Tag Archives: Directing

The A-List: Victoria & Abdul director Stephen Frears

By Iain Blair

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

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

Stephen Frears with writer Iain Blair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain Blair and Judi Dench

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

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

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


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

Updating the long-running Ford F-150 campaign

Giving a decade-long very successful campaign a bit of a goose presents unique challenges, including maintaining tone and creative continuity while bringing a fresh perspective. To help with the launch of the new 2018 Ford F-150, Big Block director Paul Trillo brought all of his tools to the table, offering an innovative spin to the campaign.

Big Block worked closely with agency GTB, from development to previz, live-action, design, editorial, all the way through color and finish.

Trillo wanted to maintain the tone and voice of the original campaign while adding a distinct technical style and energy. Dynamic camera movement and quick editing helped bring new vitality to the “Built Ford Tough” concept.

Technically challenging camera moves help guide the audience through distinct moments. While previous spots relied largely on motion graphics, Trillo’s used custom camera rigs on real locations.

Typography remained a core of the spots, all underscored by an array of stop-motion, hyperlapse, dolly zooms, drone footage, camera flips, motion control and match frames.

Premiere was used for editing. CG was a combination of Maya and 3ds Max. Compositing was done in Nuke and Flame with finishing in Flame. 

Mother! director Darren Aronofsky

By Iain Blair

Writer/director/producer Darren Aronofsky made a big splash when his debut feature Pi won the prestigious Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. He then quickly followed that up with 2000’s acclaimed drama Requiem for a Dream.

But his hot streak and momentum came to a screeching halt in 2002 when Brad Pitt dropped out of his expensive and ambitious sci-fi epic The Fountain just weeks before shooting was due to start. Aronofsky scrambled to completely rewrite and retool The Fountain, this time starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.

Since then, Aronofsky has regained his momentum and continued to make visually audacious films as 2008’s The Wrestler, 2010’s Black Swan (he got a directing Oscar nom, and star Natalie Portman took home the gold) and 2014’s Noah.

His latest film, Mother!, is another hard-to-categorize film — part horror story, part comedy, part fable, part psychological thriller — that stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a married couple whose relationship is severely tested when uninvited guests suddenly arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence and ultimately turning it into a literal war zone.

I recently talked to Aronofsky about making the film, and why he ditched the score.

This isn’t just a horror film. What sort of film did you set out to make?
After Black Swan I wanted to return to the horror genre, and I felt the home invasion genre hadn’t been used well in a while — and we can all relate to having house guests that overstay their welcome. So I felt that was a great starting point, and I also wanted to deal with larger issues — the planet we all live on, as guests in a sense. But I’m not really a genre filmmaker. For me, Pi was a thriller at its core, but I added lots of stuff and it became something else. I think I always do that. When I pitched Black Swan they felt it wasn’t enough of a ballet movie or horror film. It didn’t fit into any one genre. I just do what I think is cool and interesting, and then I start adding stuff.

How tough was it walking the tonal tightrope between the beginning comedy and the increasingly dark, serious nature of the film?
It was tricky, but I think I was just truthful to what I’d written, and the intent of the characters does not change. They’re all very bad guests, and the level of the badness is what shifts, and the pitch changes. It’s like speeding up an old vinyl record — it just gets crazier and crazier, and more and more intense.

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
Technically, it was one of the hardest things me and my team have ever tried to do, because the last 25 minutes — the fever dream — were so demanding to choreograph and to maintain that nightmare fever-pitch for that long and have it build and build needed every department to work together in perfect sync.

The house is like another character. How did you deal with that?
It was vital to me that the film felt realistic and grounded for the first half, at least. I don’t think we could have pulled that off just shooting it on a stage, and we couldn’t find a real house that worked, so we went to great expense and effort to actually build the house up in Montreal where we shot. We actually built the house twice — the first time with just the first floor out in this beautiful field, which allowed us to do all the daylight sequences in natural light, and we shot those all in order. Then we built the full three-story house in a soundstage in Montreal for all the interior and night sequences, and as the house is like another character that morphs and changes, it really had to be a real house with all the plumbing and wiring, so that when it starts coming apart, it feels very real.

Do you like the post process and where did you do all the post?
I love post, and we did it all in New York at Sixteen 19. This post was very difficult and it ended up being 53 weeks – by far the longest I’ve ever done.

