Tag Archives: Directing

The A-List: Roman J. Israel, Esq. director Dan Gilroy

By Iain Blair

Writing and movies have always been in director/writer Dan Gilroy’s DNA. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank Gilroy, he has two brothers who’re also in the business — director/writer Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne franchise) and editor John Gilroy.

After making a name for himself as a successful screenwriter on such projects as The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel and Two for the Money, he made his feature directorial debut with Nightcrawler in 2014. He also wrote the film, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed. Nightcrawler earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington on set.

His film, Roman J. Israel, Esq., which earned its star Denzel Washington an Academy Award nomination and recognition from the Golden Globe and SAG, is another intense character study. Set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system, it stars Denzel Washington as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended after his boss and mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When Roman is recruited to join a law firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students — the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) — and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a series of events ensues that put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.

Collaborating with Gilroy behind the scenes was director of photography Robert Elswit, editor John Gilroy, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck.

I recently talked with Gilroy about making the film and collaborating with Washington.

Is it true you wrote the film on spec specifically for Denzel?
I did. After Nightcrawler I took myself off the market for a year, researched this and wrote it on spec. I could only ever see Denzel playing Israel.

Would you have still done it without him?
No, I would have just put it away. He was crucial to the film. You have to take a pill with every movie and buy into the premise, and on this you had to believe that for 40 years he’s toiled away in the shadows and never compromised his beliefs. And Denzel utterly transformed himself physically for the role, but he’s also a man of faith who believes in something bigger than himself.

What did he bring to the role?
Apart from being this incredibly gifted actor, he brought a deep conviction to the part.

What sort of themes were you interested in exploring through this?
My biggest struggle is with my conscience. Am I doing enough? And this was a chance to examine activism, which can take a big emotional toll, but then you also know that you’re helping make the world a better place. That’s one of the key themes of the film — the importance of belief. It’s an homage to activism and to anyone who dedicates some of their time to a cause other than themselves. That sort of belief can be both a blessing and a burden, as it can get you up in the morning to fight for something, but it can also sap you.

Why did you shoot 35mm rather than digital?
We wanted that great film look, even though it’s very expensive to shoot that way now. Denzel and I actually shared the added cost.

Doesn’t that affect the post workflow nowadays?
You’re right, it does, as you have to find a lab that can still handle film as everyone’s so used to digital now, and you have a slight delay in dailies — 24 hours. But apart from that, there’s not much interruption to the flow. One big thing it does is cut way down on the footage you have to deal with in editing and post. When you shoot digitally, you don’t think twice about doing 10 or 15 takes in a row. You don’t do that with film. You’re far more careful and specific about what you shoot.

Dan Gilroy opted to shoot on 35mm.

You shot all on location downtown. How tough was that? 
Very tough. We had over 60 locations, and unlike Nightcrawler it was nearly all daytime, and the traffic is just brutal and makes it very hard just moving around. I always wanted to put the character in real-world situations, so sometimes we’d hide cameras down alleyways and behind cars and shoot stuff as if it was surveillance footage. Denzel would be walking around and people would bump into him and not give him a second glance — and those weren’t extras.

Where did you post?
On the Sony lot. We did all the sound at Formosa.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it. You have all the pieces in front of you, and they haven’t hardened yet. They’re malleable, and you can do anything you want and rewrite the whole movie in post if you want. You can pre-lap dialogue, you can intercut and do so many things that have a profound impact on the flow of the story. You can speed up stuff and slow it down by the way you cut and use transitions, and give scenes a whole new energy. Post is amazing.

You edited again with your brother John, who cut Nightcrawler. How did that work?
He read the script before we began shooting, and then he was on the set and then we worked side-by-side on the assembly. He’s like my right arm. (See our interview with John.)

What were the main challenges of editing this film?
The time! We were running long and had to keep cutting. We went to the Toronto Film Festival with it and screened it at 2 hours 14 minutes, but that was still too long, so we had to go back and cut another 13 minutes… that was very tough to do.

I heard Denzel was also involved in the edit.
It’s true, he was. Isn’t that crazy? Normally I couldn’t have even conceived of having an actor come into the cutting room and doing that, because most actors are just not objective. But Denzel is such an asset, and he truly is objective and has an incredible eye. Of course, he’s directed films himself, so it made perfect sense to keep collaborating in the edit.

How many visual effects shots were there and who did them?
Zero VFX did them, and there were quite a few. The biggest VFX shot — which originally was going to be done practically — was when we dropped down 400 feet at night into this alley. We planned to do it with a drone, so we sent it up with an Alexa on it, but it was wet and windy that night and it just didn’t work, so we had to redo it all in post. The apartment building they’re constructing next to Israel’s building was all a big VFX shot, and we had a lot of smaller shots and clean-up and so on.

It has a great soundtrack. Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
They’re so important to me, and they’re a huge percentage of the final film. Music can instantly transport you to other levels and places and change the whole emotional fabric of a scene. Denzel was very involved in that too. He has over 20,000 songs on his iPod and he came up with specific songs that would be the soundtrack to Roman’s life — songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — and picked a lot of the cues. James Newton Howard, who did Nightcrawler, did the film score.

How about the DI?
We did it at Company 3 in LA with Stefan Sonnenfeld who has worked a lot with Tony. I’m very involved in about 85% of it, and then I leave the last 15% to the DP and my brother John. I love the DI as you can go in and highlight small details and play around with the look and color so much. It’s so creative.

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
It’s beyond what I imagined when I was writing it, and I think Denzel’s performance is truly amazing.

What’s next?
I’m in pre-production on a film for Netflix, a drama set in LA’s contemporary art world. It’s starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo, and it’ll be out in October.


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.

Directing: My Top 10 career-ending mistakes

By Trevor McMahan

Okay, so this is probably a really bad idea… but I’m about to list the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made as a director. It’s ironic, because when I told my super-rep Susanne I was going to write a tips piece for postPerspective, she was all like, “Yeah, this will be a great opportunity for people to see what smart/insightful/great/awesome director you are!” So much for that plan.

The silver lining is that none of the following career-ending mistakes has actually ended my career, and even though it may sound like it here, I’m not ALWAYS making career-ending mistakes – just sometimes. And I’m lucky to be busy enough to provide myself ample opportunities to make them, which means I must be doing something right. Right?

Anyhow, here goes. I hope you enjoy these mistakes more than I did!

1. Thinking a mistake could be career ending
Boom. I could end the list here and I’d feel like it was worth it because this mistake is the greatest mistake of all. To be clear, there are, of course, massive mistakes one could make to actually bring your career to a halt, but most of us simply aren’t making those.

Once I freed myself of the fear of making mistakes, I was able to produce more creative work, to explore ideas and shots and scenes in more unexpected ways and generally push toward stronger storytelling. And when you inevitably do make a mistake, use that experience as a reminder that there’s always a better way to do something — it’s an incredible way to grow and learn and push forward. And if my words don’t ring true here, take it from the really cheesy motivational poster of mossy boulders dotting through a pond that declares, “Mistakes are the stepping stones to success.” Sage advice from the fantastic folks over at Successories.

2. Thinking one not-great project spells T-h-e  E-n-d
One “miss” used to feel like it was a death knell, so I avoided “missing” at all costs, and missed a handful of solid opportunities in the meantime. But I quickly realized just how much growth and learning can come from even the least expected places. I’ve swung to the opposite end of the spectrum – eager to shoot and learn and improve as much as I can. Some of the best work I’ve done has come as a result of those opportunities and relationships, and while not every project is going to be a grand slam, you’ve got to swing.

3. Aiming for perfection
There’s nothing worse than pressure associated with targeting perfection, and it has led to moments where a scene just doesn’t feel believable or a project falls flat and predictable. I’ve since learned to embrace the process of discovery and it has made for an incredibly expansive process. I even like to work with creatives and crew to embed a sense of imperfection and idiosyncrasy into our filmmaking — from little imperfect reflections of light and little flaws in the production design to wardrobe that feels unplanned and actors’ performances that feel unrehearsed. It’s when things start to feel like they’ve not been designed that I start to believe them.

4. Thinking an agency’s storyboards are what they want the commercial to look like
There are so many reasons agency boards look the way they do, but what they aren’t is a blueprint of the only predetermined way to tell a story or film sequence. But that didn’t stop me from leaning too heavily on them, and ending up in an excruciatingly awkward series of conversations about why I made those choices. Them wondering why I’d locked into their boarded angles, and me not really having a reason behind the choices. The aim, I’ve found, is to see the idea through the client-friendly illustrations — to “read between the boards” and gauge where a campaign wants to go. Once you have that core, translating it into shots becomes something you can stand behind.

5. Telling an agency what they want to hear
Tell the agency exactly what you think they want to hear to land a job? Wrong. Regurgitating an agency call in a treatment, or pitching them a film they’d already pitched me, just doesn’t win the job. I take great pride, now, in not going into a pitch aiming to win it, but aiming to make the film the best it can be (with the belief, of course, that they’ll agree). The most “creative” creatives I’ve met and worked with over the years have proved quite keen to be challenged and to be shown where and how the work can improve. It’s important to work with collaborators who are aiming for great, not just good enough. Architect Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” I couldn’t have said it better.

6. Pushing way too far
Yep, guilty of that, too. And believe me, it’s not pretty. If you do push to far, those treatments end up in the bottom drawer.

7. Not listening
With all that said… it can be tempting to go whole hog in a particular direction, and I have! But if that’s not the direction they’re headed, there’s only pain and anguish. So, really listening and hearing out an agency and client is invaluable to unearthing the reason they’re spending all this money, and how to best direct those resources.

