"Movies Stopped Becoming Just Entertainment": AFM Indie Director Roundtable

AFM Indie Director Roundtable 2019 — Photographed by Anoush Abrar — H 2019
Photographed by Anoush Abrar

Bart Freundlich, Marjane Satrapi, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Julie Delpy, Roland Emmerich and Ladj Ly discuss artist integrity, financial challenges and the complicated politics of moviemaking in 2019.

Every film that gets made, especially in the independent world, is a little miracle, and in bringing their personal visions to the screen, the participants on this year’s AFM Indie Directors Roundtable all have their own horror stories to tell. The Current War, an awards-bait period drama from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, got caught up in The Weinstein Co.’s Chapter 11 fallout and spent more than a year on the shelf. My Zoe, from French actress-writerdirector Julie Delpy, took six years to finance before a key backer dropped out, nearly scuppering the film. And that pales alongside the two decades documentarian Ladj Ly has spent chronicling life in his banlieue, one of the socially precarious suburbs of Paris, before, almost by accident, getting the chance to make his first feature, Les Misérables. Iranian director Marjane Satrapi fought the pigeonholing and prejudice she has faced her entire career to make Radioactive, a biopic of the Noble Prize-winning Polish scientist Madame Curie. Bart Freundlich was stuck on his adaptation of Susanne Bier’s Danish melodrama After the Wedding before hitting on the bold, and potentially risky, move of gender flipping the lead roles from men to women — played by Michelle Williams and Freundlich’s wife, Julianne Moore. And even blockbuster champ Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, had to return to his indie roots to put together the money to make his new World War II epic, Midway. This eclectic group gathered at the B2 Boutique Hotel + Spa during the Zurich International Film Festival in September to talk about artist integrity, financial challenges and the complicated politics of moviemaking in 2019.

What film changed your life?

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON Mean Streets. I was raised on the Texas-Mexican border in a small town. We only had one big movie theater, and so we usually only got the big Hollywood films. That was the first movie I saw where I thought, "This is about me." It was the first film where I saw a version of myself onscreen.

ROLAND EMMERICH I had just been accepted to the Munich Film School and was visiting a friend in Paris. There, you could see the English version of films. It was the fall of 1977. And it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And that was it. I had already decided to go to film school, but I wanted to go toward production. But that sealed it for me to become a director, that you could have normal, regular characters and have them face these incredible things — that set me on my path.

MARJANE SATRAPI For me it was three films. The first was Bicycle Thieves from Vittorio De Sica. My parents took me to it because I had to develop a social and political conscience. It worked. The second film was when I was still in Iran, it was The Man Who Loved Women by François Truffaut. I don’t think I ever cried so much as with this film. I was in my 20s and full of romance. When I came to France, the film that changed my life was Pink Flamingos by John Waters. It blew up my mind. Suddenly everything was free and you could do things for no money. It’s a film I watch every year at Christmastime. Because I hate Christmas, you know, the jingle bells, jingle bells. So to cleanse my soul, I always watch Pink Flamingos.

BART FREUNDLICH It’s almost the exact opposite of most for me. It wasn’t about the directorial style as much as the emotion of the movies. It was Ordinary People. And Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms of Endearment, to have a cathartic, emotional response to these characters. And I was also introduced to this very naturalistic style of acting that I just responded to. Movies stopped becoming just entertainment.

JULIE DELPY For me it was many films. Close Encounters was one of them. Then there was West Side Story. At a revival house on a huge screen. I thought the direction was so amazing. But then there's also Hair by Milos Forman, which blew my mind at the time. And then Scorsese. For me it was After Hours. It made me want to move to New York and I was like, 'why do would you want to move to New York and go through that'? But I love the paranoia and anxiety in the film. It was like a weird version of Fritz Lang's Fury.

FREUNDLICH I wouldn't go below Houston Street after see After Hours. I was too scared.

LADJ LY In my adolescence, I was very much into American films. And Boyz n the Hood had a huge impression on me. Because of where I grew up, in Paris. In French films at the time, there were very few black people, it made it difficult for me to identify with them. In this film, finally there were black characters I could identify with.

Could any of those films be made now? Julie, you had a nightmare getting your new film, My Zoe, financed.

