Direct approach

Five acclaimed directors discuss facing the challenges of filmmaking head-on.

What role should accidents play in filmmaking? When should filmmakers compromise? How can they best deal with the studios? These were a few of the questions that The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway posed during a recent roundtable discussion with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine"), Guillermo del Toro (Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth"), Emilio Estevez (MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby"), David Lynch (518 Media's "Inland Empire") and Nancy Meyers (Sony's "The Holiday").

The Hollywood Reporter: What has surprised you about directing?
David Lynch: I didn't expect it to be so beautiful and so fun to go into a new world. I wanted to make paintings move; I came from painting, and that's what got me going. So, at first it was just an experiment, and then I started discovering things. I fell in love.
Emilio Estevez: I was very fortunate to grow up on a lot of film sets as a kid, and two in particular made an enormous impact on me: In 1973, I was on the set of "Badlands" and got to watch Terry Malick work, and in 1976, I spent about six months in the Philippines and watched Francis (Ford Coppola) direct (1979's) "Apocalypse Now." And I thought, "Wow, OK, these are guys that make it look easy -- in impossible situations, they make it look effortless." And I thought, "That's interesting to me." What you don't realize is the level of stress they were under that they weren't showing and how impossible directing can be -- because it's death by a thousand questions. And we've all experienced that. It's more difficult than it looks. That's why there are many people who only do it once.

THR: What did you learn from Coppola?
Estevez: That in the chaos, there is always something extraordinary to find. There is discovery in that, rather than trying to control chaos. And there was tremendous chaos on that picture.

THR: Isn't it in the nature of a director to be controlling?
Guillermo del Toro: You come in with all the things that you need to come in with, prepared. But it's like catching butterflies -- you have to be prepared to find the happy accident. I remember being on the set of a Mexican movie -- I was working as a crew member -- and seeing a take go completely wrong, and the director saying, "Print!" I asked him, "Why did you print it?" He said, "Because I like this and that." I saw the movie when it was completed, and he had captured something that looked completely natural. It was a lesson I'll never forget. It was a happy accident.
Valerie Faris: I had a lot of fear going in, about the uncontrollable nature of it, and I ended up really loving it, probably more than anything we've ever done. It's so nice to be surprised by what actually happens.

THR: Jonathan and Valerie, you direct together. How?
Jonathan Dayton: It's funny because it's not something we thought about a lot really, ever. And having done this film, we have had to talk about it. Our work is just the intersection of our two sensibilities. We come at it from two different angles -- male/female, birth order -- but that fact that we love filmmaking so much makes it easy. Our best collaborations are when we are both really happy.
Faris: We fight a lot more when we don't love what we are doing.

THR: Do you fight in front of other people?
Dayton: No.
Faris: We don't really fight that much. We usually like each other.
Dayton: I look forward to what she's going to say. I really don't know what might come out, and to constantly have those surprises and also have the freedom (is great). One thing I learned in directing: When you first start working, you think you need to have all the answers. You think you need to tell everyone what to do. And I think as you get more experienced, you learn to not relinquish control but to be open to all these other ideas and share the burden. It begins with us: I don't have to arrive with every answer, and I look forward to the discoveries and also the dialogue.
Faris: There's a lot of potential for accidents when you have two people. You misunderstand each other, and sometimes, those are the best ideas -- (the ones) that come from, "Oh, I thought you meant this."

Is it different when you are a writer-director? Do you still feel free to leave room for those happy accidents?
Nancy Meyers: I don't let go of the script. When I am writing, I am so fully engaged and concentrating, there is nothing to distract me. There aren't 1,000 people asking me questions; there's nobody speaking to me for months. Then, as you make the movie -- and all of those people come into your life, and everybody has got a version of what they thought it was -- the script is the bible. I want to go back to it because it is a pure experience when you are writing. That's not to say that somebody can't have a great idea or I can't have a great idea after I have written it. But it is so important for me to stick to it because I trust myself so much more (during the writing). That "catching a butterfly" -- you do want to be open to it, but I don't want to go too far. I don't trust it ultimately.

