Gary Ross’ decision to walk away from “Catching Fire” and “The Hunger Games” phenomenon he helped create yields a double-barreled question: What will the franchise look like without him, and what will his career look like without it?
The answers depend, of course, on who Lionsgate hires to take Ross’ place, and on what the director decides to do with his suddenly wide-open schedule. But there are precedents for director swaps on big-name movies that could prove encouraging or disheartening, depending on your point of view.
Many fans clearly want Ross back. A poll on 24 Frames asking who should direct the new film saw “Bring Ross back, no matter what it takes” collect more votes than all the other responses combined. But these fans would be wise to look at cases where a director left a project midstream.
In a number of instances, a situation where a movie seemed in disarray without its original director worked out for the best.
It looked like “Gone With the Wind” was doomed when original director George Cukor was fired by producer David O. Selznick three weeks into production. Olivia de Havilland and other actors begged Selznick to reinstate him. Instead, the producer brought in Victor Fleming, who at the time was making “The Wizard of Oz.” Things turned out pretty nicely for both films.
“A lot of times what seems like a curse in these director situations can be a blessing," Ron Base, an author of numerous books about Hollywood history, told 24 Frames. "The new director comes in with something to prove."
There are less heartening instances. In the early 1960s, “One-Eyed Jacks” looked as if it could be a world-beater when Stanley Kubrick signed on to direct the Western, based on a script from Sam Peckinpah.
But Kubrick was fired shortly after, and Marlon Brando wound up taking a turn behind the camera. The resulting movie was a mixed bag at best. Brando’s directing career fared even worse — he’d never helm another movie.
Recent Hollywood history suggests that, “Harry Potter” notwithstanding, sequels work best when the same director stays with them. “Jurassic Park” took a pretty big dive when Joe Johnston stepped in for Steven Spielberg. In contrast, a franchise conceived and helmed by one person over the course of its life tends to turn out pretty well (see under: Peter Jackson and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy).
In some cases, films don't look better or worse under a new director; they just look very different. Here’s a fun thought experiment: How would “Bonnie and Clyde” have turned out had it been helmed by the filmmaker who initially agreed to direct it, Francois Truffaut?
Truffaut made “Farenheit 451” instead, a film that received mixed reviews, though turning down "Bonnie" didn’t hurt his stature as a pioneer of the French New Wave. Under the hand of Arthur Penn, “Bonnie and Clyde” turned out pretty well too.
Today’s Hollywood differs considerably from that of previous eras: As publicly traded companies, studios tend to be more conservative than they've ever been, and their level of involvement is high. A franchise like “The Hunger Games” also builds off a well-known body of work in a way that discourages unexpectedness or wild reinvention.
Fans may be wringing their hands about the Ross departure. But very few directors these days can, on their own, drive a beloved property into the ground -- or, for that matter, come up with a surprise masterpiece.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Gary Ross' "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate