Tag Archives: Directing

Director Zach Math joins Caviar

Production company Cavier, which has offices in Los Angeles, London, Brussels and Paris, has added director Zach Math to its directorial roster. Math’s series of spots for K-Mart (“Ship My Pants”) got over 50 million views on YouTube and won a Webby Award, and two of his branded shorts are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

His documentary feature, The Final Member, premiered at the Toronto Hot Docs International Film Festival and played festivals all over the world. The distribution rights were purchased by Drafthouse Films and it was released on Netflix. Since then, he’s worked with brands such as Fox Sports, Nissan, AT&T, Comcast and the NFL.

While Math is excited to continue working in the advertising and commercial world, he is also looking forward to taking advantage of Caviar’s film and television capabilities to develop his own long format projects.

“Zach has proven his directorial expertise throughout the branded content world,” says Caviar Los Angeles executive producer Jasper Thomlinson. “His sophisticated visual style, skills as a writer and comedic sensibility fit in here perfectly.”

The A-List: Suicide Squad director David Ayer

By Iain Blair

With his distinctive, anarchic, immersive style, director/producer/screenwriter David Ayer has always excelled at probing the murky depths of human behavior and blurring the lines between the bad guys and the good guys in such hardcore films as Training Day, Fury, Sabotage, Harsh Times and End of Watch. Now Ayer, whose credits include Street Kings, and the screenplays for U-571, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., has made Suicide Squad, a blockbuster without the usual bluster, and a superhero movie without the usual heroes.

David Ayer

With an all-star cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, and based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, it tells the story of a rogues gallery of outcasts who are assembled into a team, equipped with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and sent off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic entity.

Ayer’s behind-the-scenes stellar creative team included director of photography Roman Vasyanov, production designer Oliver Scholl, editor John Gilroy and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. The music is by composer Steven Price. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and in select IMAX 3D theaters.

I spoke with Ayer on the eve of its release about making Suicide Squad and why editing is like a wrestling match.

This is definitely not your usual superhero movie. What was the appeal of doing it, as there’re so many superhero films out there now? 
Great question. When I did Fury, it was all about historical accuracy and recreating WWII. With this, I wanted to try and create a fantasy world and give it this real and gritty feel that I like as a director, and bring that sensibility to a comic book movie and create multi-dimensional characters through casting amazing actors — and ground the fantastical as much as possible in reality.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
In a lot of ways filmmaking is very mechanical, and all the processes are sort of an industrial process. So it was dealing with all the sets and set pieces, the sheer scale of it, and that becomes about logistics — building them, tearing them down, building new sets on the same stages, and how to move all these pieces around and keep your crews running smoothly. It was a massive undertaking.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Sony Imageworks’ Jerome Chen — who did the VFX on Fury, and the Spider-Man films as well as Beowulf and The Polar Express for Bob Zemeckis — came in right at the start. We did extremely complex CG characters in this, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to go about doing it and what were the best techniques. It took a lot of time and work, and we also had to figure out all the computer time and the renderfarms we needed to generate the shots, so all the VFX were embedded in the shoot from day one. We set up witness cameras to record everything the crew did, we had constant telemetry and a ton of data gathering.

Did you do a lot of previs?
Quite a lot. Third Floor did them. It’s a very interesting technique, as for certain scenes you absolutely have to have it. You have to go in knowing efficiently where you’re going to have to drop that camera on the set, and there are a few scenes that almost exactly match the previs we did. But other times it’s not really an essential tool

You reunited with director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury and End of Watch. How tough was the shoot?
We did most of the principal photography at Pinewood Toronto Studios, and it was a long and grueling shoot. I was very happy to get to post!

Do you like the post process?
I love post. You know you’re going to work every day, that’s for sure. We did it all on the lot at Warners. It’s always challenging because film isn’t logical, it’s emotional, and it comes together in strange ways. It’s never a linear journey, and you go down blind alleys and try to solve problems, and not every problem wants to yield its secrets.

