Friday, April 6, 2012

As Gary Ross leaves The Hunger Games franchise, nine female directors who could/should replace him on Catching Fire and/or Mockingjay.

The Playlist doesn't break news all that often, merely seeing fit to be a one-stop shop for the movie news that everyone else breaks during the day (I don't mean that as an insult, The Playlist is the site I go to if I only have time to surf one movie news site in a given day),  So it's somewhat of a big deal that The Playlist has broken a pretty major story, confirming that director Gary Ross will not be back to helm the second and/or third films in the Hunger Games franchise.  There have been rumblings all week about contract negotiations, and Ross has now politely passed.  The site chalks it up to both Ross's lack of desire to stay in the same universe for the next several years combined with a somewhat low-ball offer from Lionsgate.  Whatever the case, Ross is gone and the hunt for a new director is now on.  While editing my John Carter obituary a few weeks ago, I removed a large paragraph dealing with the trend of giving young white-male filmmakers with barely a feature credit to their name the keys to $100-300 million franchise films while seasoned pros and/or minorities remain noticeably absent from the 'wish-list' (yes, I was glad to see F. Gary Gray on the Marvel wish-list for Captain America 2).  And while I wouldn't consider The Hunger Games a 'female film', it would be a great opportunity to make a point that female directors can indeed handle the kind of big-scale filmmaking that studios are all-too willing to offer to mostly untested male directors as a matter of course.  So, perhaps arbitrarily, perhaps to prove a point about how inaccessible the 'wish list' is for female directors, here are nine directors who happen to be women who also belong on 'the wish-list' as Lionsgate hunts for a second director.  These are in alphabetical order, with the exception of the final entry, who would be my 'top choice'.

Kathryn Bigelow
Duh.  In fact, she'll probably make the wish-list as a token nod to gender-diversity, and all she had to do was become the first female in history to win a Best Director Oscar.  I don't really have to explain this pick.  She's been directing hard action pictures for thirty years.  She's helmed the likes of Near Dark (a dusty vampire thriller that still holds up 25 years later), Point Break (which is really better than its camp-fueled reputation), the underrated Blue SteelStrange Days, K19: The Widowmaker, the two-part guns-ablaze sixth-season finale of Homicide: Life on the Street, and of course the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker.  If Lionsgate wants instant critical respectability without breaking a sweat, Bigelow will be at the top of the list, regardless of gender.

Niki Caro
North Country is the definition of the kind of movie that they just don't make anymore.  As recently as 2005, Warner Bros. gave Ms. Caro the reins to an all-star drama detailing a landmark 1984 sexual-discrimination/harassment suit.  Star Charlize Theron and supporting actress Frances McDormand both justifiably received Oscar nominations for the little-seen October 2005 release.  The picture is a straight-up social issues drama, filled with character turns from Richard Jenkins, Sean Bean, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, and then-unknowns Amber Heard, Michelle Monaghan, and Jeremy Renner.  In 2005, it was one of any number of big studio dramas battling it out for Oscar glory.  Today, it would be a front-runner purely by virtue of its existence.  Caro's picture personifies the sort of high-quality big-studio adult drama that is all-but an endangered species, and she also helmed the dynamite Whale Rider back in 2002 as well.  If every studio release were at least as good as North Country, I imagine most of us wouldn't feel the need to constantly whine about the state of studio movies these days.

Catherine Hardwicke
Yes, Red Riding Hood was an entertaining whiff.  I like it even while admitting its pretty bad (it's certainly never boring and Gary Oldman is a hoot).  But go back and watch the first Twilight.  Here's a dirty secret: it's actually pretty good.  It's light on its feet, quirky, self-depreciating, and utterly aware of its melodramatic nature.  Unlike the self-serious sequels which treat their respective source material like holy tombs (and probably would have cut 'vampire baseball' out of fear of irreverence), the first Twilight is genuinely fun, willing to change little details and add character beats to keep the film engaging.  Kristen Stewart is quite compelling as a more self-aware Bella while Robert Pattinson is allowed to be just a little goofy in the opening act (his biology-class freak out is pretty hilarious).  Most importantly for the purposes of this current franchise, the supporting characters are wonderfully fleshed out and brought to life, giving the film a pulpy lived-in quality that none of the sequels can match (Bella's friends are actually charming and have their own lives).  Point being, if you're among the many critics who wished that even a few of the supporting characters were a little more fleshed out in the first Hunger Games installment, why not bring on someone who knows how to build an aggressively lively supporting cast, even one that arguably super-ceded the stars for at least one film.  She wouldn't be my top choice, but there would be some poetic justice to it nonetheless.

