If the movie industry is mired in mediocrity and repetition, how do we account for the big-budget auteur-driven visions that come to our theaters at the end of the year? During award-season frenzy, I often get the chance to talk to those big-name directors who've managed miraculously, because of either studio indulgence, desperation or individual force of will, to make singular, personal, eccentric entertainments on a grand scale.
In speaking with Steven Soderbergh for indieWIRE, who admittedly had to go outside of the studio system to make "Che," his $60-million, brilliantly defiant anti-bio-pic, the director told me how frustrating it was to make the film (after the tape recorder was turned off), describing it as a "tar baby," referring to the fabled turpentine doll that ensnared and entangled those who came close to it. With financing, and even the RED cameras, coming to the production at the very last minute, it's a wonder the film was even made. But here we are, just a few days away from release, and Soderbergh has once again managed the impossible. (Remake "Solaris," a film that even Soderbergh admitted to me that he hadn't fully figured out how to tackle? Sure, said execs at 20th Century Fox, why not? How does he convince these people?)
Elsewhere, we have "Australia" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Admittedly, neither is "There Will Be Blood," but you can't deny that the crazy, Aussie showmen has put his every blood, sweat and love of cheap song into his latest 165-minute epic or that Fincher's technical wizardry and detached emotional perspective has created one of the most unique and strangely affecting love stories of the year.
Recently, I spoke with Baz Luhrmann, David Fincher as well as "Dark Knight" filmmaker Christopher Nolan for this Variety article "Three filmmakers widen their canvas." What's fascinating is not simply how the studio--or studios, plural, in some cases--gave the directors as much leeway as they did, but how each director stayed true to the independent maverick that lives inside each of them.
There are many elements in "Dark Knight" that normally would not be allowed in a summer popcorn movie (i.e. the death of the girl; a climax with no explosions that hinges on the question of moral equivalence), but there it is, right there for all those 12-year-old boys to see. I think the same could be said for all of these movies. We're talking about major budgets, with major risks. And for executives to sit back and let it happen speaks to the possibilities for epic cinema in dire times, or the power of the auteur, or some combination of both. Whatever the case, I'm glad to see that pushing the envelope happens both on high and low budgets.