Netflix knows it’s owning the ever-lovin’ shit out of Comic-Con this year, and director David Ayer expressed as much—with even more vulgarity and casual machismo—when he brought Bright to Hall H.
“This the house of Netflix! Netflix right now! Here to represent Netflix,” he hollered, way too much swagger steaming off of his ample biceps. “What’s up with that?!”
He was not asking a question, because he knew exactly what was up with that: Netflix is dumping money and creative freedom at the feet of filmmakers like Ayer, countering more traditional cinephiles (Christopher Nolan, as of late, whose Dunkirk is meant to be seen on as massive a screen as possible) by redefining both the way the medium is consumed and the studio system behind it—to predictably mixed ends, if this panel was any sign of what’s to come.
Ayer—who looks as if he’s decided that “Captain Boomerang” is a comfortable enough fashion statement—joined the stage with the cast of his straight-to-Netflix film: Noomi Rapace, newcomer Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Joel Edgerton and, to rapturous applause, Will Smith.
Bright—penned by Max Landis (ugh)—is about an alternate reality Los Angeles stratified into mythical races. As Ayer described it, “The elves are like the 1%, they run the world, they dress very nicely, they get all the dealer samples. The humans are kind of the whole middle management. And then the orcs are workers. They’re the guys who dig ditches and build your houses and roads.” Twisted!
Smith, obviously stoked about the film and openly loving on Ayer, who he previously worked with for Suicide Squad (ugh), took over most of the panel (the audience clearly didn’t mind), and described the basic premise:
It is such a bizarre world … and at the center of the story is my character, Ward, with Joel’s character and Joel plays an orc, and his character is the first orc in the LAPD, so it just felt really great to play an African-American police officer who just found somebody else to be racist against.
Ayer further commented on Max Landis’s extremely nuanced social commentary by discussing his excitement in finding such an imaginative story:
It’s about LA, about a really fucked up LA, but the world’s fucked up, y’know, so that’s what’s cool about this movie is I get to explore some really interesting social issues. You know, this is a world where orcs and elves and faeries are real, and magic is real, and what happens if we take it seriously? This isn’t like some bullshit PG-13 standard issue studio movie, this is like—I was able to do my shit right, OK, I was able to tell a fucking story.
We were shown a couple minutes from the movie, out on December 22nd, in which Officer Ward (Smith) and Jacoby (Edgerton) confront two elves (one a barely recognizable Rapace with an assault rifle that never seems to run out of bullets) in a convenience store. The action is thudding and muddy, as one would expect from Ayer, but incessantly physical, resulting in the convenience store exploding, because of course it does. I’m not sure if Ward aiming at a bunch of aerosol cans with a six-shooter would cause such a hyper-conflagration, but the movie also has a magic wand in it and the line “faerie lives don’t matter today”—Landis, ever the graceful touch with his dialogue—so whatever. The clip confirmed to me at least that Ayer’s grasp of action setpieces is as clumsy and migraine-inducing as his color palettes. The audience seemed to dig it though.
Noomi Rapace talked about how hands-on Ayer is with his cast, how much he expects them to prepare physically for their demanding roles—which is pretty much what everyone says about Ayer. Edgar Ramirez complimented Ayer’s impeccable Spanish. Joel Edgerton called his extensive orc make-up a “couch.” But throughout all the banter, the looming existential threat Netflix continues to pose to mainstream movie studios—to the whole act, really, of going to the movies at all—was a through line Ayer and Smith were more than happy to confront.
“How Netflix does their business: They let you be a filmmaker. They gave me all the tools, they gave me all the resources, they let me be creative—it felt like it was an independent movie,” Ayer glowed.
“It was amazing that we could be so playful,” Rapace added.
“And that may not quite land with you guys,” Ayer addressed the panel audience. “You have to understand what the opposite is, what the real situation is out there with many filmmakers, and I think Netflix is going to pull a lot more talent because they are so supportive, they are supportive of the process, it feels like it’s 20 years ago with them.”
Smith similarly saw no real major drawback to distributing through Netflix: “It’s interesting be at the forefront of whatever this new way to consume entertainment is gonna be. I know there’s been a big debate about that, but I am extremely excited to see where this thing goes,” Smith said. He sees Netflix’s influence as more complimentary that competitive. “I have a 16-year-old, a 19-year-old and a 25-year-old at home, and the films that they go to see and the films that they watch at home on Netflix don’t necessarily cross.”
He echoed Ayer’s sentiments, not seeing much drawback to the financial reserves and looser creative strictures Netflix fosters. “Netflix, I’m sure this will end soon but, they give you money to go make the movie you want to make,” he said. “There is a difference between seeing a movie in a theater and seeing it on Netflix. But it’s a different thing like it was a different thing in the early days of film, when you were on stage and there were stage plays, and then you went from stage plays to filmed entertainment. But then there’s a different medium.”
The inimitable Terry Crews, ever-cheerful, served as Netflix MC, bringing out folks from the other big Netflix-branded film, Death Note, before Bright. Given much less time (probably because the movie’s premiering on the platform soon), director Adam Wingard, Margaret Qualley, Nat Wolff, Keith Stanfield and Masi Oka (who regaled the audience with his Heroes character’s iconic-ish declaration of joy) similarly praised Netflix’s charitable spirit, with Oka mentioning how they were able to get the manga’s creators (Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata) fully onboard. The “process” was different.
What we saw of Death Note, about a high schooler who finds a macabre notebook which gives him the power to kill anyone whose name he writes in its pages, showcased Wingard’s careful balance of tones. The clip Wingard brought, of Kira (Wolff) first discovering the power of the notebook and the creature who serves as its facilitator (voiced by Willem Dafoe almost too-perfectly), was rapt with genuine unease.
Wingard spoke about the appeal of taking on such a project, owning up to the American penchant for making terrible manga adaptations.
“Well I think that’s exactly why you want to take on something like this,” he admitted. “Because there haven’t been a lot of good ones.”
Describing his approach to adapting an already-plenty-adapted manga, Wingard shared Ayer’s attitude, overjoyed with the freedom he could pull from going through Netflix:
In terms of my approach to it, it allowed me to do something that wasn’t pinned down by one genre. This film kind of encapsulates all genres in a lot of ways. It’s mostly a thriller, but it’s got dramatic, romantic elements, it’s got horror stuff, and there’s even a musical moment to a certain degree in the film. So in a lot of ways it’s this ultimate genre mash-up. And for me as a director, I think that’s what my background has always been.
Lakeith Stanfield, who may have been eating peanut M&Ms and impressively brought a full moment of silence to the massive room as he finished chewing, said something that both felt like it summarized the whole Netflix panel, and came off like the scribbled ramblings of madmen into a stained murder diary: “I think that if we examine ourselves somewhat closely we’ll find that we’re all weird. In the best way. And so I just let myself be weird.”
Which hardly matters given the sheer numbers behind Netflix. At one point, Ayer asked the audience to raise its hands, screaming, “How many of you out there have Netflix?”
Of course, everyone raised their hands. Whether Nolan likes it or not, Ayer’s is the “fucked up” world we live in now.