Oh, the irony: As TV creators seek inventive ways to adapt the visual language of cinema, Hollywood’s big-budget, big-screen movies are increasingly becoming more like television.
With serialized TV shows, control needs to be in the hands of writers and showrunners. That’s because the story is still unfolding and the production is built from episode to episode. The director can’t be the principal storyteller, which makes it challenging to put a premium on visual storytelling.
Those who run the Marvel Cinematic Universe might sympathize. When it launched in 2008, their choices of directors seemed like head scratchers for a big action film. In retrospect, they make perfect sense.
“Swingers” writer and “Elf” director Jon Favreau was the perfect choice to improv with Robert Downey Jr. (remember, he wasn’t a star then) to create the wisecracking hero needed to lead “The Avengers.” Shakespearean pro Kenneth Branagh was well suited to extract the familial power struggle from the Thor stories that would motivate “The Avengers.” And there was no one better to handle the nightmare of telling an engaging story about those multiple superhero protagonists than Joss Whedon, who mastered stories about teams with his “Buffy” and “Firefly” TV shows.
It didn’t matter that action wasn’t the directors’ expertise; Marvel has always been more comfortable leaving that in the hands of the very top stunt coordinators, VFX wizards, and second-unit specialists. What Marvel needed from its directors was connective tissue between their spectacle set pieces and the movies themselves. They were picked for their ability to establish characters and serve the franchises’ multifaceted story arcs. Cinematic storytelling skills weren’t the point; Marvel preferred an uniform style and visual presentation that relied on skilled technicians guaranteeing consistent delivery of key elements the studio demanded. The franchise couldn’t even handle something as individualist as an iconic John Williams score.
Today, the idea of Marvel hiring a traditional, visually oriented action director in the vein of John McTiernan (“Die Hard”) and John Carpenter (“Escape from New York”) is absurd, as demonstrated by the Disney’s dance with Edgar Wright on “Ant-Man.” The money — and therefor the power — lies in the serialization. And no one has done it better than Marvel, with a now well-established template.
Of course, there are other models. Christopher Nolan had his “Batman” trilogy. There’s franchises like “Mission: Impossible” that can absorb the unique action language of everyone from John Woo to Brad Bird. However, those opportunities are rapidly decreasing. Studios are making significantly fewer movies, and more of them are franchise films.
With that backdrop, Kathleen Kennedy’s approach to rebooting the “Star Wars” franchise was very exciting. She tapped into a generation of unique visual storyteller like writer/directors Gareth Edwards (42), JJ Abrams (50), and Rian Johnson (43) for whom the original trilogy served as their earliest movie obsessions and cinematic awakenings. Each admitted profound fear of the pressures of caring the torch and dishonoring something so sacred. They could be trusted to honor the Lucas story world and eagerly absorb advice from people like Lawerence Kasdan (screenwriter of “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”), the onset presence of ILM VFX supervisor John Knoll (part of every “Star Wars” movie) and the boss herself, Kennedy, who produced the films of their other idol, Steven Spielberg.
The other seemingly brilliant aspect of Kennedy’s turning Disney’s $4 billion acquisition into a series of movies was the standalone films that would serve as palate cleansers between servings of the larger unfolding story. These weren’t sequels needed to set up other stories, so they offered a license to try something tonally different… like the distinct stylings of the directing duo Lord and Miller.
Jonathan Olley © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd.
The defining aspect of Lord and Miller is their Lord and Miller-ness, in which they take a tongue-in-cheek approach to everything from Gandhi, kid’s books, undercover cops, and Lego Batman. Kennedy may have appreciated their aesthetic, but not what it takes to get there: The team’s unique brand of filmmaking stems from their blocking, pacing, and directing the performance style of their actors. Seeing Alden Ehrenreich’s unique physical comedy in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar” and Donald Glover equally quirky physicality in “Community,” you can almost feel the rhythms of what their young Han Solo and Lando Calrissian adventures would be like.
We’ll probably never know what Kennedy saw in Lord and Miller’s “Han Solo” that made her think it would work, or what made her change her mind. Whether it was a miscalculation or wishful thinking, or hubris, what’s the use of ego if it doesn’t drive you to try something new and different?
Nonetheless, the only real backstory needed here is that the directors clashed with the screenwriters, Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jon. Traditionally, directors are occasionally canned by studios, but screenwriters are more interchangeable than socks. Not here: The Kasdans are the keepers of the flame, the custodians of Han Solo. They are the showrunners.
It’s an odd time when so much of what is being made by Hollywood is serialized TV to feed our streaming addiction and franchise films to feed an international market. Studio control is nothing new for Hollywood, but there’s a sharp shift away from directors; the moves toward serialization are even sharper. A thoroughly gleeful piece of top-notch summer entertainment like Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” — an original, director-driven action film — is an endangered species, even at its significantly lower price tag and likelihood of profit.
This isn’t about hating on superhero movies, highbrow vs. lowbrow, or fan vs. critic; it’s about the disappearing role of the director as storyteller in our popular culture.
The movie-loving consumer is not powerless. The more noise, attention, and ticket sales that go toward Wright’s “Baby Driver,” Luc Besson’s “Valerian,” Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Bigelow’s “Detroit,” and Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” – and away from movies that are made like television shows with $100 million VFX budgets – the more likely we are to preserve the very best part of Hollywood’s commercial moviemaking traditions.