LOS ANGELES — Not so long ago, when the big studios would commit big bucks on their big franchises, the list of directors deemed equal to the task would grow very small.
Just as different baseball teams consistently hire the same managers again and again, studio executives fell prey to familiar-is-good thinking, repeatedly shortlisting identical names for high-profile movies, be it Stephen Sommers (“G.I. Joe,” “Van Helsing,” “The Mummy”), Martin Campbell (“The Legend of Zorro,” “Casino Royale,” “Edge of Darkness”) or anyone else with a tentpole track record. Their caution was understandable: If you’re about to fly in a $200 million movie, you might feel better if its pilot has at least flown before.
But moviegoers, it seems, don’t mind a little inexperience, as long as the results are interesting. And Hollywood has taken notice.
In the last few years, the studios increasingly are embracing newcomers to the fanboy genre, a way of thinking that was on prominent display at the just-concluded Comic-Con International in San Diego.
Kenneth Branagh, whose last directing gig was an arty adaptation of the Anthony Shaffer stage play “Sleuth” and who specializes in bringing Shakespeare to the screen, came to the convention to present footage from his “Thor,” next summer’s massive comic book adaptation from Marvel Studios and Paramount. Michel Gondry, perhaps best known for his hard-to-categorize narrative odysseys (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Be Kind Rewind”) introduced scenes from his “Green Hornet,” a glossy Sony Pictures reworking of the popular radio serial opening next January.
You could find comparable examples all around Comic-Con. Edgar Wright, the low-budget auteur of the British indie film “Shaun of the Dead,” just completed his first pricey studio movie, Universal’s graphic novel translation of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Jonathan Liebesman, a favorite filmmaker in the discount genre world (“Darkness Falls,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”), is finishing up Sony’s sci-fi thriller “Battle: Los Angeles,” even though Liebesman’s previous film, “The Killing Room,” went straight to video. And Duncan Jones, whose last project was the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival debut “Moon” (domestic gross: $5 million), is wrapping up work on Summit Entertainment’s time-travel drama “Source Code.”
It’s no secret that the studios are hoping that somewhere in this mash-up they might have found the next Christopher Nolan, who moved from cerebral art-house movies (“Following,” “Memento”) to global blockbusters (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception”) as if Mount Everest were no harder to scale than a sand dune. (It doesn’t always work out that way: Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” was better received that his “Hulk.”)
With virtually every studio making some comic book, graphic novel or board game adaptation, Hollywood executives realize they must find a way to split their films from the teeming pack. Not that long ago, they turned to over-the-top visual effects. These days, though, it’s more their filmmakers’ style: Warner Bros. sold “Inception” not on the basis of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, but on the brand name of its director.
When Gondry called Neal Moritz about directing “The Green Hornet,” the producer said his reaction was simple. “Wow, that’s a crazy idea.” Having lost Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) over creative differences, Moritz not only needed a new filmmaker but also wanted someone who could make the movie feel distinctly personal.
“We were trying to do something different,” Moritz says. “It was really a relationship movie between Britt Reid and Cato,” Moritz says of the characters played by Seth Rogen (Reid eventually becomes the Green Hornet) and Japanese pop star Jay Chou. “Visually, Michel is one of the best, and he knows visual effects better than most directors.” (In fact, the famous “bullet time” look from the “Matrix” movies first gained prominence in a 1998 vodka commercial Gondry directed.)
Gondry actually had tried to make “The Green Hornet” some 14 years ago, when the project was at Universal. “We had an awesome script,” he says, “but it was just too weird” for the studio. “But I always had this ambition to do a family movie with some sort of a twist.”
Gondry said working in a new genre forces filmmakers to do their best. “I always try to do something that is unfamiliar to me,” he says. “I always put myself in a situation where I have to react and be on my toes.”
Branagh says that he’s already made a movie much like “Thor”: his initial directing gig in 1989. “My first film, ‘Henry V,’ was a dark adventure with an epic battle,” Branagh says of the historical war story, “and had a reckless young man at the center confronting his past. So this didn’t seem that unusual to me.”
Having translated so many Shakespeare plays to the big screen, Branagh says he isn’t worried about how he will be compared to others in the superhero genre. “Everything I’ve done has been done by somebody else before, usually brilliantly,” he says.
“Thor,” a story of a god banished to Earth, seems especially well matched to Branagh in part because the comic book character speaks as if he were a Stratford-upon-Avon actor who spent a lot of time reading the King James Bible. So just as Branagh can make iambic pentameter easy to comprehend, he can turn Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) into both poet and action star.
Branagh’s training may help him elevate the story. “It’s a classical structure,” he says. “We go back quite intentionally to myths, and Norse myths in particular, which Shakespeare also pilfered from.”
It was a graduation. The director’s 2006 “Magic Flute” movie had about 500 visual effects shots. “Thor” has some 1,500. “Sleuth” took about six months from conception to completion, while “Thor” was three years in the making.
“Moon” director Jones says he’s not sure if his leap to “Source Code” was a “natural progression,” but he thinks it was an essential step. “I think that directors are just as likely to be typecast as anyone else,” he says. “And I wanted to see if I could stretch into something a little bit different.”
The obvious difference between a contemplative, independently financed feature with a small cast (“Moon” was basically Sam Rockwell by himself) and a splashy studio movie with an ensemble (“Source Code” stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga) and crew is the vigilant oversight.
“You have a lot more people a lot more concerned about how the money is going to be spent,” Jones says. But within that environment, Jones looks to make a movie that has both the action moviegoers seek and the character development he looks for as a filmmaker.
“I’m not only a huge fan of Chris Nolan but a huge fan of his career,” Jones says. “If I can somehow have a similar trajectory to my career, I’d be more than happy.”