All of our films are quiet films,” Jason Reitman noted about halfway through The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual gathering of six leading filmmakers. “It’s kind of a quiet year.” Reitman is right. Many of the films contending in the season’s major awards categories are understated character pieces featuring long periods of silence. One movie, French director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, contains virtually no dialogue at all. By contrast, the filmmakers behind those contenders have no trouble speaking their minds. This especially opinionated group — Hazanavicius, 44, Steve McQueen, 42 (Shame), Bennett Miller, 44 (Moneyball), Mike Mills, 45 (Beginners), Alexander Payne, 50 (The Descendants) and Reitman, 34 (Young Adult) — wasn’t afraid to disagree while opening up about their challenges and influences. The hourlong roundtable took place Oct. 28 at Siren Studios in Hollywood.
There are a lot of good directors. What makes a great director?
Alexander Payne: The luck that the work you do happens to hit the zeitgeist. A director can have a career spanning decades, but if he or she is lucky, there’s about a 10-year period where you’re given a chance to touch the zeitgeist. You can be doing very good and honest work before then and after then, and one of those periods may return, too. Robert Altman had it in the ’70s, and then he kind of went underground. He never stopped working, and then he reemerged again for a final stretch run. Woody Allen kept doing very good and honest work — excellent work in the ’70s, of course, and then he kept chipping away with hits and misses. Now, he’s kind of having a late-career resurgence.
Bennett Miller: The directors I’m most impressed with have some kind of perspective. If it’s Hitchcock or Kubrick or Scorsese or maybe an Alexander Payne, you watch those films and you feel like you’re inside their head, their frames feel conscious.
How does the writer’s point of view fit into that?
Miller: Writers do not matter. (Laughter.) No, it’s the same.
Bennett, you went from directing a small film, Capote, to a big studio film, Moneyball. How much was your perspective valued and how much did the studio mettle?
Miller: I probably shouldn’t say this, but in one of the early conversations I had with the studio folks, I argued a lot. And then I got a call from [Sony Pictures co-chairman] Amy Pascal, who said, “Look, Bennett, you’re making the movie. Everybody knows that the studio, at best, can exercise 7 percent of influence over the thing, but you need to be more generous in these meetings — and let’s just never talk about this again and never tell anybody about the 7 percent.” (Laughter.) So there’s your answer.
Jason Reitman: I grew up in a directing family, and as I’ve become a working director, I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet a lot of directors. I always figured there’d be a piece of recognizable DNA that I’d be like, “Oh, there’s that trait that I’m noticing,” [but] that does not exist at all. I’ve met great directors who are incredibly shy, I’ve met directors who are arrogant, terrified of confrontation, directors who truly thrive on confrontation as a part of their process. Some directors are horrible with actors. There are tons of stories of directors who don’t understand actors as human beings and yet they still get great performances.
Payne: How do you explain that? I don’t know whom you’re referring to, but one does notice that the directors we value for being great visual stylists also happen to get some of the best performances. One thinks of Kubrick.
Is that true? Barry Lyndon is one of my favorite films, but Ryan O’Neal is so horrendously miscast.
Payne: We disagree there. I think he’s perfectly cast.
Steve McQueen: I disagree completely. Ryan O’Neal — he’s brilliant, he’s Barry Lyndon, he’s beautiful, he’s lyrical. You project yourself onto him, you are Barry Lyndon.
Reitman: The fact that he doesn’t know what he’s doing makes it actually work. His naivete adds to the role.
Payne: Some directors have the good gut but not the wherewithal to explain it. William Wyler was famous for that. Made people do tons and tons of takes and said, “I don’t know, just do it better,” but he had the compass and he directed more actors to Oscar-winning performances than any other director.
McQueen: Words can only go so far, you have to trust the director, end of story.
Steve, you have some extraordinarily difficult themes in Shame, plus full nudity. How do you get the trust of the actors to do that?
McQueen They’re actors. They use their bodies to act, like dancers. That’s what they have to do. If I was making the movie in 1951 as opposed to 2011, [Michael Fassbender’s character would] be wearing pajamas, but a lot of people don’t wear pajamas, so he walks around in the apartment naked, drinks a glass of water, goes to the bathroom, has a shower. It’s so obvious. It’s not a shocker, is it?
