Some filmmakers get full autonomy. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes, not so much…
When you hit a level of success in filmmaking as a director (or occasionally a producing star actor) you find that studios increasingly bend over backwards to your every whim. This can even be to the point of risky ventures with huge amounts of money at stake. Let’s look at a few examples, some good, some not so good…
If the resultant film is great that goes someway to making the whole exercise of indulging an auteur worthwhile. Studios aren’t so concerned with the quality as much as they are about the resultant box office of course. Our first case in point is The Northman. Robert Eggers came with two successful indie horror films behind him in The Witch and The Lighthouse. He was a cult filmmaker with a legion of adoring cinephiles (let no one call hipster fans). I went into The Northman expecting a lot and Eggers was almost fully indulged.
You see, Eggers had reached a certain point in his career. He had moderate-level hits made on low budgets. A studio was about to bankroll his vision of a big-budget Viking epic. Yes, the TV landscape suggested that Vikings and shows like Game of Thrones infused with Viking influence would mean plenty of demand for a big movie. History told us otherwise, particularly given the fact that the golden age of Viking cinema was way back in the late 50s. Modern equivalents were largely consigned to low-budget cinema, like Nic Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising.
Eggers thus had to make his film as audience-friendly as he could. He couldn’t go as balls out Viking as he might like and the result is a film that plays out like a riff on Conan the Barbarian (which itself was hugely influenced by Viking lore). Still, with such a huge budget and no proof an audience (particularly in the fledgling post lockdown days) would flock to the big screen, the studio still indulged in this massive gamble.
SEE ALSO: Modern Viking Movies To Watch If You Enjoyed The Northman
Audiences didn’t flock. In the old sense of box office judgement, focused purely on the domestic returns (and in the secondary focus, worldwide) the film tanked. Eggers isn’t yet at a point where he can take that on the chin and walk straight into another big-budget opus and nor would he probably want too. He will however get full autonomy back at indie budget level. Though from my perspective as an Eggers fan watching, The Northman represents rough and tumble old school cinema of a bygone era. I loved the film. Its box office doesn’t concern me. I also understand why it’s proven so divisive among general audiences, and why particularly younger audiences just didn’t vibe with it.
The Established Masters: Trading on Past Glories
There are a small selection of directors who are given carte blanche every time. They can do what they want. Quentin Tarantino will make a film every few years. The financial returns are moderate, as his films don’t always get picked up immediately but slowly magnetise new fans who become lured by the word of mouth. It’s also still ‘in’ to find Tarantino movies cool. If you’re a film buff, the generic default high-brow selection is that you’re a Tarantino aficionado.
If Tarantino could pitch almost anything and have it greenlit. Indulgence runs right through the DNA of a Tarantino film. He shatters structure and pace for indulgent diversions. Yes, when he hits those high peaks he REALLY hits high peaks. There’s great stuff in all his 21st-century works, but then there are also his awkward cameos (sometimes from himself, or from actors who don’t fit, like Mike Myers). The controversial Bruce Lee sequence in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was certainly an indulgence that didn’t particularly add much besides, “ooh look, it’s Bruce Lee.”
The film ambles from vignette to vignette, powered by the charisma of Leo, Brad and Margot but it ambles in a way only Tarantino could get away with. Even the audience has to indulge the playful whims that drag the film in places, albeit the overall journey is still a pleasant experience, particularly in an era where cinema with an auteur’s personality seeping through every pore, is so rare. Likewise, Tarantino still insists on shooting on film rather than digitally, something I’m always down for.
Then look at Martin Scorsese who was finally given a green light to make his gangster epic The Irishman. Even Marty’s struggles suggested the way he wanted the vision told was a huge gamble. It was going to be costly, and this was a filmmaker who in spite of being considered one of the all-time greats, with a history of critical acclaim and awards recognition, had still never had a runaway box office smash. If a studio is to spend north of $150 million on a film, they usually want runaway box office smashes delivered.
Netflix swooped in and Scorsese effectively made a deal with the Devil. He got in bed with a streamer! A bastion and champion for theatrical distribution, for cinema, was making a film predominantly for the home market. A film many would probably dive in and out of, watching segmentally on their phones. Did he make the best of it and indulge himself? Damn straight he did! It was a nostalgia-laced throwback to the kind of cinema Scorsese made 30 years prior. To the gangster cinema of Sergio Leone as much as his own Goodfellas. Yes, it nailed every landing because it’s Scorsese, but damn son, was it arduous.
