Countless fanboys were in shock after Marvel announced that Patty Jenkins would be helming the sequel to last summer’s blockbuster hit Thor. I have to admit that the choice struck me as more than a little odd when I first heard the news. That being said, people too often place unnecessary weight on a filmmaker’s past works. Sure, you don’t want someone who has no idea how to shoot action directing the next Bourne flick, but there have been many a time where someone’s past filmography isn’t truly indicative of what they’re capable of pulling off.
Every one knows that breaking into the entertainment industry is no small feat. Thousands of talented individuals are passed up every year, not because they’re not good enough, but because of elements that are completely out of their control. Maybe the person reading your script is having a bad day. Or the role went to some producer’s daughter. James Cameron actually had a great quote about this:
Door’s don’t just open for you. Every once in a while one will open a crack and you have to recognize that that’s the moment.
What does this have to do with anything I’ve been talking about? Using the door analogy, when you’re rushing through that crack you’re not really thinking about the specifics. Getting into the game is hard enough without limiting yourself to one particular area of "expertise." Often times people will eschew the genre where their true passion and/or talent lies, because an opportunity for that first job that presents itself.
Actors are perhaps the easiest to spot this trend with. Countless A-listers have projects at the early beginnings of their careers that they wish could be erased from the world’s collective memory. There’s Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun. Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3. Or Stallone’s softcore foray in The Party at Kitty and Stud’s.
If you judged them solely by these works, none of these actors would have had made it very far beyond the straight-to-video rack. If Ryan Gosling kept on his track, he would be doing live-performances as some Disney character in one of their theme parks, Sure, these examples are a little extreme, but what about someone like George Clooney?
We all know him today as a guy who does films that have a certain level of depth to them. His projects deal with social and political issues other people won’t touch. His characters are layered and emotionally complex individuals. It’s very clear that these kinds of dramas are where his heart truly lies. Yet, early on in his career he was busy running around in a batsuit. In retrospect, it’s really hard seeing Clooney taking a role like that… but he did. Even he admits that the picture was “a waste of money.” Hey, at least his costume didn’t have nipples. His early works, with his many stints on TV shows and even his breakout with ER, really couldn't have projected where he would end up.
Actors enjoy challenging themselves and often end up seeking out roles that take them out of their comfort zone. Maybe their initial career arc never meant to bring them to a certain role, but eventually they end up their out of a desire to experience something new. Heath Ledger is a prime example of this. Before his turn as the Joker, most people thought nothing about his past roles suggested he would be able to do what he did in that film. I remember the initial backlash to his casting was fierece and I’ll readily admit that I had my own doubts. Yet, he proved all the naysayers wrong in brilliant fashion. Actors, however, are usually given a lot more leeway than other filmmakers when they try to reinvent themselves. I think the reason behind this is that it’s his or her job to become someone else, so one naturally assumes that the jump shouldn’t be that out of the ordinary. After all, they're just doing what they do every other day. An actor like Robin Williams has jumped back and forth between lighter and more serious works throughout his entire career. A lot of the time pure talent translates across genres.
Let’s not leave writers and directors out of this conversation. J.J. Abrams is one of the brightest stars around. We all know him as a summer movie type of guy. He loves sci-fi films and is a fan favorite at Comic-Con. He broke into the industry by writing a comedy called Taking Care of Business that starred Jim Belushi. Abrams wrote that script with then writing partner Jill Mazursky, daughter of director Paul Mazursky. He followed that up with Regarding Henry and Forever Young. After that, he made a name for himself writing comedies. Would you really have expected that guy, the one who created Felicity, to be the same one who created Lost, Fringe, and Alias? Not to mention the fact that he would then go on to direct Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, and Super 8?
Another example of a filmmaker being pigeonholed early in his career is John Landis. He, of course, was considered a straight comedy guy with films like Animal House and The Blues Brothers under his belt. Long before any of that, Landis came up with an idea for a horror film while he was working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes. After seeing a group of gypsies performing rituals on a man being buried, Landis was hit with a stroke of genius and ending up writing the script for An American Werewolf in London. This was in 1969, long before Landis broke into the industry. Michael Jackson would later collaborate with Landis on what many people, including myself, consider to be the greatest music video of all time… Thriller. Landis actually originally intended to do Horror, but had to wait years to finally get a crack at it. He proved more than capable of handling the subject matter.
Brad Bird is another recent example of a director taking a pretty substantial shift in material. He’s won Academy Awards for his animated work and in about a month we’ll get to see his live-action directorial debut with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. That’s a big franchise to just hand to keys over for, but the trailers have looked pretty solid so far. We'll find out soon enough that if he succeeded or not, but I'm willing to bet that deep down there was a part of him that always wanted to do a big action film like this. Now, he's just finally getting the chance to.
Great storytellers often find a way to transcend the limits people automatically want to put on them. It makes it so much easier for us if we can say that’s the action guy or that’s the comedy girl. In doing so, we ignore the fact that these are very talented individuals who might not have gotten the chance to work on pieces they’ve admired and have been dying to work on for years. Sure, it doesn’t always work out. There's many examples of directors, writers, and actors getting a little adventurous and making a complete bomb of a film. Marvel found this out with one of their films quite recently, which makes the Patty Jenkins choice a little more surprising. Still, I think quality talent should be given some benefit of the doubt, because, let's be honest, eating your words a few months down the road is never fun. It's so easy to get pigeon-holed in this industry, that people often spend years on material that might not really capture where their heart's at. Or maybe they had no idea they could do something so well until they actually tried it. Take a look at your favorite writer, director, or actor's filmography. I bet you'll be surprised by just how diverse it actually is.