Tag Archives: Iain Blair

Chatting with The Beguiled director Sofia Coppola

By Iain Blair

Sofia Coppola may belong to one of Hollywood’s most successful movie dynasties (see our recent interview with her mother, Eleanor), but she’s always marched to the beat of her own drum.

After making her acting debut in her dad’s iconic Godfather trilogy, and appearing in a number of his other films, Sofia gradually moved into writing and directing. She made her directorial debut with the 1999 feature The Virgin Suicides, which earned her an MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker and marked her first collaboration with Kirsten Dunst.

Her next film, Lost in Translation, won her the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, as well as nominations for Best Director and Best Picture (as producer).

Since then she’s made an eclectic group of films, including the sumptuous and playful Marie Antoinette, which starred Dunst in the title role, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring. Her hour-long holiday special, A Very Murray Christmas, received Emmy Award noms for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Music Direction and a DGA nom for its director.

Her latest film is The Beguiled, an atmospheric thriller that won its writer/director the Best Director award at Cannes recently. With an all-star cast that includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Dunst and Elle Fanning, the story unfolds during the Civil War at a Southern girls’ boarding school where its sheltered young women take in an injured enemy soldier. As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries. Taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events.

A Focus Features presentation of an American Zoetrope production, the film also features a behind-the-camera team that included Academy Award-nominated DP Philippe Le Sourd, editor Sarah Flack, production designer Anne Ross and executive producers Fred Roos, Ross, Roman Coppola and Robert Ortiz.

I recently met with Coppola to talk about making the film.

This is your first remake. What was the appeal of redoing the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film?
I didn’t know the Clint film. My production designer, Ann Ross, told me about it and said, “I think you need to remake it.” I was like, “I’ll never do a remake — what are you talking about?” But after I saw it, it just stayed in my mind, and I thought it so weird and full of twists and all from a man’s point of view. So, I got the book it was based on and began thinking about writing it from the women’s point of view, and I loved that it had all these women, ranging from age 12 to their 40s. So it’s more like a reinterpretation.

What sort of film did you set out to make? It seems like you really embraced the whole Southern Gothic genre.
I did, completely, and that was so much fun since I’ve never done that before. But I also wanted to keep it in my style, with my voice, and also make it very entertaining and also, hopefully, artful.

You assembled a great female-heavy cast. Poor Colin, surrounded by all those women.
I know, and it took a real man to be able to handle it and also be an object for them — and Colin was definitely up to the task.

Any surprises?
All of them surprised me in some way or other. Nicole was exactly how I imagined she’d be as I was writing it, but then she brought so much more to the role — and it was the same with Kirsten and Elle. It could easily have become a female camp-fest, but they all hit just the right notes and tone.

Is it true you shot at the same historic plantation Beyonce used for Lemonade?
Yes, Madewood, which is a two-hour drive outside of New Orleans. We did a lot of location work there and also at another plantation.

How long was the shoot?
Just 26 days, as we were pretty low-budget, so it was a mad dash. That was very challenging, especially as we had so many young actresses playing schoolgirls. We’d be in the middle of a scene and half the cast would have to leave. But Nicole’s such a pro we would shoot her alone, then fill in stuff later.

Where did you do the post?
All in New York. My editor, Sarah Flack, lives there, and so do I. My great sound designer Richard Beggs, who’s done all my films, also came to New York for post. He did most of his work in Northern California, but came over for the mix.

Do you like post?
I do, very much. For me it’s a real relief to get there after the craziness of the shoot. You’re under so much time and money pressure on the set, and then you can finally sit down and try things out and actually start putting the film together. I really enjoy that part. I feel post is very manageable.

You worked with your longtime editor Sarah Flack. What did she bring to the project, and was she on set?
She stays in New York and cuts while we shoot. I always love working with her and sharing her feedback. She loved this project and all the humor, and she helped me from early on. I showed her the Don Siegel film, and we put together a short reel to show the studio, so they knew what we wanted to do. While I shoot, she lets me know if I have everything covered or if we need any pick-ups.

What were the main editing challenges?
Finding the right pacing and rhythm, because we wanted it to feel very slow at the start, like those long, hot days, but then things start to pick up. So the pacing in the second half is much faster. Then finding the right tone is crucial. But Sarah and I are on the same page, so I feel we kept all the humor without it going full-camp.

There’s a great score by the French group Phoenix. Talk about the importance of sound and music in this.
As they say, it’s half the film, and after working with Richard Beggs for so long, I think far more about the sound and music than I did when I first began. I wanted this to have a lot of tension, so I wanted a very minimal approach. There are these electronic tones underlining that, and not taking away from the very rich visuals. I also wanted to really establish a sense of time and place, so you hear all the cannons in the distance, as the war is still happening all around them. Then you have that continual sound of the cicadas and nature around the school. All the sound design was very important in helping to tell the story.

Sound can be really challenging when it’s a period piece like this.
You’re right, and this was especially challenging as we shot some stuff in a home in New Orleans and the sound guys had to take out all the modern sounds like traffic, which wouldn’t even be noticeable in a contemporary piece.

This is obviously a performance-driven piece, but there must have been a fair amount of VFX?
Yes, mostly for Colin’s leg and the amputation stuff, and then the scene with the chandelier, and with the sound — taking out a lot of modern visual stuff and clean up. We had a great VFX supervisor, Joe Oberle, who worked with Darren Aronofsky, and he did it all.

What about the DI?
We did it at Technicolor Postworks in New York, and the colorist was Damien Van Der Cruyssen. He did a great job. We shot in 35mm, and I wanted to keep that great film look through the DI, and I’m very happy with the look we got. I’m very happy with the way the whole thing turned out. It’s like I imagined it while I was writing it – only more so, as the actors and then all the post people bring so much more to it.
What’s next?
I don’t know. I don’t have anything lined up. It’s nice, but a little scary too.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
The good news is that there are so many young women going to film school now, so that’s changing. And with Wonder Woman being such a big hit, hopefully people will be more open to women directing and telling stories. I’d say, don’t take “no” for an answer. Just keep going. It’s always a struggle. The majority of executives are straight white older men who aren’t always interested in the sort of stories I’m interested in. I’m thrilled I was able to make this.


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.

A-List: Director Danny Boyle talks about T2 Trainspotting

By Iain Blair

It’s been 21 years since Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting stuck a heroin- and adrenaline-fueled needle into the jaded veins of pop culture, electrifying audiences everywhere with its terrifying fever-dream tale of Edinburgh junkies. Let’s not forget the shocking and provocative imagery — visions of dead babies crawling across ceilings and the scene of Ewan McGregor slipping down the disgusting toilet in search of his drugs.

Now Boyle is back with a worthy sequel, T2 Trainspotting, along with the original cast of angry young men now facing mid-life crises — Renton (McGregor, who’s still running to the amped up track of the first film’s “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and “Sick Boy” Simon (Jonny Lee Miller).

