A slew of helmer contenders — from Mel Gibson to Kenneth Lonergan — open up about their work process and how they arrived at their aha moments.
"I was given the story three times over about a 10-year period. The third time, it just seemed to register more. I generally do things I develop myself, but this ticked all the boxes as far as the 'three Es' go — entertain, educate and elevate. I was inspired by the story and the real man [Desmond Doss]. I had the image of taking the character out of a Norman Rockwell painting and dropping them into a Hieronymus Bosch painting, which turned out to be like the two-act structure in the movie. One has to be conscious that you don't want people running out of the theater screaming. But if you are portraying realistic combat, then you have to be true to that.
I wanted to honor the veterans and create empathy in an audience who may not have ever been in a combat situation, to show how truly horrific it is. When we tested it, the film worked better for women, I think, because the main character was an inherently nurturing guy. And I think that women, more so than men, are nurturing. Think about it this way: This is somebody who is going into one of the worst places on earth, refusing to take a life, and then laying his own life on the line. Spiritually speaking, this is one of the greatest acts of love you could ever preform. In the end, this is not really a war film. Even in the combat scenes, it's a love story." — As told to Mia Galuppo
"We shot the fire [scene] just about midway through [production]. We couldn't have shot it early on because it needed a lot of planning. You have to be careful and you have to make sure it's safe and you have to make sure you have what you need. On a small movie like this, you can't afford to build another house.
We used two cameras, and the shot we used for the initial fire covered the whole thing. We had another camera covering it from another side. We got there at night and shot. We waited for the sunrise and started shooting again. It was actually an easy day. That was true of all the bigger days because they were planned better. The more difficult ones were the smaller days that had, like, six scenes in the house. There were two little rooms, not a lot of lighting, and we were trying to figure out different ways to shoot and make sure the scenes got their due from the actors and the actors got their due from me." — As told to Andy Lewis
"You read [Hidden Figures] and go, 'This is historical fiction, right?' But then I started Googling and was blown away that there was a group of women, especially African-American women, who worked in segregated NASA in the 1960s that helped America achieve its greatest goal at the time. You don't see women in movies like Apollo 13, much less African-American woman. It was shocking to me as a father of two daughters, and a die-hard feminist.
As soon as I got involved with the [film], I told everyone — the producers and Fox — that Taraji Henson is Katherine [Johnson]. I mean, if she can do Benjamin Button and Empire, then she can basically do anything. I had been trying to work with her for years, so I called her and pitched her the whole story because there was no script that was ready to go. And she said, 'I'm in.' She trusted me to figure it out.
With Octavia [Spencer], it was the same thing; I had been trying to work with her for years. She doesn't have a false beat or false moment anywhere. So she read the first draft and said, 'I'm in.' And again she trusted me to figure it out because we were still writing. We were writing right up into production, and then I was writing while we were shooting. And then Janelle Monae was cast in the role of Mary, who is such a firecracker and a voice for activism of the time. We wanted someone new and fresh who embodied those characteristics. Janelle came in and auditioned, and she has this fire in her eyes that is palpable. That was how all three of them came together. It was one of those rare instances where everyone was involved for the right reasons." — As told to Mia Galuppo
"I fell in love with [the script]. It's everything I wanted to do with an American movie. It's entertaining, but it's about something. It had a very strong sense of place, of character. It was a real opportunity for me to do my stuff: looking for real situations, trying to find some soul and a wryly amusing way to tell a story. There was a moment when Ben [Foster] wanted the character to look lived in, [so he purposely chipped his own tooth]. The character is 10 years older than Ben. He made a lot of efforts to age himself up, to make himself feel like he's had the life the character has had. I deeply respect that.
