The Hollywood Risk Equation: Would you have hired Kenneth Branagh to direct 'Thor'?
In Hollywood, summer is the season of familiarity. My kid isn't half as jaded as I am, but after sitting through a scrum of recent movie trailers crammed with bulked-up comic book heroes, battling villains and dodging explosions, he grumbled: “They all look like they're from the same movie.”
But judging from the box office take for the sequels to “The Fast and the Furious,” “The Hangover” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” familiarity doesn't seem to breed contempt. So if you're running a studio, you end up hiring the same filmmakers, hoping to keep the sequel assembly line running smoothly. After all, why mess with a good thing?
“The Hangover Part II” was directed by Todd Phillips, who helmed the first movie and stuck as close to the comedy formula of the original as humanly possible. “Cars 2” is in the hands of John Lasseter, who made the original. The same goes for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II,” which remains in the care of David Yates and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which still has Michael Bay in the catbird seat.
“Green Lantern” is being directed by Martin Campbell, a journeyman action director best known for making “Zorro” films. The graphic novel-inspired “Cowboys & Aliens” has Jon Favreau at the helm, having proven his worth making Marvel's “Iron Man” series.
On the other hand, there is the saga of Kenneth Branagh, who after making a string of flops has enjoyed an astounding career resurrection directing “Thor,” which has not only made more than $400 million around the world, but earned some of the best reviews of the summer, scoring an impressive 78 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The choice of Branagh was a shocker.
As Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman put it: “It was as if you’d told me that the upcoming Spider-Man reboot was going to be directed by Whit Stillman — or that Jane Campion was going to try for a change of pace by signing on to make ‘Fast Six: Furious in Moscow.’"
Branagh's career as a bankable filmmaker was in the deep freeze. Despite stars Michael Caine and Jude Law, his 2007 film “Sleuth” was a bomb, only making $342,000 in the United States. Branagh had only directed two other films since 2000: One never got a U.S. theatrical release; the other ended up airing on HBO after its studio wouldn't give it a commercial run.
So why was Marvel, which produced “Thor,” willing to take a flyer on Branagh? As with many risks in showbiz, it turns out the decision was strikingly personal. All the work Branagh did over the years popularizing Shakespeare was not in vain. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige says that when he was in school he'd found the grand old bard's work cold and lifeless until his mother dragged him to see Branagh’s 1993 film “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“I just didn't like Shakespeare until I saw that film,” he told me. “I remember going, 'Oh, so Shakespeare doesn't have to be painful and drab. It can actually be totally relatable and relevant and entertaining.'"
Of course, being relatable and relevant and entertaining is pretty much the mission statement for Marvel films. So when Feige started looking for directors for “Thor,” whose story about a rivalry between two brothers for their father's throne would fit neatly in the annals of Shakespeare, the Marvel chief found himself irresistibly drawn to “Much Ado's” director, who of course was Branagh.
“We had a lot of people on our director lists who'd handled spectacle, special effects and stunts, but we kept coming back to Ken,” Feige recalls. “There are things you can do together with a filmmaker, like the special effects and the costumes, but when it came to having a brilliant gift for working with actors, only Ken could do that.”
Branagh corresponded by email with Feige for months before flying out to Los Angeles to meet him. “I wrote a seven-page opening to the film, which I read to him, sort of as a declaration of intent,” Branagh told me. “Obviously my history of work with Shakespeare was a qualification for the job, but I didn't want to be in the realm of the gods all the time. You might say that what excited me about the film probably wasn't at all what Kevin thought I'd be excited about.”
Feige realized that he and Branagh were on the same creative page when he saw a batch of drawings and photos Branagh had compiled to show how he imagined the world of Thor's home planet of Asgard. “It was a gleaming city of spires,” Feige recalls. “Ken imagined it looking a lot like the architecture of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which is exactly what we'd been looking at ourselves.”
This is often what happens when studio chiefs take a deep breath and roll the dice on someone no one would imagine hiring for an ambitious film. Perhaps the grandest gamble in modern-day Hollywood was the decision by New Line chief Bob Shaye to hire Peter Jackson to direct the studio's “Lord of the Rings” trilogy at a time when Jackson was unemployable after making a big sci-fi flop. But Shaye had the same reaction to Jackson's ideas that Feige had to Branagh's -- he knew in his gut that he'd found the right man for the job.
“You have to believe that people are as good as their best work, not their worst,” says Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, who hired Sam Raimi to direct “Spider-Man” despite the fact that his previous film, the brooding thriller “The Gift,” had barely earned $12 million. “It's very easy to hire the shiniest star because you might think that will get you what you want. But you always do better when you trust your instincts.”
Pascal says that every top filmmaker in town came in to audition for “Spider-Man.” “But when Sam came in, he didn't talk about what cameras he was going to use or how cool the effects were going to be. He said he saw 'Spider-Man' as a love story. All he talked about was his relationship with Peter Parker. We just felt in sync with him. It wasn't a brave decision. After hearing Sam talk, it just felt logical.”
In a way it all comes down to connectedness. “Peter Guber has a great saying: The studio executive's job is to connect a filmmaker with the audience through the right story, which is something we're always trying to do,” explains Warner Bros. Executive Vice President Greg Silverman.
When Warners hired Phillips to direct “The Hangover,” he was coming off a flop -– “School for Scoundrels” -- but when the Warners brass looked at Phillips’ other films like “Road Trip” and “Old School,” Silverman says “we realized that he wasn't just good with comedy, but he really understood the relationships between men, which is what 'The Hangover' was really about.”
Warners had similar box office success with handing “The Bucket List” over to Rob Reiner, even though the filmmaker had made a slew of commercial duds. The studio believed that Reiner still had his comedy chops -- he simply hadn't had been synched up with the right material.
Marvel recently hired Joss Whedon to direct “The Avengers,” due out next summer, even though his one directorial foray outside of TV wasn't a commercial success. “We'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn't bring him on board,” says Feige. “As with Ken, when you find the absolute perfect fit for something, to go with anything less would be the worst risk of all.”
In other words, when you hire a director, you're betting on talent, not on how their latest credits look on a profit and loss statement. There's no formula for success in Hollywood, but timidity will never equal creativity. As Marvel has once again proven this summer, if you're afraid of making a bad decision, you'll probably never make a really great one.
-- Patrick Goldstein
RECENT AND RELATED: Roger Ebert: Still in no mood to apologize about hating 'Thor'
Photo: Kenneth Branagh, director of "Thor," in Los Angeles last month.
Credit: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters