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12 Indie Directors Who Jumped To Blockbuster Budgets

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 26, 2014 at 2:24PM

This week sees the release of “Noah,” and it’s notable for a number of reasons. For one, it’s that it’s a relatively rare Biblical movie not aimed principally at religious audiences (which may or may not pay off). For another, it’s the latest film from “Requiem For A Dream” and “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky. But perhaps more than anything else, it’s a movie that costs $125 million, almost four times as much as the director’s most expensive previous film, “The Fountain,” the helmer having been given the keys to Paramount’s war chest after the surprise smash success of “Black Swan,” which made nearly $300 million worldwide.
9
Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Indie Work
: Gallic helmer Jeunet started off in animation, before teaming with artist Marc Caro to direct post-apocalyptic fantasy “Delicatessen” in 1991. The witty, heavily-stylized film was an international hit, and led to follow-up “The City Of Lost Children,” a bigger-budget steampunk fable that played in competition at Cannes in 1995.
First Big-Budget Movie
: After other filmmakers including Danny Boyle, Bryan Singer and Peter Jackson turned the project down, Fox went to Jeunet and offered him his English-language, and solo, directorial debut with "Alien: Resurrection," which they were pressing on with despite the death of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley at the end of "Alien3." The film (penned by future “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon, though he’s mostly disowned the finished product) sees Ripley resurrected 200 years on as a part xenomorph-clone who clashes with a group of mercenaries and scientists determined to bring back the creatures. Released on November 26th, 1997, it took a mere $47 million in the U.S., the lowest-grossing film of the franchise at that point, but did better internationally, earning a further $110 million. 

Budgetary Leap:
“Delicatessen” cost about $5 million, “The City Of Lost Children” about three times that. “Alien: Resurrection” clocked in around the $75 million mark.
Success Or Failure
: A fairly resounding failure. The film has some interesting ideas, and Jeunet makes it look handsome, but it’s caught awkwardly between the filmmaker’s idiosyncracies, Whedon’s original script and the studio need to imitate the earlier films, and the result is something of an orphan (though compared to “Alien Vs. Predator,” and even “Prometheus,” it looks a little better). Jeunet had a tough experience (though later said that he enjoyed it), and returned to France, where he had his biggest success with “Amelie.” The director recently made his return to English-language filmmaking with the rather disappointing “The Young & Prodigious Spivet,” but he’s never returned to the studio world (though flirted with “Life Of Pi” at one point).

Spike Jonze Where The Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze
Indie Work: Jonze was one of the best-loved music video directors of the 1990s who, after a brief flirtation with a big-budget debut for Sony in the shape of an adaptation of “Harold And The Purple Crayon,” arrived in features with the staggeringly imaginative “Being John Malkovich” in 1999, which earned him a Best Director Oscar nomination. Jonze followed it up swiftly with a reunion with writer Charlie Kaufman on “Adaptation,” which was admittedly studio-backed (Columbia released it), but cost only a little more than ‘Malkovich.’
First Big Budget Film:
Where The Wild Things Are,” an ambitious adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s novel, which others (including Disney) had mooted bringing to the screen before. Jonze was on the project for the best part of a decade, first at Universal, then eventually at Warner Bros, and he shot the film (which starred young Max Records, and the voices of James Gandolfini and Lauren Ambrose, among others) in 2006. The tumultous production took almost three years to complete (including substantial reshoots), before hitting theaters on October 16th, 2009. It took around $75 million in the U.S, and another $22 million internationally.
Budgetary Leap:
“Being John Malkovich” cost about $13 million, “Adaptation” around $19m. Substantial reshoots and the lengthy post-production pushed “Where The Wild Things Are” over the $100 million mark in the end.
Success Or Failure?
Creatively, if you ask us, a success: Jonze’s big budget picture wasn’t universally acclaimed, but we’d call his devastating look at childhood one of the best films of 2009. Commercially, though, it was less so, failing to make back its production budget, and likely losing Warners close to $100 million when marketing was factored in (it’s actually almost remarkable that it was only that much, given how uncommercial the final product was). Jonze returned to lower-scale territory for his follow-up, the self-penned “Her,” and won an Original Screenplay Oscar for his trouble. But it also wasn't a commercial hit. Time will tell if he ever returns to the big-budget arena.

