Category Archives: Director

Behind the Title: Prism director Alex Vivian

NAME: Alex Vivian

COMPANY: Prism

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
I’ve been with Prism, a Brooklyn-based live-action experiential company, since EPs Tom Rossano and Elliot Blanchard launched it in early 2017. They really push everyone at Prism to manifest their ideas in interesting ways and to pool our talents together to tell stories for our clients.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Bringing ideas to life in a little rectangular frame.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
The staggering amount of work required for something that looks so simple and blasé on screen.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Working with amazing people, and the fact that I get to do what I love and actually call it a job.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
The creative struggles and emotional lows that can come with putting everything on the line.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I love architecture and design so maybe something in that realm.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I don’t really know anything else, I’ve been shooting and editing since I was 12. So I’ve just built and built on this inner drive to keep making film projects. I’d be lost without it.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT ATTRACTED YOU?
I love creating worlds and the language of the moving camera. There’s no greater feeling than nailing a great shot or take. On set, there’s a little dance/leg kick that I do behind the camera when we’ve got something I’m stoked on.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT CONTINUES TO KEEP YOU INTERESTED?
I’m creatively happy with everything I’ve done, but I’m also never satisfied to end there. I have so many ideas and projects I’d love to make… and I’m really interested in building on my own style and evolving and progressing as a director.

HOW DO YOU PICK THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH ON A PARTICULAR PROJECT?
I love bringing back the people who have helped me through the hard times of low budgets and lack of resources. It’s those times that bring out the best in people and I’ve been fortunate to forge friendships through it all.

How to Ride Bitches: This comedy short is an example of Alex’s work.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I’ve just collaborated with a long-time friend for his first EP and music video release. I’ve also created a short film for a startup tequila brand — their first piece of content. Really excited to put those out soon, and a couple more that are in the works.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
My film school graduation film. It’s a story about how the relationships of a group of friends change when they are drafted for the Vietnam War. It was a 25-minute epic, set in the ‘70s and shot on 16mm reversal film. I spent six months writing it after interviewing countless veterans, and each scene was a slice of someone’s life. I went through so much just to even get that made that I can only look back with pride.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Laptop, iPhone, surf cams.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Get out in the ocean and surf. Nature is the key to happiness.

Director HaZ Dulull on his sci-fi offering The Beyond

By Randi Altman

Director Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull is no stranger to making movies. Before jumping into writing and directing short sci-fi films, he was a visual effects supervisor and producer. His short film resume includes Project Kronos, I.R.I.S. and Sync. Recently, his first feature film, The Beyond, was released by Gravitas Ventures.

When I first met HaZ a few years back, we were both at an Adobe event — on a canal boat in Amsterdam during IBC. We started talking about visual effects, the industry and his drive to make movies.

This Brit is friendly, intelligent and incredibly hands-on in all aspects of what he does. His latest is The Beyond, which he describes as “a cerebral science-fiction feature film that blends the realism of documentary with the fantastical, ‘big idea’ nature of the science-fiction films of today.” The Beyond tells the story of a ground-breaking mission that sent astronauts — modified with advanced robotics — through a newly discovered wormhole known as the Void. When the mission returns unexpectedly, the space agency races to discover what the astronauts encountered on their first-of-its-kind interstellar space journey.

HaZ on set

HaZ was so hands-on that he provided some of the film’s visual effects and edited the film. Here is the trailer. If you like what you see, the film is available for purchase or rent on most digital platforms.

When I reached out to HaZ to talk about The Beyond, he was in Vancouver working on an eight-part TV series for Disney called Fast Layne. “I directed episodes 1 and 2, and am currently directing episodes 7 and 8,” he says. “The beauty of starting and ending the series is it allowed me to set the show’s style and tone.”

It seems he can’t sit still! Let’s find out more about how he works and The Beyond

Can you talk about prepro? How much of that included visual effects prepro?
Most people who know me will say I’m obsessed with prep. I had about six months of hardcore prep on this, from doing little storyboards, known as HaZ-Grams, right through to previs of the key sequences.

But even during the script-writing stage (six months before actual prep), I was coming up with visuals to support the ideas I was writing in the script. Sometimes I would knock up a test VFX scene just to see how complex it would be to create this idea I was writing in the script. Prep worked hand in hand with the script development and the budgeting of the film. The film was self-financed and later additional financing came in (during post production of the film), so I wanted to ensure everything was mapped out technically, as there was no “fix it in post” scenarios in this film — I wouldn’t allow it.

During location scouting, I would have my iPhone with me and shoot a bunch of footage and still imagery, so when I went back home I could write those locations into the script to make them work with the scenarios depicted in the film.

As part of prep we actually shot a test scene to really see if this mocku-mentary format would work to tell a grounded sci-fi story. This was also used to attract crew and other casting to the project, as well as get distributors primed early on.

Many shots from that test actually made it into the final movie —I wasn’t kidding about not wasting any budget or material on this production! So prep pretty much helped shape the script too, as I knew I wasn’t in the financial position to write stuff and then go and build it. I had to reverse engineer it in a way. In the film we have tons of locations, such as the Space Centre with actual real rockets. We also had a team in Iceland shooting alien landscapes, and we even shot some scenes in Malaysia to give the film a global feel — with each of those opportunities the script was tweaked to make full use of those location opportunities we had.

You shot with Blackmagic cameras. Was that your choice? The DP’s? Have you shot with these before?
From the start, I knew we were going to shoot on Blackmagic cameras. This was mainly down to the fact my DP Adam Batchelor — who had shot Sync with me and the proof of concept tests we did for this film — was a Blackmagic advocate and knew the cameras inside out, but more importantly he was able to get cinematic imagery using those cameras.

Blackmagic was very supportive of the film and have been of my career since my short films, so they came on as one of the executive producers on the film. No one had ever shot a full feature film using just the Blackmagic cameras. We also then used a Resolve pipeline to delivery. So The Beyond is the perfect case study for it.

Can you talk about that workflow? Any hiccups? 
I think the only hiccups were the fact we were using a beta version of Resolve 14, so there were the expected crashes, etc. That would usually be seen as risky on a feature film, but luckily we didn’t have a distributor in place with a release date, so the risk was minimal.

The good thing was I would generate an error log report from Resolve and send it over to Blackmagic, who would then instantly send out a new patch. So we were looked after rather than being left on our own to scream at the monitor.

