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Category Archives: Director

Director Olivier Gondry returns to Partizan

Director Olivier Gondry has once again joined the roster at production house Partizan. Gondry, known for his commercial and music video work, made his first major mark with his commercials for HP, featuring his brother Michel and Vera Wang. Since then, this Paris-based director has gone on to collaborate with brands such as Audi, YouTube, Fiat, Microsoft, Starbucks, Nissan, Canon, Gillette, True Religion, Etsy and Trip Advisor.

Originally known as a visual effects artist, it was at Partizan where Gondry first established himself as a director. The renewed connection is a happy homecoming for Gondry and Partizan, which maintains offices in Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, São Paulo and in the Middle East.

Olivier’s endeavors in the music world include work with such artists as Daft Punk, OK Go and The Vines. Most recently, Olivier created a slightly disturbing and compelling visual exultation of facial flux and melding bodies for Joywave’s Doubt.

“Partizan has been part of my life since forever,” says Gondry. “First as a brother watching Michel climbing the steps. I can still remember him telling me, ‘I met this producer [Georges Bermann].’ I was proud and curious already! It was here that I first transitioned from special effects to directing. I’m so happy to return to Partizan, to be back home and back with my brother.”

Gondry is also currently in development on a long-form narrative project.

End of the Line director Jessica Sanders

By Randi Altman

After watching the End of the Line, I found myself thinking about the short film’s content… a lot. Based on a short story by Aimee Bender, director Jessica Sanders’ version starts off with a man walking into a pet store, looking into what the audience assumes is a birdcage and walking out not with a bird but a little man in a cage.

We see how Big Man (Stranger Things’ Brett Gelman) tries to take care of Little Man (Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg) and then we see his frustration when the clearly well-read and intelligent Little Man tells the story of how he was taken from his family and put in a cage. Big Man’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, leading him to torture Little Man.

We reached out to director Sanders — who has an Oscar nomination thanks to her short documentary, Sing! — to talk about making the film, which is part of Refinery29 and TNT’s Shatterbox Anthology, a short film series dedicated to supporting the voices of female filmmakers.

Let’s start with cameras. What did you shoot on, and how involved in that process are you?
We shot on the Alexa Mini with Panavision primo lenses. I like to go over lenses/looks with my DP, but defer to what the DP wants to shoot on. For this project, I worked with ultra-talented DP Brett Pawlak.

How long was the shoot, and how much pre-production did you do? I’m assuming a good amount considering the VFX shots?
The film, although short (14 minutes), was essentially a feature in terms of preparation and the production scope/crew size, shooting for six days. We had about two months of intense prep leading up to the shoot, from scouting and art department. For example, we built a 30-foot penis and 30-foot cage. The VFX approach was an intensive collaboration between VFX supervisor Eva Flodstrom, my DP Brett, production designer Justin Trask, producer Louise Shore and myself.

We had 67 VFX shots, so I storyboarded the film early on and then photoboarded each shot when we had our locations. We had a specific VFX/production approach to execute each shot from a mix of practicals (building the giant cage), to strictly greenscreen (i.e., when the little man is on a calculator). It was a highly involved and collaborative process.

Was your VFX supervisor on set?
Yes. Eva was highly involved from the beginning for all of prep, and on set she was instrumental. We worked closely with a DIT video assist so we could do a rough VFX comp of each shot while we were shooting. After production, it took about four months to finish post and visual effects.

I wanted to work with Eva, as she’s a pro, having worked on Star Wars and Star Trek (also, there are very few female VFX supervisors). Our approach/philosophy to VFX was similar — inspired by Michel Gondry’s and Spike Jonze’s work in which the VFX feels human, warm and practical, integral to the story and characters, never distracting.

Can you talk about the challenges of directing a project with VFX?
I had never done a VFX-heavy film before, and creatively, as a director, I wanted to challenge myself. I had a blast and want to do more films with VFX after this experience. Because I surrounded myself with top artists who had VFX experience, it was a totally enjoyable experience. We had a lot of fun making this film!

This was likely a hard story to tell. As the viewer you think it’s going to be a sweet story about a guy and his bird, but then…
I read Aimee Bender’s short story End of the Line in her book Willful Creatures in 2005 and have been passionate about it since then. The story takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s funny, dark, explores themes of loneliness, desire and abuse of power, in a short amount of time. There are a lot of tonal shifts, and I worked closely with screenwriter Joanne Giger to achieve this balance.

How did you as a director set out to balance the humor, the sadness, the kinda disturbing stuff, etc.?
I played the film visually and tonally very grounded (i.e. the rules of this world is that there is a big person and tiny person world that live side by side) and from that I could push the humor and darkness. In the performances, I wanted there to be an emotional truth to what the characters are experiencing that feels human and real, despite the fantastical setting. So I played with a lot of the mix of feelings within this very grounded surreal world.

The color is sort of muted in an old-timey kind of way. Can you talk about what you wanted from the color and mood?
I’m very sensitive to color and attention to detail. We wanted the film to feel timeless, although it is contemporary. Costume designer Shirley Kurata is amazing with color blocking and visual storytelling with color. Because Big Man’s world is more depressed and lonely, his tones are gray, the house is dark wood. As Big Man gains power, he wears more color. My DP has a very naturalistic approach with his lighting, so I wanted everything to feel very natural.

When we colored the film later in post, the approach was to do very little to the film, as it was captured in-camera. Production designer Justin Trask is a genius — from how he designed and built the giant penis (to feel less naturalistic) to the details of Little Man’s cage (his furniture, the giant bread crumb on a coin). We had a lot of fun exploring all the miniature props and details in this film.

How did you work with your editors? What did they cut on?
Because of the VFX, we edited on Adobe Premiere. I worked with editor Stephen Berger, who helped shape the film and did an amazing job doing the rough VFX comps in the edit. He is great with music and brought musical inspirations, which led to composer Pedro Bromfman’s entire saxophone score. Pedro is a big composer from Brazil and did my last documentary March of the Living. Editor Claudia Castello is incredible with performance, building the emotional arc of each character. She edited Fruitvale Station, Creed and was an editor on Black Panther. It was a great collaborative experience.

You had a lot of women on the crew. It seems like you went out of your way to find female talent. Why is this so important to you and the industry in general?
As a woman and a woman of Asian descent (I’m half Chinese), it’s important to me to be surrounded by a diverse group of collaborators and to hire with as much gender equality as possible. I love working with talented women and supporting women. The world is a diverse place. It’s important to me to have different perspectives reflected in filmmaking and representation. There is a huge inequality of the hiring practices in Hollywood (4% of Hollywood feature films were directed by women last year), so it’s critical to hire talented, qualified women.

Do you think things are getting better for females in the industry, especially in the more technical jobs?
I’ve always hired female cinematographers, editors and worked with Eva Flodstrom for VFX. With my friend/colleague Rachel Morrison, who is the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar, I hope things are changing for women with more visibility and dialogue. Change can only happen by actually hiring talented women (like director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) who works with female cinematographers and editors).

You’ve directed both narrative and documentary projects. Do you have a preference, or do you enjoy switching back and forth?
This film marks a new creative chapter and narrative direction in my work. I love my background in documentaries, but I am fully focused on narrative filmmaking at the moment.

How was Sundance for you and the film?
Sundance was an incredible experience and platform for the film. We were IndieWire’s Top 10 Must See Films. My creative team came out, including actors Simon Helberg and Vivian Bang. It was a blast!

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool director Paul McGuigan

By Iain Blair

BAFTA- and Emmy-nominated director and producer Paul McGuigan has made quite a name for himself in film and TV thanks to his gift for handling gritty crime procedurals and atmospheric dramas.

This Scot started out as a still photographer before working his way into the documentary world, helming non-fiction assignments for Channel 4 and the BBC. He made his fiction debut with the short The Granton Star Cause, an adaptation of one of Irvine Welsh’s short stories. The film inspired him to direct two additional self-contained episodes, also adapted from the work of Welsh, stitched together as a well-received omnibus called The Acid House.

Paul McGuigan and Iain Blair

That laid the groundwork for his move into features on a full-time basis, starting with the inventive crime sagas Gangster No. 1 and Lucky Number Slevin. He followed these with the medieval film The Reckoning, the romantic mystery Wicker Park and Victor Frankenstein, starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe.

Now McGuigan, whose credits include the TV series Sherlock (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) is back with his latest movie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which earned three BAFTA noms. Based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, the film follows the playful but passionate relationship between Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and the eccentric Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) in 1978 Liverpool. What starts as a vibrant affair between a legendary femme fatale and her young lover quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Peter being the person Gloria turns to for comfort. Their passion and lust for life is tested to the limits by events beyond their control.

I recently talked to McGuigan about making the film.

What was the appeal of this story for you?
Both the book and the script it’s based on were just so interesting, with this whole idea of memory being so fluid. I felt there was a real cinematic world to explore, what with Gloria Grahame being this former big star who won the Oscar for The Bad and The Beautiful, and I liked the idea of this Hollywood icon ending up in this small house in Liverpool. Then you had this very intense love story — and Annette was already attached — and [James Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli had wanted to make it for years and was so passionate about it. I knew I was in good company.

It’s not your usual biopic.
No, I wasn’t interested in that anyway, and this was a very specific part of her life. I wanted to make a very intimate, emotional film, but nothing that was sentimental. Annette said to me when we first met, “This can’t be a film about an old lady dying in a room,” and that really stuck with me, and that’s what we desperately avoided — the violins and all that stuff — because Gloria would have hated that bullshit. She was a tough woman. She had a very interesting life and career, and I think she was way ahead of her time.

What did Annette bring to the role?
It’s hard to define, as she’s so brilliant. She brought a student’s perspective to the character. When we first met, she had a book full of notes, and so many questions about Gloria — things that weren’t even in the script. She just wanted to find out who the real woman was behind the myth and image — all the day-to-day stuff between her and Peter. She did so much research, and then she just arrived on set completely prepared. She’s very method in a way. If she had to be in bed sick, she’d just lie in bed all day and not speak to anyone on the set, and I liked that. The crew would tip toe around her as if she really was sick.

What about Jamie Bell?
He’s amazing and such a smart guy. He’s the kind of actor you can put a camera on, and even though he’s not saying anything, he says everything about the scene with his eyes and expression. That’s what you need since the story’s told from her point of view, and he’s the audience’s connection to it, so you need someone who’s got that natural gift.

I heard it was a very fast shoot with some very inventive set changes. How tough was it?
It was just 40 days, and we shot in Liverpool a bit, mainly for exteriors. All the interiors and the locations in LA and New York were shot on set at Pinewood Studios. I deliberately set out to create a sense of heightened reality by using a lot of back projection in scenes like the beach in LA — the same technique they used in a lot of her noirs, and I didn’t want to do the usual flashbacks to her life or her movies. I wanted the actors to walk through the memories, from one scene to another, and one set to another. So we built sets side to side, and even had one with a bed that revolved 180 degrees, and the camera would just wander off them while they ran around the back to the other set and into another scene. It was a lot of fun to do.

Where did you do the post?
I’m based in Glasgow, and we did all the editing there in a rented office, and then all the rest — sound, VFX, DI — at Pinewood, where they have great post facilities

Do you like post?
I love it because you can just relax and create your film after all the stress of the shoot. I’ve done it for so long now and it’s the most creative part of the whole process for me. The only stress is if you’re doing TV in America as they kick you out after a few days, and I’m like “Whoa! That’s where my work is.” So I always try to stay longer. This was all about so much detail, and I’d sit there every day and not move.

The film was edited by Nick Emerson, who cut Starred Up and Lady Macbeth. You hadn’t worked with him before, right?
Right, but I was big admirer of his work. After my usual editor, Charlie Phillips, passed away, it was great to get Nick. He was in Pinewood with us and would pop in now and again, mainly if we had a problem. I never look at an assembly, ever since I did my first movie — Gangster No. 1, and saw that one and thought seriously about killing myself, it was so bad! I actually thought it was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Luckily someone told me it would turn out fine, and now I just start with first frame, first scene, and look at material and start working on it.

What were the biggest editing challenges?
To keep it simple. The music was a big challenge as we didn’t want any sentimentality. I spent a lot of time working on the score with composer Josh Ralph. Even though I’m not a musician, I always think I am. I’ll sit at the piano and start hitting out stuff out of frustration, as it can be so abstract sometimes, trying to pin down what I want. Music’s so important, and I’ll share all that with actors, the editor, the sound guys, so it gradually evolves. When I started out, I used to think, “Fuck it, I don’t care about sound and music. Just stick stuff on everything and it’s fine.” But now I know better — that music and all the sound is half the movie. So when you’re in Liverpool we had the sound of children playing outside, or the sound of the sea, and in New York you have sirens, traffic and so on. I work very closely with the sound guys to get all the details right and keep it stripped down. I got very obsessed about it and Nick and I did quite a lot of that work in the edit before we even started with the sound team at Pinewood, where we also did the mix.

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
Very few as we tried to do most of it in-camera. The Liverpool of today is very different, so we had to do a big VFX shot for the ferry sequence, and some cleanup.

The film has a great look. Can you talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Molinare in London with colorist Asa Shoul, who’s amazing. We shot digitally, on Alexas, and Asa and the DP worked together on it, and I was very involved — annoyingly so, as I began as a photographer and can’t help myself (laughs). Looking back, this post went very smoothly — just 12 weeks, and I’m very happy with the way the film turned out.


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 Beguiled’s DP and colorist discuss the film’s painterly look

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which took the best director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is set in Virginia in the summer of 1864 and features a wounded and deserting Union soldier, played by Colin Farrell, taking refuge among the staff and students of a girl’s boarding school, among them Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst.

Coppola was keen to heighten the drama by constraining the atmosphere, emphasizing the heat and humidity and by creating a very painterly sensibility. To help her, she recruited French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who in turn brought colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen. The two had first worked together at Mikros Images in Paris. Van Der Cruyssen is now colorist and director of DI at The Mill New York. (Check out our interview with the director about making the film.)

An early decision was that the movie would be shot on 35mm film, maximizing the use of celluloid with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The workflow was interesting — the film was shot in New Orleans and processed by Fotokem in Los Angeles with the digital rushes then having to cross the country for finishing in New York.
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“On 35mm the lights melt together,” explains DP Le Sourd. “We were able to get a look closer to sfumato from Renaissance painting and the pictorialist photographers like Edward Steichen.

“The 1.66 format helped to capture the loneliness and imprisonment of the women’s monastic life during the Civil War,” he adds. “In a medium shot, the camera could only focus on the gestures and body language, not the set or the landscape. The format captured the intimacy of the women’s gaze and perspective.”

The look of the film was set when director Coppola and her production designer, Anne Ross, researched the period. Le Sourd then joined them to discuss the characters and how they would be reflected in the imagery.

“The exteriors were shot at very specific times of the day,” Le Sourd recalls. “We shot at dusk and sunset to amplify the sense of immediate danger, for example. “At the same time, I had to duplicate the oppressive tone for the interior daylight, and for the night interiors with candlelight. I tried to use as few lights as possible to really capture the most natural aspect of a scene. The challenge was to keep a consistent look without an obvious digital color correction, to keep the sense of the 35mm film grain.”

Le Sourd and colorist Van Der Cruyssen first met in the early 2000s, when the latter was a telecine assistant at Mikros Images working with Bertrand Duval, who graded the commercials Le Sourd was working on. When Van Der Cruyssen moved to New York in 2009 the pair hooked up on a Davidoff commercial, and established a regular partnership.

The team was completed in 2016 when Coppola was invited to direct a production of La Traviata in Rome. She asked Le Sourd to film it. He asked Van Der Cruyssen to grade it. When The Beguiled was planned, everyone was excited to get involved.

How did the decision to shoot on 35mm affect the finish? “It added two days of pre-coloring to balance out the scans,” according to Van Der Cruyssen. “There was a lot of inconsistency in the scans that needed adjustments before Philippe could walk in the room.

“But the benefits of shooting film were great for the overall texture and natural contrast that negative stock has,” he added. “There is a richness in the skin tone that is very difficult to replicate with digital formats. For The Beguiled, Sofia had complete trust in Philippe regarding the final color, and most of the DI was just with Philippe attending,” says Le Sourd. “Sofia came in a few times. She was very discrete, yet very attentive.

“She has an excellent eye and sense of visual direction. I especially remember one comment for a scene that gave the tone to our collaboration: she told me to put my ‘elegance’ filter on. I took that to mean bring down the contrast, keeping it soft, moody yet natural and, well, elegant.”

The DP and colorist were regular collaborators on commercials. Did this mean they had a flying start on the grade for The Beguiled? “Not really,” says Van Der Cruyssen. “In many ways, I’d say I had to unlearn everything I do in commercials. In beauty commercials we always strive for a shiny picture, whereas one of the goals in this movie was to create a look that was painterly and matte,” he explains. “The look was done in camera, so we used very few windows or keys. Philippe and Sofia wanted a natural light, so we tried to avoid as much as possible any digital manipulation. Most of my layers were film grade, video grade, curves and six vectors.”

Both spoke of influences by painters and early photographers like Steichen and Julia Margaret Cameron as key influences on the look. Specific lenses were made and used on set to create a bokeh like a Petzval lens. A lot of smoke was used to soften the atmosphere.

The DP was present for much of the finishing. Le Sourd says, “Color grading is a very interesting process to review your work, and most important to polish it.”

Damien Van Der Cruyssen

For Van Der Cruyssen, the biggest challenge “was to make the exterior and interior scenes all belong to the same sweaty southern confined atmosphere. The exteriors often felt bright and sunny and too distant from the softer and darker moodiness of the interiors. We had to make the two meet elegantly.

“We chose to have neutral nights rather than cool, to help transition with the very warm candle-lit scenes. This movie is all about low contrast, so we had to find the sweet spot,” he continues. “Toward the end of the movie is a morning scene in the kitchen that we spent a lot of time on. We tried different things but we were not satisfied. It was Sofia with her fresh eyes that helped us to go back in the right direction. We warmed the scene up to fit better with the surrounding sequences.”

The whole project used the FilmLight Truelight color management system to ensure consistency of imagery between viewings and between deliverables. Toward the end of post, the Baselight system was upgraded with FilmLight’s latest 5.0 release, which allowed Van Der Cruyssen to take advantage of the new DRT Family feature in 5.0. This feature ensures that Baselight automatically selects the most appropriate version of a DRT for the particular viewing condition. By switching to the Truelight CAM family — FilmLight’s default Colour Appearance Model — Baselight easily generated the four separate delivery masters: theatrical DCP, theatrical print, Rec.709 video and HDR video.


Comedy director Aaron Beckum joins Strike Anywhere

Strike Anywhere, a production company with offices in LA and San Francisco, has grown its roster with the addition of comedy director Aaron Beckum to its talented roster.

Originally from Kansas City, Beckum grew up mostly in Europe before coming to LA by way of Vancouver. He has a background in editing, producing, writing and directing, having studied film at the Vancouver Film School, where his debut short won an Achievement in Direction Award from the Directors Guild of Canada.

After moving to LA, Beckum spent time at The Directors Bureau working as a creative director in Roman Coppola’s special projects division. He would go on to form close working relationships with directors like Mike Mills after working on his feature Beginners, and Miranda July after serving as an associate producer on her film The Future. During this time, Beckum gained experience on short films, music videos and commercials, working with clients like Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Redbubble and Sony Music.

His shorts and music videos have screened at festivals worldwide, including the Vancouver International Film Fest, Raindance, London Sci-Fi, Fantasia and Woodstock. He is currently developing a feature film Microchip Blues with the support of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program.

Beckum’s work combines “Scandinavian deadpan humor with a love of 1970s slapstick comedy.” Visually, it is often characterized by lo-fi practical effects and selective color palettes. Beckum often asks himself, “If I were to pull a still at any moment in the piece, would that frame stand alone as a good photograph?” This mindset ensures his work is graphic and iconic, and balanced within the frame.

With a tendency towards working with non-actors and employing in-camera techniques, Beckum is able to create authentic worlds in a few short moments. “I have a thing for practical effects, single takes and match cuts,” he says. “I just love to create organically, as much on set as possible.”

