Berlin Roundtable: 7 Directors Discuss First-Day Jitters, Bad Tempers
Michel Gondry, Volker Schlondorff, Stuart Murdoch, David Wenham, Fisher Stevens, Feo Aladag and Margreth Olin spoke to THR about the challenges of directing and their greatest fears.
Tucked away in the wine cellar of the legendary Borchardt restaurant, seven very different filmmakers got together to talk shop. The group included two Oscar winners: Michel Gondry, 50, a member of this year’s Berlinale jury who also has the doc Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? in the Panorama Dokumente section; and veteran German director Volker Schlondorff, 74, whose latest, Diplomatie, and his 1970 film, Baal, are both Special Screenings at the fest.
They mixed it up with novices Stuart Murdoch, 45, Scottish frontman of indie band Belle & Sebastian, whose debut film, God Help the Girl, opened Berlin’s Generation 14plus section; and Australian actor David Wenham, 48, who directed his first short as part of the omnibus The Turning, a Special Screening. Like Wenham, Fisher Stevens, 50, and Austrian Feo Aladag, 42, were actors before turning to directing. Stevens is in Berlin with the activist documentaries Another World (a Panorama Dokumente entry) and Culinary Cinema title Mission Blue; Aladag’s second feature, the Afghanistan war drama In Between Worlds, is in official competition. Meanwhile, Norwegian director Margreth Olin, 43, who shot one of six documentaries -- alongside Wim Wenders and Robert Redford -- for the ambitious 3D project Cathedrals of Culture (a Berlinale world premiere), knew she wanted to be a director since the age of 8. They sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss heartbreak, histrionics and learning to trust your gut.
You come from very different backgrounds. Was there one specific moment when you knew you were going to be a director?
STUART MURDOCH: I’m not a director. I’m a songwriter and apart from that, I’m a charlatan. I shouldn’t be here. That’s how I feel.
VOLKER SCHLONDORFF: We all are.
MURDOCH: Well that’s nice to know. I just had an idea that never went away. I had a song that turned into a script that turned into a movie, but I was lucky. Unless I was in a reasonably successful rock band, nobody was going to take a chance on me. That’s how I got in.
MICHEL GONDRY: I remember a very precise moment when I decided to become a director. I had done a short animated film, paid from my own pocket. It was not very successful. And I was trying to take jobs to make money and survive. I took this job to do artwork. I was not very good at it. And one day I was with a very irritating advertising lady. From 9:30 to 10 she was yapping at my back, telling me, “Do this, do that.” At 10 o’clock, I put my pen down, I got up and I said, “I don’t like the way you talk to me.” I left, went home and went back to bed. And I said, “From this moment, I will never take orders from anyone.” So after that I had to be a director.
David, you have acted in some very big films -- from The Lord of the Rings to 300. How did you feel coming to set as director on the first day of shooting on The Turning?
DAVID WENHAM: My film is a very little film. It’s essentially a two-hander, set in the Australian outback and it is a performance piece. It was thrilling actually. For the last 10 years, I’ve felt like a director in an actor’s body. I love acting. Nothing gives me more joy. But when it comes to the stage -- and I think a lot of actors feel the same way -- they don’t concentrate only on their own performance but are aware of so many things around them. I started to become frustrated on many films where I could see people not realizing their potential. In different departments -- whether it be performance, whether it be art departments -- they just weren’t realizing what they could possibly do. So I just thought, "If ever I got that opportunity, I would try to empower people to realize the best of their talents." So the first day on set was a thrill to me. My piece purposely concentrates on performance. The camerawork does nothing to distract from drawing the audience in to the story between these two actors.
But wasn’t it terrifying?
WENHAM: It was in a way, but also I think if you don’t have a bit of nervousness and adrenaline, complacency comes in, so I actually think that is a really good thing. Sure there were nerves, but it was good because it puts you on edge all the time; it actually makes you think. And also makes you think laterally, too, when problems may come up -- to think of left-of-field solutions, which is good.
Fisher, you also made the transition from acting to directing. Why did you take that jump?
