Fall 2014

From Indie to Mainstream

So your independent movie was a hit. What comes next? For some, it’s a leap to studio filmmaking. Here’s how four directors moved up, and what they found once they got there.


Keeping a fledgling career moving forward is always a challenge for directors. For many, making the leap from low-budget independent films to studio movies is the dream, conjuring up visions of a grander canvas, a larger audience, and access to the best collaborators in the business. For others, it’s a pragmatic step on the way to building a sustainable career, in which hits can ease the way for more personal projects. In recent years, a number of midrange studio assignments, and at least one franchise, have been awarded to directors with modest credentials based on the success of their independent films. But what’s it like to move from the frying pan into the fire, from lean and hungry auteurism into the belly of the well-fed beast? What skills are required, and what coping strategies are necessary? To find the answers, we talked to four filmmakers who’ve made or are in the midst of making the transition from indie to mainstream.

Getting the Job

Before anything else, of course, comes landing the job. Oftentimes, an indie hit can put a director on the map and into the mix of talent being considered for studio assignments. Even if the project they develop falls apart, relationships formed along the way can lead to another plum assignment. Such was the case for Sam Taylor-Johnson, who after directing the indie hit Nowhere Boy (2009) had been developing a period romance, A Reliable Wife, at Sony Pictures with producer (and now Columbia Pictures president of production) Michael De Luca, until that effort “hit a brick wall,” as she puts it. De Luca then asked Taylor-Johnson if she’d come in for a meeting about another project on the studio’s slate, an adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel by British author E.L. James that was originally self-published as an e-book before becoming a worldwide phenomenon selling 100 million copies. Taylor-Johnson, well known as a multimedia artist in Britain, had just one feature to her credit. Nowhere Boy was a dramatization of the early life of Beatle John Lennon, financed largely with National Lottery funds for $1.9 million. The movie was chosen to close the BFI London Film Festival and nominated for four British Academy Film awards. In the U.S., it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was well received and turned a box-office profit after acquisition by The Weinstein Company. “I wanted the next project I did to be bigger, but I didn’t think it would be the size of this one,” says Taylor-Johnson, who is now in postproduction on Fifty Shades for a Valentine’s Day 2015 release.

She went after Fifty Shades “with all guns blazing. I knew I had to compete with good directors who’d made studio films and were more experienced. But I had a strong sense of what this movie ought to be, and how to navigate that. I went in with a very clear vision, and it turned out to be in line with what everyone was hoping to hear.”

Taylor-Johnson had hurriedly put together a three-minute mood reel, complete with music, to illustrate a visual path for the project, along with three look books with photos and ideas for the lead characters, Anastasia and Christian, and the movie’s overall mood. “If a filmmaker has a big roster of films, they already know who you are,” she explains. “But I was going in with one feature and one short film. I needed them to know that I’m a person with big ideas, who can carry out those ideas and create something special.”

That sense of bravado helped when she entered the meeting, where 16 people sat waiting to hear her pitch, including various producers and execs from Universal Pictures and Focus Features, which were releasing the film. “It was overwhelming,” Taylor-Johnson says. “But I admitted that [in the meeting], and I think it helped.” Her phone was ringing by 8 o’clock the next morning with the news that she had the job and an announcement would be made that day. “It was literally like boarding the bullet train, and it has been like that ever since,” she says.

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream Sam Taylor Johnson

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream Nowhere Boy
HIGH PROFILE: Sam Taylor-Johnson had directed only one feature, Nowhere Boy (bottom), about a young John Lennon, before landing Fifty Shades of Grey. “I wanted the next project I did to be bigger, but I didn’t think it would be the size of this one.” (Photos: (top) Mary McCartney/Universal Pictures and Focus Features; (bottom) Liam Daniel/©Weinstein Company/courtesy Everett Collection)

Director Marc Webb’s experience was somewhat similar, albeit on an even larger scale, when he was signed to helm The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Sony’s reboot of the lucrative franchise built around the web-slinging Marvel Comics superhero. Coming off his sole feature film, the indie romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (2009), Webb had been in the running to direct Moneyball at Sony, but Bennett Miller wound up getting the job. Sony Co-Chairman Amy Pascal then proposed that Webb help the studio develop a new approach to Spider-Man. “Initially, I was reluctant,” says Webb, who’d built his career directing music videos. After thinking it over, he wrote an e-mail to Pascal and producer Matthew Tolmach in which he presented an approach to the character of young Peter Parker, Spidey’s alter ego, that was rooted in his orphanhood and sense of abandonment. “He was a guy with a chip on his shoulder, an outsider with an edge,” says Webb. “It was a subtle difference but important, and we built the foundation of the reboot from it.” But there was never a pitch meeting or formal presentation, as Taylor-Johnson had experienced. “Amy and Matt felt it was a good match, and they asked me to consider it,” says Webb. “It was more like a series of conversations that became more serious.”

