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Trank photographed in upstate New York Photo courtesy of Josh Trank

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The post-disaster artist

After his Fantastic Four reboot bombed and life fell apart, Josh Trank came back for more

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

On Aug. 7, 2015, hours before his $150 million comic book reboot Fantastic Four opened on 3,995 North American screens, director Josh Trank smashed the self-destruct button. “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this,” he tweeted in blind rage. “And it would’ve recieved [sic] great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”

Provoked by a review suggesting that Fantastic Four be “studied in film schools as an example of what not to do,” the writer-director fired off 138 vicious characters without so much as a reread to catch his typo. The responses were immediate. He had champions who praised the gall it took to slap back against The Man, and detractors who thought the whole episode was maybe a little gauche. Drowning in a sea of notifications, Trank finally picked up the phone when his manager called.

“He was afraid of what was gonna happen to me,” Trank told me of the dizzying moment. “I was messing with one of the most powerful corporations in the world.”

Trank was the obvious candidate to reinvigorate Fantastic Four for 20th Century Fox. In 2010, the studio plucked the then-26-year-old filmmaker from obscurity to direct the microbudgeted Chronicle. The story of three high schoolers who gain, and are torn apart by, superhuman power gave Trank the chance to rewire the “found footage” style with untethered psychic velocity. Critical praise, combined with a new title — the youngest person ever to open a movie at No. 1 at the box office — imbued the filmmaker with the aura of an action auteur. When Chronicle finished its theatrical run with a $123 million worldwide gross, studios scrambled to tap Trank’s energy. Sony attached him to the Spider-Man-adjacent Venom; Warner Bros. wanted him for the spy thriller Red Star; he worked to adapt the beloved video game Shadow of the Colossus; he got a Star Wars movie. At the top of his world, Trank quit drinking, bought a car, and met the love of his life, whom he married six months later.

The race to book Trank ended in late 2012 with an offer from Fox to direct Fantastic Four. In the mid-2000s, a pair of lighthearted Fantastic Four films led by Jessica Alba and Chris Evans failed to break through in a zeitgeist captured by Christopher Nolan’s gritty reinvention of Batman. Fox hoped that a modern sensibility could take the property in a new direction, despite veterans like I Am Legend writer Akiva Goldsman and the team behind 2011’s Thor being unable to make it work. Trank voiced his interest, and though Fox executives offered him the chance to pursue something original, the Marvel movie “felt like the most rebellious thing to do,” the director said. His take on the material made him confident. A company buying into his hype made him bullheaded. Fox didn’t want to make another Fantastic Four movie — it wanted to make Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four movie.

The movie was a multitiered bomb. On top of critical pans and a worldwide gross of $167 million, just a third of what the first Fantastic Four made 10 years earlier, the lead-up and fallout of the film saw Trank caught in behind-the-scenes drama. Insiders told The Hollywood Reporter at the time that the director had been erratic, reclusive, and absent-minded enough to allow his three dogs to do $100,000 worth of damage to the Louisiana home rented for the shoot. The first time I spoke to Trank, eight months after the release of Fantastic Four, he pushed back on the details in the report. His disposition was harder to defend. “There have been a lot of times when I’ve been told, ‘This is how you should handle this,’ and I handle it in a different way and it turns out in my favor,” he said. “And then there have also been times when I’ve been wrong, and it has only resulted in complete disaster.”

Trank’s tweet, a last-ditch effort to shape history in his favor, made him a bigger target. Headlines from The Daily Beast to Defamer and every geek blog under the sun aggregated his words as more gossip thickened the plot. The public autopsy sent the director into hiding. In the silence, he spiraled. Fury smoldered into numbness. His relationship was dissolving. Days liquefied into weeks, then months. For some reason, he looked at what people on Twitter had to say. “I felt dead inside,” he said.

Novelist John le Carré once called moviemaking “the enforced bonding of irreconcilable opposites.” Unlike painting or songwriting, cinéma often begins with a 120-page script in need of someone else’s money. In the mainstream lane, the money comes with a promise of story notes, waiting games, phone calls about “likability,” economic debates, actor concerns, union laws, scheduling issues, and post-production pipelines. A director becomes the CEO of a miniature corporation, and creativity is just one of the managerial subtasks. The job demands relentless ambition, but not so much as to threaten the disparate end goals of those supplying the cash. There are fights, depending on what’s worth fighting for, and reasons to back down, just to get it all done on time. As one studio executive put it to me, victories in the movie business are often validated by chance. A handle on emotion, in the end, has as much to do with survival and longevity as knowing where to put the camera.

On May 12, Trank returns with Capone, the story of the Prohibition gangster’s final days intended as a new beginning for the 36-year-old director. Written in the irradiated remains of Trank’s career, the film finds The Revenant star Tom Hardy grunting, hissing, and shitting his way through an impressionistic death march. On the page, Capone reads more like Twin Peaks than Scarface. The final cut is, in Trank’s words, such a “pure and truthful and shocking” distillation of his own being that he regards it as his real “first movie.” The self-seriousness faded away on set; on a brisk spring night in 2018, I watched the director, in full period clothing, run out to a Louisiana marsh to rework a scene with cinematographer Peter Deming that only had a few hours to shoot before the sun set. Later, we stood on a knoll to watch an edited sequence loaded on his iPhone, in which Capone chases a flock of kids around the yard to the docile tones of “Nessun Dorma.” “Isn’t this amazing?” he asked, beaming.

“If Josh Trank is not in Movie Jail,” one critic tweeted after the announcement of Capone, “does Movie Jail even exist anymore?” Trank doesn’t believe it does. Hollywood has sentenced directors to careers in TV or general obscurity, but to Trank, escaping the metaphorical lockup is about writing and directing one’s way out of it, doing the work. There’s undeniable privilege to the perspective, considering the struggle marginalized groups face in breaking into the industry, yet little to argue with, logically — the best way to get a movie made, if all you want to do in the world is make movies, is to write a movie to make and go get it made.

I spoke to Trank off and on for four years as he reeled from Fantastic Four and set out to make Capone. And while he sidestepped Movie Jail, there may be no escape from the larger requirements of the industry and his own personal hang-ups. There are costs to every step of the process, and some personalities are more susceptible than others.

“Whatever I’m sacrificing just has to be sacrificed,” he said. “It’s worth it for me [...] I’m just here to do this.”