8. Thinking I needed to do other people’s jobs
In my mind, there used to be an expectation that the director should know (and often do) all. But to be honest, I found that I’d get stretched thin dealing with budget issues, wrinkles in the calendar or the how the on-set effects team was working out a rig… and to a degree that the storytelling would suffer. I still am involved with all of those things (and always will be), but I do find relief realizing I’m working with an incredible crew of filmmakers and craftsmen, who kick ass at their jobs and whose art I respect. Simply letting them do their jobs, then, frees me up to do mine — part of which is to bug them about their work. So, I probably didn’t lay off long, but it’s a start. Baby steps.

9. Waiting around for boards
Waiting around for boards won’t help more boards to come in, and I’ve never felt so close to the guillotine than when I was just waiting. As soon as I stopped waiting and started producing — shorts, music videos, even video tests and experiments, all of a sudden I was busier than ever. Work certainly begets work, and the more you do the more will come.

10. Writing an article about all the worst mistakes I ever made
Then there was that one. Let’s hope it’s not the last.


Trevor McMahan is a director at Rocket Film. This commercial and film production house has offices in New York and Los Angeles.

A Conversation: Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig and editor Nick Houy

By Amy Leland

There are moments as a filmmaker, and as someone who writes about filmmaking, when I get to have such special and unexpected experiences. One of the best recent ones was a chat I had with writer/director Greta Gerwig and editor Nick Houy about their collaboration on A24’s Lady Bird, which is actress Gerwig’s directorial debut and a semi-autobiographical version of her youth.

The critically beloved film — which was nominated for four Golden Globes — follows a high school senior from Sacramento, California, trying to navigate her last year at home, her tumultuous relationship with her mother, boys and her quest to get away from it all.

Lady Bird is such a personal and welcoming story. Ultimately, it was no surprise to find that Gerwig and Houy were so open and giving in their discussion of the work and their collaboration.

This was your first time directing. Were you driven because of this story or have you always wanted to direct?
Gerwig: I wanted to direct for a very long time, but I didn’t go to film school. My film school experience became what I did on set, both in front of and behind the camera as an actor, but also as a writer, co-writer and producer, and anything else anybody would let me do. I had been working in films for 10 years when we started Lady Bird. It felt like that was long enough for film school and time to go ahead and make a movie.

When I started writing Lady Bird, I didn’t necessarily know what it was going to be. The story started as  a sort of hunch, and then I wrote into that. Once I had a draft that I thought was a pretty good piece of writing, that’s when I knew it was now or never. I thought, well, “You’ve written something that you like and you’ve always wanted to do this.” But it wasn’t until after I had written it that I really embraced the idea that I was going to direct it. I kind of had to do it one step at a time.

When you had that realization, was it exciting or scary?
Gerwig: All of the above. It was exciting because it had been what I wanted to do. I had trepidation about it because I know it’s something that I cared about deeply, so I didn’t want to not be able to meet the challenge. But I was thrilled to work on it.

So you feel that your depth of experience as an actor and having played so many roles of different types prepared you to sit in the director’s chair?
Gerwig: Well, I love acting, and I love actors. One of the things that is so amazing about being an actor and working with different people is I get to see how so many different directors dealt with their actors and their crew, and their way of cinematic storytelling. That was invaluable. I was actually keeping a little notebook the whole time. You know, this person does this, and I like this, or I don’t think this worked so well, or I’d like to do it this way. It was sort of this accumulation of being able to be present while it was being done.

Later when I was writing with Noah Baumbach — who I had already collaborated with on two scripts that he directed — I was more present in the editing room for those movies and the post production because I had co-written them, and I’d produced them. That was also an opportunity because that’s a part of the process that the actor doesn’t tend to see. Watching that happen and being part of that process was incredibly informative. It’s something that’s hard to quantify because it’s kind of everything for me. What I did as an actor and how that fed into who I am as a writer and director.

How has that experience been, to step into the director’s role for the first time and have it be so successful?
Gerwig: Truly beyond my wildest dreams. We were working on this film up until just about two weeks before it premiered at Telluride. We weren’t changing the cut, but we were doing all the things that you do to finish a film. One of the things you train yourself to do as a director is you’re just constantly scanning for what’s wrong. That’s all you do. Through pre-production, production, and post, you’re always listening for what’s wrong in the mix, or looking for what could be tighter or better or clearer. I was still in that mind set, in a way, coming into this.

Nick Houy

Nick, how did you get involved in this project?
Houy: Jennifer Lame, who edited Manchester by the Sea, as well as every movie with Noah Baumbach since Frances Ha, is a really good friend of mine. She recommended me to Greta. It was one of the greatest scripts I’ve ever read. It was so tight and so wonderful, and I just fell in love with it. When we met and talked about it, I felt like we were kindred spirits in terms of the way it should be done. When we started doing script notes and talking about it more in depth, I think we saw a lot of things the same way. So it just felt really fun. It was like, “Oh this is the kind of movie I’ve been waiting to work on forever.” So, it was a no-brainer, you know.

Gerwig: The feeling was mutual. It was right away. It’s hard to talk about editing without actually just doing it, but there was a sense that we had the same language. That’s the essential ingredient.

