Category Archives: Director

Slim adds feature director Jeff Baena and director/DP Wondo

Slim has grown its roster with feature film director Jeff Baena and automotive director/DP Wondo. Baena is currently finishing up his third directorial outing, the comedy The Little Hours, which is due to be released in 2017. In addition to his film work, Baena recently directed a comedic campaign for Hulu with actress Aubrey Plaza. Baena says his Altman-esque approach to directing allows his actors to bring a bit of their own personality to each of their characters.

He began his career as a PA for Robert Zemeckis in Los Angeles following his completion of film school in New York. He later met director David O. Russell while working as an assistant editor, leading the two to co-write I Heart Huckabees (2004). Baena went on to direct Life After Beth (2014) and Joshy (2016), which featured ensemble casts including Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Thomas Middleditch, Alison Brie and Jenny Slate.

Director/DP Wondo has also joined Slim. With over 20 years behind the camera, Wondo is an expert on the Russian Arm — remote control cranes and gyro-stabilized flight heads that are mounted on customized performance vehicles — and is accomplished at shooting for VFX. He has directed spots for Mercedes Benz, Chevy (Commonwealth), Kia (David&Goliath), BMW, Porsche (Cramer Krasselt) and Bugatti. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Berlin.

Main Photo: L-R: Wondo and Jeff Baena.

The A-List: Moonlight director Barry Jenkins

By Iain Blair

Moonlight may only be Barry Jenkins’ second film — his first was the 2008 low-budget debut Medicine for Melancholy — but he’s already established himself as a filmmaker to watch. Written and directed by Jenkins, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

At once a vital portrait of contemporary African-American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship and love, Moonlight focuses on the particular, but reverberates with universal truths. Anchored by performances from an ensemble cast that includes Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert and Jharrel Jerome, the film is a moving portrayal of the moments, people and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are, and since its premiere at Telluride is justifiably getting a lot of awards buzz.

Our writer Iain Blair and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.

I recently met up with Jenkins to talk about the process of making Moonlight.

Can you talk about the film a bit?
It’s based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is a coming-of-age story that not so much defied the genre, but that more readily captured what it was like to grow up where we both did, in Miami. It focuses on three different times in this kid’s life, so instead of all the usual beats we take these three big beats and dramatize them in realtime.

You use three actors to portray those different times as the kid wrestles with his sexual identity and what it means to be a gay black man, but you’re not gay. Did you have any trepidation taking this on?
At the start, I felt it might be too much of a stretch, as I tend to feel certain stories need to be told by the people who lived them. But at the same time, in talking with Tarell, I knew he trusted me to present his voice and to be empathetic.

The film was shot by cinematographer James Laxton. He shot your last film and was nominated for an Indie Spirit award. What did he bring to the film?
He didn’t want to compromise the visual aesthetic, despite the very low budget we had, so we worked with a smaller crew and a few more days than we could afford — and even then we did this in just 25 days. The other thing is, there are always problems and mistakes on the shoot that you can fix in post, but we had so little money that we were very limited in what we could do. Thankfully, we had some partners who did us a lot of favors.

You shot on location in the pretty rough area of Liberty Square in Miami. How hard was that?
It wasn’t hard at all, once we had made the inroads. That neighborhood hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years, so there was this real patina and authentic look that we didn’t have to create.

MoonlightDo you like the post process?
I love it, but to be really honest, I love production more, as it’s less finite. Post is so finite, and it’s a very complex puzzle you have to solve. When we shot the swimming scene, we thought we had six hours, but it turned out we only had 90 minutes. You feel anything’s possible in those 90 minutes, whereas in post you’re trying to find the best shot, the best footage to tell the story, and the pressure’s on. (Laughs) And then the post budget was very small.

You edited the film with two editors — Nat Sanders who cut your first film, and Joi McMillon. Tell us how that relationship worked.
We used this system called the Atomos Samurai, since they weren’t on set. We didn’t have the budget to fly them out, plus they were cutting Season 5 of HBO’s Girls when we started.

So the way this system works is that our DIT on set was basically duplicating all the dailies in HD, and it was like a mirror image of the actual dailies — with a very simple LUT placed on them — and then they were shipped to LA. Nat and Joi worked off that for the entire process. Both of them were at film school with me, and I think the original plan was that Joi would be Nat’s assistant, but as the footage began to come in, and as there were these three distinct stories to cut, it just made sense that Joi would take one of the stories. That’s how it happened.

MoonlightSo they did an assembly while I was shooting, and then when I got back, we rented a small office in downtown LA, and that’s where we cut the whole film. We edited for roughly four months. I’d go in and sit with them pretty much every day. We were all in the same room, with me in between, so I could just turn and see his cut, and then what she was doing. It was a great set-up, and it also meant that they each got fresh eyes to view the material, as they weren’t often working on the same story at the same time.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s huge. I wanted this to be totally immersive, and as the character’s adopting all the trappings of hyper-masculinity, all the other elements around him echo that, like the hip-hop stuff. And composer Nick Britell did all this great chopping and screwing with the orchestra.

Where did you mix the sound?
We did it at Wildfire here in LA.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but effects must have played a significant role in the final look?
Absolutely, and VFX house Significant Others worked hand in hand with our colorist Alex Bickel at Color Collective. Both are in New York, and the VFX house did us a huge solid. The biggest thing they did was where we have the opening Steadicam shot. We were shooting anamorphic, usually wide open, and there was a focus gaffe, and they went in and just nailed it.

