This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Put six of the world’s greatest filmmakers together in one room, and it’s inevitable they’ll talk about their favorite films. But who’d have thought a visual stylist like Ridley Scott would have chosen an Australian comedy (Muriel’s Wedding) or that David O. Russell would sing the praises of an old British comedy called Hobson’s Choice? Those were some of the surprises that emerged when the filmmakers — Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs), 59; Tom Hooper (The Danish Girl), 43; Alejandro G. Inarritu (The Revenant), 52; Russell (Joy), 57; Scott (The Martian), 78; and Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), 52 — gathered in an L.A. photo studio on the morning of Nov. 12 to talk about the thing they love most. Another surprise? To see how thrilled Tarantino was to be seated next to Scott — and to hear the story of how Scott called Stanley Kubrick to help fix a problem on his classic Blade Runner.
Alejandro, you’ve gone from indie films to the very expensive Revenant. What went right and what went wrong?
INARRITU A lot of things went right — it’s just that, to make it right, we had to fight a lot. I remember Clint Eastwood said: “You are dealing with horses and snow. Sorry for you.” And I didn’t know. How am I going to shoot a horse? I was having nightmares. And everything was in the mountains, in remote locations and incredibly bad conditions. The weather, it’s like a terrorist: Everything can explode in any moment. This was like rock climbing without the rope. Once we established the rules of the film language, we couldn’t change and say, “Oh, let’s go to a blue screen,” because [the film] will collapse. There is no way back when you are rock climbing. You go up or you die.
TARANTINO We had a lot of the same issues. And one of the things that prepared me for that was watching a documentary about Apocalypse Now and hearing [cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro talking about creating an aesthetic: “Once you do, you can’t go back.” I told that to the crew, I go: “We’re going to create this thing, and we can’t go backward. If that means it takes us three months to do this scene, because we have to match that snowfall, then that’s what we have to do.”
You both have films whose budgets soared. Quentin, yours went from $40 million into the $60 millions —
SCOTT That’s not too bad —
TARANTINO Thank you, I didn’t think so. Sixty-five millimeter, not so bad.
INARRITU As my father said, to speak about money at the table when we are eating, it’s in bad taste. A film should be measured by the creative merits, not by the financial profits. Of course, these are business people.
How do you deal with the studio in those situations?
TARANTINO They backed us. Everyone knew what the problem was, all right? It’s not that we’re jerking off. They all see what the problem is, they all know what we’re trying to do. They trust us. They like the project in the first place, so they double down.
INARRITU This is an art form and it’s a business form; that’s why it’s so contradictory, so exciting and at the same time so nasty. But we responded responsibly [to the] circumstances. When we went out there, the budget we all signed was $90 million to $95 million — and we knew that was already dangerous because we could confront problems. Well, guess what? It was the hottest winter in the history of Calgary, which changed weather seven times a day, easily. And we were there in February, running out of snow. Now we were chasing ice, and it was really difficult. That impacted the postproduction because then we were running out of time, so then it cost more money. Was it our fault? No. We responded correctly. There was no indulgence.
SCOTT Planning is a big thing. Who’s your line producer? He may need his head slapped. I’m a strategist because I’ve had so much experience [with] 2,000 commercials, every which way: upside down, in lakes, under water, in snow. And that’s a textbook you’re never going to get in the career as a filmmaker. Watch the problem coming over the horizon, and if it’s a problem, knock its head off before it gets near you.
HOOPER Sometimes your most urgent battles are lack of time and lack of money, lack of resources. And yet we all find ways to render this fight invisible. So when you see the final film, you’re not aware of what the directors were really facing. I had a screenplay [The Danish Girl] with 184 scenes and 44 days to shoot it — four scenes every day. And in the U.K. system, it’s always a strict 11-hour day.
Alejandro, would you make another big-budget film?
INARRITU I don’t know. I’m so exhausted now, honestly. It was the first time that I have done two [films] in a row. I started this before Birdman, so physically I cannot even think about any other film.
What’s the biggest challenge facing film, as a whole, today?
