The strategy of making “one for them and one for me” is one of Hollywood’s oldest traditions. In the studio era, directors and stars could accrue capital with the system by making commercial pictures, then cash in their chips on a more personal project. Back in 1980, which seems to be the phrase’s earliest appearance in print, Burt Reynolds told the Washington Post that he favored “one for them, one for me,” alternating between “a playful, more or less certain crowd pleaser” and “a more realistic, offbeat and potentially risky project.”
But the strategy of moving between studio product and smaller, more personal projects no longer seems reliable. Studio movies have become such a massive enterprise that directors are either worn out by the process and flee for cover, or become addicted to its scale and have trouble returning to thinking small. And though actors have an easier time moving back and forth between larger and smaller projects, some simply don’t: Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans spent their vacations from playing Black Widow and Captain America making “Under the Skin” and “Snowpiercer,” but Robert Downey, Jr. took his Marvel success as an opportunity to kiss off indie film for good.
There are still success stories, movies that almost certainly would not have been made had their creators not drunk from the franchise well: Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” and “Interstellar,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain,” Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch.” (I know, I know.) But they’re vanishingly rare, tiny me-islands in a sea of them.
It’s doubtful any fan of Duncan Jones’ thrilled to the news that he’d follow “Moon” and “Source Code” with a big-screen take on “Warcraft.” But if the prospect of him adapting a video game wasn’t especially enticing, we could console ourselves with this thought: Maybe he’d finally get to make “Mute.”
“Mute” is the passion project Jones has chased for years, one he conceived even before the 2009 release of “Moon.” A murder mystery set in the world of “cybernetic surgeons” in mid-21st century Berlin, “Mute” has been Jones’ obsession. He was so determined to tell the story than when the film looked as if it would never get made, he decided to turn it into a graphic novel, although that hasn’t been finished, either.
Jones has taken taken to referring to “Mute” as “my ‘Don Quixote,'” in reference to the troubled but tenacious project that Terry Gilliam has been trying to make for nearly two decades. Even with a paucity of details, Jones’ dedication to “Mute” makes it interesting. Anything that holds a filmmaker’s attention for so long, and in the face of so much adversity, has got to be worth seeing.
Taking on a $160 million CGI spectacular seemed like the perfect vehicle to prove that Jones could handle a large-scale production, to turn him from a cult director into a reliable commodity, with enough industry clout to finally realize his dream. “Warcraft” would be the proverbial one for them, and “Mute” the one for me.
But the reviews of “Warcraft,” which have largely been scathing, put a crimp in that plan. (At least “Batman V. Superman” had defenders.) And the box-office projections aren’t much better — at last estimate, they put “Warcraft” in second place behind “The Conjuring 2,” a movie that despite its name cast and franchise-tested director, cost only a quarter what “Warcraft” did.
Last year, Jones said he was hoping to “sneak in” “Mute” before “Warcraft” opened; now he’s saying it’s his next movie. But if “Warcraft” tanks, it seems eminently possible “Mute” could, once again, go mute.
As with most studio tentpoles, domestic take is only a fraction of the story: “Warcraft” made a near-record $45 million at the Chinese box office in its first day, more than it’s expected to make in its entire opening weekend in the U.S. So it’s still possible that “Warcraft” may prove to be Jones’ glowing green gateway to greenlight power.
Still, that leaves “Warcraft” itself, a garbled, listless mess that has consumed years of Jones’ artistic life. It’s not even a particularly good advertisement for Jones’ directorial skills. With CG texturing so fine you can count the individual hairs on an orc’s back, the movie is reasonably impressive from a technical standpoint — unless, that is, you count acting as a craft.
Even with lowered expectations, the movie’s performances are startlingly awful, roughly on the level of a community theatre production of “Lord of the Rings.” In one scene, Dominic Cooper’s jaw hangs slack as if he’s wondering what’s for lunch. The costumes that aren’t created in a computer look chintzy and threadbare, and the story — hoo boy, let’s not even go there. If this was Jones’ first movie, no one would looking forward to his second.
