As for so many other industries, the past year has been brutal to film. On a mid-December morning, seven directors who released some of the year’s most celebrated cinematic work amid the uncertainty of the pandemic gathered for The Hollywood Reporter‘s Director Roundtable, including Minari‘s Lee Isaac Chung, The Midnight Sky‘s George Clooney, News of the World‘s Paul Greengrass, One Night in Miami‘s Regina King, Da 5 Bloods‘ Spike Lee, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom‘s George C. Wolfe and Nomadland‘s Chloé Zhao. The group, who convened via video conference from homes and offices in London, New York and Los Angeles, tackled Hollywood’s loss of Chadwick Boseman, the stressors of shooting during the pandemic, the Academy’s new rules about inclusion, and the current “state of emergency” for cinema.
Sometimes happy accidents shape the way you make a movie. George, you found out Felicity Jones was pregnant while you were making your film and you had to adjust. How did that surprise shape the direction you took on The Midnight Sky?
GEORGE CLOONEY We’re in Iceland on a glacier and I got a call from Felicity and she says, “Well, I’m pregnant.” I knew how to answer that, which is, “Congratulations.” But if you saw my face, I’m like, “Holy shit.” We started to try to shoot around it, which is always a mistake, because you can’t shoot around it. People know when you’re hiding things. So we just looked at it and said, “Look, they’ve been in space for two years, people have sex. It’s like going on location.” I just thought, like Fran [McDormand] in Fargo, women every single day are pregnant, going to work and doing their job, and why not in space and why not just deal with it?
CHLOÉ ZHAO George, I am so shocked that’s not part of the book, because it’s such a huge part of the movie, the morning sickness before they had to go out into spacewalking. That’s just the best part of the movie. So, congrats.
How is it directing George Clooney?
CLOONEY Oh, it’s fun. There’s nothing more fun than directing yourself.
ZHAO I hear he’s difficult.
CLOONEY Well, I tell you, at least the actor knew what the director wanted, but it’s a tricky thing. I have my best buddy and producing pal for 40 years, Grant [Heslov], who sits behind a monitor, and you want to do fewer takes on yourself than you want to do on other people, because you look like a schmuck otherwise. You do a couple of takes and you go … “Yeah, that’s fine.” And then Grant will stick his head out and go, “Do another take, please.” “Oh, OK. All right.”
Regina, why did you opt not to act in your film?
REGINA KING Because I’ve had that experience once before when I was acting and directing an episode of Southland, a show that I was on a few years back, and I don’t want to ever do that again. My brain just doesn’t want to work like that again. I felt like I was not giving my all to either. Maybe with the patience I have now, if I’m ever asked to do that again, I’ll reconsider, but … you’re exercising two different muscles in your brain at the same time, acting and directing, and it’s a big thing to ask of yourself.
Chloé, on your previous films you worked with people who aren’t professional actors. In this film you’re working with Frances McDormand. What was that transition like for you?
ZHAO McDormand was a dream to work with. She is in many ways playing a version of herself. There’s always three babies on set for me. There’s the cast, there’s the world and there’s the camera, and there are times I have to decide who I’m favoring and who I’m compromising. It’s a constant negotiation. It is never easy, but Fran is a dream to work with in terms of bringing a professional actor into a situation like this, because it doesn’t matter what the nonprofessional actors throw at her, she’s constantly present. She never for a moment goes, “Oh, that’s not what I prepared. That’s not what’s on the pages.” Her capacity to connect as a human being, to listen, is a huge help for me to draw the performance out of my nonprofessional actors.
Spike and George Wolfe, your films are, sadly, the last work we have from Chadwick Boseman. Did you know what he was physically struggling with at the time he was doing both of these quite demanding roles?
GEORGE C. WOLFE I knew absolutely nothing. I had no sense of it. He would do take after take of these deep, raw emotional moments. There’s a moment in the film where he breaks through this door, and he kicked so violently that the door shattered and we had to figure out how to put it together. Every single thing that he was doing had this incredibly intense level of commitment to it. He was thinner, but I thought he was fasting or something like that, there was no indication emotionally or physically that anything else was going on. … I found out when the world found out, and it was just devastating and shocking, because I sensed nothing else was going on, other than an actor giving every single ounce of what he had to make the character in the film and the moments come alive.
SPIKE LEE I did not know. I asked George [C. Wolfe], George didn’t know. I asked Ryan Coogler, he said he didn’t know. We didn’t know. There was a very small circle that knew he was not going to be here that much longer, and I understand why he did not want people to know. If I would have known, the first battle sequence in the film is 100 degrees and we had the shots, where he has to run 50 yards like Usain Bolt. I mean, he has to haul it. If he tells me that, automatically I’m not going to make him, I’m not going to push him as hard as I can. … He did not want any shortcuts. Any special treatment, didn’t want it.
