Tag Archives: Iain Blair

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.

The A-List: Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie

By Iain Blair

Over the course of nine films, acclaimed Scottish director David Mackenzie has managed to pull off quite a trick — appearing to embrace genre filmmaking while simultaneously subverting the whole concept. His last film, Starred Up, was both a brutal prison drama and a story about anger therapy. Young Adam was both an erotic thriller and a tragic love story. Perfect Sense was a sci-fi romance.

His latest genre mash-up, Hell or High Water, might look like a standard-issue, nail-biting bank-heist thriller, but it’s also a lyrical western, a road movie and a timely commentary on current political and economic issues in America. Written by Taylor Sheridan (who wrote Sicario), it stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner, two brothers who embark on a crime spree in order to save their family ranch from being foreclosed on by the local bank. Following their trail is a world-weary Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his put-upon partner (Gil Birmingham).

David Mackenzie

The behind-the-scenes team includes DP Giles Nuttgens and Mackenzie’s longtime editor Jake Roberts, and the film features an original score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Far From Men). The film, which is now rolling out in theaters nationwide, is already attracting Oscar talk.

I spoke with Mackenzie about making Hell or High Water and his unique editing process.

This is being hailed as one of the best and “most American” films of the year. How does a Scot from Glasgow end up making a Texas crime drama that’s definitely more than just a crime drama, that takes on a lot of current American issues, and feels so authentic?
I guess I got lucky. It was a great script, and I already had a connection with West Texas as I’d been there a few years ago to visit a Scottish friend who lives there — I loved the landscape — so I had a feeling for the place and the lifestyle there. When I read the script I thought, “This is a great opportunity,” so I just ran with it. I’m always drawn to stories that are not black and white in terms of their moral shades, and I was interested in the idea of “redemptive criminality” where good people do bad things for good reasons. That was a big part of the appeal for me in doing this.

What did each of the three leads bring to the table?
It’s so hard to put into words as it’s this intangible thing really. They all brought their skill, talent, hard work and experience to their characters, and it’s this alchemy that happens, this magic, when you get the right actors in the roles. I knew we were doing good work at the time; it felt great, and there was such a good rapport between everyone on set.

It has a very ‘70s western feel. Were directors like Peckinpah and Don Siegel an influence?
Definitely, along with people like Hal Ashby, and what I call ‘the humanistic cinema’ of the ‘70s. I think Don Siegel was a master of his craft and hugely underrated.

It plays like a laid-back thriller, but with a lot of other things going on.
Right. I never really thought of it as a thriller. For me it had to be a balance between the genre bank robbery elements and the deeper exploration of land and space and people lost in the erosion of change. They aren’t really verbal and articulate; they communicate as much in their silences as their sentences, and the “porch moments” feel to me absolutely essential to the film and we all felt instinctively drawn to them whenever the opportunity arrived. I love the contrast between the huge, empty horizons and the sanctuary of the porch.

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?
We decided to use both digital (Arri Alexa XTs) and classic Cinemascope to create a look that’s very contemporary but also timeless. Finding all the right locations was key as well.

The film’s set in Archer City, where the classic The Last Picture Show was shot, one of Jeff Bridges’ early films, and interestingly my editor saw Peter Bogdanovich (see my postPerspective interview with him last year) in the audience at a recent screening of our film, and they had a nice chat. Archer City’s not changed at all since he shot there, but we ended up shooting in New Mexico, because of tax credits. Obviously, most banks didn’t want us shooting heist scenes, so we renovated various banks that had shut down, but we also got to shoot in a real, working bank; there’s nothing like using real locations.

Where did you do all the post?
It was a mixture of starting the edit in New Mexico, then Glasgow for three months, and then all the finishing in LA. We did some ADR at Margarita Mix, PostWorks and the final mix at Wildfire with Chris David.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. For me, the shoot’s the most exciting part, but post is where you actually make the film and shape all the material. We spent about six, eight months on it. The great thing about all the portable technology now is that you can just set up a post suite wherever you are, so in Glasgow we had a hotel room and did a lot of the editing there.

Talk about editing with editor Jake Roberts. Was he on the set?
He was either on the set or very close by, and the editing is very immediate. After six films together with Jake I developed a way of working that’s really fast and pared down. For me, filmmaking is about getting as close to the spirit of the material as possible and liberating myself from some of the less necessary conventions of the normal filmmaking process. So I don’t use clapper boards and I don’t have an on-set script supervisor.

I also cut as I shoot, so we keep the edit of the film totally up to speed with the shoot, except for the last scene of the day, and I’m able to see cut scenes the day they are shot — which in turn feeds back into what we are doing in a very positive and encouraging way. Every week we can see a cut of the film so far — and it’s not an assembly. I really love this method of working. Obviously, it continues after the shoot, but it allows you to be way ahead of the game in terms of the edit.

Is it true you did testing for the very first time?
Yes, and I thought it was very helpful, putting it out in front of an audience and seeing how they feel and react. We did three tests and that helped shape and finesse the material more each time. But I didn’t like the focus group stuff at all. It didn’t seem helpful to me.

I loved the different rhythms used for the brothers, and then the more relaxed scenes with the Rangers.
I’m glad you noticed. That was the idea, but it also partly came about because of the actors’ schedules. We shot Chris and Ben separately from Jeff and Gil, and very fast, with a rag-tag feeling. Jeff and Gil was slower and more leisurely, and we had more time, so it was two very different flavors.

I thought the fight scene was unusual — no fast cuts, just one long take.
We felt it was far more effective that way, not relying on cuts to do the work of the scene.

What about the VFX – what was involved?
The biggest was the brush fire. Vitality VFX did that and it took quite a long time to get right. I want to give a special shout-out to Jeremy Cox, who also did a lot of very subtle VFX work — condensing shots, adding signage and so on. It’s the first time I’ve had so many VFX like that, and it was a revelation to me.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did it at Light Iron with Corinne Bogdanowicz, and I’m always very involved with the DP in getting the look right. We went a little bit too far at one point in getting the right look and had to pull some color and contrast, but I’m very pleased with the final look.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. The film came together very quickly, but the shaping took a long time in the end.

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: 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.

The A-List: The Little Prince director Mark Osborne

By Iain Blair

Two-time Academy Award-nominated director Mark Osborne has been telling stories with animation and live-action for more than 25 years.  His breakout film was the 2008 animated DreamWorks offering Kung Fu Panda — co-directed by John Stevenson — which has grossed over $630 million worldwide.

Osborne’s live-action directing credits include the independent feature film Dropping Out, the animated TV series Spongebob Squarepants, featuring Patchy the Pirate, and all of the live-action sequences for The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

Mark Osborne and Iain Blair.

Now Osborne has directed and executive produced the upcoming first-ever animated feature film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved classic, The Little Prince, which premiered Out of Competition at Cannes and then won the French Cesar Film Award for Best Animated Feature. Using stop-motion animation and CGI, the film features the voice talents of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks and Mackenzie Foy.

The film centers on the friendship between an eccentric old aviator (Jeff Bridges) and the very grown-up young girl who moves into the house next door with her extremely grown-up mother (Rachel McAdams). Through the pages of the aviator’s book and his drawings, the little girl (Mackenzie Foy) learns the story of how he long ago crashed in a desert and met The Little Prince (Riley Osborne), an enigmatic boy from a distant planet.

I recently met up with Osborne to talk about making the film.

I heard that when you were asked to direct this, your first instinct was to turn it down. Is that true?
Absolutely. Part of it was the way the question was asked; “Do you know the book? Do you want to make a big CG animated film of it?” I said, “I know the book very well, and it’s impossible to film. I don’t think CG’s the right way to deal with the book’s poetry.” I couldn’t see a way to stretch out this small, magical novella, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as this great opportunity, and that there was maybe a way to do — not a direct adaptation, but something more unconventional that captures the spirit and poetry of the book. I thought that I could tell a larger story that said something about the power of the book, and maybe I could use stop motion to protect the poetry of the book. So the same reasons that initially made me say “no” actually made me agree to do it.

