Josh Trank is back. With the release of his loooooong-delayed Capone next week, the once-bright filmmaker is finally getting out of the “Hollywood jail” he’s been stuck in for the last few years. The seemingly heinous crime that landed him there? Fantastic Four.
After bursting onto the scene in 2012 with his smash hit debut Chronicle (over $126 million on a $12 million budget), every major studio in Hollywood was courting Trank. That included being handpicked by Disney to be part of the new generation of Star Wars filmmakers. And then Fantastic Four happened and Trank’s dream career absolutely crumbled apart.
Proposed by Fox as a way to erase the memory of the pair of super-cheesy and rather mediocre Fantastic Four movies the studio had released in the mid-2000s, this new Fantastic Four was to be a full reboot that would launch a new franchise. It ended up being an ill-advised, tonally disjointed, badly edited mess which both critics and audiences disliked immensely. As it got pulled apart by the internet, Trank decided to stand up for himself, infamously tweeting in rage that “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve recieved [sic] great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”
While Trank was alluding to studio meddling and behind-the-scenes drama, all of that was soon pointed back to him as report after report emerged about his unruly on-set behaviour. Reportedly he was uncooperative, unprofessional, just plain rude, and seemingly even let his dogs trash a house the studio had rented for him. The more Trank denied these allegations, the worse the allegations became. But what really happened?
Polygon writer Matt Patches has kept in contact with the beleagured filmmaker over the years, and now finally, in a damn interesting article, Trank is giving his side of the story of just how his hotshot Hollywood career imploded. And addressing the Fantastic Four controversy, Trank revealed that things were already skewed between himself and Fox when he was hired. Being plumped up by all the praise for Chronicle and all the studio offers he was receiving, he believed that “Fox didn’t want to make another Fantastic Four movie — it wanted to make Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four movie.” And that Fantastic Four was surprisingly sombre and gritty for a comic book that was pure sci-fi escapism. But that “rebellious” approach was the whole point of Trank’s pitch.
The end of the Fantastic Four was going to very organically set up the adventure and the weirdness and the fun. That would be the wish fulfillment of the sequel. Because obviously, the sequel would be, ‘OK, now we are [superpowered] forever and it’s weird and funny and there’s adventure lurking around every corner.’ But the first movie was going to basically be the filmic version of how I saw myself all the time: the metaphor of these characters crawling out of hell.
Immediately, there was a clash of philosophies here with screenwriter Jeremy Slater, a self-professed comic book nerd who wanted to use Marvel’s recently released Avengers as the template, but Trank “fucking hated every second of it.”
The trials of developing Fantastic Four had everything to do with tone. You could take the most ‘comic booky’ things, as far as just names and faces and identities and backstories, and synthesize it into a tone. And the tone that [Slater] was interested in was not a tone that I felt I had anything in common with.
For the origin story part of Fantastic Four, Trank and Slater were referencing things like Inception or the body horror movies of David Cronenberg. But that was just the opening half of the movie. Once the team got their powers and needed to then engage in superhero feats against potential comic book enemies, Trank lost interest. As Slater explained, “It didn’t matter if they were fighting robots in Latveria or aliens in the Negative Zone or Mole Monsters in downtown Manhattan; Josh just did not give a shit.”
After six months of working with Trank, during which he wrote nearly 18 drafts of the script (some of which was actually awesome) but was never allowed to speak to Fox execs without Trank present (Trank also never passed on around 95% of studio notes), Slater would eventually quit the production. This prompted Fox to queue up a slate of writers to get the film done, including X-Men franchise producer/writer Simon Kinberg. But while things looked much better between Trank and Kinberg initially, as time started running out on meeting Fox’s production dates, the wheels started coming off again as the film still didn’t have a third act.
That was pressure enough, but Trank had also never worked on anything this big. He was also making a few radical choices like insisting on casting the black Michael B. Jordan (whom he worked with on Chronicle) to play the traditionally white Johnny Storm. And then there was the issue that Fantastic Four had some very seasoned people working on it, and they didn’t always want to listen to this young guy who had only ever made one movie and was trying to make all these drastic changes. And Trank didn’t care.
In a studio scenario, you’re basically being surrounded by veterans who are going to do a hell of a job doing exactly what it is that they do. Because it’s not your movie. You didn’t come up with it. You didn’t create these characters. You didn’t create this property. This guy was fucking nominated for Oscars. This guy has fucking made 20 movies with Robert Zemeckis. It’s a fucking science-fiction adventure movie. What the fuck do you need to tell them other than the direction of the agreement between you and the studio? All Zemeckis’ production designer needs to know is whether this is the take, yes or no… I was aware of the protocol, but I wasn’t really asking.
And because of this approach, some of the reports of Trank cutting himself off from the rest of the crew – like building a tent around his monitor – got a bit exaggerated. “You can’t actually be out standing next to the camera because the camera’s on a fucking dolly,” he explained.
The grumbling from disapproving crew combined with death threats – yes, death threats – due to his casting of Jordan, as well as one of his dogs dying suddenly during production, left Trank on edge all the time. He even went so far as sleeping with a loaded revolver next to his bed.
I was getting threats on IMDb message boards saying they were going to shoot me… I was so fucking paranoid during that shoot. If someone came into my house, I would have ended their fucking life. When you’re in a head space where people want to get you, you think, ‘I’m going to defend myself.’