We stuck with a Pro Res 4444 QuickTime workflow for all material from footage to VFX renders, and enabled proxy on the fly within Resolve. This was great as it meant I was working with the highest-resolution imagery within Resolve, and it was fairly fast too. Things started to slow down when I had multiple layers of VFX and composites/groups, which I then had to render out as a new clip and bring back in.

How did you and the DP develop the look you wanted? Any scenes stick out that you guys worked on?
I was very fortunate to get Max Horton, who had worked on films like Gravity, to come onboard to grade this film at the Dolby Vision lab in London’s Soho. We also did an HDR version of the film, which I think is the first indie film to have an HDR treatment done to it.

We had three to four days of grading with Max, and I was in the room with him the whole time. This was because I had already done a first-pass temp grade myself while editing the film in the beta version of Resolve 14. This made the workflow as simple as exporting my Resolve file and then the material hand-over to Max, who would load up the Resolve file, link up the material and work from there.

Max kept everything photographically like a documentary but with a slight cinematic flair to it. The big challenge was matching all the various sources of material from the various Blackmagic cameras (Ursa Mini Pro, the Production Camera and the Pocket Camera) to the DJI Osmo, drone footage and stock footage.

How many VFX shots were there? Who did them?
There were around 750 visual effects shots. I designed all the VFX scenes and handled a huge portion of the compositing myself, including invisible effects shots, all the space scenes, alien planet scenes, memory scenes and tons more — this would not have been possible without the support of my VFX team who worked on their assigned sequences and shots and also generated tons of CGI assets for me to use to create my shots in comp.

My VFX team members included my long-time collaborator John Sellings, who was the VFX supervisor for all the Human 2.0 sequences. Filmmore, in Amsterdam and Brussels, handled Human 2.0 scenes in the transcode bay with in-house VFX supervisor Hans Van Helden. London’s Squint VFX handled the Human 2.0 scenes in wake-up lab. Charles Wilcocks was the Human 2.0 CG supervisor who worked on the shape and look of the Human 2.0.

Hussin Khan looked after the Malaysian team, which provided rotoscoping support and basic comps. Dan Newlands was our on-set tracking supervisor. He ensured all data was captured correctly and supervised anything tracking related in the Human 2.0 scenes.

Another long-time collaborator was Andrea Tedeschi, who handled the CG and comps for the spacecraft carrier at the end of the film, as well as rendering out the CG astronaut passes. Rhys Griffith handled the rigging for the Human 2.0 characters in Maya, and also looked after the CG passes for the alpha Human 2.0 scenes using Blender. Aleksandr Uusmees provided all the particles and simulation rendered out of Houdini as CG passes/elements, which I then used to create the wormhole effects, alien spheres and other shots that needed those elements.

JM Blay designed and created the standalone motion graphics sequences to visualize the Human 2.0 medical procedure, as well as mission trajectory graphics. He also created several “kit-bash” graphics assets for me to use, including UI graphics, from his After Effects files.

Territory Studio created the awesome end titles and credits sequence, which you can read more about on their site.

As a VFX pro yourself, do you find that you are harder to please because it’s your wheelhouse?
Oh boy. Ask any of the VFX guys on the team and they will say I am a beast to work with because I am hands-on, and also I know how long things take. But on the flip side that had its advantages, as they knew they were not going to get revision after revision, because with each brief I also presented a proposed methodology, and made sure we locked down on that first before proceeding with the shots.

Was this your biggest directing job to date? Can you talk about any surprises?
It wasn’t my biggest directing job to date, as during post production of The Beyond my second sci-fi film Origin Unknown (starring Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica, The Flash) was green-lit and that had its own set of challenges. We can talk more about that when the film is released theatrically and VOD later this year via Kew Media.

This was, however, my biggest producing job to date; there were so many logistics and resources to manage whilst directing too. The cool thing about the way we made this film was that most of the crew were on my short films, including some of the key cast too, so we embraced the guerrilla nature of the production and focused on maximizing our resources to the fullest within the time and budget constraints.

What did you learn on this film that will help on your next?
The other hat I was wearing was the producer hat, and one thing I had to embrace was the sheer amount of paperwork! I may have taken the same filmmaking approach as I did on my short films — guerrilla and thinking outside the box technically and creatively— but making a commercial feature film, I had to learn to deal with things like clearances, E&O (errors and omission) insurance, chain of title, script report and a whole bunch of paperwork required before a distributor will pick up your film.

Thankfully my co-producer Paula Crickard, who is currently wrapping post on Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, came in during the post stage of the film and helped.

The other thing I learned was the whole sales angle — getting a reputable distributor on board to sell the film in all worldwide territories and how to navigate that process with rights and IP and more contracts etc. The advise I got from other filmmakers is getting the right distributor is a big part in how your film will be released, and to me it was important the distributor was into the film and not just the trailer, but also what their marketing and sales strategy were. The Beyond was never designed to be a theatrical film and therefore I wanted someone that had a big reach in the VOD world through their brand, especially since The Beyond doesn’t have big-name actors in there.

What was the most challenging scene or scenes? Why and how did you overcome those challenges?
The Human 2.0 scenes were the most challenging because they had to look photoreal due to it being a documentary narrative. We did first try and do it all in-camera using a built suit, but it wasn’t achieving the look we wanted and the actors would feel uncomfortable with it, and also to do it properly with practical would cost a fortune. So we went with a full-digital solution for the Human 2.0 bodies, by having the actors wear a tight grey suit with tracking markers on and we restricted our camera moves for simplicity to enable object tracking to work as accurately as possible. We also shot multiple reference footage from all angles to help with match moving. Having an on set-tracking supervisor helped massively and allowed us to make this happen within the budget, while looking and feeling real.

Our biggest issue came when our actress made very tiny movements due to breathing in close-up shots. Because our Human 2.0 was human consciousness in a synthetic shell, breathing didn’t make sense and we began making up for it by freezing the image or doing some stabilization, which ended up being nearly impossible for the very close-up shots.

In the end, I had to think outside the box, so I wrote a few lines into the script that explained that the Human 2.0 was breathing to make it psychologically more acceptable to other humans. Those two lines saved us weeks and possibly months of time.

Being a VFX movie you would expect us to use a form of greenscreen or bluescreen, but we didn’t — in fact, the only stage used was for the “white room” astronaut scene, which was shot over at Asylum FX in London. There was an actor wearing an astronaut suit in a bright photography room, and we used brightly exposed lighting to give a surreal feeling. We used VFX to augment it.