Can you talk about what your process was like? Also, how your cinematographer Sam Levy played into that process as well.
Gerwig: For me, one of the first times that we were on the same page was when we were in the process of putting together the movie — how we were going to shoot it and how it was actually going to work. I remember there was a question about cutting some stuff, and it’s always a financial question, “Can we cut this scene? Is there a way we can make this movie without this scene?” So, I sent the notes over to Nick just to see what thought about them, and he was so detailed and so specific about what he thought and why.

There was a particular moment that had been suggested we could lose, and he said, “No, we need to keep it.” That’s what you want out of a collaborator — someone who’s bringing their own perspective to it, but who can also always remind you of what it is that your intention is. Because you have a lot of information coming at you from a lot of different places, and for Sam and Nick sometimes it was, “Hey, I know why you want this, here’s why.” And you’re like, “That’s right. That is why I want it.”

Houy: It was a pleasure. Even the script had editing built into it. It was really thoughtful about every shot having a reason and a purpose, and it was really well thought out. Even the transitions between scenes, which is unusual you know. It had a great rhythm to it right away.

For something that is so well planned out, where did you as an editor feel that your storytelling input came into that process?
Houy: With this movie, it was like just polishing a diamond. It was already so good. I just wanted to serve the story to the best of my abilities, and serve the performances, and the emotion of those performances, and the emotion of the story as best as possible. It was like honing it and honing it and figuring out exactly what the movie was supposed to be. Like creating a sculpture, and you just need to find the perfect David, or whatever, because it’s there. You just have to work at it. The pleasure is putting your microscope on it and making sure it’s the best it can be.

Gerwig: And also the openness to… for example, if I wanted to walk down some weird side path, he would say, “Let’s walk down the side path. Let’s see what’s there.” Also when he would say, “Just give me an hour. Let me see what I can do. This might be crazy, but let’s see.” Letting those things exist is a very important part of it. That’s the same way I try to relate to my actors, and to Sam, and to my production designers. It’s giving enough freedom to let everyone bring what they have to the table and not shutting down a conversation before it can wield something interesting.

How much time did you spend observing 
the process on set?
Houy: On some movies I’m on set a lot, but for Lady Bird, another editor was actually on during dailies, for various reasons. I came on after dailies, which is unusual, but it worked out. Plus, they were shooting in California and editorial was in New York, so it was a completely different situation. But what I love about being an editor is that you’re not embroiled in any of the drama that’s happening during the shoot. You’re not aware that that dolly shot took six hours to get. You’re not aware of all of the stuff that happens on a set. You talk to the script supervisor, you talk to the director, but my job is to have totally fresh eyes — totally non-judgmental eyes — on all the footage. Actually, I think going to set is kind of the antithesis of that. Of course, it’s fun to talk to everybody, but it’s good to be fresh.

Gerwig: Because I need to be so close to the experience of getting it, to have someone who’s just looking at it for what it is, is incredibly helpful. Sometimes there would be a take that on the day it was happening felt like “the take.” But actually in the footage it’s like, no, it was one before. And sometimes if you were there it’s harder to see. I think as the director it also takes a little bit of time to separate the footage from the experience of getting it. It is for me, and then eventually it does become its own thing.

Nick, can you talk a bit about your workflow and your process.
Houy: The whole thing is very straightforward. We were cutting on Avid Media Composer at DNx36. Nothing crazy. I have an amazing assistant editor named Nick Ramirez — people call us “the Nicks.” We were lucky we were cutting in the facility where we were coloring. We could always pop down when we were getting close to the end process and look at stuff high res, or try different color corrections.

Greta Gerwig with DP Sam Levy.

Obviously, that was a big deal, too, since color was such an important part of setting the tone. It had that sense of looking back on something nostalgically.
Houy: That was exactly what they were going for. Sam Levy is an amazing DP, and he and Greta talked a lot about different painters they were inspired by, and wanted to create a sort of color Xerox look to it. It’s got an early 2000’s feeling, and it’s nostalgic. It was fun to know that that was happening all the way through, and let that seep into the storytelling process, and be able to constantly check on it downstairs. That was cool.

How do you work with your assistant editor? Is he doing purely technical stuff, or some cutting?
Houy: It depends on the movie, because sometimes you’re in a tough spot, and sometimes you have tons of time. Sometimes you need a lot of help with certain things, and sometimes you don’t. It just depends. On this particular movie with Nick Ramirez, I would always ask his opinion on things because he’s really smart, and it’s always good to have another eye. He’s great at that.

What advice would you give to someone who would like to edit indie films like the kind you are doing?
Houy: I always encourage people to cut as much as possible because that’s the only way you’re going to learn. You have to put in your 10,000 hours, just like anything. And whether that’s through friends’ shorts, student movies or whatever, you’ve just got to cut, cut, cut as much as you can. That’s the only way you’ll get better.

When you’re apprenticing or assisting on a movie, you should be cutting scenes at night by yourself. I don’t care what anyone says. Get all the footage. Cut it. Compare how you cut it with the way the editor cuts it. Finally, work with editors who want to help you move up. I was lucky enough to have editors as mentors, people who wanted to cut scenes with me and talk it through.