WOLFE His team, the hair and makeup, they were incredibly, intensely protective of him and that was my only sense that maybe — but that’s hindsight. They were brilliantly lovely and saw him through that in an extraordinary way. In retrospect, the love and energy of protection that they showered on him was just an amazing thing to witness and I didn’t realize what was going on until …
LEE Same thing with what my brother George C. Wolfe just said, they were on him. He’s Black Panther, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall. So, I’m thinking, maybe this is some Hollywood stuff. Because, George, if you noticed, they would be on him, praying on him, massaging him, while waiting for his setup. So I don’t know what that was, I wasn’t going to disturb it, the process, but afterward, like yourself, George, that was when I thought, “Aha!”
CLOONEY It’s interesting when you watch him, it feels like, in Ma Rainey, that by the end, you do feel you’re watching an actor saying, “I’m running out of time, I’m going to give it.” He’s probably going to win the Oscar this year. He shouldn’t win it because he died. It’s the best performance of the year, he pours his heart out. And unfortunately, I watched it after he was gone. You’re watching it, your mouth has just dropped open the whole time watching this incredible performance. I just can’t believe the loss.
Isaac, you tell an autobiographical story in your film, and I’m curious how you chose to turn the lens on your own family and your story.
LEE ISAAC CHUNG This is actually my fourth film, and in a way, it’s what I always wanted to do, to dive in and tell a story of my childhood, but I just needed to go through a lot of different things in life, experience becoming a father, failures, disappointments, that I feel my mom and dad went through when they came to the U.S. It was around the time my daughter became the age that I was back then, when this story is set, that I started to see the world more through her eyes. Being able to see the world through her eyes helped me to remember back to my childhood and gave me that impetus to really try to tell this story.
Regina, in your case, you’re working from a play. How did you think about adapting from stage to screen?
KING You don’t want it to feel like a play, but part of the thing that attracted you to the piece is the dialogue: The words are the star. So, it was coming to it with the intention of making sure that the dialogue remained the star, but also trying to make sure that there was always a feeling of movement or energy, even if we are in the same place for a large part of the piece. I would say that my technical language is probably not so deep, but I’m very clear at explaining what it is that I want to accomplish. I have a great relationship with my DP, Tami Reiker, and she was very clear that color and saturation were really important to me and movement in the frame, without the camera being a distraction, was very important to keep the energy and not feel static when we’re in the same place for so long. Hopefully, that did translate. I feel good about it.
ZHAO The chemistry of your cast, Regina, is insane. Those four men in that room, the casting is incredible.
KING Casting was definitely a process. A couple of them were sending tapes in because they were in other countries. I think Aldis [Hodge] was in Australia and Kingsley [Ben-Adir] was in London, but there were just little moments with each of them that you go, “Yeah! It’s you!” Sometimes this may not even be the best reading or the best audition, but it’ll be just the little thing that lets you know they understand the journey that they’re going to have to go on.
Paul, you were nodding as Regina was saying, “Yeah, it’s you.” You have a young actress in your film who was new to me, and I’m curious how you cast her.
PAUL GREENGRASS When you start a film, you always have a sense of what your big challenge is going to be. I’ve never worked with a child actor, and I thought to find an 11-year-old girl who could play that part was going to be a great challenge. I knew she had to be German, and I was sent a copy of [German drama] System Crasher that Helena [Zengel, who plays Johanna to Tom Hanks’ Captain Kidd] was in, and she was so amazing. I thought there can’t possibly be two 11-year-old girls in Germany as good as that. She came over, I met her with her mum and we did some work in the afternoon. She was astonishingly good. I thought it was going to be a process of months, seeing lots of people, and it was going to be some agonizing decision of “Should it be her or should it be her?” It turned out to be the easiest decision. Then when it came to the first day, you never know whether, particularly with a young 11-year-old girl, how it’s going to be on a big set, and Tom Hanks and all the rest of it. The first take, I forgot all the anxiety, because she was so strong and confident and her technique was good and she was emotionally true. She just was superb, I thought.
What was the scene that technically gave you the most anxiety?
GREENGRASS There’s a shootout in the middle of it and a chase. We have to go up quite a high bluff and we have to climb on ropes. It took two hours to get to positions, and then there were all sorts of safety issues once you got there, and beautiful rattlesnakes everywhere to welcome us. It was amazing, actually, how quickly you forgot and somebody would come up saying there’s a rattler 8 feet away.