In the spring of 2017, with Fantastic Four behind him and Capone on the horizon, I met the filmmaker at his temporary home: a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, California, kept up like a college dorm room. Outfitted with inflatable beds, an enormous television wired with an Xbox One, enough mac and cheese to fill a doomsday bunker, and a makeshift editing suite, the only signs of thriving life beyond the walls were the faint sounds of boardwalk crowds and ocean waves coming in from the porch door. For Trank, his assistant John, and Trank’s Boston Terrier Eugene, this was where the magic happened. If they weren’t sniping 12-year-olds’ digital avatars in endless rounds of first-person shooters, they were building a storyboard animatic for Capone. Trank was not one for scenery; he never left home, he said, preferring to work through the days and nights. He didn’t have much of a social life, unless buying replacement cartridges for his vaporizer counted.

director Josh Trank on set wearing a Bubba Gump shrimp hat
Trank on the set of Fantastic Four.
Photo: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo via Polygon

“I’d say if you have five good friends, you’re good — and I have five good friends. Do I see them often? No. But it’s been a struggle for me because it is depressing. My obsessiveness rules out everything. I don’t really know how to date. I don’t know how to do anything like that. The relationships that I get into are more like, just really intense and straightforward. And I don’t know any middle ground in terms of just, like, living life. One day I hope to.”

In our early phone calls, Trank spoke with the cadence of a hyperventilating man on the run. Nondisclosure agreements turned his immediate past into a minefield, and though there was plenty to say about what brought him to this moment, “omertà,” the mob slang for a code of silence, was dropped on more than one occasion in reference to his work on Fantastic Four. But even in person, soothed by deep inhales of strawberry-scented mist, the filmmaker spoke at a clip. Trank is absolutely the adult version of his disaffected, Vans-wearing, Liberty-spikes-sporting, NOFX-adoring teen self (“People will argue, ‘NOFX isn’t real punk rock,’ to which I would say, ‘Fuck you’”), yet he’s a natural showman. At every turn, the director has a tangent or a theory or 100,000 words on HBO’s Generation Kill that made sense of the bizarre industry he chose to endure. As we sunk into his black leather furniture, Trank swerved from a treatise on the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man to a rundown of every movie blogger who ever dragged him on Twitter. His tone was extreme yet polite as he spun in a constant state of Extremely Online galaxy brain. “I could probably be on medications for my obsessions and my OCDs, but at the end of the day, like, it drives me,” he said. “I don’t want to be the guy to make the movie that somebody 10 years from now goes, ‘You know what, that was a pretty good movie, but we could remake that.’ I don’t ever want to have a movie remade.”

Born Feb. 19, 1984, Trank grew up a lifelong Los Angeleno in the shadow of the studios. His schoolteacher mother and Holocaust documentarian father settled him and his younger sister in Culver City, with no ambitions to break into the business. Hollywood still enveloped them; Trank’s earliest memory is of playing by a lake near his grandparents’ house, known to MGM backlot employees as the man-made lagoon constructed for movies like 1981’s Tarzan, the Ape Man. On a guided tour of his old stomping grounds, Trank giddily pointed out his childhood hangouts, go-to restaurants, and, in an ironic twist, the Fox studio lot in Century City, a landmark just off the course from his childhood home to high school. He drove by it every week.

Trank can name his formative favorites — Edward Scissorhands, Star Wars, Fargo, and the left-field Truffaut films his dad would slip into the mix — but has a deeper sense of how his own memories have shaped him. He vividly recalled watching from his doorstep as the National Guard marched down the street toward the Rodney King riots. The 1994 Los Angeles earthquake decimated his family’s home, leaving the Tranks in debt for years. When he was 12, an older counselor at sleepaway camp “felt up my bitch tits,” and left him painstakingly aware of his own weight through his teen years. When he was 13, his parents split up after their fights reached a vicious, logical endpoint. His mother’s new ZIP code afforded him a spot at Beverly Hills High, where he slacked and developed a chip on his shoulder over his classmates’ wealth. “I got my shoes at Payless,” he said. “When you’re at a friend’s house and they have, like, every fucking Air Jordan, it shocks you. You feel like a loser.”

When Trank was 14, his dad struck up a relationship with Judy Toll, a veteran of The Groundlings with a reputation for cracking up the comedy world. Toll regularly sang karaoke with pals like Kathy Griffin and Jon Lovitz, and while the introverted Trank thought it was “the dorkiest, lamest thing in the world,” he felt the pull of performing. “Part of me deep down really, really, secretly wanted to just get out there and shut the house down.” When Toll discovered that her future stepkid did a dead ringer Louis Armstrong impression, the act was locked. The two sang “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in front of a crowd of Toll’s pals, and Trank “never turned back from that. Like that chant, that experience, changed me. I shut the house down with Judy.” Toll went on to marry Trank’s father in the early 2000s, but a few years later, died of skin cancer. “I think about her still, like, every day, and I miss her tremendously.”

Trank fed his love of film with a steady diet of video rentals and Rolling Stone profiles. By the time he graduated high school, he not only admired the legends of the 1960s and ’70s, but saw himself working within and against the system like they did. Terry Gilliam’s well-documented battle for final cut over the 1985 film Brazil was “for me, as a young rebellious teenager, was like a war cry in my head,” Trank said. “That’s how radicalized I had to be if I’m going to take my shit as seriously as somebody like him.” He was also a millennial coming up in the age of middle-class privilege and overnight success. The culture that produced Mark Zuckerberg also convinced Trank to give himself a near-impossible task that would keep him up at night. After he graduated from high school, he had one goal: to beat Steven Spielberg’s legacy.

“I wanted to go make my dreams come true,” he said. “So I made a deal with [my parents] that if I didn’t get my first movie by the time I was 27, that I would quit. And the reason I picked 27 is because that’s when Spielberg started working on Jaws. I felt like if I couldn’t get it at that age, then I’d probably be really depressed or something and then move on.”

Formal training was not in the cards for the reluctant student. After two and a half semesters at Brooks Institute of Photography, Trank ducked out to write scripts, schlep from guest room to guest room, and pick up work running 35mm dailies to labs. He told his parents he had a backup plan if he came up short. He did not have a backup plan. And as he insisted in our long car ride down memory lane, he refused to ask for help.

Trank worked menial film jobs early on; he did know people. After befriending Clueless director Amy Heckerling’s daughter in high school, he worked a short stint as the director’s assistant at the age of 18. Through Toll, he became close acquaintances with Arrested Development producer Jim Valley — and an occasional occupant of Vallely’s couch. (Trank would later cameo on Arrested Development, serving Tobias a lawsuit over the rights to a Fantastic Four musical.) Through Vallely, Trank became an active participant in the storytelling comedy show Sit ’n Spin, and in the mid-2000s, he met and briefly dated one of the group’s most active members: Six Feet Under writer and future Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Trank’s brush with LA professionals gave him the confidence of a storyteller. The Sit ’n Spin stage turned his dark memories into crowd-pleasers, and gave the young Jewish man a reason to dress up as Hitler at least once.

