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When Indie directors move on to franchise films, who wins?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

What happens when a brash young indie director makes a big action flick? Marvel found out when it hired Chloe Zhao for its superhero movie "The Eternals" (ph). She had just won an Oscar for directing last year's best picture winner "Nomadland."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) My mom said that you're homeless. Is that true?

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Fern) No, I'm not homeless. I'm just houseless. Not the same thing, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No.

MARTINEZ: So she went from that straight to this - "The Eternals."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ETERNALS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Watch out.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING, VEHICLE SKIDDING)

MARTINEZ: Critics and audiences have been less than excited, but Marvel and "Star Wars" and other franchise producers hire indie directors all the time. We figured the guy who could explain why was NPR's film critic Bob Mondello. Bob, welcome to the show.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MARTINEZ: All right. So Bob, why? And why is it a good idea?

MONDELLO: (Laughter) Well, it's a question as to whether it's a good idea. But basically, studios, I think, want to keep things fresh. And they want to latch on to hot young talent while there's still affordable, and presumably they see something in the indie work of the director that they like. I'm thinking the "Harry Potter" series maybe. It was just kid flicks. And then they hired Alfonso Cuaron to make the third one, and he had just made "Y Tu Mama Tambien," a very sexy teen prestige picture in Mexico. And that made critics pay attention to the series in a way they hadn't before.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. I do remember his impact on that series. All right. So let's get an example, Bob, of a director who made a franchise better.

MONDELLO: Well, let me give you two - a tale of two Ryans (ph). There's Rian Johnson. He made a high school detective flick called "Brick," and it was really clever and well-written. And then he made a time travel movie called "Looper," which was also clever and well-written. And on the basis of those two, he got hired for a "Star Wars" installment, "The Last Jedi." Now, he'd probably been imagining making a "Star Wars" movie since he was 9, and it was clever and well-written when he finished with it. "Star Wars" had always been about the dark side and the light, and he gave "Last Jedi" shades of gray. And arguably, it was the only - I mean, I think it was the only interesting film in the last "Star Wars" trilogy.

MARTINEZ: The only interesting film - wow. That's - there might be some people that might be upset over...

MONDELLO: I think, yeah.

MARTINEZ: Well, actually, a lot of people would agree with you, too, Bob, I think. Yeah. So you mentioned a tale of two Ryans. Can I guess at the other Ryan? 'Cause I'm looking into my Rolodex of different Ryan film directors, and only one comes up. Ryan Coogler?

MONDELLO: Oh, yeah. We know him now as the guy who made "Black Panther," but he...

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MONDELLO: ...Came out of nowhere. I mean, he had made three shorts and the drama "Fruitvale Station" about the death of Oscar Grant in a rapid transit station in Oakland, Calif. Grant was played by a TV actor who'd recently been in "Friday Night Lights," Michael B. Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRUITVALE STATION")

MARJORIE CRUMP-SHEARS: (As Grandma Bonnie) Oscar, how you doing, baby?

MICHAEL B JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Nothing. I'm my work, and I got this...

CRUMP-SHEARS: (As Grandma Bonnie) You're at work?

JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Yeah, Grandma.

CRUMP-SHEARS: (As Grandma Bonnie) Bye.

JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) No, no, no - Grandma, Grandma, Grandma, it's my day off. All right? I'm shopping for the party tonight.

CRUMP-SHEARS: (As Grandma Bonnie) Oh, I'm sorry, baby. I thought you were playing on the phone.

JORDAN: (As Oscar Grant) Nah, Grandma. But I do have this customer here, and she wants to have a fish fry, but she don't know how. You think you can tell her everything she needs to know?

CRUMP-SHEARS: (As Grandma Bonnie) Oh, no problem, baby.

MONDELLO: Now, you get a sense of the tone of that movie. And "Fruitvale Station" got picked up by the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, and Coogler suddenly had some clout. And he used it to get financing for a project he'd been dreaming about for years, an extension of the Rocky franchise that was going to center on Rocky's Black opponent Apollo Creed. And Sylvester Stallone liked the idea and came on board, and Jordan came along as a star, and they basically recreated the franchise for a younger and more diverse audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CREED")

JORDAN: (As Adonis Creed) I heard about a third fight between you and Apollo - behind closed doors. That true?

SYLVESTER STALLONE: (As Rocky Balboa) How do you know all this?

JORDAN: (As Adonis Creed) I'm his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISONER 1 AND 2")

LUPE FIASCO: (Rapping) Wear gloves for the razor-wire...

MONDELLO: Now, that led to "Black Panther," and nobody thinks Coogler's an indie director anymore. He's amazing, right?

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And that led also to his continued partnership with Michael B. Jordan in "Black Panther" as Killmonger.

MONDELLO: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: Indie directors get some clout when they direct these superhero films and presumably cash. Anything else?

MONDELLO: Well, Kenneth Branagh always talks about how his career had completely stalled when he was 34, and then "Thor" brought him back. In his 20s, he'd starred in and directed a bunch of Shakespeare movies and - starting with a very good "Henry V."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HENRY V")

KENNETH BRANAGH: (As King Henry V) And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

(CHEERING)

MONDELLO: Now, when he tried to do the same thing with a bigger budget starring in and directing Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," it just tanked, so he went back to Shakespeare. Nobody would hire him for other kinds of things, but that's a dead end for a film director. You don't want to be a a one-trick pony in Hollywood. So they brought him "Thor," and what he realized when he was reading the script was he could make all those scenes on the planet Asgard feel like "King Lear," Anthony Hopkins thundering at his kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THOR")

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Odin) I now take from you your power in the name of my father and his father before, I, Odin Allfather, cast you out.

MONDELLO: Isn't that wonderful? And it brought back his career. And this year, he's got a film, "Belfast," that is on everybody's shortlist for best picture. So he was resurrected by that. And I think it has made a tremendous difference for him in addition to the cash and the clout that you get out of this.

MARTINEZ: Does putting an indie director on a franchise film usually work? I mean, it sounds like - I mean, we've been running off a list. It seems like it works almost every time. I mean, how often do they really make a mark on the franchise versus maybe possibly getting swallowed by the enormity of it?

MONDELLO: Well, they do sometimes. I mean, the thing is that these series do tend to overwhelm directors after a while. And then the series have, you know, demands to them. There are certain things that the audience always wants. I mean, I'm a real fan of the guy who made "Tsotsi," Gavin Hood. And when he was hired to make "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," there is nothing about that movie, not one single thing, that I would say was like "Tsotsi." Right? I mean, there's just nothing in it. And I - the same you could say - I mean, think about poor Michel Gondry, the "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" guy. He did not do himself any favors making "Green Hornet." So sometimes the insistence of the people who are making this beyond the director - right? - the producers and things like that - on a certain kind of movie just overwhelms a director. And an indie director is going to have less clout to combat that than other people.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's film critic Bob Mondello. Bob, thanks a lot.

MONDELLO: It's great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "'ETERNALS' THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.