Category Archives: Director

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri director Martin McDonagh

By Iain Blair

Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for Six Shooter, his first foray into film, and followed that project with his feature film debut In Bruges. Starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson, that gangster action/comedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and won McDonagh a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay.

He followed that up with Seven Psychopaths, another twisted tale about some incompetent dognappers and vengeful mobsters that reunited him with Farrell, along with a stellar cast that included Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits.

Now McDonagh is back with his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This darkly comedic drama stars Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a grieving, no-holds-barred vengeful mother. After months have passed without any progress in her daughter’s murder case, she takes matters into her own hands and commissions three signs leading into town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s respected chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.

The Fox Searchlight Pictures release also features an impressive team of collaborators behind the camera: director of photography Ben Davis, BSC, production designer Inbal Weinberg, film editor Jon Gregory and composer Carter Burwell.

I recently spoke with McDonagh about making the film, which was just nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture and is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz. McDormand, McDonagh and Rockwell were also nominated for Golden Globes. Ok, let’s find out more…

L-R: Martin McDonagh and Woody Harrelson on set.

This film starts off like a simple tale of revenge, but it then becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on.
Exactly. I never wrote it as a simple revenge piece. It was always going to be a dark comedy, and the main thing I wanted was to have a very strong woman in the lead — and a shockingly outrageous one at that. I wanted to write the character as real and human in her grief as possible.

Is it true you wrote the role with Frances in mind?
It is. I immediately thought of her as Mildred as I felt she had all the elements that Mildred needed. She had to have a kind of working class sensibility and also not sentimentalize the character. And I knew she had the range and could play the anguish and darkness of Mildred but also deal with the humor, while staying true to who Mildred is as a character.

So what would have happened if she’d turned down the role?
I probably wouldn’t have done the film. I’m so glad she wanted to do it and I didn’t have to worry about it. It definitely wouldn’t have been the film it is without her.

What did she bring to the role?
First, she’s the best actor of her generation, I think, and she brought a lot of integrity and honesty, and I knew she’d play it truthfully and not just go for laughs, and not patronize Mildred and try and make her more lovable — because she isn’t very lovable. She was completely fearless about taking it on.

What about Woody?
He has less time to play with his character, but again he brought a lot of integrity, and he is very lovable — a guy you instantly like, a decent good guy.

You also reunited with Sam Rockwell, whose character ultimately takes the biggest journey.
Like with Frances, I specifically wrote the part for him, as I always have his voice in my mind when I write these dark but slightly comedic characters. And again, there’s something inherently lovable about Sam, so while Dixon seems to be everything you would despise in a man — he’s a racist, he’s violent, he’s obnoxious — Sam also makes him redeemable, and gives him this slightly child-like quality. By the end, he doesn’t do a 180-degree turn, but Sam gives him enough of an inner change that should come as a surprise.

Ebbing is a fictional place. Where did you shoot?
In a little town called Sylva, near Asheville, North Carolina, in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a nice place that doesn’t hint at anything dark, and it had all the locations we needed, all close by. It was a really joyful shoot, just under two months, and it had a great family feel as I’d worked with several of the actors before — and the DP, 1st AD and some others. All of the locals were very helpful.

How do you feel about the post process?
I really enjoy it, especially the editing and looking through every single take and making notes and then going through all the performances and crafting and sculpting a scene with editor Jon Gregory. I love all that, and watching actors do what they do. That’s the biggest joy for me, and what’s so interesting about post is that scenes I felt could never be cut out when I wrote them or shot them may turn out to be unnecessary in the edit, and I was happy to lose them. I find editing very relaxing and you have time to explore all the material as you piece it together. The parts of post that I find a bit tedious are dealing with CGI and VFX, and all the waiting around for them.

Where did you edit and post this?
We did it all in Soho, London, at Goldcrest and various places.

Tell us about working with the editor. Was he on the set?
Jon came out to North Carolina a week before the shoot so he could see the place and we could talk about stuff. And as it’s a small, walkable place, I could wander over and see what he was up to while we were shooting. Jon’s great in that if he felt we’d missed a shot or moment, he’d let me know and we could do a pick-up, which is no problem when you have all the actors there. That happened a couple of times.

The main challenge was keeping the right balance between all the dark stuff and the comedy so that it flowed and wasn’t jarring. Tone and pacing are always key for me in the edit, and finding the moments of tenderness — that look in someone’s eyes as the rage and anger take care of themselves. I think the film’s more about loss and pain and hope than dark anger.

Who did the visual effects work, and how many visual effects shots were there?
There are a few, mainly taking stuff out and clean up. All of the fire sequences were done with real fire, but then we added VFX flames to enhance the look. And the whole Molotov cocktail scene was done with VFX. The scene where Sam goes across the street, up the stairs and then throws the guy out the window was all real — and done in one unbroken shot.

L-R: Martin McDonagh and writer Iain Blair.

How important are sound and music to you?
Hugely important. It’s half the film, at least, and I’ve loved Carter Burwell’s work ever since I saw Blood Simple. He’ll always do the opposite of what you’d expect and play against convention, which is partly why he’s so good. But he also comes up with beautiful melodies. I went over to see him in New York in the middle of the edit, and he played me a few ideas, which I loved as it had this great mix of Americana and Spaghetti Western. The score he wrote works perfectly for the characters and the themes. I love doing the sound mix and hearing how it elevates all the visuals so much. (Burwell received one of the film’s six Golden Globe nominations.)

Who did the DI?
Colorist Adam Glasman (at Goldcrest Post), who did my other films. I’m very involved, and pop in and give notes, but I really trust Adam and the DP to get the look I want.

The film’s getting a lot of Oscar and awards season buzz. How important is that to you?
It’s a small film with a small budget — obviously not one of the huge blockbusters like Star Wars and so on, so it’s great to be included in the conversation. It’s helped give it a lot of momentum, and I kind of like all the attention!


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.

Behind the Title: Prism director Nick Spooner

NAME: Nick Spooner

COMPANY: Brooklyn-based Prism

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Prism is a production company and creative studio, with the ability to tell brand-building stories across the full spectrum of disciplines. From traditional commercial and branded content to emerging technologies, interactive live experiences and installations.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I basically make product-driven stories to help cheer up sad consumers. Whatever the ratio, format or platform.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
That the Director’s Guild doesn’t supply us with personalized monocles and jodhpurs!

It’s far less glamorous than you might think. There’s a ton of work – on spec – that’s required to just win a job in the first place. If you do get the gig, every project then requires an intense focus and attention to detail, with an increasingly short amount of time for production. And a large part of that time is spent accommodating many different opinions, personalities and expectations, all in the interest of making an effective, funny commercial.

Directors are not alone in the process of making content of any kind, and I think that’s where some encounter difficulties, when they aren’t comfortable with the necessary, collaborative side of the business. You might be a great director, but if you can’t handle the “people” aspect of making commercials, you won’t last very long. But that’s just my take on it. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
My favorite part of the job is when a take cracks up the crew. That’s when you know you’ve got something good.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
About 15 minutes after wrap, when the afterglow begins to subside.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I’d probably be a P.A. trying to figure out how to get this job.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
I acted in local commercials as a kid, and everyone on the set seemed to be having a good time. I pretty much knew then that I wanted in.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT ATTRACTED YOU?
The personalized monocles and jodhpurs. Imagine my disappointment when neither were forthcoming.

