After his tweets following the flop of Fantastic Four critically and commercially this weekend, let’s take a moment to welcome Fantastic Four director Josh Trank to the ranks of the renouncers. In his now-deleted tweets, Trank claims that he had a better cut of the film a year ago, implying that it’s studio interference that’s to blame for the questionable quality of his final product. But if Trank is looking for consolation, everything old is new again—for as long as there have been films, there have been filmmakers who have felt betrayed enough by the process of collaboration to openly disown their films.
Trank isn’t even the first filmmaker this year to take it upon himself to clear the record. In February, David O. Russell disowned his film Nailed, née Accidental Love, which was finally released in the UK in May after eight years in limbo. The film’s production was so disastrous and so financially fraught that Russell abandoned the project before filming finished—in fact leaving filmmaking altogether for several years. Russell’s time off led to an entirely different style as a filmmaker, which he brought to his 2010 comeback feature The Fighter. Granted, some filmmakers are obstinate to the point of contrarianism: Woody Allen famously can’t find the virtues of what are probably his three most beloved films, Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah And Her Sisters. But most of the successful artists who have disowned films have used the experience as part of the learning curve. David Fincher’s disappointment with the meddling that happened on his first film, Aliens3, might have bred Fincher’s commitment to his artistic convictions now.
Maybe the most fortuitous example of this kind of forced introspection happened in 1986, as a young David Lynch returned to cinema with Blue Velvet after the disappointment of having his film Dune be heavily re-edited by studios. Lynch denounced Dune, using the industry pseudonym “Alan Smithee” on several cuts as a means of masking his involvement. The existence of the Smithee moniker at all is a sign of the frequency with which directors attempt to distance themselves from their own work; members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) created the name in 1968 as a legal means to protect directors whose vision had been tampered with.Of course, not every filmmaker was able to transition from disappointment to distinction. For every David Lynch, there are a dozen Smithee adoptees like filmmaker Richard C. Sarafian, who denounce their flop—in Sarafian’s case it was the sci-fi failure Solar Crisis—and who are subsequently forgotten. But better forgotten than ridiculed, and for the most part, the worst that will generally come to a filmmaker who has made an embarrassing picture is a lack of future pictures, a fate one imagines might well come as a relief.Naturally, there are the notorious: the Leni Reifenstahls, the ones who breached the laws of human decency and for whom repudiation is too little, too late. Reifenstahl claimed in her memoirs and until her death that her Nazi propaganda films were made in fear of retaliation, not out of political allegiance, and maybe she wasn’t even lying—but the fact remains that her name is a specter, a ghoulish reminder of the dangers of pursuing any artistic vision at all costs. But Leni Reifenstahls are few and far between. In a time when even Jerry Lewis’s never-before-seen-it’s-that-disastrous concentration camp comedy The Day The Clown Cried can earn a (fifty years late) reprieve, what’s Josh Trank got to worry about? Besides being boring, his movie is hardly offensive. If his first film Chronicle is an indicator, he’ll live to superhero again—though maybe not with Marvel.
And Marvel isn’t alone in their pursuit of fresh talent. In the last couple of years it’s become a bit of a trend for studios to offer gigantic effects and action-driven projects to relatively untested filmmakers. While this trend on the surface seems like an offer of goodwill, there are implications beyond generosity. Most obviously there are gendered and racial implications of these choices: it’s hard to imagine Marvel meeting with Ava DuVernay on just the merits of her small-scale first film I Will Follow like Universal did with Colin Trevorrow, who had only made the indie Safety Not Guaranteed before being offered Jurassic World. But beyond just demographics, this new practice reveals an attitude toward filmmaking that is at best misguided and at worst predatory. Film is not a tech start-up, it’s an art form, and there are benefits to letting young artists actually master their craft before placing the responsibility of hundreds of millions of dollars on their shoulders. Young developers are an asset in tech industries because the technology changes at such a rapid pace that incorporating a younger generation is one way of keeping abreast of new developments. In cinema the cameras might change, but the basic techniques are still the same.Jackson Pollack didn’t start out as a drip painter—he developed his abstract technique only after years of more conventional painting. Thanks to Hollywood’s youth fetish, what should be common sense now bears repeating: It’s age and experience that brings the kind of confidence artists need to be able to innovate. And it’s age and experience that makes overseeing a multimillion-dollar franchise manageable, too.As major artist after major artist either turns down studio films—like DuVernay did with Black Panther—or refuses the offer to return—like Joss Whedon after his second Avengers film—it’s becoming increasingly clear that what studios are interested in has little to do with actual innovation or even the quality of their finished project, and much more to do with their ability to control their investments. As established artists refuse to concede their creative control, studios are turning to the next best thing: kids who show promise and who lack the power to say no to executive demands.For the most part, studios have been lucky to choose filmmakers who were able to rise to the occasion. Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla was a hit, and even if it wasn’t the next Jaws, it featured some of the most exciting photography of any blockbuster in recent memory. Similarly, though his film isn’t a patch on the original, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World was able to turn a huge profit and is far and away the most successful film of the year. Neither director went off-budget, neither had major conflicts to report on set.Josh Trank’s production on Fantastic Four was nowhere near as smooth, as an Entertainment Weekly report paints Trank as indecisive, belligerent with studio executives, and unable to separate his personal life from his behavior on set after a conflict with his landlord caused him to lash out at his crew. But whether this comes as a surprise is another matter. If studios paid as much attention to the failures of start-ups as they do to their successes, they might have seen Trank’s alleged behavior for what it was: the natural consequence of giving an adolescent responsibility before he’s ready to handle it.