High Anxiety on Hollywood Mega-Movies: How 'Gambit' Lost Its Director

Rupert Wyatt File Illo - H 2015
AP Images; iStock

Rupert Wyatt File Illo - H 2015

Rupert Wyatt, his star rising after a successful 'Planet of the Apes' reboot, has fallen out of films at almost every studio (an 'Apes' sequel at Fox, 'The Equalizer' at Sony) as the pressure of working in today's Hollywood takes its toll: "Studios don't necessarily want an auteur who's going to try and reinvent the franchise."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

After this summer's debacle over Fantastic Four, it's easy to understand why 20th Century Fox executives got nervous when director Rupert Wyatt began to seem skittish about taking on its next Marvel character movie, Gambit.

THR reported Sept. 16 that Wyatt exited the film, citing a scheduling conflict with an unnamed project. But multiple sources say the real split arose after the studio began to question whether Wyatt was in fact committed to moving ahead on the project, which has an Oct. 7, 2016, release date. Says one high-level source with knowledge of the situation: "Ambivalence is not a good way to go into an expensive movie."

Wyatt, 42, was one of those directors — like Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) and Josh Trank (Fantastic Four) — who was entrusted with a franchise after making just one promising little movie. Studio execs always like to pursue the next big thing, even though, as the extremes represented by Trevorrow and Trank illustrate, you don't really know what you're going to get.

In Wyatt's case, the small project was the 2008 film The Escapist, which featured Damian Lewis and grossed only $388,000 worldwide. Wyatt was a surprise choice to direct 2011's reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but he pulled it off to strong reviews and a robust $481.8 million worldwide. From there, Wyatt has gone into and out of so many projects that some in the industry are becoming ambivalent. It seems clear that Wyatt has the skill to direct a big film; the question is whether he also has the ambition and political savvy to navigate the studio system.

On Gambit, Fox never believed that it was heading into a situation with Wyatt that would have recalled its difficulties with Trank, who was said to be withdrawn and isolated while making Fantastic Four. Wyatt is "a talented guy," says a studio source. "He shows up. He comes early. He stays late. He's got good ideas." But Wyatt wants to rewrite, to conceive the world that he is filming. And when a director paints on a big, $100 million-plus canvas, studios want to help pick out the colors. Often on big films there also are heavyweight producers and influential stars involved who have ideas of their own. In the case of Gambit, Channing Tatum was set to play the lead, and producers include Simon Kinberg of X-Men and Star Wars.

What seems to have happened on Gambit and other films is that when Wyatt has been unable to convince the studios to sign on to his vision, his anxiety mounts and he leaves. During the past few years, he has dropped out of projects at every major studio except Disney (where he has had none). One top exec who has worked with Wyatt says the director "is not a tortured guy" but rather is "a very gentle soul, very considerate." He continues: "I think he's a very principled guy. He wants to make the best version of something, and he's so desperately afraid of making something not good that it's easier to walk away than be pushed by committee."

Following Apes, Wyatt went to work at Warner Bros. on a project based on the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from the Russian secret service who was poisoned in London in 2006; Michael Fassbender was said to play the lead. But Wyatt left the project, which was never made, when Fox exercised an option to have him work on the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. When Fox balked at his reworking of the script, he dropped out.

Since then, Wyatt began developing the futuristic thriller Agent 13 at Universal, with Charlize Theron set to star. Then he turned to The Equalizer, with Denzel Washington as the lead. Feeling that Sony had a different vision than his, Wyatt left that, too, and was replaced by Antoine Fuqua, who delivered a film that grossed $192.3 million worldwide.

Wyatt took another pass at the Apes sequel, but, apparently feeling that Fox was not making good on assurances that he would be able to put his stamp on the material, he parted ways. The studio brought in Matt Reeves to direct, and the film pulled in $709 million worldwide.

Instead, Wyatt stuck with The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg. Released in December, the project grossed only $39.2 million worldwide. Nonetheless, Paramount was eager to follow that up with Goliath, which is based on a script that Wyatt wrote. Then Fox approached him about Gambit. Wyatt initially told Fox he wasn't interested, but the studio persuaded him to sign on. Wyatt met with Tatum, was scouting locations and even attended Comic-Con in July before falling off the project in mid-September. Tatum is said to remain committed to Gambit, and Fox is meeting with directors with the hope of keeping the release date.

Wyatt, now developing Goliath, declined to comment, but his agent, Brian Swardstrom of UTA, says all sorts of directors leave movies over creative differences. (He notes that Nicolas Winding Refn fell out of Equalizer, for example, before Wyatt.) "It's not necessarily acrimonious," he says. "The studios, with these big movies, have very specific visions of what they want. They don't necessarily want an auteur who's going to try to reinvent the franchise. Of course the studios would love it if a director did what they want, when they want, but it doesn't always work out."

In some cases, adds Swardstrom, leaving might be the right choice. "Many have ended up in director's jail when they didn't walk away," he says, "and perhaps they should have."