Nick Spooner directed the sci-fi/thriller short, The Call of Charlie.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT CONTINUES TO KEEP YOU INTERESTED?
Every job presents a new creative and production puzzle, and I love solving them. For me, being on the set – especially when working with actors — provides a performance-based adrenaline rush that’s like playing onstage in a hardcore band, or acting in a live theatrical performance (both of which I’ve done). It’s addictive.

HOW DO YOU PICK THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH ON A PARTICULAR PROJECT?
That is actually both the best and worst part of the business. If you’ve been doing it a while, you accumulate a roster of great talent — actors, DPs, production designers, casting directors, grips, gaffers, stylists and so on — who you value as professionals and like as people.

The downside is you can’t hire everyone on every job, which can lead to a lot of people having The Sadz. It’s a bummer. And then there are always new folks you want to work with. But if it’s any consolation, the same exact thing happens to directors with agencies.

Every project starts with getting the right DP on board, and his or her go-to keys. Depending upon what city or country we’re in, I then have my favorite crewmembers and production people I like to work with — having shared production experience with crew always saves time and energy on the set. I always work with the same few line producers — they know what I like and don’t like, and I think the ones I work with are the best in the business. As for actors, I prefer to work with new people on every shoot to keep things fresh — recurring ensemble casts for every project only works if you’re Christopher Guest.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I did a fun campaign for CarGurus that’s been airing like crazy, and a recent North Carolina Lottery spot, which is a parody of Home Shopping Network programs — that one was especially fun because it’s presented in a distinctly “non-commercial” form, as if we accidentally switched channels. It’s very odd. Both projects had great casts, which always makes for a fun shoot.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Usually, I say the one that just wrapped but in general I take a lot of pride in making funny commercials that successfully do what they’re supposed to do: sell a product or promote a brand.

I did a Tide commercial (Princess Dress) that was supposed to run for one cycle more than five years ago, and it’s still airing all over the place. It just won’t go away. And there is the CarGurus campaign I did that helped the company launch Boston’s first tech IPO of 2017 – I don’t understand what any of that means, but I’ve been told it’s a big deal.

Non-commercially, I did a dark comedy based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which has played in 84 festivals around the world and won more than 40 awards. That’s been pleasantly humblebraggy. Last year I directed my first short film called The Call of Charlie.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Netflix, my laptop, and my robot spouse.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Wait…I’m allowed to do that?

Dell 6.15

Directing Postmodern Jukebox’s Don’t Stop Believin’ in ‘one take’

If you are of a certain age, or maybe have an affinity for ‘80s rock, you are familiar with Journey’s hit, Don’t Stop Believin’. Well, the band Postmodern Jukebox has put a contemporary spin on the song, and it’s amazing. The band called on KRC’s Abraham Roofeh to direct their new video, which evokes a Broadway musical. Produced by Robert Kennedy, the piece is a nod to Postmodern Jukebox’s tradition of locked-off, one-take videos and moves from static to dynamic in a stylishly playful, choreographed journey.

We reached out to director Roofeh, who is also an editor and co-founder of KRC, to find out more.

How did the project get started?
Their manager reached out to my partners and said that they were floating around the idea of doing a real music video, and they asked us to come up with a concept.

Abe Roofah on set.

What inspired your concept?
The original version of the song inspired the concept for the video. Telling the story of individuals wanting to be more than what they currently are. To do that, I literally wrote the treatment as a four-page script with the multiple characters. I wanted to be able to start the video so it looked and felt just like a regular Postmodern Jukebox video. So the idea of giving it an old-Hollywood look at the start and then revealing that it’s a cocktail party, and you’re now in the world of the servers, gave us a vehicle to tap into the multiple layers that fit PMJ’s classic video style as well as embodying the theme of the song itself.

When you are watching the video it is so seamless… then you realize what exacting choreography was involved! What was the process like?
A huge benefit to working with such a unique group as Postmodern Jukebox is that they have access to some of the most incredibly talented musicians and dancers that they tour with regularly. That meant I had the good fortune to work with dancers who also choreograph their own routines. And since we had a very short window to execute the video within, working with these specific dancers allowed us to achieve a routine in a very efficient way. We did a scout early on of the location, which helped logistically to get a sense of the space and the movement. Then my editor hat came on with identifying potential and natural cut points if needed. The day before the prelight, I had all the principals come in and we walked through the space with my DP — so together we choreographed a routine that worked for them, the space and the camera, so everything would flow smoothly and in sync.

Why the one take? How did you move the camera? Dolly? Human?
I decided to do it in one take for a couple of reasons. With the concept of a dinner party combined with the space we had access to, flying around the space and seeing it all unfold in real-time just made more sense than to stop and start the action. The director/editor devil and angel on my shoulders would also be like “you should bake in some potential cut points, ya know, just in case…” and then after the walk through we just got so excited and were like f-that, we’re going straight through.

We shot on the Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro with a PL mount and a Zeiss Uncoated super speed 18mm lens. I wanted a cinematic old-Hollywood look and feel, so we intentionally lit it warm to accentuate all the warm red wood tones throughout the house. I love the look and feel of what the Ursa Mini Pro delivers. The size and weight of the camera was perfect for the Movi as well.

How many times did they shoot it to get it right?
We did a total of 17 takes, 14 of which were full five-minute takes. Since I had two different sets of dancers flipping, I made sure to cut before we got up to them if there was something within the take that I didn’t like. Three times I cut early on. We did a couple of takes, and then we would talk about it and really hone in on what needed to be tweaked, then we did it again and shared playback with everyone which then got everyone super excited. They were able to see exactly what needed to be done, where to go and why. Psychologically, it made everyone feel accountable and really tightened everything up to work as a team to really nail it. It was so exciting as we got closer and closer to the perfect take. And when we did, everyone felt super-accomplished. It was certainly one of the best sets and productions I’ve had.

Walk us through the post process on something like this, which seems to be largely in-camera.
We were actually laughing about it on set. Because once the shoot was over, so was the edit. And as an editor, that was awesome! But overall for post production, yes, everything was done in-camera. I had my VFX guy, James Pina, remove some lighting fixtures that made it into a shot and some gaff tape that was visible. For color grading, I did it myself building a look through Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite within Adobe Premiere Pro CC.

The video has over half a million views — what is the fan or band feedback so far?
Both fan and band feedback has been through the roof. Fans love the new direction the band took their video in, and so many were blown away when the camera moved since they weren’t expecting that. It’s been great to see. The YouTube comments are hilarious, too.

What inspired you to become a director/editor, and what advantage does this dual role bring?
Back in the day, I used make skate videos of myself and my friends. We were sponsored by a couple of companies, and I immediately gravitated toward shooting the videos and editing them from one VCR to another, which sucked. But I learned a lot and continued that onto NLEs. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed being able to see a project through from start to finish. The advantages are that one informs the other. I know exactly what I need in order to make something work because I can start editing in my head from the beginning and while on set.

Being a director/editor, one definitely informs the other throughout the process — from start to finish — and it’s always helpful. It’s like having multiple perspectives. They’re great to have because they may spark a creative idea or way to problem solve or troubleshoot something early on or while you’re in thick of it, which can be very helpful. Sometimes it’s like having an editor on set. For prepro we had a good amount of lead time, which allowed me to really think everything through. But still, like any production, everything came down to the wire because the music wasn’t even close to being done yet. They hadn’t recorded the full track. I got everything piecemeal.

