Why some film makers ‘lose it’ – Hubris or Exhaustion?

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This weekend I read a couple of articles related to M. Night Shyamalan and Cameron Crowe, two of my favourite film makers from the late 1990s/ early 2000s. Shyamalan has finally found some mild success with his new TV show Wayward Pines after several years in the Hollywood wilderness with a string of critical and commercial flops. Cameron Crowe I think is still in the wilderness with his latest film Aloha opening this weekend to scathing reviews and tepid box office numbers.

Shyamalan released The Sixth Sense when he was 29 and was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He had also written the screenplay for much beloved Stuart Little the same year. He then released the widely praised superhero origin movie Unbreakable before hitting even bigger box office heights with the alien invasion thriller Signs. Around this time, Newsweek ran a cover story referred to him as ‘the next Spielberg’. Indeed, like Spielberg and a few other celebrity directors, studios could market a film on his name alone, as they did with subsequent releases like The Village and Lady in the Water. Things went steadily downhill and for his last film After Earth in 2013, the studio famously left Shyamalan’s name off the marketing material.

At the tender age of 22, Cameron Crowe made his mark in Hollywood when his book Fast Times at Ridgemont High was adapted into a sleeper hit film that kick-started the careers of actors like Nic Cage, Sean Penn and Forest Whitaker. Ten years later, he directed his first film, the rom-com Say Anything followed by another rom com Singles, set during the Seattle grunge scene. Both were very well received and were relatively profitable given their low budgets. Crowe then hit the big time with two back-to-back studio films, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. The latter was based on his own experiences as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s…can you imagine in today’s world a 16-year-old being officially commissioned by a respected industry magazine to go on the road with a mega rock band like Allman Brothers, surrounded by road crew, groupies and who knows what else? He was nominated for Best Screenplay for both these films and won for Almost Famous. Then what? Vanilla Sky, an adaptation of the Spanish thriller Abre los Ojos came across as nothing more than an emotion-less vehicle for Tom Cruise, probably known more for its elaborate shot featuring Cruise running through a deserted Times Square. Subsequent films Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo and now Aloha have brought in steadily diminishing returns.

Both these film makers are great writers and storytellers, established their credentials with original material (something that critics are constantly crying out for in Hollywood) and yet, just when they seemed to be reaching their peak, something happens and now they can do nothing right. Is it hubris? Quite likely that was the case with Shyamalan when he thought he could do no wrong after the Newsweek article and the global success of Signs. Is it creative exhaustion? Could be the case with Crowe; by the time he finished making Vanilla Sky, he had been writing, traveling and making films for 30 years and with an Oscar under his belt, he may have just run out of juice.

There are two similar cases from an earlier era – William Friedkin and George Lucas. Like Shyamalan, Friedkin was the director who could do no wrong, winning the Best Director Oscar for the French Connection and being nominated again or The Exorcist 2 years later. He then let it all go to his head and made the movie that ruined him – Sorcerer, an adaptation of the classic French thriller The Wages of Fear. His obsessiveness sent the film over budget and lost a lot of money for the studios. He became box office poison after that and was ‘reduced’ to becoming a director-for-hire, mainly for TV material. Ironically, the box office failure of Sorcerer was attributed to the unexpected success of another film released a few weeks earlier – Star Wars. We all know how George Lucas emerged as a hero of the 1970’s indie film scene, a true American auteur with two films THX 1138 and American Graffiti before changing the commercial landscape of Hollywood with Star Wars. He was double-nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscars for both American Graffiti and Star Wars. His creative streak continued with the rest of the Star Wars trilogy and the birth of Indiana Jones, but when he came back in his mid-50s to direct the new trilogy, it was clear that the creative force was spent. Who could blame him, considering the creative empire he had built in the past 30+ years.

For me, these stories highlight the two enemies of creativity – arrogance and exhaustion – and how it is so difficult to escape from both when working in the Hollywood studio system. I think about two other young film makers of today who appear to be in danger of falling into one or the other of these pits – Neill Blomkamp and Josh Trank. Blomkamp released the highly acclaimed short film Alive in Joburg at 27, which he then made into full length feature District 9 three years later for which he received an Oscar nom for Best Screenplay. His two subsequent films Elysium and Chappie have disappointed and we now wait with bated breath for his new take on the Alien franchise to see if he’s still got it. Josh Trank burst onto the scene at the age of 28 with the found footage superhero film Chronicle, but there are already disturbing rumours swirling around his upcoming 2nd film Fantastic Four and he’s been thrown out of the director’s chair of an upcoming Star Wars Anthology film. Hollywood will forgive you for making movies that no one wants to see or movies that are bad (there’s a difference between the two) but not for being a difficult person to work with; I think that’s pretty much the case in any industry, right?

It’s when reflecting on cases like these that one develops such overwhelming respect for the long-lived success stories, the ones who are able to maintain the steady level of commercially successful, critically acclaimed output year after year AND are considered desirable to work with by the movie making community. I’m talking about the likes of Steven Spielberg (first hit Jaws – 1975, latest hit Lincoln – 2012), Ron Howard (first hit Splash – 1984, latest hit Angels & Demons – 2009), Robert Zemeckis (first hit Romancing the Stone – 1984, latest hit Flight – 2012), Peter Jackson (first hit Heavenly Creatures – 1994, latest hit The Hobbit: BOTFA – 2014), Bryan Singer (first hit The Usual Suspects – 1995, latest hit X-Men: DOFP – 2014) and of course, my man James Cameron (first hit The Terminator – 1984, latest hit Avatar – 2009). All of them have survived ups and downs and continue to work on great new projects into their 3rd, 4th or even 5th decade in the business.

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