Six leading directors — Ryan Coogler, Bradley Cooper, Alfonso Cuaron, Marielle Heller, Yorgos Lanthimos and Spike Lee — discuss how they conquer the fears of actors, the politics of art in "dangerous times," what you learn in film school and what can ruin a project: "In one word, Hollywood."
Directors are usually eager to meet one another, but they're rarely asked to single out the individual filmmaker they'd most like to meet. Bradley Cooper, 43 (making his directorial debut with A Star Is Born), says he'd opt for Mike Nichols, the helmer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Roma's Alfonso Cuaron, 57, picks Billy Wilder, the Hollywood auteur whose dyspeptic humor added spice to such classics as Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot — a man whom Spike Lee, 61, back in the zeitgeist this year with BlacKkKlansman, actually got to meet. Actor turned director Marielle Heller, 39 (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Greek helmer Yorgos Lanthimos, 45 — now a Londoner — both speak highly of John Cassavetes, whose improvisational style led to such classics as Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. Ryan Coogler, 32 (Black Panther), would be glad to meet Oscar Micheaux, the African-American director of Easy Street and Underworld. Unfortunately, none of those legends was available for this year's Director Roundtable; the last of them, Nichols, died in 2014.
Future Roundtable participants will undoubtedly choose some of those who met Nov. 17 at a Hollywood studio for a discussion (edited here for length and clarity) that quickly subverted Cuaron's assertion about them: "No offense, but directors tend to be boring."
Samuel Goldwyn once said, "If you want to send a message, send it Western Union." Agree or disagree?
SPIKE LEE Why you lookin' at me? (Laughter.) Why is everybody lookin' at me?
Because if you don't have an opinion on this, we're in trouble.
LEE Well, we live in very dangerous times. Artists reflect what's happening in the world or what they want to happen, and the great thing about art is everybody can follow their own vision. But for me, this guy in the White House, Agent Orange — these are not America's brightest moments. If you're an artist and you make the decision that you're not going to include politics, that's a political decision in itself.
MARIELLE HELLER But films are as wide in variety as we are as people, so there have to be films that are existing as purely entertainment. We need all of those things in order to meet all of our different moods. I think we have a responsibility as artists to be reflecting the culture, but we're all just artists trying to make things that help us feel better in the world, right?
BRADLEY COOPER It's such a personal art form, and it doesn't really belong to us once we put it out there. Whether it's going to be politicized is really not up to us. It's up to the audience to decide whether they see it politically.
ALFONSO CUARON Everything that we do is going to convey a message, it's going to convey an ideology, it's going to convey a politics, even if you don't intend to do that. And doing a personal film … it's just that more stuff starts to come out that you don't necessarily feel comfortable dealing with — the recognition of your society, of Mexico, for instance, or even my own relationships, and this perverse relationship between race and class that I've been part of just by being part of a certain society, you know? It's not comfortable to recognize those things and be blunt and honest about them.
Was Black Panther a political film?
RYAN COOGLER Yeah. It's about a politician, you know? So there was no way for it to not be. It's a character who is the political leader of a fictional country, but we put it on a real continent, we wanted to set it in the real world. So it's definitely a political film.
What kinds of restrictions come when you are working on a big studio franchise?
COOGLER The biggest difference was actually in the lack of restrictions. We all started relatively small. I've seen all of y'all's first movies, and they were pretty small. When you're dealing with not a lot of money, you've got a lot of limitations, and it helps you to move faster. You can't do just anything. There's maybe only one place you can put the camera, you can only be in this location for two hours. So it makes it a little simpler, which in effect makes it easier. What I found made it a lot harder on Black Panther was you're dealing with so many more people. You've got to get comfortable directing in a room full of 75, 100 people sometimes. A lot of times, I find directing can make you feel like you're naked, you know what I mean? So directing on a 10-person crew is like being naked in front of 10 people, but with 200 people, it's a different ballgame.
LEE That's all the way butt-naked, right?
COOGLER All the way butt-naked, yeah.
