Category Archives: on-set

The A-List: Elle director Paul Verhoeven

By Iain Blair

Director Paul Verhoeven has never been afraid to go where most other directors fear to tread, especially in the thorny areas of sex, violence and gender politics. Happy to shock and outrage audiences, and adept at moving effortlessly between genres — and blurring the lines between high and low culture, dreams and reality — Verhoeven has also always possessed a sly sense of humor that percolates just below the surface, even as those audiences are horrified, and mesmerized, by what they see.

After first making a name for himself with 1973’s Oscar-nominated Turkish Delight, Verhoeven became a major Hollywood and international player with such blockbusters as RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct. His resume also includes Starship Troopers and Hollow Man.

Dutch-born Verhoeven returned to European filmmaking in 2006 with Black Book — a fast-paced World War II resistance thriller — and then disappeared. But he’s now back with the acclaimed revenge thriller Elle, which stars Oscar-nominated Isabelle Huppert as a divorced, middle-aged mother and ruthless CEO of a leading video game company who, in the very opening scene, is violently raped by a masked intruder in her Paris home. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a perverse and thrilling game. Huppert picked up a Golden Globe this year for her performance in the film.

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

It’s been 10 long years since your last film. What happened?
I just couldn’t find anything that excited me. I tried, but several projects I liked fell apart. In general, the scripts I read weren’t on the level of Black Book, plus I wanted to try something different, so I wrote several books and kept looking.

This film seems at first to be a rape-revenge thriller, but it isn’t just that, is it?
No, certainly not. It was originally going to be set and shot in America and would have been more of a straightforward rape-revenge thriller, but I wanted to make something far more politically incorrect and controversial. Something that examines the strengths of the heroine who lives by her own rules and ultimately gets what she wants. She refuses to be a victim, and in the novel it’s based on she doesn’t go into revenge mode, which would have been a cliché and boring. It goes in another direction, which I found intriguing and liberating, and that’s why I made it. It was unknown territory for me, as it leans so much on the social relationships and the characters themselves. I’d never done that in my whole career.

Is it true you tried to get an American actress, but no one wanted to take it on?
Yes, we tried about six A-list actresses, and they all refused to do it.

So what did Isabelle Huppert bring to the role?
She’s fearless and brings absolute authenticity. We actually met at the start of the project and she was very keen to do the movie. But we thought it’d be set in America, and later my producer said to me, “Why are we fighting to do it in the US? It’s based on a French novel and Isabelle really wants to do it — let’s get her and shoot in Paris.” And he was right. I realize now that I couldn’t have made this movie in America, and that without her in the role the movie would have been a very hard sell. Although you might not sympathize completely with her, you believe her. She made the third act work and be acceptable artistically.

You shot digitally, right?
Yes, on Red Dragons, which I loved. I always had two running, very close together, with a slightly different angle so in the edit you could cut to either since it’s the same movement from the actors. I even used another DP for the “B” camera, so they worked like two “A” cameras.

Where did you do the post?
We did all the editing in Amsterdam, Holland. Job ter Burg, who cut Black Book for me, worked with me for several months, and then we did the rest of post — the sound mixing, color correction and so on — in Paris, with some stuff in Brussels. We recorded the score in London, so post was very spread out.

Do you like post?
I love it. You’re glad the shoot’s over, with all the stress over budget and schedule, and you can finally relax and make your film. You’re completely free to discuss structure and change anything you want, although we didn’t change much in terms of the scenes and order. The first cut came in at two and a half hours. We eventually cut about 25 minutes because certain scenes didn’t fit with the drama as they were too slow and interrupted the narrative flow and pace. So we did a bit of compression, but we didn’t re-order it.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but they were important, right?
Right. They were done by Mikros Image in Paris, and there were a lot of small things.  We used VFX to change backgrounds and so on, and VFX were really useful in all the scenes with the cat, because a cat is very difficult to direct (laughs). They do what they want. So some of the shots, like the cat with the bird, are composites with bluescreen. So it was all about improving what we’d shot on the day, and little touches, nothing like the big VFX sequences in RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
They’re both so important in film, and you’re trying to find the best atmosphere for each scene. Sometime when you shoot in the street, the traffic’s so loud you have to fix all the dialogue in post. Then finding the right music was crucial, and I had very long talks with Anne Dudley, the English composer who scored Black Book for me, about what we wanted to express, what would work and why. I’m a big fan of Stravinsky, and the unusual way he composed his symphonies, which subverted the norm. I wanted to use both modern electronic music and sounds along with symphonic music.

I prefer to listen to music, like classical, that you don’t necessarily go out and copy, but you understand what it adds to the images. So Anne and I’d listen to Janacek and Stravinsky and others, and slowly it becomes obvious what the score should be. Then she began writing her own music. So during post I would go to London a lot to work on all that with her. For me, once you have the right score, it elevates the movie into a whole new level that the visuals alone can never match.

This is France’s official Oscar entry, and we’re starting awards season. How important are awards to you?
Important, but not as important as the movie. It’s great to get recognition, but I never made a movie thinking about Oscars or awards, and I made this because it’s audacious and different from any other movie.

What’s next? Do we have to wait another 10 years?
(Laughs) No, no! Please, I feel very guilty about that. I should have made at least one, but time passed and suddenly it’s a decade later. Now I’m very aware of my age. I’ll probably be dead if I wait that long again, so I have several projects lined up, some French projects, an American film, and some Dutch ones, and I promise you I’ll say “yes” to one of them soon.


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: Manchester by the Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

By Iain Blair

It’s been 16 years since filmmaker and playwright Kenneth Lonergan made his prize-winning debut at Sundance with You Can Count on Me, which he wrote and directed. The film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee for Best Screenplay.

Lonergan’s most recent film is also garnering award attention. Directed by one of the most distinctive writing talents on the American indie scene today, Manchester by the Sea, fulfills that earlier promise and extends Lonergan’s artistic vision.

