THR's Directors Roundtable
Six top directors discuss vision, battling with actors and the MPAA.
Which sex scenes did the MPAA force Lisa Cholodenko to cut for The Kids Are All Right? Why hasn’t Peter Weir made a studio film since 2003? And does David O. Russell really regret feuding with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings? Those were among the hot topics at the final roundtable in The Hollywood Reporter’s annual series. Cholodenko, Weir (The Way Back), Russell (The Fighter), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) got together Nov. 13 for an hourlong discussion at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood.
The Hollywood Reporter: Let’s plunge into one of the most controversial issues: the MPAA and ratings. Derek, how did you feel about the NC-17?
Derek Cianfrance: I was shocked when Blue Valentine received a NC-17. (The MPAA changed the rating to R on Dec. 8.) I don’t think we got that rating for what we show; I think we got it for how we made people feel. We put them in uncomfortable and sometimes very intimate places, so in some ways I see it as a compliment. But it’s also insulting to me as a filmmaker, to my actors, who really put themselves in these raw, vulnerable places, and to have this body basically telling them: “That’s too much; that’s too raw. Pull back on it.” If we cave in and water our film down, then who would ever want to see that film after that? John Wayne has that line in The Quiet Man where he says: “When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey. When I drink water, I drink water.” I don’t want to make this a whiskey-and-water movie — this should be pure whiskey.
Tom Hooper: We got an R rating [for King’s Speech] because of 17 uses of the word “f---.” What I find amusing is that the word is being used in a therapeutic context. It’s not being used in a sexual context or in its aggressive context. The argument goes that you have to judge violence contextually, but you cannot judge language contextually. But you could say that one bullet through the head is a PG-13, two or more bullets through the head is an R. You could quantify violence as well. But the rule is, if it’s one “f---,” it’s PG-13; two “f---s” or more, it’s an R. I find it extraordinary that you can’t take context into account. It’s funny because I’m sitting at a table with a filmmaker who made a scene that stayed with me: that scene in (Weir’s) Witness, you know, [when a young boy witnesses a graphic murder] in the loo. There hasn’t been a time that I go to an airport or train-station loo without absolutely seeing the experience through the prism of that scene. I was actually 16 when I saw that film, and yet it was so powerful that it’s lived with me for the rest of my life.
Peter Weir: I’ve had my battles over nudity in this country. In The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), there was a death scene where a child had died. His mother was a very poor woman, so I went along with the ritual that they observe in Indonesia: The naked child was laid out, and there are flowers around him, and they drizzle some water on him. He was lying on his back, and he was about 7 or 8. I was stunned when it came back for U.S. television and it had to be cut because it was male nudity. It was obscene that they would look at the scene in a sexual way.
Lisa Cholodenko: Did you get an R for Requiem for a Dream?
Darren Aronofsky: No, Requiem was released NC-17, which was a disaster.
Cholodenko: Did they talk to you about exactly how you should cut it to get that R?
Aronofsky: Yeah. They said, “You can’t show contraception going on dildos.” They said exactly that. I said: “That’s showing safe sex. It’s actually teaching something.” (Laughs.) Sex and violence have been flipped in this country, where we are training soldiers but you can’t show any form of sexuality, which is just ridiculous. You know, my kid does not react when he sees Calvin Klein ads of Eva Mendes looking beautiful on a huge billboard — he doesn’t notice it. But when he sees that Nikita ad [for the CW show], which was everywhere in New York with that crazy gun, the 4-year-old is like, “What’s that gun?” What are we teaching these kids?
Cholodenko: Who is the MPAA? I got my notes back after screening The Kids Are All Right, and they seemed very oddball to me. They picked two scenes to pick on. One had to do with gay male porn. That one I can understand. They said I should cut back on that because it’s underage kids watching it [in the scene]. I can live with that, even though I didn’t think it was gratuitous and was in context. The other — since they wanted probably to be fair and they didn’t want to hear me gripe — was this straight sex scene that’s Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, and it’s done comedically; it’s just a sloppy, silly grope. They didn’t like how long I stayed on the sex position of Mark from behind Julianne. They thought that was going away from comedy and becoming gratuitous.
THR: How many seconds was it, and how many seconds did they want?
Cholodenko: We went back and forth, and I kept lopping off frames. “It’s not enough; it’s not good enough.” They don’t tell you exactly, so it’s very cryptic.
Aronofsky: “Because we don’t censor you,” or whatever it is.
Cholodenko: Anyway, at a certain point I just said: “I’m not going to go back and forth with you. I’m going to do this scene in a different way.” I regret that I did that. I mean, it’s fine; it still plays as comedy. But now when I look at it, I’m like: “Was that lazy? Was I just under the gun too much? Why did I buckle, and what was it for?” Now I look at the film, and I think: “That’s a bummer. That’s the permanent record of that film.”
THR: David, The Fighter doesn’t seem as brutal as something like The Wrestler. Was that your choice, or were you pushed by the studio?
