What did Josh Trank do?
That was the question people were asking all over social media on Thursday night after the director of Fantastic Four tweeted — and then quickly deleted — a message slamming his own movie on the eve of its debut. The 31-year-old filmmaker, who became one of the industry’s most sought-after directors following the critical and commercial success of 2012’s dark, offbeat, teens-with-superpowers drama Chronicle, had this to say:
Reactions to this message, again, could be summed up simply: What did Josh Trank do?
What had he done to the perception of the film, which is already scraping the bottom of the Rotten Tomatoes meter of critical reaction, earning just 10-percent positive notices? (By contrast, a film that has been universally body-slammed by critics, Johnny Depp’s Mortdecai, collected 12 percent.)
What had he done to the box office for the movie, which cost a reported $122 million to make (and tens of millions more to market), and was in dire need of attracting a major audience as 20th Century Fox sought to reboot and retain its license of the iconic Marvel characters?
What did Trank do to the months of carefully coordinated public relations, aimed at convincing the public that Trank didn’t clash with producer/screenwriter Simon Kinberg and others during the film’s Baton Rouge shoot?
“None of those facts were true – and any of the facts that were true were spun in such a maliciously wrong way,” Trank said in a June interview with the Los Angeles Times (with Kinberg by his side). “If you ask anybody by name who I’ve worked with, from Simon to [producer] Hutch [Parker] or my crew or anybody else, they’d be like, ‘We’ve been working really hard on this movie and we’ve had an excellent time working together,’” he said. “It’s been a challenging movie — for all of the right reasons.”
Even though major reshoots were undertaken to create a more action-oriented conclusion, the pair denied rumors that Trank had been effectively dismissed from Fantastic Four while Kinberg and the studio retooled the climax in a bid to save a movie they saw as a catastrophe in the making. Trank also insisted this rumored discord didn’t lead to Lucasfilm dropping him from a planned Star Wars stand-alone film, which sources say was centered on a script about Boba Fett — written by Kinberg.
“I want to do something original after this because I’ve been living under public scrutiny, as you’ve seen, for the last four years of my life,” Trank told the Los Angeles Times. “And it’s not healthy for me right now in my life. I want to do something that’s below the radar.”
Those remarks were already being met with severe skepticism. And sources close to those films say, without question, Trank was fired from the movie after Lucasfilm executives investigated rumors of the Fantastic Four conflict, talking to numerous figures involved in the movie, and determined he would be too big a risk for a Star Wars film.
TWEET BOMB, BOX OFFICE BOMB
Trank’s tweet as Fantastic Four hits theaters unraveled the entire facade. Based on his own words, we now know that Trank had been removed from the film, was not happy with the final cut, and he wanted the world to understand that the movie being demolished by critics was not the one he wanted to make.
That reshot climax, by the way, is the main thing singled out in many reviews for being out of sync with the rest of the film and the character development that came before. So… that leads to another question:
What did Josh Trank do?
It’s the same five words, but they have a different meaning now: What was Trank’s contribution to this film? What was his original vision? And would that version of Fantastic Four have been better received by critics and audiences? The movie earned just $11.3 million during its opening day on Friday, well under expectations, and is now on track to gross less than $30 million for the three-day weekend.
Trouble on set does not always make a bad movie. Steven Spielberg was nearly fired from Jaws. Francis Ford Coppola faced the same threat on The Godfather. No one says Trank is at that level, and he definitely didn’t survive the way they did or make a movie that anyone thinks is worth watching (a view, apparently, he shares.) But it’s possible to be a solid storyteller, crafting an ambitious film, and still run afoul of a studio — which may value quality and innovation, sure, but more often prefers budgetary discipline and adherence to a proven formula.
This is why filmmakers with distinct vision, like Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright and Selma‘s Ava DuVernay, choose to step away from expensive, studio-tentpole comic-book movies before having to endure the inevitable compromises they bring.
But since this article was initially published, several high level sources close to Fantastic Four — spoken to independently of each other — have told EW the rift on set was not about creative differences but rather combative and abusive behavior Trank demonstrated toward the crew, producers, studio and even the stars. It’s partly linked to Trank’s personal disputes — involving accusations of deliberate damage done to the house he was renting, as revenge over a dispite with the landlord — which sources say eventually manifested on set as hostility and frustration from Trank.
Not all these new sources agree, however. Some who worked on the film say Trank broke, for sure, but was driven to the breaking point by the studio, and that his clash was not with Kinberg but Fox production president Emma Watts. According to several individuals who worked on the movie, the studio delayed casting and script approvals, slashed the budget by tens of millions from what was originally promised during the development phase, and tried to force last-minute script changes to the film just as principal photography was beginning.
