Three directors who have had a film surpass $340 million at the worldwide box office revisited how Sundance launched their careers. On January 26, “Power of Story: Indies Go Hollywood,” brought together Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarock”), Justin Lin (“Star Trek: Beyond”), and Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) to discuss the challenges of adjusting to the studio system, their desire for the industry to be more inclusive, and how to keep their stories personal when they’re part of a juggernaut franchise.
Waititi, a New Zealander, has premiered four pictures in Park City: “Eagle vs Shark” (2007), “Boy” (2010), “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”(2016), and “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014), which is now being adapted for television. Taiwan-born Lin — a veteran of four “The Fast and the Furious” sequels (with more to come) — has attended the festival as a buyer and seller: his features “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002) and “Finishing the Game” (2007) both debuted at Sundance, along with his short “La Revolución de Iguodala!” (2007). In 2014, he also acquired the rights to the documentary “The Battered Bastards of Baseball,” with plans to make a narrative account. Hardwicke’s first film, “Thirteen” (2003), earned the Texan Sundance’s directing prize for drama.
Additional Hollywood directing powerhouses that got their starts at Sundance include Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), Rian Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon”) and Oscar-winner Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time”). Colin Trevorrow also brought “Safety Not Guaranteed” to the festival three years before “Jurassic World” hit theaters.
At “Power of Story,” the directors told moderator and KPCC radio host John Horn that their even their biggest-budget works included a bit of an on-the-fly, indie sensibility. In January 2015, Lin received a call from “Star Trek Beyond” producer JJ Abrams, who asked if Lin was a fan. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, I grew up watching it with my dad,’ and he’s like, ‘Great, do you want to take it over?…There’s no idea, you’ve got to start, and we’re going to shoot in June, and you have three days [to come up with ideas about the characters’ world].'”
Hardwicke said that the first “Twilight” series film was “under the radar,” as it had been rejected by every studio before arriving at Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment. “Nobody thought it was going to make money,” Hardwicke said. “They kept a very tight budget for it” — in the $30 million range — “and every time I’d go back and say, ‘Hey there’s a fanbase, and they want to see this scene,’ they’d go, ‘There’s just 300 girls in Salt Lake City.’”
The studio’s dismissiveness worked somewhat to her advantage. “I tried to make it as personal as I could,” she said, citing how Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is vegetarian and goes on a class field trip to learn about composting at a greenhouse.
All three said they might well bring future films to Sundance. “When you do the indie [films], you feel the pressure, but everybody signed on for the right reason, and you’re going on this journey together,” said Lin. “Hopefully you get to a distribution deal and people get to see it. On these big budget movies, they call it ‘tentpole’ for a reason. It’s usually like half a billion dollars, and you’re sitting on it, you can feel that pressure.”
The pressure is plenty present with smaller studio films as well, Hardwicke confirmed. Recently, she completed production on “Miss Bala,” a $15 million feature starring Gina Rodriguez. Still, Hardwicke said she was told, “‘We want this to look like James Bond.'”
“It’s crazy when you go into a test screening and there’s 20 suits sitting behind you and there’s 600 people,” said Lin. “That’s a sea of humanity that you can’t control. You can feel it in that room if they like the movie or not.” Waititi also had a few thoughts on test screenings, admitting, “I get very defensive about jokes. If they don’t laugh, I’m like, ‘Yeah, you just got a whole lot of idiots for that screening.”
When asked about the obstacles faced by female directors navigating the studio system, Hardwicke first replied, “You have a couple hours, everybody? A couple of weeks?” Earlier, she’d mentioned that being a woman requires her to navigate how not to “be ‘bossy’ or ‘emotional,’ but be visionary and powerful.”
She then answered the question in earnest: “Obviously, this is our big topic that we’re all talking about, and how to break through that unconscious gender bias that we all have and start to imagine that somebody that doesn’t look like us could do it, that women don’t have to be labeled as emotional when they’re passionate, that actually emotion is even good an embrace that. So there are so many ways that we’re just trying to fight the fight everyday. And we know it’s true that they’re looked at differently because the statistics just keeping coming in and keep pounding us. But we’re optimistic. I think that things are trying to change: Patti [Jenkins], Ava [DuVernay], everybody. Every new breakthrough hopefully will breakthrough more things. I know the reason I got hired on the movie I just did was because they probably thought, ‘Hey, it’s not going to look too good if we don’t hire a woman in this climate.’” With a laugh, she concluded, ” We’ll take any incentive to get hired : guilt, shame, whatever.”
Fifteen years ago, Lin says studios “weren’t casting Asian unless they knew kung fu or something.” “It’s weird now that they’re actually like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to go more diverse,’ and you’re like, ‘I know.'”
Throughout the 90-minute conversation, Waititi supplied comic relief. When Marvel notified him that he’d received an onset director’s tent for “Thor: Ragnarock,” he said his initially request was just an apple box to sit on. “Two weeks into the shoot, I’m like, ‘I want a chaise lounge — I’m not joking — in my tent, looking at the TV screen, with a cheese platter.” He also revealed, “When I hire anyone, it’s about personality more than actual talent. Because I just want nice people around me, and I don’t like assholes, I don’t like ego, it just bums me.”
During the 2018 festival’s opening day press conference last week, the Sundance Institute’s founder and president, Robert Redford, told IndieWire that he had no qualms about directors quickly transitioning from helming indies to blockbusters. “It’s their choice, as long as they have a choice,” he said. “The idea in starting Sundance [was] we didn’t want to disparage the major film business, because it’s a valuable business, and it’s a great camping ground for filmmakers to go to…Basically it was just extending the business, not taking something away, or criticizing something that was already there.”
Watch “Power of Story: Indies Go Hollywood” below.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.