When the big studios commit big bucks on their big franchises, the list of directors deemed equal to the task suddenly can grow very small.
Just as different baseball teams consistently hire the same managers again and again, studio executives fall prey to familiar-is-good thinking, repeatedly shortlisting identical names for their high-profile movies, be it Stephen Sommers (“G.I. Joe,” “Van Helsing,” “The Mummy“), Martin Campbell (“The Legend of Zorro,” “Casino Royale,” “Edge of Darkness“) or anyone else with a tentpole track record. Their caution is understandable: If you’re about to fly in a $200-million movie, you might feel better if its pilot has at least flown before.
But moviegoers, it seems, don’t mind a little inexperience, as long as the results are interesting and original. And Hollywood is taking notice. In the last few years, the studios increasingly are embracing newcomers to the fanboy genre, an outside-the-box way of thinking that was on prominent display at the just-concluded Comic-Con International in San Diego.
Kenneth Branagh, whose last directing gig was an arty adaptation of the Anthony Shaffer stage play “Sleuth“ and who specializes in bringing Shakespeare to the screen, came to the convention to present footage from his “Thor,” next summer’s massive comic-book adaptation from Marvel Studios and Paramount. Michel Gondry, perhaps best known for his hard-to-categorize narrative odysseys (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Be Kind Rewind“) introduced scenes from his “Green Hornet,” a glossy Sony Pictures reworking of the popular radio serial opening next January.
You could find comparable examples all around Comic-Con. Edgar Wright, the low-budget auteur of the British indie film “Shaun of the Dead,” just completed his first pricey studio movie, Universal’s graphic novel translation of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Jonathan Liebesman, a favorite filmmaker in the discount genre world (“Darkness Falls,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning“), is finishing up Sony’s sci-fi thriller “Battle: Los Angeles,” even though Liebesman’s previous film, “The Killing Room,” went straight to video. And Duncan Jones, whose last project was the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival debut “Moon” (domestic gross: $5 million), is wrapping up work on Summit Entertainment’s time-travel drama “Source Code“…
It’s no secret that the studios are hoping that somewhere in this mash-up they might have found the next Christopher Nolan, who moved from cerebral art-house movies (“Following,” “Memento“) to global blockbusters (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception“) as if Mt. Everest were no harder to scale than a sand dune. (It doesn’t always work out that way: Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” was better received that his “Hulk.”)
With virtually every studio making some comic-book, graphic-novel or board-game adaptation, Hollywood executives realize they must find a way to split their films from the teeming pack. Not that long ago, they turned to over-the-top visual effects. These days, though, it’s more their filmmakers’ style: Warner Bros. sold “Inception” not on the basis of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, but on the brand name of its director.
When Gondry called Neal Moritz about directing “The Green Hornet,” the producer said his reaction was simple: “Wow, that’s a crazy idea.” Having lost Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle“) over creative differences, Moritz not only needed a new filmmaker but also wanted someone who could make the movie feel distinctly personal…
“We were trying to do something different,” Moritz says. “It was really a relationship movie between Britt Reid and Cato,” Moritz says of the characters played by Seth Rogen (Reid eventually becomes the Green Hornet) and Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. “Visually, Michel is one of the best, and he knows visual effects better than most directors.” (In fact, the famous “bullet time” look from the “Matrix” movies first gained prominence in a 1998 vodka commercial Gondry directed.)
Gondry actually had tried to make “The Green Hornet” some 14 years ago, when the project was at Universal. “We had an awesome script,” he says, “but it was just too weird” for the studio. “But I always had this ambition to do a family movie with some sort of a twist. ‘Green Hornet’ is about emotion and a relationship that everyone can identify with. I think it’s a character movie with action.”
Gondry said that working in a new genre forces filmmakers to do their best work. “I always try to do something that is unfamiliar to me,” he says. “I always put myself in a situation where I have to react and be on my toes. I do my best work in a panic state.”
Moritz says he was drawn to Liebesman largely due to a three-minute presentation the director assembled in a quest to get the “Battle: Los Angeles” job. “I was blown away,” the producer says. “There have been so many alien movies. But I wanted a movie that if aliens came here today, it would feel real. But ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ is also a very emotional movie — the story of these guys going out to save these civilians.”