About a week and half out I had just the piano, then a couple days later I had half the vocals. I think it was just before my flight that I got the full track with all the vocals and the instruments. We did a walk through with principals, then a prelight the day before, which allowed me to adjust to the final track. Then, the day of, I see this lovely violinist walking around, and I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t recall ever hearing a violin anywhere.” Then Scott (Bradlee, PMJ’s composer) comes to me and is like, “Oh yeah I’m gonna drop in a little violin.” It just had me laughing. Scott’s a true artist. He just hears the music and is tweaking up to the last second. Luckily, I have a super laid-back demeanor and I’m able to make it all work.

Is there a downside to doing both?
The downside is if you’re doing one but not doing the other. The goal for me is to just be directing all the time, and when that day comes, awesome. But I think there will always be some projects that I’d just be itching to cut because I do find editing to be fun and rewarding.

It seems like your company works in a lot of areas. How do you describe what you do in a way that sets you apart?
What makes KRC unique is that not only can we ideate and execute on creative to provide a client with great content, but collectively we can also provide the ability to amplify the content. That is done through our relationships with all major broadcasters, influencers, streaming and social platforms, as well as the deep-seeded data to support it. Through our extensive music contacts, KRC provides an agency-style approach by also offering custom-tailored music strategies to match clients with the perfect artist for a brand campaign.


Richard Linklater on directing the film Last Flag Flying

By Iain Blair

Director Richard Linklater first made a name for himself back in 1991 with the acclaimed and influential independent release Slacker, an experimental narrative revolving around 24 hours in the lives of 100 characters. Since then he’s made the beloved Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise; Before Sunset, (he got an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Boyhood (which received multiple BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards, and an Oscar for actress Patricia Arquette).

He’s also directed such diverse films as the Western/gangster picture The Newton Boys, the animated feature Waking Life, the real-time drama Tape, the comedy School of Rock and Everybody Wants Some!!

L-R: Iain Blair and Richard Linklater

His new film is the timely Last Flag Flying, which deals with war, patriotism and friendship. Set in 2003, it tells the story of three soldiers — former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) and former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) — who reunite 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives.

Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with author Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote his novel Last Flag Flying as a sequel to his book The Last Detail, which was made into the acclaimed 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson.

I spoke with Linklater —whose other film credits include Suburbia, Bad News Bears (the 2005 version), A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie and Before Midnight — about making the film, which is getting awards buzz, and why his image as a loose, improv-heavy director is so inaccurate.

Is it fair to say this is not a war movie, but it’s about war?
Yes, I think that’s right. It’s my kind of war movie. It’s not a battlefield movie but about the effects of war — that sub-category about what happens when the war comes home and how the combat survivors deal with it.

My dad was in the navy in WW11 but he never talked about the war and his experiences.
Exactly. My dad was the same. Very stoic. They just held it all in. Now it’s even worse, I feel. The suicide rate among returning vets is so high today, and the big problem is the way the service breaks you down and trains you, but then they don’t really put you back together. When you’re done, the killing machine goes home, and you’re taught to be stoic and be a man, and you’re left with nothing. To me that’s so tragic. We should talk about it. And all these issues, along with all of the wars since Vietnam, are the subtext to this whole story. War is such a political minefield today.

Is it true you started to make a film of this a decade ago?
Yes, I tried to adapt the book, but I’m glad it didn’t happen back then. It wasn’t meant to be, and no one was really ready to deal with the war in Iraq. It takes a while to want to analyze a war and get a perspective. A little distance is very helpful.

You’ve got three great leads. What did they bring to it?
Everything — all of their intelligence, humor, experience and work ethic. They really dug in, and we spent a couple of weeks rehearsing and really talking about all the issues. Each character is very different, and the guys really found them and jumped in. The biggest contrast is probably between Sal and Doc. Sal is the life of the party type, clearly self-medicating, always talking, eating, drinking, while Doc’s very low-key and quiet. Then Mueller’s somewhere in the middle.

Technology has changed a lot since you started, with the whole digital revolution, but you still like to shoot on film? Was that the case with this one?
We shot Boyhood all on film, but we did this digitally. It was just more practical, and I think now you can get any look you want with digital. It’s pretty impossible to tell the difference between film and digital now. But I don’t think film’s dead, although economically it’s changed, obviously, but I don’t think it’s going away. I hope we always have it as a choice. Digital’s just one more tool.

Where did you do the post?
We posted in my offices in Austin, as usual, and we began cutting while I shot.

Do you like post?
I love post and all the stuff you can do to shape your film, but I actually feel the most creative in rehearsal and then shooting. That’s when I feel like I’m really making the film. I don’t feel like I’ve ever “found” the film in the edit and post, like some directors do. There’s a certain schematic at work that I’m trying to follow. I know certain kinds of films have to be deconstructed and then reconstructed in post, but mine aren’t like that. It sounds boring but I do all that in advance. I’m a big preparer.

So you’re not the big improv, loose guy people like to think you are?
(Laughs) No, no. I prepare everything. And with experience you just know what you’re going to shoot and actually use.

The film was edited by your longtime collaborator Sandra Adair. Tell us about that relationship and how it works.
She doesn’t need to be on set and we just send dailies and then we talk a bit. I don’t usually shoot more than necessary, as I tend to have pretty limited budgets and schedules. I usually have a fairly good cut done about a month into post. I used to cut my own stuff when I began, like all filmmakers, and then she cut Dazed and Confused for me 24 years ago and we’ve been a team ever since.

Linklater on set.

I think we share the same brain at this point, a certain shorthand; we have great chemistry, and she’s just really good. She can just look at the footage and know what I’m thinking. I don’t have to explain it. The big challenge on this was finding the right balance between all the heavy drama and then the moments of comedy, and keeping that tonal balance all the way down the line. So in the edit you go, “This is a bit dialogue-heavy, let’s cut to the joke,” and “this is redundant,” and so on. The re-writing never stops.

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
A few hundred, all done by Savage VFX who’re in LA and (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania, where we shot — mainly greenscreen, train stuff, compositing, clean-up and so on. Hopefully, you don’t notice them at all.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
It’s always been huge to me, and a couple of the songs — “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan, and “Wide River to Cross” by Levon Helm — are so important. Big choices, with the Levon Helm song at the graveside, and Dylan at the very end. Again, it’s a tonal thing. There aren’t that many songs, but they’re all crucial, like the Eminem song “Without Me” and its humor.

Graham Reynolds, who’s done the score for a lot of my films, composed a beautiful score and I probably used it in places I usually wouldn’t because I felt the story needed it emotionally, and I wanted to give more clues in that area, and carry things through more.

The film has a very bleak look. Talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Light Iron with colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz (using Quantel Rio), and that bleak, rainy look was baked into the whole thing and started at the conceptual level — “We’re never going to see sunlight.” We’re going to have a lot of rain, grungy locations and a sort of texture and tone that’s fundamental to telling this story. Corinne did a great job, especially in the scenes where nature didn’t give us what we wanted. (From Corinne: “The movie was shot beautifully by Shane Kelly, who conveyed in the DI that the visuals needed to emphasize cool and dark tones.  At the same time, we worked to maintain a naturalistic feel throughout.”)

