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This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s November AFM stand-alone issue.
The definition of an independent filmmaker is someone who can make a big movie on a little budget. The four veteran directors and one newcomer who participated in The Hollywood Reporter‘s AFM Roundtable have done just that this year.
Oliver Hirschbiegel, 55, braved the British critics with his Lady Di biopic Diana; James Gray, 44, took Marion Cotillard through the dark side of 1920s America in The Immigrant; Atom Egoyan, 53, dramatized the notorious case of the West Memphis Three, teens who were tried and convicted of murder, in Devil’s Knot; Jonathan Teplitzky, 54, explored the real-life horrors of World War II in The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth; and, in his Sundance-winning directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler, 27, traced the final hours of Oscar Grant III, who was shot dead by transit police in Oakland, Calif., on New Year’s Day 2009.
The five met up for a lively discussion in September at the Zurich International Film Festival to talk about their inspirations and fears and to give advice for aspiring directors. “Become a waiter in a busy restaurant,” says two-time Oscar nominee Egoyan. “It’s the best training for life on set.”
Was there a specific moment when you knew you were going to be a director?
JONATHAN TEPLITZKY: I started really late. I didn’t go to film school until I was about 30. A friend of mine, an actress in Australia, came over one day and said, “Come to Cannes with us. We’ve sold the film, we have a hotel.” It was 1984 and I saw [Jim Jarmusch‘s] Stranger Than Paradise and [Andrei Tarkovsky‘s] The Sacrifice in 24 hours, and they both left such an impression on me. Stranger Than Paradise showed how [feasible] it was to make a film, so simply and so distinctively. And with The Sacrifice, it can be about anything. It can be about what you dream, what you think.
OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL: Stranger Than Paradise was also my key point. I was making art and performance pieces and a little bit of experimental video. I met Jim Jarmusch at one of the film festivals in Italy. And he said, “Man, you should make proper movies! You’ve got the stuff!”
ATOM EGOYAN: I’m coming from theater. My first year at university, I submitted a play to the dramatic society and it was rejected. And I was so angry that, out of spite, I went to the film club and said, “OK, I’ll make it as a movie.” And the moment I held the camera, I had the idea that this was another character, and that’s cool. Because of my relative ignorance of cinema culture at the time, I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a breakthrough idea, that other directors had thought about this, but it sustained my early passion.
RYAN COOGLER: For me, it was kind of weird. I’m from the Bay Area. My parents have pretty blue-collar jobs. … I got into science. And I played football. I was a crazy athlete. So I got a football scholarship to St. Mary’s College in the Bay Area and I went in as a chemistry major. I figured if football didn’t work out, I’d be a doctor. This was a liberal arts school, so they made you take creative writing courses. The teacher came in and said, “Your homework assignment is to write about your most emotionally intense experience.” So I was hanging out at the dorm room and I got a call from my professor: “Come down to my office.” I thought I was in all kinds of trouble. I went down to her office and she sat me down: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I said, “I’m playing football for now, and if that doesn’t work out, hopefully I’ll become a doctor.” She was like, “I read your paper and it’s very visual. I think you should consider becoming a writer. Maybe you could write screenplays.” I was 17. I didn’t even know what a screenplay was … but I had $20 in my pocket, so I went to Circuit City and bought Pulp Fiction, and it had the screenplay attached in a CD-ROM. So I put that in and that was the first time for me seeing it written like that. I thought, “This is pretty cool,” and so I started writing. And I just fell in love with the process.
JAMES GRAY: I was a loser kid in New York in the late ’70s, and I loved going to the movies for fun. I’d seen Star Wars and Rocky and Jaws. Which I still really like quite a bit. And Superman and these movies. And then, in an act of complete parental insanity, my father took me to see Apocalypse Now at the Ziegfeld Theater. August of ’79, so I was 10. It is very infrequent that you have an epiphany in your life. But I remember quite clearly. The movie began. I heard Jim Morrison. A bunch of palm trees exploded, and I knew I wasn’t watching Superman. And it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. And then about six months later, I saw Raging Bull, uptown. And that was pretty much it. I got the bug after that.
