Category Archives: Director

Ross Cooper joins Golden’s roster of directors

LA’s Golden, which is made up of live-action directors and a collective of designers and visual effects artists, has added director Ross Cooper to its roster. Formerly known as OneInThree, Cooper’s resume is chock full of commercial and music video work.

Cooper studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins in London, but his interest in original visual ideas evolved while pursuing a Master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art. After winning two Silver D&ADs in interaction design and architecture for the live video installation The Last Clock, Cooper began shooting videos for bands like Two Door Cinema Club, Wild Beasts and The Teenagers. He went on to receive a number of nominations as an up-and-coming filmmaker at the Music Video Awards, including Best New Director, Best Art Direction and Best Budget Video.

Cooper stepped into the commercial world with a recreation of his VV Brown video for the song “Leave!” made for French bank BNP Paribas. The spot featured a rotating cardboard box that revealed a different stylized diorama with every spin. Since that time, Cooper has continued to hone his in-camera perspective to visual effects and trompe l’oeil, crafting ads for brands including Ford, O2, Trident and Betway.

A-List: Director Danny Boyle talks about T2 Trainspotting

By Iain Blair

It’s been 21 years since Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting stuck a heroin- and adrenaline-fueled needle into the jaded veins of pop culture, electrifying audiences everywhere with its terrifying fever-dream tale of Edinburgh junkies. Let’s not forget the shocking and provocative imagery — visions of dead babies crawling across ceilings and the scene of Ewan McGregor slipping down the disgusting toilet in search of his drugs.

Now Boyle is back with a worthy sequel, T2 Trainspotting, along with the original cast of angry young men now facing mid-life crises — Renton (McGregor, who’s still running to the amped up track of the first film’s “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and “Sick Boy” Simon (Jonny Lee Miller).

Drugs, violence, vengeance, hatred and friendship all feature prominently in T2, along with aging and the toll time takes on people and relationships. But then Boyle, who won the ’08 Oscar for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, has always been attracted to kinetic, controversial stories that explore memory and time. He has pushed the cinematic envelope as far as he could, with such eclectic films as Shallow Grave, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Trance, Steve Jobs, Sunshine and 127 Hours.

For his latest film, he reteamed with DP Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot 28 Days Later, 127 Hours and won the Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire; editor Jon Harris, whose work on 127 Hours earned him an Academy Award nom; and composer Rick Smith.

I spoke with Boyle about making the film, his production and post workflows, and why cinema is the only art form that can really examine time.

Successful sequels are notoriously tricky to pull off, and it’s been 21 years since T1. Why the long wait?
Weirdly, we never thought about doing a sequel when we did the first one. There was no pressure to do another, and I think we all felt it was a one-off. But as the years passed and it settled in people’s minds, it kind of stayed there. It didn’t fade like most movies do, and the characters all remained very vivid in people’s minds.

Then Irvine Welsh, who wrote the Trainspotting book, wrote a sequel, set 10 years later. We had a look, but we didn’t like it. We felt it would disappoint people, and there wasn’t really a reason for it to be. But when 20 years loomed on the horizon, we felt it was the last chance to do something, so we went to meet Irvine in Edinburgh, talked for a week and came up with a story that was far more personal — about getting older and how it alters your behavior. You see their faces and how they’ve aged, and there’s pathos there.

How do you top T1? Or do you even try?
You don’t try. We didn’t want to simply remake the first one, and this is really based on two books — the original and then Porno, Irvine’s sequel. So it blends the present and the past, and we felt very confident about that approach, and no longer had that crippling fear of disappointing people. We all believed in it.

Was it hard getting all of the original cast back for it?
Strangely, it wasn’t, even though coordinating all their schedules was not easy, as we shot in over 70 locations and a dozen sets in under two months, with only four weeks when they were all available at the same time. I think it really helped that we did it exactly like the first one. Everyone was paid the same — and not very much, and they would get back-end, again all equal. And the four roles would get equal screen time. Doing it that way made all the usual roadblocks fall away — it circumvented all the agents, managers and so on. Everyone was like, “OK, let’s do it.” If the script hadn’t been very good, it probably would have been different, but they all felt they had great material to play with, so it went very smoothly.

You added a new DP Anthony Dod Mantle, and new editor in Jon Harris to the mix. Did that help bring a fresh POV to the film?
I think so. Brian Trufano, who gave T1 that great vivid look, has retired and we invited him to the set, but you kind of have to go with your new partners you’re now working with, and I needed that shorthand I have with Anthony now — same with Jon.

How did you and Anthony stay true to T1, but also keep it current and its own thing?
We wanted to acknowledge Brian’s amazing work and the use of color and some of the really inventive shots, but you have to make it your own, especially as there’s moments that deliberately pay homage to the first one.

You know you’re going to borrow from the first one, but you can’t be slavish to it. It had to create its own right to be there. So we replaced that freshness you got from the first one with a different kind of experience, a slightly more reflective one, as it’s about the passage of time, really. So they try to recreate that effortless bravado of T1, but you can see the slight strain it takes now. They can’t quite do it.

Even though both films are set in Edinburgh, isn’t it true you actually shot the first one in Glasgow?
Yes, because of the tiny budget — just $3 million, and Glasgow was a lot cheaper. We did just one day in Edinburgh. We had a bigger budget on this and felt obliged to shoot it in Edinburgh, and the pride of all the locals was amazing. It gave us that sense of place which is far more important in a reunion — returning to a place, what’s the same, what’s different. The first one basically takes place in their heads, and the actual locations were fairly irrelevant.

Iain Blair and Danny Boyle.

Yeah, we moved back to London to edit it and do all the post. Jon was in Edinburgh, but he never came to the set. He’s one of those smart editors who doesn’t want to know where the door is on the set. He just wants to see what you actually shot. We cut for about 10 weeks and the main challenge of editing this was balancing how much to use of the first one, and how to use time as a texture. There are some freeze frames. The ones in T1 were used in a pop culture way. In this, they’re more about using time.

Time’s always a big theme for you, isn’t it?
You’re right, and film is the only art form that really looks at time in detail, because film is time. When you edit, you’re basically compressing time, speeding it up, freezing it — you can stop time in movies, which is amazing. No other art form can do that. The other amazing aspect of film is that a cinema visit is also an expression of time. Unlike with any other art form, an audience says, “I’m yours for the next two hours.” They give you that time, and in return you give them time that’s telescoped, stretched, even stopped. It’s extraordinary, really.

The music and sound on T1 had such an impact. How did you approach it on this film?
The big issue was: “Do we touch it or not? Do we refer to it or not?” We decided that, if we were going to use music from the first film, it had to be remixed and re-imagined, so that it would still have the same power — it’d be the same, but different. So Prodigy remixed “Lust for Life,” and we used this great Edinburgh band, The Young Fathers, who did several tracks. We did all the sound mixing at Pinewood with Glenn Freemantle and his team at Sound 24.

You must have a very well-oiled post machine by now. Was it the usual team doing the VFX?
Yes, we did all the visual effects with my usual guy, VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne at Union Visual Effects in London. He’s done all my films for a long time now, and it’s a great relationship; he’s very much a key partner in building it all. A lot of the VFX were invisible — corrections, clean-up, but we didn’t do anything with the actors’ faces to age them or make them look younger. There’s a whole hallucination scene on the moors with a deer, when they get back on the heroin, and Adam did some great work around the pub to create this industrial wasteland.

Where was the DI done?
At Technicolor in London with colorist Jean-Clement Soret, working on the FilmLight Baselight, who does all my grading. Anthony and I trust him entirely. The big challenge was how to get a bold, colorful look that didn’t just copy the first one, and Jean-Clement did an amazing job. He’s not just a colorist. He’s really a post DP.

[From Jean-Clement Soret: Working on a sequel to such a seminal project offers unique challenges and the opportunity to revisit earlier creative inspirations. While the themes of the story are at times dark and depressing, it is a comedy: the photography and grade created a collage of very strong looks with nostalgic flashbacks, rich-cinema feel using high contrast, as well as re-grade of shots of the original footage from Trainspotting 1. There are many visual references to the first film and interesting use of color assembly.

[“To ensure that Trainspotting 2 developed its own visual style like TS1 did 20 years ago, director Danny Boyle and DP Anthony Dod Mantel looked to how developments in technology have changed the filmmaking process in the intervening period. Twenty years have passed between the two projects and camera acquisition, workflows and people’s understanding of visual narrative have developed to give access to a much deeper range of color tones. Similarly, Dod Mantel experimented with radical choices around lighting throughout proceedings.”]

Will you do T3 in another 20 years, like “7 Up”?
(Laughs) That’s a great idea. Michael Apted’s series was actually an influence on this. But you need a real reason to do it. We’ll see.

What’s next?
I’m shooting the first installment of this new drama series, Trust, for FX. It’s all about the Getty oil heir.


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.

Dell 6.15

The sound of John Wick: Chapter 2 — bigger and bolder

The director and audio team share their process.

By Jennifer Walden

To achieve the machine-like precision of assassin John Wick for director Chad Stahelski’s signature gun-fu-style action films, Keanu Reeves (Wick) goes through months of extensive martial arts and weapons training. The result is worth the effort. Wick is fast, efficient and thorough. You cannot fake his moves.

In John Wick: Chapter 2, Wick is still trying to retire from his career as a hitman, but he’s asked for one last kill. Bound by a blood oath, it’s a job Wick can’t refuse. Reluctantly, he goes to work, but by doing so, he’s dragged further into the assassin lifestyle he’s desperate to leave behind.

Chad Stahelski

Stahelski builds a visually and sonically engaging world on-screen, and then fills it full of meticulously placed bullet holes. His inspiration for John Wick comes from his experience as a stunt man and martial arts stunt coordinator for Lily and Lana Wachowski on The Matrix films. “The Wachowskis are some of the best world creators in the film industry. Much of what I know about sound and lighting has to do with their perspective that every little bit helps define the world. You just can’t do it visually. It’s the sound and the look and the vibe — the combination is what grabs people.”

Before the script on John Wick: Chapter 2 was even locked, Stahelski brainstormed with supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger and composer Tyler Bates — alumni of the first Wick film — and cinematographer Dan Laustsen on how they could go deeper into Wick’s world this time around. “It was so collaborative and inspirational. Mark and his team talked about how to make it sound bigger and more unique; how to make this movie sound as big as we wanted it to look. This sound team was one of my favorite departments to work with. I’ve learned more from those guys about sound in these last two films then I thought I had learned in the last 15 years,” says Stahelski.

Supervising sound editor Stoeckinger, at the Formosa Group in West Hollywood, knows action films. Mission Impossible II and III, both Jack Reacher films, Iron Man 3, and the upcoming (April) The Fate of the Furious, are just a part of his film sound experience. Gun fights, car chases, punches and impacts — Stoeckinger knows that all those big sound effects in an action film can compete with the music and dialogue for space in a scene. “The more sound elements you have, the more delicate the balancing act is,” he explains. “The director wants his sounds to be big and bold. To achieve that, you want to have a low-frequency punch to the effects. Sometimes, the frequencies in the music can steal all that space.”

The Sound of Music
Composer Bates’s score was big and bold, with lots of percussion, bass and strong guitar chords that existed in the same frequency range as the gunshots, car engines and explosions. “Our composer is very good at creating a score that is individual to John Wick,” says Stahelski. “I listened to just the music, and it was great. I listened to just the sound design, and that was great. When we put them together we couldn’t understand what was going on. They overlapped that much.”

During the final mix at Formosa’s Stage B on The Lot, re-recording mixers Andy Koyama and Martyn Zub — who both mixed the first John Wick — along with Gabe Serrano, approached the fight sequences with effects leading the mix, since those needed to match the visuals. Then Koyama made adjustments to the music stems to give the sound effects more room.

“Andy made some great suggestions, like if we lowered the bass here then we can hear the effects punch more,” says Stahelski. “That gave us the idea to go back to our composers, to the music department and the music editor. We took it to the next level conceptually. We had Tyler [Bates] strip out a lot of the percussion and bass sounds. Mark realized we have so many gunshots, so why not use those as the percussion? The music was influenced by the amount of gunfire, sound design and the reverb that we put into the gunshots.”

Mark Stoeckinger

The music and sound departments collaborated through the last few weeks of the final mix. “It was a really neat, synergistic effect of the sound and music complementing each other. I was super happy with the final product,” says Stahelski.

Putting the Gun in Gun-Fu
As its name suggests, gun-fu involves a range of guns —handguns, shotguns and assault rifles. It was up to sound designer Alan Rankin to create a variety of distinct gun effects that not only sounded different from weapon to weapon but also differentiated between John Wick’s guns and the bad guys’ guns. To help Wick’s guns sound more powerful and complex than his foes, Rankin added different layers of air, boom and mechanical effects. To distinguish one weapon from another, Rankin layered the sounds of several different guns together to make a unique sound.

The result is the type of gun sound that Stoeckinger likes to use on the John Wick films. “Even before this film officially started, Alan would present gun ideas. He’d say, ‘What do you think about this sound for the shotgun? Or, ‘How about this gun sound?’ We went back and forth many times, and once we started the film, he took it well beyond that.”

Rankin developed the sounds further by processing his effects with EQ and limiting to help the gunshots punch through the mix. “We knew we would inevitably have to turn the gunshots down in the mix due to conflicts with music or dialogue, or just because of the sheer quantity of shots needed for some of the scenes,” Rankin says.

Each gun battle was designed entirely in post, since the guns on-screen weren’t shooting live rounds. Rankin spent months designing and evolving the weapons and bullet effects in the fight sequences. He says, “Occasionally there would be a production sound we could use to help sell the space, but for the most part it’s all a construct.”

There were unique hurdles for each fight scene, but Rankin feels the catacombs were the most challenging from a design standpoint, and Zub agrees in terms of mix. “In the catacombs there’s a rapid-fire sequence with lots of shots and ricochets, with body hits and head explosions. It’s all going on at the same time. You have to be delicate with each gunshot so that they don’t all sound the same. It can’t sound repetitive and boring. So that was pretty tricky.”

To keep the gunfire exciting, Zub played with the perspective, the dynamics and the sound layers to make each shot unique. “For example, a shotgun sound might be made up of eight different elements. So in any given 40-second sequence, you might have 40 gunshots. To keep them all from sounding the same, you go through each element of the shotgun sound and either turn some layers off, tune some of them differently or put different reverb on them. This gives each gunshot its own unique character. Doing that keeps the soundtrack more interesting and that helps to tell the story better,” says Zub. For reverb, he used the PhoenixVerb Surround Reverb plug-in to create reverbs in 7.1.