Can you talk about working with editor John Gilroy, (Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, The Bourne LegacyMichael Clayton). Was he on the set?
He set up editorial in Toronto so it was up and running from the beginning. He tried to keep up with the shoot as much as possible as we shot on film, so there’s the lag between photography and the dailies reaching editorial.

And you like to shoot, don’t you?
(Laughs) I do shoot a lot! Over 1.5 million feet of film on this — so it’s a lot of work just to watch it and keep the assembly up to date. Then we did the main editing back on the lot. I love editing even though it’s baffling and frustrating and wonderful, all at the same time. The challenge is always that you can make an infinite number of films out of the same footage, and whatever your ideas and dreams are going in, they’re going to be shattered along the way — because the movie wants to be what it wants to be, and you can only fight that so much. You’re wrestling every day to find the right film.

All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jerome Chen who did Fury for you.
We have this shorthand, and he knows my taste and how I think and what I’m going to want and how I’m going to want it. It’s a pretty seamless relationship, and he also has great ideas; he often surprises me. This was a huge job with thousands of VFX shots, and a lot of vendors, but the main ones were MPC and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Anything with full CG characters is hard. It’s hard to shoot that and block it and hard to edit things you can’t see. You end up with this hodgepodge of previs and half-finished shots and slowly the finished VFX stuff gets dropped in.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Shed in Santa Monica, a fairly new company [which runs Baselight’s latest Generation VI system with more grading power]. We did the DI with colorist Yvan Lucas, who co-founded the company. He did Fury, but this was my first time at The Shed, and he did an amazing job. The film looks very beautiful. The DI is so important, and it’s almost my favorite part of post. I get in there and look at every shot. Yvan and Roman would do a pass and then I’d do one, and we’d keep passing the baton like that until we were all happy.

For me, it’s where the film really comes to life. After seeing it in dailies for so long, it’s such a pleasure to see it like this. We did everything from the overall look to saturation and contrast matching, and some re-composition now and again. We shot the film in a very precise way and composed shots very specifically, but the DI lets you do some re-comps if needed when you simply don’t have the time on the day of the shoot, especially with exterior stuff.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was mostly what I had envisioned, but the mechanics of how you get there and how to tell the best story were a bit different, and you can’t foresee that. It was a great experience, and I can safely say I learned more about filmmaking on this than on any other film I’ve done. It was a maturing as a filmmaker.

What’s next?
I’m doing Bright with Will Smith. We start shooting in the fall.

Will you do another superhero movie?
(Laughs) I’ll wait to see how the fans respond to this before I put my neck on the block again.

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.

GenPop adds Patrick Brice to its directorial roster

Patrick Brice joins the directorial roster at LA-based content creation studio and production company GenPop. Also an actor, he brings with him experience writing, primarily for features, but he joins GenPop to focus on the advertising world.

Brice was first exposed to different ways to approach narrative storytelling while getting his BFA in Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts. Creep, his first feature film as director/writer/actor (with Mark Duplass) premiered at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival and was distributed by Netflix and iTunes. His second feature as director/writer, The Overnight (starring Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling and Jason Schwartzman) premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.  The Overnight made the rounds on the festival circuit that year, winning Best Narrative Feature at the deadCenter Film Festival, and earning a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as for an Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

“Liberating” is how Patrick describes the opportunity to create commercial work with GenPop, “Being used to projects that take several years from conception to completion, the chance to focus on a very specific story and explore the narrative within the short format feels like the world is opening up.”

In addition to working with GenPop, Brice is currently writing a movie for Netflix — produced by the Duplass Brothers — which he will also direct. This marks Patrick’s third project with Mark Duplass, a long-term creative relationship that speaks to his collaborative spirit.

The A-List — ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ director Roland Emmerich

The director talks about this VFX-heavy sequel and how it takes advantage of today’s technology to tell its story. 

By Iain Blair

After two decades of rumors and speculation, “The Master of Disaster” — German director/writer/producer Roland Emmerich — is finally back with Independence Day: Resurgence. This is the long-awaited sequel to his seminal 1996 alien invasion epic Independence Day, one of the most financially successful movies in the history of Hollywood — it ended up making over $817 million worldwide and turning Will Smith into a superstar.

