For my first entry into the WTF Happened? series I take a look at the 2015 reboot of Fantastic 4 from 20th Century Fox and director Josh Trank and try to determine why it is considered one of the worst superhero movies made, and actually made the original Fantastic Four movies from ten years ago look better in comparison.
Note: Please remember, what follows is not a 100% accurate recounting of the events that led to the creation of the film, but a speculation based off of research that I have cultivated. Also be sure to listen to the WTF Episode of The Jock and Nerd Podcast as well!
THE SET UP
Director Josh Trank exploded onto the scene in Hollywood back in 2012 with the superhero film Chronicle. Based off of a spec script from Max Landis, Chronicle was a found-footage story that followed three high school students after they stumble upon superhuman abilities. The film was met with high praise from critics and movie goers alike for its original approach to both superhero and found-footage storytelling in a world where both are heavily saturated in the film market.
Most can only imagine the kind of high that Josh Trank must have been riding on when his directorial debut became a sleeper hit. It is something so many young filmmakers can only dream of. Chronicle made back more than 10 times it’s budget at the box office, and Trank was immediately in the sights of big studio executives. He was hired onto direct the Fantastic Four reboot for 20th Century Fox in July of 2012, five months after Chronicle’s release. Fox planned to tie the new film into their own Cinematic Universe with the X-Men films in order to compete with Marvel’s own films, as well as the Spider-Man films Sony was planning at the time.
MAKING THE FILM
Pre-production would continue on Fantastic 4 for a year and a half with drafts of the script being written by Jeremy Slater, producer Simon Kinberg, and Trank himself. Trank was very open when talking to press about creating a film that “celebrated all forms of the Fantastic Four characters,” while exploring more of a science adventure story than an action hero piece. He also said the new movie would be heavily influenced by David Cronenberg films like Scanners and The Fly. Filming started in Louisiana in May of 2014.
During Fantastic 4’s 72 days of filming, many who worked on the film reported issues with Trank both on and off set. There are numerous reports that have surfaced from people that worked on set of Fantastic 4 that Trank was a mess to work with. He would often show up to set late, and built a tent around his playback monitor and would seclude himself in it for long periods of time. Some have said he appeared to be high on something or another quite often, and his behavior would become very erratic. One crew member, who spoke about his experience anonymously after the film’s release, claimed Trank would direct the actors during takes on when to blink and when to breath, and seemed to go out of his way to “make performances as flat as possible.” During production, Trank wound up causing over $100,000 in damage to a house in Louisiana the production had rented for him, his wife, and his dogs to stay in. These issues got so bad that Kinberg and fellow producer Hutch Parker would have to step in and act as directors at time in order to keep the project on the rails. This led to Kinberg and Parker doing several re-writes in the middle of shooting, and completely changing the original ending of the film.
In January of 2015, Fox ordered several quick re-shoots to be done on the film three months before Fantastic 4’s original release date. Trank had little-to-no involvement. After all of the scrambling and panicking to try and have the film ready for it’s new release in August, the press screenings marked the beginning of the film’s steady demise at the box office, and a day before Fantastic 4’s commercial release, Trank would take to Twitter to point blame at Fox.
SO, WTF HAPPENED?
There were plenty of factors that contributed to the downfall of Fantastic 4, and plenty of people that can heft the blame. I will do my best at this point to touch on each and make sense of them. So, was Trank right? Was Fantastic 4 Fox’s fault? The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is… mostly yes.
Fox rushed Fantastic 4 into pre-production because they feared losing the film rights for the franchise to Marvel after Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer killed their initial series of films. This rush lead to plenty of decisions that were made in the interest of time or money, and less in the interest of the film itself. They put faith in a young, mostly untested director because they assumed he’d fall in line as an in-house talent they could use to carry out their wishes. Chronicle had made Fox quite a lot of money on a rather small budget, and if there is anything executives like, it’s getting a lot more money back from a film – obviously, that wasn’t what happened with Fantastic 4. This desire to spend less on everything shines through all over the film. The casting choices even feel as if the main actors were chosen specifically because they would cost less to hire compared to many of the people who auditioned for the roles.
Fox was also actively trying to battle an image of their company as tyrants that would micro-manage their projects. Fox was so worried about getting the film made that they let a lot of things go unchecked for fear of more delays and losing the film rights. Sadly, their misstep with Trank didn’t become apparent until it was far too late.
Everything that is said about Trank’s behavior on the film, during and after filming, tells the story of a young person who let their own ego explode after one success and immediately believed their own hype. Chronicle opened in the number 1 spot at the box office when it released in February of 2012, making Josh Trank, at the age of 27, the youngest director in history to do so. The record had previously been held for over 30 years by Steven Spielberg, who was 28 when he made Jaws. Roger Ebert even gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars. All together not bad for a dude whose previous director credit was a YouTube video. Sadly, he has paid quite dearly for his action. The events on set of Fantastic 4 led to him losing a gig directing a Star Wars spin-off film, and a potential black-balling in Hollywood with major studios.
After about half of the film had been made, Fox was trapped in a corner where they either had to fire Trank for all of the trouble he was, and restart the whole project (which might have led to Marvel regaining the rights), or attempt to salvage what they had. This decision led to Kinberg and Parker having to take time and attention away from work on X-Men: Apocalypse to basically direct the second half of the film for Trank. They rewrote multiple scenes, and even had to completely change the ending to put the project back on track with what Fox had been hoping for. Some even claim that Drew Goddard (writer of Cloverfield and showrunner on Marvel’s Daredevil) was brought in to try and help, but it is unknown just how involved he was.
Re-shoots were required, and therefore had to be done quickly and cheaply. The cast members had all moved on to other projects, and working with them had to be juggled around these other commitments. This would most likely explain why the climactic fight between the team and Doctor Doom takes place in the alternate dimension, as filming everything on a green screen would be quick for principle photography, and then the rest of the work could be done in post as the actors all returned to their other projects. This would also explain why set-pieces that were featured so prominently in the trailers, such as a an action scene revolving around The Thing dropping out of a plane into a war zone, were cut from the final film. The action scene most likely would have cost too much to make with the reshoots pending, and Fox would rather funnel the money left over from it into actually having an ending to the film.
Ultimately, we will never know if the version that Trank planned on making was any better than the film that was released. The previous trailers at least hinted at several character building concepts that were just skipped over for the sake of getting through the story. A mixture of Trank’s self-aggrandized entitlement and Fox’s near-sighted effort to hold onto film rights led to a battle whose biggest victim was the film itself…oh, and anyone who paid to see it.
I don’t know what film I will do next time. I don’t think that far ahead. If you have any suggestions feel free to leave them here, or send them over to me on Twitter with #WTFHappened attached.