The Artist is Always Failing: Critic’s Choice

In many ways, directors, actors, and writers do something magical. They transport an audience to a new world. However, audiences do not often see the complex behind the scenes world of the artist.

This can lead audiences and critics to create binary narratives about how artists work divorced from the logistics and process of filmmaking. In this article, I will primarily focus on how critics sometimes create simplistic narratives about how artists and the industry work.

My Viewpoint on Critics

I would like to preface this by saying that I do not have anything specifically against critics. If a critic does not like a movie I like, I do not believe they need to just “lighten up” and enjoy life. Similarly, I have not seen any evidence from a respected source that critics get paid to trash or like movies by their employers or a studio. The closest example I have seen of that is Columbia Pictures inventing fictitious critic David Manning to positively review their bad movies in 2001.

In truth, I see critics as providing an opinion based on what they know about filmmaking and storytelling. Their opinions tend to focus more on dissecting craft rather than if they just enjoyed the movie. The articles and reviews I have chosen to focus on tend to create a certain narrative about the filmmakers behind them.

Robin Williams and Albert Brooks Go Warm

In his 1999 article “Dear Albert Brooks: Please Don’t Go Warm,” literary critic Ron Rosenbaum focuses his attention on Robin Williams and Albert Brooks, two edgy comedians that he feels have or will potentially go soft and sentimental.

With Williams, he describes him as the greatest edgy comedic mind of his generation. Rosenbaum describes Williams the comedian as doing what great satirists do by holding a mirror up to society. Rosenbaum describes Williams the movie star desecrating Williams the stand up comedian. In the past decade or so, Williams decided to make schmaltzy films such as the biographical comedy Patch Adams (1998) and the holocaust comedy Jakob the Liar (1999), much to Rosenbaum’s disappointment. Rosenbaum singles out Jakob the Liar as a case of cheap sentimentality made to imitate the success of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997). With these career choices, Rosenbaum worries that Williams is too far gone to realize “what a con his Mr. Warmth act is.”

However, Rosenbaum does not just see this as a problem with Williams. Other comedians he describes who have suffered the same fate include Richard Pryor (at least in the movies), the SCTV company, and Bobcat Goldthwait.

Although he dislikes what has happened with Williams, his article focuses primarily on how warmth could destroy Brooks’ future career.

Brooks according to Rosenbaum

With Brooks, Rosenbaum focuses on the movies he wrote, directed, and starred in. With his first three movies (Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985)), Rosenbaum sees Brooks as creating the perfect persona to nail the narcissistic side of American masculinity. The author describes this character as better than Neil LaBute and David Rabe’s caricatures of the same things. Unlike other comedic figures, Rosenbaum finds Brooks daring because he creates a funny and charming exterior to mask a narcissistic interior.

However, with his last few movies (Defending Your Life (1991), Mother (1996)), Rosenbaum worries that some outside interference has gotten to Brooks. Both stories focus on characters that learn lessons and grow. He describes Defending Your Life as less of a film and more of a group therapy session. With Mother, he sees Brooks vying for the affection of his mother as a stand in for Brooks vying for the audience’s love.

Conversely, film critic Roger Ebert saw Defending Your Life as a major step forward for Brooks. While he always found Brooks’ films funny, he also felt like they became thin in the third act. Defending Your Life has a third act where Brooks risks it all to be with his love interest (Meryl Streep).

‘The Muse’

Rosenbaum really became scared of Brooks going warm based on seeing the trailer for Brooks’ newest film The Muse (1999).

In The Muse, Brooks plays a screenwriter who has lost his “edge” in the business. Rosenbaum becomes interested in this concept of “edge.” He asks Brooks what it means at a press junket. After saying he does not know what Rosenbaum means by this, Brooks ask for his definition of “edge.” Rosenbaum describes it as “intensity” and “testing limits.” Brooks responds that it’s something you’re attracted to and something you want to avoid. With this point, Rosenbaum fears that Brooks may dip over into schmaltzy territory.