Mary Harron
Has any movie made in the early 2000s, save perhaps Requiem For a Dream, aged as tragically-well as American Psycho?  The film got mixed reviews in its day, with many critics unable to look past the grotesque subject matter (and the even more grotesque source material) to notice that the film's sex and violence were all-but beside the point.  Christian Bale turns in what will probably be the best performance of his career (certainly Patrick Bateman is as defining a turn as Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle) in a brutal satire of the 1980s 'greed is good' corporate mind set that tragically proves even more topical today as the ghosts of Reagan came back to haunt us in the guise of George W. Bush and corporate giants like Goldman Sachs.  Had the film been better received in its time, perhaps Harron wouldn't have just now helmed a theatrical follow-up, the upcoming The Moth Diaries (she directed an HBO Bettie Page biopic in 2005).  Not to repeat a theme (and it won't be the last time I bring this up), but had 'she' been a 'he', Harron probably would have a half-dozen features to her name by this point.     

Patty Jenkins
She was supposed to be the mold-breaker.  Hired late last year to helm Marvel Comics' Thor 2, Ms. Jenkins was supposed to become the first female director to direct a mega-budget comic book tentpole (Lexi Alexander's Punisher: War Zone cost just $30 million).  But rather mysterious 'creative differences' excuse sent her packing, replaced by longtime television director Alan Taylor (director of the heartbreaking Homicide: Life on the Street series finale and the Mad Men pilot), which in turn led to a national grumbling among feminist film pundits and a very pissed-off Natalie Portman.  Jenkins's career is a perfect demonstration of the gender-disparity in Hollywood.  In an age where Marc Webb is handed the reins to The Amazing Spider-Man after directing one moderately successful low-budget romantic comedy (500 Days of Summer), Jenkins has barely worked since directing the Oscar-winning Monster nine years ago.  She had recently won an Emmy for directing the pilot for AMC's The Killing, but that's pretty much all she has done since 2003.  If you haven't seen Monster in awhile, it's a pretty great movie, and it's certainly more than just Charlize Theron's deservedly-Oscar winning star turn (Christina Ricci is just as good).  Call it poetic justice or merely good sense, but Lionsgate would be wise to snap up Jenkins and give her the keys to an even bigger franchise.

Mimi Leder
In the late 1990s, Mimi Leder was on her way to becoming one of the biggest female directors in modern history.  But while male directors get whiff after whiff until their eventual 'comeback film' (think Scorsese in the 1980s, from Raging Bull to Goodfellas), Leder was out after just one high-profile miss.  Nevermind that The Peacemaker was a frighteningly ahead-of-its time action drama (and a painfully underrated one at that), nevermind that Deep Impact was at-the-time the highest-grossing film in history directed by a woman.  The critical and artistic disaster of Pay It Forward pretty much killed everyone involved, ending the film careers of Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment while fatally damaging Kevin Spacey's prestige.  Leder hasn't directed another theatrical feature since that 2000 disappointment (she helmed the 2009 Morgan Freeman/Antonio Bandaras direct-to-DVD action flick Thick As Thieves).  She just started preproduction on a remake of All Quiet On the Western Front, which if it comes to pass will be her first theatrical release in twelve years.  If you want a female director who knows how to craft top-notch action, why not hire Leder?