But the actual work was menial, with most of his early 20s spent on production assistant work and futzing around with his computer on lessons like “How to Make a Lightsaber in Adobe After Effects.” Naturally, Trank found a reason to make a lightsaber in Adobe After Effects: Shot in his friend’s apartment in Echo Park for $100, the clickbaity “Stabbing at Leia’s (Uncensored)” finds a beer-soaked college rager interrupted by the accidental ignition of a light sword. One minute later, a squad of stormtroopers arrives to break up the mess. Trank edited the video in a day, then posted it on YouTube. “No one watched it,” he said. Glued to the view count, Trank shot an IM to a friend clued in to the 4chan scene, hoping they’d seed the video into the community. Without instant results, Trank finally went to sleep.

“To this day, nothing was as surreal as the feeling of when I woke up the next morning and had 100 emails in my inbox,” he said. “It had racked up 300,000 views. It went viral. It was on the front page on Yahoo. It was fucking crazy.”

Paramount Pictures. Warner Bros. MTV. All the emails were the same: “Are you in LA?” Trank took his first professional meeting at the age of 22, and a few days later, wound up with a contract at Spike TV to write, direct, and edit a webseries spinoff of John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg’s bank heist thriller The Kill Point. The network flew Trank to New York with a budget of $50,000 and a request for 30 pages of material. He had meager goals going into the project: “All I wanted was to do a dolly shot.” By the wrap of production, he had directed dolly shots and blown stuff up.

After The Kill Point aired in 2007, Trank had the kind of high-gloss reel that every film school graduate would burn Citizen Kane print negatives to have their name on. Except his name wasn’t on them; to exploit loopholes and avoid union issues, Spike TV ran Trank’s webisodes without credits, considering the videos to be more like commercials than spinoff content. (A few months later, the Writer’s Guild of America would strike for 14 weeks over contract clauses that would directly address the future of streaming royalties and the shady limbo of web content). The Kill Point shorts prompted The Wrestler writer Robert Siegel to hire Trank to help produce and edit his low-budget directorial debut Big Fan, but when the tiny indie wrapped, the next assignment wasn’t there.

As cash dwindled, Trank moved back to Los Angeles and inundated himself with work, using any leftover oxygen to tap away at his own scripts. He spliced together cinematographer reels for cash. He edited an HBO documentary on sportscaster Marty Glickman. He sold and shot a Fox TV web pilot called McVenge, about a Dirty Harry-like cop whose reckless abandonment has put him on permanent suspension. None of it went anywhere, and the clock was ticking. “I knew I needed to be making one of these movies by the time I was 27, or I was fucked. So I needed to be like, ‘I die if this doesn’t happen.’ It was all I thought about day and night, and my 20s were not really fun.”

The idea for Chronicle came to Trank in high school, but it took input from budding screenwriter Jeremy Slater and a reasonable amount of psychotropics to morph the idea into an actual movie. “Josh had just moved to town, and I was one of the only people he knew here in LA,” said Slater, who would go on to be the showrunner for Fox’s The Exorcist series. “We were developing one of my spec scripts that ultimately went nowhere, but mostly just hanging out and smoking a lot of weed and playing video games. Chronicle definitely emerged from some of those hazy nights.” While Trank came up with “70% of the beats,” Slater said,” the writer sprinkled in elements that would make the story of three fickle teen personalities into popcorn entertainment. The three friends need to obtain superpowers? Slater suggested some glowing crystals at the bottom of a cave. “I loved it,” Trank said, “because it just didn’t need to be explained.”

On advice from his agents, Slater passed on writing Chronicle to tackle a promised actual paycheck. Having never completed or sold a feature-length script, Trank felt insecure about pursuing the project alone. “When you’re writing a movie that you’re going to make, as personal as it is, you still have to be a bit objective about it,” he said. “I don’t think I was mature enough to be, at that point.” So he did what any 26-year-old in 2010 would do: He logged on.

“I started looking through names on Facebook for someone in LA who I knew, who would tell me that what I was doing sucks.” He landed on Max Landis, the son of writer-director John Landis. “I’m like, ‘Oh, this dude will definitely blow my shit out and be rude about what I did.’”

A feedback session with Landis snowballed into an entire writing session. In Trank’s version of the script, Steve (Michael B. Jordan) would get hit by a plane and die halfway through the movie. Landis suggested that, instead, Andrew (Dane DeHaan) should save him. “That solved the entire second act,” Trank said. Two days after the meeting, Landis called Trank, begging him not to get mad — he had just pitched Chronicle to some producers, who wanted a full script. Trank was pissed, but was not in a position to object. Three weeks later, Landis pumped out a draft of the screenplay that was then distributed to the major studios. “Everyone wanted a piece of it,” Trank said. Within 24 hours, Trank’s managers were barking at him to do his laundry and prepare to visit every executive office in the greater Los Angeles area. It was the viral video all over again, except this time, Trank was desperate. “I was like, ‘Fucking get me out of this existence.’”

Though Trank and Landis would revise bits of the script before shooting, executives at 20th Century Fox saw Chronicle as a fully formed project and, if produced, a daring play to attract a younger audience. The studio was not in the business of making low-budget films — at the time, it was also gearing up to prequelize the Alien franchise with Prometheus — but the confidence on the page and in the room was worth gambling on. Fox gave Chronicle the official green light in January 2011, a few weeks before Trank’s 27th birthday.

Right after Trank sold Chronicle to Fox, someone smashed his car window and lifted 15 hard drives, loaded with scripts and edits. “I had a whole trunk full of dreams,” he joked. But by then he was already laser-focused on getting his directorial debut made, and his champions were rooting him on. Trank cites Fox executive Steve Asbell as a big believer in his skill set and the possibilities that the newcomer could deliver a hit for the studio. Fox’s then-chairman Tom Rothman — notorious for grappling with directors over the X-Men franchise, but also for adoring film artists (he co-produced Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law) — “loved the script, but detested the way that I wanted to do it,” Trank said with a laugh. But he could be convinced.

