Monday, June 8, 2015

On "Filmmaker-Driven" Hollywood

Filmmaking is an art. It's also carpentry. And though this often pains the soul of many an artist, it's also commerce. A lot of that pained soul stuff comes from the fact that, far too often, it's far too much carpentry and commerce, with very little Art in sight. In general, the amount of Art in the mix tends to diminish in direct proportion to how much money is involved in a production. Movies are a business. At the upper end, a really, really big business. One isn't weaving a caricature in saying the modern studio system of corporate Hollywood is a factory run by business-suited MBAs without a creative bone in their bodies who care not a whit for "art" and just want something very familiar that will reliably bring a healthy return on their investment. The managers and money-men form a gauntlet aimed at stamping out anything original or risky and, at the level of the huge-budget tentpole blockbusters that draw the most attention, anything that could conceivably challenge the dumbest son of a bitch who may wander into a theater to take in a picture.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that in assembling the new DC Comics cinematic universe--a series of films that all fall within that huge-budget tentpole category--Warner Brothers had adopted a strategy of "filmmaker-driven" productions.

Hey, it was right there in the Hollywood Reporter! Attributed to "a Warners insider." The fact that everything else in the article seemed to refute the notion dissuaded neither its author nor the authors of the half-dozen or so click-bait articles that spun off the original from dutifully parroting this line all over the internet. Last week, Greg Silverman, WB's President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production (don't you love pompously long titles with lots of caps?), was interviewed for the same publication and described this strategy:

"We have a great strategy for the DC films, which is to take these beloved characters and put them in the hands of master filmmakers and make sure they all coordinate with each other... The filmmakers who are tackling these properties are making great movies about superheroes; they aren't making superhero movies."

Even without the contradictory information available in this particular case, the "filmmaker-driven" claim should have set off the Bigtime Bullshit Alarm among seasoned Hollywood observers.[1] Whatever allowance one may reasonably make for taxonomic ambiguities, Hollywood is not in the business of producing the kind of personal art projects the "filmmaker-driven" phrase implies, particularly not at the upbudget blockbuster level. As the reporting on the development of the DC cinematic universe suggests--practically screams, in fact--it isn't something Warner Brothers is doing either.

Warner is, of course, pursuing a piece of the lucrative pie on which Marvel has been feasting with its comic adaptations. Marvel built its universe by introducing its characters in individual films that, while referencing one another at times, were basically separate, self-contained productions, each one adding new elements to the shared universe by telling its own story. By the time the characters were thrown together in THE AVENGERS, they were already fleshed out, familiar and had developed their own audience to bring to the dance. The team-up film, in turn, could focus on telling its own story rather than having to spend its time introducing half a dozen characters. Warner wants to build a similar franchise around the Justice League but rather than building it by making films around the individual characters, the studio is apparently introducing most of the characters at once in the upcoming BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. A Wonder Woman solo film will follow, then its immediately on to a full Justice League picture. Its easy to see this as chasing those big AVENGERS dollars without being willing to put in the work. That this strategy is different, though, and seems, in the abstract, ill-considered doesn't mean it's doomed to failure. If there's a feasible plan for such an approach, it's worth a shot.

Except there isn't. Those at Warner seem to be telling the world they're developing a "filmmaker-driven" strategy in contrast with Marvel (where, it's said, producer Kevin Feige rules) because there isn't any strategy at all.

What's implied by the idea of a "filmmaker-driven" movie is one in which the filmmaker is involved from the origin of the project. Dreams it up, writes it (or has it written), puts together the cast, the crew, the whole ball of wax, then makes the picture with full creative control over it. I'm hoping to finish up such a project this weekend, a minor short film I and some of my little team have created. I'd love to see Warner adopt such an approach with their DC properties but the studio will no more do that than it will screen its next DC picture for free in perpetuity. That's not how Hollywood works and it's definitely not how Warner has been developing the DC properties.

How "filmmaker-driven," for example, is a project wherein the director gets to play no part in casting his own lead? In a shared universe of films, each new project binds future productions. The new screen incarnations of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash have already been cast and are apparently being introduced in the upcoming BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN feature. Zack Snyder isn't making the Wonder Woman movie but any Wonder Woman creative team is going to end up stuck with his absolutely horrendous choice of Gal Gadot to play the film's central character. Everyone working on all the subsequent films featuring these characters will be in the same position.[2]

On that Wonder Woman project, the studio hired much-beloved tv director Michelle MacLaren then brought in no less than five writers. Not to work together or with the director but to work on competing scripts--as the Hollywood Reporter described it, each was given a treatment and told to write a first act based on it. "A source not involved in the films but with close ties to the studio says the process on Wonder Woman 'felt like they were throwing shit against the wall to see what stuck.'" Actress and writer Kelly Marcel was approached to work on the script but bowed out because of "her concern about the number of players who were involved." A few months after MacLaren had been hired, she left the project. The official reason was the usual, "creative differences." Variety reported that, while the studio put the five writers to work, "executives simultaneously tested story concepts. 'They didn't like MacLaren's test,' said one studio executive."

So much for "filmmaker-driven."[3] With AQUAMAN, the story sounds the same. From THR:

"On Aquaman... sources say Warner commissioned scripts from three writers, one of whom followed the studio's direction only to be told the rules governing the universe had changed and his work no longer was usable."