Kenneth Lonergan

Both an ensemble piece and an intense character study, Manchester by the Sea tells the story of how the life of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a grieving and solitary Boston janitor, is transformed when he reluctantly returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after the sudden death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). It’s also the story of the Chandlers, a working-class family living in a Massachusetts fishing village for generations, and a deeply poignant, unexpectedly funny exploration of the power of familial love, community, sacrifice and hope.

Co-produced by Matt Damon, the film from Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios — which received four SAG nominations, a crucial Oscars barometer — has a stellar behind-the-scenes list of collaborators, including DP Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck, Martha Marcy May Marlene), editor Jennifer Lame (Mistress America, Paper Towns), composer Lesley Barber (You Can Count on Me) and production designer Ruth De Jong (The Master, The Tree of Life).

I recently spoke with Lonergan about making the film and his workflow.

I heard Matt Damon was very involved in the genesis of this. How did this project come about?
Matt, his producer Chris Moore and John Krasinski were talking on the set of this film they were shooting about ideas for Matt’s directing debut. Matt and John brought me the basic idea and asked me to write it. So, I took some of their suggestions and went off and spent a couple of years working on it and expanding it. I don’t really start off with themes when I write. I always start with characters and stories that seem compelling, and then let the themes emerge as I go, and with this it became about people dealing with terrible loss, with the story of this man who’s carrying a weight that’s just too much to bear. It’s about loss, family and how people cope.

Is it true that Damon was going to star in it originally?
Yes, but what actually happened was that John was going to star and Matt was going to direct it, but then John’s schedule got too busy and then Matt was going to star and direct it, and then he also got too busy, so then I came onboard to also direct.

You ended up with a terrific cast. What did Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges bring to their roles?
Casey’s a truly wonderful actor who brings tremendous emotional depth even without saying much in a scene. He’s very hard working, never has a false moment and really has the ability to navigate through the complicated relationships and in the way he deals with people.

Michelle has a tremendous sense of character and is just brilliant, I think. She brings a beautiful characterization to the film and has to go through some pretty intense emotions. They’re both very generous actors, as there are a lot of people they have to interact with. They’re not show-boaters who just want to get up there and emote. And Lucas is this real find, a very talented young actor just starting out who really captured this character.

You shot this on location all over Cape Ann. How tough was it?
It was a bit grueling, as we shot from March until April and it was pretty cold a lot of the time, especially during prep and scouting in February. We had some schedule and budget pressures, but nothing out of the ordinary. I loved shooting around Cape Ann — the locals were great, and the place really seeped into the film in a way that I’m very happy about.

Do you like the post process?
I love post because of the quiet and the chance to really concentrate on making the film. I also like the lack of administrative duties and the sudden drop in the large number of people I’m responsible for on a set. It’s just you, the editor and editorial staff. Some of the technical finishing procedures can be a bit tiring after you’ve seen the film so many times, but overall post is very enjoyable for me.

I loved my editor, and doing all the sound mixing; it was so much fun putting it all together and seeing the story work, all without the stress of the shoot. You still have pressures, but not on the same scale. We did all the post in New York at Technicolor Postworks, and we worked from May through September so it was a pretty relaxed schedule. We had our basic template done by October, and then we did a bunch of little fixes from that point on so it would be ready for Sundance. Then we did a bit more work on it, but didn’t change much — we added four minutes.

Talk about working with editor Jennifer Lame. Was she on the set?
No, we sent her dailies in New York and we never actually met face-to-face until after the shoot. I had to interview her on the phone when she was in LA working on another job, and we got along right away. She’s a wonderful editor. We began cutting on Avid Media Composer at Technicolor Postworks and then did some over the summer at my rental house in Long Island, where she’d come over and set up. Then we finished up back in New York.

How challenging were all the flashbacks to cut, as they’re quite abrupt?
All the flashbacks were very interesting to put together, but they didn’t really present more of a challenge than anything else because they’re such an intrinsic part of the whole story. We didn’t want to telegraph them and warn the audience by doing them differently. We discussed them a lot. Should they be color-timed differently? Should they be shot differently? Look and sound different?

In the end, we decided they should be indistinguishable from the rest, and it’s mainly only because of the content and behavior that you know they’re flashbacks. They were fun to weave into the story, and the more seamless they were the better we liked it. Jennifer actually pointed out that it was almost like telling two stories, not just one, because that’s how Lee experiences the world. He’s always dealing with memories which pop up when they’re least wanted, and when he returns home to Manchester he’s flooded by memories — for him the past and present are almost the same.

You shot in early spring, but there’s a lot of winter scenes, so you must have needed some visual effects?
Some, but not that much. Hectic Electric in Amsterdam did them all. We had some snow enhancement, we added some smoke, clean-up and did some adjustments for light and weather, but scenes like the house fire were all real.

How important is sound and music to you?
It’s hard to overstate. For me, music has the biggest influence on the feeling of a scene after the acting — even more than the cinematography in how it can instantly change the tone and feeling. You can make it cheerful or sad or ominous or peaceful just with the right music, and it adds all these new layers to the story and goes right to your emotions. So I love working with my composer and finding the right music.

Then I asked [supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer] Jacob Ribicoff to record sounds up in Cape Ann at all our locations — the particular sound of the marina, the woods, the bars — so it was all grounded in reality. The whole idea of post sound, which we did at Technicolor Postworks with Jacob, was to support that verisimilitude. He used Avid Pro Tools. There’s no stylization, and it was also about the ocean and that feeling of never being far from water. So the sound design was all about placing you in this specific environment.

Where did you do the DI?
We did the color correction with Jack Lewars, also at Technicolor Postworks. He did the final grade on Autodesk Flame. We shot digitally but I think the film looks very filmic. They did a great job.

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?
Pretty much, but it always changes from the script to the screen, and once you bring in your team and all their contributions and the locations and so on, it just expands in every direction. That’s the magic of movies.


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.

MTI 4.28

The A-List: Director Garth Davis on the Oscar-nominated Lion

By Iain Blair

The plot of Lion, the new awards-buzzy Weinstein film, sounds like an over-the-top, completely made-up Hollywood tearjerker — a five-year-old Indian boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) wanders onto a train, falls asleep and wakes up thousands of miles away from his home and family. Frightened, he ends up in chaotic Kolkata. Somehow he survives living on the streets, escaping all sorts of terrors and close calls, before ending up in an orphanage.

Eventually, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and finds love and security as he grows up in Hobart. As an adult, not wanting to hurt his adoptive parents’ feelings, Saroo (Dev Patel) suppresses his past and his hope of ever finding his lost mother and brother, but a chance meeting with some fellow Indians re-awakens his buried yearning. Armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination and Google Earth, Saroo sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.

L-R: Writer Iain Blair and Garth Davis.

This true story, adapted from the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, was directed by Emmy Award-nominated Garth Davis (Top of the Lake). The screenplay was by Luke Davies (Candy, Life). The film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category.

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

This is your first film. What were you looking for in a project?
I’d read a lot of stuff, but I only wanted to make something I was very moved by, scared by, where there was something I could explore and question. I was just so moved by this story and felt there was a lot that I could bring to it. Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning of See-Saw Films, who did the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, offered it to me at Sundance in 2013. We were there for the world premiere of the TV series Top of the Lake, which I co-directed with Jane Campion for See-Saw. I just had to do it. We got the rights and I began doing research very early on — even before the book came out — and digging into the story in a deeper way, and retracing all the steps in India and Australia.

When you first read this, did you think, ‘No one’s going to believe this. It’s just too Hollywood’?
Yes. That was the big risk of doing it. So the task for me was to make a movie that was a lot more complicated, with a lot more detail, because the basic story was very simple. Luke did a great job with his script in expanding it all. But when I began, I didn’t really have the end game in mind. I was very excited by the story, curious about the characters and also curious about how the miracle came about. It was a great spiritual story as well, which really attracted me.

Photo: Mark RogersYou’ve had successful career directing commercials. How did that prepare you?
They’re great preparation in terms of your practical skills, shooting in lots of complicated situations, dealing with tons of problems — so you get very experienced on set, but also in telling stories succinctly, paring things down to what works and what doesn’t.

You assembled a stellar cast — along with co-star Google Earth — but one of the great challenges must have been finding an Indian boy to play Saroo as a five-year-old?
It was, and we screen-tested thousands of children before we found Sunny. He’s a natural and we got lucky, because children can be good actors from about the age of eight but it’s very difficult to find a five year old capable of acting. But I knew it was important to have a small boy, as it’s visually very powerful having a tiny boy lost in the big, wide world, and he had this great look behind his eyes; he turned into an actor before our very eyes. And then Nicole and Dev and everyone just got called in by the story — that was the hook.

You shot on location in Kolkata. Was that tough?
Very tough. Absolutely. I enjoy complicated locations, but shooting there’s not for the faint-hearted as you’re dealing with all the crowds, the heat, the pollution, the dust. We kept it as agile as possible, and there’s glory there if you can get it right. But you run into so many problems, like you’re allowed to shoot on this railway platform for three hours, and then you get there, the train arrives, and there are padlocks on every door, so your three hours turn into 40 minutes.

Do you like post?
Love it, as you’re crafting all the way to the end. We did it all in Melbourne at Digital Pictures and Iloura, who did all the VFX. Then we did all the sound at Sound Firm with sound designer Robert Mackenzie. Sound design was very important in this film to the story, and we established a lot of audio maps, all the sounds of nature, and we had a lot of subtle stuff going on.

Tell us about working with editor Alexandre de Franceschi, who’s a frequent collaborator with Jane Campion, and who cut John Curran’s The Painted Veil.
He never came to the set. He was in Sydney while we were shooting and then when I got back, he came up to Melbourne and we began cutting. We watched the assembly and then all the rushes together. This had a special emotional alchemy, so the challenge was to not move too quickly through a sequence or something got lost. We had to honor the emotional arc of the story, so it was a very artistic thing. On the one hand, you had to structure the story, but on the other we had to really pay attention to that arc and it was a very detailed edit. It took us about six months in the end.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but they were important, right?
Yes, and the main VFX stuff was the butterflies, and the matte painting of the guard running beside the train on the embankment. We had a big problem when we shot that, as they wouldn’t let us take the train out again, and we ended up shooting that scene in the railway yard which was really depressing. But the matte painting worked very well, And then during the edit we decided to combine two Google searches into one, but they were shot at different times in different locations, and Dev was wearing a t-shirt in one and long-sleeved shirt in the other, and Iloura changed the tee to a long-sleeved shirt, which was pretty amazing.

Dev Patel and Rooney Mara star in LIONCan you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I love sound because it creates this immersive experience. You can have an interior scene and have sound from 100 meters away, and you may not consciously notice it, but it places it in context. So I decided very early on that the sound design would be crucial on this. So, for instance, when Saroo first wakes up alone on the platform, there’s no sound to create that sense of peril — just the cicadas, which becomes overbearing. And I love music and didn’t want to be afraid of using it.

Where did you do the DI?
At Digital Pictures with colorist Olivier Fontenay. I’ve done so many for the commercials, so I’m pretty experienced. The difference is you’re working with the cinema screen a lot more, doing the sound mix with Dolby Surround, and working with far higher image resolution, which I loved. I’m completely in the world of the movie and I don’t want to leave.

What’s next?
I’ve shot my second film, Mary Magdalene, and we’ll be doing all the post back in Melbourne again where I’m based — the same set up basically. I’m so excited about 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.


The A-List: Collateral Beauty director David Frankel

By Iain Blair

Oscar-winner David Frankel is probably best known for his enormously successful films The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, but the writer/director has an eclectic slate of films under his belt, including The Big Year, Hope Springs and One Chance.

Frankel owns a “Best Short” Oscar for his film Dear Diary, an Emmy for his direction of the miniseries Band of Brothers, and an Emmy nom for the Entourage pilot. In addition, he directed several episodes of Sex and the City, and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.

