Back in March, we unveiled a list of one-time indie directors, including Bryan Singer, the Wachowskis and Paul Greengrass, who suddenly made the hyperspace jump to helming blockbuster projects, along with their associated blockbuster budgets. We could equally have included such transformative modern figures as Joss Whedon, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg (who made the jump to blockbusters by inventing them). That piece noted that this was “a trend that’s become increasingly prevalent over the last decade or so” and sketched out some of the budget boosts these filmmakers had received, as amounts often 5 or 10 times the budget of their previous films were suddenly at their disposal. Results varied, quality-wise.
But in the few months since that piece appeared, the phenomenon has gone from a trend to an epidemic, with a slew of young filmmakers being handed the keys to massive studio tentpoles on the strength of one or two interesting indie films. Gareth Edwards’ shift from tiny-budget “Monsters” to this summer’s “Godzilla” has been a well-documented case in point (and he will be directing a "Star Wars" spinoff). Edwards’ isn’t even the latest career to have been shot into the stratosphere through a lucky break like this. Joy abounded last week at the Playlist when we heard that Rian Johnson, of “Brick” and “Looper” (the relatively large budget of which disqualifies him from this list) was coming on board the “Star Wars” mothership.
In addition to these high profile hires, there are also a remarkable number of similar new names coming to a multiplex near you within the next few years. We’ve collected a list of indie filmmakers who have already penned deals to tackle big-budget studio pictures, and presumably somewhere among this crop of youngsters are the next faces whose first big-budget outing will fast-track them into the big leagues. The fact that this list is almost entirely made up of white male filmmakers does indicate that Hollywood studios have a hiring problem when it comes to gender and race, which was starkly illustrated in this infographic yesterday.
Each of these projects will of course rise or fall on its own merits, though it’s a heartening thing to see the studios take creative risks of this kind—and all of these directors will have already run a fearsome pitching gauntlet to get the job. But since you weren’t in the room for those pitches, consider this your guide to the next generation of intense young men in charge of scarily large budgets.
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Project: “Jurassic World,” i.e. “Jurassic Park 4,” which after years of rumors and suppositions is now set for June 12, 2015, the 22nd anniversary of the original film’s release. Release dates on this thing have been pushed before, but it’s clearly on track now, with the first stills appearing recently.
What Had He Made Prior? 2012’s “Safety Not Guaranteed,” a time-travel comedy which became a happy hit at SXSW. It was his first film: since the success he has also been reported as working on a “Flight of the Navigator” remake, though it looks as if he might be scripting that without directing it.
Pros and Cons: A while ago we said that Trevorrow “initially scanned as a curious choice” for the return to Isla Nublar, and that’s still sort of true. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a hugely appealing and inventive film, but it doesn’t scream “dinosaurs,” or “action sequences,” or “childlike sense of wonder” (except at times via Mark Duplass’ character). In fact it can occasionally seem downright jaded, but that’s Aubrey Plaza for you, and now that we think about it, isn’t she oddly reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum? Anyway. Trevorrow has seemed to be making all the right moves, with a broad new cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Judy Greer, Omar Sy, Lauren Lapkus, also Nick Robinson, the kid from “Kings of Summer,” which you’ll find discussed elsewhere on this list, and BD Wong as a legacy character (rumors continue to swirl about another, “unexpected’’ returning character, but no-one’s said it’s a human…). Spielberg, of course, is executive producing and presumably keeping a watchful eye, which might or might not be a good thing these days. One heartening thing has been Trevorrow’s approach to the constant flow of spoilers from the set, which he has spoken out against by noting that they destroy that childlike joy of surprise: “When I was a kid, you got to discover everything at once, it washed over you and blew your mind.” Increasingly, it looks like Trevorrow’s heart is in the right place on this one, hopefully everything else will follow.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Project: The “Metal Gear Solid” movie, which was announced two years back (before Vogt-Roberts was hired, or had even released a movie): it’s an adaptation of the popular and long-running (and batshit) video game series which has…a number of installments, depending on how you count them. Suffice to say, MGS5’s “prologue” came out a few months ago, but the rest of the game will be out next year. Perhaps they’ll take the same approach with the first reel of the movie?