You cut this film with editor Andrew Weisblum, who collaborated with you on Noah, The Wrestler and Black Swan, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. How did that relationship work?
Editing was very tricky, because I wanted to pull the audience into Jen’s experience and not give them a chance to breathe, so we shot the film exclusively from her point of view, with hardly any wide shots, which usually allow you to get out of any sticky situations. Basically, the film is either shot over her shoulder, on her face or at what she’s looking at. This gives you incredibly limited coverage to work with in the edit, and Andy was forced to work with that. He began in preproduction, and we did three months of rehearsal which DP Matty Libatique, who’s shot most of my films, shot as a test. We then cut it together so we were able to look at a 100-minute rough version and get a sense of the camera movements and placement and how it would all look and learn from it. That was very helpful.

One of the biggest shocks of the film is that there’s no music. Can you talk about that decision and the importance of the sound design in the film?
It was a shock to me too! I’d hired composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who’s done films like Arrival and The Theory of Everything, and he wrote a wonderful score, and we worked on it for five months, but it was really weird — every time we played it to picture, it just didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and we couldn’t figure out why. Then he said to me, “The score’s actually taking away from Jen’s performance, and pushing the film in another direction.” He was right. So we decided that the best score for the film was no score at all, which was pretty tough after all that work — and it scared the hell out of me, since I’ve always relied on music to be a major part of my films.

So I then turned to my longtime sound designer Craig Henighan and told him to just go for it, and that then became a huge part of the film. We actually kept some music cues all the way up to the mix stage, which we did at Warners, but ultimately realized we didn’t even need that because they suddenly stuck out.

Can you talk about the VFX, and working again with VFX supervisor Dan Schrecker.
Dan and I were roommates at college, and he’s done all my films. We had a huge number of shots — over 1,200, more than we had in Noah, although not so complex. We had a lot of different houses working on them, including ILM, Hybride, Raynault, and it was a mad rush at the end because the studio changed our release date, so we had to do two months of VFX work in just one month.

How important was the DI on this, and where did you do it?
At Company 3 with Tim Stipan who’s done all my films, and we worked very hard on the look to get this great, warm, lightly burnt butter look, so the DI was crucial.

Did it turn out the way you envisioned it?
It’s always a constant evolution, and the colors a film takes on constantly shift and change, depending on the cast and production design and so on, but I’m very happy with it.

All Photos: Niko Tavernise


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.

Agent of Sleep: The making of a spec commercial

By Jennifer Walden

Names like Jason Bourne and James Bond make one think “eternal sleep,” not just merely a “restful” one. That’s what makes director/producer/writer Stephen Vitale’s spec commercial for Tempur-Pedic mattresses so compelling. Like a mad scientist crossing a shark with a sheep, Vitale combines an energetic spy/action film aesthetic with the sleepy world of mattress advertising for Agent of Sleep.

Vitale originally pitched the idea to a different mattress brand. “That brand passed, and I decided they were silly to, so I made the spot that exists on spec and chose to use Tempur-Pedic as the featured brand instead. I hear Tempur-Pedic really enjoyed the spot.”

In Agent of Sleep, two assailants fight their way up a stairwell and into a sun-dappled apartment where their altercation eventually leads into a bedroom and onto a comfy (albeit naked) mattress. One assailant applies a choke hold to the other but his grip loosens as he falls fast asleep. The other assailant lies down beside the first and promptly falls asleep too.

LA-based Vitale drew inspiration from Bourne and Bond films. He referenced fight scenes from Haywire, John Wick and Mission Impossible too. “Mostly all of them have a version of the action sequence in Agent of Sleep — a visceral, intimate fight between spies/hired guns that ends with one of them getting choked out. It was about distilling this trope, dropping a viewer right into the middle of it to grab them and immediately establishing visuals that would tap into the familiarity they have with the setup.”

Once the spy/action foundation was in place, Vitale (who is pictured shooting in our main image) added tropes from mattress ads to his concept, like choosing a warmly lit, serene apartment and ending the spot with a couple lying comfortably on a bare mattress as a narrator shares product information. “The spies are bursting into what would be the typical setting for a mattress ad and they upend all of its elements. The visuals reflect that trajectory.”

To achieve the desired cinematic look, Vitale chose the Arri Alexa Mini with Cooke anamorphic lenses, and shot in a wide aspect ratio of 2:66 — wider than the normal cinemascope. “My cinematographer David Bolen and I felt like it gave the confined sets and the close-range fist fight a bigger scope and pushed the piece further away from the look of an ad.”