The list of producers, which includes not only Kinberg but former Fox production chief Hutch Parker, and X-Men: First Class filmmaker Matthew Vaughn, suggests the studio kept switching up managers and expectations in a bid to save something that was clearly foundering from early on. Fox executives desperately wanted to reboot Fantastic Four after the indifferently received big screen versions in 2005 and 2007, but they also bristled at many of the traditional comic book elements that defined the characters.
There was uncertainty about who should star. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm was set from the start, but the studio wanted a different actor than Miles Teller for Reed Richards. Trank won that battle, even though he later developed a mutually disdainful relationship with the actor — but Fox insisted that Kate Mara be given the role of Sue Storm, and Trank treated her badly as a result. Some say he was cruel, others say merely cold. No one says they got along.
Different sources say Trank was indecisive, others say the studio was hemming and hawing on his choices. Either way, the script was not finalized until late in preproduction, and continued to change right through reshoots, which stalled crew workers who were trying to build sets, make costumes, props, and prep the movie. This created confusion and stress from the get-go that often boiled over among department heads trying to put together pieces of a movie that was still in flux. That’s not in doubt, but the question is: who was at fault?
Some who worked on the movie insist to EW that whatever frustrations and conflicts Trank faced from the studio, they were normal parts of the production of a tentpole movie with a budget north of $100 million. Some theorize Trank was a talented storyteller but not nearly seasoned enough to manage the studio’s concerns, which led to a loss of confidence from Watts, and simmering tensions between Fox and the director that only escalated, right up to release day.
Other filmmakers have made the leap from micro-budgets to mega-blockbusters without such stumbles or volatility. Colin Trevorrow was known only for the low-budget Sundance sci-fi dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed, but managed to make Jurassic World without major behind-the-scenes conflict, as did Gareth Edwards, who jumped from the tiny Monsters to much bigger monsters in 2014’s Godzilla and is currently prepping the Star Wars stand-alone film Rogue One.
While no two filmmakers are alike, some who worked on Fantastic Four say Trank may not have had the clout or the temperament to weather the often maddening frustrations of big studio work. His now-famous tweet, they say, is an example of that hot-headedness.
We probably wouldn’t have heard about this movie’s backstage grief if not for that message — which revealed a falter in the uncomfortable smiles Fox and Trank had been showing.
DENY, DENY, DENY
Until now, everyone involved in Fantastic Four has been so busy denying there was any disruption or chaos on set or between the filmmaking team that Trank’s burst of truth and despair is difficult to interpret — even by those who have been trying to follow the developments on the film closely. Is this merely more evidence of the erratic behavior those who worked on the movie have discussed anonymously in the press?
Or… let’s give Trank the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment. Might Trank actually be the injured party here? That’s what was suggested by Max Landis, the screenwriter of Chronicle, who has previously directed sarcasm and scorn Trank’s way when the Star Wars film fell through. Although Landis wasn’t involved in Fantastic Four, he seemed to side with his former director on Thursday night.
In a series of late-night tweets, he had this to add: “Chronicle was an incredibly rare and easy ride … I also loved collaborating with Josh, who I think is brilliant, and whose ideas inspired my script. I fought hard for him to direct. But Chronicle was a complete fluke. We had so much control because the movie was, in relation to other movies that year, TINY. … But I didn’t know that and I’m sure Josh didn’t know that either. In the five years since I sold Chronicle, I’ve learned the hard way.”
From there, Landis went on to address Fantastic Four directly: “Josh didn’t get that chance, and his second major project, after one with total freedom, was one with intense oversight. … But I do think it’s important to say that if you’re not prepared going in to not FIGHT like hell, but WORK like hell, it’s gonna get ugly.”
While fan reactions to Trank’s diss of his own film were mostly of the facepalm variety, sources tell EW this really wasn’t his film anymore, and wasn’t from nearly the start. It must have been impossible to resist addressing what the critics were saying about that ending — that studio meddling had undermined a potentially innovative take on some classic superheroes. But the flip-side from those close to the studio is that Trank’s vision is the one you can see on screens this weekend, and all the struggle and conflict was in service of trying to make the best version of the movie he delivered to them.
Trank’s defenders say his greatest crime would only be violating Hollywood omerta, that mafia-like vow of silence about the creative clashes that sometimes/often take place behind the scenes. After sitting quietly while Fantastic Four was pried out of his fingers, and smiling and talking about his desire to do original stories after a Star Wars film slipped away, and watching as his professional reputation was being pulverized, those close to Trank say he just decided he didn’t want to play make-believe anymore.