David O. Russell: No, I thought we did it as accurately as we needed to. I come from the school — “If you want me to make you feel something, that’s not hard. I’ll kill a kitten in front of you, and you’ll feel something. You’ll feel f---ed up.” What is harder to do is to create a dimensionality of a person who is human and is f---ed up but also funny, but also sympathetic, disliked but also rootable. So those are things I sort of go to as a magnet.
Weir: Or using a crafty angle: You think you saw the kitten strangled. There is no shot of anything being strangled, but I swear I saw it. It’s the context. Look what Hitchcock did, the kind of tension between a male and a female, and his kisses — I’ve studied his kisses.
THR: Derek, you spent 12 years on Blue Valentine. What did you do to earn a living during that? People assume that directors make tons of money, but if your budget was $3.5 million …
Cianfrance: I didn’t make a dime on Blue Valentine — not a penny. It came down to, we were exactly my fee short.
Aronofsky: It’s always that way! (Laughs.)
Cianfrance: Yeah, they paid me, and then I paid it back. I still have to pay taxes on it. I actually had to pay to make the movie, in a way. But what’s the choice? To make a living, I started making corporate documentaries or commercials.
THR: Is the image of the director — the Otto Preminger, megalomaniac type — still accurate? Or have the kinds of people who become directors changed?
Cianfrance: James Cameron — he’s that guy, right? It takes all kinds. There’s so many different ways to make a movie now.
Cholodenko: I think the culture’s changed so much that you kind of can’t get away with that. We’ve had social revolutions since then. People don’t like to be demeaned.
Weir: It’s also not exclusively directors who have this problem. It could be actors or …
Cholodenko: Do you think there is a culture of directors who really are like that? I feel like I hear about them very rarely.
Weir: We don’t get to see each other working. Actors will tell you something sometimes, but it’s hard to know. I hear more often that directors don’t communicate. That’s probably the complaint I hear most from the crew and cast. Sometimes those directors are very glued to what they do.
THR: Do you ever lose your temper? David, you’ve gotten into one or two battles. Do you regret them?
Russell: Of course. They are terribly embarrassing and are my worst moments, and they make me be more vigilant to never, ever repeat such a thing. It’s not like I say, “Gee, that’s how I work.” Those are just terribly bad days for me and for the actors together. It sort of eclipses everything else and what a great time we were having all around; it becomes distorted. There were big casts in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, and there were a lot of people having a great time, and then this one incident eclipses it. It just makes me want to feel like I never want to have that vibe, ever. What was nice about The Fighter was that Mark Wahlberg and I were very united at the top of the food chain, and that just set the tone for the whole movie.
THR: I don’t want to embarrass you, but the conflict with George Clooney on Three Kings did get some attention. Do you blame yourself for that? Did you then go to him afterward?
Russell: It’s such old news; I hate to even rehash it. Of course I went to him, and of course I tried to do everything I could to make it as good as it can be. I’m not a tactful or political person, to my own detriment, so I don’t try and go behind myself and clean up, which is when things take on a life of their own.
THR: What is the most important quality a director needs to have?
Weir: Luck and timing. (Laughs.)
Cholodenko: A kind of perceptivity, like taking the temperature all the time. How fast is this moving? How slow is this moving? That kind of managerial head. And also with the actors — where are they? When can I push?
THR: What‘s the best way to handle studio notes?
Weir: I have an arrangement before I start: I accept notes but enter into no correspondence. I will never discuss what I did with notes, otherwise it’s too tiring to say why you didn’t use something. I’ve managed so far to get by with that instruction. In the future, I’ll have it in my contract, I think. Perhaps it should be in writing. I have had to remind people.
THR: Peter, your most recent studio film was Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003. Why have you not done one since?
Weir: The studios have changed. They haven’t developed the sort of films that I’m interested in. It’s been a big shift in that period, but I did work on — between that film and this one — two studio pictures that just didn’t get off the ground; they didn’t work.
Aronofsky: It’s really hard to make films in today’s world. After doing The Wrestler, when everyone was like, “Why are you doing a wrestling picture with Mickey Rourke?” And then it did OK. And I thought when I put together Black Swan with Natalie Portman, a legitimate movie star, it would be a lot easier. But it was much more difficult than raising the $6 million we raised for The Wrestler.
Aronofsky: It wasn’t quite a genre film, and no one really knew what it was, so it was a real challenge. It’s hard when you are the only person in the room that wants to make a film, which has been how it’s been every single time so far. (Laughs.) Now it’s become much worse because all the independent film money has dried up. There’s basically one studio that’s releasing these films. It’s basically Fox Searchlight, and then there’s Harvey Weinstein and a few other options, but it’s gotten so small that it’s just a really tough time.
THR: Tom, when you are directing someone else’s material, do you still think of yourself as an auteur?