Another challenge was the fight sequence at the museum. To score the first part of Wick’s fight, director Stahelski chose a classical selection from Vivaldi… but with a twist. Instead of relying solely on traditional percussion, “Mark’s team intermixed gunshots with the music,” notes Stahelski. “That is one of my favorite overall sound sequences.”

At the museum, there’s a multi-level mirrored room exhibit with moving walls. In there, Wick faces several opponents. “The mirror room battle was challenging because we had to represent the highly reflective space in which the gunshots were occurring,” explains Rankin. “Martyn [Zub] was really diligent about keeping the sounds tight and contained so the audience doesn’t get worn out from the massive volume of gunshots involved.”

Their goal was to make as much distinction as possible between the gunshot and the bullet impact sounds since visually there were only a few frames between the two. “There was lots of tweaking the sync of those sounds in order to make sure we got the necessary visceral result that the director was looking for,” says Rankin.

Stahelski adds, “The mirror room has great design work. The moment a gun fires, it just echoes through the whole space. As you change the guns, you change the reverb and change the echo in there. I really dug that.”

On the dialogue side, the mirror room offered Koyama an opportunity to play with the placement of the voices. “You might be looking at somebody, but because it’s just a reflection, Andy has their voice coming from a different place in the theater,” Stoeckinger explains. “It’s disorienting, which is what it is supposed to be. The visuals inspired what the sound does. The location design — how they shot it and cut it — that let us play with sound.”

The Manhattan Bridge
Koyama’s biggest challenge on dialogue was during a scene where Laurence Fishburne’s character The Bowery King is talking to Wick while they’re standing on a rooftop near the busy Manhattan Bridge. Koyama used iZotope RX 5 to help clean up the traffic noise. “The dialogue was very difficult to understand and Laurence was not available for ADR, so we had to save it. With some magic we managed to save it, and it actually sounds really great in the film.”

Once Koyama cleaned the production dialogue, Stoeckinger was able to create an unsettling atmosphere there by weaving tonal sound elements with a “traffic on a bridge” roar. “For me personally, building weird spaces is fun because it’s less literal,” says Stoeckinger.

Stahelski strives for a detailed and deep world in his John Wick films. He chooses Stoeckinger to lead his sound team because Stoeckinger’s “work is incredibly immersive, incredibly detailed,” says the director. “The depths that he goes, even if it is just a single sound or tone or atmosphere, Mark has a way to penetrate the visuals. I think his work stands out so far above most other sound design teams. I love my sound department and I couldn’t be happier with them.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.


The A-list — Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts

By Iain Blair

Plucky explorers! Exotic locations! A giant ape! It can only mean one thing: King Kong is back… again. This time, the new Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Kong: Skull Island re-imagines the origin of the mythic Kong in an original adventure from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer).

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

With an all-star cast that includes Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Oscar-winner Brie Larson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly, it follows a diverse team of explorers as they venture deep into an uncharted island in the Pacific — as beautiful as it is treacherous — unaware that they’re crossing into the domain of the mythic Kong.

The legendary Kong was brought to life on a whole new scale by Industrial Light & Magic, with two-time Oscar-winner Stephen Rosenbaum (Avatar, Forrest Gump) serving as visual effects supervisor.

To fully immerse audiences in the mysterious Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts, his cast and filmmaking team shot across three continents over six months, capturing its primordial landscapes on Oahu, Hawaii — where shooting commenced on October 2015 — on Australia’s Gold Coast and, finally, in Vietnam, where production took place across multiple locations, some of which have never before been seen on film. Kong: Skull Island was released worldwide in 2D, 3D and IMAX beginning March 10.

I spoke with Vogt-Roberts about making the film and his love of post.

What’s the eternal appeal of doing a King Kong movie?
He’s King Kong! But the appeal is also this burden, as you’re playing with film history and this cinematic icon of pop culture. Obviously, the 1933 film is this impeccable genre story, and I’m a huge fan of creature features and people like Ray Harryhausen. I liked the idea of taking my love for all that and then giving it my own point of view, my sense of style and my voice.

With just one feature film credit, you certainly jumped in the deep end with this — pun intended — monster production, full of complex moving parts and cutting-edge VFX. How scary was it?
Every movie is scary because I throw myself totally into it. I vanish from the world. If you asked my friends, they would tell you I completely disappear. Whether it’s big or small, any film’s daunting in that sense. When I began doing shorts and my own stuff, I did shooting, the lighting, the editing and so on, and I thrived off all that new knowledge, so even all the complex VFX stuff wasn’t that scary to me. The truly daunting part is that a film like this is two and a half years of your life! It’s a big sacrifice, but I love a big challenge like this was.

What were the biggest challenges, and how did you prepare?
How do you make it special —and relevant in 2017? I’m a bit of a masochist when it comes to a challenge, and when I made the jump to The Kings of Summer it really helped train me. But there are certain things that are the same as they always are, such as there’s never enough time or money or daylight. Then there are new things on a movie of this size, such as the sheer endurance you need and things you simply can’t prepare yourself for, like the politics involved, all the logistics and so on. The biggest thing for me was, how do I protect my voice and point of view and make sure my soul is present in the movie when there are so many competing demands? I’m proud of it, because I feel I was able to do that.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Very early on — even before we had the script ready. We had concept artists and began doing previs and discussing all the VFX.

Did you do a lot of previs?
I’m not a huge fan of it. Third Floor did it and it’s a great tool for communicating what’s happening and how you’re going to execute it, but there’s also that danger of feeling like you’re already making the movie before you start shooting it. Think of all the great films like Blade Runner and the early Star Wars films, all shot before they even had previs, whereas now it’s very easy to become too reliant on it; you can see a movie sequence where it just feels like you’re watching previs come to life. It’s lost that sense of life and spontaneity. We only did three previs sequences — some only partially — and I really stressed with the crew that it was only a guide.

Where did you do the post?
It was all done at Pivotal in Burbank, and we began cutting as we shot. The sound mix was done at Skywalker and we did our score in London.

Do you like the post process?
I love post. I love all aspects of production, but post is where you write the film again and where it ceases being what was on the page and what you wanted it to be. Instead you have to embrace what it wants to be and what it needs to be. I love repurposing things and changing things around and having those 3am breakthroughs! If we moved this and use that shot instead, then we can cut all that.

You had three editors — Richard Pearson, Bob Murawski and Josh Schaeffer. How did that work?
Rick and Bob ran point, and Rick was the lead. Josh was the editor who had done The Kings of Summer with me, and my shorts. He really understands my montages and comedy. It was so great that Rick and Bob were willing to bring him on, and they’re all very different editors with different skills — and all masters of their craft. They weren’t on set, except for Hawaii. Once we were really globe-trotting, they were in LA cutting.

