Oscar Roundtable: The directors

Six top helmers debate on whether directing is an intellectual or emotional art

How important is the factual truth? How much risk can a filmmaker take? These were some of the questions addressed  by Darren Aronofsky (Fox Searchlight's "The Wrestler"), Danny Boyle (Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire"), Clint Eastwood (Universal's "Changeling," Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino"), Ron Howard (Universal's "Frost/Nixon"), Gus Van Sant (Focus Features' "Milk") and Edward Zwick (Paramount Vantage's "Defiance") in a recent discussion moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's Elizabeth Guider and Stephen Galloway.

The Hollywood Reporter: When did you first think of directing?

Danny Boyle: Well, I was an actor at school. I have  a really loud voice, and that makes you a good actor at school. I went to university to do drama and English. I did a bit of acting, and then I tried directing. I come from a family where we never went to see theater. We only went to see movies. I'm a twin, and when I was 7 or 8 my dad took me to "Battle of the Bulge," and my mom took my sister to "The Sound of Music." I'd always wanted to make films, but you couldn't get into the British film industry; it was really tough. So I went into theater, which was much easier to get into, and I worked my way up into film.

Darren Aronofsky: Growing up in Brooklyn, the idea of being a director was -- it didn't exist. The moment for me was going to a mall in Brooklyn, and the mainstream film we were going to see was sold out, and there was this goofy-looking guy with a Brooklyn hat on a poster of some other film that had already started. There were tickets for it so we went in, and it was the montage sequence of Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), where the guys each pitch their different pickup lines to Nola Darling. I had never seen anything like that in my life.

Edward Zwick: Not unlike Danny, I was one of those theater rats. That passion -- the feeling of staying late and kissing that girl behind the flat at the cast party -- I think my whole life has been an attempt to try to recapitulate those feelings. I was working in New York, off Broadway, and happened to get a fellowship to go abroad and ended up observing on a film. I was terrified of the technology of the film; I didn't realize I would ever be able to understand any of it. And what I discovered, to my disbelief, was this director who had this extraordinary vision -- Woody Allen.

THR: What was the film?

Zwick: "Love and Death." I got to be a half-assed assistant. It was 1973, and I saw that he was surrounding himself with people who were able to interpret his vision into the concrete. As long as he knew what he wanted, it could begin there.

THR: Did he teach you anything about directing?

Zwick: I remember him saying that if you're tired on Tuesday afternoon and you say, "Oh, that'll be fine," and if you're losing the light on Thursday and you let something go, and then Friday morning you realize you didn't have the time to do that properly so you compromise -- if you only do that three times a week, at the end of 12 weeks you'll have 36 moments in the movie that make you want to shoot yourself. And that's one reason directors go a little bit crazy.

William Wyler said the greatest danger for a director is wanting to be liked. Ron, how do you manage to stay a nice guy and steer the ship?

Ron Howard: First of all, one of the only things I don't like about the job is that, at some point every day, it makes you feel moronic. You missed something, you overlooked this; you didn't fight hard enough for something, or you fought terrifically, savagely, for something that didn't matter. But I have found that if the key people know that you're actually involved in a conversation with them, you actually care about their ideas, soon everyone's pulling in the same direction; and when you say no, they accept it with more comfort.

THR: What made you, all of a sudden, realize you might not just want to be an actor?

Howard: On "The Andy Griffith Show," all the directors had been actors. Andy liked that. It didn't take me very long to recognize there was this fantastically interesting process going on. (Then) when "The Graduate" (1967) came out, it was like an absolute bell went off. For the first time I understood it as art.

Clint Eastwood: Back when I was doing "Rawhide," I wanted to direct an episode and I got everybody's support. Then CBS reneged because somebody on "Frontier Circus" or some other show had evidently gone way over (schedule). (Then) when I started working with (Sergio) Leone in Italy and Spain, he'd been raised on John Ford Westerns and loved them, but he didn't have great confidence in the genre. So I would try to shore him up. I'd say, "Let's do this, let's do that." So I got interested in it and realized that (in the case of) really good directors, you're just a platoon leader, really. Everybody has their thing they do, and you have to give them confidence, even if you don't know what the hell you're doing. In 1970, when I directed "Play Misty for Me," I thought, "If I can pull this off, when I get old I can do this." (Laughter.) You can be behind the camera forever, but in front of the camera there's gonna be a day where I look up there and say, "I can't stand looking at this guy anymore."

THR: Does the experience of directing change the way you act, and does the experience of acting change the way you direct?

Eastwood: It makes you much more sympathetic to actors (and) it makes you much more sympathetic to directors, too, because you're putting together a large puzzle and the actor's only involved with their little component, and that's why I got out of it. I like the whole picture-making process; just doing one component wasn't enough.

THR: What part of directing do you have most trouble with?

Gus Van Sant: I'm a little over my head if I have a really experienced British stage actor. I started out making experimental shorts; I came from a visual area and no acting background, so when I run into a John Hurt, I realize I'm in way over my head.

Aronofsky: That's why I took (an) acting class. I just wanted to get some sympathy with actors and understand the process. The reason I did "The Wrestler" was because I wanted to do an actor's piece. A year-and-a-half of visual effects on "The Fountain" (2006) and I was like, my favorite part's working with the actors; what the hell am I doing hanging out in the lab?

THR: Did you prepare very carefully?

