Filmmakers Noah Baumbach ('Marriage Story'), Todd Phillips ('Joker'), Fernando Meirelles ('The Two Popes') and Lulu Wang ('The Farewell') sound off on Netflix pros and cons, Marvel as "amusement park" and "that bulls*** thing where the media picks a movie and declares it means something it doesn't."
Anyone interested in playing six degrees of separation would have had a field day at this year's Director Roundtable — and not just because half of the helmers made their films for Netflix. Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), 77, came this close to producing Joker from Todd Phillips, 48, only to pull out and leave it in the hands of his producing partner, Emma Tillinger Koskoff. His last movie, Silence, screened for Pope Francis I, the subject of The Two Popes by Fernando Meirelles, 64. And he's been longtime friends with Steven Spielberg, who gave Greta Gerwig, 36, notes on her new drama, Little Women. Gerwig, of course, is life partners with Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), 50, and in case you're thinking Lulu Wang (The Farewell), 36, may have felt left out, her own significant other, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), was on the Director Roundtable three years ago.
In the past few years, what's changed the most in show business, for good or bad?
TODD PHILLIPS Three of the filmmakers here, out of six directors, made movies for Netflix. That's been a giant change.
MARTIN SCORSESE The studios just weren't interested in The Irishman. What they'd make back on something like that, they figured wasn't enough, particularly because I had to do the CGI. [Robert] De Niro and I hadn't made a picture since 1995, Casino, and over the years we wanted to make another film. And he comes up with this book that [screenwriter] Eric Roth gave him [I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt]. Becomes extremely passionate and somewhat emotional about it. And I read the book and I said, "This is what we'll do." That was 2009. Got [writer] Steve Zaillian involved. Worked out the structure. Worked everything out. And could not get the financing. Then I got a call from [manager-producer] Rick Yorn, who said, "Are you interested in Netflix?" And the main thing for me was creative freedom. The tradeoff is that it's a streamer. I said, "But it will be shown in theaters, right?"
But they just gave it a short run.
SCORSESE I have had a few films play one or two weeks in a theater and then get taken out. Especially King of Comedy. It lasted a week and a half. Never shown again.
FERNANDO MEIRELLES This June, The Two Popes was in 35 festivals. Then we were going to have two or three weeks of theaters. And then the platform. I mean, it couldn't be better.
SCORSESE We are in more than an evolution. We are in a revolution of communication and cinema or movies or whatever you want to call it.
MEIRELLES And because the audience for Netflix is much bigger than a theatrical audience, they can take risks.
NOAH BAUMBACH Netflix also has made adjustments. Even as recently as two years ago, there was still no exclusive theatrical run. They would do theatrical, but it was always day-and-date. You know, I've never had a movie released wide immediately. It's always been a rollout — New York, L.A., and then you break wider. And often that's where there are bigger challenges, because suddenly you are competing for theaters with giant blockbusters. In a sense, Netflix reflects the traditional independent cinema model. You get to play exclusively in theaters and then the wide break is Netflix. It's a more democratic break for these movies.
LULU WANG But with some of these bigger streaming platforms, it's about brand. And when you are an established filmmaker, you are a brand that they want to partner with. But with newer filmmakers, newer voices, you don't have a brand. You need to build that brand. They wouldn't have the energy to put behind someone like me. Their pitch is, "We have a huge global platform, we have millions of eyeballs." But if you look at the music business, you can put your music on iTunes and it doesn't matter, because people don't know how to find you.
SCORSESE For me it was desperation.
Would you have done the movie for Netflix if it didn't guarantee a theatrical release?
SCORSESE Maybe. It had to be done.
The other change you mentioned recently was you said superhero movies are not cinema, they're theme park rides.
BAUMBACH Marty, what did you do?
MEIRELLES It became a big thing. I was asked in India about that.
You've never been asked to direct a Marvel film?
SCORSESE No. Never came to me. I remember when Disneyland was built. I'm that ancient, you know? I was here in 1970 in L.A. and one of the aspirations of the studios was to become as important to American culture as Disneyland. And the first studio to really do that was Universal with the tour. And then you add the blockbuster on top of that — and why not? People go to the movie. Enjoy it. That sort of thing. So the sense of a theme park has always been there. It's not bad. We used to love to go to amusement parks. But now in an amusement park, you have the film.