Since then, he has directed two chapters of the successful reboot and is prepping a third. From the moment he took it on, Webb says, “Everything had to be done at a fantastic pace. We had to start shooting 10 months after I began. There was a script, but we were basically starting from scratch with it, and simultaneously doing production design and developing sets and just hurtling forward. From what I understand, that’s familiar territory for a lot of big studio movies.”

Ava DuVernay got her shot at Selma, the high-profile Paramount Pictures feature about the 1965 civil rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr., in an even more unlikely way thanks to an actor she’d cast in her previous feature, the $200,000 Middle of Nowhere (2012). David Oyelowo played a key role in the modest project, which premiered at Sundance in 2012, where it won the dramatic directing award for DuVernay. Oyelowo was chosen to star as King in Selma, which the studio was developing with director Lee Daniels. After Daniels left the project to direct The Butler, Oyelowo urged the producers, Plan B and Pathé, to consider DuVernay, and gave the executives Middle of Nowhere to watch.

“I had no clue any of this was going on,” says DuVernay, who got the job on the strength of her indie work and Oyelowo’s recommendation, without even making a pitch. “But when the producers approached me with an offer, I thought, what an opportunity! And it instantly became a passion.” In fact, she says her father grew up in a rural area outside Selma, Ala., and was a witness to the marches. He was present the day she and her crew shut down traffic in Selma to re-create those events. “That was a very proud day for my family,” says DuVernay.

Jeff Nichols’ move to a studio film was more scripted and marked a natural progression in his career. He had directed three well-received indie features—Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), both starring Michael Shannon, and Mud (2012), starring Matthew McConaughey—when he brought his bigger budget feature Midnight Special to Warner Bros., mainly because he wanted a wider audience and a strong marketing partner. “With a studio on board,” says Nichols, who has also written all of his projects, “there’s an investment. They’ve paid for it to be made and they’re on the hook for presenting it to the world. As scary as it is to give up some control, I wanted to see what a bigger release would look like.” Warner Bros. was the only studio he approached, he said, citing its ongoing relationship with filmmakers like Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, and Ben Affleck. “If Warner Bros. hadn’t gotten on board, I’d have taken it to Cannes for foreign pre-sales and gone the indie route.”

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream Ava DuVernay

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream Middle of Nowhere
LIFE-CHANGING: After directing Middle of Nowhere (bottom), Ava DuVernay took an unexpected route to Selma (top), starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. “There’s no way to really tackle that and stay sane,” so she followed her personal connection to the material. (Photos: (top) Jima; (bottom) ©AFFRM/courtesy Everett Collection)

Growing Pains

Once these indie directors were on the set and actually started to shoot their films, other differences became apparent. For Taylor-Johnson, “It wasn’t so much the monetary leap [to a budget of around $40 million], or the size of the fan base, because I’d made a film about a Beatle, so I’d dealt with that. The big difference is that you’re a cog in a machine, compared to before, when I felt pretty much autonomous.

“During shooting, I was really left to do it the way I wanted to, with a good level of respect and trust, and I was grateful for that,” says Taylor-Johnson. “But now, in editing and postproduction, is when all the voices come at you, and it feels sort of tough. You get many differing thoughts and opinions, and navigating that is complex.” Because the release has been set for early 2015—nearly a year after shooting wrapped—the window for studio input is wide. On top of that, James, the book’s author, is one of the movie’s producers. “There are moments and scenes the author feels very strongly about having in the movie, because she knows the fan base and what it wants,” says Taylor-Johnson. “She’ll be the first to say that the loss of control over her material has been difficult, and I have found it equally difficult at times. But we’re steering a path through it.” Even so, “it’s like a baptism by fire,” she says of her first studio movie. “I literally feel like after this, I can do anything.”

She offers this example of discovering how differently things work on a studio film: “On Nowhere Boy, if I picked a song for a scene by, say, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and it worked, then there it stayed.” But when she chooses a song for Fifty Shades, says Taylor-Johnson, “it’s ‘Let’s run it by this person, and this person.’ Is this artist someone who’ll make a big splash? Are they on the right label? There’s a whole other agenda.” For the trailer, the studio commissioned a remix of “Crazy in Love” from Beyoncé, who’s now cross-promoting the project to her huge fan base. “She gives the project a bigger profile, and that’s what they’re looking for—everything needs to feel big,” says the director.

Compared with independent filmmaking, opportunities to assert one’s voice can be elusive, particularly when working on an established franchise. Webb says directing something like The Amazing Spider-Man “by its nature, it’s less personal. There’s an obligation to a preexisting mythology. Certain fundamentals are set in stone. You’re required to service what the studio’s idea of that is, and what the fan’s idea is. I learned early on that it wasn’t about me—it was about Spider-Man. But that has to be layered with something that feels connected to me as an artist, and also, something that feels different than the previous Spider-Man movies. That’s the real trick, and the real difficulty.”