Could you both describe the one moment during the process when you knew that this was the story you were trying to tell?
Gerwig: There was a moment really early. It was this first scene between Sister Sarah Joan and Lady Bird, when she’s sitting in her office, and there was something about the way he cut it. It felt like a musician who was playing the piece just right… that’s how I meant it to sound. Which is hard to even describe, but it felt a sort of recognition. That’s what I thought the music would sound like, but I’ve never heard it played before, and so now I’m hearing it for the first time.

Houy: That’s a really good example, the Lois Smith scene, because they were so good, and it was like we knew the rhythm. You could hear, maybe like songwriting, the melody in your head, but until it’s executed you’re never quite happy with it. When we cracked that rhythm it was very exciting. I felt that way about the end sequence, too. We found the emotional moment at the end I knew was there. It was one of those… well, you just had to crack it.

Gerwig: Yes. You just have moment after moment like that and it’s just such a nice thing that you sort of end up sharing a brain. At that point we were both seeing the same thing.

This sounds silly, but I had always written the Dave Matthews Band into the script but we didn’t know we were going to play it over prom. But then it was like, of course, that’s the song you’d play over prom. What else were we thinking?

Houy: We tried all of these other songs but realized, no, of course it’s Dave Matthews. Yeah.

Gerwig: Also the point where we cut off at the end… where she takes in a breath… as soon as that was in that place it never changed. We didn’t revisit it. It just hit us just right, and it was like, yeah, that’s what we wanted in that moment, and it works. It was that moment of mutual recognition.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.

Director and former agency EP Katya Bankowsky joins Strike Anywhere

Director Katya Bankowsky has been added to the roster at LA- and San Francisco-based production company Strike Anywhere. Bankowsky is a former agency executive producer and director. Working as an EP led to her directing campaigns in-house for ad agencies like Mcgarrybowen. Her signing is a strategic move for Strike Anywhere, as it continues to work in traditional and non-traditional media with a formal directorial roster.

Katya Bankowsky is a California native who became a New Yorker upon graduating from Yale. After college, she took a production job in advertising, where she learned the art of the 30-second movie. Bankowsky soon went freelance and began shooting her feature documentary Shadow Boxers, which follows the emergence of women in boxing and the rise of the first undefeated world champion Lucia Rijker. Bankowsky directed, edited and produced the film and also boxed in the first NYC Golden Gloves to allow female competitors. Shadow Boxers premiered at the Toronto and Berlin International Film Festivals, picking up awards across the festival circuit before obtaining worldwide distribution.

Bankowsky’s non-documentary work includes TV spots, branded entertainment and digital campaigns for clients including Reebok, NFL, WNBA, Verizon, the US Olympic Committee, Chase and Brazilian Brahma beer. She has worked with Maya Angelou, 50 Cent, Jay-Z and many top-tier athletes. Bankowsky recently directed a piece for The New York Times on French fashion icon Michele Lamy, which kicked off a web series she writes, directs and co-stars in alongside Lamy.

Bankowsky’s directorial style was evident in a campaign she directed for the NFL this past summer, a series called The Handoff, which is the league’s largest social media campaign to date.

A New Yorker through and through, Bankowsky will remain there, but travels back to LA often.

Craig Gillespie on directing I, Tonya

By Iain Blair

If you haven’t seen I, Tonya, the latest dark comedy from Aussie director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), get your skates on and rush over to the nearest cineplex for a real treat.

This festival fave, which is deservedly getting a lot of awards attention (it just earned three Golden Globe noms and a host of others), is based on the unbelievable but true events surrounding infamous American figure skater Tonya Harding and one of the most sensational scandals in sports history. Though Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, her legacy was forever tarnished by her association with an infamous, ill-conceived and even more poorly executed attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan.

Craig Gillespie on set with Margot Robbie.

Featuring an iconic turn by Margot Robbie as the fiery Harding, a mustachioed Sebastian Stan as her impetuous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and a tour de force performance from Allison Janney as her acid-tongued mother, the film is a piercing portrayal of Harding’s life and career in all of its unchecked –– and checkered –– glory.

Gillespie, who worked as an award-winning commercial director for 15 years before making his feature debut with 2007’s Mr. Woodcock, and whose credits include Million Dollar Arm and Fright Night, once again uses his irreverent, offbeat comedy sense to dramatize a cautionary tale about talent, ambition, celebrity, class, bad perms and domestic abuse — all stuffed with larger-than-life characters and wacky, unreliable narrators.

I recently talked with Gillespie about making the film and the surrounding awards buzz.

What was the appeal of this story for you? It seems like the perfect fit for your sensibility.
You’re right. The script by Steven Rogers, who did Stepmom, was just amazing. It felt like the most “me” project since Lars. In some ways it’s even more me, with so much dark humor in the script. And when I heard Margot was attached, I was really intrigued as she has the range to do all the comedy and drama. It was bizarre to read the script, because it was so tight and read like it was already edited, with all the scenes lined up.