VFX play a big role. Can you talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jeff White and ILM, who did the majority of the effects work?
He ran the team there, and they’re all amazing. It was a dream come true for me. They’re so good at taking kernels of ideas and turning them into reality. I was able to do revisions as I got new ideas. Creating Kong was the big one, and it was very tricky because the way he moves isn’t totally realistic. It’s very stylized, and Jeff really tapped into my animé and videogame sensibility for all that. We also used Hybride and Rodeo for some shots.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
The helicopter sequence was really very difficult, juggling the geography of that, with this 100-foot creature and people spread all over the island, and also the final battle sequence. The VFX team and I constantly asked ourselves, “Have we seen this before? Is it derivative? Is it redundant?” The goal was to always keep it fresh and exciting.

Where did you do the DI?
At Fotokem with colorist Dave Cole who worked on The Lord of the Rings and so many others. I love color, and we did a lot of very unusual stuff for a movie like this, with a lot of saturation.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
A movie never quite turns out the way you hope or think it will, but I love the end result and I feel it represents my voice. I’m very proud of what we did.


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.


25 Million Reasons to Smile: When a short film is more than a short

By Randi Altman

For UK-based father and son Paul and Josh Butterworth, working together on the short film 25 Million Reasons to Smile was a chance for both of them to show off their respective talents — Paul as an actor/producer and Josh as an aspiring filmmaker.

The film features two old friends, and literal partners in crime, who get together to enjoy the spoils of their labors after serving time in prison. After so many years apart, they are now able to explore a different and more intimate side of their relationship.

In addition to writing the piece, Josh served as DP and director, calling on his Canon 700D for the shoot. “I bought him that camera when he started film school in Manchester,” says Paul.

Josh and Paul Butterworth

The film stars Paul Butterworth (The Full Monty) and actor/dialect/voice coach Jon Sperry as the thieves who are filled with regret and hope. 25 Million Reasons to Smile was shot in Southern California, over the course of one day.

We reached out to the filmmakers to find out why they shot the short film, what they learned and how it was received.

With tools becoming more affordable these days, making a short is now an attainable goal. What are the benefits of creating something like 25 Million Reasons to Smile?
Josh: It’s wonderful. Young and old aspiring filmmakers alike are so lucky to have the ability to make short films. This can lead to issues, however, because people can lose sight of what it is important: character and story. What was so good about making 25 Million was the simplicity. One room, two brilliant actors, a cracking story and a camera is all you really need.

What about the edit?
Paul: We had one hour and six minutes (a full day’s filming) to edit down to about six minutes, which we were told was a day’s work. An experienced editor starts at £500 a day, which would have been half our total budget in one bite! I budgeted £200 for edit, £100 for color grade and £100 for workflow.

At £200 a day, you’re looking at editors with very little experience, usually no professional broadcast work, often no show reel… so I took a risk and went for somebody who had a couple of shorts in good festivals, named Harry Baker. Josh provided a lot of notes on the story and went from there. And crucial cuts, like staying off the painting as long as possible and cutting to the outside of the cabin for the final lines — those ideas came from our executive producer Ivana Massetti who was brilliant.

How did you work with the colorist on the look of the film?
Josh: I had a certain image in my head of getting as much light as possible into the room to show the beautiful painting in all its glory. When the colorist, Abhishek Hans, took the film, I gave him the freedom to do what he thought was best, and I was extremely happy with the results. He used Adobe Premiere Pro for the grade.

Paul: Josh was DP and director, so on the day he just shot the best shots he could using natural light — we didn’t have lights or a crew, not even a reflector. He just moved the actors round in the available light. Luckily, we had a brilliant white wall just a few feet away from the window and a great big Venice Beach sun, which flooded the room with light. The white walls bounced light everywhere.

The colorist gave Josh a page of notes on how he envisioned the color grade — different palettes for each character, how he’d go for the dominant character when it was a two shot and change the color mood from beginning to end as the character arc/resolution changed and it went from heist to relationship movie.

What about the audio?
Paul: I insisted Josh hire out a professional Róde microphone and a TASCAM sound box from his university. This actually saved the shoot as we didn’t have a sound person on the boom, and consequently the sound box wasn’t turned up… and also we swiveled the microphone rather than moving it between actors, so one had a reverb on the voice while the other didn’t.

The sound was unusable (too low), but since the gear was so good, sound designer Matt Snowden was able to boost it in post to broadcast standard without distortion. Sadly, he couldn’t do anything about the reverb.

Can you comment on the score?
Paul: A BAFTA mate of mine, composerDavid Poore, offered to do the music for free. It was wonderful and he was so professional. Dave already had a really good hold on the project as we’d had long chats but he took the Josh’s notes and we ended up with a truly beautiful score.

Was the script followed to the letter? Any improvisations?
Josh: No, not quite. Paul and Jon were great, and certainly added a lot to the dialogue through conversations before and during the shoot. Jon, especially, was very helpful in Americanizing his character, Jackson’s, dialogue.

Paul: Josh spent a long time on the script and worked on every word. We had script meetings at various LA cafes and table reads with me and Jon. On the shoot day, it was as written.

Josh ended up cutting one of my lines in the edit as it wasn’t entirely necessary, and the reverb was bad. It tightened it up. And our original ending had our hands touching on the bottle, but it didn’t look right so Josh went with the executive producer’s idea of going to the cabin.

What are the benefits of creating something like 25 Million Reasons to Smile?
Paul: Wow! The benefits are amazing… as an actor I never realized the process. The filming is actually a tiny proportion of the entire process. It gave me the whole picture (I’m now in awe of how hard producers work, and that’s only after playing at it!) and how much of a team effort it is — how the direction, edit, sound design and color grade can rewrite the film. I can now appreciate how the actor doesn’t see the bigger picture and has no control over any of those these elements. They are (rightly) fully immersed in their character, which is exactly what the actor’s role is: to turn up and do the lines.

I got a beautiful paid short film out of it, current footage for my show reel and a fantastic TV job — I was cast by Charles Sturridge in the new J.K.Rowling BBC1/HBO series Cormoran Strike as the dad of the female lead Robin (Holliday Grainger). I’d had a few years out bringing Josh up and getting him into film school. I relaunched when he went to university, but my agent said I needed a current credit as the career gap was causing casting directors problems. So I decided to take control and make my own footage — but it had to stand up on my show reel against clips like The Full Monty. If it wasn’t going to be broadcast-standard technically, then it had to have something in the script, and my acting (and my fellow actor had to be good) had to show that I could still do the job.

Josh met a producer in LA who’s given him runner work over here in England, and a senior producer with an international film company saw this and has given him an introduction to their people in Manchester. He also got a chance to write and direct a non-student short using industry professionals, which in the “real” world he might not get for years. And it came with real money and real consequences.

Josh, what did you learn from this experience from a filmmaker’s point of view?
More hands on deck is never a bad thing! It’s great having a tight-knit cast and crew, but the shoot would have definitely benefited from more people to help with lighting and sound, as well as the process running smoother overall.

Any surprises pop up? Any challenges?
Josh: The shoot actually ran very smoothly. The one challenge we had to face was time. Every shot took longer than expected, and we nearly ran out of time but got everything we needed in the end. It helped having such professional and patient actors.

Paul: I was surprised how well Josh (at 20 years old and at the start of film school) directed two professional middle-aged actors. Especially as one was his dad… and I was surprised by how filmic his script was.

Any tips for those looking to do something similar?
Josh: Once you have a story, find some good actors and just do it. As I said before, keep it simple and try to use character not plot to create drama.