As a writer and a director, how was it seeing your vision through from start to finish.
It didn’t really hit me until I watched the press screening of it at the Dolby Vision office in Soho. It had the fully mixed sound and the completed grade. I remember looking across at my DP and other team members thinking, “Whoa! It looks and feels like a feature film, and we did that in a year!”

You edited the film yourself?
Yes, I was the editor on the film! I shoot for the edit. I started off using Adobe Premiere CC for the early offline and then quickly moved over to Resolve 14, where I did the majority of the editing. It was great because I was doing a lot of online editorial tasks like stabilizing, basic VFX, pan and scans, as well as establishing temp looks while editing. So in a way there was no offline and online editorial, as it was all part of one workflow. We did all our deliverables out of Resolve 14, too.

Cinna 4.13

Director Kay Cannon on her raunchy comedy Blockers

By Iain Blair

At a time when women are increasingly breaking down barriers in Hollywood, writer/director Kay Cannon is helping lead the charge. The director of Universal’s new film, Blockers, got her start at such comedic training grounds as The Second City, The iO West Theater and The ComedySportz Theatre.

Kay Cannon

While writing and performing around Chicago, she met Tina Fey, a fellow Second City alumna. When Fey began 30 Rock, Cannon joined the creative team and worked her way up from staff writer to supervising producer on the show. She’s a three-time Primetime Emmy-nominated writer, twice for Outstanding Comedy Series and once for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. She has also won three Writers Guild of America Awards, as well as a Peabody, all for her work on 30 Rock.

Cannon, who also served as a co-executive producer on New Girl, a consulting producer on Cristela and co-produced the hit feature Baby Mama, received rave reviews for her debut screenplay for the film Pitch Perfect, and she wrote and co-produced the hit sequels. She served as the executive producer, creator and showrunner of the Netflix series Girlboss, based on Sophia Amoruso’s best-selling autobiography, which starred Britt Robertson.

Now, with the new release Blockers, Cannon — one of only a handful of women ever to direct an R-rated comedy for a big studio — has stepped behind the camera and made an assured and polished directorial debut with this coming-of-age sex comedy that takes one of the most relatable rites of passage and upends a long-held double standard. When three parents discover their daughters’ pact to lose their virginity at prom, they launch a covert one-night operation to stop the teens from sealing the deal.

The film stars Leslie Mann (The Other Woman, This is 40), John Cena (Trainwreck, Sisters) and Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors, Suicide Squad). It is produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and James Weaver, under their Point Grey Pictures banner (Neighbors, This is the End), alongside Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold & Kumar) and Chris Fenton (47 Ronin).

Cannon leds an accomplished behind-the-scenes team, including director of photography Russ Alsobrook (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad), production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly (The Big Sick) and editor Stacey Schroeder (The Disaster Artist).

I recently talked to Cannon about making the bawdy film, which generated huge buzz at SXSW, and her advice for other aspiring women directors.

This is like a long-overdue female take on such raunchy-but-sweet male comedies as American Pie and Superbad. Was that the appeal of this story for you?
When I read the script, I really connected on two levels. I was a teenager who lost her virginity, and I’m also the mother of a daughter, and while she was only two at the time, it made me think about her and what might happen to her in the future. And that’s scary, and I saw how parents can lose their minds.

How did you first envision the film?
I grew up in a small town in the Chicago area and I was inspired by John Hughes and all his great teen comedies. I could really relate to them, and I felt he was speaking to me, that he really got that world and the way it looked. I wanted to do that too, and show how people really live, and I wanted it to feel real and grounded — but then I was also going to go to a very crazy place and got very silly. (Laughs) That was very important to me, because I wanted to make people laugh really hard, but also feel emotion.

Did you always want to direct?
It wasn’t always my dream. That’s shifted over the years. I started off wanting to be an actor on a sitcom, then writing one and then wanting to have my own show, which happened with Girlboss, so that was my focus for the past few years. To be honest, I’d kind of do movies when TV didn’t work out for me. A pilot didn’t happen, so I wrote Pitch Perfect, and then did Pitch 2 when another pilot didn’t go.

How did you prepare for directing your first film?
Being the showrunner on Girlboss was great training because I could shadow all the directors and watch them work, and I felt definitely ready to direct a film.

What was the biggest surprise of directing for the first time?
I pretty much knew what to expect — and that there will always be surprises on the day and stuff you could never have anticipated. You just have to work through it and keep going.

How tough was the shoot?
It was hard. We shot in Atlanta for nine weeks, and the last five were nights, and that’s very tough. I had a very long script to squeeze into the shoot. But Russ, my DP, was a huge help. We’d worked together before on New Girl, and he’s so experienced; he really guided me through it all.

Where did you do the post?
All in LA. We started at Sunset Gower, and then we took a break and did some reshoots in January, and then finished at Pivotal Post in Burbank.

Do you like post?
When I was at Girlboss I’d never experienced post before, so I was really afraid and uncomfortable with the whole process. It was so new and a bit daunting to me, especially as a writer. I loved writing and shooting, but it took me a while to get comfortable with post. But once I did, I loved it, and now it’s my favorite thing. I’d spend the night there if I could! As they say, it’s where you actually make the film and where the real magic happens.

Kay Cannon on set directing Leslie Mann and John Cena.

Your editor was Stacey Schroeder (pilot for The Last Man on Earth, for which she got an editing Emmy nom). How did that relationship work?
We’d worked together before on Girlboss, and we have a great partnership. She’s like my right-hand, and we’re automatically on the same page. We very rarely disagree, and what’s so great is that she’s extremely opinionated and has no poker face. I’m the same way. So it’s very refreshing to sit there and discuss material and any problems without taking anything personally. I really appreciate her honesty.

What were the biggest editing challenges?
Trying to balance the raucous comedy stuff with the serious emotions underneath, and dealing with some of the big set pieces. The whole puking scene was difficult as we shot three times the material you see, and there was a whole drug thing, and it was very long and it just wasn’t working. We previewed it a couple of times and it was seen as a poor man’s Bridesmaids. (Laughs) And then I saw Baby Driver and it hit us — what if we put the whole scene to music? And that was so much fun and it suddenly all worked.

Resistance VFX did the visual effects shots, and there seemed to be quite a few, considering it’s a comedy. What was involved?
You’re right. Usually comedies don’t have that many and we had a significant amount, including the puke scenes, and then all the computer stuff and the emojis. And then they did such a great job with all Amy Mann’s tears at the end. I really loved working with VFX, and the fact that they can create all this magic in post. I’d be constantly amazed. “Can you do that?” They’d sigh and go, “Yes Kay, we can do that, no problem.” It was a real education for me.

