Christopher Nolan recently announced a new project entitled Quay, a documentary short about two British stop-motion animators. Set to premiere next week, it’s a far cry from Nolan’s blockbusters in both scope and subject matter. Yet it’s clearly a personal project, with Nolan using his clout and money to promote two obscure filmmakers.
Every artist – director, star, screenwriter – has some project that they want to make above all. A deeply personal, original idea; an autobiographical story; a favored story or hero they wish to celebrate. If a filmmaker is successful or lucky enough, they get a chance to produce them. Yet sometimes the reaction isn’t what they expect.
Francis Ford Coppola started his career directing exploitation films for Roger Corman, notably the horror film Dementia 13 (1963). Then he toiled as screenwriter and occasional director, helming the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968) and the more personal The Rain People (1969). He and George Lucas founded American Zoetrope, an independent company specializing in personal projects. But while Lucas achieved breakout success with American Graffiti (1973), a modest coming-of-age drama, Coppola earned fame with his Oscar-winning script for Patton (1970). Soon Paramount offered Coppola The Godfather (1972), a sprawling gangster epic.
“I wanted to be a guy who made films like The Rain People and The Conversation,” Coppola said. “I didn’t want to be a big Hollywood movie director.” Yet The Godfather, not those modest projects, launched his career. An impeccably directed, near-flawless masterpiece, it shows no signs of being the work of a gun-for-hire. Yet Coppola had little affection for the project, even less when Paramount offered him a sequel. Coppola agreed to helm The Godfather, Part II (1974) on the condition they fund his preferred project, The Conversation (1974).
The Conversation bears little resemblance to The Godfather. Besides its avant garde, Antonioni-inspired style – elliptical dialogue, searching long takes, eerie sound design and minimalist music – it’s deep. Coppola’s noted that Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) draws from his personality: fascination with bugging (Coppola was nicknamed “Science” as a teenager for his love of gadgets), his prudish Catholicism, even personal back story. Harry recounts being paralyzed by polio as a child and punching his father’s friend in the stomach, both of which happened to Coppola.
The Godfather Part II‘s box office far overshadowed The Conversation, though both films received Best Picture nominations. After the hellish Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola directed another pet project, One from the Heart (1982), a massive flop that nearly destroyed Zoetrope. He spent the ’80s and ’90s alternating between personal works (Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)) and commercial works like The Outsiders (1983) and The Godfather, Part III (1990). He ruefully recalled that after The Godfather, “my career took off and I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be.”
Of course, a “passion project” needn’t be modestly budgeted esoterica. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a decade in gestation, attests to that, alongside other films by his peers. George Lucas, of course, abandoned American Graffiti‘s modest charms for Star Wars (1977). Martin Scorsese spent two decades developing Gangs of New York (2002); it took Steven Spielberg a decade to bring Lincoln (2012) to the screen. If you’re Scorsese or Spielberg, or (from an older era) David O. Selznick or David Lean, sweeping epics can be as personal as a black-and-white, 16 mm film.
Christopher Nolan exemplifies this. In 2001 he first pitched Inception, then envisioned as a horror movie. Despite his recent success with Memento (2000), Warner Bros. was skeptical. He later admitted that “I wasn’t really ready to finish it. I needed more experience in making a big movie.” He earned that experience, and undeniable box office clout, with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). Suddenly his modest idea sprawled into a sci-epic, complete with a huge budget and all-star cast. Fortunately, Inception proved just as successful as his superhero films.
The problem with “passion projects” is simple: the more personal the subject, the greater the possibility of alienating audiences and studios. Despite Scorsese’s meticulous direction and powerhouse Daniel Day-Lewis performance, Gangs of New York received mixed reviews and middling box office. Then there’s the grand cautionary tale of Michael Cimino, who went from The Deer Hunter (1978) to his colossal folly Heaven’s Gate (1980), a deeply personal epic that came to epitomize auteurist excess.
Low budget movies, at least, run lesser financial risk. Yet their very smallness also makes them a tough sell. Coppola’s recent films, Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009), and Twixt (2011), received little release or attention. Any indie filmmaker knows that for every Wes Anderson or Kevin Smith, there are a million flame-outs whose deeply personal works fail to reach an audience.
It isn’t likely Quay could be made without someone like Christopher Nolan backing it. Nolan wants to expose two filmmakers and their work to a larger audience, and box office take is barely a consideration. If only all filmmakers had such a luxury.