Following that smash, Emmerich went on to make other apocalyptic mega-productions, including Godzilla (the 1998 version), The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012, all of which were huge box office hits despite little love from the critics. And while Emmerich has also made smaller movies, such as Anonymous, The Patriot and Stonewall, which didn’t involve aliens, the destruction of cities, rising sea levels or vast armies of VFX artists, his latest blockbuster will only further cement his legacy as an ambitious filmmaker who doesn’t just love to blow shit up but who has always seen the big picture. The Fox release opens June 24.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

I recently spoke with Emmerich about making the film, which features many visual effects shots, and the post process.

It’s been two decades since Independence Day became a global blockbuster. Why did it take so long to do a sequel?
I made the first one as a stand-alone film, and for 10 years I felt that way. Plus, ideas that were pitched for a sequel didn’t work for me. Then, about six, seven years ago, I was shooting for the first time on digital cameras for the film 2012. We did all of the 1,500 VFX shots in the computer, and it suddenly hit me that the technology had changed so much that maybe it was time to try a sequel.

On the first one I was just so frustrated as I couldn’t do everything I wanted and had imagined, because of all the limitations with VFX and technology back then. I had these scissors in my head — this I can do, that I cannot do — but this time I had no scissors and no limitations, and that was a huge difference for me.

How much pressure was there to top the last film?
I honestly didn’t feel much pressure, although I’m very aware that times have changed. I see all the other big VFX films out there and I keep up on it all and I know how competitive it is now. But I felt pretty good about what we could do with this one. And I feel I’ve always been able to create these “impossible images” where people go, “Oh my God! What is that?” Like water coming over the Himalayas. This time it was this enormous 3,000-mile long alien spaceship that comes down to Earth, like this giant spider. That was the first image I had in my head for the film.

It’s a very image-driven business I’m in, and while you obviously work hard on characters and themes and so on, most of the time it’s these images that pop into my head that inspire everything else. And this giant spaceship wasn’t something we could do back in ’96. It was just impossible.

How different was the approach on this and what sort of film did you set out to make?
I tried very hard to avoid making a classic sequel. And it’d been so long anyway. It’s a different society, and we can stay united and fight together. The other big idea was that we’ve harvested all the alien technology. We can’t rebuild it, but we’ve harvested it, and humans are so ingenious, so we can take it and adapt it for human use and machines. So all these themes and ideas were very interesting to me.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Even when I’m writing I’m already thinking about all the VFX and post, and the moment the script is there it’s well under way. I like to make 25-30 big paintings of key scenes that really show you where the movie’s going — the style, the size of the film. They’re so helpful for showing everyone from production executives at the studio to the visual effects teams. It gives a very clear visual idea of what I want. Then you break it down into sequences and start storyboarding and so on.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

You must have done a lot of previz for this one?
Yes, but we had very little time because of the release date, and it was very complicated. I had started shooting already and still had to do previz since we weren’t able to previz the whole film before. We needed to previz everything, so I had double duties: at lunch and after shooting I always had to meet with my previz team. When I look back, the film was like a long race against time.

Post and VFX have evolved so much since the first film. What have been the biggest changes for you?
The biggest for me is the whole digital revolution. Digital cameras can now make far better blue- and greenscreen composites, and we shot with Red Weapon Dragons. That’s huge for me as I used to hate the old look of composites and all the limits you had, whereas now, if you can imagine it, you can do it. The computer gives you infinite possibilities in VFX. On the first one I would have these images in my head and then find out we couldn’t do them. Anything is possible today.

Where did you post?
We rented offices in North Hollywood, and we had our editing suite there… the 3D people, and the VFX team. For sound, I always work with sound designer Paul Ottosson, who has his whole set-up at Sony on the lot. So we did all the mixing there, including a Dolby Atmos mix.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE
This was edited by Adam Wolfe, who cut Stonewall and White House Down for you. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
He’s a very active editor and he’ll run on to the set saying, “I need this or that.” He’s not on the set all the time, but he’s close by when I shoot, and we’ll work together on the weekends so I can get a feel for the film and what we’ve shot so far.

