Where Have All the Young Directors Gone?

When Quentin Tarantino sits down for an interview, you know that the entertainment press and film lovers of all shapes will pounce on his idiosyncratic remarks. This summer, in the middle of editing The Hateful Eight (slated for release Christmas Day), Tarantino spoke with New York Magazine’s Lane Brown. Almost everything covered in the interview got a reaction from the director’s fans, from his comments about Barack Obama to True Detective. (For the record, Tarantino loves the president, but found the heralded first season of HBO’s crime anthology to be “really boring.”)

However, one of Tarantino’s responses didn’t get a lot of commentary, even though it shows a surprising lack of film knowledge from, arguably, the world’s most famous cinephile. When asked if there were younger filmmakers he was excited about today, Tarantino responded with “Noah Baumbach.” As Brown retorted to the Oscar-winning screenwriter, correctly, the writer/director of indie comedies like The Squid and the Whale has “been making movies for almost as long as you have.” Baumbach is 46, six years younger than Tarantino. The Pulp Fiction director then offered another choice: Mark and Jay Duplass. They are, respectively, 38 and 42.

These egregious oversights were quite surprising for a filmmaker who one expects wouldn’t miss an opportunity to champion a rising creative voice. At the same time, Tarantino’s responses hint at a problem with the current North American film scene that should only become clearer as the years pass. The number of young visionaries making movies today is tiny.

Take a look at many of the high-profile fall releases destined for critical acclaim and/or Oscar glory, and virtually all of them come from directors that were making films 20 years ago. Beyond Tarantino (52 years old), we have new films from Jay Roach (48), J.J. Abrams (49), Guillermo Del Toro (50), Sam Mendes (50), David Fincher (53), Todd Haynes (54), David O. Russell (57), Ron Howard (61), Robert Zemeckis (64), Barry Levinson (73) and Ridley Scott (77).

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Where are all the fresh faces, all the cool directors in their twenties and thirties breaking with convention in the face of big studio mediocrity? There have got to be a few taking risks with small budgets and turning the heads of cinephiles everywhere. Nevertheless, the lack of strong young directors is the result of a 21st century imbalance in the films that become hits in North America today. In a post-9/11, risk-averse atmosphere, there are the studio hits, safe bets with budgets in the hundreds of millions, on one side. On the other, we have the micro-budget films that ride Sundance acclaim to a box office sum. However, only a couple of independent films properly break through each year.

Over the past 10 years, the number of independent films released in the United States has doubled. It is almost impossible for an independent film to get any coverage in a major publication, let alone find an audience willing to catapult the title into the hearts and minds of a wider audience. Too many talented directors with big ideas and the chops to have legendary careers are languishing as their films register as less than a blip on the moviegoing radar.

It is not surprising that many of these young auteurs have shifted their stories to the small screen, or more specifically, HBO: those names include Lena Dunham, Pariah director Dee Rees and Cary Joji Fukunaga, of Sin Nombre (and now True Detective) fame. Still, many young directors who make an impression with one film find it tough to make their follow-up project. Nearly three years after getting a Best Director nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin hasn’t made anything else. Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik (who received an Oscar nomination for that 2010 drama) finally released her follow-up this year, a documentary. I doubt any of you can name its title without Internet research.

It used to be that major studios wouldn’t feel comfortable handing over money to directors who didn’t have much experience. Today, that seems to be the norm. The future of big franchises is in the hands of near-amateurs. Gareth Edwards leapt from a $500,000 genre film to Godzilla. Colin Trevorrow, the director of a $750,000 indie called Safety Not Guaranteed was handed the key to Jurassic World (and, now, a Star Wars episode). The indie filmmakers getting widespread attention are those who get plucked by Hollywood to help their summer tentpoles blossom. Otherwise, many visionaries will wait years until somebody is willing to help finance or distribute their newest project.

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A studio can take a mostly untested director and hire them to work on a film with an exponentially larger budget. But, more often than not, the restrictions of that studio will wipe away the filmmaker’s creative sensibility. One used to need a diverse resume of work before a major studio entrusted them with a multimillion-dollar franchise. Times have changed, and not for the better. Can one find Trevorrow’s authorial mark anywhere within the bombastic Jurassic World? Since many of these filmmakers are so eager to work again, they don’t mind losing their autonomy. But, many years from now, with a probably tiny pool of filmmakers to swim with, audiences will.

Many of the most beloved directors of superhero films got the gig for brawnier work after a decade of proving their worth with medium budgets. Bryan Singer didn’t go from Public Access to X-Men, just as Christopher Nolan didn’t land Batman Begins immediately after Following. If that had been the case, as it is today, we would have been denied those directors’ two best films: The Usual Suspects and Memento. Spielberg had to make The Sugarland Express to get to Jaws. Heck, Martin Scorsese had to wait 30 years after Mean Streets until he got to release Gangs of New York.

