Can tight budgets bring out the best in talented directors?

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The sequence was vast: A long walk across war-torn France, with thousands of extras, German bombers, tanks and artillery strewn across the landscape -- the kind of scope that would have made David Lean proud. There was just one problem: It was going to cost $4 million.

"Originally, the screenplay that we delivered involved the whole journey to Dunkirk as it is written in the novel by Ian McEwan," says Joe Wright, the director of "Atonement" (Focus Features). That journey incorporated "Hundreds of thousands of refugees in the roads and the strafing of those refugees. It was a big, epic thing. I was very excited to try and achieve that. But it was costing us a lot of money. So I went one day to (producer) Tim Bevan and said, 'I need an extra $4 million to realize the walk to Dunkirk.' And Tim said, 'I won't give you a dollar over $30 million for an art film.'"

Bevan's words had a curious and quite unexpected effect. "The idea that I was making an art film suddenly liberated me," Wright recalls. "I said, 'If you are calling this an art film, then I can really follow my intuition and instincts totally?' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'I accept that!'"

Accepting reality is a crucial part of a director's work, which -- arguably more than that of any other artist -- requires functioning within the limits of the possible.

"Any filmmaker has to balance the creative aspects and the practical, money aspects," says David Cronenberg, director of Focus Features' "Eastern Promises." "That is a normal part of filmmaking; it is one of the many tricks you have to be able to do. You are like a dog that has to know these five tricks, and that is one of the primary ones: How do you get the quality you want with the money available?"

An ability to get the quality they want is the hallmark of the directors in contention for this year's DGA Award. At their best, they have gone further than the pragmatic and made a virtue of necessity, as Craig Gillespie did when he embarked on MGM's "Lars and the Real Girl."

Gillespie understood one thing right from the start: With a modest $12.5 million budget, he could either cut whole sequences from a script that was already extremely tight, or limit the number of camera setups and takes for each scene. With 196 scenes and only 31 days to shoot them, he opted for the latter.

"In some ways, it was actually a gift," he says, "in that you had to be so well prepared and really analyze every shot you were doing and how necessary it was. We went in and we'd look at the scenes, and if there were eight setups and we had two hours to do them, we'd say, 'How else can we cover this?' There was a simplicity we wanted, and that reinforced it."

Going in, he says, "we knew that there were going to be very few 'singles' (close-ups) in this movie. Even when you meet Lars and Bianca (the doll he falls in love with), they are all two-shots."

Nor was Gillespie able to indulge in repeated takes. "The great opportunity of that is, the actor can really give it everything in the four or five takes we do. He knows he is not going to have to repeat it, which is very liberating."

Joel and Ethan Coen also had to limit their takes for a critical sequence in "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax) in which actor Josh Brolin is chased into a river by a rabid dog. Having decided the sequence should take place at dawn, they had to make it work in a practical way.

"It is hard being at the mercy of the elements in the shooting days," says Ethan Coen, "and particularly (for) that big chase scene." The Coens managed to shoot it "in panicky patches of 10 or 20 minutes at the end of many days, in several different locations."

But to pull that off entailed an extraordinary level of preparation, coordinating with a second unit to shoot some shots like those of the dog swimming in the river.

"We would go and set up the shots during the day and determine the camera positions and what we wanted the action to be, and the second unit would put the dog in the water just a moment before the sun was going down," says Joel Coen.

Luckily, the dog was flawless. "The dog was great and so unbelievably motivated," says Ethan Coen. "There was a toy -- a neon-pink squishy thing you'd put in the water -- and he would try to get to it wherever it was. He would do take after take. He was unstoppable -- alarmingly!"

Chris Weitz found the schedule for New Line's "The Golden Compass" alarmingly unstoppable. At one point before preproduction commenced, he withdrew as director, worried that the huge special-effects extravaganza would consume three years of his life. But when the director who replaced him, Anand Tucker, later withdrew over budgetary and creative differences, Weitz returned.

Even with a vast budget, he knew there would be limitations to what he could do if he wanted to keep it under $200 million. Anything spontaneous effectively had to go out the window because of the requirements of all the effects shots. So did some of the big scenes he wanted to include, several of which would have been too expensive if they had featured one of the central conceits of the script and the book it is based on -- that each person has a "daemon," a soul that accompanies them in the form of an animal. To add a digital animal for each extra in the big scenes would have been financially prohibitive.

