As we get into the thick of awards season, I’ve been thinking a lot about the films of our current generation of up-and-coming directors or those who have yet to become household names but have the potential. With filmmakers like Jeff Nichols (Mud), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin), and Gia Coppola (Palo Alto), I think we could witness a boom of authorial driven studio films that hasn’t been seen since the late ’60s, and ’70s. I’m not talking about the wave of mumblecore directors that cropped up in the early 2000s; I’m talking about those independent directors with distinct voices, the ones who unearth something raw, honest, and topical, the ones who are interested in more than quirkiness. I could easily see the directors I mentioned above, along with others, rising to the artistic heights of John Schlesinger, Terrence Malick, Sidney Lumet, or Robert Rafelson. I am in no way trying to exaggerate the talent of our current crop of directors, only express there is something equally distinct in their styles and stories as the directorial legends I included. If you’ve watched any of the films I mentioned, you can certainly see the spirit of their predecessors, but also something that feels incredibly relevant to our time. In 10 to 15 years’ time, we could be looking at a New New Hollywood, but of course that’ll never happen because major studios are too busy snatching up young directors and tying them to big-budget franchises for decades.
While Spielberg and Lucas played their part in and ended the New American Wave, and many directors from that era became part of either blockbusters or star-driven, Awards-bait dramas, the authorial sensibility rose to prominence again in the ’90s with a new crop of directors. Richard Linklater, Harmony Korine, Quentin Tarantino, and yeah I guess Kevin Smith should get credit too, popularized the terms independent and self-financed filmmaking. For the most part these filmmakers have maintained their artistic vision, though some have dabbled in more studio-driven films and one made Tusk. But their voices have always been a little too unconventional for studio bigwigs to want to interfere with their process. But these directors were never the ones meant to recapture the New Hollywood freedom. They existed on the fringes, too much a product of the era of Kurt Cobain, than that of Neil Young.
September 11th and Christopher Nolan have brought us to where we are today with Hollywood’s view of rising talent. The current wave of superhero films and year round spectacle is a clear result of 9/11, an America in need of heroes and distractions. And thus, thinly veiled illusions to terrorist attacks are about as topical as mainstream Hollywood films get, largely ignoring the faces in the backwoods, suburbs, and ghettos of America. Event films about the everyman and woman have fallen by the wayside. Christopher Nolan proved to be the means to keep summer movies intelligent. He could use his independent and experimental choices in new ways, to reach new audiences, and deliver massive box office results, but he was never being primed to be the heir-apparent to Francis Ford Coppola (nor do I think he ever wanted to be). Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love big-budget franchises, and I love when directors are allowed to bring their artistic and independent sensibilities to big-budget productions (the key word here being “allowed”). I also think there have been fantastic directors who may have started as small-budget and independent directors but were always steadily growing in their skill to create smart blockbusters (Matt Reeves, James Gunn, Gareth Edwards, Duncan Jones, Rian Johnson). But a number of these directors, like Nolan, were given the chance to grow and tell their own stories over many years before telling someone else’s. But many big studios are like impatient vampires, they want new blood and they want it now, growth and expression be damned.
In their aim to have control over as many franchises as possible, the Hollywood machine is denying us auteurs, effectively turning the screws too fast and at the wrong angle, stripping them in the process. Take Marc Webb for example. (500) Days of Summer, played into some of the mumblecore quirkiness, but in many ways it displayed an honesty that wasn’t so far off from The Graduate. But before we even had a chance to determine whether Webb could be a great director, he was courted by Sony to reboot Spider-Man and that has resulted in a mess of studio-interference and attacks on Webb’s credibility as a director. Sure, Webb chose to direct The Amazing Spider-Man and signed a contract to direct sequels, but it seems that directors are offered very few options if they want their movies to be widely seen. See, studio heads claim they are looking for the next Nolan, a smart and ambitious filmmaker, but what they really want is someone to string up like a puppet. Colin Trevorrow, who impressed with Safety Not Guaranteed, is now tied to Jurassic World, and since we shouldn’t lie to ourselves, he’ll likely be attached to sequels as either a director or producer for the next decade. I’m excited for Jurassic World, but part of me regrets the fact that we won’t have the opportunity to see more of his original ideas first. Sure he could always go back and direct something smaller, but in today’s movie climate he’ll likely be ushered to a galaxy, far, far away, or some side of the Marvel or DC universe. What we’re witnessing in modern Hollywood is the equivalent of the hypothetical situation of Martin Scorsese being asked to direct a Batman film after he’d finished Mean Streets. If Hollywood worked the way then as it does now, consider all the truly great films we’d have been denied.
It’s no secret that I love quality tentpoles, but when I hear suggestions or rumors that Damien Chazelle should take over Spider-Man, or Jeff Nichols is directing Aquaman, I can’t help but grimace. I’m sure that there’s a chance they’ll be great at it, but with so much studio interference facing young directors it seems the better option is to stick to the more intimate, original films for the time being. But how many options do they really have, if they don’t join the big leagues? Consider, Debra Granik, the director of Winter’s Bone. Coupled with Hollywood’s treatment of women, how much attention has she gotten since 2010? Oscar attention can’t save a career without box office results. I’d hate to see our current crop of talented of directors give into the call of big-budgets so early in their careers (especially if it doesn’t seem like the direction they were headed in), but I’d also hate to see them fade into obscurity. We’ll likely never get another New Hollywood, but man do I wish studios would treat small, original films as something more than training grounds.