Glourious Basterds

Leading filmmakers talk about the peculiar challenge of writing and directing their works

Awards Watch: Writers/Directors II

"There's a famous story about Billy Wilder," Nancy Meyers recalls of the days when Wilder was a screenwriter but had not yet become a director. "He wrote a (scene) where a man was having a bowl of soup, and his tie fell into the soup."

Wilder went to the set, only to discover that the scene had changed: The man was no longer wearing a tie, but rather a bowtie -- an object somewhat unlikely to fall into a bowl of soup.

"That was the moment he decided he needed to direct," quips Meyers.

When the age of the Hollywood auteur hit its stride in the 1970s and an explosion of talent wanted to do it the Wilder way, filmmakers like Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma chose to helm their own screenplays with a minimum of outside interference -- in contrast to the Hollywood heyday of the factory system, when the two tasks were poles apart. These heavyweights set the stage for contemporary auteurs like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, and while the level of freedom may not be the same as it was in the anything-goes '70s, the advantages remain.


Scott Cooper with Jeff Bridges on the set of "Crazy Heart"
 
Not every writer wants to direct, but those who do both jobs relish the challenge. How they handle that challenge, however, differs greatly from one filmmaker to another.

Writer-director Scott Cooper thought of those '70s filmmakers when he came to make "Crazy Heart."

"I never attended film school, so what I did was watch films from the 1970s," he says. "I would watch them with the sound off, so I could watch how Terrence Malick or Peter Bogdanovich or Hal Ashby would tell stories with just the frame, the characterization, the lens, and see how they would move the camera and tell the story. That was my autodidactic film school experience."

Despite this being his first time behind the camera, Cooper had a clear vision for the film that was informed by his work as an actor.

"It was all about behavior for me," he says. "So I approached it clearly as a writer, but also as an actor, and then, to give it the visual flair it needed, as a director. But I wanted the film, much like the great films of the '70s, to feel as though it were invisibly directed and edited, so that I wasn't flashy, so that I wasn't saying, 'Wow, watch how clever I am and how I move the camera.' "

That said, Cooper admits to exerting the kind of far-reaching control that comes with directing your own script: "I knew exactly what I wanted every moment. I knew the crease I wanted in (Jeff Bridges') pants; I knew the production design."

Meyers, too, exerts tremendous control over her projects. Yet she steadfastly refuses to make changes to the script once shooting is under way.

"I like the script to be locked well, well, well in advance," she says. "I spend a lot of time on the screenplay and get it in what I hope is shooting shape before I even give it to the actors. Sometimes there's little word changes; you obviously have to accommodate things (such as) a set that didn't work out. Those kinds of normal technical things I do change, but I do not really rewrite once I begin shooting."

The "It's Complicated" filmmaker, who spent 16 years as a writer-producer before shifting to directing, says her screenplays have always been "laid out very carefully in terms of what the expectations were and how (they) would look" because, as the screenwriter, she "can't help but think about how they would be staged."

"You can answer all the questions," she adds. "You understand what it's about and why the scene's in the movie, because you thought so much about it when you were writing it."

Like Meyers, Anderson normally avoids rewriting during the shooting process, but that changed once he began working on his first animated feature, a rollicking stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

"With an animated movie, the process is much slower," he says. "You edit the movie together with storyboards, and then you can watch the whole movie with recordings and drawings, so you can then start rewriting; you're rewriting a cut of the movie." On "Fox," for instance, he added the entire "whack-bat" concept -- a sport at which Mr. Fox excels but his son doesn't -- about six months into production.

Another aspect of the process that differed from the norm was Anderson's decision to do the bulk of the writing at Dahl's house (along with co-writer Noah Baumbach). This offered Anderson the writer an opportunity to hew closely to Dahl's unique world, and also allowed Anderson the director to do some early location scouting.

"I had a thought that maybe we could start writing it at Dahl's house, Gipsy House, in England," Anderson recalls. "And that's where we set to work, and it was actually very inspiring working there because our goal was to try to make the movie as much like Dahl as we could. That's where he'd written it but also where he'd set it."

When Tarantino sat down to write the first draft of "Inglourious Basterds," his audacious, blood-soaked World War II epic, the most exciting part was a task every writer must confront.

"Part of the (challenge) is facing the blank page," he says. "And then when it's all over, there's a movie, where at one point it was just a blank piece of paper."

For Tarantino one of the greatest advantages to writing his own scripts occurs in the casting stage. As the creator of the characters, he says he feels an obligation to do whatever it takes to match the actor to the role and not the other way around. It's that kind of intimate understanding of the characters, he says, that leads to a relatively obscure actor like Christoph Waltz eventually garnering raves for playing the ruthless Nazi Hans Landa.

"One of the things that's just a big thing about me being a writer-director, where they're married the most," Tarantino notes, "is, as a writer, one of the most important things I do is create these characters. And at the end of the day my obligation is to treat these characters with integrity, because I've created them."


Quentin Tarantino on the "Inglourious Basterds" set
 
He adds, "One of the things that I've learned is that you just always have to stay with your characters when it comes to casting. Your job isn't to get excited by a sexy actor that walks in the room and then you change the character to fit this sexy find that you have. Your job is to take care of the character, find the right actor to play them to make that character just the way you wrote it come alive on the page."

While Tarantino says he doesn't show anyone the script during the writing stage, he has developed a unique method for "finding the bad notes," as he puts it.

"People never read it until I'm done. When I hand it out, it's done. But what I do is I'll read people scenes, usually because I've just finished writing and I'm excited and I call somebody or somebody comes over -- 'I have a new victim! I can read them something!' And I'll do that all throughout the course of writing the script, just constantly read scenes out of context to people. And when I'm doing it I'm not really doing it even to get their comments; I'm doing it to hear it through their ears. I write it, and then I read it out loud, and then I (think), 'Sounds good, sounds cool.' "

Fashion designer Tom Ford didn't initially know he wanted to write his feature directorial debut, an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel "A Single Man." But he knew which parts of the book spoke to him and which ones he wanted to emphasize. "If you have a story you want to tell," he says, "it (seemed) natural to me to be very direct in how I wanted to tell it."

While Ford made just two small line alterations during shooting, he did make one major change to the script by adding a voice-over, written after the film was finished.

"It needed the punctuation," he says. "Because the book is an entire internal monologue, I tried desperately not to use any voice-over and to create, in a sense, a silent film where the action would tell the story and then layer on dialogue. But at the end of the film, I realized that I needed a voice-over to set the film up and to really drive home at the end what the message was."

Given that this was his first foray into writing and directing, Ford says he willingly blurred the line between the two disciplines during the writing process.

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"I broke all sorts of screenwriting rules," he says. "Since I was directing it, I wrote often even in a shot-by-shot fashion, meaning in the screenplay, it says, 'We start on the ceiling, we're looking at George, we push in, we become intimate with his face.' " Ford visualized the scenes as he wrote them and kept binders of images for each character. "There's a shot in the film of a family in a bomb shelter, and I took it right from the cover of Life magazine 1962."

Did the double task of writing and directing overwhelm him?

"Oh, I loved it," he declares. "I would come home from the office and write a couple of hours every day in the way that other people would run home and read a book. I couldn't wait to get home to rework a scene, or if I thought of something during the day. If I had a holiday, I would write the entire time, and then other times I would have to put it aside for two or three weeks because I just couldn't figure something out and I would just have to sit with it and kind of let it come to me. I absolutely loved it.
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