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Roundtable: 6 Top Directors on Fighting With Studios, Firing Actors and Quitting Film School

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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

[pagebreak]

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.

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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.

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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."

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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.