“Ultimately you can’t beat the studio,” Richard Kelly recently told the New York Times. “They’re the bank, so you’ve got to just figure out how to work with it. I’ve learned that the smart way to go about it is to learn how to play ball.” It sounds dispiritingly cynical from the director of Donnie Darko, The Box and, above all, Southland Tales, the decade’s most glorious piece of batshit. But it seems an idea that more and more younger directors are embracing: Spike Jonze recently released Where the Wild Things Are with backing from Warner Bros.; 20th Century Fox just gave Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox a wide release. Michel Gondry is currently in production of Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet movie, produced by Sony and to be distributed by Columbia Pictures. David Gordon Green, whose George Washington was an indie cause célèbre less than a decade ago, is now the go-to guy for Danny McBride comedies. This could all be a great development for mainstream cinema—except, judging from Kelly, Jonze and Anderson’s latest films, the directors aren’t very good at making bankable big-budget movies with broad appeal. It promises to be a short-lived trend.
In contemporary Hollywood, it’s not uncommon for indie-darlings to do mainstream work, though it’s usually actors, and it’s usually for a paycheck that allows them to pursue their personal projects: the year in which Gary Oldman appeared in Air Force One was the same one which saw the release of the actor’s directorial debut, Nil by Mouth, which hardly seems coincidental. It’s an old story, in fact; as Gena Rowlands told Time Out NY not too long ago, regarding her late husband John Cassavetes, “Both of us worked in other people’s films. That was one of the advantages that we had: Because John and I had been acting quite a few years before he took up directing, if we ran out of money—which we frequently did—we could do some other person’s movie and bring the earnings into our own projects.”
But that doesn’t seem to be what these directors are doing. The studio film has become the personal project—which might be why it’s not working out.
That’s in contrast, ostensibly, to a director like Steven Soderbergh, who has directed glossy Hollywood features like all three Ocean’s films while continuing to pepper his oeuvre with experimental underground features: The Girlfriend Experience, lo-fi, low budget and oblique, was released only a few months before The Informant!, which boasted an A-list star (Matt Damon) and backing from Warner Bros. (incidentally the studio with the highest box-office sales of the year). The latter was advertised ubiquitously on television; the former is the sort of small release that shelf-browsers at Blockbuster mistake for straight-to-DVD.
I would argue that Soderbergh’s countrywide releases—as well as the movies that fall somewhere in between, like The Good German and Che—are as personal as his smaller films. And it’s that model that our new filmmakers have embraced.
The Box, Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox aren’t cookie-cutter pictures; they all bear the personal touches of their makers. Judging by the trailer, even diehard Richard Kelly fans might mistake The Box for a middling quasi-horror Cameron Diaz vehicle. That’s exactly what Warner Bros. wants you to think; the marketing for The Box seems to be one of those instances in which the company is so mystified by the final product—which is, in true Kelly style, a psychotically plotted exploration of morality, alien invasion, lightning strikes and extraterrestrial possession—that it tries to trick moviegoers into buying tickets by selling it as something it’s not. That never seems to work: I caught a matinee of The Box in a theater only otherwise occupied by two older Italian-American women who bitterly chortled throughout the entire film. “Who’s that? What’s that? What’s going on? This doesn’t make any sense.” The film grossed almost $15 million in the U.S. as of early December; with an estimated budget of $16 million, it’s not a total flop. But nothing approaching a success, either.
If Kelly is a flawed filmmaker—he can’t ever seem to say what he’s trying to say—his sheer determination and technical mastery make up for it. The Box is amazing, though by no means a film that studios have any business producing. When Kelly told the Times he was learning to play ball, he must have been joking: who’s going to trust this guy again with millions of dollars to make another movie? Does he really think he could ever again get away with doing something like having a character enter a water-portal in a public library that transports him to his bedroom, where he hovers over his wife, encased in a block of water, before it explodes and drops him, and a deluge, onto his bed? (Just imagine what those old ladies were saying at that point!) Especially on a major-studio’s dime?
At least The Box is ambitious. In its finished form, Where the Wild Things Are is neither a particularly interesting film nor commercially viable. While it has grossed close to $75 million as of early December, it benefitted from a lot of hype, and it cost a lot more to make than The Box—close to $80 million, which means it has performed similarly, percentage-wise, to Kelly’s not-quite-a-failure-not-quite-a-moneymaker. Jonze’s film feels as deeply idiosyncratic as Kelly’s; reportedly, the director spent a lot of time with screenwriting collaborator Dave Eggers perfecting the film’s pre-adolescent feel. It’s true, the filmmakers do evoke the loneliness and frustration of late childhood. But they treat the emotional honesty as an ends rather than a means, and laden the film down with mopey faces and grousing goblins. It’s a slog and a downer that doesn’t carry much long-term appeal for children or adults. (Only, as The L’s Mark Asch has suggested, for “the trendsetting ‘prepostgraduate Brooklynites who play Connect Four in bars’ bracket”.) Jonze’s film didn’t fail outright because of its popular source-material, which guaranteed a certain number of tickets sold, as well as some favorable critical notices—such as A.O. Scott, who has inexplicably dubbed it one of the best films of the decade. But it’s hard to imagine Jonze getting away with such self-indulgent sincerity again, particularly if he were doing something bold like directing an original screenplay. Like Kelly, his future as a mainstream, studio-backed filmmaker seems untenable.
In light of these two films, I wonder whether Michel Gondry, whose exceedingly lovely Be Kind Rewind failed to connect with most audiences or critics, will be able to pull off a superhero script from the writers of Superbad, and make into something approaching a success. But it’s not entirely hopeless because one filmmaker has shown how a director might cross the bridge from indie oblivion to mall-multiplex acclaim: Wes Anderson.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the best movies of 2009. (Look how I didn’t jump to call it the best of the decade, Mr. Scott.) And not in the obscure, everybody-rolls-their-eyes-when-I-tell-them kind of way that Tokyo Sonata and Summer Hours are. It’s a perfect example of exceptional cinematic populism. Anderson has always had a fondness for the anachronistic, and here has done something that few if any of his peers have been able to accomplish: to fashion a brilliant film with a wide appeal, the kind of thing studio-contracted directors churned out every few months in the 30s and 40s.
Mr. Fox possesses certain elements that always attract critics: a political subtext (redistribution of wealth!) and a dark side that’s unafraid to engage with death and, even more affectingly, marital misery. (Kent Jones’ review in Film Comment excellently charts the film’s emotional weight. Unfortunately, it isn’t online.) It’s full of Anderson’s directorial trademarks: the widescreen compositions, Futura fonts, meticulous mise-en-scene. But it neatly tucks all of these quirks behind the guise of an easily digested children’s film, packed with engaging action sequences and an endless stream of sight gags, for the kids, and verbal comedy, for the parents. The movie is as spectacular as Pixar at its best.
Yet, depressingly, it has failed to connect with audiences, grossing only $14 million as of early December. (It made just short of $7 million over Thanksgiving, its first wide-release weekend—a dismal outing.) Even when a filmmaker gives America what it ostensibly wants, they won’t show up to see it; even when their product is fantastic, Indiewood directors just can’t cut it in Hollywood. Unless, of course, they’re David Gordon Green, who plays it safe by losing his identity behind the camera of stoner comedies with the bank-busting Apatow Gang. Today’s Hollywood has no place for personality. Audiences, having voted with their pocketbooks, just aren’t interested.