Oscars: What Happens When a Polar Vortex Hits Your Shoot? Plus 7 More Tales of the Unexpected

The Homesman Still - H 2014
Dawn Jones

The Homesman Still - H 2014

From Ridley Scott to Tommy Lee Jones, eight directors at the top of their game reveal the on-the-fly decisions that had to be made, disrupting even their best-laid plans

This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Rob Marshall, Into the Woods

I was looking for a way to film the Sondheim song "Agony," and I was in a bit of agony myself. For budgetary and schedule reasons, we were locked in to shooting the number at [Surrey, England's] Windsor Great Park. The song is sung by two princes, and we had found a stately pine forest that felt very "princelike." The location worked well for the scene leading up to the song, but the problem was that I had not been able to figure out a unique conceptual way to bring the number to life there. With the deadline fast approaching, I stayed up one night on the Windsor Park website searching. And then, "Eureka!" There it was -- the Cascades Waterfall. Not the woods that I had asked for but something more out of the box. An impressive waterfall right in the middle of the park where I could suddenly see the song coming to life with princely bravura. It reminded me to always search past what I originally envisioned and embrace the unexpected.

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Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

On our second day of shooting, we staged a car flip as part of a car-crash scene. We had planned for about five takes. However, on the first take, despite the reinforcements on the car's roof, the car buckled so much from impact that we couldn't get a second take without risking safety. So my editor and visual effects house worked only with the few seconds of footage we'd shot. Turns out that first take worked great -- and it's what you see in the movie.

Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman

I was not surprised by the extreme weather in northeast New Mexico in the spring. We went there because of it and its beauty. But many of the crew were surprised by the cold -- which froze the construction crew's paint -- and by the wind and the dust that crept into the cameras and everyone's eyes. These difficulties were solved by a film crew who simply wound up wearing goggles and wrapping up their heads and throats with long scarves like Bedouins. They learned very quickly that when the wind, snow, dust, hail or fickle light appeared, we would happily be going into it and not running from it.

James Marsh, The Theory of Everything

There are key scenes early in Stephen Hawking's illness that show a deterioration in his physical abilities. In one, he's failing to haul himself up the stairs as his infant son looks on. [Later, there's another scene that] has him upstairs in the bedroom entangled in his pajamas, finding inspiration for a scientific breakthrough. We'd already shot these scenes that showed that Stephen couldn't walk. There's no way he could get up the stairs. I decided to set up the bedroom in the kitchen/dining room. When we started shooting, Eddie [Redmayne] improvised a line as he lay on the bed facing the cooker: "At least it's convenient for breakfast!" The actors continued improvising, creating one of the most tender scenes in the film as Stephen thanks his wife, Jane. It's the only time he does this in our story, and it was totally unscripted. We followed the logic of our narrative while also discovering a whole new layer to the story.

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J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year

There were many challenges in attempting to shoot a full-scale period piece with a couple action set pieces on an independent film budget in a city -- New York -- that looks so different than it did in 1981. But our biggest challenge was the extreme cold and snow. A freak weather pattern called the polar vortex descended on the East Coast during the first five weeks of our shoot, bringing with it record low temperatures. Then it snowed a foot and a half the night before we started shooting. So we took a creative and logistic gamble and just started composing it into many of our shots. Snow is unpredictable in New York because it melts so fast that you rarely see the real thing on film. But we embraced the snow and cold, which led to us filming a lot of it. This movie is about working in the heating oil business, so the need for heat on every character's face in the movie is very real.

Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler

There is a scene where Jake Gyllenhaal's character, Lou, goes to a pawn shop to sell a stolen bike. When we arrived to shoot, the blocking didn't jell. It was cinematically static. The issue was inherent to the scene -- it's just two guys bartering separated by a counter. Our DP, Robert Elswit, Jake and I started talking. We tried Lou holding the bike up to show how light it was. Putting the bike on the counter to point out details. Nothing worked. As the clock ticked down and we were about to lose the location, Jake began riding around the shop as he spoke. It was so incongruous, and he did it so well, going around and around, that we stopped talking. Inspiration had struck, and we played the entire scene with Lou riding as he bartered with the owner.

Ridley Scott, Exodus: Gods and Kings

As experienced as I am, I am able to spot problems before they appear on the horizon. So there wasn't a lot I had anticipated as being problematic on the film, but the most trepidation was how was I going to dramatize the multitude walking on a beach that had to be a six-mile empty seabed with all its range of "hills" and "valleys." I was losing sleep until I found four different beaches all giving me the necessary terrain that would make the crossing credible -- stitched together digitally, of course.

Jean-Marc Vallee, Wild

It's June 2014, and we're about to complete the mix of Wild. The phone rings. The music supervisor drops the bomb. We're losing a song: "The Rainbow" from Talk Talk. A band member doesn't want the track in the film. I thought it was cleared a long time ago. Shit happens. But I don't want to change the song. I was using it over the REI store scene where Cheryl has an epiphany moment when she sees the Pacific Crest Trail guidebook. So Reese [Witherspoon], Cheryl [Strayed, the author], myself, the producers, everyone writes to the guy. No answer. The clock's ticking. I ask a musician friend to compose something original to replace it. Not convincing. Then I try dozens of tracks from the '90s. A few days before final mix, "Glory Box" from Portishead seems to do the job. Wait a minute, it's even better than the Talk Talk track. It works so well, it's as if it was composed for the film. And I found out that it's one of Cheryl's favorite songs. Do you believe in miracles?