HOLLYWOOD — They fashion themselves as maverick storytellers. Their names are by now familiar — David O. Russell, Kimberly Peirce, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson. These filmmakers, and a few more like them, delight in dancing between the studio and independent worlds, but they are less interested in fat, long-term studio pacts than in creating movies with resonance.
Studios are now heavily wooing these directors — even though they tend to take a long time between projects and demand autonomy and creative control, many also prefering to write their own material.
In an era when the majors increasingly seek off-balance sheet financing, these new helmers bring a polished script, the ability to attract top talent and sometimes independent funding.
But the studios are perplexed about how to deal with them given their militantly autonomous modus operandi.
“With the old studio director, you could send them a script and wait for their response,” commented a studio topper. “With these guys, they send you their script on a Saturday afternoon and tell the messenger to wait until you have finished, and hand it back to them. They don’t want anything distributed to D-boys or anyone else.”
While the new breed of filmmaker often shows a penchant for difficult subject matter, their talent is unmistakable, and the studios are anxious to exploit it.
“There is a certain belief that these directors represent the best chance to get the best movie made,” said UTA partner John Lesher, whose client roster includes P.T. Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”), Russell (“Three Kings”) and Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”). “And studios know that today’s indie filmmaker may be tomorrow’s mainstream moviemaker.”
The new breed is already attracting A-list talent: Wes Anderson’s new pic stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller; Payne’s “About Schmidt” stars Jack Nicholson; and Jonze’s “Adaptation” stars Nicholas Cage.
If Lesher is right, it could augur a subtle but significant change in studio slates, which have become increasingly devoid of adult dramas or risky films and are filled instead with high-octane event pics and high-concept comedies.
The embrace of the new helmers could also change the way the studios approach script development: Instead of wading through stacks of scripts, then trying to match script with available director, development execs might be encouraged to scour indie festivals for filmmakers with a vision.
Jonze’s “Adaptation,” which stars Nicolas Cage, is a case in point. The Charlie Kaufman-penned script was originally developed by then Sony-based Jonathan Demme and Ed Saxon. Sony committed to domestic distribution only after Intermedia came aboard to finance the $20 million-plus pic in exchange for international distribution rights. Sony’s financial responsibility begins and ends with handling the pic’s print and advertising costs.
“They liked the script and were really upfront that if we could do it inexpensively enough, then we would be allowed to do it the way we thought was appropriate,” said the soft-spoken Jonze.
“In terms of the script, they told us their opinions but they didn’t try to enforce them.”
If the 1980s and ’90s were a time of the studio director for hire, these new-millennium helmers are looking increasingly like the filmmakers of the countercultural ’70s. Like their predecessors, they have little interest in listening to anything the multinational corporations have to say.
Yes, they want to succeed commercially, but on their own terms — terms that include control over who reads their scripts (and where those scripts are read), how their films are edited and sometimes how they are marketed.
Still, the studios always look at the bottom line; they would love to find the next Steven Spielberg. But they’d happily settle for the next Steven Soderbergh. The director of “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” is the latest successful example of fusing an art-house approach with commercial properties.
Fox, meanwhile, succeeded in grafting the dark sensibilities of Bryan Singer to a mass-appeal property with “X-Men.”
After the quirky visionary Tim Burton struck gold with Warner Bros.’ “Batman,” the studio is hoping arthouse vet Darren Aronofsky can similarly revive that franchise. But it’s not clear if he or the other maverick filmmakers are willing, or able, to create event films.
“You can’t overestimate the homogenizing power of the blockbuster,” said Peirce, who is researching and writing, with her “Boys” co-writer Andy Bienen, an untitled love story for New Line, which she will direct. “We’d rather do it the way we want to.”
Coin vs. creativity
Doing it their own way often results in a trade-off: In exchange for more creative control, the financing becomes more limited.
“It’s not about the size of the upfront paycheck on a fat studio deal,” said Propaganda Management president Rick Hess, whose company manages Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), Singer and other directors. “It’s more about being able to execute your own vision and protect that process.”
This allows the filmmakers to explore less commercial subject matter while employing new visual styles and fresher storylines.
Films like “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Three Kings,” “Being John Malkovich” and the Payne-directed “Election” contain a healthy critique of contemporary mores. And their storylines, and visual style, are hardly what one would expect the majors to embrace.
Jonze’s “Adaptation” is a comedy. Kaufman, who penned “Being John Malkovich,” was hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s anecdotal book “The Orchid Thief,” which — according to Sony’s studio coverage — “is filled with poignant, existentialist musings inspired by an idiosyncratic orchid collector and his quirky yet passionate life.”
Kaufman turned the tale into one of a screenwriter who is having difficulty adapting “The Orchid Thief”; he teams with his novice-screenwriter twin brother, who takes Robert McKee’s screenwriting class. It’s not the most pitchable of storylines.
Peirce said that, thanks to such phenomena as AIDS, the corporate culture and even last year’s presidential election, there is a growing sense of upheaval among contemporary filmmakers, which links them with their ’70s idols.
“Our need to create meaning is coming out of a real, vital part of ourselves, as a reaction to what exists,” she said.
But Peter Biskind, who chronicled ’70s filmmaking in his bestselling book “Raging Bulls, Easy Riders,” begs to differ.
“With some significant exceptions, I don’t think these films are as personal as the films of the ’70s. I don’t see a ‘Mean Streets’ among them.”
Coming full circle
Still, the new generation has its admirers. “It’s the greatest thing that’s happened in the movie business in a while,” said Revolution topper Joe Roth said. “We have come full circle.
“I do believe that the audience is getting so savvy that they are getting oversold to,” continued Roth. “People working in the mainstream can make studio pictures and still have a very personal voice.”
Michael De Luca, who recently joined DreamWorks as production president, supervised pics such as Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” at New Line. “These new directors are looked upon as pioneers,” he said, “because many are at the beginning of their careers and nobody knows what the next years will bring.”