4 Indie Directors Talk Maintaining Control, Winning Oscars and Working With Emma Watson
'High-Rise' helmer Ben Wheatley, 'Colonia' director Florian Gallenberger, 'Regression' genre master Alejandro Amenabar and 'Durrenmatt: A Love Story' documentarian Sabine Gisiger talk telling their stories their way.
This year's AFM Indie Filmmakers' Roundtable includes two Oscar winners, a low-budget darling with his first $10 million project and a fearless helmer of experimental documentaries.
British director Ben Wheatley, 43, recreated a 1970s dystopia in his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s "unfilmable" novel High-Rise with Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller; Germany’s Florian Gallenberger, 43, sent Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl to a real-life cult compound in Chile for 1970s-set Colonia; Spanish genre master Alejandro Amenabar, 43, delves into the dark recesses of memory for his mystery thriller Regression, starring Watson and Ethan Hawke; and Swiss documentarian Sabine Gisiger, 56, directed Durrenmatt: A Love Story, about the life and work of legendary Swiss playwright and philosopher Friedrich Durrenmatt.
In a frank, open discussion during the Zurich Film Festival in September, the four spoke about their fears, the career bump an Oscar provides and why you should ignore the advice given in screenwriting textbooks.
What is the hardest thing about being a director?
AMENABAR The shooting itself. You are running against time. A lot of money is being spent. You have to deal with actors, with all the crew. You have problems everywhere. So it is really the shooting itself where I prepare myself the most for.
WHEATLEY For me it’s the presenting of the first cut. Everyone wants to see the cut as soon as possible, and no one can really understand what the film is going to be like because they can’t see beyond the bad sound or the lack of effects work or the lack of music. I’ve found that — and I don’t know if the others think this — but I think you have to learn to love your own film first and once you love it, you can protect it. There’s no perfect film.
GALLENBERGER For me the hardest thing is that you never know that you are doing the right thing. Because for every decision you make, you have zillions of opportunities to go like this or like that. And you never know whether it is right. And you only find out in the end, and even then you don’t know if it is right.
Colonia is your first genre film. It’s about a real-life subject: the Colonia Dignidad cult, which worked with Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. Why did you choose to tell that story as a thriller?
GALLENBERGER I really cared about the subject of Colonia Dignidad — and I wanted to tell that story because it is too little known. But I wanted to tell it in a mainstream way. It’s not a typical subject for a genre film, but the plan was always that the people who just want a thriller will get a thriller, and those who go deeper will get informed on a subject they didn’t know about before.
What are your cinematic touchstones, the films that had a particular influence on you?
AMENABAR For me it was very clear. I learned what directing meant through Steven Spielberg, who is one of the greatest filmmakers. Spielberg’s movies just emotionally meant a lot to me. I’m talking about E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And then when I was a teenager, I started to move toward Hitchcock movies and analyze them and then Stanley Kubrick.
Was Kubrick a big influence on you, Ben? Watching High-Rise, I kept thinking of A Clockwork Orange.
WHEATLEY Yeah. The thing Kubrick said about non-submersible units, where he liked to make a film with incredibly strong images that basically told the story — about five of them — and then the rest of the stuff was strung together and joined them together. Narratively they don’t stand up to any of those standards that they tell about in these screenwriting books. They are all completely different and broken and weird, with tiny acts and big acts. But at the same time, they are big signature genre movies. But also for me, it’s the way he dealt with the industry — he stepped back and was in control of everything. He was a producer and writer and director, and he played by his own rules, and that is, I think, pretty amazing.
GISIGER I could not say there is one film or one documentary film that influenced me. It is more literature. I liked a lot of the 20th century American novelists and the way they tell true stories and move that into fiction. Like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I think that was my biggest influence: to realize you can turn true facts into fiction, and they become even more true.
GALLENBERGER I think it went in phases for me. When the idea or wish came up to be a director, I had a big Fellini phase. And after the Fellini phase, there was a Jarmusch phase and then a Fassbinder phase. One filmmaker I really admire is Ang Lee for having made such a round body of work with such different films. I think that is the beauty of the job — you can venture into such different films. You can try to do a drama or a thriller or an action movie or war film or whatever.
Ben, why did you pick J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise to be your first adaptation?
WHEATLEY Basically I was sitting at home, and I saw it on the shelf and I thought, “This is one of the big books of the 20th century, and it’s not been done. Why?” And I wanted to write a horror film, and I thought, “What is the thing that scares me the most?” And I realized it was the 1970s. F—ing terrifying period. Probably because I was a child during it. So many details of the ’70s scared the living shit out of me. Not to sound like an old man, but I think it was much scarier in the 1970s than it is now. I think this whole idea of international terrorism is small potatoes compared to utter nuclear destruction, which was almost taught in schools in Britain.
Alejandro and Florian and Ben have all worked with major A-list actors. Does it change your approach when working with a huge star like Emma Watson?
AMENABAR For me it doesn’t change at the moment of being in the scene or shooting. Of course it is different, because when you are working with Emma Watson, you are going to have fans on the set trying to sneak a picture. But the experience of shooting is much the same.
GALLENBERGER Of course there is a technical side to it — the fans and security issues. But for the process, it is about the character. You are not making the film with the star side of this person; you are making the film with the artist side of this person.