David Frankel

Frankel’s new film, Collateral Beauty, is a drama about a successful New York advertising executive who suffers a great tragedy and retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.  Frankel assembled an all-star cast, including Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren..

The drama’s behind-the-scenes creative team included director of photography Maryse Alberti (Creed), editor Andrew Marcus (American Ultra) and composer Theodore Shapiro (Trumbo).

I spoke with Frankel about making the film.

There’s been a lot of mystery about this film and the plot?
Will plays this advertising guy who loses his six-year-old daughter to cancer and he spirals into a deep hole. He’s devastated, he’s divorced, he’s not functioning at work anymore, and everyone tries to help him reconnect, but nothing really works. Then they come up with this wacky scheme, which involves hiring some actors to help him answer the questions he’s asking of the universe. I saw it as this screwball drama — a little crazy — but also very grounded and emotional. There’s a lot of moving moments and tragedy, but I think it’s quite uplifting and hopeful.

useYou got an amazing cast. Any surprises with Will Smith?
He was everything I expected and more. He’s such a risk-taker and keeps challenging himself as an actor. He took on stuff here he’s never done before, and Jacob Latimore was very impressive, really able to hold his own with the others, and there was a very unlikely pairing of actors — Helen Mirren and Michael Peña — that was unexpected and which worked out so well.

You shot this on location all over New York. How tough was it?
People complain about it a lot, but I never do. We shot it in eight weeks. It was great and wherever you go, people would help decorate the streets with Christmas lights and the street vendors would come out, and neighbors would help keep the streets quiet while we shot, so there was all this enthusiasm and great support. And you can’t really fake New York, and I love the fact that wherever you point a camera, it looks amazing.

You shot digitally, but it has a very filmic look.
Right, and I really struggle to see the difference between film and digital now, because digital’s so good. Maryse did a great job. She shot Dear Diary for me 20 years ago, and we quickly picked up where we left off. The goal was to make some very beautiful images and focus on composition and the performances.

Do you enjoy the post process?
I love post because it’s the time of discovery. When you’re shooting, it’s a time of wonder — when you’re scratching your heads for weeks on end and trying to deal with the schedule and budget and all that. Once you’re in post, you finally sit down to start telling the story you want, and when you start solving the puzzles that are in front of you in the cutting room, it’s just so satisfying. We did all the post in New York, and all the cutting at The Post Factory in Tribeca, and then we did all the sound work at the Warner Bros. mixing stage. We also recorded the music and orchestra in New York, so it was very much a New York production.

Talk about working for the first time with editor Andrew Marcus. Was he on the set?
He was on set a lot, and he actually lived just down the street from one of the locations, so he’d stop by a lot and we’d discuss stuff every day. He was so enthusiastic right from the start, and I think he’s quite brilliant. The way I work with editors is to tell them at the wrap party, ‘Pretend I got hit by a bus on the way home and you have to now finish the movie. Don’t just do an assembly and string scenes together.’ The big challenge on this was getting the tone right, as it’s such a strange mix of humor and really heavy drama, and sometimes all in the same scene.

You shot in early spring, but there’s a lot of winter, so you must have needed some VFX?
Right. We used VFX to add some Christmas decorations, lights, some snow, and we had to do clean-up. Mr. X in New York did all that.

You’ve collaborated with composer Theodore Shapiro a lot. How important is sound and music to you?
It’s huge. I’ve worked with just one composer my whole career, and Ted wrote this beautiful score that’s perfect, because it’s such an emotional movie but it also needed a very restrained score that doesn’t tell you how to feel, and I had the most fun being in the studio with him and trying stuff out. And all the sound design is so crucial to it too —capturing the sounds of New York, the subway trains.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did the DI at Company 3 in Chelsea, with Tim Stipan, who’s a genius. He just did Silence with Scorsese and he has this fantastic eye for storytelling through color. I’m always involved with the DI, but even more so this time as Maryse had to go off to shoot Chappaquiddick, so I did a lot of the sessions with Tim, and it probably ended up a little warmer with me in there.

This is releasing at the same time as this new little film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Are you nervous?
No, not at all. It’s good counter-programming. The Devil Wears Prada opened against Superman and did great. I like to think people want choices.


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.


VR Production: A roadmap for stereo 360, AR, VR and beyond

By Beth Marchant

It may still be the Wild West in the emerging virtual reality market, but adapting new and existing tools to recreate production workflows is nothing new for the curious and innovative filmmakers hungry for expanding ways to tell stories.

We asked directors at a large VR studio and at a nimble startup how they are navigating the formats, gear and new pipelines that come with the territory.

Patrick Meegan

Jaunt
Patrick Meegan was the first VR-centric filmmaker hired by Jaunt, a prolific producer of immersive content based in Los Angeles. Now a creative director and director of key content for the company, he will also be helping Jaunt refine and revamp its virtual reality app in the coming months. “I came straight from my MFA at USC’s interactive media program to Jaunt, so I’ve been doing VR since day one there. The nice thing about USC is it has a very robust research lab associated with the film school. I worked with a lot of prototype VR technology while completing my degree and shooting my thesis. I pretty much had a hacker mentality in graduate school but I wanted to work with an engineering and content company that was streamlining the VR process, and I found it here.”

Meegan shot with a custom camera system built with GoPro cameras on those first Jaunt shoots. “They had developed a really nice automated VR stitching and post workflow early on,” he says, “but I’d built my own 360 camera from 16 GoPros in grad school, so it wasn’t so dissimilar from what I was used to.” He’s since been shooting with the company’s purpose-built Jaunt One camera, a ground-up, modular design that includes a set of individual modules optimized with desirable features like global shutter, gunlock for frame sync and improved dynamic range.

