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This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“Are you a good director?” That was the slightly provocative, teasing question Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) posed to Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) as they sat down for this year’s THR Director Roundtable — one, a veteran who has been making films for four decades; the other, a relative newcomer who just completed her second picture. During the ensuing conversation, what emerged was how varied good directors are in their approach, both to filmmaking and the world. Leigh, 71, and Jolie, 39, were joined Nov. 20 by Richard Linklater, 54 (Boyhood), Bennett Miller, 47 (Foxcatcher), Christopher Nolan, 44 (Interstellar), and Morten Tyldum, 47 (The Imitation Game).
Let’s start with the precise moment you really decided directing was your path.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN I started making films when I was about 7 years old — Super 8 mm, you know? And I remember being about 12 when I started figuring out what the job of a director was.
MIKE LEIGH I was 12. The snow was falling. My grandfather had just died. Everybody was in the house. Old men were carrying the coffin down the stairs. There was a guy with a very long nose. And I remember thinking: “This would make a great film. That’s what I want to do — I want to make films about things like this.”
You’re a writer, too. Do you prefer writing or directing?
LEIGH For me, they’re indivisible. But because I don’t write formal scripts, and I make it all up with the actors when we shoot, I really can’t define the difference between the two parts of the process. It’s about all aspects of the whole process. But we don’t make films by ourselves; we collaborate with a whole bunch of other people.
Are you afraid when you make films?
LEIGH Yes. I’ve never made a film where I didn’t think, “This is the one; this is the disaster.”
MORTEN TYLDUM Seeing the first edit is the worst. You see the assembly, and you think: “F—! I f—ed up this stuff.”
NOLAN I don’t watch the assembly for exactly that reason. I’ve never watched it — I just couldn’t face it. Four hours is like the crummy version of what you’ve done. It’s funny because the editors call it the “editor’s cut.”
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TYLDUM And you can’t take out anything. Everything has to be in the movie. It’s long, it’s dreadful, and you hate it, and it’s the worst experience watching it the first time.
ANGELINA JOLIE It’s so comforting to hear that. It makes me feel so much better. (Laughs.)
RICHARD LINKLATER It’s never as good as the dailies, and it’s never as bad as the first complete cut.
Why do you do a rough assembly if you’re not going to watch it?
NOLAN Because it’s there as a document to tell you whether you’re getting everything you need. I don’t believe in reshoots; I just like to go along and get everything with the company of people we have on the shoot we have. So, for me, the wrap of the main-unit shoot is it. And so Lee [Smith], my editor, he’ll call me up, and if there’s something he doesn’t understand, [he’ll say], “Why didn’t you get this shot?” We sit there and watch dailies every night and talk about it.
JOLIE To answer the question about how did I get into [directing], I got into this accidentally. I was one of those actors — they’d say, “Do you want to direct?” And I’d always say, “No, absolutely not.” But I wanted to learn more about the war in Yugoslavia, so I wrote something [2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey] that was a project that was really private. I didn’t think I was going to show anybody. It was this little script that I used as an excuse, like why we get into projects sometimes. There’s an excuse to send myself back to school and study a time in history. And then somebody said: “You know, it’s not that bad. It should be a film.” I was so excited. Then the idea of who would direct it came up, and I was worried that it would be turned into something else by somebody else. So I volunteered to direct it and thought, “Oh, what am I doing?” Then realized that I loved it. But I was afraid because it was my first. And I was afraid of it because the war was very fresh and there was a lot of hostility in the country, and would it ignite new violence? So I was actually politically very concerned. [But with] Unbroken, I was very concerned because it was something bigger than I’d ever done, and it was well beyond my skill set when I started. I had a lot to learn.
How did that project come to you?
JOLIE It was on an open directing list, so it came to all of us. (Laughs.) I was the crazy one that thought I had the good fortune of having this extraordinary book, and the way [Laura Hillenbrand] writes is so visual, you can’t help but want to see it. But I didn’t know what it was about when I first got involved; I thought it was about heroics and a man that could do extraordinary things, and I wasn’t that interested. Then I realized it was about the strength of the human spirit, and I wanted to walk in his footsteps — I wanted to take that journey. And I’m happy I did because I learned a lot.
What did you learn?
