Indie Film Director Roundtable: 5 Top Helmers on Best Career Advice, Budget Challenges and Biggest Fears

Fabrizio Maltese
From left: Susanne Bier, Claudio Fah, Gabe Ibanez, Gabe Polsky and Israel Horovitz were photographed at George Bar and Grill in Zurich on Sept. 27.

Susanne Bier, Claudio Fah, Israel Horovitz, Gabe Ibanez and Gabe Polsky discuss learning how to "fail better," why the first cut is always a disaster and the benefits of receiving advice from Samuel Beckett and Werner Herzog

This story first appeared in a special American Film Market issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The key to being a successful independent director is getting your story told, the way you want it, whatever your budget. The five helmers who participated in The Hollywood Reporter's AFM Roundtable beat the odds to make movies that span the spectrum of genre and style but have found their place in the market.

Oscar winner and Denmark native Susanne Bier, 54, went outside her comfort zone to direct the period drama Serena, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper; Claudio Fah, 39, of Switzerland, braved the coast of South Africa for the action romp Northmen: A Viking Saga; playwright Israel Horovitz, 75, waited nearly 50 years before deciding to make his first film, My Old Lady, featuring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith; Gabe Polsky, 35, a former Yale hockey star, got back on the ice for his Soviet-era sports documentary Red Army; and Spain's Gabe Ibanez, 43, came to direct the sci-fi dystopia Automata via the circuitous route of 3D animation.

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The five met up for a lively discussion in September at the Zurich International Film Festival to talk about failure, fighting complacency and advice from great directors.

Says Horovitz: "Sidney Lumet told me, 'You get the best actors in the world, that's what you do. And then you stay out of their way.' "

Israel, you've been a playwright for decades. What made you want to direct your first film at age 74?

ISRAEL HOROVITZ Well, I knew I was heading for a big birthday [75], and I wanted to do something that would scare me, really. My film is based on a play of mine called My Old Lady that was very good to me, this play. It's been all over the world. It was taken into the repertoire at the Moscow art theater. So I went to Russia. And the role that Maggie Smith plays was played by an old actress who must have had a great career for 75 years, but I missed all that. What I was seeing was someone who looked like Elvis Presley at the end of his life. And I don't speak any Russian, so I started to daydream. … I daydreamed seeing Kevin Kline's character walking through Paris, talking to Maggie Smith's character. At the end of the play, I turned to my wife and said, "I want to make a movie." It didn't hurt that my daughter is a film producer [Rachel Horovitz of Moneyball]; she came on as one of the producers. But you know, I'm an old guy. You make friends. So I was able to call a lot of really good directors I know and say, "Who's the best sound man?" "Get me a designer," "Get me this."

How did the rest of you get started?

GABE IBANEZ There was never a point when I said, "I want to be a filmmaker." I grew up making images and started in the field of computer graphics. I began to shoot short films, just to try and understand how the images work. But I was very interested to know what it is to make a movie. I thought that only by making a movie can I understand the big difference -- gap -- between what you want to do and what you are able to do. And that is the reason I did my first movie, to understand that.

HOROVITZ Samuel Beckett was like a father to me. I met him when I was a very young guy, and it was one of the reasons I kept going back to Paris. He would say: "Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

IBANEZ That's the point. I was trying to do a short film with a very beautiful story, very small, very subtle. And it was a complete disaster. Everything was bad -- the production, the actors, the photography, everything was wrong. I learned a lot about movies from that disaster. But I kept the material and I think maybe in 10 years I will try again. And 10 years after that again. It's a good way to find your limits.

SUSANNE BIER I started in architecture and then I started getting interested in set design. Then I started reading scripts. It was sort of organic. But I think it's interesting, talking about wanting to be afraid or about challenging yourself. We are sort of all saying the same thing. That it's about not wanting complacency. Complacency is probably the biggest hindrance to any creative endeavor. That is what scares me most of all. I really want to keep pushing myself, where I go "whoa" and say, "How is this going to hold?"

CLAUDIO FAH I often wonder whether movie shoots are more therapeutic or more traumatic.

BIER It's about not becoming lazy. I don't mean physically lazy. I mean mentally lazy, not picking convenient solutions.

GABE POLSKY Not repeating yourself?

BIER Yeah, not repeating yourself, and that maybe gets more difficult because it would be silly to just say, "I'm going to do something different," because of course you have experience, which makes you know certain things, so it's about navigating the experience and still challenging yourself.

Susanne, Is that why you've tried out so many new genres -- like Serena, which was your first-ever period drama? Did you have a moment of terror on the set?

