Letting silence, locales tell the tale

DGA panelists go beyond words in nominated pics

If you have a good opening and a good ending, you have a good film. That sentiment -- once expressed by revered director Federico Fellini -- was up for discussion Saturday morning by five of the six directors nominated for this year's DGA feature film award.

Jeremy Kagan moderated the guild's 60th annual "Meet the Nominees: Feature Films" symposium held at the DGA Theatre in West Hollywood, which featured Paul Thomas Anderson, Tony Gilroy, Julian Schnabel and Joel and Ethan Coen. Sean Penn, who directed "Into the Wild," did not attend.

The Coen brothers ("No Country for Old Men") won the DGA's feature film directing award Saturday night at the annual DGA Awards Dinner, held at the Hyatt Century Plaza in Century City.

When Kagan began by querying Anderson about why the first 15 minutes of "There Will Be Blood" was silent, the director said there just didn't seem like there was anything to say.

"I mean, when you're prospecting for oil, at no point do you say, 'Golly, look at all this oil,' " quipped Anderson, who elaborated on the difficulty of shooting at the bottom of a 50-foot mine shaft.

Anderson also discussed the nature of working with the film's Daniel Day-Lewis. "I learned you never say, 'It looks fake' to Daniel," recalled Anderson, referring to a comment he made about a scene where Day-Lewis was strapped to a harness during a fall. "Later, he actually did fall down the mine shaft and broke some ribs -- now that looked pretty good," he quipped.

Schnabel said he drew upon inspirations from previous creative projects when it came to the visual imagery -- in particular the footage of Alaskan glaciers -- that he used at the beginning of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

"I'm like someone who leaves a bunch of junk on their porch and then needs it," said Schnabel, who also is known as a major artistic figure in the 1980s neo-expressionist movement. "This was an image I always wanted to put in there."

For Joel and Ethan Coen, their film's vast setting of the West Texas desert landscape was crucial to establish early on.

"The sense of place was so fundamental to the story that it was logical to establish that in a simple way in the beginning," Joel Coen said. "And with Javier (Bardem's) character, it was essential that it feel a little like 'the man that came to Earth' -- that he comes out of the landscape."

Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") described deciding upon what footage to put against the film's opening voice-over featuring actor Tom Wilkinson as "fascinating" and "a real science project."

"I began to realize that so much info is coming from him that I wanted to permit the audience to not have to hang on to every word," Gilroy said. "If they'd just stay with me and not fall off the cart, I'd get them some place at the end of it."

Even more challenging for Gilroy was configuring the film's final scene -- a dialogue-free sequence focusing on a contemplative George Clooney as he sits alone in the back of a moving cab.

"It just had to be real, and at some point someone said, 'Let's try this.' The benefit of having George is that it's easy to get all air traffic removed," Gilroy quipped.

As to directing actors, Schnabel said his technique was void of storyboards or rehearsal and simply included living with the actors, while the Coen brothers expressed the sometimes confusing nature of collaborating with Bardem.

"Javier had his own instinctual process -- it was all a mystery to us," Joel Coen said. "I think we all knew what we wanted to avoid with that character -- that it ran the risk of being a cliche, and we wanted to avoid that."

When Gilroy would ask Clooney what his process was during the closing scene, Clooney simply said he was replaying the whole movie in his mind.

All the directors reiterated their positive experience casting child actors that were more "real" rather than "polished" with both the Coens and Anderson lauding not only Texas' wealth of acting talent but also its terrain.

Both "No Country" and "There Will Be Blood" were filmed there, with some overlap in both productions' shooting schedules.

"Here we were shooting Josh Brolin in the most remote part of West Texas, and then just over the rise was smoke from Paul testing his oil," Joel Coen said.