Pim Razenberg on the debate on creative differences between producers and directors…
Creative differences. The clichéd answer to most break-ups between a studio and its directors. Recent examples of cases where “creative differences” were the cause of conflict are the departure of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from the as-of-yet untitled Han Solo anthology film and the much discussed departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man. For a director to step up to direct a blockbuster movie means to take on the responsibility of turning a ton of money into tons of money. When such a blockbuster is meant to help shape a financially successful, Marvel-esque cinematic universe, the stakes are even higher. The look and feel of these movies have to fit within certain expectations and must not break the overlapping narrative of the cinematic universe. The level of financial risk involved to create a product audiences feel is worth paying for, warrants the involvement of producers: the gatekeepers of the aforementioned money.
Quite often producers are blamed for exerting too much creative control over their directors. A prime example of this was Avengers: Age of Ultron. Age of Ultron left director Joss Whedon exhausted, ready to break all his ties with the cinematic universe he had shepherded for years. Here, the producers obviously failed in their attempts to curb the enthusiasm of a creative director. Still, a case can be made for the importance of producers’ influence on a movie.
Once a director has proven his worth, he is usually awarded more freedom within his future work. Christopher Nolan, for example, proved himself a visionary director creating low-budget films and was subsequently tapped to reinvent Warner Bros. Batman franchise. The critical and financial success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in turn allowed him free rein on The Dark Knight Rises. Though by no means a bad movie, The Dark Knight Rises suffered from too many ideas and wound up displaying several underdeveloped story elements. Even a great director can slip up without proper supervision.
This brings me to Justice League’s Zack Snyder: an odd beast in the land of blockbuster filmmaking. Snyder kick-started his career with the remake of the 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead. For several decades, the horror genre has been serving as a nursery ground for new directors. The genre’s relativity low risk financial stakes offered many aspiring directors the chance to show off their talents. Some of them never made it out of the genre, while others – among which Sam Raimi, Oliver Stone and Peter Jackson – were tapped to flex their creative muscles by spearheading big blockbuster productions. Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead could have easily duped him to tackle low-budget horror flicks for a decade or so, but his unique vision and style made the movie a success.
Snyder went on to develop himself under Warner Bros.’ umbrella by directing comic book adaptations 300 and Watchmen. With 300, Snyder perfected his unique visual style and utilized it beautifully to create Watchmen. Both movies offered a remarkable visual experience. Repeating the success of his previous movies on a smaller scale with Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Snyder established himself as a profitable, visionary director… which led to his first original film, Sucker Punch; a movie on which Warner Bros. gave him free rein.
It’s safe to say this was a complete disaster. Sucker Punch’s main characters merely served as animatronic avatars forwarding the walkthrough of Snyder’s twisted dream world. The world he created in the movie was not just a place of wonder where anything can happen, but a place where everything simply happens because it can. Watching Sucker Punch, it feels as if Snyder was worried he might never get a chance like this again, thus rolling the camera on every single action scene he could think of. The movie is perhaps best compared to the French erotic film La Bête. In La Bête, a woman explores a sexual relationship with a werewolf in her dreams. The movie was conceived as a cinematic outing of a bestiality fantasy. To validate this perversion, the director made up a marginally thin storyline around the pornographic display and called it a movie. Snyder’s “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to Sucker Punch was wrapped up in a similar fashion, thus creating another primary example of a project which lacked oversight.
Yet, fortunately for Snyder, he had already landed himself the job of directing Man of Steel. Riding on the success of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros. hoped to reinvent the Superman franchise in a similar fashion by grounding the extra-terrestrial superhero in reality and giving him a grim, yet gripping origin story. The film was to serve the same purpose as Batman Begins, by introducing the “man behind the mask” and following him through the many struggles that shaped him to become the legendary hero audiences were already familiar with.
Snyder portrayed Kal-El as a flawed saviour. His protagonist was in many ways similar to Nolan’s Bruce Wayne. Watching the movie, however, it soon becomes clear that treating Kal-El in a similar way as Bruce Wayne just hadn’t worked out: his extraordinary powers and invincibility kept him from being the same relatable human being Nolan’s Wayne was. Halfway the movie the story of Kal-El living as a human being goes completely off the rail, ending in a mindless CGI slugfest accompanied by an over-produced bombastic soundtrack. The one thing that made Man of Steel stand out from other Superman movies was its ending: Superman snapped General Zod’s neck, effectively dooming himself to be the last of his own species in an act of selflessness. It was a moment that harked back the memory of the 300’s last stand and the sacrifice of New York City in Watchmen. Unfortunately, it was also one of the film’s most criticized scenes.
What followed was a mumble jumble of plans being drawn up and scrapped. Man of Steel 2 was rebranded as a team-up movie, pitching Superman against Batman under the title Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Still believing Zack Snyder to be the Joss Whedon of the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros. gave Snyder creative control over their newly born cinematic universe. Batman v Superman was eventually postponed for another year and shifted its release date a second time to avoid having to go toe-to-toe with Captain America: Civil War. Once the final product came out, the movie turned out worse than expected: Snyder had extrapolated everything he had done on Man of Steel. Batman v Superman had become a bloated, bombastic and uneven film, focussing more on the creation of a cinematic universe than on the characters at hand, and ending with a Snyderian CGI slugfest.
Luckily for the DC director, he was already deep into the production of Justice League when Batman v Superman came out. Though behind the screens chaos reigned high as it was too late to start from scratch, publicly Snyder still had full support of Warner Bros. The studio’s response was to steer Justice League in a new direction, without distancing themselves from Snyder or the choices he made with Batman v Superman. A long series of news snippets and announcements from Warner Bros. about the movie indicated that in fact Snyder had intended Justice League to be a follow-up to Batman v Superman not only in terms of story, but in terms of style as well. More humour was added, further “changes” were made to the script and after the success of Wonder Woman, “more Wonder Woman” was added.
In May 2017, Snyder stepped down from the director’s chair during the post-production of the superhero team-up, to properly deal with the death of his daughter. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s former champion Whedon, stepped in to act as the director of post-production. Even in spite of all the late-in-the-game course corrections that had already taken place, Whedon in addition took on the role of screenwriter for the film’s additional scenes and reshoots. Following the movie throughout its production phases, Justice League is shaping up to be a rare beast, much like its director.
Snyder’s role within the DC Extended Universe marks an interesting point within the creator/producer debate. To what extent can one person’s vision be trusted to make a multi-million dollar production? What concessions are required from a director as a creator, when taking on a blockbuster film? When does supervision become too controlling? Perhaps, as within any field – creative or otherwise – supervision and freedom of expression go hand-in-hand and real successes stem from teamwork and cooperation, rather than excessive creative thinking or pure financial greed.