Lynne Ramsay
In a gender neutral world, Lynne Ramsay would be on all of the wish-lists right now.  After all, she made a splash last year with the fantastic We Need to Talk About Kevin, coaxing a career-peak performance from Tilda Swinton and crafting a powerful psychological horror drama that defies easy description or even common interpretation.  It's a powerful and gripping picture, her third feature no-less.  If Chronicle's Josh Trank can end up with a dozen high-profile choices after making one terrific film, then Ramsay deserves her pick of the litter as well.  Of course, the fact that Trank made his mark with a superhero deconstruction and was then offered a bunch of comic book superhero films is in itself a sign of Hollywood's lack of imagination, which is why Debra Granik (who would also be on various 'hot lists' in a just world) won't be on this list.  There is no escaping the several similarities between Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games and I'd argue that choosing the helmer of the former is every bit as lazy as choosing Jennifer Lawrence to basically reprise her Oscar-nominated character in the first place.  But Ramsay would be an inspired and outside the box choice, and arguably someone who can bring suspense and intensity to a franchise that lacked requisite tension the first time around.

Jennifer Yuh
With all the seemingly justified hub-bub about Brenda Chapman getting canned from Pixar's Brave last year, no one seemed to notice that Dreamworks (who hired Chapman to direct The Prince of Egypt fourteen years ago) gave one of their prize franchises to a South Korean female director who promptly knocked it out of the park.  I assume you don't need me to remind you how much I loved Kung Fu Panda 2.  It was my favorite film of 2011 and a splendid action dramedy that absolutely stands with Toy Story 2, The Dark Knight, and X2: X-Men United on the list of all-time great genre sequels from the last fifteen years.  The only reason she isn't my top pick is because I wouldn't want her taking the Chasing Fire gig to stand in the way of her directing Kung Fu Panda 3.  But she absolutely deserves a spot on every genre 'wish-list' from now until she retires.

And my personal pick...

Kasi Lemmons
Yes, it would be groundbreaking/cool/etc if the reins to today's biggest new franchise were handed off to an African-American woman.  But it would also be just-plain-cool if Chasing Fire were handed to the person who happened to direct Eve's Bayou and Talk To Me.  She directed three features between 1997 and 2007 (the middle one being the not-that great The Caveman's Valentine in 2001, which still featured a fine star turn from Samuel L. Jackson).  But Eve's Bayou is a terrific period drama which features one of Jackson's best performances, period. Talk to Me is a fine and thoughtful biopic about 1960s Washington DC radio DJ Ralph "Petey" Greene (played by Don Cheadle) which features fine supporting work from Chiwetel Ejiofor (his pool-hall conversation with Cheadle is the stuff of acting-class gold), Taraji P. Henson and Martin Sheen (even if Sheen's best scene ended up on the DVD deleted scenes reel).  I don't pretend to know why she has worked so little in the last fifteen years, but her lack of output has always (to me) personified the difficulty that minority and female filmmakers face in terms of having a steady output of films even after they've had one or two successes.  Tokenism and/or Affirmative Action accusations aide, Lemmons has made two awfully good movies and deserves a shot a the big leagues at least as much as the likes of Josh Trank and Marc Webb.

Okay, your turn to pick.  Who would you want to see helm the next Hunger Games film?  It doesn't have to be a woman or a minority, but try to be a little creative.

Scott Mendelson


corysims said...

Considering what happened with Jenkins, I want to see her get this, as a big middle finger to Marvel.

But, to your bigger point, I think a female needs to director the last two (Catching Fire and Mockingjay are essentially one story split in two) to keep Lawrence really happy. It seemed to me that the cast got real attached to Ross and the last thing you need, if you're Lionsgate, is for the rest of the cast and especially Ms. Lawrence to mail in their performances with whomever you choose as the director.

I know you practically hated the film, Scott but I thought Ross bested the source material in a lot of spots and I think the ending of Mockingjay is so tragically heartbreaking that I need this franchise to get better and better, like the late Potter films did.

There is material for Lawrence in the next two films for her to absolutely kill it in the acting department that I want to see her fully engaged with the last two films.

greenjasminetea said...

My vote goes to Niki Caro on the basis of my love for Whale Rider. That said, I'd also love to see Patty Jenkins get a shot.

Girish said...