His signature style is on display in his Redbubble spot The Last Pickle. The ad follows a sad worker in a beige office attempting to hold onto the last pickle from a pickle jar, and inevitably falling out of the high-rise window. Beckum says, “It’s a great example of what I like to do because it combines a sort of drab setup but ends with an over-the-top goofy ending. Also, I think anything with a falling dummy is just great.”


The A-List: The Big Sick director Michael Showalter

By Iain Blair

If life is stranger than fiction, then the acclaimed Oscar-nominated film The Big Sick is Exhibit A. Based on the unlikely real-life courtship between Pakistani comedian/writer Kumail Nanjiani and writer/producer Emily V. Gordon, it tells the story of Kumail (playing a version of himself), who connects with grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) after one of his standup sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents.

Michael Showalter on set.

When Emily is beset with a mystery illness, and then placed in a medically induced coma, it forces Kumail to navigate the medical crisis with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), whom he’s never met, while dealing with the emotional tug-of-war between his family and his heart.

The Big Sick is a crowd-pleasing rom-com, written by Gordon and Nanjiani, and produced by Judd Apatow (Trainwreck, This is 40) and Barry Mendel (Trainwreck, The Royal Tenenbaums). But it also deals with drama, racism and the clash of cultures. It was directed by Michael Showalter, who co-wrote and directed the SXSW Audience Award-winning film Hello, My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field. He’s a founding member of the comedy groups The State and Stella, his other film credits include The Baxter, Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together. He has also co-created numerous television projects, including Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix) and Search Party (TBS).

We recently spoke with Showalter about making the film, which has been generating awards buzz (it won AFI’s Movie of the Year award), including an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Is it true you actually gave Nanjiani his first big TV job, and what did you think when you first read this?
Yes. I’ve known Kumail a long time. I met him in New York in the comedy scene when he first arrived. I love his comedy and sensibility, and I also love him personally. He’s a great guy and we’ve worked together a lot over the years.

We hired him as a staff writer and actor for a Comedy Central series, Michael and Michael Have Issues. I did, and then I cast him in a supporting role in My Name is Doris. Then he sent me this script without saying much about it. I didn’t know it was based on their lives and that all this had happened — I just loved it and everything about it.

Kumail Nanjiani as “Kumail” and Zoe Kazan as “Emily” in THE BIG SICK. Photo by Sarah Shatz.

It’s definitely not your usual rom-com.
I kind of knew what sort of film they wanted it to be — more than just the genre, but the feel of it. I knew the tone they were going for, and that I could do that. So I begged them to hire me, and then I met with Judd and Barry and we spent eight months rewriting it — Kumail, Emily, Judd, Barry and me, and then I got hired and off we went.

The structure is very different from a normal rom-com. How challenging was that, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
You’re right, as usually the second act is where the characters fall in love, then they break up and then they get back together in the third act, but in this all of that happens right in the first act. Then the love interest isn’t even there for the entire second act — which is pretty challenging — and the film gets a lot darker in the second half. So we had to figure out how to keep it moving forward, and I wanted to make a film that’s very funny, first and foremost — a comedy.

But it’s a comedy that walks the line between comedy and drama, even tragedy, and I wanted to give full weight to both elements and not let it get too sentimental. I love theater and some of my favorite plays — like Angels in America — start off as laugh-out-loud comedies and then get really serious, and I love the way they allow those opposites to co-exist.

How involved was Judd Apatow in developing the film?
Judd was very involved in all aspects — tightening up the screenplay, casting and then editing. He’s so experienced, and a great collaborator.

How was the shoot?
We shot on digital, in New York, it was just 25 days, so pretty tight, but it went great thanks to a great line producer and crew. The biggest issue was that it’s set in cold weather and we shot in a heat wave.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s so creative and, of course, it’s where you actually make the movie.

Tell us about working with editor Robert Nassau, who cut My Name is Doris for you and Wanderlust for Judd Apatow. What were the main editing challenges?
As a TV showrunner and film director, my preferred way of working in post is to empower editors, and I rely on them the same way I do with a production designer or DP. I’m not big on micro managing, so I like to give the footage to my editor and then see what they do with it. And I go into production with a very clear game-plan. There’s not a lot of figuring it all out on the day. Then I’m very interested in the editor’s interpretation of the footage, and if it’s working, I give notes and we go along like that. I’m not the sort of director who’s in the room all the time, looking over the editor’s shoulder. I’m much more laissez-faire.

Where did you edit and post this?
Rob has his own editing suite at home in New York, so he did the assembly and director’s cut there while I was in LA. Then he came out to LA for the producer’s cut, and on any given day either me or Kumail, Judd and Barry — or all of us — would be there too, going over specific scenes and beats. But Judd had final cut, and once I’d done my cut, all the post became much more of a group endeavor.

How important are sound and music to you?
They’re both crucial elements and we did it all in LA, working with Judd’s sound team, which does most of his projects. We wanted the sound to be very intimate and very clean, so you feel like you’re with the characters all the time and you hear everything they’re saying in these small, intimate places, as opposed to having a rougher, grittier sound design. Then composer Mike Andrews, who’s scored a lot of projects for Judd, like Bridesmaids, came on board and did a score that really mirrored the emotions of the characters, without over-scoring it.

Who was the colorist and where did you do the DI?
We did the digital intermediate and dailies at Technicolor Postworks NY, and Alex Bickel was the colorist. I’m very involved in all that. The color is very important, and we wanted a very warm, authentic look, as opposed to going more muted and drained-out. We experimented a bit and Alex did a great job.

What’s next?
I’ve got a few things I’m working on but I can’t talk about them yet!


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: Roman J. Israel, Esq. director Dan Gilroy

By Iain Blair

Writing and movies have always been in director/writer Dan Gilroy’s DNA. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank Gilroy, he has two brothers who’re also in the business — director/writer Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne franchise) and editor John Gilroy.

After making a name for himself as a successful screenwriter on such projects as The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel and Two for the Money, he made his feature directorial debut with Nightcrawler in 2014. He also wrote the film, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed. Nightcrawler earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington on set.

His film, Roman J. Israel, Esq., which earned its star Denzel Washington an Academy Award nomination and recognition from the Golden Globe and SAG, is another intense character study. Set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system, it stars Denzel Washington as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended after his boss and mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When Roman is recruited to join a law firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students — the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) — and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a series of events ensues that put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.

Collaborating with Gilroy behind the scenes was director of photography Robert Elswit, editor John Gilroy, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck.

I recently talked with Gilroy about making the film and collaborating with Washington.

Is it true you wrote the film on spec specifically for Denzel?
I did. After Nightcrawler I took myself off the market for a year, researched this and wrote it on spec. I could only ever see Denzel playing Israel.

Would you have still done it without him?
No, I would have just put it away. He was crucial to the film. You have to take a pill with every movie and buy into the premise, and on this you had to believe that for 40 years he’s toiled away in the shadows and never compromised his beliefs. And Denzel utterly transformed himself physically for the role, but he’s also a man of faith who believes in something bigger than himself.

What did he bring to the role?
Apart from being this incredibly gifted actor, he brought a deep conviction to the part.

What sort of themes were you interested in exploring through this?
My biggest struggle is with my conscience. Am I doing enough? And this was a chance to examine activism, which can take a big emotional toll, but then you also know that you’re helping make the world a better place. That’s one of the key themes of the film — the importance of belief. It’s an homage to activism and to anyone who dedicates some of their time to a cause other than themselves. That sort of belief can be both a blessing and a burden, as it can get you up in the morning to fight for something, but it can also sap you.

Why did you shoot 35mm rather than digital?
We wanted that great film look, even though it’s very expensive to shoot that way now. Denzel and I actually shared the added cost.

Doesn’t that affect the post workflow nowadays?
You’re right, it does, as you have to find a lab that can still handle film as everyone’s so used to digital now, and you have a slight delay in dailies — 24 hours. But apart from that, there’s not much interruption to the flow. One big thing it does is cut way down on the footage you have to deal with in editing and post. When you shoot digitally, you don’t think twice about doing 10 or 15 takes in a row. You don’t do that with film. You’re far more careful and specific about what you shoot.

Dan Gilroy opted to shoot on 35mm.

You shot all on location downtown. How tough was that? 
Very tough. We had over 60 locations, and unlike Nightcrawler it was nearly all daytime, and the traffic is just brutal and makes it very hard just moving around. I always wanted to put the character in real-world situations, so sometimes we’d hide cameras down alleyways and behind cars and shoot stuff as if it was surveillance footage. Denzel would be walking around and people would bump into him and not give him a second glance — and those weren’t extras.

Where did you post?
On the Sony lot. We did all the sound at Formosa.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it. You have all the pieces in front of you, and they haven’t hardened yet. They’re malleable, and you can do anything you want and rewrite the whole movie in post if you want. You can pre-lap dialogue, you can intercut and do so many things that have a profound impact on the flow of the story. You can speed up stuff and slow it down by the way you cut and use transitions, and give scenes a whole new energy. Post is amazing.

You edited again with your brother John, who cut Nightcrawler. How did that work?
He read the script before we began shooting, and then he was on the set and then we worked side-by-side on the assembly. He’s like my right arm. (See our interview with John.)

What were the main challenges of editing this film?
The time! We were running long and had to keep cutting. We went to the Toronto Film Festival with it and screened it at 2 hours 14 minutes, but that was still too long, so we had to go back and cut another 13 minutes… that was very tough to do.

I heard Denzel was also involved in the edit.
It’s true, he was. Isn’t that crazy? Normally I couldn’t have even conceived of having an actor come into the cutting room and doing that, because most actors are just not objective. But Denzel is such an asset, and he truly is objective and has an incredible eye. Of course, he’s directed films himself, so it made perfect sense to keep collaborating in the edit.

How many visual effects shots were there and who did them?
Zero VFX did them, and there were quite a few. The biggest VFX shot — which originally was going to be done practically — was when we dropped down 400 feet at night into this alley. We planned to do it with a drone, so we sent it up with an Alexa on it, but it was wet and windy that night and it just didn’t work, so we had to redo it all in post. The apartment building they’re constructing next to Israel’s building was all a big VFX shot, and we had a lot of smaller shots and clean-up and so on.

It has a great soundtrack. Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
They’re so important to me, and they’re a huge percentage of the final film. Music can instantly transport you to other levels and places and change the whole emotional fabric of a scene. Denzel was very involved in that too. He has over 20,000 songs on his iPod and he came up with specific songs that would be the soundtrack to Roman’s life — songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — and picked a lot of the cues. James Newton Howard, who did Nightcrawler, did the film score.

How about the DI?
We did it at Company 3 in LA with Stefan Sonnenfeld who has worked a lot with Tony. I’m very involved in about 85% of it, and then I leave the last 15% to the DP and my brother John. I love the DI as you can go in and highlight small details and play around with the look and color so much. It’s so creative.

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
It’s beyond what I imagined when I was writing it, and I think Denzel’s performance is truly amazing.

What’s next?
I’m in pre-production on a film for Netflix, a drama set in LA’s contemporary art world. It’s starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo, and it’ll be out in October.


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.


Dee Rees talks about directing Netflix’s Mudbound

By Iain Blair

Change is good, and while there are only a handful of young, successful, black female directors shooting features these days, the tide is starting to turn. Case in point: Dee Rees, who is helping lead the charge with her powerful new feature Mudbound, which was nominated for two Golden Globes.

Set in the rural American South during World War II, it’s an epic story of two families pitted against one another by a ruthless social hierarchy, yet bound together by the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta.

Writer Iain Blair and director Dee Rees.

On one side is the McAllan family, newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis and unprepared for the harsh demands of farming. Despite the grandiose dreams of Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture.

On the other side are Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige), sharecroppers who have worked the land for generations and who also struggle bravely to build a small dream of their own despite the rigidly enforced social barriers they face.

The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), forge a fast but uneasy friendship that challenges the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South in which they live.

The film was co-written by Rees, who made her feature film debut with Pariah, which won a ton of awards. She went on to direct the Emmy-Award-winning HBO film Bessie.

I talked recently with Rees about making the film and the push for more diversity in the industry.

What was your vision for this film?
A good old-fashioned sprawling Hollywood epic that they don’t make anymore, with tons of characters and drama and emotion.

This is a period piece, but there are a lot of the issues you deal with — racism, class, women’s issues, civil rights issues. These are all particularly timely now.
Yes, and I think it’s become more timely because our consciousness has changed. I think it would have been timely five or 10 years ago, but audiences might not have recognized it as such, and attitudes have changed and are still changing about all these issues — and others. Look at all the sex scandal stuff coming to light in Hollywood and other places.

Is it true you absolutely wanted to shoot this in the South, but then found it wasn’t so easy in terms of finding the right locations?
Yes, I’m from the South — Nashville, Tennessee — and I hate seeing Southerners and the South not depicted correctly and accurately, and the locations were vital as they function like another character in the story. So we scouted all over the South — Mississippi, where it’s actually set, and Georgia and Louisiana — and we ended up shooting on a working sugar plantation near New Orleans. The landscape and farmland was perfect. It really gave you the sense of unrelenting nature, and the way the furrows went in the field was a big artistic choice… deciding how the lines were going to go.

It’s interesting that Louisiana has preserved a lot of their slave history. You can see the original sharecroppers’ cabins, and I think it’s right to preserve stuff like that so you can see it actually happened. In Mississippi, a lot of that’s gone. So we used real sharecroppers’ cabins, and convinced the owners to let us move these historical buildings deeper into the fields, as we wanted to have these 360-degree shots where you feel that the characters are all dwarfed by the landscape. All that has an accumulative effect in creating this world. We didn’t use any soundstages at all because I wanted it to look and feel authentic. You just can’t fake all the mud and dust and that landscape.

I imagine the shoot wasn’t easy?
It was pretty intense. We were supposed to have 28 days there, but we got rained out two days and had to make that up. Then we shot for two days in Budapest for the wartime scenes, including a big tank battle. We did that in the morning and then the liberation scenes the next day, and then later, during the edit, we shot the B52 plane scenes at a war museum on Long Island, and that was a big dance between special effects and VFX. So we ended up with 29 days for a big story that you’d normally need 60 days to do justice considering the sheer scope and scale involved.

You had a women DP (Rachel Morrison), who shot Fruitvale Station, and a woman editor (Mako Kamitsuna), who cut Pariah for you and who’s now cutting Johnny Depp’s LAbyrinth as well as a woman composer (Tamar-Kali). Was that deliberate?
Absolutely, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just tokenism. Too often hiring women can get conflated with tokenism, and they are women who are incredibly at what they do.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and it reminds me of writing, which is solitary, contemplative and internal. Production is a frenzied rush, external and exhausting, and then you get to post which is where you recoup in a way, and was just me and Mako making the film. We did most of the editing in an artist’s loft in upstate New York, which was really cheap to rent. I like being away from all the noise and bustle of New York and just isolating for a bit and really focusing. Then Tama, our composer, came in, and then our sound team, and we had the space and time to really build it all up and elevate the raw material.

What were the main editing challenges?
The biggest one was figuring out when to move from one family story to the other. I was worried about staying with the McAllan’s too long, and then suddenly the Jacksons come out of nowhere, maybe too soon, and then having to explain some of the back story out of sequence. So do you break the chronology or trust that when you hand off to the Jacksons it’ll work for the audience? We kept starting with the burial, and then going into all the tensions between the families, with all the questions, like why do they hate each other so much?

In one version we went off with the Jacksons, but it didn’t quite work, and ultimately we started with Henry. He took us to the farm, which takes us to the war, and the war takes us to Ronsel and Jamie, and then it all flowed. But we had to make sure each family had its own trajectory, and one exercise we did was to edit just one family story as if it was its own film. Then we did the other family to see where it worked, where it didn’t, and where the natural intersections fell in their stories. That was so helpful.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music in Mudbound?
It’s so important to me, and I always want the score to work seamlessly with the sound design so it feels like it comes out of the sound design. Like with the editing, I feel the music shouldn’t be used as an emotional crutch, so once we had picture locked Tamar came in and then reacted to it with her score, and I didn’t have to say much to her.

She was inspired and wrote this beautiful orchestral score, which was perfect because I didn’t want to have the obvious 1940s thing with banjo, blues and harmonica. I wanted strings, and my sound team did a fantastic job. We did a Atmos mix at Harbor in New York, thanks to a Dolby grant, and it was so cool and exciting to do that.

This is obviously a performance-driven piece, but there must have been a fair amount of visual effects?
Mr. X Gotham did them all, and we had quite a lot for the plane scenes, including the B52 formation and the tank battle scenes. They also added some explosions, and there was cleanup work, but all the farm stuff — the mud and water — was all real and in-camera. We used a lot of special effects — squibs and gore packs — for the war scenes.

What about the DI?
We did it at Harbor Post in New York, and the colorist was Joe Gawler (who worked on Blackmagic Resolve). He did a really great job.

Did it all turn out the way you pictured?
It did and I’m really happy with it.

Mudbound is making a lot of Oscar and other awards noise right now — deservedly so. What does that mean to you?
It’s very exciting for all the crafts people involved. I feel we made a great film, but without a huge budget, so the more attention the better.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women and minorities in Hollywood. Are things improving?
Very slowly, but a lot of the problem is the pipeline. We need more creatives able to get in the door. The Academy is just a receptacle at the end of the pipeline. We can change its make up, but the bigger thing is changing what’s getting made.


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.


Directing: My Top 10 career-ending mistakes

By Trevor McMahan

Okay, so this is probably a really bad idea… but I’m about to list the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made as a director. It’s ironic, because when I told my super-rep Susanne I was going to write a tips piece for postPerspective, she was all like, “Yeah, this will be a great opportunity for people to see what smart/insightful/great/awesome director you are!” So much for that plan.

The silver lining is that none of the following career-ending mistakes has actually ended my career, and even though it may sound like it here, I’m not ALWAYS making career-ending mistakes – just sometimes. And I’m lucky to be busy enough to provide myself ample opportunities to make them, which means I must be doing something right. Right?

Anyhow, here goes. I hope you enjoy these mistakes more than I did!

1. Thinking a mistake could be career ending
Boom. I could end the list here and I’d feel like it was worth it because this mistake is the greatest mistake of all. To be clear, there are, of course, massive mistakes one could make to actually bring your career to a halt, but most of us simply aren’t making those.

Once I freed myself of the fear of making mistakes, I was able to produce more creative work, to explore ideas and shots and scenes in more unexpected ways and generally push toward stronger storytelling. And when you inevitably do make a mistake, use that experience as a reminder that there’s always a better way to do something — it’s an incredible way to grow and learn and push forward. And if my words don’t ring true here, take it from the really cheesy motivational poster of mossy boulders dotting through a pond that declares, “Mistakes are the stepping stones to success.” Sage advice from the fantastic folks over at Successories.

2. Thinking one not-great project spells T-h-e  E-n-d
One “miss” used to feel like it was a death knell, so I avoided “missing” at all costs, and missed a handful of solid opportunities in the meantime. But I quickly realized just how much growth and learning can come from even the least expected places. I’ve swung to the opposite end of the spectrum – eager to shoot and learn and improve as much as I can. Some of the best work I’ve done has come as a result of those opportunities and relationships, and while not every project is going to be a grand slam, you’ve got to swing.

3. Aiming for perfection
There’s nothing worse than pressure associated with targeting perfection, and it has led to moments where a scene just doesn’t feel believable or a project falls flat and predictable. I’ve since learned to embrace the process of discovery and it has made for an incredibly expansive process. I even like to work with creatives and crew to embed a sense of imperfection and idiosyncrasy into our filmmaking — from little imperfect reflections of light and little flaws in the production design to wardrobe that feels unplanned and actors’ performances that feel unrehearsed. It’s when things start to feel like they’ve not been designed that I start to believe them.

4. Thinking an agency’s storyboards are what they want the commercial to look like
There are so many reasons agency boards look the way they do, but what they aren’t is a blueprint of the only predetermined way to tell a story or film sequence. But that didn’t stop me from leaning too heavily on them, and ending up in an excruciatingly awkward series of conversations about why I made those choices. Them wondering why I’d locked into their boarded angles, and me not really having a reason behind the choices. The aim, I’ve found, is to see the idea through the client-friendly illustrations — to “read between the boards” and gauge where a campaign wants to go. Once you have that core, translating it into shots becomes something you can stand behind.