There was a mic pack they had to erase, and a bunch of creative stuff they did — like where a shot begins, and it’s not Steadicam but then becomes Steadicam. They also comped in the ocean in one shot at the end, where it was just too dark to see it.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
Extremely important. We did it at Color Collective, and Alex Bickel (who used Resolve 12) was the third person I hired, right after the DP. I knew it was so crucial, and we spent a lot of time getting the look just right.

There’s been so much talk in Hollywood about the lack of diversity — in front of and behind the camera. What’s your take?
It’s tricky. There are so many films this year that are being framed as addressing this lack of diversity — and the outrage that’s arisen, but it takes so long to make a film. I think it’s the build-up of frustration over the past four or five years that’s just bubbled over in the past year.

As a fairly rare sight in Hollywood — a black filmmaker — do you feel you’ve had to struggle a lot to get this far? After all, it’s taken you eight long years to make this.
I think there are certain struggles when you’re a black filmmaker making black stories, and they’re mostly based on myths — black audiences only like this, black characters act like that, and so on. But for me, my last film, relative to its budget, was pretty popular, and the long gap between my films is all down to me; it’s doesn’t have anything to do with the system.

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.

G-Tech 6-15

The A-List — Director Ed Zwick talks Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

By Iain Blair

Director, screenwriter and producer Ed Zwick got his start in television as co-creator of the Emmy Award-winning series Thirtysomething. His feature film career kicked off when he directed the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore vehicle, About Last Night. Zwick went on to direct the Academy Award-winning films Glory and Legends of the Fall. 

Zwick also produced the Oscar-nominated I Am Sam, as well as Traffic — winner of two Golden Globes and four Academy Awards — directed by Steven Soderbergh. He won an Academy Award as a producer of 1999’s Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love.

Ed Zwick

His latest film, Paramount’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, reunites him with his The Last Samurai star Tom Cruise. It’s an action-packed follow-up to 2012’s Jack Reacher hit that grossed over $200 million in worldwide box office.

The set-up? Years after resigning command of an elite military police unit, the nomadic, righter-of-wrongs Reacher is drawn back into the life he left behind when his friend and successor, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), is framed for espionage. Naturally, Reacher will stop at nothing to prove her innocence and to expose the real perpetrators behind the killings of his former soldiers. Mayhem quickly ensues, helped along with plenty of crazy stunts and cutting-edge VFX.

I recently chatted with Zwick about making the film.

You’ve worked in so many genres, but this is your first crime thriller. 
I’ve always loved crime thrillers — especially films like Three Days of the Condor and Bullitt where the characters and their relationships are far more important than the action. That’s where I tried to take this.

Jack Reacher: Never Go BackTom Cruise is famous for being a perfectionist and doing all his own stunts when possible. Any surprises re-teaming with him?
Yeah, I always say the most boring job on set is being Tom’s stunt double. Tom is a perfectionist and he loves to be involved in every aspect of the production, so no surprises there. He has such a great love for all the different genres, but a particular love for action films and thrillers. It was very important for him that he didn’t do something that was like all the other films out there. I think we all felt that superhero fatigue has been setting in, so the idea was to do things on a more human scale, and make it more realistic and authentic, both with the characters and with the action.

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
We shot it all in New Orleans, and it’s a road movie. So we had to shoot Washington, DC, there too, and create a cross-country journey with different airports and so on. We did all of that with some sleight of hand and extensions and VFX. I think it’s also a challenge to come up with new settings for action pieces we haven’t seen before, and that’s where the parade and rooftop sequences in New Orleans come in, along with the fight on the plane. The book it’s based on is set in LA and DC, but they’re both tough to shoot in, and with the great tax breaks in Louisiana and all the great locations, it made sense to shoot there.

Jack Reacher: Never Go BackEvery shoot is tough, but it was pretty straightforward on this, though shutting down the whole French Quarter took some doing —  but all the city officials were so helpful. The rooftop stuff was very challenging to do, and we did a lot of prep and began on post right away, on day one.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. I can sit there with a cup of coffee and my editor and rewrite the entire script as much as I can. It’s the best part and most creative part of the whole process.

Where did you post?
We did it all in LA. We just set up some offices in Santa Monica where I live and did all the editorial there.

You’ve typically worked with Steve Rosenblum, but you edited this film with Billy Weber, who’s been nominated twice for Oscars (Top Gun, The Thin Red Line) and whose credits include The Warriors, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beverly Hills Cop II, Midnight Run and The Tree of Life, among others. How did that relationship work?
Steve wasn’t available so I asked him, ‘Who can I hire that you’d be jealous of?’ He said, ‘There’s only one person — Billy Weber. He’s your guy.’ He was right. Billy’s legendary and has cut so many great movies for directors like Terrence Malik, Tony Scott, Walter Hill, Martin Brest, Tim Burton, and he’s a prince. I love editing, and I loved working with him. He’s a great collaborator, and I was very open to all his ideas.Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

He came to New Orleans and we set up a cutting room there and he did the assembly there as we shot. Then we moved back to LA. Billy lives on the other side of town, so to beat the traffic we’d start every day at 6am and wrap at 3pm. It was a great system.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I love working with the audio, and Henry Jackman did a great, classic-modern score. It was crucial, not just for all the action, but for some of the quieter moments. Then we mixed the sound at Fox, with Andy Nelson who’s now done 10 of my movies.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a big role.
You’re right, and we didn’t want it to look like there was a ton of CG work. In the end, we had well over 200 shots, including stuff like the Capitol Dome in DC in the background and tons of bullet hits on cars and enhancements. But I didn’t want all the VFX to be at all noticeable. Lola and Flash Film Works did the work, and often today where you need bullet hits on a car, it’s far cheaper and more time-effective to add them in post, so there was a lot of that.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it at Company 3 in Santa Monica with colorist Stephen Nakamura, who is brilliant. We went for a natural look but also enhanced some of the dramatic scenes [via Resolve]. It’s remarkable what you can do now in the DI, and as we shot on film I wanted to preserve some of that real film look, so I think it’s a light touch, but also a sophisticated one in the DI.

