From Edgar Wright to Lord & Miller - Why Hollywood Needs Auteurs
by Dan Marcus
July 11, 2017
What a crazy few weeks it has been for Hollywood. As we all know, directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller were shockingly fired from Disney's still-untitled Han Solo project a few weeks ago. It was shocking because they were already several months into filming the new Star Wars Story movie, with only a couple of weeks remaining. Lucasfilm eventually announced that Ron Howard had been hired to replace them. Lord & Miller aren't the first directors to not work well within the studio system as of late. Jon Favreau, Edward Norton, Patty Jenkins and Edgar Wright have all faced similar problems in recent years. So, are auteur filmmakers doomed? Let's take a look at why studios like Disney & Marvel still need auteur filmmakers.
It's no secret now that Lord & Miller were unceremoniously fired by Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy when they couldn't work out their creative differences. There's been a flood of reports from such publications as The Hollywood Reporter explaining what exactly happened behind-the-scenes, going into detail describing a clash of filmmaking ideologies. Lord & Miller prefer a more improvisational approach, whereas Kennedy and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan who prefer to stick to the what's on the page. Without going too much into analyzing the debacle, one can't help but wonder: Why weren't these differences spotted beforehand?
Auteur filmmakers and film studios have always clashed. It's a merging of two potentially unstable elements that sometimes don't mix well together, like Michael Bay and thematic cohesion. However, when they do merge successfully, you have a brilliant formula for success. Look at Christopher Nolan (and his Dark Knight trilogy), Bryan Singer (with the X-Men films), David Gordon Green (with Pineapple Express), and Patty Jenkins (with Wonder Woman). Not every filmmaker is meant for the big studio system where he or she must single-handedly command hundreds of crew members, oversee thousands of visual effects and report to numerous producers and executives who want to make sure the movie is the "best" it can be.
Which is why it makes sense that some studios would be hesitant about working with them at all. There was an interesting report recently that Warner Bros is considering avoiding working with "auteur directors" all together. What does that mean moving forward? Well, studio favorites like Christopher Nolan and Clint Eastwood are safe. However, under new executive Toby Emmerich's reign, it may be a bit more difficult for newcomers to make a name for themselves at Warner Bros. For a big studio like Disney and Marvel, they have already struggled over the years to keep their own reign on auteur filmmakers from literally jumping ship. Sometimes mid-cruise, too. Which has been considerably odd for a studio that leapt out of the gate being a home to indie filmmakers, and in some ways still is.
When Marvel Studios was launched, executive Kevin Fiege had a clear mission statement. He wanted to treat the characters in the Marvel pantheon with respect by staying close to the source material. He also wanted to find filmmakers that had a clear, singular voice. When Jon Favreau was hired for Iron Man, he was an unconventional choice at the time. He had never directed a blockbuster film before, with the indie hit Swingers as his biggest call to fame. Favreau would later hire another huge risk, Robert Downey Jr., for the title role. Downey was known more for his drinking mishaps than his professional achievements at the time. The film even went into production without a completed script. All in all, the film looked doomed.
However, Iron Man soared - not despite all of these elements, but because of them. It was a gamble that paid off for the studio big time. Marvel Studios should be given credit where credit is due. They are known for continuously gambling on indie filmmakers, such as James Gunn, Taika Waititi, Anthony & Joe Russo, Jon Watts, Ryan Coogler, and the list continues on. Sometimes the gamble pays off, and sometimes it doesn't. When Marvel Studios debuted Iron Man in the summer of 2008 it was so popular and successful that The Incredible Hulk, which was also released that summer, was sadly overlooked. The movie in many ways became the studio's rotten, often forgotten stepchild. Even though The Incredible Hulk was coming off the success of Iron Man, the film never quite reached Iron Man's soaring heights of success. It was not a smash hit with critics, receiving a lukewarm response from most of them. It also barely made any green at the box office, not even making back its budget domestically.
The Incredible Hulk was also coming right after Ang Lee's experimental misfire Hulk movie just five years before. That film, which garnered an even more divisive response from critics but made around the same money, was considered too avant-garde by some fans with its comic-book style panels and close-ups of algae. In order to differentiate this version from Lee's movie, Feige hired director Louis Leterrier - most well known at the time for his action movies such as The Transporter - to direct the re-imagining. Leterrier and Marvel would go on to cast someone who became far more critical to the film's success, however: they would end up casting Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/The Hulk.