Drugs, violence, vengeance, hatred and friendship all feature prominently in T2, along with aging and the toll time takes on people and relationships. But then Boyle, who won the ’08 Oscar for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, has always been attracted to kinetic, controversial stories that explore memory and time. He has pushed the cinematic envelope as far as he could, with such eclectic films as Shallow Grave, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Trance, Steve Jobs, Sunshine and 127 Hours.

For his latest film, he reteamed with DP Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot 28 Days Later, 127 Hours and won the Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire; editor Jon Harris, whose work on 127 Hours earned him an Academy Award nom; and composer Rick Smith.

I spoke with Boyle about making the film, his production and post workflows, and why cinema is the only art form that can really examine time.

Successful sequels are notoriously tricky to pull off, and it’s been 21 years since T1. Why the long wait?
Weirdly, we never thought about doing a sequel when we did the first one. There was no pressure to do another, and I think we all felt it was a one-off. But as the years passed and it settled in people’s minds, it kind of stayed there. It didn’t fade like most movies do, and the characters all remained very vivid in people’s minds.

Then Irvine Welsh, who wrote the Trainspotting book, wrote a sequel, set 10 years later. We had a look, but we didn’t like it. We felt it would disappoint people, and there wasn’t really a reason for it to be. But when 20 years loomed on the horizon, we felt it was the last chance to do something, so we went to meet Irvine in Edinburgh, talked for a week and came up with a story that was far more personal — about getting older and how it alters your behavior. You see their faces and how they’ve aged, and there’s pathos there.

How do you top T1? Or do you even try?
You don’t try. We didn’t want to simply remake the first one, and this is really based on two books — the original and then Porno, Irvine’s sequel. So it blends the present and the past, and we felt very confident about that approach, and no longer had that crippling fear of disappointing people. We all believed in it.

Was it hard getting all of the original cast back for it?
Strangely, it wasn’t, even though coordinating all their schedules was not easy, as we shot in over 70 locations and a dozen sets in under two months, with only four weeks when they were all available at the same time. I think it really helped that we did it exactly like the first one. Everyone was paid the same — and not very much, and they would get back-end, again all equal. And the four roles would get equal screen time. Doing it that way made all the usual roadblocks fall away — it circumvented all the agents, managers and so on. Everyone was like, “OK, let’s do it.” If the script hadn’t been very good, it probably would have been different, but they all felt they had great material to play with, so it went very smoothly.

You added a new DP Anthony Dod Mantle, and new editor in Jon Harris to the mix. Did that help bring a fresh POV to the film?
I think so. Brian Trufano, who gave T1 that great vivid look, has retired and we invited him to the set, but you kind of have to go with your new partners you’re now working with, and I needed that shorthand I have with Anthony now — same with Jon.

How did you and Anthony stay true to T1, but also keep it current and its own thing?
We wanted to acknowledge Brian’s amazing work and the use of color and some of the really inventive shots, but you have to make it your own, especially as there’s moments that deliberately pay homage to the first one.

You know you’re going to borrow from the first one, but you can’t be slavish to it. It had to create its own right to be there. So we replaced that freshness you got from the first one with a different kind of experience, a slightly more reflective one, as it’s about the passage of time, really. So they try to recreate that effortless bravado of T1, but you can see the slight strain it takes now. They can’t quite do it.

Even though both films are set in Edinburgh, isn’t it true you actually shot the first one in Glasgow?
Yes, because of the tiny budget — just $3 million, and Glasgow was a lot cheaper. We did just one day in Edinburgh. We had a bigger budget on this and felt obliged to shoot it in Edinburgh, and the pride of all the locals was amazing. It gave us that sense of place which is far more important in a reunion — returning to a place, what’s the same, what’s different. The first one basically takes place in their heads, and the actual locations were fairly irrelevant.

Iain Blair and Danny Boyle.

Yeah, we moved back to London to edit it and do all the post. Jon was in Edinburgh, but he never came to the set. He’s one of those smart editors who doesn’t want to know where the door is on the set. He just wants to see what you actually shot. We cut for about 10 weeks and the main challenge of editing this was balancing how much to use of the first one, and how to use time as a texture. There are some freeze frames. The ones in T1 were used in a pop culture way. In this, they’re more about using time.

Time’s always a big theme for you, isn’t it?
You’re right, and film is the only art form that really looks at time in detail, because film is time. When you edit, you’re basically compressing time, speeding it up, freezing it — you can stop time in movies, which is amazing. No other art form can do that. The other amazing aspect of film is that a cinema visit is also an expression of time. Unlike with any other art form, an audience says, “I’m yours for the next two hours.” They give you that time, and in return you give them time that’s telescoped, stretched, even stopped. It’s extraordinary, really.

The music and sound on T1 had such an impact. How did you approach it on this film?
The big issue was: “Do we touch it or not? Do we refer to it or not?” We decided that, if we were going to use music from the first film, it had to be remixed and re-imagined, so that it would still have the same power — it’d be the same, but different. So Prodigy remixed “Lust for Life,” and we used this great Edinburgh band, The Young Fathers, who did several tracks. We did all the sound mixing at Pinewood with Glenn Freemantle and his team at Sound 24.

You must have a very well-oiled post machine by now. Was it the usual team doing the VFX?
Yes, we did all the visual effects with my usual guy, VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne at Union Visual Effects in London. He’s done all my films for a long time now, and it’s a great relationship; he’s very much a key partner in building it all. A lot of the VFX were invisible — corrections, clean-up, but we didn’t do anything with the actors’ faces to age them or make them look younger. There’s a whole hallucination scene on the moors with a deer, when they get back on the heroin, and Adam did some great work around the pub to create this industrial wasteland.

Where was the DI done?
At Technicolor in London with colorist Jean-Clement Soret, working on the FilmLight Baselight, who does all my grading. Anthony and I trust him entirely. The big challenge was how to get a bold, colorful look that didn’t just copy the first one, and Jean-Clement did an amazing job. He’s not just a colorist. He’s really a post DP.

[From Jean-Clement Soret: Working on a sequel to such a seminal project offers unique challenges and the opportunity to revisit earlier creative inspirations. While the themes of the story are at times dark and depressing, it is a comedy: the photography and grade created a collage of very strong looks with nostalgic flashbacks, rich-cinema feel using high contrast, as well as re-grade of shots of the original footage from Trainspotting 1. There are many visual references to the first film and interesting use of color assembly.

[“To ensure that Trainspotting 2 developed its own visual style like TS1 did 20 years ago, director Danny Boyle and DP Anthony Dod Mantel looked to how developments in technology have changed the filmmaking process in the intervening period. Twenty years have passed between the two projects and camera acquisition, workflows and people’s understanding of visual narrative have developed to give access to a much deeper range of color tones. Similarly, Dod Mantel experimented with radical choices around lighting throughout proceedings.”]

Will you do T3 in another 20 years, like “7 Up”?
(Laughs) That’s a great idea. Michael Apted’s series was actually an influence on this. But you need a real reason to do it. We’ll see.

