Roundtable: Directors

A frank discussion among a quintet of the year's top directors reveals the challenges in maintaining
a creative vision.

On a film set, only one person gets to be in charge. So putting five acclaimed directors in a room together almost guarantees a passionate debate -- and this eclectic group did not disappoint. Participating were: (pictured, top row from left) Tony Gilroy (Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton"), Julian Schnabel (Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"), Marc Forster (Paramount Classics/DreamWorks' "The Kite Runner"); (bottom row) James Mangold (Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma") and Julie Taymor (Sony's "Across the Universe"). At a recent roundtable moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway, they discussed working with the studios, the differences between film and other art forms -- and one another's movies.

The Hollywood Reporter: Julie, there was a public battle over the cut of "Across the Universe." How restrictive is it for directors working within the studio system?
Julie Taymor: Well, everything that was greenlighted, we did. That was very exciting. I got to shoot the movie that I wanted to make. I don't actually know if the studio is any different than a producer, if you don't have final cut.
James Mangold: On "Yuma," I had the experience of making a movie without any infrastructure (except) a bank, which had no interest in the movie once they knew the stars who were in the picture. They had absolutely no creative interest other than it be a certain rating, a certain length. That was a really liberating experience. (With studio movies), even if you feel like you succeeded in what you set out to do, there's very often this expanding nature of hoping that it can work for every "quadrant." The burger that makes everybody happy is sometimes not as interesting a burger.

THR: Marc, you're making your first huge movie, the new James Bond picture. How much freedom do you have?
Marc Forster: I think "Bond" is an exception to the huge studio film, because it's still very much a family business. It was half-owned by the Broccoli family, so you have a very different approach, because you really deal with (producers) Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, and (they) are very filmmaker-driven. But it's very early for me to say at this point, because I haven't made the movie yet.

THR: Tony, what about "Michael Clayton"?
Tony Gilroy: We were a negative pickup. (That is, Warner Bros. bought the finished film.) We made the movie for $20 million, and it was totally financed by foreign sales. We had no adult supervision; we could do whatever we wanted. We entered the studio system at the end for distribution. With my next movie, (Universal's "Duplicity"), I'm walking backwards: I had final cut on my first film, and I don't have it now -- it's a big studio film.
Julian Schnabel: I've had final cut on all of my movies. Studios don't exist. I financed (1996's) "Basquiat" myself. I had two rich guys who were putting up two-thirds of the money, but basically I guaranteed their money with paintings, and I didn't have to give them the paintings. Pathe paid for "Diving Bell," and they did not want me to make this movie in French, right? And I said, "It's going to be a French movie." And they said, "We want you to make an American movie." I said, "It's going to be in French. I'm not going to have English and American people make believe they are French." And after a few days, they said, "Fine." And I never had a meeting with anybody, ever.
Mangold: The business has changed. The kind of movies we're all making are not the movies that (the studios') world is built upon.
Schnabel: His movies are, aren't they? (He looks at Forster.)
Mangold: "Kite Runner" certainly isn't.
Taymor: I really felt that ("Across the Universe") had a much wider audience than what the studio ultimately thought they should be marketing to. It confuses people because there are no stars. It's a big movie. It's the Beatles, but you can't advertise the Beatles because there are legal limitations. Each of the living parties loves the movie, but getting it where you could put their names on a poster never happened.
Mangold: The way studio marketing machines work, they have these "quadrants," and the trick becomes having them believe that the movie's quality, in and of itself, may spread a fever among some groups.
Schnabel: Do we give a shit about this question? I feel like we're like Howard Cosell all of a sudden. I don't care.
Taymor: You haven't had to care.
Schnabel: I've got a day job (as an artist), I guess. There's a lot more interesting things I'd like to ask these people.
Taymor: But you also have final cut.
Mangold: A lot of the interesting films that are coming out this year are being made outside of the studio system. That does point to a very obvious conclusion about where the studios are focused. And I've noticed, when they try to make a very important movie, they tend to make something very bloated and strange, with steroids up the wazoo. It's a strange creation.
Schnabel: There's a gap between (art and finance). There's a guy that has $100 million or whatever, and he's going to look at what he can get back for his money because that's his business. He doesn't give a shit about what the movie is going to mean, the concerns that we may have about humanity or whatever. It's not his issue. He's like an accountant. There's the gap.

THR: You said there were lots of interesting things you wanted to know. What?
Schnabel: I knew you were going to ask me that! (Laughter.) OK, here's an interesting one. In the old days, when you made a movie and the guys were Romans, they'd all have English accents. And when you made your movie -- it's in Farsi, isn't it?
Forster: Dari.
Schnabel: It was extremely important to me to make this movie in French. If I would have made this movie in English, in Hollywood, I don't think there would be any interest in this film. There's an authenticity to this thing.
Gilroy: There's no other way to make your movie. It's amazing to me that you would even meet resistance.
Schnabel: Well, isn't there a film that just wrapped about Nazis where they are all (speaking English -- United Artists' "Valkyrie")? That would be the conventional wisdom.
Forster: When I first wanted to do "Kite Runner," they said, "The book was written in English. Why wouldn't you do the film in English?" The studio said very clearly, "We always meant the film to be in English." I couldn't imagine seeing the kids flying kites in Kabul in the 1970s, speaking English, and then they escape to America and suddenly they're speaking broken English. Ultimately the studio agreed.
Taymor: But "Frida" (2002) was done in English. It wasn't my project; I was hired to do "Frida." It was always understood that it would be a film in English -- I never even questioned that. I do know that the film got to a much wider audience as a result of the movie stars and (the fact that) it's in English.
Schnabel: In my particular case, if I don't believe it, I can't sell it to someone else. I just want to say one thing. Albrecht Durer, when he made his self-portrait, the guild sent this guy up to his studio, and he said: "How do you paint the hair?" And he pulled out a brush and it had one hair on it.

THR: That's a great painter, not a filmmaker, though. What makes a great director?
Schnabel: Ask Marc that.

THR: Let's start with you.
Schnabel: A good listener. The best actors are the best listeners, the best directors, the best everybody. What people don't understand is that there are so many things that can go wrong, and there are so many variables and possibilities. If you look at a painting and if you have one corner that's wrong, the painting is no good. Same thing with a film. You have one moment where you lose your audience or you have one moment when you have the wrong song, and you're fucked.
Taymor: Can I go back? I don't agree on the authenticity issue. Because a story is set in France, I don't think it has to be in French. I think it is the better choice, but I don't think it's about authenticity.
Schnabel: We disagree totally about the subject.
Mangold: If I were making "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), there is still something for me that would be authentic. But I agree with you, Julie, it's not about cultural authenticity, per se. It's about, "What are you saying? What are you doing?"
Taymor: If it doesn't move anybody and it feels completely fake, this is what we're talking about.
Mangold: It's always about what you can do and you can believe in. It's not about a higher bar: It's about your own bar. And there can be a million different answers. When you said, "What makes a great director?" At this table, there are many different people coming to it from as many different places as you possibly could (find). And they are all right. A great filmmaker makes great films. Julian is putting himself in every picture. To speak to the most current picture ("Diving Bell"), there's an incredible point of view to the movie. I get bored of movies when I don't feel that someone has come to the set with an agenda.
Forster: It's about a person who has a point of view and a vision. If you agree with it or not, hate it or love it, doesn't matter -- because you feel the vision, that power and energy. Just making it within the studio system is more difficult than making it independently.
Mangold: But there are other pitfalls (beyond the studios). The act of making a movie is about three-dimensionally realizing something with human people. Putting it in front of a lens is extremely complicated and fraught with compromise.
Gilroy: The one unifying characteristic of a good director is obsession.

