Directors spotlight: Film

Feature film helmers discuss their latest projects.

Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan was asleep in his London home many years ago when he heard a strange popping sound.

Alarmed, he rushed downstairs to find his television in flames. "My television had just exploded," he recalls. "It caught fire in the middle of the night. It made just enough noise that I woke up. It was a surge in the electrical power; it wasn't so safe back then, but it's much safer now."

Nolan's memories of that moment colored his thinking, his awareness of the dangers of modern life -- even when he was growing up in England -- and how much greater they must have been as modern technology seeped into the world in the late 19th century.

That awareness pervades every moment of his latest film, Buena Vista's "The Prestige," about the rivalry between two 19th century magicians feuding against the background of a dawning new age.

Electricity was at the heart of that new age, the borderline between the 19th and 20th centuries.

"I was fascinated by the way in which electricity was used in theatrical settings then, both by magicians dressing up their shows with electricity, and also by scientists, who would do demonstrations in a very theatrical manner," Nolan says. "We tried to incorporate that in the film, that crossover of selling the science of the day and dressing up of the magic of the day to give it some kind of modern credibility."

Nolan also wanted to give his film a modern credibility, so he tried to find ways in which his would be a very different sort of period piece and not rely on the stodginess he felt pervaded so many other period films.

"I wanted to create an idea of the Victorian era -- I wanted to throw the audience into that world in a very immediate way, with the feeling of a contemporary film," he notes. "And so we shot almost the entire film with a handheld camera. We used documentary techniques: Sometimes, scenes weren't even lit; there was just light coming through a window. And we shot in real locations, like those old theaters in downtown Los Angeles, which are remarkably well preserved. We tried to use all those techniques to keep the film feeling fresh and contemporary."

Above all, Nolan wanted to capture the thrill of burgeoning modernity, an electrical age full of risk and danger.

"The Victorian era is always portrayed as this airless time," he says. "But all kinds of things, scientific and industrial, changed at an enormous pace. It was one of the most adventurous times in history."

Oliver Stone

From the moment he was woken by his wife to watch the television as the twin towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, Oliver Stone has been intrigued by the idea of making a movie about that day's events.

When Stone first mentioned it publicly, however, referring to the attacks as a "revolt, a revolution" and saying he would like to shoot a film akin to Gillo Pontecorvo's proto-communist 1967 film "The Battle of Algiers," the controversial director was, in his words, "excoriated" by the press.

Iit was not until 2004, when producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher showed him Andrea Berloff's script about firefighters trapped under one of the towers that he returned to the subject in Paramount's "World Trade Center."

"It was a solid, authentic screenplay about what happened, as opposed to conjecture," he says. Given his track record and his initial comments, Stone surprisingly preferred not to take his movie in a political direction -- in part because of the flak he had received, but also because he felt that "it is going to take a few years for the (broader) patterns to work themselves out."

Later, he acknowledges, "I got faulted by some people for not dealing with that enough. On the contrary, it is extremely important to deal with the truth as we have it now."

When he committed to the film, Stone also was faulted for taking on the subject at all. "It was an issue in the beginning because of the blogs and all that, and the tabloids," he recalls. "They said I was going to make some sort of conspiracy movie of this thing, which was never my intention."

Stone was so concerned not to do so that he met repeatedly with the real-life firefighters, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, respectively), along with their families.

"They were very grateful, humble people," he says. "Both still had significant wounds. One of them still had operations to go; as it says at the end of the movie, he had 27 or 28 operations. They both came close to dying, and this was a very serious effort to study the death states and see how close these men came and what brought them back to life."

Throughout filming, Stone remained intensely conscious of how delicate the subject matter was. "You are dealing with the raw emotions of the survivors and widows and children; you can offend people so easily," he says. "It was a minefield, like defusing a bomb."

Bill Condon

Putting together the right cast for any film is a challenge. Putting one together for a legendary musical is a whole other matter. That is the task Bill Condon faced when he embarked on his $75 million production of "Dreamgirls."

"Eddie Murphy and Beyonce (Knowles) were the first two who signed on," he says. "Jamie (Foxx) I had met with, and he had agreed to do it, but it was hard to make a deal. Everyone took big cuts because of the risk, from a studio point of view, of making a musical."

He adds, "Eddie and Jamie were definitely on my mind from the writing process, and they were the first people I mentioned to (financier and co-producer) David Geffen after he read the script. Eddie had done a record in the 1980s, and I had heard he had a home studio and was very interested. And then I went to lunch with him."

During that lunch, Condon was thrilled by one thing: Murphy didn't want to play Eddie Murphy. "He wanted to be this character," Condon recalls. "It was a period he was obsessed with; he loved Jackie Wilson and James Brown and that whole period of music."

Condon was surprised how shy Murphy was. "He wasn't 'on' at all, but he was naturally funny."

As for Knowles, whom he met with early on, Condon says that despite her enthusiasm for the role and obvious talent, he nevertheless asked for a screen test. "I wanted to make sure someone who had such a strongly developed stage persona could adapt to this period," he says. "And she just nailed it. She did the final scene with Curtis (Foxx), where they have their big fight, and she found her own costume. And on her own, she found a bootlegged tape of the original production, and she worked at it -- and she was Deena."

As for Foxx, Condon was amazed at the actor's willingness to show a less-than-sympathetic side of himself. "He is a movie star who doesn't need to be loved," he says. "By that, I mean there were moments where I thought maybe he was showing such a brutal side of Curtis, we should pull back a little. He said, 'I know these guys; this is what they are like.' He is so uninterested in being huggable. He wanted to tell the truth about these characters."

But the real challenge lay in casting Effie, the overweight singer who steals the show, a part that had launched Jennifer Holliday to stardom 25 years before.

Condon saw that performance on opening night. "We were in the back row and just felt this incredible force that hit you. It reached right back to you. People were cheering in the middle of the number."

Casting the part now, he says, meant "over 700 (contenders) went on tape. I saw hundreds of them and met with dozens of them and did screen tests on about 10 of them. You had to believe she had this gift."

By the time he had committed to Jennifer Hudson -- the former contender from Fox's "American Idol" who is now generating Oscar buzz -- he was only days away from entering an intensive six-week rehearsal period.

At the end of it, the actors felt so right for the parts, he says, "They could have gone onstage."
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