What’s next?
I’m shooting the first installment of this new drama series, Trust, for FX. It’s all about the Getty oil heir.


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

The A-list — Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts

By Iain Blair

Plucky explorers! Exotic locations! A giant ape! It can only mean one thing: King Kong is back… again. This time, the new Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Kong: Skull Island re-imagines the origin of the mythic Kong in an original adventure from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer).

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

With an all-star cast that includes Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Oscar-winner Brie Larson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly, it follows a diverse team of explorers as they venture deep into an uncharted island in the Pacific — as beautiful as it is treacherous — unaware that they’re crossing into the domain of the mythic Kong.

The legendary Kong was brought to life on a whole new scale by Industrial Light & Magic, with two-time Oscar-winner Stephen Rosenbaum (Avatar, Forrest Gump) serving as visual effects supervisor.

To fully immerse audiences in the mysterious Skull Island, Vogt-Roberts, his cast and filmmaking team shot across three continents over six months, capturing its primordial landscapes on Oahu, Hawaii — where shooting commenced on October 2015 — on Australia’s Gold Coast and, finally, in Vietnam, where production took place across multiple locations, some of which have never before been seen on film. Kong: Skull Island was released worldwide in 2D, 3D and IMAX beginning March 10.

I spoke with Vogt-Roberts about making the film and his love of post.

What’s the eternal appeal of doing a King Kong movie?
He’s King Kong! But the appeal is also this burden, as you’re playing with film history and this cinematic icon of pop culture. Obviously, the 1933 film is this impeccable genre story, and I’m a huge fan of creature features and people like Ray Harryhausen. I liked the idea of taking my love for all that and then giving it my own point of view, my sense of style and my voice.

With just one feature film credit, you certainly jumped in the deep end with this — pun intended — monster production, full of complex moving parts and cutting-edge VFX. How scary was it?
Every movie is scary because I throw myself totally into it. I vanish from the world. If you asked my friends, they would tell you I completely disappear. Whether it’s big or small, any film’s daunting in that sense. When I began doing shorts and my own stuff, I did shooting, the lighting, the editing and so on, and I thrived off all that new knowledge, so even all the complex VFX stuff wasn’t that scary to me. The truly daunting part is that a film like this is two and a half years of your life! It’s a big sacrifice, but I love a big challenge like this was.

What were the biggest challenges, and how did you prepare?
How do you make it special —and relevant in 2017? I’m a bit of a masochist when it comes to a challenge, and when I made the jump to The Kings of Summer it really helped train me. But there are certain things that are the same as they always are, such as there’s never enough time or money or daylight. Then there are new things on a movie of this size, such as the sheer endurance you need and things you simply can’t prepare yourself for, like the politics involved, all the logistics and so on. The biggest thing for me was, how do I protect my voice and point of view and make sure my soul is present in the movie when there are so many competing demands? I’m proud of it, because I feel I was able to do that.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Very early on — even before we had the script ready. We had concept artists and began doing previs and discussing all the VFX.

Did you do a lot of previs?
I’m not a huge fan of it. Third Floor did it and it’s a great tool for communicating what’s happening and how you’re going to execute it, but there’s also that danger of feeling like you’re already making the movie before you start shooting it. Think of all the great films like Blade Runner and the early Star Wars films, all shot before they even had previs, whereas now it’s very easy to become too reliant on it; you can see a movie sequence where it just feels like you’re watching previs come to life. It’s lost that sense of life and spontaneity. We only did three previs sequences — some only partially — and I really stressed with the crew that it was only a guide.

Where did you do the post?
It was all done at Pivotal in Burbank, and we began cutting as we shot. The sound mix was done at Skywalker and we did our score in London.

Do you like the post process?
I love post. I love all aspects of production, but post is where you write the film again and where it ceases being what was on the page and what you wanted it to be. Instead you have to embrace what it wants to be and what it needs to be. I love repurposing things and changing things around and having those 3am breakthroughs! If we moved this and use that shot instead, then we can cut all that.

You had three editors — Richard Pearson, Bob Murawski and Josh Schaeffer. How did that work?
Rick and Bob ran point, and Rick was the lead. Josh was the editor who had done The Kings of Summer with me, and my shorts. He really understands my montages and comedy. It was so great that Rick and Bob were willing to bring him on, and they’re all very different editors with different skills — and all masters of their craft. They weren’t on set, except for Hawaii. Once we were really globe-trotting, they were in LA cutting.

VFX play a big role. Can you talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jeff White and ILM, who did the majority of the effects work?
He ran the team there, and they’re all amazing. It was a dream come true for me. They’re so good at taking kernels of ideas and turning them into reality. I was able to do revisions as I got new ideas. Creating Kong was the big one, and it was very tricky because the way he moves isn’t totally realistic. It’s very stylized, and Jeff really tapped into my animé and videogame sensibility for all that. We also used Hybride and Rodeo for some shots.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
The helicopter sequence was really very difficult, juggling the geography of that, with this 100-foot creature and people spread all over the island, and also the final battle sequence. The VFX team and I constantly asked ourselves, “Have we seen this before? Is it derivative? Is it redundant?” The goal was to always keep it fresh and exciting.

Where did you do the DI?
At Fotokem with colorist Dave Cole who worked on The Lord of the Rings and so many others. I love color, and we did a lot of very unusual stuff for a movie like this, with a lot of saturation.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
A movie never quite turns out the way you hope or think it will, but I love the end result and I feel it represents my voice. I’m very proud of what we did.


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

The A-List: Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay

By Iain Blair

Three years ago, The Lego Movie became an “everything is awesome” monster hit that cleverly avoided the pitfalls of feeling like a corporate branding exercise thanks to the deft touch and tonal dexterity of the director/writer/animator/producer team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.

Now busy working on a Han Solo spinoff movie, they handed over the directing reins on the follow-up, The Lego Batman Movie, to Chris McKay, who served as animation director and editor on the first one. And he hit the ground running on this one, which seriously — and hilariously — tweak’s Batman’s image.

Chris McKay

This time out, Batman stars in his own big-screen adventure, but there are big changes brewing in Gotham City. If he wants to save the city from The Joker’s hostile takeover, Batman may have to drop the lone vigilante thing, try to work with others and maybe, just maybe, learn to lighten up (somber introspection only goes so far when you’re a handsome billionaire with great cars and gadgets, who gets to punch people in the face with no repercussions).

Will Arnett voices Batman, Zach Galifianakis is The Joker, Michael Cera is orphan Dick Grayson, Rosario Dawson is Barbara Gordon, and Ralph Fiennes voices Alfred.

Behind the scenes, production designer Grant Freckelton and editor David Burrows also return from The Lego Movie, joined by editors Matt Villa and John Venzon. Lorne Balfe was composer, and feature animation was, again, by Animal Logic. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and IMAX.

I recently talked to McKay about making the film and how the whole process was basically all about the post.

