It was recently announced that Seth Grahame-Smith, a middling screenwriter with only a smidgen of TV directing experience had been hired to direct The Flash for Warner Brothers. Melissa Silverstein for Indiewire lamented that Grahame-Smith was “a man with ZERO film directing experience and he is being offered the keys to the kingdom“. While Silverstein argues that studios are taking a hiring approach that may as well be “any male director, even with no experience, is preferable to any woman director”, I’m not sold on the idea that these summer tentpole releases are prestigious ‘keys to the kingdom’. I don’t think it’s that the studio thinks any male director is better than any female director, it’s that they don’t really want any director at all.
If I assume that a director ought to have certain qualities — a strong temperament, good at managing people, a distinct style and vision, for instance, or even just a solid filmography of directing experience — then the idea that Grahame-Smith is the best person to direct The Flash is risible; there’s nothing in his background like this, so maybe I’m looking for the wrong things, things the studio doesn’t think are necessary or even desirable. If what the studio wants is actually just a trustable body to shout ‘action’ and ‘cut’ before some actors in front of a green screen and not have a meltdown while doing it, Grahame-Smith is probably a great hire.
In fact, his hiring is an extreme example of a process that’s been going on for years, where inexperienced directors are subsumed quickly into the studio blockbuster machine, given little chance to develop their craft or voice. In some cases there’s at least an obvious connection between their initial work and the blockbuster they’re hired for: Gareth Edwards made the wonderful Monsters in 2010 and went straight on to direct Godzilla, while Josh Trank’s outstanding film debut Chronicle, that saw teenagers adapting to suddenly having super powers, led to him being given The Fantastic Four. This worked out well for Edwards, with Godzilla proving a hit despite mixed reviews and his career has survived intact, with a standalone Star Wars film and a Monsters sequel in the pipeline. Not so for Trank, whose experience with The Fantastic Four — by all accounts a disaster on every imaginable level — has led to him backing out of another Star Wars film, intending to work on something smaller and with a much lower profile.
At least with Edwards and Trank their hiring made some thematic sense, even if they were bypassing the mid-budget career-developing films one might hope for as a director (it’s as if Christopher Nolan went from Following to Batman Begins without stopping for Memento and Insomnia). But what was it about Safety Not Guaranteed, a middling sci-fi comedy romance, that made studio executives think first-time director Colin Trevorrow was the best choice to direct Jurassic World? Which part of the quirky $7.5 million 500 Days of Summer made Sony think first-time director Marc Webb was the best choice to take on the $230 million Amazing Spider-Man franchise?
Also announced recently was Taika Waititi being in the running for directing Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi has more experience than others mentioned above, with three low-budget indie films to his name and some TV, and while it’s promising that Marvel are trying to hire a comedy director — the Thor films more than most need decent laughs to balance out the drier fantasy aspects — I’m skeptical that Waititi is being hired for his particular directorial vision. Marvel is reluctant to have auteurs or strong voices in control; Kenneth Branagh declined to return for Thor: The Dark World and Patty Jenkins dropped out, both purportedly for creative differences with the studio. Then there’s Ant-Man: by the time Edgar Wright was ready to make his version of the film, Marvel no longer wanted it; they wanted their own version instead, and parachuted in Peyton Reed — another director with only minor films and TV episodes to his name — to implement their preferred vision. When producer Kevin Feige was asked why Jon Watts, a TV director with one low-budget film under his belt (Cop Car), was picked to direct 2017’s Spider-Man reboot, the answer amounted to “We liked Cop Car and we liked Jon Watts“, which to my mind is more like he passed a startup’s cultural fit interview than anything else.
There’s a tendency to get excited about our favourite indie directors getting picked to helm big-budget summer blockbusters, and I wonder how much of it is a lingering inferiority complex still so prevalent in geeky culture, this complex that looks at ‘our’ directors getting ‘important’ jobs and feeling vindicated for it, the ultimate expression of which was Joss Whedon, with only one film to his name and a box office failure at that, taking on The Avengers, and succeeding. But that’s Joss Whedon, who may have lacked specific film experience but had decades of TV experience and was clearly not going to be pushed around by this point. That said, even Whedon had to fight battles with the studio, obliged to include in Age of Ultron baffling scenes that connected to future Marvel films in order to be allowed to include the dream sequences and farmhouse scenes the studio wanted removed. Whedon is rather pointedly not returning for future Avengers films.
When it comes to Waititi and Thor: Ragnarok, it’s easy to get excited if you enjoyed his previous work, but it’s optimistic to think his own personal style is going to come noticeably through past whatever Marvel wants to happen. At best, there’ll be a cameo from Rhys Darby or one of The Inbetweeners; the film itself will be far more a standard Marvel product than a Waititi personal vision. This is how things are done now, with the producer as auteur, rather than the director.