Doug Liman

Doug Liman
Indie Work:
After debuting with the entirely forgotten straight-to-video college comedy “Getting In” in 1994, Liman broke through thanks to his work on Jon Favreau’s comedy “Swingers,” a big hit in the mid 1990s, with his stylish helming of Favreau’s eminently quotable script certainly made the director one to watch. His follow-up “Go” (actually backed by Columbia, but it feels like an indie in most ways, including cost) hasn’t endured in the same way, but as a lightweight riff on Tarantino and co, it was entertaining within its own rights. The low-budget film was a minor box office hit, catapulting Liman to greater heights.
First Big Budget Film
: Liman had been of a fan of Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity” since he was a teenager, and actively pursued the rights once “Swingers” made him a hot property. It took a while (and a flight right to Ludlum’s house in Montana), and went through a number of screenwriters, but Liman eventually set the property up at Universal, with Matt Damon starring. After a troubled production (see below) and a few release date delays, it hit theaters on June 14th, 2002, picking up excellent reviews and a worldwide gross of over $200 million. It’s spawned three sequels to date, with one more in the works.
Budgetary Leap:
“Swingers” cost a mere $200,000 (much of which came from friends of Liman’s father), while “Go” jumped to $6 million or so. “The Bourne Identity” cost ten times as much, at $60 million.
Success Or Failure?
If you asked a Universal executive during production, they would have said a failure: Liman is, or was, famously indecisive, and fell out with the studio in a big way, with screaming matches on set, four rounds of reshoots, and communications breaking down to the extent that Damon had to act as a go-between the director and suits. And yet the film felt like a breath of fresh air for the genre when it finally arrived, Liman’s mix of indie cred and blockbuster bravado creating a character-driven actioner that really connected with audiences. He might have caused them headaches, but Liman ended up giving Universal one of their most important franchises. The director kept his reputation on follow-ups “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” and “Jumper," as each were similarly troubled (the former dropped entire sub-plots, the latter was recast entirely after a week or two of filming), with varying box office success (the movie with Pitt and Jolie was a hit, the other one, not so much). Fingers crossed that his next, the promising sci-fi Edge Of Tomorrow, marks a return to form.

David Lynch

David Lynch
Indie Work
: David Lynch’s early feature career is fascinating because for a short time there, it seemed he was following an absolutely typical, if meteoric, path to Hollywood eminence. He got noticed when his no-budget, highly personal and idiosyncratic feature debut “Eraserhead” became a staple of the midnight cult horror circuit, tried to mount “Ronnie Rocket” (for the first of many times--it remains one of our 25 Greatest Movies Never Made), and instead was brought in as director-for-hire on “The Elephant Man.” The black-and-white story of famous “freak” Joseph Merrick, is certainly stylish, but it’s still a very classically told, “straight” story, which showed that Lynch could also court mainstream success. The obvious trajectory was for him to take a big-budget extravaganza next, and become Steven Spielberg, right?
First Big-Budget Movie:
Indeed he was even offered the opportunity to direct “Return of the Jedi” by George Lucas, but turned that down in favor of taking up the mantle, much to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s dismay (you really should check out Jodorowsky’s Dune if you haven’t already), of adapting Frank Herbert’s epic “Dune” for producer Dino De Laurentiis.
Budgetary Leap:
“The Elephant Man” was budgeted at a modest $5m, while “Dune” came in at $40-45m. (Adjusted for inflation that makes for figures of roughly $14m and $94m respectively)
Success Or Failure?
Hoo boy. Well, “Dune” famously bombed at the box office, recouping less than its budget, and it tanked critically as well, so yeah, Failure. Later Lynch would say, on one of the rare occasions he’d even discuss the film, “[it] was a kind of studio film. I didn't have final cut. And, little by little, I was subconsciously making compromises.” Now, full disclosure, Lynch’s “Dune” is probably “the worst film I love” for many, but even uncritical culty affection can’t deny that it’s a complete shambles. But it does kick off a fascinating what-if: what if it had been success? Would we ever have had the Lynch of “Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Twin Peaks”? Would Lynch have been so feted as a studio director that he’d have swallowed his qualms at compromise and gone on to have a completely different career? As it is, “Dune” was a disaster, but in the wide view a constructive one, in that it can at least partially be thanked for kicking Lynch’s future filmography onto the wonderfully wonky parallel track it’s pursued ever since. 

This article is related to: Features, Noah, Darren Aronofsky, Feature, Marc Forster, Michel Gondry, Paul Greengrass, Gavin Hood, Bryan Singer, The Wachowskis, Marc Webb, Rupert Wyatt, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Spike Jonze, Doug Liman, David Lynch


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