B-Movies Extended: Big Directors, Small Movies

Michael Bay's next film is a low-budget crime flick, so Bibbs and Witney look at some other directors who made it big and then made something small.

Witney Seibold & William Bibbianiby Witney Seibold & William Bibbiani

Welcome back, boys, girls and otherwise, to another edition of B-Movies Extended, CRAVE Online’s utterly brilliant weekly addendum to The B-Movies Podcast, hosted by William Bibbiani, and yours truly, Witney Seibold. This week, we’ll scintillate you with our commentary of directors gone small.

On this last episode (and, indeed, on previous episodes) we have had the dubious pleasure of discussing the works of clunky action flick director Michael Bay, and how he seems capable of nothing but 150-minute-long action features with increasingly skyrocketing budgets. We had said that we (not-so-)secretly longed to see what Bay would do with a smaller story and a smaller budget, and theorized that perhaps he does have some quiet personal tales to tell, but that he has been pigeonholed by the Hollywood machine into becoming an industry unto himself. Luckily, we heard news that his next feature will be a heist movie, and will only have a budget of $20 million.

It’s rare that directors get to move in this direction. The tendency in Hollywood seems to be rewarding ever-increasing success with ever-increasing budgets and creative freedom. And while earning a gilded spot on the “final cut” heavenly registry in Hollywood is perhaps the single most envied position in the entire creative portion of the industry, there can be a restrictive element to such big budgets. The small, personal stories you’ve always wanted to tell, and now have the freedom to, will be swallowed up by a great uncontrolled marketing machine, and before you know it, your little indie flick starring unknown actors, and revolving around raw human emotions is now overblown into an “event” picture. It is the dark side of the coveted coin.

But, very occasionally, high-profile filmmakers do have the gumption and wherewithal to move downscale, and do something low profile. It’s around here that you can get some directors’ best work. Sometimes, however, you merely get some weirdly personal flicks that make no sense to any audience. Let’s take a look at a few, shall we?


 

KENNETH BRANAGH: SLEUTH (2007)

 

These days, Branagh is being hailed as the director of the big-budget superhero blockbuster Thor, but there was a time (specifically 1996) when Branagh blew the world away with a bold, big-budget, four-hour, 70mm, uncut film version of Hamlet. This remains, to my mind, the finest film version of just about any Shakespeare play, and, thanks to the brave choice to include the play’s entire text, can stand as a standard. His next few films were also Shakespeare adaptations, although with dwindling budgets and only middling success. By 2007, Branagh was hurting for a big-screen comeback, but what he chose to fill that need was unexpected: a remake of the 1972 film Sleuth, based on the Anthony Shaffer play, starring Michael Caine (in the Laurence Olivier role) and Jude Law (in the Michael Caine role). A director known for epic productions of 17th century plays made a quiet film with only two actors, one location, and quietly manipulative dialogue. And, oddly enough, it stood the test of quality. The 2007 Sleuth is slippery and compelling.

 

AKIRA KUROSAWA: MADADAYO (1993)

 

By the end of his career in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Japan’s master director was producing a long series of long-winded, deliberately paced, Shakespearean operas like Ran and Kagemusha, and lushly-shot, ambitious dream projects like, well, Dreams and Rhapsody in August. He seemed hell bent on producing the single most ambitious films ever made in Japan, and largely succeeded. But his final film, Madadayo (made in 1993, and translated literally as “Not Yet”) was a quiet and contemplative downturn in tone compared to the roll he was on. His final film seemed more closely akin to his more philosophical early hits like Ikiru, as it followed an elderly professor as he yearly reaffirms that he is not yet interested in dying. The pacing of the film is intimate, and the details are small. It seemed to be a master’s final word on his own life. For a man who was rolling high with epic samurai films, featuring wars, burning buildings and hundreds of extras, this was a tiny little whisper.

 

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (2007)

 

There was a time, as some of us vividly recall, when Coppola was a fascinating director of huge Hollywood hits. His films ranged from the goofy genre entertainments (like Dementia 13) to indisputable classics (like The Godfather movies) to dark subversive cinema (like Apocalypse Now). By the 1990s, he was charging behind big-budget Hollywood oddities like The Godfather Part III, and Dracula, and strangely within-the-lines films like Jack and The Rainmaker. The lukewarm critical response to these two movies (and the trauma of working on the largely failed Supernova) scared Coppola away from the limelight for a while, and he would take a nearly decade-long hiatus from filmmaking. His return came in 2007 with something he funded himself, and resembled a low-budget version of his weirder movies, in the form of Youth Without Youth, an ambitious personal curiosity with a reverse-aging gimmick later exploited by David Fincher in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He followed up Youth with an even more peculiar, and even lower-budgeted film about intergenerational angst amongst a musical dynasty called Tetro, and starring maniac auteur Vincent Gallo. It’s likely Coppola will stick to his guns, and remain ensconced in his own personal sphere of self-funded experimental films. I admire the gumption.

 

NEXT: Bibbs takes a look at why little directors go big, why big directors don't go small, and gives his three (not all good) examples of the phenomenon in action…


 

FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:

It’s an interesting trajectory that most directors take on the path of success: with the exception of commercial and music video directors, whose first films are frequently mainstream entertainments (Michael Bay comes to mind with Bad Boys, and David Fincher got his start with the mildly underappreciated Alien 3), most filmmakers make their debut with independent projects, often personal films, and then transition to conventional fare in order to prove themselves capable of spearheading larger productions. Sometimes independent filmmakers take work-for-hire “Hollywood” projects so they can make the expensive film of their dreams, like Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn, who claims to have made the upcoming chase thriller Drive in order to prove that he’s the right man for the Wonder Woman job. (And he’s moving on to a remake of Logan’s Run right afterwards.) Makes sense, right? But then after that they often have trouble going back to making personal films, and for a variety of reasons.