Trank needed to certainly do a lot of defending when he eventually turned in his first cut of the film to Fox execs though, as they really didn’t like the dark tone. It reportedly made them uncomfortable, but according to Trank “that was the goal” as the movie he had made “wasn’t for fans”. This sent Fox into panic mode. According to Trank, before shooting had even begun Fox had already slashed $30 million from the film’s budget as they cut out most of the planned spectacle for the film’s finale. But now that money and possibly more (it’s estimated the budget ballooned up to $155 million) would be needed again for urgent reshoots.
According to Slater, Fox repurposed around 40 pages of one of his earliest drafts along with hiring other writers – who Trank never met – to pen more. Trank wrote his own new script additions, but they were ignored. When he threatened producers though by invoking Director’s Guild union rights, they finally brought him back into the fold under a new deal that would allow him to come up with his own new cut alongside Fox’s new cut and then both would be screen-tested with audiences. The person who would be putting together Fox’s cut was Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean editor Stephen Rivkin.
As Trank soon realized though, Fox was never going to honour the side-by-side two-pronged approach and Rivkin had essentially become “the de facto director” on the production after the studio spent three months and a ton of cash on doing reshoots to match the latter’s plans. And when fan reaction to the film’s first trailer was not great, Fox doubled down on their efforts to move away from Trank’s version.
They really do pay attention to what people are saying on Twitter. They look at that and they say, ‘Shit, people are freaked out about how it’s not going to be funny. So we need to spend $10 million to do a comedy rewrite.’
And even though Trank continued working on his own version in the hopes that some scenes would at least be used in the final product, Fox kept taking more and more out of his hands. According to the filmmaker, “It was like being castrated.”
You’re standing there, and you’re basically watching producers blocking out scenes, five minutes ahead of when you get there, having [editors hired] by the studio deciding the sequence of shots that are going to construct whatever is going on, and what it is that they need. And then, because they know you’re being nice, they’ll sort of be nice to you by saying, ‘Well, does that sound good?’ You can say yes or no.
And because Trank was still hoping to just keep his job, he said yes. The problem was that all of this was already costing him his next job as all the on-set issues reached Kathleen Kennedy, President of Lucasfilm and the ultimate gatekeeper of all things Star Wars. Although she hadn’t even seen a cut of Fantastic Four yet, what she was hearing – which included reports from Kinberg who was also part of the Star Wars story group – was enough for to her lose confidence in Trank.
When Trank infamously no-showed at 2015 Star Wars Celebration where his movie – long rumoured to be a Boba Fett solo film – was supposed to be announced alongside Gareth Edward’s Rogue One, he claimed at the time that it was due to the “worst flu of my life”. What actually happened was that he and Kennedy had agreed that he should rather stay away. A few days later it was reported that he was “fired” from the production, but really Trank had seen the writing on the wall and actually stepped away himself.
I quit because I knew I was going to be fired if I didn’t quit.
A few months later, Fantastic Four was released and bombed hard, reportedly losing Fox over $100 million. The irony was that a lot of the rewrites that the studio had implemented to fix Trank’s version were what fans hated the most. Not that this excused Trank either, as he claimed in that tweet, as his initial approach to the entire adaptation was wrong to begin with.
Either way, just like that, all Trank’s other career prospects disappeared overnight as well. His relationship with his wife, whom he had met and married in his post-Chronicle heydays, was falling apart. According to Trank himself, he “felt dead inside” and thus just fell off the radar.
I had been exposed to a permanent version of reality where I had no reason to live because there was nothing that I desired. I didn’t want to be a big filmmaker anymore. That’s all I ever wanted. I didn’t know what I was anymore.
Plagued by insomnia and the feeling of wanting “to fucking die” as his marriage also ended with his career, Trank started therapy where he could confront some of his own issues. This therapy took the form of self-criticizing journal entries. And this is what brought him out of the hell he had found himself in and got him back to making films again.
When I realized that I could start over, that was the first moment that I suddenly felt something again. Starting over began with writing the first page of Fonzo.
Fonzo was of course the original title for Capone, an idea he was actually finally able to focus on now that he “wasn’t fielding a thousand calls a day and having a hundred emails in my inbox”. As months passed, Trank kept working on Capone, even deciding to not take the easy out of getting his career back – and earning some much-needed income – by doing low-risk TV direction or tackling relatively undesirable projects like a Pumpkinhead reboot. While floating between living at family and friends, Trank still managed to meet and land Tom Hardy for the lead role after the two hit it off due to their mutual ideas on art and a shared love of vaping. The problem was that Hardy was an in-demand actor, which meant Trank had to wait on him. And when production was delayed due to Hardy signing on to Venom in 2018 – a movie that Sony had actually wanted Trank to direct back when he was still a hot prospect – things looked bleak.
That was the darkest day. There was no certainty that it was going to happen or not. It was all Tom’s word. […] The whole year was a weird limbo year. We didn’t end up doing anything.
But eventually, the two would actually do something. And now, years after he first started writing it as a way to help him move on from the giant mess he made with his life with Fantastic Four, Capone is done. And it actually looks pretty damn good. Chronicle proved that Trank is a very talented filmmaker, but Fantastic Four proved that sometimes you need more than just talent. We’ll soon find out if Trank has managed to crack that code when Capone releases on VOD next week on 12 May.
Last Updated: May 6, 2020