Where did you do the DI?
At Technicolor, and I was pretty involved along with Ross. I loved that whole process too. Again, it’s the magic of post. (Maxine Gervais was the supervising senior colorist. She used a FilmLight Baselight 5.)

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
Absolutely.

Do you want to direct again?
Definitely, if I get another chance.

What’s next?
I’m writing a movie for Sony — another comedy — and I’ve got a bunch of projects percolating.

What advice would you give to any woman wanting to direct?
Do the work, and don’t quit when it gets hard. I think a lot of women quit before the magic happens, and there were times when I wanted to quit, but you can’t. You have to keep going.

Kay Cannon Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert (c) 2018 Universal. 


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


Director Olivier Gondry returns to Partizan

Director Olivier Gondry has once again joined the roster at production house Partizan. Gondry, known for his commercial and music video work, made his first major mark with his commercials for HP, featuring his brother Michel and Vera Wang. Since then, this Paris-based director has gone on to collaborate with brands such as Audi, YouTube, Fiat, Microsoft, Starbucks, Nissan, Canon, Gillette, True Religion, Etsy and Trip Advisor.

Originally known as a visual effects artist, it was at Partizan where Gondry first established himself as a director. The renewed connection is a happy homecoming for Gondry and Partizan, which maintains offices in Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, São Paulo and in the Middle East.

Olivier’s endeavors in the music world include work with such artists as Daft Punk, OK Go and The Vines. Most recently, Olivier created a slightly disturbing and compelling visual exultation of facial flux and melding bodies for Joywave’s Doubt.

“Partizan has been part of my life since forever,” says Gondry. “First as a brother watching Michel climbing the steps. I can still remember him telling me, ‘I met this producer [Georges Bermann].’ I was proud and curious already! It was here that I first transitioned from special effects to directing. I’m so happy to return to Partizan, to be back home and back with my brother.”

Gondry is also currently in development on a long-form narrative project.


End of the Line director Jessica Sanders

By Randi Altman

After watching the End of the Line, I found myself thinking about the short film’s content… a lot. Based on a short story by Aimee Bender, director Jessica Sanders’ version starts off with a man walking into a pet store, looking into what the audience assumes is a birdcage and walking out not with a bird but a little man in a cage.

We see how Big Man (Stranger Things’ Brett Gelman) tries to take care of Little Man (Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg) and then we see his frustration when the clearly well-read and intelligent Little Man tells the story of how he was taken from his family and put in a cage. Big Man’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, leading him to torture Little Man.

We reached out to director Sanders — who has an Oscar nomination thanks to her short documentary, Sing! — to talk about making the film, which is part of Refinery29 and TNT’s Shatterbox Anthology, a short film series dedicated to supporting the voices of female filmmakers.

Let’s start with cameras. What did you shoot on, and how involved in that process are you?
We shot on the Alexa Mini with Panavision primo lenses. I like to go over lenses/looks with my DP, but defer to what the DP wants to shoot on. For this project, I worked with ultra-talented DP Brett Pawlak.

How long was the shoot, and how much pre-production did you do? I’m assuming a good amount considering the VFX shots?
The film, although short (14 minutes), was essentially a feature in terms of preparation and the production scope/crew size, shooting for six days. We had about two months of intense prep leading up to the shoot, from scouting and art department. For example, we built a 30-foot penis and 30-foot cage. The VFX approach was an intensive collaboration between VFX supervisor Eva Flodstrom, my DP Brett, production designer Justin Trask, producer Louise Shore and myself.

We had 67 VFX shots, so I storyboarded the film early on and then photoboarded each shot when we had our locations. We had a specific VFX/production approach to execute each shot from a mix of practicals (building the giant cage), to strictly greenscreen (i.e., when the little man is on a calculator). It was a highly involved and collaborative process.

Was your VFX supervisor on set?
Yes. Eva was highly involved from the beginning for all of prep, and on set she was instrumental. We worked closely with a DIT video assist so we could do a rough VFX comp of each shot while we were shooting. After production, it took about four months to finish post and visual effects.

I wanted to work with Eva, as she’s a pro, having worked on Star Wars and Star Trek (also, there are very few female VFX supervisors). Our approach/philosophy to VFX was similar — inspired by Michel Gondry’s and Spike Jonze’s work in which the VFX feels human, warm and practical, integral to the story and characters, never distracting.

Can you talk about the challenges of directing a project with VFX?
I had never done a VFX-heavy film before, and creatively, as a director, I wanted to challenge myself. I had a blast and want to do more films with VFX after this experience. Because I surrounded myself with top artists who had VFX experience, it was a totally enjoyable experience. We had a lot of fun making this film!

This was likely a hard story to tell. As the viewer you think it’s going to be a sweet story about a guy and his bird, but then…
I read Aimee Bender’s short story End of the Line in her book Willful Creatures in 2005 and have been passionate about it since then. The story takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s funny, dark, explores themes of loneliness, desire and abuse of power, in a short amount of time. There are a lot of tonal shifts, and I worked closely with screenwriter Joanne Giger to achieve this balance.

How did you as a director set out to balance the humor, the sadness, the kinda disturbing stuff, etc.?
I played the film visually and tonally very grounded (i.e. the rules of this world is that there is a big person and tiny person world that live side by side) and from that I could push the humor and darkness. In the performances, I wanted there to be an emotional truth to what the characters are experiencing that feels human and real, despite the fantastical setting. So I played with a lot of the mix of feelings within this very grounded surreal world.

The color is sort of muted in an old-timey kind of way. Can you talk about what you wanted from the color and mood?
I’m very sensitive to color and attention to detail. We wanted the film to feel timeless, although it is contemporary. Costume designer Shirley Kurata is amazing with color blocking and visual storytelling with color. Because Big Man’s world is more depressed and lonely, his tones are gray, the house is dark wood. As Big Man gains power, he wears more color. My DP has a very naturalistic approach with his lighting, so I wanted everything to feel very natural.

When we colored the film later in post, the approach was to do very little to the film, as it was captured in-camera. Production designer Justin Trask is a genius — from how he designed and built the giant penis (to feel less naturalistic) to the details of Little Man’s cage (his furniture, the giant bread crumb on a coin). We had a lot of fun exploring all the miniature props and details in this film.

