Tag Archives: Iain Blair

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.

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

By Iain Blair

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

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

Rebecca Miller and our writer Iain Blair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie's Plan

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

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

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

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

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

The A-List: An interview with Quentin Tarantino about ‘The Hateful Eight’

By Iain Blair

For Quentin Tarantino fans it’s been three long years since the colorful writer/director/producer and sometime actor blasted and cursed his way across the screen with Django Unchained. Now he’s back with The Weinstein Company’s The Hateful Eight, an even more deliriously over-the-top, ultra-violent western — set in the same era — that makes Django look almost sweet and gentle by comparison.

It’s also a mash-up of horror and mystery genres, with enough fake blood and red herrings to keep every Tarantino fan in the world happy. With a large ensemble cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Channing Tatum, it tells a seemingly simple story: eight strangers get stranded in a mountainside stopover as a monster storm bears down on them. But nothing is quite what it seems.

All this is lovingly presented in the long-dormant Ultra Panavision 70mm format and shot by Tarantino’s long-time DP Robert Richardson, the three-time Oscar-winner who also shot Django, Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill: Vol 1 and for the director. It was edited by Fred Raskin, another frequent collaborator.

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Writer Iain Blair and Quentin Tarantino having some fun during their interview session.

I spoke with Tarantino about making the film, just as the first screenings rolled out.

This isn’t just a western, so what film did you set out to make?
That’s a great question, because it’s always interesting, especially after you’ve gotten to this point and you’re finally showing it for the first time — thinking back to what actually made you sit down with a pen and blank paper and start writing. And on this, more than with most of my scripts, I didn’t really know where I was going 100 percent; I just needed to get the ball rolling.

The starting point was the idea of taking eight characters that you cannot trust at all — you cannot take anything they say at face value. Whatever they say they are, you can’t trust that. Who they even think they are, or present themselves to be, you can’t trust that.Then during the course of the movie, everyone — to one degree or another — has something about their past revealed, but you can’t even trust that!

The director and his cast on set.

The director and his cast on set.

So there’s no hero?
Exactly. There’s no moral center. There’s no Django or Little Joe Cartwright. There’s no one you can gravitate towards, or anyone you know is really who they say they are. All these characters are trapped together in a chamber-room situation because of the storm.

The blizzard almost seems like some kind of monster.
Yeah, from a monster movie, and that’s waiting to devour them if they ever leave. So everyone’s trapped, and it all develops from that premise. So it’s also a mystery drama.

There was also a lot of drama and mystery a while back when the script was leaked and you got mad and pulled the plug on the whole movie.
That didn’t actually change the film I set out to make that much. I didn’t suddenly radically change direction because of the leak. The reason I reacted so much was that I had planned to do this film in a different way than I’d ever done before. I’m used to writing one big long piece, and when I get to the end, that’s the end. But in this instance — and I’d never written a script like this before — I wanted to spend time with the material and not just get to the end, but write it three different times.

In the course of telling the story in three different drafts, I wanted to see where it took me, since I spent a long time on it. So I wrote the end of the first draft — not “the end,” but just “an end” — and then the first draft got leaked. I felt very violated and I did get mad, and said, “That’s it, it’s never getting made now!” I was going to punish the world, I was so mad (laughs). But eventually I got over it and I calmed down, and then pressed on with it.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT   THE HATEFUL EIGHT

How tough was the shoot?
It wasn’t that bad. We shot all the location stuff in Telluride, Colorado, in the real snow, and then we did all the stage work at Red Studios in LA.

How long was post, and where did you do it?
It was about seven months. We just rented a house in LA near where I live and converted it into an editing facility.

Do you like the post part of the process?
I love post. People say, “Shooting’s the most important part,” and you can make that case, because if you didn’t get the coverage you don’t have a film. You could write a terrific script and then bum-rush it because you either don’t have the talent or ability or time to do it correctly. I feel that editing and writing are mirror images of each other. It’s a similar discipline, and I’ve always felt that the final script draft is the first cut of the movie, and the final cut of the movie is the last draft of the script… or at least the story.

When I’m writing, I love it, and am very invigorated, but by the time I’m ready to finish it I’m done with that process and ready to move on to the next one. Then I’m shooting and digging that, but then again I hit a point and I’m done. Life just stops while I’m making a film, and I get it back again after post.

The director and his cast on set.

The director taking a look a a shot..

