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This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In 1997, independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant directed an unknown actor-writer named Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, which launched Affleck and his buddy Matt Damon to stardom (and won them a screenplay Oscar). Fifteen years later, Van Sant, 60 (Promised Land), and Affleck, 40 (Argo), arrived Nov. 20 at The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Director Roundtable as peers, both riding awards buzz for their latest dramas. The duo joined Tom Hooper, 40 (Les Miserables), Ang Lee, 58 (Life of Pi), David O. Russell, 54 (Silver Linings Playbook), and Quentin Tarantino, 49 (Django Unchained), for a spirited discussion at Milk Studios, during which Affleck acknowledged his acting roots. He quipped (only half-jokingly), “I’m the only one here who could be hired by everyone else.”
The Hollywood Reporter: What’s been your toughest moment as a director?
Tom Hooper: I was 14 years old. I was directing my brother Ben in my second movie, Bomber Jacket. This involved my brother finding an old Second World War bomber jacket in his cupboard and putting it on. And as he zips it up, he’s transported to a Second World War airfield, where he’s haunted by Second World War bombers. So I’m on location. I’ve got 100 feet of film, which I’m running at 16 frames a second, which gives me a shooting ratio of about 1.2 to 1. And my brother suddenly realizes that he has a power over me that never in his life before he ever imagined, which is that if he intentionally makes a mistake on tape, my 100 feet is whittled down to nothing. And he literally had me in tears.
Gus Van Sant: I also experienced making a film at 14 with my sister — you know, your brothers and sisters, they’re not exactly with you, and they don’t really want to be doing it in the first place, at least in the case of my sisters.
Ben Affleck: And they don’t respect you. (Laughter.)
David O. Russell: Lots of good training.
Quentin Tarantino: (To Affleck) But then you cast your brother [Casey Affleck] in your first movie [Gone Baby Gone]!
Affleck: On the set, he’d go, “This is shit.” (Laughter.) A scene we did with my brother, we set the shot up, “We’re gonna see down the hall, you’re gonna come into the room and f– the girl up.” So we start the shoot. My brother walks in and goes to another room. (Laughter.) Everyone’s standing there. There’s an empty hallway. Nothing’s happening. And I just said: “What are you doing? Don’t walk into another room where no one can see you!” It was tough. But I cast him because he’s such a great actor, and part of why he is a great actor is ’cause he will walk into a room where he knows the camera isn’t, whether it’s to f– with you or because he really thinks it’s real.
Tarantino: The telling of the story, dealing with the actors, dealing with the cameramen and everything — to me, that’s the easy part, that’s the part where I think, “I was meant to do this.” It’s just the shouldering of the entire production and leading the army and inspiring everybody every day. You want to have a temper tantrum. You want to just say, from time to time, like, “I’ve f–ing had it.” But you can’t say that because everyone really is counting on you to get them up that hill.
THR: Have you ever had a temper tantrum?
Tarantino: We all get frustrated.
Russell: Well, speak for yourself. (Laughter.)
Tarantino: I haven’t had a temper tantrum, not yet. You know, it’s like, I can’t really have a temper tantrum and still be a boss that’s respected, at least as far as I’m concerned. But, you know, at some point, though, people got to know that there’s a penalty for f–ing up.
THR: How do you deal with executive interference? When Django was running three hours and Harvey Weinstein was pressuring you to bring it lower, how did you handle that?
Tarantino: It’s not a big deal. I didn’t want a three-hour movie, either. It’s a big epic and everything, so I figured it would be around 2:45, and that’s what it is. When you’re cutting it down, at that moment in time, before you watch it with an audience, you know it’s too long, but you can’t imagine taking anything out. So then you watch it with an audience, and then all of a sudden — “Oh, wow, that is kind of boring now!” or “No, this is not as suspenseful by the time we got to it as it needs to be.” But you can only go so far in the Avid room on your own. At some point, you have to watch it with an audience. And then literally 15 minutes just come flying out, where before you couldn’t imagine a minute leaving. (Laughter.)