What Had He Made Prior? The off-beat, slightly nuts coming-of-age indie comedy “Kings of Summer,” which we straight-up loved and raved about for a good part of last year. Before that, Vogt-Roberts’ career was all about TV and internet comedy: he was one of Funny or Die‘s go-to directors for shorts and clips. He also has a Nick Offerman stand-up movie coming out this year, and directed the pilot for a show called “You’re the Worst,” which FX picked up: the full season premières in July, and we recently posted some clips and also featured it in our Summer TV Preview.
Pros and Cons: Called it! When we included Vogt-Roberts on our "Breakout Directors of 2013" list and forecast that “he’ll likely learn to mesh comedic and drama elements in a clearer way with his follow-up effort,” what we meant was that he was destined to adapt for the screen a video-game series whose plot is like spending a week running around disused military facilities with your paranoid survivalist uncle (hey, everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in their own way). Gigantic nuclear-armed robots, cloned super-soldiers, secret committees controlling global politics, pacifist diatribes, fourth-wall-fucking surrealism, Russian psychopaths who control killer bees with their mind: the series has it all, but became famous for gameplay centered on stealth rather than fighting (and for being really, really good). In theory however, a “Metal Gear” movie could tone down the weird and be done as a Bourne/Mission Impossible knock-off, which would probably be a shame. Which, hopefully, is where Vogt-Roberts comes in: his previous work shows that he knows how to bring the crazy, and he might be the man to let a “Metal Gear” movie fly its freak (and geek) flag. On the other hand, one could have said the same about the Russo brothers, and while their “Captain American: The Winter Soldier” was pretty good, it wasn’t obviously the product of comedy minds. We’ll have to wait and see what he’s got—and what Sony wants from him. In any case, the series is (in)famous for its immensely long cut-scenes that tell large parts of the story without actual gameplay. So most of Vogt-Roberts’ work is done for him, amirite?
Director: Josh Trank
Projects: Two, in this case: Trank is working both on a “Fantastic Four” reboot for 2015 and, we recently learned, a standalone "Star Wars" film, probably for 2018.
What Had He Made Prior? Trank’s only prior film credit is “Chronicle,” 2012’s subversive and impressive found footage superhero movie, which became a hit on a small budget.
Pros and Cons: Unlike some of the entries on this list, the logic is easy to see here. Make good, small superhero movie → get hired to reboot big, historically bad superhero series → profit (if you’re Fox, and frightened of your “Fantastic Four” rights reverting to Marvel). Trank was undoubtedly a get for Fox, and he’s since then has showed every sign of taking a fresh approach. Notably he blew the minds of neckbeards everywhere by casting the utterly great Michael B. Jordan (who’s in “Chronicle”) as the Human Torch. A black Human Torch isn’t actually shocking (unless you’re a racist, I guess), but it is interesting to note as we did that this implies a refreshing willingness to alter canon for the sake of the movie: the casting implies that the character won’t be the sister of Sue Storm, which he traditionally is. The other three quarters of the gang—Jamie Bell, Kate Mara and Miles Teller—are also all interesting actors who deserve a chance at blockbuster glory. At this distance, the “Star Wars” project is harder to judge, particularly in the blizzard of confusing rumors about which movie is what—see the Gareth Edwards bit of this list for more of that—but as we noted when he was announced, his super-short "Stabbing at Leia‘s" shows he loves the source material. Found footage “Star Wars,” anyone? One possible word of caution about Trank, though: he has dropped out of big projects in the past (though only to take other ones, and how much bigger does it get than “Star Wars”?). Still, post-“Chronicle” he was attached to both a “Venom” film for Sony as part of the Spider-man series, and a “Shadow of the Colossus” video game adaptation: he’s now definitely exited the former, and while there’s no word on the latter, it seems hard to imagine he’s still on it.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Project: Well, projects, actually. Edward’s “Godzilla” stomped into theaters last month and was a big enough hit that two sequels were announced, with Edwards apparently attached to direct. That news was overshadowed by the announcement that Edwards had also been hired on to the grand “Star Wars” plan, as the director of the first spin-off title, scheduled for 2016 (the idea is to alternate a main-series film and a standalone movie from the same universe each year for…well, eternity, probably).
