Santa Barbara Film Fest: 5 Oscars-Bound Directors on Creative Casting, Editing Blues

The filmmakers behind 'Boyhood,' 'Citizenfour,' 'Foxcatcher,' 'The Imitation Game' and 'Whiplash' sat down with THR's Scott Feinberg for an in-depth conversation.
Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision for Hennessy/AP Images
Damien Chazelle, Bennett Miller, Laura Poitras, Richard Linklater and Morten Tyldum at the Santa Barbara Film Fest

For as long as I can remember, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has hosted, at a small venue during the daytime on the first weekend of the fest, a panel of distinguished directors. In fact, I moderated last year's edition. But this year, the fest decided to add some hardware into the mix — creating a Directors of the Year Award — and move the gathering to a time (Wednesday night) and place (the 2,200-seat Arlington Theatre) that can only be described as primetime.

The format also changed a bit this year, which meant that I, as the moderator, had the pleasure of speaking both individually (for 15 minutes each) and collectively (for 20 minutes) with five of this year's Oscar-nominated filmmakers: Whiplash's Damien Chazelle, best adapted screenplay; Boyhood's Richard Linklater, best picture, best director and best original screenplay; Foxcatcher's Bennett Miller, best director; Citizenfour's Laura Poitras, best documentary feature; and The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum, best director.

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Chazelle, who recently turned 30, talked about his own interactions with a demanding music teacher, which inspired him to write a feature, a scene of which he turned into a short version and then all of which became the feature version of Whiplash. (Both won prizes at Sundance a year apart.) The veteran character actor J.K. Simmons starred in both — and is now the best supporting actor Oscar frontrunner for the feature — and Chazelle confessed, "The two most nervous times I've had in my life were one, any day of my life as a drummer and two, the hour before meeting J.K. [Simmons] for the first time."

Soft-spoken Linklater, whose Boyhood also premiered at last year's Sundance, acknowledged that it, like most of his films, are like our lives — "very much character-driven, without much plot to them" — and that Boyhood is his most autobiographical film yet: "It really is mostly my memories of growing up." He talked his long-term relations with Boyhood supporting actor Ethan Hawke and film editor Sandra Adair, and about his daughter's brief desire to extricate herself from the film: "As she got a little older, right around 12 or 13, she just kinda said, 'Dad, can my character die?' She was really nice about it. I said, 'No, that's a little dramatic for the story we're trying to tell.' She rebounded." He also discussed the possibility of a sequel: "It's really soon — I'm still processing this being over... I find myself thinking, 'You know, [the age] 20's pretty interesting'... But there's no reason for 12 years. I don't know what exactly the form would be; I just know that I'm vulnerable because I've done this before with the Before trilogy."

Miller, a man of few words, recounted that he first became aware of the story at the center of Foxcatcher when a stranger approached him in a store and handed him an envelope of newspaper clippings about John DuPont. He addressed the fact that all of his films — one doc and three narrative features — have been about real and eccentric people, suggesting that his own eccentricity may draw him to those sorts of stories. And he talked about his method of casting and working with actors — the leads in all three of his films have been Oscar-nominated — including his decision to cast in Foxcatcher, against "type," Steve Carell (who normally plays likable characters) and Channing Tatum (who normally plays confident characters).

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Poitras, who also speaks barely above a whisper, discussed the "moral vacuum" that she felt existed in America after 9/11, and how that became the focus of her doc trilogy: My Country, My Country, for which she received her first best documentary feature Oscar nom; The Oath; and now Citizenfour. The last of the three installments, she said, was always going to focus on government surveillance, but became largely about Edward Snowden after he contacted her with a "cold email," having read about her frustration of being on a government watch-list that led to her being stopped more than 40 times when re-entering America, and ultimately led her to edit Citizenfour from Berlin. She jokingly noted that, in light of the success of the film, Snowden now grants that she was right to ask to bring along a camera for their first meeting.

And Tyldum, a Norwegian who had never made an English-language film prior to The Imitation Game, spoke about connecting with the Alan Turing story, both as a lover of history ("I was sort of shocked about how little I knew about this story") and an "outsider" himself. He also noted, "I always thought of Benedict [Cumberbatch] when I read" the script. And he expressed great pleasure in how much the film seems to have resonated with audiences, winning more film festival audience awards in 2014 than any other film, grossing more than $100 million at the U.S. box-office and sparking a campaign to earn pardons for the thousands of men who, like Turing, were prosecuted for being gay in the U.K. decades ago, but who have yet to receive pardons like he did in 2013. "These men did nothing wrong," he emphasized.

The group discussion that followed these individual conversations was interesting mainly because of interactions between the filmmakers. Miller asked the others, "if you feel at all like I do, that in these times there's a dynamic that can make it challenging to pursue an individual or individualistic vision," noting "a very controlling impulse towards derivation and a phobia about doing something that takes time to learn." This led to a discussion about the pursuit of subjects about which people feel passionate, as opposed to those that offer the greatest financial rewards. The group also seemed to share a sense that the first days in the editing room after filming wraps are demoralizing beyond belief — as Chazelle put it, "All the warnings hadn't prepared me for how utterly awful I'd feel." And all agreed that the best part of the "awards season" is the opportunity to participate in gatherings such as this one, which allow them to meet and get to know fellow filmmakers. Miller thanked Linklater for championing him years ago by inviting him to Austin with The Cruise; Poitras thanked Miller for making The Cruise and applauded the doc-style Boyhood; and the compliments went on.

The evening came to a close about two hours after it started when Andy Davis, best known as the director of The Fugitive, presented the honorees with their awards.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg