This weekend, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects opened to better-than-okay reviews and less-than-okay box office. With Soderbergh’s prolific output, this release would be altogether unremarkable, yet another strong if not entirely memorable entry by a director who would likely release another film six months later. However, Side Effects is notable as a quiet swan song, the proposed last theatrical film by a director who has reportedly done all he’d like to do in filmmaking.
But Soderbergh is simply the latest (and on the younger side) of a group of directors that have made unofficial pronouncements towards making an exit of sorts from the business in which they made their name. George Lucas is currently in the process of overseeing the path of Star Wars’ cinematic future at Disney before officially going into retirement. This is monumental. A filmmaker known for keeping very tight reigns on his creative property is now fully embracing the potential of other directors’ and corporations’ visions toward his subject matter for film.
There’s a dynamic shift here that doesn’t end with Lucas or Soderbergh either.
Quentin Tarantino made a much publicized but unofficial announcement that he won’t likely continue filmmaking because of the industry’s preference for digital over celluloid. And Steven Spielberg left the director’s chair of Robopocalypse by stating that he’s no longer interested in or inspired by action movies, which (hopefully) signals a desire to continue in the direction of Lincoln’s interpersonal drama (or is simply an expression of intolerance for ambitious portmanteaus).
Powerful, influential, established filmmakers are suddenly making public proclamations about their artistic preferences and limitations within the context of the industry’s changes and its effect on their own capacity for inspiration. It’s a uniquely transparent picture of the limitations of creativity combined with commerce. And it says as much about the role of the director as it does about aging, the narrowing expectations of the industry, and the collaborative process of filmmaking.
A Tale of Two Movies
You might think Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Spielberg’s Lincoln have very little in common. And you’re absolutely right. However, these also happen to be two big studio films released this year by veteran name-directors, both associated with a certain quality of filmmaking that was heavily emphasized in the advertising of the film itself: with Scott, Prometheus signified the pronouncement of a return to form from a director who made two of the most influential mainstream science-fiction films of modern Hollywood, and with Spielberg, Lincoln promoted its association with mainstream prestige, as it was helmed by a director who has tackled major moments in history many times before.
What’s interesting about both of these films is that they garnered significant discussion about the range of contributions by persons except the director, as if Scott and Spielberg were moderators of the many intersecting talents that went into the making of these films.
Prometheus balanced praise for the intriguing supporting performance by Michael Fassbender and the illustrative cinematography of Dariusz Wolski opposite the much-criticized script by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (Lindelof, who similarly took viewers down rabbit-less rabbit holes in Lost, received much the bulk of the film’s ire). In Lincoln, the commanding performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones were recognized in tandem with Tony Kushner’s razor-sharp dialogue, while other elements (from John Williams’s cloying score to the unnecessarily overwrought Hollywood ending) heavily qualified these lauds.
While Spielberg has certainly been recognized for his contributions to Lincoln throughout awards season, and Scott justifiably praised for his return to immersive sci-fi atmospherics, I can’t think of one film (much less two) by major directors in recent years that have motivated such a front-and-center discussion of the contributions of the screenwriter. With the plot holes of Prometheus and Lincoln’s awkwardly executed final moments, Scott and Spielberg were perceived to be talented but unquestioning ringmasters seeking to execute a property, not inspired and relentless perfectionists or auteurs seeking omniscient control. What resulted is a prevailing sense that this is just another well-done group effort.
The strange thing about this phenomenon is that both Prometheus and Lincoln seemed to be passion projects for each director. It was clear that Ridley Scott didn’t really care all that much with Robin Hood, and Spielberg was simply giving fans what they thought they wanted with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Scott came out of science-fiction hiding specifically for this project, and Spielberg had been looking to make Lincoln for the better part of a decade.
Lincoln thankfully survives its bouts of unevenness (it’s one of my favorites from last year), but it’s hard to forget how ill-fittingly John William’s typically “John Williams” music functions against the meaty procedure depicted in Kushner’s layered, subtle, intelligent script. How is it one can say these films are the realized visions of visionary directors if their discrete elements don’t cohere? Were Scott and Spielberg executing a vision, or simply realizing a project that they felt exists outside of them?
The David O. Russell Problem vs. The Coppola Model
Outside of age and an experienced director’s overall satisfaction with what they’ve contributed to filmmaking, the ill-fated tendencies of the current film industry are heavily to blame for the varying exit moves of several directors.
Clearly there was interest in attaching Spielberg’s name to yet another big-budget movie about robots fighting, but thanks to the director’s exit, Spielberg might prove to be the only major American director who releases dramas that get an automatic green-light. Tarantino’s threat to quit is also a protest against the economic pressure by studios, camera manufacturers, and exhibitors to say goodbye to celluloid forever. And Soderbergh’s retirement has proceeded with a necessary criticism of the increasingly limited possibilities in the industry, including film producers’ reluctance to finance films with LGBT-identified main characters.
A rather normative notion has also developed in terms of what types of movies can and should be onscreen, and this has limited the opportunities (and imaginations) of even our most powerful filmmakers.
After I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell was all but condemned from the industry; he had a growing reputation of being hard to work with, and his movie didn’t make many happy returns. But then, after connecting with critics and audiences with the success of The Fighter and this year’s Silver Linings Playbook, the days of Russell cursing at Lily Tomlin have long been forgiven as far as the industry seems concerned.
Besides all the gossip and secretly documented videos about Russell’s behind-the-scenes antics, and regardless of what you may think of Huckabees, it’s still a much more aggressively original film than The Fighter (which admittedly uses the sports genre’s most obvious clichés to great effect) and Silver Linings (an enjoyable “David O. Russell film” that feels like one he’s made before). At The Hollywood Reporter’s Directors Roundtable interview last Fall (@ 18:00), Russell had the following to say on the subject:
“I still feel like I’m sill learning. My greatest struggle as a failure in any way was losing my own way. In this business you can be given enough rope to hang yourself…you start over-thinking things or trying to make things too interesting or become too particular and no project feels right…I over-thought what I was going to do next and had my head up my ass on [I Heart Huckabees]…I would have been above [The Fighter during that period].”
I find Russell’s pseudo-apology to be troubling and depressing, as if he’s fully accepted the ideology of an increasingly risk-averse industry that making unconventional, brazenly original work is somehow patently offensive and selfish. And this could summarize the moment we’re in: because of an industry whose means of production and chosen topics of interest are increasingly narrow, we’re getting less arrogant and uncompromisisng directorial personalities (after all, one has to be something of a megalomaniac to be an auteur). The industry seems to be inspiring a creative culture of talents who themselves assume an aversion to risk. The industry is hitting itself in the face with a red rubber ball.
And thus, the reputations and supposed role of the director has transformed into the job of a navigator who balances competing – sometimes contradictory – interests rather than acting as the master of a collaborative medium seeking a unified, singular vision. Russell’s testament illustrates the lack of power that even a talented, supposedly top-tier directors possess.
On the other end of the spectrum is Francis Ford Coppola, who has used his wine fortunes to finance the movies he wants to make. Are Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt the next The Conversation? No, but studios stopped making films like The Conversation a long time ago, and these movies are a fuck-ton more interesting than The Rainmaker. Coppola’s new films are risky, original, audacious, super audacious, and totally unaccountable to anybody but himself. It’s a glimpse at what a director might do if the usual constraints didn’t exist, and these certainly don’t represent the types of films Coppola would make if he didn’t have the economic power to leave the industry.
And it makes you wonder: what types of films aren’t being made even by the most recognizable of name-brand industry veterans?
(Writer’s Note: Thanks to Josh Coonrod for contributing ideas and insights to the subject of this article.)