"It's Part of the Job to Be Unsure": Ava DuVernay, Ben Stiller and The Hollywood Reporter TV Director Roundtable
Photographed by Joe Pugliese

"It's Part of the Job to Be Unsure": Ava DuVernay, Ben Stiller and The Hollywood Reporter TV Director Roundtable

by Rebecca Ford
June 13, 2019, 6:00am PDT

Patty Jenkins, Adam McKay, Jean-Marc Vallée and David Nutter also sound off on their disagreements with actors, lessons learned from social media, the high stakes of telling dark, real-life stories and hearing Obama say, "You kill all my favorite characters."

There was a time, not so long ago, when the small screen was considered a step down for a film director. But THR's first-ever TV Director Roundtable features a dream list of top helmers, from auteurs (Sharp Objects' Jean-Marc Vallée, 56, and Succession's Adam McKay, 51) to one star turned director (Escape at Dannemora's Ben Stiller, 53) — plus two of the only women in Hollywood who've headed up $100 million studio films: Patty Jenkins, 47 (TNT's I Am the Night) and Ava DuVernay, 46 (Netflix's When They See Us). But today, most of the attention is focused on David Nutter, the longtime TV helmer who directed three of the final six episodes of Game of Thrones. That's because it's May 10, there are just two episodes of the HBO behemoth left, and Nutter, 59, is one of the only people in the world who knows how it all ends. While McKay can't resist trying to extract a spoiler or two ("Does the last dragon die?"), Nutter stays mum — but all six helmers do speak frankly about their greatest challenges, their disagreements with actors and their biggest fights to make their dreams come to life onscreen.

Most of you are best known for your work in film. When and why did you want to direct TV?

PATTY JENKINS I like having the different options. Right after I'd made [2003's] Monster, I made a concerted effort to go and direct Arrested Development because I missed comedy. It was funny how people thought it was so strange and made such a big deal out of it, like, "Why would you do that?"

BEN STILLER It's just changed in terms of the opportunities that are available now. In a lot of ways it's more accessible as a filmmaker to be able to work within it — you're not thinking about box office, you're not thinking about how many people are not going to see it. And there's a chance for a lot more people to experience it and to take your time and tell the story the way you want to tell it.

AVA DUVERNAY To me it's really the same thing. I don't think of it as film and television. [When They See Us] was originally supposed to be a theatrical piece. And I said, "No, I think it's a series because I need more time." And it also has to do with racial bias and all this stuff that I think people don't really go to the movies for. The lines are so blurred now that when I think of what we're doing in TV, I don't think of the TV that I watched when I was younger. I think of it now as a story that can take any form we decide.

Much of the subject matter you all handled is dark. How do you protect the actors and make sure no one gets too worn down?

DUVERNAY With these historical pieces, whether it's Selma or When They See Us, making sure the actor knows what happened before, knows that what they're doing is steeped in history, that they are playing real people, what the stakes are, that this isn't happening to you, that this happened to someone else and that you have to tell us what that was. So you've got to go deep because Korey Wise, who is in this piece, was actually abused in jail. So how do we reflect that in a way that is true to his experience? If you don't do it, no one's going to do it. I also do have counselors on the set, particularly with this piece, if anyone wants to talk, if you just want to go cry, if you want to sit alone.

ADAM MCKAY That's a really interesting idea. I've never heard that before. Did anyone ever use them?

DUVERNAY Yeah.

DAVID NUTTER I think the most important part is information. I fall back to my hero, Sidney Lumet — it's all about taking actors into rooms, talking them through sequences, letting them know what's going to happen and making sure plenty of rehearsal time is allotted. This final season was good because we had all the actors get together at the beginning and we all read the scripts. And then for four days, I blocked out every scene, every two-hander, every group scene they were all in.

MCKAY What about the last two episodes? What were some things that happened in those? (Laughter.)

NUTTER Well, I can't tell you that. But it was funny, in season five, speaking of not knowing what was going to happen — I didn't want to read what happened to Jon Snow in season six, so I never knew how that ended. So I was at a fundraiser with President Obama at Chuck Lorre's house, and they were all excited I was there because they were showing the last two episodes of season five. The president shakes my hand and says, "You didn't kill Jon Snow, did you?" (Laughter.)

JENKINS That's funny.

NUTTER I said, "Yes, sir, he's deader than dead." He goes, "You kill all my favorite characters." I didn't lie to him, but the next season people came back and said that I'd lied to the president. I was waiting for the IRS to come get me, but fortunately they didn't.

How else do you make the actors' comfort a priority?

