AFM Indie Director Roundtable: Ewan McGregor, Josh Kriegman and 4 More on Financing Films and Handling Actors

AFM Roundtable H 2016
Anoush Abrar

John Michael McDonagh, Lone Scherfig, Maha Haj and Steven Cantor talk fears and fantasy projects in a frank, funny and free-ranging discussion.

The battle for control — between actor and director, director and financier, and filmmaker and subject — was in sharp focus at this year’s AFM Indie Director Roundtable, which included two award-winning European auteurs, two American documentarians and a pair of first-time feature directors (one of them Scottish star Ewan McGregor).

After helming An Education and The Riot Club, Denmark’s Lone Scherfig is on familiar ground with British period drama Their Finest, starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy as a British film crew tasked with producing propaganda to help draw America into WWII. War on Everyone, the action-comedy starring Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena as corrupt cops in New Mexico, marks the U.S. debut of Irish helmer John Michael McDonagh (Calvary).

The two documentaries: Dancer from Steven Cantor, and Weiner from Josh Kriegman (who co-directed with Elyse Steinberg), explore the falls of two very different media darlings: ballet bad boy Sergei Polunin and scandal-ridden politico Anthony Weiner.

Both Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral, an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel starring McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning, and Personal Affairs from Maha Haj, are stories of families torn by political upheaval: in Pastoral it’s the radical violence of America in the 1960s, and in Personal Affairs it’s the day-to-day struggles of Palestinians living in Israel.

In a frank, funny and free-ranging discussion during the Zurich Film Festival in September, these six very different filmmakers talked fears, financing and fantasy projects.

What’s the last great film you saw?

JOHN MICHAEL MCDONAGH You think the more films you make, the less you are enamored with cinema? That’s how I feel sometimes. What was the last great one? I saw a great Spanish film the other day called The Executioner [directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga in 1963]. Pedro Almodovar had a series at the British Film Institute and he picked his favorite Spanish films. I’d never heard of it. It’s really great. Kind of a Kafka-esque thing about a guy who becomes an executioner because it pays more money. They never hand down death sentences so he thinks he won’t ever have to do it, but of course, what happens? A man gets sentenced to death and he has to decide: Does he go through with it or not? And it’s a comedy. It is a great setup.

STEVEN CANTOR I actually think it’s been a couple of good years for film. Recently, I loved [John Carney’s] Sing Street. I loved the fusion of styles: the musical, the romantic comedy, the drama. But there hasn’t been one film that I thought was “the great film of the year,” the Oscar movie. I think a lot of the really great films are still to come.

EWAN MCGREGOR I haven’t seen a lot of films lately. The last great film was maybe Leviathan, the Russian movie [from 2014]. I think you can use the word great for that. The greatness of each shot, of the acting, and the fact that it’s so many wide shots and the acting tells the story. I was very moved by it.

LONE SCHERFIG I absolutely loved The Lobster. It’s so different. Visually, tonally. It is so rare to see something that genuinely comes from a different place or ends up in a different place.

Has it become harder to produce something different in the independent film industry? How difficult was it for you guys to get your films greenlighted?

CANTOR I think in the Hollywood studio system it’s gotten increasingly difficult. If you think of a few years ago, even 30 years ago, there were so many interesting films in all different genres being made, and people were going in great numbers to the cinemas and talking about movies for weeks afterward. Now films, particularly the midlevel and art house films, are much harder to make.

JOSH KRIEGMAN From a documentary perspective, the idea of getting a film greenlighted before you start sounds really luxurious. Weiner is my first feature film and it was after years of pestering him to give us access. It was really just a matter of him finally agreeing and then picking up a camera and throwing away the rest of my life for four months of shooting all day, every day and not knowing how it would come together eventually.

Were you surprised by the latest revelations, of his allegedly sexting a minor?

KRIEGMAN Yeah. Pretty shocked, actually. I mean, it is all unfolding for me as it is for everyone else; the latest stuff is really shocking and disturbing.

Maha, this also is your first film. How difficult was it to get made?

MAHA HAJ Very. I am a Palestinian, but I live in Israel. The European funds all say “Go get money from your own country,” but the story is a Palestinian one and we don’t have a country. So it was very difficult. It took years to get it made.

MCDONAGH What was the budget?

HAJ 1 million shekels, which is about $800,000. That’s not big.

Ewan, why, for your directorial debut, did you pick a big period drama based on a critically acclaimed novel that was considered unfilmable? Why try to climb Everest on your first attempt?

