CS Soapbox: Is Noah Hawley the next J.J. Abrams?
In a major twist of events, Paramount’s rebooted Star Trek film series is back on track with the fourth installment signing Fargo and Legion creator Noah Hawley to write and direct. Leads Chris Pine (Wonder Woman 1984), Zachary Quinto (NOS4A2) and Zoe Saldana (Avengers: Endgame) will all return as well. While fans might be excited to hear that the franchise is back on track, namely after the public exit of Pine and Chris Hemsworth (Avengers: Endgame) last year, they’re glossing over the landing of Hawley and the potential that brings.
Where Did Noah Hawley Come From?
Having gotten his start with the short-lived ABC series The Unusuals and My Generation, Hawley quickly expanded his notoriety with his FX adaptation of the Coen brothers’ acclaimed 1996 crime dramedy Fargo, which became a breakout hit for both the network and its creator. He proved he could take material that already has a celebrated following and expand it in his own unique ways, bringing his own voice to the Coen’s work and crafting an exhilarating and darkly hilarious series, winning the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series in 2014.
The series would go on as an anthology with the second season set in 1979 around a butcher (Jesse Plemons, Breaking Bad) and his wife (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man) as they cover up a hit-and-run murder of the son of a crime family. The following season would see a parole officer (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) and his parolee girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Birds of Prey) as they attempt to steal a valuable stamp from his older brother (also McGregor) and the problems that arise during their botched attempts.
As with the first season, the follow-up chapters would see rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, amassing 14 Emmy nominations and six Golden Globe nominations, including one Globe victory for McGregor. A fourth season is currently in the works with a cast led by Chris Rock (The Organ Donor) that is set to debut next year.
In addition to proving he can develop his own work from existing material, Fargo was the first sign that Hawley could attract ensemble casts bring the best performances out of them. He would continue this streak on the cable network with the adaptation of the Marvel character Legion, for which he again acted as creator, executive producer, showrunner and director of multiple episodes.
Rather than diving into the superhero genre in a straightforward/origin-story fashion, Hawley once again showed his creative chops by diving into a tale focused on an unreliable narrator told in a non-linear format. It once again drew rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Though its lead Dan Stevens found stardom with Downton Abbey, Hawley was able to draw out a breakout performance from him while attracting a mixed cast of frequent collaborators and big names including Jean Smart (Fargo), Aubrey Plaza (Child’s Play) and Rachel Keller (Fargo).
Following his work on the series, Hawley finally made his dive into filmmaking with this year’s astronaut drama Lucy in the Sky led by Natalie Portman (Thor: Love and Thunder). Unfortunately, the film was demolished by critics and audiences alike for numerous inaccuracies and its jumbled attempt at bringing the story of Lisa Nowak, who the film is loosely based on, to life.
While the film’s failure might seem like the end to a career before it even got started, it can actually be seen as Hawley’s exploration to see how he holds up in the feature world while still being able to draw in an ensemble cast. It’s not the first time a prospective filmmaker has created such a project, with The Wachowski Sisters getting their start with the 1996 neo-noire crime thriller Bound. Long before they made their dive into the big budget world with The Matrix trilogy, the two wanted to ensure they could cut it as directors with a smaller, more intimate film. Though it went somewhat under the radar at the time of its release, only making $7 million against its $6 million budget, it did receive rave reviews from critics and audiences for its realistic take on lesbian relationships and for its stylish direction and currently sits at a cult favorite status.
While Hawley’s Lucy might not have received the same kind of positive attention as Bound, it gave the 51-year-old writer/director an insight into what went right and what went wrong when it comes to making films and working alongside an ensemble cast outside of an episodic format. Before Lucy came around and before the merger of Disney and Fox, Hawley was set to write and direct a solo film surrounding the Marvel villain Doctor Doom, which was shelved after all Marvel rights Fox held went to Marvel Studios. Now you may be asking just what does a cancelled Doctor Doom movie have to do with Hawley’s Star Trek or even the ultimate question of will he become the next J.J. Abrams and the answer is simple:
Abrams Worked for Years for His Filmmaking Big Break
Long before he also brought the Star Wars franchise back to life, Abrams found his first bit of stardom in the small screen world by co-creating the drama Felicity, mystery thriller Lost and creating the action thriller Alias, all of which ran for multiple acclaimed seasons on The WB and ABC, with the middle series still holding a large cult following in the years since. Though at the time he had yet to make his directorial debut on the big screen, he had tinkered on scripts for big-name projects including Regarding Henry, Armageddon and Joy Ride.
But while he helped script these large-scale projects, Abrams continued to search for his breakout on the big screen, having penned a script for a film adaptation of the hit Japanese media franchise Speed Racer in 1996. It made its way to Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), who almost directed it before passing and seeing it go on to Julien Temple (Earth Girls Are Easy) with Johnny Depp (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) attached to star. That attempt was eventually canned over budget concerns and after Alfonso Cuaron (Roma) was brought on to direct a smaller budget version, it also was shelved permanently until the Wachowskis brought their own vision of the series to life in 2008.
He would find his next unrealized project in scripting the 2002 attempt at bringing the Man of Steel back to audiences in Superman: Flyby. McG and Brett Ratner were in talks to direct with Abrams fighting to direct it himself, but the project ended up getting cancelled by Warner Bros. when the studio decided to go with the Bryan Singer-helmed Superman Returns. After years of struggling to find his big break, it finally came in 2006’s Mission: Impossible 3, which not only proved he could handle big-budget filmmaking, but it also helped revive the action franchise for modern audiences.
Much like Abrams, Hawley has seen large success on the small screen, with multiple seasons across two acclaimed series and has been working for years to make it to the big screen. Though Lucy might not have been the complex drama he was aiming for, it still proved that given the right amount of money he could bring his unique directorial style to life in exhilarating ways. His tone might need some refining in the feature-length format, but now that he’s gotten a sense of what making a film is like, it’s the perfect time for him to break out with a big budget in the form of the fourth Star Trek.
On the small screen, Hawley has found ways to bring larger-than-life stories and characters to life in a way that feels small and intimate, putting his characters and their development ahead of bombastic plot points. Third film in the series Star Trek Beyond sought out to give a more intimate look at the individual crew members as they’re split up with unlikely partners, and in my opinion it worked. We got to see these characters deconstructed and put to the test in ways they haven’t previously experienced.
Hawley is the perfect choice to keep this streak of putting a new spin on the Star Trek franchise going, with Abrams getting it started with the more action-packed 2009 reboot and now helping the shepherd a newer talent behind the camera that might just give him a run for his money.
(Photo Credit: Backgrid Images)