Thursday, August 31, 2006

Hollywood going indie for big budget remakes/sequels not such a bad idea

Hollywood is often branded as a world bereft of creativity and original ideas. It is not a hard case to make especially with the weekly onslaught of sequels, remakes, half-baked action movies and cheap horror flicks.

And yet once in a while those Hollywood executives get clever and try something so crazy it might just work: hiring a independent filmmaker known for low budget work to helm a big budget, sequel or remake.

But wait, that makes our hypothetical executive seem like the redeemed anti-hero of some clichéd Hollywood movie. In truth, it is a far more calculated risk, but still a risk none-the-less and in the business of moviemaking that is a big deal.

The move is an attempt to add credibility to a project that may otherwise be shallow. It gives the illusion that is not just about the money. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Hiring an indie director, who is more willing to take risks, may raise a film above its clichés. In the best examples, what could otherwise be trash can approach something resembling art.

The shining example of this is last year’s Batman Begins, in which Warner Brothers hired Christopher Nolan to reboot the studio’s lucrative, but dead franchise. They allowed him creative control and to rewrite the script.

Nolan wrote and directed the stylish, psychological thriller Memento and remade the Norwegian film Insomnia. Both films got into the heads of their protagonists and were deeply introspective. Nolan ultimately brought this same edge to his take on the Dark Knight. It made for a film with long stretches of little to no action. In its place were such novel concepts as atmosphere and character development.

Nolan is not the only indie filmmaker to be tapped for a super hero adaptation. Miramax brought in writer and director Kevin Smith (Clerks) to write and direct Green Hornet, but ultimately he passed realising his skills as a director were lacking in the action department.

Sadly, not all directors realise their limitations and get in over their heads. John Singleton, who got his start with the much-lauded Boyz in the Hood, has struggled since. He was hired to remake Shaft with moderate success, but could do little with 2 Fast 2 Furious the sequel to The Fast and the Furious.

Still, when it works, it can work beautifully, as is the case with Steven Soderbergh. Since his debut film Sex, Lies and Videotape, Soderbergh has balanced Hollywood with indie work. His studio work like Erin Brockovich and Traffic is always solid, even great, while his more personally inspired work is experimental and adventurous.

Working for Hollywood allows filmmakers like Soderbergh a chance to play with someone else’s big money and to pay for their smaller films. Take for example Soderbergh’s slick and fun remake of Ocean’s Eleven, which was followed by the extremely low budget Full Frontal, a dissection of Hollywood archetypes.

Richard Linklater the director behind indie favourites like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Waking Life and Tape also plays the Hollywood/indie balancing act. Last year Linklater remade The Bad News Bears, but this year he has two politically mind book adaptations on the way: A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation.

In the case of both Soderbergh and Linklater, the key to their Hollywood projects is that they bring they same freshness that applies to their smaller films and slightly subvert convention, but still make films that please studio executives.

The latest film to head down this path is The Wicker Man an Americanized version of the 1973 British cult classic. It sounds blasphemes to fans of the original, and may prove to be, but there is hope in the film’s writer/director Neil LaBute.

LaBute (In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors) is a filmmaker that deals in the darker side of humanity and goes where Hollywood rarely treads. If he brings these same qualities to his take on The Wicker Man, the shift in setting from Scotland to Maine should not matter.

The above are sadly isolated examples, but at least they represent a step in the right direction. It would be better if Hollywood would stop wasting their and our time with endless sequels and remakes. If we are stuck with them at the very least, let’s hope there is a continuation of risky decisions that allow indie filmmakers to play with Hollywood’s big money.

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