MCGREGOR Well, I came at it from an different route. I didn’t choose it so much as it presented itself as an opportunity. I was attached to play in it for maybe three years before I became the director. It was a director-less project at first, and I loved the story so much — I hadn’t read Philip Roth’s novel yet, I just loved the script and the story — I wanted to play [the lead, Swede Levov]. We were all cast — me, Jennifer [Connelly] and Dakota [Fanning] as the family — and in the end it was just a project that was going to disappear. I could feel it was slipping away; it wasn’t going to happen. I had wanted to direct for 15, 18 years but in that time, I’d only found two ideas I really wanted to do. For the first, I got scared and gave up the opportunity to do it, and for the second one someone else was already making a similar movie. So when I though American Pastoral might disappear, I talked to my wife and she said, “You have to do it.”

Did you ask any of the directors you know for advice?

MCGREGOR Everyone gave me advice. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is a director, it seems. But first, I had no idea what to do. My first three, four weeks, I would go into the production office and just sit there. I didn’t know what I was doing; I was just pretending to be working! Now I know that’s the time you use to formulate your ideas, when you start dreaming your film, living it. But I got advice from one director, I know him because our kids go to the same school, and he said, “Make sure you set everything up before the actors get there. Tape on the floor, everything, so they can’t f— it up.” And I said, “You know that I’m an actor, right?” I did get some good advice from actors who have directed themselves and that was not to under-cover yourself. Because there is sort of an embarrassment about it: giving yourself another close-up. It’s slightly embarrassing. You don’t do it and then you end up in the cutting room with not enough shots of yourself.

KRIEGMAN After 15 years, did it live up to your expectations?

MCGREGOR Yes. I now know [there are] lots of things not to worry about so much. All the unknowns. I carried them on my shoulders like bricks. But the creative discussions with everybody, the designers and cinematographer and the actors — I loved it so much.

SCHERFIG It is such a good job. It is so much fun, directing. Even though it is super stressful.

MCDONAGH Yeah, good that you used the word stressful, that’s the first word that occurs to me, not fun.

SCHERFIG But you can use so many of your different skills in this job. And the things you are not good at you can just find someone to do them. (Laughter.)

MCGREGOR What about the other side of it? Because the non-creative side of it is what I found difficult. The financial side of it. You talk about how difficult it is to be brave and new in cinema and that’s very much what that is [about], isn’t it? To have a freedom with those who are standing behind the camera, the financial people, who also feel that they are filmmakers. How do you get past certain ideas they have, a certain mentality? That’s what I found stressful.

What did you have to fight for with the financiers?

MCDONAGH Well, this is my first American film. I’ve done two in Ireland. My first one, The Guard, it was a 35-day shoot and it was $7 million. The American one was $9.5 million but I had four fewer days to shoot it, so I don’t know where that $2.5 million went. I think it went on the catering — there seemed to be a lot of food around. I didn’t really have too much interference, to be honest. The producers took a step back, the notes they gave me improved the film, and I’m not too precious about taking notes.

Steve and Josh, your documentaries are both focused on a single individual. Did you feel a special ethical responsibility exposing the lives of these people, who are both quite wounded individuals?

CANTOR In my case, it was a four-year process with Sergei, and along the way you can feel these problems coming out, in terms of his backstory, and his relationship with his parents. But even though in the film it looks like he is sliding down, it felt like there was some healing going on. And a rediscovery of his passion for dance. I was definitely digging way deeper than anyone had done before with him, but I felt the conversations were therapeutic for him, as well.

KRIEGMAN With Weiner, we had no idea, no one had any idea what was going to happen. You had this man, who had been so recently disgraced with the sexting scandal, getting back into politics. Most people counted him out, thought it was ridiculous. But then within a few weeks he’s at the top of the polls, and from a filmmaking perspective we thought we might be capturing one of the more remarkable comeback stories in American politics. And then there was the second scandal and the story took a whole different turn.

Ewan, you’re the only actor at the table. I’d like to hear from the other directors: What do you think actors have taught you? Or do you feel, like Hitchcock said, that actors are cattle?

SCHERFIG Hitchcock said that?

MCDONAGH He said they should be treated like cattle. I think whatever difficulties I’ve had on my three movies, I’ve never had any difficulties with actors. I’ve felt they always want what’s best.

But have they ever taught you anything? Has Brendan Gleeson (star of The Guard and Calvary) ever taught you anything?

MCDONAGH No. Nothing that springs to mind. (Laughter.)

SCHERFIG The main thing that I’ve learned, other that they sometimes know more about a character in a script, even a script you’ve written yourself, than you do, is that actors will let you know how far you can push them. And often that’s farther than you think. The kind of films I do, especially where comedy is involved, it has to be a collaboration with the actors, because they often come up with ideas that are better than your own.

