Tag Archives: Directing

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.

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.

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.

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.”