How did you work with your editors? What did they cut on?
Because of the VFX, we edited on Adobe Premiere. I worked with editor Stephen Berger, who helped shape the film and did an amazing job doing the rough VFX comps in the edit. He is great with music and brought musical inspirations, which led to composer Pedro Bromfman’s entire saxophone score. Pedro is a big composer from Brazil and did my last documentary March of the Living. Editor Claudia Castello is incredible with performance, building the emotional arc of each character. She edited Fruitvale Station, Creed and was an editor on Black Panther. It was a great collaborative experience.

You had a lot of women on the crew. It seems like you went out of your way to find female talent. Why is this so important to you and the industry in general?
As a woman and a woman of Asian descent (I’m half Chinese), it’s important to me to be surrounded by a diverse group of collaborators and to hire with as much gender equality as possible. I love working with talented women and supporting women. The world is a diverse place. It’s important to me to have different perspectives reflected in filmmaking and representation. There is a huge inequality of the hiring practices in Hollywood (4% of Hollywood feature films were directed by women last year), so it’s critical to hire talented, qualified women.

Do you think things are getting better for females in the industry, especially in the more technical jobs?
I’ve always hired female cinematographers, editors and worked with Eva Flodstrom for VFX. With my friend/colleague Rachel Morrison, who is the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar, I hope things are changing for women with more visibility and dialogue. Change can only happen by actually hiring talented women (like director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) who works with female cinematographers and editors).

You’ve directed both narrative and documentary projects. Do you have a preference, or do you enjoy switching back and forth?
This film marks a new creative chapter and narrative direction in my work. I love my background in documentaries, but I am fully focused on narrative filmmaking at the moment.

How was Sundance for you and the film?
Sundance was an incredible experience and platform for the film. We were IndieWire’s Top 10 Must See Films. My creative team came out, including actors Simon Helberg and Vivian Bang. It was a blast!


Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool director Paul McGuigan

By Iain Blair

BAFTA- and Emmy-nominated director and producer Paul McGuigan has made quite a name for himself in film and TV thanks to his gift for handling gritty crime procedurals and atmospheric dramas.

This Scot started out as a still photographer before working his way into the documentary world, helming non-fiction assignments for Channel 4 and the BBC. He made his fiction debut with the short The Granton Star Cause, an adaptation of one of Irvine Welsh’s short stories. The film inspired him to direct two additional self-contained episodes, also adapted from the work of Welsh, stitched together as a well-received omnibus called The Acid House.

Paul McGuigan and Iain Blair

That laid the groundwork for his move into features on a full-time basis, starting with the inventive crime sagas Gangster No. 1 and Lucky Number Slevin. He followed these with the medieval film The Reckoning, the romantic mystery Wicker Park and Victor Frankenstein, starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe.

Now McGuigan, whose credits include the TV series Sherlock (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) is back with his latest movie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which earned three BAFTA noms. Based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, the film follows the playful but passionate relationship between Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and the eccentric Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) in 1978 Liverpool. What starts as a vibrant affair between a legendary femme fatale and her young lover quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Peter being the person Gloria turns to for comfort. Their passion and lust for life is tested to the limits by events beyond their control.

I recently talked to McGuigan about making the film.

What was the appeal of this story for you?
Both the book and the script it’s based on were just so interesting, with this whole idea of memory being so fluid. I felt there was a real cinematic world to explore, what with Gloria Grahame being this former big star who won the Oscar for The Bad and The Beautiful, and I liked the idea of this Hollywood icon ending up in this small house in Liverpool. Then you had this very intense love story — and Annette was already attached — and [James Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli had wanted to make it for years and was so passionate about it. I knew I was in good company.

It’s not your usual biopic.
No, I wasn’t interested in that anyway, and this was a very specific part of her life. I wanted to make a very intimate, emotional film, but nothing that was sentimental. Annette said to me when we first met, “This can’t be a film about an old lady dying in a room,” and that really stuck with me, and that’s what we desperately avoided — the violins and all that stuff — because Gloria would have hated that bullshit. She was a tough woman. She had a very interesting life and career, and I think she was way ahead of her time.

What did Annette bring to the role?
It’s hard to define, as she’s so brilliant. She brought a student’s perspective to the character. When we first met, she had a book full of notes, and so many questions about Gloria — things that weren’t even in the script. She just wanted to find out who the real woman was behind the myth and image — all the day-to-day stuff between her and Peter. She did so much research, and then she just arrived on set completely prepared. She’s very method in a way. If she had to be in bed sick, she’d just lie in bed all day and not speak to anyone on the set, and I liked that. The crew would tip toe around her as if she really was sick.

What about Jamie Bell?
He’s amazing and such a smart guy. He’s the kind of actor you can put a camera on, and even though he’s not saying anything, he says everything about the scene with his eyes and expression. That’s what you need since the story’s told from her point of view, and he’s the audience’s connection to it, so you need someone who’s got that natural gift.

I heard it was a very fast shoot with some very inventive set changes. How tough was it?
It was just 40 days, and we shot in Liverpool a bit, mainly for exteriors. All the interiors and the locations in LA and New York were shot on set at Pinewood Studios. I deliberately set out to create a sense of heightened reality by using a lot of back projection in scenes like the beach in LA — the same technique they used in a lot of her noirs, and I didn’t want to do the usual flashbacks to her life or her movies. I wanted the actors to walk through the memories, from one scene to another, and one set to another. So we built sets side to side, and even had one with a bed that revolved 180 degrees, and the camera would just wander off them while they ran around the back to the other set and into another scene. It was a lot of fun to do.

Where did you do the post?
I’m based in Glasgow, and we did all the editing there in a rented office, and then all the rest — sound, VFX, DI — at Pinewood, where they have great post facilities

Do you like post?
I love it because you can just relax and create your film after all the stress of the shoot. I’ve done it for so long now and it’s the most creative part of the whole process for me. The only stress is if you’re doing TV in America as they kick you out after a few days, and I’m like “Whoa! That’s where my work is.” So I always try to stay longer. This was all about so much detail, and I’d sit there every day and not move.

The film was edited by Nick Emerson, who cut Starred Up and Lady Macbeth. You hadn’t worked with him before, right?
Right, but I was big admirer of his work. After my usual editor, Charlie Phillips, passed away, it was great to get Nick. He was in Pinewood with us and would pop in now and again, mainly if we had a problem. I never look at an assembly, ever since I did my first movie — Gangster No. 1, and saw that one and thought seriously about killing myself, it was so bad! I actually thought it was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Luckily someone told me it would turn out fine, and now I just start with first frame, first scene, and look at material and start working on it.