FISHER STEVENS: Well, had I worked with these two [points to Gondry and Schlondorff] I would have been happy to continue being an actor. I wasn’t getting cast always with directors I could listen to. I started out with some great directors and then I’d get directors where I’d say, “Why are you doing it this way?” I was always very nice, but I said to myself: "I want to do this." Unless I work with masters … But I love both: to direct and to act. So guys, I’m available.
MARGRETH OLIN: I was quite young when I decided I would become a storyteller. I was 8 or 9 years old. I come from the northwest coast of Norway, and lived there with my parents and my older sister and this uncle that always spent a lot of time with us. He wasn’t married and he didn’t have children. And one day my mother said we were going to take the bus with him to where my grandmother lived. When I was a little girl I thought I had the best of all uncles in the world. But I had never thought about the fact that when we were together we were always surrounded by close family. On this bus trip, it wasn’t like this. It was strangers on the bus. And when people got on the bus or off the bus, everyone did the same thing: They turned and looked at my uncle as if they had never seen an uncle before. That’s what I thought, because I had never seen people look at anyone that way. And he leaned over to me and he whispered, “You know, Margreth, I am not like anyone else.” My uncle, he had Down syndrome. And on that trip -- it was one hour -- I was thinking if the people on the bus knew about him the way I did, they would have seen him differently. So I decided that I had to tell his story one day. So I got my education, and my first film is called My Uncle and it’s about him.
FEO ALADAG: That is an amazing story. For me, I always wanted to tell stories, and as a kid I thought it was by acting them. I studied acting and I worked as an actor for a while. I was offered certain parts and they were always “blond and beautiful” or “blond and ugly,” “blond and blah-blah.” I was missing out on something that was inside of me, and always hiding behind someone else when it came to execution. And then it all came together. I wanted to tell the story of When We Leave  and I said, “I want to tell it exactly the way I wanted to tell it.”
What kind of directors are you? Have we got shouters at the table?
ALADAG: Maybe Volker should answer that.
SCHLONDORFF: Unfortunately I am famous for my choleric outbursts, which I try to control because it does such damage to my own working schedule and because you say things you may not mean and you hurt people. But I found out: The crew is not there to help the director. It’s the other way around. You are the one who has to serve the others and then it all comes together. The gentle way is much better. I used to be very impatient when people murmured to me, “Couldn’t we do this? Couldn’t we do that?” But I have learned to listen because a lot of good ideas come out of that. It’s the same with the actors. They should be free to try out everything and even make silly propositions. So I said [to myself]: Shut up, listen and don’t shout.
Michel, how did it feel to give up control when making the film, The Green Hornet, in the studio system?
GONDRY: In the case of The Green Hornet, the main obstruction was in the editing room, where my voice was very little compared to the voice of the producers, the voice of the actors, the voice of the studio executives. It was difficult to imprint something personal. At that stage it’s not even about control, it’s just about trying to express yourself. But that is an extreme example because going into this situation, you know you are not going to have much control. There is a certain prestige in doing it; you get paid a very good amount of money. And I always wanted to create this kind of blockbuster that reached a large audience. I am not sure I succeeded. I probably didn’t. But it is hard to compare to my other movies that are more personal. Because [Green Hornet] was not meant to be personal.
You know, as a director, we don’t direct every day, like the technicians. We direct every two years, every four years. I think it was Bertrand Tavernier who said the first day of each movie felt like it was his first time. And the worst part is to have to pretend you know what you are doing and where you are going when actually you have no idea. But if you let it show, everyone will be worried and might try and take over. At least for me it is difficult to select the good idea from the bad. I think my starting point is they are all bad. I just feel more confident later. And I feel some are good.
SCHLONDORFF: And that’s where talent comes in. First you have to have success, then you get self-confident and then you get talent. Because talent, I think, is nothing else but to listen to your own instincts. That is very hard. It is some kind of intuition that either you have or you don’t. So follow it, and if you don’t have it, you quit.
MURDOCH: Can I ask if anyone is disillusioned by cinema or do you wake up feeling films are magic?
SCHLONDROFF: Only when they are finished and they work with an audience. Then it’s magic.
STEVENS: There is a lot of heartbreak, though.
