain percentage.
Perhaps the question is this: what is the cost of our collective, and seemingly never ending, desire for more and bigger and faster? There is a huge amount of social media pressure being exerted on the studios to produce whole slews of the kind of shared world films that the Marvel and DC universes represent. Perhaps in our desire to see these films created we have lost sight of some of the costs involved.
It is worth wondering, at least, what these individuals might have done were they not so quickly subsumed into the machine, if they had to eke out their own path in the wilderness for a little while longer.
After all, can you really have a Mad Max: Fury Road without first having taken the long trip Beyond Thunderdome?