BAFTA Nominees Spike Lee, Phil Lord, Chris Miller Talk Career Lessons, Diversity

BAFTA Panel Discussion - H - 2019
Credit: BAFTA

The British Academy held a series of panel discussions and talks ahead of Sunday's awards.

A sizable assortment of 2019’s BAFTA nominees, including Spike Lee, Pawel Pawlikowski, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, spent the day before Sunday's film awards sharing key insights on their industry with peers and those from new talent schemes invited to BAFTA headquarters in London’s Piccadilly. 

Panel discussions on directing, costume design, production design and animation were among those held.

“You can’t fall behind (when shooting),” began the advice Lee offered during a lively discussion on the pleasures and pains of directing. “You have to be strategic. Try to get your first shot an hour after call, you’ve got to be prepared. Pre-production can save your ass. You have to prepare, or you’ll be behind. You’ve got to put in the time in pre-production and that doesn’t cost you anything really.”

Added Stan & Ollie director Jon Baird: “It has to scare you as well. I don’t get involved unless at the beginning I think ‘I can’t do this.' The thing that motivates me is the fear.”

First-time writer/director Leanne Welham, whose film Pili is BAFTA nominated for outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer, took the opportunity to ask her fellow panelists if directing films gets easier the more you make?

“It always feels like an impossible task,” replied Cold War director Pawlikowski, a comment met with laughter from those in the room. “There’s no such thing as easy,” joined in Lee, “especially when it comes to making films. But you get depressed less (the more you do).”

Speaking to THR afterwards about the continued lack of recognition for female directors at major awards ceremonies, Welham admitted it was “a difficult one to answer,” especially as a BAFTA nominee this year herself.

“I guess there (isn't) the same volume of female directors out there and so when people are deciding on who to give awards to there are just less women in the running. I think that’s a problem, but it is changing,” she said. 

“The work I see them (women directors) doing is as good, if not better (than male directors),” Baird told THR about the lack of female directing nominees, citing excellence he’s seen from working with Reed Morano and Nicole Kassell. “There’s no doubt it’s going to change, there’s been a lot of progress made over a short period of time and it will continue to push through. I think through the next few years you’ll hopefully see a big difference, but I don’t know why it isn’t happening already, it should have.”

The importance of trust between actor and costume designer was discussed over an intimate lunch at BAFTA.

Nominees Julian Day (Bohemian Rhapsody), Mary Zophres (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Alexandra Byrne (Mary Queen of Scots) and Sandy Powell (The Favourite/Mary Poppins Returns) all agreed how much they protect that trust, emphasizing their role in strengthening the vital connection between what an actor wears and how it makes them feel. It was a point Baird had brought up earlier in the day when recounting directing advice that had been passed down to him.

“Always let the actors choose one of their hats; Give them some ownership over their own costume and they do repay you,” he said.

Byrne also brought up the sometimes-unseen difficulties of keeping costume designs under wraps, especially when in transit and navigating top-secret samples through airport security in hand luggage.

Widows’ Cynthia Erivo, nominated for the rising star BAFTA, spoke about how she learned to connect with her vulnerability as an actor, and that it was okay to cry on the plane in 2015 when she was headed to New York from London to star in The Color Purple on Broadway, facing the enormous unknown of that situation.

She had to keep reminding herself that, “it was okay to say that I didn’t know something, and to go and ask someone who might know. To admit to the times when I was completely clueless about things and to admit to the times when I felt sad or reach out to someone when I felt alone and admit I might need a dog now because I’m by myself a lot of the time, flying everywhere and that’s the only time I can stay grounded, so I’ve got a puppy now!”

The animation session saw BAFTA nominees, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and directors Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman and Bob Persichetti, discuss the evolution of their film, superheroes and the current critical appreciation for animation, alongside fellow nominees Incredibles 2 director Brad Bird and producer Nicole Grindle. Lord reiterated how the film was “always going to be about Miles Morales” and that he wouldn’t have done a Spider-Man film where Peter Parker was the central character.

The diversity and inclusivity of Spider-Verse continues to resonate strongly with a global audience, with Miller telling THR how pleasing that’s been to see. “It's been really cool that anybody from any walk of life has found characters that they could personally relate to,” he said. “And this amazing movement on Twitter of Spidersonas where people left the movie and wanted to make themselves as a Spider-Person and what their Spider-Person would be and thousands of people were inspired to do it and it was so moving to us that people could connect from any background to the movie so much.”

Added Lord: “It's amazing what a very simple thing like making Spider-Man a black and Puerto-Rican kid from Brooklyn can do ... it was a surprise even to us." Said Miller: "There's even people going 'thanks for making a dad-bod Spider-Man I finally feel like a hero too!’"

Lord and Miller continued a discussion with THR post-panel about the lack of animation recognition in best picture categories at the major awards ceremonies. “As Brad (Bird) said, animation is film, it's not a genre to just be placed in one category. It's a medium and the medium is film, it's not a separate medium, it's just that we get our images out of a different pipeline,” said Lord.

“And I think American audiences are more and more starting to see animation as not just one type of thing,” continued Miller, “and the more films that can come out that feel different from each other and for different audiences and in different styles, the more people will see animation as not just a sub-genre and as film itself.” 

Superhero saturation was something discussed by Bird, who admitted that he “actually got fairly depressed about it because when we did the first (Incredibles) film there were only two active franchises, Spider-Man and X-Men. Batman was post-nipplegate, Chris Nolan hadn’t done his thing yet and so we kind of had some elbow room. And now if you throw a rock you’ll hit seven superheroes and so I got really depressed for a little bit because I thought ‘it’s saturated now, by the time this movie (Incredibles 2) comes out people are going to be sick of superheroes’. And then I thought, ‘wait a minute, that isn’t why I got into the idea in the first place, what got me excited was that it’s really a film about a family through the lens of a superhero’.”

The unknown alchemy of timing was a theme that found its way into most of the panels across the day, with Nicole Grindle admitting that “our problem was they (Pixar) changed the release date on us, they moved it up by a year, and so we lost a year of writing.”

“And failing!” added Bird, with Grindle revealing how “we were taking pages off of his (Bird’s) desk and putting it into production out of sequence, so we didn’t really have the entire script understood—"
“…until well after the release” joked Bird.

Earlier in the day, Lee had commented on the directing panel how “so many things are not in your control, so why worry about that, you just plough ahead, keep moving forward” while also saying how he retains final cut approval.

As for timing though, he feels some of BlacKkKlansman’s success “has to do with timing," Lee said. "I didn’t work any harder on this film than I have on the others. Sometimes films come out at the wrong time and on this one the stars were aligned. Doesn’t always work like that.”