5. Telling an agency what they want to hear
Tell the agency exactly what you think they want to hear to land a job? Wrong. Regurgitating an agency call in a treatment, or pitching them a film they’d already pitched me, just doesn’t win the job. I take great pride, now, in not going into a pitch aiming to win it, but aiming to make the film the best it can be (with the belief, of course, that they’ll agree). The most “creative” creatives I’ve met and worked with over the years have proved quite keen to be challenged and to be shown where and how the work can improve. It’s important to work with collaborators who are aiming for great, not just good enough. Architect Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” I couldn’t have said it better.

6. Pushing way too far
Yep, guilty of that, too. And believe me, it’s not pretty. If you do push to far, those treatments end up in the bottom drawer.

7. Not listening
With all that said… it can be tempting to go whole hog in a particular direction, and I have! But if that’s not the direction they’re headed, there’s only pain and anguish. So, really listening and hearing out an agency and client is invaluable to unearthing the reason they’re spending all this money, and how to best direct those resources.

8. Thinking I needed to do other people’s jobs
In my mind, there used to be an expectation that the director should know (and often do) all. But to be honest, I found that I’d get stretched thin dealing with budget issues, wrinkles in the calendar or the how the on-set effects team was working out a rig… and to a degree that the storytelling would suffer. I still am involved with all of those things (and always will be), but I do find relief realizing I’m working with an incredible crew of filmmakers and craftsmen, who kick ass at their jobs and whose art I respect. Simply letting them do their jobs, then, frees me up to do mine — part of which is to bug them about their work. So, I probably didn’t lay off long, but it’s a start. Baby steps.

9. Waiting around for boards
Waiting around for boards won’t help more boards to come in, and I’ve never felt so close to the guillotine than when I was just waiting. As soon as I stopped waiting and started producing — shorts, music videos, even video tests and experiments, all of a sudden I was busier than ever. Work certainly begets work, and the more you do the more will come.

10. Writing an article about all the worst mistakes I ever made
Then there was that one. Let’s hope it’s not the last.


Trevor McMahan is a director at Rocket Film. This commercial and film production house has offices in New York and Los Angeles.

Behind the Title: Unheard/Of Director Chris Volckmann

NAME: Chris Volckmann

COMPANY: Unheard/Of

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
We’re a production company. We make commercials. It’s a small group, which is fantastic, and a tight-knit community of directors. They do a great job of thinking outside the box and supporting the roster.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Typically, I’m provided scripts from an agency or brand and collaborate with them to develop a visual and narrative voice. I then creatively guide a production through the live-action process and often through completion.

Groupon

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
Well, nearly all decisions on a production run through the director, whether it’s a direct decision or via your department heads. You might be surprised how much time is spent on things that the audience wouldn’t really think about. Like the color of a vase, or the cut of a t-shirt. We like to think these things add up to an overall tone and aesthetic that aids the story, but often we’re probably over-considering.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Finding the story. Sometimes it’s right in front of you, sometimes you really have to dig. But when you find it, the rest falls away. It becomes your North Star.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Tough question. I suppose budgets — though sometimes a smaller sandbox aids in originality. But more often than not, these days we’re just trying to do too much in a day. The value in advertising has become quantity, and that just makes our jobs harder.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I have no idea. I’ve worked in most phases of production, from producing live-action to VFX, design and interactive… I would probably be making something, and probably within the advertising community.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I wanted to make movies about as early as I can remember. I actually wanted to be an archeologist when I was young because of Indiana Jones, until someone explained that that’s not what archeology is really like — that’s just in the movies. Since then, it’s pretty much been tunnel vision.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT ATTRACTED YOU?
It sounds cliché, but just telling stories. Like all art, it’s emotional expression. I try to find an emotional connection within myself to whatever we’re doing. Often with advertising you’re telling someone else’s story, or trying to connect to an audience that might differ from yourself. It can be easy to keep it all at an arm’s length.

Similar to acting, you need to reach back for that emotional foundation within yourself and live there for a bit so that you’re seeing the world through that lens. If you can do that, then the work comes from an honest place and that can be as rewarding as any other artistic medium.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT CONTINUES TO KEEP YOU INTERESTED?
Commercial work is actually incredibly experimental. Oftentimes, you’re doing something for the first time with each job. Whether it’s a narrative approach or an effect, there’s constant problem solving and experimentation. I started out in longer form work, independent film, etc., but I find that work extremely limiting with red tape all over the place and extraordinarily time consuming (duh). Commercial work keeps you on your toes.

Amazon Music

HOW DO YOU PICK THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH ON A PARTICULAR PROJECT?
I like working with the same crew as much as possible. Sometimes specific stories need specific talents, and the project always takes first priority — but the more you work with people, the more you get a sense for each other and your collective strengths and weaknesses.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
That’s kind of an impossible question — probably something nobody has seen (ha!). Sometimes, I’ll just make a thing without much of a plan and let it unfold in the process. No client or anything, just trying to keep things spontaneous and avoid over-considering everything. Sometimes, I’ll put those out into the world, but oftentimes not. It’s just constant experimentation. I think that type of work stirs up different stuff that keeps me sharp for client work, and it’s more the process of that work that I’m proud of than the final product itself.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My fucking phone. Adobe InDesign, even though it’s one of the most frustrating applications around. Adobe Premiere (RIP Final Cut).

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Good work isn’t stressful, it’s actually a stress release. If the process with a client becomes really difficult, and a production is stressful, the best way for me to pull myself out of it isn’t to take time away, it’s actually to make something else. Sometimes, that’s just a new job or sometimes, it’s something personal like what I described before.

Otherwise, spending time with my wife and kids — and sports. Oh, and exercise is huge. That probably should have been my first answer!

Editor Sidney Wolinsky and Guillermo del Toro team on The Shape of Water

By Randi Altman

People love movies for their ability to transport us to another world, or another version of our world, and that’s exactly what Guillermo del Toro’s magical The Shape of Water does. And speaking of love, the film has been getting some now that awards season is upon us. The Shape of Water was nominated for seven Golden Globes and won two: Best Director — Motion Picture for del Toro and Best Original Score for Alexandre Desplat. It also got plenty of Academy Awards love as it was nominated for 13 awards, including Best Director and Best Film Editing.

This film takes place during the Cold War, at a government run lab in Baltimore and focuses on a cleaning lady who follows her heart and does the right thing.

We recently checked in with the film’s editor Sidney Wolinsky, ACE. An industry veteran, he has cut such acclaimed TV shows as The Sopranos, House of Cards and Ray Donovan, among many others.

Wolinsky was recently recognized by his peers, earning an ACE Eddie nomination from the American Cinema Editors for his work on Fox Searchlight’s The Shape of Water. Let’s find out more about the film, this editor’s second collaboration with del Toro and his process.

You have worked with Guillermo del Toro before?
Yes. About three years ago, I cut the pilot for a series called The Strain, which Guillermo created. He also directed the pilot.

How did you get involved in the film, and when did he bring you on?
The film’s producer reached out to my agent before it was greenlighted. I’m based in LA, but the film was shooting and cutting up in Toronto, so my wife and I found a place to stay and went up there about a week before they started shooting. I started cutting the second day of production when I got my first day of dailies.

Well you were near set, but were you ever onset?
Not really. The sets and the cutting room were at Cinespace Studios in Toronto, but Guillermo knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t need an editor there to talk to. Occasionally, I might have walked over to the set because I had a question to ask Guillermo or something to tell him, but primarily I was in the cutting room.

What kind of direction were you given in terms of the edit?
From day one, I had Guillermo in the room with me working on the material, and that continued throughout the production. He would come in before call, and on his lunch hour, and we’d work together. When they were shooting at local locations, my assistant and I would go out to the set on his lunch hour to show him cut footage on a MacBook and get notes. Guillermo and I worked together continuously throughout the production.

How did that relationship work?
Once I started getting film, I’d show him my cut of the scene and I’d modify it based on his notes. When we had two scenes that were contiguous we’d work on transitions. As the show grew we would watch whatever could be watched continuously and make changes. I’d get an idea and we’d try it, or he’d say, “Try this other thing.” It was very collaborative. I really felt like he was my partner throughout the whole cutting process. It wasn’t like in most shows where you finish your cut, you show it to the director and then you start working with him.

Does Guillermo shoot a lot of footage?
He does not. He’s very specific about what he wants, and he moves the camera all the time. That works against the possibility of shooting a lot of footage because you have to plan your setups based on where the camera starts and where the camera ends, and plan in conjunction with where you’re going to pick up the coverage next. So, often it’s interlocking coverage. He rarely shot multiple cameras.

The film’s two main characters don’t speak in the traditional way. Was that a challenge for your process?
It did not affect my editing per se, because regardless of having no speech, Sally Hawkins’ character Elisa has sign language. You had to let the person say their line, so to speak, even if Elisa was doing it with her hands and not her lips. The creature had gestures and expressions too, so you play a scene for what the scene is about. It’s the same way if people are talking or yelling at each other. You’re still playing that scene, and that’s the challenge of editing generally — just making the scenes work.

I never felt that I was slowing things down because of the sign language. For example, if you think of that scene where Sally tries to persuade Giles (Richard Jenkins’ character) to help her free the creature, it’s a giant dialog scene in which Giles speaks for both of them by repeating what Elisa says in sign language back to her. Elisa only talks in sign language, but you never miss a word.

That was an intense scene.
It was. The editing challenge was to coordinate his saying the line with her signing it, and make sure they were more or less in sync.

Is there a scene that is your favorite or most challenging?
The scene I just described with Sally and Richard is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Those two actors are so good. That scene is so moving, and they both give such a good performance. They really nailed it.

The most challenging sequence is the heist, because it involves all of the characters. They start off in different locations and come toward each other leading up to the clash at the end. That’s really the most challenging part of the movie, in terms of pacing and making sure everything’s working and the people following it … it’s not too slow, and stuff like that.

You used Media Composer for the editing. What is it about that system that you like?
I’ve cut on Avid for years, so I know it really, really well. It has so many ways of doing the same thing that can be used for different situations. It’s an amazing tool.

The heist.

How do you work with your assistant editor?
It depends on the show and who it is. On this one I had a first assistant, Cam McLaughlin, and a second assistant, Mary Juric. I had worked with both of them on The Strain pilot, and was glad to work with them again. Mary was on the show through a couple of weeks beyond the end of shooting. Her primary job was setting up the dailies in ScriptSync, which is a fabulous tool within Media Composer. She also did a lot of the complicated temp effects. She also created most of the Russian and ASL subtitles.

My first assistant, Cam, primarily put together the dailies … although Mary helped with that as well. He also did the temp effects and chose and cut most of the temp music. My assistant editor is always an ally, somebody I show cuts to, ask for feedback from and bounce my ideas off. Cam’s a wonderful colleague in the cutting room. He’s very smart and talented. I believe he is cutting a feature right now.

Let’s change gears. You’ve cut a lot of television, a lot of really good television. Do you wear a different hat when you’re cutting one over the other?
The nice thing about features is the shooting schedules are longer. And what you’re doing is a unique piece; it’s one of a kind. You show it to audiences, you get feedback and you work on it. Usually, you work closely with the director until the project is completed.

In some ways this is very much like a television pilot — it’s never been done before and a lot is riding on its success. Depending on the project, the director of the pilot will follow it through to the end. This was true for The Strain, where I believe Guillermo had final cut. In series, you usually work with the director through the end of his cut, and then you begin working with the show runner and the studio, and finally the network to complete the project.

I always hope to be working with someone who has a clear vision of what the project should be and the stature to make the final decision. On features it is usually the director, in television if is the showrunner. However, as an editor I always must retain my own vision of the best way to edit scenes, solve story problems and be prepared to work with anyone who is shepherding the show to its completion.

The edit suite.

Do you prefer one over the other?
I prefer features because of the time that’s taken and the close relationship you have with the director. That said, I’m proud of the work I’ve done in television, and the most important thing to me is to be able to use my skills to help realize the projects I’m working on.

What’s next for you?
I just got back from a trip to Italy to visit my son and his family, who live there, so really just taking some time off. I’m hoping that this film will help me another film. In this industry, it’s easy to get buttonholed as a television editor, so hoping another film opportunity comes my way soon.

Based on the attention this film has been getting, and your recent ACE Eddie nom, I think you’ll have that opportunity. One last thing before I let you go. Do you have any advice for an editor just starting out?
Most editors who are starting out have already been assistants and are trying to make the transition to editing. You have to be careful to make sure people perceive you as an editor and not as an assistant, and that could be tough because it could mean turning assistant jobs down. Obviously, if you need the money you may not be able to, but the most important thing is to grab any cutting opportunity that comes along. Don’t be picky. If you want to become an editor you have to be cutting. Also you never know where something will lead, and you want the people you meet along the way to see you as an editor — and hopefully, the editor of their next production.

Main Image: (L-R) Golden Globe-winner Guillermo del Toro and editor Sidney Wolinksy.

A Conversation: Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig and editor Nick Houy

By Amy Leland

There are moments as a filmmaker, and as someone who writes about filmmaking, when I get to have such special and unexpected experiences. One of the best recent ones was a chat I had with writer/director Greta Gerwig and editor Nick Houy about their collaboration on A24’s Lady Bird, which is actress Gerwig’s directorial debut and a semi-autobiographical version of her youth.

The critically beloved film — which was nominated for four Golden Globes — follows a high school senior from Sacramento, California, trying to navigate her last year at home, her tumultuous relationship with her mother, boys and her quest to get away from it all.

Lady Bird is such a personal and welcoming story. Ultimately, it was no surprise to find that Gerwig and Houy were so open and giving in their discussion of the work and their collaboration.

This was your first time directing. Were you driven because of this story or have you always wanted to direct?
Gerwig: I wanted to direct for a very long time, but I didn’t go to film school. My film school experience became what I did on set, both in front of and behind the camera as an actor, but also as a writer, co-writer and producer, and anything else anybody would let me do. I had been working in films for 10 years when we started Lady Bird. It felt like that was long enough for film school and time to go ahead and make a movie.

When I started writing Lady Bird, I didn’t necessarily know what it was going to be. The story started as  a sort of hunch, and then I wrote into that. Once I had a draft that I thought was a pretty good piece of writing, that’s when I knew it was now or never. I thought, well, “You’ve written something that you like and you’ve always wanted to do this.” But it wasn’t until after I had written it that I really embraced the idea that I was going to direct it. I kind of had to do it one step at a time.

When you had that realization, was it exciting or scary?
Gerwig: All of the above. It was exciting because it had been what I wanted to do. I had trepidation about it because I know it’s something that I cared about deeply, so I didn’t want to not be able to meet the challenge. But I was thrilled to work on it.

So you feel that your depth of experience as an actor and having played so many roles of different types prepared you to sit in the director’s chair?
Gerwig: Well, I love acting, and I love actors. One of the things that is so amazing about being an actor and working with different people is I get to see how so many different directors dealt with their actors and their crew, and their way of cinematic storytelling. That was invaluable. I was actually keeping a little notebook the whole time. You know, this person does this, and I like this, or I don’t think this worked so well, or I’d like to do it this way. It was sort of this accumulation of being able to be present while it was being done.

Later when I was writing with Noah Baumbach — who I had already collaborated with on two scripts that he directed — I was more present in the editing room for those movies and the post production because I had co-written them, and I’d produced them. That was also an opportunity because that’s a part of the process that the actor doesn’t tend to see. Watching that happen and being part of that process was incredibly informative. It’s something that’s hard to quantify because it’s kind of everything for me. What I did as an actor and how that fed into who I am as a writer and director.

How has that experience been, to step into the director’s role for the first time and have it be so successful?
Gerwig: Truly beyond my wildest dreams. We were working on this film up until just about two weeks before it premiered at Telluride. We weren’t changing the cut, but we were doing all the things that you do to finish a film. One of the things you train yourself to do as a director is you’re just constantly scanning for what’s wrong. That’s all you do. Through pre-production, production, and post, you’re always listening for what’s wrong in the mix, or looking for what could be tighter or better or clearer. I was still in that mind set, in a way, coming into this.

Nick Houy

Nick, how did you get involved in this project?
Houy: Jennifer Lame, who edited Manchester by the Sea, as well as every movie with Noah Baumbach since Frances Ha, is a really good friend of mine. She recommended me to Greta. It was one of the greatest scripts I’ve ever read. It was so tight and so wonderful, and I just fell in love with it. When we met and talked about it, I felt like we were kindred spirits in terms of the way it should be done. When we started doing script notes and talking about it more in depth, I think we saw a lot of things the same way. So it just felt really fun. It was like, “Oh this is the kind of movie I’ve been waiting to work on forever.” So, it was a no-brainer, you know.

Gerwig: The feeling was mutual. It was right away. It’s hard to talk about editing without actually just doing it, but there was a sense that we had the same language. That’s the essential ingredient.

Can you talk about what your process was like? Also, how your cinematographer Sam Levy played into that process as well.
Gerwig: For me, one of the first times that we were on the same page was when we were in the process of putting together the movie — how we were going to shoot it and how it was actually going to work. I remember there was a question about cutting some stuff, and it’s always a financial question, “Can we cut this scene? Is there a way we can make this movie without this scene?” So, I sent the notes over to Nick just to see what thought about them, and he was so detailed and so specific about what he thought and why.

There was a particular moment that had been suggested we could lose, and he said, “No, we need to keep it.” That’s what you want out of a collaborator — someone who’s bringing their own perspective to it, but who can also always remind you of what it is that your intention is. Because you have a lot of information coming at you from a lot of different places, and for Sam and Nick sometimes it was, “Hey, I know why you want this, here’s why.” And you’re like, “That’s right. That is why I want it.”

Houy: It was a pleasure. Even the script had editing built into it. It was really thoughtful about every shot having a reason and a purpose, and it was really well thought out. Even the transitions between scenes, which is unusual you know. It had a great rhythm to it right away.

For something that is so well planned out, where did you as an editor feel that your storytelling input came into that process?
Houy: With this movie, it was like just polishing a diamond. It was already so good. I just wanted to serve the story to the best of my abilities, and serve the performances, and the emotion of those performances, and the emotion of the story as best as possible. It was like honing it and honing it and figuring out exactly what the movie was supposed to be. Like creating a sculpture, and you just need to find the perfect David, or whatever, because it’s there. You just have to work at it. The pleasure is putting your microscope on it and making sure it’s the best it can be.

Gerwig: And also the openness to… for example, if I wanted to walk down some weird side path, he would say, “Let’s walk down the side path. Let’s see what’s there.” Also when he would say, “Just give me an hour. Let me see what I can do. This might be crazy, but let’s see.” Letting those things exist is a very important part of it. That’s the same way I try to relate to my actors, and to Sam, and to my production designers. It’s giving enough freedom to let everyone bring what they have to the table and not shutting down a conversation before it can wield something interesting.

How much time did you spend observing 
the process on set?
Houy: On some movies I’m on set a lot, but for Lady Bird, another editor was actually on during dailies, for various reasons. I came on after dailies, which is unusual, but it worked out. Plus, they were shooting in California and editorial was in New York, so it was a completely different situation. But what I love about being an editor is that you’re not embroiled in any of the drama that’s happening during the shoot. You’re not aware that that dolly shot took six hours to get. You’re not aware of all of the stuff that happens on a set. You talk to the script supervisor, you talk to the director, but my job is to have totally fresh eyes — totally non-judgmental eyes — on all the footage. Actually, I think going to set is kind of the antithesis of that. Of course, it’s fun to talk to everybody, but it’s good to be fresh.

Gerwig: Because I need to be so close to the experience of getting it, to have someone who’s just looking at it for what it is, is incredibly helpful. Sometimes there would be a take that on the day it was happening felt like “the take.” But actually in the footage it’s like, no, it was one before. And sometimes if you were there it’s harder to see. I think as the director it also takes a little bit of time to separate the footage from the experience of getting it. It is for me, and then eventually it does become its own thing.

Nick, can you talk a bit about your workflow and your process.
Houy: The whole thing is very straightforward. We were cutting on Avid Media Composer at DNx36. Nothing crazy. I have an amazing assistant editor named Nick Ramirez — people call us “the Nicks.” We were lucky we were cutting in the facility where we were coloring. We could always pop down when we were getting close to the end process and look at stuff high res, or try different color corrections.

Greta Gerwig with DP Sam Levy.