Trank hoped Chronicle could break the found-footage mold by using his characters’ telekinetic powers to keep the camerawork always on the move, an approach “so risky and interesting that it’s something that either would be revolutionary in a way or it would be a complete piece of shit.” To appease the skeptical Rothman, Fox bankrolled a test shoot for $10,000 to see if Trank could prevent the movie from devolving into shakycam nonsense. The director started small, orchestrating a proto-version of a scene in which the psychic pranksters move cars with their minds and cause havoc in a diner. The test was enough for Fox to move forward with Trank’s more ballistic dreams. “I thought by the end of the movie, when I’d have 5,000 cameras floating around the fucking Space Needle, that it would be so ridiculous and over the top that it was almost like the movie screaming at the rest of the world to stop making found-footage movies, because you can’t do it after this.”

Chronicle’s relatively low budget kept Trank insulated from oversight. To keep costs down, executives insisted that he shoot the movie in Cape Town, South Africa, and as he would discover on set, very few Fox executives actually wanted to travel. The found-footage style also prevented later interference; because each shot was designed around precise actor blocking, action, and special effects, there were few ways for anyone to make editorial changes in post-production. Trank had absolute control, and in the end, it was exactly the movie he wanted to make, down to a murky tone that perplexed the Fox marketing team.

“They didn’t know exactly what the genre was,” he said. “Genre is such a formulaic, stupid, robotic way of thinking about things. You’re selling a vibe. The trailer cutting houses, on the other hand, were like, ‘This is gold.’” Moviegoers vindicated his work; Chronicle hit American theaters on Feb. 3, 2012, and earned Trank a record-breaking hit.

A 17-year-old Josh Trank walked up to the plate with the gait of Babe Ruth and called his shot. A 28-year-old Trank didn’t know how to process hitting the home run. A press tour for Chronicle whisked him around the world and left him unsettled. The cigarette habit he picked up on night shoots during the movie intensified. A three-hour meeting with Tom Cruise was surreal in a bad way. “All I felt was anger toward things,” he said. “Anger toward kids that I grew up with. I didn’t feel any happiness from that. I didn’t know how to embrace happiness. But I was having meetings with Margot Robbie and Emma Stone and Amber Heard.” Two weeks after Chronicle’s release, Trank, who had “beaten Spielberg” and felt adrift, punched through a wall in his house and cracked his hand on a steel beam.

in Chronicle, a young brown-haired man sits cross-legged at a junkyard scrunching the air with his right hand to crush a car behind him
Andrew (Dane DeHaan) crushes a car with his telekinetic powers in Chronicle.
Image: 20th Century Fox

Trank had a problem he didn’t know how to solve or who to ask to help him solve it. After the wall incident, he called the most notable director in his phone: Sin City and Alita: Battle Angel director Robert Rodriguez, whom he met during the press tour for Chronicle. They weren’t chummy, but Trank said Rodriguez was still “Yoda-esque,” talking through success with the young filmmaker and sending him a box of self-help guides. “I’ve always had a feeling in anything that I’ve ever done in any stage of my life as a post-18-year-old that I’m in hell, but I’m crawling out of it. I’m always on a path, crawling toward the light.”

The work, as always, was a way to cope without healing. In the maelstrom of post-Chronicle dealmaking, Trank pitched Sony on a hard-R Venom in the vein of The Mask. Over two weeks in New York, he and his Big Fan director Rob Siegel worked on a treatment for the film, which Amazing Spider-Man producer Matt Tolmach “hated.” And that was the end of that. “I didn’t like how Matt Tolmach was coming at me in that situation, because it felt very kind of authoritative,” Trank said. “Well, if you don’t like what I’m doing, and you’re telling me that I have to do something along the lines of what you want, and you’re going to tell it to me in this way — sorry, but I have other things I can be doing.”

Trank’s stint on Shadow of the Colossus was short enough that he can barely remember the story, though he recalled his writer delivering “one of the most awkward, squirmiest pitches I’ve ever seen before.” He wouldn’t return to the film, even today. “I’m in a very different place now, where I couldn’t give a fuck about any good video games or turning any property into anything else.”

Chronicle 2, meanwhile, was a never-would for Trank. Landis, who has since been accused of sexual and emotional abuse by eight women, penned a script, focused on a young girl obsessed with the surviving character Matt (Alex Russell) who builds her own Iron Man suit. Trank described it as “fine” and having “nothing to do with why I wanted to do” the first movie. When the sequel picked up steam, the director did everything he could to stall progress. “I made it difficult for them to set up meetings. I was dodgy about stuff. I did a lot of shitty things. Because I really didn’t ever want to see Chronicle 2 happen. That was my worst nightmare. First of all, I’m not doing it. Second, if somebody else does it, then you know it’s gonna be a piece of shit.”

There are 30-something millennials like Trank who have made it in the business. Greta Gerwig started in “mumblecore” indies before acting in studio movies (remember the Arthur remake?) and finding a groove directing. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler mounted his blockbuster career step by step, clocking time at the Sundance Labs before making Fruitvale Station, then stepping up to make a midbudget sequel he’d been dreaming about his whole life: Creed. Uncut Gems co-director Josh Safdie, just a few months younger than Trank, has only flirted with studio films, and when it was time to direct an Adam Sandler movie, he did it on low-budget terms. Life catapulted Trank to the studio level on his first movie, and to him, the only way up was to go even bigger. Fantastic Four was that movie.

Carrying the mental baggage of Chronicle and a promise of creative control from Fox, Trank entered the development stage of Fantastic Four on the defensive. His first move was to hire Jeremy Slater as his writer. Slater knew comic books, he knew story, and he knew how the director’s brain worked. The two would work together in a vacuum. “There wasn’t really any sort of traditional pitching process,” Slater said of his first days on the film. “Josh just said, ‘Jeremy is writing it for me,’ and Fox nervously said, ‘Uhh ... sure.’” They began work in the spring of 2012.

Again, Trank came to Slater with a skeleton idea: His Fantastic Four would be the opposite of every other franchise kickoff. “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.”

Developing the script was a similar clamber. Slater was a badge-carrying nerd ready to convert comic book lore into bombastic, CG-ready set-pieces. Trank was the opposite, having seen a few episodes of the Fantastic Four cartoon from the mid-’90s and having a general distaste for comic book movies. “The first Avengers movie had recently come out, and I kept saying, ‘That should be our template, that’s what audiences want to see!” Slater said. “And Josh just fucking hated every second of it.”

“The trials of developing Fantastic Four had everything to do with tone,” Trank said. “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.”

