The Debate over CG DECEASED actor casting and why it relates to “gatekeeping” in movies

While I was writing another sports article, I’ve been hearing a hotly debated subject concerning some comments made by movie directorial legends Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola related to Marvel movies.  I definitively have my own opinions about their comments, but I was not prepared to what came next that made this petty arguments looks like, as Samuel J. Jackson once stated in “Iron Man 2”,  AAA batteries.  Over this past weekend, November 6, 2019 to be exact, South African director Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh made an announcement that would stun the entire entertainment industry and the movie fandom alike: casting the star of “Rebel Without a Cause” and East of Eden, James Dean, would be cast in the Vietnam War era action movie called “Finding Jack” posthumously.  What followed, though, was nothing short of a sharp rebuke from most of movie industry greats and current stars alike, much less the movie pundits from mainstream or internet sites like Collider and John Campea Show.  While computer graphics is not new to the movie industry by the advent of Star Wars and those before it, and while de-aging technology and CG photorealistic creatures have made their marks, this announcement found itself in the uncharted territory of potential ethical issues like exploitation for nefarious purposes at best, if not revolting at worst, as the advent of artificial intelligence have caused a huge uproar in such grounds.  Therefore, let’s take a moment and re-examine this series of controversial issues that even I have some not-so-nice comments for the James Dean casting, to put it mildly, that may invoke a different reaction that I would be expecting.  

So all of this began when Martin Scorsese was asked an opinion about Marvel movies, or should I called it as comic book genre movies at large, and before I reveal his initial answer to that question, let’s put this in a perspective: prior to the release of “Joker” movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix, the brother of the late teenage heartthrob River Phoenix, who is a three-time Oscar nominee, particularly with “Walk the Line”, a biopic of the legendary country music legend, the late Johnny Cash, Mr. Scorsese had spent almost 4 years in plotting the movie and almost became the director of the movie instead of Todd Phillips, only to have his involvement pulled out due to what was described by the film legend as “didn’t want to the eventuality of becoming the Joker character” at the end of the film.  Here’s what he said

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema, Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.  I must say a lot of the films that I’m aware of and I don’t see that many new ones over the past two or three years, I stopped because the images don’t mean anything,”

– Martin Scorsese, October 4, 2019

He had echoed a certain sentiment from Ethan Hawke, whom ironically is a comic book geek, though somewhat justified and jokingly in his comment by clarifying his original comments:

“There’s a difference, but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it.”

– Ethan Hawke, August 26, 2018

Hawke, in truth, though, was referring to a much more nuanced point about money in America and what our obsession with the accumulation of wealth is, instead of the actual criticism of the movie, which I actually agreed with his tail end of the original statement.  

Having said that, though, this is where the six degrees of separation begin between the two, especially with Scorsese, and later Coppola.  Had Scorsese left his original comments where it was, we would not have bared witness to the rage-inciting comments that split the movie fandom and the industry alike.  Instead, we’ve got vocabularies thrown around like “invasion” of movie theaters, “despicable”, and so forth, this led to many actors, directors and even Disney chairman Bob Iger defended the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as comic book movies at large, and this led to calling Scorsese and Coppola the usual “what have you done for the box office lately?” and “stubborn old fools” cards, even though Scorsese had done just about most, if not all, genres – except comic book genre.  Coppola’s roasting, on the other hand, is somewhat justified as the last legitimate box office hit was back in the mid-1980s (unless I am mistaken) with “Full Metal Jacket”, and I really felt that his misguided attempt in using the term “despicable” came at a time when we, the movie audience, want to see something new to wow us over, and what genre of films movie productions have barely made a scratch upon? Then, little did we knew, a certain casting of a potential movie with Vietnam War serving as the background story would put Coppola’s shinnied remarks into the most perfect proper perspective.  Kevin Feige countered Scorsese’s core comments about the MCU not being “cinema”: “I think that’s not true. I think it’s unfortunate. I think myself and everyone who works on these movies loves cinema, loves movies, loves going to the movies, loves to watch a communal experience in a movie theater full of people.”

The Coppola’s “despicable” comment, as inappropriately placed as it may have been, weren’t necessarily wrong in the perspective of the fixation of producing more blockbuster movies rather than focusing on the classical aspects of filmmaking.  However, they would be all wrong if they assume that comic book movie genres are as easily to be made as Marvel Cinematic Universe, much less the fact that not all storylines, art styles, action scenes, and the evolution of character aren’t necessary to be fit for filming purposes.  Scorsese’s “theme park” analogy is also somewhat misplaced when considering that not all movies requires CG graphics unless the source materials associated with those films demand so.  As for the so-called “invasion” claim, here’s a clue for them to ponder in their spare time. NEWSFLASH: if all narrative movies are that lucrative, why hasn’t all of them become blockbusters by now? Excuse my language, but nobody gives a rats @$$ about them when not all of them were well orchestrated, and it’s a matter of time before the movie viewing audience starts clamoring for more varieties in movie genres.  “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn had the following response to their criticisms:

“Martin Scorsese is one of my five favorite living filmmakers, I was outraged when people picketed ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ without having seen the film. I’m saddened that he’s now judging my films in the same way. That said, I will always love Scorsese, be grateful for his contribution to cinema, and can’t wait to see ‘The Irishman.’Many of our grandfathers thought all gangster movies were the same, often calling them ‘despicable, some of our great grandfathers thought the same of westerns, and believed the films of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone were all exactly the same. I remember a great uncle to whom I was raving about Star Wars. He responded by saying, ‘I saw that when it was called 2001, and, boy, was it boring!’ Superheroes are simply today’s gangsters/cowboys/outer space adventurers. Some superhero films are awful, some are beautiful. Like westerns and gangster movies (and before that, just MOVIES), not everyone will be able to appreciate them, even some geniuses. And that’s okay.”