I try to encourage all the actors I work with to be as courageous and bold as they can be. I call it a dance of intuition. This is my ninth film — I've learned to be as open as possible to the moments when the cameras are running. Allowing things to breathe on the day is the most important. We're allowed to play with the material. It's important for me not to previsualize or predetermine." — As told to Chris Lee
"When you're making a film like Patriots Day or Lone Survivor or Deepwater Horizon, they're real stories. People were killed, people were heroic and people were cowardly. You've got to do the research. You have to spend a fair amount of time meeting people and getting them on board. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, we are only three years out. Emotions are still raw, and people are not done grieving. One [area I focused on] was based on questions that came up: 'How graphic will this film be? Is this going to add more stress to what has already been a highly stressful experience?' What I would say is that there is a line — call it a line of taste or a line of reasonable portrayal — and you can't always articulate that line, but you know if you cross it. I gave them my word that I would not cross that line.
This is the third film I have done with [Mark Wahlberg]. It's not like he didn't care tremendously about Lone Survivor or Deepwater Horizon — he worked very hard — but there is no doubt that this one hit him harder. He just never turned off. He was always full of ideas. In the best way, he was like a kid brother to me, overflowing with enthusiasm and ideas and showing up on the set on days he wasn't working. I know why he felt that way, and I loved that he did. He is going to have to go back and walk those streets, and he will receive more judgment if the movie is, in any way, offensive or off-putting." — As told to Mia Galuppo
"When I received Rob Siegel's script, I knew the project had something to do with Ray Kroc and McDonald's. When I read it, I discovered there was a lot more to the history of the restaurant chain than I knew. The title was purposefully misleading: Is the founder the person who had the idea and started the company or the person who grew it?
I was also taken by the fact that I had a rooting interest for Kroc in the first half, then started finding fault with his actions in the second. It somehow made me feel complicit in his rise, which was a unique feeling to have after only having read a script. It struck me as Death of a Salesman with a very different ending. Instead of Willy Loman dying, he takes over the world. I was surprised I felt as conflicted about Kroc as I did. That was due to watching Michael [Keaton] on a daily basis infuse both humanity and complexity into the character." — As told to Anna Lisa Raya
"I was curious about using the technical tools that are now available in filmmaking for something that was not geared toward spectacle and violence but naturalism. I had to recalibrate my process to fit the rhythm of this type of film. Whenever you are doing something that is highly technical with humor or spontaneity or emotion, it takes a tremendous amount of planning and discipline because it is such a slow, protracted process. It's like doing something in slow motion and then, when played back in real time, it has to snap and feel effortless.
There were a lot of aspects that felt like leaps of faith. One moment when we had to operate as though things were going to work — and if they hadn't, then the whole film would have crumbled — is the first time we saw the animals speak convincingly, where it wasn't distracting. It made us all breathe a sigh of relief that this film would work. Because I am an actor, I have always been very aware of casting choices. Because I think, at the end of the day, it is the humans that populate and inhabit these stories that make them accessible. To me, when the casting choices fall into place, I understand the vision for the film. That goes back to every film I have ever done and probably most clearly exemplified in Iron Man when I got Robert Downey.
For me, the actors are the touchstone for me to have insight into the story and to the tone. The one that was the most challenging to get [for Jungle Book] was Bill Murray because it is like going out and trying to catch a unicorn. You don't know where he is or how to get a hold of him or if he is interested, but you hope that passion and sincerity would win out and it did on this one." — As told to Mia Galuppo
"The scene where the two boys, Chiron and Kevin, kiss on the beach, that was a tricky night. I'd never directed a scene that was overtly sexual, and neither one of these kids had ever performed a lovemaking scene. They were nervous as hell. But a beautiful thing happened.
Jharrel [Jerome], who plays Kevin, came over to me and said: 'Hey, Barry, what's going on, man? What are we doing tonight?' I said, 'You're doing what's in the script,' keeping it very simple. I would always say to them, 'No matter what we're doing, we're just chopping wood.' So we talked about sexual experiences, and he said, 'Is this the first time Kevin has kissed a man? It's not, right?' And I said, 'No, it's not.' He said, 'That's what I thought,' and he got really quiet and then goes, 'Is this the first time Chiron has kissed another man?' I look at him, and I don't answer because I love it when an actor arrives at the answer himself. And the lightbulb goes off, and he goes, 'Oh, Chiron has never kissed anybody!' And I said, 'Yes,' and he had it. And from that point on, we were just chopping wood for the rest of the night." — As told to Gregg Kilday