Oscars: 8 Contending Directors Break Down Their Toughest Scenes to Shoot

10:00 AM 11/30/2017

by Ashley Lee and Patrick Shanley

Darren Aronofsky ('mother!'), Greta Gerwig ('Lady Bird') and more helmers describe their most difficult day on set, from creating a quiet moment at the National History Museum to unleashing chaos around Jennifer Lawrence.

Darren Aronofsky and Greta Gerwig
Darren Aronofsky and Greta Gerwig
Courtesy of Photofest; Courtesy of A24

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Darren Aronofsky


    Courtesy of Photofest

    Definitely it's the last third of this movie [when the home is invaded by a mob]. It's one long scene, we call it "the fever dream," and it was the hardest thing my compatriots and I ever did together. Every department had to evolve and work together to go from something where it's ordered to absolute and complete chaos, and then eventually to birth. Every department had to break down each moment of that 30 minutes into an exact place of where they were. I had done scenes like that in Requiem for a Dream, when the old lady's house splits apart and the fridge comes alive, but that was two minutes. In Black Swan, we had a three-, four-minute scene where she turns into the swan. This was just 30 minutes of sustained chaos. It was about making the right decision in the moment of how something would play out. Anything from the way the blood splatters onto her face, what the pattern of that is — you can design it, but until you're actually doing it, it doesn't really become something. Then you do it, you live with it, and it builds.

  • Sean Baker

    The Florida Project

    Harryson Thevenin/A24

    I know it's a cliche where everybody says, "Our productions are so tough," but I have to tell you, this was a really rough one. We were dealing with 35mm, we were dealing with the hot sun, we were dealing with limited hours for kids, and I did have too few days to shoot. There were problems literally every hour of every day, but I think one of the biggies was the whole final sequence. Even though it was very scripted and procedural, it was very blocked out, even in that at all times there was a tone and a pacing issue where I had to achieve a balance. It was very difficult to know who to hold on and who not to. So, that took several days. I asked for five days to shoot that whole sequence, and because of our budget, I only had two and a half. It was a rough one.

  • Greta Gerwig

    Lady Bird

    Courtesy of A24

    I have a musical in the middle of the movie. In preproduction, there was a lot of, "How are we going to make an entire musical and still stick to schedule and budget?" I said, "I don't want it to be a polished musical. I want it to be what you would make at a high school. I don't need it to be like Glee." A friend of mine, Connor Mickiewicz, came from Sacramento to L.A., where we were shooting, and we had six hours to make four numbers of the musical with the cast. He's a drama teacher in Sacramento, so he does this all the time! We did one day of planning and a few days of rehearsal, but we shot all the musical scenes in one day. We staged a mini-musical and we made Saoirse Ronan do a bunch of box steps.

  • Todd Haynes


    Mary Cybulski/Amazon Studios

    The scene where the boys, Ben [Oakes Fegley] and Jamie [Jaden Michael], first start to get to know each other in front of the wolf diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York was the biggest challenge. The challenge of the film is the museum let us shoot inside, but we could never leave equipment there overnight, so we had to load in and out every day. We could only shoot on the weekends, and we shot in there over four weekends, two days each — and we'd shoot other things throughout the week. We had a significant amount of work to do in there — it's about a five-page scene that's seminal to the film, but it's incredibly close quarters. And in the scene, one boy, Ben, has become deaf but can speak, and Jamie is a product of the New York City public school system in the 1970s, so he actually knows sign language, but Ben doesn't. They're figuring out how to communicate while meeting each other — every time Ben talks, Jamie has to remember to write down his response, and it's a lot of business for these kids, and a lot of dialogue we were doing for the first time.

  • Richard Linklater

    Last Flag Flying

    Wilson Webb/Amazon Studios

    The graveside scene for Doc's [Steve Carell] son's funeral is pretty tough — a lot of moving parts there, and still trying to get the tone right. Also, got to get that flag-folding right. You fold the flag where at the end, only the blue and stars are showing. And if you do it right, it's only 13 stars for the original colonies. Did you know that? It becomes one little triangle, and no red — no blood. Just the blue. That's the ideal. Anything less, you back up and do it again. It took a couple of takes, and if you didn't get it, you just unfold, get the tuck just right and continue. It's not about time, it's about perfection. Once you get into the military rabbit hole, you realize the preciseness. It's like this little world, and, boy, you really strive to get every little bit right.

  • Dee Rees


    Steve Dietl/Netflix

    The opening scene, digging that hole [for Pappy's gravesite], was the toughest scene to shoot. We were shooting on land with a high water table, and it was about keeping the emotion of it without letting the logistics get in the way. In that scene is the theme of the whole movie: We can either choose to bury our history, or we can bury a way of being. It was important that we get it right. It moved many days, many times, for weather. We needed overcast, we needed gray; we couldn't do it in the sun. And that's the first scene, it's how we meet the characters, so it's the most important. So more than the tank battles, more than the lynching, in terms of filming and getting it done, that was the toughest.

  • Andy Serkis


    Teddy Cavendish/Bleecker Street

    We were really under pressure on the last day we were shooting in England, before we were to go to South Africa the next day. We were trying to cram so much in, and we had 25 minutes to shoot the most crucial scene, when the [family is] on the hill with this beautiful sunlight and Robin [Andrew Garfield] tells them he's going to [end his life]. I was working with the DP [Robert Richardson] to figure out how to shoot it, Andrew is in the makeup chair for six hours, and there was literally no time to rehearse. We had to go for it. But actually, it worked out fine. One take, maybe two. That was certainly the most terrifying moment.

  • Joe Wright

    Darkest Hour

    Jack English/Focus Features

    Winston Churchill's [Gary Oldman] first meeting with his war cabinet was 10 pages of dialogue; 17 men sitting around a table, talking. That looks to be possibly very uncinematic, so the biggest challenge for me as a director was finding and shaping that sequence into a cinematic piece of thriller tension. It was a very intense three days to shoot that scene, but we were in that room for two weeks. That room became this extraordinary hot box of drama, but the actors were all incredibly supportive. We just took it piece by piece, and Gary is a great company leader and kept everyone on point and engaged. I always feel like the lead needs to be a company leader. Then in the editing, I was lucky enough to work with Valerio Bonelli, and we would return to that scene over and over. We'd do a pass and say, "It's great," and then we'd go back again and say, "It's not working." We'd go back and back until we ended up with what we wanted.