How early on did you decide to combine CGI and stop motion?
It was one of the early ideas I had, but it took a while to present it to the producers — it was one of the deal breakers. I went back to them and said, ‘I think we can do it this way,’ and happily they loved the combination.

How tricky was it combining 2D and 3D?
It was tricky because, except for two transitions, we are hard-cutting between 2D and 3D. I just gave a talk at SIGGRAPH about the challenges. I was always designing the film as a whole, and we were constantly discussing how we’d make it all fit together. But, ultimately, we wanted the CG and stop motion to feel different. The three elements we used to make it all fit were color, light and paper. So the little girl is holding a piece of yellow paper and staring at it, and it becomes the sand dune. Everything in the stop motion frame is paper, and together with light, that makes the link between the CG world and the stop motion world.

My co-production designer Celine Desrumaux, who worked on Harry Potter, is an incredibly talented color artist and she took all the movie storyboards and did color and lighting layouts, which helped enormously. We’d talk a lot about how various scenes needed to dovetail and how to blend the colors and light the CG animation. In some ways it’s very realistic lighting in the CG scenes, but it’s falling on this very stylized look, so it maintains its storybook qualities as it’s not photoreal.

For the 3D did you originate in stereo?
Yes, so when Jamie Caliri did all the stop-motion sequences he shot in stereo — a left eye and right eye. So we didn’t add it in post. It’s true stereo.

This must have required a very complex digital pipeline. How did that work?
It was a lot of innovation and a lot of collaboration. My parent company partnered with French producers and we began work in LA and then moved to Paris for the development and storyboard parts. When we moved to Montreal we set up our CG pipeline with this French-Canadian company Mikros Image. So it was partly their in-house pipeline and partly the French one from Paris.

What about rendering? That must have been a critical part of the whole process.
It was, and we called on Guerilla Render, which is used a lot in VFX, but it’s now starting to be used more in animation. That gave us this unique lighting look for all our CG sequences. It did create a few complications because it was relatively new for animated films and the pipeline we were building was also relatively new. I came from the big-budget studio pipeline and I was coming into a more indie world, so there were some growing pains. But, ultimately, our CG pipeline gave us this unique element that we could work closely with in conjunction with our stop-motion pipeline, since they were both in Montreal.

The Little PrinceAnimation takes so long to edit, and you had two editors — Matt Landon and Carole Kravetz. How did that work?
You’re right — it took years to edit! It’s just the reality of animation. When you make a live-action film, you make it three times — you write it, shoot it and cut it. But in animation, you make those three versions simultaneously — we’re writing, shooting and editing as we go, so it’s highly collaborative. Plus, I’m working constantly with my writers and editors. I began with Carole in Paris, and she laid the basic foundations, then Matt cut with me in Montreal as Carole couldn’t move there. So it turned out to be a great opportunity to bring in a new collaborator and fresh set of eyes. I always knew the biggest challenge would be balancing the book and the film’s larger story. Getting that balance right was very tricky, but Matt really helped pull it all together.

The songs by Camille and music by Hans Zimmer must have been another crucial element?
Hugely important! In animation you have to create every single thing, every sound. Nothing is free. So from sound design to music, it’s all so important. The big key for me is that I treat animation like any other film. It’s not a cartoon; it’s not for kids. We’re making a real film for adults and kids. When I first presented it to Hans Zimmer, I was so thrilled when he said, “I don’t want it to sound like any other animated movie — or any other movie at all. I want it to sound French and unique. Then he partnered with French singer Camille and composer Richard Harvey, and the result is something very special.

Fair to say this was a true labor of love?
Completely. It’s taken over five and a half years from start to finish, and it changed radically over that time. But filmmaking for me is a process of discovery, and it’s been this amazing adventure.

What’s next? Another Kung Fu Panda?
No, I like to keep doing different things. I’m not sure what my next project will be, but I want to keep pushing the boundaries of what animation can be, using different techniques. I’d love to do a full stop-motion film.

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.