The Lego Movie made nearly half a billion dollars and was a huge critical success as well. Any pressure there?
(Laughs) A lot, because of all that success, and asking, “How do we top it?” Then it’s Batman, with all his fans, and DC is very particular as he’s one of their crown jewels. But at the same time, the studio and DC were great partners and understood all the challenges.

So how did you pitch the whole idea?
As Jerry Maguire, directed by Michael Mann, with a ton of jokes in it. They got on board with that and saw what I was doing with the animatic, as well as the love I have for Batman and this world.

Once you were green-lit, you began on post, right?
Exactly right, because post is everything in animation. The whole thing is post. You start in post and end in post. When we pitched this, we didn’t even have a script, just a three- to four-page treatment. They liked the idea and said, “OK, let’s do it.” So we needed to write a script, and get the storyboard and editorial teams to work immediately, because there was no way we could get it finished in time if we didn’t.

It was originally scheduled to come out in May — almost three years from the time we pitched it, but then they moved the release date up to February, so it got even crazier. So we began getting all the key people involved, like [editor/writer] Dave Burrows at Animal Logic, who cut the first one with me, and developing the opening set piece.

You got an amazing cast, including Will Arnett as Batman again, and such unlikely participants as Mariah Carey, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes and Apple’s Siri. How tough was that?
We were very lucky because everyone was a fan, and when they saw that the first one wasn’t just a 90-minute toy commercial, they really wanted to be in it. Mariah was so charming and funny, and apart from her great singing voice, she has a really great speaking voice — and she was great at improv and very playful. Ralph has done some comedy, but I wasn’t sure he’d want to do something like this, but he got it immediately, and his voice was perfect. Michael Cera doesn’t do this kind of thing at all. Like Ralph, he’s an artist who usually does smaller movies and more personal stuff, and people told us, “You’re not going to get Ralph or Cera,” but Will reached out to Cera (they worked together on Arrested Development) and he came on.

As for Siri, it was a joke we tried to make work in the first movie but couldn’t, so we went back to it, and it turned into a great partnership with Apple. So that was a lot of fun for me, playing around with pop culture in that way, as the whole computer thing is part of Batman’s world anyway.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller have been very busy directing the upcoming, untitled Han Solo Star Wars movie, but as co-producers on this weren’t they still quite involved?
Very. I’d ask them for advice all the time and they would give notes since I was running a lot of stuff past them. They ended up writing several of my favorite lines in this; they gave me so much of their time, pitched jokes and let me do stuff with the animation I wanted to do. They’re very generous.

Sydney-based Animal Logic, the digital design, animation and effects company whose credits include Moulin Rouge!, Happy Feet and Walking With Dinosaurs did all the animation again. What was involved?
As I wanted to use Burrows, that would require us having an editorial team down there, and the studio wasn’t crazy about that. But he’s a fantastic editor and storyteller, and I also wanted to work with Grant Freckelton, who was the production designer on the first one, as well as lighting supervisor Craig Welch — all these team members at Animal Logic who were so good. In the end, we had over 400 people working on this for two and a half years — six months faster than the first one.

So Animal Logic began on it on day one, and I didn’t wait for a script. It was just me, Dave and the storyboard teams in LA and Sydney, and Grant’s design team. I showed them the treatment and said, “Here’s the scenes I want to do,” and we began with paintings and storyboards. The first act in animatic form and the script both landed at the same time in November 2014, and then we pitched where the rest of the movie would go and what changes we would make. So it kept going in tandem like that. There was no traditional screenwriting process. We’d just bring writers in and adjust as we went. So we literally built the screenplay in post — and we could do that because animation is like filmmaking in slow motion, and we had great storytellers in post, like Burrows.

You also used two other editors — Matt Villa and John Venzon. How did that work?
Matt’s very accomplished. He’s cut three of Baz Luhrmann’s films — The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! and Australia — and he cut Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner as well as
the animated features Happy Feet Two and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, so he came in to help. We also brought in other writers, and we would all be doing the voices. I was Batman and Matt would do the side characters. We literally built it as we went, with some storyboard artists from the first film, plus others we gathered along the way. The edit was crucial because of the crazy deadline.

Last summer we added John, who has also cut animated features, including Storks, Flushed Away, Shark Tale and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, because we needed to move some editorial to LA last July for five months, and he helped out with all the finishing. It was a 24/7 effort by that time, a labor of love.

Let’s talk about the VFX. Fair to say the whole film’s one big VFX sequence?
You’re right. Every single frame is a VFX shot. It’s mind blowing! You’re constantly working on it at the same time you’re writing and editing and so on, and it takes a big team of very focused animators and producers to do it.

What about the sound and music? Composer Lorne Balfe did the scores for Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the animated features Penguins of Madagascar and Home, as well as Terminator Genisys. How important was the score?
It was crucial. He actually worked on the Dark Knight movies, so I knew he could do all the operatic, serious stuff as well as boy’s adventure stuff for Robin, and he was a big part of making it sound like a real Batman movie. We recorded the score in Sydney and Vienna, and did the mix on the lot at Warners with a great team that included effects mixer Gregg Landaker and sound designer Wayne Pashley from Big Bang Sound in Sydney.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
I wish we had those extra two months, but it’s the movie I wanted to make — it’s good for kids and adults, and it’s a big, fun Batman movie that looks at him in a way that the other Batman movies can’t.


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

The A-List: Elle director Paul Verhoeven

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

The A-List: Hidden Figures director/co-writer Ted Melfi

By Iain Blair

When writer/producer/director Ted Melfi (St. Vincent) first came across the true story behind his new film, Hidden Figures, he was amazed that it had never been told before. The drama recounts the history of an elite team of black female mathematicians at NASA who helped win the all-out space race against the Soviet Union and, at the same time, brought issues of race, equal rights, sexism and opportunity to the surface of 1960s society.

Focusing on a trio of women who crossed gender, race and professional lines, it stars Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Benjamin Button), Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station, The Help), singer Janelle Monáe (making her motion picture debut) and two-time Oscar winner Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams, Dances With Wolves).

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Ted Melfi

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film was written by Melfi and screenwriter Allison Schroeder (they both received Oscar noms for Best Adapted Screenplay), who reports that the subject matter was already embedded in her DNA. “I grew up a NASA baby in Florida,” she explains. “My grandparents and dad all worked there, and then I interned there for four years during high school and worked for a missile launch company after my freshman year at college.” She then channeled that family history and her own workplace experiences into a story about “what it was like to be a woman in science and mathematics back then.”

Not long ago, I spoke with Melfi about making the film and his workflow.

This is a very timely film, dealing as it does with racism, sexism and all the issues with Russia and the space race. Was that the appeal?
Absolutely. It’s a completely unknown true story for many reasons, the main one being that all the material was classified for so long because of the Cold War and our fear of Russia. So everyone on the space program was sworn to secrecy, and even the astronauts themselves didn’t know who’d be flying until days before a launch.