SCOTT The problem with this town is there is no tax rebate. We’re in the village, the place of the beginning of features, in Hollywood, and there is no tax rebate.
TARANTINO There are philosophical problems with films today. I mean, frankly, I have to tell you the truth, a lot of films that 10 years ago I would have actually [gone] out to the theaters and watched, I can wait for them to get to the cable channels. I’m watching them six or seven months later, and I’m perfectly enjoying them, but I didn’t really miss that much.
INARRITU Independent filmmaking has [been] transported to TV. There’s great stories, great things. And in a way, the screens are now full of films that look like TV, just on the big screen. There is no revelation, there is no mystery. I need the mystery of it.
SCOTT The bar is lower because there are way too many films being made. Maybe there’s too many [directors] in the field and therefore the general quality [is worse].
INARRITU What has happened in the economy in the world is happening to film: the 99 percent and the 1 percent division. Now there are super-expensive films or just very tiny-budget films. The middle-class films are disappearing.
What’s the last great film you saw?
SCOTT I saw a very, very good film last night [with] a great comedian now actress —
TARANTINO Oh, the Sarah Silverman movie [I Smile Back]? I haven’t seen it, but I just heard about it.
SCOTT Yes. All this big brouhaha, and all these flashy movies with lots of digital effects and all that shit, and this film has pushed the envelope. … When you see what we had two years ago, three years ago, it felt depressing. I got slightly depressed about the general quality of films.
BOYLE We’ve just come off a bruising experience with Steve Jobs, trying to open it out much wider in America. We failed to reach that widest audience. And you should reach that widest audience, because [moviegoing] is not a club. Its origins are ordinary people at the end of a tough week who just want to go and lose themselves in some extraordinary idea or image or creation.
TARANTINO The key to what you’re saying is that this is a working-man’s art form. It’s not opera, it’s not theater. That was one of the reasons why movies flourished in the ’30s. And it’s not anymore.
Tom, is film a working-man’s medium?
SCOTT Yours aren’t, Tom. You’re highbrow.
HOOPER I hope my [box office] numbers for the past two films [The King’s Speech, Les Miserables] defend me against that. I mean, I’ve always felt I make films for audiences. I really don’t make them for myself.
SCOTT I don’t ever do that. I only make it for me.
INARRITU Well, as a species we look at each other. If tomorrow an atomic bomb finishes humanity and I am the only one staying alive, will I make a film for myself? I don’t think so. We are made to communicate and to express. That’s what film is about: the need to share.
Let’s say that bomb goes off. You’ve got a time capsule and can put one moment from a film in it. What would it be?
BOYLE Oh, it’s the bone, isn’t it? In 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s that cut from the bone to the spaceship. That says something about us, our history encapsulated.
INARRITU I remember scenes or moments of film that even now I don’t understand, but I felt some revelation. Like Stalker from [Andrei] Tarkovsky. Every time I saw that film, I was just saying, “What does this mean?” I am just feeling a revelation of human experience that connects me with something, an intuition. It’s about the point of view and a singular vision, right? So every shot is not a resource to tell the story. That shot reveals who you are.
was this idea that if you are a woman, and your male self is a mask, playing a man would feel like a kind of suit of armor he was putting on to suppress his true femininity.””]
SCOTT You can make a feature film about a pen, depending on what your vision is. It’s just that simple. The biggest single word is vision.
HOOPER The match being blown out in Lawrence of Arabia. That cut from the match-blow to the landscape. As a young child, I experienced that on the big screen in the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, which is the only cinema in London that played those great movies. And there was something so extraordinary about it, but you couldn’t explain it or put it into words. That moment still seems mysterious.
SCOTT [The whole of] Muriel’s Wedding. I’ve seen it six times. It’s fantastic.
TARANTINO I kind of reject the question. Because I don’t know if it would mean anything for future generations or alien creatures. [But] I would probably take a really magnificent cinematic action scene. I’m not going to go through that, ’cause I’m sure I won’t like what I chose — OK, I will: The climax of Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3, directed by Stanley Tong. That’s a sequence that aliens would watch and be amazed by. That could actually give you an understanding of cinema, in all of its bells and whistles and movement.