What Had He Made Prior? Edwards is leading the charge on this list, in that he’s the person on it who has actually completed and released a monster-budgeted movie, this very summer’s “Godzilla” reboot. But he got that gig from his first and only previous film, “Monsters,” which reapproached the monster movie with a miniscule budget and an inventive setting: a DMZ along the Mexican-American border, depopulated ever since it became a breeding ground for mysterious and monstrous aliens. It played at TIFF in 2010, getting everyone’s attention and becoming something of a hit.
Pros and Cons: As far as the next Godzilla films go, we can probably expect more of the same: a beautiful, havoc-heavy, basically impressive monster movie that falls somewhat short in terms of plot and certain performances. When the sequels were announced, it wasn’t clear if he’d be directing: “hopefully he moves on to other things,” we said, before events apparently overtook us. Still, it’s probably good news for the “Godzilla” series that Edwards is sticking around: we meant that more from the perspective of Edwards’ own career development. So in a sense, we get to have our cake and eat it with the news that he is also going to expand his career to a galaxy far, far away. As far as what the “Star Wars” project might actually be, we’ve been frantically been trying to sort the truth from the rumor in recent weeks as various conflicting stories have emerged. Is it a Boba Fett movie? Is it even set at the same time as Abrams’ new ones? Is it Oli’s space slug/sarlacc slash fic idea? Please God let it not be that one. We do know that it’s being scripted by “Book of Eli” and “After Earth” writer John Whitta, which is not the best news. But it’s interesting to look back at an unrealized post-“Monsters” project that Edwards discarded in favor of “Godzilla,” one that was originally talked up by specifically name-checking “Star Wars”: a space opera of post-human robotics. On the one hand, it’s good to know that Edwards has been dreaming of making Lucas-like work for years now; on the other, is it a shame that an original idea has had to give way to a set of franchise commitments?
Director: David Gelb
Project: “Lazarus” (formerly known as “Reawakening”), Lionsgate‘s January 2015 horror thriller, which stars Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover and Mark Duplass. As you can probably tell, it’s about reanimating the dead: specifically, a team of scientists who invent a cure for death. Guess what? It turns out to be a bad idea.
What Had He Made Prior? 2011’s award-winning, beloved, Netflix superstar documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” about Tokyo’s most celebrated sushi chef.
Pros and Cons: You have to think about this one for a little while before it becomes clear. But who better for a movie about reanimating the dead than someone who has already made a strange, loving and entrancing film about a man who works transforming raw flesh? See? The question is whether that turns out to be a clever link chanced upon by film journalists overthinking the issue, or if Gelb actually can transfer his skills from a quirky little documentary to a mid-sized horror film (“Lazarus” won’t be the mega-budget movie that much of the rest of this list is). The cast also suggests there will be comic elements: hopefully “Lazarus” will be this generation’s “Re-Animator,” a clever and gory horror comedy, as opposed to this generation’s "Flatliners"? The synopses so far sound pretty serious, though. Also, we recently had news that Gelb would be following up the film with a return to documentaries: “A Faster Horse,” for release in 2015, will be a love letter to the Ford Mustang. Does that suggest Gelb feels he’s more cut out for documentaries after all? Or will he emerge as that rare thing, the director who can move between fact and fiction at will? Details on "Lazarus” should begin to emerge quite soon—we’re only six months from release—so we’ll have a better sense soon.
Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Project: “Blackwater,” a project set up at Warner Bros. about the controversial existence of the infamous para-military contractors and their questionable extra-legal tactics. The presence of super-producer Jon Peters (“Batman”) suggests this could be a bigger budgeted affair. The script is from Gideon Yago, previously of MTV.