What’s next?
I don’t have anything lined up, so I’m taking a break.


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: Director Terrence Malick’s team behind Voyage of Time

By Iain Blair

A new Terrence Malick film is always a cinematic event, and his latest, Voyage of Time, doesn’t disappoint. Thought provoking and visually transcendent, it’s nothing less than a celebration of life and the grand history of the cosmos. It’s a journey that spans the eons from the Big Bang to the dinosaur age to our present human world… and beyond.

A labor of love, several decades in the making, it also represents Malick’s first foray into documentary storytelling and will be released in two formats: Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, the 90-minute version narrated by Cate Blanchett, and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience, a 45-minute version narrated by Brad Pitt.

Of course, as all cinephiles know, it’s hard to say which is the bigger mystery, Malick or the origin of the universe. The reclusive, enigmatic, thrice Oscar-nominated director — who taught philosophy at MIT before attending AFI — is the writer/director of such films as Badlandlaves, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and an upcoming untitled project starring Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Rooney Mara. But in the 43 years since the release of Badlands, Malick has rarely done any press.

Happily, longtime collaborators, such as producers Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda, as well as the film’s VFX supervisor, Dan Glass, and producer, Sophokles Tasioulis, were eager to talk about making the film and Malick’s vision for it.

How long has this labor of love been in the making?
Nicolas Gonda: The ideas behind this film have been gestating ever since Terry’s childhood. He’s always been fascinated by nature and man’s place in the universe. It’s always been on his mind. Sarah and I began working very actively on it about 14 years ago, making budgets and planning all the different shoots we knew we’d need. About four years ago, we joined forces with Sophokles, who brought his great experience making natural history documentaries to both the post part of it and the international distribution.

Why did he decide to make two versions of the film?
Sarah Green: Terry had a very strong vision for it, and he saw opportunities to expand on it this way — he saw it could be for both the educational and entertainment markets. So when he shot, it was for both films, and then we could just edit for each version.

Having worked on many of his films, tell us about Terry’s approach to post.
Green: He absolutely loves post and sees it as this wonderful, exploratory experience for him. Whatever the film is, he always likes to shoot a lot of footage during principal photography, and then he settles down to really explore it in post.

On this one, we all knew the beats he wanted to hit — whether they were emotional or cerebral — but post was also about trying the find the best way to tell this amazing story succinctly and the most emotionally.

Where did you do all the post?
Gonda: At our offices in Austin, and then we finished it all in LA, here at IMAX headquarters in Playa Vista, including the DI.

Sophokles Tasioulis: We had this great post supervisor, Jini Durr, and we were able to project all the VFX on the IMAX screen and really see what we had. It was a real education for all of us, because finishing in 4K is fairly standard, but here at IMAX, that’s their lowest resolution.

How did it work using two editors — Keith Fraase and Rehman Ali — who had also worked with Terry before?
Gonda: They were the main editors, but Terry used a number of editors on the project — a lot of young people who had work on specific shots or scenes. We’d joke that anyone over 25 would be kicked out of the edit room by Terry, because this film really gave him a chance to experiment and work with young kids, which he loved doing.

After all the years it took to become a reality, was Terry happy with the final film?
Gonda: Very, and I don’t think he could have done it 10 years ago. All the recent scientific discoveries put him in a position where it was possible, and using the great imagery of outer space from Hubble and NASA. But then Terry could have continued working on it for another 10 or 20 years.

Green: He’s so curious and knowledgeable, and there was always a new study, a new theory, a new discovery that would excite him. In the early days, he’d give me lists of cutting-edge scientists to contact and learn from. (Laughs) And when they recently announced they had finally discovered gravity waves, I think we all panicked — “Oh no, how will we fit that into the film now?”


 

The Visual Effects

In a career spanning more than 20 years in the industry, Daniel Glass has built an extensive list of credits as a visual effects supervisor on such films as The Hateful Eight, Batman Begins and The Matrix franchise. Voyage of Time is the culmination of a 10-year working relationship with Malick that began with the Oscar-nominated and Palme D’Or winner The Tree of Life.

When did you start on this film?
Ten years ago, but he’s been working on it for decades. He has footage in it that he shot back in the ‘70s. But it’s never really had a script, although obviously the story itself provides a timeline, and he had a huge amount of notes which formed the structure of the film. The whole thing was very much a journey in itself, and one major challenge was keeping up with all the scientific advances made over the past decade or so, and trying to incorporate those into the film.

I heard that you and Terry formed a “skunkworks” operation to deal with some of the imagery you developed?
Yeah, we set up this lab in Austin to do chemical experiments to see how various elements such as liquids, dyes, gasses and fluids — and combinations of them — behaved as we filmed them at high-speed. We used everything from gels and glass to smoke machines and fluid tanks to create a whole range of effects. We’d build up all these layers, to illustrate tiny debris in the cosmos or floating particulates at the microbial level, along with various models of orbs with strong backlight and so on. It really was fascinating work.