Edward Norton's casting would become both the film's saving grace, as well as this version of the character's middling crutch. For those unfamiliar with the actor, Norton has a reputation around Hollywood for taking his roles very seriously. For him, taking on the role of Bruce Banner wasn't just another job – it was much more than that. So much more that he took it upon himself to re-write Zak Penn's original script, even though he would never receive such a credit by the Writer's Guild of America. Make no mistake, however. The Incredible Hulk is very much Edward Norton's movie.
I've read Norton's draft of the screenplay. It is one of the best screenplays for any superhero film I've ever read. It also features many great scenes fleshing out Banner's character that were unfortunately cut from the theatrical release. Marvel and Universal Pictures (the studio distributing the film) included some of those scenes on the DVD and Blu-ray of the film, but not all of them are on the disc. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice greatly benefited from an extended cut and so would The Incredible Hulk. However, it wouldn't be a Director's Cut if the studio ever did release an extended cut of the film. If anything, it would be an "Actor's Cut". Such a cut of the film will likely never happen, as Edward Norton parted ways with Marvel when negotiations broke down for The Avengers. This is where Marvel has been criticized in the past.
For all its bruises, The Incredible Hulk still remains one of Marvel Studios' best films. The Incredible Hulk works so well because it has a clear focus on the characters as well as the narrative of the film. When a filmmaker or storyteller is given free reign to tell the story they want to tell, the results usually speak for themselves. When you have a filmmaker that is forced to include thematic elements to set up future installments, such as Jon Favreau on Iron Man 2, the results speak for themselves in a different way. You end up with a film that feels haphazardly put together, without any clear focus or narrative pull. Favreau cited his contentious relationship with Marvel as a reason why he left Iron Man 3 to direct Cowboys & Aliens. Favreau was just one of many Marvel filmmakers to jump the helicarrier.
At one point, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins was set to helm Thor: The Dark World. However, she would later part ways with Marvel, once more citing creative differences. She would later go on to direct Wonder Woman to overwhelming success, being the first female director to helm such a high grossing film. Jenkins wouldn't be the last filmmaker to depart a Marvel production far into the creative process. For years, Edgar Wright was set to co-write and direct an adaptation of Ant-Man for Marvel Studios. The film experienced many delays over the years as Wright went on to direct three other films and Marvel readjusted their schedule. When Wright came back to gear up Ant-Man for production, however, he discovered Marvel wanted to rewrite his screenplay without him. As someone who has written and directed all of his films, Wright naturally took issue with all of the sudden being a "director for hire."
Edgar Wright's recent comments on why he left Ant-Man seem to indicate Marvel can be at times much more invested in seeing their own stories told, versus letting filmmakers do what they were hired to do in the first place: tell the story themselves, with their own vision. "I wanted to make a Marvel movie", Wright explains, "but I don't think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie."
Marvel Studios knew what they were getting into when they hired Edgar Wright. He has a very clear, singular vision as a filmmaker. Which made his departure from Ant-Man so peculiar, given how Wright was working on the film on-and-off for several years. It will be interesting to see how studios like Marvel and Disney – and given how Marvel is currently owned by Disney, maybe just Disney – handle these situations from here on out. Will they continue to seek out auteurs like Edward Norton, Edgar Wright, and Lord & Miller? Or will they stick to industry veterans, such as Ron Howard? Howard, after all, was hired to replace Lord & Miller on the Han Solo movie precisely because his reassuring hand would be a calming presence for what has become a tumultuous production. And I'm still very curious to see how it turns out anyway.
Sometimes it is hard to tell when something won't work out. Lucasfilm and Kennedy experienced a similar situation with Gareth Edwards and Rogue One last year. Edwards was willing to be cooperative with Kennedy's plan to reshoot at least forty percent of the film. It seems like Lord & Miller, however, were not as cooperative. On paper, it sounds like there's a recurring problem behind the scenes at Lucasfilm, perhaps even with Kennedy's leadership as president of the company. However, if that's the case, there's a real problem with Kevin Feige's leadership as directors have been jumping ship with far more frequency than anyone working for Kennedy. If anything, it sheds light on an awful double standard in this industry.
For every Christopher Nolan or Patty Jenkins, there's going to be a Lord & Miller or Edgar Wright. Wright seems to be doing pretty well these days. His latest film, Baby Driver, has been getting rave reviews. It is quite likely Lord & Miller's improvisational style wasn't right for the movie Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote. Wright seems to be better off doing his own thing, and Hollywood finally gave Patty Jenkins the perfect project to let her talents shine. It doesn't mean that studios, especially ones such as Disney and Marvel, need to stop working with auteur directors all together. It just means studios need to make sure the shoe fits a little bit before a director call "Action!" What do you think? Does Hollywood still need auteurs?