5 Ways Modern Movie Directing Has Changed (For The Worse)
Every director exists on the spectrum between cryptic Lynchian madness and Coors-swilling Michael Bayhem. Right in the middle is Steven Spielberg -- a filmmaker we admire not only because of his beardy director-face, but also because he exists in the magical realm between studio cash-magnet and artistic craftsmanship. And like all daywalkers, his kind is rare. So rare, in fact, that the era of creative-but-commercial directors is nearly at a halt.
No, really. At the rate we're going, there won't be another director like Spielberg in our lifetime. That is, unless we Sarah Connor the heck out of the following terrible realities ...
Movies Either Cost Too Much To Be Risky Or Too Little To Be Ambitious
Back in 1978, Paramount Pictures dumped an incredible $18 million to make Raiders Of The Lost Ark. While that doesn't sound like a lot these days, keep in mind that 10 years earlier, the movie Cleopatra bankrupted its studio with only a $40 million budget. $18 million was the combined budget of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Man With The Golden Gun -- and somehow, that kind of scratch was now funding a film about a leather-clad school teacher whipping his way through God's junk drawer.
And yet his university still won't give teachers maternity leave.
While in retrospect a pretty good bet, it sounds insane that such a relatively high amount of money would be risked on a project invoking less studio excitement than Tyler Perry's dramatic range. But along with Spielberg already having a reputation as a profitable director, this kind of risk-taking wasn't a big deal back in the day. That same studio mindset threw $15 million at Brazil, a Terry Gilliam film about dystopian air ducts and baby-mask torture. Cut to 10 years after that, and this same guy would get $20 million to deliver Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, a rambling two-hour anti-narrative about two garishly dressed men on all of the drugs in the universe.
This completely out of context frame makes as much sense as any other.
And keep in mind, this wonderful decade clocked blockbusters at about $60-$70 million a pop. Meaning that these untested and super-niche premises were being made for the 2016 equivalent of the new Wonder Woman film. Time warp to 2014, and the same Fear And Loathing director is scraping together $8 million for his latest movie. And it's not just Gilliam -- both David Lynch and John Waters, legendary cult film directors, are also struggling to get their current films properly funded. And if these intensely revered crazies can't cobble together a work of art, imagine what it's like for new filmmakers. Thanks to the ease of digital cameras, the indie market is more saturated than a flooded sponge factory. There are currently 7,000 American film festivals accepting submissions -- all for the best-case scenario of getting lost in the shuffle on Amazon or Netflix.
Because thanks to a combination of inflation and scarce home movie sales, studios simply can't afford to make riskier mid-budget films. That means filmmakers have to either make a $100 million+ box office explosion or hope to Christ that their concept can be shot for hobo scraps and loose change. And if you think this won't affect your love of superhero movies, remember that this is exactly why the marginally strange Deadpool had to beg for 10 fucking years for their "meager" $58 million budget.
That extra $7 million they had to cut really improved its profitability.
Think about all this for a second, because it means that somewhere out there, the next Indiana Jones-style adventure is collecting dust in some asshat's drawer because its risk-to-reward ratio is imploding like a dying star. It's no wonder that ...
We're Losing All Our Classic Blockbuster Directors To Other Markets
Hey, remember that Francis Ford Coppola guy? You know, the dude with hipster sperm who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now? Did you ever wonder what happened to him after he retired? Well, here's your answer:
And also, uh, Jack too.
He didn't retire. Ol' Frank has been making movies well into the 2010s -- but you probably didn't even realize it, due to Coppola hanging up his shiny Hollywood beard for an indie mane instead. Or as he puts it: "I was looking at the The New York Times, seeing all the current movies, and it occurred to me that they all looked like sort of sausages ... Now that I'm old and it doesn't matter and I'm sort of independent, I really don't want to make a sausage ..."
While that sounds like something you'd jabber while smearing a Redbox with bratwurst, it represents a common frustration for a lot of old-school mainstream directors quietly abandoning Hollywood. You might've thought directors like John Woo fell into some kind of abyss, but he actually fucked off to make films back in China.
And to get away from John Travolta.
And this isn't merely a problem for older directors, either. Alfonso Cuaron (of Gravity and Children Of Men) is going back to Mexico for his next film. Michel Gondry, the director behind Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, has also been making films on the DL in exchange for his artistic freedom. As are veterans like Joe Dante and John Landis -- two '80s directors you probably had no idea still made movies.