We also built our own “flow tables” that we filled with milk and dyes and paints, to mimic galaxies. And we used water tanks, because just a few drops of dye in a water tank can feel like vast nebulae or strange microscopic environments. Those were really effective, and we also used ferrofluids that become strongly magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field to explore other unusual effects, like black holes. When we played with the ferrofluids, we were able to create these wild, amazing shapes by controlling the current around them. So you get very bizarre yet organic effects that suggest some of the theoretical ideas surrounding black holes. We also used salt crystals on a disc, which we then spun very slowly to replicate the movement in asteroid belts. The big challenge was that nearly every effects shot was a one-off, so the breadth of it was a bit daunting.

Where did you do the rest of the VFX?
Like the film, they were very disparate, and from vendors all over the world. Terry’s original mandate to me was that he wanted every shot to feel as if it was created by a different artist, and while that was a beautiful ideal, it was a very difficult process to manage. But we got pretty close to it in the end. He always wanted the VFX to stem from an analog place first, and not have that overly polished, artificial CG look.

Is it fair to say that every shot has some kind of VFX?
Yes, although some are relatively minor, while others used layer upon layer to create an effect. In the end, we used pretty much every digital tool out there, including Maya, Nuke, 3D Studio Max, Flame for clean-up, Houdini, and a lot of custom renderers.

How do you look back on the project now?
In many ways this was a culmination of taking everything I’ve learned over all the films I’ve done, and then reapplying it in a different way, which made it immensely satisfying.

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: The Girl on the Train director Tate Taylor

By Iain Blair

Tate Taylor, a Mississippi native who began his career as an actor, had just one small comedy — 2008’s Pretty Ugly People — on his directing resume when that part of his career got turbo-charged thanks to his 2011 Oscar-winner The Help, which he also co-wrote and co-produced. Next he tackled another story dear to his heart and close to his roots: Get On Up, the warts-and-all biopic of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, which he co-produced with Mick Jagger and Brian Grazer.

Film Title: The Girl on the Train

Director Tate Taylor on set.

Now, for his fourth feature, Taylor has plunged headfirst and even deeper into the murky depths of twisted human behavior in the highly anticipated mystery-thriller The Girl on the Train. Starring a large ensemble cast (Emily Blunt, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Justin Theroux, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow), and based on the bestseller by Paula Hawkins, the Universal release explores obsession, revenge, sex, lying, desire, pain and addiction — it tells the story of a lonely woman (Blunt) who is unraveling after the breakup of her marriage and spiraling into alcoholism.

I spoke with Taylor about making the film and his process.

What do you look for in a project and what attracted you to this, as it’s a bit of a departure for you?
You’re right, as there’s nothing funny about this, and I like to have some comedy. I always look for story and lots of it, with lots of intertwining characters and character work, and I usually like stories that allow me to mix up drama and comedy.

I was a big fan of Robert Altman from a young age, and he’s been a big influence with me. I love it when comedy and drama and pathos are all mixed up together scene-wise, where you never see one or the other coming. I was thrilled about doing this because, although it’s a genre film, there’s so much character work and story to it.

Like The Help, this is a story of women and their intertwined lives. Fair to say that women-centric stories really appeal to you?
They do, but it’s funny because I can truly say I never think about the sex of characters. It just worked out that way.

Film Title: The Girl on the TrainDid you feel any trepidation about taking on the movie, making changes to the much-loved novel and upsetting its fans?
Not to sound arrogant, but I don’t worry about that one bit. If I make it truthful and well-done, then I’m doing my job. And I didn’t abandon the novel. I really respected it, and the changes we made I feel just worked better for the film.

What were the biggest technical challenges in making it?
One of the big ones was that quite a lot of the story in the novel takes place at dusk, and it’s just technically tricky to schedule that look on a shoot since you don’t get a nine-hour twilight. I also didn’t want my crew having to do weeks of night shoots in January in the freezing cold. The other big one was dealing with all the train footage. We shot some of it practically with the Metro North, up and down the Hudson, and then had a real car on stage in Yonkers and shot all that with greenscreen.

Tell us about the shoot. How long was it and how tough?
It wasn’t too bad. We had a three-month shoot, and the main thing was that we did a lot of prep. Everyone was prepared, which helped a lot, as it was a film that really needed extensive prep.

Can you talk about working with a woman DP, Charlotte Bruus Christensen?
I wish I could say that there was a political reason for using a woman DP, and helping the diversity cause, but I didn’t think about her gender when I hired her. We had a start date, she was on a list of available DPs, and after we met I just felt she was the right DP for this. As it turned out, I think having a woman shooting the more risqué scenes with the actresses was a big help. I think they were far more comfortable with her than some guy in a baseball cap (laughs).

Film Title: The Girl on the TrainYour editor was Mike McCusker, who cut Get On Up for you, Walk the Line and The Amazing Spider-Man. Tell us about the editing process. Was he on set?
He visited the set a little and we have a great relationship. He knows how I think, we have the same tastes, and he anticipates things. There was a lot of stuff with the tunnel scenes and some very trippy, acid-flashback kind of scenes, and I had him come out for all that, to make sure we had the right coverage.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, but then I love all parts of the process — from writing and casting to shooting and editing. Of course, post is crucial as it’s where you really make your film.

