DGA panelists focus on process

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Movies are an evolving art, especially when animals are involved, agreed the six directors nominated for the DGA's feature film award. At the guild's annual "Meet the Nominees: Feature Films" symposium held at the DGA Theatre on Saturday, the filmmakers endured more than two hours of grilling by moderator Jeremy Kagan.

"The making of a film is the learning what you're making," said "The Queen" director Stephen Frears, who joined the group via satellite feed. "The whole thing is a journey as you learn many things. You're creating something complex and making it very simple."

While Martin Scorsese ("The Departed"), Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine") and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel") gamely answered Kagan's detailed queries, Frears was more prickly. He enjoyed needling Scorsese about Scorsese's bigger budget, a theme that was picked up by the rest of the panel. When Dayton and Faris looked over at Scorsese as they said that they shot "Little Miss Sunshine" in 30 days, he shrugged.

All the directors admitted that rewrites, rethinking and reshoots were required as what they imagined and planned did not always work out. In order to liven up an intense confrontation between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson, Scorsese decided to shoot it again the next day after telling Nicholson to think of something to punch up the scene. As they were filming, Nicholson picked up a gun. "We didn't know what would happen at that moment," Scorsese said. "This is why I do this. Suddenly, everything goes wrong, then right. When something like that happens and Leo holds his own, that's why I made this film."

Frears also had to reshoot key scenes between Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. "When we cut it, bits of the film didn't work," he said. "We shot the wrong scenes. The writer (Peter Morgan) went off and wrote the right scenes about the relationship between Blair and the Queen. I'm always sweeping up behind myself, clearing up what I've done wrong."

Seventeen days before filming "Babel" in Morocco, Gonzalez Inarritu was unhappy with the actors that were being presented to him and made the decision to announce an open casting call from a mosque minaret. The result of placing local nonactors who had never seen a camera opposite such seasoned professionals as Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett so excited and pleased the director that he recast other sections of the movie accordingly. "You pit Andre Agassi with a guy who never held a racket before," Gonzalez Inarritu said. "I was spoiled, or blessed, to have their honesty. Better than that I can't get."

While landing "every one of the roles was a nail-biter," Condon said, he waited until two weeks before filming to add rookie "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson to the "Dreamgirls" cast in the key role of Effie. He had no confidence that he was making the right choice, he said, though an elaborate, full-on screen test helped. He had to go on his gut instinct that she was going to deliver in the role, he said. "I just didn't believe any of the others." When the time came to film Hudson's last song, "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," which Condon called "the Mt. Everest of the show," he had to beg for more extra money for extra days because the untrained singer's voice would give out after four hours of full-tilt belting.

Working with animals proved a challenge for Scorsese, who brought down the house with his lengthy description of filming the final frames of "Departed," when a real live rat walks into the frame near on the principal actor's seemingly dead body. It was the last thing he shot, "three weeks before we printed," the director admitted. Finding the right angle for the rat to enter the frame took weeks.

Finally, Scorsese filmed a rat slowly walking down from the balcony railing toward the actor's body double. "It was a great rat," he said. "A real rat. He loved the job. He was eating croissants. He was having a great time. Another take? No problem." (Visual effects master Rob Legato refined the shot.)

Gonzalez Inarritu had more trouble trying to wrangle a herd of 300 goats into the same shot as two Moroccan boys. "It was a nightmare," he said. "Goats are goats."

Gonzalez Inarritu also saved his elaborate final shot, when the camera pulls back from a skyscraper balcony, for the end of filming. He couldn't get permission from the balky Tokyo authorities to use a helicopter, nor could he string a cable between two buildings. So cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto rigged a dolly and crane on top of the building to shoot the beginning of the shot, and then combined that in the computer with film stills from different angles.

Music video directors Dayton and Faris, who were making their first film feature with a widescreen format and a minuscule budget, liked to figure out the architectural logistics of their filming in advance on video "to see how the shots line up with the camera," Dayton said.

Little Abigail Breslin really did jump into the VW bus herself, they said, though sometimes there was a stunt coordinator inside ready to grab her if necessary. "It's actually fun, if you've ever done it," Faris said.
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