MCGREGOR I’ve never experienced that a director has told me exactly what I had to do.

Roman Polanski (who directed McGregor in The Ghost Writer) didn’t tell you exactly what to do?

MCGREGOR No he did, but a director never defines who that character is — that’s our job. I think directors feel great ownership over the whole process of a film, but the truth is the actor feels great ownership over the character because it’s theirs. A director can shape the arc of a character, the director moves the emotion of a scene, but who that person really is comes from the actor. The director might give a pitch, a flavor, but the actual human being, the person the character is, that is coming from the actor.

CANTOR Don’t great directors know how to manipulate that? Like when Stanley Kubrick made Shelley Duvall in The Shining do 40 takes of a certain scene until she was exhausted.

MCDONAGH I’m not a fan of that kind of stuff.

MCGREGOR I was discussing this with someone last night — this notion that you can exhaust the actor to the point where they are not acting anymore or something. I don’t know. I think it would drive me crazy.

CANTOR You’ve never had a director do that with you?

MCGREGOR I’ve never done 40 takes of anything.

What still scares you about directing?

MCDONAGH You have a climatic shootout and it starts raining. You’ve got three days to do the shootout, and if it keeps raining, you have no ending. That’s scary. That something can happen during the shooting of a film that can completely derail the project.

HAJ It is my first film so I don’t have a lot of experience, but the first day of shooting I was terrified. All the time I was cool, I had been dreaming about it and the night before I couldn’t sleep. I was suddenly attacked by panic. Nothing I can do is right. Everything I wanted to do was ridiculous. I lost all confidence in myself.

MCGREGOR I had exactly the same experience. It was the night before the actors arrived. And that’s the part of the job I know the most about; I’ve been working with actors all my life. I called my wife and said, “I can’t do this. What the f— am I doing? What if I don’t know what to say?” I was terrified that I wouldn’t be of any use to them. Because I know what good direction is, as an actor. I’ve seen it. And I didn’t know yet if I had it in me. I suppose I still don’t.

KRIEGMAN I think with fiction there is the fear of not realizing the vision you have. With the kind of documentaries I am most excited about, where you are following a story in motion, there’s the potential for something truly transformative or interesting to happen. But there’s also the potential for nothing to happen. I think that’s one of the biggest fears: that you will go down this road with these characters and nothing will materialize.

SCHERFIG But that can happen in fiction too. It has happened to me, where you are shooting for six weeks and then slowly realize the story doesn’t work, the film isn’t happening.

Does it become more difficult, is there more fear, as the budgets go up?

SCHERFIG Yes. It makes sense that the bigger the budget the less influence you have because there are more people worried that their money isn’t being well spent. It is just very difficult to do something creative and different under that sort of pressure.

To each of you: What’s your dream project?

SCHERFIG My next project is a dream project. It’s my own script, which I haven’t done for a while, and it’s with actors I’ve always wanted to work with or have loved working with before. And it is in a place I love and it’s present day, which I’ve been wanting to do again for a while. It takes me back to Dogma, in a way. And the budget is small enough so, hopefully, no one will mess with me.

MCDONAGH I’ve got a script, one of my earlier scripts. As you make movies you realize your earlier scripts weren’t all that good, but one has stuck with me called The Bonnot Gang. It’s about anarchist bank robbers in Paris in 1911. It’s a bit of the [Jean-Pierre Melville’s] Le Samourai style, but with some Wild Bunch big action set pieces. But it feels like I need at least one or two more films under my belt because of the action set pieces, and the budget would be higher as well.

CANTOR My dream is to do what you (gestures to other directors) do: have a script and have three weeks to sit in an office and think about what my film is about. In documentaries you don’t get that.

MCGREGOR I think for me this was in many ways like making my second film: with amazing actors, quite a lot of money, a period piece made from a classic book. For my next project I’d like to make something small, something tiny, because those have been the films I’ve enjoyed most as an actor. I’d like to find out if I am a filmmaker and what kind of filmmaker I am. So I’d like to do a small-budget film with young actors and to not be in it. To go back and, like, make my first film.

HAJ I do have a dream project, and I hope it will be my second film. But the problem is it is a very political subject: It is about the occupation of Palestine in 1948. I wanted to do it as my first film but it was too big and too controversial. Maybe it will work as my second.

KRIEGMAN We are looking for our next documentary subject: for another extraordinary character in an extraordinary situation. To be witness to something extraordinary as it is happening. It’s a bit like catching lightning in a bottle. But that’s what drives my passion for documentary film.