For years, Steven Soderbergh was the avatar of “one for them, one for me,” although I’m not sure he used the phrase himself: “Out of Sight” was followed by “The Limey,” “Ocean’s Eleven” by “Full Frontal” and “Solaris.” But in 2013, he quit the film business, saying that the industry had lost all interest in making anything that didn’t seem like a potential hit.
“When I was growing up,” he told New York’s Mary Kaye Schilling, “there was a sort of division: Respect was accorded to people who made great movies and to people who made movies that made a lot of money. And that division just doesn’t exist anymore: Now it’s just the people who make a lot of money.” In other words, the movie industry is only in the business of making movies for them.
If you want to make a “them,” Variety’s Brent Lang suggested last year, you’re better off going to TV, which is what Soderbergh did, directing (and shooting and editing) the Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” and two seasons of “The Knick.” He’s reportedly planning a return to the big screen, but it took three years for his movie appetite to return.
TV is where Ava DuVernay headed after “Selma,” to make the miniseries “Queen Sugar,” about sisters who return to Louisiana to claim a sugarcane farm inherited from their father, before signing on to direct “A Wrinkle in Time” for Disney. The small screen is also the next stop for Robert Eggers after the “The Witch,” making a miniseries about Rasputin before a planned remake of “Nosferatu.” Given that more people will probably end up watching those smaller, more personal movies on their flatscreens anyway, why not just cut out the middleman and make them for TV in the first place?
Still, we can’t seem to shed the idea that signing onto a big studio project (which almost always means an adaptation, reboot, or sequel) is a necessary step in burgeoning director’s career. Jennifer Kent made an astonishing debut with “The Babadook,” a horror movie influenced by German Expressionism and Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” Surely she’d be just right for “Wonder Woman.” Not that? What about “Captain Marvel”? The directors’ fans cheer them on as if they’ve snagged the brass ring, rather than stepped into the mouth of a monster. (To be fair, IndieWire often rallies the crowd, offering a vote of confidence for people we want to succeed.) Sometimes it works: Gareth Edwards went from the modestly inventive “Monsters” to the massive “Godzilla” without losing his distinctive touch, and hopscotched from there to the “Star Wars” spinoff “Rogue One.” But now Edwards is reshooting as much as 40 percent of that movie at Lucasfilm’s behest, and he’s already bowed out of a “Godzilla” sequel, citing a desire to work on his own movies.
What about Marvel, which has made a practice of seeking out relatively new directorial voices? So far, the MCU has employed 11 directors on 13 movies, and we’ve gotten, at best, three “me” movies out of the deal: Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” and Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys.” (Throw in Joe Johnston’s “Not Safe for Work,” if unheralded straight-to-VOD releases count.) Working for Marvel is evidently a pleasant-enough experience; many directors have signed up for a second go-round, although Whedon found the experience of making two “Avengers” movies so grueling he’s temporarily tapped out of moviemaking altogether, and Edgar Wright saw years’ worth of work on “Ant-Man” flushed because he was, to read between the NDAs, making something that felt too much like an Edgar Wright movie.
Looking ahead, the Marvel machine has sucked up Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, Scott Derrickson, and Jon Watts, with Kent and Nicki Caro (“Whale Rider”) reportedly in the lead for “Captain Marvel.” All of these directors can be counted on to make solid, entertaining films that will bear only the faintest trace of the distinctive sensibilities that made Marvel hire them in the first place.
The division between “one for them” and “one for me” has always been falsely neat: The best “them” movies find a personal core beneath the studio-supplied furnishings, and the best “me” movies connect with an audience as powerfully as any machine-tooled entertainment. As Burt Reynolds put it, “The one for them has turned out to be nothing but fun for me, while the one for me strikes a chord with them, too.”
Today, studio projects are so huge, with so many fingers in the pot, that it starts to feel like the movies are made not just for them, but by them — which is the same as being made by no one.
Special thanks to Matthew Dessem for research assistance.