Well, the film is quite shocking, isn’t it?
McQueen: Not particularly. We all have sex, we all see what Michael and Carey [Mulligan] have, as far as being naked. Maybe because it’s onscreen it’s shocking, but that’s maybe because it hasn’t been portrayed on screen. What’s unfamiliar, at least to me, is someone with a gun shooting someone in the head. I think we made a film that was responsible. I don’t care — NC-17? Brilliant! Fantastic! Bring it on! I take full responsibility for it. I think most violent films are not responsible, they are completely opposite of responsible. Film should reflect real life. Otherwise, what’s the point? Just make superhero movies all the time.
So what bothers you on the screen?
McQueen: A crappy movie.
Mike, you had a particularly tough time getting Beginners off the ground. Is that because part of the story is autobiographical?
Mike Mills: It took me three-and-a-half or four years to get financing. I got to hear “no” in every language. Finally I got the nerve to ask Ewan [McGregor to star] and lo and behold, he’s the coolest guy, totally easy to talk to. He did it for scale and becomes a great friend.
Like the Christopher Plummer character, your dad announced that he was gay at 75. How did you take that?
Mills: I had some information as an 18-year-old that maybe my dad was gay, but my parents were married for 44 years. My dad was born in 1925, wore a suit and tie everyday, he voted for Reagan, he didn’t seem like a gay guy, and I have many gay friends. So when he came out, that was great. If anything, it made him much more interesting, and it explained a whole hell of a lot. What was weird was that my dad was a horny 75-year-old. But Christopher is not my dad, films aren’t reality at all, even when you’re trying to document something very concrete and small that did happen.
Michel Hazanavicius: I don’t try to ape reality, but there’s something about life, even if it’s a metaphor or if it’s a completely invented story, you try to speak of life and of reality.
How did the idea for The Artist come about?
Hazanavicius: The first attraction was for the [silent movie] format, not for the story itself. When you were talking about Ryan O’Neal, you said less is more. This is exactly the principle of a silent movie. As an audience, that [format] makes the movie really close to you because it’s your own world, it’s your own dialogue, it’s your own voices. I believe that there are a lot of directors who have this fantasy to make a silent movie.
Payne: I want to kill you because you beat me to it.
Mike, you’re married to filmmaker Miranda July. How much does she influence your work?
Mills: We’re married and we’re directors, but we never talk about it. I love her because she’s not work and she’s not all this stuff. Of course, I like her work and we like each other’s, but it’s different; we go on our own path.
Who influences you most?
Payne: What does that mean to have an influence? Every time I’m asked that question, I’m nonplussed. Nothing and everything.
For instance, Bob Zemeckis says that before he makes a film, he watches The Godfather. (Laughter.) Why do you laugh?
Reitman: Two things. One: watching The Godfather makes me not want to make movies. Why would I possibly want to make movies after watching something as brilliant as that? And for me, the biggest influences aren’t movies that I see, it’s life experiences — the girl who wouldn’t go on a date with me when I was a teen — it’s that shit that finds its way in and influences your daily decisions.
Mills: I am definitely writing letters to lots of directors in my mind when I’m making a film. I’m chasing Woody Allen and Godard and Milos Forman and all these people.
Reitman: Maybe that’s the better question: Who are you chasing?
OK, who are you chasing?
Payne: Don’t burden me with that.
McQueen: I’m just trying to do as much as I can before I fall down.
Hazanavicius: Billy Wilder is my favorite. But you can’t think, “What would he do?” You’re the only one who has the answers.
Payne: Except I would say that the films we’ve seen and loved operate as a vague mental spice rack for a mood.
Hazanavicius: I steal things, I really do. It’s not that kind of “influence.”
Hazanavicius: Concretely, yes. I have a breakfast sequence [in The Artist], it’s exactly the Citizen Kane breakfast sequence. Exactly the same.
Payne: What the hell — why not? Citizen Ruth is trying to be Ace in the Hole, and a bit of Viridiana, and it fails. Election is made by a guy who was drunkenly in love with Casino, and I still am. About Schmidt is chasing Ikiru and Wild Strawberries and The Graduate. Sideways is trying to be an early ’60s Italian comedy, like Il Sorpasso, but with the mood of a ’70s American film.
Mills: That spice rack — it’s very conscious, it’s not a secret and everybody does it.