Brooks in Real Life

Arguments like this rely heavily on a sentimental viewpoint of an artist’s past work. While Brooks might have created the ingenious persona Rosenbaum claims he did, he probably did it more instinctually than consciously. In fact, Brooks considered casting Bill Murray in his third movie Lost in America in 1984. He decided not to after learning about Murray’s busy schedule would make him unavailable until 1987. With Modern Love, angry studio heads wanted Brooks to add a scene where the character explained what bothered him to a psychiatrist, but Brooks did not know what bothered the character. While Brooks might have created many great comedies, it does not mean that every decision represented an act of pure genius.

Albert Brooks also has stated that legacy does not matter. When Conan O’Brien first met Brooks, the late night host talked to him about how he felt his work meant nothing compared to Brooks’ work. Brooks told him that in 1940, Clark Gable was the big name actor. Now nobody thinks about him and that fate awaits everybody in the entertainment business. According to O’Brien, this point made him feel creatively free. This does not mean that Brooks does not care, but that all his work will be forgotten.

Williams’ and Brooks’ darker roles

Rosenbaum takes a set of current creative choices and inflates those choices into a crisis. When Rosenbaum wrote this article in 1999, some of the schmaltziest movies of Williams career came out (his last four films were What Dreams May Come (1998), Patch Adams, Jakob the Liar, and Bicentennial Man (1999)).

Brooks had some misgivings about his career. In an Entertainment Weekly article from 2003, Brooks said that he had acted a little safe in his career by turning down the Tom Hanks role in Big (1988), the Billy Crystal role in When Harry Met Sally… (1989), and the Richard Gere role in Pretty Woman (1990). Brooks had a few different reasons. With Big, he did not want to really play a kid role at the time. When they came to him with Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts had not signed on, so Brooks saw it as a “silly script about a prostitute.” That article covered also Brooks appearing in Finding Nemo and The In-laws, his two most mainstream movie roles at the time.

Both men would move on to darker roles. Beginning in 2002, Williams starred in darker comedies, dramas, and thrillers. He would make these types of films along with his lighter comedies for the rest of life. Starting with Drive (2011), Brooks would star in darker dramas along with his comedies. While the choices of today might not work, it does not make those choices permanent. People move on and create new work all the time.

Albert Brooks and Advertising

While Brooks might have made lighter movies later in his directing career, he also sometimes made ads for them that were more experimental than the average advertisement. For The Muse, Brooks made an ad where he tried to screen the entire movie in 15 seconds so the audience would absorb it subliminally.

Similarly, Albert Brooks also made a pretty dark promo for Netflix when they brought his films to their platform. In it, Brooks claims that he has kidnapped the child of an executive so they would put all his films on their platform.

David Koepp Never Has to Impress Anybody Again

I have covered a few of film critic and aspiring filmmaker Chris Stuckmann’s videos in past articles. With his videos, I like to take a basic idea mentioned in them and examine it as part of a deeper discussion. While I have no animosity against Stuckmann personally, I would like to respectfully critique some points he presents in his videos.

Stuckmann’s Viewpoint

Stuckmann tends to paint artists as either virtuous and passionate or apathetic and lazy. In his review of Annabelle: Creation (2014), he says that “good filmmakers make good films” as if it is a given. If a great filmmaker fails, it has to do with circumstance. “The studio stepped in” or “they had too low of a budget” remain two big narratives there. When a bad filmmaker fails, it has to do with them not caring or not working hard enough. Filmmakers become geniuses, apathetic hacks, victims of the system, or lost souls.

The film that seems to confound Stuckmann the most is Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) because it does not fit neatly into the narrative. To Stuckmann, it presents an example of a caring filmmaker (Steven Spielberg) making questionable creative and technical decisions. At one point, Stuckmann says that it terrifies him that even great filmmakers can have bad ideas and those ideas can make it to the big screen. Afterwards, he admits that it is also cathartic because it proves that even Spielberg can fail.

Narratives like this tend to not take into account logistics and process of filmmaking.  For me, his review of You Should Have Left (2020) best exemplifies these criticisms. A Blumhouse film written and directed by Crystal Skull scribe David Koepp, the film focuses on a man (star and co-producer Kevin Bacon) renting a house for a vacation, only to find a menacing presence inside. While Stuckmann had many videos, this one in particular has the most claims that ring false based on what I know about the business. Stuckmann presents these points as sincere speculations rather than as a rant or a joke.

