The indie/mainstream divergence or: Babes Directing Blockbusters


Right so I was going to write this post about how female directors seem to make in the indendent sphere but somehow can’t quite make that leap to mainstream tentpole blockbusters.

But then… this month they announced that Michele Maclaren has been slated to direct Wonder Woman, and I just discovered that Sam Taylor-Johnson is directing the 50 Shades of Grey movie. Which… gosh, well, has just made both those movies about 50 times more interesting than they were about 5 minutes ago.

For those of you who don’t keep up to date with HBO TV series, comic book movies, trends in erotic fan fiction or British art darlings from the 1990s, you may not be entirely excited or surprised by this news but I promise you, it is both exciting and surprising.

First, lets talk about Michele Maclaren. Michele Maclaren is only the second female director ever to direct a super hero movie in Hollywood. Which considering how many super hero movies Hollywood releases is a kind of sad statistic. The first female directed superhero movie (according to wikipedia) was Tank Girl and was made 20 years ago. So essentially there have been no female-directed super hero movies in the last 20 years, and in fact, very few super hero movies about female super heroes in the last 20 years. There has, in this time been about 50,000 Spider-man movies, nah just jokes, there’s only been 5 that’s only one every 4 years, not many at all. By contrast there have been 5 movies in total in the last 20 years that starred and headlined a female super-hero. (That’s not counting team superhero films like the Avengers which may include female superheroes but they still often don’t get the main storyline or get much character development)

Maclaren is mostly a TV director and has developed a fan base mostly as a result of her work on shows such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is a TV series that is a slick and seriously excellent exploration of humanity, the anti-hero, and the nature of evil. These are criteria that most superhero movies aspire to but never quite achieve; they get hemmed in by their own blockbuster-y-ness and are too afraid to really take the audience to dark places because at the end of the day they have to pull in those box office dollars. It will be entirely fascinating to see whether Maclaren can lift Wonder Woman out of the doldrums of mainstream comic book broad strokes and into something that inspires and challenges its audiences.

Now I am going to confess that I am one of those people who couldn’t quite handle Breaking Bad. But it’s not because it was badly made, it’s just that I got up to season 4 and realised that I didn’t want to stay on this journey with those characters. In fact, would argue that one of the reasons I stopped watching was because it was too good, and I cared about the characters too much. However… the other reason I stopped watching was because I felt constantly frustrated that the female characters were so one-dimensional. I have been told by ardent fans that they do get developed a little bit in future series, and I also know that TV directors have very little say over creative character development so I don’t really attribute this lack of depth to Maclaren in general, but it was one of my main bugbears with the show as a whole and it will be interesting to see whether its a problem with Wonder Woman as well.

And… Sam Taylor-Johnson… Sam Taylor Johnson is the lady who made: Brontosaurus (NSFW) and David which are, on the one hand, kind of art-wank and on the other hand, utterley mesmerising, confronting and difficult to forget.

She is most well known for her striking morpheus-crying-12photography series such as ‘Crying Men’, which disrupt and explore pop culture and gender roles, particularly masculinity.

Taylor-Johnson’s art is thought provoking and has recurring themes of vulnerability, gender, voyeurism and the fragile body.

However, her foray into mainstream feature films with ‘Nowhere Boy’ well personally I found it kind of bland. Nowhere Boy is a bio-pic of the early life of John Lennon, and it was not really a bad film as such, it was eminently watch-able and very well shot. It’s just that it had absolutely none of the disruptive exuberence that comes through in Taylor-Johnson art films. It was very buttoned-down and didn’t take any risks. Maybe that’s just because she wanted a blockbuster audience, or maybe she was swept up in the very conservative mechanism that is studio film-making. Regardless, what you got was a solid, slightly unimaginative film with some great cinematography and of course a great soundtrack.

All of which makes Sam Taylor-Johnson an incredibly interesting choice for 50 Shades of Grey. I haven’t read the book but from all the critiques I’ve read it’s a pretty misogynistic (and yes books by women about women can still be misogynistic) and reductionist view of s&m relationships, with one dimensional characters and a lack of understanding of consent and what constitutes abuse.

So can Sam Taylor-Johnson lift 50 Shades of Grey out of its rigid gender stereotypes and into an exploration of all the things that make her art films great? Things like vulnerability, gender and voyeurism? Or will she just play it safe and make another bland blockbuster that doesn’t disrupt anything?

The movie comes out in February, I’m undecided as to whether I’ll go and see it, but here’s the trailer so you can form an opinion of your own.


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