What’s the best and the worst moment you’ve had as directors?
Payne: I was shooting a rear-screen projection moment for Election where Matthew Broderick is pretending he’s Marcello Mastroianni in a Ferrari on the Italian coast and I laughed very hard. It was fun making myself laugh.
Mills: Premiering your movie — I don’t know if it’s the worst moment, [but] it’s the most uncomfortable. My film premiered at Toronto and the Elgin Theater is this gorgeous, three-story theater. I was just walking up to the top, back down to the bottom, and then finally I just left because I really couldn’t stand it anymore.
Reitman: As someone that was in the Elgin that night, that was a pretty spectacular screening.
Mills: You’re very nice.
McQueen: My worst moment was firing a crewmember. It was one of those situations where that person was there for all of the wrong reasons.
Reitman: I had to fire an 8-year-old girl once on a Wal-Mart commercial. She was kind of a bad influence on the other kids.
Payne: I fired an actor, just once. This actor was being disobedient in rehearsal the week before shooting, and so the day before shooting we made this actor go away and I hired someone off a tape who was wonderful.
How was he or she being disobedient?
Payne: Arguing with me. It was a young person arguing over the stupidest things. I’m not there to argue with people and I’m not there to be a psychiatrist or a father figure. I’m there to make a film, and I invite collaboration but not argument.
Reitman: I actually think psychiatrist is a bit of the job.
Many of you have remained in the independent film world by choice. Steve, would you ever take a big studio movie?
McQueen: If I get final cut, yeah, why not? I want to work with people, I don’t necessarily want to work for people. But final cut is not a sort of dictatorial position, it’s actually a conversation, being collaborative with the people who are providing the money to make the movie.
Payne: I would not give up final cut, but my next film will be in black and white for theatrical, DVD and streaming, and I am taking DGA scale plus 15 [percent] for this film. It’s tentatively called Nebraska. It’s just a little comedy.
Why black and white?
Payne: Because it would be so cool.
Did you go to film school?
McQueen: Went there for three months and hated it at NYU. Film school was like work; it wasn’t like art.
Miller: I was at NYU for a bit. I found myself contracting.
McQueen: For some people, it works. But I get the impression for us, you need freedom and you’re put in this space where you can’t fit.
Payne: I loved film school [at UCLA]. I had a great time. I had one of those dream scenarios where I showed my [student] film and the next day I had 40 calls from agents and producers and studio people, and within a month, I had an agent and a writing-directing deal at a studio.
You’re all men, and only one of you, Steve, is a minority — why is that?
McQueen: I must be in America.
Mills: Yeah, why isn’t there a woman here? My wife could be sitting here.
Name a female director who made a major film this year.
Mills: Miranda July [The Future].
Payne: Lynne Ramsay [We Need to Talk About Kevin], Andrea Arnold [Wuthering Heights].
OK, but you’re talking about small films that have been little seen in America.
McQueen: I mean, the question could be different. The question could be, “Why aren’t there more black directors?” because there are obviously more women directors than black directors.
So what’s the answer?
McQueen: I have no idea. I mean, it’s opportunity, isn’t it? That’s what it’s about — opportunity. And access, because some people just give up. I’m always astonished by American filmmakers, particularly living in certain areas, when they never cast one black person, or have never put them in a lead in the movie. I’m astonished. It’s shameful. How do you live in New York and not cast a black actor or a Latino actor? It’s shameful. It’s unbelievable.
Reitman: Not stepping into that.
Miller: I don’t know.
We look back at the late ’30s, the ’70s in America, New Wave in France, those were great eras in film. What about now?
Payne If you look at certain countries, you can say, “Well, they’re having a good era.” Like, Romania has been having a good era for the last six or seven years. Maybe it’s starting to wind down, I don’t know. Korea, Taiwan, Iran comes and goes, and they have a spectacular film this year in A Separation. So if you look by country, I don’t think U.S. commercial filmmaking is having a great period, and hasn’t had a truly great period since about 1980. That’s my opinion.
The Hollywood Reporter continues its annual series of exclusive discussions among the year’s most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for upcoming roundtables with actors, writers, producers and animation filmmakers, and go to The Reporter‘s awards-season blog The Race at THR.com to watch videos of the full discussions.