Directors Guild Meet the Nominees Panel
Movies are an evolving art, especially when animals are involved, agreed the six directors nominated for the Directors Guild of America feature film award at Saturday’s annual morning panel. The filmmakers endured more than two hours of grilling by moderator Jeremy Kagan and later wound up the night at the black-tie awards ceremony at which, as expected, “The Departed” director Martin Scorsese accepted his long-awaited award. “The making of a film is the learning what you’re making,” said “The Queen” director Stephen Frears via satellite feed. “The whole thing is a journey as you learn many things. You’re creating something complex and making it very simple.”
While Scorsese, Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), the husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”) gamely answered Kagan’s detailed queries, Frears was more prickly. He enjoyed needling Scorsese about his bigger budget, a theme that was picked up by the rest of the panel over the course of the morning. When Dayton and Faris looked over at Scorsese as they pointed out that they shot “Little Miss Sunshine” in 30 days, he shrugged.
All the directors admitted that rewrites, rethinking and reshoots were required as what they imagined and planned did not always work out. In order to liven up an intense confrontation between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson, Scorsese decided to shoot it again the following day after telling Nicholson to think of something to punch up the scene. As they were filming, Nicholson picked up a gun. “We didn’t know what would happen at that moment,” said Scorsese. “This is why I do this. Suddenly everything goes wrong, then right. When something like that happens and Leo holds his own, that’s why I made this film.”
Only after he saw the edited film did Scorsese figure out how he wanted the Vera Farmiga character to function in it. So he reshot several new scenes from writer Bill Monahan. “The picture is making you,” said Scorsese.
Frears also had to reshoot key scenes between Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. “When we cut it, bits of the film didn’t work,” he said. “We shot the wrong scenes. The writer [Peter Morgan] went off and wrote the right scenes about the relationship between Blair and the Queen. I’m always sweeping up behind myself, clearing up what I’ve done wrong.”
Seventeen days ahead of filming “Babel” in Morocco, Gonzalez Inarritu was unhappy with the actors that were being presented to him and made the decision to announce an open casting call from a mosque minaret. The result of placing local non-actors who had never seen a camera, opposite seasoned professionals like Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett so excited and pleased the director that he recast other sections of the movie accordingly. “You pit Andre Agassi with a guy who never held a racket before,” Gonzalez Inarritu said. “I was spoiled, or blessed, to have their honesty. Better than that I can’t get.”
While landing “every one of the roles was a nail biter,” said Condon, he waited until two weeks before filming to add rookie “American Idol” survivor Jennifer Hudson to the “Dreamgirls” cast in the key role of Effie. He had no confidence that he was making the right choice, he said, although an elaborate full-on screen test helped. He had to go on his gut instinct that she was going to deliver in the role, he said. “I just didn’t believe any of the others.” When the time came to film Hudson’s last song, “I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” which Condon calls “the Mt. Everest of the show,” he had to beg for more extra money for extra days, because the untrained singer’s voice would give out after four hours of full-tilt belting.
Condon and Scorsese, who boasted lavish studio budgets, worked on soundstages for maximum control and were able to build sets. For Condon, who pre-visualized the entire movie with storyboards and animatics using mini-cam footage of screen tests, rehearsals and readings, “Dreamgirls” “was the closest I’ve come to making a Hitchcock movie,” he said. Using six sound stages and four of the lavish old movie theaters in downtown Los Angeles, “this is a movie told through lighting and color,” he said.
The toughest “Dreamgirls” location to find turned out to be Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles’ modern glass Hollywood mansion, because mid-century houses weren’t built on the oversize scale of the 80s and 90s, Condon said. He eventually redressed three times the largest room in the hilltop Chatsworth home built by Frank Sinatra. For a nightclub set with a skylight, Condon admitted, he ripped off Scorsese’s “New York, New York,” which he showed to his crew many times, he said. Scorsese shrugged graciously.
With lower budgets, Dayton and Faris, Frears and Gonzalez Inarritu shot their films almost entirely on location. “We didn’t have Marty’s budget,” Frears said, as Scorsese shook his head sadly. “The carpets were dreadful. We couldn’t afford to replace them or color them in the computer.” Frears used some computer graphics to create the noble stag who communes in Balmoral with Queen Elizabeth II, but for the helicopter shot over the Scottish highlands, “it’s a wooden stag. It’s slightly embarrassing. The real stag would run away.”
Working with animals also proved a challenge for Scorsese, who brought down the house with his lengthy description of filming the final frames of “The Departed,” when a real live rat walks into the frame near one of the lead actors' dead body. It was the last thing he shot, “three weeks before we printed,” admitted the director. Finding the right angle for the rat to enter the frame took weeks. Finally, Scorsese filmed a rat slowly walking down from the balcony railing toward Damon’s body double. “It was a great rat,” he said. “A real rat. He loved the job. He was eating croissants. He was having a great time. Another take? No problem.” (Visual effects master Rob Legato refined the shot.)
