A few years ago, I spoke with a dear friend who was a producer of big films at Fox Studios. They had recently made a huge blockbuster action film (to protect the identity of said producer, I won’t mention the title) that made a lot of money, but was critically lambasted. And rightfully so. It was an awful movie. I spoke with this producer while they were in pre-production on that film’s sequel. The producer told me, point blank, “The reason we hired the director for the first film was because he doesn’t have any opinions of his own; or if he does, he doesn’t voice them. He does exactly what we tell him.” Now understand that this producer knows the first installment of the “franchise” was a bad film. He goes on, “We hired the same director again for the same reasons. And this film’s not going to be any good either.” Now to this producer’s credit, he was beyond frustrated with the whole situation and longed to produce films he cared about. However, he’s still producing high-profile studio films he doesn’t believe in, but perseveres because these films have lots of money and clout and can be real career-builders.
But they can also be soul-crushers.
The attraction of making big-budget films with A-list stars is undeniable. But is it all worth it if what you end up sacrificing in the end is the actual film itself? For some, the answer is still yes. For others, like myself, the answer is no.
Which brings us back to Mathieu Kassovitz and Fox. Here’s Kassovitz’s story in his own words as reported on Sci-Fi Scanner:
I never had a chance to do one scene the way it was written or the way I wanted it to be. The script wasn’t respected. Bad producers, bad partners, it was a terrible experience… The scope of the original book was quite amazing. The author was very much into geopolitics and how the world is going to evolve. He saw that as wars evolve, it won’t be just about territories any more, but money-driven politics. As a director it’s something that’s very attractive to do…
But according to Kassovitz, BABYLON A.D. fails to deliver any of these messages.
It’s pure violence and stupidity. The movie is supposed to teach us that the education of our children will mean the future of our planet. All the action scenes had a goal: They were supposed to be driven by either a metaphysical point of view or experience for the characters… instead parts of the movie are like a bad episode of ’24’… BABYLON will probably have a good first weekend, but the second weekend we’re going to lose 30%. I don’t see how people who went through all these amazing blockbusters like THE DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN this summer will take it… It’s hard.
I should have chosen a studio that has guts… Fox was just trying to get a PG-13 movie. I’m ready to go to war against them, but I can’t because they don’t give a shit.
I’ve read a lot of online comments regarding how Kassovitz’s willingness to speak openly about his experience is tantamount to career suicide. Many even suggest that he should feel lucky to have made a film at all. These comments are, more likely than not, made by readers who are not, themselves, filmmakers. Kassovitz is doing something both daring and necessary. For himself. It goes beyond whether or not it’s a Hollywood career killer. Hopefully, Kassovitz has discovered what is most important to him, why he is a filmmaker. And hopefully he will take these enormous lessons and turn them into a personal victory by finding ways to make the films he wants to make the way he wants to make them. Hollywood is only one avenue for getting a film made. And though many people insist it’s the only “real” way, they are dead wrong. Hollywood is not, ironically enough, the best place for most serious filmmakers. I’m sure I’ll catch flack for that comment, but most of the best films released by studios in this country are negative pick-ups; they were not financed, developed, or produced by the studios, but by independents. One has only to look at the bulk of films nominated at last year’s Academy Awards to know this is true.
As a filmmaker who has gone through something VERY similar to what Kassovitz is now experiencing (though on a smaller budget and a different studio-Sony), my heart goes out to him and his struggle and my support is with him and I hope his actions inspire more filmmakers to voice their concerns and share their stories. And I hope that, like my public willingness to talk about my personal filmmaking journeys, it inspires some other filmmakers to find alternate routes to get their films made and perhaps bypass this particular experience altogether.
That said, for some of us, it is this very experience that allows us to face some of our own inner demons and discover what it is we most want out of life and as filmmakers. I hope as Kassovitz looks back at this period in his life, he will see it as a profound moment of change and growth, both as a person and as a filmmaker. At the end of the day, we’re all looking for those things and those choices that allow us to be happy. It seems to me, Kassovitz will not be happy making films that do not reflect his talent, tastes, desire and heart.
Kassovitz’s story is, sadly, one in a million. As is mine. However, speaking out IS a real-world option and is NOT career suicide. That is simply the story we’re told by the people who want us to stay quiet. By people who are afraid. Unfortunately, many people believe that story. As do their lawyers, their agents, their managers… But Hollywood does not have the last word on filmmaking. And as technologies improve and the cost of filmmaking lowers, the studios will slowly lose whatever grip they have and we may find ourselves in a world where producers and directors work together on the same team.
I, personally, like that story better.