The thing about post is that your gas tank is getting closer and closer to empty as you go, but what I’ve always loved about post is that after the whole hysterical carnival party atmosphere of the shoot is over, you’re suddenly all alone with your editor in a room and it’s all very serene, and what works works and what doesn’t doesn’t. Post is very much like the start of the whole process when you’re writing the script. It’s not hysterical then, it’s just very creative. What’s also interesting about post is that just about the time I’m getting sick of the whole process, you finish and you move on to the next one, and start the whole process all over again.

This is your third film with editor Fred Raskin. How does that relationship work?
He visited the set now and again — he does an assembly while we shoot, but I’m not necessarily going to watch it that much. It’s him getting familiar with the material and experimenting with stuff on his own. When I finish shooting, it’s not like I sit down and work through the assembly as a movie.

I feel the real editing only starts when I get in the room. I need to do all my homework — watching all the takes — and do that alone at home. I make notes and figure out where I want to go and how I can get there. Then armed with those notes, I come in and we start cutting together. At that point I’ll say, “Let me see what you did with the scene,” and we’ll compare versions. And on this there was a lot of great stuff he did that maybe I liked better than my ideas, so it’s back and forth like that.

There seem to be relatively few visual effects shots in this film.THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Right, not that many. The most VFX shots come into play once the storm and night hits, so we have all the storm effects outside, but even all that wasn’t just CGI. We ended up using movie effects snow blowing outside the window, and we then augmented it as needed. John Dykstra, our VFX designer, filmed more versions of that snow so we could add onto what we already had. Method Studios did all the VFX work, but we used a lot of practical stuff wherever we could, like squibs for the bullet wounds and so on.

How important is sound and music in your films?
It’s huge, and I actually figure out a lot of the music before I start writing, let alone shooting. They’re arrows that point me in the right direction, when I get cool bits of music. I’ll play stuff while I write and think, “That might be perfect for this scene.” Music’s a big part of the hook and inspiration for me when I’m writing. When I take a writing break, I’ll go upstairs and listen to the songs and I can actually see the movie in my head. I’m sitting in a theatre, with people watching the movie and hearing it, and I love it. It’s me projecting myself into the future and the finished film. There’s the White Stripes song I used, “Apple Blossom,” and I think it’s very effective. I can’t wait to see it with an audience.

Musically, this is the first original score you’ve used, and it’s the first western score in decades by the legendary Ennio Morricone. It seems like a perfect fit with your film.
He’s the maestro and a wonderful artist; it was a privilege to work with him. I had wanted to for a long time, but I felt this was the right movie for him. I don’t think the others were. I had this little voice whispering in my ear on this, saying, ‘It needs an original score.’ I never had that voice before.

THE HATEFUL EIGHTBut it’s not your typical “western” score.
Exactly. It’s more like a horror film score, and I think that’s how he saw it. That’s a good take on it.

It’s also like a stage play and an Agatha Christie mystery.
Yes, I definitely think you’re right there. The second half introduces the mystery element, and I’d never done that before. That was a lot of fun for me, and hopefully I pulled it off.

Where did you mix?
At the Cary Grant theater, on the lot at Sony. I have this great team — supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman and mixers Chris and Mike Minkler — and I’m very hands-on, but those guys know much more about sound than I do. I think they’re the best in the business, so I give them a lot of latitude to do what they want, and then we watch it and I give notes if needed. I also remember the sound on the day, so that factors in too. [Editor’s Note: Keep an eye out for our upcoming interview with Stateman.]

I assume the DI had nothing to do with the film print?
Right. We only did a DI for the DCP, so there would be like a film element that the DCP had to deal with as opposed to taking it straight off the negative. I usually do a DI but this was the first time I didn’t do one for the film print. I went the Chris Nolan way.

Where do you keep your Oscars?
I used to keep them in my writing room, but last year I changed that. I have a big video room with old videocassettes, and I keep them on the top shelf in the drama section.

Quentin Tarantino: “I’m not a director for hire.”

You’ve only directed eight films, including your 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. Why so few?
The real answer is, I’m not a director for hire. I’m not combing through novels and reading piles of scripts so I can make more movies. I make a movie, I give it my all, and when it’s over I need some time by myself to figure out what’s next. When I do figure it out, I have to write it, and that takes almost a year. So it’s basically a three-year process on each film.