Obviously, that was a big deal, too, since color was such an important part of setting the tone. It had that sense of looking back on something nostalgically.
Houy: That was exactly what they were going for. Sam Levy is an amazing DP, and he and Greta talked a lot about different painters they were inspired by, and wanted to create a sort of color Xerox look to it. It’s got an early 2000’s feeling, and it’s nostalgic. It was fun to know that that was happening all the way through, and let that seep into the storytelling process, and be able to constantly check on it downstairs. That was cool.

How do you work with your assistant editor? Is he doing purely technical stuff, or some cutting?
Houy: It depends on the movie, because sometimes you’re in a tough spot, and sometimes you have tons of time. Sometimes you need a lot of help with certain things, and sometimes you don’t. It just depends. On this particular movie with Nick Ramirez, I would always ask his opinion on things because he’s really smart, and it’s always good to have another eye. He’s great at that.

What advice would you give to someone who would like to edit indie films like the kind you are doing?
Houy: I always encourage people to cut as much as possible because that’s the only way you’re going to learn. You have to put in your 10,000 hours, just like anything. And whether that’s through friends’ shorts, student movies or whatever, you’ve just got to cut, cut, cut as much as you can. That’s the only way you’ll get better.

When you’re apprenticing or assisting on a movie, you should be cutting scenes at night by yourself. I don’t care what anyone says. Get all the footage. Cut it. Compare how you cut it with the way the editor cuts it. Finally, work with editors who want to help you move up. I was lucky enough to have editors as mentors, people who wanted to cut scenes with me and talk it through.

Could you both describe the one moment during the process when you knew that this was the story you were trying to tell?
Gerwig: There was a moment really early. It was this first scene between Sister Sarah Joan and Lady Bird, when she’s sitting in her office, and there was something about the way he cut it. It felt like a musician who was playing the piece just right… that’s how I meant it to sound. Which is hard to even describe, but it felt a sort of recognition. That’s what I thought the music would sound like, but I’ve never heard it played before, and so now I’m hearing it for the first time.

Houy: That’s a really good example, the Lois Smith scene, because they were so good, and it was like we knew the rhythm. You could hear, maybe like songwriting, the melody in your head, but until it’s executed you’re never quite happy with it. When we cracked that rhythm it was very exciting. I felt that way about the end sequence, too. We found the emotional moment at the end I knew was there. It was one of those… well, you just had to crack it.

Gerwig: Yes. You just have moment after moment like that and it’s just such a nice thing that you sort of end up sharing a brain. At that point we were both seeing the same thing.

This sounds silly, but I had always written the Dave Matthews Band into the script but we didn’t know we were going to play it over prom. But then it was like, of course, that’s the song you’d play over prom. What else were we thinking?

Houy: We tried all of these other songs but realized, no, of course it’s Dave Matthews. Yeah.

Gerwig: Also the point where we cut off at the end… where she takes in a breath… as soon as that was in that place it never changed. We didn’t revisit it. It just hit us just right, and it was like, yeah, that’s what we wanted in that moment, and it works. It was that moment of mutual recognition.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.

Director and former agency EP Katya Bankowsky joins Strike Anywhere

Director Katya Bankowsky has been added to the roster at LA- and San Francisco-based production company Strike Anywhere. Bankowsky is a former agency executive producer and director. Working as an EP led to her directing campaigns in-house for ad agencies like Mcgarrybowen. Her signing is a strategic move for Strike Anywhere, as it continues to work in traditional and non-traditional media with a formal directorial roster.

Katya Bankowsky is a California native who became a New Yorker upon graduating from Yale. After college, she took a production job in advertising, where she learned the art of the 30-second movie. Bankowsky soon went freelance and began shooting her feature documentary Shadow Boxers, which follows the emergence of women in boxing and the rise of the first undefeated world champion Lucia Rijker. Bankowsky directed, edited and produced the film and also boxed in the first NYC Golden Gloves to allow female competitors. Shadow Boxers premiered at the Toronto and Berlin International Film Festivals, picking up awards across the festival circuit before obtaining worldwide distribution.

Bankowsky’s non-documentary work includes TV spots, branded entertainment and digital campaigns for clients including Reebok, NFL, WNBA, Verizon, the US Olympic Committee, Chase and Brazilian Brahma beer. She has worked with Maya Angelou, 50 Cent, Jay-Z and many top-tier athletes. Bankowsky recently directed a piece for The New York Times on French fashion icon Michele Lamy, which kicked off a web series she writes, directs and co-stars in alongside Lamy.

Bankowsky’s directorial style was evident in a campaign she directed for the NFL this past summer, a series called The Handoff, which is the league’s largest social media campaign to date.

A New Yorker through and through, Bankowsky will remain there, but travels back to LA often.

Craig Gillespie on directing I, Tonya

By Iain Blair

If you haven’t seen I, Tonya, the latest dark comedy from Aussie director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), get your skates on and rush over to the nearest cineplex for a real treat.

This festival fave, which is deservedly getting a lot of awards attention (it just earned three Golden Globe noms and a host of others), is based on the unbelievable but true events surrounding infamous American figure skater Tonya Harding and one of the most sensational scandals in sports history. Though Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, her legacy was forever tarnished by her association with an infamous, ill-conceived and even more poorly executed attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan.

Craig Gillespie on set with Margot Robbie.

Featuring an iconic turn by Margot Robbie as the fiery Harding, a mustachioed Sebastian Stan as her impetuous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and a tour de force performance from Allison Janney as her acid-tongued mother, the film is a piercing portrayal of Harding’s life and career in all of its unchecked –– and checkered –– glory.

Gillespie, who worked as an award-winning commercial director for 15 years before making his feature debut with 2007’s Mr. Woodcock, and whose credits include Million Dollar Arm and Fright Night, once again uses his irreverent, offbeat comedy sense to dramatize a cautionary tale about talent, ambition, celebrity, class, bad perms and domestic abuse — all stuffed with larger-than-life characters and wacky, unreliable narrators.

I recently talked with Gillespie about making the film and the surrounding awards buzz.

What was the appeal of this story for you? It seems like the perfect fit for your sensibility.
You’re right. The script by Steven Rogers, who did Stepmom, was just amazing. It felt like the most “me” project since Lars. In some ways it’s even more me, with so much dark humor in the script. And when I heard Margot was attached, I was really intrigued as she has the range to do all the comedy and drama. It was bizarre to read the script, because it was so tight and read like it was already edited, with all the scenes lined up.

Did it change much?
The main change was giving myself freedom editorially. The script had a very unconventional approach, and originally there was a lot more of the talking heads. I sat down with my DP (Nicolas Karakatsanis) and figured out how we could take every opportunity to shoot those scenes without the talking heads, so we could use voiceover and music instead to give it more energy. I designed specific camera moves so we could carry voiceover or music going into those scenes, or possibly leaving them.

There’s a lot of comedy, but also some very serious stuff, like the domestic abuse and battery. That must have also been a bit of a tightrope to walk?
It was. In terms of dealing with the tone, it was one of the biggest challenges, and I didn’t want to judge the characters or just make fun of them, which would have been too easy. There’s comedy, but you also see that, with the domestic violence, Tonya’s kind of immune to it. She’s desensitized to it, and I felt that that also gave more insight into her character. I also shot those scenes both ways too, so I had a choice in the editing. And then it changes to Jeff’s point-of-view, and he breaks the fourth wall about half-way through the movie, so there was a lot to work with in the edit.

I would have never thought of Margot Robbie as Tonya. What did she bring to the role?
Everything. It’s such a tightrope to walk in terms of the tone, and she ages from 15 to 46, so there are all the different ages and scenes that are absurdly dark and funny, and scenes that are incredibly emotional. It was the whole kitchen sink, but I knew that Margot could navigate that tricky dance between the humor and the drama, and also keep it grounded and not wink at the audience, and she’s brilliant in the role.

How much skating did she do?
A lot. She trained so hard for five months, four days a week, and it was hard as she’d never figure skated before. In the end, she did a lot of the skating and then for the really difficult moves we used VFX to enhance them. I actually had no idea the huge amount of prep she did, studying every bit of footage out there to get her speech patterns and mannerisms, down to the different ages and the way she sounded at those different ages, and doing scenes with no make-up and bad hair and so on. There was nothing she wasn’t up for. We both met Tonya in person, so that helped too.

Allison Janney is equally phenomenal.
Steve actually wrote the role for her. She’s so ferocious and fearless when you consider some of her dialogue is so vile. There were days when she’d say, “Do I have to say the ‘c’ word again?” And I’d say, “Yeah, you do.” But she delivered it all in a way where you still like her.

I heard it was a very fast shoot. How tough was it?
Very. We did it in just 31 days, and the original script had 265 scenes, and we then added a few. It’s probably the fastest, most intense schedule I’ve ever had, but I was so lucky in that my cast was so well-prepared.

Do you like post?
I really love it. It’s the most fun part of the whole filmmaking process for me, and I love the first few weeks where you’re editing and finding the film and then the pace and tone and rhythm and so on. It’s the most creative part for me.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all at Harbor Post in New York.

The film was edited by your long-time editor Tatiana Riegel. What were the biggest editing challenges?
We cut for five or six months, and finding the right tone was key. But we’re so in tune that there are scenes I never touched after her first assembly. The scene between Tonya and her mother in the diner? I never changed anything, as she has such an instinctive balance of tone. We have an amazing shorthand now. I actually thought it might be a quite complicated edit, as the story jumps around so much, but we’d planned it all out so much that I did my first cut in under a month after we wrapped.

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
We had about 120, mainly for the skating sequences, and Eight VFX did them all. I’ve used them a lot on my commercials, and they always have my back, and we had a very tight budget. We got lucky as our Steadicam operator could skate, but then we had to add in crowds to all the great shots, and we had about 60 stage replacements where we shot on bluescreen, so we ended up doubling the amount of VFX shots we needed.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
They’re crucial, and this is the first time I’ve posted a movie with a lot of stuff already in mind. I usually figure it out as I go in post. The closest things I could find in terms of structure were To Die For and Goodfellas, which goes through a lot of scenes very quickly — especially in the first half — with just voiceover and music. I designed a lot of shots around the music, such as “Devil Woman” and Chicago’s “25 Or 6 To 4,” and it was a really fun way to work. We mixed at Harbor.

The film has a great look. Talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Company 3 in New York with colorist Tom Poole. We shot on film, and Tom and the DP worked on it for a while and then I came in, and I love the look.

What’s next?
I’m looking for the right project. There’s nothing lined up.

Do you plan to keep shooting commercials?
Definitely. It’s a nice luxury to have because it’s something you can just jump into it for a short project. And you get to work with some of the greatest DPs in the whole business and try out different gear and experiment, and then bring that to the next movie. So I’ll keep doing both.


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.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri director Martin McDonagh

By Iain Blair

Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for Six Shooter, his first foray into film, and followed that project with his feature film debut In Bruges. Starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson, that gangster action/comedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and won McDonagh a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay.

He followed that up with Seven Psychopaths, another twisted tale about some incompetent dognappers and vengeful mobsters that reunited him with Farrell, along with a stellar cast that included Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits.

Now McDonagh is back with his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This darkly comedic drama stars Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a grieving, no-holds-barred vengeful mother. After months have passed without any progress in her daughter’s murder case, she takes matters into her own hands and commissions three signs leading into town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s respected chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.

The Fox Searchlight Pictures release also features an impressive team of collaborators behind the camera: director of photography Ben Davis, BSC, production designer Inbal Weinberg, film editor Jon Gregory and composer Carter Burwell.

I recently spoke with McDonagh about making the film, which was nominated for a Oscar for for Best Picture. McDormand and Rockwell also received Oscar nominattions. Ok, let’s find out more…

L-R: Martin McDonagh and Woody Harrelson on set.

This film starts off like a simple tale of revenge, but it then becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on.
Exactly. I never wrote it as a simple revenge piece. It was always going to be a dark comedy, and the main thing I wanted was to have a very strong woman in the lead — and a shockingly outrageous one at that. I wanted to write the character as real and human in her grief as possible.

Is it true you wrote the role with Frances in mind?
It is. I immediately thought of her as Mildred as I felt she had all the elements that Mildred needed. She had to have a kind of working class sensibility and also not sentimentalize the character. And I knew she had the range and could play the anguish and darkness of Mildred but also deal with the humor, while staying true to who Mildred is as a character.

So what would have happened if she’d turned down the role?
I probably wouldn’t have done the film. I’m so glad she wanted to do it and I didn’t have to worry about it. It definitely wouldn’t have been the film it is without her.

What did she bring to the role?
First, she’s the best actor of her generation, I think, and she brought a lot of integrity and honesty, and I knew she’d play it truthfully and not just go for laughs, and not patronize Mildred and try and make her more lovable — because she isn’t very lovable. She was completely fearless about taking it on.

What about Woody?
He has less time to play with his character, but again he brought a lot of integrity, and he is very lovable — a guy you instantly like, a decent good guy.

You also reunited with Sam Rockwell, whose character ultimately takes the biggest journey.
Like with Frances, I specifically wrote the part for him, as I always have his voice in my mind when I write these dark but slightly comedic characters. And again, there’s something inherently lovable about Sam, so while Dixon seems to be everything you would despise in a man — he’s a racist, he’s violent, he’s obnoxious — Sam also makes him redeemable, and gives him this slightly child-like quality. By the end, he doesn’t do a 180-degree turn, but Sam gives him enough of an inner change that should come as a surprise.

Ebbing is a fictional place. Where did you shoot?
In a little town called Sylva, near Asheville, North Carolina, in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a nice place that doesn’t hint at anything dark, and it had all the locations we needed, all close by. It was a really joyful shoot, just under two months, and it had a great family feel as I’d worked with several of the actors before — and the DP, 1st AD and some others. All of the locals were very helpful.

How do you feel about the post process?
I really enjoy it, especially the editing and looking through every single take and making notes and then going through all the performances and crafting and sculpting a scene with editor Jon Gregory. I love all that, and watching actors do what they do. That’s the biggest joy for me, and what’s so interesting about post is that scenes I felt could never be cut out when I wrote them or shot them may turn out to be unnecessary in the edit, and I was happy to lose them. I find editing very relaxing and you have time to explore all the material as you piece it together. The parts of post that I find a bit tedious are dealing with CGI and VFX, and all the waiting around for them.

Where did you edit and post this?
We did it all in Soho, London, at Goldcrest and various places.

Tell us about working with the editor. Was he on the set?
Jon came out to North Carolina a week before the shoot so he could see the place and we could talk about stuff. And as it’s a small, walkable place, I could wander over and see what he was up to while we were shooting. Jon’s great in that if he felt we’d missed a shot or moment, he’d let me know and we could do a pick-up, which is no problem when you have all the actors there. That happened a couple of times.

The main challenge was keeping the right balance between all the dark stuff and the comedy so that it flowed and wasn’t jarring. Tone and pacing are always key for me in the edit, and finding the moments of tenderness — that look in someone’s eyes as the rage and anger take care of themselves. I think the film’s more about loss and pain and hope than dark anger.

Who did the visual effects work, and how many visual effects shots were there?
There are a few, mainly taking stuff out and clean up. All of the fire sequences were done with real fire, but then we added VFX flames to enhance the look. And the whole Molotov cocktail scene was done with VFX. The scene where Sam goes across the street, up the stairs and then throws the guy out the window was all real — and done in one unbroken shot.

L-R: Martin McDonagh and writer Iain Blair.

How important are sound and music to you?
Hugely important. It’s half the film, at least, and I’ve loved Carter Burwell’s work ever since I saw Blood Simple. He’ll always do the opposite of what you’d expect and play against convention, which is partly why he’s so good. But he also comes up with beautiful melodies. I went over to see him in New York in the middle of the edit, and he played me a few ideas, which I loved as it had this great mix of Americana and Spaghetti Western. The score he wrote works perfectly for the characters and the themes. I love doing the sound mix and hearing how it elevates all the visuals so much. (Burwell received one of the film’s six Golden Globe nominations.)

Who did the DI?
Colorist Adam Glasman (at Goldcrest Post), who did my other films. I’m very involved, and pop in and give notes, but I really trust Adam and the DP to get the look I want.

The film’s getting a lot of Oscar and awards season buzz. How important is that to you?
It’s a small film with a small budget — obviously not one of the huge blockbusters like Star Wars and so on, so it’s great to be included in the conversation. It’s helped give it a lot of momentum, and I kind of like all the attention!


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.

Behind the Title: Prism director Nick Spooner

NAME: Nick Spooner

COMPANY: Brooklyn-based Prism

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Prism is a production company and creative studio, with the ability to tell brand-building stories across the full spectrum of disciplines. From traditional commercial and branded content to emerging technologies, interactive live experiences and installations.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I basically make product-driven stories to help cheer up sad consumers. Whatever the ratio, format or platform.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
That the Director’s Guild doesn’t supply us with personalized monocles and jodhpurs!

It’s far less glamorous than you might think. There’s a ton of work – on spec – that’s required to just win a job in the first place. If you do get the gig, every project then requires an intense focus and attention to detail, with an increasingly short amount of time for production. And a large part of that time is spent accommodating many different opinions, personalities and expectations, all in the interest of making an effective, funny commercial.

Directors are not alone in the process of making content of any kind, and I think that’s where some encounter difficulties, when they aren’t comfortable with the necessary, collaborative side of the business. You might be a great director, but if you can’t handle the “people” aspect of making commercials, you won’t last very long. But that’s just my take on it. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
My favorite part of the job is when a take cracks up the crew. That’s when you know you’ve got something good.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
About 15 minutes after wrap, when the afterglow begins to subside.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I’d probably be a P.A. trying to figure out how to get this job.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
I acted in local commercials as a kid, and everyone on the set seemed to be having a good time. I pretty much knew then that I wanted in.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT ATTRACTED YOU?
The personalized monocles and jodhpurs. Imagine my disappointment when neither were forthcoming.

Nick Spooner directed the sci-fi/thriller short, The Call of Charlie.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT CONTINUES TO KEEP YOU INTERESTED?
Every job presents a new creative and production puzzle, and I love solving them. For me, being on the set – especially when working with actors — provides a performance-based adrenaline rush that’s like playing onstage in a hardcore band, or acting in a live theatrical performance (both of which I’ve done). It’s addictive.

HOW DO YOU PICK THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH ON A PARTICULAR PROJECT?
That is actually both the best and worst part of the business. If you’ve been doing it a while, you accumulate a roster of great talent — actors, DPs, production designers, casting directors, grips, gaffers, stylists and so on — who you value as professionals and like as people.

The downside is you can’t hire everyone on every job, which can lead to a lot of people having The Sadz. It’s a bummer. And then there are always new folks you want to work with. But if it’s any consolation, the same exact thing happens to directors with agencies.

Every project starts with getting the right DP on board, and his or her go-to keys. Depending upon what city or country we’re in, I then have my favorite crewmembers and production people I like to work with — having shared production experience with crew always saves time and energy on the set. I always work with the same few line producers — they know what I like and don’t like, and I think the ones I work with are the best in the business. As for actors, I prefer to work with new people on every shoot to keep things fresh — recurring ensemble casts for every project only works if you’re Christopher Guest.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I did a fun campaign for CarGurus that’s been airing like crazy, and a recent North Carolina Lottery spot, which is a parody of Home Shopping Network programs — that one was especially fun because it’s presented in a distinctly “non-commercial” form, as if we accidentally switched channels. It’s very odd. Both projects had great casts, which always makes for a fun shoot.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Usually, I say the one that just wrapped but in general I take a lot of pride in making funny commercials that successfully do what they’re supposed to do: sell a product or promote a brand.

I did a Tide commercial (Princess Dress) that was supposed to run for one cycle more than five years ago, and it’s still airing all over the place. It just won’t go away. And there is the CarGurus campaign I did that helped the company launch Boston’s first tech IPO of 2017 – I don’t understand what any of that means, but I’ve been told it’s a big deal.

Non-commercially, I did a dark comedy based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which has played in 84 festivals around the world and won more than 40 awards. That’s been pleasantly humblebraggy. Last year I directed my first short film called The Call of Charlie.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Netflix, my laptop, and my robot spouse.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Wait…I’m allowed to do that?