They shot in a practical location and dressed it to replicate the bedrooms shown in actual Tempur-Pedic product images. As for smashing through the bedroom wall, that wasn’t part of the plan but it did add to the believability of the fight. “That was an accidental alteration to the location,” jokes Vitale.

The handheld camera movement up front adds to the energy of the fight, and Vitale framed the shots to clearly show who is throwing the punch and how hard it landed. “I tried to design longer takes and find angles that created a dance between the camera and the amazing fight work from Yoshi Sudarso and Cory DeMeyers.”

In contrast, the spot ends with steady, smooth shots that exude a calm feeling. Vitale says, “We used a jib and sticks for the end shots because I wanted it to be as tranquil and still as possible to play up the joke.”

Production sound was captured with a Røde NTG-2 boom mic onto a Zoom H5 recorder. The vocalizations from the two spies on-set, i.e. their breaths and efforts, were all used in post. Vitale, who handled the sound design and final mix, says, “I would use alt audio takes and drop in grunts and impact reactions to shots that needed a boost. The main goal was that it felt kinetic throughout and that the fight sounded really visceral. A lot of punch sounds were layered with other sound effects to avoid them feeling canned, and I also did Foley for different moments in the spot to help fill it out and give it a more natural sound.”

The Post
Vitale also handled picture editing using Apple Final Cut Pro 7, which worked out perfectly for him. Editing the spot was pretty straightforward, since he had designed a solid plan for the shoot and didn’t need to cover extra shots and setups. “I usually only shoot what I know I will use,” he says. “The one shot I didn’t use was an insert of the glass the woman drops, shattering on the floor. So structurally, it was easy to find. The rest was about keeping cuts tight, making sure the longer takes didn’t drag and the quicker cuts were still clear and exciting to watch.”

Vitale worked with colorist Bryan Smaller, who uses Blackmagic Resolve. They agreed that fully committing to the action film aesthetic, by playing with contrast levels and grain to keep the image gritty and grounded was the best way of not letting the audience in on the joke until the end. “For the stairwell and hallway, we leaned into the green and orange hues of those respective locations. The apartment has a bit of a teal hue to it and has a much more organic feel, which again was to help transition the spies and the audience into the mattress ad world, so to speak,” explains Vitale.

The icing on the cake was composer Patrick Sullivan’s action film-style score. “He did a great job of bringing the audience into the action and creating tension and excitement. We’ve been friends since elementary school and played in a band together, so we can find what’s working and what’s not pretty quickly. He’s one of my most consistent collaborators, in various aspects of post production, and he always brings something special to the project.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer. Follow her at @audiojeney on Twitter.

Director Jon Barber joins Raucous Content

Hollywood-based production house Raucous Content has added trilingual director Jon Barber to its roster. Over the past decade, Barber has worked with agencies such as BBDO, Crispin Porter Bogusky, Leo Burnett, McCann Erikson, Mullen, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, Sid Lee, Taxi and Y&R. He has directed spots for brands as varied as Burger King, BMW, Coke, Chobani, Doritos, FedEx, Mercedes, Timberland and McDonald’s, among others.

Barber fell in love with filmmaking as an Army brat based in Germany, where he spent much of his young adult life. Barber went on to study at the University of Vermont and the University of Salzburg in Austria before ending up in Los Angeles to gain production experience and kick-start his directing career.

In 2006, Barber relocated to Montreal and worked extensively throughout Canada, Europe and the US on everything from commercials to short films and music videos. Joining Raucous means Barber will call Los Angeles home.

Only a year old, Raucous Content has continued to grow its pool content creators. The Raucous directorial roster includes Ben Callner, Keith Ehrlich, Luis Gerard, Adam Gunser, Chris Hooper, Paul Iannachino, Vance Malone, Rob McElhenney, Matt Rainwaters, Daniel Strange and Matt Shakman, who recently helmed two episodes of Game of Thrones, including the bombastic Loot Train fight at the end of the episode “Spoils of War.”

Veteran director Michael Apted on his latest film, Unlocked

By Iain Blair

Acclaimed British director Michael Apted is that rarity in today’s cinema — an extraordinarily versatile filmmaker who is comfortable in any genre and equally at home making big-budget tent poles or micro-budget documentaries.

