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10 Successful Filmmaker Transitions Between Independent and Blockbuster Filmmaking

25 January 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Charles Barnes

nolan filmmakers

Would one be excited at the prospect to point out their newfound discovery toward a modern Hollywood trend, exclusive to this contemporary climate of elongated, convoluted theatrical video game cut scenes and roundtable marketing morning meetings to determine what a 2010’s audience will lap off many a cinematic artist’s coveted silver screen?

How about the discovery, the jaded realisation, toward the major Hollywood studios’ tendency to entrap successful breakout independent American filmmakers to helm their ambitious studio, typically franchise-driven, projects?

Truly though, this is no recent trend.

That is, unless one extends their understanding of a ‘recent’ trend as something that is to span a series of decades, in this case originating in the mid-1970s, at the height of the beloved, lauded and iconic American New Wave of Hollywood filmmaking.

This fabled era of western cinematic renaissance can be cited as resounding a close by the end of the decade as a result of one major factor.

One being the exploitation of the newly discovered ‘blockbuster’ marketing method, an idea inspired by the American public’s hyped reaction to William Friedkin’s hugely successful The Exorcist in 1972, and solidified in the summers of 1975 and 1977, a celluloid season dominated by Steven Spielberg’s tooth-addled expert Neo-Hitchcock craftsmanship and George Lucas’s once-grand, pre-Prequel, space opera masterpiece, respectively.

The instant exploitation the studios took to this means of film hype and audience excitement wound up in a Hollywood that realized it could take less and less risks with their produce: a Hollywood that favoured recognisability and safety in their major productions in the decades to follow.

Below, are ten instances, ten individuals, wherein an independent filmmaker, subject to praise and adoration for their imagination and unrestrained creativity within their earlier features, has been hired by a studio to craft an item designed to magnetise many a populace into many a room of sticky leather seats, and the director in question has been strong, talented, enough that they haven’t allowed studio influence nor interference to get in the way of a fine, solid picture, regardless of its stigmatized blockbuster status.

 

10. James Gunn

James-Gunn

2014 saw the unexpectedly highly anticipated release, and subsequently beloved reception, of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a picture based off obscure (to the public) superhero characters that managed to win over both geeks and mainstream audiences alike through its humour, charm, visual vibrancy, strong characters and space opera love-lettering. Resultantly, it wound up the second highest grossing film of the year, behind Bay’s latest Transformers fare.

Many a Hollywood Power-That-Be might have been concerned, as Guardians’ craftsman, James Gunn, two feature films have been both violent, crude pictures meant for a more niche cult audience: his debut, Slither, serves as a vividly violent contemporary recreation of 1980’s body horror ventures, and Super a mean-spirited superhero satire that some claimed rendered Matthew Vaughn’s similar black comedy Kick-Ass, released the very same year, comparable to Pixar’s The Incredibles.

In Guardians, Gunn moved from body horror and vigilantes to instead compose an ode to space opera, making apparent adoration toward the likes of Star Wars, with its rich, and often dingy, envisioning of galactic civilization, and Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, with its tongue-in-cheek, lovable animated tonal flavouring. Therefore, a return to cinematic fun, grin-inducing adventure was hailed by many a thoroughly fulfilled fan.

Gunn’s desire to pay tribute, whilst injecting his own distinctive darkly amusing coating, to geek-oriented subgenres, wound up perfect for the consumers of fantastical cinema, and his loving handling toward the super-powered adventure flick, in apparent demand from casual audiences, opened dual windows with which Gunn could both satisfy his fans, and satisfy his superiors.

Gunn is returning to direct Guardians’ much-anticipated sequel, due for May 2017, although it remains to be seen afterward whether he will choose the path of fat, bloated pay checks in exchange for dangling the wanton desires of two audiences, or stick to his initial intention to buffer the interests of a fan-base inclined to treasure the products realised with the intention of small-market satisfaction. Either way, Gunn has proved his worth as a satisfying filmmaker, in regard to both the small audiences, and the widespread.

 

9. Jon Favreau

Jon Favreau

The criteria applying to Favreau is perhaps questionable, as he was not an acknowledged independent director as such, but rather he wrote the 1996 indie hit Swingers, which he also starred in, making his directorial debut with that same film’s spiritual sequel, Made, in 2001.

Regardless, Favreau, whilst a relatively established character-actor prior to Swingers, got his behind-the-scenes start in independent filmmaking, so shall be included on this list.

Favreau was later commissioned to direct 2003’s now-beloved classic Christmas comedy Elf, followed by his first step into blockbuster territory, albeit one more directed toward children rather than entire audiences, the Science Fiction bracket’s answer to Jumanji: 2007’s Zathura.

Jon’s first true step into blockbuster filmmaking came in 2008, with the release of Iron Man, a notably surprising hit with both critics and audiences.

The first entry in what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe was duly noted for its scaled-down nature, opting for character interaction and behaviour paving the way for the, unusually somewhat sparse, action set-pieces, proving that Favreau’s stab at character-and-dialogue oriented screenwriting, which defined Swingers, had given him a taste and respect for overlooking excess and grandiose in favour for drops of creative substance.

Favreau’s unanimous praise was to end there, however. Iron Man’s 2010 sequel, which he also directed, was noted, and frequently criticized, for opting out of the first film’s restraint, instead aiming for a celebration of CGI robotics and colourful, if not obnoxious, characterisations. While some would, fairly, attest the film regardless likable and entertaining, and certainly a semi-worthy blockbuster for mainstream audiences, many felt Favreau had been swallowed by that fabled, bland Hollywood whirlpool.

The following year’s Cowboys and Aliens seemed to hammer this home further, seeing Favreau abandon his light-heartedness in exchange for utter seriousness and a bizarre attempt at realism, which, considering the oddity of the film’s subject matter, was seen as a great injury to what could have potentially been a fun, fantastical farce.

Having since scaled back once more, this time not with a blockbuster, but for a smaller feature, 2014’s deservedly well-received comedy Chef, Favreau’s artistic success in the blockbuster realm was only temporary (The Jungle Book will determine its potential revival), it would seem, but while it lasted he managed to cement what would become one of the greatest cinematic money-making machines in the world today: the MCU.

Whether Favreau successfully opened the gateway to many a comic fan’s coveted silver screen dreams, or heralded the death knell of the cinema, as many self-professed cinephiles are prone to hyperbolise, is left up to you for an answer.

 

8. Gareth Edwards

Gareth Edwards

Imagine a studio executive or two, witnessing 2008’s Cloverfield, and thereby deducing that American filmmakers were fully capable of crafting successful monster features not alike the Japanese, who have made enormous profit of such a widely-known fantasy division.

Cloverfield is suggested due to its big name and release, but this might not have been the case, otherwise director Matt Reeves, or its currently famed producer J.J. Abrams, might have been asked to helm the second western attempt at Japan’s Monster King: Gojira.

Instead, an exec might have been thoroughly impressed, as many were, by the independent debut feature of one Gareth Edwards: a 2010 survival picture involving a future Central America contaminated by extra-terrestrial beasts, and two individuals’ attempts to survive an unwanted venture through such illegal territory. The film in question was Monsters.

Any potential allegory with the picture was ignored in favour of Edwards’ skill in making creature pictures exciting, frightening, and, to many a viewer’s disbelief, relatively believable, largely due to the assistance of well-developed characters to guide a potentially confused audience through a potentially silly premise.

The result of this hypothetical screening was the decision to offer Edwards a chance at redeeming the Radioactive Giant from the embarrassment cursed upon him by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin back in 1998.

In one of the wisest, beneficial decisions in recent Hollywood history, Gareth Edwards delivered not only a Godzilla film worthy of its Eastern predecessors, but one that many sought the audacity to claim was the finest feature involving the beloved atomic titan ever helmed.

Of course, the film was beset duly with a wave of obnoxious Breaking Bad fanatics renouncing this film for its lack of Bryan Cranston, ignoring a picture gifted with stunning cinematography, a stellar handling of scope and grandiose, wonderful visual effects, highly memorable set-pieces and some terrific atmosphere, but time ought show case 2014’s Godzilla as one of the best monster films of the 21st century, if not of all time.

