Hopefully studios have learned by now that hiring directors for big budget feature films doesn’t always pan out the way they expected. Obviously, this article is being written because Josh Trank was given Fantastic Four. But, does anyone really know why? Josh Trank had cut his teeth on the little seen (but, honestly rather good) Spike miniseries The Kill Point, before languishing for a few years. Finally, he broke through in 2012 with a surprise hit Chronicle. You may remember this film as being an inventive take on the “found footage” genre. So, Hollywood’s next logical step was to give him 122 million to make Fantastic Four, a franchise that desperately needed some proven talent in order to relaunch. Josh Trank made Chronicle with a then virtually unknown cast and only 12 million. It was his first feature film. So his second should be a tentpole?
Trank isn’t the first one to have a studio give them a giant leap of faith. Earlier this summer, Colin Trevorrow was handed the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise. Yes, that was a huge success. He breathed life where there wasn’t any. But that was also Colin’s second feature film. It’s a huge gamble. His first feature was a little-seen indie called Safety Not Guaranteed, which wasn’t even as big of a hit as Chronicle, making only 4M domestically. He made that gem off of a 750K budget. So naturally, Universal handed him 150M and the keys to the kingdom, simply based on the idea that he directed an indie film sufficiently well. Next up? He’s trying his hand at Star Wars.
This is not a new trend. Everyone is looking for the cheap next big thing, but when you’re handing a director over 100 million dollars and an established franchise, it’s a much bigger gamble then studios are willing to admit. Trank has been trying to distance himself from Fantastic Four, blaming the studio for cutting him off at the knees early on. Rumors of Trank being a difficult director plagued the months leading up to the films release, and guess what… I still blame the studio. That’s what you get when you hire a director because you liked their first feature.
I’ll call this the Zack Snyder effect. Snyder broke through with Dawn Of The Dead, and got really lucky with 300. But you know what he wasn’t so lucky with? Watchmen. Sucker Punch. Legend Of The Guardians. Still, against all odds, he landed another big-budget feature with Man Of Steel, and it paid off. It could have been just another flop, and who would the studios have blamed. Snyder? It’s not Snyder’s fault. The best directors often grow into their franchises. Yes, Steven Spielberg directed Jaws fairly early in his franchise. But, he had already cut his teeth on several TV shows, and movies like Duel and The Sugarland Express. And while Jaws was based on a best selling novel, he made the film for only 7 million. He turned quite a profit for Universal back in the day, and he did so because he had worked his way tirelessly learning his craft. And, Jaws is not Jurassic World. Jaws is also not Fantastic Four. Jaws was not a franchise that needed a shot in the arm, and someone big and bold to bring some creative juice to the table. There’s a reason Spielberg earns big bucks, and it’s because of his filmography.
Depending on how you feel about the recent Godzilla remake, you should know that Gareth Edwards only did one feature before that. Monsters. Have you seen Monsters? He shot a film on a shoestring budget, and what worked about Monsters was that he waited to reveal what the Monsters looked like until deep into the film. So why were people surprised when Godzilla didn’t show up until the third act? That’s kind of his thing. He basically gave audiences a big budget version of Monsters, renamed Godzilla. And he’ll do it again, with Godzilla 2 and one of the upcoming Star Wars films.
I get why studios like doing this, because these directors come cheap, and the gamble does sometimes pay off. Anthony and Joe Russo basically exploded onto the scene with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But they had two features already under their belt. The little seen Welcome To Collinwood, and the Owen Wilson feature You Me and Dupree. They also had cut their teeth (again) on a ton of TV shows, including Community, Happy Endings, Arrested Development, and the short lived Animal Practice. Granted, nothing on their resume screamed Captain America, but they actually had a pretty substantial work record behind them. I probably would have given them a comedy, but they did a good job with Captain America. They now have the keys to the Marvel kingdom, directing the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, as well as the next two Avengers flicks.
Phil Lord and Chris Miller started out with Clone High, an animated comedy that lasted for a season, but developed a cult-like following. Their first feature was Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, which exceeded expectations for an animated film opening in September. From there, they successfully moved into features, relaunching the 21 Jump Street franchise (not a tentpole… it opened in March). Then, they landed two more hits with The LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Street. Now they get to direct Star Wars.
It’s about growth, and proving yourself in this industry. If you take a director because you liked the only film he did, you’re taking a huge gamble. There are plenty of directors who have made only one good film, and then make a series of questionable products. Not every director is the next JJ Abrams, who worked his ass off producing shows like Felicity, Lost, and Alias before jumping into features like Mission Impossible III. Or Joss Whedon, who did the same with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, and Dollhouse, all before he directed The Avengers (I skipped Serenity, because it’s basically a film version of the TV show he created).
It’s not a perfect formula either. Just because you have a ton of TV background won’t make you a great film director. Just ask Alan Taylor, who directed everything from Game Of Thrones to Boardwalk Empire before launching into major budget features like Thor: The Dark World and Terminator Genisys.
Is Fantastic Four really Josh Trank’s fault? If a plane goes down and it was the pilot’s first flight, do we blame the pilot, or his training? Chronicle was essentially Trank’s training, and the training wheels were off for Four. I blame the studio.
Also, having seen Fantastic Four, I stand behind the fact that the script wasn’t good enough for anyone to film. There were problems in the script that even a talented director couldn’t have fixed without rewriting the script. And if Trank’s telling the truth, and scenes were further hacked from his script, that only puts him at more of a disadvantage.
We’ll have to see if this trend continues. If it does, we might see new directors like Alex Garland directing a Marvel movie.