Warner may have introduced a few new twists here but they're not really innovators in this--the Hollywood studios are masters at taking something good and making a complete mess of it. It's all carpentry and commerce, little art. It's possible something will eventually emerge from the process that's worth a couple hours of time. The emergence of something particularly memorable or even great, though, is very unlikely. The awesome potential locked away in the source material will probably remain untapped. With this breed of picture, mediocrity rules. It's there in the Marvel pictures as well. Though a few have managed to rise above it, they're typically great for what they are, not great. And maybe that's all they need to be. It would certainly be nice to see more that were. An unfortunate reality of contemporary effects-laden tentpole pictures is that they don't even have to be good to make lots and lots of money. Even if something like BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN turns out to be an embarrassing failure, it's pretty much guaranteed a hefty box office. That's no such guarantee with some of the lesser characters but no one behind these pictures is going to be losing any money on them. I'm a comic book lifer and I want all of these movies to succeed but what I mean by that is that I want them to be good, not just to make money. I'm an observer who doesn't like the ugly studio politics around projects like these DC movies, the perpetual passing of the buck, ass-covering, disingenuousness[4] and contempt for the genuinely creative. I'm also a filmmaker, one who has little use for corporate Hollywood with its gauntlet of managers and money-men or most of its safe, tested-to-oblivion, mass-consumption pap which more often than not gives a black eye to the entire notion of film as an artform. When one makes a movie, one must put one's heart and sometimes years of one's life into it. It's hard work. I know what a "filmmaker-driven" movie is--I live it. I find it rather offensive when some talentless, blow-dried, business-suited prick who is pulling down more money per month for crushing art than I'll have available in a year for making it starts describing what's happening at Warner as "filmmaker-driven." Boris reacts as I do:


--j.

---

[1] That alarm should have been particularly loud given the context; Warner is floating it in an attempt to counter the criticism that its DC "universe" is haphazard and poorly planned. It's a serious criticism with a few decades of serious history behind it. When it comes to adapting the DC characters to the big screen, the gang at Warner Brothers simply doesn't have a clue and, with few exceptions, never has had one. We're 17 years into a major boom in comic book movie adaptations--it began with BLADE back in 1998--to which Warner, which owns some of the most iconic superheroes ever created, has contributed almost nothing of any merit. Wonder Woman has been launched as a screen project perhaps half a dozen times since the '90s, every effort falling apart. With the exception of a proposed tv series that made it to pilot stage then failed, there hasn't been a live-action Wonder Woman since the last original episode of the Lynda Carter tv series aired in 1979. Joss Whedon's effort to create a WW feature were cold-shouldered by the studio suits until he finally left, went over to Marvel and wrote and directed THE AVENGERS, which made $1.5 billion. For 8 years, Warner has tried to jump the gun by producing a Justice League movie without first introducing the individual characters; each attempt has fallen apart. Both GREEN LANTERN (2011) and JONAH HEX (2010) made it to the screen as utter clusterfucks. Though the three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan were, in my view, misguided creative failures, the films were big box-office hits, which would prove most unfortunate for future productions. Warner spent years developing then abandoning one Superman project after another around ideas so bad it's difficult to believe they were ever even seriously considered. Eventually, there emerged SUPERMAN RETURNS, which rejected the suggested radical revisions but had a raft of problems all its own. Intended to reboot the franchise, the film proved a dull and terribly misguided project that, after a disappointing reception, was also abandoned. Warner went back to some of those godawful ideas from prior projects and ground out the abomination that was MAN OF STEEL, which, among other things, tried to ape the Nolan Batflicks by adopting an inappropriately dark tone and turning Superman into a brooding anti-hero. The character, which had no more than superficial connections to any prior version of Superman, was dropped into a brainless, explosion-filled idiot-fest and, of course, Warner decided to use the film as the basis for their newest effort at a DC cinematic universe. On these projects, Warner doesn't know what it's doing.

[2] Makers of most sequels, of course, have this same problem but in the case of the DC movies, the subsequent films aren't really sequels; they're the movies that will first throw a spotlight on the characters and that those characters have to carry. It's also the case that sequels happen because a property has proven a bankable success; here, future filmmakers are being tied to Zach Snyder's choices merely because Snyder wants to feature the Justice League characters in bit parts that will do nothing to test their bankability.

[3] In the immediate aftermath of MacLaren's departure, Devin Faruci from Birth.Movies.Death wrote:

"The official reason for her leaving is 'creative differences,' and that seems legit according to the scuttlebutt that has reached me. MacLaren and Warner Bros couldn't agree on anything - including what time period to set the movie. More than that, MacLaren had some very particular visions for the film, visions that maybe would have alienated fandom. Although perhaps Diana having a tiger sidekick/pet she could talk with would have appealed to people more than I expect."

If it seemed odd to Faruci that, after the godawful choice of Gal Gadot to play Wonder Woman, the studio would suddenly become concerned about things that could have "alienated fandom," he didn't say. The account the gossips were feeding him reeks of a smear. A few days later, Variety referenced "multiple sources close to the project" who described a film that most certainly wouldn't have "alientated fandom":

"MacLaren envisioned the DC Comics-based 'Wonder Woman' movie as an epic origin tale in the vein of 'Braveheart,' whereas Warner wanted a more character-driven story that was less heavy on action."

Unless we're to read the Warner preference as being weasel-wording for a lower-budget picture--which is possible--the latter sounds about as likely as Mel Gibson being cast as Wonder Woman. Variety's sources also said studio executives were concerned about MacLaren being able to handle the rigors of a feature, particularly one featuring large-scale action, when her experience has been in television. MacLaren, whose resume includes both GAME OF THRONES and BREAKING BAD, knows how to handle both large-scale action and character-driven drama just fine, and this too smells like a smear. MacLaren herself hasn't made any public statement about her departure from the project.

[4] After Warner had hired then fired Michelle MacLaren then hired Patty Jenkins, Silverman, in his THR interview, actually denied the studio had been specifically looking for a female director for Wonder Woman. They were just the best two the studio had eyed. What do you say to something like that?

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