What’s next?

I’m in the middle of post on my next film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a comedy-drama starring Cate Blanchett, out next year. And I have a big TV project that began as a film, a huge, sprawling historical thing. TV is now this really viable medium for filmmakers.


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.


Mercy Christmas director offers advice for indie filmmakers

By Ryan Nelson

After graduating from film school at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I was punched in the gut. I had driven into Los Angeles mere hours after the last day of school ready to set Hollywood on fire with my thesis film. But Hollywood didn’t seem to know I’d arrived. A few months later, Hollywood still wasn’t knocking on my door. Desperate to work on film sets and learn the tools of the trade, I took a job as a grip. In hindsight, it was a lucky accident. I spent the next few years watching some of the industry’s most successful filmmakers from just a few feet away.

Like a sponge, I soaked in every aspect of filmmaking that I could from my time on the sets of Avengers, Real Steel, Spider Man 3, Bad Boys 2, Seven Psychopaths, Smokin’ Aces and a slew of Adam Sandler comedies. I spent hours working, watching, learning and judging. How are they blocking the actors in this scene? What sort of cameras are they using? Why did they use that light? When do you move the camera? When is it static? When I saw the finished films in theaters, I ultimately asked myself, did it all work?

During that same time, I wrote and directed a slew of my own short films. I tried many of the same techniques I’d seen on set. Some of those attempts succeeded and some failed.

Recently, the stars finally aligned and I directed my first feature-length film, Mercy Christmas, from a script I co-wrote with my wife Beth Levy Nelson. After five years of writing, fundraising, production and post production, the movie is finished. We made the movie outside the Hollywood system, using crowd funding, generous friends and loving family members to compile enough cash to make the ultra-low-budget version of the Mercy Christmas screenplay.

I say low budget because it was financially, but thanks to my time on set, years of practice and much trial and error, the finished film looks and feels like much more than it cost.

Mercy Christmas, by the way, features Michael Briskett, who meets the perfect woman and his ideal Christmas dream comes true when she invites him to her family’s holiday celebration. Michael’s dream shatters, however, when he realizes that he will be the Christmas dinner. The film is currently on iTunes.

My experience working professionally in the film business while I struggled to get my shot at directing taught me many things. I learned over those years that a mastery of the techniques and equipment used to tell stories for film was imperative.

The stories I gravitate towards tend to have higher concept set pieces. I really enjoy combining action and character. At this point in my career, the budgets are more limited. However, I can’t allow financial restrictions to hold me back from the stories I want to tell. I must always find a way to use the tools available in their best way.

Ryan Nelson with camera on set.

Two Cameras
I remember an early meeting with a possible producer for Mercy Christmas. I told him I was planning to shoot two cameras. The producer chided me, saying it would be a waste of money. Right then, I knew I didn’t want to work with that producer, and I didn’t.

Every project I do now and in the future will be two cameras. And the reason is simple: It would be a waste of money not to use two cameras. On a limited budget, two cameras offer twice the coverage. Yes, understanding how to shoot two cameras is key, but it’s also simple to master. Cross coverage is not conducive to lower budget lighting so stacking the cameras on a single piece of coverage gives you a medium shot and close shot at the same time. Or for instance, when shooting the wide master shot, you can also get a medium master shot to give the editor another option to breakaway to while building a scene.

In Mercy Christmas, we have a fight scene that consists of seven minutes of screen time. It’s a raucous fight that covers three individual fights happening simultaneously. We scheduled three days to shoot the fight. Without two cameras it would have taken more days to shoot, and we definitely didn’t have more days in the budget.

Of course, two camera rentals and camera crews are budget concerns, so the key is to find a lower budget but high-quality camera. For Mercy Christmas, we chose the Canon C-300 Mark II. We found the image to be fantastic. I was very happy with the final result. You can also save money by only renting one lens package to use for both cameras.

Editing
Good camera coverage doesn’t mean much without an excellent editor. Our editor for Mercy Christmas, Matt Evans, is a very good friend and also very experienced in post. Like me, Matt started at the bottom and worked his way up. Along the way, he worked on many studio films as apprentice editor, first assistant editor and finally editor. Matt’s preferred tool is Avid Media Composer. He’s incredibly fast and understands every aspect of the system.

Matt’s technical grasp is superb, but his story sense is the real key. Matt’s technique is a fun thing to witness. He approaches a scene by letting the footage tell him what to do on a first pass. Soaking in the performances with each take, Matt finds the story that the images want to tell. It’s almost as if he’s reading a new script based on the images. I am delighted each time I can watch Matt’s first pass on a scene. I always expect to see something I hadn’t anticipated. And it’s a thrill.

Color Grading
Another aspect that should be budgeted into an independent film is professional color grading. No, your editor doing color does not count. A professional post house with a professional color grader is what you need. I know this seems exorbitant for a small-budget indie film, but I’d highly recommend planning for it from the beginning. We budgeted color grading for Mercy Christmas because we knew it would take the look to professional levels.

Color grading is not only a tool for the cinematographer it’s a godsend for the director as well. First and foremost, it can save a shot, making a preferred take that has an inferior look actually become a usable take. Second, I believe strongly that color is another tool for storytelling. An audience can be as moved by color as by music. Every detail coming to the audience is information they’ll process to understand the story. I learned very early in my career how shots I saw created on set were accentuated in post by color grading. We used Framework post house in Los Angeles on Mercy Christmas. The colorist was David Sims who did the color and conform in DaVinci Resolve 12.

In the end, my struggle over the years did gain my one of my best tools: experience. I’ve taken the time to absorb all the filmmaking I’ve been surrounded by. Watching movies. Working on sets. Making my own.

After all that time chasing my dream, I kept learning, refining my skills and honing my technique. For me, filmmaking is a passion, a dream and a job. All of those elements made me the storyteller I am today and I wouldn’t change a thing.


Kevin Tent, ACE, on directorial debut Crash Pad and editing Downsizing

By Randi Altman

To say that Kevin Tent, ACE, is a prolific editor is in no way hyperbole. He has cut some of the most celebrated films of the last few years as a frequent collaborator of director Alexander Payne. They worked together on seven films, including Paramount’s upcoming Downsizing, as well as About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska (for which Tent earned an Oscar nom). Other editing credits include Blow, Girl Interrupted and The Golden Compass.

Not long ago, Tent left his dark editing room to step behind the camera for his directorial debut — the indie comedy Crash Pad, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Thomas Hayden Church, Christina Applegate and Nina Dobrev. Not too shabby a cast. Oh, and it’s funny. Even when not laughing, I found myself smiling.

Kevin Tent (left) on set.

While Tent isn’t going to shut down his Avid Media Composer anytime soon, he did enjoy the challenge and experience of taking the helm of a film. Crash Pad had a run of about a half dozen film festivals, was in theaters for a limited release and is available for digital rental. It comes out on DVD December 5, just in time to be a stocking stuffer.

Ok, let’s dig in with Tent, first about Crash Pad and then about editing Alexander Payne’s latest, Downsizing, starring Matt Damon, Kristin Wiig and Christoph Waltz, among othersOh, and when you are done with this piece, check out our interview with Tent about cutting Nebraska.