While we have parades celebrating astronauts, athletes and so on, we don’t have parades for mathematicians. So I wanted to make an American classic, a movie about this crossroads in America where you had the fight for civil rights and the space race. That’s how I saw it in my mind — how did all that collide?

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.You got a great cast. How tough was it casting the women?
Taraji was my first thought for her role and she said yes right away on the phone after I just pitched her the storyline. Octavia was also on board right away. Janelle was the hard one, in that it was tough casting her role. We wanted someone fresh and different, and once she came in to audition, we knew she was perfect for it, and she just blew it away.

Did you get a lot of cooperation from NASA?
Not only did we get tons of help from them, but I’ve become good friends with some of the guys there. They pored through draft after draft, gave notes and really helped us craft all the math. So everything in the film is completely accurate from a scientific, mathematical and engineering standpoint, and they were so helpful. We also had a math scholar who helped us and Taraji with her math and all the equations, so we spent a lot of time on research.

What was the biggest production challenge?
How to pull off the space race, because we were essentially a low budget film — a $25 million movie — and we didn’t have the money or time to recreate all the launches and rocket stuff. So we had to find a very clever way of combining archival footage and VFX with all the live-action footage. You see those transitions throughout the film; we’ll have a piece of archival footage and then roll right into something we shot, with all the VFX incorporated into that.

Getting all that archival footage was both tricky and easy — easy as NASA has a huge archive, but they also have a lot of footage that they couldn’t find. So we had to send a film historian specialist to DC to dig through all of NASA’s film reel archives in this massive vault, and that was a lot of work, since they have thousands and thousands of them of every piece of footage ever shot of all the launches and landings and so on. We wanted the original negatives, and he was able to get almost all of them. Then we re-scanned them and blended them into our footage.

You shot on location in Atlanta. Was that tough?
Yes, in that we had just 43 days, which is very short for something of this scope.

Given that sexism is a main theme, and there’s so much talk now about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, was it intentional or coincidental that you hired a female DP, Mandy Walker?
It was a bit of both. I met with a bunch of DPs, and she was just great. It’s a shame that just three percent of the world’s DPs are women. So I try to approach my professional life with a very inclusive attitude, just in general, which means you have to work at it and be pro-active, and 35 percent of our crew were female, and extremely diverse.

Do you like post?
I love it, until you get to the very end. (Laughs) For me, after the shoot, when I literally feel like collapsing because I’m so tired and exhausted. Then I get to this room with a couch, and can finally sit down. So it’s like a vacation in a way, where I get to enjoy and discover stuff every day. At times it’s depressing, when there are problems, but it’s mainly a time of exuberance and joy for me. But at the end, say the last month, it becomes the same as the shoot, with all the time and money constraints, and the pressure to get it done in time.

Where did you do the post?
All on the Fox lot. We did the editing and had our whole team in the same building — our sound team, music guys — and it was awesome, like a small family. The only problem was that we got a very truncated post schedule. Based off all the dailies, the studio decided they wanted to release it early in time for all the awards season stuff, so suddenly we had to deliver it in October instead of for Christmas. That meant we got eight to 10 weeks cut out of post. That left us with just 26 weeks all in, which isn’t very long for something of this scope. Most movies this size get way longer than that. So that was tough.

Tell us about working with editor Peter Teschner, who cut St. Vincent for you. Was he on the set?
Yes, he was in Atlanta with us, cutting from day one as we shot. Basically, I let him do his thing, he puts the movie together in a rough assembly, and we began with a cut at just over two and a half hours. Then we got down to two. Normally, that first rough cut is the most depressing day of your life, but this one wasn’t. There was a lot of work to do, but it was enjoyable work.

Obviously, all the VFX were very important, right?
Very. It’s a period piece, and with all the capsule and rocket scenes there was a lot of stuff to do. We used Cgfluids and ILP for all the VFX, and probably had 400 to 500 shots, and maybe half of those were clean-up, like removing any modern stuff, such as streetlights and cars and so on. But then we had around 100 shots of capsule stuff — the capsules in orbit, pieces of the rocket going up, and then John Glenn’s re-entry and fire scenes.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s so crucial to every scene. People say it’s half your movie, but I think it’s often more. Just watch your movie without sound or music and you go, “This is so awful! It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” but then you start adding all those layers and it suddenly all comes alive. It’s all these little things that add up to huge things and how an audience feels emotionally and how they respond.

I had a great sound team — Andy Nelson was the re-recording mixer and Derek Vanderhorst was the sound designer, and those guys are brilliant. When you’re in space and in the capsule, you need to feel all that, the intensity of the rocket. Then musically we had a great team with Pharrell and Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch. They came on board very early, before we even began proper production, to map out the musical plan. So we had music to shoot to. We shot Taraji’s running scenes to Pharrell’s track, which was a big benefit.

Where did you do the DI?
On the Fox lot with colorist Natasha Leonett from Efilm at their room there. She’s done a ton of films, including La La Land. She’s brilliant.

You’ve had a long and very successful career directing over 100 commercials, so I assume you’re very involved?
You’re right. I’ve been used to doing coloring for over 20 years, as my DP was never around, so Mandy came in for a few days and then I did my thing. It’s the final piece of the post workflow and I love it.


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

The A-List: Jim Jarmusch on his latest film Paterson

By Iain Blair

Over the past few decades, writer/director Jim Jarmusch has followed the beat of his own drum and built up a body of idiosyncratic films that include Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control (2009), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Gimme Danger (2016).

Jim Jarmusch and Iain Blair.

His new film, Paterson, fits firmly in that tradition. Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey — he is also a poet. Each day he adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route observing the city as it drifts across his windshield and while overhearing fragments of conversations swirling around him; he writes poetry into a notebook; he walks his dog; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; he goes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

By contrast, Laura’s world is ever changing. New dreams come to her almost daily, each a different and inspired project. They have a happy marriage and love each other. He supports her newfound ambitions and she champions his gift for poetry. The film quietly observes the small triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details. As Jarmusch himself says, it’s “a kind of antidote to dark, heavily dramatic or action-oriented cinema.” No kidding. The film’s big action scene is when Paterson’s bus breaks down.

In a rare interview — he doesn’t like doing press or promotion — I met up with Jarmusch about making the film, his workflow and poetry.

You’ve always been interested in poetry?
Yes, since I was a teenager. I studied poetry at Columbia and I read a lot of Rimbaud and the French poets. I then got into the American poets like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, who came from Paterson, so it all ties together. This is my first film where the main character’s a poet, but I’ve woven references to poetry into a lot of my films, such as Mystery Train and Ghost Dog and Dead Man, so there’s a thread there.

How long had this idea been gestating?
A long time. Some 20 years ago I took a trip to Paterson because of William Carlos Williams, and the whole idea of it being a utopian idea for an industrial city. Allen Ginsberg had also grown up there, and when I got home I made notes about a possible story about a guy named Paterson who lives in Paterson and writes poetry. I also got very interested in the history of the city, which is fascinating. Then I finally wrote the script about six years ago.