In an effort to creatively engage his director by any means necessary, Slater loaded Trank up with comics from his personal collection — the greatest Doctor Doom stories, his favorite Ben Grimm moments — but nothing sparked. Trank was more interested in the early moments, digging into Reed Richards’ character development and traumatic arc. The screenwriting pair would try to find common ground, watching movies for inspiration. What was the Inception version of Fantastic Four? The Saving Private Ryan version? The Cronenberg body horror version? Once the team got its powers, that’s where it started losing Trank. Galactus, Annihilus, Herbie the Robot, time travel, multiple dimensions, old teams fighting young teams — everything was on the table, and any sequence or character could get tossed out at a moment’s notice. “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.”

“I feel like I get Mole Man,” Trank said in his defense. “He’s angry and undermined by the system.”

Slater estimated that he wrote nearly 18 drafts and 2,000 pages of material during his time on Fantastic Four. Only two of those drafts made it to the studio. In an effort to retain control, Trank acted as the messenger between Fox and Slater, leaving certain studio notes out of their conversations, and only delivering certain drafts to the studio for feedback. “Right from the start of the process, Josh told me I wasn’t allowed to speak with Fox without him present,” Slater said. “I never saw 95% of those notes.”

Slater departed Fantastic Four after six months and, in typical megablockbuster fashion, a handful of Fox-approved screenwriters came on board to knock the script into shootable shape. Simon Kinberg, who had proved himself to Fox by guiding the X-Men franchise with Bryan Singer, would stick around to see the entire production through. At the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con, Kinberg admitted he was burned out on superheroes, but one call with Trank convinced him to help make the movie. The two worked well enough together, but as the beginning of production crept closer and closer, and a hard release date hovered over the entire operation, the project moved forward in less than desirable fashion. The script didn’t have a third act, and life was compounding the intensity of the situation for Trank. “The only two weapons a movie has are its script and its director,” a source close to production told me, “and this had neither.”

Miles Teller lying on a surgical bed with his arms stretched out in Fantastic Four 2015
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) stretched across a testing facility bed in Fantastic Four.
Image: 20th Century Fox

The first time I talked to Trank about Fantastic Four was also the first time he slowed down. After a deep breath (of vape), he recounted the details of the shoot like Robert Shaw delivering his Jaws monologue.

“There are two emotions when you’re at the helm of something that will represent you: dread or excitement,” Trank said. “There’s not a lot of in-between. There’s so much at stake. You want to be mostly excited, but how will [the movie] affect my life? Did I make a mistake on a shot that could hurt me?”

Trank faced immense pressure as he worked on the script, storyboards, previsualized set-pieces, and casting, and much of it was born from his own anxieties. The director came from behind with Chronicle, and was suddenly in charge of something that everyone expected to be a huge success. “That requires a degree of experience that we often underestimate,” one source close to the production said. Trank took bold swings where he could. Early on, he insisted to Fox that Chronicle star Michael B. Jordan was the guy to play Johnny Storm, a character traditionally depicted as white. “For the world I grew up in, a racially intense Los Angeles where we were used to seeing white superheroes, some of my friends who were black should have seen a black superhero [...] so I felt that while being in a position of power, I could change the system a little bit.” Miles Teller (Whiplash), Jamie Bell (Jumper), and Kate Mara (Shooter), as Johnny’s adopted sister, rounded out the cast.

Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher are lauded by film buffs for obsessing over the minutiae, but Trank’s particulars led to issues on a giant studio movie like Fantastic Four. In preproduction, the editor-brained director clashed with his team of previs artists over the flavor of the movie’s action scenes, despite them all being trained in the art of alien invasion choreography. Likewise, on set, not everyone had the time or interest in hearing from the guy who made one pretty good movie.

“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,” Trank said. “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.” Of course, that type of “yes” or “no” still needed producer and studio approval. “I was aware of the protocol, but I wasn’t really asking.”

Fantastic Four was filmed over the summer of 2014. Trank did not recall receiving a complaint from the studio during the 72-day shoot, and refuted most of the tiny grievances that came out after the fact. Teller’s I’m-a-movie-star-now approach to acting, which involved questioning even the most low-impact performance requests, caught him off-guard, but a tussle that “nearly became physical,” according to an Entertainment Weekly story from August 2015, was a moment of miscommunication between two Type-A personalities. As for The Hollywood Reporter piece that suggested “he built a black tent around his monitor” and “cut himself off from everybody,” Trank said that was a traditional video village, and sometimes “you can’t actually be out standing next to the camera because the camera’s on a fucking dolly.”

Josh Trank directs Miles Teller and Kate Mara in a scene from Fantastic Four
Trank directs Teller and Kate Mara in a scene from Fantastic Four.
Photo: 20th Century Fox

But Trank’s capacity for juggling the workload and his personal life was tense enough that there was at least momentary consideration over pulling the plug on the movie. Trank likened his eventual on-set correspondence with Fox then-president Emma Watts to reports out of the Demilitarized Zone in the Korean Peninsula: There was never bad news, per se, but the general feeling was that war could erupt at any moment. The intensity existed, Trank said, and life had a way of exacerbating the situation. Early in production, Trank learned from the set that one of his dogs was at the vet after chewing up some vitamins. By the next morning, the dog had died, and the director had the “most emotionally aggressive cry I ever had in my life.”

Trank, who has never been one to unplug, picked up on a vocal minority protesting the film over his casting of a black man as Johnny Storm. The uproar became loud enough that Jordan penned an essay on Entertainment Weekly begging people to hear Stan Lee, who endorsed the casting, and move on. “I was getting threats on IMDb message boards saying they were going to shoot me,” Trank said. To find some level of ease, the director kept a loaded .38 Special on his nightstand.

“I was so fucking paranoid during that shoot,” said Trank. “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 returned the gun after wrapping production.

It didn’t help that throughout the making of Fantastic Four, Trank had a second job. A few months before production, Kinberg, who, on top of producing superhero movies for Fox, was a consultant at Lucasfilm, asked Trank if he wanted to make a Star Wars movie. Kinberg knew that Trank had met with Kiri Hart of the Lucasfilm story group after Chronicle, and now the company was interested in hearing his pitch for a spinoff movie.

At the time, Trank rented a house in Benedict Canyon just a few blocks from where George Lucas lived with his editor and wife Marcia Lucas when he wrote the first draft of Star Wars. With a few days to mull over Kinberg’s offer, Trank walked up to the Lucas house and basked in its glow. He called it one of the most surreal moments of his life. “The visions that I had in that moment were just out of this world,” he said. He walked back to his home with a three-act pitch for a Boba Fett movie.

Trank presented the idea to Hart, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and Disney chairman Alan Horn. Up until that point, only J.J. Abrams had been approved to play in the Star Wars sandbox, and granting permission for a filmmaker to forever impact the moneymaking mythos was a monthslong process. But the guy who made his name with a lightsaber-themed viral video came out the other end with a Star Wars movie deal.