Focusing primarily on live-action 3D spherical video but publishing across platforms, Jaunt has produced a range of VR experiences to date that include Doug Limon’s longer-form cinematic serial Invisible, (see VR Post) and short documentaries like Greenpeace’s A Journey to the Arctic and Camp4 Collective’s Home Turf: Iceland. The content is stored in the cloud, mostly to take advantage of scalable cloud-based rendering. “We’re always supporting every platform that’s out there but within the last year, to an increasing degree, we’re focusing more on the more fully immersive Oculus, HTC Vive, Gear VR and Google Daydream experiences,” says Meegan. “We’re increasingly looking at the specs and capabilities of those more robust headsets and will do more of that in 2017. But right now, we’re focused on the core market, which is 360 video.”

invisible

Invisible

When out on the VR directing jobs he bids on through Jaunt’s studios, Meegan typically shoots with a Jaunt One as his primary tool and rotates in other bespoke camera arrays as needed. “We’re still in a place where there is no one camera but many terrific options,” he says. “Jaunt One is a great baseline. But if you want to shoot at night or do aerial, you’ll need to consider any number of custom rigs that blend off-the-shelf cameras and components in different types of arrays. Volumetric and light field video are also on the horizon, as the headsets enable more interaction with the audience. So we’ll continue to work with a range of camera systems here at Jaunt to achieve those things.”

Meegan recently took the Jaunt One and a GoPro drone array to the Amazon Rain Forest to shoot a 10-minute 360-degree film for Conservation International, a non-profit organization with a trifold community, corporate partnership and research approach to saving our planet’s natural resources. An early version of the film screened this November in Marrakech during the UN’s Climate Change Conference and will be in wide release through the Jaunt app in January. “I’ve been impressed that there are real budgets out there for cause-based VR documentaries,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to infuse in the medium early on, as many did with HD and then 4K. Escaping into a nature-based experience is not an isolating thing — it’s very therapeutic, and most people will never have the means or inclination to go to these places in the first place.”

Pitched as a six-minute documentary, the piece showcases a number of difficult VR camera moves that ended up extending its run. “When we submitted 10-minute cuts to the clients, no one complained about length,” says Meegan. “They just wanted more. Probably half the piece is in motion. We did a lot of cable cams through the jungle, as if you are walking with the indigenous people who live there and encountering wildlife, and also a number of VR firsts, like vertical ascending and descending shots up along these massive trees.”

Tree climbing veterans from shows like Planet Earth were on hand to help set the rigs on high. “These were shots that would take three days to rig into a tree so we could deliver that magical float down through the layers of the forest with the camera. Plus, everything we had to bring into the jungle for the shoot had to fit on tiny planes and canoes. Due to weight limits, we had to cut back on some of the grip equipment we’d originally planned on bringing, like custom cases and riggings to carry and protect the gear from wildlife and the elements. We had to measure everything out to the gram.” Jaunt also customized the cable cam motors to slow down the action of the rigs. “In VR you want to move a lot slower than with a traditional camera so you get a comfortable feel of movement,” says Meegan. “Because people are looking around within the environment, you want to give them time to soak it all in.”

An example of the Jaunt camera at work – Let’s Go Mets!

The isolated nature of the shoot posed an additional challenge: how to keep the cameras rolling, with charging stations, for eight hours at a time. “We did a lot on the front end to determine the best batteries and data storage systems to make that happen,” he says. “And there were many lessons learned that we will start to apply to upcoming work. The post production was more about rig removal and compositing and less about stitching, so for these kinds of documentary shoots, that helps us put more of our resources into the production.”

The future of narrative VR, on the other hand, may have an even steeper learning curve. “What ‘Invisible’ starts to delve into,” explains Meegan, “is how do we tell a more elaborate, longer-form story in VR? Flash back to a year or so ago, when all we thought people could handle in the headset at one time was five or six minutes. At least as headsets get more comfortable — and eventually become untethered — people will become more engaged.” That wire, he believes, is one of VR’s biggest current drawbacks. “Once it goes away, and viewers are no longer reminded they are actually wearing technology, we can finally start to envision longer-form stories.”

As VR production technology matures, Meegan also sees an opening for less tech-savvy filmmakers to join the party. “This field still requires healthy hybrids of creative and technical people, but I think we are starting to see a shift in priorities more toward defining the grammar of storytelling in VR, not just the workflows. These questions are every bit as challenging as the technology, but we need all kinds of filmmakers to engage with them. Coming from a game-design program where you do a lot of iterations, like in visual effects and animation, I think now we can begin to similarly iterate with content.”

The clues to the future may already be in plain sight. “In VR, you can’t cut around performances the way you do when shooting traditional cinema,” says Meegan. “But there’s a lot we can learn from ambient performances in theater, like what the folks at Punchdrunk are doing in Sleep No More immersive live theater experience in New York.” The same goes for the students he worked with recently at USC’s new VR lab, which officially opened this semester.

“I’m really impressed by how young people are able to think around stories in new ways, especially when they come to it without any preconceived notions about the traditional structure of filmmaker-driven perspectives. If we can engage the existing community of cinematic and video game storytellers and get them talking to these new voices, we’ll get the best of both worlds. Our Amazon project reflected that; it was a true blend of veteran nature filmmakers and young kid VR hackers all coming together to tell this beautiful story. That’s when you start to get a really nice dialog of what’s possible in the space.”

Wairua
A former pro skateboarder, director of photography and post pro Jim Geduldick thrives on high-stakes obstacles on the course and on set. He combined both passions as the marketing manager of GoPro’s professional division until this summer, when he returned to his filmmaking roots and co-founded the creative production and technology company Wairua. “In the Maori tradition, the term wairua means a spirit not bound to one body or vessel,” he explains. “It fits the company perfectly because we want to pivot and shape shift. While we’re doing traditional 2D, mixed reality and full-on immersive production, we didn’t want to be called just another VR studio or just a technology studio. If we want to work on robotics and AI for a project, we’ll do that. If we’re doing VR or camera tech, it gives us leeway to do that without being pegged as a service, post or editorial house. We didn’t want to get pigeonholed into a single vertical.”