What Had He Made Prior? Darcy-Smith, a frequent actor in the Australian film scene, is part of a collective of Australian cinematic voices. He collaborated with the Edgerton brothers on both “The Square” and “Animal Kingdom,” though he made his directorial debut with “Wish You Were Here,” an intense, upsetting drama starring Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer. Darcy-Smith penned the screenplay for that tense missing-persons thriller with star Felicity Price, who also co-starred, and while the picture was completely dumped into America, those who saw it knew he was a major new talent.
Pros and Cons: As far as making your debut in Hollywood, there’s nothing more intimidating than making it a political film. But that’s exactly what “Blackwater” is: this movie is destined to be upsetting and controversial, and it should ruffle a few feathers, particularly considering screenwriter Yago’s previous penchant for actual serious journalism in the unlikely halls of MTV (he now works with “The Newsroom”). But WB obviously believes this project has life without Darcy-Smith as well, since he’s considerably farther down the totem than Peters, who brought the script to the studio’s attention. It’s tough enough finding the funding for a divisive political film in Hollywood—try doing it when you’re a foreign filmmaker with only one other film under your belt, a movie that was basically ignored upon release. Darcy-Smith has so far shown an aptitude for uncomfortably tense confrontations, sudden bursts of violence and pockets of secrecy and paranoia. The question is, can that skill with everyday people be ported over to someone like Erik Prince, the ostensible “Blackwater” lead character? Darcy-Smith will probably secure a sizable star for this, but he’s rolling the dice that the studio shows a fondness for his pitch and approach.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Project: Kurzel was the director of choice for Michael Fassbender on next summer’s “Assassin’s Creed,” a big summer blockbuster based on the best-selling video games. The film follows a man sent through time into the body of his assassin ancestor to adjust a broken timestream.
What Had He Made Prior? The two collaborated on the upcoming “Macbeth” adaptation. But because we have not yet seen this film (though it is said to be small-ish), we have to go by “The Snowtown Murders,” the sickening true-crime story where Kurzel made his directorial debut, capturing an ecosystem of sin where brutality is all people believe in, and answer to. It’s one of the most upsetting and grueling films of the last few years, and you wouldn’t necessarily watch the film and expect the director to go mainstream, but here we are.
Pros and Cons: “Assassin’s Creed” is derived from a game with massively fantastical ideas and motifs. But none of that works if you don’t ground it in a believable world. Video game movies have yet to truly hit with the mainstream specifically because the fantasy elements are too outlandish and distancing. But Kurzel is a real dirt-under-your-fingertips filmmaker and the idea is that he can bring a harder edge to this sort of stuff. “The Snowtown Murders” is a suffocatingly disturbing film, and you wonder if Kurzel’s fatalistic attitude will carry on through the material, giving the baddies of “Assassins Creed” the sort of depth that might save it from just being a video game cutscene. They’ve got a special filmmaker onboard this project, one who already has a relationship with Fassbender. So far, so good.
Director: Pablo Larrain
Project: “Scarface,” the very new version that finds a lead character as a Mexican immigrant. Here, the action has shifted from the earlier versions of “Scarface,” now spotlighting a character attempting to make his way through the cartels. Acclaimed screenwriter Paul Attanasio (“Quiz Show”) is penning the story, which takes an entirely new look at the mythos.
What Had He Made Prior? Larrain is currently Chile’s most celebrated director, having helmed the much-lauded “Pinochet trilogy” of “Tony Manero,” “Post Mortem” and the Oscar-nominated “No,” detailing everyday life under dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. His work has a surgeon’s attention to detail as far as creating a time and place and his films also manage to emphasize the very small difference between the personal and the political.
Pros and Cons: The helmer is an interesting choice for something like “Scarface”: his pictures tend to be heavily textured character pieces, conventionally entertaining but quiet. Then again, this is a pretty different “Scarface” so one has to be interested in what Larrain could conceive would be the criminal interpretation of the American dream. There’s the sense the studio wants something aggressive and sensational like the De Palma version, however. Does Larrain have that in his toolbox?