THR: Have you experienced a situation where something works on the page and not on film?
Meyers: Well, you don't know it doesn't work until you've done it, so you have to try it. I haven't experienced that. I have sometimes not loved something I have done, and the night before or the weekend before, I'll rewrite it because I sense it won't work. But once you've shot it, it is a little late.

THR: Do you go back and reshoot?
Meyers: I don't.

THR: Do you think of yourself as a writer or director?
Meyers: Writer.

THR: David, what about you?
Lynch: I like ideas. Ideas are the whole thing. You catch ideas. And when you catch a cinema idea -- one that you fall in love with -- then you write that idea down. And it may be a fragment, but more fragments come, and a script evolves. And then you owe it to yourself to follow the idea, stay true to the idea. Sure, I love happy accidents, too; they are so beautiful. But always, the idea guides everything, and you try to get everybody involved in that same idea -- clued into the same idea -- and go down the road together. It's dangerous to ever forget that idea, but new ideas can come in and marry to it at any moment, and there are some beautiful happy accidents. But always, the idea guides the boat.

THR: Are you talking about an intellectual idea or a visual idea?
Lynch: I am talking about the idea that comes -- like a character, a scene, a tiny piece or a large piece, and they start talking, you see the way they look, you hear the sounds, you see everything. And then you write it down.

THR: How different is the finished film from that initial idea?
Lynch: It's very true to it. But in this world, you know, you can't build everything, so we go on location. You find the location that feels correct; if we change this thing and light it this way, it will feel correct. It is very, very similar, but of course it is not exactly that. But you shoot for the exact thing.

THR: Guillermo, given your belief in "happy accidents," how much do you prepare before you film?
Del Toro: I am obsessive about preparing. I do my notes, I draw my characters -- everything. And once that baseball field is drawn, I feel free to play with it, but I have to draw the field as perfectly as possible. And then, within that, I know there is freedom to be had. I remember a Chinese saying that is fantastic: "Be as tough as the bamboo and just as flexible." You should go in, and you are guiding an expedition into uncharted territory, and you are the only guy saying, "That way! That way!" Along the way, you do collect insects, you do collect butterflies -- but you have a clear idea where you are going.

THR: What drives you to go on that journey? Why do you direct?
Estevez: I used to think it was (because) I had control issues. And that's one way of looking at it. But overall, it is about telling stories. The first picture I stepped behind the camera on was a movie that I had adapted the screenplay for, and I was not happy with the outcome; there was a director brought on, and I was very frustrated by how he shot it. So I said, "The next time out, I am going to write something, and I am going to control it." I was 23, and I had just learned how to tie my shoes, and no one was going to tell me anything. I was surrounded by an extraordinary group of technicians. And there I am, 23 years old, and I was so arrogant and tightly wound and so defensive, I wasn't going to listen to any of them, and ultimately, the movie suffered as a result of that. But I learned a valuable lesson: I learned that it is a community; it is about creating a community.
Lynch: In a way, it is a community. But all the decisions have to pass through one filter. I said, "The idea drives the boat," so it's (about) getting the community all together along that road, that one beautiful road into a new world.

THR: What's not beautiful about directing?
Lynch: Nothing is not beautiful! (Laughter)
Dayton: In commercials, it is very frustrating because you don't get anything close to final cut. Talk about filters! On the set, you are the filter, but there's the agency and the client. In motion pictures, working at our low-budget level, it was such a great experience.