With his twinned background in camera development and post, Geduldick takes a big-picture approach to every job. “My partner and I both come from working for camera manufacturers, so we know the process that it takes to create the right builds,” he says. “A lot of times we have to build custom solutions for different jobs, whether that be high-speed Phantom set-ups or spherical multicam capture. It leaves us open to experiment with a blend of all the new technology out there, from VR to AR to mixed reality to AI to robotics. But we’re not just one piece of the puzzle; knowing capture through the post pipeline to delivery, we can scale to fit whatever the project needs. And it’s inevitable — the way people are telling stories and will want to tell them will drastically change in the next 10 years.”

Jim Geduldick with a spherical GoPro rig.

Early clients like Ford Motors are already fans of Wairua’s process. One of the new company’s first projects was to bring rally cross racer Ken Block of the Hoonigan Racing Division and his viral Gymkhana video series to VR. The series features Block driving against the clock the Ford Focus RS RX rallycross car he helped design and drove in the 2016 FIA World Rallycross Championship on a racing obstacle course, explaining how he performs extreme stunts like the “insane” and the “train drift” along the way. Part one of Gymkhana Nine VR is now available via the Ford VR app for iOS and Android.

“Those brands that are focused on a younger market are a little more willing to take risks with new content like VR,” Geduldick says. ‘We’re doing our own projects to test our theories and own internal pipelines, and some of those we will pitch to our partners in the future. But the clients who are already reaching out to us are doing so through word of mouth, partly because of our technical reputations but mostly because they’ve seen some of our successful VR work.” Guiding clients during the transition to VR begins with the concept, he says. “Often they are not sure what they want and often you have to consult with them and say, ‘This is what’s available. Are they going for a social reach? Or do you want to push the technology as far as it will go?’ Budgets, of course, determine most of that. If it’s not for a headset experience, it’s usually going to a platform or a custom app.”

Wairua’s kit, as you might expect, is a mix of custom tools and off-the-shelf camera gear and software. “We’re using GoPro cameras and the GoPro Odyssey, which is a Google Jump-ready rig, as well as the Nokia Ozo and other cameras and making different rigs,” he says. “If you’re shooting an interview, maybe you can get away with shooting it single camera on a panohead with one Red Epic with a fisheye lens or a Sony A7s ii. I choose camera systems based on what is the best for the project I’m working on at that moment.”

His advice for seasoned producers and directors — and even film students — transitioning to VR is try before you buy. “Go ahead and purchase the prosumer-level cameras, but don’t worry about buying the bigger spherical capture stuff. Go rent them or borrow them, and test, test, test. So many of the rental houses have great education nights to get you started.”

The shot of NYC was captured by a spherical array shoot on the top of the Empire State Building.

Once you know where your VR business is headed, he suggests, it’s time to invest. “Because of the level that we’re at, we’ve purchased a number of different camera systems, such as Red Epic, Phantom, tons of GoPros and even a Ricoh Theta S camera, which is the perfect small spherical camera for scouting locations. That one is with me in my backpack every time I’m out.”

Geduldick is also using The Foundry’s Cara VR plug-in with Nuke, Kolor’s Autopan Video Pro and Chris Bobotis’s Mettle plug-in for Adobe After Effects. “If you’re serious about VR post and doing your own stitching, and you already use After Effects, Mettle is a terrific thing to have,” he says. A few custom tetrahedral and ambisonic microphones made by the company’s sound design partners and used in elaborate audio arrays, as well as the more affordable Sennheiser Ambeo VR mic, are among Wairua’s go-to audio recording gear. “The latter is one of the more cost-effective tools for spatial audio capture,” says Geduldick.

The idea of always mastering to the best high-resolution archival format available to you still holds true for VR production, he adds. “Do you shoot in 4K just to future-proof it, even if it’s more expensive? That’s still the case for 360 VR and immersive today. Your baseline should always be 4K and you should avoid shooting any resolution less than that. The headsets may not be at 4K resolution per eye yet, but it’s coming soon enough.”

Geduldick does not believe any one segment of expanded reality with take the ultimate prize. “I think it’s silly to create a horse race between augmented reality and virtual reality,” he says. “It’s all going to eventually meld together into immersive storytelling and immersive technology. The headsets are a stopgap. 360 video is a stopgap. They are gateways into what will be and can come in the next five to 10 years, even two years. Yes, some companies will disappear and others will be leaders. Facebook and Google have a lot of money behind it, and the game engine companies also have an advantage. But there is no king yet. There is no one camera or or no single software that will solve all of our problems, and in my opinion, it’s way too soon to be labeling this a movement at all.”

Jim with a GoPro Omni on the Mantis Rover for Gymkhana.

That doesn’t mean that Wairua isn’t already looking well beyond the traditional entertainment marketing and social media space at the VR apps of tomorrow. “We are very excited about industrial, education and health applications,” Geduldick says. “Those are going to be huge, but the money is in advertising and entertainment right now, and the marketing dollars are paying for these new VR experiences. We’re using that income to go right back into R&D and to build these other projects that have the potential to really help people — like cancer patients, veterans and burn victims — and not just dazzle them.”

Geduldick’s advice for early adopters? Embrace failure, absorb everything and get on with it. “The takeaway for every single production you do, whether it be for VR or SD, you should be learning something new and taking that lesson with you to your next project,” he says. “With VR, there’s so much to learn — how the technology can benefit you, how it can hurt you, how it can slow you down as a storyteller and a filmmaker? Don’t listen to everybody; just go out and find out for yourself what works. What works for me won’t necessarily work for someone like Ridley Scott. Just get out there and experiment, learn and collaborate.”

Main Image: A Ford project via Wairua.


Beth Marchant has been covering the production and post industry for 21 years. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Studio/monthly magazine and the co-editor of StudioDaily.com. She continues to write about the industry.


catherine orchard

Derby picks director Catherine Orchard for roster

New York-based production company Derby has added Catherine Orchard to its directorial roster. Formerly a graphic designer and art director, Orchard’s work in the creative departments of various brands and magazines has helped her to develop an eye for strong imagery in combination with humor and lyrical storytelling.

