HOT RUMOR: The Scoop On The Director Struggles In The DCEU
When It Comes To The DCEU, It’s All About Control As Reeves And Wan Go Toe-To-Toe With Warner Bros.
Michelle MacLaren, Seth Grahame-Smith, Rick Famuyiwa, Ben Affleck, and (almost) Matt Reeves.
Those are the directors that Warner Bros. has had trouble keeping on board for their DC Extended Universe (DCEU) projects.
- MacLaren was going to direct Wonder Woman, then left over “creative differences” (April 2015)
- Grahame-Smith was going to write and direct The Flash, then left over “creative differences” (April 2016)
- Famuyiwa was going to co-write and direct The Flash, then left over “creative differences” (October 2016)
- Affleck was going to co-write and direct The Batman, then abruptly dropped out (January 2017)
- Reeves was in talks to take over for Affleck on The Batman, then he withdrew from those negotiations. A week later, he officially signed on (February 2017)
Indeed, when it comes to the DCEU, Warner Bros. has had an interesting history of signing talent that eventually ends up deciding to walk away. If it was only one director, it wouldn’t be a story or even worth noting. This is Hollywood, after all. But for a franchise that’s only three films deep at this point to have four (and a half) directors decide that they couldn’t work on the films they were contracted to make, something has to be up. Right?
We’ve been working hard, speaking to deeply-embedded sources these last few weeks, trying to find out what the problem is. Along the way, we found out that the list of “Directors Who Bolted The DCEU” almost had five names on it. We also got a glimpse of what the central issue seems to be.
A Shift In Philosophy Over At Warner Bros.
When it comes to the DCEU, Warner Bros. has been at somewhat of a war with itself. The traditionally filmmaker-driven studio has been having a bit of a back-and-fourth tug-of-war when it comes to how much freedom to give its directors. There was a time during the studio’s long, illustrious history when they would simply hire the director, surround them with the team they wanted, and then let the production take care of itself. That approach has made them a very appealing studio to work for/with for quite some time, and it’s why several directors have called the WB “home” over the years- returning time and time again like loyal graduates of a proud school.
A few examples of the loyalty the WB’s filmmaker-driven approach has afforded them:
- Clint Eastwood has directed 35 films; 28 have been for Warner Bros.
- Christopher Nolan has directed 9 films; 6 have been for Warner Bros.
- Zack Snyder has directed 8 films; 7 have been for Warner Bros.
- Ben Affleck has directed 4 films; 3 have been for Warner Bros.
- Alfonso Cuaron has made 5 English-language films; 3 have been for Warner Bros.
- David Yates has directed 6 films (with several more on the way); all of them have been for Warner Bros.
I could go on, but you get the point. Directors have traditionally been very loyal to Warner Bros., and it’s seemingly because of their philosophy when it comes to staying out of the way.
However, their approach towards the DCEU has been very different to what it’s been in the past. And it’s still evolving.
The timeline for how the philosophy over at Warner Bros. took its sharpest turn can best be broken down as “Before-Batman V Superman” (BBVS) and “After-Batman V Superman” (ABVS).
BBVS, the studio was a little more hands-off, but still involved. They wanted their DC brand (which they’ve owned for nearly 50 years) to be as profitable as the Marvel Studios brand was for Disney (which they’ve owned since 2009), and they made Zack Snyder the de facto “architect” of the franchise. He and his team designed what the faces of the brand- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg– would look like, and he was given carte blanche to cast which ever actors he wanted (sometimes even hiring folks who never even knew about a project beforehand, like The Flash star Ezra Miller). With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, he’d also be able to continue the work he had started with Man of Steel in terms of shaping what the DCEU would look and feel like.
During this period, Warner Bros. announced a long, ambitious slate, and signed names like MacLaren, Grahame-Smith, Affleck, and James Wan to direct future DC features. Then, while BvS was in post-production, MacLaren was the first to abandon ship. The studio wanted one thing for Wonder Woman, while MacLaren wanted another. Snyder had already shot all of Gal Gadot’s work as WW in Batman v Superman, and was shaping how she’d be received by audiences around the world- before MacLaren could get a chance to put her stamp on the character. Things got contentious; She left.
Then, when BvS entered the test screening phase of its post-production, the studio realized that- perhaps- they shouldn’t have been so hands-off with the $250 million film featuring two of the most recognizable characters in history. This began the ABVS period. Seeing they had a slight problem on their hands, the studio suddenly went into the editing room with Snyder and had him alter the theatrical cut, leaving a full half-hour of content on the cutting room floor. They also went over to David Ayer’s production of Suicide Squad, pushed for expensive reshoots, brought in outside editors, and came up with upwards of 6 cuts of the film in an attempt to make it more friendly for mainstream audiences.
