Indie's rebel helmers have morphed into Holllywood's megapic maestros

In the early 1990s, the independent film world clearly stood for something — thoughtful, artistic films that were the opposite of big-budget Hollywood studio escapist fare. The ascendancy of the indie film helmer coincided with other forces of change in the early ’90s, as dark grunge sounds took over from the fluffy pop-rock of the late 1980s, the colors of the subculture ran from neon Spandex to dark flannel, Nirvana kicked out Bon Jovi and the people who identified with the fringes went looking for a new fringe to entertain them.

What they found were guys like Steven Soderbergh, Neil Jordan and Quentin Tarantino making movies that seemed to speak their language.

“I had no idea a film like ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ could make $25 million,” recounts Jordan, “and then ‘Crying Game’ did even better. When ‘Pulp Fiction’ made $100 million you realized just how big the audience really was for these kinds of movies.”

“That shouldn’t be so surprising,” says director James Mangold (“Heavy,” “Walk the Line”). “Hollywood has a long relationship to subculture — for years they were the only people who kept the classic movies alive. I mean, the Clash sang about Montgomery Clift.”

If it’s easy to see why the studios would covet the latest filmmaking talents, the larger question is why the helmers who made many of the defining indie films — John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”), Soderbergh (“sex, lies and videotape”), Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado”), Richard Linklater (“Slacker”), Peter Jackson (“Heavenly Creatures”), Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead”) to name only a few — all go Hollywood?

Well, bigger budgets mean bigger bucks — duh! But remarkably, many of these helmers have actually brought their filmmaking sensibilities to their studio tasks.

For instance, Christopher Nolan used the unique storytelling that made “Memento” so bracing to revive the “Batman” franchise for Warner Bros. Mangold brought his unbridled passion for the subject of Johnny Cash’s life story to Fox’s “Walk the Line.” Bryan Singer got on the map with “The Usual Suspects,” then used his strong storytelling skills to re-invent the comic book genre pic with “X-Men.”

Indeed, “Harry Potter” benefited from Alfonso Cuaron’s own vision for the story, while a part of Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Twelve” success rests on the innovative storytelling of the caper pics. So the filmmakers got bigger canvases and still managed to keep their voices heard.

And Hollywood seems pleased with the results.

Nolan’s 2005 blockbuster “Batman Begins” resurrected a laughingstock of a franchise by injecting the story with the very thing that the make-the-most-people-happy tradition of studio filmmaking never quite understood about superheroes — many of them are not quite nice guys. Oh, it worked well at the box office, nearly doubling the U.S. take of the preceding Bat-film.

That Nolan created a Dark Knight worthy of the name is far less surprising than the fact that Warner Bros. let him go that route without any fuss.

“There wasn’t even a fight,” recounts Nolan. “I approached them with the idea. They already knew that studio filmmaking had screwed up this franchise. They couldn’t do it their way, so I got to do it my way.”

Soderbergh’s “sex, lies” made impressive returns on its miniscule budget, but “Oceans’ Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve” made more than $800 million globally. Look closely, however, and there is a link: Soderbergh disguises straight-forward crime thriller material with a visual flavor that has far more in common with his indie “The Limey” than it does with his mainstream “Erin Brockovich.”

Along similar lines, Alexander Payne lost some of the acidity of “Election,” but still turned out films in both “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” with the kind of independent-spirited and unlikable protagonists who, not five years ago, would have been focus-group-tested right out of the picture.

While this may not seem that drastic a change, some four years before Nolan jumped into “Batman,” Bryan Singer — whose career trajectory Nolan followed almost film-by-film (Nolan went from “Memento” to “Insomnia” to “Batman” while Singer went from “The Usual Suspects” to “Apt Pupil” to “X-Men,” and both in very similar time frames) — jumped into “X-Men.” Yet Nolan’s statement that “I feel like an indie filmmaker working inside the studio system,” is a world apart from Singer’s experience.

“I’ve approached my films with the same independence I approached my earliest films,” says the helmer, “but ‘X-Men’ was rough going. Fox shut us down for a while. It was just a long, long process.”

All of this raises a number of questions about the transformational impact of this latest wave of indie directors on the studio terrain.

Certainly, in the past 10 years, all of the major multi-conglomerates have formed Miramax-esque specialty arms.

Some of these, as helmer Jordan points out, “exist simply to strike the same deal indies strike: pay less, get more,” while others, as “Crash” producer Bob Yari says, “are in the indie game because their distribution deals demand they maintain a certain market share. Theaters need product and the studios don’t have the desire or the ability to feed that pipeline, so they’re much more willing to partner with an indie up front.”

But neither of these things change the fact that the studios have recognized a need for spicier flavors and are much more willing to let folks who made their name on the fringes take a shot at bringing their tastes to the masses.

And for the latest generation of viewers, raised on the quick cuts of MTV and the riskier content of HBO, traditional studio fare felt increasingly flat. So the studios fought back by, for example, letting indie horror alum Raimi make “Spider-Man” with far more impunity than would typically befall a $140 million production.

Certainly, this has co-opted something of the independent directors’ spirit. As Jeff Meyers wrote in Metrotime, Detroit’s alternative weekly, “There’s a scene in ‘Spider-Man 2′ where Doctor Octopus is rushed to the hospital to have the creepy mechanical arms grafted to his spine removed. The arms suddenly spring to life and, as captured in a series of frantically wild camera shots, kill everyone in the operating room. For long-time fans of Raimi’s work, the scene is a rare cameo appearance of the director’s former over-the-top style.”

“What studio would ever have imagined that two of the best films of last year would be a documentary about penguins (‘March of the Penguins’) and a black-and-white history lesson (‘Good Night, and Good Luck’)?” asks Mark Gill, the head of Warner Independent Pictures.

“The success of such films has given us the ability to put a director’s voice back into some studio movies.”

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