Russell: You sit through one of those screenings where all of a sudden everyone’s bored, and then you come back and just like …
Tarantino: “I mean, guys, the story could never make sense if you take one more minute out of it!” And then you watch the movie and 15 minutes are gone by noon the next day! (Laughter.)
THR: Harvey’s known for that, scissor-hands.
Tarantino: Well, if he treated me that way, I wouldn’t be working with him for 20 years.
Russell: I welcome them into the edit room, and I will go toe-to-toe with anybody on any note, and I welcome all collaboration because I’m not precious about it. I’m not gonna have you drain the energy out of something, but let’s try it, or I’ll just disagree honestly about it. But it always ends up making the movie better. Bradley Cooper was in our editing room. Harvey came in. Jay Cassidy, who’s a fantastic editor.
Affleck: Actually, being an actor was a real advantage for me in having that discipline. I’ve been through so many experiences where I’d go and watch some cut that was very long, and I would go to the director and say, “Man, I’m in the movie, and I’m bored. So surely the audience is gonna be.”
THR: Ang, what’s the worst moment for you as a director?
Ang Lee: When I have to replace someone. Once I had to replace a composer. I won’t tell you which film, but that hurts. I have hits, I have not-so-hits. But I was always proud of them, proud of everybody’s work on them. But something like that happens — I felt defeated, choosing between a good person, a loyal person, a good artist, but something’s not clicking.
Russell: That happened to me with Jon Brion, who’s a wonderful composer. He composed the music for one of my earlier films, and then on The Fighter he came to see an early cut, and he said, “You don’t need a score.” I said, “Well, we need a very light touch,” knowing that he’s a man who writes strong melodies. As friends, we wanted to work together. We then proceeded into this bad idea of him writing melodies that were very strong that did not belong in the movie. And I did not use it, which is heartbreaking.
Affleck: I’ve fired a couple of actors. It’s the worst thing in the world because I know, as an actor, what it’s like. I was a child actor, and the director threatened to fire me. That traumatized me. I was 13 years old. And I went around in fear of being fired. So this movie [Argo] was the only time I really fired people, but I had to do it. I had all these Persian actors who were supposed to speak Farsi. And often they would audition in English and I would say, “You can speak Farsi, right?” “Oh, yes, yes.” A guy came in for a really crucial part, and on the day of shooting, we were blocking the scene, and this guy’s got this mini speech. And the guy did it, and it was just terrible. He was sort of like, you know, twisting the mustache and being the Iranian villain and having the accent and adding all these flourishes. A couple times I said: “Just do nothing and say your lines. Let’s try that.” And just previous to that, there was this guy who had a little bit in the movie. But it was so nice. And then when this other guy was blowing it — and not just blowing it, but hamming it up — it made it easy to say, “No, you know, you’re trying to ruin my movie.”
THR: Did you ever fear you wouldn’t make it as a director?
Russell: My greatest struggle was losing my way, you know. You can be given enough rope in this business to hang yourself if you’re not careful, and I see it all the time. I experienced it where you start overthinking things, and you try to make things too interesting, become too particular. Nothing feels right, you know, no project feels right. That was around I Heart Huckabees. After Three Kings, I had had three movies that had done well. I overthought what I was gonna do next, and I think I had my head up my ass on that movie. And then I came out of it. My whole life changed. I got divorced. I had kind of a wilderness period. I made a film that never was finished [Nailed], which is unconscionable ’cause this financier kept running out of money. That was the nadir of everything for me. I was like, “Wow, man, I don’t think it’s gonna get worse than this.” And then Sydney Pollack gave me the book [Silver Linings Playbook] five years ago, and I thought I was gonna get to make that. And then Harvey wasn’t ready to make that, didn’t have the money. And I thought, “Well, when am I gonna get my chance?” Because that was a personal story to me because of my son [who has struggled with bipolar issues] and everything. So I got to make The Fighter, which I never expected. That’s a project, 10 years ago, I might have looked at and said, “I don’t know, what is this?” I would have been above it. But I said, “Why don’t you try to do this really good?” But now I feel like I’m doing what I can do good work at.