The Spielberg Anomoly
Steven Spielberg was a key figure in revolutionising cinema. For the better? Well, Tarantino namechecked the 80s as one of the worst eras in cinema. I’d vehemently disagree with that, although that cultural shift of escapism over the pessimistic and brutal cinema of the decade prior did effectively change the landscape. Jaws started off that shift, cemented by George Lucas’ Star Wars. You could make films previously considered B pictures for big budgets and audiences were flocking to those. You could make them grandiose and you’d have queues running for blocks at the box office. That would then evolve through upcoming decades into the production line mentality and further into where we are now…the IP era.
Spielberg was the original hitmaker. Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park. You name it. Big movies, big box office and in between them, grand historical epics to maintain critical acclaim. He rarely misfired. Even if the critics didn’t particularly like something, the fans would and the opposite would be true too. Hook, for example was battered by critics but made a decent return and has since become a cult favourite.
Here’s the thing. Is Spielberg trading off former glories? He gets to make anything he wants. Box office returns suggest he’s lost the golden touch in recognising hits. He makes good films still but even the best of those, like Bridge of Spies, feel oddly forgettable. He nailed his West Side Story remake but there are still folk who don’t even realise that was even made. It was a financial disaster, particularly when you consider that Spielberg doesn’t make cheap cinema. Yet, time after time he’s bankrolled.
Spielberg of course puts his name as a producer to cinema he’d likely feel thematically beneath him as a director. He’s put his name to plenty of disposable but successful IP cinema. Still, is he lucky to be given carte blanche? To be able to make a semi-autobiographical ode to cinema like The Fabelmans? A little. Once again, it bombed theatrically. Though we now live in a time where salvation can lie in the home market.
Avatar: The Way of Water
So James Cameron finally returns as director to the big screen. He’s made three blockbusters in 25 years now. That we have two Avatar films is down to just how much money he made with Titanic. It was the highest grossing film ever made until some punk broke his record…yes, Cameron himself, when Avatar sank the Titanic. He won’t repeat that trick, but he’ll certainly get close to his hyperbolic statement that it’ll have to get near to the first film’s take just to break even.
If Cameron’s suggestion is true, that would be a hell of a backing from the studio to indulge his whims to that level. The huge amounts spent on Avatar: The Way of Water and its immediate sequels are insane but they come from a meticulous nature in Cameron. From underwater training to arduous and careful evolution and revolution of the CGI and 3D, he spends a huge amount of time on a single film. If we go by the critical consensus on Avatar and the recently released sequel, then not so much time in developing a fresh story (but audiences do respond well to expertly delivered formula). Yes, many of the issues some felt of the first return, perhaps inevitably, to the sequel.
In the MCU Age films need to be churned out. Though each phase has a blueprint, the production processes are far quicker and increasingly that quantity over quality mentality is showing. So yes, there’s a benefit at least in terms of the quality of the visual package, in giving Cameron that full autonomy. The on-screen results are worlds apart, and certainly, The Way of Water looks spectacular. His CGI artists aren’t getting overworked to tight deadlines and having to jump between projects. Likewise, he doesn’t simply just shoot it on a greenscreen in the same way an MCU film (or most blockbusters) will do. Compare the underwater tank filming in Avatar 2 to Aquaman for example which was just shot in a studio with harness rigs and added (awful) CGI hair in post. If you make a film reliant on tech, on CGI, it should look great and if not, used sparingly.
In fact, so indulged is Cameron that the Chinese market has opened its wings and temporarily forgotten the friction with the US to welcome Avatar: The Way of Water, into its multiplexes and despite lockdown restrictions only recently easing, the numbers have been impressive.
Tom Cruise and Chris Nolan: Practical FX Champions.
How to make an action movie. Write, plan and shoot. Half a year in post and release. Maybe all within 12-18 months. When shooting action, most films, even when time and budget aren’t as big a consideration as the indie realm, have set pieces that involve complex pyrotechnics or stunts have the option to add explosions, gun muzzle flashes and squibs in post. Or there’s the option to shoot some things against a green screen. The fact is, it’s usually more cost-efficient to make your shoot lithe and lens the action as quickly and safely as possible.
Gonna shoot a nuclear explosion? Sure. Just shoot your plates and then create it with CGI. Done. The Chris Nolan approach? Yes, try to capture an accurate representation with practical FX. This doesn’t just require that to happen on a set which even then, naturally takes longer. It’s the months of research, testing, experimenting and perfecting in pre-production, just to capture what may be one shot in the movie. Time always equals money and all that testing isn’t going to make it on screen. Is this an indulgence that is needed? Not necessarily, but as a lover of practical FX, it’s my preference. Nolan champions practical filmmaking, something I love about his cinema, perhaps more than some of the actual films overall. Like Tarantino, he’s also allowed a license to shoot on film which is costlier and far less time efficient.
Then there’s Tom Cruise. He could use a stunt double. He could let them shoot certain sequences against a green screen and fake it in post. He could save tens of millions for his studio by using the all mod cons available in post-production. He doesn’t, and that’s why he’s become arguably the GOAT of action cinema. If you haven’t seen the most recent Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning featurette it’s well worth seeing to witness Cruise’s self-indulgence at its finest.
He’s given full freedom to do ridiculous stunts no other actor on the planet would be allowed to. The preparation to do things like a motocross bike jump off a cliff take months of planning, prep and practice, in effect just to capture what will be 30 seconds of film. It’s down to Cruise’s insistence on doing as much stunt work himself as possible. A studio is effectively paying him to become an expert in skydiving, motocross driver, helicopter pilot and more. The results speak for themselves of course, but more so, this has become a selling point. People watch Cruise to see what death-defying stunts he’ll do next.
Then there was Top Gun: Maverick. In order to capture as much as possible Cruise had himself and the cast undergo months of flight training in real fighter jets. They had to withstand some serious G force. The results were stunning of course. The cockpit sequences were some of the most exciting action scenes in years. The film felt groundbreaking, but also enjoyably meat and potatoes in its approach. Getting as much in camera as possible invested us into the film and made the CGI embellishments for the enemy duels later on, less jarring. If you see the equivalent elsewhere, with an actor in a cockpit, shot on a green screen it’s patently obvious and immediately pulls you out of the sequence, unless you’ve been fully engaged by the story.
Size: The Biggest Drawback to Indulging Filmmakers
So you’ve indulged your star director. In most cases this will have significant drawbacks. They go fully into their vision at the expense of coherence and consideration for the audience. They make something no one wants to see. There’s another negative though and this is arguably the most consistent offender…
Yes, it’s run time! This is nothing new. Stanley Kubrick made lithe hits and then his first opus, Spartacus was ridiculously long. David Lean made Brief Encounter, then by the time he hit the 60s and made his renowned epics, the run times were smashing past the three hour mark. We’re coming to an era of course where even mainstream production line cinema is often well over two hours, so why wouldn’t an auteur filmmaker be given unfettered freedom want to leave a clean cutting room floor?
Babylon, a film which doesn’t scream box office drawer, is getting mixed responses ranging from dreadful, right up to glitzy, Anti-Hollywood masterpiece. Damien Chazelle has garnered himself a great reputation and in spite of First Man gaining huge acclaim from critics, it went by unnoticed by audiences. Babylon however is a film with old-fashioned pizazz but a modernist fervour to subvert expectations and strip it all away. It was divisive in Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s equally divisive Marilyn Monroe film. Above all though. It’s three hours long. That takes a level of arrogance and self-assurance to pull off, particularly in a film that can’t rest on large-scale action set pieces to fill the time like a bloated blockbuster can.
Tarantino, Nolan, Scorsese, Matt Reeves and more have all been given (near) total freedom and delivered long films that definitely needed cutting. In some films you just never feel it. Amadeus is 3 hours and it doesn’t feel it. James Cameron spent the best part of the last 6-7 years developing Avatar’s sequels, was he going to deliver a more succinct 2 hour vision? Of course not. Even so. 3 hours and 12 minutes? Jim, my poor, poor backside!
As for Scorsese’s The Irishman. It almost benefitted from hitting Netflix given its 4-hour run time. Way, way too long. Marty, you’re my boy, but hot damn that film needed a slice and dice. In actuality, it would have worked better being split as a mini-series. I did do it in one go but were I to revisit, that bad boy is getting segmented like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange (this post, is not sponsored by Terry’s).
So Marty, Jim, Quentin, Chris, all of you. Please…indulge by all means. Please keep championing legitimately impressive uses of modern tech, or keep the old-school fires burning, but please…trim the fat a little. Don’t forget you’re trying to tell a story as succinctly as possible and retain the interest of your audience. This freedom is a blessing.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.