JOLIE I learned to be a better person. I learned [to be] more open to my fellow man, to understanding, to seeing the other side. I learned that when you have hate and anger and you let it eat you up, it’s only hurting you — it doesn’t hurt your enemy. And I learned that when we look at the news today and we see all the things going on in the world and we feel like all is lost that in fact there is great strength — a strong heart and indomitable will and unbreakable spirit that exists in each one of us. It made me face every day and every challenge differently. It’s going to make me raise my children differently. Because that fire we see in our children is a great thing, and I certainly was one of those people that thought this fire inside was maybe a bad thing. There is beauty to unrest and fight; we have to teach our children to channel it the right way. When Louis [Zamperini, the hero of Unbroken] had an obstacle, no matter what it was, he thought: “Fantastic. I’m not going to be broken.” And broken is not about losing the war; broken is not about failing. Broken is about losing heart and losing sense of who you are and letting life take you off track or make you dark.
LEIGH Apart from all that, are you a good director? (Laughter.)
JOLIE I don’t know.
Are you cynical, Mike?
LEIGH Not at all. But I’m fascinated to know.
JOLIE Am I a good director? I would be a good director if everything that I said comes across in the film that I made.
LEIGH Has it worked? You’ve screened it to an audience?
LEIGH You happy?
LEIGH So are you now a director?
JOLIE Yes. But I think it’s about the message for me; it’s not about saying, “I made a film.”
NOLAN It’s not a career choice, it’s …
JOLIE [If] my heart’s in it, then I’ll fight for that one.
BENNETT MILLER Why are you picking on her, Mike?
LEIGH I’m encouraging her, actually.
Bennett, did Foxcatcher change you?
MILLER It broke me. It was one of those where I thought I got myself in too deep, just because it was difficult. It was a long edit, but this has been true of all my films: You get to the edit, and you have that moment where you put down all of your ideals and you look at what you actually have and compare the pieces to the inspiration that brought you this far and ask yourself, “Is it possible for these pieces to incarnate what is now still conceptual?” And each of my films has required explosions, just blowing them up into a million pieces and [asking], “What do I need, and what don’t I need?” My first cut was 4 ½ hours, but you know, you can’t make a 4 ½-hour film. The edit went on for about a year, and at one point I was alone in a closet-size edit [room] with no windows. You get a little stir crazy.
NOLAN How do you cut for that long? I’ve never had that long to cut a film. You don’t take a break from it and go away? You’re literally banging your head against the Avid door or something?
MILLER Yeah. The process resembles that of an actor who’s doing a play, and how do you keep that fresh? [Philip Seymour Hoffman] had his rituals and would go to the theater two hours early, and he would just sit onstage and have a moment. Similarly, in the edit, you do have to take a breath. This isn’t the type of film that tells a story; it’s the kind of film that observes a story. And the films that spoke to me when I was growing up felt like you were in the head of the filmmaker. Like The Pawnbroker, Walkabout, the Maysles [brothers] films, 2001, Hitchcock’s The Birds. You feel like you’re in someone’s head, and there is this space for it to creep in on you.
LINKLATER 2001, I saw it when I was in first grade, and it blew my mind. But I didn’t think I could make a film — that didn’t hit me till much later. I was always writing short stories, then, as I got older, plays, but it took me a while to kind of realize I could make a film. I saw Raging Bull when I was young, and I thought, “Oh, wow, a film can do that — it can go to that place psychologically.” But still, you don’t think you can make Raging Bull. Then I was seeing indie films — much more humble, scaled, personal films in the early ’80s [from] John Sayles, Spike Lee, early Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch. I said, “Wow, there’s people making films in their backyard.” That made me think: “Get a camera. Get your friends. Make your movie about your own world.”
You spent 12 years on one film.
LINKLATER Probably 13 or something.
Would you do it again?
LINKLATER I don’t know. Depends on what story needs to be told. You know, most films feel like a runaway train. It was such a gift to shoot three days, edit, watch it, maybe go do something else for six months, come back, feel my way through what I need next year. It didn’t even feel like a film.
Have any of you spent 12 years on a film?
LEIGH I haven’t got 12 years to spend. (Laughter.)
NOLAN I tell people it took me 10 years to write Inception, but I did a lot of things.
LINKLATER Filmmakers, we’re all kind of control freaks, right? We want to control the elements. And this one, I had to just realize, “OK, I’m throwing that card away, and I’m collaborating with a very unknown future.”
