Why Good Actors End Up in Terrible Films

We spoke to people working in the industry to answer the most important question of modern cinema.

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04 April 2019, 9:19am

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in 'Serenity'.

A recent film starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway stretched the very parameters of "so bad it's good".

Serenity, which was released in the UK in March, quickly began creating buzz for all the wrong reasons. The film’s "giant twist" has already become the stuff of pop culture legend, encouraging people to see it just to marvel at its awfulness. The Guardian’s Charles Bramesco described it as a "thrillingly awful thriller" and "the year's first gloriously bad movie". The Independent’s culture editor Patrick Smith tweeted: "Really thought Serenity would be so bad it's good. It was just bad." In his one star review, he labelled its already-infamous twist "one of the most genuinely ridiculous about-turns in cinematic history".

The principal question when surveying the wreckage of Serenity’s dreams of critical acclaim is why McConaughey and Hathaway – two Oscar-winning actors at the top of their games – felt compelled to star in such a bad film? I've often thought, when watching a truly shit film starring credible, culturally relevant actors: "Why did they agree to do this?"

It turns out there's no shortage of awful films starring successful, critically acclaimed actors. Of Trespass, a 2011 film starring Nicole Kidman, Time Out said: "As terrible movies go, it's not unentertaining – once you surrender to its trashmeister idiocy." The New Yorker described Halle Berry's Catwoman (2004) as "another hundred million dollars down the drain". Just Getting Started (2017), starring Morgan Freeman, was deemed "dramatically and comically impotent". Of Michael Fassbender's 2017 film Snowman, The Atlantic asked: "In this soul-deadening freeze, who wouldn't seek solace in a bottle? Or in the physical warmth of a lover's arms? Or in mass murder?" The list goes on and on.

How does this happen so often? In 2016, film writer Christopher Hooton investigated why Robert De Niro – who is generally regarded as one of the greatest living actors – had started starring in "bad" films, noting that the priorities of film studios have clearly changed. "In the year that De Niro won his first Academy Award (1974), Paramount Pictures' biggest releases were Chinatown and The Godfather: Part II," he explains. "Fast forward more than 40 years to 2016 and its slate includes Zoolander 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows."

When asked about the regularity of "good" actors appearing in "bad" films, Hooton tells me: "There aren't many jobs in acting, which is also a factor. Even small budget films are often able to attract big name actors, because 'good' work is in short supply."

According to actor Illeana Douglas – who worked with De Niro on Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Guilty By Suspicion – there other factors to consider. Following the release of De Niro’s Dirty Grandpa, which was predictably eviscerated by critics, Douglas was asked about the decreasing quality of his films. She responded that the "environment that was created to play and to make a work of art" no longer exists: "It must be very challenging to be in an environment where it’s like, 'Yeah we have an hour, let's get this shot, let's get this shot,' and so if nobody else cares, why should you care? [...] I still believe it's in all of these great actors, but you have to create the environment for them."

When it comes to who is "responsible" for a "bad" movie, film critic Helen O'Hara tells me that most people subscribe to the "Auteur Theory", which argues that the director is the "author" of a film, and therefore it's a reflection of their artistic vision. "No one sets out to made a bad film," she says. "But the director can make decisions that radically change things an actor has done. That’s one of the reasons why I feel bad about singling out actors, because they may have given a great performance and signed on to a great script that was changed by Hollywood executives or wasn’t directed well."

O'Hara suggests that, most of the time, films turn out bad because of factors which are out of an actor's control: "A film could have had negative reviews because the effects were bad, or the worst line readings were chosen during an edit. They may have not had time to give the actor two or three takes for every scene. The studio may change things, like the script, story or even the director."

Studios have their own sets of practicalities. "It's important to keep in mind that some films can be in development for up to a decade, leaving a lot of room for change," explains film critic Clarisse Loughrey. "Other films come under pressure to be rushed in order to hit certain release dates. Peter Jackson, for example, had to start shooting The Hobbit without full storyboards and with a script he wasn't happy with, all because he'd taken over when Guillermo del Toro left the project and the studio wouldn't push the release date back."

Actor and director Jake Graf considers film a collaborative process. Having sat in with his editor over eight films, he says the director of course has a lot of say over the final cut. But in big budget films, producers and execs can then come in and craft "a very different beast". "It's usually a collaborative effort, but the execs often have final say, as it's their buck that the film is riding on and they who stand to lose the most if the film does poorly," he tells me.

"As an actor, you're laying yourself bare and giving your all, and during your scenes the focus is very much on you and your performance. The minute that scene is wrapped, however, you cease to be important," he continues. "As a writer, I'm constantly amazed by how much a director or producer can amend, rewrite or cut back on a script, sometimes so much so that it almost becomes unrecognisable."

Writer, director and actor Amrou Al-Kadhi agrees that the quality of a film doesn't always rest with the director. "As a director, you're only as good as your team, and you have to trust that everyone in your team is brilliant at what they do in their own way," they suggest, adding that audiences and critics often forget that film is a very economically-structured medium. "At script stage, sales agents come on board to estimate what the potential reach of the film will be, and the budget is designed off that. I think a big mistake is also not to include the post-production team at script stage. It is essential for the editor, composer, sound designer to be tied into the early stages, so they're well versed in the vision of the film, as their input can change a film drastically."

Loughrey says terrible films have been made "since the dawn of cinema", but adds that the reasons actors considered successful and credible end up in them are far more complex.

"There are more practical concerns," she says. "Is it a franchise that offers job security? Does the role offer a significant amount of publicity that would help further their career? Is it being shot close to home, where the actor might have young children or family they want to spend time with? An actor agreeing to a role is still someone taking on a job like the rest of us, so it comes with a wide-range of considerations."

Film critic Caspar Salmon makes a similar point when he tells me that every actor has different priorities: "Actors go for different things in their career – mostly to do with screen time, or to give them a chance to change up their image, or sometimes it'll be based on the sort of performance they get to do. I think Meryl Streep is doing this nowadays: she seems to be selecting films based on the fun of the project, or the sort of role they offer her, rather than about who the director is or the idea of making a lasting artistic contribution." Consequently, the casting of a star such as Streep, Salmon suggests, can be "leveraged" to get others to sign on.

However, the fact remains that this happens to some actors more than others. Is it just that some are more tempted by money? On De Niro, Bret Easton Ellis suggests this is a factor: "I've heard from financiers that if you have the money De Niro will be in anything, and that he seems to just have checked out."

McConaughey is another actor who seems to regularly end up in "bad" movies. Hooton cites his 2015 film The Sea of Trees as another example of a project that looked "good on paper" but turned out to be terrible. For McConaughey and others, perhaps this boils down to judgement, or a commendable desire to experiment and take risks that doesn't always pay off. Revealingly, McConaughey told the Guardian last year: "I've never done a film that's lived up to what I imagined."

Ironically, Serenity might be the first film to live up to audience expectations post-review – for its sheer awfulness alone. But it can be certain that McConaughey won’t be the last good actor to star in a shit film, because there are infinite roads to cinematic catastrophe.

@LouisStaples