Stephen Sommers

What must the guy in the photo above thinking? He’s got a studio hit (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) on his hands and a license to make whatever he wants; as long as it’s also what the studio wants.

Stephen Sommers has built his career on the backs of BIG Hollywood movie studios, reaching career heights few others can/will ever attain. His directing quote is surely in the millions and millions of people pay to see his work, a surefire dream for any and every artist.

Writing this now, it almost seems petty to suggest the life of the studio director might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Now, before we delve into this, let’s get the term “studio director” clear. There are those director who employ the studios when necessary (Todd Haynes, for example, or David Cronenberg), those who tend to avoid studios at all costs (Todd Solondz for the most part), those who rise above the studios and get money to do anything (Spielberg, Scorcese, Tarantino) and those who are employed by the studio.

The latter group is the “studio director” in the context of this piece. People like Walt Becker, the young auteur who gave us the smash hit Wild Hogs a few years back and will soon provide another low-brow Travolta fest with Old Dogs. People like John Moore, the man responsible for Max Payne and two stock remakes, Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen. People like Sommers.

Of course, the perfect example is Brett Ratner, but that’s like beating a dead horse. Living this life of success must be like being handcuffed to a never-ending gravy train. A dream you never wake up from.

What a hell it must be.

Consider Joe Johnston, the directing talent responsible for enjoyable earl 90s studio fare early like The Rocketeer and Jumanji, but soon after the man behind the unfathomably unnecessary Jurassic Park III. You forgot about it too, huh?

Johnston’s got a great visual eye and uses the studio money where he can. Hidalgo, the underseen Viggo Mortensen Arabian-set western, sports more than a couple impressive visual set pieces (including one of the best sandstorm scenes ever), not to mention getting great performances out of Mortensen and the late Omar Sharif. Unfortunately, the positives can’t detract the cliched negatives (the white man leads the savage plot device, the “at all costs” happy ending, the unreliable ‘based on a true story’ claim that’s completely false, etc.).

At the film’s end, you know Johnston’s no David Lean and Hidalgo is no Lawrence of Arabia, but you also feel like the man with the movie camera didn’t have much say in the matter. Studios don’t make David Lean movies anymore. They make Michael Bay movies. I guess Sommers can sleep at night consoled with the fact he’s not Michael Bay. But then Bay is richer, so maybe Sommers is restless.

Johnston’s best film is October Sky, a mini-masterpiece that cost $25 million and is simple and character-driven – a real true story about real characters.  I doubt either Bay or Sommers could do “character driven” with any amount of money, small of large. But then Jonhston’s entire bank account is probably smaller than either of the two other directors’ summer house price tags.

The point of all of this being: what do you have to give to get it all? What should you be willing to give to the studio for that V.I.P. pass into medicore art and high living? Does it include an entourage of yes men who convince you that you still do make passionate work? That you haven’t lost it? Haven’t sold out?

Or do you settle, and make the best of a great situation. Johnston appears to have. He’s got Andrew Kevin Walker, the Seven scribe, to write The Wolfman, which Johnston directed, and the trailer looks good.

For a studio movie.

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