Is directing something you always wanted to do, and how did you decide on this film to direct?
It’s been in the back of my mind for quite a few years, but I’ve been so busy editing that I put it on the back burner. Finally, I just decided if I was going to try to do it, I should do it sooner than later, because I’m not getting any younger (laughs). I looked around for a comedy script, and I found Jeremy Catalino’s Crash Pad, which was really funny and kind of a backwards-romantic comedy. It took us a few years, but we finally got it made.

Why that long?
I’d be editing a film and that would take nine months or so, and then I’d have a month off, and think, “Oh, now I’ll try to get this movie made,” but it doesn’t work that way. It takes a long, concerted effort. When Downsizing got pushed for a year to wait for Matt Damon’s availability I thought… this was my chance. I was fortunate enough to get Bill Horberg on as a producer, and once that happened he got the ball rolling.

You have a pretty fantastic cast, including Thomas Hayden Church, who was in Sideways, which you edited. How did all of that come about?
The first character we wanted to cast was Stensland, and we were so lucky because we really wanted Domhnall Gleeson. He hadn’t done very many comedies but I had seen him in About Time and thought he’d be great. Lucky for us he said yes. Once he joined us, then we had to get the character of Grady. Because I knew Thomas from Sideways, he did us a favor and joined the team. He and Domhnall got along great; their chemistry worked both on screen and off-screen.

Then fortunately the beautiful and talented Nina Dobrev, who was looking to do something comedic, joined us. The last person to join was Christina Applegate. We were incredibly lucky to get this great cast on a very small movie, and for a first-time director.

What did you shoot on?
We used an Arri Alexa with old Panavision anamorphic “B” and “D” series lenses. Seamus Tierney our DP was so excited about our camera package. He promised the film would look great and beautiful, and he was right. I think the Alexa worked really well with our 23-day schedule, and how fast we had to move.

As you were directing, were you able to take off your editor’s cap, or were you editing in your head during the shoot?
I did know I needed to get coverage, and I was always thinking, “If this scene is terrible or doesn’t work, I can cut out there, or come in here.” Editors are good at figuring a way out of something if you’re in a jam. There was comfort in knowing if this scene doesn’t work at all, we’ll figure out some way around it.

Franco Ponte was my editor, and he was editing scenes and the movie while we were shooting. He was phenomenal.

L-R: Kevin Tent and Crash Pad editor Franco Ponte.

Did you learn how to direct by editing?
It didn’t really work that way. Directing requires a bunch of different skill sets — I was amazed at how different and difficult it was, how much I didn’t know and how much I learned. If I ever get a chance to do it again, I think I would be much better at it.

The film set is all pretty hectic. A cutting room is nice and quiet. You’ve got your footage, and you watch a take a number of times and then make your decisions. On the set, there’s a sort of controlled mayhem. You do a take, and then 20 people turn around and ask, “Well, what do you think? Good?” And you’re like, “I have no idea. I’m not quite sure, let’s go again.” It’s all-pretty crazy.

It must have been a little intimidating for your editor, Franco Ponte. How did you choose him, and how did that relationship work?
He was my assistant editor more than 10 years ago on a film I did up in Canada, and he has since become an editor. He’s very smart, articulate and was always very supportive. We approached the film in a traditional way. He did an assembly and then we started recutting scenes and the whole movie. I did a little cutting on my own; we would trade scenes back and forth till we were both happy with them.

He did some of my favorite cuts in the movie — things that I would have never thought of. I was very lucky to have him.

How did you work together to enhance the comedy with the edit?
It was always my intent — and I told the actors, too — to think of it as a kind of 1940’s screwball comedy. Comedies back then were not only smart and well written but also seemed loose and free. Never taking themselves too seriously. We cut it that way, too. The pace is pretty quick. There’s not a lot of air between jokes; we didn’t wait for laughs. We just kept cutting to the next line or joke.

What about the DI? How involved were you in that part of the process?
I was involved. It was done up at Encore in Vancouver. Our colorist was Thor Roos who did a terrific job. Seamus got to chime in and make adjustments from down here in LA. He’s always so busy shooting, but we were able to get him for an afternoon.

What kind of directive did you give to Seamus, initially, and to those working on the DI in terms of the look?
We wanted it to look rich, colorful and poppy. That was something we had talked about in pre-production since a lot of it takes place in a dingy apartment. So whenever given the chance — when we were outside or in a club or someplace — we tried to give it some visual dynamics with color and that kind of thing. I think it looks pretty good, especially considering our short shooting schedule.

It almost felt like it was taking place in a different time.
I’ve heard that before. I actually think the reason for that, possibly, is because ofthe lenses we used. Those are old and very cool lenses, so maybe they added more to the quality of it feeling dated. That wasn’t our intent, but it didn’t seem to hurt!

What was your favorite part of directing?
Watching a scene with an audience and hearing them laugh. That’s when you know it all worked. It was also a lot of fun to be on the set with the actors and the crew. Thomas and Domhnall had the crew laughing all the time. It was really hard, but it was really great to work closely with these people who came in and kicked ass for a couple of weeks on this movie.

You have such a great relationship with Alexander Payne, did you ask him for any directing tips?
He’s the best. He was so supportive, and it wasn’t so much the technical stuff, like, “Don’t forget to do this or that.” He never really said too much about that, but he always wanted to see how the days were going. It was great to know that some of the things he goes through I was going through as well, and that I wasn’t alone. That was really comforting. He was always there for me, and, of course, he was there looking at cuts and stuff like that.

Will you try it again?
I would try it again if I could find the right project, because it is a huge commitment. It’s going to take a couple of years of your life, and you’ve got to make sure that’s something you really want to do. I’m starting to think about it now that Crash Pad is running its course and coming out.

CUTTING DOWNSIZING
Let’s switch gears and talk about editing Downsizing for Alexander Payne.

This is your seventh film with Alexander. How does that relationship work, and do you typically keep up with camera?
Yes, I was cutting as they were shooting. I also had an overlap while finishing Crash Pad, so Joe Bini helped with assembling some of the movie. But our typical process now is that when Alexander comes back from shooting we basically start from scratch on the movie. We watch dailies together and do a first-pass director’s cut. Then, we’ll go back and look at things from my first assembly and compare the cuts.

That’s basically how we have been working since the end of About Schmidt, where he didn’t really want to watch an editor’s assembly. He wanted to just start cutting.

What are the benefits of that? Just a clean slate kind of thing?
Yes, it’s a clean slate, and it’s also a long enough period of time where he has some perspective on the footage and he remembers what they shot on the set. He remembers what he liked then, but he likes to look at it all again fresh. Our first pass together is almost like an editor’s assembly, but it’s a really good one.

Also, we get right in that stage where we start dropping lines, we start talking about maybe we should move this here, or we should come into the scene at this point. We start talking about what we’ll do on future passes of the movie as well.

This process takes a little more time, but Alexander is established enough where he can get a few extra weeks on his director’s cut if he needs it. We take it from there, and then we get into the real nitty-gritty of editing. It’s slightly unorthodox compared to how other people cut, but that’s how we’ve been doing it for the last few years.

Well, it seems to have worked.
Yeah, I think our first cuts are pretty good. Even if the first cut’s not great, we already know what we’re going to do on subsequent passes.

