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Burying the Dinosaurs: Why Blockbuster Directors Need to Change

Everything that could go wrong on a movie shoot was going wrong. There were delays, flubbed shots and the mechanical centerpiece of the film flatly refused to work. Universal Studios no doubt were regretting giving the adaptation of an expensive bestseller to some kid fresh off episodes of “Columbo” and “Night Gallery” and a few TV movies. But then “Jaws” opened, made all the money, and ushered in a cultural watershed of the summer no longer being the dumping ground but the rich soil in which the studios would spend the next 40 years trying to grow increasingly expensive and unwieldy blockbusters. And they don’t come more expensive or unwieldy than “Jurassic World,” which opened this weekend and stomped all comers at the box office. It’s a strangely full circle moment as “Jurassic World” is the third sequel to “Jaws”’ director Steven Spielberg's 1993 dinosaurs run amok “Jurassic Park.” Even “World”’s director Colin Trevorrow has a similar “called up from the farm leagues” story, having helmed a modest Sundance hit, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” that brought him the attention of some of Hollywood’s biggest players. And that's a story that never, ever happens to female or minority directors. Ever.

Being a fan of blockbusters and of female directors means not getting excited at what should be good news like Michelle MacLaren being in talks to direct a “Star Wars” spin-off. Because you remember how she was also set to direct “Wonder Woman” and, depending on who’s doing the telling, either left or was pushed out over “creative differences” with Warner Brothers. Even her being replaced on “Wonder Woman” with Patty Jenkins isn’t much of a consolation as it smacks less of wanting the best possible person for the job than not wanting to catch hell for firing a female director for “Wonder Woman” and replacing her with a man. And when rumors start that Marvel is considering Ava DuVernay to direct one of their properties, it means grinding your teeth at the surprising sudden burst of interest in her “experience” for the job.

Experience is the miserable Catch-22 that’s been slowly strangling blockbusters with increasingly unfortunate results for the past twenty some years. It’s what the fear and resentment of women and directors of color touching beloved toys cloaks itself in so it can’t get called out. Oh no, the problem isn’t that the director isn’t a white man, not at all, you’re just deeply concerned that they don’t have enough experience for a job. As if every new job doesn’t begin with a learning curve of some kind. As if some of their favorite directors didn’t go through baptisms of fire learning the ropes on their first big break. In a candid interview with The Verge, Trevorrow frankly admits how much of this was new to him: “I had to be a method director. I had to almost play the role of myself 20 years from now, with far more experience and far more knowledge, and I went method the whole damn time.” There is plenty honorable in the tradition of Fake It Till You Make It, but it’s grown tiresome in how that window of grace is sealed shut to any person who doesn’t remind a big name director of a younger, scrappier version of themselves.

Director Lexi Alexander has been giving no quarter in her fight to open up opportunities for female and minority filmmakers. She’s the reason for this article, rightly asking that more be written on why exactly we have no rags to riches template for the trajectory of female and minority directors’ careers. Why is one indie film deemed a good enough reason to get handed the keys to a major franchise if you’re a white man, but a CV of several films or several seasons of some of the most prestige cable TV series leaves you ill-prepared to handle dinosaurs and superheroes? Going back to MacLaren: she’s only in the running for the “Star Wars” job after the first director, Josh Trank, got the boot. Allegedly, Trank was dropped over his “erratic” behavior during filming of the upcoming “Fantastic Four.” In Alex Pappademas’ enlightening and eyebrow-raising Grantland piece about Trank and Trevorrow, he writes how Trank was another quantum leaper to a blockbuster’s control panel having only helmed another indie, “Chronicle,” before getting the “Fantastic Four” reboot. Pappademas writes about Hollywood’s love affair with giving breaks to greenhorn male directors archly: “Sometimes it’s just that easy. You get a phone call one day, which leads to a meeting with Spielberg, and poof - you’re a T. Rex wrangler. Directorially speaking, this is Schwab’s Pharmacy stuff.” Pappademas' use of the Schwab’s legend feels especially sharp; after all, in that bit of Tinsel Town lore, it’s a woman who is discovered sipping a drink at the soda fountain.

As for what can be done to alleviate the situation, people may balk at the idea of hiring quotas, but it’s time for them. And for the immediate counter argument of “they only got hired to fill quota," well maybe so, but it’s better than the current arrangement of not getting hired at all. And moreover, it brings with it a genuine trickle down effect. If directors of big movies go on to hire people who look like them, what does it mean when the directors look like DuVernay, Alexander, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Justin Lin?

And for the argument that “who cares who’s in the driver’s seat of the latest brainless popcorn muncher,” consider that “blockbuster” doesn’t and shouldn’t equal lowered expectations. “Jaws” has aged considerably better than many films that came out last year. And consider too that more diverse voices behind the camera also trickles down the stories selected for event movies. Imagine a beloved film franchise based on Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” series. Imagine it being the normal state of affairs to read in Variety that studios were in a bidding war for the rights to “Saga.” Imagine that when Sony wanted to make new Spider-Man movies to hold on to the rights, they went with the Miles Morales version of the character. The self-imposed brain drain Hollywood has put on who gets to direct summer tentpole movies is turning them in ever increasingly pale imitations of themselves.

There is no better example of that than “Jurassic World” itself. Like the Indominous Rex that threatens the cast of the fourth entry, the movie plays like lumpy hybrid of the previous three films. It winces, embarrassed at the craven pandering to nineties nostalgia, and the frequent commenting on said craven pandering only underscores how little reason this movie has to exist when it would have been more cost effective to just re-re-release the first one. And it’s hard to believe a female director would let the characterization of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character that four credited screenwriters coughed up, stand. Poor Howard runs the gamut from “brittle” to “screaming” and seems mainly to exist so Chris Pratt (drained of every ounce of charm he showed in “Guardians of the Galaxy”) has someone to constantly be a horse’s ass to. Sneering at her choice of heels in the lab leaves an especially bad taste in the mouth. It’s not that a female director wouldn’t put her in heels, but a female director would know she wears heels because she likes the extra height; she can look her co-workers in the eye. A female director would know she wears sneakers on the trek to work and changes into them there. And a female director would know she keeps the sneakers in her bottom desk drawer so there’d be something to change into when the fleeing-for-your-life portion of the film starts. And yes, it’s “just” shoes, but it’s more than that, it’s paying attention to the details, it’s caring enough to see women as people with worthwhile stories to tell. Because that’s the great irony of effectively barring women and minorities from directing blockbusters. The tools may get fancier and more futuristic, but you’re stuck spinning tales that are hopelessly prehistoric. 

Jessica Ritchey

Jessica Ritchey is a writer based in the orbit between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She credits a VHS copy of "Singin’ in the Rain" as her introduction to a love of movies.

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