Paul: Yes, my big tip would be to get the script right. Spend time and money on that and don’t film it till it’s ready. Get professional help/mentoring if you can. Secondly, use professional actors — just ask! You’d be surprised how many actors will take a project if the script and director are good. Of course, you need to pay them (not the full rate, but something).

Finally, don’t worry too much about the capture — as a producer said to me, “If I like a project I can buy in talent behind the camera. In a short I’m looking for a director’s voice and talent.”


Bringing the documentary Long Live Benjamin to life

By Dayna McCallum

The New York Times Op-Docs recently debuted Long Live Benjamin, a six-part episodic documentary directed by Jimm Lasser (Wieden & Kennedy) and Biff Butler (Rock Paper Scissors), and produced by Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment.

The film focuses on acclaimed portrait artist Allen Hirsch, who, while visiting his wife’s homeland of Venezuela, unexpectedly falls in love. The object of his affection — a deathly ill, orphaned newborn Capuchin monkey named Benjamin. After nursing Benjamin back to health and sneaking him into New York City, Hirsch finds his life, and his sense of self, forever changed by his adopted simian son.

We reached out to Lasser and Butler to learn more about this compelling project, the challenges they faced, and the unique story of how Long Live Benjamin came to life.

Long Live Benjamin

Benjamin sculpture, Long Live Benjamin

How did this project get started?
Lasser: I was living in Portland at the time. While in New York I went to visit Allen, who is my first cousin. I knew Benjamin when he was alive, and came by to pay my respects. When I entered Allen’s studio space, I saw his sculpture of Benjamin and the frozen corpse that was serving as his muse. Seeing this scene, I felt incredibly compelled to document what my cousin was going through. I had never made a film or thought of doing so, but I found myself renting a camera and staying the weekend to begin filming and asking Allen to share his story.

Butler: Jimm had shown up for a commercial edit bearing a bag of Mini DV tapes. We offered to transfer his material to a hard drive, and I guess the initial copy was never deleted from my own drive. Upon initial preview of the material, I have to say it all felt quirky and odd enough to be humorous; but when I took the liberty of watching the material at length, I witnessed an artist wrestling with his grief. I found this profound switch in takeaway so compelling that I wanted to see where a project like this might lead.

Can you describe your collaboration on the film?
Lasser: It began as a director/editor relationship, but it evolved. Because of my access to the Hirsch family, I shot the footage and lead the questioning with Allen. Biff began organizing and editing the footage. But as we began to develop the tone and feel of the storytelling, it became clear that he was as much a “director” of the story as I was.

Butler: In terms of advertising, Jimm is one of the smartest and discerning creatives I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I found myself having rather differing opinions to him, but I always learned something new and felt we came to stronger creative decisions because of such conflict. When the story of Allen and his monkey began unfolding in front of me, I was just as keen to foster this creative relationship as I was to build a movie.

Did the film change your working relationship?
Butler: As a commercial editor, it’s my job to carry a creative team’s hard work to the end of their laborious process — they conceive the idea, sell it through, get it made and trust me to glue the pieces together. I am of service to this, and it’s a privilege. When the footage I’d found on my hard drive started to take shape, and Jimm’s cousin began unloading his archive of paintings, photographs and home video on to us, it became a more involved endeavor. Years passed, as we’d get busy and leave things to gather dust for months here and there, and after a while it felt like this film was something that reflected both of our creative fingerprints.

Long Live Benjamin

Jimm Lasser, Long Live Benjamin

How did your professional experiences help or influence the project?
Lasser: Collaboration is central to the process of creating advertising. Being open to others is central to making great advertising. This process was a lot like film school. We both hadn’t ever done it, but we figured it out and found a way to work together.

Butler: Jimm and I enjoyed individual professional success during the years we spent on the project, and in hindsight I think this helped to reinforce the trust that was necessary in such a partnership.

What was the biggest technical challenge you faced?
Butler: The biggest challenge was just trying to get our schedules to line up. For a number of years we lived on opposite sides of the country, although there were three years where we both happened to live in New York at the same time. We found that the luxury of sitting was when the biggest creative strides happened. Most of the time, though, I would work on an edit, send to Jimm, and wait for him to give feedback. Then I’d be busy on something else when he’d send long detailed notes (and often new interviews to supplement the notes), and I would need to wait a while until I had the time to dig back in.

Technically speaking, the biggest issue might just be my use of Final Cut Pro 7. The film is made as a scrapbook from multiple sources, and quite simply Final Cut Pro doesn’t care much for this! Because we never really “set out” to “make a movie,” I had let the project grow somewhat unwieldy before realizing it needed to be organized as such.

Long Live Benjamin

Biff Butler, Long Live Benjamin

Can you detail your editorial workflow? What challenges did the varying media sources pose?
Butler: As I noted before, we didn’t set out to make a movie. I had about 10 tapes from Jimm and cut a short video just because I figured it’s not every day you get to edit someone’s monkey funeral. Cat videos this ain’t. Once Allen saw this, he would sporadically mail us photographs, newspaper clippings, VHS home videos, iPhone clips, anything and everything. Jimm and I were really just patching on to our initial short piece, until one day we realized we should start from scratch and make a movie.

As my preferred editing software is Final Cut Pro 7 (I’m old school, I guess), we stuck with it and just had to make sure the media was managed in a way that had all sources compressed to a common setting. It wasn’t really an issue, but needed some unraveling once we went to online conform. Due to our schedules, the process occurred in spurts. We’d make strides for a couple weeks, then leave it be for a month or so at a time. There was never a time where the project wasn’t in my backpack, however, and it proved to be my companion for over five years. If there was a day off, I would keep my blades sharp by cracking open the monkey movie and chipping away.

You shot the project as a continuous feature, and it is being shown now in episodic form. How does it feel to watch it as an episodic series?
Lasser: It works both ways, which I am very proud of. The longer form piece really lets you sink into Allen’s world. By the end of it, you feel Allen’s POV more deeply. I think not interrupting Alison Ables’ music allows the narrative to have a greater emotional connective tissue. I would bet there are more tears at the end of the longer format.

The episode form sharpened the narrative and made Allen’s story more digestible. I think that form makes it more open to a greater audience. Coming from advertising, I am used to respecting people’s attention spans, and telling stories in accessible forms.

How would you compare the documentary process to your commercial work? What surprised you?
Lasser: The executions of both are “storytelling,” but advertising has another layer of “marketing problem solving” that effects creative decisions. I was surprised how much Allen became a “client” in the process, since he was opening himself up so much. I had to keep his trust and assure him I was giving his story the dignity it deserved. It would have been easy to make his story into a joke.

Artist Allen Hirsch

Butler: It was my intention to never meet Allen until the movie was done, because I cherished that distance I had from him. In comparison to making a commercial, the key word here would be “truth.” The film is not selling anything. It’s not an advertisement for Allen, or monkeys, or art or New York. We certainly allowed our style to be influenced by Allen’s way of speaking, to sink deep into his mindset and point of view. Admittedly, I am very often bored by documentary features; there tends to be a good 20 minutes that is only there so it can be called “feature length” but totally disregards the attention span of the audience. On the flip side, there is an enjoyable challenge in commercial making where you are tasked to take the audience on a journey in only 60 seconds, and sometimes 30 or 15. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being in control of what our audience felt and how they felt it.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Lasser: To me this is a portrait of an artist. His relationship with Benjamin is really an ingredient to his own artistic process. Too often we focus on the end product of an artist, but I was fascinated in the headspace that leads a creative person to create.