THR: Is it a great experience when you are making a studio film?
Meyers: I was trying to stay quiet because I don't have exactly the same philosophy as everybody else. It's not as beautiful an experience for me personally -- but that's me; I don't know if it is everybody who makes a movie at a studio. I am just consumed with worry all the time. I never sleep. I don't eat very well. I don't love myself when I am directing, really, because it is no fun to be me, and I don't think it is that much fun to live with me either. It is very, very consuming, and maybe some of it is because of the price tag involved; there's so much responsibility and so much having to nail every moment. And I know we all feel that. We are not there to go, "That's sort of it, let's move on." We are all there to nail every moment. But making movies where you do get a good budget and your caravan is so big (can be stressful). I am not saying that it doesn't give me enormous pleasure and gratification. I have been writing movies for 25 years; at a certain point, not directing was like being in the passenger seat. At a certain point, you want to take the wheel -- because I am a writer is why I want to direct. It is about putting it out there exactly the way I meant it.

THR: Most of you are writer-directors. Why?
Lynch: I came from painting. You get an idea, you paint it; you get an idea for a film, you film it. It's the idea that you fall in love with -- you are up and out of your chair, and you know what you are going to do, and you are filled with inspiration and enthusiasm and energy. It's what it is all about.
Del Toro: A director has to feel about the film as incredibly in love and as much in passion as he feels for his own flesh and blood. One of the first rules I heard from Hollywood -- that I have thankfully never applied in any film I do -- is: Never put your own money in it. I was puzzled. I said, "If you don't put your own money in, why the fuck should somebody spend their own money to see it?" I don't understand. I would give my life, my house, my car, my salary, my blood and my internal organs for my children and my movies. That's what makes a director: the degree of absolute madness that drives him into making the film.
Meyers: That's what I mean by it not being such a fun, beautiful experience. Madness -- what you become when you are directing a movie -- for me, it is hard. It is enormous pleasure, and it is very painful at the same time.

THR: What quality do you wish you had as a director that you don't?
Meyers: A looseness, sort of an ease. And I have worked in collaboration. It is so great to have somebody to turn to that you trust. To just know there is another person that is as involved as you are. Because even though it's a community of people, the (director of photography) is not thinking, "Is the joke working?" the way you are; they are looking at something else. Everybody has got their job. It is wonderful (to have a partner).

THR: What about you, David? Is there one quality, one thing you'd like to have as a director that you don't?
Lynch: Money! (Laughter)

THR: Is it hard to raise?
Lynch: No, no, I don't mean that. I'd like to get a few more things. But I'm a pretty happy camper.

THR: But getting the funding for (2001's) "Mulholland Drive" was hard, wasn't it?
Lynch: No. I made it for TV; they didn't want it. And then I got the money from Canal Plus. I love the French because they have always backed up art, love art, protect art -- protect the directors and the painters and the sculptors. They protect people. They believe in that. It is so beautiful. Here, it is bullshit. The studio system kills creativity; it kills your joy. When you don't have final control, final cut, you are set to die the death! A horrible humiliation. Dying! Who would ever go into that fucking thing? You need to have final cut control. It's your picture. Holy smokes!

THR: Have you ever done a film without final cut?
Lynch: Yes, I have. (1984's) "Dune." I died two deaths. One, I saw it all go. And two, it wasn't a success in the marketplace. I saw myself selling out because I didn't have final cut. I look back, I see it all. You have to have that, have to.

THR: If you got final cut, would you do a studio film?
Lynch: I don't know that I would trust them. I would rather go out with a small amount of money. And I don't care: I am not doing it for the money, honestly. It would be nice. I would love to have more money. Not a whole lot more, but more.
Estevez: It's that deal that you do with the devil. And when you have final cut, even in the studio system there are only a handful of people that have it. But they never anticipate that you are going to use it. It's always that "mutual assured destruction" button that you can push. When I want to get beaten up, I just go and direct episodic TV. You know that's the agreement going in: You shoot 50-55 pages in eight days, and you know you don't have final cut, and you relinquish control, but it's great training.

THR: How much should one compromise as a director? For instance, do you accept an actor the studio wants?
Dayton: That's really where not to compromise. The one thing I feel is, to get the people you want to work with. We had this incredible balance where everyone on our cast was so wonderful and giving, and there were never any problems. But we feared there would be a diva -- someone to disrupt and destroy the whole thing -- and it would have destroyed everything.
Faris: When you are there because you want to be there, not because you are getting paid a lot, that is when working on lower-budget (films) is fun. I haven't had the experience of doing something where people are there because they are being paid.
Meyers: But they can all make money in any movie. The people in my movie could make the same salary in any number of movies.
Del Toro: But in the studio system, even in the best of circumstances, there are so many ulterior motives for people, and there is so much willingness to make art or the story collateral damage in achieving agendas that are not necessarily conducive to the idea or the story. With the smaller budgets, why you are going into the adventure is much more pure. I am not saying it is better or more efficient, but the reason to be there -- for sound men, producers -- is roughly the same. With more budget, more people show up around these persons (the actors, the executives) that second-guess, triple-guess, and it starts to become like the buzzing of a beehive.
Meyers: I really experienced none of this, as a person who just made a big studio version.
Del Toro: Anytime I work with any measure of a star or one who comes with any modicum of an entourage, when you hear something come out of that actor, you are hearing his hair and makeup person, or you are hearing his agent worrying about if his audience is going to like this or that.
Meyers: (In the studios), I don't see anyone interfering.

THR: But isn't this about something bigger than the studios? Why are artists not more cherished in America?
Del Toro: There is a difference of mentality, where for an artist, success in the American view is measured by economical or critical acclaim. In other countries, there's sort of a love and leniency to a career and to the ups and downs, where success is almost allowing the artist to fuck up on his own terms. You can see a little more humanity.
Lynch: I think there is a huge subculture that is totally into the arts and hip and knows what is going on, and they have their favorite artists and musicians. It is there; it is just not on the TV. So, it is kind of hidden, but it is there -- maybe even getting stronger because (people) are sick of fluff. The fluff is eating itself up, and there is going to be something really good coming out of it.
Estevez: Do you think there is a revolution coming?
Lynch: I think so, by golly.

THR: Are we in a revolutionary era?
Lynch: I don't feel like this is the French new wave, when the art houses were flourishing and it was pretty exciting. Hollywood rules the roost. But that could start again in some new way; things go in cycles.

THR: The implication is we are not in a great cycle now, right?
Lynch: We are at the end of a very poor, dreary cycle. It will end in 2007! (Laughter)
Del Toro: We are on the verge of something. I do feel that. There is a hopeful, latent democracy in the way you can show your images through the Net, in the way you can distribute and finance your films. Unlike a poet, you cannot die at age 80, and somebody goes to your room and finds 80 unreleased movies. We are in a unique form of art where industry goes hand in hand with the means. We cannot be the symbolist painters or the expressionist painters; we have a whole bunch of people to convince to do our work. And with the means changing and the language changing, we are one generation away from the moviegoers refusing to be passive. Video games and the interactiveness of the Net are making the watcher more and more willing to be immersive and participate in the storytelling. Within the next 10 years, we are going to see changes that will be incredibly amusing at the very least and revolutionary in the language.

THR: What do you mean by the viewer not being passive?
Del Toro: The structure of a movie is a straight line that we inherited from theater, that is neatly broken into three acts, that includes exposition, conflict and resolution. With digital technology, in the gaming world, all of a sudden you find yourself in stories that, instead of a being straight line, create an ever-expanding mandala, like a spider web of stories where the resolution changes depending on what turn you take. I find that incredibly exciting.