Immediately following the release of BvS, when the film was thrashed by critics, given a so-so CinemaScore by fans, and failed to make the kind of money the studio had been hoping for, things got even more drastic.
Grahame-Smith exited The Flash mere weeks later.
During this period, rumors began to arise that Wan was going to follow suit. He had signed on to make Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa, but Birth.Movies.Death. reported that Wan was now feeling “a tremendous amount of trepidation” about staying on as a DCEU director.
While that situation was resolved fairly quickly, we’ve got the inside scoop on what actually went into resolving it:
Wan saw how Warner Bros. had suddenly put their hands all over Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Ayer’s Suicide Squad, and he threatened to leave unless they left him alone to make Aquaman as he saw fit.
They agreed. He stayed.
How does this factor into the recent dealings between Reeves and Warner Bros.? Well, history almost repeated itself.
Since the summer of 2016, Warner Bros. has been trying to remake the DCEU brand.
- The aforementioned re-edits of Suicide Squad to make it more colorful, funny, and easy-to-swallow
- Promoting Geoff Johns to Chief Creative Officer, and making the DC Comics guru seemingly the new architect for the franchise. They gave him the power to shape and oversee all future DCEU films (with Wan’s Aquaman being an exception)
- In an unprecedented move, allowing press to publish their set reports from Justice League mere days after they visited the London set of the film, instead of waiting the traditional several months it normally takes. This was in an effort to create some positive press, after several months of the DCEU brand being seen as somewhat toxic
- “Talking points” delivered by folks like Johns, Gadot, new Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, and Dwayne Johnson (who’s attached to play Black Adam in the DCEU) all promoting the idea that the brand was going to be more fun, hopeful, & optimistic moving forward
When Reeves entered the picture, though, the DCEU was in another tough spot. After a very drawn out “will they or won’t they?” romance between Affleck and the crown jewel of the DCEU slate, The Batman, Affleck stepped down as the film’s director. This was mere weeks after asserting publicly that he was going to stay on. Reeves saw an opportunity to not only replace Affleck as the director of The Batman, but to also get into the driver’s seat for the project. He didn’t want to merely direct the movie that Affleck bailed on, but rather he wanted the power and control to make his movie. With Warner Bros. scrambling to replace Affleck after the most high-profile “director departure” in the DCEU’s history, Reeves knew he had leverage in the situation because the studio was vulnerable.
Warner Bros. tried to stick to its guns during these negotiations, with Johns being “the guy you have to answer to,” and seemingly stating that the script by Affleck, Johns, and Chris Terrio had to be the basis for The Batman. Reeves didn’t go for this. After places like Variety had proclaimed it practically a done deal, Reeves brought the studio to its knees once more by officially walking away from the negotiations.
Our sources tell us that it came down to this simple point:
Reeves wants the same control over The Batman as Wan has over Aquaman.
The studio waited a few days, saw that this was rapidly becoming another black eye for the the DCEU, and they (bat)caved.
They went back to Reeves, told him he had the final say on all things The Batman, and that’s why he came back and officially signed on. In the press release from Warner Bros. on the hiring of Reeves, they made mention of his talent for “world-building,” as that seems to be the vital ingredient in their arrangement. Reeves didn’t want to simply be a director-for-hire; He wanted to build up a world for The Dark Knight.
Speaking of the freedom to build worlds, Wan told Uproxx last year that the main reason he wanted to make Aquaman was because of that very reason:
“But the thing that ultimately pushed me more towards Aquaman is I love the possibility of creating a whole new world. I’ve always wanted to do a world creation story and visually create this amazing, incredible, magical kingdom.”
Wan was answering a question about why he chose Aquaman over The Flash (both were offered to him), but it’s clear that the Aussie director is eager to create a world for Arthur Curry with as wide a canvas as he can. Reeves plans to do the same for The Batman.
So Where Does This Leave Warner Bros. and The DCEU?
How can they have Geoff Johns overseeing things, and have him be accountable for the quality control of the DC Entertainment brand, if they keep giving individual directors “old school” freedom?
For now, we’ll have to wait and see. As things stand, The Flash is back at the drawing board with no director and a script that was thrown out, Cyborg has seemingly fallen off into oblivion, and there’s only one DC movie with a definitive release date post-Justice League, and that’s Aquaman. Everything else is in a state of flux, with various projects seemingly on the horizon, but not much set in stone. For a franchise that started off hot with a “two-film-per-year” slate that was announced in 2014, much of the DCEU is now in a state of limbo.
Will Ayer get more freedom directing Gotham City Sirens than he did with Suicide Squad? Is Chris McKay getting Wan/Reeves-level autonomy when it comes to Nightwing? Are Wonder Woman and Justice League going to be any good? Will part of the “full control” Reeves now has over The Batman be a totally new script? Can Warner Bros. get the DCEU back on track if every director hasn’t bought into the “we’re all in this together/teamwork” philosophy?