Can Indie Directors Avoid Disappearing into the Studio System?

By  · Published on June 24th, 2014

Endgame Entertainment

When news broke that Rian Johnson would helm Star Wars: Episode VIII and write a treatment for Episode IX — adding to the numerous Star Wars properties scheduled for screens shortly behind J.J. Abrams’s mystery box – it was almost universally regarded as a solid, promising move to those cautiously optimistic about the rebooting of a galaxy far away. And no doubt, Johnson’s hiring is a very good move for Star Wars, lending the franchise not only the director’s subcultural clout, but also his precise sense of style, passionate knowledge of genre and careful approach to cinematic world-building. His skill should benefit greatly a franchise whose previous incarnation suffered from scant evidence of inspiration or vision.

But before seeing a final product, we can only take this news as a gesture of goodwill, or even a reason to be happy for a talented director worthy of admiration and success. Unfortunately, a facet largely missing from conversations about this news is whether a Rian Johnson-led Star Wars will be good for Rian Johnson, especially in a Hollywood that loves courting indie directors but shows questionable regard for their autonomy upon arrival.

Marc Webb. Gareth Edwards. Doug Liman. Bryan Singer. At various points during the ’90s and ’00s, this list of names would denote the creators behind film festival highlights and limited release word-of-mouth gems. But in 2014, these are the names of the men in the director’s chair for some of the summer’s biggest tentpole titles, the kinds of movies that make or break a fiscal year and determine a studio’s future.

Perhaps best exemplified by microbudget filmmaker turned perennial “big ideas on bigger budgets” visionary Christopher Nolan, any evidence of a personality behind a tentpole film is the blockbuster mentality’s most potent counterargument to the frequent claims of creative bankruptcy and exhaustive recycling leveled at studios. Courting filmmakers beloved by movie fans has proven the rule, not the exception, in Hollywood’s current means of operation. And it’s the subject that most dominates movie news.

In prior decades, serious directors who started in indies – including Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater or Errol Morris in his prolific helming of commercials – have openly taken a “one for me/one for them” approach to the expensive business of filmmaking, thereby putting themselves in a position to ostensibly use mainstream work to cash in on more fringe visions. In following the careers of independent filmmakers I admire, I infer that such a logic is there whenever that filmmaker aggrees to sign onto something so structurally limiting as a Hollywood franchise. But that’s increasingly not the case.

Now, more often than not, directors have shown a preference for continually working in the field of blockbusters over returning to their less financially stable but less risk-averse roots. When Justin Lin premiered Better Luck Tomorrow at Sundance in 2002, he delivered what Roger Ebert praised as a “disturbing and skillfully told parable about growing up in today’s America.” Twelve years and four Fast and Furious movies later, Lin very publicly departed from one Universal franchise only to jump onto another: the fifth Bourne film, the same series that introduced Swingers and Go director Doug Liman to big-budget filmmaking.

I am by no means saying that such directors are selling out, or that any of these filmmakers have some sort of prescribed duty to take on more personal and riskier projects. They aren’t and they don’t. But it is notable that directors who make a mark upon the independent scene rarely show evidence of “cashing out” after directing hugely successful studio projects. Instead, they dig their heels deeper into the studio machine, and not only stand to benefit greatly from it, but seek to become major players within it by seating themselves as a major source of direction for these franchises’ greater futures.

Such hiring can be a blatant example of Hollywood taking a skilled but rather powerless director to articulate a studio vision, as Marc Webb’s functional but impotent role in the Amazing Spider-Man franchise evidences. But often, directors seriously lobby for these jobs, as Lin did when he outlined for Universal a multi-film plan for Fast and Furious. And their clout amongst fan communities can be quite powerful. That’s why Paramount’s pick of Roberto Orci over Joe Cornish with Star Trek 3 resonated as such a brazenly uninspired bottom-line choice: because it distinguished itself from the pandering we’re more often used to seeing from studios.

But why should the fact that the Attack the Block director isn’t making the umpteenth Star Trek movie be disappointing when the aspects which made that film unique and attractive and special had nothing to do with a potential resemblance to Hollywood’s factory-style filmmaking? Wouldn’t Cornish’s rare combination of playful genre-blending and humanist investment in characters be better served outside the constraints of a studio system that has no place for films about kids who live in public housing?

Perhaps this widespread practice more generally speaks to studios’ continued devotion towards franchising at the expense of all other different types of filmmaking. Where it seemed for years that indies and mainstream films were blending to the point of being indistinguishable, now it seems that two rigidly distinct tiers of filmmaking exists, separated by a canyon of monetary and institutional resources.

Late-20th century indie holdovers like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers are uniquely able to continually produce specialized fare on modest to mid-size (and sometimes bigger) budgets, from studios or outside financiers. 21st century indie filmmakers rarely have that option in a franchise-dominated Hollywood. There is decreasing evidence of a “one for me” that such filmmakers can aspire to whether or not they would like to, especially as studios’ focus on an adult audience shrinks. The path of true autonomy, by contrast, is the far less stable one taken by the Joe Swanbergs, the Gregg Arakis or the Tom DiCillos of American filmmaking.

One would think that a film like Looper – an entirely original, modestly budgeted, wide-released, intelligent film for an adult audience – would be the apex of what a director like Johnson and other indie-borns could aspire to or ask or seek for from a studio system, but perhaps that is an increasingly diminishing possibility within the terms of the current studio economy.

And this is not to say that it’s impossible for former indie filmmakers to make truly intelligent and groundbreaking films within such a transition. Once again, Christopher Nolan is largely the aspirational example in this regard. And outside of “great” films, many of these filmmakers have proven to lend something interesting to a multiplex culture that too often suffers from a drought of surprises. It’s not for nothing that Lin’s guiding of the Fast and Furious franchise has produced an exceptionally diverse cast, and he has been instrumental in representing Asian Americans in Hollywood outside of received stereotypes.

Similarly, I have no doubt that Johnson’s Star Wars will be more interesting than Lucas’ prequels – but they’ll rise above previous entries in Star Wars, which is not the same thing as comparing them to the brash creativity of Brick, the novelistic eloquence of The Brothers Bloom or the confident world-building of Looper. We’ll see.

I empathize with the enthusiasm over news like this and where it comes from. If these movies are going to continue to be made ad nauseum, then they might as well get them “right.” Such hiring always carries the prospect of studios embracing something a bit more inventive than what lies on the bottom line. And moreover, it raises the platform for a filmmaker worthy of being on a platform – our love of a marginal or underappreciated talent can be shared more widely. But such news no longer indicates the potential for a talented filmmaker to follow up a franchise effort with “one for me.”

This practice hasn’t proven to create a more stable financial platform for such directors to rigorously develop, much less experiment with, those aspects of their filmmaking that drew notice and praise in the first place. Instead, the opposite is true: narrative independent filmmaking has become the platform that most informs the future of tentpole filmmaking. This is, no doubt, a practice hugely beneficial to studios, and perhaps to franchises that will exist into perpetuity no matter who is at the helm. But I remain skeptical about its supposed benefit to the beloved filmmakers, or our relationship to their work.