What were the biggest editing challenges?
To keep it simple. The music was a big challenge as we didn’t want any sentimentality. I spent a lot of time working on the score with composer Josh Ralph. Even though I’m not a musician, I always think I am. I’ll sit at the piano and start hitting out stuff out of frustration, as it can be so abstract sometimes, trying to pin down what I want. Music’s so important, and I’ll share all that with actors, the editor, the sound guys, so it gradually evolves. When I started out, I used to think, “Fuck it, I don’t care about sound and music. Just stick stuff on everything and it’s fine.” But now I know better — that music and all the sound is half the movie. So when you’re in Liverpool we had the sound of children playing outside, or the sound of the sea, and in New York you have sirens, traffic and so on. I work very closely with the sound guys to get all the details right and keep it stripped down. I got very obsessed about it and Nick and I did quite a lot of that work in the edit before we even started with the sound team at Pinewood, where we also did the mix.

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
Very few as we tried to do most of it in-camera. The Liverpool of today is very different, so we had to do a big VFX shot for the ferry sequence, and some cleanup.

The film has a great look. Can you talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Molinare in London with colorist Asa Shoul, who’s amazing. We shot digitally, on Alexas, and Asa and the DP worked together on it, and I was very involved — annoyingly so, as I began as a photographer and can’t help myself (laughs). Looking back, this post went very smoothly — just 12 weeks, and I’m very happy with the way the film turned out.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


The Beguiled’s DP and colorist discuss the film’s painterly look

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which took the best director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is set in Virginia in the summer of 1864 and features a wounded and deserting Union soldier, played by Colin Farrell, taking refuge among the staff and students of a girl’s boarding school, among them Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst.

Coppola was keen to heighten the drama by constraining the atmosphere, emphasizing the heat and humidity and by creating a very painterly sensibility. To help her, she recruited French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who in turn brought colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen. The two had first worked together at Mikros Images in Paris. Van Der Cruyssen is now colorist and director of DI at The Mill New York. (Check out our interview with the director about making the film.)

An early decision was that the movie would be shot on 35mm film, maximizing the use of celluloid with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The workflow was interesting — the film was shot in New Orleans and processed by Fotokem in Los Angeles with the digital rushes then having to cross the country for finishing in New York.
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“On 35mm the lights melt together,” explains DP Le Sourd. “We were able to get a look closer to sfumato from Renaissance painting and the pictorialist photographers like Edward Steichen.

“The 1.66 format helped to capture the loneliness and imprisonment of the women’s monastic life during the Civil War,” he adds. “In a medium shot, the camera could only focus on the gestures and body language, not the set or the landscape. The format captured the intimacy of the women’s gaze and perspective.”

The look of the film was set when director Coppola and her production designer, Anne Ross, researched the period. Le Sourd then joined them to discuss the characters and how they would be reflected in the imagery.

“The exteriors were shot at very specific times of the day,” Le Sourd recalls. “We shot at dusk and sunset to amplify the sense of immediate danger, for example. “At the same time, I had to duplicate the oppressive tone for the interior daylight, and for the night interiors with candlelight. I tried to use as few lights as possible to really capture the most natural aspect of a scene. The challenge was to keep a consistent look without an obvious digital color correction, to keep the sense of the 35mm film grain.”

Le Sourd and colorist Van Der Cruyssen first met in the early 2000s, when the latter was a telecine assistant at Mikros Images working with Bertrand Duval, who graded the commercials Le Sourd was working on. When Van Der Cruyssen moved to New York in 2009 the pair hooked up on a Davidoff commercial, and established a regular partnership.

The team was completed in 2016 when Coppola was invited to direct a production of La Traviata in Rome. She asked Le Sourd to film it. He asked Van Der Cruyssen to grade it. When The Beguiled was planned, everyone was excited to get involved.

How did the decision to shoot on 35mm affect the finish? “It added two days of pre-coloring to balance out the scans,” according to Van Der Cruyssen. “There was a lot of inconsistency in the scans that needed adjustments before Philippe could walk in the room.

“But the benefits of shooting film were great for the overall texture and natural contrast that negative stock has,” he added. “There is a richness in the skin tone that is very difficult to replicate with digital formats. For The Beguiled, Sofia had complete trust in Philippe regarding the final color, and most of the DI was just with Philippe attending,” says Le Sourd. “Sofia came in a few times. She was very discrete, yet very attentive.

“She has an excellent eye and sense of visual direction. I especially remember one comment for a scene that gave the tone to our collaboration: she told me to put my ‘elegance’ filter on. I took that to mean bring down the contrast, keeping it soft, moody yet natural and, well, elegant.”

The DP and colorist were regular collaborators on commercials. Did this mean they had a flying start on the grade for The Beguiled? “Not really,” says Van Der Cruyssen. “In many ways, I’d say I had to unlearn everything I do in commercials. In beauty commercials we always strive for a shiny picture, whereas one of the goals in this movie was to create a look that was painterly and matte,” he explains. “The look was done in camera, so we used very few windows or keys. Philippe and Sofia wanted a natural light, so we tried to avoid as much as possible any digital manipulation. Most of my layers were film grade, video grade, curves and six vectors.”

Both spoke of influences by painters and early photographers like Steichen and Julia Margaret Cameron as key influences on the look. Specific lenses were made and used on set to create a bokeh like a Petzval lens. A lot of smoke was used to soften the atmosphere.

The DP was present for much of the finishing. Le Sourd says, “Color grading is a very interesting process to review your work, and most important to polish it.”

Damien Van Der Cruyssen

For Van Der Cruyssen, the biggest challenge “was to make the exterior and interior scenes all belong to the same sweaty southern confined atmosphere. The exteriors often felt bright and sunny and too distant from the softer and darker moodiness of the interiors. We had to make the two meet elegantly.

“We chose to have neutral nights rather than cool, to help transition with the very warm candle-lit scenes. This movie is all about low contrast, so we had to find the sweet spot,” he continues. “Toward the end of the movie is a morning scene in the kitchen that we spent a lot of time on. We tried different things but we were not satisfied. It was Sofia with her fresh eyes that helped us to go back in the right direction. We warmed the scene up to fit better with the surrounding sequences.”

The whole project used the FilmLight Truelight color management system to ensure consistency of imagery between viewings and between deliverables. Toward the end of post, the Baselight system was upgraded with FilmLight’s latest 5.0 release, which allowed Van Der Cruyssen to take advantage of the new DRT Family feature in 5.0. This feature ensures that Baselight automatically selects the most appropriate version of a DRT for the particular viewing condition. By switching to the Truelight CAM family — FilmLight’s default Colour Appearance Model — Baselight easily generated the four separate delivery masters: theatrical DCP, theatrical print, Rec.709 video and HDR video.


