Why are so many directors un-retiring?

Whether driven by PR tactics or a need for some creative downtime, an increasing number of film-makers are playing retirement hokey-cokey

If anyone’s earned the right to do whatever he likes in retirement, it’s Hayao Miyazaki. This includes un-retiring, as the venerable 76-year-old animation master has now done four years after his swansong film. After rumours earlier in the year, Studio Ghibli recently confirmed it had reopened to begin making a 12th Miyazaki feature. He is thought to be expanding Boro the Caterpillar, a 12-minute short he had been making for the Ghibli Museum, which he was unsatisfied with.

Genius, evidently, doesn’t just switch itself off. It’s understandable that Miyazaki might find sources of inspiration harder to come by as he ages, or doubt his stamina for the gruelling work that goes into cel animation. “Sherlock Holmes would know,” he tells a masseur tweaking his work-stiffened shoulders in recent documentary Never Ending Man, “He’d say: you’re an animator.” However, the film makes it clear that inactivity doesn’t sit well with Miyazaki: “I’ve been going to a lot of funerals. I hate it.”

Miyazaki first made intimations that it might soon be pipe-and-slippers time in 1997, calling Princess Mononoke his last chance to make an action epic, before returning to worldwide acclaim with Spirited Away four years later. He seemed decided, again, in 2013 when he released The Wind Rises. It was a Proustian return to the early years of jet aviation that first fired his imagination – and it had the air of a monument to a career. Miyazaki was firm: “This time I’m serious.”

Never believe a man who only lives three minutes’ walk from his studio... Miyazaki’s decision is symptomatic of times in which boundaries of old age have become fuzzy, and many people are motivated to continue working. Blithely announcing and then cancelling retirement is currently all the rage in the wider film world – even among younger directors.

Steven Soderbergh, pushing it at 54, returns next week with his heist flick Logan Lucky – having announced his departure in 2013, proclaiming: “Movies don’t matter any more.” Kevin Smith, at a decrepit 41, announced his intention to call it quits in 2011, saying he was out of stories. He promised to bow out after Clerks 3 (apparently not happening now), but has since made Tusk (2014) and Yoga Hosers (2016). David Lynch, tabling similar complaints about the industry as Soderbergh, has also hinted that 2006’s Inland Empire might be his final cinematic work. If that means retirement, he’s interpreted it in his own special way: dozens of artworks, two albums, a Paris nightclub, an own-brand meditation foundation and, his real high-profile comeback, 18 new episodes of Twin Peaks. A few weeks after his pronouncement, he backtracked, saying that anything – including a new David Lynch feature – was still possible.

Miyazaki has nothing left to prove. But for the other directors it’s hard not to suspect that the old retirement hokey-cokey – in, out, in, out – is at least partly driven by PR reasoning. Smith, in particular, was at a difficult point in his career in which his Generation X indie-comedy ethos had run out of currency, his directorial shortcomings were showing through, and the studios were losing interest. He had been reduced to self-distributing Red State, his horror film loosely based on the Westboro Baptist Church. Perhaps crying retirement was a way of pumping up his directorial stock.

Quentin Tarantino.
Quentin Tarantino. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Sundance

Limiting supply drives demand, as Quentin Tarantino surely realised when he announced that after 10 films he would tap out (he’s currently preparing the ninth). Even Lynch – revered on par with Miyazaki but without his own studio to give him brand negotiating power – may not be above these kind of tactics. Drawing the curtain on his film-making might be a way to encourage a deep-pocketed millionaire with kooky taste to come out of the woodwork.

If that’s what’s going on, then these vacillating retirees have been forced into it by the tumultuous state of cinema. They’re taking action on a commonly voiced complaint: that the studios’ franchise addiction has sucked financing out of mid-range-budget films. Soderbergh described the effect on his profession most bluntly: “It’s become absolutely horrible the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen. It’s not just studios – it’s who is financing a film. I guess I don’t understand the assumption that the director is presumptively wrong about what the audience wants or needs when they are the first audience, in a way. And probably got into making movies because of being in that audience.”

For an ambitious director, operating in that environment must be dispiriting. Perhaps announcing retirement is an unusually ostentatious method of getting something all artists need, especially commercially harried directors: time to recharge. A chance to breathe, shake off ingrained constraints and play for a while. On his layoff, long-time computer-sceptic Miyazaki has became open to CGI, using it for his Boro project to animate things that were impossible to draw by hand.

Steven Soderbergh on the set of his film Logan Lucky.
Steven Soderbergh on the set of his film Logan Lucky. Photograph: Claudette Barius/AP

Soderbergh’s idea of play was adapting to brutal TV shooting schedules for his series The Knick: 600 script pages in 73 days. He says he came out energised: “It was like CrossFit for directors.” He shot Logan Lucky in a breezy 36 days. Smith, meanwhile, is still touring his films, but seems to have cooled the incestuous relationship with his fanbase that was threatening to choke him around the release of Red State. Sometimes, a pause simply allows directors to reconnect with the outside world and find a new starting point. Ken Loach said looking around at the state of austerity Britain compelled him to return (he had suggested that Jimmy’s Hall would be his last film) and make I, Daniel Blake.

Handsomely paid in the scheme of things, feature film directors are lucky to be able to draw this conveniently thin line between retirement and sabbatical. These world-builders are also often exactly the kind of egotistical personalities who have trouble staying away. “I trained successors,” reveals Miyazaki in Never Ending Man, “But I couldn’t let go. I devoured them.” Maybe the likes of Clint Eastwood, who seems intent on directing until Warner Bros prises the bullhorn from his cold dead hands, are more straightforward with themselves about their need to do the job. Ultimately, it’s reassuring for cinema, and its future prestige, that it’s to this medium that Miyazaki, Soderbergh and Lynch and still want to return for that mythical one last job.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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