With Striking Actors Off-Limits, Directors Get Their Close-Ups

For more than half a century, a coterie of critics and filmmakers has been making the case for what’s known as auteur theory: the idea that great directors are the central creative forces behind their films, shaping them just as authors shape their books.

But outside a relatively small pantheon of great filmmakers, most directors have continued to be overshadowed, at least in the public eye, by their movie stars.

The Hollywood strikes are changing that.

With striking actors forbidden by their union from promoting studio films, directors suddenly have the spotlight largely to themselves, if somewhat reluctantly. They have been the main attractions at recent film festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto and on press tours that were once organized around A-list movie stars.

Even star vehicles must be promoted without their stars. With Denzel Washington, one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood, and his co-star, Dakota Fanning, unable to promote the third installment of the “Equalizer” series, it fell to the director, Antoine Fuqua, to go on a one-man press tour.

“It’s a strange time,” Fuqua told a TV news reporter ahead of the movie’s Sept. 1 premiere. “I would love to have them here.”

At the Toronto International Film Festival, Q. and A. sessions after screenings typically involve actors and filmmakers, but this year, many of the directors — including Ava DuVernay and Richard Linklater — answered questions alone. Behind-the-scenes figures were suddenly in front of the cameras: As the red carpet at the festival opened, a staff member warned the press and onlookers not to be surprised if they didn’t recognize some of the people posing for photos, assuring them that they were associated with the films.

Atom Egoyan, a Canadian filmmaker whose relationship with the Toronto festival goes back 40 years, said the focus on filmmaking over celebrity at this year’s event reminded him of the festival’s earlier years, before the increasing presence of studio films made high-profile Hollywood actors more of a central focus there.

“Certainly for auteur filmmakers, it’s been a breath of fresh air,” said Egoyan, whose latest movie, “Seven Veils,” starring Amanda Seyfried, debuted in Toronto last week. “The industry is going through monumental transitions, and so this has been a nice little oasis.”

And as the Venice International Film Festival closed earlier this month, the director Yorgos Lanthimos accepted the competition’s top prize for his surrealist comedy “Poor Things” without any of the film’s stars behind him.

“Celebrity is always going to sell more than a director,” said David Gerstner, a professor of cinema studies at City University of New York. “But it is a moment in which directors are being given the opportunity to shine, to be the centerpiece. It’s just unfortunate that it’s under these circumstances.”

The director David Fincher promoted his Netflix movie “The Killer” at the Venice International Film Festival. Credit…Kate Green/Getty Images, via Netflix

It is not necessarily a comfortable position for some of the directors, amid broad social pressure to stand in solidarity with unionized writers and actors against the major entertainment studios they are at odds with.

And there are already bubbling tensions: When the union that represents Hollywood directors, the Directors Guild of America, made a deal with the studios in June, keeping them out of the labor unrest, it drew some criticism from striking screenwriters.

Caught in the middle of the studios that fund their ambitions and the actors and writers who help realize them, directors tend to tread carefully when discussing the strike.

“I can understand both sides,” the director David Fincher said earlier this month at a news conference for the Venice premiere of his movie “The Killer,” whose star, Michael Fassbender, was absent. “I think all we can do is encourage them to talk.”

It is a particularly complicated moment for directors who are also actors or writers and hold multiple union memberships.

Bradley Cooper, who both directs and stars in “Maestro,” about the conductor Leonard Bernstein, decided not to attend the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

And Kenneth Branagh — who both directs the new Agatha Christie mystery movie “A Haunting in Venice,” which debuted in theaters this past weekend, and stars in it as the detective Hercule Poirot — has decided to leave interviews about the film to behind-the-scenes figures such as a top producer, the production designer and the composer.

Between the multiple roles many artists hold, and the fact that some actors have been given permission by their union, SAG-AFTRA, to promote independent films, the landscape is a bit confusing.

“It’s a little bit like the wild west,” said Peter Principato, chief executive of a Hollywood management production company that represents directors, actors and writers.

People are making their own calculations, he said: Some are simply following the letter of the rules, which allows multi-hyphenates to promote movies in a director’s capacity, while others are more wary of taking active roles. In some cases, he said, directors are required by their contracts to promote their films.

When “Poor Things” won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, its director, Yorgos Lanthimos, was on hand but not its stars. Credit…Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Of course, some directors are as much of a draw as their stars. Few directors attract as much natural interest as Martin Scorsese, whose highly anticipated, Apple-backed film “Killers of the Flower Moon” is slated for release in theaters next month, even if the movie’s stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, are unable to act as the magnets for press that they typically are.

And Fuqua, the director of “The Equalizer 3,” has the kind of heightened profile — thanks to a varied career creating music videos for stars like Prince and Stevie Wonder, directing successful Hollywood thrillers, and making documentaries — that can make him a successful emissary for the film, noted Alan Nierob, a publicist for the director. Fuqua promoted the movie by speaking with “Good Morning America” about his career; with movie blogs about the trilogy; and with myriad other publications.

The strike is also testing the accepted wisdom of movie marketing. Nierob noted that the limitations around promotion had not appeared to affect the movie’s release; it topped the U.S. box office its first weekend, earning just under $35 million. (Of course, Washington’s name on a movie poster or face in a trailer may do the promotional work as well as any interview.)

But it is unusual to see directors carry so much of the promotional weight on their shoulders. With this summer’s Disney horror-comedy “Haunted Mansion” unable to rely on its big-name actors — LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito and Jamie Lee Curtis among them — its director, Justin Simien, who is also a member of the Writers Guild, went on interviews alone. “I felt pulled at the seams,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

And to promote the superhero film “Blue Beetle,” which topped the box office last month, Warner Bros. sent the director Ángel Manuel Soto to England, Mexico and around the United States, including Puerto Rico, to host screenings and conduct an estimated 100 interviews.

The director Ángel Manuel Soto toured England, Mexico and the United States to promote his film “Blue Beetle.”Credit…Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At festivals, directors have been faced with questions that, in previous years, they would have sat back and let the actors answer.

Lanthimos, whose film “Poor Things” generated buzz at Venice both for its Oscars potential and its many boundary-pushing sex scenes, was the only person at the festival’s news conference who could speak to the movie’s graphic nature and how its lead actress, Emma Stone, had handled it.

“It’s a shame that Emma could not be here to speak more about it, because it will be coming all from me,” Lanthimos said at the news conference, where he was flanked by his cinematographer and one of his production designers. He later noted, according to Variety: “We had to be confident Emma had to have no shame about her body, nudity, engaging in those scenes, and she understood that right away.”

And at the Telluride Film Festival last month, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directors of “Nyad,” the Netflix film about the marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, were not only without their stars, Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, but without the main subject of the movie, who also happens to be a SAG-AFTRA member.

After the film’s first screening, the directors said they wished that Nyad and the movie’s stars could have been there to see it, and share their own perspectives with the audience.

“It’s tough to have to try to speak for them,” Chin said.

Mekado Murphy contributed reporting from Toronto and Nicole Sperling from Telluride, Colo.

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