BAUMBACH The Kundun ride is amazing. (Laughter.)
SCORSESE It's almost as good as the Bringing Out the Dead ride.
WANG I don't think what you were saying was negative. You were making a distinction between cinema and the other thing, the bigger entertainment thing, which is really made by committee. And that's one of the reasons I don't want to do it right now.
SCORSESE Don't do it.
WANG Because I haven't figured out my voice yet as a filmmaker. But when I was on set, sometimes people were like, "Oh, the girls want to make cinema." And there was this eyeroll.
SCORSESE That's always been the case. It's always been like that: "Won't he stop with this art business?"
PHILLIPS Marty got a lot of heat for [what he said], but I understand it fully. We were struggling to get Joker made, which sounds funny because it exists in the superhero world, but it's really not one of those movies. We spent a year at Warner Bros., and I saw emails back and forth, literally, where they said, "Does he realize we sell Joker pajamas at Target?" I go, "Didn't movies come first and pajamas come second? Are the pajamas dictating the movies?"
SCORSESE No, no.
PHILLIPS Theme park rides. Pajamas. Slurpee cups. Whatever it is that you are selling off the back of movies, you can't make your decisions based on that.
How do you navigate that system? Do you get one person to be your ally?
PHILLIPS Yeah, one by one. The problem at Warners was, the regimes changed so often.
SCORSESE Oh God, yes.
PHILLIPS You finally get everybody on board and all of a sudden they are gone and now you are starting over. And when you start over, sometimes people don't like to inherit stuff from other people. But luckily, the head of marketing, Blair Rich, really championed it, got that it was an anti-comic book movie, so to speak. And in fairness to Warners, it's a bold swing for a studio to take.
Were you worried there might be violence when it came out?
PHILLIPS No, because I just didn't subscribe to that bullshit thing, quite frankly, that was happening in the media, where they just pick a movie every so often and declare it means something that it doesn't. We had think pieces being written where people proudly wrote, "I haven't seen the movie. I don't need to see the movie."
A studio chief told me, "I'm not going to see that movie." I won't say who, but —
PHILLIPS I'll find out. (Laughter.)
Marty, you were going to produce Joker and then didn't. Why?
SCORSESE Personal reasons, scheduling. And quite honestly, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy and Last Temptation of Christ. Those were my fights. We went and did King of Comedy and we were attacked for that and the film was considered the flop of the year at Entertainment Tonight. [But by then] the whole of Hollywood had turned against that kind of filmmaking.
BAUMBACH It's funny, because we all romanticize the '70s and early '80s. Do you think King of Comedy would have done better 15 years later with independent studios?
SCORSESE Yeah. That point in time, Heaven's Gate opens up. That was the end. They had enough of these crazed auteurs. I tried to do Last Temptation of Christ and six weeks before shooting started, it was canceled. At which point, I said, "I think I should leave [the business]." (Laughs.)
And you had death threats when you did get to make it.
SCORSESE Yes, yes. Look, I went through it all. And it's a personal issue about the kind of picture I want to make at this point in my life. You've seen Silence? I am more comfortable there. This picture, Irishman, I am more comfortable there.
MEIRELLES For me, it's been easier. I am finding very good producers. I'm very independent in whatever I want to do, without having to please people because I don't depend on the [studio system]. It's a very good thing about being an outsider. And wanting to be an outsider.
Did you ever think of moving to America?
MEIRELLES No. I have very deep roots in Brazil. And I like to direct in Portuguese. I understand English, but I don't feel English, you know? Like, if you say "mango tree" in English, it's just a tree. In Portuguese "mangueira" is so much more. So I have to direct in Portuguese sometimes.
WANG How big was the bankability of your actors a factor in making The Two Popes?
MEIRELLES I was completely free to cast. When I signed to make the film, I looked for pictures of the Pope [Francis I] to see how he looked. And there were a lot of pictures of him next to Jonathan Pryce, because they look alike.
BAUMBACH You're lucky it was Jonathan Pryce!
That film took you out of the world you know, but how much is film autobiographical?
BAUMBACH It's a question I get on all my movies. Because I tend to make movies that take place in some version of what we think of as the everyday real world. Philip Roth has a great quote. He always started by taking two stones of reality and rubbing them together to spark the imagination. And I respond to that, because often when I start writing, I'll take things that are familiar to me. It puts me in a place that feels grounded and then I can fictionalize and go off from there. I like to shoot on streets that have memories from my childhood. So much of what we do is a kind of conversation with the child we were.