THR: How different has it been writing than directing?
Gilroy: I don't really want to get myself in trouble.
Schnabel: Why not? (Laughter.)
Gilroy: Writing is a very, very different process. Writing is a one-way street; all the energy goes one-way. You have nobody to help you. You have nobody that's interested in what you're doing. You're really on your own. When you go to direct a movie, the overwhelming, instantaneous first impression is -- there's just this rush of help that comes flying at you. You go from nobody giving a shit to people analyzing every leaving, every dropping.
Schnabel: There was a great line in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) where Jack Nicholson says, "Don't be on my side."

THR: How difficult was it for you to go from one art form to another?
Schnabel: It's like what (Gilroy) was saying about writing. (With painting), you do that by yourself. When you're directing a movie, there are a lot of meetings. I don't want to have meetings with people. I don't want to talk to people on the telephone about what I'm going to do. I don't give a fuck about it; it just drives me crazy.

THR: Then why do you make films?
Schnabel: It's frustrating in that sense. Why do I make films? There's a need to do something. There must be a part of my brain that's a storyteller. My father died; I needed to get through this thing somehow. He was terrified of death. He was 92 years old. The guy was never sick in his life, and he was at the abyss. I couldn't help him. And I was terrified of death myself, and I wanted to figure out a way to deal with that. And that's why I made that movie.

THR: Why couldn't you do that in paintings?
Schnabel: I don't want paintings to be movies. And I don't want movies to be paintings. You see a movie like "The Seven Samurai" (1954), and there are these horses running through these puddles and there's rain, and you think, "Why would you want a painting to compete with that?" The thing that's nice about a painting is that it's still. A movie is a different activity. And I think the idea that people would want paintings to be movies -- they're not.

THR: Julie, do you see a connection between your stage and film work?
Taymor: I think very cinematically in theater; in film, I think very theatrically. It doesn't mean that my films are theater. It's a theatrical way of seeing. People confuse that with an idea that it's not real or emotional. They think stylization means that it's removed, that it has a kind of artifice. It is not so literal. It gets you in a poetic way. What I love about theater is that it is truly a poetic medium.
Mangold: I agree. The word "theatrics" can be used in films as a pejorative. And it's very sad to me. Michael Powell's "Black Narcissus" (1947) is one of the most beautiful films ever made; there were spattering raindrops, and it was all shot on a soundstage -- it's supposed to be in the Himalayas. It's one of the great films of all time, and it's a complete confection and yet completely true.
Schnabel: Somebody said to (director Josef von Sternberg), "This doesn't look realistic at all." He said, "Of course not! This is much better than that." Each particular story has its demands.
Forster: I agree with that completely. "Stranger Than Fiction" (2006) is not based in reality. But when I read "The Kite Runner," it had to be shot in Dari. (Every director's film) is a reflection of how they see the world and of the world in their mind.
Taymor: I really like to go into things where I don't know what I'm doing. With "Across the Universe," we were just making up the rules as we went along. We didn't look at musical films at all.
Mangold: The movie teaches you, don't you think?
Schnabel: If I remember back to my first film, "Basquiat," I shot 90,000 running feet of that thing -- treated it like it was a found object and just tried to make the best thing I could out of it at the end. I don't think they ever knew what I was really doing.

THR: What did you learn from your first two films -- that and "Before Night Falls" (2000)?
Schnabel: I learned how to write a script.

THR: But you didn't write "Diving Bell." Ronald Harwood wrote it.
Schnabel: Ron Harwood wrote the script that was sent to me from (producer Kathleen) Kennedy. The movie that you see is a combination of what Ron Harwood wrote originally and --

THR: You hesitate.
Schnabel: The fact is, what do directors do? You don't just take the script that somebody gives you and illustrate it. I mean, I don't do that. The movie that you see is not the movie that I received on the page.

THR: Tony, you've been a writer for many years. What do you think of that?
Gilroy: (Laughs.) Look, when you're a writer, credit just flees from you like you can't believe. It's like you're anti-credit. It's just so hard to hang onto anything. When you become a director, you become highly absorbent, magnetic to credit. You get credit for everything: You get credit for the DP; you get credit for the actors. It is what it is.          

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