This is obviously a VFX-driven piece, and the VFX play a big role. Can you talk about that and working with the visual effects supervisor?
I really enjoy working with VFX — from the concepts to cutting the shots in — and working with a relatively small team of maybe 15 people on them every day, talking on Skype or in person, ideally. I feel that you can also cast VFX companies like actors — for their special talents. Some excel at this, some excel at that. If you’re doing a creature film, then Weta is great. If it’s a very complicated sequence with a lot of water and buildings collapsing and fires, then Scanline is great.

I always try and inspire them to do VFX they’ve never done before, so it’s not boring for them. In the end, we used 10 big companies and another five smaller ones, including Weta, CinINDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCEesite, Scanline, Image Engine, Trxter, MPC, Digital Domain and Buf.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to pull off?
The hardest was the big sequence where the mothership starts sucking up Singapore — the whole city and all the ships — before throwing it on London. That was very complicated to do, and Scanline did an amazing job. The whole scene at the end with the alien battle was also very hard to pull off. That took months and months to do, and the companies started doing tests and simulations at a very early stage. They also sent some of their people to the set to advise you on how best to shoot the live action to go with their VFX.

What’s next?
Another huge film, I hope. I love them. It’s my job, my business.

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.

How to get hired, and how to get hired again

By David Jasse

Over the last 15 years, I’ve interviewed many potential job candidates — full-time and freelance — for my post and production company DMJ Studios… and I’ve seen it all! You should know, I’m a people person. I always look for the best in people, but to be honest, some of the folks who have come in for interviews have left me speechless.

For example, I asked one woman who was applying for a production manager position, “What exactly did you do on that particular production?” She squirmed in her seat, never answered and then left. Another person came for an edit position and got mad at me for testing him on the software. He said I should have warned him that I was going to test him!

I thought this list might be useful in helping those looking for work or hoping to stay employed long-term.

1. Be a professional. Come early. Stay late if needed.
2. Acknowledge mistakes and weaknesses. Don’t make excuses. Tell the truth.
3. Know how to wear a producer hat. In other words, if you’re asked to do something you can’t do, find someone who can.
4. Say little, but do a lot.
5. Do not text or talk on the phone on company time. Do it on breaks or ask permission.
6. Know the software like a professional. Be an expert, take classes and stand out.
7. Go the extra mile — wash a dish, change a bulb, make coffee… don’t just stand there.
8. If you can’t make it in then send a friend/freelancer.
9. Submit fair, one-time, accurate billing.
10. Be familiar with the work of the company you’re applying to/working for.

Employing just a few of these simple tips might help make you an even stronger candidate/employee.

David Jasse is a director and owner of Long Island-based DMJ Studios. Jasse opened DMJ in 1992 after gaining network experience at CNN, MTV, CBS and Fox. Among his company’s most recent achievements is editing and designing graphics for Emmy Award-winning Born to Explore With Richard Weise for ABC.

VFX-friendly director Samuel Bennetts joins Assembly

Bi-coastal studio Assembly has added versatile director and VFX artist Samuel Bennetts to its roster of talent. Originally from Sydney, the now LA-based Bennetts started young, directing stage plays while studying science and psychology. Today, he helms commercials, music videos and short films. His TVC for The Road and Traffic Authority is one of the longest running in Australia, while his debut short film What They Don’t Know was the opening film at the St. Kilda Film Festival and won at Sydney’s Flickerfest.

After directing his first short, Bennetts started working on music videos for bands such as Rouge Traders, INXS, Grinspoon, and his childhood friends, Bluejuice. It was working on the visual for an INXS track remixed by Rouge Traders that catapulted him into working with VFX and established his reputation in this arena.

Bennetts calls on VFX as one of his favorite storytelling tools. His command of the medium combined with strong performance direction is highly sought after, having worked with brands such as VW, McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson, Castrol, Ebay, Powerade and Canon.

