In the pantheon of contemporary American filmmakers who do what they want, no personality looms larger than Quentin Tarantino, as the filmmaker himself gladly reminds anyone who asks. Like his movies, Tarantino speaks in lengthy paragraphs filled with vivid observations about the state of popular culture and his role within it.
But his assessments of the industry tend to reflect the insular world of filmmaking that he has inhabited from the start. In a meaty interview this week with Vulture’s Lane Brown, the master stylist takes a break from his upcoming minimalist western “The Hateful Eight” to share his thoughts on a wide variety of topics, from his capacity to produce compelling work more than two decades after his initial success with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” to his adoration of Barack Obama. Though typically self-assured, Tarantino barely hesitates to analyze his own failings. He offers some telling insight into the failure of “Grindhouse,” the homage to sleazy B-movies he produced with fellow genre aficionado Robert Rodriguez, but he’s on shakier ground when discussing the impact of Hollywood blockbusters on the visibility of pretty much everything else.
The conversation takes a heated turn when Brown asks Tarantino about the mounting pressure being placed on summer movie tentpoles, and the resulting impact on more ambitious work. In particular, Brown cites pessimism from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas about “the future of the film industry” — specifically the possibility that “if a few tentpoles flopped, it could cause the whole business to implode.” Tarantino responds by defending “franchise filmmaking,” explaining that “it has been going on since I was born.” He’s eager to check out Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” If Spielberg and Lucas have a problem with those kind of movies, Tarantino adds, “they don’t have to direct them.”
It’s here that the director stumbles. Brown’s question has less to do with the personal desires of the Hollywood elite than a larger systematic issue. The context stems from a public discussion between Spielberg and Lucas at the University of Southern California two years back, when the influential directors predicted “an implosion” of the industry. However, the duo went beyond questioning the artistic merit of massive studio-mandated spectacles to decry their impact on other kinds of projects — in short, everything else.
The biggest revelation arrived when Spielberg claimed that “Lincoln” nearly became an HBO project due to a lack of studio interest. That’s right: The guy who basically invented the modern blockbuster was struggling in its hulking shadow. The filmmaker complained about studio preferences for tentpoles over “a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal — and even maybe historical — projects that may get lost in the shuffle because there’s only 24 hours.”
That’s a challenge Tarantino, a sharply individualistic filmmaker whose very name conveys impressions of the movies he makes, never really faced. While studios released Tarantino’s movies abroad, for the most part, his career has thrived under the protective shield of Miramax and, later, The Weinstein Company. If a new Tarantino movie happens to do well commercially — such as “Django Unchained,” which grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide — it’s a welcome add-on to the mere arrival of a new Tarantino movie. He succeeds by getting the work done.
The director’s multitude of fans, which range from cinephiles appreciative of his likeminded sensibilities to general audiences who simply enjoy his edgy, often comically violent narratives and idiosyncratic characters, will always anticipate another Tarantino movie. He excels at delivering his special brand of deeply referential, post-modern cinema with provocative insights into the history of the medium. That’s great for him, and even better for us, but it limits his relationship to the marketplace for American movies. His assessment of the climate for ambitious projects exists in a bubble of his own making.
Many other American filmmakers are lucky if they can get away with one big movie on their own terms. The striking anomaly of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” in which director George Miller saluted virtually every appealing aspect of cinema’s visual language into a single thrilling package, arrived nearly 20 years after the director initially wanted to make it. It may be the greatest example of auteurist filmmaking within the confines of the franchise model. That accomplishment, partly the result of Miller’s legal right to direct another entry in the “Mad Max” universe, feels like something of a fluke.
The dominant mode for most tentpoles is bigger, louder, faster — the “Jurassic World” story in a nutshell. Ingenuity comes secondary to the deafening bottom line. These days, we’re lucky to get the occasional “Ant-Man,” a breezy, tightly-wound comedic alternative to the dense and nearly incomprehensible “Avengers” sequel. The possibility of any truly surprising, innovative films made on a large scale shrinks every year. Unless you’re Christopher Nolan or Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, the prospects of producing something fresh on a large budget for mass consumption basically doesn’t exist. That’s not insider intel. Just look at the product.