His movies range from Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning dramas (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) to films dealing with medical ethics (Extreme Measures), corporate whistleblowers (Class Action) and matters of faith (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). He has also directed political thrillers (Gorky Park), spy thrillers (Enigma), comedies (Continental Divide), music documentaries (Sting’s Bring on the Night) and a blockbuster Bond movie (The World Is Not Enough).

(L-R) Writer Iain Blair and Michael Apted.

Apted even made a feature film and a documentary about the same event (Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala). He has also directed many TV projects, including Ray Donovan, Rome and Masters of Sex. That is one diverse resume.

In fact, the only constant in an eclectic career that stretches back to the 1960s is the “Up Series,” which he first worked on as a researcher back in 1964, and which he returns to every seven years like clockwork (56 Up came out in 2012).

His latest film, Unlocked, is a pulpy, fast-moving spy thriller which, like many of Apted’s films, stars a woman in the lead role — Noomi Rapace plays a CIA agent undercover in London and on a mission to save the city from biological terrorism. She’s joined by an all-star cast, including Michael Douglas as her handler, Orlando Bloom as her unlikely helper, John Malkovich as the CIA spy chief at Langley and Toni Collette as his MI5 counterpart.

I recently met with Apted to talk about his process on this film along with his long career and what’s next for him.

You’ve made a lot of thrillers. What’s the secret to a good one?
On a trivial level, you always need a good pace. Then you look for lots of twists and turns and a script that isn’t quite what it appears to be. This allows you to keep the audience unsettled and never comfortable. The element of surprise is key.

You’ve made a lot of films with women in the leads. What did Noomi bring to the role?
She was already on board before me, so the idea was to have a woman organically at the heart of it; we met and I thought she was perfect for this. I’ve made a lot of dramas with women, as I find their lives are fundamentally more dramatic than most men’s. They have to make major life choices — having kids, marriage, jobs and so on — and men don’t have the same pressures, at least not in thrillers.

Look at a remarkable woman like Gorillas’ Dian Fossey, who pretty much sacrificed her personal life and any chance of romance and children to do what she did. I find those situations very dramatic, while men tend to follow a more routine life. There’s always far more emotion with the women playing the lead in dramas and thrillers. While women can seem more vulnerable, they often overcome that and so there’s more at stake. That’s another key element to a good thriller or drama.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Pretty early, though this only has about 200 VFX shots, compared to the Bond film, where the VFX are the main piece of the pie, and Narnia that had close to 1,400 VFX shots. My early films, like Coal Miner’s Daughter, had no VFX at all, but now almost every movie has some.

Is it true you shot most of it in Prague? How did you make that work?
Yes, we could only shoot six days in London due to the budget, so the rest was Prague. The key to doing it was the Czech production designer, a very clever guy who told me, “When you choose your key locations in London, don’t use the familiar classic sights as I won’t be able to match them. But if you go more modern, I can probably match it far better.” So that’s what I did. I avoided all the well-known locations, and it worked out great.

Do you like the post process?
I do, a lot. It allows you to fix things. It’s the last draft of a film, and as long as you know what you’re doing while you shoot and what scenes you may be vulnerable in — so you have the necessary coverage — you can then play around with it in post. The more films you do, the more experience you have about what scenes are truly important and which ones are not as you shoot. You have to give each one a value, and the crucial ones are where you want to spend the most time and money, so you can then shape them in the edit.

Where did you post?
I worked with editor Andrew MacRitchie. We cut as we shot and then did the first cut and most of the post in London, including all the VFX at Lipsync. But we had a problem with the ending. From the very start of the edit we knew we’d have to reshoot the end, but we ran into more budget problems.

Ultimately, we reshot the end in Munich and did the final post at Arri Post there for about three weeks. It was a bit hair-raising since we had to ship all the final post elements we’d already done in London, like the music and mix, but they did a great job. Arri also did any needed adjustments to the VFX because of the changes. The big VFX sequence was the big football game at the end, which we shot in Prague, and then made it more like Wembley stadium in London.

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you as a filmmaker.
It’s beyond important — it’s crucial. The composer, Stephen Barton, was very savvy about combining a real orchestra with computers and synths, so we could keep chopping and changing it and do rough scores as we felt our way through it all. All the sound design was done in London with some extra work at Arri Sound in Munich.

Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did most of it at Lipsync in London, and then went to Arri Post to re-grade and finish it off after the reshoot. The DI was key in getting the film’s overall look, a palette of cool grays and blues.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. It’s got some nice twists and great characters, and once we figured out the right end, it came together really well I feel.

Michael Apted on set with Noomi Rapace.

What’s next?
I’m working on a film that we’re casting now. It’s a very emotional story about a father and son, set in Naples, about the son finding his long-lost father. I’ll be doing 63 Up at the end of next year, which will come out in spring 2019.

Do you think of yourself ultimately as a documentary filmmaker?
Yes, I think that’s true because I approach material and all my films in a documentary way. I remember when we did Coal Miner’s Daughter, I insisted on shooting it in the real locations with the local people in it. There’s only three professional actors in the whole film, so that was my documentary voice speaking.


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.

Brigsby Bear director Dave McCary

By Iain Blair

When Emmy-nominated writer and director Dave McCary, co-founder of the LA-based sketch comedy group Good Neighbor and in his fourth season at Saturday Night Live, decided to make his feature film debut, he picked the whimsical, heartfelt and charming comedy Brigsby Bear as the ideal project. It’s easy to see why. It has an imaginative, eccentric premise that ultimately pays off big time emotionally.

The story starts with a young man named James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the script) who lives in an isolated desert bunker with his parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who, we learn, kidnapped him when he was a baby. To keep James engaged, and to ensure he learns important life lessons, fake dad Ted creates a fake TV show just for James, called The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, which stars Ted in a fake bear suit.

Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary

Superfan James is obsessed with the clever if quaintly goofy kids’ show. After all, the bright, sensitive young adult still living at home has grown up with this fantasy series, and the program has grown with him as well — getting more complex over the years. But to say James’ intensely protective parents have kept their son a bit sheltered is a huge understatement, and reality inevitably invades their sanctuary.

One dramatic night, James’ insular world is upended when the police arrive and haul James and his “parents” off into the real one. After arresting Ted and April, a cop (Greg Kinnear) reunites James with his biological parents, and his new world and reality demands a major adjustment — especially when he realizes that his hero Brigsby Bear is pure fiction.

I recently talked to McCary, who began his career making shorts and then directing some 75 “digital shorts” over the last four years at SNL (along with countless YouTube clips with Mooney and the rest of the Good Neighbor sketch group), about making the film and his love of post.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
The most honest version of this very unique story. I wanted it to be emotional and sincere, and we knew that with a story like this, there’d be big comedic moments, but we never wanted to lean too much on them. We wanted audiences to stay with the earnestness of James and the film. So, more of a dramatic film than anything we’ve ever done.

Is it true you dropped out of film school and are largely self-taught?
I didn’t enjoy it very much and I did drop out; I had no interest in learning about all the minutia of every department. In terms of being self-taught, I guess I always felt it was more important to just do it while learning as you went, and making videos and shorts was kind of like my film school. So I learned a lot that way and by putting stuff on the Internet and having to deal with your vulnerability and people commenting on your stuff. And at SNL I’ve had a lot of experience with the shorts. So unlike a lot of first-time directors, I’ve been doing about three films’ worth of shorts.

Plus you have a bunch of very experienced directors and producers who worked on this.
Exactly, we had Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the Lego Movie guys who also did the 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs franchises, as well as the Lonely Island guys — Andy Samberg and the others — who did stuff like Dick in a Box at SNL, and they all mentored us through the whole process. They loved our vision and voice, and we always felt protected.

You have an amazing cast, including Claire Danes and Mark Hamill. Were you shocked they all came on board?
Not shocked, but very happy such big names wanted to be a part of it. I knew the script was so special, just on the page, because of the great writing, and I felt people would respond — and they did. Pretty much everyone we approached was very positive. Then doing SNL and dealing with big name guests helps you deal with it too. No one is coddled or put on a pedestal. It was fun and everyone stayed loose and knew exactly what our approach was.

You shot this on location in Salt Lake City. How tough was it?
It was just 23 days, so that was tough, and we were on a very tight budget. But we had five weeks of preproduction, and we were pretty organized.

Where did you post, and do you like the post process?
We did it all in New York at Light Iron since I was juggling SNL at the same time. I love post, going through all the material and shaping it, and I love working on all the sound and music in particular.

Can you talk about working for the first time with editor Jacob Craycroft, who’s cut over 20 films including Robert Altman’s swan song, A Prairie Home Companion. Was he on the set?
No, the turnaround was so crazy he began cutting scenes before we finished the shoot, so we sent him stuff and then we sat down together once I got back to New York for about four months. The big challenge was making sure we had the right tone throughout — which was crucial — and picking our spots for the comedy.

