Filmmaker Success - A Double-Edged Sword?
Recently it was announced that filmmaker Ben Wheatley had been hired to direct an upcoming sequel to the Jason Statham vs. Megalodon movie The Meg wonderfully-titled The Meg 2. Wheatley’s oeuvre up until this point had mainly been in independent British productions from Down Terrace to Kill List to High Rise. His style across these projects has always highlighted his individualism to the point where, even after attaining the likes of recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson in a cast, he still placed the actor within a theatrical 90-minute shootout with Free Fire.
This news that the director had now signed on for a big budget, CGI-filled monster movie has prompted the usual online comments of talent ‘selling out’ their artistic vision in order to seek a larger pay-check. And while yes, I have no reason to believe that Wheatley wouldn’t be getting paid more on a blockbuster production than, say, a surrealist horror film set entirely within a field in England, it highlights a problem and a bias that’s not only present in the film/television industry but everywhere.
Right off the bat I’d like to say there’s no real way to judge a person’s career decisions without coming across as some kind of asshole. A person can do whatever they want if the offer’s there. But the majority of negative comments derive from a feeling of artistic betrayal; blockbusters are still these big soulless monsters in the minds of many (though there are some exceptions) and the line appears to be between whether a filmmaker genuinely wants to tell the story on screen or not. It’s a line that’s being crossed more often now than ever, and a lot of it comes down to the genre elephant in the room…
That’s right. In the past, the Western has dominated and the romcom has had its moments, but nothing comes close to the monopolisation the superhero (or comic book) genre has on the box-office in this period of time. 2020 has been the first year in over a decade without a superhero film (unless you count Sonic the Hedgehog) and that’s only because of a worldwide pandemic. They’re huge money-makers with broad audience appeal that have managed to transform the niche subject matter into the most accessible topic ever. It’s sometimes hard to remember how much of a feat that is amidst all the superhero fatigue many are feeling (including myself – but for the purposes of writing I’ll try and stay as impartial as possible).
MARVEL’s cinematic universe has crafted its own dedicated tone that’s a mixture of light-hearted banter-fuelled romp and action set-pieces, but it’s interesting to note that this tone has come from the filmmakers rather than the company itself. Hell, Jon Favreau’s background in comedy helped cement the original Iron Man with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. The later watchful eyes of quip-king Joss Whedon and then the almighty Russo Brothers who helped (for better or worse) undercut serious moments of drama or tension with the comedy of toying with expectation.
Of course, it’s difficult to talk about this without mentioning Taika Waititi. The internet’s favourite kiwi (and there’s a lot to choose from) is known for his distinct filmmaking style that mixes the stilted, awkward dialogue of real life with the fast-paced wit of its characters (with a dash of Wes Anderson thrown into the mix). Therefore, Thor: Ragnarok felt very much like a Waititi film. Coming hot off the heels of his fourth small-budget (in comparison) feature Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Ragnarok went down immediately as a fan favourite for those unfamiliar within his style thus far, and they wanted more. And better yet, so did Disney.
Disney – A Slight Detour
This is where my impartiality may go out the window. Disney’s current monopoly over entertainment worries me to no end. And it’s not just through its films/TV shows/acquisition of Fox. It’s through its staffing process too. MARVEL is owned by Disney, as is Star Wars. After Ragnarok hit big, Waititi was confirmed to also be working on The Mandalorian for Disney Plus (joining fellow filmmaker Jon Favreau). It was then followed by not only news of Waititi’s return to the MCU with Thor: Love and Thunder but also the announcement of his intention to write and direct a new theatrical Star Wars film for the company in the near future. Now, near this period it’s important to note that Waititi’s sixth feature Jojo Rabbit was being released under the recently-purchased Fox Searchlight band. It caused some minor controversy over the fact that it depicted Adolf Hitler as a bumbling imaginary friend to a ten year old boy, and thus…there was some doubt cast over it at Disney HQ – the now-owners of Searchlight.
Of course, Jojo Rabbit was still released to great success, but the fact that the company was considering changing its release is worrying enough. Waititi’s next film is a football (soccer) comedy starring Michael Fassbender, but after that it seems like he’s got a whole slate of Disney projects on the go. Projects that, like it or not, will have to line up with Disney’s brand and their ideals and potentially be limiting to the filmmaker’s creativity. This is my personal big worry when it comes to success for those who deserve it. So many of them are snatched up by huge conglomerates that paint themselves as having individualistic ideologies when really profit guides their attention. And controversy and individuality aren’t synonymous with profit most of the time. The bigger your budget and scope, the more limited you can become by the powers that be.
This isn’t always the case, however. There are numerous success stories over the years of filmmakers being nurtured by companies and producers into finding their own voice. Kathryn Bigelow started with intense, western-tales of rogue vampire punks and violent revenge, and whilst the likes of Point Break allowed her to dip her toe in the blockbuster action scene, it was immediately followed up with the cerebral Strange Days. This period of the late 80s-late 90s allowed her to find her own voice as a filmmaker, and now we see Bigelow as one of the most tenacious storytellers of real-world thrillers on-screen.