She has worked with a variety of brands and magazines, including Bobbi Brown, Alice + Olivia, Jane, Travel + Leisure and Vibe. Most recently, she has been directing for Loft and Teen Vogue.

We checked in with Brooklyn-based Orchard to find out how she works and what her process is like: “Whenever I start a project, I look at what the existing elements are and break them down to what’s key and what needs to be said or shown. Then I let my imagination wander and take inventory on the many ways to put those particulars into a story. I like having a starting point of knowing the character (so cliché, but how else?!) and then the tone and look follows.”

That goes for any project, she says, whether it be commercial, narrative or experimental. “I’m interested in trying out some of the technical things, like practical lighting tricks, VFX and camera movements if it makes sense for the story’s look and tone. I also do research to sort out what the story might actually look and feel like. Then I revise. That’s usually the way I start each and every one of my projects.”

When asked about a recent job, Orchard talked about working with the kids from Netflix’s Stranger Things for Teen Vogue. “We had less than one hour to film, so I thought playing a game of charades would be fun — they made up their own dreams and nightmares. I should mention that serving candy to kids at 9am is a very cheap trick, but it worked!”

While Orchard hasn’t yet helmed a job for Derby, future projects can be expected to come from her in early 2017.  Orchard joins Derby’s directorial roster, which includes Lucas Borrás, Nickolas Duarte, The Bozzwicks and John Poliquin. Since the company launched in the fall of 2015, Derby has produced campaigns with its agency and brand partners for Listerine, Lucky Charms, Johnson & Johnson, Sauza, Erno Laszlo and others.


The A-List: Jackie and Neruda director Pablo Larraín

By Iain Blair

Chilean director Pablo Larraín has been hailed as one of the most ambitious, iconoclastic, daring — and important — political filmmakers of his generation thanks to such films as No, a drama about the 1988 plebiscite that brought an end to the Pinochet era; Tony Manero, about a man obsessed with John Travolta’s disco dancing character from Saturday Night Fever; and The Club, a drama about disgraced priests.

iain-and-pablo

Writer Iain Blair and director Pablo Larraín.

He’s also one of the hardest-working directors in the business, with two major releases out before Christmas. First up is Fox’s Jackie, about one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century. It stars Natalie Portman as first lady Jackie Kennedy and is set in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. That’s followed by Neruda, which focuses on the life of Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century. Neruda is Chile’s Oscar submission, and Jackie, Larrain’s first English-language film, is also getting a lot of Oscar and awards season buzz.

I talked to Larraín about making the films and his workflow.

Why make back-to-back films?
I never planned it this way. I was going to make Neruda, and then we had to push it six months for a lot of reasons. My last film, The Club, won an award at Berlin, and Darren Aronofsky headed up the jury and asked me to direct Jackie, which he produced. So I ended up doing Jackie right after Neruda.

So what does a Chilean director shooting in Paris bring to such an iconic American subject?
The view of an outsider, maybe. We were doing a lot of post on Neruda in Paris, and the film was mainly made and cut there at Film Factory. Natalie was also living there, so it all came together organically. We built all the interiors there — the White House and so on.

Jackie

Neither film is your run-of-the-mill biopic. Can you talk about Jackie, which has a lot of time compression, random memories and flashbacks?
I don’t like normal biopics. They’re very tricky to do, I think. More than anything we wanted to find and discover the specific sensibility that was Jackie and examine all the events that happened after the assassination. It was also about capturing specific emotions and showing her strengths and weaknesses, and all the paradoxes and controversies that surrounded her. So we approached it from fiction. Good biopics aren’t really biographical; they just try to capture a sense of the person more through atmosphere and emotions than a linear plot and structure.

You must have done a lot of research?
Extensive — looking at newsreels, interviews, reading books. Before all that, I had a very superficial idea of her as this person who was mainly concerned about clothes and style and furniture. But as I researched her character, I discovered just what an incredible woman she was. And for me, it’s also the story of a mother.

Jackie

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
The biggest challenge for me was, of course, making my first film in English. It wasn’t easy to do. My other biggest challenge was making a film about a woman. In my films, the main characters have always been men, so that was the biggest one for me to deal with and understand.

Do you like the post process?
I love it — and more and more, the editing. It’s just so beautiful when you sit with the editor, and every scene you’ve shot is now cut in that first cut. Then you go, “Alright, where do we go now, to really shape the film?” You start moving scenes around and playing with the narrative. I think it was Truffaut who said that when you shoot, you have to fight with the script, and then when you edit, you have to fight with the shoot, and it’s so true. I’ve learned over the years to really embrace post and editing.

You worked with editor Sebastián Sepúlveda on Jackie. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
He began cutting while we were shooting, and when we wrapped we finished cutting it at Primo Solido, in Santiago, Chile. We did all the pre-mixes there too.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but as with any period piece the VFX play a big role.
Absolutely, and Garage, a VFX company in Santiago, did about 80 percent of them. They did a great job. We also used Mikros and Digital District in Paris. I like working with visual effects when I have to, but I’m not really a greenscreen guy (laughs). Both films were fun to do in terms of the effects work, and you can’t tell that they’re visual effects — all the backgrounds and so on are very photorealistic, and I love that illusion… that magic. Then there’s a lot of work erasing all the modern things and doing all the cleanup. It’s the kind of post work that’s most successful when no one notices it. (Check out our interview with Jackie editor Sebastián Sepúlveda.)

Neruda

Neruda

Let’s talk about Neruda, which is also not a typical biopic, but more of “policier” thriller.
Yes, it’s less about Neruda himself and more about what we call the “Nerudian world.” It’s about what he created and what happened when he went into hiding when the political situation changed in Chile. We created this fictional detective who’s hunting him as a way of exploring his life.

Along with Jackie, he was a real person. Did you feel an extra responsibility in making two films about such icons?
Yes, of course, but if you think about it too much it can just paralyze you. You’re trying to capture a sense of the person, their world, and we shot Neruda in Chile, Buenos Aires and a little bit in Paris.