Butler: What I found most relatable in Allen’s journey was how much life seemed to happen “to” him. He did not set out to be the eccentric man with a monkey on his shoulders; it was through a deep connection with an animal that he found comfort and purpose. I hope people sympathize with Allen in this way.


To watch Long Live Benjamin, click here.


Quick Chat: Brent Bonacorso on his Narrow World

Filmmaker Brent Bonacorso has written, directed and created visual effects for The Narrow World, which examines the sudden appearance of a giant alien creature in Los Angeles and the conflicting theories on why it’s there, what its motivations are, and why it seems to ignore all attempts at human interaction. It’s told through the eyes of three people with differing ideas of its true significance. Bonacorso shot on a Red camera with Panavision Primo lenses, along with a bit of Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera for random B-roll.

Let’s find out more…

Where did the idea for The Narrow World come from?
I was intrigued by the idea of subverting the traditional alien invasion story and using that as a way to explore how we interpret the world around us, and how our subconscious mind invisibly directs our behavior. The creature in this film becomes a blank canvas onto which the human characters project their innate desires and beliefs — its mysterious nature revealing more about the characters than the actual creature itself.

As with most ideas, it came to me in a flash, a single image that defined the concept. I was riding my bike along the beach in Venice, and suddenly in my head saw a giant Kaiju as big as a skyscraper sitting on the sand, gazing out at the sea. Not directly threatening, not exactly friendly either, with a mutual understanding with all the tiny humans around it — we don’t really understand each other at all, and probably never will. Suddenly, I knew why he was here, and what it all meant. I quickly sketched the image and the story followed.

What was the process like bringing the film to life as an independent project?
After I wrote the script, I shot principal photography with producer Thom Fennessey in two stages – first with the actor who plays Raymond Davis (Karim Saleh) and then with the actress playing Emily Field (Julia Cavanaugh).

I called in a lot of favors from my friends and connections here in LA and abroad — the highlight was getting some amazing Primo lenses and equipment from Panavision to use because they love Magdalena Górka’s (the cinematographer) work. Altogether it was about four days of principal photography, a good bit of it guerrilla style, and then shooting lots of B-roll all over the city.

Kacper Sawicki, head of Papaya Films which represents me for commercial work in Europe, got on board during post production to help bring The Narrow World to completion. Friends of mine in Paris and Luxembourg designed and textured the creature, and I did the lighting and animation in Maxon Cinema 4D and compositing in Adobe After Effects.

Our editor was the genius Jack Pyland (who cut on Adobe Premiere), based in Dallas. Sound design and color grading (via Digital Vision’s Nucoda) were completed by Polish companies Głośno and Lunapark, respectively. Our composer was Cedie Janson from Australia. So even though this was an indie project, it became an amazing global collaborative effort.

Of course, with any no-budget project like this, patience is key — lack of funds is offset by lots of time, which is free, if sometimes frustrating. Stick with it — directing is a generally a war of attrition, and it’s won by the tenacious.

As a director, how did you pull off so much of the VFX work yourself, and what lessons do you have for other directors?
I realized early on in my career as a director that the more you understand about post, and the more you can do yourself, the more you can control the scope of the project from start to finish. If you truly understand the technology and what is possible with what kind of budget and what kind of manpower, it removes a lot of barriers.

I taught myself After Effects and Cinema 4D in graphic design school, and later I figured out how to make those tools work for me in visual effects and to stretch the boundaries of the short films I was making. It has proved invaluable in my career — in the early stages I did most of the visual effects in my work myself. Later on, when I began having VFX companies do the work, my knowledge and understanding of the process enabled me to communicate very efficiently with the artists on my projects.

What other projects do you have on the horizon?
In addition to my usual commercial work, I’m very excited about my first feature project coming up this year through Awesomeness Films and DreamWorks — You Get Me, starring Bella Thorne and Halston Sage.


The A-List: Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay

By Iain Blair

Three years ago, The Lego Movie became an “everything is awesome” monster hit that cleverly avoided the pitfalls of feeling like a corporate branding exercise thanks to the deft touch and tonal dexterity of the director/writer/animator/producer team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.

Now busy working on a Han Solo spinoff movie, they handed over the directing reins on the follow-up, The Lego Batman Movie, to Chris McKay, who served as animation director and editor on the first one. And he hit the ground running on this one, which seriously — and hilariously — tweak’s Batman’s image.

Chris McKay

This time out, Batman stars in his own big-screen adventure, but there are big changes brewing in Gotham City. If he wants to save the city from The Joker’s hostile takeover, Batman may have to drop the lone vigilante thing, try to work with others and maybe, just maybe, learn to lighten up (somber introspection only goes so far when you’re a handsome billionaire with great cars and gadgets, who gets to punch people in the face with no repercussions).

Will Arnett voices Batman, Zach Galifianakis is The Joker, Michael Cera is orphan Dick Grayson, Rosario Dawson is Barbara Gordon, and Ralph Fiennes voices Alfred.

Behind the scenes, production designer Grant Freckelton and editor David Burrows also return from The Lego Movie, joined by editors Matt Villa and John Venzon. Lorne Balfe was composer, and feature animation was, again, by Animal Logic. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and IMAX.

I recently talked to McKay about making the film and how the whole process was basically all about the post.

The Lego Movie made nearly half a billion dollars and was a huge critical success as well. Any pressure there?
(Laughs) A lot, because of all that success, and asking, “How do we top it?” Then it’s Batman, with all his fans, and DC is very particular as he’s one of their crown jewels. But at the same time, the studio and DC were great partners and understood all the challenges.

So how did you pitch the whole idea?
As Jerry Maguire, directed by Michael Mann, with a ton of jokes in it. They got on board with that and saw what I was doing with the animatic, as well as the love I have for Batman and this world.

Once you were green-lit, you began on post, right?
Exactly right, because post is everything in animation. The whole thing is post. You start in post and end in post. When we pitched this, we didn’t even have a script, just a three- to four-page treatment. They liked the idea and said, “OK, let’s do it.” So we needed to write a script, and get the storyboard and editorial teams to work immediately, because there was no way we could get it finished in time if we didn’t.

It was originally scheduled to come out in May — almost three years from the time we pitched it, but then they moved the release date up to February, so it got even crazier. So we began getting all the key people involved, like [editor/writer] Dave Burrows at Animal Logic, who cut the first one with me, and developing the opening set piece.

You got an amazing cast, including Will Arnett as Batman again, and such unlikely participants as Mariah Carey, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes and Apple’s Siri. How tough was that?
We were very lucky because everyone was a fan, and when they saw that the first one wasn’t just a 90-minute toy commercial, they really wanted to be in it. Mariah was so charming and funny, and apart from her great singing voice, she has a really great speaking voice — and she was great at improv and very playful. Ralph has done some comedy, but I wasn’t sure he’d want to do something like this, but he got it immediately, and his voice was perfect. Michael Cera doesn’t do this kind of thing at all. Like Ralph, he’s an artist who usually does smaller movies and more personal stuff, and people told us, “You’re not going to get Ralph or Cera,” but Will reached out to Cera (they worked together on Arrested Development) and he came on.