The Project

Stuckmann says that the IMDB summary threw him off, as it claims the story follow a screenwriter going mad in the house. The movie does not follow a screenwriter. Apparently, this summary comes from the book that the film is based on. Stuckmann assumes that since Koepp wrote about a screenwriter in Secret Window (2004), he scrapped that and replaced him with an uninteresting character.

According to Kevin Bacon, he and Koepp developed a separate project for a number of years, only to learn about the novel by Daniel Kehlman in the development process. Since they found it so similar to their idea, they decided to option the book.

Working in the Industry

Stuckmann claims that it feels like Koepp has never had to work to get a script made since Jurassic Park (1993) and has never had to impress anybody since then.

In all fairness, Koepp has reached a privileged position in show business where he has had multiple financially successful films produced over decades. He most likely does not have to work to receive jobs or maintain financial stability. That being said, Koepp still has had to work to get projects made. Over many years, Koepp has helped develop many projects that have fallen apart or been made without him.

Koepp and Logistics

At one point, Koepp was attached to write a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). He pursued an idea, but the studio eventually lost interest in. He parted ways with them amicably. In the interview describing this, Koepp says a screenwriter should only pursue a project if they have an idea for it because ideas are currency in the business.

In 2014, he wrote a draft for the potential Will Smith vehicle Brilliance before Smith left the project. Smith came back to the project in 2019, at which point he brought on screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. Although Koepp has written many scripts, getting everybody to want to make the same project at the same time requires alchemy of its own.

Most recently, Koepp worked on a few drafts of Indiana Jones 5 with frequent collaborator Steven Spielberg. According to Koepp, some ideas worked and some did not, which happens as part of the process. Koepp left shortly after Spielberg because he felt it did not help for the old screenwriter to tell a new director what the old director would have done.

Similarly, when Koepp worked with Spielberg on War of the Worlds (2005), he decided to use a Newark neighborhood as a location. He thought that he would probably have to change it due to financial or logistical reasons, but this never happened. However, according to Koepp in an interview with Rob Feld in the back of the script, the nature of filmmaking usually does not allow this.

Sending In Screenplays

Stuckmann claims that if an unknown writer sent the spec script for You Should Have Left to an agent or executive, it would get shredded and never passed onto anybody. They would not respond to you and throw it in a pile with the other scripts. He prefaces this with the phrase “I could be wrong.”

First off, people in the industry do not read unsolicited materials for legal reasons (they do not want to get sued if they produce a movie similar to the screenplay, etc.). There are a few ways to ask or to get noticed. One way to ask an agent to look at a script is to send a query letter and see if they respond (assuming that they accept query letters). However, one of the best ways is probably just to make friends in the business and work with people. If a person asks for the script, it means they will take the legal risk.

Secondly, nobody knows what script will make a good movie. The Black List of unproduced scripts specifically states that it is a list of “most liked scripts”. While good movies have come from that list, so have movies that critics and audiences considered outright horrible (Abduction (2011), Wish Upon (2017)). By 2014, IndieWire put out an article of the top ten best and worst films made from Black List scripts.

The Black List does not take into account many factors. Many screenplays do just attract attention due to their writing, but do not make great movies. Nobody knows how the script will fare through a long development process. Although Booksmart (2019) turned out well, it went through 3 iterations over a 10 year development process after producers picked it up from the Black List. A screenplay can produce a great movie, but it does not mean it will.

Collaborators

According to Stuckmann, Blumhouse needs to find better talent with the prestige directors who they just “let do their thing.” He points to Leigh Whannell (writer of The Invisible Man (2020), Upgrade (2018), Insidious (2010), Saw (2004)) as an example of real talent.  On the other side, he lists the new movies he found disappointing (Truth or Dare (2018), Black Christmas (2019), Fantasy Island (2020)).