There’ve been a lot of rumors that you might retire soon. Say it ain’t so!
Well, at least from directing. The business has changed a lot since I began, and that doesn’t help. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a thing. And if shooting on film ever stopped being an option, I wouldn’t reach 10. I’d write novels or plays and direct those, since that’s where I’m coming from. I want all my movies to be made with a deep sense of passion for what I’m doing. I don’t want to just continue doing it because it’s all I know how to do. There is an umbilical cord from Reservoir Dogs to this, and I do like the idea of leaving you wanting just a little bit more.

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: Director George Miller talks ‘Fury Road,’ Oscar season

By Iain Blair

The Oscar-winning writer/director/producer George Miller was instrumental in introducing the new wave of revved-up Aussie cinema to the world stage thanks to his seminal and highly influential apocalyptic road trilogy, Mad Max. But when the first in the series roared onto screens in the late seventies, it wasn’t just a fresh blast of non-stop action reeking of hot engines and even hotter desert winds from down under. Miller’s assured debut, a bleak vision of the future, essentially rewrote the book on how to make a successful low-budget indie action film (for 20 years it held the record as the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any film).

He then went on to create two more much-beloved franchises — Babe and Happy Feet — which did for talking animals what Mad Max did for young up-and-comer Mel Gibson.

Miller, whose diverse credits include directing The Witches of Eastwick, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Lorenzo’s Oil and producing Dead Calm, the thriller that jump-started Nicole Kidman’s career, was in LA recently to talk about Warner Bros. Mad Max: Fury Road. The $375 million-grossing smash is the fourth in the blockbuster series, which left off with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, released exactly 30 years ago.

George Miller and writer Iain Blair

George Miller and writer Iain Blair

Starring Tom Hardy in the iconic Gibson role and Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, the film was shot by John Seale, the acclaimed Aussie cinematographer who won the Oscar for The English Patient and whose credits include Cold Mountain, The Perfect Storm, Rain Man, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lorenzo’s Oil with Miller. It was the DP’s first digital film and first time shooting with Arri Alexas (See our coverage on Seale shooting Fury Road here).

Over a nice meal, I spoke with Miller about making the film, posting Fury Road and the Oscars.

We’re heading into awards season. You’ve been nominated for three Oscars and you’ve won once, for Happy Feet. How important are they to you?
It’s a mistake to give it too much thought. It’s enough to just make a film that resonates with audiences, and I used to feel awards just aren’t important, but I’ve come to realize that culturally successful people — whether they’re directors or artists or musicians and so on — have the ability to analyze and reinforce what works. It’s always easy to see why something doesn’t work, but it’s far harder to pin down exactly why it works.

Is it true that you spent three years building 3D rigs from scratch to shoot Fury Road, and then at the last moment decided that the film would be shot in 2D instead?
We started off shooting native 3D with them, but suddenly we began to doubt that they’d hold up in all the heat and dust where we were shooting —the Namibian desert — as we only had six. And by then, stereo conversion was getting really good, so we decided to go digital with the Alexas, which were also supplemented with a Canon EOS 5D Mark 11 and an Olympus P5 used as “crash” cameras in some action sequences.

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Seale told me that — amazingly, given the non-stop action — the film was predominantly a one-camera shoot.
Yeah. Roman Polanski said, “At any given moment, there’s only one perfect camera position,” and I agree. So when I went into animation with the Happy Feet movies, it became really obvious, as you can take exactly the same performance, same set and so on, and by shifting the camera, the perspective and cutting pattern, you can change a scene completely. So yes, I’m a one-camera filmmaker in that sense.

Do you like the post process?
Very much. It’s where you confront your mistakes and where you can work around them, provided you have a good editor. We posted in Sydney in my offices, in this deco theatre, The Metro, and it took over a year. Then we did some extra shooting and the bookends to the movie, back in Australia.

The film was edited by your wife, Margaret Sixel, who also cut Happy Feet. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
We shot for nine months and she was back in Sydney, getting massive amounts of footage. Initially she didn’t want to do it because she’d never cut an action film before. I told her that was a great reason to do it since she wouldn’t be following all the clichés and tropes and style of those movies.

Charlize Theron and George Miller on set

Charlize Theron and George Miller on set

I’d seen her work on documentaries, where she’d taken some very bland footage and shaped it into a very strong narrative. She has this great sense of structure and causality of one shot to the next, either spatially or thematically — there’s some connection.

It struck me that this is essentially a silent movie, but with great sound.
That’s exactly what I set out to make, and we did the sound mix, the DI and post-viz as part of editorial, and did a lot of early sound work in Sydney, but then we ended up on the lot at Warners here in LA, and did the final Atmos mix here, too, with a great team: re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins and Gregg Rudloff.