CLOONEY It was the space stuff. The space walk and leading to the bleeding out. I’ve done Gravity with Alfonso [Cuarón]. I’ve done Solaris with Steven Soderbergh. So I’ve worked with some really good directors in that, and Alfonso in particular was always ahead of the technology. We were waiting for the technology to catch up with the things he was trying to do. I benefited from that in a way, I had some advantages. Some of the technology has caught up and surpassed, like the VR stuff, but you’re still putting actors on wires and trying not to cross them up, which is, believe it or not, incredibly complicated. And having to get them to be able to speak fast but move slowly, because that’s what space is, and then getting to the sequence where they’re on top of each other for the blood sequence was just … I mean, that’s not the kind of world I’ve worked in before.
Regina, you did some of your shooting for One Night in Miami during the pandemic. What was the biggest challenge of that?
KING Probably waiting for everyone’s tests to come back negative, that created the most anxiety. My test was a test that came back inconclusive. That was terrifying. I knew from constant meetings with the DGA that if that was the case, the production shouldn’t go on, but I wanted to finish my film. So I put the emotion to the side and just started thinking solution-based. “OK, so one of the PAs who had a negative test, can we get them an iPad and they’ll just be the designated person with the iPad [talking] with me while I’m directing from home?” We ended up not having to do that, because I was able to get another test that came back [negative] just in time for us to start shooting.
And then just the being on set. We’re so used to doing things the way we do them, being within 6 feet of each other and congregating around a monitor. It was difficult to reprogram your mind to shoot something that is actually a galvanizing moment, but treat it as though you’re all in individual bubbles. I talked to many of the crewmembers after the fact, and it was very stressful. No one really spoke about it in the moment, but there was a lot of anxiety because they have the people on set that are like, “Six feet. Six feet.” And you’ll be like, “Oh shit!” But we got through it and I went on and shot another film, as if that wasn’t enough anxiety for me.
Paul, how has the pandemic affected the way you’re approaching the theatrical rollout of News of the World? You obviously shot it with the big screen in mind.
GREENGRASS Universal is going to give it a go in North America, and I admire them for doing that, to be fair. There’s not going to be the business around that there normally would, but I personally believe theaters will be back, the cinematic experience will be back, I think by the summer. I think that vaccines are going to get us back to normal. So the first part of the crisis in the business will be surmounted. The second part of the crisis, which is the fact that theatrical is going to have to coexist in some form with streaming, I think it’s a change that is going to stay with us. Whether there are theatrical studios who are trying to grow streaming services or streaming services that are trying to create theatrical offerings, everyone’s going to congregate in some version of that ground where theatrical movies coexist with streams, and I think it’ll be fine. I’m optimistic about that. People will go and see movies, and movies will be back in business in a big way.
When I think [back] to when I was a kid, when you went to see a film, you saw it once or maybe twice in the week that it was around in your local cinema and then you wouldn’t see it again for probably 10 years, if not longer. Now, kids might watch their movie 30, 40 times. They might go to the movies and then they might watch it streamed, they might watch it on their phones. That’s technology, that’s consumer choice. You can’t stand against it. We have to learn to live in that world and take the positives. That’s my view.
ZHAO When there is a natural disaster, when there’s a state of emergency, we hope that our politicians can put their differences aside and come together, and I feel that way about our industry leaders as well. Healthy competition aside, this is a bit of a state of emergency. I hope people will still want to go back to the theaters, but would [theaters] still be there? I just wish that all the leaders and people who are empowered in our industry, while having their healthy competition, also have some kind of dialogue. Save some space aside and talk about longevity, nurturing our industry, because our government didn’t give us the funding in this type of emergency to preserve culture, and it’s the job of our industry leaders to do that.
A lot of Warner Bros.’ filmmakers are upset right now because they learned from reading in the press that their movies would be released on HBO Max the same day they go to theaters. The DGA called that “unacceptable” in a letter to Ann Sarnoff. Spike, if you found out in that way that your movie’s release plan was changed, how would you feel?
LEE Look, people are going to do what they want to do, but you can give somebody a heads-up. Respect. I mean, why are they going to read about it in the trades? Pick up the phone, send a text, send an email. I think that’s common decency.
This year, the Academy announced some new rules for taking the inclusion of the cast and crew into account when determining whether a film is Oscar eligible. Do you think they’re a good idea?
LEE To tell you the truth, I don’t understand the rules. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there, but is there a number? … I mean, so, if you have two Black PAs that means you’re eligible. What position are we talking about? I’m not trying to be funny, but I just don’t understand. Maybe I’m glad that somebody with the Academy will tell me like, “How does this thing work?”
