Revenge of the (Film) Nerds

How cult directors are crashing the mainstream scene.
By  · Published on June 30th, 2017

How cult directors are crashing the mainstream scene.

So far, 2017 has been an interesting year for film. John Wick Chapter 2 carried on with the Keanussance, Logan made a proper farewell for one of the most beloved superheroes on the silver screen, and Wonder Woman gave a break to the troubled DC Extended Universe, while original movies like Get Out and Colossal were pleasant surprises in the first six months. The rest of the year looks promising too: the third Spider-Man reboot bodes well, as does the Blade Runner sequel, and Dunkirk and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets will mark the anticipated returns of Christopher Nolan and Luc Besson.

However, the names at the helm of some of this year’s most relevant releases would have seemed odd choices a few years back. Before Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn’s latest gig was Movie 43, Taika Waititi first came to public attention with his “falling asleep” gag at the Oscars in 2005, and before the Cornetto Trilogy, Edgar Wright was better known for his work in TV. Directors who started off their careers in very particular — and offbeat — genres and whose works gathered cult followings, now lead Marvel movies and critically acclaimed summer hits. But their conquest of commercial success didn’t happen overnight.

On the one hand, Gunn began his career in the mid-’90s as a writer for Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Productions, scripting low-budget independent movies which combine farce with social commentary, namely Tromeo and Juliet and The Tromaville Cafe. While he also often worked as an actor, his first big-budget movies as a screenwriter were the live-action Scooby-Doo films, released in the early 2000s, followed by Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake.

He made his directorial debut in 2006 with Slither, a sci-fi/horror comedy that flopped at the box office but was recognized for its merits as an homage to B-movies. After that, his web series James Gunn’s PG Porn and the 2010 black comedy Super, his lowest grossing film, came along. Four years later, he directed the 10th installment of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

On a farther corner of the Earth, Waititi started off in comedy also during the mid-’90s with the five-man troupe So You’re a Man, along with future Flight of the Conchords members Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, as well as Carey Smith and theatre director David Lawrence, and that became fairly popular in New Zealand and Australia. After a few years working mainly as an actor (among other artistic endeavors), his short film Two Cars, One Night was nominated for an Academy Award.

In 2007, he released his first feature film, Eagle vs Shark, an oddball romantic comedy that upheld Waititi’s winning streak in the international film festival circuit. Same as Eagle vs Shark, his following movies, Boy, the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople all premiered at Sundance. Yet, his jump from festival favorite and kiwi local success to Hollywood big leagues kicked off when he wrote the initial script for Disney’s Moana and was chosen to direct the third installment of Thor.

While Gunn’s filmography has a distinct inclination for genre films and a bizarre style, and Waititi has extensive experience dabbling in different roles in film production and a broad body of work distinguished by its unconventional but charming humor, Wright is probably the most consummated film buff of the offbeat trio.

His earliest approaches towards filmmaking date back to his teenage years and the short movies he produced with his friends in his hometown of Wells, in the UK. Like Gunn and Waititi, Wright started his professional path during the mid-’90s with his first feature film, a low-budget Western spoof called A Fistful of Fingers. Despite his dissatisfaction with the finished version, it helped him land jobs as a TV director for the BBC and other British channels, which in turn lead up to his collaboration on the acclaimed sitcom Spaced.

The national success of Spaced, along with his long-time partnership with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, paved the way for the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy,  three genre comedies — a zombie rom-com, a buddy cop action thriller, and an apocalyptic pub crawl — connected not by narrative but by style and shared motifs and running jokes.

Even though the films in the trilogy received critical acclaim and gained Wright a solid fanbase and recognition across the pond, he was not a household name yet. His only other movie, the graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, was praised by Kevin Smith and other fellow directors and critics but had a lukewarm reception, making only $48M at the box office after costing nearly $90M. The next setback in his career was his departure from Marvel’s Ant-Man in 2014 over creative differences.

Cut to three years later and his new movie, Baby Driver, has been the toast of the town among critics ahead of its release in the US and the UK. At one point, it had a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and while it is a little early to really determine the audiences reception (so far, the Wednesday opener is doing well at the box office), the seemingly universal praise even has British papers wondering if they have lost their auteur to Hollywood.

Baby Driver is shaping up to become one of the major summer blockbusters of 2017 and it is easy to see why: even though Wright has yet to make a bad movie, this is possibly his most refined work to date, and it is a good example of the re-vindication of the work of this lineage of directors.

In the same vein as Waititi and Gunn, Wright has a soft spot for intertextuality and obscure references. He is known for his “encyclopedic knowledge of film — especially genre film — and he wears his influences on his sleeve” (in Corey Atad’s wise words). This cinematic baggage can be found everywhere, from his earlier works, such as the pre-Hot Fuzz short film Dead Right and the Homage-O-Meter in Spaced and through every film in the Cornetto trilogy.

Likewise, his style — the crash zooms and extreme close up montages, the foreshadowing, the visual comedy, the close relationship between action, music, rhythm, and editing, and his attention to fine detail — is a trademark that reveals an awareness of the tools of filmmaking and a knack to use them deftly.

His grasp on genre and tropes and his stylistic dexterity, reach a high point with Baby Driver. The film’s influences can be traced in Wright’s guest programming for the British Film Institute’s Car Car Land series and his selection for the Brooklyn Academy of Music Heist Society, while all his technical quirks, very much like Ansel Elgort’s getaway driver  in the film, seem to come of age.

As the work of filmmakers like Gunn, Waititi, and Wright continues their creative development, they have also managed to sneak into mainstream cinematic culture and appeal to wider audiences. Nevertheless, their original spirit still reflects in their choices as they make their way into the big leagues, adapting a relatively unknown group of heroes including a talking raccoon or using light-hearted humor for a fresh take on a mythological Norse god of thunder or working on a passion project conceived 22 years ago after having ditched one of the biggest movie franchises. All things considered, 2017 seems to be an interesting year for film.

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