– James Gunn, October 20, 2019

Another aspects of Scorsese’s slamming of MCU as “without revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger”, I hate to say it, but each of MCU movies has revealed many, many aspects not just the superficial aspects of titular and subsidiary characters, they also contains various plots that contain a level of mysteries, revelations, and emotional dangers that most, if not all, of the narrative movies have lacked, and that’s because some of them are so well-hidden that is a bit harder to find if not paying much attention.  That is something that I really wish that Scorsese would not have stooped this low when he refused to deal with the eventuality when plotting “Joker” movie for four years instead of thinking a creative way to the revelation, had he been more willing to accept such notions instead of bolting off from the project, it could have been just as good as one we see as of this writing, if not better.  In response, here’s the entire interview of Kevin Feige by THR Awards Chatter podcast (click play below)

If Kevin Feige and James Gunn are the only ones who disagreed with their slamming, entered Disney CEO Bob Iger into the fray, and his views towards Coppola’s choice of vocabulary “despicable” as “(Iger) reserve the word ‘despicable’ for someone who committed mass murder, they want to bitch about movies, it’s certainly their right.”  What came after, I think, it’s quite appropriate:

First of all, Marvel’s making movies. They’re movies — that’s what Martin Scorsese makes. And they’re good movies with good directors and good writers and good actors and good cinematographers and good costume designers and good sound engineers and good editors — I could go on and on.  These are talented, talented people that are putting their hard work and talent into making films that entertain people in theaters around the world. Everybody goes. The lights go down. People buy popcorn. They have a good two-hour experience.  They come out feeling happier or better about themselves.  I don’t think he’s ever seen a Marvel film, I would question that. Anyone who’s seen a Marvel film could not, in all truth, make that statement. … I’m looking forward to talking to him. I’d like to have a glass of wine with him. I like Martin Scorsese. He’s a talented man.”

– Bob Iger, November 4, 2010

As of this writing, guess who joined in this stupid @$$ debate? One of my all-time favorite directors from my birthplace of Hong Kong who had directed “Mission: Impossible 2”, “Face/Off”, and “A Better Tomorrow, John Woo, with some interesting comments and some revelations as to why he hasn’t done one already.  He admitted that he had turned down an off by the late Stan Lee, the great comic book legend, had actually approached him before the pre-MCU to helm a super hero movie, stating , “I don’t have that gift. I’m not a sci-fi guy — I don’t think I could make a good one. There’s so much imagination… I don’t think I can reach that level.”  He further stated that he’s concerned about these movies get more and more popular will make young audiences get lost when it comes to knowledge about film, and these movies have become the standard for younger audiences and that they won’t have the desire to study or watch what Mr. Scorsese refers to as “real cinema” such as Lawrence of Arabia, Mean Streets, A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Meanwhile, an announcement that has stunned the movie world that I had mentioned at the top of this article has launched a separate  uproar regarding how much CG can be used before it becomes AI manipulation with little or no regards to morality (see clip below), in which even I have a major issue with it.  

 THR: James Dean Posthumously cast in Vietnam War war film

First we have “Captain America” star Chris Evans tweeted on November 6, 2019 :

Then, one of the stars of “Lord of the Rings” franchise Elijah Wood also had his say on the same day that Evans had tweeted earlier:

Actress/Singer Bette Midler also had her say:

Here’s the worst part, this rebuke isn’t limited to actors alone as individuals like AC Calloway and Karl Mullee has their say:

According to Hollywood Reporter, Director Anton Ernst stated as follows:

“We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean, we feel very honored that his family supports us and will take every precaution to ensure that his legacy as one of the most epic film stars to date is kept firmly intact. The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make. We do not intend to let his fans down.  Our partners in South Africa are very excited about this, as this technology would also be employed down the line to re-create historical icons such as Nelson Mandela to tell stories of cultural heritage significance.”

Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide, which represents Dean’s family alongside more than 1,700 entertainment, sports, music and historical personalities, including the likes of Burt Reynolds, Christopher Reeve, Ingrid Bergman, Neil Armstrong, Bette Davis and Jack Lemmon, added the fuel to the fire by stating:

“Our partners in South Africa are very excited about this, as this technology would also be employed down the line to re-create historical icons such as Nelson Mandela to tell stories of cultural heritage significance.”