MURDOCH: Before I made my first film, I watched [Francois Truffaut’s 1973] La Nuit Americaine. And this was my benchmark. I watched it all the time. Because it was about how to make a film. There’s one point in the film where everything is going great and Truffaut announces, “Cinema is king!” And I always thought this is amazing. Do you feel that or does it come and go?
GONDRY: I don’t want to be offensive. But I feel this movie is a pure lie.
SCHLONDORFF: It is a fairy tale.
GONDRY: On this subject, there is this movie called Living in Oblivion . That is much more accurate, in my experience.
MURDOCH: I watched that too. But I prefer the fairy tale. (Laughs.)
Would you direct again, Stuart?
MURDOCH: Have you ever seen that film Airport, where you know when everyone is dead and that random guy has to land the plane? Every day I went to the film set, and I was like that guy who had to land the plane. Pretty scary stuff, but I am still in love with the fairy tale, so maybe I am naive.
Do you think cinema, particularly documentaries, can be a tool to enact social change?
STEVENS: In making our documentaries [Mission Blue and Another World], we wanted to use characters that would capture the imagination of an audience and not preach. If you have a message movie, don’t talk about the message. You want to entertain and then let people discover the message that way.
GONDRY: A documentary like [Josh Fox’s 2010] Gasland can really make a difference.
OLIN: My last film, Nowhere Home, is about refugees coming from Afghanistan. Sometimes, I have to make movies to open people’s eyes and see what we as a society are doing. Every person is a goal in themselves. But in Europe we are protecting borders more than we do people. Being a documentary filmmaker, I want to [create] political debate.
ALADAG: I’m absolutely determined to take my [Afghanistan] film back to the country because I made it there and I want to show it there. I made it also to show a different Afghanistan and to show what can be done out of Afghanistan and show a different cultural level. But there are no real cinemas [there]. What really annoyed me making this movie was all those American films that have been made in Morocco or wherever, from some great directors, but none of them show certain parts of Afghanistan or a younger generation. They always show the shadow of the bad bearded Taliban.
Gondry: American movies keep reinforcing the idea that since the Cold War ended all the bad guys are not Russian anymore, but Arab.
As a director, what are you most afraid of?
STEVENS: I had a nightmare that actually happened. I was directing three of my idols -- Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin -- in a car at night [for 2012’s Stand Up Guys]. It was late and they hated the scene. They say, “Fisher, get over here. This isn’t working.” I have three legends in a car and they’re telling me to fix the scene. It was one of the worst moments of my entire life. I had to get these guys, who are all in their 70s, out of the car; it’s a freezing cold night and it’s late; and tell them how to fix it, reworking and reworking it. It was my nightmare. I said, “You guys have been doing movies for 40 years and we’re going to fix this together.” It worked out and they were all happy in the end.
GONDRY: I had this dream. I was telling Dustin Hoffman, “I really loved you in Dog Day Afternoon [which stars Al Pacino, not Hoffman].” And I was really laughing at my own joke. I was so happy with it in my dream. Then I woke up. (Laughs.)
ALADAG: I am scared that I put so many people in danger by making a film in Afghanistan and it doesn’t reach across and connect with people’s hearts and it doesn’t communicate with audiences. I am scared shitless before I begin to shoot. The day before I went there, I thought, “How can I go there and actually do this?” I think if you stop having fear then it is probably time to pack up and leave the field because then you are cold, and it’s routine.
SCHLONDORFF: I am in my 50th year directing and last night I had a dream. I am on the set and nothing is working and my lead actor doesn’t know his lines, the sound is not working and the lighting is broken and the cameraman is taking hours to fix it. And I am standing in the middle, helpless, powerless, paralyzed. I’ve been having this nightmare, recurrently, for the past 50 years. And I had it last night. I woke up in a cold sweat. I once told it to Billy Wilder and he said, “I have a better story.” He said the evening before he directed his first movie, he went to see [Ernst] Lubitsch and said, “Ernst, it is the day before my first movie and I am shitting in my pants.” And Lubitsch answered: “Tomorrow is the 17th shooting day of my 72nd movie and I am shitting in my pants.”
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