JULIE DELPY We had a bunch of fucking morons. We had a moronic lawyer taking care of this financial company who kind of convinced them to pull out of my film, because I was a female director, basically a week prior to prep. And suddenly this company, this Korean company, the day before signing the contract, says no. They think they are going to go into, I don’t know, diapers instead of movies. Hey, diapers is a business with a future anyway. Diapers will always be diverse! But it was really traumatic. It took me six years to put the film together. And then this main financier suddenly vanishes with no excuse.

When we spoke just after that happened, you said they told you they didn’t trust a woman to deliver on budget.

DELPY They had "doubts about my capacity" to make the movie. It’s weird because it’s been changing. But there are still some people that have doubts about women dealing with bigger-budget films.

SATRAPI Which is completely bizarre because women, they’re much better in managing money than men.

DELPY Yeah, I never go over budget. I never have crazy moments on set because I know that time is money. I’m super paranoid that I never raise my voice even when I should. Because then people are going to say I’m hysterical and should take a Valium. Do the smallest thing and you’re a bitch for like 20 years. As a woman, you have to be perfect, basically. 

SATRAPI With men we say, "Oh, he is such a genius. He’s an asshole but a genius, so he has the right." But women, we always have to be perfect and nice and kind.

Alfonso, with The Current War, you had a big period film with great stars. And then the movie got caught in the Weinstein bankruptcy and the release got frozen.

DELPY That must have been painful.

GOMEZ-REJON It was horrible. It felt like a death, I didn’t think I’d survive it. But the process of making the film, there was a lot of intervention and meddling [from] that studio when it existed. And I thought I was going to be another casualty [of the Weinstein Co.] and have a film that was heavily compromised out in the world. And then the stories came out in The New Yorker and The New York Times [about sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein]. And the film was on hold for like a year. One company bought TWC and my film became a bank asset. Then there was the surreal part: I read in a newspaper, a trade or online, that my film was getting an international release. And I was like, "Which version and who is releasing?" That’s when the second and third phase began. I would eventually get my film back and be able to re-edit and restructure it, remake it exactly as I wanted without any interference. We put the cast back together. We shot a few more scenes. We re-scored it, recut it. We had the premiere here last night, and it felt cathartic.

Roland, you’ve been a studio director for decades. Why did you finance Midway independently?

EMMERICH Out of necessity. I sent my script to the studios and everybody loved it. And then everybody asked what is the budget. And at that time, they had a budget of I think $125 million. Because this is a big one. And everybody says, "This is way too expensive, we’re not interested." And my producer said, "Why don’t we do it independently?" It took us one and a half years to put this movie together. In the end, my own company had to do it and could only do it because some Chinese people gave us $42 million and we brought the budget down to $100 million. I had to shoot it in 65 days without a second unit. And very short shooting days — because if I would have shot long, they would have killed me.

SATRAPI Sixty-five days is short for you?

EMMERICH When you see it, you’ll understand. There are so many elements. And it’s big. But in the end, the good news was I could do the movie I wanted to. Luckily, I had in my contract that I had final cut.

GOMEZ-REJON I had that in my contract too [with the Weinsteins]. But it meant nothing (Laughs.)

FREUNDLICH (to Emmerich) Have you had a lot of intervention in your earlier films within the studio system?

EMMERICH Sometimes, yes. But most of the time they left me alone because I always auctioned movies. You know, I kind of had an agent who was very, very good in auctioning scripts.

DELPY What do you mean by auctioning?

EMMERICH You send a script out to everybody at the same time. And start a bidding war. Times have changed but at the time, it was the era of big writers and you could do that. We wrote this script called Independence Day. And we sent it out on a Wednesday, not a Friday, so the studio executives would have to cancel their lunches.  It sold on Thursday. And on Monday we were greenlit. That was the model I did for all of my big movies.

Then the studio leaves you alone because everything has been approved. The title has been approved, the release date has been approved. I still have to fight with the studios on casting. I wanted to have Will Smith on Independence Day and they said he's a TV actor. But I got Will Smith. 

DELPY Once I was trying to get a film together and I said, I want this guy, he's a singer. His name is Marky Mark. And people basically told me, I'll never make my film if I want Marky Mark. And two months later, he exploded and then it was too late. I couldn't get him anymore.