Marielle, your film was originally meant to have another star, Julianne Moore. What happened?
HELLER All of that happened before I had anything to do with the movie. You know, movies are like a miracle when they actually come together. They fall apart a million times.
LEE You can say that again.
HELLER This particular movie had a different incarnation, which I wasn't a part of, and Melissa McCarthy and I made a pact when we came on board: Let's never talk about whatever happened before, because clearly there is a reason it fell apart. We want to move forward with good feelings. We loved this character; she was a character whose voice, we felt, we didn't get to hear in movies very often.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on a memoir. How much did you feel you could fictionalize it?
HELLER I'm in the process of making my third movie [an untitled Mr. Rogers biography starring Tom Hanks] about real people, and it's always a tricky thing because you want to be true to the essence of the person entirely, but you also have to be truthful to the narrative. It's always a real balancing act. Lee Israel [played by McCarthy] was a really prickly, difficult person, and we wanted to get that right and didn't want to soften her. And we felt she would almost be the most offended if we tried to make her really likable.
Bradley, you stepped into A Star Is Born after Clint Eastwood left. Did you talk about it?
COOPER In fact, I pitched it to him. He talked to me about doing it before we did American Sniper, but I thought I was too young. [Later] it had passed to him, but he said no. Then I actually had a dream — I know it sounds crazy — and I saw the beginning of the movie and went to Warner Bros. the next day. I said, "I want to make this low-budget idea of A Star Is Born, here's what it is." And they said OK. And then [it was about] just drilling down more and making it as personal to me as I could.
Have any of you made a film that you don't consider personal?
CUARON I've made films that I don't like but — (Laughter.)
LEE They're all personal to me.
CUARON [Great Expectations] probably I did for the wrong reasons.
HELLER What were the wrong reasons?
CUARON In one word, Hollywood.
CUARON Truth of the matter, I was running out of money. And then there was a charming producer and [Robert] De Niro. And I said, "Yes, why not?" But I never had a grip on the material. I'm sure with the same script someone else could have done something good.
Do you think of yourselves as writer-directors?
LEE I do both, whatever story I want to tell. If I didn't write it, I'm not going to let that stop me from doing it.
CUARON (To Lanthimos) The Favourite, is that the first one that you did that you didn't write?
YORGOS LANTHIMOS Yeah. But I was very closely involved for many years in the writing. So I feel like I've put more time in than I've put in films that I've co-written. In the end, even if it's good and by someone else, you shape it in different ways so that it becomes your own.
HELLER That's totally true. I don't know how to do the process if I don't at least put some of it through my fingers, even if it's really in great shape. It's like you have to put yourself inside the characters in some way.
Bradley, why didn't you direct sooner?
COOPER I just was too scared. I just wasn't ready. That's the one benefit I think I have had, waiting so long. You sort of know when you're ready for something.
HELLER What made you know you were ready?
COOPER I knew if I waited any more it was going to be too long. Just mortality. I'd rather fail having tried than not ever have done it.
What did you not expect about directing when you did it for the first time?
COOPER For it to be as joyful as it was. I felt like I was in exactly the place that I was supposed to be in that moment.
HELLER The whole time?
COOPER Not during prep. I'm terrified of prep.
HELLER Come on.
COOPER Well, you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel with prep. You've just got to go down into the cave every day and hope that one day you're going to see the light. But then it becomes fun.
LANTHIMOS I love things in every part of the process, and I suffer in every part of the process. Filming I find extremely stressful.
CUARON It's an intense experience. It's a long process in which so many things can go wrong. At the same time, you know that whatever you do is going to be there forever. Ask me at the end of a film if I am happy. I'm never happy. I'm relieved. If you ask a fox after being chased by hounds for 12 hours and then it goes to a refuge, "Are you happy?" No. The fox is relieved he got away with it.
HELLER The worst is when you have a nagging feeling that something is wrong but you can't figure out what it is. You're sitting there going, "This is my chance, I have to fix it right now."