BIER Yeah, with all of them you always have a moment of terror. But it is not on a formal level. Of course [with] a period piece there are certain complications, but I don't think it is about that. I think it is really about finding the essence of a story and staying true to that essence and not being scared. For me, all moviemaking -- and I'll be as pretentious to say all art -- is just about consistency. Maintaining the consistency even when you are being questioned. And that can be frightening.

FAH You mean standing up for yourself and not giving in to compromise?

BIER That's part of it, but it's also about being consistent to your own notion. It's also about always asking, "Is this really right?" About all moments, every day on set. Every day in the editing. Is this really right? And it's all about the details. Should it be a full bottle or a half-full one on the table? It's all of it. Does that make sense?

Gabe, before you made Red Army, you were a producer on Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Did he give you any tips?

POLSKY When I made Red Army, I'd show him early cuts because he has a very unique way of looking at things. With Herzog, it's more about a guy who can get into the soul of a character. He's always doing things that are unusual or provoking. He's always challenging the audience. And that really struck a chord with me.

HOROVITZ I was very lucky when I started. I was young when I wrote my first plays, and they got put on. I think when you are very young, it's all about me, me. "Look at me, I'm a writer, I'm a director." The biggest fear you have is you won't be accepted. But at some point, I started to think, "What do people need?" I'm dicking around with their babysitting money and their time. What do they need? Because they are working jobs and I'm just thinking about life. And what interests the public isn't necessarily in the best public interest. Sometimes you have to do work that isn't necessarily what people want, but what they need. So for me, and certainly with the film, I'm thinking, "Why do people need this? What am I doing for people?" It's an important question. I think when you call yourself an artist, you better take responsibility for what people need. I think there is only one question out there and that's, "Why are we alive?" For us as artists, there is a tremendous responsibility, and within that responsibility, a tremendous anxiety. Always. I remember when I put a play, not this play, another play, onstage for the first time; it was a very violent family drama. And the local rabbi was in the audience, and as he was leaving the theater he said, "I didn't know you grew up in my house." And that's exactly it. I mean, the box office is important, of course, and all that, but it doesn't move me. If you touch people, you've succeeded, and you can move on to the next thing.

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How do you choose your material? Gabe, what made you think the story of the Soviet hockey team needed to be made into a movie?

POLSKY More or less everything but hockey. I initially was inspired when I first saw the Soviets play on a VHS tape. I knew something very profound was going on. It was incredible what they were doing. It was a creative revolution. They were pushing hockey the way that film can be pushed, to the absolute boundary of creativity, and that kind of inspired me and made me look into this story. And when I looked into it, as a filmmaker, it was the story of the Soviet Union and the people and the Russian soul. It was a huge story, a human story. It's about betrayals and friendships and all these beautiful things and very deep themes that made me want to tell this story, to jump over the cliff.

IBANEZ My grandfather had a lot of science fiction books, so I grew up with these sort of classic science fiction books: Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem. These stories are inside me. Nowadays, science fiction is a kind of action family movie set in the future. It wasn't always that way. Science fiction used to be something completely different. It was a kind of movie that people did to talk about the human condition. To use the future and technology to talk about what it is to be human. So when I decided to do my movie, I used all these memories from my grandfather to make a science fiction movie about the human being.

How difficult was it dealing with such a big star as Antonio Banderas?

IBANEZ We had big battles, in fact, Antonio and me. But that is not a problem because we are both Spanish -- we understand how far we can go in a battle. But the thing I respect most about Antonio is how he is as a producer. He has done enough movies, so at this moment in his life he is trying to do different things. As a producer, he is behind you, he is saying, "You have to do something different; I don't want something commercial." It is very strange to have a producer like that behind you, trying to keep the strange things you have inside you in the film, to not make it too commercial. He did very good work as an actor in this film but very, very good work as a producer.

Susanne, how do you push your actors to get such extreme performances?

BIER I think great actors, the reason why they are actors is, they want to try extreme emotions. And if it's truthful, it isn't about pushing anybody. I don't push actors. That makes it sound as if they are doing something against their will. I don't think it is like that at all. It is very much like a process of holding hands and figuring out the emotional truth of a scene.

HOROVITZ I knew Sidney Lumet quite well. And a long time ago, I had this dinner with him where we talked about [film] directing. And he said something that had an impact on me when I thought about making this movie of My Old Lady. He said: "You get the best actors in the world, that's what you do. And then you stay out of their way." So I really thought my job was to stay out of their way and just make sure they were all making the same movie, that they were all telling the same story.