The next June, in the middle of production on Fantastic Four, Lucasfilm announced the director as part of the family. “He is such an incredible talent and has a great imagination and sense of innovation,” Kennedy said. “That makes him perfectly suited to Star Wars.” Nearly a year later, Trank would bow out of the movie. “I quit because I knew I was going to be fired if I didn’t quit.”

The first cut of Fantastic Four caught studio executives off-guard, Trank said. They told the director the movie wasn’t the marketable romp anyone hoped for. It “wasn’t for fans.” The morose tone would make people uncomfortable. It made them uncomfortable. “That was the goal,” he told me. At least for him.

Reshoots and pickups are standard for modern studio blockbusters, but for Fantastic Four, they were urgent: The movie didn’t have an ending. Trank claimed that before production took place, Fox slashed the budget by nearly $30 million, and cut a majority of the spectacle-filled finale, with the idea that one could be filmed in the second round of shooting. But changes to Fantastic Four would become more drastic, and a difficult scheduling process that involved bringing in actors on weekends (and outfitting them with notable wigs) made cobbling together a third-act set-piece all the more difficult. According to Slater, most of the finished film turned out to be an expanded version of his initial 40 pages, minus all of the superheroics.

Much of the scramble to “save” Fantastic Four remains shrouded by NDAs and Trank’s own lack of participation. Fox hired other writers to generate script pages to be shot during reshoots, though Trank never met them. He wrote pages himself in hopes of putting his voice back in the film, and the pages were dutifully ignored. The director eventually confronted producers over Director’s Guild union rights that “were not being recognized,” and the studio complied. Trank said he negotiated a new deal in which he would reedit the movie while Fox worked on its own cut, and both versions would screen for test audiences.

Teller, Mara, Jamie Bell, and Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four
Teller, Mara, Jamie Bell, and Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four.
Image: 20th Century Fox

The studio hired editor Stephen Rivkin, whose credited work includes Avatar and the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, to prepare Fantastic Four for the runoff. Rivkin ultimately chose different takes for every single scene in the movie, and became “the de facto director,” Trank said. And in the director’s mind, Rivkin chose the bad takes. “There are some editors, from my point of view, who prefer using takes for pacing over performance. So they’ll say, ‘He moved out of that quicker,’ or, ‘He did this quicker.’ It’s about a certain kind of a rhythm that they are looking for.” There are moments in the finished film that Trank appreciates — Doctor Doom blowing up security guard heads as he strolls down a hallway, the scene in which Tim Blake Nelson’s head explodes, the shriek-filled introduction of mutated Reed Richards’ elastic body (in which no heads explode) — but the director found Rivkin’s ultimate decisions to be cheesy. “I maybe saw a couple of shots that really resonated.”

Unfortunately for Trank, the two versions of Fantastic Four were never in a faceoff. In January 2015, he realized that “there was no path out of hell,” and that the studio had already spent three months, plus millions of dollars, for planned rewrites and reshoots that would fit Rivkin’s cut. A teaser trailer that month supposedly inspired new directions for the film, which by then was out of Trank’s hands. “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.’” Trank edited his version anyway, hoping Fox would pluck select scenes and drop them into Rivkin’s cut. Maybe critics would see those moments and give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe.

A sense of loss sank in during reshoots. The contention left Trank defeated, and his new goal — to appease the producers, who might incorporate as many chunks of his personal cut into the finished product as possible — went against his artistic tenets. “It was like being castrated,” he said of being on the set, which was overseen by Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker. “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.” This time, Trank said yes. He wanted to keep his job.

Whispers of the turmoil reached Disney and Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm. No one had seen the cut of Fantastic Four that would arrive in theaters (including Trank), but the he-said-she-said dispute was enough to shake her confidence. Trank said he and Kennedy agreed that the director should sit out his scheduled appearance at the 2015 Star Wars Celebration in April, but even then, he couldn’t pick the conversation back up. Fantastic Four, the Star Wars spinoff that wasn’t, all the other development deals — they were the end of something. Shortly after bowing out of the convention over a case of the “worst flu of my life,” as he tweeted, Trank told his managers he wouldn’t do Star Wars and wouldn’t look for more blockbuster work. Days later, the trades announced that the director was “fired” off his Star Wars movie.

Trank tried to keep a straight face through the summer of 2015. He promoted the marketing of his ill-fated blockbuster on Facebook and Twitter. He played hype man on the Jumbotron of San Diego Comic-Con’s Hall H. In interviews, he defended against the finger-pointing with level-headed messaging. “It’s been a challenging movie — for all of the right reasons,” he told the Los Angeles Times. The tweet, as he sized up in retrospect, was spitting in the face of every person who attempted to make his version of Fantastic Four work. It offended his collaborators and silenced the friends he had in the industry. He went out swinging to defend a “fantastic version of Fantastic Four” — a version of the movie that no one, including Trank, can really say existed.

Before Fantastic Four, Trank woke at 6 a.m. on the dot. After the release, he found himself falling asleep by then, oozing out of bed around noon, and not knowing what to do with himself until he eventually crashed again. “I had been exposed to a permanent version of reality where I had no reason to live because there was nothing that I desired,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a big filmmaker anymore. That’s all I ever wanted. I didn’t know what I was anymore.” He had no interest in going back to where he was before Fantastic Four, either.

Trank combated insomnia and, in therapy, coped with the feeling of wanting “to fucking die.” His breakthrough happened after three months of “utter silence,” when he began self-critiquing what he saw as a streak of arrogance and misplaced ambition in the form of lengthy journal entries. The exercise drew a line in the sand: That was then, and this was now. “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.” Starting over also meant moving on from his one stable relationship; in May 2016, Trank and his wife separated, and a year later they formally divorced (He declined to discuss the fallout in detail, due to his ex-wife’s own involvement in the business and what he said is now an amicable relationship.)

Fonzo (later retitled to the more marketable Capone) emerged from the back of Trank’s head. As a kid, he fell down the Al Capone factoid vortex, reading up on everything he possibly could about the gangster bootlegger. In the void of work, when he “suddenly wasn’t fielding a thousand calls a day and having a hundred emails in my inbox,” the mental biography archived in the back of his brain bubbled back to the surface. Trank would close his eyes and sit for hours at a time, stewing on the humiliation and confusion and going wherever his mind took him. “It felt like such a different reality, all of a sudden,” he said. David Lynch might call the practice transcendental meditation. Trank resisted the formal label; he just saw them as “trips.” Whatever it was, out of those swirling dream sessions came a tone poem update on classic Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney movies. Trank wanted to examine the gangster’s life after imprisonment, when dementia melded his violent past with everyday life with family. The filmmaker related to the sweaty blur.