The kind of films you make would have been studio prestige projects in the 1970s. Now they are indie movies. What’s changed?
GRAY: Well, the movies got considerably worse. 1980-81 was a big sea change. In the ’80s, UA goes bankrupt, Ronald Reagan becomes president, the country becomes quite conservative. The multinationals bought the studios, and they realized instead of making $8 million on a movie, it would be better to make $800 million. Instead of platforming, releasing in one or two theaters, they started releasing in 5,000 theaters, which is the anti-quality maneuver. Those movies are not reliant at all on people liking them. They are only reliant on a simple marketing hook.
EGOYAN: Yeah, it’s interesting. Because when I think of a film like yours (to Gray), like [2007’s Palme d’Or-nominated] We Own the Night, I think it should reach a huge audience. Because it has that feel of an epic and it is so entertaining and it has these incredible set pieces. But it’s interesting; that kind of film is difficult to situate now for most people. It’s character-based, it has spectacle, but it is not a studio film.
GRAY: Mostly people say that style of filmmaking has been taken over by television. But it hasn’t really because the TV form is different. The TV form goes on and on indefinitely.
EGOYAN: It’s like the novel. Where our form is more like the classic short story.
GRAY: Exactly. The best movies are often based on short stories. Rear Window is a Cornell Woolrich short story. … That’s to me what always made movies such an incredibly rewarding art form. You could almost hold them in your hand. They say TV is taking it over, but on TV you really don’t have the time for something beautiful. You have the time for maybe getting the nuts and bolts of the story. That’s why you see very little poetic stuff on TV.
HIRSCHBIEGEL: Jarmusch was the guy that kicked my ass, but of course I saw all these other movies too, [and] as soon as I wrote my first script, I realized I was trying to do just that, this mix of spectacle and truth. It became a natural thing for me to tell the story in an entertaining way but not to cheat the audience. Authenticity and truth were always my main objective. When working in the studio world [on the 2007 Nicole Kidman starrer The Invasion], I realized there are limits to that. And in the studio world, all of a sudden there are deadlines. I had to start shooting with a script that wasn’t there yet. So that’s not a very nice experience. But I thought, “Well, I’ve done this before, sort of like an experiment. It might go well.” It didn’t go well. It was an awful experience.
Would you go back?
HIRSCHBIEGEL: Sure. At the end of the day, as you all know, it’s about the script. If you have something you believe in, something you have a vision of, you know how to do, then it doesn’t really matter. You have to deal in a different way with the studio executives.
TEPLITZKY: It’s interesting what you’re saying about truth. Having now just done a film based on true events and with real people, and working with the real people, it is quite a juggling act, that idea of truth. To me, what I focus on is trying to get the emotional truth into it.
HIRSCHBIEGEL: They slaughtered me exactly for that approach in the U.K. Because that’s exactly what I’m doing with Diana. There’s no irony in it. There’s no sarcasm in it. There’s nothing that you would consider typically British. But they hate it.
EGOYAN: I’m experiencing that now with Devil’s Knot. We premiered in Toronto, and in North America everyone knows about the West Memphis Three, and it has a very specific reaction, which was pretty mixed to negative, which was, “We know about this, we’ve seen the documentaries.” But then you show it in Europe and no one knows about the West Memphis Three, and it becomes a totally different film. We are living in this world where the immediate release becomes so painful. You were talking about the English critics. It goes out and that’s it. Just thinking about that nostalgic, wonderful time where there was that platform release.