As for Siri, it was a joke we tried to make work in the first movie but couldn’t, so we went back to it, and it turned into a great partnership with Apple. So that was a lot of fun for me, playing around with pop culture in that way, as the whole computer thing is part of Batman’s world anyway.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been very busy directing the upcoming, untitled Han Solo Star Wars movie, but as co-producers on this weren’t they still quite involved?
Very. I’d ask them for advice all the time and they would give notes since I was running a lot of stuff past them. They ended up writing several of my favorite lines in this; they gave me so much of their time, pitched jokes and let me do stuff with the animation I wanted to do. They’re very generous.

Sydney-based Animal Logic, the digital design, animation and effects company whose credits include Moulin Rouge!, Happy Feet and Walking With Dinosaurs did all the animation again. What was involved?
As I wanted to use Burrows, that would require us having an editorial team down there, and the studio wasn’t crazy about that. But he’s a fantastic editor and storyteller, and I also wanted to work with Grant Freckelton, who was the production designer on the first one, as well as lighting supervisor Craig Welch — all these team members at Animal Logic who were so good. In the end, we had over 400 people working on this for two and a half years — six months faster than the first one.

So Animal Logic began on it on day one, and I didn’t wait for a script. It was just me, Dave and the storyboard teams in LA and Sydney, and Grant’s design team. I showed them the treatment and said, “Here’s the scenes I want to do,” and we began with paintings and storyboards. The first act in animatic form and the script both landed at the same time in November 2014, and then we pitched where the rest of the movie would go and what changes we would make. So it kept going in tandem like that. There was no traditional screenwriting process. We’d just bring writers in and adjust as we went. So we literally built the screenplay in post — and we could do that because animation is like filmmaking in slow motion, and we had great storytellers in post, like Burrows.

You also used two other editors — Matt Villa and John Venzon. How did that work?
Matt’s very accomplished. He’s cut three of Baz Luhrmann’s films — The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! and Australia — and he cut Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner as well as
the animated features Happy Feet Two and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, so he came in to help. We also brought in other writers, and we would all be doing the voices. I was Batman and Matt would do the side characters. We literally built it as we went, with some storyboard artists from the first film, plus others we gathered along the way. The edit was crucial because of the crazy deadline.

Last summer we added John, who has also cut animated features, including Storks, Flushed Away, Shark Tale and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, because we needed to move some editorial to LA last July for five months, and he helped out with all the finishing. It was a 24/7 effort by that time, a labor of love.

Let’s talk about the VFX. Fair to say the whole film’s one big VFX sequence?
You’re right. Every single frame is a VFX shot. It’s mind blowing! You’re constantly working on it at the same time you’re writing and editing and so on, and it takes a big team of very focused animators and producers to do it.

What about the sound and music? Composer Lorne Balfe did the scores for Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the animated features Penguins of Madagascar and Home, as well as Terminator Genisys. How important was the score?
It was crucial. He actually worked on the Dark Knight movies, so I knew he could do all the operatic, serious stuff as well as boy’s adventure stuff for Robin, and he was a big part of making it sound like a real Batman movie. We recorded the score in Sydney and Vienna, and did the mix on the lot at Warners with a great team that included effects mixer Gregg Landaker and sound designer Wayne Pashley from Big Bang Sound in Sydney.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
I wish we had those extra two months, but it’s the movie I wanted to make — it’s good for kids and adults, and it’s a big, fun Batman movie that looks at him in a way that the other Batman movies can’t.


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: Oscar-nominated director of The Salesman Asghar Farhadi

By Iain Blair

Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi burst onto the international film scene with his 2011 film A Separation, which won both the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film also earned Farhadi an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and won the Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival.

After being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People following the release of A Separation, Farhadi moved to Paris to film The Past, which premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film.

After the success of these films, two of Farhadi’s earlier works, About Elly (Winner: Best Director, 2009 Berlin International Film Festival) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006), found US distribution and critical acclaim.

Farhadi’s latest film, The Salesman, is another low-key, intimate and suspenseful drama that starts off innocently enough, but which slowly peels away layer upon layer of a relationship to reveal the shifting internal struggle beneath. After their old flat becomes damaged, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young couple living in Tehran, are forced to move into a new apartment. However, once relocated, a sudden eruption of violence linked to the previous tenant of their new home dramatically changes the couple’s life, creating a simmering tension between husband and wife.

A master of slow-burning, visceral dramas that expose domestic discord through his multi-layered screenplays, Farhadi uses the story to study the psychology of vengeance and a relationship put under strain while continuing to explore the condition of women in Iran and the male psyche. The film was a Golden Globe nominee for Best Motion Picture Foreign Language and is up for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film.

I recently talked to Farhadi about making the film, and his workflow.

What were you aiming for with this film?
I was going for a lot of different things. One was the idea of taking Arthur Miller’s play and then trying to erase the boundaries between theater and life so that the audience begins to wonder, “Is this part of life or is it part of a play?” The other thing that mattered to me was the relationship between the audience and these characters. To what extent could the audience put themselves in the characters’ shoes? In my previous films, audiences could relate, but this was different and a new experience for me.

There are certain actions taken by the characters that people may not approve of, but hopefully can understand. It’s a paradoxical situation for the viewer —while they may disapprove strongly, when you ask them what they would do in the same situation, their reactions can be far more extreme than those taken by Emad after his wife is attacked. I very much wished to place a viewer in this position, where they were tested.

Why did you choose Death of a Salesman as a backdrop to your drama?
When I reread the play, I came across so many similarities between it and the couple in my film. My couple is like the Iranian version of Willy Loman and his wife Linda, and I’d always had the idea of doing a film that takes place in the world of theater. I grew up doing a lot of theater, and I always loved the play. When I began writing my script, I developed this idea of characters putting on a play. The idea that it was a mirror of the actual lives of the characters. They’re actually playing Willy Loman and Linda, and the film and play are very close to each other thematically. For me, in the play the most important aspect is the humiliation, which is also the main theme of my film. It’s humiliation that causes Willy Loman to destroy himself, and Emad feels completely humiliated by what happens to his wife. There’s also the theme of boundaries, of personal space and safety in that space.

Your last film, The Past, was shot in France. How important was it to shoot this in Tehran?
Very important. In fact, I was all set to go to Spain to make a film, and it was all planned and ready to go, with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem starring, and Pedro Almodóvar as a producer. But it was going to take a while to get everyone together, and I suddenly felt I just wanted to stay in Tehran. It was a purely emotional decision, and I didn’t know how to tell everyone in Spain, but I told my producer, “My heart tells me I should stay in Iran and do this film instead.” I prefer to make most of my films in Iran.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, but I also find it a very difficult experience. I always feel very restless in post, as I go to every minute of every bit of post production and watch everything. It’s all about deciding what to cut and get rid of — and that kills me. You spend so much time and effort collecting all the raw material and then you get into post and it really becomes about dispensing with a lot of stuff you love, and these decisions are so final. I find it very hard.

Where did you do the post?
Since About Elly, I’ve always done all the post at Moon Studios in Tehran. I do all the editing there as well as all the sound design and audio work. It’s a very relaxed place to work. We did the DI at Studio Kamrani in Tehran with colorist Hootan Haghshenas. Again, I’m there for every minute of it.