Gareth Edwards, in his mere first outing as a blockbuster director, successfully redeemed the stigma of Westerners attempting to cash-in on the East’s beloved Gojira, leaving many giddy at the prospect of him directing one of the announced Star Wars spin-offs. And, hell, if any franchise is in need of a dire re-enlightening…

 

7. Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes

After 1999, high school art students everywhere threw out their teddy bears worldwide. Why? Because Sam Mendes had just released American Beauty: a new object with which they could comfort themselves before sleep.

Anyway, not that Hollywood was so eager about that aspect of the film, but more in lieu of or toward its prestigious Best Picture Oscar win, setting Englishman Mendes on the map. As a result, he followed up Beauty with heavy-financed dramas such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead. His blockbuster name wasn’t really existent however until the release of Skyfall in 2012.

With Skyfall, Mendes take on the Bond franchise wound up one of the most critically acclaimed in the franchise, and set a new box office precedent for it, and the rest of 2012’s notable blockbuster titles (it out-grossed every other film that year aside from The Avengers) to match.

Now, Mendes, a visually-oriented filmmaker with an emphasis on problem-ridden protagonists where an audience normally wouldn’t seek it, be it an United States soldier in Jarhead, a Prohibition-era criminal in Road to Perdition, or even 007 himself, is set to helm this year’s Spectre, the heavily-hyped latest entry in the definitive British super-spy canon.

 

6. The Wachowskis

The Wachowskis

In 1996, the Wachowski Brothers released Bound, a neo-noir that, to the surprise of some, found its distinctive identity through what was seen as a refreshing portrayal of lesbianism in the cinema, converting the classic 1940’s noir fables of the vile heterosexual affair conspiring against a richer husband or wife into one that expressed sympathy and understanding for those of the LGBT banner.

In 1999, mainstream action filmmaking quivered in their boots at the sight of The Matrix, a film that saw two Chicago-raised film geeks combine their favourite niche subgenres into one exciting, heart-pounding, yet thoroughly thought-provoking and well-written package.

Now, as the title of this article concerns ‘successful’ transitions, one might consider halting this passage before consideration of the rest of the siblings’ career, seeing as The Matrix trilogy’s latter entries, both of which, Revolutions in particular, have been seen as failures.

Subjectivity shall be acknowledged here, but from a technical standpoint, either the Wachowskis folded to studio intervention, frequently utilizing CGI in exchange for the sharp, Hong Kong-inspired martial arts choreography of the first film, or, simply, they got lazy, possibly a side effect of attempting to release two separate films within the same year. Meanwhile, their adaptation of Speed Racer, whilst having since developed something of a cult following, has been largely dismissed as style over substance fare cashing in on a known, existing property.

It remains to be seen whether Jupiter Ascending, a seemingly ambitious fantasy-driven space opera shall succeed or fail, at both the box office and in the critics’ corner, but for a temporary moment, the Wachowskis had not only proven themselves a precursor to the trend of Hollywood allowing independent filmmakers creative prowess on major studio releases in the 21st century, but also toward the ideal that mainstream science-fiction pictures were not void of the ability to make an audience think (perhaps paving the way for another, later, member of this list).

(A long, irrelevant spiel upon Cloud Atlas has been omitted for the reader’s pleasure).

 

 

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  • Navid Shahrokhi

    where is Darren Aronofsky

    • Brian Lussier

      Well, what film of his do you consider a blockbuster-type film? The closest thing is Noah, and it wasn’t a hit.

  • Michael J. Epstein

    “Wachowski Brothers” should be corrected to Wachowskis.

    • Patrick Joseph Amgar

      It does say Wachowskis. But in 1996 they were still selling themselves as the Wachowski brothers.

      • Michael J. Epstein

        Totally irrelevant. Should be Wachowskis.

  • Benas Bačanskas

    Nice list, but what about James Cameron?

  • eagleye

    Joe Carnahan’s career should be included!

  • Brian Lussier

    I don’t really like him, except for the original Terminator and Aliens, perhaps also Titanic, depending what mood I’m in, but it’s ludicrous to not have put James Cameron on this list!!!