Maybe they have families and just like feeding them (yet another reason not to have a one, I say), or maybe they just like having the resources available on larger movies. Or maybe there’s something more sinister at work, in which a secret cabal of studio executives take giddy pleasure in corrupting innocent young artisans and preventing them from continuing to make the kind of movies that cause audiences to ask, “Why can’t Hollywood make more of these instead of an Alvin & The Chipmunks sequel?”

It’s fun to think about. And probably wrong, too. The infinite number of x-factors and individual decisions involved with making any movie have stymied valiant projects, big and small, and somehow elevated ridiculous ideas into pre-production, production, post-production and beyond. (I’m looking at you… um… actually, Alvin & The Chipunks comes to mind again.) Anyway, for whatever reason most big directors don’t take many opportunities to scale things back a bit. Even Steven Spielberg’s “little” movie The Terminal, a dramedy about a man forced to live in an airport after his country dissolves in a revolution mid-flight, was a $60 million plus production, partially because the biggest director in the world chose to build his own airport rather than shoot in an existing one. This kind of option would not have been available to a smaller director, even though they probably could have made the same film – more or less – for significantly less money.

So here then is a smattering of “small” movies that big-time directors successfully got off the ground, for better (u-sually) or worse (U-Turn).


 

TIM BURTON: ED WOOD (1994)

 

You have to admit that the mainstream success of Tim Burton seems like a long shot: the gothic director of such malevolent and cartoonish early films as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice nevertheless made the enormously profitable 1989 version of Batman (which you have to remember was not considered a guaranteed success at the time), and then proceeded to the direct the sequel and produce the new(-ish) Disney classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. What did he do with his newfound success? He made Ed Wood, a fairly unmarketable biography of one of Hollywood’s most unaccomplished directors. Even his star Johnny Depp, whose name is now the equivalent of box office gold, was an unknown quantity at the time, and the $18 million production that didn’t even crack $6 million in its theatrical release. But the project was highly personal to Burton on several levels, being as it was about a Tim Burton-ish director with strange artistic predilections making horror movies during an influential cinematic period for the director, as well as Ed Wood’s dramatic focus on the director’s relationship with aging horror icon Bela Lugosi, which mirrored Burton’s own relationship with Vincent Price shortly before the Pit and the Pendulum star's death. The result remains arguably Burton’s best film, but since then he’s focused primarily on larger-scale mainstream productions like Sleepy Hollow and Alice in Wonderland, which all bear the Burton’s unique stamp but have of late grown familiar stylistically and relatively conventional dramatically. It would be nice to see him scale things back a bit once again.

 

OLIVER STONE: U-TURN (1997)

 

Oliver Stone made a few interesting smaller films early in his career, like the B-Movie shocker The Hand with Michael Caine, or the single-room drama Talk Radio with Eric Bogosian. But while he never quite graduated to blockbuster status there’s no denying that his films had grown increasingly ambitious with time. From “out there” examinations of violence in Natural Born Killers to sweeping statements about America in more grandiose pictures like JFK and Nixon, the director finally decided to take a break from big, serious movies with 1997’s U-Turn, a small-scale film noir adapted by John Ridley from his novel of the same name. What’s interesting about U-Turn is that although Stone’s intent was obviously to tell a smaller story, he utterly failed, and the production swelled to include a broad all-star cast including the likes of Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight. What’s more, Stone didn’t tone down his style, with each actor apparently competing to steal as much screen time as possible and the fairly straightforward story – about a drifter getting stuck in a small desert town when his car breaks down, only to be hired by a husband and wife, separately, to kill each other – became a bloated mess with simple character interaction falling by the wayside in favor of extravagant camera work and pretentious cutaways to luxuriously filmed sunsets. Maybe some directors are better off sticking with their big guns.

 

FRANK DARABONT: THE MIST (2007)

 

Frank Darabont more-or-less started big. After an early career as a screenwriter working on the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and a mostly forgotten directorial debut on the TV-movie Buried Alive with Tim Matheson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Darabont made his first theatrical film with The Shawshank Redemption. A modestly budgeted but nevertheless impressively grand production of the Stephen King short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the film overcame low box office numbers to become a multiple Oscar nominee (completely snubbed when the statues were handed out) and is now considered an American classic. From there Darabont went on to larger productions like The Green Mile, also nominated for Best Picture, and the generally maligned Capra-esque period drama The Majestic. After that mostly-forgotten flop Darabont finally returned to horror, this time as a director, with the small-scale frightfest The Mist, about a group of hapless individuals trapped in a grocery store during what may be an alien invasion or a kind of biblical apocalypse. Although it was Darabont’s best film since Shawshank (and boasts one of the greatest movie endings of the last decade), it didn’t make much of an impact on audiences, eking out a mere $25 million theatrically. Since then Darabont’s gone even smaller, focusing on the TV series The Walking Dead and getting rewarded for his trouble: the show’s a hit and is expected to be a serious contender at the 2011 Emmy Awards (the nominations are to be announced this week).

 

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE SMALL FILMS FROM BIG DIRECTORS…?