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Trank was ostensibly in Movie Jail, but for the director, it felt more like an occupational round of Let’s Make a Deal. Behind doors No. 1, 2, and 3 were the fates of Capone, which Trank would either direct into a movie or watch collect dust in a pile on some executive’s desk. There was also the cash prize: directing TV and work-for-hire gigs. Months after Fantastic Four, when the need for income started becoming a reality, he discussed genre projects stuck in development — someone will eventually direct the Pumpkinhead reboot — and episodic work with networks. “They’d all say, ‘Movies are the worst places to be. Let’s make something dark here!’” Trank passed.

Between the emerging thesis of the 2016 election and the acerbic commentary on his Fantastic Four experience, Trank felt more aware of his place in the show business cosmos. “I looked at myself and saw the whole white privilege thing,” he said. Incredible directors have made careers out of pilot shoots and EP credits, but Trank was stubborn. He saw accepting a director job as failing up to the path of least resistance, and by his own admission, he was still hung up on the art of it all. “Market-driven creativity is about just coming up with shit,” he said. “I think the product is a creation, but it’s not necessarily creative work.” So Trank pointed to the sky and called his shot yet again: He’d only come back if he wrote a script that someone would let him direct.

For eight months, Trank tore through drafts of Capone as his life leveled out. Reminders of his failure slipped through his blinders. On Feb. 27, 2016, Fantastic Four won the Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Remake of the year. It wouldn’t have hurt as much if a production assistant hadn’t accepted the award on no one’s behalf. (“The dude saw me chain-smoking, and probably heard me crying a few times. That’s petty.”) That June, The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters, who originally reported on Fantastic Four the year prior, took the opportunity to ask Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg about the director. “So when you look at young directors, how do you know you’re not hiring another Josh Trank [who directed the Fox bomb Fantastic Four]?” she asked. “Who is that?” Spielberg wondered. In a text at the time, Trank shrugged off the viral shade. “At least I know he watched Chronicle,” he wrote.

By early 2016, he had producers and name talent nipping at the script. Conversations were ramping up with Tom Hardy, who was vocal about playing Capone at some point in his career. Then in May, Trank separated from his wife of three years. The two had met in 2013, just as Trank quit drinking, juggled multiple development deals, went to work on Fantastic Four, and was at the top of the world. Six months into a courtship, they were married. “I was so certain that I knew exactly all of the answers in life because I succeeded in a way that went against the advice of everybody older than me. So I assumed that anything I felt passionately about, it was important for me to take it all the way to its most conclusive state.” He declined to go into specifics about the relationship, though he had no regrets. “If you feel it strongly in your heart, it’s better to be proven wrong than to not ever know if you’re right.”

As he and his producers courted Hardy for Capone, Trank floated from his sister’s guest room to Joe Carnahan’s desert vacation home (the Narc director bonded with Trank over their mutual habit of calling out bullshit on Twitter) to his dad’s place to the no-frills Santa Monica apartment. Trank, in full hustle mode, took directing and editing pay cuts to make the budget work, and flew himself to London to palaver with his actor of choice. He and Hardy hit it off: They were both prone to long, abstract conversations about art. They were no-bullshit about the industry. They loved vaping. Hardy signed on to the film in the summer of 2016, and by October, Trank’s name was back in the trades as the movie’s producers courted foreign buyers who’d put up the money for a prestige star vehicle.

Self-realization and healing does not guarantee a third-act triumph like in the movies. Though Capone got the green light in December 2016 to shoot the following March in New Orleans, Trank and his assistant John, who quit his writer’s assistant job to join the director on his journey, found themselves in a holding pattern due to scheduling conflicts with Hardy’s next film, Triple Frontier. With John having given up his apartment to move to Louisiana, and Trank back in his dad’s basement, the two moved into the bleak two-bedroom in Santa Monica, and rode out the downtime by storyboarding and playing video games. After five months of sleeping on blow-up mattresses and playing Ghost Recon with Hardy came the promise of a fall 2017 start for Capone. That went out the window when Triple Frontier didn’t happen and Sony wanted Hardy to play Venom in the same time frame. Could Trank squeeze in his movie over the summer? Everyone agreed it was possible. A few weeks later, Trank and John loaded up the director’s Tahoe with their minimal possessions and drove to Georgia to finally begin preproduction.

At the time, Trank was dealing with a souring, maybe-relationship, and the departure was both stressful and a relief. Thankfully, the future was in Savannah. After six days of road tripping, the pair arrived in in Georgia, where they celebrated with a late-night dinner. Then, at around 5 a.m. the next morning, John woke up to the sound of Trank screaming. To accommodate Hardy and Venom, production on Capone would be delayed until 2018. They had their hotel rooms for the week, so waited to go back, John walking the dogs and Trank stewing inside.

On the way home, the two picked up some KFC drive-thru to calm their spirits — but the cashier forgot utensils. After pulling over at a gas station to find a few spoons, John came back to find Trank sobbing and shoveling mashed potatoes in his mouth. “That was the darkest day,” John told me on the set of Capone. “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.”

josh trank directing tom hardy in capone with cinematographer peter deming behind him
Fonzo (Tom Hardy) lights up a cigar in Capone 2020
Kyle MacLachlan in Capone
Trank in a cameo and Jack Lowden as Crawford Photos: Greg Williams/Vertical Entertainment

(L to R) DP Peter Deming and Trank; Tom Hardy as Fonzo; Kyle MacLachlan as Karlock; Trank in a cameo and Jack Lowden as Crawford

In the spring of 2018, I stood on the Covington, Louisiana, set of Capone, a movie that actually happened. The 18-acre mansion property, tucked alongside the Bogue Falaya River and standing in for Capone’s Florida compound, bustled with old-timey picture cars and heavies in trimmed suits. Matt Dillon, with slicked-back hair and a snug vest, sat by a lake waiting for rehearsal. Off to the side, Tom Hardy danced to a hip-hop track, a pair of blaring headphones adding some anachronistic quirk to his decaying-gangster makeup. Trank sat by the monitor, visibly giddy as his crew placed a giant sun-diffusing flag above his actors to meet the demands of legendary Twin Peaks: The Return cinematographer Peter Deming. Despite the harsh midday sun, there was no black tent — just the shade of a giant oak tree.

