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Duncan Jones, ‘Warcraft,’ and What Went Wrong

The IndieWire team debates the destructive impact of Hollywood projects on the careers of talented filmmakers.

Duncan Jones

Duncan Jones at the London premiere for “Warcraft”

ERIC KOHN: First off, I haven’t seen “Warcraft,” and it wouldn’t be fair for me to comment on its quality. But based off the vitriol in David’s review, I think I’d rather stick with director Duncan Jones’ two earlier features — the lyrical ode to loneliness “Moon” and the brilliant time-twister “Source Code” — and pretend this third, apparently bloated and ultra-cheesy studio effort, didn’t exist. Unfortunately, it does, and has become an instant blot on a very promising career. Enough already!

Plenty of talented directors stumble into the studio arena, of course — it’s basically a time-honored tradition — but in recent years, a more problematic trend has emerged: Talented filmmakers at early stages of their careers take huge steps into big-budget efforts and face-plant. Colin Trevorrow didn’t exactly craft a masterpiece with his sophomore effort, “Jurassic World.” And Jones, after two movies, proved that he was angling for serious auteur status as the rare director who gets sci-fi right. Maybe that’s the big takeaway here: Visionary directors just don’t belong in this arena. Remember Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”? I’ve been trying to forget it.

"Warcraft"

“Warcraft”

Of course, I can’t wait to see what David Lowery does with “Pete’s Dragon” or how Ryan Coogler might spice up the superhero genre with “Black Panther.” But in general, it seems like we’d all be better off if Hollywood left its grunt work to the hacks. Who’s with me?

KATE ERBLAND: So many of the indie world’s rising stars have made the very rapid jump from well-received first or second film straight into the studio world — Trevorrow, Jon Watts, Gareth Edwards, or Jordan Vogt-Roberts — with somewhat mixed results (and some we’ve yet to see). Jones didn’t quite do that, instead transitioning from “Moon” to “Source Code,” the kind of smart, mid-budget film studios don’t often make. But even that career trajectory hasn’t saved him from blockbuster fallout, and if nothing else, the woefully misguided “Warcraft” (which, yes, I’ve seen) should serve as a cautionary tale about the bad things that can happen to even the most talented and well-meaning directors when they’re expected to churn out large-scale spectacles.

But that’s not to say that we should just cede such features entirely to the kind of, as you put it, hacks, who like to make them anyway. There has to be a way to bridge the gap between indie spirit and studio demands, and the only way we’re going to find it is by letting smaller directors actually try, as terrifying and sometimes upsetting as it may be. You can be an auteur and a studio player — hello, Spielberg — and while it’s far from the rule right now, the rare exceptions are so often worth it. Having said that, I can’t help but continue to champion the Duncan Jones/Christopher Nolan path: You can go blockbuster, just maybe not so soon.

"Source Code"

“Source Code”

DAVID EHRLICH: I hate to sound like a broken record, but I think this issue boils down to the same thing that so many conversations about the state of contemporary studio filmmaking ultimately do: The death of middle-budget movies. “Source Code” was a good movie and an even better career choice, but one of the reasons that it stands out in this context is because so few people in Duncan Jones’ position are given the green light to make a $32 million high-concept sci-fi thriller. More often than not, young directors hot off their first feature are forced to choose between accepting a dream job at the helm of a major studio project (usually related to reviving a cherished property from their youth) or trawling for the money required to get their second indie off the ground. That’s a tough spot.

Making matters worse is that Kate’s totally right — some of these guys (and they’re always guys) have made a deal with the devil and come out smiling. I will go to my grave arguing that Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” is one of the best blockbusters of the 21st century. But “Godzilla” is definitely the exception to the rule, and that’s because most of the untested directors who are hired for these massive movies are signed because the studios can push them around and force them to defer much of the heavy lifting to the second units and effects departments. I think that Eric is right on the money for suggesting that the mega-budget arena is no place for visionary filmmakers — at least not when they’re forced to direct with their hands tied behind their backs.

Yes, the Spielbergs, Nolans, and Aronofskys of the world are incapable of making movies that feel or function like anybody else’s, but look at “Safety Not Guaranteed.” It’s a charming enough movie, but it’s also completely anonymous. Anyone could have made it, and that’s exactly what made Colin Trevorrow so appealing for “Jurassic World,” which — in order to clean up internationally — anyone must have been able to enjoy. Trevorrow got a “Star Wars” film out of it, but no one wins when we encourage filmmakers to be stewards instead of artists.

Warcraft Movie

“Warcraft”

ANNE THOMPSON: As David suggested, the tricky wicket in Hollywood now is the yawning gap between low-budget indies and big-budget studios. There used to be a system in place for training young directors and giving them experience on modest, mid-level movies before they moved into bigger-scale projects. See “Insomnia,” for Christopher Nolan, or “Bound” for the Wachowskis.

With the studios largely abdicating the mid-range movies (unless it’s comedy, romance, or horror), that leaves directors like Jones trying to find work. The indies don’t really pay. And you wind up trying to raise funds from foreign sales companies who often steer projects toward genre and dictate a narrow list of proven stars in various key territories around the world, which is no way to assemble a good movie.

While some projects do survive intact despite those limitations, how’s a director going to grow and learn, much less make a living? Some shoot commercials (Spike Lee, Errol Morris), teach (Kelly Reichardt), direct documentaries (Kevin Macdonald) or make shorts (Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze). Jones doesn’t have many options as a rising director, and television, while it offers a range of experiences for directors like Jeremy Podeswa and Agniezska Holland when they’re not making films in their home countries, isn’t always a fully satisfying meal for directors who want to run their own show.

Even experienced directors like Guillermo del Toro run afoul of studio movies that require patience, collaborative teamwork and going along with the bigger picture. Sometimes it takes guts to argue with your agent, or walk away from an actual job, as Matthew Vaughn has done, to recognize when the planets do not align. Jones provides a cautionary tale for the countless directors in his position. But there are no easy answers for this dilemma.

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