STILLER As a director, you can figure out where you put the camera — maybe you're sure, maybe you're not — block the scene out, and all that is really important is to have an organic process to make it feel right, but then those actors have to be there and do it.

DUVERNAY I want to make sure that they're as pleased with it as they can be because I get to go home and play with all the toys and edit. I can't imagine being an actor. They're so brave. It's their face, it's their body, it's their memories. And then they literally have to say, "OK, take care of all of that that I did and I hope it turns out OK." I could never do it. I'm too controlled.

MCKAY It's so true. I've done small parts — I've given myself like two lines, and it's just misery. These actors have the hardest job ever because there is, like, such an ego death that goes into acting.

NUTTER This year on Game of Thrones, and I've had this before, other shows, people's death is their last scene. And to me that is such an important thing, making sure that they feel comfortable with it. I would always let them know that this is the one, this is the angle, and I'll keep doing it until you feel comfortable because it's too important. Because they have to walk away feeling that they contributed to that. I heard a story once that acting is standing in front of a crowd naked and turning around very slowly. (Laughter.) And it really is that.

Many of you have worked with the same actors on multiple projects. What is it that creates strong connections with specific actors?

DUVERNAY It's when you get to a place where you barely have to say what it is that you're doing, or when you say it and they just know it right there. I have it with David Oyelowo, I have it with Storm Reid. And I have it with Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey Wise in this, who has a whole episode just dedicated to his performance, in the prison.

JEAN-MARC VALLÉE I think we're almost all from the school of less is more. On Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew [McConaughey] and Jared [Leto] were doing "more is more," and I was telling them, "It's too much movement. The hat, the cigarette, this fiddling, the scratching — I don't know where to look, guys." And Matthew was telling me, "Well, Jean-Marc, Texas is movement." It becomes a dance. And finally they proved me wrong, the more-is-more approach was goddamned right for this film.

MCKAY It's like syncing up your rhythms between how you saw the story and how they saw it — it's that trust. Christian Bale is the funniest because the first time I worked with him he didn't know that I did bits, that I joked around. So it took me weeks to get to the point where I was like, "I'm going to joke around with Christian Bale." And there was finally this big take at the end of The Big Short where his character walks off set and writes on the board, "+380 percent." And basically he's been proven right. And of course he did an amazing take, we did two takes, we did three takes. … I came up to him and I just said, "Christian, we got it, but wouldn't it be great on one take if you just turn to camera and kissed your fingers and said, 'Peace out?' " (Laughter.) There was this long pause, and Christian just looks at me and goes, "Naaah, I don't know if my guy would do that." And I went, "I'm screwin' around with you, Christian." And you could see these lights just went on, and from then on it was bits, nonstop.

STILLER It takes a little time if you don't know the actors. We had an episode where we were doing single shots, and it was the seventh or eighth day of shooting. There was a long scene where they've escaped and they come out of the manhole and the whole scene was in one shot. I remember Benicio [Del Toro] going, "You're going to do coverage, right?" I'm like, "I don't think we're going to do coverage." (Laughter.) And he's like, "Really?" I understand as an actor because I remember doing a scene in Royal Tenenbaums with Wes Anderson where he did a single shot, and it was this emotional moment and I kept asking him, "You're going to do coverage, right?" And he kept saying, "Yeah, we're going to do coverage." And he never did coverage. That was his way of making me not stress out about it because he knew how he wanted to shoot it.

VALLÉE I did coverage, a close-up, just to keep the relationship with an actress. I knew I was never going to use it — and we didn't.

Adam, you used a lot of improv on Succession. Was there a moment that came out of improvisation that you particularly loved?

I always throw improv in there to make sure that there’s some collisions and accidents. We had some classically trained actors who just looked me straight in the eyes and told me, “There is no way I’m improvising.” And sure enough, on the day, I would yell out, “Hey, try this,” and they would go, “No.” And the whole crew would get still for a second and I would just say, “We’re rollin’, you might as well.” Then they would start to do it and of course they would fall in love with it — every actor does. There’s a family dinner scene that’s the birthday for Logan Roy and that’s entirely improvised. I gave everyone their own conversation and I just did the dolly track around the table — we circled the table and did it three times in a row. They were incredible.

As the leader on set, what do you do when you feel unsure?

NUTTER Every time I get a script … you're never sure. I guess you're going to fake it until you are.

MCKAY I always find, like, yelling at people works really well to make me feel stronger and better, even if it's over nothing. (Laughter.) No, I think you should be walking on set with a certain degree of uncertainty. That's actually a healthy part of the process.