SCORSESE My mother and father were in [my movies].
BAUMBACH You connect to something personal.
GRETA GERWIG Little Women, the book, meant so much to me [as a child]. I don't ever remember not knowing who the March sisters were. They became part of the inner landscape of myself. They felt like my memories. And the scene of her [Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan] trying to sell a story — I know exactly what that is, to sit in front of somebody and try to sell them a story and they're telling me that I need to make changes, and I am figuring out how many changes I can make and still live with myself.
GERWIG [Little Women author Louisa May] Alcott said, "I'd better have my heroine get married and have children because that's what's going to sell." But I have letters from her that say, "I don't want to marry my heroine off to anyone." She made a calculated economic decision.
Is Hollywood improving in its portrayal of women?
WANG If you have women tell our own stories, it's changing.
GERWIG I'm wholesale stealing this from Meryl Streep. I think it's hard to make a diagnosis because when you think of the actresses in the '30s and '40s and '50s, you think about Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell and the things that they could do in films [that women can't always do today]. Meryl said, "Rosalind Russell can come in and yell at anyone and give them what for, because there is no actual chance she is going to take his job. But in this day and age, there is an actual chance that you'll take their job. So it becomes less inviting to have a woman come in and give you what for."
SCORSESE This is the new world we know. And there's room for everybody.
That aside. Do you like the new world?
SCORSESE I wouldn't know. I'm not part of it, I don't think. (Laughs.)
MEIRELLES I'm not part of it, that's good. (Laughter.)
SCORSESE No, I don't particularly care for it. I was born in '42, OK? I was this kid in this little Sicilian enclave and we were looking to 1960. They would have the Chevrolet. Rock 'n' roll. Everything. We went through so much.
Do you miss the past?
SCORSESE You can't. How can you miss the past? I mean, it's gone. But it informs now. And what did surprise me was the breakdown of the institutions in the political systems. The complete breakdown of things I never thought would go.
Fernando, you're dealing with a pretty reactionary political environment in Brazil. How does that impact your work?
MEIRELLES For the Brazilian cinema, it's a very tough moment. [President Jair Bolsonaro] is really deconstructing everything that we built. In the '90s, before I shot City of God, we were producing nine films a year; last year there were 150. But now he is really blocking it all. It's been difficult.
What do you most like about filmmaking?
MEIRELLES I love editing.
SCORSESE Me too.
PHILLIPS We always say: Making a movie is the price you pay to get to the editing room.
MEIRELLES I go to the set mostly to grab things, so I can go to the cutting room. Quiet. Dark. And then you can change the whole script. You change the acting. You change everything.
PHILLIPS Directors by their nature are control freaks and there is nowhere you have more control than in the editing room. Being on-set is fun. Casting a movie is fun. But it's a little out of control. You get to an editing room, you are finally in control.
GERWIG I feel very deeply that movies are made in prep. By the time you are on set, it's too late. It's happening. But I find it puts me most in touch with whatever existential situation is our state [of mind], which is that I feel quite vividly that every second you spend doing one thing is a second you don't spend doing something else. Now that's true for your entire life, but I feel it most vividly on a film set. It's also beautiful to have a timed art form.
BAUMBACH It's the only art form that exists where you actually have to get it done on a schedule. Your deadline is when the sun goes down. You are never going to have that location with all the hundreds of people that you got. But you want [those] parameters.
MEIRELLES You are always dealing against time and negotiating with yourself. That's very hard. That's painful.
WANG What I love about production is it's an act of faith. Every day you show up on set. Is it going to rain? What's going to happen? And if the circumstances aren't what you expect, you have to make the best out of that situation. For example, I shot in China at my grandfather's grave. He died right after I left China. I was 6. I never saw him again. And we couldn't get permission to shoot at anyone else's grave, so I said, "Let's shoot at my grandfather's grave." And the storm clouds are coming and you feel that electricity. That's why I am a filmmaker. It's just magical.
How complicated was shooting in China?