What did you shoot the films on?
We shot Jackie on film and on Super 16, and Neruda on Red. I still love shooting on film more than digital, but we had a great experience with the Red cameras and we used some old Soviet anamorphic lenses from the ‘60s that I found in LA about eight years ago. We got a beautiful look with them. Then we did all the editing in Paris with Hervé Schneid but with a little help at the end from Sebastián Sepúlveda to finish it in time for its Cannes debut. We changed quite a few things — especially the music.

Neruda

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in both of the films?
Well, film is an audio-visual medium, so sound is half the movie. It triggers mood, emotion, atmosphere, so it’s crucial to the image you’re looking at, and I spend a lot of time working on the music and sound with my team — I love that part of post too. When I work with my editors, I always ask them to cut to sound and work with sound as well, even if they don’t like to work that way.

How is the movie industry in Chile?
I think it’s healthy, and people are always challenging themselves, especially the younger generation. It’s full of great documentaries — and people who’ve never worked with film, only digital. It’s exciting.

What’s next?
I don’t quite know, but I’m developing several projects. It’s whatever happens 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.


AJA’s Ki Pro Ultra v2.0 supports Avid DNxHD

AJA has released 2.0 firmware for its Ki Pro Ultra — a portable, file-based 4K/UltraHD/2K/HD video recorder and player with a built-in LCD monitor — adding Avid DNxHD support to the device.

Available now as a free software download, Ki Pro Ultra v2.0 allows users to record and playback Avid DNxHD .mov files, which helps expand production workflows.

Ki Pro Ultra v2.0 software now supports Avid DNxHD codecs — DNxHD HQX (220x); DNxHD SQ (145); and DNxHD LB (36), and these video frame rates — 1080p 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97; 1080i 25, 29.97; 1080PsF 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97; and 720p 50, 59.94.

“This latest free firmware release ensures compatibility between files recorded by Ki Pro Ultra, Ki Pro Rack and Ki Pro Mini products for Avid workflows, offering customers expanded flexibility and support across video and audio production workflows,” says Nick Rashby, president of AJA.

Additionally, Ki Pro Ultra, Ki Pro Rack and Ki Pro Quad all also now include Ki Protect, a feature that helps ensure data integrity if a media drive is accidentally removed or loses power during recording. The Ki Protect feature automatically pre-allocates recording space on the media drive for video, audio and timecode when the record button is pressed. While recording, the file header is continuously updated every time new data is written, minimizing any potential data loss if operations are interrupted. Frames already recorded will be preserved and are recoverable, providing greater piece of mind on set and in the studio.


Quick Chat: Josh Haynie Light Iron’s VP of US operations

Post services company Light Iron has named veteran post pro Josh Haynie to VP of US operations, a newly created position. Based in Light Iron’s Hollywood facility, Haynie will be responsible for leveraging the company’s resources across Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and future locations.

Haynie joins Light Iron after 13 years at Efilm, where, as managing director, he maintained direct responsibility for all aspects of the company’s operations, including EC3 (on-location services), facility dailies, trailers, digital intermediate, home video and restoration. He managed a team of 100-plus employees. Previously, Haynie held positions at Sunset Digital, Octane/Lightning Dubs and other production and post companies. Haynie is an associate member of the ASC and is also actively involved in the HPA, SMPTE, and VES.

“From the expansion of Light Iron’s episodic services and New York facilities to the development of the color science in the new Millennium DXL camera, it is clear that the integration of Panavision and Light Iron brings significant benefits to clients,” says Haynie.

He was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to answer some of our questions…

Your title hints Light Iron opening up in new territories. Can you talk about this ? What is happening in the industry that this makes sense?
We want to be strategically located near the multiple Panavision locations. Productions and filmmakers need the expertise and familiarity of Light Iron resources in the region with the security and stability of a solid infrastructure. Projects often have splinter and multiple units in various locations, and they demand a workflow continuity in these disparate locations. We can help facilitate projects working in those various regions and offer unparalleled support and guidance.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first 6 to 12 months? What are your goals for Light Iron?
I want to learn from this very agile team of professionals and bring in operational and workflow options to the rapidly changing production/post production convergence we are all encountering. We have a very solid footing in LA, NY and NOLA. I want to ensure that each unit is working together using effective skills and technology to collaborate and allow filmmakers creative freedom. My goal is to help navigate this team though the traditional growth patterns as well as the unpredictable challenges that lie ahead in the emerging market.

You have a wealth of DI experience and knowledge. How has DI changed over the years?
The change depends on the elevation. From a very high level, it was the same simple process for many years: shoot, edit, scan, VFX, color — and our hero was always a film print. Flying lower, we have seen massive shifts in technology that have re-written the play books. The DI really starts in the camera testing phase and begins to mature during the production photography stage. The importance of look setting, dailies and VFX collaboration take on a whole new meaning with each day of shooting.

The image data that is captured needs to be available for near set cutting while VFX elements are being pulled within a few short days of photography. This image data needs to be light and nimble, albeit massive in file size and run time. The turnarounds are shrinking in the feature space exponentially. We are experiencing international collaboration on the finish and color of each project, and the final render dates are increasingly close to worldwide release dates. We are now seeing a tipping point like we encountered a few years back when we asked ourselves, “Is the hero a print or DCP?” Today, we are at the next hero question, DCP or HDR?

Do you have any advice for younger DI artists based on your history?
I think it is always good to learn from the past and understand how we got here. I would say younger artists need to aggressively educate themselves on workflow, technology, and collaboration. Each craft in the journey has experienced rapid evolvement in the last few years. There are many outlets to learn about the latest capture, edit, VFX, sound and distribution techniques being offered, and that research time needs to be on everyone’s daily task list. Seeking out new emerging creative talent is critical learning at this stage as well. Everyday a filmmaker is formulating a vision that is new to the world. We are fortunate here at Light Iron to work with these emerging filmmakers who share the same passion for taking that bold next step in storytelling.

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.