Directing Postmodern Jukebox’s Don’t Stop Believin’ in ‘one take’

If you are of a certain age, or maybe have an affinity for ‘80s rock, you are familiar with Journey’s hit, Don’t Stop Believin’. Well, the band Postmodern Jukebox has put a contemporary spin on the song, and it’s amazing. The band called on KRC’s Abraham Roofeh to direct their new video, which evokes a Broadway musical. Produced by Robert Kennedy, the piece is a nod to Postmodern Jukebox’s tradition of locked-off, one-take videos and moves from static to dynamic in a stylishly playful, choreographed journey.

We reached out to director Roofeh, who is also an editor and co-founder of KRC, to find out more.

How did the project get started?
Their manager reached out to my partners and said that they were floating around the idea of doing a real music video, and they asked us to come up with a concept.

Abe Roofah on set.

What inspired your concept?
The original version of the song inspired the concept for the video. Telling the story of individuals wanting to be more than what they currently are. To do that, I literally wrote the treatment as a four-page script with the multiple characters. I wanted to be able to start the video so it looked and felt just like a regular Postmodern Jukebox video. So the idea of giving it an old-Hollywood look at the start and then revealing that it’s a cocktail party, and you’re now in the world of the servers, gave us a vehicle to tap into the multiple layers that fit PMJ’s classic video style as well as embodying the theme of the song itself.

When you are watching the video it is so seamless… then you realize what exacting choreography was involved! What was the process like?
A huge benefit to working with such a unique group as Postmodern Jukebox is that they have access to some of the most incredibly talented musicians and dancers that they tour with regularly. That meant I had the good fortune to work with dancers who also choreograph their own routines. And since we had a very short window to execute the video within, working with these specific dancers allowed us to achieve a routine in a very efficient way. We did a scout early on of the location, which helped logistically to get a sense of the space and the movement. Then my editor hat came on with identifying potential and natural cut points if needed. The day before the prelight, I had all the principals come in and we walked through the space with my DP — so together we choreographed a routine that worked for them, the space and the camera, so everything would flow smoothly and in sync.

Why the one take? How did you move the camera? Dolly? Human?
I decided to do it in one take for a couple of reasons. With the concept of a dinner party combined with the space we had access to, flying around the space and seeing it all unfold in real-time just made more sense than to stop and start the action. The director/editor devil and angel on my shoulders would also be like “you should bake in some potential cut points, ya know, just in case…” and then after the walk through we just got so excited and were like f-that, we’re going straight through.

We shot on the Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro with a PL mount and a Zeiss Uncoated super speed 18mm lens. I wanted a cinematic old-Hollywood look and feel, so we intentionally lit it warm to accentuate all the warm red wood tones throughout the house. I love the look and feel of what the Ursa Mini Pro delivers. The size and weight of the camera was perfect for the Movi as well.

How many times did they shoot it to get it right?
We did a total of 17 takes, 14 of which were full five-minute takes. Since I had two different sets of dancers flipping, I made sure to cut before we got up to them if there was something within the take that I didn’t like. Three times I cut early on. We did a couple of takes, and then we would talk about it and really hone in on what needed to be tweaked, then we did it again and shared playback with everyone which then got everyone super excited. They were able to see exactly what needed to be done, where to go and why. Psychologically, it made everyone feel accountable and really tightened everything up to work as a team to really nail it. It was so exciting as we got closer and closer to the perfect take. And when we did, everyone felt super-accomplished. It was certainly one of the best sets and productions I’ve had.

Walk us through the post process on something like this, which seems to be largely in-camera.
We were actually laughing about it on set. Because once the shoot was over, so was the edit. And as an editor, that was awesome! But overall for post production, yes, everything was done in-camera. I had my VFX guy, James Pina, remove some lighting fixtures that made it into a shot and some gaff tape that was visible. For color grading, I did it myself building a look through Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite within Adobe Premiere Pro CC.

The video has over half a million views — what is the fan or band feedback so far?
Both fan and band feedback has been through the roof. Fans love the new direction the band took their video in, and so many were blown away when the camera moved since they weren’t expecting that. It’s been great to see. The YouTube comments are hilarious, too.

What inspired you to become a director/editor, and what advantage does this dual role bring?
Back in the day, I used make skate videos of myself and my friends. We were sponsored by a couple of companies, and I immediately gravitated toward shooting the videos and editing them from one VCR to another, which sucked. But I learned a lot and continued that onto NLEs. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed being able to see a project through from start to finish. The advantages are that one informs the other. I know exactly what I need in order to make something work because I can start editing in my head from the beginning and while on set.

Being a director/editor, one definitely informs the other throughout the process — from start to finish — and it’s always helpful. It’s like having multiple perspectives. They’re great to have because they may spark a creative idea or way to problem solve or troubleshoot something early on or while you’re in thick of it, which can be very helpful. Sometimes it’s like having an editor on set. For prepro we had a good amount of lead time, which allowed me to really think everything through. But still, like any production, everything came down to the wire because the music wasn’t even close to being done yet. They hadn’t recorded the full track. I got everything piecemeal.

About a week and half out I had just the piano, then a couple days later I had half the vocals. I think it was just before my flight that I got the full track with all the vocals and the instruments. We did a walk through with principals, then a prelight the day before, which allowed me to adjust to the final track. Then, the day of, I see this lovely violinist walking around, and I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t recall ever hearing a violin anywhere.” Then Scott (Bradlee, PMJ’s composer) comes to me and is like, “Oh yeah I’m gonna drop in a little violin.” It just had me laughing. Scott’s a true artist. He just hears the music and is tweaking up to the last second. Luckily, I have a super laid-back demeanor and I’m able to make it all work.

Is there a downside to doing both?
The downside is if you’re doing one but not doing the other. The goal for me is to just be directing all the time, and when that day comes, awesome. But I think there will always be some projects that I’d just be itching to cut because I do find editing to be fun and rewarding.

It seems like your company works in a lot of areas. How do you describe what you do in a way that sets you apart?
What makes KRC unique is that not only can we ideate and execute on creative to provide a client with great content, but collectively we can also provide the ability to amplify the content. That is done through our relationships with all major broadcasters, influencers, streaming and social platforms, as well as the deep-seeded data to support it. Through our extensive music contacts, KRC provides an agency-style approach by also offering custom-tailored music strategies to match clients with the perfect artist for a brand campaign.

Richard Linklater on directing the film Last Flag Flying

By Iain Blair

Director Richard Linklater first made a name for himself back in 1991 with the acclaimed and influential independent release Slacker, an experimental narrative revolving around 24 hours in the lives of 100 characters. Since then he’s made the beloved Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise; Before Sunset, (he got an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Boyhood (which received multiple BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards, and an Oscar for actress Patricia Arquette).

He’s also directed such diverse films as the Western/gangster picture The Newton Boys, the animated feature Waking Life, the real-time drama Tape, the comedy School of Rock and Everybody Wants Some!!

L-R: Iain Blair and Richard Linklater

His new film is the timely Last Flag Flying, which deals with war, patriotism and friendship. Set in 2003, it tells the story of three soldiers — former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) and former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) — who reunite 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives.

Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with author Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote his novel Last Flag Flying as a sequel to his book The Last Detail, which was made into the acclaimed 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson.

I spoke with Linklater —whose other film credits include Suburbia, Bad News Bears (the 2005 version), A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie and Before Midnight — about making the film, which is getting awards buzz, and why his image as a loose, improv-heavy director is so inaccurate.

Is it fair to say this is not a war movie, but it’s about war?
Yes, I think that’s right. It’s my kind of war movie. It’s not a battlefield movie but about the effects of war — that sub-category about what happens when the war comes home and how the combat survivors deal with it.

My dad was in the navy in WW11 but he never talked about the war and his experiences.
Exactly. My dad was the same. Very stoic. They just held it all in. Now it’s even worse, I feel. The suicide rate among returning vets is so high today, and the big problem is the way the service breaks you down and trains you, but then they don’t really put you back together. When you’re done, the killing machine goes home, and you’re taught to be stoic and be a man, and you’re left with nothing. To me that’s so tragic. We should talk about it. And all these issues, along with all of the wars since Vietnam, are the subtext to this whole story. War is such a political minefield today.

Is it true you started to make a film of this a decade ago?
Yes, I tried to adapt the book, but I’m glad it didn’t happen back then. It wasn’t meant to be, and no one was really ready to deal with the war in Iraq. It takes a while to want to analyze a war and get a perspective. A little distance is very helpful.

You’ve got three great leads. What did they bring to it?
Everything — all of their intelligence, humor, experience and work ethic. They really dug in, and we spent a couple of weeks rehearsing and really talking about all the issues. Each character is very different, and the guys really found them and jumped in. The biggest contrast is probably between Sal and Doc. Sal is the life of the party type, clearly self-medicating, always talking, eating, drinking, while Doc’s very low-key and quiet. Then Mueller’s somewhere in the middle.

Technology has changed a lot since you started, with the whole digital revolution, but you still like to shoot on film? Was that the case with this one?
We shot Boyhood all on film, but we did this digitally. It was just more practical, and I think now you can get any look you want with digital. It’s pretty impossible to tell the difference between film and digital now. But I don’t think film’s dead, although economically it’s changed, obviously, but I don’t think it’s going away. I hope we always have it as a choice. Digital’s just one more tool.

Where did you do the post?
We posted in my offices in Austin, as usual, and we began cutting while I shot.

Do you like post?
I love post and all the stuff you can do to shape your film, but I actually feel the most creative in rehearsal and then shooting. That’s when I feel like I’m really making the film. I don’t feel like I’ve ever “found” the film in the edit and post, like some directors do. There’s a certain schematic at work that I’m trying to follow. I know certain kinds of films have to be deconstructed and then reconstructed in post, but mine aren’t like that. It sounds boring but I do all that in advance. I’m a big preparer.

So you’re not the big improv, loose guy people like to think you are?
(Laughs) No, no. I prepare everything. And with experience you just know what you’re going to shoot and actually use.

The film was edited by your longtime collaborator Sandra Adair. Tell us about that relationship and how it works.
She doesn’t need to be on set and we just send dailies and then we talk a bit. I don’t usually shoot more than necessary, as I tend to have pretty limited budgets and schedules. I usually have a fairly good cut done about a month into post. I used to cut my own stuff when I began, like all filmmakers, and then she cut Dazed and Confused for me 24 years ago and we’ve been a team ever since.

Linklater on set.

I think we share the same brain at this point, a certain shorthand; we have great chemistry, and she’s just really good. She can just look at the footage and know what I’m thinking. I don’t have to explain it. The big challenge on this was finding the right balance between all the heavy drama and then the moments of comedy, and keeping that tonal balance all the way down the line. So in the edit you go, “This is a bit dialogue-heavy, let’s cut to the joke,” and “this is redundant,” and so on. The re-writing never stops.

How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
A few hundred, all done by Savage VFX who’re in LA and (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania, where we shot — mainly greenscreen, train stuff, compositing, clean-up and so on. Hopefully, you don’t notice them at all.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
It’s always been huge to me, and a couple of the songs — “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan, and “Wide River to Cross” by Levon Helm — are so important. Big choices, with the Levon Helm song at the graveside, and Dylan at the very end. Again, it’s a tonal thing. There aren’t that many songs, but they’re all crucial, like the Eminem song “Without Me” and its humor.

Graham Reynolds, who’s done the score for a lot of my films, composed a beautiful score and I probably used it in places I usually wouldn’t because I felt the story needed it emotionally, and I wanted to give more clues in that area, and carry things through more.

The film has a very bleak look. Talk about the DI and how that process helped?
We did it at Light Iron with colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz (using Quantel Rio), and that bleak, rainy look was baked into the whole thing and started at the conceptual level — “We’re never going to see sunlight.” We’re going to have a lot of rain, grungy locations and a sort of texture and tone that’s fundamental to telling this story. Corinne did a great job, especially in the scenes where nature didn’t give us what we wanted. (From Corinne: “The movie was shot beautifully by Shane Kelly, who conveyed in the DI that the visuals needed to emphasize cool and dark tones.  At the same time, we worked to maintain a naturalistic feel throughout.”)

What’s next?

I’m in the middle of post on my next film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a comedy-drama starring Cate Blanchett, out next year. And I have a big TV project that began as a film, a huge, sprawling historical thing. TV is now this really viable medium for filmmakers.


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.

Mercy Christmas director offers advice for indie filmmakers

By Ryan Nelson

After graduating from film school at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I was punched in the gut. I had driven into Los Angeles mere hours after the last day of school ready to set Hollywood on fire with my thesis film. But Hollywood didn’t seem to know I’d arrived. A few months later, Hollywood still wasn’t knocking on my door. Desperate to work on film sets and learn the tools of the trade, I took a job as a grip. In hindsight, it was a lucky accident. I spent the next few years watching some of the industry’s most successful filmmakers from just a few feet away.

Like a sponge, I soaked in every aspect of filmmaking that I could from my time on the sets of Avengers, Real Steel, Spider Man 3, Bad Boys 2, Seven Psychopaths, Smokin’ Aces and a slew of Adam Sandler comedies. I spent hours working, watching, learning and judging. How are they blocking the actors in this scene? What sort of cameras are they using? Why did they use that light? When do you move the camera? When is it static? When I saw the finished films in theaters, I ultimately asked myself, did it all work?

During that same time, I wrote and directed a slew of my own short films. I tried many of the same techniques I’d seen on set. Some of those attempts succeeded and some failed.

Recently, the stars finally aligned and I directed my first feature-length film, Mercy Christmas, from a script I co-wrote with my wife Beth Levy Nelson. After five years of writing, fundraising, production and post production, the movie is finished. We made the movie outside the Hollywood system, using crowd funding, generous friends and loving family members to compile enough cash to make the ultra-low-budget version of the Mercy Christmas screenplay.

I say low budget because it was financially, but thanks to my time on set, years of practice and much trial and error, the finished film looks and feels like much more than it cost.

Mercy Christmas, by the way, features Michael Briskett, who meets the perfect woman and his ideal Christmas dream comes true when she invites him to her family’s holiday celebration. Michael’s dream shatters, however, when he realizes that he will be the Christmas dinner. The film is currently on iTunes.

My experience working professionally in the film business while I struggled to get my shot at directing taught me many things. I learned over those years that a mastery of the techniques and equipment used to tell stories for film was imperative.

The stories I gravitate towards tend to have higher concept set pieces. I really enjoy combining action and character. At this point in my career, the budgets are more limited. However, I can’t allow financial restrictions to hold me back from the stories I want to tell. I must always find a way to use the tools available in their best way.

Ryan Nelson with camera on set.

Two Cameras
I remember an early meeting with a possible producer for Mercy Christmas. I told him I was planning to shoot two cameras. The producer chided me, saying it would be a waste of money. Right then, I knew I didn’t want to work with that producer, and I didn’t.

Every project I do now and in the future will be two cameras. And the reason is simple: It would be a waste of money not to use two cameras. On a limited budget, two cameras offer twice the coverage. Yes, understanding how to shoot two cameras is key, but it’s also simple to master. Cross coverage is not conducive to lower budget lighting so stacking the cameras on a single piece of coverage gives you a medium shot and close shot at the same time. Or for instance, when shooting the wide master shot, you can also get a medium master shot to give the editor another option to breakaway to while building a scene.

In Mercy Christmas, we have a fight scene that consists of seven minutes of screen time. It’s a raucous fight that covers three individual fights happening simultaneously. We scheduled three days to shoot the fight. Without two cameras it would have taken more days to shoot, and we definitely didn’t have more days in the budget.

Of course, two camera rentals and camera crews are budget concerns, so the key is to find a lower budget but high-quality camera. For Mercy Christmas, we chose the Canon C-300 Mark II. We found the image to be fantastic. I was very happy with the final result. You can also save money by only renting one lens package to use for both cameras.

Editing
Good camera coverage doesn’t mean much without an excellent editor. Our editor for Mercy Christmas, Matt Evans, is a very good friend and also very experienced in post. Like me, Matt started at the bottom and worked his way up. Along the way, he worked on many studio films as apprentice editor, first assistant editor and finally editor. Matt’s preferred tool is Avid Media Composer. He’s incredibly fast and understands every aspect of the system.

Matt’s technical grasp is superb, but his story sense is the real key. Matt’s technique is a fun thing to witness. He approaches a scene by letting the footage tell him what to do on a first pass. Soaking in the performances with each take, Matt finds the story that the images want to tell. It’s almost as if he’s reading a new script based on the images. I am delighted each time I can watch Matt’s first pass on a scene. I always expect to see something I hadn’t anticipated. And it’s a thrill.

Color Grading
Another aspect that should be budgeted into an independent film is professional color grading. No, your editor doing color does not count. A professional post house with a professional color grader is what you need. I know this seems exorbitant for a small-budget indie film, but I’d highly recommend planning for it from the beginning. We budgeted color grading for Mercy Christmas because we knew it would take the look to professional levels.

Color grading is not only a tool for the cinematographer it’s a godsend for the director as well. First and foremost, it can save a shot, making a preferred take that has an inferior look actually become a usable take. Second, I believe strongly that color is another tool for storytelling. An audience can be as moved by color as by music. Every detail coming to the audience is information they’ll process to understand the story. I learned very early in my career how shots I saw created on set were accentuated in post by color grading. We used Framework post house in Los Angeles on Mercy Christmas. The colorist was David Sims who did the color and conform in DaVinci Resolve 12.

In the end, my struggle over the years did gain my one of my best tools: experience. I’ve taken the time to absorb all the filmmaking I’ve been surrounded by. Watching movies. Working on sets. Making my own.

After all that time chasing my dream, I kept learning, refining my skills and honing my technique. For me, filmmaking is a passion, a dream and a job. All of those elements made me the storyteller I am today and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Kevin Tent, ACE, on directorial debut Crash Pad and editing Downsizing

By Randi Altman

To say that Kevin Tent, ACE, is a prolific editor is in no way hyperbole. He has cut some of the most celebrated films of the last few years as a frequent collaborator of director Alexander Payne. They worked together on seven films, including Paramount’s upcoming Downsizing, as well as About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska (for which Tent earned an Oscar nom). Other editing credits include Blow, Girl Interrupted and The Golden Compass.

Not long ago, Tent left his dark editing room to step behind the camera for his directorial debut — the indie comedy Crash Pad, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Thomas Hayden Church, Christina Applegate and Nina Dobrev. Not too shabby a cast. Oh, and it’s funny. Even when not laughing, I found myself smiling.

Kevin Tent (left) on set.

While Tent isn’t going to shut down his Avid Media Composer anytime soon, he did enjoy the challenge and experience of taking the helm of a film. Crash Pad had a run of about a half dozen film festivals, was in theaters for a limited release and is available for digital rental. It comes out on DVD December 5, just in time to be a stocking stuffer.

Ok, let’s dig in with Tent, first about Crash Pad and then about editing Alexander Payne’s latest, Downsizing, starring Matt Damon, Kristin Wiig and Christoph Waltz, among othersOh, and when you are done with this piece, check out our interview with Tent about cutting Nebraska.

Is directing something you always wanted to do, and how did you decide on this film to direct?
It’s been in the back of my mind for quite a few years, but I’ve been so busy editing that I put it on the back burner. Finally, I just decided if I was going to try to do it, I should do it sooner than later, because I’m not getting any younger (laughs). I looked around for a comedy script, and I found Jeremy Catalino’s Crash Pad, which was really funny and kind of a backwards-romantic comedy. It took us a few years, but we finally got it made.

Why that long?
I’d be editing a film and that would take nine months or so, and then I’d have a month off, and think, “Oh, now I’ll try to get this movie made,” but it doesn’t work that way. It takes a long, concerted effort. When Downsizing got pushed for a year to wait for Matt Damon’s availability I thought… this was my chance. I was fortunate enough to get Bill Horberg on as a producer, and once that happened he got the ball rolling.

You have a pretty fantastic cast, including Thomas Hayden Church, who was in Sideways, which you edited. How did all of that come about?
The first character we wanted to cast was Stensland, and we were so lucky because we really wanted Domhnall Gleeson. He hadn’t done very many comedies but I had seen him in About Time and thought he’d be great. Lucky for us he said yes. Once he joined us, then we had to get the character of Grady. Because I knew Thomas from Sideways, he did us a favor and joined the team. He and Domhnall got along great; their chemistry worked both on screen and off-screen.