THR: For many directors, there’s a period when they do great work and then they don’t, and it’s often brief. Are you afraid that you might have talent for a moment and then it’s gone?
Hooper: I think you have to keep people around you who are going to be absolutely brutally honest to you, and I wonder whether what happens to some people is, they get to a place where they don’t want to hear brutal truths anymore about their work. My family are my most important first critics, and they are totally harsh. A couple of them came to my [Les Miserables] mix review last week, and they were like, “You’ve got pacing problems.” I said, “How can I have pacing problems?” And as a result, I then found a solution.
Affleck: A really big-time studio executive, when I first got out here as an actor, told me in a sort of cavalier and slightly dismissive way that directors are like tuning forks. First we go “Bing!” — we hit the fork. And for a while it stays in tune. And then at a certain point, it just goes out of tune, and it never comes back. At the time, I was like, “Well, I don’t care about that. I’m an actor.” (Laughter.) But I think that view exists about directing.
THR: Ang, did you feel added pressure on this film because the budget was higher than you’ve worked with?
Lee: It’s crazy. But when you’re working, that’s when you’re sane. It’s the in-between that’s crazy.
THR: How do you go insane? You look like the most sane person I’ve ever met.
Lee: That’s just the surface. But that’s not the real reason I feel insane. It’s the next movie I want to do that is a drive. There’s focus, fear. Those visceral feelings keep you alert and alive.
Van Sant: Dennis Hopper said that something harder than making a movie is not making a movie.
THR: You’ve all had a lot of success. Are you afraid it will end?
Tarantino: No, not at all. But I don’t intend to be a director deep into my old age.
Russell: Wait a minute. That’s bad news for everybody.
Tarantino: I’ll probably just be a writer, or I’ll just write novels, and I’ll write film literature and film books and subtextual film criticism, things like that.
THR: In how long do you plan to make that change?
Tarantino: Well, part of the reason I’m feeling this way is, I can’t stand all this digital stuff. This is not what I signed up for. Even the fact that digital presentation is the way it is right now — I mean, it’s television in public, it’s just television in public. That’s how I feel about it. I came into this for film.
Affleck: Digital projection as well? ‘Cause film’s over. I mean, there are no film projectors in the country.
Tarantino: Yeah, and that’s why —
Russell: I won’t shoot digital.
Tarantino: No, I’m not talking about shooting digital.
Russell: Do you shoot digital?
Tarantino: No, I hate that stuff. I shoot film. But to me, even digital projection is — it’s over, as far as I’m concerned. It’s over. So if I’m gonna do TV in public, I’d rather just write one of my big scripts and do it as a miniseries for HBO, and then I don’t have the time pressure that I’m always under, and I get to actually use all the script. I always write these huge scripts that I have to kind of — my scripts aren’t like blueprints. They’re not novels, but they’re novels written with script format. And so I’m adapting the script into a movie every day. The one movie that I was actually able to use everything — where you actually have the entire breadth of what I spent a year writing — was the two Kill Bill movies ’cause it’s two movies. So if I’m gonna do another big epic thing again, it’ll probably be like a six-hour miniseries or something.
THR: How is the final cut of Django different from what you initially wrote or envisioned?
Tarantino: It’s shorter. (Laughter.)
THR: Ben, what did you learn from Gus on Good Will Hunting?
Affleck: A lot. Gus was the first great director whom I worked with. We had read and rehearsed and practiced stuff in Good Will Hunting for three, four years, so I had like 50 ideas on how to play each scene. So I do a take, but Gus doesn’t say anything. And I really did not know what was going on. I’d say, “Gus, what did you think?” He was like, “I don’t know, what did you think?” It was this transforming experience where I realized I’m responsible for my performance. I’m responsible for my life, my place in the creative universe.
THR: Gus, did you think Ben would have this filmmaking career when you worked with him?