It boils down to this: Thanks to the aforementioned death of mid-budget films, if you're a director with any kind of artistic yearning, you either need to be rich enough to fund your own films or get the fuck out of Hollywood. Luckily, there's a third option.
"Look, Netflix bought a cartoon about a talking horse with depression. Just them a shot."
Everything that used to be right about film studios can now be said about television and internet content. They allow for mid-range budgets, embrace original ideas, and aren't afraid to do something artistically distinct. And for that reason, we now have TV and streaming shows being run by Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, and that flesh-scarecrow Woody Allen. In a strange way, the small screen is now the idea-grabbing cowcatcher on this train of cinematic ingenuity. It's too bad we're nearly all out of bovine ...
We're Lacking The Next Big Visual Revolution
CGI is a double-edged sword. One one hand, it's enabled skilled directors like David Fincher and James Gunn to meticulously craft their worlds. On the flip side, folks like James Cameron are barreling so far off the rails that they're now riding Doc Brown's cosmic time train to the planet Gibberish.
Here's an artist's rendering of what such a planet might look like.
But to understand Cameron's evangelistic attitude toward finding the next "groundbreaking new technology," you have to look at what made him famous in the first place. Because like many directors from his era, emerging visual effects gave him the power to show audiences something they'd never seen before.
Films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park weren't just great stories, but goddamn visual pioneers. Space battles and monster grapples had existed for decades, but the visual advancements of the '70s through the '90s gave them a realism nobody had ever seen. They were pictures painted with colors that never existed before. And while CG has since incrementally improved from the laughable Jumanji monkeys to the incredible mo-cap ones in Dawn Of The Planet of The Apes, the progression is far less dramatic than the first time a real fucking dinosaur came lumbering onto the big screen.
"Like this, but again, and again, and ..." -- every person since then
In other words, while skilled in their own right, directors like George Lucas and James Cameron had the added benefit of being visual bushwackers, imprinting their names on these historic cinematic moments. Jon Favreau might have made a CGI masterpiece with The Jungle Book, but no one is going to praise him for discovering that technology. And the era of being able to do whatever you want makes it harder and harder to stand out visually. After all, what specialness does Tim Burton have when you can replicate his style on a laptop? Even Spielberg himself admitted that had he made Jaws today, it likely would have been ruined by CGI's lack of limitations. And so anyone trying to stand out has to move backwards instead, making practical-effects-heavy blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Because if you haven't noticed, nostalgia is totally in. And that means ...
The Best New Directors Are Stuck Making Other People's Films
So we're clear, Spielbergian directors aren't going to all suddenly vanish off the earth like in some slapdash M. Night Shyamalan premise. The process will be more like climate change -- gradual and tormenting, with a lot of dummies insisting it isn't happening. For this reason, there are still a lot of great new directors making blockbuster films -- such as the aforementioned Jon Favreau, Christopher Nolan, and of course JJ Abrams. These are great mainstream directors ...
One of these is not like the others.
... all perpetually forced to direct other people's movies.
Save for the low-grossing Super 8, all of JJ's films have been reboots and sequels. When he's not making Robert Downey Jr. snarkily jet around, Favreau has to choose between no-budget indies or live-action Disney remakes. And while Christopher Nolan has done way more original work than not, his best-performing films are based on comics about a scowling ninja in pretend bat clothes.
It's extremely old news that 90 percent of what's selling are remakes and sequels. All opinions of that aside, the unexpected consequence is that any directors trying to make a name for themselves are stuck abiding by an already laid-out template. The next three Star Wars films are being directed by four incredibly unique directors behind films like Looper and The Lego Movie -- and yet I can already tell you exactly what those films will look and sound like. There will be John Williams music, an opening crawl, wipe transitions, earth-tone palettes, elaborate hair buns, evil robes, whooping Muppet robots, and a plot that won't challenge people in any extreme way. It will have to be a Star Wars film the way George Lucas originally designed them, so each director must adhere to that style while trying desperately to stand out, like a Target employee in festive socks. Just ask Gareth Edwards, the man behind Rogue One ...
"And if you mess it up or put too many women in it, people will threaten to kill you."
Imagine being the artistically frustrated lead singer of a KISS cover band in a world exclusively demanding to hear "Rock And Roll All Nite." Nostalgia is the hottest goddamn thing -- look at the countless articles misguidedly praising it as the reason Stranger Things is a hit (instead of the acting and directing and writing). But the problem with this is that while everyone loves a good cover band, no one remembers them after the fact. Exclusively doing other people's art doesn't inspire future artists. So while we might love JJ Abrams now, his directing absolutely will not stand the test of time unless he starts thinking for himself. Nor will anyone making a cookie-cutter Marvel film, for that matter.
This is going to sound insane, but as it stands now, the only way to truly make an impact is to symbolically teabag the audience's expectations. That's because ...
Studios Punish Directors For Trying To Be Different
Gareth Edwards got his start as a no-budget monster movie director obsessed with improv filmmaking and subdued, withheld creature effects. For some insane reason, a producer felt that this style needed to be a Godzilla film. And while a lot of people DID enjoy that film, the international box office ultimately fell short of expectations. Meanwhile, both Jurassic World and Transformers 4 broke a billion fucking dollars each, despite each having all the artistic ambition of a Mountain Dew commercial.
Now Edwards is making Rogue One, and in doing so built 360-degree sets with crew members disguised as extras so that the actors could physically improvise each scene to make the performances organic and gluten-free or some shit.
He also disguised himself as an extra so he could hear when the actors were talking shit about him.
This revelation is both incredibly cool and yet hilariously dumb, on account of it being a goddamn Star Wars film. It's also probably why there are so many reports of the post-production for Rogue One being taken over by the studio. Because due to the aforementioned "cover band" problem, the only way to stand out artistically is to do something wildly different with the source material. And more often than not, this deviation will send the studio into a wild panic as they attempt to rebuild your sandcastle at the last minute ... only to have it all come crumbling apart.
This is why, despite having all the narrative coherence of a Prodigy music video, DC films are artistically miles above Marvel. You heard me. Zack Snyder is a better director when it comes to understanding and challenging the fundamental cinematic language of cinematography, editing, and directing.
Here's an example. Let's say you have a scene where a bomb goes off in a government building and you want to show the effect that has on the world. How would you convey that without any dialogue?
We start on a close-up of the chair exploding, then the room exploding, then the hallway outside the room exploding. Every time, the fire engulfs the screen as the source of it slowly moves from left to right -- giving the quick cuts a feeling of progression. Then we see the building explode, followed by the protesters outside reacting, followed by the people watching it on TV. In seven shots, the event ripples outward in a way that tells a very large story.
Now let's see how Marvel handles the same thing.
We get a wide shot of the truck bomb. Two medium reaction shots, followed by a few other quick reaction shots. And finally a couple more wide shots to most efficiently portray the action. It's aggressively standard, brightly lit, and framed as traditionally as possible. Because as Every Frame A Painting recently pointed out about the franchise's completely unmemorable music, Marvel films are made for safety and efficiency. Each film is designed to fit into a larger episodic franchise, like an episode of a TV show, making it so that no single one can visually stand out in any extreme way.
Even Doctor Strange -- a film with amazingly unique visuals -- still presents those effects with the same commercial cinematography, standard editing, and safe orchestral score the MCU always uses. It's like your old elementary school portrait: There might be some high-priced wicked lazer shit in the background, but it's still the same dimensions and composure as the rest of the class.
All that Escher shit in the background, and it's still framed like an episode of NCIS.
And the weirdest part is that I still prefer the Marvel films. Because like most audiences, I'm not watching these films solely for their artistic merits, but rather to escape the never-ending sorrow-gorge that is my waking life. And Marvel is objectively way better at solid narratives, fun characters, and broad entertainment. Only there once was a time where a film could be both fun AND cinematically complex, thanks to all the Spielbergs of the world who are slowly fading away.
It boils down to this: Every director exists on a spectrum between "artistically unique" and "universally appealing." On one end, you have your David Lynches and Terry Gilliams, and at the other are the JJ Abrams and Joss Whedons. Neither side is bad or good, but it's always been my opinion that the best directors exist somewhere in the middle. But now that studios either have to make billion-dollar successes or shoestring indies, that Venn diagram between commercial successes and artsy snobbery has been breaking apart, forcing anyone hoping to see dinosaur murder AND cinematic inspiration into a Sophie's Choice.
Or a Game Of Thrones fan.
And yes, due to its moderate budget, Sophie's Choice would never get made today without adding some action setpieces and getting Brett Ratner to direct.
David is an editor, columnist, and gloomy-gus for Cracked.com. Cheer him up on Twitter.