One may think age doesn’t make a difference in Hollywood. But, in almost any circumstance a film historian can think of, it is youthful directors that become the forerunners of every major cultural movement. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were in their late twenties and early thirties when they redefined screen comedy in the silent era. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 26. Sergei Eisenstein was also in his mid-twenties when he directed Battleship Potemkin. François Truffaut, Louis Malle and Jean-Luc Godard first captured the spirit of being young and French when they were young French filmmakers. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg got their first rave reviews in the early 1970s, before they hit 30. The same goes for filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson and, yes, Tarantino, two decades later.

Film history has depended on the unique visions of young directors to usher in change. Where is that change in 2015?

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There are a few noticeable exceptions. Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan, 26, has turned into one of the world’s most fascinating directors, his films (like Mommy and Laurence Anyways) awash with LGBT themes, swooning pop music and arresting inter-generational conflict. 30-year-old Damien Chazelle scored an Oscar nomination for Whiplash and is hard at work on a jazz-infused film with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone set for release next summer. And, yes, there is one exciting high-profile release from a director under 30 coming this autumn: Creed, from Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler.

It may not seem like a problem, since there are a lot of intriguing fall releases that are probably more than worth the admission price. However, the fact that so few of them come from new faces spells trouble for the future. In 2035, when many of our current filmmakers have retired or passed on, who will be the big names directing the year’s most anticipated films?

Nevertheless, I will be there opening weekend to see the new films from Chazelle, as well as Damián Szifron (Wild Tales), Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st) and Céline Sciamma (Girlhood). I am excited for new films from Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin), Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene).

These are filmmakers telling heartfelt, compelling stories about fascinating men and women. But it becomes more of a struggle to directly answer the question of the young filmmakers we’re most excited about. Worse, the director of Reservoir Dogs cannot even think of one. With indie directors struggling for attention to the left and a select few rising to prosperity to the right, we’re stuck in the middle with whom?

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Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

“Out here, everything hurts. You want to get through this? Do as I say. Now, pick up what you can and run.” – Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron)

For some, the summer movie season is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Film-loving audiences have time (and time off) to gorge on as many options as they can – even while knowing that each menu item will satisfy a craving for only so long before they prepare to chew on the next thing. The meaty dishes, ones that may help their chefs earn stars, aren’t on their mind: those meals are for the autumn. And there’s little chance one will take a chance on trying the (cultural) vegetables.

The critical expectations for summer movies are rarely high, yet no high-octane adventure in recent memory received such an ebullient reaction as Mad Max: Fury Road. To the dozens of mainstream and alternative critics who embraced the film upon its May release, watching the film was akin to a full stuffing at the biggest buffer table. The ingredients were less processed, meaning the mayhem had an emphasis on practical effects instead of computer-generated ones. The calories weren’t as empty, meaning that gender issues – not something that often takes significance in a $150 million spectacle – provoked as much enthusiasm as the action sequences. The chef was also an unlikely champion: the film’s director, 70-year-old George Miller, hadn’t directed an action movie since the third film in the series. (That one came out in 1985.)

But upon seeing the two-hour thrill ride at a preview screening in May, I didn’t bite. The action sequences felt more exhausting than exhilarating, while too many of the characters were vaguely defined. It was hard to get swept up in the effusive acclaim. It was just as hard to meet the surprised stares of others who basked in the glow of the R-rated adventure and couldn’t understand why I shrugged off a film heralded as an action classic for the ages.

As my plan for The Balcony outlined last week, the reviews and columns I want to write will come from an original perspective. What better way to kick off this refurbished blog than to challenge a popular film of near-unanimous love among cinephiles? Upon hearing that Fury Road was getting an IMAX release this week – one it didn’t get initially in theatres, thanks to the saturation of Marvel superheroes – I made a note of revisiting the film on a massive screen. Unfortunately, that release didn’t make it to Montreal’s high-format auditoriums. Alas, I rented the film and watched it again on DVD, poised and prepared to find the same problems.

To my pleasant surprise, Fury Road was a much finer film than I remember. In fact, I heartily recommend it, even to filmgoers who normally wouldn’t consider seeing a movie that, in simplest terms, is two hours of fiery road rage. Some of the same problems subsisted on a second viewing, but the spectacle and situations resonated more – even when viewed on an exponentially smaller screen. It makes sense that I found the salvation others were already afforded when consuming the film on a 17-inch screen. Fury Road actually works better as a small film driven by contained storytelling than as no-holds-barred entertainment.

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In this installment, we return to the oil-deprived wasteland that set Miller’s earlier tales of diesel and distress. Max, played by a terse Tom Hardy, is a man reduced to a single instinct: survival. Even before his titular name emblazons onscreen, Max is captured by the War Boys, enslaved young men caked in white whose sole purpose is to serve their master, the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Immortan Joe reigns over the Outback, starving the masses.

The vicious oppressor also wants to control the region’s oil, and so he sends out the trusted Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to bring back gasoline. But Furiosa has a different plan, having rescued Immortan Joe’s five young wives – one of whom is nearing childbirth – from the ruler’s lair. Her sights are on “The Green Place,” a utopia she remembers from her childhood that she hopes can be a refuge for the Wives. But as soon as Immortan Joe realizes Furiosa has abandoned the main road, the chase is on.

