In 2011, a found footage superhero movie came out called Chronicle. It was filmed on a shoestring budget of $12 million dollars and ultimately grossed over $125 million worldwide. The film was as much of a critical success as it was a commercial success and many were eager to see what the director of Chronicle would do next. The director was a 27-year-old man named Josh Trank.
Trank, now 31, is at the center of one of the nastiest and most public movie disasters in recent memory. I’m of course referring to his Fantastic Four reboot. F4 holds currently a 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, officially making it the worst reviewed superhero film ever. Suddenly the Tim Story Fantastic Four films don’t look so bad, do they?
Screenrant’sHannah Shaw Williams has a great write-up about what went wrong during the course of production. The short answer is that Trank allegedly showed up to set in a foul mood, sometimes while high (allegedly). He was apparently very short with the cast and crew and frequently poorly communicated to the crew what was going on or what had to happen. Now, as Williams observed, one would assume Trank’s poor behavior had motivation. There are reports that Fox Studios cut the budget, forced rewrites, and there is even an implication that Trank, a relatively young filmmaker, was bullied by the studios which would certainly explain his behavior.
Trank’s tweet both implies that the film is terrible (which critically it was) and that the studio is to blame (which they likely are).
Josh Trank is hardly the first director to have troubles and conflicts with studios. Before Trank, Marvel Studios and Edgar Wright parted ways on the making of Ant-Man because Wright felt creatively stifled trying to fit his film into the studio’s vision. House of Cards and Fight Club director David Finch almost left Hollywood entirely after his disastrous experiences making Alien 3. Francis Ford Coppola’s experience making Apocalypse Now went over budget, over schedule, nearly drove the director to suicide, and even inspired a documentary about the making of the film that many agree is better than Apocalypse Now. Trank is simply the latest addition to a rich history of problematic film making experiences; nevertheless, there is a very worrisome fear that this particular instance will set off a precedent that hurts both films and aspiring filmmakers in the future.
The Studio System in Hollywood is increasingly becoming the way things are done in Hollywood. Marvel Studios is the prime example of this. Their movies are increasingly being pushed out like cut-and-dry products on an assembly line within a set schedule. They decide how the movie should be and when it’ll be released before they ever decide who will make it. Because their plan is so convoluted, and because the studio is putting so much money in, they are demanding more and more control over the films. That is exactly why Edgar Wright left – and it’s one of the reasons Joss Whedon retired from Marvel after directing Age of Ultron. Great filmmakers are being ignored or worse, sabotaged, in an effort for the studios to make franchises (not films).
This is legitimately scary. It’s even scarier when you think of how few properties are independently owned, and that your favorites are owned by Disney, of all companies. The studios are even more and more ambitious with television shows, comics, and more synergy across media which makes the balancing act incredibly difficult.
From everything I’ve read about Josh Trank, my guess is that his vision was too specific for Fox, who undoubtedly wanted him to bring his Chronicle magic in an effort to jump-start their next attempt at a superhero cinematic universe. I have no idea how his film originally was supposed to end, or what the implications for any sequels were, but I’m betting his vision was smaller and relied on different rules for the film universe that would make bigger picture expansion difficult.
Trank didn’t handle the studio pressure well. It sounds like he should have left the film at some point the way Wright left Ant-Man – as professionally and courteously he could. Instead, Trank suffered through and brought negative energy to most people he interacted with. His now deleted tweet will forever be a black mark upon him in Hollywood – this is now a director confident enough to tell studios publicly that they are wrong. The risk of future studios being badmouthed by their director is too great and he will likely carry a stigma with him for the rest of his career. The toxicity had affected Trank before Fantastic Four even came out. Trank had been selected to direct the next Star Wars spinoff film after Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One. Sadly, the directorleft the project back in May, and there was widespread speculation that it was due to the on-set difficulties involved with Fantastic Four.
It does bear worth mentioning that Trank is relatively young and Fantastic Four was a $120 million dollar project. This was an incredible amount of pressure and Trank clearly felt offended. While he didn’t react well, it’s hard not to sympathize with his frustrations. At the end of the day – this is Fox we’re talking about. The studio that almost ruined the X-Men franchise, who have failed to get the Fantastic Four right 3 times now, and are only making F4 films as a middle finger to Marvel Studios. Trank was a young filmmaker who likely bit off more than he could chew and reacted poorly after being bullied by Fox.
But what does this mean for the future? Trank’s career could go either way. It’s unlikely that he’ll get another massive film offer again anytime soon, assuming he does. His tweet will surely have long-term damage to his credibility and career. Hopefully, he will get time to find his center and then find another film project better suited to his strengths. Many agree that Chronicle was made by someone with talent and it’s awful to think that one bad experience will rob audiences of a lifetime of unique film making.
Trank may have done even more damage than he realized. The studio system likes control and greatly rewards filmmakers who fit seamlessly into their way of doing things (see James Gunn) but ignores those who don’t. Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors Joe and Anthony Russo started as television directors working on Arrested Development and Community. Both of those are great shows, and Winter Soldier is Marvel’s best film, but it’s strange to see television directors held in higher regard than an amateur filmmaker like Edgar Wright. It might be that the Russos are great at working to serve other visions in a much greater framework. Still, there was a time when Marvel Studios were on the verge of being truly daring by giving Edgar Wright a film. His Ant-Man would have been a wholly unique addition to the Marvel lineup and would have stood out. If critical reception of Ant-Man is any indication, the film we ended up with is decent but wholly forgettable and not the one-of-a-kind comedy heist we originally were promised.
The fallout from the Fantastic failure is still settling, so it may be some time before we see actual results. The earliest indicator of where things are going could very well be in what Fox does with the Fantastic Four next. But we can also look to Warner Brothers and DC as well as Marvel Studios as they start filling in director’s slots for their upcoming projects. Marvel distinguished themselves early on by having genre films with superheroes as their upcoming flicks, but their attempts to differentiate properties by genre will be undermined if they keep choosing directors who make all their films look the same. We’ve yet to get an idea of the DC Universe establishing any difference from every Zach Snyder aesthetic that has come before. Even now, Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetically still feels like every other Marvel Studios film, even though it should stand out the most.
Hopefully this worry has no real merit, and Trank can rebound from this debacle. We still need younger filmmakers with unique visions just like they need studios that support their vision.