Where did you do the post?
It was all done — full offline editorial services — in New York at Harbor Picture Company.

How many VFX were there and what was involved?
There were several hundred shots, mainly to do with the train work and creating the whole world outside of the window. Then we had the three main houses that were supposed to be overlooking the Hudson, along the train tracks. But that doesn’t exist, so we found three perfect houses on the fairway of an abandoned golf course, and then used VFX backgrounds to give us the Hudson and so on. Technicolor and Phosphene did all the VFX.

Film Title: The Girl on the Train

Tate Taylor

Tell us about the audio and music.
They’re always crucial and I never want the music to sound too traditional or predictable, and with this so much is inside all the three women’s heads, and there’s a lot of second-guessing and claustrophobia. Everyone’s unreliable, and I knew a traditional lush score would just stick out, so Danny Elfman was a perfect match as composer. He told me he’d never done anything like this in his whole career.

Where did you do the DI? Are you a big DI fan?
We did it at Technicolor Postworks in New York (with Mike Hatzer who used Lustre), and I was pretty involved with it and working on the look together with the DP, and it was pretty great. I really wanted the film to be totally dark, and there’s a lot of jumping around and flashbacks, and we were able to do some very subtle things to enhance various scenes. And Universal really embraced the palette we chose which really pleased me, as this doesn’t look like your normal studio movie. People have told me it looks ‘European,’ which is a very big compliment. (Laughs)

Did the film turn out the way you first envisioned?
It actually did. It’s such a long, arduous process to get to that point, but it is how I first envisioned it. I’m thrilled.

What’s next?
I’ve got a lot of different projects in development, including Versailles ’73, and I’m still writing and developing a film called Tupperware, which is basically about the woman who started the Tupperware party but who in reality began the feminist movement. It’s a fascinating tale and she was way ahead of her time. I’m also working with MGM on a project titled In the Heat of the Night for a contemporary TV series, so I’ve got a lot happening right now and some great options. You never know which one will take off. Until I’m on the set, at craft services, I never believe it.

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.

NAB 1/17

The A-List: Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie

By Iain Blair

Over the course of nine films, acclaimed Scottish director David Mackenzie has managed to pull off quite a trick — appearing to embrace genre filmmaking while simultaneously subverting the whole concept. His last film, Starred Up, was both a brutal prison drama and a story about anger therapy. Young Adam was both an erotic thriller and a tragic love story. Perfect Sense was a sci-fi romance.

His latest genre mash-up, Hell or High Water, might look like a standard-issue, nail-biting bank-heist thriller, but it’s also a lyrical western, a road movie and a timely commentary on current political and economic issues in America. Written by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote Sicario), it stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner, two brothers who embark on a crime spree in order to save their family ranch from being foreclosed on by the local bank. Following their trail is a world-weary Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his put-upon partner (Gil Birmingham).

David Mackenzie

The behind-the-scenes team includes DP Giles Nuttgens and Mackenzie’s longtime editor Jake Roberts, and the film features an original score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Far From Men). The film, which is now rolling out in theaters nationwide, is already attracting Oscar talk.

I spoke with Mackenzie about making Hell or High Water and his unique editing process.

This is being hailed as one of the best and “most American” films of the year. How does a Scot from Glasgow end up making a Texas crime drama that’s definitely more than just a crime drama, that takes on a lot of current American issues, and feels so authentic?
I guess I got lucky. It was a great script, and I already had a connection with West Texas as I’d been there a few years ago to visit a Scottish friend who lives there — I loved the landscape — so I had a feeling for the place and the lifestyle there. When I read the script I thought, “This is a great opportunity,” so I just ran with it. I’m always drawn to stories that are not black and white in terms of their moral shades, and I was interested in the idea of “redemptive criminality” where good people do bad things for good reasons. That was a big part of the appeal for me in doing this.

What did each of the three leads bring to the table?
It’s so hard to put into words as it’s this intangible thing really. They all brought their skill, talent, hard work and experience to their characters, and it’s this alchemy that happens, this magic, when you get the right actors in the roles. I knew we were doing good work at the time; it felt great, and there was such a good rapport between everyone on set.

It has a very ‘70s western feel. Were directors like Peckinpah and Don Siegel an influence?
Definitely, along with people like Hal Ashby, and what I call ‘the humanistic cinema’ of the ‘70s. I think Don Siegel was a master of his craft and hugely underrated.

It plays like a laid-back thriller, but with a lot of other things going on.
Right. I never really thought of it as a thriller. For me it had to be a balance between the genre bank robbery elements and the deeper exploration of land and space and people lost in the erosion of change. They aren’t really verbal and articulate; they communicate as much in their silences as their sentences, and the “porch moments” feel to me absolutely essential to the film and we all felt instinctively drawn to them whenever the opportunity arrived. I love the contrast between the huge, empty horizons and the sanctuary of the porch.

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?
We decided to use both digital (Arri Alexa XTs) and classic Cinemascope to create a look that’s very contemporary but also timeless. Finding all the right locations was key as well.

The film’s set in Archer City, where the classic The Last Picture Show was shot, one of Jeff Bridges’ early films, and interestingly my editor saw Peter Bogdanovich (see my postPerspective interview with him last year) in the audience at a recent screening of our film, and they had a nice chat. Archer City’s not changed at all since he shot there, but we ended up shooting in New Mexico, because of tax credits. Obviously, most banks didn’t want us shooting heist scenes, so we renovated various banks that had shut down, but we also got to shoot in a real, working bank; there’s nothing like using real locations.

