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.
What did you change in The Butler based on the audience reaction?
Daniels: We had the butler serving in the White House, and we had the kids sitting at the bus counter. I had it as two separate scenes, and the overall note from the audience was that it's long. And it was long. So my editor came up with this idea of marrying the two worlds together. And not only did it pop, but it was exciting.
You've all made a number of films. Has the way that you handle conflict changed?
Daniels: There isn't that much conflict anymore, for me. I shouldn't say that because I'm sure I'll experience some on my next film. But I think that the conflict is within yourself.
Russell: I don't know what you're talking about. (Laughter.)
Stiller: But can I say something? I worked with David a long time ago [on Flirting With Disaster], and what I saw in your process was that you were -- and I don't mean this in a bad way [but] in a creative way -- you were sort of wanting to stir up energy, like you wanted to feed off the energy. Sometimes on a film set, it can be slow, and I've always felt that you were trying to get it going. That was just part of your thing, sort of getting people out of a stupor, and, "Come on, let's get some real … "
Russell: … Aliveness. Aliveness.
Stiller: Yeah. And all the chaotic-ness, maybe.
Russell: So it doesn't feel like you planned it in your hotel room. There's a deadness to that. I like an immediacy, a sense of immediacy. Some actors are telling me it feels like they're bungee jumping because you just get plunged into it. But I've also seen them get very comfortable in it.
Greengrass: The hardest thing and the most important thing is to create aliveness.
Cuaron: There are so many different approaches to the creative process. Some directors are very calm. And then you see stories of [Roberto] Rossellini directing his films. He would disappear for one week. Conflict and chaos are part of the process.
McQueen: It's a director's job to hopefully extinguish conflict. I mean, that's what you're there for. Otherwise it's not productive, obviously. And you're there to make a film, and you have to extinguish it and to make sense of whatever that problem is. You're the guy that everyone's looking at.
Daniels: Sometimes you're on the wrong page. Sometimes you have an actor who sees it one way and you know it to be one way, and you sort of have to trick that actor to do it. I don't like resorting to tricks --
Stiller: I'm scared, now. (Laughter.) As an actor, I want to trust the director. Any time I go into a movie, I want to feel that the director knows what he wants more than I know. I look forward to that. And I think most actors do.
Have you ever had to fire an actor?
Daniels: Yes. Because the actress was on drugs. But so was I at the time. It was many, many years ago, and it was a very uncomfortable situation, and it was not good.
Greengrass: "Fire" is a horrible word, isn't it? I mean --
Daniels: Just say it!
Greengrass: Sometimes you get to a point where maybe it's not going to work out.
Daniels: Were you shooting?
Greengrass: I was shooting. Yep. It was really because the way I work is so particular, and there is a high degree of improvisation, but it's a particular form of improvisation, and it's not to everybody's taste, and you have to accept that.
Stiller: A lot of times actors don't feel comfortable improvising.
Daniels: [to Stiller] How do you feel about it?
McQueen: You're a natural, you're a comic.
Stiller: When you're doing comedy, it's a part of it. [But] I never want to rely on it. I never want to go in on the day, saying, "OK, we're going to figure it out, and we'll just come up with something."
What's the biggest challenge to you guys as filmmakers today?
Greengrass: To keep opening up space in the mainstream for interesting films. The interesting thing about the last year or two is that space is starting to open up again, with the films here and last year, too. Yeah, I think that's the big challenge: Can we keep that going?
Stiller: Being willing to take chances. Right now, there is so much of the movie industry [focused on] movies that are slam dunks, sequels and pre-existing titles. It's very important that there are movies like Alfonso's movie, which hit a chord [because] it's different. It's taking a chance, and I think that's really important.
Daniels: When we were getting The Butler off [the ground], I remember every studio passing on it. And so it's good to say to them, "Hey, you know one thing? You're wrong. America saw the film. We made some money. Check, next."
Russell: [The late producer Laura Ziskin] said: "You have to fight for your movie, David. Fight for your movie." And she said it from way deep inside her because she meant, "All the way." Just from the beginning, through the writing, to the very last drop. 'Cause it never ends.