I’m assuming you worked with Media Composer on this one as well?
We did. Don’t leave home without it is what I always say.

Do any scenes stand out as your favorite?
There is a big sequence where the downsizing happens, and that is one of my favorites. It’s choreographed beautifully. The acting is great. The photography is great. The production design is great. It cuts like butter. We originally cut it to Bolero, which was in the movie until the very end, and it worked great. The long, long build-up climaxed at the reveal of the downsized patients. Composer Rolfe Kent’s greatest challenge was to beat Bolero, and he did. He totally nailed it.

I also love the scene with Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern. We called it “The Tiny House” scene while in the cutting room. Those two are terrific in it.

Anything else about Downsizing that you would like to add?
I think it’s a pretty wild and crazy movie, funny, unexpected and original. Alexander really pushed himself to make something different, unique and unusual. but, it still has the same themes and sentiment that a lot of his other movies have. I think it asks us – what are we doing here on this planet? What does it mean to be human? What is this human experience all about? And it does all this through humor and pathos. It really is an Alexander Payne movie in the end.

I hope that people see Downsizing and they like it. I hope that people see Crash Pad and they like it. I think … it’s all I could hope for.


Director Todd Haynes on making Wonderstruck

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Todd Haynes is a supreme visual stylist with a deep affection for period pieces and a masterly touch when it comes to dealing with such adult themes as desire, repression and regret. Now Haynes — who was Oscar-nominated for his Far From Heaven ’50s drama — brings those gifts and his sense of wonder and imagination to his new film Wonderstruck, which is based on an illustrated children’s novel by Brian Selznick. Selznick also wrote and drew “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret,” which became Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Set in the 1920s and the 1970s, Wonderstruck tells the story of Ben and Rose, two deaf children from two different eras who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his home and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out on quests to find what they are missing that unfold with mesmerizing symmetry.

The film is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz for its young stars’ performances — opposite co-stars Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams — and for Haynes, whose credits include Carol, the acclaimed Bob Dylan picture I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Safe and Mildred Pierce.

I spoke with Haynes about making the film.

What was the appeal of making this movie?
I wanted to make something adults hadn’t seen before and that I didn’t think kids had ever seen before. I wanted them to feel like someone believed in their ability to have their minds blown, and to look back to the past — all these things we think kids don’t do anymore, like turning off their phones and watching a black and white film with little dialogue, and dealing with a weird structure to the movie. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think kids are capable of all kinds of things and maybe we forget that.

This is your first film with kids in the leads. Was it something you always wanted to do?
Yes. I’ve worked with kids in a lot of my films, and I made a short, Dottie Gets Spanked, back in ’93 with kids as the main characters, but I’d never done anything like this… with two deaf kids as the leads.

The theme of deafness must have opened up a lot of possibilities, as the whole B&W section plays like a silent film.
Exactly, and the B&W bit was just the beginning. The deafness was there in Brian’s book and screenplay but to a degree I just didn’t appreciate when I first read his script, and then even after I’d shot it; I didn’t initially realize just how silent the movie is, and how little dialogue there is. There’s whole stretches without any talking, and then a character says something and it hits you. But I feel that if you’re into the movie, you don’t miss the talking in those sections.

The film was shot by your usual DP, Ed Lachman. What look were you going for?
It was a lot of fun bouncing between the different eras, and getting the B&W look and then New York City, which was a very different, look — but it’s kind of fun afterwards (laughs). That’s what challenges are. They’re not so much fun when you’re in the throes of dealing with them, but it was creatively tantalizing finding the textures and contrasts between the different eras, and we did a lot of planning and preproduction, focusing on all the detail.

Why do you love doing period pieces so much?
I think they make you ask, “Why are we watching this movie? Why is the director doing this or that?” So you set up a frame that makes you think about what the movie’s telling you about, so you have choices being made all the time. And looking at the past through a frame means you’re invariably also looking at where you stand now, and then you think about the relevance of the past and what it means today. It’s never about making today disappear. It’s about a conscious role in comparing the past and present.

Do you like the post process?
I really love it, because after all the craziness and time and money pressures of the shoot. You’re back in a small dark room, and you’re also down to a far lower overhead and the fewest number of people around, so it feels very cozy and intimate, which I love.

Where did you post?
We did it all at Harbor Post in downtown New York — the cutting, the sound, the VFX and the DI.

Todd Haynes and writer Iain Blair

The film was edited by Affonso Goncaves, who worked with you on Carol and Mildred Pierce. Tell us about that relationship and the editing challenges.
So much of post was about editorial, and he was key to it all: the editorial language and how the film would ultimately work and connect with people. I really relish working closely with my editor, and he’s a great partner and very smart and knowledgeable. Our big challenge was figuring out how to deal with the two different stories and the time spent on each. Brian’s script marked all the intercutting very specifically, and it was all infused with a very cinematic quality that was very infectious. But I also knew it was something you have to wait and see how it actually works. And, ultimately, we learned that we had to spend more time with one story before cutting to the next.

You have to develop enough attachment to one character and to what they’re doing before you cut to the other. Then you have to pace it so you want to come back again. It was continually about finding the right balance. Then we actually screened a lot of cuts of the movie for kids, and that helped us so much and completely informed what we did. They reacted encouragingly — and maybe they misled us (laughs) — but they were remarkably specific with their comments.

Period films always have a lot of visual effects. Can you talk about that, and working with VFX supervisor Louis Morin?
Louis worked a lot with Denis Villeneuve and did Arrival and Sicario for him, and his credits include The Aviator and Brokeback Mountain, so he’s very experienced. I worked with him before on I’m Not There, and he’s a real artist and very sensitive. The best VFX shots in period pieces are the ones where you don’t fully rely on them; we did as much as possible in camera and practically, and then finished them with digital work by Alchemy 24 and Framestore. It’s a very close relationship between your production designer and VFX supervisor, and there’s always a lot of removal of contemporary stuff and cosmetic work and clean-up.

Given this is partly a silent film, can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
They’re so important, it’s hard to overstate. My sound designer Leslie Shatz, who I met through Gus van Sant, has done something like 200 films now and is so experienced. I’ve worked with him since Far From Heaven. This is the fourth collaboration with Carter Burwell, and like the sound designer and my sound recorder Drew Kunin he was involved from preproduction on.

So we’d all discuss sound and we recorded everything — all the dialogue for the B&W bits, all the ambiance, so we had it, even if it was just an indication of what we’d eventually do. We didn’t know how much marking with rhythm and percussion we’d use for the dialogue, and how effective it’d be — and I found that it wasn’t effective, and that every time we marked dialogue it just didn’t work. But we marked for gesture and that worked.

What’s next?
I’ve got a bunch of projects, including a documentary about The Velvet Underground. I’ve never done a documentary before and I’m excited about all the period research.


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.

 

 


BestFriend adds director Thomas Hefferon

BestFriend, an LA and NY-based production studio headed up by executive producer Zak Thornborough, has brought on director Thomas Hefferon.

Dublin-born Hefferon has a long history making in short-form emotional narratives. His first short film “The Confession” screened at over 40 festivals around the world (including Tribeca, Palms Springs, and Sundance) and had a national cinema release in Ireland. It aired on dozens of TV stations across the world, and it garnered over one million hits on YouTube.