DuVernay, too, was taking on a story that was bigger than she was. “Dr. King is arguably the most famous American of the last century,” she points out. “His name and his principles are known worldwide. There’s no way to really tackle that and stay sane, so what I did to make it simple was focus on pleasing my father. He raised me with the personal connection he has to that struggle.”

She also drew on her business background—she headed her own movie marketing and publicity agency before breaking in as a director—to help her handle on-set politics. “I had managerial experience that included dealing with high-profile personalities and all kinds of moving parts, so that certainly helped,” says DuVernay. “But on the artistic side, it wasn’t a huge shift from my indie film. I’m still surrounded by key people who are very nourishing to the idea of this being my vision. There have been a few bumps along the way, but the core of it has always been to take this idea and run with it.”

For Nichols, the experience has been different, partly because he’s directing his own script, which he describes as “a sci-fi chase film that takes place mostly at night, with action that moves from West Texas to the Florida Panhandle.” Also, he sees the $18 million budget of Midnight Special as fairly modest. “Warner Bros. is excited it isn’t twice as big, and I’m excited to have what I got,” he says. “So everyone’s been supportive and gracious. It’s very different than what I could have stepped into in a director-for-hire situation. That’s where the horror stories start cooking up, especially when the budget gets bigger and bigger.”

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream Marc Webb Spider-man

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream 500 Days of Summer
UNTANGLED: Going from the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer (bottom) to The Amazing Spider-Man, Marc Webb made as big a leap as any superhero. “There’s something deeply satisfying and fantastic about being able to work on a movie of that scale.” (Photos: (top) Columbia Pictures/Sony; (bottom) Fox Searchlight/Photofest)

In Production

Every phase of Spider-Man was, of course, more complex than anything Webb had tackled before. Working for six months with his stunt and visual effects crews led to his realization that “personnel management is a skill that becomes really important—making sure people are motivated and feel connected to the movie they’re making. It’s a layer of directing people don’t talk about much, but when you start working at this scale—prepping for so many months, then doing eight months to a year of post—you have to think of how you’re going to manage your own stamina, as well as the energy of the people around you so they’re not dropping like flies.” That’s very different, he says, from anything that was required on the compressed (500) Days shooting schedule.

Webb says he’s learned about drawing the best out of others. “Let them feel a sense of ownership. I can say, ‘Here’s my problem: I don’t think Spider-Man flying around the streets feels real. So how do we make this feel more alive and realistic?’ Then people discuss it from different angles and think about the environment we’re shooting in.”

Working on something as massive as Spider-Man also required a new level of collaboration. “Because the film was so big, I had to rely on my department heads in a way that I hadn’t before. I required their artistic participation in a more meaningful way. The situation was a lot more complex, but we learned to operate with an underlying faith that we were going to figure things out together.”

At least on a major studio production like The Amazing Spider-Man, which cost a reported $230 million, the financial resources are abundant, right? Webb says, in effect, Yes, but ... “I felt very supported by the studio, financially, but there are always budgetary concerns,” he explains. “You’re always trying to push the limits of what you can do, and get the most out of a dollar. There’s never a project that doesn’t have that tension.”

DuVernay is working with a $20 million budget on Selma, tight by studio standards, especially for a period drama. But it’s 100 times more than what she had on her indie feature. “You have a certain idea of what a $20 million set is like—all that time and all that luxury,” she says. “The craft service is gonna be amazing, the departments will be all crewed up. That’s certainly the case, but the surprise is, you never have enough time. I’ve spoken with a lot of filmmakers since I started this, doing all kinds of projects, and they all say it doesn’t matter what the budget is—on the day, on the set, you’re still racing against the clock. You gotta move on. In that sense, it felt very much like I was still making an indie.”

Selma wrapped in early July. “We shot in 32 days, which is not too far off from the 21 days I had on Middle of Nowhere,” says DuVernay. “What I learned is that you have to embrace the time you have and make the most of it. We had to be very focused, and very creative, to get everything done.” Compared with a low-budget indie, “There are a lot more people to deal with, a lot more layers, a lot more conversations about everything.” Her strategy for streamlining? “Pick up the phone and speak to people directly. If you use e-mail and wind up having to have a conversation anyway, you just wasted time. I had amazing department heads, but I found that letting people be heard, or letting people hear from me, was better than having things filter down. I wanted it to feel very open that way.”

Another way to ramp up efficiency, the directors said, was to use a crew that had a positive history together. For Nichols, the biggest technical challenge on Midnight Special was shooting in the dark and making the night lighting look realistic. “I feel like at this point, I’ve got it down a lot better, but I leaned heavily on my gaffer, Michael Roy, who’s been with me on my last three films, and my cinematographer, Adam Stone, who’s been the DP on all four.”