Hooper: I’m a rewriter-director, I suppose. (Laughs.) I was talking to Anthony Minghella once about what it’s like for him being a writer-director, and he said when you’re a writer-director, directing is just another step on the continuum of writing, whereas if you direct material you didn’t originate, you’re in an antagonistic relationship with the text from the beginning. You are totally aware of where it fails you; you’re always dealing with its flaws. I always dream of having that relationship with my own script, but I can’t because I generated it. When I first started making films as a teenager, I wrote and directed all the time, and I remember feeling frustrated that I couldn’t see the flaws of my own writing immediately. When I start with a piece of material that someone else has generated, I absolutely see the flaws the first time I read them, and I’m incredibly clear about how it needs to be rewritten in order to deal with it.
Russell: I had to make The Fighter personal, and I had to relate to the people in that script. These were real people. I was intrigued by the women: There’s a bleach-blond mother, Melissa Leo, and seven bleach-blond sisters — all real.
Aronofsky: You did such a brilliant job with it. I met the people. I developed [Fighter] a little bit before David took over, and Melissa Leo’s portrayal is unbelievable. I’m just scared people won’t believe it, but it’s unreal. It was perfect casting.
THR: Darren, why did you drop off the project? And how does it feel seeing it done by someone else?
Aronofsky: I was excited to see how he would turn it into a David O. Russell movie. I did The
Wrestler, and I was kind of done with men who smelled of Bengay.
THR: You chose to leave?
Aronofsky: Yeah, I was there, and Christian [Bale] was involved, and Mark [Wahlberg] was incredibly passionate about it. Scott Silver, who wrote the script, I had met in film school and brought him on. It was a fantastic project. I just realized I wasn’t ready to do a male fighting trilogy or something. I had done my combat movie.
THR: So it doesn’t hurt or frustrate you when you see somebody else’s version?
Aronofsky: It wasn’t when it was David because I’m a fan. People have always talked as if there’s competition, and I always talk about my (1998) Sundance experience; Lisa was there with High Art, and I was there with Pi.
Cianfrance: I was there with my film Brother Tied, too. I don’t want to talk about it; I was really mad at you guys. (Laughs.)
Aronofsky: I got lasting friendships from filmmakers there. When I was in film school, it was extremely competitive. Then I went to Sundance, where the competition meant something, and I’m still friends with a lot of those filmmakers that were there. I never was competitive with what David would do; I was just excited to see the film he was going to turn it into.
THR: Do you look back at your films and think they’re good?
Aronofsky: It’s funny, I just did one of those things where you sit there and they show clips from your movies in front of people and stuff. They showed a clip of Pi, and I was humiliated. It’s kind of like when you find your poetry from when you were 14; it’s really humiliating.
Cholodenko: That’s interesting because you went to AFI as a director, right?
Cholodenko: I went to Columbia in New York, and they don’t let you say what you are going to do there. So you go, and you have to go through screenwriting and producing and directing, and I found what was really valuable to me — especially when I went to film school, which was kind of at the height of the American indie moment of the ’90s — was that I felt like writing was really my ticket. Knowing how to write a screenplay and then going off and making this low-budget feature, High Art, was really the only way I felt like I was going to be able to get in and become a filmmaker.
THR: I find it interesting that James Schamus taught you, and his Focus Features is now releasing The Kids Are All Right.
Cholodenko: It wasn’t like it was yesterday. (Laughs.)
THR: Do the rest of you have major regrets when you look back at your early films?
Weir: For me, the curious thing was seeing them with my children as they grew up, when they would find a video and say, “Dad, this is one of yours; can I see it?” Then the strange thing of wanting them to like it, and you would know when they would say, “I’m going to bed; I’ll see the rest of it tomorrow.”
Russell: My son likes my first film (1994’s Spanking the Monkey), and watching it with him was so painful to me — to see all the mistakes I felt I had made. Fortunately, some life inside the film took over halfway through, and I was like, “This isn’t so bad; I can live with it.”
Cianfrance: I think the mistakes are important, you know?
THR: Do you really think the climate for independent film is that tough?
Hooper: Is every film around this table an independent movie?
Hooper: Well, that tells you the story.
Aronofsky: The last time I did the Directors Roundtable, it was the opposite: I was the only independent. It was two years ago. It was all studio films.
Hooper: What strikes me about everyone’s stories is that all our films sound like they can do well financially. When you actually look at them, it doesn’t feel like any of them are really tough, commercial-no-go areas. But it feels like the risk has been put back on the filmmaker. In other words, we have to take the risk. We have to do it for these small budgets and then, if they’re successful, the people who participated certainly have to shoulder as much risk.
Cholodenko: I think it’s going to shift back. I feel like it just has to shift back because I’m amazed. People keep saying, “I’m going to stay at home and watch TV on my computer.” But people love to go to the cinema — that’s just how it is.
Hooper: The truth is, there is always space for another good film. In a week when there are a number of good films, I just go to the cinema more.