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Director Roundtable: Guillermo Del Toro, Greta Gerwig and More on Creative Fears and Going to a “Deep, Dark Place”

Six top filmmakers — also including Patty Jenkins, Denis Villeneuve, Angelina Jolie and Joe Wright — open up about choosing the right projects ("You don't want to end up in a bad marriage"), firing staff and what it feels like to direct a movie that bombs: "People think you move on, but you don't."

What if you could put a camera anywhere, at any time in history? What if there were no limits to what you could direct? “That would be suicide,” says Guillermo del Toro, 53 (The Shape of Water), at THR‘s Nov. 12 Director Roundtable. “Limits are what give you freedom.” Still, pushed, he admits he would love to film his grandmother, with whom he had a complicated relationship, to check his memory.

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First-time director Greta Gerwig, 34 (Lady Bird), would shoot Socrates. “He had these dialogues with Diotima, a prostitute in ancient Greece — I would have loved to hear what those women had to say,” she offers. Denis Villeneuve, 50 (Blade Runner 2049), would train his camera on Jesus. Patty Jenkins, 46 (Wonder Woman), would put hers in a high-security prison. And Joe Wright, 45 (Darkest Hour), would like to “see things through the eyes of an angel.” But Angelina Jolie, 42 (First They Killed My Father), thinks far too much has already been captured on film — “from chemical attacks in Syria to the Rohingya being displaced” — without anything being done about it. “I see very little call to action,” she says, with regret.

What direction did you give Gary Oldman when he was playing Winston Churchill?

WRIGHT The rhythm of his character. I talk a lot about rhythm when I am directing. Film is more similar to music than any other art form. I am always almost conducting a scene so that they know where the rise is and where the falloff is, rather than talking about backstory and stuff like that, which I think is fairly useless. And although I am not keen on method actors, I am a bit of a method director in the sense that I have to feel [the characters’] emotions and I have to identify closely with the character. Really those characters are always an expression of myself. So I tried looking for the similarities. Finding out how Churchill and I are the same? Ridiculous! But for me, the film is about self-doubt. And I just had an experience of extreme self-doubt and thought I was going to leave the industry. I made a film called Pan [2015], and it lost about $100 million, and it was universally slighted by the critics, and I thought, “I don’t understand this world anymore. And I don’t know if I want to be a part of it.”

DEL TORO People think that you move on, but if you are worth anything, you don’t move on. You go into a deep, dark place.

WRIGHT Because our filmmaking is an expression of our soul. It’s the closest to my essence.

JOLIE But it can also make you feel stronger. A film I did, By the Sea [2015], even when we were making it, people were saying, “Well, that’s not going to be what people want.” I [heard something negative] on CNN. I was like, “Oh …” Then the young punk in me had this weird moment of: “OK. You did your best, and you learned something, and it’s not for everybody.” It was like a talk with myself: “Don’t become safe from this. If you become safe, you are never going to do anything worth anything.”

Patty, have you ever lost your resolve?

JENKINS All the time. I never decided to be a director. I was at painting school, and my first love was music, and it finally came together when I took an experimental film course and I was like, “That’s it.” But I definitely had many moments where I was like, “Ugh, you could just restore antiques or something.” There was a period of time, not long before I made Wonder Woman, when everything [didn’t work]. I had made Monster [2003], then I had a movie not go, then I had my son — so I purposefully just did pilots for a while. And when I came back, the bottom had fallen out of the indie film market. The films that I had ready to go, nobody wanted to make. They didn’t even want to read them. I was like, “I just want to leave Hollywood.” It’s ironic that I turned around and made Wonder Woman.

What’s the most crucial quality a director needs?

WRIGHT A director has to think in film. And that’s rare. It’s not about thinking visually or dramatically; it’s about seeing the world as film, as an audiovisual, time-based experience.

JENKINS You also have to have some responsibility to the realities of filmmaking. Doing such a huge movie, there is a huge insurance policy on you. You cannot ride a bike. I had a couple of moments where I was like, “Oh, my God, I am the only person who understands how 17,000 pieces are going to fit together.”

DEL TORO But also being fearless. Because sometimes the most brilliant things are those that are closest to being ridiculous.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.