FAH I agree. In the end, it's always the text. And then, on an ideal day, as a director you set up a set of circumstances, whether emotional or physical, that allow the actors to take it from there.

Does the size of the budget change how much influence you have, how much negotiation you have to do?

FAH I think with low-budget movies, the fight lies in not allowing whatever entity is responsible for the movie to make you cut corners where you shouldn't and somehow preserve or find the integrity in the story. But you talk to the biggest directors, and they always say they didn't have enough money, even if they had all the money in the world! I don't think the whole money discussion is really important. I think Billy Wilder said, "Nobody says, 'Let's go see this movie, I heard it came in under budget!' "

BIER That's not really the issue; the issue is, where is the borderline, where is a point where you can still have a certain amount of artistic liberty and where does it become super important that it is very commercial. I think it is very different in Europe. In Europe, if I make a movie for between $5 million and $8 million, no one is going to intervene. If you get above $10 million, and if you get up to $20 million, it is a lot of money. Then it is going to be much more fragile in terms of having to be somewhat commercial.

HOROVITZ Our movie was very low budget, under $5 million, with big stars. It wasn't money, it was time. We had 23 days budgeted, and I fought for a 24th day. It was like a triumph. And stamina was a big issue for me. I'm 74 years old, and I was working 22-hour days because we just didn't have the time. Freedom is time. Money is time.

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What are you most scared of?

HOROVITZ It's different at different stages of your life. When you are a kid, you're afraid you aren't going to get the career you want. When you are an old guy, it's different. I remember [writer-director] John Boorman told me something once: He was mentored by the great director David Lean; and Lean was dying and he had John come to the hospital. John said he, John Boorman, couldn't speak because it was so upsetting to see Lean, his father of choice, in such a state. And Lean said, "I'm dying, John, do you know that?" And Boorman said, "Yes, David, I know." And Lean said, "It's a pity, I was just starting to get it right." And he meant it!

BIER I think we are always terrified of failing but also terrified, in a weird way, of being seduced by our own success. I am mostly terrified of losing my almost inarticulate intuitive feeling when I work of, "This is right and that is wrong." My biggest terror is of losing that.

FAH My terrifying moments are not making the day. At lunch I always think, "We aren't going to get there, it's impossible." Then there is the terrifying moment of seeing the first cut and you say, "It's not working."

BIER It is always a disaster.

FAH You want to go home. I always think it is shit, I should never direct again.

POLSKY As a young filmmaker, there are very few opportunities to fail, I think. Movies are expensive. You basically have to knock it out of the park the first time. So my thing is trying to make a movie that is undeniably good. But I guess my question is this: Is there such a thing as undeniably good?

HOROVITZ One of my three sons [Oliver Horovitz] is an absolutely brilliant filmmaker. He studied film at Harvard, he taught there for a few years and now he caddies in St. Andrews [in Scotland] -- he wrote a New York Times best-seller about caddying. But he is really frozen in fear about making his first film.

FAH If anybody gets out of the gates with something like Citizen Kane, that's probably a big burden, too. There's something about going step by step.

HOROVITZ Well, my middle son is one of the Beastie Boys [Adam Horovitz]. I'm sure most of you guys know that. They were 15 when they made it. And I had my first play put on when I was 17. That has its own problems, too. It's like, "OK, I've done that, what do I do next?" It helped me to have three children and no money because I had to keep working and keep boogying, or else how am I going to keep feeding the kids?

IBANEZ There is a writer from Chile, one of my favorite writers, Roberto Bolano. He said a writer is like a samurai, but a samurai who doesn't fight against another samurai but fights against a monster. And he knows perfectly, before the fight, he is not going to win. He is going to die. Still, he goes to fight. For me, my career is something like that. I know at the beginning of my career, I'm not going to be able to get to the point where I want to go. And even knowing this, knowing we are not going to win against the monster, we have to go in and fight.

•••

PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE: THE FILMS

AUTOMATA: Starring and produced by Antonio Banderas, Ibanez's dystopian drama is set in a future when man-made robots designed to protect humanity go awry.

SERENA: Before Bier boarded the project, Darren Aronofsky was set to helm the $25 million drama reteaming Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

MY OLD LADY: Kevin Kline plays a down-on-his-luck writer who inherits a luxurious Paris apartment inhabited by Maggie Smith in Horovitz's adaptation of his play.

NORTHMEN: A VIKING SAGA: Fah's old-school actioner tells the story of a group of stranded Vikings as they battle their way through enemy territory.

RED ARMY: Polsky's documentary uses the history of the Soviet Union's hockey team to tell a tale of Cold War politics and the Russian soul.

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