GRAY: Yeah, but we can’t fetishize the old days that much. I went back to a review that one of my director heroes told me I had to look at. It was Vincent Canby‘s review in The New York Times of The Godfather Part II. It would be very difficult to come up with an American movie that’s better than The Godfather Part II. And the review that Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave was that it was worthless. And the reason I bring it up is that in that day, it would have been brutal. Because it came out in New York and L.A., and what Vincent Canby said was everything. So there are bad things about today, but there are also good things. Because there are so many voices out there and it doesn’t just rely on Vincent Canby killing your movie or not.
Ryan, you won Sundance with your first film. Do you feel it’s all downhill from here?
COOGLER: Oh, man. I think it is kind of human to think about things like that. But mostly I just think of how fortunate I am to be doing this at all. I’m literally not supposed to be here. I mean statistically. Where I’m from? I’m not supposed to be here, in Zurich, having a conversation with people whose movies I’ve been watching since film school. It’s just incredible. So I try to stay as positive as I can. What I hope to do is to keep making films about things that I care about. To continue to find ways of challenging myself as an artist. To keep learning. I’ve learned so much just listening to these guys talk. If I was to look at the big picture, there’s no way it could be all downhill from here.
GRAY: I have a question for you guys. I hope you can answer honestly, because I probably would lie. How much pleasure do you find in the doing?
TEPLITZKY: I find enormous pleasure. The moment I step on that set is to be the calmest, the most relaxed, the best physiologically my body works; emotionally, I feel in a good place. It’s relaxing.
GRAY: That’s amazing to me. I am so envious of people like you. The car drive to set, on that car ride …
COOGLER: You feel sick.
GRAY: I want to throw up. I never want the car to get to set. I want the car ride to be four hours!
HIRSCHBIEGEL: Same here. I hate it.
COOGLER: I haven’t directed as many projects as you guys have, but I feel the same as you guys feel, very nervous and terrified. It was my first time doing it.
GRAY: It doesn’t get any easier. What would you all have done if you hadn’t become directors?
COOGLER: Well, my dad worked at juvenile hall for pretty much my whole life, and my mom worked for a nonprofit organization. Since I’ve been 21, I’ve had my dad’s job, being a chancellor working with kids that are incarcerated. I really like that job, and I’m looking at starting a nonprofit for kids in that situation. So I think if I wasn’t directing, that’s what I’d be doing, working with kids in the Bay Area.
HIRSCHBIEGEL: I know. I would either be a policeman or a criminal. I always knew that. From the very start. Luckily, I went into the art world.
GRAY: It’s true, when I think about the people I went to school with. Elementary school. They are either dead, in jail or cops. So it’s funny you say that. I don’t know. People survive. I would probably be teaching English.
TEPLITZKY: Every day, I think, it is incredible I found this because I never would have normally fallen into it. All of the rest of my family are cooks, so I probably would have fallen into that. I like that world. It’s a fascinating world. It’s a brutal world. Running a food service is not dissimilar to a day on set. It’s the same kind of people management, the same kind of deadlines.
EGOYAN: The best training I ever had in being a director was working as a waiter. Having all these different tables and each one has a different kind of energy. It was great. People ask me, “How do you learn to work on a set?” And I say, “Become a waiter in a busy restaurant.”
HELMING ON A BUDGET
Coogler’s debut, with an estimated $900,000 budget, was financed by Sundance Labs, the San Francisco Film Society and actor Forest Whitaker.
Worldview Entertainment funded Gray’s period drama, which cost an estimated $16.5 million, with a strong presale to France (the French love him) and a domestic distribution deal with The Weinstein Co.
The Railway Man
Daria Jovicic‘s independent production and finance group Latitude Media took its first big gamble on Teplitzky’s World War II drama, which reportedly cost $26 million.
The film’s estimated $15 million budget was financed by Worldview with presales to multiple territories. It was shot on digital over 25 days in Georgia to take advantage of that state’s 20 percent tax credit.
Hirschbiegel tapped U.K., French, Swedish and Belgian sources to bankroll the estimated $15 million cost of his Lady Di biopic.
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