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.
Lee, it took you a while to get established. Was that difficult?
Daniels: Well, I started out in theater in off-off-off-Broadway with my partner, Billy Hopkins, who is a casting director and had directed, and I ended up by default producing. It was a struggle. I didn't go to film school. I knew that I wanted to direct when I was 8 or 9, and I read [Edward] Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to all the neighbors on the stoop. (Laughter.) And, yeah, it's been a journey, but it's been a good one.
Do you think going to film school makes a difference? Alfonso, I think I heard that you and Lubezki were kicked out of film school. Why?
Cuaron: The version now or the version when we were 18 or 20? My version now: We were a bunch of arrogant kids! (Laughter.)
McQueen: Are you still?
Cuaron: Arrogant? I hope not.
Doesn't a director need to be? You're telling hundreds of people what to do.
Daniels: I think they confuse arrogance with an opinion. You have to be firm and you have to know what you want, and when you know what you want, you can be construed as arrogant, I guess.
Stiller: But when you're young, you have this naivete or ignorance or whatever that you think you know how to do it, and then that gives you the courage to go and just do your thing. [I recently saw some behind-the-scenes footage from] the first movie I directed, Reality Bites. And I just said: "God, what a dick. I'm just being a total asshole." I really hope I'm not like that anymore. But maybe when you start out, you have to have this blind sort of faith.
Do you wish you'd gone to film school?
Stiller: I wanted to go to USC. I couldn't get in. I just wasn't a good enough student at school, and I went to UCLA as a drama major, and then I ended up just quitting after a year.
Daniels: I couldn't afford film school.
McQueen: I went for three months [to NYU] and didn't like it, and I left. That was it.
Steve, you're an artist as well as a director. How are those jobs different?
McQueen: I don't really see them as different. I just do stuff -- meaning, I see film as a novel, and I see art as poetry. It's doing the same thing. One is linear, the other one is [nonlinear, almost like] Franklin's Fractions of a paragraph.
What made you want to direct?
McQueen: I didn't want to be a filmmaker. What led me in to wanting to make a film was [Irish hunger striker] Bobby Sands. That's what made me want to make a film [2008's Hunger]. It happened in an organic way.
Greengrass: The early, early experiences in movie theaters when you're a kid are very, very important. I can absolutely, vividly remember being taken by my dad to see Dr. Zhivago, one of my most vivid childhood memories. Making films is an attempt to replicate those intense experiences you had as a kid.
Cuaron: I agree. In Goodfellas, the voiceover at the beginning says, "Ever since I remember, I wanted to be a gangster." Ever since I remember, I wanted to be a director.
What's the difference between a good director and a great director?
Daniels: It's a tricky one.
Stiller: Directing is such a subjective thing that it's really probably the person who has that vision. But it's a point of view, and that point of view is what defines the movie. They have their own framework that nobody else can do.
Greengrass: Point of view is fundamental, isn't it? And I think, with a great director, you can recognize in their films the point of view straightaway. And that defines them.
Cuaron: The difference between one or the other a lot of times is time. Because only time is going to really tell what is the stuff that is going to endure. There are so many films that are celebrated one year and nobody remembers them three years later. Or some films that nobody cares about [when they're released] and 30 years later, they are classics. Time is an important element.
McQueen: The other day I was watching [John Ford's] The Searchers, and there is that bit where John Wayne has this thing with his brother's wife -- within this [male-oriented] story of his adventure to get his niece back. To have that worldview but at the same time have the glimpses of intimacy? That's just a great director. 'Cause he's not afraid of his feminine side as much as his masculine side.
Daniels: Being unafraid. Being unafraid of what people will say or how they will judge. Going with your gut. And being unafraid to share your vision with the world.
What about when people are challenging it? You're always getting studio notes ...
Daniels: I don't. I haven't so far.
But almost every director has conflicts with producers and studio executives. How do you know when to stand your ground?
Daniels: Your instinct.
Stiller: It always just comes back to your gut feeling. But that is challenging, and it's challenging making a movie in the studio system where there is an expectation. And they're putting up a lot of money in that type of situation, and you're constantly having to have that dialogue with yourself about what is important to the movie and where do you draw the line.
Russell: There is no note that I won't take. I will take a note from anybody. Because I believe in testing, I like to test it. I don't want to be precious about it. I want to be protected from any preciousness I might have. 'Cause maybe I'm blind to things that would actually be better. So I'll try any note, and then I'll tell you why I think it's better one way or another. But I do feel the studio is my collaborator. I'm always interested to hear what they think. And I try it. I try it a few different ways, just like with actors. I'll say, "Let's try it a couple of different ways," and then it reveals itself to you. It's very surprising sometimes.
Stiller: There's a quote from Chaplin at the end of his career that he came to the conclusion that the audience doesn't know what they want. And I think that's totally spot-on.
Russell: Sometimes audiences want to love a film and are with it, and if they're bumping against something, I should pay attention to that 'cause they want to love it more. You can tell when people are on your side.
Greengrass: You can feel it when you're in there, can't you, when you're in the theaters?
Russell: I love it.
Greengrass: It's actually the sensation of sitting in the theater with an audience [that] tells you more about the movie.
Daniels: For me, that's the note -- when I'm in a theater and I'm watching it with the audience. And then they'll give you notes, and those are the notes that I listen to. Those are the ones that I walk away with.