Then fortunately the beautiful and talented Nina Dobrev, who was looking to do something comedic, joined us. The last person to join was Christina Applegate. We were incredibly lucky to get this great cast on a very small movie, and for a first-time director.

What did you shoot on?
We used an Arri Alexa with old Panavision anamorphic “B” and “D” series lenses. Seamus Tierney our DP was so excited about our camera package. He promised the film would look great and beautiful, and he was right. I think the Alexa worked really well with our 23-day schedule, and how fast we had to move.

As you were directing, were you able to take off your editor’s cap, or were you editing in your head during the shoot?
I did know I needed to get coverage, and I was always thinking, “If this scene is terrible or doesn’t work, I can cut out there, or come in here.” Editors are good at figuring a way out of something if you’re in a jam. There was comfort in knowing if this scene doesn’t work at all, we’ll figure out some way around it.

Franco Ponte was my editor, and he was editing scenes and the movie while we were shooting. He was phenomenal.

L-R: Kevin Tent and Crash Pad editor Franco Ponte.

Did you learn how to direct by editing?
It didn’t really work that way. Directing requires a bunch of different skill sets — I was amazed at how different and difficult it was, how much I didn’t know and how much I learned. If I ever get a chance to do it again, I think I would be much better at it.

The film set is all pretty hectic. A cutting room is nice and quiet. You’ve got your footage, and you watch a take a number of times and then make your decisions. On the set, there’s a sort of controlled mayhem. You do a take, and then 20 people turn around and ask, “Well, what do you think? Good?” And you’re like, “I have no idea. I’m not quite sure, let’s go again.” It’s all-pretty crazy.

It must have been a little intimidating for your editor, Franco Ponte. How did you choose him, and how did that relationship work?
He was my assistant editor more than 10 years ago on a film I did up in Canada, and he has since become an editor. He’s very smart, articulate and was always very supportive. We approached the film in a traditional way. He did an assembly and then we started recutting scenes and the whole movie. I did a little cutting on my own; we would trade scenes back and forth till we were both happy with them.

He did some of my favorite cuts in the movie — things that I would have never thought of. I was very lucky to have him.

How did you work together to enhance the comedy with the edit?
It was always my intent — and I told the actors, too — to think of it as a kind of 1940’s screwball comedy. Comedies back then were not only smart and well written but also seemed loose and free. Never taking themselves too seriously. We cut it that way, too. The pace is pretty quick. There’s not a lot of air between jokes; we didn’t wait for laughs. We just kept cutting to the next line or joke.

What about the DI? How involved were you in that part of the process?
I was involved. It was done up at Encore in Vancouver. Our colorist was Thor Roos who did a terrific job. Seamus got to chime in and make adjustments from down here in LA. He’s always so busy shooting, but we were able to get him for an afternoon.

What kind of directive did you give to Seamus, initially, and to those working on the DI in terms of the look?
We wanted it to look rich, colorful and poppy. That was something we had talked about in pre-production since a lot of it takes place in a dingy apartment. So whenever given the chance — when we were outside or in a club or someplace — we tried to give it some visual dynamics with color and that kind of thing. I think it looks pretty good, especially considering our short shooting schedule.

It almost felt like it was taking place in a different time.
I’ve heard that before. I actually think the reason for that, possibly, is because ofthe lenses we used. Those are old and very cool lenses, so maybe they added more to the quality of it feeling dated. That wasn’t our intent, but it didn’t seem to hurt!

What was your favorite part of directing?
Watching a scene with an audience and hearing them laugh. That’s when you know it all worked. It was also a lot of fun to be on the set with the actors and the crew. Thomas and Domhnall had the crew laughing all the time. It was really hard, but it was really great to work closely with these people who came in and kicked ass for a couple of weeks on this movie.

You have such a great relationship with Alexander Payne, did you ask him for any directing tips?
He’s the best. He was so supportive, and it wasn’t so much the technical stuff, like, “Don’t forget to do this or that.” He never really said too much about that, but he always wanted to see how the days were going. It was great to know that some of the things he goes through I was going through as well, and that I wasn’t alone. That was really comforting. He was always there for me, and, of course, he was there looking at cuts and stuff like that.

Will you try it again?
I would try it again if I could find the right project, because it is a huge commitment. It’s going to take a couple of years of your life, and you’ve got to make sure that’s something you really want to do. I’m starting to think about it now that Crash Pad is running its course and coming out.

CUTTING DOWNSIZING
Let’s switch gears and talk about editing Downsizing for Alexander Payne.

This is your seventh film with Alexander. How does that relationship work, and do you typically keep up with camera?
Yes, I was cutting as they were shooting. I also had an overlap while finishing Crash Pad, so Joe Bini helped with assembling some of the movie. But our typical process now is that when Alexander comes back from shooting we basically start from scratch on the movie. We watch dailies together and do a first-pass director’s cut. Then, we’ll go back and look at things from my first assembly and compare the cuts.

That’s basically how we have been working since the end of About Schmidt, where he didn’t really want to watch an editor’s assembly. He wanted to just start cutting.

What are the benefits of that? Just a clean slate kind of thing?
Yes, it’s a clean slate, and it’s also a long enough period of time where he has some perspective on the footage and he remembers what they shot on the set. He remembers what he liked then, but he likes to look at it all again fresh. Our first pass together is almost like an editor’s assembly, but it’s a really good one.

Also, we get right in that stage where we start dropping lines, we start talking about maybe we should move this here, or we should come into the scene at this point. We start talking about what we’ll do on future passes of the movie as well.

This process takes a little more time, but Alexander is established enough where he can get a few extra weeks on his director’s cut if he needs it. We take it from there, and then we get into the real nitty-gritty of editing. It’s slightly unorthodox compared to how other people cut, but that’s how we’ve been doing it for the last few years.

Well, it seems to have worked.
Yeah, I think our first cuts are pretty good. Even if the first cut’s not great, we already know what we’re going to do on subsequent passes.

I’m assuming you worked with Media Composer on this one as well?
We did. Don’t leave home without it is what I always say.

Do any scenes stand out as your favorite?
There is a big sequence where the downsizing happens, and that is one of my favorites. It’s choreographed beautifully. The acting is great. The photography is great. The production design is great. It cuts like butter. We originally cut it to Bolero, which was in the movie until the very end, and it worked great. The long, long build-up climaxed at the reveal of the downsized patients. Composer Rolfe Kent’s greatest challenge was to beat Bolero, and he did. He totally nailed it.

I also love the scene with Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern. We called it “The Tiny House” scene while in the cutting room. Those two are terrific in it.

Anything else about Downsizing that you would like to add?
I think it’s a pretty wild and crazy movie, funny, unexpected and original. Alexander really pushed himself to make something different, unique and unusual. but, it still has the same themes and sentiment that a lot of his other movies have. I think it asks us – what are we doing here on this planet? What does it mean to be human? What is this human experience all about? And it does all this through humor and pathos. It really is an Alexander Payne movie in the end.

I hope that people see Downsizing and they like it. I hope that people see Crash Pad and they like it. I think … it’s all I could hope for.

Director Todd Haynes on making Wonderstruck

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Todd Haynes is a supreme visual stylist with a deep affection for period pieces and a masterly touch when it comes to dealing with such adult themes as desire, repression and regret. Now Haynes — who was Oscar-nominated for his Far From Heaven ’50s drama — brings those gifts and his sense of wonder and imagination to his new film Wonderstruck, which is based on an illustrated children’s novel by Brian Selznick. Selznick also wrote and drew “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret,” which became Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

Set in the 1920s and the 1970s, Wonderstruck tells the story of Ben and Rose, two deaf children from two different eras who secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known, while Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his home and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out on quests to find what they are missing that unfold with mesmerizing symmetry.

The film is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz for its young stars’ performances — opposite co-stars Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams — and for Haynes, whose credits include Carol, the acclaimed Bob Dylan picture I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Safe and Mildred Pierce.

I spoke with Haynes about making the film.

What was the appeal of making this movie?
I wanted to make something adults hadn’t seen before and that I didn’t think kids had ever seen before. I wanted them to feel like someone believed in their ability to have their minds blown, and to look back to the past — all these things we think kids don’t do anymore, like turning off their phones and watching a black and white film with little dialogue, and dealing with a weird structure to the movie. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think kids are capable of all kinds of things and maybe we forget that.

This is your first film with kids in the leads. Was it something you always wanted to do?
Yes. I’ve worked with kids in a lot of my films, and I made a short, Dottie Gets Spanked, back in ’93 with kids as the main characters, but I’d never done anything like this… with two deaf kids as the leads.

The theme of deafness must have opened up a lot of possibilities, as the whole B&W section plays like a silent film.
Exactly, and the B&W bit was just the beginning. The deafness was there in Brian’s book and screenplay but to a degree I just didn’t appreciate when I first read his script, and then even after I’d shot it; I didn’t initially realize just how silent the movie is, and how little dialogue there is. There’s whole stretches without any talking, and then a character says something and it hits you. But I feel that if you’re into the movie, you don’t miss the talking in those sections.

The film was shot by your usual DP, Ed Lachman. What look were you going for?
It was a lot of fun bouncing between the different eras, and getting the B&W look and then New York City, which was a very different, look — but it’s kind of fun afterwards (laughs). That’s what challenges are. They’re not so much fun when you’re in the throes of dealing with them, but it was creatively tantalizing finding the textures and contrasts between the different eras, and we did a lot of planning and preproduction, focusing on all the detail.

Why do you love doing period pieces so much?
I think they make you ask, “Why are we watching this movie? Why is the director doing this or that?” So you set up a frame that makes you think about what the movie’s telling you about, so you have choices being made all the time. And looking at the past through a frame means you’re invariably also looking at where you stand now, and then you think about the relevance of the past and what it means today. It’s never about making today disappear. It’s about a conscious role in comparing the past and present.

Do you like the post process?
I really love it, because after all the craziness and time and money pressures of the shoot. You’re back in a small dark room, and you’re also down to a far lower overhead and the fewest number of people around, so it feels very cozy and intimate, which I love.

Where did you post?
We did it all at Harbor Post in downtown New York — the cutting, the sound, the VFX and the DI.

Todd Haynes and writer Iain Blair

The film was edited by Affonso Goncaves, who worked with you on Carol and Mildred Pierce. Tell us about that relationship and the editing challenges.
So much of post was about editorial, and he was key to it all: the editorial language and how the film would ultimately work and connect with people. I really relish working closely with my editor, and he’s a great partner and very smart and knowledgeable. Our big challenge was figuring out how to deal with the two different stories and the time spent on each. Brian’s script marked all the intercutting very specifically, and it was all infused with a very cinematic quality that was very infectious. But I also knew it was something you have to wait and see how it actually works. And, ultimately, we learned that we had to spend more time with one story before cutting to the next.

You have to develop enough attachment to one character and to what they’re doing before you cut to the other. Then you have to pace it so you want to come back again. It was continually about finding the right balance. Then we actually screened a lot of cuts of the movie for kids, and that helped us so much and completely informed what we did. They reacted encouragingly — and maybe they misled us (laughs) — but they were remarkably specific with their comments.

Period films always have a lot of visual effects. Can you talk about that, and working with VFX supervisor Louis Morin?
Louis worked a lot with Denis Villeneuve and did Arrival and Sicario for him, and his credits include The Aviator and Brokeback Mountain, so he’s very experienced. I worked with him before on I’m Not There, and he’s a real artist and very sensitive. The best VFX shots in period pieces are the ones where you don’t fully rely on them; we did as much as possible in camera and practically, and then finished them with digital work by Alchemy 24 and Framestore. It’s a very close relationship between your production designer and VFX supervisor, and there’s always a lot of removal of contemporary stuff and cosmetic work and clean-up.

Given this is partly a silent film, can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
They’re so important, it’s hard to overstate. My sound designer Leslie Shatz, who I met through Gus van Sant, has done something like 200 films now and is so experienced. I’ve worked with him since Far From Heaven. This is the fourth collaboration with Carter Burwell, and like the sound designer and my sound recorder Drew Kunin he was involved from preproduction on.

So we’d all discuss sound and we recorded everything — all the dialogue for the B&W bits, all the ambiance, so we had it, even if it was just an indication of what we’d eventually do. We didn’t know how much marking with rhythm and percussion we’d use for the dialogue, and how effective it’d be — and I found that it wasn’t effective, and that every time we marked dialogue it just didn’t work. But we marked for gesture and that worked.

What’s next?
I’ve got a bunch of projects, including a documentary about The Velvet Underground. I’ve never done a documentary before and I’m excited about all the period research.


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.

 

 

BestFriend adds director Thomas Hefferon

BestFriend, an LA and NY-based production studio headed up by executive producer Zak Thornborough, has brought on director Thomas Hefferon.

Dublin-born Hefferon has a long history making in short-form emotional narratives. His first short film “The Confession” screened at over 40 festivals around the world (including Tribeca, Palms Springs, and Sundance) and had a national cinema release in Ireland. It aired on dozens of TV stations across the world, and it garnered over one million hits on YouTube.

Since then he’s made three more shorts (The Pool, Switch and The Heist), all of which received funding by the Irish Film Board.

Hefferon also works on spots and branding projects. He was nominated in the Best New Director category at the 2009 Kinsale Shark Awards. This led to him working with Jaguar and Land Rover, and a move to London. There he worked with a range of brands, including Panasonic, Infinity, Jameson, Armstrong International and Johnson & Johnson.

Hefferon’s first project out of BestFriend is a two-spot campaign for Massachusetts Financial Services via FCB Chicago. These spots showcase Hefferon’s ability to show the human side of a company. Mirroring mutual investments with the work that musicians do, Hefferon somehow makes financial services empathetic, entertaining, and cool.

Centralized around a collaborative approach, BestFriend provides clients access to world-class talent at any stage of production, from writing and creative development through execution and delivery. BestFriend lives at the intersection of advertising, art, film, fashion, music, and technology, and thrives on its proximity to the fringe of possibility.

The A-List: Director Marc Webb on The Only Living Boy in New York

By Iain Blair

Marc Webb has directed movies both big and small. He made his feature film debut in 2009 with the low-budget indie rom-com (500) Days of Summer, which was nominated for two Golden Globes. He then went on to helm two recent The Amazing Spider-Man blockbusters, the fourth and fifth films in the multi-billion-dollar-grossing franchise.

Webb isn’t just about the big screen. He directed and executive produced the TV series Limitless for CBS, based on the film starring Bradley Cooper, and is currently an executive producer and director of the CW’s Golden Globe-winning series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Marc Webb

Now Webb, whose last film was the drama Gifted, released earlier this year, has again returned to his indie roots with the film The Only Living Boy in New York, starring Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Callum Turner and Kiersey Clemons.

Set in New York City, the sharp and witty coming-of-age story focuses on a privileged young man, Thomas Webb (Turner) — the son of a publisher and his artistic wife — who has just graduated from college. After moving from his parents’ Upper West Side apartment to the Lower East Side, he befriends his neighbor W.F. (Bridges), an alcoholic writer who dispenses worldly wisdom alongside healthy shots of whiskey.

Thomas’ world begins to shift when he discovers that his long-married father (Brosnan) is having an affair with a seductive younger woman (Beckinsale). Determined to break up the relationship, Thomas ends up sleeping with his father’s mistress, launching a chain of events that will change everything he thinks he knows about himself and his family.

Collaborating with Webb from behind the scenes was director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (Gifted, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Alice Through the Looking Glass) and editor Tim Streeto (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Vinyl).

I recently talked with Webb about making the film, and if there is another superhero movie in his future.

What was the appeal of making another small film on the heels of Gifted?
They were both born out of a similar instinct, an impulse to simplify after doing two blockbusters. I had them lined up after Spider-Man and the timing worked out.

 

What sort of themes were you interested in exploring through this?
I think of it as a fable, with a very romantic image of New York as the backdrop, and on some levels it’s an examination of honesty or coming clean. I think people often cover a lot in trying to protect others, and that’s important in life where you have various degrees of truth-telling. But at some point you have to come clean, and that can be very hard. So it’s about that journey for Thomas, and regardless of the complex nature of his desires, he tries to be honest with himself and those close to him.

Can you talk about the look of New York in this film and working with your DP, who also shot your last film?
It was the same DP, but we had the opposite approach and philosophy on this. Gifted was very naturalistic with a diverse color palette and lots of hand-held stuff. On this we mostly kept the camera at eye level, as if it was a documentary, and it has more panache and “style” and more artifice. We restrained the color palette since New York has a lot of neutral tones and people wear a lot of black, and I wanted to create a sort tribute to the classic New York films I love. So we used a lot of blacks and grays, and almost no primary colors, to create an austere look. I wanted to push that but without becoming too stylized; that way when you do see a splash of red or some bright color, it has more impact and it becomes meaningful and significant. We also tried to do a lot of fun shots, like high angle stuff that gives you this objective POV of the city, making it a bit more dramatic.

Why did you shoot 35mm rather than digital?
I’ve always loved film and shooting in film, and it also suited this story as it’s a classic medium. And when you’re projecting digital, sometimes there’s an aliasing in the highlights that bothers me. It can be corrected, but aesthetically I just prefer film. And everyone respects film on set. The actors know you’re not just going to redo takes indefinitely. They feel a little pressure about the money.

Doesn’t that affect the post workflow nowadays?
Yes, it does, as most post people are now used to working in a purely digital format, but I think shooting analog still works better for a smaller film like this, and I’ve had pretty good experiences with film and the labs. There are more labs now than there were two years ago, and there are still a lot of films being shot on film. TV is almost completely digital now, with the odd exception of Breaking Bad. So the post workflow for film is still very accessible.

Where did you do the post?
We did the editing at Harbor Picture Company, and all the color correction at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld, who uses Blackmagic Resolve. C5’s Ron Bochar was the supervising sound editor and did a lot of it at Harbor. (For the mix at Harbor he employed D-Command using Avid Pro Tools as a mix engine.)

Do you like the post process?
I really love post… going through all the raw footage and then gradually molding it and shaping it. And because of my music video background I love working on all the sound and music in particular.  I started off as an editor, and my very first job in the business was re-cutting music videos for labels and doing documentaries and EPKs. Then I directed a bunch of music videos and shorts, so it’s a process that I’m very familiar with and understand the power of. I feel very much at home in an edit bay, and I edit the movie in my head as I shoot.

You edited with Tim Streeto. Tell us how it worked.
I loved his work on The Squid and the Whale, and I was anxious to work with him. We had a cool relationship. He wasn’t on the set, and he began assembling as I shot, as we had a fairly fast post schedule. I knew what I wanted, so it wasn’t particularly dramatic. We made some changes as we went, but it was pretty straightforward. We had our cut in 10 weeks, and the whole post was just three or four months.

What were the main challenges of editing this?
Tracking the internal life of the character and making sure the tone felt playful. We tried several different openings to the film before we settled on the voiceover that had this organic raison-d’etre, and that all evolved in the edit.

The Spider-Man films obviously had a huge number of very complex visual effects shots. Did you do many on this film?
Very few. Phosphene in New York did them. We had the opening titles and then we did some morphing of actors from time to time in order to speed things up. (Says Phosphene CEO/EP Vivian Connolly, “We designed an animated the graphic opening sequence of the film — using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects — which was narrated by Jeff Bridges. We commissioned original illustrations by Tim Hamilton, and animated them to help tell the visual story of the opening narration of the film.”)

It has a great jazzy soundtrack. Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
The score had to mingle with all the familiar sounds of the concrete jungle, and we used a bit of reverb on some of the sounds to give it more of a mystical quality. I really love the score by Rob Simonsen, and my favorite bit is the wedding toast sequence. We’d temped in waltzes, but it never quite worked. Then Rob came up with this tango, and it all just clicked.

I also used some Dave Brubeck, some Charlie Mingus and some Moondog — he was this well-known blind New York street musician I’ve been listening to a lot lately — and together it all evoked the mood I wanted. Music is so deeply related to how I started off making movies, so music immediately helps me understand a scene and how to tell it the best way, and it’s a lot of fun for me.

How about the DI? What look did you go for?
It was all about getting a very cool look and palette. We’d sometimes dial up a bit of red in a background, but we steered away from primary colors and kept it a bit darker than most of my films. Most of the feel comes from the costumes and sets and locations, and Stefan did a great job, and he’s so fast.

