By Josh Rottenberg
Los Angeles Times
Josh Trank knew what was coming — and in a slightly perverse way, he welcomed it.
With just one film to his name, the low-budget 2012 sleeper sci-fi hit “Chronicle,” Trank had sold 20th Century Fox on the idea of rebooting the “Fantastic Four” superhero franchise with a decidedly grimmer take than the studio’s previous two big-screen iterations. Then, doubling down on his rather risky vision, he had made some surprising casting choices for the venerable superhero team known as Marvel’s First Family — most notably, changing the race of one of the iconic characters.
Trank fully expected some die-hard fans of the Fantastic Four — whose history in the comics stretches back to 1961 — to look at his unorthodox approach and declare it clobberin’ time.
“I knew it was going to get ugly,” Trank, 31, said, sitting in the film’s production office in early June on the Fox lot. “But I think maybe there’s a part of me that needs adversity from the rest of the world in order to feel motivated to want to prove people wrong.”
He’s had his work cut out for him. There are many words you could use to describe the buzz that has swirled around “Fantastic Four” over the last year, but “fantastic” would not be one of them. From the outset, the film was hit from seemingly every corner of the Internet by often blistering skepticism and rumors of a troubled production.
In recent weeks, Fox has tried to turn the tide with new trailers, a panel at last month’s Comic-Con and a publicity tour with the film’s cast (which itself has had some bumpy moments, including a decidedly unflattering Esquire magazine profile of star Miles Teller that went viral). But reviews have been generally scathing.
The scrutiny has been so intense that Trank says it spurred him to drop out of directing a planned “Star Wars” spinoff film. “It’s not healthy for me right now in my life,” he said. “I want to do something that’s below the radar. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life.”
From the start, Trank had envisioned a more dramatic and grounded take on the Fantastic Four than the somewhat cartoonish films that had hit the screen in 2005 and 2007 — movies that did fairly strong business at the box office but were widely disliked by comic-book fans.
As he pitched it, Trank’s “Fantastic Four” would be more a Cronenbergian body-horror film than a typical superhero origin movie, the story of four young people — Reed Richards (Teller), Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) — who gain strange powers after experimenting with interdimensional travel and, at least at first, find them utterly disturbing.
Intrigued by that approach, Simon Kinberg, who has worked on several “X-Men” films, came on board the project as co-writer and producer. “What hooked me was Josh’s idea of what the honest reaction would be if you suddenly didn’t have control over your body anymore — if you were uncontrollably on fire or invisible or you were a rock creature,” Kinberg said. “That just seemed so original in a genre that it’s hard to be original in.”
While the film brings back the franchise’s best-known supervillain, Doctor Doom (played by Toby Kebbell), Trank looked to push it in new directions through casting. He chose the African-American Jordan — who’d starred in “Chronicle” and had a breakout role in 2013’s “Fruitvale Station” — for the role of Johnny Storm/the Human Torch, who is white in the comics, and the rather small, 5-foot-7 Bell as Grimm/the Thing, one of the comic-book world’s most famous behemoths.
“Josh’s idea was, ‘Let’s play the unexpected,’” Bell said. “I immediately admired how brave that was.”
In casting Jordan against race, Trank says his deeper aim was to reflect changing times while staying true to the essence of the comics. “You can’t just keep telling a story the same way over and over again,” he said. “And I think it only helps the world to be more honest with young kids, to show them the world that they go walk outside and see.”
But the choice sparked immediate and intense pushback from many fans, some of it carrying ugly racial overtones. “We knew people would react the way they are reacting,” Jordan said. Still, the actor is quick to add that the most rabid dissenters represent a small group: “I’ve gotten so much love from so many people who are on board for the idea.”
In the wake of Trank’s departure from the “Star Wars” spinoff movie, reports citing unnamed sources claimed he had, in fact, been fired from the film by Lucasfilm and Disney over his allegedly erratic behavior during the making of “Fantastic Four.”
But Trank strenuously disputes the notion that he was difficult or uncommunicative on the set. “If you ask anybody by name who I’ve worked with, from Simon to [producer] Hutch [Parker] or my crew or anybody else, they’d be like, ‘We’ve been working really hard on this movie and we’ve had an excellent time working together,’” he said. “It’s been a challenging movie — for all of the right reasons.”
Kinberg, who is also producing the “Star Wars” spinoff film, said the attacks on Trank were out of bounds: “I haven’t really seen this level of vehemence against a filmmaker. And it’s surreal and unfair.”
There’s no question Trank was under tremendous pressure during the making of the movie. “It was a lot of work all the way around, and Josh carried a lot of the weight,” Teller said. “It was tough. Josh is a young guy. And I think we all learned a lot from it. But he was very committed to this story.”
Mara echoes that sentiment. “Josh knew exactly what story he wanted to tell, so he was very specific and very confident,” she said. “He’s very intense and, pun intended, direct.”
Trank said his deep-seated impulse to blaze his own path in the face of doubt and criticism has deep psychological roots in his own childhood origin story.
“When I was in middle school and high school, I was over 100 pounds overweight,” he said. “I had a condition called gynecomastia — I had really big man boobs — and I got a surgery for it. My whole adolescence was hating myself and feeling suicidal. I was made fun of by a lot of other kids in such a way that I didn’t feel like I was human. That fueled my desire to want to prove people wrong by just writing things and shooting things and being proactive.”
Trank’s own motivations may be deeply personal, but with a reported $122-million production budget, the success of “Fantastic Four” is important to Fox’s bottom line. While acknowledging that Fantastic Four fans have “a bit of a chip on their shoulders about the franchise,” Kinberg urges them to keep their minds open and be willing to stretch and bend, Mr. Fantastic style, with this new interpretation.
“People are religious about comics the way people are religious about the Bible,” he said. “But I think it’s true for a lot of movies that you can take license with adapting the underlying material and you will be forgiven for it if it’s good — and you will not be if it’s bad.”