WANG Very complicated and funny because the film is about cultural differences, and then there were cultural differences on-set. Like the way people talk to each other. People didn't call me by my name, they just called me "Director." And then I came back [to the States] and they were like, "What do you need, Lulu?" (Laughter.) And I had to learn a different language because sometimes my DP and I would be saying, "I love the shot, but that tree is not great." And we'd turn around and somebody would be chopping down the tree.
MEIRELLES [Once] I was shooting on the coast of Ghana. We were location scouting and there were some camels. I said, "It would be nice if we had some camels," and two months later the producer called me for a meeting because they were bringing camels from Ethiopia. "This is the camel. We have eight or nine and we can bring 12." And I said, "No, please!"
SCORSESE That happens all the time. I asked for snow when we were doing Gangs of New York. I said, "Just a dusting. A dusting of the set. A dusting, OK?" The producers came to me and said, "This is Italy. They are bringing [the] Matterhorn."
How tough do you have to be to be a director?
PHILLIPS I used to joke and say, "Directing is, you wake up, you have 42 fights and you go to bed."
SCORSESE That's right.
PHILLIPS But you also have to have an incredible amount of empathy with actors and really understand what they are doing and how they are putting themselves on the line. You have to be tough in certain regards with the studio, sometimes with the crew as far as moving it at a certain clip and all that. But you also have to have a great amount of empathy.
WANG And communication. It's about clarity of [communication]. I haven't worked with a studio, but with producers, so often, you are fighting and it's really just about, "Oh, you didn't understand what I was trying to do."
BAUMBACH The thing I always say is: "Don't ever say to me, 'But you said …' " (Laughter.) You want to create time to change your mind. You go in with this battle plan. You have got all this stuff, you prep everything. And then you want the freedom. And sometimes it matches up with what you brought in and sometimes it doesn't at all.
SCORSESE And other times there are some miraculous things that happen by accident. Like the look of Bob [De Niro] and Al Pacino in their blue pajamas [in Irishman]. That changed everything.
MEIRELLES Do you storyboard?
SCORSESE I do.
BAUMBACH I don't storyboard because I can't draw well enough and I don't like having another barrier, hiring somebody to draw for me.
PHILLIPS Making movies is jazz. It's not math. You prep and you do it. But then you come in and it might just change on the day. Every day we made changes [on Joker]. There's that scene where he [Joaquin Phoenix] is dancing in the bathroom and it's scripted as an entirely different scene. He's just done something cataclysmic in the movie. And then he goes into this little, run-down bathroom in a run-down park and he is going to wash his makeup off and hide the gun — and me and Joaquin are on the set and we're just like, "Nah, this doesn't seem like Arthur." So we sat around for 45 minutes while the crew was outside, just thinking about other possibilities. And I ended up playing him a piece of score by our composer. And he started doing this dance. And we just were like, wait, that's the scene.
MEIRELLES Do you improv a lot?
PHILLIPS That wasn't really improvisation. But having done a lot of comedies, we leave it loose for improvisation.
MEIRELLES I love it. You mentioned jazz — I feel like I am a jazz director. I have a plan when I go to the set. But then whatever happens, I have to make it different.
PHILLIPS I was doing a movie with Robert Downey Jr. once [Due Date] and he turned to me and goes, "This feels like we're on the set of a student film." And he meant it as a compliment.
BAUMBACH I find by creating these parameters, it actually gives [space for] what I think the actors would refer to as improvisation. When I have actors who respond to that, it's how I work best. But it's not new lines. I [remember] something Mike Nichols said about acting. He used to do improvisation with Elaine May, and he said, "When you are improvising, you are never thinking about: What would my character do here? What's my backstory? You're just so thrilled to have come up with this idea right now that you can't wait to say it." And he said, "I have always tried to get actors to the place with the dialogue where it has that same feeling of, 'It's right there and it's just coming out.' "
You and Greta are a couple. Do you ask each other for advice?
BAUMBACH It's beyond advice. She's in there from the very beginning. I have been talking about ideas for this movie for years before I sit down to write it. Greta has lines in all my movies that are actually hers. Things she said in life, but also things she wrote, where I say, "Can I use that?"
GERWIG And similarly, there would be days where I would say, "Can you watch the dailies?" Because Noah grew up watching movies and talking about movies with his father all the time, and I didn't spend a lot of time talking about movies.
I heard Steven Spielberg gave you some notes.
