Are directors as interchangable as spark plugs?

by Paul William Tenny

Steve Zeitchick has a short piece in an LA Times blog, wondering "what will the [Hunger Games] franchise look like without [Director Gary Ross], and what will his career look like without it?".

I'd take issue with this point:

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).

This is an old and cheap trick, dismissing a very important exception to the proposed new rule precisely because it disproves the thesis of the author. Especially cheap when you don't give a valid reason for doing it, and Zeitchick didn't. It allows you to spend five minutes on a blog post instead of spending an hour or two doing research to find out why the Potter franchise is a standout exception.

The first of two explanations off the top of my head is that directors just don't matter to the success of a film as much as Hollywood likes to pretend that they do. If you want proof of that, look at television, where directors can bring something great to the table, but generally speaking they tend to rotate in and out of the slot about as often -- if not more so -- than the guy cleaning the floor. Individual television episodes guest-directed by big name film directors rarely, if ever, stand out. No more than episodes directed by long-time executive producer/writers bring the quality down in a noticeable way.

Use director X today, and Y tomorrow, and the script will still be there. Actors will still play the same characters, saying the same lines, doing the same things.

I have no doubt in my mind that a director can bring something unique and valuable to the set, bringing up the overall quality of the film. Often times significantly. But that's more about recognizing the entire crew as essential pieces of of a machine that when all of them are top notch, you catch lightening in a bottle. Take away a top name director and maybe you don't have lightening anymore, but you might still have an Oscar in one hand or a box office hit in the other.

The dismissed Potter franchise proves that. I've seen the entire series enough times to say that there's no noticeable difference between them from a visual perspective. Not unless that's the only reason you're watching the movies. That franchise seamlessly changed directors with no noticeable change in quality. Perhaps there's an argument to be made that with that franchise, they replaced one very talented director with another. But then what does that say about the unique talents that directors bring to a film, that they are as interchangeable as spark plugs? That one great director can be replaced by another with nothing new or unique brought to the set?

That brings me to the second explanation: that directing only matters when the director can't screw with the script. And this goes a ways towards arguing that Hunger Games won't change much at all between directors. These two series are based on hugely successful book series with authors powerful enough to ensure that adaptations will be faithful to what has already been written. If the director butts out of the writing and simply directs the film, as in television, the director is little more than someone who can elevate the medium visually, but little else.

No one director was going to change the story of Harry Potter, and none is going to change the stories of The Hunger Games either. When a director can't interfere creatively on that level, then no, it really doesn't matter who the director is or how many you have, so long as they are all competent at their jobs.

Oddly, this is proving true about directors what directors, actors, producers, and the studios have been trying to make true about writers for decades. It's not uncommon to see 20 writers working on a tent pole film as if they are little more than copywriters, fixing spelling errors in the script and making sure it's printed correctly. The overbearing director or star actor (Bruce Willis comes to mind) moves the film creatively, someone who has absolutely no trained sense of true storytelling, and predictably the film ends up being utter crap.

When story is treated as sacred, scripts adhering religiously to novel, and directors are moved in and out like grips, what do you end up with? Harry Potter is the highest grossing film series ever, and universally loved by all.

My guess, no more or less valid than Steve Zeitchick's, is that the directing change for Hunger Games won't matter at all, so long as the studio doesn't foul up getting a competent director for the job.

in Feature, Film, Television


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1 Comment

Hi, Tenny, I finally stopped in from NV to check out the MP column and enjoyed this article. Yeah, directors could hardly insert radically different interpretations into the successful Potter franchise -- they knew that audiences would not stand for it.
Take on the other hand the Batman franchise. Nuff said? Cannot really knock directors or cast but somehow H-wood lost its way with what could have been a towering franchise, as big as the Star Wars trilogy.
Oh well. What else is new...

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