One of the great joys of being a fan of Hollywood--or Broadway, pro sports, music or underwater basket-weaving, for that matter--is the arrival of a new talent. The idea that someone has come along whom we’d never heard of before is exciting, far more exciting than the notion of someone we long knew was great simply living up to expectations. A new talent mixes the sheer fun of discovery with the possibility that we suddenly have a whole new career and output to look forward to.
That’s how the story should have played out for Josh Trank. At 26 the L.A. native was hired to direct a studio movie. At 27 that studio movie, the superhero-ish adventure “Chronicle,” had won the weekend and become one of the breakouts of that year in 2012. By 37 he could have won three Oscars. By 47 he could have been counting his money on the George Lucas Victory Tour.
But the narrative took a different road this weekend when Trank’s next movie, a rebooted version of “Fantastic Four,” faceplanted at the box office. The 20th Century Fox release barely squeezed out $26 million, was slammed by critics and gave box-office pundits more “clobberin’” puns than any one reporter should ever be given.
Realizing how bad it was looking, or perhaps just frustrated with being held accountable for a movie he didn’t believe was his, Trank sent out, then deleted, a tweet last week shortly before the movie opened. “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews,” he wrote. “You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”
The movie at that point was pretty obviously going to flop. To skeptics (and, perhaps, the studio) Trank was the reason it was going down. Trank wanted to make sure the movie didn’t bring him down with it.
(Lest we think this was all newbie intemperance and that Trank should never have sent that tweet, by the way, we might want to think again. Trank may be savvier than we realize. He wasn’t getting on another Fox movie anyway, and the film wasn’t going to succeed anyway. Best to put some distance, and why not with tweet deletion as the chosen method. It’s the new spin control/fig leaf. “Did I say that? I didn’t mean that. But I’m now glad you know that.”)
It’s easy to see why Trank was hired for “Fantastic Four” in the first place. “Chronicle” depicted a bunch of normal kids blessed with unlikely powers. “Fantastic Four” pretty much aims for the same thing--just on a larger scale. Like with most professions, if you handle one job well you’re given a similar but bigger one the next time.
Of course, more important than whether you can scale up is whether you can fit in. There were reports on the set of “Fantastic Four” of management and personality issues--so much so that it appears to have contributed to the director being removed from an upcoming “Star Wars” movie, with which “Fantastic Four” shared a producer. We may never know the full truth--was this a matter of youthful folly or just a personality clash? Still, it’s hard to entirely ignore Trank’s experience, or lack thereof, in all this; negotiating with studios on big tent-poles is not easy, and it helps if you have a little history with them and know how to deal with the frustrations.
The story of upstart directors taking over projects of this size is a common one in Hollywood lately--a trend, even. In past cases it’s worked out just fine. The highest-grossing movie of the year is “Jurassic World,” directed by Colin Trevorrow, a filmmaker who had made just one feature, a small Sundance charmer called “Safety Not Guaranteed,” before taking on the dinos. The filmmaker James Gunn, best known for a superhero parody called “Super” and the script of “Scooby-Doo,” had a similarly meteoric rise last year when his “Guardians of the Galaxy” became the third-highest grossing movie of the year.
And young ‘un Jon Watts was just hired to direct a new “Spider-Man” despite making only a couple indies, including “Cop Car,” a thriller on the road in Colorado with Kevin Bacon and his mustache (incidentally also an early working title).
New voices from unlikely places are welcome. Hollywood has too long been rooted in a seniority system and predicated on dues-paying. And of course the appeal for a tentpole newbie is clear--a fresh perspective and motivated personality (which in studio-speak can be code for low-cost and malleable--but let’s go with the fresh perspective thing). In the other cases they seemed to have worked out well. But you live by the inexperienced and unpredictable, you die by the inexperienced and unpredictable, or at least are left scrambling to cover up his ill-advised tweets. This weekend’s Trank clank, in other words, shows the other side of the newbie director wave.
Who knows, really, how much of the finished film belongs to Trank and how much doesn’t. Certainly no one ever went broke underestimating the studio meddle-ability on big superhero films--a rule that includes Fox, which under different leadership fought with Gavin Hood over a movie in the “X-Men” series. And, let’s be honest, it’s not like earlier Trank-less installments of “Fantastic Four” were cinematic masterpieces.
So it would be unfair to lay responsibility entirely at Trank’s feet. But the director can’t be exempted either, and the studio has reason to rue its decision to go the wunderkind route. When you sign on a director with little track record or experience handling a movie of this size, well, you get someone who might not be able to handle a movie of this size. Sure, you potentially could land someone exciting, but could just as easily end up with someone excitable, someone who, when you pull in a certain direction, winds up pushing buttons instead.