AFM: 5 Hot Indie Directors on Why Studios Don't Make Their Kinds of Films Anymore

From left: Oliver Hirschbiegel, James Gray, Atom Egoyan, Ryan Coogler and Jonathan Teplitzky
Anoush Abrar

In THR's roundtable, Oliver Hirschbiegel ("Diana"), James Gray ("The Immigrant"), Atom Egoyan ("Devil's Knot"), Jonathan Teplitzky ("The Railway Man") and Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station") also weigh in on why TV can't replace great films, the terror of going to set on the first day ("I want to throw up") and unusual advice for aspiring filmmakers.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's November AFM stand-alone issue. 

The definition of an independent filmmaker is someone who can make a big movie on a little budget. The four veteran directors and one newcomer who participated in The Hollywood Reporter's AFM Roundtable have done just that this year.

Oliver Hirschbiegel, 55, braved the British critics with his Lady Di biopic Diana; James Gray, 44, took Marion Cotillard through the dark side of 1920s America in The Immigrant; Atom Egoyan, 53, dramatized the notorious case of the West Memphis Three, teens who were tried and convicted of murder, in Devil's Knot; Jonathan Teplitzky, 54, explored the real-life horrors of World War II in The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth; and, in his Sundance-winning directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler, 27, traced the final hours of Oscar Grant III, who was shot dead by transit police in Oakland, Calif., on New Year's Day 2009.

The five met up for a lively discussion in September at the Zurich International Film Festival to talk about their inspirations and fears and to give advice for aspiring directors. "Become a waiter in a busy restaurant," says two-time Oscar nominee Egoyan. "It's the best training for life on set."

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Was there a specific moment when you knew you were going to be a director?

JONATHAN TEPLITZKY: I started really late. I didn't go to film school until I was about 30. A friend of mine, an actress in Australia, came over one day and said, "Come to Cannes with us. We've sold the film, we have a hotel." It was 1984 and I saw [Jim Jarmusch's] Stranger Than Paradise and [Andrei Tarkovsky's] The Sacrifice in 24 hours, and they both left such an impression on me. Stranger Than Paradise showed how [feasible] it was to make a film, so simply and so distinctively. And with The Sacrifice, it can be about anything. It can be about what you dream, what you think.

OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL: Stranger Than Paradise was also my key point. I was making art and performance pieces and a little bit of experimental video. I met Jim Jarmusch at one of the film festivals in Italy. And he said, "Man, you should make proper movies! You've got the stuff!"

ATOM EGOYAN: I'm coming from theater. My first year at university, I submitted a play to the dramatic society and it was rejected. And I was so angry that, out of spite, I went to the film club and said, "OK, I'll make it as a movie." And the moment I held the camera, I had the idea that this was another character, and that's cool. Because of my relative ignorance of cinema culture at the time, I didn't realize that this wasn't a breakthrough idea, that other directors had thought about this, but it sustained my early passion.

RYAN COOGLER: For me, it was kind of weird. I'm from the Bay Area. My parents have pretty blue-collar jobs. … I got into science. And I played football. I was a crazy athlete. So I got a football scholarship to St. Mary's College in the Bay Area and I went in as a chemistry major. I figured if football didn't work out, I'd be a doctor. This was a liberal arts school, so they made you take creative writing courses. The teacher came in and said, "Your homework assignment is to write about your most emotionally intense experience." So I was hanging out at the dorm room and I got a call from my professor: "Come down to my office." I thought I was in all kinds of trouble. I went down to her office and she sat me down: "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I said, "I'm playing football for now, and if that doesn't work out, hopefully I'll become a doctor." She was like, "I read your paper and it's very visual. I think you should consider becoming a writer. Maybe you could write screenplays." I was 17. I didn't even know what a screenplay was … but I had $20 in my pocket, so I went to Circuit City and bought Pulp Fiction, and it had the screenplay attached in a CD-ROM. So I put that in and that was the first time for me seeing it written like that. I thought, "This is pretty cool," and so I started writing. And I just fell in love with the process.

JAMES GRAY: I was a loser kid in New York in the late '70s, and I loved going to the movies for fun. I'd seen Star Wars and Rocky and Jaws. Which I still really like quite a bit. And Superman and these movies. And then, in an act of complete parental insanity, my father took me to see Apocalypse Now at the Ziegfeld Theater. August of '79, so I was 10. It is very infrequent that you have an epiphany in your life. But I remember quite clearly. The movie began. I heard Jim Morrison. A bunch of palm trees exploded, and I knew I wasn't watching Superman. And it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. And then about six months later, I saw Raging Bull, uptown. And that was pretty much it. I got the bug after that.

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The kind of films you make would have been studio prestige projects in the 1970s. Now they are indie movies. What's changed?

GRAY: Well, the movies got considerably worse. 1980-81 was a big sea change. In the '80s, UA goes bankrupt, Ronald Reagan becomes president, the country becomes quite conservative. The multi­nationals bought the studios, and they realized instead of making $8 million on a movie, it would be better to make $800 million. Instead of platforming, releasing in one or two theaters, they started releasing in 5,000 theaters, which is the anti-quality maneuver. Those movies are not reliant at all on people liking them. They are only reliant on a simple marketing hook.

EGOYAN: Yeah, it's interesting. Because when I think of a film like yours (to Gray), like [2007's Palme d'Or-nominated] We Own the Night, I think it should reach a huge audience. Because it has that feel of an epic and it is so entertaining and it has these incredible set pieces. But it's interesting; that kind of film is difficult to situate now for most people. It's character-based, it has spectacle, but it is not a studio film.

GRAY: Mostly people say that style of filmmaking has been taken over by television. But it hasn't really because the TV form is different. The TV form goes on and on indefinitely.

EGOYAN: It's like the novel. Where our form is more like the classic short story.

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