"Every time you set a crowd scene, you are really dealing with extraordinary complexity," Weitz explains, "and we decided it was best to just have those crowds in action scenes and when it really counted. It was hard to justify a scene with hundreds of people sitting down and listening to somebody."

Although Weitz knew right from the start that he would have to make pragmatic decisions like these during the shoot, he was surprised to discover just how pragmatic he had to be during the editing.

"You have to try and get as much of a jump on editing as you can, given the effects requirements," he says, noting that there were some 1,400 effects shots in the movie. "You have to start choosing your takes as early as possible, and that's a bit disturbing from the point of view of the filming I had done before. You usually set aside postproduction as a meditative period where you make your final choices. But not here."

Tony Gilroy had his own meditative period in the six years it took to get Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" off the ground. Once George Clooney agreed to star in the film, Gilroy faced an unexpected problem -- working around a major star's busy schedule.

"I had to sit behind 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005) and 'The Good German' (2006)," he recalls. "I had to wait about six months."

Like Gillespie, Gilroy made a virtue out of necessity: He prepared his script so well that when it came time to shoot, "Nothing could go wrong," he observes wryly. "We didn't have any margin of error."

Paul Haggis faced the same challenge making "In the Valley of Elah" (Warner Independent) -- but that was something he actually welcomed.

"I really appreciate limitations and embrace them," he says. "I don't know what I would do with all the money in the world; I think I would be a very bad director. (Limitations) make you think and challenge yourself."

Haggis had to challenge others too, especially in persuading the film's stars to slash their salaries for his under-$20 million project.

"When I called Charlize Theron, I said, 'I am sending you the script with no money in,'" Haggis remembers. "And Charlize called me the next day and said, 'I am in.' And I said, 'Maybe you didn't hear this part of the conversation? There's no money!'"

As a result, Theron, Tommy Lee Jones and Haggis had to be ultra-pragmatic about their pay. "We each took the same thing: I shared the front- and backend equally with Charlize and Tommy Lee."

Even then, to make the movie work, Haggis had to shoot around Theron's schedule. At one point, that created a near-disaster when a snowstorm hit, and the resulting blanket of snow did not fit with the continuity of the previous scenes.

"We couldn't shut down so we had to find ways around it," Haggis says. "I had to angle my cameras up so that they didn't catch the snow on the ground -- and then every now and again a truck would roll by with three feet of snow on it and ruin the take!" But, he adds: "In the end it worked perfectly."

Ultimately, that was equally true for Wright when he shot the Dunkirk sequence in "Atonement," minus the $4 million he had originally requested. Knowing he couldn't populate the landscape with people and equipment, he decided to go the opposite route and make its desolation an element of the story.

"The location scouting became much more about finding landscapes that had nothing in them, and that was quite a readjustment of one's aesthetics," he says. "And I became quite excited about just these three figures (the three soldiers he follows in that scene), the blind leading the blind, walking through this blank canvas."

Wright did get to shoot one big scene, but budget limitations impacted that, too.

"We had 1,000 extras and spent quite a lot of money, but I only had those extras for one day because that is all we could afford them for," he says. "Originally that sequence had been written as a montage, and one would have needed 40 setups. Normally I (can't film) more than 14-20 setups in a day, and so I was privately very, very nervous about it. And then one day, I said jokingly, 'Well let's just cover it in one Steadicam shot,' and everyone laughed. And that evening I went away and thought about it and came back and said, 'Actually, I really think we should.'"

That one shot would last five and a half minutes in the finished film. It involved a walk across the wartime beaches of Dunkirk with all those extras. After lining it up for the whole day, Wright shot it as the light was fading. Following two failed takes, a third take seemed perfect.

"The third take, the light was wonderful and everyone performed beautifully. And what was most affecting were the extras, who gave their hearts and souls to it," Wright marvels. "Then we ran back to the monitor to watch it -- and the signal between the camera and the recorder had broken down! We couldn't see anything!"

After a nerve-racking 24 hours, the dailies came back. By a miracle, the shot had registered. But Wright still remembers the anguish.

"We could hardly breathe," he says.
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