When it came to the visual effects on Midnight Special, Nichols was pleased that he was able to hire the same company, Hydraulx, that had given him a break and delivered the hurricane effects for Take Shelter on a scant budget. “This time, Warner Bros. was able to pay them a lot more, which is legitimate, because there are a lot more effects in this one. It’s important because I trust them. One thing that happens with more success is that people start telling you what they think you want to hear. So you have to be more vigilant in stress-testing your own intuition, and holding on to those people who’ll be honest with you.”

Fortunately, Taylor-Johnson and DuVernay said, they were able to bring along key department heads from their earlier projects. For Taylor-Johnson, this proved particularly useful for pulling off the bold sex scenes at the core of Fifty Shades, which stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as lovers. “Sex scenes are nothing I’m afraid of. My short film [Love You More (2008)] is pretty much 15 minutes of two teenagers losing their virginity to a Buzzcocks record,” she says. “And a lot of my artwork has dealt with sexuality and nudity, so it wasn’t like I was heading into new terrain. But with Seamus [McGarvey, her cinematographer], we’ve known each other 17 years, and he’s shot every art film I’ve done, and my music videos. So there’s a tightness with the two of us, the language we work with, that creates a safe environment for the actors. It’s a very calm set, and a fun set, so by the time we got to shooting those scenes, it was a safe place.”

Taylor-Johnson was working with a nine-and-a-half-week shooting schedule that would seem positively luxurious to an indie director. Still, “you could always do with a bit more time,” she says. “But because of the way Seamus and I work together, we came in a couple of days early.”

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream Jeff Nichols

DGA Quarterly Indie to Mainstream Jeff Nichold Mudd
NEW GROUND: After directing his third low-budget feature, Mud (bottom), with Matthew McConaughey, Jeff Nichols approached Warner Bros. about making Midnight Special, “a sci-fi chase film that takes place mostly at night,” because he wanted help marketing the film. (Photos: (top) Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros; (bottom) Jim Bridges/©Roadside Attractions/courtesy Everett Collection)

What's Next?

So, are the trade-offs—less control in return for greater resources—worth it? Is the chance to work on a bigger stage more satisfying? For most of these directors, the jury is still out. DuVernay is editing Selma for a Christmas Day release. Taylor-Johnson has a few months longer before the premiere of Fifty Shades, but she’s already being exposed to a new level of marketing. “They know how to excite the fans and tease them and push it along,” she says of the Universal team. “They do ask opinions, show you a cut of the trailer, and I can give thoughts and suggestions. But for the most part, I leave it to those who know best.”

Although it’s a stage of the production most filmmakers dread, Nichols was looking forward to his first audience test screenings, which Warner Bros. began at the end of the summer. “It’ll be interesting to go through that process together,” he says.

At this point, Webb is best qualified to speak about the changes in his career, having experienced the worldwide rollout of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 earlier this year. Though he’s now prepping chapter three, due out in 2018, he turned down the chance to make a fourth Spidey film because, he says, “the time it takes to make these movies is so monumental that it leaves very little room for other things in your life. There are other stories I want to tell, projects I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”

It won’t be budget or scale, though, that determines his next projects—nor, he says, will it be a choice between indie versus studio backing. “It’s your connection to the material that matters, not whether it’s big or small,” he asserts. “When you’re moved by a script, when you have an intuitive response to it, and a compulsion to make it that’s pure and strong—that’s the only thing you can base a strategy on.”

That said, Webb anticipates making a smaller movie next, and he’s shooting his first TV pilot for Showtime. “There’s great character work being done in television, and it’s something else that I’ll approach on a case-bycase basis,” he says.

With her first studio film still in postproduction, DuVernay is also adamant that prioritizing the material, rather than the money, is the only way to go. “Never take something you’re not excited about—never,” she advises. “Not for the money, not for the profile. Because it’s too hard to do this, physically and emotionally. If you didn’t want to be here with every fiber of your being, I can’t imagine how you would even stay on your feet.

“If someone gave me $20 million right now and said, ‘Do whatever you want with it,’ I wouldn’t make one $20 million movie,” she adds. “I’d be happier making 10 $2 million films every year for the next decade. I simply want to do good work, tell good stories, and not wait around to do so. Bottom line: I’m going where the stories take me—whether large or small.”

Still, Webb admits, there’s something seductive about working on an epic scale, handling one of the world’s best-known studio franchises. “There are moments of triumph, and moments of heartbreak, in every conceivable way,” he says. “Times when I feel disappointed, and times when I feel incredibly proud. But there’s something deeply satisfying and fantastic about being able to work on a movie of that scale, with a character that’s beloved around the world. Because the experiences you get to have as a filmmaker are pretty wonderful. They’re fantastic. The truth is, it’s fucking magnificent.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

More from this topic
More from this issue