But Omerta works both ways. In this case, sources tell EW that, yes, the studio was desperate to protect the movie and didn’t want the story to focus on how the studio and producers were rehabilitating a troubled project, but they and Trank’s representatives were also trying to protect the filmmaker from public embarrassment. With his angry tweet, many outsiders interpreted it as Trank biting the hand that fed him, but several individuals who worked on the movie now say he was actually biting the hand that covered him from public scrutiny.
One counterpoint worth noting is that the studio’s production executives have also escaped scrutiny for their handling of the film. Those on Team Trank say this freshly-bitten hand of Fox was actually holding Trank up as a shield.
Still, other sources say that as recently as last week, Trank was bullish on the success of Fantastic Four, and sent emails to actors and colleagues on the film praising the finished product, boasting that it was better than 90 percent of comic book movies that have been released, despite the struggles to get it made. Maybe he was just maintaining that practied false positivity, but some who worked closely with him think the devastatingly negative reviews made him panic and decide to distance himself publicly from the movie. If Fantastic Four had opened to more postive, or even mixed reviews, those close to the studio say Trank may instead have sent out tweets claiming credit.
Although the ending to the movie did have to be finished with reshoots (as Mara’s obvious wig attests), Trank was never fired from the film and remained involved in the process through the end. Some close to the studio say Fox now regrets not outright dropping him. How much Fox was willing to listen to him by the end, and whether his guidance and vision were any good, is where opinions split.
At one point, everyone wanted to have their hands on the wheel. Now … no one wants to be in the front seat of this head-on collision. Here’s what’s clear: The studio buckled its seatbelt and braced for impact. Trank tried to bail out.
AN EVOLVING AFTERMATH
Among the filmmakers willing to play devil’s advocate was Joe Carnahan, director of Narc, The A-Team, and The Grey — and the almost-director of Mission: Impossible III, before disagreements with producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner led him to step down while the reins were handed to J.J. Abrams.
Carnahan also had harsh words for the fans he saw delighting in Trank’s misfortune.
So what now? Fox did not immediately offer a comment. Kinberg, too, declined EW’s request for thoughts on the subject, and Trank’s reps certainly didn’t leap to add more to this conversation. But in an interview conducted before the Fantastic Four release, Kinberg offered this about oft-discussed discourse surrounding the project.
“What I do think we had was a very young director making a very big movie. And a director that, for whatever reason, people were either rooting against or his personality troubled the press. So it just got viewed differently than any other movie that’s a tough movie. We came in on schedule, under budget, [with] a movie that was pretty true to the original intent of the film. Whether people like it or not, it was his vision, which was a more grounded, a much more real version of Fantastic Four. Was it an easy production? No. Was it harder than a lot of the movies I’ve been on? No. But I may also have a higher threshold. I think there was something about Josh’s identity that made him a good target. I’m not sure what that is.”
Fantastic Four will probably suffer for Trank’s words — but it was already on fire and going down from the barrage of incendiary reviews. (What this means for that already-announced sequel, set for 2017, remains unclear.) If there’s a winner amid this wreckage, however, it’s probably Marvel Studios, which will likely reclaim the characters unless Fox can figure out how to salvage its franchise.
There are a lot of question marks in this story, and we may never know the answer to some of them: Was Trank’s version of the movie better? Would it have been safer for him to keep silent? Who will take over the Star Wars film he was set to direct?
One thing that’s not in doubt: Chronicle was an amazing movie, and Trank had control over that one. Somewhere along the way, that control was taken from him, or maybe he lost it himself. No movie falls apart because of one person, however, not even a key figure like the director.
Maybe he is difficult. (He wouldn’t be the first high maintenance filmmaker.) Maybe he’s even erratic or off-putting. (Again, these are far from unusual traits in Hollywood.) For now, it seems Trank’s troubles extend far beyond the film industry’s tolerance for rambunctious, creative personalities. It certainly would be interesting to see Trank’s original cut and find out for sure, but one thing everybody agrees on is this: that will never happen.
Is Trank a good director? Could he be great someday? The only way to find out is for someone to hand him another story to tell, and unfortunately, that may not be a bet any producer or studio wants to take right now.
But the only things that outnumber volatile personalities in Hollywood are second chances. While we sit around asking, What did Josh Trank do?, there’s another question worth asking.
What can Josh Trank do next?
*This story has been updated throughout with new information.
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