What’s next? Another huge superhero film?
I’m sure I’ll do another at some point, but I’ve really enjoyed these last two films. I had a ball hanging out with the actors. Smaller movies are not such a huge risk, and you have more fun and can be more experimental.

I just did a TV pilot, Extinct, for CBS, which was a real fun murder mystery, and I’ll probably do more TV next.


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: Victoria & Abdul director Stephen Frears

By Iain Blair

Much like the royal subjects of his new film Victoria & Abdul and his 2006 offering, The Queen (which won him his second Oscar nomination), British director Stephen Frears has long been considered a national treasure. Of course, the truth is that he’s an international treasure.

The director, now 76 years old, has had a long and prolific career that spans some five decades and that has embraced a wide variety of styles, themes and genres. He cut his teeth at the BBC, where he honed his abilities to work with tight budgets and schedules. He made his name in TV drama, working almost exclusively for the small screen in the first 15 years of his career.

Stephen Frears with writer Iain Blair.

In the mid-1980s, Frears turned to the cinema, shooting The Hit, which starred Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth. The following year he made My Beautiful Laundrette for Channel 4, which crossed over to big screen audiences and altered the course of his career.

Since then, he’s made big Hollywood studio pictures, such as the Oscar-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins, The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons, as well as Mary Reilly and Hero. But he’s probably as well-known for smaller, grittier vehicles, such as the Oscar-nominated Philomena, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, Cheri, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, Prick Up Your Ears and Snapper, films that provided a rich palette for Frears to explore stories with a strong social and political conscience.

His latest film, Victoria & Abdul, is a drama (spiced with a good dash of comedy) about the unlikely but real-life relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Muslim Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).

I recently spoke with Frears about making the film, which is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz, especially for Dench.

This seems to be a very timely film, with its race relations, and religious and class issues. Was that part of its appeal?
Absolutely. When I read it I immediately thought it was quite provocative and a very interesting story, and I always look for interesting stories, and the whole relationship was part of the fun. I thought it was a brilliant script, and it’s got so much going on – the personal story about them, all the politics and global stuff about the British Empire.

You’ve worked with Judi Dench before, but she had already portrayed Victoria in Mrs. Brown back in 1997. Did you have to twist her arm to revisit the character?
I said I’d only make this with her, as she’s a brilliant actress and she looks a bit like Victoria, but I think initially she passed. I’m actually not quite sure since I never had a conversation with her about it. What happened was, we organized a reading and she came to that and listened to it, and then she was on board.

What did she bring to the role?
Complete believability. You absolutely believe in her as Victoria. She can do all that, playing the most powerful woman in the world, and then she was also human, which is why she was so fond of Abdul. It’s the same as directing someone like Meryl Streep. She’s just so skillful and so intelligent, and their sense of their role and its direction is very, very strong, and they’re so skilled at telling the story.

This doesn’t look like your usual heavy, gloomy Victorian period piece. How did you approach this visually?
I have a wonderful production designer, Alan MacDonald, who has worked with me on many films, including Florence Foster Jenkins, Philomena and The Queen. And we shot this with DP Danny Cohen, who is so inventive. From the start we wanted it to feel period but do it in a more modern way in order to get away from that lugubrious feeling and the heavy Victoriana. When we got to Osborne House, which was her holiday home on the Isle of Wight, it’s anything but heavy and lugubrious. It’s this light and airy villa.

Fair to say the film starts dark and gets lighter in tone and color as it goes on — while the story starts lighter and more comical, and gets darker as it goes along?
Yes, because at the start she’s depressed, she’s dressed all in black, and then it’s like Cinderella, and she’s woken up… by Abdul’s kiss on her feet.

Did that really happen?
Yes, I think it did, and I think both servants kissed her feet — but it wasn’t under a table full of jellies (laughs).

You shot all over England, Scotland and India in many of the original locations. It must have been a challenge mixing all the locations with sets?
It was. The big coup was shooting in Osborne House, which no one has ever done before. That was a big thrill but also a relief. England is full of enormous country homes, so you just go down the list finding the best ones. I’ve done Balmoral twice now, so I know how you do it, and Windsor Castle, which is Gothic. But of course, they’re not decorated in the Victorian manner, so we had to dress all the rooms appropriately. Then you mix all the sets and locations, like putting a big puzzle together.

How was shooting in India?
We shot in Agra, by the Taj Mahal. The original statue of Victoria there was taken down after independence, but we were allowed to make a copy and put it back up.

Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
It was about five months, all in London, and we cut it at Goldcrest where I’ve done all the post work on my last few films. Philomena was not done there. It all depends on the budget.

Do you like the post process?
I love being on location and I enjoy shooting, but it’s always hard and full of problems. Post is so calm by comparison, and so different from all the money and time pressures and chaos of the shoot. It’s far more analytic and methodical, and it’s when you discover the good choices you made as well as your mistakes. It’s where you actually make your film with all the raw elements you’ve amassed along the way.

You worked with a new editor, Melanie Ann Oliver, who cut Les Mis and The Danish Girl for director Tom Hooper and Anna Karenina for director Joe Wright. How did that relationship work?
She wasn’t on set, but we talked every day about it, and she became the main conduit for it all, like all editors. She’s the person you’re talking to all the time, and we spent about three months editing. The main challenge was trying to find the right tone and the balance between all the comedy, jokes and the subtext — what was really going on. We went in knowing it would be very comedic at the start, and then it gets very serious and emotional by the end.

Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?
I always use the same team. Union VFX did them all, and Adam Gascoyne, who did Florence Foster Jenkins and Philomena with me, was the VFX supervisor. The big VFX shots were of all the ships crossing the ocean, and a brilliant one of Florence. And as it’s a period piece, there’s always a lot of adding stuff and clean up, and we probably had several hundred VFX shots or so in the end, but I never know just how many.

Iain Blair and Judi Dench

How important are sound and music to you?
They’re both hugely important, even though I don’t really know much about music or sound mixing and just depend on my team, which includes supervising sound editor Becki Ponting. We mixed all the music by Thomas Newman at Abbey Road, and then we did the final mix at Twickenham Studios. The thing with composers like Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat who did The Queen and Florence is that they read me really well. When Alexandre was hired to score The Queen, they asked him to write a very romantic score, and he said, “No, no, I know Stephen’s films. They’re witty, so I’ll write you a witty score,” and it was perfect and won him an Oscar nomination. Same with this. Tom read it very, very well.

Did you do a DI?
Yes, at Goldcrest as usual, with Danny and colorist Adam Glasman. They’re very clever, and I’m not really involved. Danny does it. He gets me in and shows me stuff but I just don’t pretend to be technically clever enough about the DI as mine is a layman’s approach to it, so they do all the work and show me everything, and then I give any suggestions I might have. The trick with any of this is to surround yourself with the best technicians and the best actors, tell them what you want, and let them do their jobs.

Having made this film, what do you think about Victoria now?
I think she was far more humane than is usually shown. I never really studied her at school, but there was this enduring image of an old battleaxe, and I think she was far more complex than that image. She learned Urdu from Abdul. That tells you a lot.


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

Updating the long-running Ford F-150 campaign

Giving a decade-long very successful campaign a bit of a goose presents unique challenges, including maintaining tone and creative continuity while bringing a fresh perspective. To help with the launch of the new 2018 Ford F-150, Big Block director Paul Trillo brought all of his tools to the table, offering an innovative spin to the campaign.

Big Block worked closely with agency GTB, from development to previz, live-action, design, editorial, all the way through color and finish.

Trillo wanted to maintain the tone and voice of the original campaign while adding a distinct technical style and energy. Dynamic camera movement and quick editing helped bring new vitality to the “Built Ford Tough” concept.

Technically challenging camera moves help guide the audience through distinct moments. While previous spots relied largely on motion graphics, Trillo’s used custom camera rigs on real locations.

Typography remained a core of the spots, all underscored by an array of stop-motion, hyperlapse, dolly zooms, drone footage, camera flips, motion control and match frames.

We reached out to Big Block’s Paul and VFX supervisor John Cherniack to find out more…

How early did Big Block get involved in this F-150 campaign?
We worked with Detroit agency GTB starting in May 2017.

How much creative input did you have on the campaign? In terms of both original concept and execution?
Trillo: What was so original about this pitch was that they gave us a blank canvas and VO script to work with, and that’s it. I was building off a campaign that had been running for nearly 10 years and I knew what the creatives were looking for in terms of some sort of kinetic, constantly transitioning energy. However, it was essentially up to me to design each moment of the spot and how we get from A to B to C.

Typically, car commercials can be pretty prescriptive and sensitive to how the car is depicted. This campaign functions a lot differently than your typical car commercial. There was a laundry list of techniques, concepts, tricks and toys I’ve wanted to implement, so we seized the opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at this. Then, by breaking down the script and pairing it with the different tricks I wanted to try out, I sort of formed the piece. It was through the development of the scripts, boards and animatics that certain ideas fell to the wayside and the best rose to the top.

Cherniack: Paul had some great ideas from the very beginning, and the whole team got to help contribute to the brainstorming. We took the best ideas and started to put them all together in a previz to see which ones would stitch together seamlessly.

Paul, Justin Trask (production designer) and I all spent a very long together going through each board and shot, determining which elements we could build, and what we would make in CG. As much as we wanted to build a giant gantry to raise the bar, some elements were cost-prohibitive. This is where we were able to get creative on what we would be able to achieve between practical and CG elements.

How much creative input did you have on set?
Trillo: The only creative decisions we were let to make on set were coming up with creative solutions for logistical challenges. We’d done all the pre-production work, mapping out the camera moves and transitions down to the frame, so the heavy lifting was finished. Of course, you always look to make it better on set and find the right energy in the moment, but that’s all icing.

Cherniack: By the time we started shooting, we had gone through a good amount of planning, and I had a good feeling about everything that Paul was trying to achieve. One area that we both worked together on set was to get the most creative shot, while also maintaining our plans for combining the shots in post.

What challenges did you face?
Trillo: I think I have a sort of addictive personality when it comes to logistical and creative challenges. Before this thing was fully locked in, before we had any storyboards or a single location, I knew what I had written out was going to be super challenging if not impossible. Especially because I wanted to shot as much as we could practically. However, what you write down on a piece of paper and what you animate in a 3D environment doesn’t always align with the physics of the real world. Each shot provided its own unique challenge, whether it’s an art department build or deciding which type of camera rig to use to move the camera in an unusual way. Fortunately, I had a top-notch crew both in camera (DP Dan Mindel) and production design (Justin Trask) that there were always a couple ways to solve each problem.

Cherniack: In order to have all of the measurements, HDRI, set surveys and reference photography, I had to always be on the move, while being close enough should any VFX questions come up. Doing this in 110+ degree heat, in the quarry, during three of the hottest days of the summer was quite a challenge. We also had very little control of lake currents, and had to modify the way we shot the boat scene in Brainiac on the fly. We had a great crew who was able to change directions quickly.

What was your favorite part of working on this campaign? What aspect are you most proud of?
Trillo: It was pretty spectacular to see each of these pieces evolve from chicken scratch into a fully-realized image. There was little creative compromise in that entire process. But I have to say I think I’m proudest of dropping 400lbs of french fries out of a shipping container.

Any major differences between automotive campaigns and ads for other industries?
The main difference is there aren’t any rules here. The only thing you need to keep in mind when doing this campaign is stay true to the F-150’s brand and ethos. As long as you remain true to the spirit, there are no other guidelines to follow in terms of how a car commercial needs to function. What appeals to me about this campaign is it combines a few of my interests of design, technical camera work and a dash of humor.

What tools did you use?
Cherniack: We used the software Maya, 3ds Max, Nuke, Flame, PFTrack for post-production.

Mother! director Darren Aronofsky

By Iain Blair

Writer/director/producer Darren Aronofsky made a big splash when his debut feature Pi won the prestigious Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. He then quickly followed that up with 2000’s acclaimed drama Requiem for a Dream.

But his hot streak and momentum came to a screeching halt in 2002 when Brad Pitt dropped out of his expensive and ambitious sci-fi epic The Fountain just weeks before shooting was due to start. Aronofsky scrambled to completely rewrite and retool The Fountain, this time starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.

Since then, Aronofsky has regained his momentum and continued to make visually audacious films as 2008’s The Wrestler, 2010’s Black Swan (he got a directing Oscar nom, and star Natalie Portman took home the gold) and 2014’s Noah.

His latest film, Mother!, is another hard-to-categorize film — part horror story, part comedy, part fable, part psychological thriller — that stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a married couple whose relationship is severely tested when uninvited guests suddenly arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence and ultimately turning it into a literal war zone.

I recently talked to Aronofsky about making the film, and why he ditched the score.

This isn’t just a horror film. What sort of film did you set out to make?
After Black Swan I wanted to return to the horror genre, and I felt the home invasion genre hadn’t been used well in a while — and we can all relate to having house guests that overstay their welcome. So I felt that was a great starting point, and I also wanted to deal with larger issues — the planet we all live on, as guests in a sense. But I’m not really a genre filmmaker. For me, Pi was a thriller at its core, but I added lots of stuff and it became something else. I think I always do that. When I pitched Black Swan they felt it wasn’t enough of a ballet movie or horror film. It didn’t fit into any one genre. I just do what I think is cool and interesting, and then I start adding stuff.

How tough was it walking the tonal tightrope between the beginning comedy and the increasingly dark, serious nature of the film?
It was tricky, but I think I was just truthful to what I’d written, and the intent of the characters does not change. They’re all very bad guests, and the level of the badness is what shifts, and the pitch changes. It’s like speeding up an old vinyl record — it just gets crazier and crazier, and more and more intense.

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
Technically, it was one of the hardest things me and my team have ever tried to do, because the last 25 minutes — the fever dream — were so demanding to choreograph and to maintain that nightmare fever-pitch for that long and have it build and build needed every department to work together in perfect sync.

The house is like another character. How did you deal with that?
It was vital to me that the film felt realistic and grounded for the first half, at least. I don’t think we could have pulled that off just shooting it on a stage, and we couldn’t find a real house that worked, so we went to great expense and effort to actually build the house up in Montreal where we shot. We actually built the house twice — the first time with just the first floor out in this beautiful field, which allowed us to do all the daylight sequences in natural light, and we shot those all in order. Then we built the full three-story house in a soundstage in Montreal for all the interior and night sequences, and as the house is like another character that morphs and changes, it really had to be a real house with all the plumbing and wiring, so that when it starts coming apart, it feels very real.

Do you like the post process and where did you do all the post?
I love post, and we did it all in New York at Sixteen 19. This post was very difficult and it ended up being 53 weeks – by far the longest I’ve ever done.

You cut this film with editor Andrew Weisblum, who collaborated with you on Noah, The Wrestler and Black Swan, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. How did that relationship work?
Editing was very tricky, because I wanted to pull the audience into Jen’s experience and not give them a chance to breathe, so we shot the film exclusively from her point of view, with hardly any wide shots, which usually allow you to get out of any sticky situations. Basically, the film is either shot over her shoulder, on her face or at what she’s looking at. This gives you incredibly limited coverage to work with in the edit, and Andy was forced to work with that. He began in preproduction, and we did three months of rehearsal which DP Matty Libatique, who’s shot most of my films, shot as a test. We then cut it together so we were able to look at a 100-minute rough version and get a sense of the camera movements and placement and how it would all look and learn from it. That was very helpful.

One of the biggest shocks of the film is that there’s no music. Can you talk about that decision and the importance of the sound design in the film?
It was a shock to me too! I’d hired composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who’s done films like Arrival and The Theory of Everything, and he wrote a wonderful score, and we worked on it for five months, but it was really weird — every time we played it to picture, it just didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and we couldn’t figure out why. Then he said to me, “The score’s actually taking away from Jen’s performance, and pushing the film in another direction.” He was right. So we decided that the best score for the film was no score at all, which was pretty tough after all that work — and it scared the hell out of me, since I’ve always relied on music to be a major part of my films.

So I then turned to my longtime sound designer Craig Henighan and told him to just go for it, and that then became a huge part of the film. We actually kept some music cues all the way up to the mix stage, which we did at Warners, but ultimately realized we didn’t even need that because they suddenly stuck out.

Can you talk about the VFX, and working again with VFX supervisor Dan Schrecker.
Dan and I were roommates at college, and he’s done all my films. We had a huge number of shots — over 1,200, more than we had in Noah, although not so complex. We had a lot of different houses working on them, including ILM, Hybride, Raynault, and it was a mad rush at the end because the studio changed our release date, so we had to do two months of VFX work in just one month.

How important was the DI on this, and where did you do it?
At Company 3 with Tim Stipan who’s done all my films, and we worked very hard on the look to get this great, warm, lightly burnt butter look, so the DI was crucial.

Did it turn out the way you envisioned it?
It’s always a constant evolution, and the colors a film takes on constantly shift and change, depending on the cast and production design and so on, but I’m very happy with it.

All Photos: Niko Tavernise


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

Transitioning from VFX artist to director

By Karen Maierhofer

It takes a certain type of person to be a director — someone who has an in-depth understanding of the production process; is an exceptional communicator, planner and organizer; who possesses creative vision; and is able to see the big picture where one does not yet exist. And those same qualities can be found in a visual effects or CG supervisor.

In fact, there are a number of former visual effects artists and supes who have made the successful transition to the director’s chair – Neill Blomkamp (District 9), Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Narnia), Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Rio) and Tim Miller (Deadpool), to name a few. And while VFX supervisors possess many of the skills necessary for directing, it is still relatively uncommon for them to bear that credit, whether it is on a feature film, television series, commercial, music video or other project.

Armen Kevorkian
Armen Kevorkian, VFX supervisor and executive creative director at Deluxe’s Encore, says, “It’s not necessarily a new trend, but it’s really not that common.”

Armen Kevorkian (flannel shirt) on set.

Kevorkian, who has a long list of visual effects credits on various television series — two of which he has also directed episodes (Supergirl and The Flash) — has always wanted to direct but embrace VFX, winning an Emmy and three LEO Awards in addition to garnering multiple nominations for that work. “It’s all about filmmaking and storytelling. I loved what I was doing but always wanted to pursue directing, although I was not going to be pushy about it. If it happened, it happened.”

Indeed, it happened. And having the VFX experience gave Kevorkian the confidence and skills to handle being a director. “A VFX supervisor is often directing the second unit, which makes you comfortable with directing. When you direct an entire episode, though, it is not just about a few pieces; it’s about telling an entire story. That is something you learn to handle as you go.”

As a VFX supe, Kevorkian often was present from start to finish, and was able to see the whole preparation process of what worked and what didn’t. “With VFX, you are there for prep, shooting and post — the whole gamut. Not many other departments get to experience that,” he says.

When he was given the chance to direct an episode, Kevorkian was “the visual effects guy directing.” Luckily, he had worked with the actors on previous episodes in his VFX role and had a good relationship with them. “They were really supportive, and I couldn’t have done it without that, but I can see situations where you might be treated differently because your background is visual effects, and it takes more than that to tell a story and direct a full episode,” he adds.

Proving oneself can be scary, and Kevorkian has known others who directed one project and never did it again. Not so for Kevorkian, who has now directed three episodes of The Flash and one episode of Supergirl thus far, and will direct another Supergirl episode later this year.

While the episodes he has directed were not VFX-heavy, he foresees times when he will have to make a certain decision on the spot, and knowing that something can be fixed easily and less expensively in post, as opposed to wasting precious time trying to fix it practically, will be very helpful. “You are not asking the VFX guy, hey is this going to work? You pretty much know the answer because of your background,” he explains.

Despite his turn directing, Kevorkian is still “the VFX guy” for the series. “I love VFX and also love directing,” he says, hoping to one day direct feature films. “A lot of people think they want to direct but don’t realize how difficult it can be,” he adds.

HaZ Dulull
Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull doesn’t see VFX artists as directors as being so unique any more — “there are more of us now” — and recognizes the advantages such a background can bring to the new role.

“The type of films I make are considered high-concept sci-fi, which rely on VFX to help present the vision and tell the story. But it’s not just putting pretty pixels on screen as an artist that has helped me, it was also being in VFX management roles. This meant I spent a lot of time with TV showrunners, film producers on set and in the edit bay,” says Dulull. “I learned a lot from that such as how to deal with producers, executive producers and timelines. And all the other exposure I got in my VFX management role helped me prep for directing/producing a film.”