BOYLE There’s the climax of The Wrong Trousers — that action scene, that’s one of the greatest action sequences I’ve ever seen.
RUSSELL I used that when I made Three Kings. The rhythm of it. With the chase sequences, I wanted them to have that propulsive quality, leaving a village and a missile being fired at them. That’s fantastic. I watched it many times. I watch films incessantly. I like watching films — they’re like music to me. They make me happy. They make me want to live. I’ve been watching a David Lean film, Hobson’s Choice, which is such a treasure and a cousin of Joy, because it’s about a woman — she’s underestimated and she has to go out and make herself. So I would take this scene where her father says, “You’re a spinster, you’re done.” Women get underestimated, anybody gets underestimated. [But] there is no greater inspiration you can give somebody than to underestimate them: That throws down the gauntlet.
Do you feel you’ve been underestimated?
RUSSELL It’s like J.D. Salinger. He wanted to be a great writer, and he was a 25-year-old kid who had a great voice, but it wasn’t till he landed on D-Day and had trauma — he was in every great battle, the Battle of the Bulge — just eviscerating trauma. That made him, that pain and humility. There is a fractured war veteran in all of us, and the more you go through the blood and guts of your life and get humbled, which I got — humbled — it’s a good thing. It makes you more human. It makes you love more stories. You are more open to humanity, whether it’s a working-class person running a metal garage or someone who’s going to do something beautiful and sing.
Have you had moments in your careers where you despaired?
BOYLE I made a space movie called Sunshine. And it’s weird making space movies because you are in the footsteps of the people who have been there before — principally him. (Looks at Scott.)
SCOTT I finished Blade Runner, and it was a disaster. And my investors, who were giving me a really hard time, said, “We have to test this with an uplifting ending.” Why do we always want uplifting endings? “All right. I’ll do it.” By then, I had talked to Stanley Kubrick a few times. I called him up. I said: “Listen. I know you shot the hell out of The Shining. I know you’ve got [hours] of helicopter stuff. Can I have some of the stuff? The next day I had 17 hours of helicopter footage. So the end of Blade Runner is Stanley Kubrick’s footage.
RUSSELL The romantic ending is very magical. And that’s part of the reason I go to the cinema — for magic.
SCOTT You should be my producer.
RUSSELL I know some great directors in our town who have come back from rough experiences and said: “I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” It can be very, very intense and very challenging. But you get to live in a magic world and create magic.
If you had some other career, what would it be?
SCOTT I was at the Royal College of Art with David Hockney [training to be an artist]. We’d have Francis Bacon come and lecture. My biggest battle was at the provincial art school [before the RCA]. I loved to paint motorbikes, and I was always arguing with the tutor. “Why are you painting motorbikes?” And I know now, he should have let me paint motorbikes — that was my thing. I might have been the best motorbike painter ever. So I gave it up for that reason, because I was discouraged. I started painting again, five or six years ago. I just paint myself or the old lady, OK? And I just keep going.
INARRITU I can’t do nothing. (Laughter.) I can’t.
RUSSELL Sometimes people have said to me, “If you were on Survivor, you’d be the first person asked to leave the island.” They’d say, “Can you build a house?” I’d go, “No.”But hopefully I would stay on Survivor because I would entertain people and tell them stories.
Who in this room would survive the longest on Survivor?
SCOTT Oh, I would. I love the physicality of the job.
INARRITU Ridley, how do you maintain physically fit every year, every day?
SCOTT It’s my mom — genes. My mom was 5 feet tall, and she was like the sergeant major.
INARRITU But you don’t have a rigorous diet or exercise routine?
SCOTT No, no. I blew out a knee with too much tennis, so I just try and be sensible with what I eat. Yoga. I like red wine, I love vodka, what can I tell you?
Would you ever do anything else?
TARANTINO I’m probably only going to make 10 movies, so I’m already planning what I’m going to do after that.
SCOTT Why? Why?