“From what I have seen, Assembly creates films that people love and are excited by. They really cultivate their directors, pushing us on creative projects and experiences,” he says. “I’m excited to further explore my character and emotion-driven work with Assembly, and ultimately create films that are distinctive and that are going to motivate people too.”

The A-List: ‘Maggie’s Plan’ director Rebecca Miller

By Iain Blair

Rebecca Miller is a rara avis in the industry: a female director and screenwriter in what is still essentially a boy’s club. She’s written and directed five films, including Sundance Film Festival winners Personal Velocity, Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Miller also happens to be daughter of legendary playwright Arthur Miller, and wife of Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis (whose knighthood also entitles her to be referred to as Lady Day-Lewis).

In her latest, a romantic comedy titled Maggie’s Plan, Greta Gerwig portrays Maggie Hardin, a thirty-something New Yorker working in education who, without success in finding love, decides now is the time to have a child on her own. But when she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke), an anthropology professor and struggling novelist, Maggie falls in love for the first time, and adjusts her plans for motherhood. Complicating matters, John is in an unhappy marriage with Georgette Harding (Julianne Moore), an ambitious academic who is driven by her work. With some help from Maggie’s eccentric and hilarious best friends, married couple Tony (Bill Hader) and Felicia (Maya Rudolph), Maggie sets in motion a new plan that intertwines their lives, and which teaches her that sometimes destiny should be left to its own devices.

Rebecca Miller and our writer Iain Blair.

I recently met up with Miller to talk about making Maggie’s Plan, and why there are so few women directors.

Given that you make indie films with limited budgets, what were the main challenges of pulling this together?
It’s always a challenge to stay light on your feet and keep the crew small enough so that you can move quickly, and make sure all the players are very good so you don’t run into problems later with the sound or lighting and so on. Because if you have a problem, it’s a bit of a snowball, and once one thing goes wrong it affects everything, and then you have to fix it all in post, which I really don’t like to do.

You have an all-star cast, including Oscar-winner Julianne Moore. Do you know them well enough to just call them, or do you go through all the agents and managers?
It depends. I know Julianne, so I just dropped the script through her mailbox. She liked it and signed on. I met Greta and within 10 minutes knew she was right. I didn’t know Bill Hader at all, but he knew my work, so casting wasn’t that hard.

You shot this in New York City. How tough was it?
Very. It was a very cold winter… we were in the “polar vortex,” and everyone was freezing. But it was a joyful shoot with a very close-knit and happy crew, so even though we had a lot of locations every day, we moved very fast and I was very well prepared. DP Sam Levy and I worked for mMaggie's Planonths prepping it, so once we started it went very smoothly.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and it’s this wonderful time where you can finally relax and take another stab at basically re-writing your whole film. Post is where all the layering and detail work comes in, especially with sound, sound design and music.

Where did you post?
We did it all at Technicolor-Postworks NY. We cut for about 10 to 12 weeks, and then we had a few extra weeks to play with. We did a pre-mix and then the final mix.

Your editor was Sabine Hoffman (Harlem Aria), who worked with you on Personal Velocity, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. How did that relationship work?
She came to the set a couple of times, but usually what we do is, I shoot and send her material, and she starts cutting as fast as she can and starts an assembly. The big benefit is she can check it all and say to me, “We really need an exterior shot here, and an establishing shot there.” It’s usually something I didn’t think we needed, so I’ll go back to the location a month later and grab what we need.

Maggie's Plan

It’s very important to have the editor working during the shoot, rather than just handing her all the material after we wrap, as it’s too late then. She knows the script inside out. She’ll come to some of the early script readings and storyboard sessions, so she knows all my shot lists and so on, and how I picture cutting it all together. I really love the editing process, and I love the freedom you have with digital editing.