GERWIG He did, yes. He gave me great notes. I met him a couple of years ago, and he had shot Lincoln, which took place the same year [as Little Women]. It's the same world. And he opened up every piece of research he had done. How he'd decided to light things, given that it was all candlelight, how he decided to shoot interiors. And he opened the camera he shot Jurassic Park with and he had me smell celluloid, because he said, "You have to shoot on film. It smells different. You cannot shoot a story that takes place in 1861 digitally. I won't let you do it!" And so I actually did end up shooting on film. And when [Sony Pictures chairman] Tom Rothman asked me why, I said, "Steven Spielberg had me smell a camera!" (Laughter.) He also offered to read the script. But I kept rewriting and rewriting and I always felt a little hesitant to show him something I didn't feel was ready.
What was his advice?
GERWIG The first thing he said was, "Just explain to me the story." [It was about] the practice of sitting there and telling someone the story. And then he instantly came up with images and thoughts. He gave me other movies to look at, literary adaptations he thought were useful, particularly David Lean [Brief Encounter]. And then I showed him the film and he talked to me for a long time. He talked through the film from his memory, as he remembered the movie. It's almost like he gave me back the movie. And I love movies, but I think it is something that's given, in a way, person to person. It feels like such an honor to talk with someone who thinks [like that about film].
Was film everyone's first love?
GERWIG I don't know that it was cinema or nothing for me. It might have been theater or something else.
MEIRELLES Well, I am an architect. And before that I tried to be an ocean biologist. But when I was finishing school, I started making experimental videos. And then I moved on to television and then to films.
SCORSESE I tried the seminary but I was asked to leave. After one year of preparatory. It was terrible. I was only 15 years old and I realized when I got in there, this is a big commitment. There was this priest who was a mentor to me and he was an extraordinary man. And I wanted to be like him — but you can't try to make a calling because you want to be like somebody. You have to find your own.
WANG Do you see making films as a spiritual practice, in a way?
SCORSESE If you work that way and you have got a gift, then your work is like a prayer. When you go to work, it's praying.
WANG How do you [maintain creativity if you are] separated from the people? You know, we [Wang and her partner, Jenkins] are trying to figure out where to live. I am like, "I don't want to live in the hills. I want to walk out and be able to talk to the baker."
SCORSESE It's a big test. I was out here [in Los Angeles] for 10 years. And, you know, a friend got a car and I had a car and then they got a nicer car and then … No, I am not interested in that. I can see how you could sink into a situation where you think of a bigger house. You think of a field beyond that house. And what are you going to do with it? You have to go back to the creativity and protect that.
What moment has tested you the most, creatively or professionally?
SCORSESE Last Temptation, definitely. Condemned by very conservative elements that are Christian evangelical. I am Roman Catholic, it's a different thing. And even the hierarchy of the church condemned it without seeing it. It was a nightmare. And I really, really, truly believed in it. And still do. But in a funny way, something happened. About a week before it opened, when I was watching all this stuff go on, I realized the film isn't even important. It's not important. It's about what's happening now. And it saddened me but made me realize, maybe art is important, but there is something beyond that.
PHILLIPS Joker was pretty rough, as crazy as that sounds now. People come at it as a target and start talking about why it's dangerous. And really, we made a movie about childhood trauma and the loss of compassion. Everybody always wants to talk about the spark and not the powder.
MEIRELLES The hardest thing was that I directed the opening of the Olympics in Rio in 2016 with two friends, and I had never directed live. I had to talk about my country to the whole world.
BAUMBACH There were scenes in Marriage Story where I actually had to stop and take walks around the block and shake it off in a way that I haven't had to before.
WANG When I was trying to make The Farewell, American producers said, "This is not an American film." And Chinese investors said, "Chinese people are not going to get it if your main character has this Western point of view." Both sides were like, "We would be interested if you change these elements — if you made it funny, if you brought in an American boyfriend who didn't know how to use chopsticks." My whole life, subconsciously, I have gotten used to compromising. The question is just how far. And still keep my sanity and still keep some semblance of what I am trying to say.
GERWIG There was a time I felt outside of the castle, I so badly wanted to be part of making movies. But all of my [tough moments] are petty. Like people telling me, without me asking, that they didn't like my movie.
PHILLIPS That's the worst.
GERWIG "It wasn't for me." Go fuck yourselves! (Laughter.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.