TARANTINO I want to stop at a certain point.
SCOTT What would you do then?
TARANTINO I want to write novels, and I want to write and direct theater. I’ve got to see how I feel when Hateful Eight is over, if I still have the same juice for it, but the next thing I’d like to do is a theatrical adaptation of Hateful Eight, because I like the idea of other actors having a chance to play my characters. So that’s where I’m at. I’m working my way into that time period, where I write novels and film pieces and film books, but in particular direct theater.
Have you ever directed theater?
TARANTINO No, I never have.
Have you ever written a play?
TARANTINO No. You know everything I’ve written. (Laughs.)
Hateful Eight had a staged reading. What did you learn from that?
TARANTINO This was actually a big part of my thought process. I wouldn’t be so confident with thinking about exhibition [the movie will have a road-show rollout in 70mm projection] if I wasn’t confident with the material. And the script-reading really went a long way, as far as that’s concerned. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, you can read almost as a piece of literature, but I still had to figure them out [before shooting]. It’s not for sure that I’m going to pull them off. There is a “finding it” in the course of making it. But with Hateful Eight, it was right there. I mean, if I had those actors and we did it in a little theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, 99 seats, it would kill, it would be terrific. I’m not saying the movie is great; I’m just saying that I like the material, so I had a confidence in it.
RUSSELL I would also be a writer. I was a writer before I was a filmmaker. I wanted to write fiction. My father and mother met in the mailroom at Simon & Schuster — my mother was an Italian girl from Brooklyn and my father a Russian immigrant’s son from Manhattan, and they met at Simon & Schuster. My dad was a salesman with a sales case. He would call on all the bookstores, and he knew every great bookstore in America, and he’d go walk into those bookstores. So books were terribly enchanting to me. They supported our household. And I wanted to write one. And I’m actually making a documentary about the fascinating world of [publishing]. You go all the way back to Charles Dickens: When Dickens came to the United States, he was on a train, and he thought it was snowing — but it was people spitting out the window. Spitting was so popular, you would step on a carpet and it would be saturated with tobacco spit. Anyway, so I’m doing that documentary, which is very fascinating to me. But I love writing. I always write scripts; they come in around 175 pages now. They are more novelistic. They have many worlds in them. I think many good movies have many movies within them.
TARANTINO Yeah, that’s what I meant: You still have to decipher [a screenplay]; you still have to break the code when you have these novels that are not scripts.
RUSSELL Yes, yes, yes. And a novel allows you to go into [other stories]. Jennifer Lawrence’s mother [in the film] is into soap operas. So we shot a soap opera from the ’60s to the 2000s, with Susan Lucci and Maurice Benard, who is like the Brando of soap operas. And those guys are like professional athletes. I’d go, “Donna Mills! Susan Lucci! Let’s have a catfight.” They don’t go, “Oh wait, what’s my motivation?” They just go, bang! I was blown away by the power of these women actors.
TARANTINO That might be one of the most interesting things said at the table. The power of soap opera actors. That actually is a nugget, and I buy it 100 percent. (Laughter.)
Did you write Joy for Jennifer? This is your third film together.
RUSSELL There was another thing I was writing [for her] to do. Two summers ago, I wrote about 600 pages, two parts of a big family opus I wish to do — and then I wrote Joy.
INARRITU With Leo [DiCaprio], I said: “I would love to see you fragile, vulnerable, to see the man that can be broken.” And he was very excited about it. And he transformed himself physically. He went on a diet, he let his hair grow to here, a beard that was almost like Santa Claus. What I like is, he is not only an actor, but his comments come from a filmmaker’s point of view. He understands the film. And Leo has this internal rhythm that is just like a machine, like something that is blending things. And I was very impressed by that.
RUSSELL I was talking to him at the same time he was doing this with you, and it wasn’t certain if it was going to happen, due to the weather, and he was briefly considering playing a role in Joy as a singer. So on the one hand, he was talking about playing this singer, and on the other hand, he was going out into the wilderness to do this thing. I called it “the bear movie.” I’d go to his house and I’d say, “You’re going to go climb in that bear body, aren’t you?” But he does think like a filmmaker. He’ll have those conversations for 10 hours.