Instead of throttling into his own adventure, Max Rockatansky rides shotgun: at first as the baggage for Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the War Boy in charge with protecting him; then, as a passenger to aid Furiosa and the Wives. Hardy’s drawl makes some of his dialogue hard to distinguish – and the film does a scattershot job of outlining what’s at stake for him. But, despite having Max’s name in the title, the adventure actually belongs to Theron’s Furiosa, brusque without being brutal, capable of fierce strength and tenderness.

Much has already been made of Fury Road‘s feminist slant. (The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler was a consultant to the film.) As summer blockbusters go, it is a turn in the right direction. The protagonist is a woman who yearns to rescue others from an abusive patriarchy. The journey belongs to the women, while Immortan Joe’s ragtag circus army, in their impressively decked out rattle cars, features a gang of characters whose prime purpose, ultimately, is to parody machismo masculinity. There’s an acrobat who provides the electric soundtrack to the adventure: his guitar doubles as a flamethrower. Even more rumbling music comes courtesy of a band of War Boys drumming in a truck whirring alongside the main chase. (What initially registers as awe soon turns to parody: Immortan Joe must like hearing his own soundtrack accompany him on the road.)

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Beyond characterization, Fury Road also defies the typical summer movie in its plotting. Often, the central conflict wraps up the whole world: superheroes will need to save humanity from a bloodthirsty villain, for instance. Here, one character sums up the stakes of the near-two-hour chase with a shrug: “All this for a family squabble.” Meanwhile, routine exposition can sink zippy blockbusters, but Miller’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris) is taut and deflects the niceties of getting to know the characters. We are left trying to figure out the sexual politics of this arid land for ourselves. (The same goes for names. Max only tells Furiosa his name shortly before the end credits roll. When they begin rolling, we also find out the actual names of the Wives he escorted through the Outback.)

Miller’s adventure is the most memorably taut of this summer’s blockbusters, but its action sequences are actually among its least interesting qualities. For all the attention the film received for its frenetic, prolonged chase scenes, they do become more exhausting as the climax approaches. If the writers had traded just five pages of road rage for a few more scenes with the characters on the run, Fury Road could have had more dramatic weight. Nevertheless, these dazzling chases have plenty of juice, and you can almost hear Miller panting behind the camera, hoping to keep the energy up.

Crisply edited, the action sequences are perhaps most interesting for the ingenuity of the cars on display. Some have contraptions for slicing and dicing, while others come equipped with a teeter-totter-like device to help its passengers spring outward. Still, there are noticeable patches where the movements are presented in a slightly accelerated speed, as if the editor wanted to fast-forward through the scene. While the jittery energy is sometimes invigorating, it also comes off as silly – especially when one considers how oddly the vigor meshes with the sobering feminist manifesto also present. It is telling that the most impactful moment of violence in the film comes in a more grounded setting, as Max and Furiosa brawl at first meet, stuck in the middle of the desert, while continuously switching in positions of dominance.

Mad Max: Fury Road was advertised as a high-octane fiesta far more interested in how its characters drive than being character-driven. However, its triumph lies in its taut storytelling, its bold (if not breakthrough) anti-patriarchy plotline and its attention to the performances. Theron and, to an extent, Hardy, find the rhythms of their characters without submitting to a screenwriter’s hackneyed expositions. The film isn’t quite the action-packed spectacular that was recently crowned the year’s best film by the International Federation of Film Critics. Still, for a splashy summer buffet, that a film found some guts in gravitas is more than good enough.

The Balcony Has Re-Opened

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15 months after shuttering this blog, I am thrilled to announce that The Balcony is open again.

The past year and a quarter was an exciting time for me as I continued to work as a freelance arts journalist. During that period, I covered several film festivals, including last year’s TIFF and Hot Docs. I spoke with several actors, directors and screenwriters about their newest projects. And, perhaps most importantly, I decided to go back to school.

I am now living in downtown Montreal. Earlier this week, I began a two-year Master’s in Film Studies at Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. If all goes according to plan, I will devote much of 2016 and 2017 to writing a thesis.

Since I am in a program that encourages me to think about, write about and research the films of the past and present, it only makes sense to devote some of my words to creative pieces that you can read and enjoy. I look forward to sharing with you several original columns each month.

A few things about this refurbished Balcony:

• I am going to attempt one blog entry per week, to make sure I write creatively on a frequent basis. I may break this rule during particularly hectic school weeks, or if I need more time to research a column.

• I estimate that around half of the columns will be film reviews. However, since the Internet is awash with opinions of the newest hits, I will try my best to explore current releases from a new angle or perspective.

• The other columns will often be about the things that interest me at the current moment. These can include classic movies, little known filmmakers (of today and yesterday), trends in contemporary cinema, and television.

• Yes, television! Since the small screen is now home to many exciting, thought-provoking dramas and comedies, it only makes sense to highlight series you may or may not be watching. Expect a few columns about TV every season.

As I wrote back when this blog originally began in September 2013, I hope The Balcony becomes a place for film fans to read, learn and debate. I would love to hear back from my readers, if you have any comments, questions or ideas for future columns.

I’ll see you at the movies,

Jordan Z. Adler