Comedy director Aaron Beckum joins Strike Anywhere

Strike Anywhere, a production company with offices in LA and San Francisco, has grown its roster with the addition of comedy director Aaron Beckum to its talented roster.

Originally from Kansas City, Beckum grew up mostly in Europe before coming to LA by way of Vancouver. He has a background in editing, producing, writing and directing, having studied film at the Vancouver Film School, where his debut short won an Achievement in Direction Award from the Directors Guild of Canada.

After moving to LA, Beckum spent time at The Directors Bureau working as a creative director in Roman Coppola’s special projects division. He would go on to form close working relationships with directors like Mike Mills after working on his feature Beginners, and Miranda July after serving as an associate producer on her film The Future. During this time, Beckum gained experience on short films, music videos and commercials, working with clients like Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Redbubble and Sony Music.

His shorts and music videos have screened at festivals worldwide, including the Vancouver International Film Fest, Raindance, London Sci-Fi, Fantasia and Woodstock. He is currently developing a feature film Microchip Blues with the support of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program.

Beckum’s work combines “Scandinavian deadpan humor with a love of 1970s slapstick comedy.” Visually, it is often characterized by lo-fi practical effects and selective color palettes. Beckum often asks himself, “If I were to pull a still at any moment in the piece, would that frame stand alone as a good photograph?” This mindset ensures his work is graphic and iconic, and balanced within the frame.

With a tendency towards working with non-actors and employing in-camera techniques, Beckum is able to create authentic worlds in a few short moments. “I have a thing for practical effects, single takes and match cuts,” he says. “I just love to create organically, as much on set as possible.”

His signature style is on display in his Redbubble spot The Last Pickle. The ad follows a sad worker in a beige office attempting to hold onto the last pickle from a pickle jar, and inevitably falling out of the high-rise window. Beckum says, “It’s a great example of what I like to do because it combines a sort of drab setup but ends with an over-the-top goofy ending. Also, I think anything with a falling dummy is just great.”


The A-List: The Big Sick director Michael Showalter

By Iain Blair

If life is stranger than fiction, then the acclaimed Oscar-nominated film The Big Sick is Exhibit A. Based on the unlikely real-life courtship between Pakistani comedian/writer Kumail Nanjiani and writer/producer Emily V. Gordon, it tells the story of Kumail (playing a version of himself), who connects with grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) after one of his standup sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents.

Michael Showalter on set.

When Emily is beset with a mystery illness, and then placed in a medically induced coma, it forces Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), whom he’s never met, while dealing with the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart.

The Big Sick is a crowd-pleasing rom-com, written by Gordon and Nanjiani, and produced by Judd Apatow (Trainwreck, This is 40) and Barry Mendel (Trainwreck, The Royal Tenenbaums). But it also deals with drama, racism and the clash of cultures. It was directed by Michael Showalter, who co-wrote and directed the SXSW Audience Award-winning film Hello, My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field. He’s a founding member of the comedy groups The State and Stella, his other film credits include The Baxter, Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together. He has also co-created numerous television projects, including Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix) and Search Party (TBS).

We recently spoke with Showalter about making the film, which has been generating awards buzz (it won AFI’s Movie of the Year award), including an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Is it true you actually gave Nanjiani his first big TV job, and what did you think when you first read this?
Yes. I’ve known Kumail a long time. I met him in New York in the comedy scene when he first arrived. I love his comedy and sensibility, and I also love him personally. He’s a great guy and we’ve worked together a lot over the years.

We hired him as a staff writer and actor for a Comedy Central series, Michael and Michael Have Issues. I did, and then I cast him in a supporting role in My Name is Doris. Then he sent me this script without saying much about it. I didn’t know it was based on their lives and that all this had happened — I just loved it and everything about it.

Kumail Nanjiani as “Kumail” and Zoe Kazan as “Emily” in THE BIG SICK. Photo by Sarah Shatz.

It’s definitely not your usual rom-com.
I kind of knew what sort of film they wanted it to be — more than just the genre, but the feel of it. I knew the tone they were going for, and that I could do that. So I begged them to hire me, and then I met with Judd and Barry and we spent eight months rewriting it — Kumail, Emily, Judd, Barry and me, and then I got hired and off we went.

The structure is very different from a normal rom-com. How challenging was that, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
You’re right, as usually the second act is where the characters fall in love, then they break up and then they get back together in the third act, but in this all of that happens right in the first act. Then the love interest isn’t even there for the entire second act — which is pretty challenging — and the film gets a lot darker in the second half. So we had to figure out how to keep it moving forward, and I wanted to make a film that’s very funny, first and foremost — a comedy.

But it’s a comedy that walks the line between comedy and drama, even tragedy, and I wanted to give full weight to both elements and not let it get too sentimental. I love theater and some of my favorite plays — like Angels in America — start off as laugh-out-loud comedies and then get really serious, and I love the way they allow those opposites to co-exist.

How involved was Judd Apatow in developing the film?
Judd was very involved in all aspects — tightening up the screenplay, casting and then editing. He’s so experienced, and a great collaborator.

How was the shoot?
We shot on digital, in New York, it was just 25 days, so pretty tight, but it went great thanks to a great line producer and crew. The biggest issue was that it’s set in cold weather and we shot in a heat wave.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s so creative and, of course, it’s where you actually make the movie.

Tell us about working with editor Robert Nassau, who cut My Name is Doris for you and Wanderlust for Judd Apatow. What were the main editing challenges?
As a TV showrunner and film director, my preferred way of working in post is to empower editors, and I rely on them the same way I do with a production designer or DP. I’m not big on micro managing, so I like to give the footage to my editor and then see what they do with it. And I go into production with a very clear game-plan. There’s not a lot of figuring it all out on the day. Then I’m very interested in the editor’s interpretation of the footage, and if it’s working, I give notes and we go along like that. I’m not the sort of director who’s in the room all the time, looking over the editor’s shoulder. I’m much more laissez-faire.

Where did you edit and post this?
Rob has his own editing suite at home in New York, so he did the assembly and director’s cut there while I was in LA. Then he came out to LA for the producer’s cut, and on any given day either me or Kumail, Judd and Barry — or all of us — would be there too, going over specific scenes and beats. But Judd had final cut, and once I’d done my cut, all the post became much more of a group endeavor.

