LAFF 2014: Director Says to Be Popular, Make Films About 'Vera Farmiga's Dad's Nose Hairs'

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Kimberly Peirce

Directors Kimberly Peirce, Debra Granik, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton told a LAFF audience of filmmakers how to connect with mainstream audiences and actors.

Directors Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry), Debra Granik (Winter's Bone) and Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) shared the secrets of making popular films with integrity intact at a Los Angeles Film Festival panel at Luxe City Center Hotel on June 15. When an audience member in the packed room — mostly filmmakers, as proven by a show of hands — asked how to make a film that appeals to his father, who just wants a fun movie he doesn't have to think deeply about, Granik said, "[A genre film] is a Trojan horse, and inside a shell that may look more familiar and mainstream, a thriller or high-stakes adventure, you are detonating something that would not cross your dad's radar, something unexpected, original, so your dad would be like, 'What? Who knew?'"

"It's a good test — how can I reach my parents?" agreed Dayton.

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Granik said it's the small, true details that bridge indie and mainstream. "Nose hairs! Nose hairs!" Granik exclaimed. "Dads have issues with nose hairs. Vera Farmiga [who broke in Granik's 2004 Down to the Bone] told me, 'I see my dad the third Saturday of every month to trim his nose hairs. I'm the only one he trusts. I have the right scissors, I do it really well.' Oh, beautiful Vera, trimming her dad's nose! Her dad's a super-mainstream man, but the things that [connect] are the little poignant things, niche stuff that isn't shown, about people's lives, about someone's dad."

"That's the title, Mainstream Dad," said Faris.

All four directors agreed that the most crucial connection a director can make is with the actors, and offered strategies. "I studied acting for five years, knowing I wasn't going to be an actor," said Peirce. "Really humiliating and difficult." But she learned what they need. "I studied with Lenore DeKoven, who also taught Ang Lee, and I recommend her book [Changing Direction: A Practical Approach to Directing]. Speak very little to an actor, but speak in terms of the character's needs. 'You need to prove yourself as a woman — OK, let's see how you go for it.' My need is to prove my superiority on this panel, so I might talk over them."

"Well done!" said Faris.

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"Actors are going to come at you from various places," said Peirce. "Channing Tatum [in 2008's Stop-Loss] was a wild talent, but wasn't really trained, whereas Julianne Moore [Carrie] was really trained. Don't preach at them. Talk at actors and they'll shut down. But they're putty in your hands and they'll give you such a range of performances you can shape if you don't overwhelm them."

"Exactly right," said Faris.

"We met a really great actor in a lot of movies and he has a tiny tattoo, 'I DO.' What am I supposed to do?" said Dayton.

"He said, 'Verbs, just give me verbs, I'm a verb guy.'" Peirce added, "If they say, 'This line is too long,' listen. I've had a producer say, 'Why the f— are you listening to the actor?'"

"Your actor will only go as far as you go," said Faris. "A lot of directors will want something, but they don't know what."

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"Act it out," advised Dayton. "We act out our movies in our garage, and it's very bad, we'd never let anyone see it. But we know our script."

"Watch that tape and understand what you got and didn't get, so you can communicate it to them in an economical way," said Peirce. Not that a director should knuckle under. "Once someone says, 'You can only shoot on one side of my face,' that's not gonna work," said Peirce.

"And they do say that," said Dayton. He joked that actors will say, "I'm fine with nudity in the film."

"'I'm fine, I have no problem showing my tits,'" joked Peirce, quoting the imaginary actress in question.

"'As long as they're someone else's," said Faris.