For instance, on The Ballad of Jack and Rose we tried cutting it forwards and then backwards. On this we cut it in sections, almost like movements, and kept combing though and combing through. The  color grading was done by colorist Alex Bickel on Resolve. This was my first time working with him, and he was terrific. The grading was very important as we had a very specific color palette for various scenes. We added some grain since Sam shot on Alexa. We also did an unusual amount of screenings on this — not test screenings so much as just people we invited, and it was more just to hear their reactions. It was painful, but it was very helpful. I don’t like having to do it, but I felt it was necessary.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
They’re as important as what you see in many ways, and I worked very closely with composer Michael Rohatyn, who also did The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. I was there when we recorded all the music, and we had this great music editor, Todd Kasow, who was very helpful in where Maggie's Planto place music and how to use it most effectively. The sound design was also so important for me and this film, as it’s also all about creating intimacy in key scenes between characters, when you manipulate sounds in a way that two people stop hearing the world around them because they’re so into each other. Every little bird noise, every footstep, was important — also when you artificially take away sound in a scene — and how speech rhythms work, as the dialogue is so crucial in this movie. Luckily, we barely had to loop anything in post.

Do you get surprised by how your movie changes in post?
I do, but if I didn’t like surprises I’d just be a novelist instead, where you have total control over everything. Part of the fun is seeing how it changes from your original vision for it.

Ethan Hawke said that even though he’s been acting professionally for over 30 years now, this is the first time he’s been directed by a woman. Why are there so few women directors?
It’s simply lack of opportunity, and it’s an employment problem. There are women directors — but they just don’t get hired. It’s the same problem facing minorities in this business: we’re all seen as a lump, as if we’re all the same, but we’re all different, as all human beings are, and we don’t direct in some “female” way. We’re all individuals, but it seems strangely difficult for people to understand.

Director Justin Harder joins production/post house Golden

Los Angeles-based production and post studio Golden has signed director Justin Harder to its roster. Harder, who has a background in design, will serve as both a commercial director and a creative director at Golden. He will continue to helm both animation and live-action spots.

Golden’s multidisciplinary approach, which fuses high-end live-action production, design, animation, and visual effects, appeals to Harder. “It feels right to be part of a highly selective roster, while having the support of a larger studio with more 3D and VFX firepower. I’m here because my work really aligns with Golden’s vision and needs.”

This Chicago native, who studied graphic design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, often creates pencil drawings and full-scale props. “I’m into the mechanics of things,” he says, “I don’t always rely on computer graphics to give the work a personality, to bring it to life. I live by the credo ‘Make Something Everyday and Make Everyday Something,’ and if that means getting down and detailed, I’m in. It’s all about making something innovative, something exciting.”

The A-List: ‘Miles Ahead’ director/lead actor Don Cheadle

By Iain Blair

The multi-faceted Don Cheadle has starred in some 80 movies, both big (Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Ocean’s and Iron Man franchises) and small (Hotel Rwanda), and produced various TV shows and films.

Now he can add director to his resume, thanks to his passion project and labor of love, Miles Ahead, a wild — and wildly entertaining — free form biopic of jazz legend Miles Davis. Cheadle not only co-wrote, produced and directed the film, he also stars as the raspy-voiced pioneering musician whose improvisational approach and ambitious forays into rock-jazz fusion helped define modern jazz.

Set in the late ‘70s over the course of a five-year period, Miles Ahead paints a no-holds portrait of the mercurial Davis battling drug addiction and ghosts from the past as he embarks on an adventure with a music reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) to recover a stolen tape of his latest compositions.

Don Cheadle and Iain Blair

I recently met with Cheadle to talk about making the film, which was shot on a combination of film and digital formats.

You certainly jumped in the deep end for your first film as director — a period piece, about jazz, starring a black trumpeter. Financing must have been so easy (smiles).
So easy! No problem! We were very fortunate at the beginning… In 2006, we set it up at HBO — it was also going to get a theatrical release — but then the recession hit in 2008 and it was a disaster. That deal fell apart, the writers went away and we were back to square one with me playing Miles. That was it. But then I met (co-writer) Steve Baigelman, who co-wrote the James Brown biopic Get On Up, who understood what I wanted to do, and we got the script in shape. It was still years of stopping and starting, and deals falling apart, before it finally happened.