The goal was to keep the audience invested in James’ emotional journey, and every time you get too silly it takes away from the realism and the emotional aspects. It all had to be believable. I think the broad comedy version of this film just felt tired — the old fish-out-of-water comedy, so reliant on all the jokes. But I wanted this to be more a story about friendship, closure, nostalgia and falling in love with filmmaking.

Although it’s obviously not an effects-driven film, you must have needed some VFX?
Yes, and they were mostly done by my friend Andrew Sherman, a very accomplished VFX dude, and he tackled most of it. Then we had some help on a few meticulous shots — like the TV screens and so on — by Visual Creatures in LA.

How important is sound and music to you?
It’s one of my favorite parts of post, especially music, and going back and forth with composer David Wingo who’s so brilliant and who really got the tone perfectly. I didn’t want it to sound too whimsical. It’s a quirky film that needed the dramatic moments to be serviced with a sophisticated score, and he wrote this beautiful theme and constantly surprised us with beautiful pieces. I also love working on sound. I could mix forever. I always think there can be improvements, so you have to pick your priorities. Again, the goal was always realism. What sounds correct? So we did the least amount of manipulation.

How important was the DI to you?
To be honest, I just trusted DP Christian Sprenger and the team at Light Iron and colorist Ian Vertovec. They all did a great job with the look. I was very happy. Nothing ever turns out the exact way you originally picture it, and the film gradually evolved, but it ended up the way I hoped for the most part.

What’s next?
I’m reading scripts and trying to find that next special project. I’m also currently working on an untitled TV show that we hope to sell. I definitely want to direct more movies. After 10 years of directing shorts, I’m kind of sick of them.


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

Director Elle Ginter joins Sanctuary Content

Culver City-based production company Sanctuary Content has grown its roster with the addition of director Elle Ginter, who was recently selected as one of 13 directors worldwide for the DGA and AICP’s Commercial Directors Diversity Showcase.

Ginter’s first project with Sanctuary, a Father’s Day spot for Buffalo Wild Wings out of TBWA/Chiat/Day/LA, showcases her skill for capturing honest, intimate moments in its sweet simplicity as a young girl bonds with her father while watching sports. She also wrote and directed the short Why We Wake, in which she explores depression in an honest and artful way.

Ginter found her way to directing in an interesting way. After getting her degree in journalism, she moved to Boston where she began working on a whale-watching boat. A chance meeting with a casting director led to work as a PA on local feature sets. She quickly worked her way into the camera department, eventually becoming a 1st AC before finally landing back in New York City as a writer and art director on commercial shoots.

Sanctuary Content was launched by EP/founder Preston Lee a year and a half ago — they are made up of a lean and diverse roster of directors who create content across all mediums, including advertising, film, music videos and television.

After meeting Ginter, he knew she would be a nice addition to the team, “I’ve been watching Elle’s work for some time. She’s passionate, excited, hungry, and incredibly creative — and, at 29-years old, she’s just getting started.”

Ginter says she knew a traditional, larger production company wouldn’t be the right fit for her: “My career has been fairly untraditional at this point. When I talked to Preston I realized he’s a really out-of-the-box person and inspires that kind of thinking in everyone around him. Every time I talk to him I leave feeling energized.”

1stAveMachine makes coffee for Nespresso

People take their coffee very seriously. They want it brewed and served in a certain way, and any aberration could ruin the entire experience. With this in mind, 1stAveMachine and director Roman Rütten showcased the intricate brewing process of the Nespresso VertuoPlus (for agency 360i) in a mysterious way that actually shows little of the machine itself.

“You’re taken on this really interesting journey, and in the end this complex structure collapses into the actual machine, which makes it feel quite slick and sophisticated,” says Rütten. “We’re making the complex, hidden art of coffee-making from the inside look simple.”

1stAveMachine got involved in the project early on. “We really collaborated with the agency to come up with a concept that deconstructs the Nespresso machine and shows coffee brewing in an artistic way,” explains Rütten. “We wanted to inspire and surprise people with visuals that are usually hidden inside a coffee machine.”