Since then he’s made three more shorts (The Pool, Switch and The Heist), all of which received funding by the Irish Film Board.

Hefferon also works on spots and branding projects. He was nominated in the Best New Director category at the 2009 Kinsale Shark Awards. This led to him working with Jaguar and Land Rover, and a move to London. There he worked with a range of brands, including Panasonic, Infinity, Jameson, Armstrong International and Johnson & Johnson.

Hefferon’s first project out of BestFriend is a two-spot campaign for Massachusetts Financial Services via FCB Chicago. These spots showcase Hefferon’s ability to show the human side of a company. Mirroring mutual investments with the work that musicians do, Hefferon somehow makes financial services empathetic, entertaining, and cool.

Centralized around a collaborative approach, BestFriend provides clients access to world-class talent at any stage of production, from writing and creative development through execution and delivery. BestFriend lives at the intersection of advertising, art, film, fashion, music, and technology, and thrives on its proximity to the fringe of possibility.


The A-List: Director Marc Webb on The Only Living Boy in New York

By Iain Blair

Marc Webb has directed movies both big and small. He made his feature film debut in 2009 with the low-budget indie rom-com (500) Days of Summer, which was nominated for two Golden Globes. He then went on to helm two recent The Amazing Spider-Man blockbusters, the fourth and fifth films in the multi-billion-dollar-grossing franchise.

Webb isn’t just about the big screen. He directed and executive produced the TV series Limitless for CBS, based on the film starring Bradley Cooper, and is currently an executive producer and director of the CW’s Golden Globe-winning series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Marc Webb

Now Webb, whose last film was the drama Gifted, released earlier this year, has again returned to his indie roots with the film The Only Living Boy in New York, starring Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Callum Turner and Kiersey Clemons.

Set in New York City, the sharp and witty coming-of-age story focuses on a privileged young man, Thomas Webb (Turner) — the son of a publisher and his artistic wife — who has just graduated from college. After moving from his parents’ Upper West Side apartment to the Lower East Side, he befriends his neighbor W.F. (Bridges), an alcoholic writer who dispenses worldly wisdom alongside healthy shots of whiskey.

Thomas’ world begins to shift when he discovers that his long-married father (Brosnan) is having an affair with a seductive younger woman (Beckinsale). Determined to break up the relationship, Thomas ends up sleeping with his father’s mistress, launching a chain of events that will change everything he thinks he knows about himself and his family.

Collaborating with Webb from behind the scenes was director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (Gifted, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Alice Through the Looking Glass) and editor Tim Streeto (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Vinyl).

I recently talked with Webb about making the film, and if there is another superhero movie in his future.

What was the appeal of making another small film on the heels of Gifted?
They were both born out of a similar instinct, an impulse to simplify after doing two blockbusters. I had them lined up after Spider-Man and the timing worked out.

 

What sort of themes were you interested in exploring through this?
I think of it as a fable, with a very romantic image of New York as the backdrop, and on some levels it’s an examination of honesty or coming clean. I think people often cover a lot in trying to protect others, and that’s important in life where you have various degrees of truth-telling. But at some point you have to come clean, and that can be very hard. So it’s about that journey for Thomas, and regardless of the complex nature of his desires, he tries to be honest with himself and those close to him.

Can you talk about the look of New York in this film and working with your DP, who also shot your last film?
It was the same DP, but we had the opposite approach and philosophy on this. Gifted was very naturalistic with a diverse color palette and lots of hand-held stuff. On this we mostly kept the camera at eye level, as if it was a documentary, and it has more panache and “style” and more artifice. We restrained the color palette since New York has a lot of neutral tones and people wear a lot of black, and I wanted to create a sort tribute to the classic New York films I love. So we used a lot of blacks and grays, and almost no primary colors, to create an austere look. I wanted to push that but without becoming too stylized; that way when you do see a splash of red or some bright color, it has more impact and it becomes meaningful and significant. We also tried to do a lot of fun shots, like high angle stuff that gives you this objective POV of the city, making it a bit more dramatic.

Why did you shoot 35mm rather than digital?
I’ve always loved film and shooting in film, and it also suited this story as it’s a classic medium. And when you’re projecting digital, sometimes there’s an aliasing in the highlights that bothers me. It can be corrected, but aesthetically I just prefer film. And everyone respects film on set. The actors know you’re not just going to redo takes indefinitely. They feel a little pressure about the money.

Doesn’t that affect the post workflow nowadays?
Yes, it does, as most post people are now used to working in a purely digital format, but I think shooting analog still works better for a smaller film like this, and I’ve had pretty good experiences with film and the labs. There are more labs now than there were two years ago, and there are still a lot of films being shot on film. TV is almost completely digital now, with the odd exception of Breaking Bad. So the post workflow for film is still very accessible.

Where did you do the post?
We did the editing at Harbor Picture Company, and all the color correction at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld, who uses Blackmagic Resolve. C5’s Ron Bochar was the supervising sound editor and did a lot of it at Harbor. (For the mix at Harbor he employed D-Command using Avid Pro Tools as a mix engine.)

Do you like the post process?
I really love post… going through all the raw footage and then gradually molding it and shaping it. And because of my music video background I love working on all the sound and music in particular.  I started off as an editor, and my very first job in the business was re-cutting music videos for labels and doing documentaries and EPKs. Then I directed a bunch of music videos and shorts, so it’s a process that I’m very familiar with and understand the power of. I feel very much at home in an edit bay, and I edit the movie in my head as I shoot.

You edited with Tim Streeto. Tell us how it worked.
I loved his work on The Squid and the Whale, and I was anxious to work with him. We had a cool relationship. He wasn’t on the set, and he began assembling as I shot, as we had a fairly fast post schedule. I knew what I wanted, so it wasn’t particularly dramatic. We made some changes as we went, but it was pretty straightforward. We had our cut in 10 weeks, and the whole post was just three or four months.

What were the main challenges of editing this?
Tracking the internal life of the character and making sure the tone felt playful. We tried several different openings to the film before we settled on the voiceover that had this organic raison-d’etre, and that all evolved in the edit.

The Spider-Man films obviously had a huge number of very complex visual effects shots. Did you do many on this film?
Very few. Phosphene in New York did them. We had the opening titles and then we did some morphing of actors from time to time in order to speed things up. (Says Phosphene CEO/EP Vivian Connolly, “We designed an animated the graphic opening sequence of the film — using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects — which was narrated by Jeff Bridges. We commissioned original illustrations by Tim Hamilton, and animated them to help tell the visual story of the opening narration of the film.”)

It has a great jazzy soundtrack. Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
The score had to mingle with all the familiar sounds of the concrete jungle, and we used a bit of reverb on some of the sounds to give it more of a mystical quality. I really love the score by Rob Simonsen, and my favorite bit is the wedding toast sequence. We’d temped in waltzes, but it never quite worked. Then Rob came up with this tango, and it all just clicked.

I also used some Dave Brubeck, some Charlie Mingus and some Moondog — he was this well-known blind New York street musician I’ve been listening to a lot lately — and together it all evoked the mood I wanted. Music is so deeply related to how I started off making movies, so music immediately helps me understand a scene and how to tell it the best way, and it’s a lot of fun for me.

