Why couldn't David O. Russell and Sony make it work on 'Uncharted'?
Whenever the subject of the movie “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune” came up with David O. Russell during the last Oscar season, he had one response. He was going. Fast.
"It's a locomotive," the "Fighter" director told 24 Frames in December of his progress on the video game adaptation. "I don't know how to say this except that I feel that I see things much more clearly. I don't turn over an idea as I once would,” he added.
It wasn’t entirely easy to believe. Russell was famously deliberative about his process -- he took six years between completing “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Fighter” -- and he had flirted with “Uncharted” for months before committing, causing film reporters to write a series of hair-pulling stories that had him in one day and out the next.
But Russell was convincing enough in our December interview, especially when he said he had written half the script already and then proceeded to lay out the plot. (It would be an art-heist movie involving a family of international thieves, using the game as a loose template.)
On Thursday it came to light that Russell wouldn’t direct the action-adventure after all. But that wasn’t, it turned out, because he couldn’t decide what to do. It was because he had steamrolled ahead, but in a different direction than studio Sony wanted.
Russell had already turned in a script, but it was a script so long and so ambitious that it was at least partly responsible for the studio and him parting ways, according to two people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to talk about it publicly. (Sony declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Russell.)
Among the many flourishes Russell had added were a bevy of characters not in the video game. (The director had given hints of this in December when he said he loved the idea of a “a family that's a force to be reckoned with in the world of international art and antiquities ... [a family] that deals with heads of state and heads of museums and metes out justice.” The game centers on a lone adventurer, Nathan Drake.)
Without having read Russell's script, it’s hard to know whether this divorce is good or bad news for the film, though "Uncharted" fans skeptical of Russell and his choice of Mark Wahlberg for Nathan Drake probably have their own opinions. The studio still wants to make the movie, and will bring on a new writer and director to work off an earlier draft (written by the scribes of the upcoming "Conan the Barbarian"). It's not expected that Wahlberg, who had been Russell's choice, will star in the film (allowing fans to begin their drumbeat for Nathan Fillion again). It's also hard to imagine that the movie will come out next summer, as some fans had hoped.
Russell, meanwhile, has plenty of other options, many of them promising and most of them not in the summer-action vein. There's a Russ Meyer biopic, a teacher drama called "The Silver Linings Playbook" with Bradley Cooper and Anne Hathaway, and a traveling salesman dramedy with Vince Vaughn and Chloe Moretz.
But more than any individual director choice, there's perhaps a bigger lesson in the Russell-"Uncharted" saga.
While studios in this post-Chris Nolan era like to make some of their biggest movies with top-flight auteurs, the marketing-driven nature of the studio system, and the fussiness of said directors, means the reality can't always match that ambition. Darren Aronofsky and Fox couldn’t make it work on “Wolverine,” and Sony and Steven Soderbergh clashed on "Moneyball" in a way that led the studio to pull the plug on on the film just days before the cast and crew were due to arrive on set.
All these pairings would have been interesting, and then some. But given the state of the movie business these days, inserting a rare part into the studio machine often doesn't make for a locomotive. It just causes the train to sputter.
Photo: A shot from the Uncharted: Drake's Fortune video game. Credit: Sony