VALLÉE It's part of the job to feel unsure. As a director, the more I work, I feel more confident about my tools and the craft. Before I needed to shot-list, storyboard and be creative before the day, before the shoot. Now I don't shot-list, I don't storyboard. I know I'm going to figure it out with the actors and the crew. When you're doing the big films and Wonder Woman and Game of Thrones, you have to prepare, I guess.

JENKINS Yes, you do. I had scenes that took three weeks [to shoot]. Not only are you shot-listing, but there were periods of time where I was like, "Please don't die," because I was the only person who knew how, like, that compromise I had made up for with that compromise. There's no way I can explain to anybody how that's all going to fit together.

STILLER That's the only reason you didn't want to die? (Laughter.)

JENKINS No, there are other reasons, but there was a period of time where I was on a flight with one of my producers and it was three-quarters of the way through the movie — and we had really bad turbulence — and I emailed: "If the plane goes down, just know I'm not OK with that … whatever." (Laughter.)

Several of these projects are based on real-life stories. How much do the real people weigh on you when you're making a show like this?

JENKINS They weigh on me a lot. However, at a certain point, once you really are close with the spirit of who they are, you have to just know that you're doing your best. You have to make sure that you're centered and on the right spot and being respectful, and then from there, you and the actors have to say, "We have to also be alive in this moment."

DUVERNAY It was imperative to me that [the men originally convicted for the 1989 rape of Trisha Meili] be happy with this. I told them at the beginning that there was nothing that I was going to not include if I found it and I wanted to make sure that they were good with that before we started, and they all agreed to that. Anything that I wanted to talk about or I wanted to portray, we had agreed before that it would be up for the taking. They were on set, they read the scripts before. For 30 years the Central Park Five were never heard from. Their confessions were coerced, the press coverage was skewed, and the injustice that happened to them was really that they were silenced. So this whole piece, I did it to give them a voice; I had to honor that at every turn.

Ben, Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell, played by Patricia Arquette, has said she didn't think her portrayal was accurate. How did you take that?

STILLER I felt OK with it because I felt confident in the research we did and that we were trying to be as accurate as we could be to what happened. I don't know what happened in certain parts of the story and we weren't making a documentary, but I also was pretty, I think, obsessive about trying to get as much of the real story in there as possible. I talked to a lot of people who were a part of that story and people who worked at the prison, and you kind of have to take all that information and synthesize it and then make your own choices. For me, the goal was to humanize the characters. They're all people who, in this story, have done pretty bad things, and I just wanted to show them as people, not try to apologize for them in any way.

What did you have to fight for to tell this story at the scale you wanted?

STILLER It was getting to shoot at the real prison because for budget it's just always hard to go to the actual places. And for us to have access to the prison, it was in such a unique location, nestled inside the Adirondack Mountains, it was almost impossible to re-create. And it was part of the story because these guys escaped and they went out into the mountains. So we were literally six weeks away from shooting and we didn't have a location secured to be able to shoot up there. We were allowed to go inside the prison — and to have people who worked at the prison be technical advisers was the most valuable thing.

MCKAY Oh, wow.

NUTTER I like limitations sometimes because limitations help me build a world. Because if you have no limitations, then you've got nothing to grab on to.

VALLÉE On every project now, I fight for number of days of shooting and 9-to-6. I don't want to shoot before 9 a.m. I'm 56, I'm tired.

DUVERNAY Can I come and work on your sets?

JENKINS I didn't even know that was possible.

VALLÉE It's got to be a 9 a.m. call on the call sheet. If it's not 9, I'm like, I'm sorry …

DUVERNAY Truly, I could never say that, I feel like I could never ask for that.

MCKAY Clint Eastwood and you, those are the only two people that could do that.

DUVERNAY I could never get away with it. I would be seen as a diva. "I don't work before 9." I just can't. I think it's your accent.

STILLER It's definitely the accent.

With social media you can get instant reviews of your projects — do you read those reactions?

STILLER I don't read reviews. I stopped reading reviews a long, long time ago because I feel like you always know — you know if they're good or they're bad. I never found that it really helped me. But this was really interesting because I saw how people started to engage with the series and that connection that they have, which is really personal. And then it was fun to actually be able to interact with some people on Twitter about the show. But I also found that I had to be really careful and not get too deep into it.

NUTTER I've kind of chosen television because of the quality of the material that I'm offered, not being a writer. I've turned a lot of features down. The one thing you don't get is the box office, you don't get the reviews all the time. But when I did "The Red Wedding," that was an episode that once I finished it and then I got a chance to watch, there was about a 15-, 20-minute tape that people had compiled, their reactions to the end of the episode. And it's quite something to see that what I was doing was affecting people in that respect, people jumping up and down on their couches, screaming and yelling and crying. When you get to things like the coffee cup on the table or something, that's just … she ordered herbal tea and she got coffee, so that was a mistake. (Laughter.)