Did it change much?
The main change was giving myself freedom editorially. The script had a very unconventional approach, and originally there was a lot more of the talking heads. I sat down with my DP (Nicolas Karakatsanis) and figured out how we could take every opportunity to shoot those scenes without the talking heads, so we could use voiceover and music instead to give it more energy. I designed specific camera moves so we could carry voiceover or music going into those scenes, or possibly leaving them.

There’s a lot of comedy, but also some very serious stuff, like the domestic abuse and battery. That must have also been a bit of a tightrope to walk?
It was. In terms of dealing with the tone, it was one of the biggest challenges, and I didn’t want to judge the characters or just make fun of them, which would have been too easy. There’s comedy, but you also see that, with the domestic violence, Tonya’s kind of immune to it. She’s desensitized to it, and I felt that that also gave more insight into her character. I also shot those scenes both ways too, so I had a choice in the editing. And then it changes to Jeff’s point-of-view, and he breaks the fourth wall about half-way through the movie, so there was a lot to work with in the edit.

I would have never thought of Margot Robbie as Tonya. What did she bring to the role?
Everything. It’s such a tightrope to walk in terms of the tone, and she ages from 15 to 46, so there are all the different ages and scenes that are absurdly dark and funny, and scenes that are incredibly emotional. It was the whole kitchen sink, but I knew that Margot could navigate that tricky dance between the humor and the drama, and also keep it grounded and not wink at the audience, and she’s brilliant in the role.

How much skating did she do?
A lot. She trained so hard for five months, four days a week, and it was hard as she’d never figure skated before. In the end, she did a lot of the skating and then for the really difficult moves we used VFX to enhance them. I actually had no idea the huge amount of prep she did, studying every bit of footage out there to get her speech patterns and mannerisms, down to the different ages and the way she sounded at those different ages, and doing scenes with no make-up and bad hair and so on. There was nothing she wasn’t up for. We both met Tonya in person, so that helped too.

Allison Janney is equally phenomenal.
Steve actually wrote the role for her. She’s so ferocious and fearless when you consider some of her dialogue is so vile. There were days when she’d say, “Do I have to say the ‘c’ word again?” And I’d say, “Yeah, you do.” But she delivered it all in a way where you still like her.

I heard it was a very fast shoot. How tough was it?
Very. We did it in just 31 days, and the original script had 265 scenes, and we then added a few. It’s probably the fastest, most intense schedule I’ve ever had, but I was so lucky in that my cast was so well-prepared.

Do you like post?
I really love it. It’s the most fun part of the whole filmmaking process for me, and I love the first few weeks where you’re editing and finding the film and then the pace and tone and rhythm and so on. It’s the most creative part for me.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all at Harbor Post in New York.

The film was edited by your long-time editor Tatiana Riegel. What were the biggest editing challenges?
We cut for five or six months, and finding the right tone was key. But we’re so in tune that there are scenes I never touched after her first assembly. The scene between Tonya and her mother in the diner? I never changed anything, as she has such an instinctive balance of tone. We have an amazing shorthand now. I actually thought it might be a quite complicated edit, as the story jumps around so much, but we’d planned it all out so much that I did my first cut in under a month after we wrapped.

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
We had about 120, mainly for the skating sequences, and Eight VFX did them all. I’ve used them a lot on my commercials, and they always have my back, and we had a very tight budget. We got lucky as our Steadicam operator could skate, but then we had to add in crowds to all the great shots, and we had about 60 stage replacements where we shot on bluescreen, so we ended up doubling the amount of VFX shots we needed.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
They’re crucial, and this is the first time I’ve posted a movie with a lot of stuff already in mind. I usually figure it out as I go in post. The closest things I could find in terms of structure were To Die For and Goodfellas, which goes through a lot of scenes very quickly — especially in the first half — with just voiceover and music. I designed a lot of shots around the music, such as “Devil Woman” and Chicago’s “25 Or 6 To 4,” and it was a really fun way to work. We mixed at Harbor.

The film has a great look. Talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Company 3 in New York with colorist Tom Poole. We shot on film, and Tom and the DP worked on it for a while and then I came in, and I love the look.

What’s next?
I’m looking for the right project. There’s nothing lined up.

Do you plan to keep shooting commercials?
Definitely. It’s a nice luxury to have because it’s something you can just jump into it for a short project. And you get to work with some of the greatest DPs in the whole business and try out different gear and experiment, and then bring that to the next movie. So I’ll keep doing both.


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.

Joe Wright on directing Darkest Hour

By Iain Blair

Maybe it’s something in the water, but Dunkirk and Winston Churchill seem to be popping up everywhere these days. While the British statesman and prime minister merely hovered unseen in the background of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk epic, he’s front-and-center in Joe Wright’s aptly titled Darkest Hour, which was nominated for Best Picture.