WHEATLEY The person who is going to f— you up is the guy who’s got two lines. It’s the receptionist who has to say, “Yes sir. Booking you in.” That’s the troublemaker. Or the extra in the background who’s staring down the lens that you don’t see until you get the rushes back. That’s when the directing skills have to be at their best to get a performance out of someone who’s totally bad. The big actors are all great. That’s why they’re big actors. You barely have to do anything with them. If you cast them right, they’re fine. But it’s the smaller bits where you can come unstuck.
Have any of you ever shot a scene where, in the middle of it, you thought it was a complete disaster?
AMENABAR I remember when we did The Others, I thought we had made a piece of shit. But I think when I’m shooting, I’m one of those optimistic guys who thinks they are doing great. It is a different thing when you edit the film and have to watch it and you realize you didn’t achieve what you wanted to.
GISIGER Never. Never a disaster. There is always a way. I think what I learned is to lose my fears over the years. In the beginning, when I was young, I thought I had to do everything right. I was more obsessed with fears. And I have the experience often that scenes I thought went under the table, were very bad, turned out to be very good, but they told something else than what I thought they would tell. When you can leave your fears behind, there is no more disaster.
Florian, both you and Alejandro are Oscar winners. How did winning the Oscar change your career?
GALLENBERGER Just to prove my vanity: I have two. I won a student Oscar and then a real Oscar.
GISIGER Just to get that right!
GALLENBERGER Luckily it changed my career a lot and luckily it didn’t change my life much. I couldn’t have made any of the films I made without my Oscars because they are unusual — shooting abroad, in different languages ... so I owe a lot to that. But I still have the same friends; I still live in the same place.
WHEATLEY How often do you drop the anecdote: “When I won the Oscar ...” or “It was just around the time I won the Oscar ...”?
AMENABAR Obviously the Oscar has such power in it. You realize it really is an icon. When anyone comes to your home, the first thing they want to have is a picture with the Oscar. It changes maybe the perception, for a while, that people in Hollywood have about you. But it didn’t really change my life.
How does a bigger budget change things? Ben, High-Rise is your biggest film. You did your first one (2009’s Down Terrace) for $30,000, right?
WHEATLEY Actually much less than that. Having a bigger budget hasn’t changed anything in terms of control; I still have total control. High-Rise was the first film where we were allowed to have a dolly, so that’s pretty cool. I think as soon as a budget is bigger than the cost of your house or as soon as it’s as much as you wouldn’t like to lose in a card game, it is a massive responsibility. It just gets ridiculously abstract as it gets bigger and bigger. I wouldn’t want to have to pay 300,000 pounds back to the financiers, so I f—ing wouldn’t want to pay f—ing 10 million pounds back to the f—ing financiers.
AMENABAR I think that if you tend to have more money and you are on one of these $100 million projects, you have less freedom. But I have been very spoiled. When I did my biggest budget movie (the $60 million Agora in 2009), I had total freedom. And my main concern was technical. We had scenes with masses of people, and my legs were trembling.
All four directors were photographed Sept. at the George Bar and Grill in Zurich, Switzerland.
The Weinsteins released Regression in the U.S. They have a reputation for re-editing the films they buy.
AMENABAR Obviously they have that reputation. But no, they have been quite respectful of this one. But anyway, I like the process. I think it’s useful having to deal with people who have something to say about the movie.
WHEATLEY I’ve always been totally open to notes. But I won’t do them if they’re wrong.
AMENABAR I have a rule: When more than three of my friends tell me to get rid of that, I will get rid of it. I remember my first movie, my producer was a director as well, and I had final cut, but there was this particular shot he was against. He wanted to cut it out. And in every single version, I just kept it. One day he banged his hand on the table, almost broke the computer, and he stormed out of the room and said: “OK, just keep your stupid shot!” And now when I see the movie, I think, “He was right.”
WHEATLEY Have you ever told him?
AMENABAR Oh no. Never.
GISIGER I’ve been working with the same editor for many years, and in the first years, we were fighting on scenes and, of course, I am the intellectual person and I can talk and argue and blah blah blah. She would listen to me and say: “Maybe, but nobody wants to see that jacket.” And I learned to trust her on that because she can see the movie really from her stomach. And after 10 to 20 years of working together now, we don’t lose time. When she says [it’s an] ugly jacket, I just cut it out.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received about directing?
WHEATLEY When you are showing stuff to people, make sure the window in the room is open and the sound is turned up. So it’s cold and loud and people don’t nod off.
AMENABAR We have the opposite in Spain; we have to close the window and turn up the AC.
GISIGER I think the most important thing for me to understand was to trust in very radical things. in radi cal subjectivity. A documentary filmmaker once told me when I was young: You cannot ask anyone a question you wouldn’t give an answer to. Any question you ask other people, you should ask yourself, too.
GALLENBERGER Wim Wenders was one of my professors at film school, and we did a film with him. One day we cleaned a street of cars because the film was set in the 19th century, and we couldn’t have cars. And Wim looked and said: “That street over there would be better. Why don’t you go there and ring all the doorbells and ask them to move their cars away?” It took us a couple of hours, but finally we shot in that street. Wim always tried to get the best possible for his film. If it is not possible, you can’t have it, but at least try. Don’t give in too easily.
AMENABAR When I visited a set where Steven Spielberg was shooting, I remember he was doing a shot and after the third take, he said: “OK I got it.” I was watching and I thought, “This is totally wrong. He needs to fix that and that.” And when I saw the movie, it worked so well. I realized you don’t have to get obsessed with the number of takes. You need to realize what you really need in the take and fix it for the next one. Just going for what you are looking for. Leave the perfect take to Stanley Kubrick.