Affleck: Don’t answer that. (Laughter.)
Van Sant: I can’t remember. I don’t think Ben said that he was interested. But later, when you were making moves towards directing in Gone Baby Gone, I remember Ben was very —
Affleck: I was grilling Gus. I was like, “How the f– do you deal with actors?”
Van Sant: Well, when I saw Gone Baby Gone, I thought that you had done something that was way beyond what I had tried to do with mixing nonprofessionals with professionals. I was sort of jealous.
THR: But you didn’t imagine that when you did Good Will Hunting?
Affleck: Gus didn’t even know my name on Good Will Hunting. (Laughter.)
Van Sant: I don’t know. I’m always surprised when people choose to be directors because it’s kind of a weird job. And so when they actually choose, then you think to yourself, “Well, they’re in for a lot of shit.”
THR: Do you have to have a certain amount of craziness to be a director?
Russell: You have to have a lot of passion, and you have to be very strong.
Hooper: On Les Miserables, many people lined up to tell me not to do the singing live. But in the end, you’ve got to go with your gut instinct.
Affleck: You have to shoulder too much responsibility and burden to be really crazy as a director. There’s a little more crazy in actors. There’s an actor who’s a great actor but who takes a Geiger counter and sees how radiated his wardrobe is. A little nuts, yeah. But the guy’s also a genius, he does incredible stuff, so who gives a shit?
THR: It’s Matt Damon, right? (Laughter.)
Hooper: Also, you’re only as good as your powers of advocacy as a director, and almost all your power comes with consent.
THR: Well, David, on The Fighter, Melissa Leo made her displeasure clear until she saw the film and won an Oscar, and then she said, “You know what? David was right.” So how much is advocacy and how much is imposing your will?
Russell: You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to stick to your guns, and you’ve got to be patient. And then let people have their choices. And half the time you end up in the editing room, and I say, “You know what? I’m glad they did their choice because that turned out to be more right for me.” I don’t always know what’s right, but I know I’ve got to try the one that I’m feeling in my heart.
THR: Quentin said he’s planning to leave the film business. Do any of you imagine that you will?
Hooper: No. I will die in the trenches.
Russell: Yeah, that’s how I feel. Like John Huston with the air tank.
Hooper: If you talk about the insanity of doing it, I think about the insanity of not doing it. My unhappiest days have always been when I’m not making films.
Affleck: Usually the business shows you the door before the Grim Reaper does.
Hooper: That’s a cheery thought.
Van Sant: Yeah. I wonder if people are still gonna hire me, but if that’s the case, there are other disciplines that are as fascinating, like theater or painting or writing.
Tarantino: I don’t know about the tuning fork idea. We can all cite examples of where it’s not the case. But it’s age, it’s absolutely age. I’m really well versed on a lot of directors’ careers, you know, and when you look at those last five films when they were past it, when they were too old, and they’re really out of touch with the times, whether it be William Wyler and The Liberation of L.B. Jones or Billy Wilder with Fedora and then Buddy Buddy or whatever the hell. To me, it’s all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography. [2007’s] Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right? — so if that’s the worst I ever get, I’m good. But I do think one of those out-of-touch, old, limp, flaccid-dick movies costs you three good movies as far as your rating is concerned.
Russell: I agree with you completely. I also welcome, as a life challenge, remaining emotionally relevant and compelling emotionally.
THR: Quentin, great poets write hundreds of terrible poems and 20 that are great. Don’t you have to measure the artist by the handful of great works and accept that failure is part of the process?