Gonzalez Inarritu had more trouble trying to wrangle a herd of 300 goats into the same shot as two Morroccan boys. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “Goats are goats. That’s a tough, stupid thing, to have them in the frame.”
While shooting in the deserts of Morocco and Sonora was very difficult, said Gonzalez Inarritu, nothing compared with the horrors of shooting in Tokyo. Filming in an underground train had to be planned like a “robbery,” he said. Police chased his crew while they were filming on the freeway. “They were trying to stop and cancel the film,” he said. “In a collective society, they are very strict with any ant disrupting the running of the system. We shot like a student university film.”
The Mexican director also saved his elaborate final shot, when the camera pulls back from a skyscraper balcony, for the end of filming. He couldn’t get permission from the balky Tokyo authorities to use a helicopter, nor could he string a cable between two buildings. So cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto rigged a dolly and crane on top of the building to shoot the beginning of the shot, and then combined that in the computer with film stills from different angles.
In order to keep the complexities of “Babel”’s diverse non-linear story lines straight, Gonzalez Inarritu kept little note cards for each day’s shooting with everything he had to remember. “Without that card I would have a panic attack,” he said. After the first four and half hour assemblage, he wanted to kill himself, he admitted. “You think, you’re not there, you’re exhausted, you have to start again. It was terrifying.”
While Scorsese shot many exteriors in Boston, he preferred to use his familiar New York location interiors for many of the scenes, including one Brooklyn bar “I have been shooting in for 40 years,” he said. “This picture is about people, faces, the paranoia in their eyes,” he said. “The look of it, the places they were in didn’t matter. Everyone is on top of each other. Different Celtic groups were warring with each other. It’s a B genre film. It’s a gangster movie—I think. It’s the first film I’ve done in the modern world. I don’t know how to use a cell phone.”
Scorsese started his cast with DiCaprio, then added Matt Damon, who hails from Boston, at the suggestion of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. To be the Zeus of the picture, Scorsese wanted someone larger-than-life: Nicholson. “I had always wanted to work with Jack,” he said. Discussions with Nicholson lead to basing his character on real-life Boston mobster Whitey Bolger, who did work closely with the FBI. “Once we began to read books on these people,” said Scorsese, “there’s nothing exaggerated in this movie in any way. Nobody knows where anybody stands. There’s no good, no bad. Morality is at ground zero—and everyone ends up paying for it.”
In depicting the true-life events in “The Queen,” Frears mixed archive footage with dramatic reenactments. For the most part he wanted audiences to “be aware of cutting between various elements,” he said. But he would also use newsreel footage to save costs. “We couldn’t afford the extras,” he said. But when he included footage of an actress doubling for Princess Diana heading into the tunnel car crash that ended her life, audiences were distracted by her likeness to Diana, and he kept only a shot of the top of her head. As for the little princes, Frears chose to show them as little as possible. “They lost their mother. I didn’t want to linger on them. I would have been crucified.”
The toughest casting in “The Queen” was Prince Philip, who is often the object of ridicule. “In British social life he’s a comic fascist,” said Frears. “These characters were very familiar to all of us. I was trying to get beyond caricature." American actor James Cromwell was the solution: “He was capable of playing a character more considerable than pantomime.”
Music video directors Dayton and Faris, who were making their first film feature with a wide screen format and a miniscule budget, liked to figure out the architectural logistics of their filming in advance on video “to see how the shots line up with the camera,” Dayton said.
Their first battle was convincing their financeers to let them shoot in Southern California. “Nothing in Canada looks like the Southwest,” said Faris. Some of the exterior shots with the VW bus were shot in 125 degree heat in Phoenix. “All of our stunt doubles sat in the car with their feet in buckets of ice,” said Faris. “There was no air conditioning in the van, because we had shot with the windows open.” On set the cast and crew were not laughing, she said. On set they were playing their characters straight: “It was about getting the right feeling, so if we were truthful, hopefully it would be funny.”
Faris and Dayton gave their actors notebooks so they they could write in character, which they then read to each other, to build a sense of family, “so we would be up and running by the time we got to the set,” said Faris. Little Abigail Breslin, who was partly cast off her poised and natural simplicity talking about playing poker on the Jay Leno Show, really did jump into the VW bus herself, they said, although sometimes there was a stunt coordinator inside ready to grab her if necessary. “It’s actually fun, if you’ve ever done it,” Faris said.