Big or small, every film always starts with an idea, but soon after the creative process comes the moment when someone has to open their wallet to finance the project.
So what makes the difference is how these ideas are developed and the interference of the producer, who is often willing to sacrifice the courage and originality of a work in order to give the audience what they are thought to want, that is, hoping to get as many people as possible into the theaters.
Hence, the unstoppable tsunami of superheroes that have flooded the silver screen over the past 30 years appeals to the evergreen passion of children for these costumed characters and to the nostalgia factor of more adults returning to their childhood passions.
There is nothing wrong with these films; after all, we are still talking about entertainment, but sometimes the pressure behind these massive blockbuster productions can strangle the very idea behind them to the point of turning these superhero movies into mere cinematic “theme parks,” where the only real difference between one hero and another becomes the color of his costume.
Quite another process lies behind those films that have made history, influencing entire generations of filmmakers and cinephiles with that unstable spark that lights the actual fire of cinema.
Starting from nothing through great enthusiasm
I want to start the discussion with one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, perhaps not the absolute best in ideas or pure talent, but undoubtedly a masterful mechanic who knows which valves to touch in the engine of his films: Robert Rodriguez.
A director from humble beginnings who made his debut in the 1990s with El Mariachi, a resounding example of how excellent cinema can be made on a dime, chronicling the exploits of a poor wandering guitarist mistaken for a ruthless killer by a gang of criminals, who begin to hunt him relentlessly.
It is a fantastic action film made on a mere $7,000 that, according to legend, was scraped together by the same director who sacrificed himself to be a human guinea pig for some medical clinics.
Compare these numbers with the nearly $200 million budget he had to direct Alita – Angel of Battle: despite the monstrous difference, the quality of the action scenes in the two films does not suffer at all.
In Alita, special effects are practically ubiquitous, starting with the protagonist entirely digitally reconstructed by computer as a girl/cyborg who emerges from a garbage dump and then becomes a heroine beloved by crowds.
Despite the money, the director’s soul remained intact, on the side of outsiders and underdogs with their pride and dignity against all injustice and hardship, which transformed the guitarist-gunman above into an iconic figure who went on to have three more films starring Antonio Banderas.
Achieve success and then make compromises
Let us now turn to one of the most beloved contemporary directors on the planet, especially since his Batman trilogy/reboot onward: Christopher Nolan.
The most direct comparison I can make is between his latest Tenet (having yet to see the more recent Oppenheimer) and Memento, his second feature that brought him to the forefront of the international film scene.
Two films with almost 200 million budget differences, although similar in many ways, were separated by a gulf of commercial choices that decreed their respective success or failure at the box office.
We readily recognize the hand of the director and his talented brother Jonathan in writing, always the author of intriguing stories where the protagonists are swept up in events over which they have only apparent control, often struggling to distinguish between harsh reality or the poetic deception of the lie.
The editing is excellent in both cases; however, the choice to vote Tenet to action to catch the love of the general public is precisely what cripples its pace, often stopping the flow of a plot that is also interesting but interspersed with too many (and too long) shoot-outs and endless chases.
Memento, on the other hand, is a much more polished film, as well as (I think) desired and loved by the director himself, who was still at the beginning of his career and far from the demands of constantly explaining the film to the viewer through long dialogues, almost afraid of leaving someone behind.
We can, therefore, develop the equation that more money usually equals less artistic freedom in narrative choices: although, as I said, the director’s skill is not in question at all, the result on the screen is.
Remaining true to yourself even in glory
However, please don’t take my words for a fool’s gold. This equation is not a law written in stone, and fortunately, it has its exceptions, such as the latest director I want to tell you about today, George Miller.
This great artist from faraway Australia created a legendary character of international cinema in the late 1970s: Mad Max.
But that’s not all: the director also created a post-apocalyptic world that would later be copied by everyone for decades to come, setting the rules for a beloved and enduring cinematic genre.
After the debut, Miller would direct three sequels, the latest being the famous Mad Max: Fury Road, which cost about $150 million compared to only $350,000 for the first installment.
Yet, in this case, the auteur stayed true to his formula, exponentially increasing the protagonist’s madness with each episode of the saga.
Thinking back to the first and the last Mad Max, the surreal but tremendously believable atmosphere of its cruelty is ever present in every shot, dialogue, and facial expression of its protagonists.
From the ruthless wife-killing criminals to the hallucinated and sick War Boys, Miller stuck to his idea without polluting it with other unnecessary elements to please the audience.
This also applies to his latest movie last year, Three Thousand Years of Longing, a classic “genie in the lamp” story with little or nothing classic about it, remixing the fairy tale in an intimate, post-feminist key.
A feminism of facts and not talk, like the sexy reproductive slaves/women rebelling along the Fury Road led by the beautiful Furiosa, who has a movie all about her coming out next year, played by the very young but already established actress Anya Taylor-Joy.