Friday, December 4, 2015

Auteur for hire: When visionary directors take on franchises

Ryan Coogler (left) directs star Michael B. Jordan on the set of Creed.

Earlier this week, in my review of Creed, I called Ryan Coogler one of the most talented young directors working today. I was not the first or only writer to say this, and Hollywood certainly seems to have taken notice as news broke Friday that Coogler is in talks to direct Marvel’s Black Panther movie. It would be a major step up for the director of the independent hit Fruitvale Station and the rather modestly budgeted Creed, but should Coogler sign on, he has definitely earned the shot.

It is almost a cliché in the film industry right now for studios and production companies to seek out acclaimed indie directors and hand over the keys to some of their more lucrative and important franchises. Sometimes, this strategy works well as with Colin Trevorrow jumping from Safety Not Guaranteed to this summer’s biggest hit Jurassic World. Other times, it does not as with Josh Trank moving from Chronicle to this summer’s biggest flop Fantastic Four.

In both those cases, the directors had just one previous feature film under their belt and had yet to prove themselves capable of handling something more than a small-scale production. That would not be the case with Coogler, who has shown with Creed he can more than handle himself with a big budget on a big stage. Let’s leave aside for now the question of why a black director of at least equal talent to white directors Trank and Trevorrow needed an extra film to show studios his capabilities – though this is certainly a topic for another day.

The now-defunct Grantland had a great analysis of this phenomenon over the summer and addressed the way directors used to climb the ranks rather than simply being catapulted to the top. Among the primary arguments is that directors used to make midsize movies like Creed before jumping to blockbusters. Apart from being something of a proving ground, these mid-level movies also allow a director to develop a recognizable style.

To wit, Coogler’s stamp is all over Creed. It is his film through and through, and it is better for it. Jurassic World shares no DNA with Safety Not Guaranteed other than its director’s title card. For me, this is the most dangerous and troubling aspect of the rush to anoint the next Steven Spielberg or the next Stanley Kubrick or what have you – we already have a Spielberg and a Kubrick. I want a Coogler, someone with a unique vision and the talent to bring it to life.

Rian Johnson (right) directs Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper.
I got to thinking about this topic a little last year when it was announced Brick and Looper director Rian Johnson would helm the eighth film in the Star Wars franchise. I will admit to being a little bummed out, and part of me still is. Johnson is a fiercely original storyteller, and I would prefer he spent his time telling all the wonderful stories he clearly has in his head rather than trying to play in someone else’s sandbox.

At the same time, like Coogler, he has shown himself to be a gifted auteur who is likely to bring his own personal style to whatever he works on, something Last Cinema Standing contributor Sean Patrick Leydon touched on earlier this year when writing about Johnson’s terrific, under-seen The Brothers Bloom. Johnson’s Star Wars and Coogler’s Black Panther, should he choose to make it, will be excellent films because they are excellent directors. That will not change with the franchise.

It may be a little proprietary of me to wince just a little when an independent director I admire signs on for a blockbuster studio picture, like a music fan whose favorite punk band just signed to a major label. This was already at the forefront of my mind yesterday after I caught a screening of Sam Mendes’ Spectre, the Oscar-winning director’s second entry in the James Bond series. It is a hell of a lot of fun, of course, but it sure does not feel like a Mendes movie.

Remember when Mendes, a theater director by trade, made his feature debut with the instant classic American Beauty? He then made the deconstructionist gangster picture Road to Perdition, the Gulf War thriller Jarhead, and a pair of fiercely different marital dramas, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go. Mendes is an immensely talented filmmaker, and his 007 movies are worth seeing – Skyfall should be in the conversation for best Bond film – but wouldn’t it be cool if he made another movie like his first few? Maybe that’s just the fan in me talking, but then again, that’s who goes to the movies.

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