Where did you do all the post?
It was a mixture of starting the edit in New Mexico, then Glasgow for three months, and then all the finishing in LA. We did some ADR at Margarita Mix, PostWorks and the final mix at Wildfire with Chris David.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. For me, the shoot’s the most exciting part, but post is where you actually make the film and shape all the material. We spent about six, eight months on it. The great thing about all the portable technology now is that you can just set up a post suite wherever you are, so in Glasgow we had a hotel room and did a lot of the editing there.

Talk about editing with editor Jake Roberts. Was he on the set?
He was either on the set or very close by, and the editing is very immediate. After six films together with Jake I developed a way of working that’s really fast and pared down. For me, filmmaking is about getting as close to the spirit of the material as possible and liberating myself from some of the less necessary conventions of the normal filmmaking process. So I don’t use clapper boards and I don’t have an on-set script supervisor.

I also cut as I shoot, so we keep the edit of the film totally up to speed with the shoot, except for the last scene of the day, and I’m able to see cut scenes the day they are shot — which in turn feeds back into what we are doing in a very positive and encouraging way. Every week we can see a cut of the film so far — and it’s not an assembly. I really love this method of working. Obviously, it continues after the shoot, but it allows you to be way ahead of the game in terms of the edit.

Is it true you did testing for the very first time?
Yes, and I thought it was very helpful, putting it out in front of an audience and seeing how they feel and react. We did three tests and that helped shape and finesse the material more each time. But I didn’t like the focus group stuff at all. It didn’t seem helpful to me.

I loved the different rhythms used for the brothers, and then the more relaxed scenes with the Rangers.
I’m glad you noticed. That was the idea, but it also partly came about because of the actors’ schedules. We shot Chris and Ben separately from Jeff and Gil, and very fast, with a rag-tag feeling. Jeff and Gil was slower and more leisurely, and we had more time, so it was two very different flavors.

I thought the fight scene was unusual — no fast cuts, just one long take.
We felt it was far more effective that way, not relying on cuts to do the work of the scene.

What about the VFX – what was involved?
The biggest was the brush fire. Vitality VFX did that and it took quite a long time to get right. I want to give a special shout-out to Jeremy Cox, who also did a lot of very subtle VFX work — condensing shots, adding signage and so on. It’s the first time I’ve had so many VFX like that, and it was a revelation to me.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did it at Light Iron with Corinne Bogdanowicz, and I’m always very involved with the DP in getting the look right. We went a little bit too far at one point in getting the right look and had to pull some color and contrast, but I’m very pleased with the final look.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. The film came together very quickly, but the shaping took a long time in the end.

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.

NAB 1/17

Director Zach Math joins Caviar

Production company Cavier, which has offices in Los Angeles, London, Brussels and Paris, has added director Zach Math to its directorial roster. Math’s series of spots for K-Mart (“Ship My Pants”) got over 50 million views on YouTube and won a Webby Award, and two of his branded shorts are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

His documentary feature, The Final Member, premiered at the Toronto Hot Docs International Film Festival and played festivals all over the world. The distribution rights were purchased by Drafthouse Films and it was released on Netflix. Since then, he’s worked with brands such as Fox Sports, Nissan, AT&T, Comcast and the NFL.

While Math is excited to continue working in the advertising and commercial world, he is also looking forward to taking advantage of Caviar’s film and television capabilities to develop his own long format projects.

“Zach has proven his directorial expertise throughout the branded content world,” says Caviar Los Angeles executive producer Jasper Thomlinson. “His sophisticated visual style, skills as a writer and comedic sensibility fit in here perfectly.”


The A-List: Suicide Squad director David Ayer

By Iain Blair

With his distinctive, anarchic, immersive style, director/producer/screenwriter David Ayer has always excelled at probing the murky depths of human behavior and blurring the lines between the bad guys and the good guys in such hardcore films as Training Day, Fury, Sabotage, Harsh Times and End of Watch. Now Ayer, whose credits include Street Kings, and the screenplays for U-571, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., has made Suicide Squad, a blockbuster without the usual bluster, and a superhero movie without the usual heroes.

David Ayer

With an all-star cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, and based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, it tells the story of a rogues gallery of outcasts who are assembled into a team, equipped with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and sent off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic entity.

Ayer’s behind-the-scenes stellar creative team included director of photography Roman Vasyanov, production designer Oliver Scholl, editor John Gilroy and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. The music is by composer Steven Price. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and in select IMAX 3D theaters.

I spoke with Ayer on the eve of its release about making Suicide Squad and why editing is like a wrestling match.

This is definitely not your usual superhero movie. What was the appeal of doing it, as there’re so many superhero films out there now? 
Great question. When I did Fury, it was all about historical accuracy and recreating WWII. With this, I wanted to try and create a fantasy world and give it this real and gritty feel that I like as a director, and bring that sensibility to a comic book movie and create multi-dimensional characters through casting amazing actors — and ground the fantastical as much as possible in reality.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
In a lot of ways filmmaking is very mechanical, and all the processes are sort of an industrial process. So it was dealing with all the sets and set pieces, the sheer scale of it, and that becomes about logistics — building them, tearing them down, building new sets on the same stages, and how to move all these pieces around and keep your crews running smoothly. It was a massive undertaking.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Sony Imageworks’ Jerome Chen — who did the VFX on Fury, and the Spider-Man films as well as Beowulf and The Polar Express for Bob Zemeckis — came in right at the start. We did extremely complex CG characters in this, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to go about doing it and what were the best techniques. It took a lot of time and work, and we also had to figure out all the computer time and the renderfarms we needed to generate the shots, so all the VFX were embedded in the shoot from day one. We set up witness cameras to record everything the crew did, we had constant telemetry and a ton of data gathering.