Branagh says that, despite appearances to the contrary, he’s already made a movie much like “Thor”: his initial directing gig in 1989. “My first film, ‘Henry V,’ was a dark adventure with an epic battle,” Branagh says of the historical war story, “and had a reckless young man at the center confronting his past. So this didn’t seem that unusual to me.”
When he and Marvel first started talking about teaming on “Thor,” Branagh made it clear that neither party would be happy with a so-called “shooter,” someone who can stage action scenes but has no real feel for character development and emotional impact. “They felt they would fail without a strong point of view,” Branagh says of Marvel.
Having translated so many Shakespeare plays to the big screen, Branagh says he isn’t worried about how he will be compared to others in the superhero genre. “Everything I’ve done has been done by somebody else before, usually brilliantly,” he says.
“Thor,” a story of a god banished to Earth, seems especially well matched to Branagh in part because the comic book character for years spoke as if he were a Shakespearean actor. So just as Branagh can make iambic pentameter easy to comprehend, he can turn Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) into both poet and action star.
At the same time, Branagh’s training as both an actor and director may help him elevate the story. “It’s a classical structure,” he says. “We go back quite intentionally to myths, and Norse myths in particular, which Shakespeare also pilfered from.”
It was certainly a graduation, though. The director’s 2006 “Magic Flute” movie had about 500 visual effects shots. “Thor” has some 1,500. “Sleuth” took about six months from conception to completion, while “Thor” was three years in the making. “These kinds of movies are vast collaborations,” he says.
“I hope that audiences leave Comic-Con sensing the fun,” Branagh says of “Thor.” “That we love the material, and that there’s love behind the movie. “
It’s not just filmmakers who step back and forth between art-house fare and would-be blockbusters. Helen Mirren, in town to promote “RED,” has to be one of the more unlikely actors to ever tread the Comic-Con dais. Also in town was Michael Sheen, the British actor who played Prime Minister Tony Blair opposite Mirren in “The Queen“ and who recently starred as soccer coach Brian Clough in “The Damn United,” will soon be seen as Castor in Dec. 17’s “Tron: Legacy.” Sheen has shown a open spirit about genre in the past with his work in the “Underworld” and “Twilight” franchises.
“For me, there’s not a huge amount of difference. There’s a lot of cultural snobbishness about genre films and so I take a perverse enjoyment in people going, ‘Why’s he doing that?,’ ” Sheen says. “As an actor, the more challenging roles have been the ‘Frost/Nixon’s and ‘The Queen’s and ‘The Damn United’s, but my taste is more to sci-fi fantasy, so I enjoy being able to go between the two.”
“Moon” director Jones says he’s not sure if his leap to “Source Code” was a “natural progression,” but he thinks it was an essential step. “I think that directors are just as likely to be typecast as anyone else,” he says. “And I wanted to see if I could stretch into something a little bit different.”
The obvious difference between a contemplative, independently financed feature with a small cast (“Moon” was basically Sam Rockwell by himself) and a splashy studio movie with a sprawling ensemble (“Source Code” stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga) and crew is the vigilant oversight.
“You have a lot more people a lot more concerned about how the money is going to be spent,” Jones says. But within that environment, Jones says he is hopeful he can make a movie that has both the action moviegoers seek and the character development he looks for as a filmmaker.
“I’m not only a huge fan of Chris Nolan but a huge fan of his career,” Jones says. “If I can somehow have a similar trajectory to my career, I’d be more than happy.”
— John Horn
Steven Zeitchik contributed reporting to this story.
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Top, Michel Gondry at Comic-Con (Kevin Winter/Getty); Kenneth Branagh, Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman at Comic-Con (Kevin Winter/Getty). Third, a scene from “Thor” (Marvel Studios Paramount); Fourth, “The Green Hornet” (Columbia Pictures) . Fifth, Michael Sheen at Comic-Con (Kevin Witner/Getty); Sixth, Helen Mirren at Comic-Con (Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
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