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This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On his reputation for demanding many takes of the same shot
I don’t do that many takes. It really depends on what I’m dealing with. If we’re filming a simple shot, then usually we narrow it after one or two takes. Whereas if the shot is much more complex — involving a lot of actors and very complex camera movements — then yes, it’ll be longer and you’ll have to do more takes. Another reason, perhaps, why I do more takes than the average is because I don’t rehearse. I believe, very much, that it’s important to try to capture the spontaneity that you get in the first takes the first time that an actor does a scene. Sometimes there are very nice surprises that result from it. So, prior to shooting, we don’t rehearse, we simply block the shots. I tell the actors when to lift up the glass, when to say this line, and we start to shoot. But it’s not that I insist on doing numerous takes, not like Robert Bresson, who is known to do 50 shots of an actor saying a single line. Jean-Louis Trintignant had been warned that I did a lot of takes, and he wasn’t that enthusiastic about it. But, in fact, the only scenes with him that required a lot of takes were the two scenes with the pigeon, because it’s very hard to direct a pigeon.
On why he decided to make his first 3D film
Nearly four years ago, I traveled through India with my writer David Magee. We were working on the script, and quite early, during the first draft, it occurred to me that this was an impossible movie to make. It’s a philosophical movie that I had to turn into a popular movie because it was going to be very expensive to make. As we wrote the script, I was thinking, “How do I tell a thinking movie with a philosophical ending?” So I thought, “What if I could use another dimension?” Maybe things would open up, and I started to think about 3D. I laughed, “Right, 3D!” But I started to do my research and decided it would be very good for the water, which is a character in the movie. How could I have control over it? How could I immerse the audience in what Pi is going through? With 3D, I thought, I could bring the images outside of the frame of the screen, involving the audience’s space. As I got into it, it became more and more interesting. But this was all before Avatar hit the screen, so it was also quite scary. 3D had only been used for action movies and cheap horror, so I wasn’t sure. I had doubts for some time. I knew we would need a new cinematic language. Somehow, we would have to treat it as a combination of stage and cinema. As we were writing the script, I was thinking about it, but I didn’t tell anybody until about six months later. Then, of course, I started to do the study and research and began to check out the equipment.
On how he orchestrates group scenes to make them so spontaneous
People like to underestimate the conventional aspects of it — which to me is the script. If you haven’t arrived at that scene, with all those actors in that room, if the script hasn’t gone through 20 drafts, you’re not gonna get it. You have to get it on the page. You have to know what you want. Each character has to have arrived there, with their emotional journey going full speed. And so that was Jennifer Lawrence‘s journey, Bradley Cooper‘s, Robert De Niro‘s and the rest of the family’s. If we didn’t get them all the way through the first two acts, they weren’t going to arrive at that station — in the parlay scene where they all collide. So that had to happen at the script level. Then what happens on the day — part of it’s necessitated by practicality. We don’t have that much time to shoot it. So, we have to light it for 360 degrees and make it like a stage play. That means everybody has to get in the game and stay in the game. All day. They get in, and they’re onstage the whole time, and the camera can go to them anytime. And it gets going in the rhythm of the scene, and we don’t cut for 20 minutes of film. We just keep going, and people really get a feeling for it. I think that’s what the actors like about it. Everybody gets a feeling for it, so you almost forget it’s a scene. You get lost in it, which is my goal as a director. I want everyone to be lost in it emotionally, and with actors, that’s great: They double down for that. Robert De Niro said that it felt like there was an immediacy to it — you’re almost in like the middle of a family meal or situation where people are going at it, and you can chime in on someone’s behalf. You can go to someone’s ear: “You’re gonna take that?” “Don’t say that.” “You know what you should say to him? You should say to him, ‘That’s bullshit.’ And if that’s not nonsense, you better prove it.” And that’s what happened with Jennifer Lawrence accusing Paul Herman‘s character of twisting the knife and winning the money from De Niro. It was really fun to turn up the flame on that.
On why he thinks his film has resonated so much with modern audiences
Of course, we are thrilled out of our minds by the success of Lincoln. But the truly honest response is that as a director, I always hope that an audience will find a place for themselves in our story. And it seems that an unimaginable number of people from every age group have done exactly that. But I believe the real reason Lincoln resonates has everything to do with the man himself. To this day, he is as compelling a figure as any superhero — a flawed and complicated leader who led us through the worst of times with a promise of freedom and equality that became the law of the land — and he did this by following his inherent sense of morality. Abraham Lincoln believed in us as a country and as a people, and the things he fought for so diligently cross all boundaries of race, class or political party. I will never get over what a privilege it was to get to make a film about Lincoln and his unprecedented legacy.
On creating the aurochs, the title beasts, on a budget of just $1.8 million
There are no computer graphics in the film. We really wanted to make the aurochs in a way that was organic to Hushpuppy’s world, and so we built them in a way you might build them if you were a kid. We raised five Vietnamese potbellied pigs and trained them to wear costumes and trained them to run on treadmills. They learned how to stop, sit down and turn around. We sort of figured out what the capabilities of these pigs were and designed the aurochs sequence around a series of pig tricks. Those scenes had a lot of work done on them in post, but the only thing that wasn’t shot in camera is the final scene, where Hushpuppy’s facing them. We shot the pigs on greenscreen, but there’s no digital animation there. They’re the cutest little pigs in costumes. That’s what I love about the last scene — something I think is fun. If you watch the movie again when that giant pig is staring down Hushpuppy, it’s two little kids actually. I always love that when I watch it myself. You see in this auroch’s eye, this is just a little kid. It’s another baby staring down another child. That was one thing that was kind of cool.
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