Garry Ross leaving is awesome news! I'm still mad that Jenkins was let go from 'Thor-2'! Patty Jenkins is on the top of my wish-list followed by Katherine Bigelow and Catherine Hardwicke to direct 'Catching Fire.'

I hated 'The Hunger Games' movie, but read the books during the past week and I liked the series. The first movie doesn't do any justice to the amazing book. My favorite is 'Catching Fire', while 'Mockingjay' is a travesty where the writer, Collins seems to have written the book solely for the purpose of translating it to the big screen rather than writing it with the readers perspective in mind, thereby quashing any and all emotional attachment I had to the characters and the big picture is kind of laughable since nothing is even mentioned in passing when all is done! Katniss' character literally turns into Bella (but Bella was charming in her own way and I liked her a lot more)!! I couldn't like or even care for her character much, just like Collins doesn't care for her or her love triangle or the main supporting characters in the third book. All said, this book can translate very well to the big screen.

Anyway, the above three female directors can make the next two movies atleast good, if not great. I hope Lionsgate stops being a cheapskate and hires one of these women.

Kersy said...

I've got to strongly disagree with Girish about the end of "Mockingjay" (she does become passive and a little hard to like, like Bella, but it's PTSD. She's simply spent. To my mind a brave and sad and arguably too cruel ending). I totally agree, however, about Patty Jenkins. I would love to see her get this.

I actually think, "Thirteen" notwithstanding, Catherine Hardwicke has proven to be at best an average director.

I like Mimi Leder and would love to see her work more, but her films all have a kind of static, workmanlike quality to them. I think that could fit much of "Catching Fire," but "Mockingjay" needs someone a bit more adventurous.

Heather said...

What about Karyn Kusama? Yes I know she's more less known than any of your picks but I loved Girlfight, Aeon Flux and Jennifer's Body. I also liked Maggie Greenwald's films - Ballad of Little Jo and Songcatcher. I don't know if they are good choices for this franchise but all 5 of those movies are interesting.

Corey Atad said...

She wouldn't do it, and she shouldn't do it, but if Andrea Arnold directed Catching Fire it would be awesome. Well, awesome from a directorial standpoint. She'd still have to contend with a massively problematic story.

Scott Mendelson said...

I liked Girlfight and was surprised by how 'not bad' Aeon Flux was (some great action and a strong visual style). But I'm of the opinion that she completely dropped the ball on Jennifer's Body, as her slow, lax and seemingly indifferent direction killed a fine Diablo Cody script as well as perfectly decent acting from Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Adam Brody, Kyle Gallner, and the like. She deserves a second chance someday, but that's why she didn't make my personal list. I'm behind on Greenwald's filmography, but I'll add them to the queue.

Dirk2112 said...

Ok so I think some of these choices are problematic (i.e. Red Riding Hood was unacceptably awful and there was a slow clap in North Country) but there are three names here who clearly deserve serious consideration ... Bigelow, Lemmons and Ramsay. How anyone kicked this franchise off without either Bigelow or Lemmons at the helm or would consider turning it over to anyone on a list without Ramsay's name on it is frankly beyond me.

Dirk2112 said...

Other than the phrase "Megan Fox's acting" I gotta agree. Karyn Kusama's post Girlfight output has been damned disappointing.

Dirk2112 said...

Other than the phrase "Megan Fox's acting" I gotta agree. Karyn Kusama's post Girlfight output has been damned disappointing.

Collin said...

What about Kimberly Pierce? Boys Don't Cry packs a devastating emotional punch that fits in squarely with the Hunger Games franchise. Her work on the lesser but still not half-bad Stop-Loss shows that we need more work from her.

Disco Paco said...

I think everyone knows Kelly Reichhardt should direct the sequel.

MrBobbins said...

I think Kusama is a very good filmmaker, if the final products have been a bit over the map. Count me as a big fan of Jennifer's Body. And respectfully, good performances come greatly from good direction. I doubt it's a coincidence that Fox, Brody, and Seyfried all gave, in my opinion, the best of their career. Thinking about Hunger Games, look at Aeon Flux and then look at the Capitol designs. Pretty interesting. (And thanks for this illuminating post.)

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