As Tarantino points out, there’s nothing new about the dominance of tentpoles in Hollywood, though the model has strengthened in recent years. From the overwhelming number of “Star Wars” movies currently in production to the heap of disposable franchise installments “Hitman 47” and “Fantastic Four” opening this month, vast productions of branded concepts dominate more than ever. Even a subpar effort might still recoup its budget overseas. Studios have no real business mandate to consider fresh ideas when they can keep rifling through the products at their disposal. Executives show less concern for originality than the threat of viral videos luring people away from the multiplexes. That points to the biggest problem with Tarantino’s assumption that studio filmmaking hasn’t gotten worse: The entire notion of cinema has become so precious that anything other than the shiniest, priciest efforts struggle to develop even a modest following.
That means a lot of people are moving on. In his interview, Tarantino mentions his admiration for films directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, singling out “Cyrus” and “Baghead,” the last Duplass brothers movie released before the pair started their foray into the commercial arena. With “Cyrus,” the sibling filmmakers faced uneasy allies at Fox, then shifted to Paramount for “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” another unorthodox quasi-comedy about human relations that the studio basically dumped.
Though the independently-produced “The Do Deca Pentathlon” made its way to a specialized release a year later, the brothers have apparently moved on from the studio arena. They produce microbudget features like “6 Years” and the iPhone-shot “Tangerine” (a scrappy, gleefully vulgar Los Angeles street comedy Tarantino would probably love); and they’ve worked closely with Netflix on upcoming projects. Above all else, the Duplass brothers seem to be following an increasingly standard path for many filmmakers fed up with studios’ limited options by heading to television, as they continue to work on their new show “Togetherness.” So what does that say about the prospects of innovative filmmaking on a larger scale?
It might mean that scale no longer serves as the bottom-line for filmmakers intent on maintaining autonomy from the system. In mentioning the Duplass brothers, Tarantino offers a passing familiarity with the so-called “mumblecore” wave, though the examples he offers up stretch back pretty far (“Hannah Takes the Stairs” came out in 2007). Most of the directors associated with that term have experimented with various ways of continuing their careers, but none of them have experienced a Tarantino-level breakthrough. Joe Swanberg may be exploring the opportunities afforded by bigger casts, but he continues to work in a fairly limited arena. Andrew Bujalski’s “Results” featured an intriguing transition for the director into a more accessible comedic register, but the movie was nevertheless released in only a handful of cities. Perhaps most problematically, Barry Jenkins — the only African American director associated with the “mumblecore” term — struggled to figure out his next move after 2008’s lovely “Medicine for Melancholy,” even avoiding big studio gigs. Finally, Jenkins has set up a new project with specialty distributor A24.
Bottom line: If you want to make your own stuff, the studio route is not the place for it.
That’s one challenge that will never concern Tarantino for the rest of his career. His commitment to avoiding franchises — or any project that doesn’t stem directly from his artistic impulses — has made through the through-line in his creative evolution easier to discern. Yet few directors can find that luxury today. Instead, many turn to big paychecks that promise a grand arena to play around with only the narrowest of possibilities. Jon Watts delivered an excellent little dark comedic thriller with this year’s “Cop Car,” but it’s hard to imagine he’ll remain so thoroughly in touch with his sensibilities when he finishes up his “Spider-Man.” As difficult as it was to discern how Colin Trevorrow, the director of the blithe sci-fi romance “Safety Not Guaranteed,” evolved his talents with “Jurassic World,” it’s even harder to imagine where he’ll wind up after he makes “Star Wars: Episode IX.” Three months before that news came out, Trevorrow told one interviewer he wanted “to go make an original movie” after the “Jurassic World” mayhem died down. That would be “Book of Henry,” but it’s just a temporary breather in a sea of franchise projects. There goes that pipe dream. In the rush to generate big hits, the first casualty is directorial agency.
The rare nature of Tarantino’s legacy says much about today’s landscape. It illuminates the dwindling field of singular voices able to work within the constraints of the studio arena. Assuming everything goes according to schedule, “Hateful Eight” will arrive in late December as one of the final statements of the year in cinema; let’s just hope it’s not a coda on the kind of freedom it represents.