LANTHIMOS "Let's do it again, let's do it again."
HELLER But I can't actually. And then you have a moment where you go (gasps), "Oh, I got it, I got it, this is the problem! And you fix it."
Does having an acting background help?
HELLER Ryan and I met because we did the Sundance Labs together, and I felt I was the only person who didn't go to film school and there were all these things I didn't know. I didn't know about lenses — that was a big thing that hung me up. And then I started to realize what a benefit I had that I understood the language actors speak. And even though there were a lot of things I had to learn — and I'm still learning, obviously — I felt, "Oh, I have this big benefit, which is: I'm not afraid of actors." A lot of directors are afraid of actors. That's a secret. Maybe I shouldn't let our secrets out.
LEE That's a very important point because, coming out of grad film school, NYU, we knew how to do the technical stuff. But I didn't feel comfortable working with actors until my third film, Do the Right Thing. In School Daze, Laurence Fishburne was giving me direction: "Spike, come here for a second." And I'm glad he did it, because I had not had the language. I was afraid of actors.
HELLER Talking to all these other directors who were coming up at the same time we were, I was realizing: That's what they were all saying. They were like, "Oh, I could talk technical all you want to talk, I can figure out exactly my camera blocking, but I don't know how to get this performance out of this actor." And I realized that the other stuff, I could learn.
LANTHIMOS I was fortunate enough, though I never intended to direct theater, to do plays in Greece, so that enabled me to figure out how I could work with actors and get where I wanted to get. That was a very useful school for me. And if we could exchange two words only and then be in sync, that would be ideal. That's how I go about directing. I try to not speak to them a lot and let them do their thing.
COOGLER The biggest thing that I walked away with from film school is a lot of my colleagues. I met the composer [Ludwig Goransson] that's done all my films at film school, one of my editors who's worked with me the whole time. The community was the most valuable thing that it gave us. And just the opportunity to do it. I'm from a place where it just wasn't really something that people did — from the Bay Area, same place as Marielle, same place as Tom Hanks, crazy enough. But I spent most of my life playing football and thinking I was going to do that.
LEE Making it to the NFL?
COOGLER That's what we thought until I had to tackle Marshawn [Lynch], you know what I'm saying? Then it was a reality check. But once I realized that directing was maybe an option, I just needed time to do it. That's what [film school] gave me — just hours standing on a set, learning what it is. And what you don't know, you're afraid of.
LEE My generation, we went to film school because we wanted to get the equipment. My class was Ernest Dickerson and Ang Lee. The class of 1982, NYU Grad Film School. So all we wanted was equipment, we didn't really care what the teacher was saying. And this is before digital, so it's not like people were making films with iPhones. Of course, NYU might not have the [facilities of] USC, because we don't make those big-budget Zemeckis films … Nah, nah, nah. We just had Martin Scorsese. The Coen brothers. Oliver Stone. Football, you have a better football team than we do. (Laughter.)
CUARON I hear this discussion, and it is like Gucci versus Prada. (Laughter.)
LEE If you want to make big-budget Hollywood films —
COOGLER Not true.
LEE — you gotta go to SC.
HELLER I don't know, I have feelings about NYU too.
LEE You're speaking to the artistic director of the Graduate Film School and a tenured professor. (Laughter.) We kick SC's ass.
CUARON I went to film school [at Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematograficos]. It was a mess, there were no classes and stuff. But this teacher, Jorge [Ayala Blanco], taught an amazing course on film history. And that was even more important than the technical stuff.
Who taught you the most, Bradley, besides other directors like Eastwood and David O. Russell?
COOPER Robert De Niro. I tried to get him to do this movie, Limitless, and combine two characters. That was the first time I tried to cast a movie, even though I wasn't the director, and I went to see him in his hotel room. I was pitching him the whole thing and then he wound up saying yes, which blew my mind because he was my hero. After that movie, he said he thought I should direct. When I was cast in this TV show called Alias in 2000, I moved to L.A., and I was so depressed because I hated it. So I spent all my time on set and J.J. Abrams and I would spend all the time in the editing room and I would ask for everybody's dailies — they were on VHS tapes back then — and I'd watch them all. I've been lucky to have directors who were very collaborative.