THR: But doesn't that mean the end of an artist's ability to convey his specific vision of the world to another person?
Del Toro: No. Right now, we are just playing a linear game. You will still be able to play that game. It is not that the audience all of a sudden is going to determine how the story ends. But right now, we have the studio cut and the director's cut. With video narrative, you can multibranch into playing chess with yourself and the audience.
There is a Japanese (video) game called "Shadow of the Colossus," where you can all of a sudden choose to stop and look around and wander in a place for 10 minutes that is as beautifully realized as a (Hayao) Miyazaki film. But you stop and essentially have a picnic with your TV screen. And instead of being threatened by that, I am incredibly aroused.
Lynch: People love to be led through a story, but at the same time, to have a world that you could go into and spend time in would also be good, and there could be many surprises and places to get lost and experiences to be had.
Del Toro: There is a reality now, where forms that were looked down upon in the past are taking so much of the lead in so many ways. I come from a generation where "comic book" was used as a pejorative term. The revolution is really happening in the most unexpected quarters. If we remain the aristocracy of filmmakers and don't get our hands dirty in these things, we will be out of whack in five or 10 years.

You speak as someone who defines the avant-garde. David, do you think of yourself as a classicist or an avant-gardist?
Lynch: I am a classical avant-gardist. (Laughter)
Meyers: Why can't the studio system work? Why can't it work to benefit films? Why does it have to be them and us?
Dayton: It can work. I like to look to the music business as a way of understanding these times, and 20 or 30 years ago, you had punk rock, which liberated music. You had giant stadium bands, studio musicians creating these epic things. And then punk bands came in and said, "We'll find those three cords and play with energy and feeling," and audiences felt, "Oh, my God, this is incredible." And then rap came in, and hip-hop, and guys who could never afford instruments but who had turntables could borrow music and play it on $200 worth of turntable and create this new medium. And ( and Final Cut Pro are freeing these amateurs to do these raw films that will not replace studios films -- there is a place for everything -- but it is liberating a lot of filmmakers.
Del Toro: But the community is incredibly slow to turn around, and images are turning faster than the community, whereas in the past, the community led the images, and you had film being guided by this community, by the studios -- this parsimonious, elegant dinosaur marching down the avenue. Now, the dinosaur has incredible difficulty turning around and has been parasited by the most horrifying leeches that are absolutely corporate and evil. The dinosaur is having a crisis of identity, but this is a moment that is fertile for creating.

THR: If you could go back to any period in film history and work then, when would it be?
Del Toro: The '60s, man. I have always looked back and said, "That was something." I want to be at the moment when people are taking down structures to suggest new ones. I would love to be there pulling down a few things!
Meyers: I have often fantasized about being a contract writer in the '30s or '40s. And behind every door are those great dialogue writers and those big thinkers and those people who created genres.
Lynch: I love the '30s, but I like pretty much every era except the '70s.

THR: Why not the '70s?
Lynch: (1979's) "Hair"?! Leather?! I don't even want to talk about it.
Estevez: That would be my choice -- late '60s, early '70s, before (1977's) "Star Wars" and (1975's) "Jaws," before Wall Street started paying attention. When the cultural anthropologists start digging 100 years from now, they are going to go through the '60s, the '70s, and then they are going to see something and go, "This is when it began to happen," and they are going to say, "How did the directors check their balls at the door?"

THR: I want to ask you one last question before we wrap up. If you could take any moment from a film into the afterlife with you, what would it be?
Lynch: Oh, man. OK. I guess, Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart discovering the mystery across the (courtyard) in (1954's) "Rear Window."
Del Toro: The razor blade cutting the eye (in Luis Bunuel's 1929 production "An Andalusian Dog.")
Dayton: Dustin Hoffman pounding on the glass in the church and Katharine Ross yelling "Ben!" (in 1967's "The Graduate").
Estevez: The last four minutes of (1976's) "Taxi Driver." It is so brutal; it is so uncompromisingly violent and so shocking.
Meyers: There is this moment in (1938's) "Bringing Up Baby" where Katharine Hepburn lands a butterfly net on Cary Grant's head, and he gestures he wants to strangle her. That never fails to crack me up.
Faris: Abel Gance's (1929 film) "Napoleon." When I saw it (screened in Los Angeles in the 1980s) and the end was projected on three scenes, that made me want to cry. It was all about the future of film and the past.