Highlighting the inner workings of Nespresso’s VertuoPlus required a bit of creativity since all parties agreed to shoot everything in-camera. “We had to basically create a rig to show something in a way it has never been seen before while working with the real coffee on a macro level in high-speed,” he explains. “It’s just a really fragile process of fine-tuning adjustments, which just adds a lot of variables to the shoot as we’re dealing with real physics. So, you need the patience to keep pushing for the perfect shot. It can come quick or take a little bit longer, but in the end, every shot looked really pretty and very classy when we walked away from it.”

Why not go the visual effects route?  “An in-camera approach may add complexity but also creates a warm and tactile feel,” explains Rütten. “There is something really intimate about working with the product on a macro level like this, which you might not get when strictly using post. A practical approach is more difficult to achieve and replicate which shows a certain level of expertise and craft. This works really well with the Nespresso brand and their level of craft that goes into the development of their products.

The spot was was developed over a period of weeks and shot in two days with a Phantom and Bolt rig. “These were really challenging and long days since we were dealing with real physics at a macro level and just a slight adjustment gives a complete different result,” reports Rütten.

According to the director, embracing the spontaneity and unpredictability of any shoot can lead to such an ultimately rewarding result. “With an interesting creative concept, some unconventional framing and the natural epic-ness of high-speed photography, you get some really stunning results that are quite mesmerizing,” he says. “Every time it’s slightly new and we always learn a lot about how certain rigs perform and physics react. You try to set up the stage with some interesting variables and embrace happy accidents. When no take looks the same, it’s a blessing and curse at the same time. But with the right patience and talented crew, we can push the boundaries, come in with some fresh ideas and try to have a little fun.”

The spot was edited in Adobe Premiere and color graded in Blackmagic Resolve.

Behind the Title: Sibling Rivalry director Gerald Ding

NAME: Gerald Ding

COMPANY: Sibling Rivalry

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Sibling Rivalry is a creative studio that combines immersive storytelling with a distinct design sensibility. It was founded by Joe Wright, Mikon van Gastel and Maggie Meade in 2011.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Directing a commercial, short film or music video is similar to being a chef at a restaurant. You handpick a team of individuals based on their specific talents to execute the vision you have in mind. It’s up to the director to bring out the best performance from each person working on the film for it to become what you imagined.

House of Marley

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I think the misconception about directing is that you’ve got to be difficult to work with if you want to be respected in this industry. I don’t believe that. I think how you present yourself and treat others is just basic common sense and respect. You can find your way of communicating what’s important to you while staying focused on the bigger picture.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
When there’s a genuine mutual respect and trust between the artists you’re collaborating with; it really elevates the project and raises my expectations because it evolves into something greater than what I first imagined it as.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
My least favorite part of the job is not working!

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
The time that I can get a coffee in my hand.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I’d like to think I’d still be making something that I could show or share with my friends.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I think the excitement of watching films as a kid never left me. I still remember each film and how it affected me, and I loved talking about them after and retelling the stories I had seen. I got into directing so I could tell my own stories, but now the process of making a film is more exciting to me than watching one.

I got into directing through animation because I saw Akira as a kid and wanted to be an animator. As a character animator you’re stoked on just owning a sequence or portion of the film, but eventually I just wanted to work on the whole story and got into directing.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
HPE Tech Actually, G-Dragon x Airbnb Superstar Superhost, Google Android Handshake and House of Marley The Get Together.

Tech Actually

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I’m currently working on a short documentary about this female fighter; we just filmed a portion of it in Belarus. It’s nowhere close to being finished right now but there’s a lot of great talent involved and it’s a story I’m really excited about.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My 35mm film camera Fuji Klasse S film camera (RIP, I’m sorry I broke you), my future Contax T3 35mm point-and-shoot and my Miele washing machine (it’s a life goal after years of renting apartments in New York).

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Instagram

CARE TO SHARE YOUR FAVORITE MUSIC TO WORK TO?
Filming on set I don’t listen to music unless it’s a part of the scene. I always have hip-hop and RnB in my head but when I’m writing treatments or scripts I usually listen to Frank Ocean or some sad girl pop. I don’t know why, but it works.

THIS IS A HIGH-STRESS JOB WITH DEADLINES AND CLIENT EXPECTATIONS. WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I just try to do my best each time and show up prepared because it’s a privilege for me to be here and I embrace all of it, good and bad. I’ve been training in Brazilian Jiu jitsu for quite some time so hard sparring with your friends is a great way to get rid of stress (as well as your ego).