Tell us about working with editor Hayedeh Safiyari, who also cut A Separation and About Elly for you.
Before we start shooting each time, I give her the script and we talk a great deal about it. We don’t discuss the edit — just the characters and the story. She visits the set sometimes, but not as an editor, it’s more about just looking around and getting the atmosphere. Then after the shoot, we sit in the edit room together, but I don’t say anything. She does her work. We don’t cut the film and then start changing stuff and fine tuning it. We cut each scene like a fine cut and get them right by adjusting length and pacing and so on, and at this stage we talk a lot. It’s a very successful working relationship, and we cut this in about four months.

Writer Iain Blair and Asghar Farhadi.

Can you talk about the importance of sound in the film?
It’s really important to me, not just in post, but during the shoot. For example, when we first see a character, the viewer doesn’t get any additional information visually. But you can feed an audience more and more information using sound. That’s why, when we rehearse a scene, I don’t even look at the monitor. I just listen. That tells me so much more. In post, I always strive to make the sound as realistic as we can. We try not to introduce too much sound, and it’s rare for me to use much music in my films since that stirs up so much emotion. Usually, it’s just used over the end credits.

How important are the Oscars and other awards to you?
They’re very important for smaller indie movies like mine, but any success is always a two-edged sword. It makes your film known to a far bigger audience, all over the world, but the danger is that it also puts you in a competitive situation, both with yourself and others, and that’s not healthy for a filmmaker. (Editor’s Note: Farhadi has gone on record that he will not be attending this year’s Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles in reaction to President Trump’s travel ban, as Iran is one of the seven countries that is affected.)


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 Founder director John Lee Hancock

By Iain Blair

Director, writer and producer John Lee Hancock has carved out a successful career with his ability to tell unlikely but true stories and bring them to life on screen. In 2013, he directed Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks, about the prickly relationship between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers and the former’s quest to adapt Travers’ Mary Poppins into a film.

John Lee Hancock on set

In 2009 he made The Blind Side, based on another true story, which he both wrote and directed. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and garnered Sandra Bullock the Best Actress Oscar.

Now Hancock has tackled another true story, albeit one with a far darker protagonist. The Founder is about the birth of McDonald’s and its rise to an international multi-billion-dollar fast food brand. The film tells the true story of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc was impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food and saw franchise potential, and the film details how Kroc maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire.

The film also stars Laura Dern as Ray Kroc’s first wife Ethel, John Carroll Lynch as Mac McDonald, Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald, Linda Cardellini as Kroc’s second wife, Joan Smith, and B.J. Novak as Harry Sonneborn, the financial whiz whose franchising innovations led to Kroc being able to wrest control of McDonald’s from the founding brothers.

Based on an original screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler), the film’s behind-the-camera team includes longtime Hancock collaborators led by Oscar-nominated DP John Schwartzman (Jurassic World, Saving Mr. Banks), production designer Michael Corenblith (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and editor Robert Frazen (Enough Said, Synecdoche, New York).

I talked to Hancock about making the film and his workflow.

What do you look for in a project?
I like unusual stories, and this seemed unlikely to me when I first came across it, but Rob Siegel’s a very good writer. I was very intrigued by the character of Ray Kroc and the fact that I was pulling for him for the first half of the script. Then I began to feel confused by his behavior and then actively resenting some of his actions. That’s a tricky thing to pull off in a film, but I felt it was worthwhile doing.

His motivations and character are a lot darker than the protagonists in your last films. Was that the appeal?
Absolutely. It’s interesting because it’s the story of McDonald’s first, but it starts out with Kroc and it’s told largely from his end. It’s really the flip side of Banks, in that Travers starts out as someone you’re not sure you like, and is even kind of offensive, but then as you get to know her, you realize the source of her actions and why she is who she is. It’s bittersweet at the end, but it has closure. This ends without that sort of closure and is far more ambiguous. Some people will say Kroc did what he had to do, while others will say he’s a monster.

Either way, Kroc’s another juicy role for Keaton. What did he bring to the ethically challenged Kroc?
He was the first actor I thought of for the role because Michael’s a natural born salesman himself. When he’s excited about an idea, it’s electric and infectious. He has this boyish enthusiasm, and I felt that they both shared that. He’s also a Midwesterner and values hard work, and he’s so good at going to the dark places when needed. We talked a lot about the journey the character takes, in terms of everything from dialogue and behavior to the wardrobe. Michael got it all.

The shoot must have been challenging as you didn’t have a big budget, but it required a ton of locations.
Yes, we shot mainly in Atlanta, with a day in Albuquerque, and we had to build two different McDonald’s locations — the original octagonal one in San Bernardino, California, and a Golden Arches one, and they had to not just serve as different sets but as kitchens, as we were actually cooking in them. That was a lot to deal with for production designer Michael Corenblith, but he figured it all out.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and I’ve been blessed to work with really good editors and post crews on all my films.

Tell us about working with editor Robert Frazen.
We edited at Pivotal Post in Burbank. On every film I’m always asked, “Do you want your editor on set with you?” I always say no, because I value their opinion and objectivity, and I think sometimes you’re influenced if you’re on a location watching how the sausage is made. If it’s a really tough shot to get, there’s that sense of maybe I should keep it, even if it doesn’t work or push the story forward.

So I prefer to just talk to them a lot during the shoot, send dailies and they’ll send me cut scenes back. I don’t get too detailed in my notes either. That way, after the shoot, I can come in and watch a complete version of the film with fresh eyes, and then we start the real work. We start working on the pacing and rhythms, the order of the scenes and so on. I’d always admired Rob’s work with Nicole Holofcener, the way he digs deeper into the footage and finds little key bits of behavior, or some mistake he uses in a different way. He brought all that and more to this.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece but it is a period piece. How big a role did VFX play in the film?
A big role. Our VFX were done by a company called Moving Target. There’s always a lot of clean-up and removal of modern stuff. We did some of it with flashback photography, creating old photos and that feel, and there was a lot of background replacement for all the myriad restaurants, as we only had the budget to build one Golden Arches and then had to change parking, foliage, foreground and background for every different city.

We had this leaning telephone pole out front that blocked a lot of our shots, but it was going to cost $30,000 to move it and rewire it underground. Other films probably wouldn’t have blinked, but I decided to erase it in post out of the other shots and embrace it for the first location. I liked the idea that it wasn’t the best piece of property anyway, and Kroc would have to live with it the same way we were.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s so crucial to a film, and I really love all the minutia of it. I know some directors who are not so involved in all that, but I love all the detail work. I feel that when you’re there for all the little tweaks, when you play it all back in the final mix, your brain isn’t looking for all the tiny details — you can just focus on the overall effect. We mixed at King Soundworks in Van Nuys and did the final mix at Ross 424 Inc.

Where did you do the DI?
At Company 3, with Stefan Sonnenfeld, who does all Schwartzi’s films. I’m pretty involved and John and I discussed the look at length before the shoot. Then, as he was off shooting another movie, we talked more as I did a pass, and then he’d look at it. We wanted it to have a very sunny look to start off, and then get a little darker as it went.

What’s next?
I have three different projects ready to go, so whichever one comes together first.


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.