Obviously, a lot of the action effects were shot in-camera, but there’s also huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
There are over 2,800 shots in the movie — which is a lot — and I’d say over 2,000 have some VFX elements. Andrew Jackson, who did 300, was the VFX supervisor. A lot of that was done as post-viz — so the team did simple comps or simple animation, erasures and so on, and if they were good enough, we didn’t pass them on to the VFX houses… Method or Iloura in Sydney.

You also brought Eric Whipp, a DI colorist from Toronto who did the Happy Feet films, down to work on it full-time?
Yeah, and in the DI he was really pushing the Baselights to do stuff like sky replacements. The problem was, we shot for nearly 140 days but the story happens over three days, so you needed consistency in the skies, and he was able to do all that very quickly and cheaply in the DI. We did a preliminary DI on the set and were grading our dailies, and we also had our own Baselights in the editing suites in Sydney.

All that was so important — having postviz, editorial and Baselight all working together. And often Margaret or her assistants would comp performances in editorial, so there’s a lot of plasticity between the cuts now that we didn’t have in the past when it was all celluloid. (See our interview with colorist Eric Whipp here)

Digital, especially in post, must really suit your style of filmmaking.
Completely. I learned so much from doing animation in the Babe and Happy Feet movies, and now nearly every film involves animation and CGI to some extent. The biggest advantage of digital on this film was safety — you just erase harnesses, wires and so on. And also being able to erase tire marks from previous takes. That was huge for us!

FURY ROAD THREE

The film has a very gritty and over-saturated look. Was that all done in post or was it a combination?
It was a combination of design and post. We designed it to be pretty monochrome. In a way it’s all variations of reds, browns, yellows and very little color.

There are all these rumors you’re going to shoot Mad Max: Wasteland next. True?
(Laughs) All I can say is it’s not even the real title, but we are definitely talking about 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

George Miller photos credit: Jasin Boland

The A-List: Director Cary Fukunaga on posting ‘Beasts of No Nation’

By Iain Blair

Writer/director/camera operator/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga has literally been one of the hottest — and coldest — directors in the business, thanks to making shorts, docs and movies everywhere from the Arctic Circle to Haiti and East Africa.

Now he’s hot again, in every sense of the word, having written/directed/produced and shot the harrowing new war drama Beasts of No Nation, set in the sweltering lands of West Africa, and shot in Ghana. It tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young villager, whose happy family life and childhood are shattered when army troops from the capital city arrive to squelch a rebellion against the country’s corrupt regime.

After seeing his father and brother killed, he escapes to the forest where he’s discovered by a company of young rebels led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). There, he undergoes a gauntlet of harsh treatment, initiation rituals and fiery speeches from the Commandant, and as the ragtag army sets off on a series of battles, Agu is eventually promoted from ammo carrier to rifle-toting soldier, gaining respect but losing his innocence as he’s turned into a killing machine. The film is available exclusively on Netflix.

Writer Iain Blair and filmmaker Cary Fukunaga.

Writer Iain Blair and filmmaker Cary Fukunaga.

I spoke with Fukunaga — whose credits include his acclaimed feature-writing and directing debut Sin Nombre, Jayne Eyre and the first season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective (for which he won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series) — about making the film, post and his respect for film sound.

Did you have a vision for how this film would look?
Yes, and it’s the film I wrote (laughs), but I don’t really visualize my films ahead of time. I’m not even sure about the music, so I start off definitely from a writing perspective and when scouting locations I start getting visual ideas. Obviously, I do have some visual ideas in my head or I couldn’t write it, but it’s such a work in progress… every step of the way. It was such a hard, brutal shoot — the hardest I’ve ever done, anywhere, and I’ve shot in some very difficult places around the world.

So post must have been a very calm respite after the grueling locations of West Africa?
I like post. It’s where you really make and finish the film, but I’m so used to being very hands-on in all the other production departments — writing, directing, camera operating and so on — that by the time I get to post, it feels very strange to be relegated to the role of almost an observer. And the rhythm is always fits and starts. You get in there and it seems like nothing’s happening for weeks, and then finally you make some progress, and then that all repeats. So post is definitely not my favorite part of the whole process, just because of the sheer time it all takes and how much I’m not hands-on anymore.

