We all know moviemaking is an inherently expensive exercise. Even the amount of money we’d consider low (or no) budget filmmaking would be enough to get the average middle class family out of debt for the rest of their lives.
And it’s a sweet spot where some talents shine. There are more examples than you can shake a stick at, but look at just three – Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game and Kevin Smith’s Clerks.
One of the most expensive aspects of any movie is moving the company between locations and setups, and we’ve all heard the popular axiom about how much cash is burning for every minute the whole production is sitting around waiting for someone to remember a line, come out of their trailer or finish setting a light or camera.
But Flanagan, Marshall and Smith’s films were all shot in either a single or only a couple of locations. They were done with very movable crews and equipment, mostly because they comprised a very small company carrying digital cameras, often with friends doing it for the love of it rather than having a studio or producer breathing down their necks to account for every cent or minute.
And as we so often see in cinema, the zippy, on-the-fly, guerilla energy with which some movies are put together translates directly to the screen. In fact it happens with movies of any scale and scope. How many times have those cynical cash grabs from big studios felt like bloated, dull corporate mission statements with all the oxygen sucked out of them? What else was Apocalypse Now but an reflection of the production behind the camera that was spiralling out of control just like the story on screen depicted?
But this dispatch isn’t just about directors who do great work when they have to be fast, inventive and resourceful because the vision and script they came into the project with is so strong. It’s about the directors who should stay at that level.
The career path of a successful director is like entropy (or some other unshakable scientific principle). You rarely meet a filmmaker who breaks out with a nimble, buzz-worthy hit who doesn’t want to become a Movie Director® with a career in Hollywood®. Even if they’re not particularly interested in directing a Star Wars or Avengers movie, few would knock the opportunity back simply because the corporate ladder of that line of work is to get bigger budgets and work on bigger productions.
The problem is, you take many of those people who’ve done small, agile and ingenious movies and you give them more money, bigger stars, more locations, more stunts and VFX and everything ‘proper’ directors get who are well in the fold of the industry… and they flounder.
Look again at the subsequent careers of the three directors we started talking about. Mike Flanagan did something clever and special with the concept of Hush and repeated it (perfected it, actually) again in Gerald’s Game, turning a book many considered unfilmable into a legitimate piece of cinema. It made sense for Warner Bros to hand him the keys to the Shining kingdom with Doctor Sleep, and the result was something far less focused, as if there’d been too many balls in the air for Flanagan to successfully juggle.
Marshall blazed onto the cinematic stage with Dog Soldiers, then followed it up with the equally well made The Descent, a similarly small, intimate idea (and production). But when they gave him a bag of money to do Doomsday he spewed out some weird Alien / Mad Max hybrid that shouldn’t have got past the first development meeting. Most recently we had the Hellboy reboot, a movie they gave him $50m to make which at one point had a deeply embarrassing Rotten tomatoes score of 11 percent.
And more has been written about how Kevin Smith’s subsequent career has been like a messy, self-serving run of home movies to amuse his friends and family than I can possibly cover here. Look no further than Tusk and Yoga Hosers.
All of us who want to be artists of some sort for a living want to succeed, and from an economic and workflow point of view that means every new creative project is ideally bigger and better-resourced than the last. That’s natural and in most cases it’s a good thing for an audience, but we shouldn’t forget the directors who shine when they have a limited toolset, a small cast, a few locations and a short postproduction. It’s a shame some of them can’t stay right there.
On screens now, I finally saw a movie in cinemas for the first time since about February. Chris Nolan’s Tenet is proving a bit more divisive than most of his other films because of the much talked-about sound issues, but it’s still a corker.
I also heartily recommend Nic Cage horror comedy Mom and Dad. If you love nothing more than to watch Cage go completely nuts, this is the film for you. And although The Ghost Of Peter Sellers is director Peter Medak’s look at his own soul-crushing effort to make a movie in Europe with the late star, there’s lots of interesting stuff in it about moviemaking in general.
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