While Blumhouse does allow a certain amount of freedom to their directors, they also do not necessarily just “let them do their thing.” They do have executives who supervise the process and give the directors notes.  The director of Truth or Dare and Fantasy Island, Jeff Wadlow, has said on DVD commentaries that Blumhouse gave him notes to put in more jump scares in both films. The candy machine scene in Truth or Dare comes out of this note.  According to Wadlow, Leigh Whannell also watched Fantasy Island and pitched him ideas for the film too. While Blumhouse probably has a happy working environment, it does not mean that it works exactly like Stuckmann suggests.

Leigh Whannell

While Whannell might have talent, he also got to his end products through a process. On The Invisible Man, he cut out many expositional scenes, extraneous music, and a complicated scene with many extras. He did this based on his own intuition and the suggestions of many people. In the audio commentary, Whannell says that he wishes he could have a crystal ball to see what not to shoot.

In his review, Stuckmann says that Koepp lights interiors too brightly and that one expects darkness in scary movies. Whannell also filmed The Invisible Man in many bright interiors, much to the chagrin of cinematographer Stefan Duscio. Whannell felt he could do this because the invisible man does not need shadows to hide him. The reason why the lighting works has to do more with its implementation than its brightness.

Payment

Stuckmann claims that he can think of 10 people who would have done this story better and taken a quarter of the pay that Koepp probably took. This in particular gets under Stuckmann’s skin.

Koepp might draw a handsome salary, but he made a horror movie for approximately 4 million dollars. It is not even the studio’s most expensive movie (The Invisible Man and Fantasy Island cost 7 million dollars). Whatever Koepp got paid, he probably took a lower salary than he would have normally taken.

Kasdan and Koepp

In many ways, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan has a similar career to Koepp. Like Koepp, Kasdan got noticed for writing some of the biggest blockbusters of all time before transitioning into directing. These included two Star Wars films (The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of The Jedi (1983)) and the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

In the early 2000s, Kasdan was about the same age Koepp is now and experiencing a career crisis. His last few movies (Wyatt Earp (1993), French Kiss (1995), Mumford (1998)) had not done particularly well at the box office. Castle Rock offered him the Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher. According to a Production Assistant, the company thought the movie would make money based on King’s history with the studio. Released in 2003, Dreamcatcher made back its budget and little else. Kasdan said that Dreamcatcher hurt his career more than it hurt his feelings.

After Dreamcatcher failed, Kasdan would not make another movie until Darling Companion (2012), a movie Kasdan independently financed through his own production company Kasdan Pictures. In an interview about the film, Kasdan said that it is great to have the luxury to say something personal and even more amazing if people actually see the movie.

After that, Kasdan returned to the Star Wars universe to write The Force Awakens (2015) and Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). Unlike Kasdan’s previous directorial work, these films were guaranteed to make money based on the brand.

Koepp experienced a similar career trajectory around the same time. Koepp’s previous movie Mortdecai (2015) flopped at the box office (returning 47 million on a 60 million dollar budget). Like Kasdan, Koepp decided to make his next film a low budget project. Perhaps it was a personal decision after making a bigger project.

Some Thoughts

One thing I see people say they like about Chris Stuckmann is his passion. I cannot fault them for that. I also enjoy seeing people say that Stuckmann inspired them in some way. And I am glad he is getting to direct a movie. My main points here come out of concern.

What tends to bother me personally is watching somebody get worked up over a simplistic version of the truth they have presented to themselves. While the business can be fair, it is often hard to assess fairness about a subjective art form.

Conclusion

In many films about show business, the story ends once the protagonist proves themselves in some way. The talented protagonist most often has to just have that talent recognized, but never has to struggle or grow as an artist beyond that initial recognition. In the real world, artists go back to work with a new project that may or may not succeed. The artist probably has many good ideas, but also probably has many bad or mediocre ones. Some of it just depends on which ones get weeded out. On top of that, they have to deal with the financial and logistical problems of making that project.

While an audience member or critic might feel strongly about certain choices, it does not necessarily match the actual reality of the situation. Projects and filmmakers become better, worse, and different. It all depends on the choices they make at a certain time.