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TYLDUM To extend something over 12 years seems insane in many ways. Going into shooting, you know you’re not going to sleep. It’s totally intense because you have to get everything in that very short period of time, so it’s like this insane focus where you have this constant fear of making the wrong decision or not getting everything you need. When it’s over, you’re relieved and you’re terrified at the same time. It’s like being in a trance.
NOLAN I will tell you, the longer the shoot gets, you do naturally adjust.
LEIGH I thoroughly love the shoot. I spend six months before we shoot rehearsing with the actors and creating characters — and I don’t like that very much at all because although it’s great stuff, there’s nothing to show at the end of the day. All you’re doing is preparing for the shoot, which is actually when we make the film up.
Have you had a shoot that became a complete disaster?
LEIGH We had a film that we abandoned before we got to the shoot. For all kinds of reasons. I’m already sorry I mentioned it. (Laughter.)
How does shooting affect your personal life?
TYLDUM You need to have a partner who really understands what you’re going through because you become extremely focused on yourself. You don’t really care about anybody else because it’s so consuming.
JOLIE I came home to my kids, and they balanced me because I was insane when I was at work. When everybody went to sleep, I had my insane hours before going to sleep. But I was actually really happy to have an excuse to play a board game on the floor and be forced to forget and leave my work a little bit. They really help. They need to know when I’m going crazy and I need a little bit [of space], but they were very grounding.
What was the toughest moment on the shoot?
LEIGH Day one, wasn’t it?
JOLIE Day one was hard because we were on the water, and we had a camera on a crane and the raft was going up and down, and I was trying to get my confidence: “I can do this. I can direct this movie.” And I couldn’t hear anything, and I couldn’t see anybody.
NOLAN Day one is two guys sitting in a car.
TYLDUM Be nice to yourself.
JOLIE I’ve learned. I learned. I had to learn a lot about how to do plane crashes in CG and things like that. That was very confusing. But I had great people teaching me, and it was such an amazing education. But certainly, many days I feigned confidence.
NOLAN Probably the toughest for everybody [on Interstellar] were the location shoots we did in Iceland. We did three days out on the water standing in 2-foot-deep water in the freezing cold. And I’ve never had a crew complain quite so much. They really, really didn’t like it. Then we went up on the glacier — they were a lot happier. I really enjoy things like that: It’s difficult, but you have fun with it because you see what you’re getting. But we had 100-mile-an-hour winds, which I’ve never seen before. It actually lifted the asphalt off the road and threw it to one side. We were out there trying to shoot with the actors bracing themselves in the wind. I thought it was really fun.
LEIGH I went to the Reykjavik [International] Film Festival a few weeks ago, and all they could talk about was you — never met such a stickler, never met such a perfectionist. You’ve left your reputation behind you.
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What’s the toughest decision each of you has had to make ethically as a filmmaker?
MILLER Why are you looking at me? (Laughter.)
JOLIE We’re all looking at you!
LINKLATER “Ethically.” That’s a big word.
MILLER All of these stories have deeper truths that attract us. There’s no means of communicating a perfect, distilled reality.
Rick, you were dealing with young kids on Boyhood. Did you go in thinking, “I’m going to be affecting these kids’ lives”?
LINKLATER Of course I thought that. The adults in the movie were making adult, professional decisions, but I’m dealing with a 7- and a 9-year-old. My hope was that it would be a positive thing in their lives, and it ended up being that way. I was still worried. I’m a little worried to this day.
On some level it’s an ethical thing when you’re deciding, “How much am I true to the science on Interstellar,” right?
NOLAN To a degree. But try making a Batman film — trust me, they’ll come and burn your house down after. (Laughter.) There is a sense of responsibility, and on Interstellar it’s about the science; on Batman, it was about people’s commitment to the character and their enthusiasm for it, which is what gets the film made in the first place. We all have to balance that thing of what makes a great story. The only thing I’ve ever come up with is sincerity: If I really believe that what I’m doing is going to give the audience the best experience possible and is the thing I would want to see as an audience member, that comes across.
MILLER I think we should acknowledge that artists are by nature deviants and not totally unrelated to the criminal mind. Truman Capote said that the most dangerous person is the artist because they’re really only going to ever be obedient to their vision, and their loyalty does not go beyond that. There’s a willingness to abandon a conventional way of thinking and conventional morals.
Angie, are you a deviant?
JOLIE I have been.
