A passion project is often a byword in the ever-changing world of cinema for a piece of work that has taken years, sometimes even decades to create.
Ostensibly, with the announcement of Terry Gilliam’s completion of the 17-year odyssey that is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (starring Adam Driver and Jonathon Pryce), there is fresh scrutiny on such projects and whether they are worth the psychological, financial and emotional travails involved. Arguably, for Terry Gilliam, the phrase ‘Nothing worth doing…etc etc.’ is an adage which is now become second nature. Yet, Don Quixote isn’t the first of its kind – especially when considering Scorcese finally released his (almost) 30-year Magnum Opus, Silence, in January of this year.
What I argue is the captivating element of passion projects is within the name. passion. Indeed, in modern Hollywood, a film with suitable prospects and a bankable star takes a year – maybe two – to get made and achieve some measure of critical acclaim. Yet films which have been gestating in the drawers and storyboards of the Hollywood elite, percolating and maturing like a fine carafe of chianti are often enigmas within the modern system. Only a director with significant clout in previous efforts could receive the financial backing and maintain the sheer willpower required. The Good Shepherd, 2006’s most underrated film, had been a story which De Niro had been cultivating for over ten years. Noah, Darren Aronofksy’s middling effort at creating a boring tom hanks character-driven epic (not quite achieved) was a decades-long fruition. A passion project is not a solid guarantee of a good story. The director may have imbued every shot with a clear cinematographic angle, a fantastic eye for detail and witty dialogue. Yet, the story, that ephemeral element which is so often left by the wayside is often the subject to alterations.
Indeed, the innovative quality of a passion project is that it is as pure an expression as one can achieve as a director. This is, by extension, a piece of the director themselves. As such, it would be garrulous and short-sighted to label a passion project a rarity in need of becoming a commodity. Their very uniqueness is what sets them apart from the popcorn-heavy brain battering that takes place every summer. Look at Spike Lee’s mature and nuanced epic, Malcolm X with an incandescent Denzel Washington in the title role. Here the story is not sacrificed for the personal fulfilment of the director and the spectator is left with a sense of fulfilment.
Consequently, this was emulated fittingly in a particularly long gestating 1997 film, directed by james cameron, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and kate winslet. Certainly, this film, a small venture by the name of Titanic, essentially a reworking of the romeo and juliet meets west side story tale, proved that the passion project market was a rich avenue for studios to bank on (helped, of course, by the solid bedrock of Shakespeare). Historically, this was echoed by the ever-marvellous Citizen Kane way back in 1942. Ultimately, complete artistic freedom was granted to Orson Welles, a caveat that most directors dream of. Even now, it is the textbook film for all students and pilgrims at the altar of cinematographic craft.
Nonetheless, the underlying message is that passion projects can be hit and miss. We’re looking at you, lone ranger and after earth. However, I argue that the core element which is vital to the lasting success, nay the legacy of a passion project is the plot. The twists and turns must be daring. The mise en scène, involving and electrifying. For example, in 1992, Schindler’s List the powerful rumination on one of the darkest moments in human history could have devolved and not been as potent some 25 years later. This film I might add is perhaps one of the greatest examples of the storytelling intelligence of the ‘seventh art’, that is cinema.
Whilst passion projects are often associated with the various trials and vagaries of film production, even Odysseus made it home to Ithaca. I believe that with the atmospheric rise of Netflix, passion projects will soon become mainstream, for instance Scorsese’s long-mulled The Irishman will be distributed by them in 2019. This highlights a diagonal movement away from the overarching primacy of the studio hierarchy. Perhaps it is leading to a platform from which passion projects are trotted out with increasing verve yet a decreasing quality. A passion project is by its very nature, a piece of work that requires years of labour. Yet, story and the originality of plot should not be subsumed into the morass of ostentation or, bankable stars. A passion project is a reflection on the very nature of the man behind the camera. They are, in essence, a gift from these directors to the viewer.
They may stumble, lose their way, but if it is a story of influence, they will prevail.
Words by James Hill