Starring Academy Award-nominee and BAFTA Award-winner Gary Oldman as Churchill, it tells the story of his first weeks in office during the fraught early days of World War II. A witty and brilliant statesman, Churchill is a stalwart member of Parliament, but at age 65 is an unlikely candidate for prime minister. However, the situation in Europe is desperate, with allied nations continuing to fall against Nazi troops and with the entire British army stranded in France at Dunkirk. (Oldman got an Oscar nod for Best Actor for his role as Churchill.)

Writer Iain Blair and director Joe Wright.

He’s appointed PM as the threat of invasion of the UK by Hitler’s forces looms, only to find his own party is plotting against him and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) skeptical that the new prime minister can rise to the challenge. He is confronted with the ultimate choice: negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany and save the British people at a terrible cost, or fight on against incredible odds.

With the support of his wife of 31 years, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill looks to the British people to inspire him to stand firm and fight for his nation’s ideals, liberty and freedom. Putting his power with words to the ultimate test, and with the help of his tireless secretary (Lily James), Winston must write and deliver speeches that will rally a nation as he attempts to change the course of world history forever.

Working from a script by Anthony McCarten, Wright also assembled a stellar below-the-line team that included DP Bruno Delbonnel, editor Valerio Bonelli and composer Dario Marianelli.

Wright first grabbed Hollywood’s attention with his debut film, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, which won a raft of awards and four Oscar nominations. He followed that up with the Oscar-winning war drama Atonement, and in 2012 reunited with his Atonement star Kiera Knightley to remake Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s classic tale of love and betrayal.

Now, the master of period pieces, whose credits include The Soloist, Pan and Hanna, is getting a lot of awards and Oscar buzz for Focus Features’ Darkest Hour, and Oldman looks like a lock for an Oscar nomination.

I met up with Wright to discuss making the film.

This is definitely not your usual biopic. It’s a real political thriller, but also a character study.
Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to make. I didn’t realize there were so many Churchill projects going on in both movies and TV, and I wasn’t interested in trying to cover his whole life. This is a very concentrated slice about a pivotal moment in his life — and in history.When I first read the script, it was such a page-turner, full of all this drama and emotion, highs and lows.

First off, he was this complete English eccentric who’d hold meetings while taking a bath, or in his bed, and he’d drink whisky and scotch at lunch and discuss matters of state in his nightshirt… that’s an appealing character. I think he was also a bit of a genius. I say “bit of,” because he also got a lot wrong in his life and career, such as Gallipoli. But when it really counted the most — the resistance to Hitler, tyranny, bigotry and Nazism — he got it exactly right.

Casting the right actor as Churchill was obviously crucial, but what made you choose Gary Oldman — who looks nothing like him?
I’ve always been a huge fan of his — he’s the man — but for this role I wanted an actor with the right level of intensity.  I saw Churchill as almost bi-polar, with all this energy both in thought and action that led him to brilliance, but that also sometimes led him to disastrous and reckless acts. Gary has that kind of energy, which is impossible to fake. You can do all the rest — prosthetics and make-up and body suits, but the essence is what’s most important.

What were the main challenges of the shoot?
It wasn’t a big shoot though it’s got a big scale and deals with epic themes. It wasn’t a micro-budget, but it was tight, so a main challenge was how to deliver a movie that feels truly epic with very limited resources. It’s a very dialogue-heavy film, and with a lot of scenes — including a 10-minute one with people sitting around a table talking — so we had to find a way to make all that very dramatic and as suspenseful as possible.

Fair to say your visual approach on this marries a lot of cutting-edge camera moves to a very classical style?
I think that’s right. I kind of like classicism, and I strive to achieve what might be called “modern classicism,” and I also use a lot of sweeping and unusual camera moves at the same time. Because so much is set in the underground bunkers, whenever we left I wanted to give it a lot more scope and scale, so we designed a lot of shots with that in mind. As I read the script, I envisaged it, and then I spent many, many hours lying on the sofa, listening to music and thinking about what I might do. That’s when I dreamed up those sequences. And we started with all the VFX and post from day one. It all happened together.

Do you like the post process?
Love it, and it’s probably my favorite part, though I like the whole filmmaking process. There are times when post can be very frustrating, but that’s also true of shooting.

Where did you do the post?
All in London. I cut it at my house, and it was set up in such a way that I could do most of the post there, which was great.  Craig Berkey, the supervising sound editor — did my first film and every one since — does most of his cutting and work at home in Canada, and then he came over, and we did all the mixing at Halo Post in London.

Then we did the DI at Technicolor in London, with colorist Peter Doyle, who has a very subtle hand and eye, and he does a lot of my stuff. I really enjoy that process so much as well. Back in the ‘90s in London, everyone was doing music videos, and we all used to spend long nights in telecine smearing stuff all over the film and trying to experiment with all sorts of looks. So it’s always been very important to me, and exciting, and I’m pretty involved.

