Days before Fantastic Four opened, director Josh Trank sent an email to some members of the cast and crew to say he was proud of the film, which, he wrote, was “better than 99 percent of the comic-book movies ever made.”
“I don’t think so,” responded one castmember.
Maybe if Trank had left it at that, Hollywood insiders and fan websites could have played their own parlor games as to who was at fault for the film’s colossal failure and Fantastic Four would have faded into the history books as did John Carter and other bombs before it. (The $122 million-budgeted film opened to just $25.7 million in the U.S. and $34 million abroad, far below even the most cautious predictions.)
But Trank, 31, could not resist tweeting on Aug. 6, as the movie was hitting theaters, that he had made “a fantastic version” of the film that audiences would “probably never see.” Though Trank quickly deleted the tweet, his public disavowal of the film at such a key moment enraged 20th Century Fox executives and stirred a pot that had begun to bubble when the director was dropped by Lucasfilm from a Star Wars stand-alone film at the end of April, prompting THR to report that one of the causes was his erratic behavior on Fantastic Four. Now, insiders on the film say the situation was worse than previously revealed, and Trank has enlisted pit-bull lawyer Marty Singer to advocate on his behalf. And so the game of blame is underway.
Fantastic Four is not the only big studio film to go flying off the rails, ostensibly because a director is in over his head. Sometimes a studio can salvage the project, as Paramount did when it shut down World War Z amid crew complaints about director Marc Forster and commissioned a rewrite of the third act. The film went on to gross $540 million worldwide.
Universal intervened to save the original The Bourne Identity when director Doug Liman seemed unable to pull that film together. It launched a franchise, but producer Frank Marshall — brought in to rescue the movie — said later that he had taken unprecedented measures to get the movie done. “I’ve always had a respect for the line between a producer and a director,” Marshall told me in 2005, “and I had to step over that line into something that I feel is the director’s responsibility.”
Liman moved on to his next project, Mr. & Mrs. Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, only to run into similar problems. Akiva Goldsman, who was a producer on that film, called him “a madman,” and Liman filed a grievance with the Directors Guild saying his prerogatives as director had been compromised. But the film grossed $478 million worldwide, and Liman’s reputation suffered no serious damage.
In Trank’s case, multiple sources associated with the project say the director did not produce material that would have opened the way to a salvageable film. And by several accounts, he resisted help. “He holed up in a tent and cut himself off from everybody,” says one high-level source. Literally, there was a tent on the Louisiana set. “He built a black tent around his monitor,” says a crewmember. “He was extremely withdrawn.” Between setups, this person adds, “he would go to his trailer and he wouldn’t interact with anybody.”
Sources say Fox believed in what one executive calls a “grounded, gritty version of Fantastic Four that was almost the opposite of previous versions” — and initially thought Trank could deliver that. Several sources say Fox stood by Trank as he pushed a gloomy tone on young stars Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara and Jamie Bell. “During takes, he would be telling [castmembers] when to blink and when to breathe,” one person says. “He kept pushing them to make the performance as flat as possible.”
There were worrying personal issues as well. As THR reported in May, Trank and his dogs allegedly caused more than $100,000 worth of damage to a rented house in Baton Rouge that he and his wife occupied while the film was shooting there. Sources say now that after landlord Martin Padial moved to evict Trank, photographs of the landlord’s family that were in the house were defaced. Padial made a complaint to the local sheriff’s department and filed a civil suit in Louisiana that is sealed. Padial’s attorney, Michael Bienvenu, declined to comment on the matter. The sheriff’s department says the case was “closed as a civil matter between landlord and tenant.”
Neither Trank nor Singer would comment.
A crewmember acknowledges that Trank bears much of the fault for the film’s problems but also says the Fox studio should not escape blame. The movie was “ill-conceived, made for the wrong reasons and there was no vision behind the property,” this person says. “Say what you will about Marvel but they have a vision.”
As Fox hurried to put the project into production before rights to the material reverted to Marvel, the studio was scrambling with multiple rewrites and delays in starting the film. They “were afraid of losing the rights so they pressed forward and didn’t surround [Trank] with help or fire him. They buried their heads in the sand.” Fox declined to comment.
Another source says the notion of firing Trank came up even before the cameras started to roll. But Fox put its faith in him because he had directed the studio’s 2012 found-footage hero movie Chronicle, which grossed $127 million worldwide on a $12 million budget. Based on that, insiders say Fox executives thought they had found an “in-house director,” a young talent who could become another J.J. Abrams. And the studio was trying to shake off its reputation for micromanaging filmmakers. So executives were reluctant to interfere on Fantastic Four despite warnings of trouble.
When the seriousness of the problems could no longer be ignored, says a key source on the project, it was too late to fire the director. “How do you ask someone to take over half of a movie shot by someone else?” he says. “You either hire somebody desperate for work or you [start over], write off pretty much the whole budget and lose the cast.”
As filming wound toward an unhappy close, the studio and producers Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker engaged in a last-minute scramble to come up with an ending. With some of the cast not fully available at that point and Kinberg juggling X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Wars, a lot of material was shot with doubles and the production moved to Los Angeles to film scenes with Teller against a green screen. “It was chaos,” says a crewmember, adding that Trank was still in attendance “but was neutralized by a committee.” Another source says the studio pulled together “a dream team,” including writer and World War Z veteran Drew Goddard, to rescue the movie. Whether the final version of the film is better or worse than what Trank put together is a matter of opinion, of course, but the consensus, clearly, is that neither was good.
One central player on the film says the process of making big films often is messy, but in many cases the studio can fight its way out of difficulties. A Fantastic Four crewmember concurs but says that doesn’t relieve the studio of its responsibility for what went wrong with this film. “To me, it is a classic indictment of the entire system,” he says. “Give Josh Trank a $20 million movie. Groom him. But they don’t make those movies anymore. … Nobody should escape scrutiny on this one. Everyone should take a good look in the mirror, myself included. Even I probably did the movie for the wrong reasons.”