THR's Directors Roundtable: How to Fire People, Who to Steal From, and Amy Pascal's Secret Advice

Joe Pugliese

Six auteurs reveal personal war stories and what makes a great movie in the second of THR's annual awards season series discussions.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"All of our films are quiet films," Jason Reitman noted about halfway through The Hollywood Reporter's annual gathering of six leading filmmakers. "It's kind of a quiet year."

Reitman is right. Many of the films contending in the season's major awards categories are understated character pieces featuring long periods of silence. One movie, French director Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, contains virtually no dialogue at all.

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By contrast, the filmmakers behind those contenders have no trouble speaking their minds. This especially opinionated group -- Hazanavicius, 44, Steve McQueen, 42 (Shame), Bennett Miller, 44 (Moneyball), Mike Mills, 45 (Beginners), Alexander Payne, 50 (The Descendants) and Reitman, 34 (Young Adult) -- wasn't afraid to disagree while opening up about their challenges and influences.

The hourlong roundtable took place Oct. 28 at Siren Studios in Hollywood.

The Hollywood Reporter: There are a lot of good directors. What makes a great director?

Alexander Payne: The luck that the work you do happens to hit the zeitgeist. A director can have a career spanning decades, but if he or she is lucky, there's about a 10-year period where you're given a chance to touch the zeitgeist. You can be doing very good and honest work before then and after then, and one of those periods may return, too. Robert Altman had it in the '70s, and then he kind of went underground. He never stopped working, and then he reemerged again for a final stretch run. Woody Allen kept doing very good and honest work -- excellent work in the '70s, of course, and then he kept chipping away with hits and misses. Now, he's kind of having a late-career resurgence.

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Bennett Miller: The directors I'm most impressed with have some kind of perspective. If it's Hitchcock or Kubrick or Scorsese or maybe an Alexander Payne, you watch those films and you feel like you're inside their head, their frames feel conscious.

THR: How does the writer's point of view fit into that?

Miller: Writers do not matter. (Laughter.) No, it's the same.

THR: Bennett, you went from directing a small film, Capote, to a big studio film, Moneyball. How much was your perspective valued and how much did the studio meddle?

Miller: I probably shouldn't say this, but in one of the early conversations I had with the studio folks, I argued a lot. And then I got a call from [Sony Pictures co-chairman] Amy Pascal, who said, "Look, Bennett, you're making the movie. Everybody knows that the studio, at best, can exercise 7 percent of influence over the thing, but you need to be more generous in these meetings -- and let's just never talk about this again and never tell anybody about the 7 percent." (Laughter.) So there's your answer.

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Jason Reitman: I grew up in a directing family, and as I've become a working director, I've gotten the opportunity to meet a lot of directors. I always figured there'd be a piece of recognizable DNA that I'd be like, "Oh, there's that trait that I'm noticing," [but] that does not exist at all. I've met great directors who are incredibly shy, I've met directors who are arrogant, terrified of confrontation, directors who truly thrive on confrontation as a part of their process. Some directors are horrible with actors. There are tons of stories of directors who don't understand actors as human beings and yet they still get great performances.

Payne: How do you explain that? I don't know whom you're referring to, but one does notice that the directors we value for being great visual stylists also happen to get some of the best performances. One thinks of Kubrick.

THR: Is that true? Barry Lyndon is one of my favorite films, but Ryan O'Neal is so horrendously miscast.

Payne: We disagree there. I think he's perfectly cast.

Steve McQueen: I disagree completely. Ryan O'Neal -- he's brilliant, he's Barry Lyndon, he's beautiful, he's lyrical. You project yourself onto him, you are Barry Lyndon.

Reitman: The fact that he doesn't know what he's doing makes it actually work. His naivete adds to the role.

Payne: Some directors have the good gut but not the wherewithal to explain it. William Wyler was famous for that. Made people do tons and tons of takes and said, "I don't know, just do it better," but he had the compass and he directed more actors to Oscar-winning performances than any other director.

McQueen: Words can only go so far, you have to trust the director, end of story.

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