How about the DI? What look did you go for?
It was all about getting a very cool look and palette. We’d sometimes dial up a bit of red in a background, but we steered away from primary colors and kept it a bit darker than most of my films. Most of the feel comes from the costumes and sets and locations, and Stefan did a great job, and he’s so fast.

What’s next? Another huge superhero film?
I’m sure I’ll do another at some point, but I’ve really enjoyed these last two films. I had a ball hanging out with the actors. Smaller movies are not such a huge risk, and you have more fun and can be more experimental.

I just did a TV pilot, Extinct, for CBS, which was a real fun murder mystery, and I’ll probably do more TV next.


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: Victoria & Abdul director Stephen Frears

By Iain Blair

Much like the royal subjects of his new film Victoria & Abdul and his 2006 offering, The Queen (which won him his second Oscar nomination), British director Stephen Frears has long been considered a national treasure. Of course, the truth is that he’s an international treasure.

The director, now 76 years old, has had a long and prolific career that spans some five decades and that has embraced a wide variety of styles, themes and genres. He cut his teeth at the BBC, where he honed his abilities to work with tight budgets and schedules. He made his name in TV drama, working almost exclusively for the small screen in the first 15 years of his career.

Stephen Frears with writer Iain Blair.

In the mid-1980s, Frears turned to the cinema, shooting The Hit, which starred Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth. The following year he made My Beautiful Laundrette for Channel 4, which crossed over to big screen audiences and altered the course of his career.

Since then, he’s made big Hollywood studio pictures, such as the Oscar-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins, The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons, as well as Mary Reilly and Hero. But he’s probably as well-known for smaller, grittier vehicles, such as the Oscar-nominated Philomena, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, Cheri, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, Prick Up Your Ears and Snapper, films that provided a rich palette for Frears to explore stories with a strong social and political conscience.

His latest film, Victoria & Abdul, is a drama (spiced with a good dash of comedy) about the unlikely but real-life relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Muslim Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).

I recently spoke with Frears about making the film, which is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz, especially for Dench.

This seems to be a very timely film, with its race relations, and religious and class issues. Was that part of its appeal?
Absolutely. When I read it I immediately thought it was quite provocative and a very interesting story, and I always look for interesting stories, and the whole relationship was part of the fun. I thought it was a brilliant script, and it’s got so much going on – the personal story about them, all the politics and global stuff about the British Empire.

You’ve worked with Judi Dench before, but she had already portrayed Victoria in Mrs. Brown back in 1997. Did you have to twist her arm to revisit the character?
I said I’d only make this with her, as she’s a brilliant actress and she looks a bit like Victoria, but I think initially she passed. I’m actually not quite sure since I never had a conversation with her about it. What happened was, we organized a reading and she came to that and listened to it, and then she was on board.

What did she bring to the role?
Complete believability. You absolutely believe in her as Victoria. She can do all that, playing the most powerful woman in the world, and then she was also human, which is why she was so fond of Abdul. It’s the same as directing someone like Meryl Streep. She’s just so skillful and so intelligent, and their sense of their role and its direction is very, very strong, and they’re so skilled at telling the story.

This doesn’t look like your usual heavy, gloomy Victorian period piece. How did you approach this visually?
I have a wonderful production designer, Alan MacDonald, who has worked with me on many films, including Florence Foster Jenkins, Philomena and The Queen. And we shot this with DP Danny Cohen, who is so inventive. From the start we wanted it to feel period but do it in a more modern way in order to get away from that lugubrious feeling and the heavy Victoriana. When we got to Osborne House, which was her holiday home on the Isle of Wight, it’s anything but heavy and lugubrious. It’s this light and airy villa.

Fair to say the film starts dark and gets lighter in tone and color as it goes on — while the story starts lighter and more comical, and gets darker as it goes along?
Yes, because at the start she’s depressed, she’s dressed all in black, and then it’s like Cinderella, and she’s woken up… by Abdul’s kiss on her feet.

Did that really happen?
Yes, I think it did, and I think both servants kissed her feet — but it wasn’t under a table full of jellies (laughs).

You shot all over England, Scotland and India in many of the original locations. It must have been a challenge mixing all the locations with sets?
It was. The big coup was shooting in Osborne House, which no one has ever done before. That was a big thrill but also a relief. England is full of enormous country homes, so you just go down the list finding the best ones. I’ve done Balmoral twice now, so I know how you do it, and Windsor Castle, which is Gothic. But of course, they’re not decorated in the Victorian manner, so we had to dress all the rooms appropriately. Then you mix all the sets and locations, like putting a big puzzle together.

How was shooting in India?
We shot in Agra, by the Taj Mahal. The original statue of Victoria there was taken down after independence, but we were allowed to make a copy and put it back up.

Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
It was about five months, all in London, and we cut it at Goldcrest where I’ve done all the post work on my last few films. Philomena was not done there. It all depends on the budget.

Do you like the post process?
I love being on location and I enjoy shooting, but it’s always hard and full of problems. Post is so calm by comparison, and so different from all the money and time pressures and chaos of the shoot. It’s far more analytic and methodical, and it’s when you discover the good choices you made as well as your mistakes. It’s where you actually make your film with all the raw elements you’ve amassed along the way.

You worked with a new editor, Melanie Ann Oliver, who cut Les Mis and The Danish Girl for director Tom Hooper and Anna Karenina for director Joe Wright. How did that relationship work?
She wasn’t on set, but we talked every day about it, and she became the main conduit for it all, like all editors. She’s the person you’re talking to all the time, and we spent about three months editing. The main challenge was trying to find the right tone and the balance between all the comedy, jokes and the subtext — what was really going on. We went in knowing it would be very comedic at the start, and then it gets very serious and emotional by the end.

Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?
I always use the same team. Union VFX did them all, and Adam Gascoyne, who did Florence Foster Jenkins and Philomena with me, was the VFX supervisor. The big VFX shots were of all the ships crossing the ocean, and a brilliant one of Florence. And as it’s a period piece, there’s always a lot of adding stuff and clean up, and we probably had several hundred VFX shots or so in the end, but I never know just how many.

Iain Blair and Judi Dench

How important are sound and music to you?
They’re both hugely important, even though I don’t really know much about music or sound mixing and just depend on my team, which includes supervising sound editor Becki Ponting. We mixed all the music by Thomas Newman at Abbey Road, and then we did the final mix at Twickenham Studios. The thing with composers like Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat who did The Queen and Florence is that they read me really well. When Alexandre was hired to score The Queen, they asked him to write a very romantic score, and he said, “No, no, I know Stephen’s films. They’re witty, so I’ll write you a witty score,” and it was perfect and won him an Oscar nomination. Same with this. Tom read it very, very well.

Did you do a DI?
Yes, at Goldcrest as usual, with Danny and colorist Adam Glasman. They’re very clever, and I’m not really involved. Danny does it. He gets me in and shows me stuff but I just don’t pretend to be technically clever enough about the DI as mine is a layman’s approach to it, so they do all the work and show me everything, and then I give any suggestions I might have. The trick with any of this is to surround yourself with the best technicians and the best actors, tell them what you want, and let them do their jobs.

Having made this film, what do you think about Victoria now?
I think she was far more humane than is usually shown. I never really studied her at school, but there was this enduring image of an old battleaxe, and I think she was far more complex than that image. She learned Urdu from Abdul. That tells you a lot.


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.