Aronofsky: The first three films for me were very much a chapter of controlling the visual and the sound, these very orchestrated movies. This one, I just wanted to throw it all out. I built it all around Mickey's style, which was just to be in the moment. So I showed up without a shot list for the first time in my life.

THR: How much can you do things you know the audience won't like?

Boyle: It's about extremes, really. You should take huge risks, always. There is a reason that people go to these strange, dark rooms and watch 40-foot-high images of actors. There's something almost tribal about it. And I think they go there to see us all take risks.

THR: How difficult is it to raise money for risky projects?

Eastwood: After 35 years of doing it, I had a rough time selling "Mystic River" (2003). My home studio, the studio I work most frequently with, didn't want to do it. Right after that, I had "Million Dollar Baby." Who the hell wants to see women boxers, for Christ's sake? All of a sudden, I'm doing a movie with the exact same salary I had in 1970. I'm doing it for scale and a percentage of the deal. But I said, "I don't care. I just want to make movies." But I got a kick out of what you were saying about not having a shot list. I started out in (my) first picture and made notes on the opposite page of everything I wanted to do, and finally after three days ... (Laughter.) I like people who want to take chances with you. I remember with Meryl Streep, about halfway through a picture, she says, "You know, let's just go for it." And she's asking me to go for it! (Laughter.) I'd been asking her to go for it because she was used to a little more rehearsing time. I'm fond of saying this, and probably a lot of people disagree, but it's not an intellectual art form. It's an emotional art form.

THR: How important is fidelity to the truth?

Zwick: It helps if the facts of the story have some shape. Inevitably, film is reductionist; it's almost like poetry: Things are compressed; things are dynamic. That being said, if you believe you can be true to the spirit of the thing, if not the letter; if you believe that the people who lived it would look at it and understand its truth, and not feel that you had, in some sense, exploited them -- then I think you're on the right track.

THR: How much did "Changeling" get shifted away from the actual facts?

Eastwood: We tried to approach it as a true story. (The writer) sent the script over to me, and the script, on the opposite pages, had all the newspaper clippings of 1928 and of the (Christine) Collins case. And it was new. We'd all heard of the Black Dahlia case, but this was a totally unknown story to me. I researched everything that there was on it.

Howard: Working with movies inspired by real events, sometimes it's a fantastic blessing because, you know, the old idea that truth is stranger than fiction. I remember one time previewing "Apollo 13," and we got all the cards back. The scores were very favorable, people responded well to the movie, everyone was excellent -- and there was one (comment): "Poor. Wouldn't recommend it." I flipped it over and it said, "More Hollywood bullshit. They would never survive." (Laughter.)

THR: How important was the truth in "Milk"?

Van Sant: Harvey (Milk) was a lot less known than Nixon or other figures, but we kept as close to the truth with him as we could -- had a lot of people that had worked with him as advisers. One guy in particular, Cleve Jones, was our main adviser. If there was a scene we were doing, somebody would say one little bit and we would try and let it muddy up the scene in order to get to a truthful-seeming situation. We also had a lot of pictures and film footage that we found in the libraries in San Francisco of 1978. The key is: How do you get as close as you can? And you never get there. A lot of times, even trying to get close to it takes you farther away from the truth.

THR: There's that cliche with writers: "Write what you know." How much is that true for directors? Danny, you've gone in the opposite direction.

Boyle: I felt liberated by it, really. I made a space movie, and I discovered why film directors only ever make one space movie. (Laughter.) Then we went to Mumbai, to the place that's called a "maximum city" -- it's just people everywhere. And the principles that we stand upon -- control, continuity, those kind of things -- forget them. You can spend half your budget chasing those things if you want, but it won't get you anywhere. You've just got to go in it and live it, and try to find a different way of doing the film.

THR: Did you feel you needed to understand that society before you started filming it?

Boyle: Everybody says, "What do you think of India?" I know nothing of it, really. You get a tiny little glimpse and maybe, if we've done it well, a bit of it is convincing for the time being until somebody makes something better. You absolutely have to humble yourself in front of it, which is interesting and difficult because I'm British, and we ruled them until 1947.

THR: What was the hardest thing about the shoot?

Boyle: I didn't try to think about things at all. I thought, if I do that, if I think of difficulties and obstacles like that, I'll end up like the guys at the airport -- these British, German, American businessmen -- smashing tables at the airport, saying "This is no way to run an airport!" And you just think, "You're never going to get your bag, mate." (Laughter.) If you just relax, it's such an extraordinary place that, lo and behold, your bag will turn up.

Aronofsky: I relate a lot to the India stories because we didn't have the money to put on wrestling promotions, so we worked with actual wrestling promotions to put on true wrestling events and then stick us in the middle of it. We put on two matches with real wrestlers, and then me, Mickey and the camerawoman would run out and shoot a little piece, and then we'd run back and catch our breath and reload.

Eastwood: That's real guerrilla work.

Aronofsky: Mickey was a challenge. Even though, between action and cut, he was brilliant, getting him to action was tough. There's a lot of fear to let that emotion out. I was asking him to do some really painful stuff, and because he's Method trained, he has to go to dark places. Even though he's in control of the craft, I think it rocks him for a while. When you sit with the guy, you see all this armor, but the armor's there because it's protecting the softest jelly you've ever seen. He's got so much love and a big heart, but he's just terrified.