Director David F. Sandberg and Lotta Losten made names for themselves online for their short, home-made horror films such as Lights Out and were subsequently offered the chance to transfer that success to the big screen. After that, Sandberg was granted the keys to Annabelle: Creation and was shortly after drafted into the superhero platoon with Shazam! For DC. During this period of growth however, the filmmakers have managed to keep their Youtube page going by continuing to create and distribute home-made horror shorts continuously.
Peter Jackson went from New Zealand independent schlock horror video nasties to one of the biggest trilogies of all time. The turning point of which came with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures and 1996’s The Frighteners. Taking the visceral thrills of Braindead and turning them into psychological drama may have worried fans of the filmmaker’s previous work, but it gave him enough credit and academy clout to move forward with bigger budgets – the first of which he went straight back to horror with. On its own The Frighteners is a charming and patched-together ghost story (that I absolutely adore) but taken as practice for the oncoming task of The Lord of the Rings it’s an astounding piece of targeted filmmaking practice. At the time the mid-range New Zealand ghost horror/comedy broke the record for the amount of digital shots in a single film; Jackson was testing the waters to see what was possible before bringing Middle Earth to life. And whilst his work post-Tolkien has lacked that auteur-ship present in his earlier work, the man’s clout hardly makes us wonder whether it’s a case of him being pigeonholed.
Sadly that seems to be the way it goes in the majority of cases. The process of being ‘discovered’ and swept up in the blockbuster routine seems to be a right of passage. Some flock to it, having pined for it their whole life, whilst others are scorned by it. David Lynch famously turned down George Lucas’ offer for him to direct Return of the Jedi (then titled Revenge of the Jedi) because he had no interest, then immediately followed it up with an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Lynch’s first (and so far only) experience of big-budget studio filmmaking wasn’t received well, and he’s since spoken publicly about the experience many times.
“I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it's no one's fault but my own. I probably shouldn't have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in. There was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn't have final cut.”
Disney’s control over their properties isn’t anything new. For many it’s the difference between creativity and… well, work. It depends on the individual, and with the current film climate there’s more of a chance of independent filmmakers getting the attention they deserve. People like Ana Lily Amirpour, who have continued to make bold pieces of work outside the mainstream eye. Jennifer Kent’s success from The Babadook should have seen her snatched up by a big company – and she almost was. In 2014 she entered talks to direct the forthcoming Wonder Woman – a role that would later be taken by Patty Jenkins. Instead however, she’s continued to tell stories she has an intense passion in by following up with 2018’s harrowing The Nightingale.
It’s seemingly the difference between arthouse and mainstream filmmakers. Directors and auteurs. Active and passive (to an extent). If the job is right then the individual will take it by their own rules, not the ones dictated by hundreds of online commenters. It’s another one of those unfortunate by-products we’ve been saddled with after the internet gives everyone a voice.
It’s interesting to note however, that the same comments condemning Ben Wheatley for taking on The Meg 2 do so without even mentioning his project before that…the sequel to Tomb Raider. A film that’s still set to be released and is said to focus more on the ‘supernatural’ aspect of the videogames, making it more in-line with the man’s filmography. He's even coming fresh off the hills of the lavishly-produced Rebecca remake for Netflix. So is fame and recognition a double-edged sword? That depends whether people care what those online are saying about them, and the troubling thing is…that seems to come into play more and more in this day and age. Just something to think about…
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The world fights for your attention these days. It's difficult to know which cause is worthy. When the 24-hour news cycle started up the possibility of keeping up-to-date left our mouths wide open. We got the news as it happened. But I'm not sure if that's the case. I don't think the powers responsible for the cycle have an interest in reporting the goings on at times, considering how difficult it is to hear about some major developments.
It's why I keep asking you to take 10 minutes out of your day to keep up to date. Outside the election, outside hearing all the idiots complaining about why we're having another lockdown, outside who was booted off a reality show this week.
The continuing atrocities across Africa are glimpsed in the media as the protests offer positive crowd singing videos, and yet the causes they fight for aren't touched on. Rape, child trafficking and murder by militant forces run rampant from city to city.
Armed gunmen swarmed school and universities in Kabul and slaughtering innocent people THIS MORNING.
Natural and man-made disasters continue to ravage the Philippines and Beirut. People left without homes, power and sometimes even food. The mass flooding across Sudan is washing so many lives away, and yet the general public hear nothing about it.
What about the US government's refusal to condemn the growing racial threats near many of its voting booths?
Be better than the news cycle by arming yourself in conversation with people (when social distancing, of course).
Take 10 minutes. Then please, take another 10 to remind yourself of some of the good going on too, because it is overwhelming.
Usually I post a couple of carrd links but the ones I do seem to be falling to the wayside, so I'm going to try a new one that's seemingly dedicated with keeping people up to date with what's happening in different areas and for different causes.
Thank you for Reading.
Stay safe, everyone.
See you next week.