However, the estate (and family) of James Dean weren’t swayed from their position on this controversy via exclusive Fox News interview:

“James Dean was perhaps the greatest actor of all time and is admired by fans around the world, despite his untimely death at the age of 24, technology allows us to continue to honor Jimmy’s legacy and inspiration to so many people.  We have represented his family for 38 years and they are confident that Jimmy’s rebellious and trailblazing personality is consistent with being the first to fearlessly embrace this new technology for Hollywood, they are excited to be part of keeping his memory alive.”

– Mark Roesler, Mark Roesler, the attorney and business agent for the Hollywood star’s family

Zelda Williams, daughter of the late great comedic actor Robin Williams, had also weighed into this issues:

So, what does these two instances have to do with “gatekeeping”? On one hand, the recent debate on “what is cinema?” has been around since the invention of motion picture itself, but it gets heated up recently as Hollywood studios has been releasing more and more action-filling movies, with some began replacing practical effects, miniature backgrounds mimicking the actual exterior settings, traditional makeups, and so forth with the use of computer graphics. On the other hand, there’s the controversial James Dean casting via CG.  “Planet of the Apes” star Andy Serkis, speaking at the IBC Show in Amsterdam, Netherlands, made the following statements:

”If an actor’s performance from one movie is re-used in another there should be remuneration for that actor, no question, it is their performance and… they should be paid for it.  When your performance becomes data it can be manipulated, reworked or sampled, much like the music industry samples vocals and beats. If we can do that, where does the intellectual property lie? Who owns authorship of the performance? Where are the boundaries? The ability to create photorealistic characters, to digitally de-age actors or digitally resurrect performances from actors who have passed, raises some serious issues.”

– Andy Serkis, September 16, 2019

It’s one thing to do a small piece of CG by creating artificial touchups for defects, de-aging or advanced the facial features to fit the storytelling, or creating characters that are required to be done in CG because of the sizing issues, or something like Rogue One scenes involved with Grand Moff Tarkin, a character that was played by the late Peter Cushing in Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope, but was portrayed by Guy Henry as a stand-in for the deceased actor under heaving involvement by the Cushing family, or the young Princess Lela that was given the blessing by Carrie Fisher herself by using that same movie to make some resemblance like her in the original movie, or something like the 2019 re-make of Disney’s Lion King with photorealistic animals and the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park franchise, because all of these examples serve a purpose to fit the movie while having actual actors playing their characters with the best of their abilities.  Although some may have indeed felt like “amusement park rides” with some of the action scenes, those scenes were heavily studied from the original materials and selected certain aspects before filming them while leaving others either in the comics or modified through technology.  Digital effects usage to bring a deceased celebrity back to life has been around for quite some time, a duet performance of “Unforgettable” by Natalie Cole with a hologram of his late father Nat King Cole, who had passed away 25 years prior, there’s also the digital stand-in by the brothers of the late Paul Walker in Furious 7, but they all have one thing in common, they were all done either with blessing from the families of the deceased, if not the actual actors themselves to use the archival footages, with one caveat – there were enough media footage ready for such purposes if and when they are needed.  

However, the difference between the examples above and the James Dean posthumous casting is the fact that James Dean had died with only 3 completed films to base on, which is similar to another celebrity by the name of Bruce Lee, who only had 4 completed films on records, except there were so many Bruce Lee stand-ins as substitute before a new crop of martial arts based actors brought to stardom.  The fact that James Dean was only 24 when he died, with most, if not all, of the people associated with Dean are still living with vivid memories of him inside and out are as minimal, if not all parted away as well, even a stand-in through motion capture, much less full CG, would be rather limited at best, if not, downright impossible to get it right.  But I merely scratched the surface, in an episode of Star Trek: Discovery, artificial intelligence-generated Spock created a falsified footage trying to frame Spock murdering three doctors in a psychiatric facility, in which where the fear come of losing what cinema originated.  Yet, I was constantly reminded that, unless the purpose of arts are for nefarious purposes or demonic, there’s isn’t really a “standardize” method in creating arts, much less making movies, but at what point that a certain style of cinema begins to erode the morality of what cinema should have always been.  At the same time, there is a continental divide on how technology could either be beneficial or detrimental to movie industry.  

To me, this is one issue that I have, by large, been on the side of technology for the same fact that movies, much like many other industries, evolves through time, so I wasn’t too thrilled about comments made by Scorsese and Coppola, and still am not, even though I have respects towards what they have accomplished.  On the other hand, I am divided when dealing with brining back a deceased entertainer as it could go as well as the 1991 Coles’ “reunion” with Nat appearing as a hologram, or end up as bad as the epic debacle live action Gundam movie called G-Savior, but this controversial casting of James Dean as a secondary actor literally cross into another aspect that it has been quite problematic with the continuous debate over how the age of automation has affected the labor force, especially with the mounting potential job losses in tens of thousands, if not more.  Then, there’s also legal issues surrounding the likeness issues for any potential deals that might get a receivership from the courts instead, which can become quite a headache for those who gets involved and the legal fees from those lawsuits could decimate the financial stability of any production studios, and that was just the tip of the iceberg, from what I can tell at least, and so will the fallouts.