The three days I spent on set — which faced typical, life-draining production snags, from Hardy’s Venom press schedule to smearing the proper amount of poop on a bed where Capone has accidentally soiled himself — were the most alive I had seen Trank, and every moment felt like wish fulfillment. On the first night, the head of makeup gave her director a clean shave, and a costumer outfitted him with a weathered overcoat so he slid seamlessly into a scene with the electric Kyle MacLachlan. Two days after his cameo turn, Trank sat with Hardy in the wee hours of the night, taking a little more time than his assistant director would have liked for a scene in which Capone wakes up his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) with a bellowing moan and a foul bedtime accident. The director personally dressed his main actor in fake diarrhea for the scene, much to the chagrin of his continuity-checking script supervisor, who exclaimed, “There wasn’t that much shit in the last scene!”

The shame of Fantastic Four was not present on Capone. The on-set Trank was an entertainer, spending his in-between moments as he would behind closed doors: talking about movies and sharing anecdotes from the trenches of Hollywood. Only 34 at the time, he spun yarns like a grizzled veteran without a trace of Kubrickian darkness. The energy was the reason producer Russell Ackerman, who started as Guillermo del Toro’s assistant and saw his fair share of movie studio hurdle-jumping, didn’t overthink the trade reports when he teamed with the director to make Capone. “I went in having heard about the Josh Trank stories, but I also went in not caring, necessarily,” Ackerman told me on set. “I connected with him as a person. He pitched me this idea, and I just got it. His manager said, ‘It’s kind of a crazy idea,’ and it wasn’t. It sounded genius.”

During the shoot, Trank lived in a guest house off of Hardy’s rental home. He had his own place, but retreated behind to the safety of the actor’s gated compound — after everything that happened in New Orleans on Fantastic Four, he wanted to lie low, and Hardy had security. But the minute he stepped on set, the perpetual punk-rock teen shook off the anxiety to schmooze his own cast and crew. Between takes, he told stories of the ups and downs of Fantastic Four that would’ve made an executive twitch. The rigorous work of a traditional film set was in full swing, but as I roamed the halls of this preserved manor, and struck up side conversations with producers, PAs, and other below-the-line crew, there was a sense that people enjoyed the shaggy, oddball tenor of this particular set. They wanted to help Josh Trank make his movie.

a black-and-white photo of Josh Trank on the set of Capone
Trank on the set of Capone.
Photo: Greg Williams/Vertical Entertainment

Trank had high hopes for where Capone might go. Considering its Euro edge, the director hoped to debut the film at the Cannes or Berlin film festivals, or maybe Sundance, if the time was right. Though he completed the film at the end of 2018, grand premiere plans hit a snag when major theatrical and streaming distributors saw, and passed on releasing, the film. Trank chalked it up to an industry wary of challenging art. Whatever the case, it was a business issue. Bron Studios, the company behind the production, asked Trank to find a new editor who could tailor the film for a wider audience. Trank swallowed his pride and accepted the deal without a tweetstorm.

Trank and his producing team delivered more cuts, and waited for answers. Unlike on Fantastic Four, patience paid off. Vertical Entertainment eventually picked up Capone, promising the director to release his original version in a theatrical run. When the coronavirus hit, plans changed and concessions were made.

“I think I’m in a good place mentally,” Trank said a few weeks before his film’s video-on-demand release. “There’s nothing you can really do.”

During two years of release limbo, Trank floated back to Brooklyn, then to upstate New York, then back to Los Angeles, where he could “be physically closer to the business.” That was a necessity; to make Capone at his preferred budget level, Trank took a pay cut of upwards of $40,000, “to the point where I just ended up, like, broke.” He returned to LA to land a paying gig. In the interim, he made money rewriting scripts, including a Theodore Roosevelt biopic, and penning Blown, a limited series about the early days of the CIA after World War II, in which Hardy is intended to star. In the filmmaker’s mind, writing for hire maintains the sanctity of his art, which still matters.

Trank likened directing to a pilot seat. He wants to make movies where he’s in the cockpit of an F-15, clutching the controls and maneuvering like the Maverick of mise-en-scène. In his mind, jumping into a giant blockbuster is more like buckling into the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland: “It’s a simulation, but it feels like the magic of flying.” He respects those who do it, but he can’t. “I have to direct my own scripts,” he said in a familiar tone. Critical reaction and an evolving market will ultimately decide whether that’s possible.

Since the debut of Fantastic Four, the studio release strategy has experienced a full continental drift, cracking open a wide chasm between billion-dollar blockbuster bets and everything else. Corporations have moved in the opposite direction; in 2019, The Walt Disney Co. acquired 21st Century Fox, with most of the old Fox regime drifting away. It’s unclear how the coronavirus will reshape the way movies are made and released, but any concessions will warp storytelling, too. Navigating it all will be an emerging set of artists — more and more from diverse backgrounds, genders, and groups long overlooked — who live and breathe cinematic art. Those writing the checks, gambling on the industry’s survival, will demand every ounce of those filmmakers’ ingenuity. They’ll also scrutinize every move, every choice, and find someone new if it doesn’t work out. Moviemaking is the enforced bonding of irreconcilable opposites, and beyond 2020, it’s poised to be more polarized.

As a child star of the directing track, Trank is no longer one of the industry’s new and promising voices. There will be more like him, and his contemporaries who incrementally built up careers are on steadier ground. Now he needs to move forward, move on, and make good on the myth of his early success. He seems to understand all this, and as he prepared to put Capone out for public scrutiny, he emphasized that it’s only winding him up to work more.

“I’m overly aware of how fortunate I am to do this for a living, and because of that, I forced myself to work 10 times harder than what seems normal,” he said. “I have to do something unique. I won’t allow myself to sit back and lap up the luxury that comes with being able to do this for a living. Like, that will never be me.”

No matter how many times Trank quit then logged back on to Instagram, or deactivated then reactivated Twitter, he couldn’t cold-turkey quit the internet and really move on. Last November, the filmmaker created an account on Letterboxd, a moviegoers haven in which users track their viewing habits with informal reviews. Now he was back online, reviewing Fantastic Four, saying he “expected it to be much worse than it was.” In just a handful of words, the director praised the actors and curtailed any talk of #ReleaseTheTrankCut. At the end, he wrote out the mantra he’s been telling himself for four years: “I don’t regret any of it.”

Capone arrives to VOD on May 12.

Correction (May 6): A previous version of this article misstated that Trank rewrote a version of Leonardo DiCaprio’s upcoming biopic Roosevelt. Trank worked on an adaptation of the biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt that reps have clarified is separate from that project. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.