Director: David Bruckner
Project: Yet another vision of “Friday The 13th.” The studio seems to feel as if 2009’s version didn’t reach the heights it could have, and are pursuing another angle. Rumors are this will be a found-footage film, which would both keep the budget down as well as reinforce the notion of Jason as something mythical, unknown, unknowable. Jason has proven pretty durable since the character’s beginnings, but is Bruckner the right choice for Jason’s lucky thirteenth adventure?
What Had He Made Prior? Bruckner isn’t necessarily a “horror veteran” by now, though he’s got some experience. He was one of three directors to tackle the loose-form anthology “The Signal” in 2007, a character-centric story about civilization breaking down in the wake of an apocalypse. He’s also responsible for “Amateur Night,” the rather upsetting opening sequence to “V/H/S,” maybe the most intense and visceral moment of that franchise. You can see how he’d get the call-up to the big leagues.
Pros and Cons: What’s frustrating is the studio’s treatment of “Friday The 13th.” Obviously it’s a shoddy joke of a franchise, but 2009’s revitalizing of the brand just had so many executive fingerprints all over it, an attempt to fit the Jason character into the Platinum Dunes vocabulary without acknowledging if he was a good fit or not. Famously, the movie capsized at the box office after its first weekend, one of the worst tumbles in history. No one knows if that’s because Jason’s fanbase is only so big, or because the movie just wasn’t any good. Regardless, bringing on someone young and cheap to “Friday The 13th” is a better idea than hiring a cynical clock-puncher like Marcus Nispel. But if they just want to utilize that found-footage aesthetic, then Bruckner is going to be micro-managed to death on what’s meant to be a dumb slasher.
Directors: Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg
Project: The duo are on board the currently stalled “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the sequel to the billion-dollar “Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” This is part five in a popular franchise, but it’s in an odd place: last installment “On Stranger Tides” was the only film in the series to fail to cross $300 million domestic. But globally, it’s by far the highest-grossing entry in the series, suggesting this Norwegian duo needs to appeal specifically to the American market in order to achieve maximum profitability.
What They Had Made Prior? Oddly enough, no one recalls that this duo made their debut on the Luc Besson-produced action-western “Bandidas,” which starred Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz and was barely released. They also directed “Max Manus: Man Of War,” but they were hired off the strength of high seas exploration yarn "Kon-Tiki." The Oscar-nominated adventure film tells the story of explorer Thor Heyerdal’s dangerous trip through the Pacific in 1947 on only a raft. “Kon-Tiki” had the gloss of a big Hollywood production, and was the most expensive Norwegian film ever made, but the ocean sequences and set pieces are no doubt what caught the eye of the ‘Pirates’ producers.
Pros and Cons: The easy answer is that this duo was hired because they previously worked on water, and because they were relatively cheap. But it’s clear this series needed to shy away from bigger names and focus on people more appropriate for a high adventure with serious stakes, particularly five movies in. The fourth film’s Rob Marshall had no aptitude for action, and as such the buzz was inevitably bad for the fourth film: sure it banked a billion, but if that same creative team and attitude were returning, you’d be looking at much lower grosses. The fact that Disney has waited so long to mount this film suggests they’re looking at a reinvention, a drastic change that gets people interested. The question is, are Ronning and Sandberg in charge of this franchise’s new vision?
So which of these upcoming projects are you most excited about? And indeed do you think the general trend for giving big tentpoles to relatively untested indie talents is a good or bad thing? We’re decidedly on the fence about it overall: at best, of course, it can invigorate the blockbuster landscape by involving people with innovative approaches and individual sensibilities, but it does also knock some promising filmmakers out of the picture for at least a few years as regards making more personal, potentially more interesting, smaller films. Let us know if that’s a trade-off you’re happy to make in the comments below.
— Ben Brock and Gabe Toro