Beasts of No Nation DSC_4260.jpg

How did it work in the editing room with two editors —Mikkel E.G. Nielsen (A Royal Affair) and Pete Beaudreau (All Is Lost, The Gambler)?
Originally, a third editor, Elliot Graham (Steve Jobs, Milk) was on the shoot with us, but he hurt his back and had to drop out. We had roughly 75 hours of raw footage from Ghana, so Mikkel took over and had to completely learn all that footage again and then started re-cutting and re-assembling the film a couple of months after we wrapped. That was at Outpost Digital in New York. Then after five months on it, he had to leave for another job, so Pete took over — and we thought it would just be clean up by that point, but he ended up working on it for another five months. If you think of Mikkel’s work as hammering out the shape of the sword, Pete put on the fine edge to every scene.

So post was pretty long?
Yes, we did it all at Outpost. We were there almost a year, and we started on post while we were shooting in Ghana. Our associate editor, Victoria Lesiw, started off as an assistant editor in Ghana and was there all the way through and completely invested, from production to the very last days of post. We lost people along the way, so post wasn’t at all easy; people had to bow out because of previous commitments. We lost our original sound designer just weeks before we started our mix, and we had to completely redo it all in a very short time — just five weeks, which wasn’t really enough for the film — but we were able to create something out of nothing.

Although the film feels like cinéma vérité, obviously you used VFX, especially in all the battles scenes. How many visual effects shots are there?
Quite a few. There was a lot of clean up, and a lot of artifacts of war — bullet hits on walls, blood squibs — which we didn’t have time to do as usual physical effects, as well as muzzle flashes and augmenting explosions and so on. Then we had the big infra-red sequence. I’d written the screenplay back in 2006, and I loved the infrared sequence Oliver Stone and Rodrigo Prieto had done in Alexander, so I always wanted to do it. I wanted to shoot some infrared in True Detective, but we just couldn’t find the film stock — we just did it as a VFX sequence for this. Siren Lab did most of them,  but The Artery also did some shots.Beasts of No Nation

Sound and music both play a huge role in this, right?
I actually think they’re more important than the visuals. I had this great video class teacher in high school, who said, “People will forgive bad visuals, but they’ll never forgive bad sound,” and that’s so true. If there’s something wrong with the sound, it can be the most grating part of watching any kind of media, but if you do it right you can really elevate the storytelling. Look at what Walter Murch did…  and Orson Welles, who came from radio. They really understood how much sound can tell a story, and have been a big influence for me. So when I do sound design, sometimes I’ll do entire sequences where that’s driving the entire story. We did all the mixing at Harbor Picture Company in New York. (The mix crew at Harbor included supervising sound editor Glenfield Payne, re-recording Mixer Martin Czembor, assistant sound re-recording mixer Josh Berger and re-recording mix technician Ian Gaffney Rosenfeld. The film was mixed using a Euphonix S5 Fusion console. The Euphonix was controlling 2 Pro Tools systems running Pro Tools 11.)

Where was the DI?
At Deluxe in New York with Steve Bodner (who uses DaVinci Resolve), the same colorist I used on True Detective. He’s the guy I go to for anything. We did some looks before I left, but more than anything we just get in the room and figure it all out. I love the DI, and by that stage I feel much more hands-on. We did a lot of work because the whole issue with digital is that you spend so much time trying to get back to a film look. So you sit there, massaging and massaging it, trying to get the color space right, and every film stock’s different.

Cary Fukunago shooting with the Arri Alexa.

Cary Fukunago shooting with the Arri Alexa.

I really love old photo journalism reversal stock. If I could have shot Sin Nombre on Kodachrome I would have — and part of that is the unforgiving nature of reversal stock. There’s no reciprocity there. Now, six, seven years later, shooting with the Arri Alexa, I was again looking how to approximate that slightly under-exposed reversal look for this film. I found that by shooting one stop under —and bringing in a lot of cyans and the blacks, but keeping the saturation up, and then figuring out how to make all the greens, yellows and browns really pop — it gave me the look I wanted.

There’s a lot of talk that you’ll do another TV project, a miniseries based on Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist. So what’s next?
I’m definitely involved with The Alienist, but I may do something else before then. It depends on the timing.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors and artists 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: Peter Bogdanovich on directing ‘She’s Funny That Way’

By Iain Blair

The legendary director/writer/producer/actor/author and film historian Peter Bogdanovich hit Hollywood like a tornado when his 1971 masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, scored eight Oscar nominations, winning two of those golden boys. He followed that up with more hits, including What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. The latter won the Oscar for then 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal.

