Berlin 2013: THR's Directors Roundtable

Fabrizio Maltese

Five Berlinale helmers discuss humble beginnings, taking risks and the occasional need to yell on the set.

BERLIN - The breadth and diversity of the Berlin International Film Festival was on display at The Hollywood Reporter’s Berlin Directors Roundtable, with participants including former commercials helmer Fredrik Bond, 43, who made his fast-paced feature debut with The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman; Oscar-winning directing partners Jeffrey Friedman, 61, and Rob Epstein, 57, whose latest, Lovelace, is a biography of legendary porn-star Linda Lovelace; David Rosenthal, 43, in Berlin with the backwoods noir A Single Shot; Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, 35, whose Broken Circle Breakdown focuses on the relationship between a romantic atheist and a religious realist; and acclaimed Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic, 38, winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear for her 2006 debut, Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams.

Despite the contrasts in their work, the directors found plenty of common ground in a lively discussion at Berlin hangout the SoHo House, while still leaving room for the odd argument about styles and no-go areas in front of actors on set.
PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of THR's Berlin 2013 Directors Roundtable
The Hollywood Reporter: It's such a tough job being a director. Why even bother?

David Rosenthal: You sound like my mother: “A doctor! You could have been a doctor!”

Felix Van Groeningen: I wanted to be an actor, but I wasn’t good enough. As a kid I always wanted to be an actor, and I did auditions. But I was always too shy or not very elegant, so I said when I was very young, “I’ll direct!” I had no idea what it meant. But it led to directing.

Jeffrey Friedman: I, too, wanted to be an actor as a child, but I ended up as an assistant editor. And I just became fascinated with the whole process of how to tell a story with images.

Rob Epstein: I always considered myself as a kid an artist without an art form. I would paint, but I never imagined myself as a painter. And when I was 19, I worked as a production assistant on a film, and that was a eureka moment. Just getting a sense of everything that was involved in putting together a movie. That just made so much sense to me.

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Rosenthal: I wasn’t one of these directors who knew, you know at eight, 12, “I’m going to be a director!” I was taking a lot of still pictures, and I got very into photography, and then I started to write a bit and got a masters in poetry. I sort of stumbled into it, started playing around with a film camera and made a short film, and that was my eureka. The revelation that you could synthesize all the things I was so into: the writing, the photography, the music. Just bring all these things together.

Jasmila Zbanic: I started in the streets collecting kids and telling them what to do. Making the stories with them. I never wanted to be an actress or singer, but I always enjoyed bringing kids together and selling tickets. And getting other people to watch. For me, the magic was in this moment when people were laughing or crying. I would write a story, and people would feel something. That was for me really … wow.

Fredrik Bond: I was just obsessed with film. My father had editing equipment in the basement. In the early ’80s when videotapes came along, I used to pirate copies. I had every movie that was available in my basement. I just watched them over and over again, with log books, everything. Later I went into editing and learned the craft of putting images together. And I was interested in commercials because in Sweden we didn’t have commercials. So when I was on Christmas holidays in England with my family, I recorded English commercials. I took those and put them into the editing machine and made my own short films with those commercials. I drifted into editing commercials and then to directing.

THR: Do you ever lose your temper on set?

Rosenthal: Only with a producer once. He needed to be bitch-slapped. And I gave it to him. But no, I would never yell at an actor.

Bond: Well, I want to confess, I started off as a screamer when I started with commercials. I thought creating turmoil was part of the creativity. But I learned over the years that I got less and less out of the people I was surrounded with. I learned as I got older that those negative forces cramp the creativity of everyone around you. My ambition now is that everyone should come up to me and dare to say, “I have an idea, what do you think?”

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Zbanic: Before a film, I always have a big crisis. And it is always about people not wanting to cross boundaries. On my first film, I was working with a very famous actress from the former Yugoslavia. Because I was a first-time director and she was a huge star, we had a huge conflict three days before shooting because I was pushing her to do something that she hadn’t done before. As a first-time filmmaker, I wasn’t sure, but I thought: Everything else she is offering me isn’t enough. And we had a huge crisis. And then it turned out to be fantastic. It was the same thing on the second film. Pushing people to cross their own boundaries and them pushing me, it’s good for the film.

Rosenthal: It’s good. It takes a lot of courage to do that.

Zbanic: It’s risky. Maybe it’s bullshit at the end, but at least I tried.

THR: What really frightens you as a director?

Bond: My biggest worry was that my actor [Shia LaBeouf] was going to hurt himself, ’cause he wanted to do everything for real. There is a fight scene in the film where Mads Mikkelsen is really going at Shia, and Shia wanted to be slammed against this concrete wall. We were only seven days into the shoot, so we had a long way to go. I told him, “You can’t get hurt.” But Shia was like, “I want to feel what it is in the scene.“ So on the night before, I secretly padded the wall — and it was a good thing, too, because Mads slammed him really hard. Crunch! But Shia actually got upset that we put in the padding.

Van Groeningen: Do you guys dream about directing? During the shoot?

THR: Dreams or nightmares?

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Van Groeningen: It’s in between. Like the “I’m going to forget something” dream. Or you are directing and look around and there’s no crew. I’ve done four features, and the shooting is usually fun from beginning to end. But with this last feature, for the first time I had, after two weeks of shooting, a kind of a breakdown, where I really freaked out a bit. Like, “Is this going the right way?” I’ve never had this before; that was really scary. I really doubted whether I had made the right choices. I never had it before, and I really hope it never happens again.

THR: Rob and Jeffrey, how did you make the transition from documentaries to feature films?

Friedman: It was kind of a calculated move when we made Howl [about the writing of the famous Allen Ginsberg poem], which actually began as a documentary. At a certain point we realized that we just didn’t have enough material to work with to make it really interesting for us, and we thought it would be more interesting to try to recreate the energy of the creation of the poem. So we made a conscious choice to make a scripted narrative that was based on documentary material, and that was how we saw making the transition to scripted. But now I’d really like to do something completely fictional, not related to a real person, where you’re not responsible to anyone real.

THR: Jasmila, do you feel a special responsibility in your films, which are often inspired by real events in Bosnia?

Zbanic: Yes, I do. I don’t know how it is to make movies in the U.S. or wherever. In my region, it is somehow so connected with life and society; it’s much more than just entertainment. So after my first film was awarded the Golden Bear, it had such horrible press in Serbia, because it was about these atrocities that Serbians did in Bosnia. It became immediately a whole movement. The film was banned. It became more than a film. I don’t want to make activistic films necessarily, but somehow I see that they have more power than just going to James Bond movies.

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Bond: I love inspirational films; I see those as energy-generators. That’s why I think I chose my script, because I felt like it could energize people to change something, do something, go out of the cinema and just walk a little bit faster. I wouldn’t normally choose such a delicate and interesting topic -- it would probably be more entertaining -- but I do feel like on a human level, I’m still trying to inspire.

Zbanic: Entertainment is a word I totally respect. I want to entertain people with my films, but that doesn’t mean they have to be shallow. People have to be entertained, they have to feel energy, they have to feel they are engaged in the film. It’s the opposite to being bored, being dead.

Bond: Is there anything that you guys dislike about being a director?

Rosenthal: The money issues. This film I just made, we were up and running and two weeks away from shooting, and the producers took me into their office and they were like, “We lost a million dollars. We have to shut down!” I was like, “You are f—ing kidding me!“

Van Groeningen: It was really shut down?

Rosenthal: It was shut down. And then we waited and waited, then we had to leave town and went back home with our tail between our legs … Usually those stories are, the movie just dies. Thankfully, the movie came back to life, but that whole process, it’s a slog. That can be a rough part.

Bond: Did you have to recast?

Rosenthal: I did have to recast. I kept William H. Macy. Thankfully. He stayed on. Sometimes it happens for a reason … and I had it happen twice, on my last film as well. I had to recast my last film, so I’ve had some precedent.

Zbanic: Nobody else has mentioned this yet: I feel the film industry is very conservative and very right-wing. I have the feeling that the way things are done is totally conservative, and I don’t feel comfortable very often. Most of the people who are at the reception that we will go to after this — they don’t care if it’s a film or if it’s potatoes. And you see that! And they based their decisions on their fear. I feel this industry is really about keeping positions and not about taking risks or trying new stuff, so I find that boring. I think the film business is much more backwards than some other arts. It’s very conservative.

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Rosenthal: Well, there is so much money involved.

Zbanic: Yeah. That’s the reason. I just feel that this has to be revolutionized somehow.

Rosenthal: Let me ask you guys something: Would you rather make a tiny movie, if someone said to you, “I have this story, but you only have a tiny budget, so you can’t have stars and it may never be seen,” or would you rather sacrifice something to make something on a bigger scale that would be seen by more people?

Bond: I want to excel. I want my stories to reach a huge, bigger audience and find my voice in that. Coming from commercials, I’ve learned how to take and work with an idea and sort of make it my own. So that’s where I am coming from.

Zbanic: When people don’t see it, then it’s masturbation. It has to be communication. It has to be something people will see.

Epstein: You have to learn where you are willing to compromise and where you’re not. We all have our own boundaries. But filmmaking is about compromise. There is no way around it.

THR: Are the compromises always about money? That must be coming more quickly working in the film industry.

Bond: I kind of like the challenge, for some reason. I never feel like, “I have to have that!” I think there is an opportunity to find something that is maybe even better, maybe a cheaper option, but creatively actually better. For me, that opens a door to a decision that might actually be better.

Van Groeningen: And whether you have a $200,000 budget or $3 million, you always have too little. It’s never enough.