Fair to say it’s a wry look at the simple pleasures of domestic life?
Absolutely. I think it’s a comedy, like almost all my films — or at least, they have comedic elements. It’s a story about details, all the little mundane stuff of daily life, the slight variations in the days of the week, that might inspire a poet that is of that school. It’s not the poetry of exclamation. I intentionally avoided conflict, action and, to some degree, plot. For some time I’ve been trying to make films where you’re hopefully not always thinking about what’s going to happen next — Zen-like things where you’re just in the present all the time.

What did Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani bring to their roles, as you usually write with specific actors in mind?
Nearly always, but not this time, which was very strange for me. I’d seen him in just a few things and I love his look. Once we met I intuitively knew he’d be just right, because he has this very subtle, good sense of humor, he’s quiet and very observant. He’s not analytical, he’s intuitive like me, and I was so lucky to get him and create this character together. I wrote Laura as this all-American girl, but someone I know said, “Why don’t you cast Golshifteh Farahani, since you love her work?” Once we met, I thought, why not? And the city of Paterson is very ethnically diverse, so it made sense.

Do you like the post process?
I love editing and post. I love all parts of filmmaking, except getting the financing, which can be agonizing. But the rest is so much fun, and post is where you really make the film. Shooting for me, since I don’t have it all figured out, is just gathering all the material. In post is where you find the film and finesse it into the form it tells you it wants to be.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all — editing, sound and the DI — in New York at Harbor Picture Company.

You worked with editor Affonso Gonçalves, whose credits include Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone and who cut Only Lovers Left Alive for you. Tell us about that relationship?
He doesn’t usually come on the set — maybe a couple of times on this one. He got familiar with the dailies as we shot, but he didn’t really start cutting (via Avid Media Composer) until we were done shooting. Then a very important part of my job is to select the takes, as I’ve collaborated for a long time with the actors, and that’s not always obvious in the editing room. You could make a totally different film by taking, say, all the most light-hearted takes. So we go through all the takes and mark what I like, and then we start working and shaping it. He starts in the mornings and then I come in after lunch and we work together. Sometimes I get ahead of him, so some days I don’t come in, but generally it’s a daily thing.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I have incredible sound designers I’ve worked with on many films over the years — sound designer Robert Hein and re-recording mixer Tony Volante — and it’s all incredibly important to me. Sound is half the film, so it’s very delicate and evocative, and the big thing I love about it is it’s the closest thing humans create to dreaming, drifting into this parallel world.

Robert Hein is this amazing artist, and we discuss things as detailed as, how many trees are close to the house? What types of birds and how many would be audible at dawn? Or you hear a distant motorcycle go by. We discuss exactly what type of bike is it, and what does that mean. What kind of people are around? The audience isn’t conscious of all that, but all these details form the fabric of the film and accumulate over all the scenes. The visual seems more important, more dominant, but it’s the sound and music that often tell the real story of what’s going on in a film. So I love love love working on all the sound. (At part of his process, Hein used Avid Pro Tools 12.5 Native during editorial, Pro Tools 12.5 HD in the mix studio and the Avid System 5 mixing console during the mix.)

How important was the DI on this?
We did it with colorist Joe Gawler, who did Arrival. In my opinion he’s the greatest on this planet. He is the man! I had the master Fred Elmes as my DP, and when I got the two of them together — I was thinking, “How did I trick these great artists into working with me?!” So I sat in on the timing, but I defer to them as they really elevate the look, which is really quite beautiful. (Gawler used Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve.)

What’s the state of indies today?
Financing is much harder now, and there are fewer companies, especially in the States. And the theatrical release used to be the big business part of it, and then the video release and so on was just ancillary. But now that’s totally flipped, and the theatrical release is just the promotion for the VOD and so on. It’s mind-boggling for me, though it doesn’t affect how you make a film. When people say, ‘The novel’s dead, it’s the end of cinema,’ that’s all nonsense. These art forms change and fluctuate and mutate, but they don’t die.


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.

Paramount Pictures

The A-List: Arrival director Denis Villeneuve

By Iain Blair

Dark and super-intense dramas are the specialty of acclaimed French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. His 2010 feature film Incendies, a drama about the legacy of civil war in Lebanon for a Montreal immigrant family, earned a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. Villeneuve made his Hollywood directorial debut with Prisoners, a suburban-vigilante drama starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It too was nominated for an Oscar. He followed that with Enemy, an eerie thriller starring Gyllenhaal as a history lecturer who discovers an unexpected alter ego.

Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Iain Blair.

But it was his explosive 2015 hit Sicario — about an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) whose hunt for justice thrusts her into the lawless US/Mexican border where drugs, terror, illegal immigration and corruption challenge her moral compass — that really got Hollywood’s attention. The film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Achievement in Cinematography (Roger Deakins) and Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray) and paved the way for his latest film, the sci-fi drama Arrival.

When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team, led by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers. But this Paramount release is not your usual alien invasion epic.

I spoke with Villeneuve, who’s currently in post production on his biggest project to date — the sequel to the cult classic Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling — about making Arrival, which has been nominated for eight Oscars, including best director in Villeneuve and best editor in Joe Walker. (Read out interview with Walker here.)

This is your first sci-fi film, but definitely not your usual kind. What was the appeal of doing it?
Yes, it’s my first but I was raised on sci-fi and was swimming in it as a kid. I read a lot of comic books out of Europe — those great graphic novels. I was dreaming of doing a sci-fi film for a very long time, but was looking for the right story, and then this came along. I was so excited because this was a chance to do something very different. It’s an alien invasion, but told from an intimate point of view, by this person who’s in mourning and dealing with strong emotions in her life, and who suddenly is thrust into this momentous ARRIVALevent. So it’s about aliens but also a mother-daughter story.

This is also your sixth film with a female protagonist. Why do you love having women at the center of your films?
The truth is, in my first two films I had two female leads and for me it was a way to get some critical distance from my subjects. I don’t know why. Then it just carried on from there. I’m in love with women and femininity and very interested in the female world, and I love to tell their stories. For me, being a man is about taking control, but being a woman is more about listening, and I love the tension between the two.

Is it true that with Sicario, there was some pressure to change the female lead to a man?
Yes, but it was telling this story of drug violence through a woman’s eyes that really interested me. That really interested me! I like strong women.

What did Amy Adams bring to this role?
A great sense of her character’s internal life, her inner world. She has this great capacity to play several layers at once, and is able to convey very strong emotion without words, which I don’t see too often.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
By far the biggest was creating the aliens and figuring out this new life form — its way of thinking and behaving, its culture and its language. Creating something that’s never been seen before without it looking just like a visual effect was very hard and took a long time.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?ARRIVAL
From the very start, and you now have to prep for post. Even so, it still feels like the process is too fast. I like to have a lot of time in post and the edit to think about the film and change things, but all the VFX guys were very hungry to get started as soon as possible, and that caused some tension. It was a very complex cinematic structure, and I needed to be able to play with it in the editing room.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love post and editing — so much so that if I wasn’t a director I’d be an editor. It’s insane the amount of creativity you have in post, and you don’t have to deal with all the problems with weather and actors and equipment and time and money. You can just focus on the creative part of actually making the film, so I love post. We did the whole film in Montreal. We shot it there, and used VFX houses there, and there are so many good ones — Rodeo, Oblique FX, Alchemy 24, Raynault and Hybride.