Since those heady days, Bogdanovich has had his ups and downs, and he’s largely spent most of the last 15 years working in TV, both behind and in front of the camera — he was a regular on The Sopranos and also directed an episode. Now he’s back with a new film, She’s Funny That Way, a screwball comedy about the interconnected personal lives of the cast and crew of a Broadway production, starring an ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, Will Forte, Kathryn Hahn, Rhys Ifans and Imogen Poots.

Peter Bogdanovich and writer Iain Blair during their recent meeting in LA.

Peter Bogdanovich and writer Iain Blair during their recent meeting in Hollywood.

I met with the director — whose films include Mask, Texasville and Noises Off… — recently in Hollywood to talk about making the film, the challenges of posting it, and his take on cinema today.

The film was co-produced by some real heavyweights, including Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, and in addition to the A-list cast, you also got cameos from Quentin Tarantino, Tatum O’Neal and Joanna Lumley. Did you just call them up?
Wes and Noah are good friends and helped me get this made, and with Quentin I called him. But he’s the most impossible person to reach on the phone, and I usually leave many messages before he finally calls back, but this time he just picked up the phone, said “yes” immediately and that he’d love to be in a Peter Bogdanovich film.

You shot and posted in New York?
Yes. We had a great time shooting it in New York. And while I like post and all the editing, I think my favorite part of the whole filmmaking process is the shoot itself and working with all the actors. I don’t like preproduction, and in post you can get into problems — you disagree with the producer or you don’t see eye-to-eye with the editor and you have arguments. So it can be very frustrating sometimes.

Was the post on this frustrating?
(Laughs) No, not as bad as some films I’ve done! We did all the post work at Harbor Picture Company in downtown New York. They’ve worked on a lot of great movies, like The Hundred-Foot Journey, as well as TV shows like Game of Thrones, and they did all the sound editorial, ADR and mixing as well as the DI. They did a great job. Robert Hein was our supervising sound editor. [Bobby Johanson was the ADR mixer and the ADR recordist was Mike Rivera.] For the DI they worked with the DP Yaron Orbach, as it was pretty straightforward. [Joe Gawler was the main colorist, with additional help from Roman Hankewycz. They both used DaVinci Resolve.]

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You used two editors on the film: Pax Wassermann, who has cut a lot of documentaries, including “Knuckleball!, and Nick Moore, who cut Notting Hill, About a Boy and Along Came Polly. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
Well, Pax was in New York and then we hired Nick when we came out to LA to finish the film, so they didn’t work together at all. Pax was there while we were shooting and did virtually the whole picture. So we had that cut, and we felt it needed a bit more work, and I was coming out to LA, so it just made sense to get another editor then, and we made some changes and shifted stuff around.

I quite enjoy the editing, but I shoot my films so they’ll cut a certain way. So the only thing that’s really left to argue about is what scenes should be in or out. Sometimes you win the fight, other times someone has a better point.

Did you get into fights this time in post?
Not with the editors. The producers disagreed a little bit, but it all worked out okay in the end. It’s just a natural part of the process.

There are a few visual effects shots in the film. What was involved?
There aren’t many… mainly those super-impositions at the start when Imogen’s talking about Tracy and Hepburn, and Bogart and Bacall. They were all done by The Molecule, which is based in New York and LA. Luke DiTommaso was the VFX supervisor. I’m not that big on VFX work, but they did a great job. [The Molecule provided around 15 shots. Effects created include set alterations, such as sign replacements, speed ramps, split screens and one shot where they connected a guy’s fist to someone’s face. The mostly used Nuke and Mocha Pro.]

You’ve been doing this a long time. What are the biggest changes in post — and movies in general — that you’ve seen since you started?
I figured out I’ve been in showbiz for 60 years, since 1955, and digital has been the biggest change. That’s made post – and shooting – so much easier, and faster, so I’m a fan. Digital editing systems were a true revolution.

I’m not a fan of all the superhero comic book movies they make now. They bore the shit out of me! If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all, but Hollywood’s always been, “monkey see, money do.” Remember when Jim Cameron made Titanic? Everyone said it would be a disaster, with this huge budget of $150 million. “What’s he doing? He’s crazy! Out of his fucking mind!” Now, that’s Hollywood’s solution to everything — spend $150 million on some cartoon superhero. That’s why I don’t go to the movies much anymore. There’s so few I want to see, which is a bit sad.

Check out the trailer for She’s Funny That Way:

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.