Tarantino: It’s a grade-point average. I think I risk failure every single time with the movies I do, and I haven’t fallen into failure. Risking failure is not what I’m afraid of. Failing is what I’m afraid of. (Laughter.) No, they’re not the same thing, and I do think it’s a young man’s game. I really do. I also have this little idea in my head, and then I’ll stop talking all this bullshit. I discovered Howard Hawks when I was 15. I saw Rio Bravo and thought it was fantastic. Then I ended up going to some film festival, and I saw His Girl Friday. Then all of a sudden I’m at home, and I notice that a movie called Barbary Coast is being played, and it said in the TV Guide, “Directed by Howard Hawks,” and so I watched that. Well, those three movies in a row really got me into that director. So I fantasize about another 12-year-old girl or boy, 20 years after I’m dead, seeing one of my movies, liking it. “Who the hell did that?” Seeing another movie, and then whatever they choose from the pile — ’cause they don’t know what’s good and what’s bad, all right? — I have to keep their dick hard! I have to keep them wanting to go back for more. They can’t grab Buddy Buddy! They can’t grab Buddy Buddy! It can’t — that can’t happen!
THR: What is the weirdest or most interesting interaction you’ve had with a fan?
Affleck: I had a letter from someone in China that said they were glad about what we did to the Japanese in Pearl Harbor. I wasn’t sure if they understood that it was a historical movie or what, or why they even watched the movie.
Van Sant: One executive wanted me to make a film about a bathroom attendant, which we wrote for him, and then —
Affleck: Three and a half hours. (Laughter.)
Van Sant: It was really about the Wall Street crash, actually, what we ended up writing. And then he didn’t do it.
Lee: Recently I was interviewed by this woman journalist. At the end, she said, “I want to see you doing Fifty Shades of Grey.” (Laughter.)
Russell: Since I just made a movie which has some bipolar behavior in it, I had someone write me a letter that said I should make a movie about a bipolar superhero, and the letter itself was bipolar because it was delusional. But it was halfway interesting. The motto of the superhero was, “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome.” (Laughter.)
Tarantino: This young 14-year-old girl wrote a little synopsis for Kill Bill Vol. 3.
Tarantino: She wanted to play the daughter grown up, or at least at her age. And I actually read it. I called her and thanked her for it. I thought it was just so sweet that this little girl liked the movie so much that she continued the story herself. I always really hope that people take the story on themselves and take it to a different place and fill in the blanks that I didn’t tell them about.
Van Sant: We made a silent version of Restless, which was nice, because we did so many silent takes that we cut together a silent version.
Russell: Oh my gosh. Could have beat The Artist to the punch.
Affleck: It would have been very easy to do a silent version of the [Terrence] Malick movie I did [To the Wonder]. No one talked on set. (Laughter.)
Russell: Back to Quentin, about his whole thing about the young man’s game. First of all, I’m gonna try to convince you to keep making movies ’cause I love watching your movies. Second of all, I remember saying to Diane Keaton about 10 years ago, “What is it with Woody Allen?” I felt like his work had gotten shaky. And she said: “I don’t know. I don’t know how many times he can go back to that well.” But the fact that Woody Allen, every year, gets up and makes a movie, I think that’s a good way to live, and he hits a good average sometimes. I really loved Midnight in Paris.
Tarantino: It was my favorite movie of last year, actually.
Russell: So I want to be John Huston with the tube in my nose, and I want you to be up there.
Affleck: I’ll be in either of those movies.
Ang Lee, Life of Pi: Lee’s $120 million-budgeted fantasy epic could win him his first directing Oscar since 2005’s Brokeback Mountain.
Ben Affleck, Argo: Affleck’s third feature as a director takes viewers inside Hollywood’s role in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81.
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook ;Bradley Cooper stars in Russell’s follow-up to The Fighter, a dramedy about the impact of mental illness on a family.
Gus Van Sant, Promised Land: The anti-fracking drama stars Matt Damon, who won a writing Oscar with Affleck for the Van Sant-directed Good Will Hunting.
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables: Hooper, whose The King’s Speech won best picture and director Oscars in 2011, recorded live singing in this musical epic.
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained: Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz star in Tarantino’s latest, about a slave who teams up with a bounty hunter in the American South.
About THR’s Roundtable Series: The Hollywood Reporter continues its annual series of exclusive discussions among the year’s most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for roundtables with producers, composers and, for the first time, costume designers. Go to THR.com/therace to watch videos of the full discussions.
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