The film was edited by Valerio Bonelli, who worked with you on Black Mirror, and whose credits include Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins for Stephen Frears. How did that relationship work?
Black Mirror was a good opportunity to try someone new. I loved working with him, and that rolled straight into this. He was on location with us up in Yorkshire at the house we used, and we set a cutting room up there. After shooting every day, I’d come back, we’d watch dailies and discuss the edit. The edit took about six months, and for the first time —  I’d committed to directing a play — I took a six-week hiatus and found it to be very helpful with the edit. I didn’t watch it once during that time, so it was abundantly clear where I was being indulgent when I came back to it with fresh eyes. I plan to take a break like that during editing from now on, it was so helpful.

What about visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
We had about 60, and Framestore did them all. I really like working with VFX as they’re such a useful tool, a means to an end. But when they become the end, then you have a big problem.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
For me it’s half of the experience. I sent the composer the script prior to shooting and we talked about my ideas. I wanted something quite minimalist, which was unusual for him as he’s more in the lush, romantic tradition. I also sent him a photo of Gary as Churchill walking, to show him the energy. He wrote a piece based on that photo, and did a fantastic score.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would?
You always have a picture of it in your head and it’s always different from the way you originally pictured it, but I’m very happy with 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.

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

By Randi Altman

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

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

Kevin Tent (left) on set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

We reached out to Big Block’s Paul and VFX supervisor John Cherniack to find out more…

How early did Big Block get involved in this F-150 campaign?
We worked with Detroit agency GTB starting in May 2017.

How much creative input did you have on the campaign? In terms of both original concept and execution?
Trillo: What was so original about this pitch was that they gave us a blank canvas and VO script to work with, and that’s it. I was building off a campaign that had been running for nearly 10 years and I knew what the creatives were looking for in terms of some sort of kinetic, constantly transitioning energy. However, it was essentially up to me to design each moment of the spot and how we get from A to B to C.

Typically, car commercials can be pretty prescriptive and sensitive to how the car is depicted. This campaign functions a lot differently than your typical car commercial. There was a laundry list of techniques, concepts, tricks and toys I’ve wanted to implement, so we seized the opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at this. Then, by breaking down the script and pairing it with the different tricks I wanted to try out, I sort of formed the piece. It was through the development of the scripts, boards and animatics that certain ideas fell to the wayside and the best rose to the top.

Cherniack: Paul had some great ideas from the very beginning, and the whole team got to help contribute to the brainstorming. We took the best ideas and started to put them all together in a previz to see which ones would stitch together seamlessly.

Paul, Justin Trask (production designer) and I all spent a very long together going through each board and shot, determining which elements we could build, and what we would make in CG. As much as we wanted to build a giant gantry to raise the bar, some elements were cost-prohibitive. This is where we were able to get creative on what we would be able to achieve between practical and CG elements.

How much creative input did you have on set?
Trillo: The only creative decisions we were let to make on set were coming up with creative solutions for logistical challenges. We’d done all the pre-production work, mapping out the camera moves and transitions down to the frame, so the heavy lifting was finished. Of course, you always look to make it better on set and find the right energy in the moment, but that’s all icing.

Cherniack: By the time we started shooting, we had gone through a good amount of planning, and I had a good feeling about everything that Paul was trying to achieve. One area that we both worked together on set was to get the most creative shot, while also maintaining our plans for combining the shots in post.

What challenges did you face?
Trillo: I think I have a sort of addictive personality when it comes to logistical and creative challenges. Before this thing was fully locked in, before we had any storyboards or a single location, I knew what I had written out was going to be super challenging if not impossible. Especially because I wanted to shot as much as we could practically. However, what you write down on a piece of paper and what you animate in a 3D environment doesn’t always align with the physics of the real world. Each shot provided its own unique challenge, whether it’s an art department build or deciding which type of camera rig to use to move the camera in an unusual way. Fortunately, I had a top-notch crew both in camera (DP Dan Mindel) and production design (Justin Trask) that there were always a couple ways to solve each problem.

Cherniack: In order to have all of the measurements, HDRI, set surveys and reference photography, I had to always be on the move, while being close enough should any VFX questions come up. Doing this in 110+ degree heat, in the quarry, during three of the hottest days of the summer was quite a challenge. We also had very little control of lake currents, and had to modify the way we shot the boat scene in Brainiac on the fly. We had a great crew who was able to change directions quickly.

What was your favorite part of working on this campaign? What aspect are you most proud of?
Trillo: It was pretty spectacular to see each of these pieces evolve from chicken scratch into a fully-realized image. There was little creative compromise in that entire process. But I have to say I think I’m proudest of dropping 400lbs of french fries out of a shipping container.

Any major differences between automotive campaigns and ads for other industries?
The main difference is there aren’t any rules here. The only thing you need to keep in mind when doing this campaign is stay true to the F-150’s brand and ethos. As long as you remain true to the spirit, there are no other guidelines to follow in terms of how a car commercial needs to function. What appeals to me about this campaign is it combines a few of my interests of design, technical camera work and a dash of humor.

What tools did you use?
Cherniack: We used the software Maya, 3ds Max, Nuke, Flame, PFTrack for post-production.

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.