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‘Fantastic it most certainly ain’t,’ declared Time Out in their review of the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Marvel’s Fantastic Four when it finally reached cinemas in the summer of 2005. Arriving a decade after cult filmmaker Roger Corman had produced a low budget effort that would never see the light of day, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s beloved ensemble had been one of the comic’s most popular titles since its introduction in 1961 and while the X-Men had finally been given the cinematic treatment it deserved the Fantastic Four had struggled through a long and arduous journey that would involve numerous writers and directors over the course of ten years.
Directed by comedy filmmaker Tim Story and co-starring a pre-Captain America Chris Evans, Fantastic Four would fail to find its audience in the same way that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man had just two years earlier and following a disappointing sequel that would prove even less popular with critics, the characters were subsequently rebooted in 2015 with one of the worst-reviewed mainstream superhero movies of all time. Yet during its tenure in development hell an array of up-and-coming filmmakers would both pitch concepts and ultimately walk from pre-production as the project seemed destined to remain unproduced.
One of the young hopefuls who would attempt to seduce the studio executives with their own take on the comic series was Sean Astin. Despite being best known as an actor, having first come to the attention of cinemagoers at the age of of fourteen with his starring role in The Goonies, Astin had received an Academy Award nomination in 1995 after directing a thirty-minute short film entitled Kangaroo Court. But it would be his performance as Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that would become his defining moment and so when he approached 20th Century Fox, then enjoying considerable success with the X-Men franchise, he seemed like an unlikely candidate to direct a big budget comic book movie.
‘In 1994, (Bernd) Eichinger finally signed Chris Columbus to make a $40m adaptation,’ explained critic Robert Ito in the March 2005 edition of the Los Angeles Magazine. ‘Over the next ten years other directors – including Peyton Reed, Sean Astin and Peter Segal – came and went. Several scripts were written, then shelved. Pre-production started in 1996, then stalled. Casting rumours popped up on fan sites – George Clooney is Mr. Fantastic! Jessica Simpson is Sue Storm! Tim Robbins is Dr. Doom!’ Columbus, having worked with Astin twenty years earlier on The Goonies, would prove to be his first contact in the actor’s attempt to make his feature directorial debut.
Astin’s potential involvement with the project was first announced in January 2004 when, during an interview with Agalaxia, he hinted at a directing project he had in development. ‘I always wanted to act and direct with the same intensity but only now I’ve found the way to get to directing. Right now I’m running to be the director of this $100-130m movie, which the studio wants to release in the end of 2004 and it has a huge effect in pop culture. I got a meeting scheduled but I can’t talk about it yet.’ But barely three months later Story, who who had recently completed work on a remake of the French action comedy Taxi, would be announced as the director of Fantastic Four.
But for a short time Astin felt confident that he might have the chance to direct a big budget Hollywood picture and so set about tracking down as many drafts of the Fantastic Four screenplay as possible so he could analyse the various writers’ takes on the story. Having researched the kind of project that the studio had envisioned he then approached Columbus for advice. With the director hard at work on the latest instalment of the Harry Potter franchise Columbus had given up hope of directing the Marvel movie for 20th Century Fox and so Astin turned to his lawyer for assistance.
Having recently attended the Amazing Comic-Con in Las Vegas, Astin spoke in great detail about his experience trying to direct the superhero movie. ‘I called my lawyer and the head partner in the firm was one of the most important, powerful lawyers in Hollywood, Jake Bloom. Even if you’re a client at the law firm nobody talked to Jake,’ he explained. ‘I said, ‘Dave, I want Jake to call Tom Rothman, the head of 20th Century Fox and tell him that Sean Astin wants to direct Fantastic Four. And he was like, ‘You’re out of your flipping mind. Have you directed a feature?’ I went, ‘No, not yet…I want you to call and I want you to tell him!’ And he could tell how serious I was.’
Astin would succeed in meeting with Rothman but with another draft imminent the actor was promised that once the script was delivered he would be offered the chance to read. ‘I got a call back from Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel. He wasn’t the head then, he was the head of visual production,’ Astin continued. ‘And he called me, I was just starting The Lord of the Rings and there was a moment when you could just call people and I said, ‘Listen, is there any way in the world you could consider me to direct Fantastic Four?’ And he was like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ So I said, ‘So are you saying there’s zero chance? Zero, no chance? A hundred per cent not going to do it?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not going to say zero per cent.”
Eventually invited to the offices of 20thCentury Fox to read the latest draft of the screenplay, Astin returned the following morning to once again meet with Rothman to pitch his take on the project. ‘Tom Rothman says, ‘How about the big one…why you?” recalls Astin on the moment he had to sell himself to the head of the studio. ‘I said, ‘Before they put some twenty-four-year-old kid in a hundred million dollar fighter plane they put him in the best simulators ever designed. From the time I was twelve-years-old I have been in the best simulators you could possibly have for this kind of thing.’ So then we started talking and I said so this is what I think here and this is what I think there and then he got up and he started pacing, he was listening to me and we had a real creative conversation about what was going on with the story and he was impressed.’
Even without any formal commitment from the studio Astin had already begun to research potential cast and crew for his proposed take on Fantastic Four. While he would explore the special effects workshops of Lucasfilm and Weta Digital, the latter having designed the creature FX for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he also approached several actors and musicians that he felt would be ideal for the principal roles. Both Christina Aguilera and Cameron Diaz were considered for the part of Sue Storm, who would eventually become the Invisible Woman, while the role of the Thing would be suggested to Michael Chiklis, then enjoying acclaim for his lead in the crime drama The Shield.
Waiting patiently for a response, Astin finally received a call from the studio to discover that he was unsuccessful. ‘My phone rings and I knew, I just knew. I kind of looked down and opened it. ‘Hi, we have Tom Rothman for you.’ And he says, ‘Sean, it’s Tom. I hope you can hear the good in what I’m about to say…When Jake Bloom called me and told me you had never directed a feature and you wanted to direct Fantastic Four I told him you were out of your mind. I didn’t know you, I hadn’t heard of you, you weren’t on my radar but I want to tell you something. You forced me to take you seriously as a filmmaker so you may not have been on my radar before but you’re on my radar now.” And so I said, ‘I’ll be first in line to watch the movie.’ So that’s that story.’
Produced on a budget of $100m and starring Jessica Alba in the role of Sue Storm and Chiklis as the Thing, Fantastic Four was released through 20th Century Fox on 8 July 2005, just three weeks after the debut of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, a movie that many have cited as a major turning point in the superhero genre. Yet whole Nolan’s picture would be praised by critics and audiences alike, Story’s film would be widely ridiculed for its preposterous story and comedic tone. ‘The Fantastic Four are, in short, underwhelming,’ commented noted critic Roger Ebert in his review. ‘And the really good superhero movies, like Superman, Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins, leave Fantastic Four so far behind that the movie should almost be ashamed to show itself in the same theatres.’