What did you envision for the film when you set out on this journey?
I wanted to make a film that really captures Miles’ raw energy and forward movement. I didn’t want to make the conventional biopic that tries to cover a whole life. The period we chose was this time when he was going through various personal and creative crises, and basically disappeared from view. That seemed like a great place to start and explore this very complicated man. I never met him, but I saw him perform and talked to everyone who worked with him. He was constantly looking for the next thing to say through his art, and that’s what drove him.

How did you prepare to direct your first feature?
I had directed TV and commercials, and I told myself this would just be a bigger stage. No need to freak out. And I’ve never been the dude who goes back to the trailer. I always liked to hang out on sets, watch people work, talk to DPs about lighting and the sound mixer and so on. I was trying to learn as much as I could. I talked to all my director friends, like Warren Beatty and Carl Franklin, and they basically said the same thing: “It’s the same, just bigger.” And I’d ask, “Really?” And they would say, “No. It’s much more than that. It’s like dealing with an army. Shooting is so stressful and you never sleep — and on top of that, you’re playing the lead and are in nearly every scene. Good luck with that!”

George Clooney, who has also directed himself, had great advice: “Do your pushups.” Meaning, you trust your script, you’ve got a good team around you — but you have to stay healthy to get through it all. It was tough. We actually shot most of it in Cincinnati, where Todd Haynes had just shot Carol, so they were very welcoming.

Was post a steep learning curve?
I have been around post a bit and in the editing room, but when it’s your own project and all the decisions are now yours, it’s very daunting. When I saw the first rough assembly I was so shocked that I left. I told the editor, “I’m out. I can’t even watch this. All I can see is everything I wasn’t able to accomplish, all of the mistakes, my performance is terrible — I don’t ever want to see this again!” He said, “That’s a very normal reaction, it’s okay.” It was a couple of weeks before I could come back and get into the process again.

Do you like the post process?
By the end, once I got over myself and into it all, I loved it. I had to focus on what was there, not the missing stuff, and then the magic of post happened — where it’s your third chance to write your movie. It was really rewarding, especially when you can magically create a moment in post that wasn’t there on the day.

Where did you post?
We did post in two sections. We did it at Tribeca West, for two months, and also some back east at Warner Bros. Sound in New York on West 55th. That’s where we did our sound mix. We also shot the last concert scene in New York and finished it up there. We did have a few visual effects, like when Miles is shot in the hip, and VFX to just sweeten stuff and paint out lights, but nothing major. Lit Post in Burbank did the VFX.

John Axelrad (Crazy Heart, The Immigrant) edited the film with Kayla Emter. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
Kayla was his assistant, and as I was so focused on playing Miles I told them, “Take the reins, and don’t wait for me to dictate how to cut scenes.” It was like when Herbie Hancock first played with Miles — he was terrified and said to Miles, “I don’t know what to play.” And Miles just said, “Piano, motherf***er.” (Laughs hard) That’s exactly how I felt with them. I didn’t need them to explain it all, just show it to me. Kayla really took that on and she cut a couple of great sequences that were all hers. So when John told us he wanted to make her his co-editor and that she deserved it, I agreed immediately.

They didn’t come to the set. They got the dailies in LA and then New York, and cut as we shot. We didn’t waste any footage. Our first assembly was 104 minutes, and the final movie is 100! We only cut one scene in the whole thing.

Obviously, music and sound were crucial. Can you talk about the importance of it in the film, and working with sound designer/editor Skip Lievsay?
It was an interesting mix, especially the music, because we wanted to use source and Miles wherever we could, and not try to do “sounds-like.” So I’d play to playback of Miles and all his solos, but when we had to bridge or figure out ways to make the magic happen, we did different things. There’s a scene where Miles is upstairs and the band is playing in the basement, and I walk downstairs and you hear the music break apart. I tell them to start another song in another tempo, and the shot goes over and around all the musicians as I start playing.  They had to play over all that to picture and match every breath and bit of phrasing. That was very tricky to do, but it’s seamless.