Ladj, Les Misérables, your first feature film, actually started with footage you caught by accident, isn’t that right?

LY I’ve been making documentaries for many years, and I used to film the police, using a drone, when they would come in our neighborhood and harass people. I’d put the films on the internet. And one time I filmed an officer shooting at unarmed kids. I put that on the internet and it exploded, it actually led to the officer being fired. Which had never happened in France before. I’ve been filming for 20 years in this neighborhood. So I had lots of access.

Bart, on the subject of representation, why did you gender-flip the two main characters in your movie, who were originally male?

FREUNDLICH I didn’t do it as some social statement. But it wasn’t about being a woman. It was just about being a human being and just trying to represent the reality of the human experience. I had to rely on Julianne and Michelle a tremendous amount and try to see what was real. Julianne character is a very wealthy business person. But that’s just incidental. I think, in a way, the fact that the film isn’t being political was kind of its strength.

Are politicalized movies poison in the current climate? Roland, you're not thought of as a political director, but when you made Stonewall, you got some criticism, ironically, from the LGBTQ community. 

EMMERICH I was shooting and all of a sudden everybody around me was looking at their phones. They came to me and said: there's this black 18-year old trans woman. She saw the trailer to the film —the trailer!— and she wants to call for a boycott of the film because of whitewashing. And I actually went out of the way to make this film as racially diverse as you possibly can, while staying true to the history. And if you know about the Stonewall riots they were totally white. But it was only because, in my film, there was this one white kid who threw the first brick. That was the whitewash. But it is is a total myth that Stonewall was started by black trans women. There was one trans woman. She is in the film, Martha P. Johnson. She was arrested in the bar and kind of made a huge deal out of it. But she didn't throw the brick. Nobody knows who threw the brick.

I was told by my publicist, I should keep my mouth shut and it will all go away. It didn't go away. I would have loved to just have a discussion with this black transgender girl,  in front of  cameras, and say 'what do you know about the Stonewall riots?' And she would have probably realized that she doesn't know anything about it, that she just kind of use this as a political tool.

But once and a while, even in my big movies, I like to take on a serious subject matter. I did it with The Day After Tomorrow, about climate change. Earlier than anybody else, because I was really concerned about it.  And even now in Midway, because these guys I make heroes out of are very normal people who just did their job. But they were the guys who helped defeat fascism. World War 2 was about trying to beat fascism.

DELPY What we have to do now again.

EMMERICH Exactly. The whole nationalist movement now with the rise of right-wing parties. I'm actually happy that I make the movie now an not 20 years ago when I first tried. Now I think it's even more important to tell people. I mean, do you want to have a war like that again?

Marjane, do you feel pressure in the sense of being expected to represent Iranian woman, or Muslim women or whatever community people think you come from?

SATRAPI Yes, me being a representative of the Muslim woman! I’m not a Muslim woman! I grew up in a family that didn’t believe in anything. Until the revolution, I didn’t even know religion existed. Religion was the same as fairy tales. When I made Chicken With Plums, people said, “There are all these problems in your country, why are you making a love story?” Would somebody ask an American only to make films about Trump? It’s like only subjects I’m allowed to be interested in are atom bombs and burkas.

What’s your fantasy project, if you had complete creative control and no budget limitations?

DELPY I wrote a screenplay two years ago about kids doing a school strike for climate change. I was inspired by that strike from the kids in Florida where there was the shooting. Which actually was what inspired [Fridays for Future activist] Greta Thunberg. People were laughing at me while I was writing it, saying I was wasting my time because no one cares. So my dream situation would be to be able to fucking make my movies, one after another.

SATRAPI My fantasy is to not have any financiers in my face. They think they have talent and are creative. They are not. They’re money people, and it is good they stay in their place.

FREUNDLICH My fantasy is to make Julie’s school strike script with Roland’s 65 days shooting schedule.

GOMEZ-REJON Anything that does not involve getting an email that says, "Attached please find our collected notes."

LY What I would like is just to have the freedom to do film after film, about the subjects I want. And without any creative limitations.

GOMEZ-REJON One hundred percent.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 10 daily issue at the American Film Market.