Talk about editing with Joe Walker, who cut Sicario for you and was Oscar nominated for 12 Years a Slave. Was he on the set?
Joe never likes to visit sets, for a very specific reason — when he sees all the hard work and pain we go through to get a particular shot, it makes him afraid to cut. So he came to Montreal and we sent him dailies and he started. Then he worked with me on the director’s cut. It was a very long edit and we worked non stop for about eight months. It’s the longest edit I’ve ever done, first because it was a nonlinear structure, and second because we wanted to give clues to the audience without revealing too much.

So it was very tricky, especially since two of my main characters were completely digital. So it was a tough edit and it took time to work it all out. Joe was also very involved in all the sound design, as he began as a composer and then as a sound editor, so we did the sound together as we cut.

Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams on set.

The VFX play a crucial role. Talk about working with VFX supervisor Louis Morin, who did Sicario for you, and whose credits include The Aviator and Brokeback Mountain.
I’m very grateful to him because he understood that the edit was very complicated, and I put his team under a lot of time pressure, as I took my time. The spaceships and aliens were designed, but all the scenes with them and everything else had to evolve in the edit. Then we had hundreds of computer screens in the military tents and we had to feed all those, which was a lot of work, and then all the military equipment. It was very complicated.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Definitely the aliens. If you have a machine-like alien, it’s a lot of work but not difficult to do. What is really hard, is creating a life form that looks real — not like a visual effect — and one the audience will accept and have an emotional experience with. Hybride did them, and while it was a huge challenge, they did a fantastic job. And I was very involved. I sat down with the artists to share ideas and that’s the only way you can get it right.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
In Montreal with Harbor Picture Company colorist Joe Gawler (who worked out of Mels, which used to be Vision Globale). It’s so important and dealing with the aliens was the main thing. But the rest was fairly simple as we did so much in camera.

What can you tell me about Blade Runner 2049?
(Laughs) Not much. I’m not allowed to say much, but it was the biggest, most ambitious and longest thing I’ve ever done, and we’re currently in the middle of post on the Sony lot. It’ll be out next October.

What’s next?
Nothing. I need a long break to recharge after doing the last three films back to back.

Check out the trailer:


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

The A-List: James L. Brooks on his latest film The Edge of Seventeen

By Iain Blair

James L. Brooks, the legendary writer/director/producer, probably has a reinforced mantelpiece in his home. If not, he could probably use one. After all, he’s Hollywood royalty — a three-time Academy Award winner and 20-time Emmy Award-winner whose films include Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, As Good as It Gets and Jerry Maguire.

Brooks, who began his career as a writer, produced television hits such as Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Tracy Ullman Show and The Simpsons. He produced his newest film, The Edge of Seventeen, for writer and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with James Brooks.

A coming-of-age comedy, it stars Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson as inseparable best friends attempting to navigate high school. Along with acting vets Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson, the behind-the-scenes team on The Edge of Seventeen includes DP Doug Emmett (The One I Love, HBO’s Togetherness) and editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith, ACE (About Last Night, How Do You Know).

I talked to Brooks about making the film and why post is everything.

You’ve made such a diverse slate of films. What do you look for in a project?
A writer with a specific voice. That’s always the main thing.

I heard that you worked on this script with Kelly for four years. Was that unusually long?
Unfortunately not (laughs)! This is up there, but I’ve never done less than four years on any of my own films when I direct, so that’s how I work. On this, it became more about what Kelly was about to do than what she did. I urged research on her, and she turned out to be gifted at it.

She got groups of young women of this age together and she was very empathetic and she asked great questions, and we’d look at the video, and it started to give us a sense of mission and responsibility. Then about two years in, she turned in this draft that was just extraordinary. Here was a writer popping and a new voice emerging, and I was dazzled. Then it took two more years to cast it and get financing.

She’d never directed before. How nervous were you?
I wasn’t. You’re always nervous about the movie, but I was the one who said to her, ‘You should direct this one day,’ and she told me she’d been trying to figure out how to sell herself for the job. I believe in writer/directors, as once you’ve done the script, you’ve seen a version of it.

You’ve mentored so many first-time directors over the years, including Cameron Crowe for Say Anything and Wes Anderson on Bottle Rocket. What have you learned from all that?
That it’s good to back writers of real ability. In Cameron’s case, he was a noteworthy screenwriter when he directed for the first time. From the start, we knew Wes was going to direct, and he felt he’d have died if he didn’t. It’s always the writing first, then that need to direct.

EDGE OF SEVENTEENDo you like the post process?
I not only love it — I think that post is what filmmaking really is. Editing is where you make the film. Everything else —all the prep and the shoot — is just the raw material you then shape into the actual film.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all in LA. We rented space for all the editorial, and used Wildfire for finishing.

You’ve worked with editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith before on the rom-com How Do You Know (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd), which you directed. Tell us about the relationship and how it worked.
She was absolutely brilliant, as we were a long time editing, and it wasn’t always easy with two of us in the room. But you try to find “it.” You’re not trying to just get your way. You’re trying to find the movie. That’s what it is. You start off with a firm idea of the movie you want to make, and then in post, you’re forced to come to grips with the movie you’ve actually made. And they’re not supposed to be the same thing.

That’s the thing about actors and what they bring to the script. You can’t have that many people involved in the shoot and not have the whole movie redefined in some way. We shot in Vancouver, and Technicolor did the dailies. Then it was back to LA. I was there with Tracey pretty much every day, and I love editing. It’s exciting. It’s everything. It’s a roller coaster. Editing is hitting your head against a brick wall until it gives.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEENEditing’s changed so much technically since you began.
Totally! I did my first films with people wearing white gloves and carefully handling the film and all the bins, and when you made a cut, you had to wait a couple of minutes until it was made. Then digital and instant gratification arrived, and that meant you can see every version of every scene, given the time — but you don’t have the time to do that.

I’m a huge digital fan. It’s like electric lights. Who wants to go back? It’s such a different process that the result has to be different. Look at the whole religion of lighting a set — it’s been changed forever as you can now do so much in post. There’s almost nothing you can’t do in post now. So I’ve lived through the revolution, and we always schedule more time for editing than we think we might need. This took a good six months to cut.