But no longer?
JOLIE Still highly capable of being a deviant. I don’t disagree with Bennett, but I also think you can be an artist and socially responsible. We’re all artists, but we’re all also other things in our life, whatever our responsibility — whether it be to our children, our politics, our faith. We have things that we hold to a higher standard than just how we [make movies].
TYLDUM Does that fuel into the story [you’re] telling?
JOLIE It does. It is my ethical responsibility to be thoughtful of what I’m asking people to do. I need to be honest and responsible to the best of my game because sometimes art can influence in a very beautiful way, and sometimes we can be very damaging. I’ve done silly, crazy films, but I think we can be ethical if we can be responsible to something that we think matters, be careful, be thoughtful of the pieces. Because we are going to influence people’s minds; we are going to influence their view of history. We are going to influence, so there’s a responsibility.
LEIGH This question of moral dilemmas: It’s absolutely true that we are all entirely deviant, and it’s absolutely true that you really can’t get down to a decent film unless you are motivated by caring about people. Those things are not mutually exclusive. I’ve never had any moral dilemmas about my film Naked, but there were decisions to be made because it does ride a very narrow balancing act between gratuitous violence and making the audience understand the way people behave in what can be perceived as a deviant kind of way.
JOLIE It’s the intention to understand all the edges of human nature and the different ways people are.
MILLER If your aim is to put light where it had not been before and if it’s just about truth, then ultimately it can’t hurt you.
How restricted are you by requirements of the studio or financiers?
LINKLATER Well, every film is different. I’ve made films in six days or 50 days on $23,000 or $30 million.
Morten, you worked with Harvey Weinstein, who’s famous for becoming involved in his directors’ films.
TYLDUM I was actually pretty scared walking in. I mean, you hear of all the stories. [This was] my first Hollywood film, and I was prepared to go, “OK, if he says anything, I’m going to be strong and go harder back at [him],” but it went really well. He had a few notes, and you have to be open to notes — and it’s important not to be too precious. But what I’ve learned is that usually the solutions they come with are wrong. You have to find them in yourself — the solution is something you need to find out yourself.
Is there a director or one film that particularly shaped you?
JOLIE Sidney Lumet. The Hill.
NOLAN Yes, brilliant film.
JOLIE I read his book [Making Movies]. I keep it with me. I often reread it, and I’ve learned a lot about [him]. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve worked with him to tell me things about his process and how he worked with actors and how he approached material.
NOLAN How did you come to see The Hill? It’s a great favorite of mine, but you can never find it anywhere.
JOLIE When I found it, I got a lot of copies. I gave it to everybody. (Laughter.)
What about you, Chris? I’m going to assume 2001.
NOLAN Oh, absolutely, a seminal film for me. They rereleased it after Star Wars was such a big hit, so my dad took me to see it in Leicester Square [in London] when I was 7 years old. I’ve never forgotten that experience. [But I remember] figuring out that if you looked at Alien and you looked at Blade Runner, [they had a] different cast, different stories and different worlds but the same mind behind them. I remember figuring it out and going, “OK, this guy Ridley Scott — he’s the director.”
LINKLATER I started a film society a long time ago just to see every movie I could. And it depends on my mood. Pick a mood, and I will tell you my favorite directors.
JOLIE What mood are you in right now?
LINKLATER Right this second? Hmmm. I’m thinking [I’d like to see] a comedy; I would like to see a Hal Ashby comedy. Maybe Shampoo.
Mike Nichols just died. Did any of his films affect you?
NOLAN I’m a huge Working Girl fan. I think it’s a phenomenal film.
LINKLATER Carnal Knowledge.
JOLIE I was going to say Carnal Knowledge. It’s just so personal; it’s bold.
MILLER I don’t like getting emotional in front of people. You know, his son called me last night and said he had passed away. But about eight years ago he invited me up to his place, and we had lunch. He had an impossible amount of curiosity and care and love for so many people. And I felt that there must have been a multitude of him because so many people had a similar experience. It had everything to do with art and film but [also] personal life: “Are your finances in order? You should talk to this person. Tell me about your doctor. Let me give you a number.” You know? “Maybe you should see a shrink. I think you should see a shrink.” (Laughter.) I emailed with him three times yesterday, and he was sharp as a tack and making jokes and funny. He was just the most generous, loving, wise, funny person I’ve ever met.
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