What Happens When Indie Directors Take on Big Franchises in Hollywood?

Suddenly, all the giant Hollywood franchises are being driven by alternative filmmakers. The latest news is that Rian Johnson, director of indies Looper and Brick, will direct Star Wars VIII. Can a quirky visionary really change a pop culture behemoth? Here's what happened to other indies in the franchise machine.

Johnson joins a host of other indie directors making the jump. The forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes from director James Gunn, best known for the ultraviolent, intensely weird indies Slither and Super. Meanwhile, Duncan Jones has gone from the character-driven arthouse flick Moon to directing Warcraft. Josh Trank, best known for the scrappy superhero flick Chronicle, will be helming a Star Wars movie as well as directing the next Fantastic Four outing.

Obviously this is cause for some rejoicing, for a variety of reasons. Franchise empires are known for trotting out cliched, repetition-prone sequels that feel like they came out of some scary studio echo chamber, where coke-snorting producers congratulate each other for inventing chest armor with nipples. Maybe indie directors will come in with an outside perspective and reinvent these franchises. It's possible that they'll even have ideas that are more original than using lens flare to make our old heroes feel vital again.

A New Perspective

Sometimes this has actually happened. Before Peter Jackson took on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, do you know what he was best-known for? A seriously deranged zombie movie called Dead Alive, which features death-by-lawnmower and a giant zombie vagina dentata (sorry — I guess that was a spoiler). He'd also directed a gross alien invasion flick called Bad Taste and a dreamy, beautiful teen lesbian psychological thriller called Heavenly Creatures. The guy was brilliantly demented, but not exactly mainstream. And then his otherworldly, monster-saturated imagination gave us one of the most profound, well-realized adaptations of a franchise the world has ever seen.

What Happens When Indie Directors Take on Big Franchises in Hollywood?

I could make the same point about bringing Christopher Nolan in to direct Batman Begins, which was his first big movie after brainy suspense cult hits Memento and Insomnia. What that franchise needed was a smart, paranoid, meticulously shot reboot — and I think there's little chance that could have come from someone deep inside Hollywood. Similarly, director Jon Favreau brought a much-needed new sensibility to superheroes with Iron Man, which had a lot of the sarcastic humor that made his indie flick Swingers such a critical hit.

And let's not forget that Gareth Edwards, director of hit indie Monsters, brought his outside-the-box love of giant monster mating rituals to Godzilla. When I saw the MUTOs smooching around a nuclear warhead, I knew I was watching an Edwards movie. That was definitely a first for the kaiju franchise.

Oops — Maybe That Was Too Weird

But sometimes the indie touch creates something that's just too bizarre for the mainstream movie-goer.

David Fincher's Alien 3 was a radical departure from the action fest that James Cameron dished out in Aliens — maybe too radical. You could tell that Alien 3 came from a very different place than the rest of the series had; Fincher left his mark. But bald Sigourney Weaver in a testosterone-pumped prison boiling with racial and class politics was just a little too much for people who just wanted big guns and chase scenes.

What Happens When Indie Directors Take on Big Franchises in Hollywood?

Michel Gondry's Green Hornet was another franchise flick that felt like it came out of left field — I thought in a good way, but most audiences disagreed. It's probably the only franchise movie Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, will ever do. But I will always love him for giving us the scene where Seth Rogen yells, "Where's my LEAF?" when Cato stops making perfect latte art on his coffee every morning.

Wait, Who Directed That?

Then there are the franchise flicks that are so bland and typical that you would never guess they'd been directed by award-winning directors known for their nuanced characters. For example, Alfonso Cuarón, director of Children of Men and Gravity, directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Did you notice? Was there a startling new intensity to the characters in that movie, or action that made you feel like your heart was being ripped out through your throat? Not really. It wasn't a bad movie — I quite liked it — but it didn't feel like anything special.

What Happens When Indie Directors Take on Big Franchises in Hollywood?

The same thing happened when Bill Condon, director of Dreamgirls, Kinsey, and Gods and Monsters, took on both parts of Twilight: Breaking Dawn. I was hoping he'd throw in some subversive bits, or little knowing winks, but nothing. Again, the movies delivered what you'd expect. Sure, there was a seriously fucked up vampire pregnancy, and perhaps the most lurid wedding and home decor porn I've ever seen. But those were in the books, too. It wasn't like I could see Condon's hand at work in the scene where Bella tours her new home and touches every throw pillow.

Oh, and did you know that Gavin Hood, best known for his Academy Award-winning movie Tsotsi, directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine? I saw no traces of the guy who created an intense story of outsiders struggling to survive in a politically and economically destroyed country. Was this version of Wolverine grittier or more realistic? Were you emotionally ravaged by this tale of love and skeleton replacement? Nope. It was a fairly meh franchise flick, and the "edgy" parts were embarrassingly bad.

The Bold Future of Planet Franchise

So what can we expect from this latest crop of indie directors who have been sucked into the franchise factory? I'm especially curious about Star Wars, which will feature an all-indie crew after JJ Abrams finishes with episode VII. In some ways, I think the worst outcome would be if we couldn't even tell that Rian Johnson and Gareth Edwards (who is signed up to direct a standalone episode) had been there. I'd rather watch a weird, uneven Alien 3-ish Star Wars movie than something bland or mildly interesting.

What Happens When Indie Directors Take on Big Franchises in Hollywood?

And maybe these indie filmmakers won't just make better movies, but bring in a more diverse group to make them. You'll notice that these indie directors are all white guys. If outsider perspectives made Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight into fantastic franchises, imagine what would happen if you brought in the perspectives of women and people of color. It's possible they'd give us the same old bland pablum the white guys have been delivering for decades. But maybe they'd give us a fantasy epic that actually feels epic — or a superhero whose emotions have more than one dimension. Or something so blisteringly awesome we can't even imagine it.

That's a future worth fighting for.