When “The Hunger Games” changed hands from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, there were nervous fans and plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Lawrence. After all, he’s a guy who has made a number of studio movies now, and they haven’t all been solid. In the end, “Catching Fire” felt like a refinement of the franchise, and I’m genuinely excited to see Lawrence handling the final two films in the series as well, but that mid-franchise creative shift can be nerve-wracking.
When Marvel ends up with a filmmaker they like and they start seeing dailies that work and a film starts coming together in the editing room, they are not above immediately hiring that filmmaker to do it again. The Russo Brothers are already hard at work on “Captain America 3,” and if rumors are correct, James Gunn may be heading back to outer space again as soon as he turns in the first “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” Of course, their biggest vote of confidence was in Joss Whedon, who started production on “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” today in Wakanda. Errrrr, South Africa.
So it would seem the opposite must be true, then, too, correct? If Lionsgate is already reaching out to Robert Schwentke to direct “Insurgent,” then it must be because they don’t think “Divergent” works, right?
Not necessarily. Part of the problem on these giant jigsaw-puzzle franchises is that you basically have to produce them at a gallop. You are chasing a release date from the moment you start production on the first film, and in many of these films, you’re also racing your lead actors to make sure they don’t age out of the stories you’re telling. I ran into Emily Browning at the junket for “Pompeii,” and we talked about how they basically gave up the entire franchise the moment they chose not to greenlight a Lemony Snicket sequel the day the first film came out. Browning and the other kids in that first film are very young, and in the books, the Baudelaire orphans don’t really age much over the course of the series.
With “Insurgent,” everything is full speed ahead. Neil Burger is still working to finish and deliver the first film, and Akiva Goldsman is currently working on what I assume will be the production polish on the script. They’re going to need to dive in immediately if they want to make a release date of March 20, 2015. Even if this first film does well, I doubt Lionsgate wants to push the film to a summer date considering what a bloodbath 2015 looks like it’s going to be. I also wouldn’t read anything into the decision to bring Goldsman in for a polish. At this point, it feels like every major studio franchise ends up polished by one of about eight people before they’ll actually pull the trigger, and besides, Duffield’s already off working on his own directorial debut, which is freaky and dark and nasty and sort of awesome.
I wouldn’t read much into the choice to hire someone else to make the second film. However, I am baffled that it’s Schwentke they chose. This guy’s coming off of a truly toxic bomb, “R.I.P.D.”, and while I like “RED,” I don’t think there’s anything about either “The Time Traveler’s Wife” or “Flightplan” that would inspire much confidence in me as a producer. I just don’t think he’s got a strong voice, or that he is strong enough as a filmmaker to elevate material. Sure, you hope you’ve got everything there on the page, but you don’t want to just hand this off to an anonymous journeyman. I didn’t just think “R.I.P.D.” and “Time Traveler’s Wife” were generic, though… they’re both flat-out terrible movies. Then again, Akiva Goldsman is the final writer on the film, and his new movie “Winter’s Tale” might be the stupidest movie released this year, so Schwentke may not be the weak link here.
By this point, everyone else in the business must be getting tired of hearing Marvel used as an example, but when you look at the way they’re progressing and the guys they’re hiring for the latest films they’re making, it looks to me like they’re getting more daring and like they are increasingly reaching out to unconventional choices that have a chance of doing something special. At this point, special is the best weapon any of these franchises have if they want to stand out.
“Divergent” arrives in theaters March 21, 2014.