Roundtable: 6 Top Directors on Fighting With Studios, Firing Actors and Quitting Film School
Steve McQueen, Paul Greengrass, David O. Russell, Ben Stiller, Alfonso Cuaron and Lee Daniels on explaining long days on set to their kids, getting notes from executives and what made them go behind the camera for the first time.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the mid-1990s, Ben Stiller spent some time sleeping on David O. Russell's couch. That's when both were struggling to make a name for themselves and working on Russell's second feature, Flirting With Disaster (1996), in which Stiller starred.
Decades later, they're two of America's most versatile directors -- Stiller, 47, is responsible for this year's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, while Russell, 55, has American Hustle -- but getting there has meant overcoming serious bumps along the way. That's an experience shared by many of the other helmers on this year's Director Roundtable: Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron, 51, The Butler's Lee Daniels, 53, Captain Phillips' Paul Greengrass, 58, and 12 Years a Slave's Steve McQueen, 44.
What's the hardest thing about being a director?
David O. Russell: To not know what your inspiration is. And that was hardest for me about 10 years ago. I was very humbled to sort of lose my way after Three Kings, in my personal life and in my professional life, and it really made me a better filmmaker and, I think, a better person. I feel I found a kind of story with a kind of character that's been three movies deep now -- The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.
Paul Greengrass: That kind of crisis, directors don't talk about enough. I had the same. I had a real problem trying to marry up where I began, which was in documentaries, with features. When I got into my 40s, I had a real crisis, 'cause I felt I'd lost touch with what had got me shooting in the first place. I'd spent 10 years making films and getting further and further away from my point of view. And the funny thing is, it felt like I was getting worse. And it was only when I had to go through that struggle, that crisis, over a number of films [that I found] what was truly inside. You suddenly feel free.
Russell: Yes. You're clear what you want to say. There's nothing worse than wanting to tell a story or sing a song and not knowing how to do it. And when I was younger, that was true. It's very frustrating to want to do something and not know how to do it. And then when you find it, it's liberating.
Steve McQueen: How did you get lost?
Russell: First, I just wanted to make a story. I had written many scripts before I got to make my first feature that went to Sundance. And I was writing and writing and learning a lot about writing. I finally wrote this thing that connected as a blunt instrument, Spanking the Monkey. It had energy in it that worked. [But several films later, with I Heart Huckabees], I think I overthought. I wasn't coming from a place of instinct. I hadn't found my truest voice yet. I went through that, "Jesus, what am I gonna say? Where is my inspiration gonna come from?" Then came The Fighter.
Greengrass: It's not something that happens overnight, is it?
Alfonso Cuaron: Your process, it's very similar to what happened to me. You do your first films with a lot of enthusiasm. I was lucky that my second film [1995's A Little Princess] was a blissful experience. And then I got a bit engaged in the machinery. I forgot that I used to do my own stuff, and I became this reader of screenplays that they were sending to me. And I started forgetting that I had a voice. It started to become more about the industry. And then I did a film that was a horrible experience, Great Expectations (1998). That is a film that I should have not done. I passed many times, and then I ended up saying yes for the wrong reasons.
Russell: I was jealous that you got to make that film because I wanted to make it!
Cuaron: Really, you should have. (Laughter.)
Greengrass: Why did you make that decision?
Cuaron: It's one of those things. I did my first film, and it was well received. And then I was just traveling around, and I started running out of money, I needed to get a job and --
Lee Daniels: So it was the money?
Cuaron: It was not the money ...
Daniels: It was the money!
Cuaron: You know, the possibility of working with Robert De Niro. … And then I lost my way.
Russell: What was your rediscovery film?
Cuaron: Y Tu Mama Tambien. That was with Chivo [director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked on Gravity], actually. What we talked about was, "Let's do the film we would have done before we even went to film school. Let's start from scratch."
Ben Stiller: That's a great movie.
Ben, have you ever lost your way?
Stiller: I've had this parallel career as an actor, and I've always personally felt more like a director. That's what I've enjoyed the most and what I've always wanted to do since I was a kid. Over the years, I felt I started to make a certain kind of movie -- comedies -- which I love, but I've always loved drama, I've always loved all different genres. When Mitty came along, it sort of opened up for me the filmmaking experience: "This is what I should be doing now."
What kind of toll does the filmmaking process take on your personal lives?
Daniels: I'm disconnected with my kids during that time, which I regret, and with my health. I'm in a bubble with my boyfriend, disconnected, too. So when you come up for air and you're out of the edit room, you got issues to deal with. It takes its toll for me. I give it my all.
Greengrass: I find striking a balance much easier now. It's not that it isn't intense, and it's not that you're not in a bubble -- you are. But certainly in the last 10 or 12 years, it's been a lot easier to strike those balances.
Russell: I do think it is an all-consuming thing, like major-league sports, and it's not for everybody. And your family has to be down for that.
Stiller: It's hard to explain that to an 8-year-old. (Laughter.)
Daniels: I made the mistake of doing two movies back-to-back, and it was a very big mistake, because when I came up for air, it was [for] a very brief time to catch my kids, who are getting ready to go to college, and they were in need of me.
Stiller: I literally just went through that with my son. And it's hard because you can't rationalize it. You can't explain it to them because show business, acting, these things don't have regular hours, and sometimes you have to go away. [When] I grew up, my parents were actors, and I grew up experiencing them going away to work, and there is no way that you can explain that to a kid. It's very hard to do it.