Where did you mix the sound?
At Warners in New York, and Skip did a brilliant job.

How important was the DI on this, and where did you do it?
Hugely important, and I did it with the DP at Company 3 with colorist Stephen Nakamura (who uses DaVinci Resolve). I wanted a look that echoed his music — brash, tender, moody, happy, the whole thing. It all turned out the way I pictured it in my head. [Says Nakamura, “Roberto and I based the look in the grade on the 16mm portions of the film by adding some grain to the digital images, just a subtle amount. And then we also wanted to give some scenes a bit of a ‘vintage’ feel. A lot of that comes from the costumes and hair styles and the older lenses he used but we also infused those images with a look inspired by photographs in magazines from the ’50s and ’60s that had more contrast than the pictures we’re used to seeing today.”]

Do you want to direct again?
After I go into a coffin for a while and recover. But it’s so hard directing and starring. Next time I don’t need to be in it. It’s too much.

What’s next?
More of my Showtime series House of Lies, then a big rest before I commit to anything.

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.

 

 

Making our dialogue-free indie feature ‘Driftwood’

By Paul Taylor and Alex Megaro

Driftwood is a dialogue-free feature film that focuses on a woman and her captor in an isolated cabin. We chose to shoot entirely MOS… because we are insane. Or perhaps we were insane to shoot a dialogue-free feature in the first place, but our choice to remove sound recording from the set was both freeing and nerve wracking due to the potential post production nightmare that lay ahead.

Our decision was based on how, without speech to carry along the narrative, every sound would need to be enhanced to fill in the isolated world of our characters. We wanted draconian control over the soundscape, from every footstep to every door creak, but we also knew the sheer volume of work involved would put off all but the bravest post studios.

The film was shot in a week with a cast of three and a crew of three in a small cabin in Upstate New York. Our camera of choice was a Canon 5D Mark II with an array of Canon L-series lenses. We chose the 5D because we already owned it — so more bang for our buck — and also because it gave us a high-quality image, even with such a small body. Its ease of use allowed us to set up extremely quickly, which was important considering our extremely truncated shooting schedule. Having no sound team on set allowed us to move around freely without the concerns of planes passing overhead or cars rumbling in the distance delaying a shot.

The Audio Post
The editing was a wonderfully liberating experience in which we cut purely to image, never once needing to worry about speech continuity or a host of other factors that often come into play with dialogue-driven films. Driftwood was edited on Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, a program that can sometimes be a bit difficult for audio editing, but for this film it was a non-issue. The Magnetic Timeline was actually quite perfect for the way we constructed this film and made the entire process smooth and simple.

Once picture locked, we brought the project to New York City’s Silver Sound Studios, who jumped at the chance to design the atmosphere for an entire feature from the ground up. We sat with the engineers at Silver Sound and went through Driftwood shot-by-shot, creating a master list of all the sounds we thought necessary to include. Some were obvious, such as footsteps, breathing, clocks ticking and others less so, such as the humming of an old refrigerator or creaking of a wooden chair.

Once the initial list was set, we discussed whether or not to use stock audio or rerecord everything at the original location. Again, because we wanted complete control to create something wholly unique, we concluded it was important to return to the cabin and capture its particular character. Over the course of a few days, the Silver Sound gang rerecorded nearly every sound in the film, leaving only some basic Foley work to complete in their studio.

Once their library was complete, one of the last steps before mixing was to ADR all of the breathing. We had the actors come into the studio over a one-week period during which they breathed, moaned and sighed inside Silver Sound’s recording booth. These subtle sounds are taken for granted in most films, but for Driftwood they were of utter importance. The way the actors would sigh or breath could change the meaning behind that sound and change the subtext of the scene. If the characters cannot talk, then their expressions must be conveyed in other ways, and in this case we chose a more physiological track.

By the time we completed the film we had spent over a year recording and mixing the audio. The finished product is a world unto itself, a testament to the laborious yet incredibly exciting work performed by Silver Sound.

Driftwood was written, directed and photographed by Paul Taylor. It was produced and edited by Alex Megaro.