Who’s taught you the most about film?
HOOPER I remember directing Prime Suspect for TV. It was one of the first days of the shoot, and I laid this long track, and [Helen Mirren] came in first thing in the morning. I said: “Good morning, Helen. You’re going to walk from here to here, and the camera is going to go like this as the camera tracks.” And she looked at me and said, “Well, why am I walking?” I said, “Well, because …” and then I started to run out of steam. And she said, “I think I’d be over there, smoking out the window.” And I thought about it and realized that there was no particular reason why this character would be walking. And this moment of a guilty cigarette, where the character has been giving up, was far better. At that moment, I realized that the truly great actors have a kind of mise-en-scene in their head. And from that moment on, I’ve never imposed the way I’m going to shoot on an actor.
BOYLE We did a lot of rehearsal before we started shooting [Steve Jobs], and then you turn up in the morning and do a little bit of blocking and stuff like that. And [Michael Fassbender] said to me, “Will you shoot the rehearsal?” And we did. And I will always do that now, forever more. It was incredible because it lifts everybody.
TARANTINO One of the things that me and Ridley have in common is we both made our first movies with Harvey Keitel [Reservoir Dogs and The Duellists]. And Harvey really took me under his wing, and one of the things that he taught me in auditions was [what to do when] actors come in. He would say: “Quentin, don’t help them out in that very first reading. Don’t tell them how you want the scene. They’ve had the material themselves, and they’ve come up with their own thing. You will never, ever see what was in their head the very first time unless you let them do it.” And I have held onto that for 21 years.
SCOTT I never rehearse, ever. [But] I storyboard everything from scratch, right through. And so I’ve shot it on paper before I get there. Harvey is absolutely right. Don’t tell them what you want. I want to see how you tick, dude.
Ridley, you’ve had a long career. Do you have any regrets? Do any of you?
SCOTT Nothing, nothing.
BOYLE I did this little family film called Millions. It’s a beautiful little film about a boy and his mom. And one of the great Clash songs was going to be at the end of the movie, and I was persuaded out of it by one of these music supervisor people. That’s the only thing I can think of.
INARRITU I come from a Catholic background, so guilt is a big part of it. But I would have loved to be a bit more practical. I am a little bit romantic, and that can backfire on me badly.
RUSSELL I tend to be hopeful and positive about everybody, and that has made me naive sometimes, picking certain crewpeople that you knew were not going to be in tune with you, and then it turned out to be an unpleasant experience.
HOOPER I feel a lot of my life I’m fighting the possibility of regret. Whenever you make a movie, it’s two years of your life and it’s a huge investment, and you’re not guaranteed that it will find an audience. And I suppose I’m always afraid that I’m going to say no to a script — and realize that was the thing to do. It’s just a matter of time.
TARANTINO The only thing that I actually really regret about my behavior is — especially when the film is a long shoot — you get down, and you just get sick of it. You’ve just f—in’ had it. And that day I feel sorry for myself, and I’m a grumpy a-hole and everyone’s [saying], “Oh, Quentin’s in a bad mood and stay away from him” — I really regret that. And what usually snaps me out of it is, like, “Oh, poor you! You’re living your dream and it’s so difficult. Oh, everybody f—in’ cry for Quentin.”
Do you regret making your recent comments about the police?
TARANTINO Well, no, because I believe I was telling the truth, and I was sticking up for a lot of people who don’t have a lot of power.
Is there any special memory of working on a film that you cherish?
TARANTINO I guess it would be the twist contest in Pulp Fiction. It was just this thing in my head, and the twist sequence would have been there if John Travolta had done it or not, all right? I just ended up having a magnificent dancer who people wanted to see dance. That was the part I didn’t quite get [until] I saw it with an audience. Oh my God! When I watched it with audiences who hadn’t seen it before, when he kicks off his shoes, there was this murmur. “He’s going to dance!” That was a really lovely moment, and I was still very young in my career. It was lovely.
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