Mike Fleming

Darren Aronofsky’s surprise exit from The Wolverine on Thursday has created a lot of chatter, and it has given 20th Century Fox execs another difficult decision to make. Aside from selecting a new director, Fox already was going to have to figure out the feasibility of its plan to shoot almost entirely in Japan, a country reeling from the earthquake/tsunami. Aronofsky’s exit was attributed to personal issues that made a long shoot in Japan unfeasible and that was no doubt a factor, but I’m persuaded the windfall Aronofsky will earn from The Black Swan allowed him to take a hard look and decide his heart wasn’t in The Wolverine. When Aronofsky took the job, he was in a much different position: he’d worked for practically nothing making Black Swan, which at the time was eyed as an art house film release; his plan to direct Robocop got hamstrung by MGM’s strangling debt burden. When he was recruited by his The Fountain star Hugh Jackman to helm The Wolverine, Aronofsky was looking at the first real chance in his career to make big money–$5 million against 5% of gross. Cut to now: The Black Swan‘s worldwide gross is a staggering $270 million, on a $16 million budget. When a director like Aronofsky works for free, he gambles on success. He might not be getting the $50 million or so that Todd Phillips received when he gave back his fee on The Hangover for an equity stake, but I’ve heard Aronofsky’s reward will be 8-figures. After that, did he really want to make a sequel? Now, an auteur like Aronofsky might also have bristled at the hands-on management of Fox higher-ups (Tsotsi‘s Gavin Hood was said to have had no fun making the first Wolverine) but I don’t get the impression that was a big issue here.

When Aronofsky took the job, the other main candidate was David Slade, the 30 Days of Night helmer who got his first real taste of tent pole film making with Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Slade, who was also a strong candidate for The Hunger Games before Gary Ross got that job, just signed on to develop a reboot of Daredevil for Fox. He seems an obvious top candidate for The Wolverine, a bigger priority project at the studio, and one that already has a script by Christopher McQuarrie that everybody likes.

As for the location situation, Fox luckily has some breathing room. The Wolverine was going to be shot almost completely in Japan, which would provide a strong backdrop for a samurai-themed tale. Given the crisis situation still unfolding there, is it even possible to schedule a blockbuster-sized budget film shoot in Japan? Fox, which originally planned to start in the spring, has time to assess. The studio’s summer 2012 dance card is loaded already: the Ridley Scott-directed Prometheus, the Timur Bekmambetov-directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Ice Age 4. Fox can wait to start production on The Wolverine in the fall or even later.