What did you feel when you saw that people spotted that coffee cup in your episode?

NUTTER The first thing I said was they had changed an angle of the take, so I wasn't there when they changed it, so I didn't blame myself, which was good. And then I looked to see if it was maybe mine — it wasn't. But I think the show is so damn perfect in many respects that people love to find the blemishes, it's just a little non sequitur that doesn't really amount to anything at all.

VALLÉE I just don't care about continuity. I just don't care.

MCKAY Watch Goodfellas, right? The continuity is nonexistent.

JENKINS I know, it's my weakness — everybody is always pointing it out and I'm like, "Ugh."

MCKAY It's a good sign that people went through frame by frame to find that coffee cup.

What is a movie or a TV show that you feel every aspiring director should see?

NUTTER The X-Files, because it was really the first show of its kind that dealt with the extreme possibilities out there that people didn't really realize was possible and setting it in a real-world tone, which I thought was really well done. It was just the look of the show and the tone of the show was something I thought was a real pioneer as far as that was concerned.

VALLÉE The Sopranos. It's how to create the best character-driven, emotional driven TV series where you get in and you're sucked into it and you love the characters and you're not supposed to love them. They kill people —

NUTTER But he loves his family and he loves his people that care for him.

DUVERNAY The first thing that came to mind wasn't a film or a TV show, it was Hamilton. It broke every rule and it was extremely successful. And for me, it's all the work that I did pre-Hamilton and after Hamilton for me. It really changed my view of creating work, that there are no boundaries. You're not bound by history, you're not bound by gender, you're not bound by skin color — you're bound by nothing as a creator.

STILLER The first movie that came to my mind was Dog Day Afternoon for me. You look at that movie and it's all about character, the tone is defined by the characters — it's not a comedy, it's not a drama. It's a drama but it's really funny — the way that he put it together, the trust that he had to just tell the story, no music.

MCKAY It's one of the greats.

JENKINS It's funny because I was going to say something else, but I just thought of one and it's for a weird reason. I like asking people what their favorite movies are and I'm always so interested what you learn. But the one that just came to mind was, I asked my grandmother and she had answered The Best Years of Our Lives. And I was like, "Oh great, Grandma. Cool." And when I watched that movie — that was such a radically modern movie. It was one of the first times I think that something like war was looked at in such an incredibly interesting way that it rocked my world. Because I was like, they're using real people with injuries from war and they're actually stopping and making you look at it in this incredibly fresh and interesting way.

MCKAY I would say Election. What I like about Election is it deals with very heavy themes in a very light way, and I think its narrative structure is so interesting — how it uses practical narration to tell this elaborate story that's really about America and American repression. It's one of the ones I always go back to. It is one people forget about because it kind of looks like a teen comedy if you're not paying attention, but it's intimidating how well done that movie is.

Ava and Patty, you are two of the only women so far who've helmed a $100 million studio movie. Are you influenced by being a role model in this space?

JENKINS I would say not for the most part. For the most part, I choose things — bigger, smaller, whatever — because I want to and because I like it. But definitely I have had moments in my career on my way up, which I've talked about publicly, where there was a big movie I was going to do that I could tell was not headed in a good direction and I was like, "It can't be me. If I do it, it's going to be a huge deal that a woman did this. If a man does it, it's not going to be a big deal." I didn't feel it with Wonder Woman because I thought I was the right director at least to try. I think about it when I negotiate my contract and things like that. It matters. It does matter.

DUVERNAY Do I think about being a role model when I choose things? No. It's too hard. I've got to just like it for myself. I'm tethered to these things for years. My name is on this, that matters to me; this is what lives on when I'm done. For a long time, I didn't want to be social justice girl. I mean, I get every slavery script. Every history script, every first black firefighter in Delaware. For a long time I resisted. And after Wrinkle, all I wanted was to tell something true and something that was real ­— and I went right back to the place that I said I didn't want to go. So with [When They See Us] I realized: You are a social justice woman — and that's OK. Whether or not that puts you in a pigeonhole in the industry or you've become a role model or whatever, you like this — and so do it for yourself.

VALLÉE Choosing your film is choosing your lifestyle. Are you going to be happy waking up in the morning doing this and serving it?

DUVERNAY I'm going to be happy now because I'm going to start at 9 a.m.! (Laughter.)

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.