Did you do a lot of previs?
Quite a lot. Third Floor did them. It’s a very interesting technique, as for certain scenes you absolutely have to have it. You have to go in knowing efficiently where you’re going to have to drop that camera on the set, and there are a few scenes that almost exactly match the previs we did. But other times it’s not really an essential tool

You reunited with director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury and End of Watch. How tough was the shoot?
We did most of the principal photography at Pinewood Toronto Studios, and it was a long and grueling shoot. I was very happy to get to post!

Do you like the post process?
I love post. You know you’re going to work every day, that’s for sure. We did it all on the lot at Warners. It’s always challenging because film isn’t logical, it’s emotional, and it comes together in strange ways. It’s never a linear journey, and you go down blind alleys and try to solve problems, and not every problem wants to yield its secrets.

Can you talk about working with editor John Gilroy, (Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, The Bourne LegacyMichael Clayton). Was he on the set?
He set up editorial in Toronto so it was up and running from the beginning. He tried to keep up with the shoot as much as possible as we shot on film, so there’s the lag between photography and the dailies reaching editorial.

And you like to shoot, don’t you?
(Laughs) I do shoot a lot! Over 1.5 million feet of film on this — so it’s a lot of work just to watch it and keep the assembly up to date. Then we did the main editing back on the lot. I love editing even though it’s baffling and frustrating and wonderful, all at the same time. The challenge is always that you can make an infinite number of films out of the same footage, and whatever your ideas and dreams are going in, they’re going to be shattered along the way — because the movie wants to be what it wants to be, and you can only fight that so much. You’re wrestling every day to find the right film.

All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jerome Chen who did Fury for you.
We have this shorthand, and he knows my taste and how I think and what I’m going to want and how I’m going to want it. It’s a pretty seamless relationship, and he also has great ideas; he often surprises me. This was a huge job with thousands of VFX shots, and a lot of vendors, but the main ones were MPC and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Anything with full CG characters is hard. It’s hard to shoot that and block it and hard to edit things you can’t see. You end up with this hodgepodge of previs and half-finished shots and slowly the finished VFX stuff gets dropped in.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Shed in Santa Monica, a fairly new company [which runs Baselight’s latest Generation VI system with more grading power]. We did the DI with colorist Yvan Lucas, who co-founded the company. He did Fury, but this was my first time at The Shed, and he did an amazing job. The film looks very beautiful. The DI is so important, and it’s almost my favorite part of post. I get in there and look at every shot. Yvan and Roman would do a pass and then I’d do one, and we’d keep passing the baton like that until we were all happy.

For me, it’s where the film really comes to life. After seeing it in dailies for so long, it’s such a pleasure to see it like this. We did everything from the overall look to saturation and contrast matching, and some re-composition now and again. We shot the film in a very precise way and composed shots very specifically, but the DI lets you do some re-comps if needed when you simply don’t have the time on the day of the shoot, especially with exterior stuff.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was mostly what I had envisioned, but the mechanics of how you get there and how to tell the best story were a bit different, and you can’t foresee that. It was a great experience, and I can safely say I learned more about filmmaking on this than on any other film I’ve done. It was a maturing as a filmmaker.

What’s next?
I’m doing Bright with Will Smith. We start shooting in the fall.

Will you do another superhero movie?
(Laughs) I’ll wait to see how the fans respond to this before I put my neck on the block again.

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: The Little Prince director Mark Osborne

By Iain Blair

Two-time Academy Award-nominated director Mark Osborne has been telling stories with animation and live-action for more than 25 years.  His breakout film was the 2008 animated DreamWorks offering Kung Fu Panda — co-directed by John Stevenson — which has grossed over $630 million worldwide.

Osborne’s live-action directing credits include the independent feature film Dropping Out, the animated TV series Spongebob Squarepants, featuring Patchy the Pirate, and all of the live-action sequences for The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

Mark Osborne and Iain Blair.

Now Osborne has directed and executive produced the upcoming first-ever animated feature film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic, The Little Prince, which premiered Out of Competition at Cannes and then won the French Cesar Film Award for Best Animated Feature. Using stop-motion animation and CGI, the film features the voice talents of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks and Mackenzie Foy.

The film centers on the friendship between an eccentric old aviator (Jeff Bridges) and the very grown-up young girl who moves into the house next door with her extremely grown-up mother (Rachel McAdams). Through the pages of the aviator’s book and his drawings, the little girl (Mackenzie Foy) learns the story of how he long ago crashed in a desert and met The Little Prince (Riley Osborne), an enigmatic boy from a distant planet.

I recently met up with Osborne to talk about making the film.