Don’t you like to preview?
I do. I’m a big believer, and they always result in more tweaking and refinement to the film. And that went great. We were very lucky as we were previewing very well, but Kelly and I both felt we needed a couple of extra scenes in order to really get the ending right, and STX, the financing company, gave us three extra days to shoot them and solve the problem. Kelly came up with this last shot that means everything to me. It’s the absolute honest true ending we needed.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
We did all the mixing at Wildfire, that has an Atmos stage with an Avid S6. Kelly was brilliant at finding and using the songs — there are over 30 — which form the great backdrop to the story. But the score was tricky. My friend Hans Zimmer agreed to produce it, and he brought in this wonderful composer from Iceland, Atli Orvarsson, who came up with the perfect theme, and that was the last piece of the puzzle. Then we spent a final week fine-tuning the mix with re-recording mixers Kevin O’Connell, Deb Adair and Chris Carpenter. It’s hard to over state the importance of sound. It’s always huge, especially when you’re trying to be real.

Director Kelly Fremon Craig and James Brooks on set.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but there are a few.
They were all done by Stargate Studios, and we couldn’t get the damn phone right! That killed us for a while, as there was an emoji we just couldn’t get right. Sometimes it’s the simplest stuff that’s the hardest.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it at Wildfire with colorist Andrew Balis, and Kelly and the DP were more involved in that than I was. The DI is hugely important.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you began?
Obviously, the digital revolution, but also things like women crew members and getting over the tendency to say, ‘Can I help with that?’ when the grip’s a woman (Laughs)! What hasn’t changed is that script is everything, passion counts, and post is the most creative part of filmmaking.

Why haven’t you directed more films recently, and what’s next?
I’ve just been so busy with these other projects, but I’ve been working on a script for several years — which is normal for me — and hope to do that. But the price you pay to direct is to go legally insane – meaning, you lose touch with the world and people you love. And that’s a high price to pay.

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

The A-List: Moonlight director Barry Jenkins

By Iain Blair

Moonlight may only be Barry Jenkins’ second film — his first was the 2008 low-budget debut Medicine for Melancholy — but he’s already established himself as a filmmaker to watch. Written and directed by Jenkins, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

At once a vital portrait of contemporary African-American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship and love, Moonlight focuses on the particular, but reverberates with universal truths. Anchored by performances from an ensemble cast that includes Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert and Jharrel Jerome, the film is a moving portrayal of the moments, people and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are, and since its premiere at Telluride is justifiably getting a lot of awards buzz.

Our writer Iain Blair and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.

I recently met up with Jenkins to talk about the process of making Moonlight.

Can you talk about the film a bit?
It’s based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is a coming-of-age story that not so much defied the genre, but that more readily captured what it was like to grow up where we both did, in Miami. It focuses on three different times in this kid’s life, so instead of all the usual beats we take these three big beats and dramatize them in realtime.

You use three actors to portray those different times as the kid wrestles with his sexual identity and what it means to be a gay black man, but you’re not gay. Did you have any trepidation taking this on?
At the start, I felt it might be too much of a stretch, as I tend to feel certain stories need to be told by the people who lived them. But at the same time, in talking with Tarell, I knew he trusted me to present his voice and to be empathetic.

The film was shot by cinematographer James Laxton. He shot your last film and was nominated for an Indie Spirit award. What did he bring to the film?
He didn’t want to compromise the visual aesthetic, despite the very low budget we had, so we worked with a smaller crew and a few more days than we could afford — and even then we did this in just 25 days. The other thing is, there are always problems and mistakes on the shoot that you can fix in post, but we had so little money that we were very limited in what we could do. Thankfully, we had some partners who did us a lot of favors.

You shot on location in the pretty rough area of Liberty Square in Miami. How hard was that?
It wasn’t hard at all, once we had made the inroads. That neighborhood hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years, so there was this real patina and authentic look that we didn’t have to create.

MoonlightDo you like the post process?
I love it, but to be really honest, I love production more, as it’s less finite. Post is so finite, and it’s a very complex puzzle you have to solve. When we shot the swimming scene, we thought we had six hours, but it turned out we only had 90 minutes. You feel anything’s possible in those 90 minutes, whereas in post you’re trying to find the best shot, the best footage to tell the story, and the pressure’s on. (Laughs) And then the post budget was very small.

You edited the film with two editors — Nat Sanders who cut your first film, and Joi McMillon. Tell us how that relationship worked.
We used this system called the Atomos Samurai, since they weren’t on set. We didn’t have the budget to fly them out, plus they were cutting Season 5 of HBO’s Girls when we started.

So the way this system works is that our DIT on set was basically duplicating all the dailies in HD, and it was like a mirror image of the actual dailies — with a very simple LUT placed on them — and then they were shipped to LA. Nat and Joi worked off that for the entire process. Both of them were at film school with me, and I think the original plan was that Joi would be Nat’s assistant, but as the footage began to come in, and as there were these three distinct stories to cut, it just made sense that Joi would take one of the stories. That’s how it happened.

MoonlightSo they did an assembly while I was shooting, and then when I got back, we rented a small office in downtown LA, and that’s where we cut the whole film. We edited for roughly four months. I’d go in and sit with them pretty much every day. We were all in the same room, with me in between, so I could just turn and see his cut, and then what she was doing. It was a great set-up, and it also meant that they each got fresh eyes to view the material, as they weren’t often working on the same story at the same time.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s huge. I wanted this to be totally immersive, and as the character’s adopting all the trappings of hyper-masculinity, all the other elements around him echo that, like the hip-hop stuff. And composer Nick Britell did all this great chopping and screwing with the orchestra.

Where did you mix the sound?
We did it at Wildfire here in LA.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but effects must have played a significant role in the final look?
Absolutely, and VFX house Significant Others worked hand in hand with our colorist Alex Bickel at Color Collective. Both are in New York, and the VFX house did us a huge solid. The biggest thing they did was where we have the opening Steadicam shot. We were shooting anamorphic, usually wide open, and there was a focus gaffe, and they went in and just nailed it.

There was a mic pack they had to erase, and a bunch of creative stuff they did — like where a shot begins, and it’s not Steadicam but then becomes Steadicam. They also comped in the ocean in one shot at the end, where it was just too dark to see it.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
Extremely important. We did it at Color Collective, and Alex Bickel (who used Resolve 12) was the third person I hired, right after the DP. I knew it was so crucial, and we spent a lot of time getting the look just right.

There’s been so much talk in Hollywood about the lack of diversity — in front of and behind the camera. What’s your take?
It’s tricky. There are so many films this year that are being framed as addressing this lack of diversity — and the outrage that’s arisen, but it takes so long to make a film. I think it’s the build-up of frustration over the past four or five years that’s just bubbled over in the past year.

As a fairly rare sight in Hollywood — a black filmmaker — do you feel you’ve had to struggle a lot to get this far? After all, it’s taken you eight long years to make this.
I think there are certain struggles when you’re a black filmmaker making black stories, and they’re mostly based on myths — black audiences only like this, black characters act like that, and so on. But for me, my last film, relative to its budget, was pretty popular, and the long gap between my films is all down to me; it’s doesn’t have anything to do with the system.

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.