Do you have a touchstone film that you watch again and again?
COOGLER For me, it's A Prophet. And I find that when it gets tough, when I'm in that hard part and I'm not seeing my wife, I'm not seeing my family, I'll put that in and it's a reminder of what a movie can be. And I watch this Brooklyn gentleman's Do the Right Thing quite a bit, too. Sometimes you have to remind yourself why you're doing it, what the medium is capable of. And that'll give me a little bit of gas to keep going.
LANTHIMOS I find myself always watching a Miklos Jancso film, The Red and the White.
LEE The films I watch are going to inform me for the film I'm about to do. Research. For Inside Man, we watched Dog Day Afternoon, we watched a lot of heist films. And for this new one, BlacKkKlansman, we shot this on film. I wanted the film to look like what I saw growing up. So we looked at The French Connection, those films of the '70s.
What was tough about making BlacKkKlansman?
LEE [Finding] the right tone. We had to balance it because there's humor in it, which comes from the premise of the film — a black man infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.
I heard there was a disagreement with the producer and the studio about using footage of the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville.
LEE It lasted about half a second. You can't have much of a debate in half a second. That was the ending of the film. There were no ifs, ands, buts about it. There was only one thing. I had to ask Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer [a 32-year-old woman who was killed when a car plowed into the crowd]. I wasn't just going to disrespect her and her daughter like that. So I called her up, and she gave me permission.
Do you have heroes outside the film world?
COOPER A lot. Elizabeth Kemp. She was a teacher of mine at the New School.
HELLER Mr. Rogers because I've been in his world for the past year, and the more I learn about him, the more I realize he's one of the truest people who ever walked the planet. He believed so deeply in all of us and our humanity.
CUARON I don't have heroes. I have a lot of people I admire. [Jose] Mujica, who was the president of Uruguay. He created something very interesting while he was there in the government.
LEE Artists mostly. James Brown, Prince, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson. Ella Fitzgerald. Mandela.
COOGLER Right now it's my mom. Or Patrice Lumumba. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, when they got their independence [in 1960], he was the first elected leader. And he was assassinated by the CIA.
How do you explain what you do to your kids?
LEE My kids grew up on the set, so they know it.
HELLER My son is the kid of two directors. [Heller is married to Jorma Taccone.]
CUARON I tell them I'm a corporate lawyer, that's why I'm away all the time. (Laughter.)
If you could have dinner with another director, living or dead, who would it be?
COOPER I would like to talk to Mike Nichols. I would've loved to have met him. I saw an interview with him, it was two weeks before I was going to shoot, and he said he approaches directing the way he approaches acting, which is he prepares, prepares, prepares. And he shows up on the first day and he throws it all away. And he gave me the courage to embrace that.
COOGLER I'd take Oscar Micheaux.
LANTHIMOS John Cassavetes.
CUARON No offense, but directors tend to be boring. (Laughter.) But Billy Wilder could be one, because apparently he was a lot of fun.
LEE I met him.
CUARON You met Billy Wilder?
LEE Yeah. I got a list. I had dinner with Fellini three or four times, Kazan.
ALL (Gasp.) Wow.
CUARON Who was fun?
LEE Fellini. He was great. I'd call him in Rome every year, every time I had to go to Italy to do press, I'd call him up. He'd say, "Let's have dinner." Billy Wilder, I just called him up, he said, "Come on over."
HELLER Did you always feel like you could just call people up?
LEE After a certain point in my career. (Laughter.)
Is there anybody you'd be afraid to call?
LEE Well, yeah, I mean there are directors I'm not calling, but … (Laughter.) I say my prayers every night because I'm doing what I love, and a lot of people go to their grave having worked a job they hated.
COOGLER That's real.
LEE So we're blessed, I think.
This story also appears in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.