I heard that when you were asked to direct this, your first instinct was to turn it down. Is that true?
Absolutely. Part of it was the way the question was asked; “Do you know the book? Do you want to make a big CG animated film of it?” I said, “I know the book very well, and it’s impossible to film. I don’t think CG’s the right way to deal with the book’s poetry.” I couldn’t see a way to stretch out this small, magical novella, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as this great opportunity, and that there was maybe a way to do — not a direct adaptation, but something more unconventional that captures the spirit and poetry of the book. I thought that I could tell a larger story that said something about the power of the book, and maybe I could use stop motion to protect the poetry of the book. So the same reasons that initially made me say “no” actually made me agree to do it.

How early on did you decide to combine CGI and stop motion?
It was one of the early ideas I had, but it took a while to present it to the producers — it was one of the deal breakers. I went back to them and said, ‘I think we can do it this way,’ and happily they loved the combination.

How tricky was it combining 2D and 3D?
It was tricky because, except for two transitions, we are hard-cutting between 2D and 3D. I just gave a talk at SIGGRAPH about the challenges. I was always designing the film as a whole, and we were constantly discussing how we’d make it all fit together. But, ultimately, we wanted the CG and stop motion to feel different. The three elements we used to make it all fit were color, light and paper. So the little girl is holding a piece of yellow paper and staring at it, and it becomes the sand dune. Everything in the stop motion frame is paper, and together with light, that makes the link between the CG world and the stop motion world.

My co-production designer Celine Desrumaux, who worked on Harry Potter, is an incredibly talented color artist and she took all the movie storyboards and did color and lighting layouts, which helped enormously. We’d talk a lot about how various scenes needed to dovetail and how to blend the colors and light the CG animation. In some ways it’s very realistic lighting in the CG scenes, but it’s falling on this very stylized look, so it maintains its storybook qualities as it’s not photoreal.

For the 3D did you originate in stereo?
Yes, so when Jamie Caliri did all the stop-motion sequences he shot in stereo — a left eye and right eye. So we didn’t add it in post. It’s true stereo.

This must have required a very complex digital pipeline. How did that work?
It was a lot of innovation and a lot of collaboration. My parent company partnered with French producers and we began work in LA and then moved to Paris for the development and storyboard parts. When we moved to Montreal we set up our CG pipeline with this French-Canadian company Mikros Image. So it was partly their in-house pipeline and partly the French one from Paris.

What about rendering? That must have been a critical part of the whole process.
It was, and we called on Guerilla Render, which is used a lot in VFX, but it’s now starting to be used more in animation. That gave us this unique lighting look for all our CG sequences. It did create a few complications because it was relatively new for animated films and the pipeline we were building was also relatively new. I came from the big-budget studio pipeline and I was coming into a more indie world, so there were some growing pains. But, ultimately, our CG pipeline gave us this unique element that we could work closely with in conjunction with our stop-motion pipeline, since they were both in Montreal.

The Little PrinceAnimation takes so long to edit, and you had two editors — Matt Landon and Carole Kravetz. How did that work?
You’re right — it took years to edit! It’s just the reality of animation. When you make a live-action film, you make it three times — you write it, shoot it and cut it. But in animation, you make those three versions simultaneously — we’re writing, shooting and editing as we go, so it’s highly collaborative. Plus, I’m working constantly with my writers and editors. I began with Carole in Paris, and she laid the basic foundations, then Matt cut with me in Montreal as Carole couldn’t move there. So it turned out to be a great opportunity to bring in a new collaborator and fresh set of eyes. I always knew the biggest challenge would be balancing the book and the film’s larger story. Getting that balance right was very tricky, but Matt really helped pull it all together.

The songs by Camille and music by Hans Zimmer must have been another crucial element?
Hugely important! In animation you have to create every single thing, every sound. Nothing is free. So from sound design to music, it’s all so important. The big key for me is that I treat animation like any other film. It’s not a cartoon; it’s not for kids. We’re making a real film for adults and kids. When I first presented it to Hans Zimmer, I was so thrilled when he said, “I don’t want it to sound like any other animated movie — or any other movie at all. I want it to sound French and unique. Then he partnered with French singer Camille and composer Richard Harvey, and the result is something very special.

Fair to say this was a true labor of love?
Completely. It’s taken over five and a half years from start to finish, and it changed radically over that time. But filmmaking for me is a process of discovery, and it’s been this amazing adventure.

What’s next? Another Kung Fu Panda?
No, I like to keep doing different things. I’m not sure what my next project will be, but I want to keep pushing the boundaries of what animation can be, using different techniques. I’d love to do a full stop-motion film.

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.

GenPop adds Patrick Brice to its directorial roster

Patrick Brice joins the directorial roster at LA-based content creation studio and production company GenPop. Also an actor, he brings with him experience writing, primarily for features, but he joins GenPop to focus on the advertising world.

Brice was first exposed to different ways to approach narrative storytelling while getting his BFA in Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts. Creep, his first feature film as director/writer/actor (with Mark Duplass) premiered at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival and was distributed by Netflix and iTunes. His second feature as director/writer, The Overnight (starring Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling and Jason Schwartzman) premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.  The Overnight made the rounds on the festival circuit that year, winning Best Narrative Feature at the deadCenter Film Festival, and earning a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as for an Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

“Liberating” is how Patrick describes the opportunity to create commercial work with GenPop, “Being used to projects that take several years from conception to completion, the chance to focus on a very specific story and explore the narrative within the short format feels like the world is opening up.”

In addition to working with GenPop, Brice is currently writing a movie for Netflix — produced by the Duplass Brothers — which he will also direct. This marks Patrick’s third project with Mark Duplass, a long-term creative relationship that speaks to his collaborative spirit.