How important are sound and music to you?
They’re both crucial elements and we did it all in LA, working with Judd’s sound team, which does most of his projects. We wanted the sound to be very intimate and very clean, so you feel like you’re with the characters all the time and you hear everything they’re saying in these small, intimate places, as opposed to having a rougher, grittier sound design. Then composer Mike Andrews, who’s scored a lot of projects for Judd, like Bridesmaids, came on board and did a score that really mirrored the emotions of the characters, without over-scoring it.

Who was the colorist and where did you do the DI?
We did the digital intermediate and dailies at Technicolor Postworks NY, and Alex Bickel was the colorist. I’m very involved in all that. The color is very important, and we wanted a very warm, authentic look, as opposed to going more muted and drained-out. We experimented a bit and Alex did a great job.

What’s next?
I’ve got a few things I’m working on but I can’t talk about them yet!


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The A-List: Roman J. Israel, Esq. director Dan Gilroy

By Iain Blair

Writing and movies have always been in director/writer Dan Gilroy’s DNA. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank Gilroy, he has two brothers who’re also in the business — director/writer Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne franchise) and editor John Gilroy.

After making a name for himself as a successful screenwriter on such projects as The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel and Two for the Money, he made his feature directorial debut with Nightcrawler in 2014. He also wrote the film, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed. Nightcrawler earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington on set.

His film, Roman J. Israel, Esq., which earned its star Denzel Washington an Academy Award nomination and recognition from the Golden Globe and SAG, is another intense character study. Set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system, it stars Denzel Washington as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended after his boss and mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When Roman is recruited to join a law firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students — the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) — and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a series of events ensues that put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.

Collaborating with Gilroy behind the scenes was director of photography Robert Elswit, editor John Gilroy, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck.

I recently talked with Gilroy about making the film and collaborating with Washington.

Is it true you wrote the film on spec specifically for Denzel?
I did. After Nightcrawler I took myself off the market for a year, researched this and wrote it on spec. I could only ever see Denzel playing Israel.

Would you have still done it without him?
No, I would have just put it away. He was crucial to the film. You have to take a pill with every movie and buy into the premise, and on this you had to believe that for 40 years he’s toiled away in the shadows and never compromised his beliefs. And Denzel utterly transformed himself physically for the role, but he’s also a man of faith who believes in something bigger than himself.

What did he bring to the role?
Apart from being this incredibly gifted actor, he brought a deep conviction to the part.

What sort of themes were you interested in exploring through this?
My biggest struggle is with my conscience. Am I doing enough? And this was a chance to examine activism, which can take a big emotional toll, but then you also know that you’re helping make the world a better place. That’s one of the key themes of the film — the importance of belief. It’s an homage to activism and to anyone who dedicates some of their time to a cause other than themselves. That sort of belief can be both a blessing and a burden, as it can get you up in the morning to fight for something, but it can also sap you.

Why did you shoot 35mm rather than digital?
We wanted that great film look, even though it’s very expensive to shoot that way now. Denzel and I actually shared the added cost.

Doesn’t that affect the post workflow nowadays?
You’re right, it does, as you have to find a lab that can still handle film as everyone’s so used to digital now, and you have a slight delay in dailies — 24 hours. But apart from that, there’s not much interruption to the flow. One big thing it does is cut way down on the footage you have to deal with in editing and post. When you shoot digitally, you don’t think twice about doing 10 or 15 takes in a row. You don’t do that with film. You’re far more careful and specific about what you shoot.

Dan Gilroy opted to shoot on 35mm.

You shot all on location downtown. How tough was that? 
Very tough. We had over 60 locations, and unlike Nightcrawler it was nearly all daytime, and the traffic is just brutal and makes it very hard just moving around. I always wanted to put the character in real-world situations, so sometimes we’d hide cameras down alleyways and behind cars and shoot stuff as if it was surveillance footage. Denzel would be walking around and people would bump into him and not give him a second glance — and those weren’t extras.

Where did you post?
On the Sony lot. We did all the sound at Formosa.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it. You have all the pieces in front of you, and they haven’t hardened yet. They’re malleable, and you can do anything you want and rewrite the whole movie in post if you want. You can pre-lap dialogue, you can intercut and do so many things that have a profound impact on the flow of the story. You can speed up stuff and slow it down by the way you cut and use transitions, and give scenes a whole new energy. Post is amazing.

You edited again with your brother John, who cut Nightcrawler. How did that work?
He read the script before we began shooting, and then he was on the set and then we worked side-by-side on the assembly. He’s like my right arm. (See our interview with John.)

What were the main challenges of editing this film?
The time! We were running long and had to keep cutting. We went to the Toronto Film Festival with it and screened it at 2 hours 14 minutes, but that was still too long, so we had to go back and cut another 13 minutes… that was very tough to do.

I heard Denzel was also involved in the edit.
It’s true, he was. Isn’t that crazy? Normally I couldn’t have even conceived of having an actor come into the cutting room and doing that, because most actors are just not objective. But Denzel is such an asset, and he truly is objective and has an incredible eye. Of course, he’s directed films himself, so it made perfect sense to keep collaborating in the edit.

How many visual effects shots were there and who did them?
Zero VFX did them, and there were quite a few. The biggest VFX shot — which originally was going to be done practically — was when we dropped down 400 feet at night into this alley. We planned to do it with a drone, so we sent it up with an Alexa on it, but it was wet and windy that night and it just didn’t work, so we had to redo it all in post. The apartment building they’re constructing next to Israel’s building was all a big VFX shot, and we had a lot of smaller shots and clean-up and so on.

It has a great soundtrack. Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
They’re so important to me, and they’re a huge percentage of the final film. Music can instantly transport you to other levels and places and change the whole emotional fabric of a scene. Denzel was very involved in that too. He has over 20,000 songs on his iPod and he came up with specific songs that would be the soundtrack to Roman’s life — songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — and picked a lot of the cues. James Newton Howard, who did Nightcrawler, did the film score.

How about the DI?
We did it at Company 3 in LA with Stefan Sonnenfeld who has worked a lot with Tony. I’m very involved in about 85% of it, and then I leave the last 15% to the DP and my brother John. I love the DI as you can go in and highlight small details and play around with the look and color so much. It’s so creative.

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
It’s beyond what I imagined when I was writing it, and I think Denzel’s performance is truly amazing.

What’s next?
I’m in pre-production on a film for Netflix, a drama set in LA’s contemporary art world. It’s starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo, and it’ll be out in October.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.