DGA Awards: Bradley Cooper, Spike Lee Talk Racial Politics, Directorial Process in "Meet the Nominees" Panel

DGA
From left: Bradley Cooper, Peter Farrelly, Adam McKay, Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Lee and Jeremy Kagan

The 'Star Is Born' and 'BlacKkKlansman' directors were also joined alongside Alfonso Cuaron ('Roma'), Peter Farrelly ('Green Book'), and Adam McKay ('Vice') during the three-hour event ahead of the main ceremony.

A panel discussion Saturday morning among the five helmers nominated for the Directors Guild of America’s top award featured passion, levity, directorial process — and racial politics both overt and subtle. The nearly three-hour event, hosted by Jeremy Kagan before a capacity crowd of about 500, was the DGA’s 28th annual "Meet the Nominees" session, and also featured a screening of clips from the nominated films. The awards ceremony is Saturday night, with winners in 11 categories to be revealed.

Much of the morning was devoted to questions about the directorial process — with questions asked such as "What do you do the night before shooting?" — but Spike Lee, nominated for BlacKkKlansman, reacted somewhat dismissively to many of the moderator’s queries. When the topic turned to casting, he was passionate, though, discussing the range of African-American looks he sought in populating his raw look at race relations.

"Black is beautiful," said Lee. "We weren’t taught that. We were taught that we’re subhuman. Animals. Savages. We’re dealing with the history of American cinema in this film. We had to learn to love ourselves. We were taught to hate ourselves."

A few moments later, however, the subject of casting brought a moment of levity. A Star is Born star and director Bradley Cooper disclosed that early in his career, he had unsuccessfully auditioned for Lee to play "Pilot #3" in a movie he couldn’t recall.

"You read for me?" exclaimed Lee, leaping to his feet in astonishment. "You were courteous," said Cooper, adding "You got me out quick."

More subtle was Lee’s reaction to Peter Farrelly, whose film Green Book is a more feel-good look at race relations. Several audience members noticed that Lee almost never looked at Farrelly when the Green Book director was speaking, in contrast to his interactions and body language with the others.

For his part, Farrelly made a surprising choice: The clip he selected to represent his film at the morning event was an action sequence with star Viggo Mortensen fighting off thugs in a nightclub. Explaining why he didn’t choose a scene that included African-American co-star Mahershala Ali — a best supporting actor Oscar winner for Moonlight and nominated again for Farrelly’s film — the helmer explained that those scenes would only have shown "two guys talking." It seemed a surprising choice for a movie about the friendship that develops across racial (and sexual orientation) lines.

In contrast, the sequence chosen by Vice’s Adam McKay was, in fact, two guys talking, as Sam Rockwell’s George Bush tried to wrangle as his running mate Dick Cheney, played by an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale. That scene, said McKay, neatly illustrated one of the film’s biggest challenges in sustaining the physical transformation of Bale into the baleful vice president: "The makeup held up."

Questions about obstacles and anxiety brought a range of reactions, with Cooper saying that "the pressure is amplified" on set, while Farrelly said, "I make it a team effort," and contended that he’s never gone over budget or over schedule.

Roma director Alfonso Cuaron certainly had cause for anxiety. A nerve-wracking scene in which several key characters in his film, including children, almost drown was nerve-wracking to shoot as well, with the number of takes limited by a weather-damaged crane that kept derailing and with a star, Yalitza Aparicio, who "didn’t know how to swim" (she lied to get the part). 

"I was depressed that night," said Cuaron, who was convinced that he hadn’t gotten decent footage. Metaphorically, he said, an "evil killer" stalks the set, bringing one obstacle after another. But when things work out, Cuaron said — as they had in fact for that sequence — "the evil killer becomes an amazing ballerina."