KING In theory, it sounds like a great idea to give opportunity to people who don’t get the opportunity, who continuously get overlooked, but then there’s also, how do you fulfill those requirements when you’re shooting in Iceland? And there’s a very specific relationship between white and Black people in America, just because of the history of Black people coming to America and how we got here, but when you talk about inclusivity, we’re talking about more than just Black people, we’re talking about women, we’re talking about how you identify as a gender. So I don’t know how all of that plays in the rules.
LEE In my opinion, you rectify this by having those people in the room that I call the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are the ones that decide what film’s getting made and what film doesn’t get made, not the Academy. You have to go to that high, rarefied air of the people who have greenlight votes at studios and networks. They’re the ones that have the power, and that’s where I love my man Lin-Manuel [Miranda, creator of Hamilton, for which he wrote the song “The Room Where It Happens”]. You’ve got to be in the room. If we’re not in the room, they’re shit out of luck.
ZHAO I want to give a shoutout to my professor Spike here, because change takes time. I spend a lot of time on a reservation in South Dakota. There is quick change — people come in and donate a lot of stuff and leave — but … real change takes time, sustainable change takes time, and you’ve got to build from the ground up, and Spike dedicated so much of his years teaching at NYU. It’s about education as well. It’s about building from the ground up, and that’s going to take another generation to see results. But those results are the most important ones.
For those who don’t know, Chloé was Spike’s student at NYU. “Professor” is not something she’s just saying to be nice.
LEE I’m very proud of her.
CLOONEY In fairness, though, Spike does make us all call him “professor.”
Between the pandemic, the election, the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement globally, this past year has been one of major cultural shifts. I’m curious which ones you think will have a lasting impact on the industry?
CHUNG I just assume it’s not going to be something that we can quantify. My hope is that any time something like this happens, we take what’s good from it and we change. I read this article and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, is that we’re all in new terrain now and because of that, we’re all immigrants. And I just found that so interesting, because something that I’ve been thinking about so much with this film is, we’re all forming a new identity at each moment and yeah, we’ve gone through a lot of trauma this year, so let’s come out better and let’s really take good from this and build upon it and grow something new for us and for the next generation.
GREENGRASS One of the things that struck me about all the films that’s representative of the directors here, they’re all about trying to figure out how you belong in a world where you no longer belong. I found that incredibly powerful and very moving, that seven different people are wrestling with the same dynamic, because I think this planet, this country has really been wrestling with that. I found something about that very reassuring, that it’s people looking to connect the way they’ve connected in the past, but the rules have all changed and the landscape has all changed. And so how do you go forward, and how do you embody the things that make you so fragile and so connected as a human being? How do you preserve that? It’s sitting in a dark theater with strangers watching something wondrous, or people traveling around landscapes that are fraught with violence and fear and horror. We were all in our own way exploring “Where do I belong?”
What have you been watching or listening to for an escape during the pandemic?
KING As far as taking you away, I’m still watching Golden Girls episodes. Musicwise, I’ve been listening to Tank and the Bangas, and the lead singer is this young woman who is just vibrant in her voice. Then I discovered a young woman who seems like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald are both living in her body. This girl looks like she’s about 16 years old — this beautiful, precious baby — and all this power and emotion comes out. Her name is Samara Joy, and it brings me joy.
LEE I’ve been in musical things … I was in my Rodgers and Hammerstein, Carousel, Oklahoma. The Sound of Music.
What do people think directing is that it isn’t?
GREENGRASS People think it’s easier [than it is]. A few years ago, my dad, who is about 95 now and was at sea all his life, so he was away quite a bit when I was young — anyway, I think it was Captain Phillips, we had a screening of Captain Phillips and I got up and made a little speech and I said, “As I get older, I realize that I’m my father’s son and actually directing is a little bit like going to sea, because you have a map called a script and you have a crew and you have a cargo and your job is to get the cargo to port safely on time, and you’ve got to deal with the weather and all the rest of it.” I thought it was a very pretty little speech. Afterward, my dad said to me, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I have worked properly hard work. It wasn’t like all that making movies stuff. That’s not a real job.”
CLOONEY I have to say, Paul, it is funny to me too, though, because we’ll have these conversations sometimes and it will become like, “This was really hard.” They’ll ask me about being in the snow and they’ll be like, “Was it really hard for you as an actor?” And I’m like, “Yeah, it was hard.” But I used to cut tobacco for a living in Kentucky for $3.30 an hour, and I remember watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You remember that show with whatever his name was [Robin Leach], and they would always talk about how what they were doing was so hard, you hear some famous actor go, “God, it’s so hard. It’s so hard.” And I’m sitting here covered in tobacco juice going, “It’s not that fucking hard.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.