Dulull has an extensive resume, having worked as a VFX artist on films such as The Dark Knight and Prince of Persia, before moving into a supervisor role on TV shows including Planet Dinosaur and America: The Story of Us, and then into a VFX producer role. While working in VFX, he created several short films, and one of them — Project Kronos — went viral and caught the attention of Hollywood producers. Soon after, Dulull directed his first feature, The Beyond, which will be released the first quarter of next year by Gravitas Ventures. Another, Origin Unknown, based on a story he wrote, will be released later in 2018 by Content.

Before making the transition to director, Dulull had to overcome the stigma of being a first-time director — despite the success three of his short films had online. At the time, “film investors and studios were not too keen on throwing money at me yet to make a feature.” Frustrated, he decided to take the plunge and used his savings to finance his debut feature film The Beyond, based on Project Kronos. That move later on caught the attention of some investors, who helped finance the remaining post budget.

For Dulull, his VFX background is a definite plus when it comes to directing. “When I say we can add a giant alien sphere in the sky while our character looks out of the car window, with helicopters zipping by, I can say it with confidence. Also, when financiers/producers look at the storyboards and mood boards and see the amount of VFX in there, they know they have a director who can handle that and use VFX smartly as a tool to tell the story. This is as opposed to a director who has no experience in VFX and whose production would probably end up costing more due to the lack of education and wrong decisions, or trial and errors made on set and in post.”

The Beyond, courtesy of HaZ Film LTD.

Because of VFX, Dulull has learned to always shoot clean plates and not to encourage the DP to do zooms or whip pans when a scene has VFX elements. “For The Beyond, there is digital body replacements, and although this was not the same budget as Batman v Superman, we were still able to do it because all the camera moves were on sliders and we acquired a lot of data on the day of the shoot. In fact, I ensured I had budget to hire a tracking master on set who would gather all the data required to get an accurate object and camera track later in CG,” he says.

Dulull also plans for effects early in the production, making notes during the script stages concerning the VFX and researching ideas on how to achieve them so that the producers budget for them.

While on set, though, he focuses on the actors and HODs, and doesn’t get too involved with the VFX beyond showing actors a Photoshop mockup he might have done the night before a greenscreen shoot, to give them a sense of what will be occurring in the scene.

Yet, oftentimes Dulull’s artist side takes over in post. On The Beyond, he handled 75 to 80 percent of the work (mainly compositing), while CG houses and trusted freelancers did the CGI and rendering. “It was my baby and my first film, and I was a control freak on every single shot — the curse of having a VFX background,” he says. On his second feature, Origin Unknown, he found it easier to hand off the work — in this instance it was to Territory Studio.

“I still find I end up doing a lot of the key creative VFX scenes merely because there is no budget for it and basically because it was created during the editorial process — which means you can’t go and raise more money at this stage. But since I can do those ideas myself, I can come up with the concepts in the editorial process and pay the price with long nights and lots of coffee with support from Territory – but I have to ensure I don’t push the VFX studio to the breaking point with overages just because I had a creative burst of inspiration in the edit!” he says.

However, Dulull is confident that on his next feature, he will be hands-off on the VFX and focused on the time-demanding duties of directing and producing, though will still be involved with the designing of the VFX, working closely with Territory.

When it comes to outsourcing the VFX, knowing how much they cost helps keep that part of the budget from getting out of hand, Dulull says. And being able to offer up solutions or alternatives enables a studio to get a shot done faster and with better results.

Freddy Chavez Olmos
Freddy Chavez Olmos got the filmmaking/directing bug at an early age while recording horror-style home movies. Later, he found himself working in the visual effects industry in Vancouver, and counts many impressive VFX credits to his name: District 9, Pacific Rim, Deadpool, Chappie, Sin City 2 and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. He also writes and directs projects independently, including the award-winning short films Shhh (2012) and Leviticus 24:20 (2016) — both in collaboration with VFX studio Image Engine — and R3C1CL4 (2017).

Working in visual effects, particularly compositing, has taught Olmos the artistic and technical sides of filmmaking during production and post, helping him develop a deeper understanding of the process and improving his problem-solving skills on set.

As more features rely on the use of VFX, having a director or producer with a clear understanding of that process has become almost necessary, according to Olmos. “It’s a process that requires constant feedback and clear communication. I’ve seen a lot of productions suffer visually and budget-wise due to a lack of decision-making in the post production process.”

Olmos has learned a number of lessons from VFX that he believes will help him on future directorial projects:
• Avoid last-minute changes.
• Don’t let too many cooks in the kitchen.
• Be clear on your feedback and use references when possible.
• If you can fix it on set, don’t leave it for post to handle.
• Always stay humble and give credit to those who help you.
• CG is time-consuming and expensive. If it doesn’t serve your story, don’t use it.
• Networking and professional relationships are crucial.
• Don’t become a pixel nitpicker. No one will analyze every single frame of your film unless you work on a Star Wars sequel. Your VFX crew will be more gracious to you, too.

Despite his VFX experience, Olmos, like others interviewed for this article, tries to use a practical approach first while in the director’s seat. Nevertheless, he always keeps the “VFX side of his brain open.”

For instance, the first short film he co-directed called for a full-body creature. “I didn’t want to go full CG with it because I knew we could achieve most of it practically, but I also understood the limitations. So we decided to only ‘digitally enhance’ what we couldn’t do on set and become more selective in our shot list,” he explains. “In the end, I was glad we worked as efficiently as we did on the project and didn’t have any throw-away work.”

Shhh film

While some former VFX artists/supervisors may find it difficult to hand off a project they directed to a VFX facility, Olmos maintains that as long as there is someone he trusts on set who is always by his side, he is able to detach himself “from micromanaging that part,” he says, although he does like to be heavily involved in the storyboarding and previs processes whenever possible. “A lot of the changes happen during that stage, and I like giving freedom to the VFX supervisor on set to do what he thinks is best for the project,” says Olmos.

“A few years ago, there were two VFX artists who became mainstream directors because they knew how to tell a good story using visual effects as a supporting platform (Neill Blomkamp and Gareth Edwards, Godzilla, Rogue One). Now there is a similar wave of talented filmmakers with a VFX and animation background doing original short projects,” says Olmos. “We have common interests, and I have become friends with a lot of them. I have no doubt they will end up doing big things in the near future.”

David Mellor
David Mellor is the creative director of Framestore’s new Chicago office and a director with the studio’s production company Framestore Pictures. With a background in computer visualization and animation, he started out in a support role with the rendering team and eventually transitioned to commercials and music videos, working his way up to CG lead and head of the CG department in the studio’s New York office.

In that capacity, Mellor was exposed to the creative side and worked with directors and agencies, and that led to the creative director and director roles he now enjoys.

Mellor has directed spots for Chick-fil-A (VR and live action), Redd’s Wicked Apple, Chex Mix and a series for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon.

Without hesitation, Mellor credits his VFX experience for helping him prepare for directing in that it enables him to “see” the big picture and final result from a fragment of elements, giving him a more solid direction. “VFX supervisors have a full understanding of how to build a scene, how light and camera work, and what effect lensing has,” he says.

Additionally, VFX supervisors are prepared to react to a given situation, as things are always changing. They also have to be able to break down a shot in moments on set, and run the whole shoot — post to finish — through their head when asked a question by a director or DP. “So it gives you this very good instinct as a director and allows you to see beyond what’s in front of you,” Mellor says. “It also allows you to plan well and be creative while looking at the entire timeline of the project. ‘Fix it in post’ is no longer acceptable with everyone wanting more for less time/money.”

And as projects become larger and incorporate more effects, director’s like Mellor will be able to tackle them more efficiently and with a higher quality, knowing all that is needed to produce the final piece. He also values his ability to communicate and collaborate, which are necessary for effects supervisors on big VFX projects.

“Our career path to directing hasn’t been the traditional one, but we have more exposure working with the client from conception through to a project’s finish. That means collaboration is a big aspect for me, working toward the best result holistically within the parameters of time and budget.”

Still, Mellor believes the transition to director for a VFX supervisor remains rare. One reason is because a person often becomes pigeonholed in a role.

While their numbers are still low, VFX artists/supervisors-turned-directors are making their mark across various genres, proving themselves capable and worthy of the much-deserved moniker of director, and in doing so, are helping to pave the way for others in visual effects roles.

Our Main Image: The Beyond, courtesy of HaZ Film LTD.

Director Philippe Falardeau takes on boxing with Chuck

By Iain Blair

On the surface, French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau — whose drama Monsieur Lazhar was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards — might appear to be an unusual choice to helm a boxing film. But in his inspired hands, Chuck, the true story of Chuck Wepner, the first man to knock Muhammad Ali to the canvas while he was defending the title, lands a lot of impressive punches. Wepner was the inspiration behind Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning Rocky franchise.

Director Philippe Falardeau

Set in the early ‘70s, Chuck tells the unlikely story of Wepner, who was the heavyweight champion of New Jersey and also sold liquor on the mean streets when he got his big shot to fight Ali. Ultimately, he didn’t win the fight, but he found instant fame as the underdog who lasted 15 rounds in the ring with Ali. That was nothing compared to when Rocky came out. Wepner quickly attained hero status as the real-life inspiration for Stallone’s script and was quickly anointed King of the Jersey shore.

However, just when Wepner thought he was invincible, life set him up for the ultimate K.O. The aftermath of that fight triggered a series of events and numerous legal struggles that led to Wepner grasping to stay in the limelight. These obstacles led to sobriety and redemption after serving five years in prison for cocaine possession.

Liev Schreiber stars as the flawed but charismatic boxer opposite Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan. The IFC Films release is also on Blu-ray presented in 1080p HD with English 5.1 DTS HD master audio, and on DVD and digital HD from Paramount Home Media Distribution.

I recently talked to Falardeau — whose films include The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge, which won Best Canadian First Feature at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival; the Warner Bros. release The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon; and My Internship in Canada — about making the film.

Were you always a big boxing fan?
I was neither a fan or not, but I remember watching boxing at the 1984 LA Olympics and thinking there was something noble to it, and in sports I like duels between two people, like tennis. I don’t know a lot about boxing, and the script first caught my eye because I felt it’s not a typical boxing film at all. The big fight is in the middle of the film, and then there’s no big redemption fight at the end as usual.

Is it true you initially turned this down?
Well, I questioned if I was the right person for it. But as I read it the first time, I realized there was all this stuff I didn’t know about it, and it was a real page turner. It was more about the mythology of boxing and a cautionary tale about fame, which seemed very relevant in our era of social media when everyone wants to be famous.

There have been so many films about boxers, so what sort of film did you set out to make?
I was fascinated watching the actual fight on YouTube, and then I looked at a lot of archival footage since the script allowed for us to use some of that alongside what we had shot. All that really excited me, but the actual fighting sort of scared me. The thing is, the boxing you see in movies isn’t like reality, where it’s slow and messy, and nothing happens and then boom! Something happens.

So I wanted to make a film that showed the reality of boxing, not the movie version. After the whole fun ride of the first act, I think the story gets even more interesting when Chuck gets caught up in his whole new image and all the attention. Chuck really enjoys life. He’s a fun, playful, optimistic guy, sure of himself — really the opposite of Rocky Balboa. So the film had to be very playful — a drama that also didn’t take itself too seriously. So I tried to craft a movie where the rhythms, the editing, the archival footage and the tone all contributed to that feeling.

You got an amazing cast, with Liev Schreiber as Chuck, and Naomi Watts and Elisabeth Moss as his wives. What did Liev bring to the role, considering he looks nothing like the real man?
He brought so much, and he really agreed with my approach — let’s make it messy, not spectacular and just real. He spars a lot and really likes the sport, and he trained hard, so he was a great collaborator on this and he was very into it. And, of course, he’s a great actor, so we were able to explore a lot of levels.

Do you feel more of a responsibility when a film is about real people?
I do. I come from a documentary background, and I left documentary filmmaking because of the difficulty with that moral contract you have with the people you film. You want to make the best film possible, and that might mean making it more dramatic in the edit. That’s why I migrated to fiction.

With this, I met Chuck and his second wife, who are still together, and we all became friends. Chuck still calls me at home and keeps in touch. So it’s tough sitting next to him in a theater watching this, because at the same time you need to tell the truth of his story and shoot him in his underwear, snorting cocaine. But he knows he was no angel and we had to show that side.

Did you talk to Stallone at all about Chuck being the real-life inspiration for Rocky?
No, but the production needed his approval, and we got a few notes from him. We did get his direct help with the statue of Rocky at the end. It’s in his personal memorabilia collection, which he keeps at his LA office.

You shot this on location in New York City and Sofia, Bulgaria. Why Sofia?
That’s exactly what I asked when the producers told me, but in hindsight it was the right decision considering our budget. I ended up having double the time to shoot the Ali fight, three cameras, four times the extras for the crowd scene at the fight and a very competent technical team over there. So in all fairness, when producer Avi Lerner said we’d shoot in Bulgaria, he made the right call. I had to find solutions for the particular constraints, but half our job is always to find a way around new constraints. And, as it’s a period piece, that was a major challenge. For instance, finding old typewriters for some scenes.

Where did you post and do you like the post process?
We did all the post in Montreal at Technicolor, including the color correction. The sound was done partly in Sofia and partly in Montreal. The VFX was done in LA. I love post and always have. I also think people don’t have a clue just how much the success of a film depends on good post production, how much of a story you can build during the editing, and how much you can enhance your film in mixing and color timing.

The color and sound is vital in conveying a sense of intimacy, humanity and emotions. To get it right you need to work with artists in post. That’s why I love it so much. For me, the worst part of post is that first assembly. I always hate it! You can really measure the gap between your vision and your talent. I get really depressed and start looking for a new job outside film.

Can you talk about working with editor Richard Comeau, who’s cut over 60 films. Was he on the set?
No, he doesn’t care about your best takes, and he’s right because that’s completely irrelevant. So he’d start cutting as I shot, and we’d start the assembly. But an editor is not in your head, and to get the right POV and tone on a film you have to get in the room yourself. An editor can really help with restructuring and moving scenes around, but to get that specific tone you have in mind, you have to work on it with the editor.

Can you talk about using all the archival footage and making it seamless.
It wasn’t too tricky because I knew I’d be using archival stuff, and we also used a real 35mm grain in both the color and B&W bits, which also helped. The colorist, Nico Illies at Technicolor, did a great job on the DI. He used Filmlight’s Baselight.

Although it’s obviously not an effects-driven film, it’s a period piece, so you must have needed some VFX?
Quite a few, like the bear he fights, and then we had crowd enhancement at the fight. But all the hits we see on Liev’s face are real. They’re not enhanced.

What’s next?
I’ve got a couple of projects. One is a gold rush film, and the other is My Salinger Year, which I hope to start shooting early next year.


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

Agent of Sleep: The making of a spec commercial

By Jennifer Walden

Names like Jason Bourne and James Bond make one think “eternal sleep,” not just merely a “restful” one. That’s what makes director/producer/writer Stephen Vitale’s spec commercial for Tempur-Pedic mattresses so compelling. Like a mad scientist crossing a shark with a sheep, Vitale combines an energetic spy/action film aesthetic with the sleepy world of mattress advertising for Agent of Sleep.

Vitale originally pitched the idea to a different mattress brand. “That brand passed, and I decided they were silly to, so I made the spot that exists on spec and chose to use Tempur-Pedic as the featured brand instead. I hear Tempur-Pedic really enjoyed the spot.”

In Agent of Sleep, two assailants fight their way up a stairwell and into a sun-dappled apartment where their altercation eventually leads into a bedroom and onto a comfy (albeit naked) mattress. One assailant applies a choke hold to the other but his grip loosens as he falls fast asleep. The other assailant lies down beside the first and promptly falls asleep too.

LA-based Vitale drew inspiration from Bourne and Bond films. He referenced fight scenes from Haywire, John Wick and Mission Impossible too. “Mostly all of them have a version of the action sequence in Agent of Sleep — a visceral, intimate fight between spies/hired guns that ends with one of them getting choked out. It was about distilling this trope, dropping a viewer right into the middle of it to grab them and immediately establishing visuals that would tap into the familiarity they have with the setup.”

Once the spy/action foundation was in place, Vitale (who is pictured shooting in our main image) added tropes from mattress ads to his concept, like choosing a warmly lit, serene apartment and ending the spot with a couple lying comfortably on a bare mattress as a narrator shares product information. “The spies are bursting into what would be the typical setting for a mattress ad and they upend all of its elements. The visuals reflect that trajectory.”

To achieve the desired cinematic look, Vitale chose the Arri Alexa Mini with Cooke anamorphic lenses, and shot in a wide aspect ratio of 2:66 — wider than the normal cinemascope. “My cinematographer David Bolen and I felt like it gave the confined sets and the close-range fist fight a bigger scope and pushed the piece further away from the look of an ad.”

They shot in a practical location and dressed it to replicate the bedrooms shown in actual Tempur-Pedic product images. As for smashing through the bedroom wall, that wasn’t part of the plan but it did add to the believability of the fight. “That was an accidental alteration to the location,” jokes Vitale.

The handheld camera movement up front adds to the energy of the fight, and Vitale framed the shots to clearly show who is throwing the punch and how hard it landed. “I tried to design longer takes and find angles that created a dance between the camera and the amazing fight work from Yoshi Sudarso and Cory DeMeyers.”

In contrast, the spot ends with steady, smooth shots that exude a calm feeling. Vitale says, “We used a jib and sticks for the end shots because I wanted it to be as tranquil and still as possible to play up the joke.”

Production sound was captured with a Røde NTG-2 boom mic onto a Zoom H5 recorder. The vocalizations from the two spies on-set, i.e. their breaths and efforts, were all used in post. Vitale, who handled the sound design and final mix, says, “I would use alt audio takes and drop in grunts and impact reactions to shots that needed a boost. The main goal was that it felt kinetic throughout and that the fight sounded really visceral. A lot of punch sounds were layered with other sound effects to avoid them feeling canned, and I also did Foley for different moments in the spot to help fill it out and give it a more natural sound.”

The Post
Vitale also handled picture editing using Apple Final Cut Pro 7, which worked out perfectly for him. Editing the spot was pretty straightforward, since he had designed a solid plan for the shoot and didn’t need to cover extra shots and setups. “I usually only shoot what I know I will use,” he says. “The one shot I didn’t use was an insert of the glass the woman drops, shattering on the floor. So structurally, it was easy to find. The rest was about keeping cuts tight, making sure the longer takes didn’t drag and the quicker cuts were still clear and exciting to watch.”

Vitale worked with colorist Bryan Smaller, who uses Blackmagic Resolve. They agreed that fully committing to the action film aesthetic, by playing with contrast levels and grain to keep the image gritty and grounded was the best way of not letting the audience in on the joke until the end. “For the stairwell and hallway, we leaned into the green and orange hues of those respective locations. The apartment has a bit of a teal hue to it and has a much more organic feel, which again was to help transition the spies and the audience into the mattress ad world, so to speak,” explains Vitale.

The icing on the cake was composer Patrick Sullivan’s action film-style score. “He did a great job of bringing the audience into the action and creating tension and excitement. We’ve been friends since elementary school and played in a band together, so we can find what’s working and what’s not pretty quickly. He’s one of my most consistent collaborators, in various aspects of post production, and he always brings something special to the project.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer. Follow her at @audiojeney on Twitter.

Director Jon Barber joins Raucous Content

Hollywood-based production house Raucous Content has added trilingual director Jon Barber to its roster. Over the past decade, Barber has worked with agencies such as BBDO, Crispin Porter Bogusky, Leo Burnett, McCann Erikson, Mullen, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, Sid Lee, Taxi and Y&R. He has directed spots for brands as varied as Burger King, BMW, Coke, Chobani, Doritos, FedEx, Mercedes, Timberland and McDonald’s, among others.

Barber fell in love with filmmaking as an Army brat based in Germany, where he spent much of his young adult life. Barber went on to study at the University of Vermont and the University of Salzburg in Austria before ending up in Los Angeles to gain production experience and kick-start his directing career.

In 2006, Barber relocated to Montreal and worked extensively throughout Canada, Europe and the US on everything from commercials to short films and music videos. Joining Raucous means Barber will call Los Angeles home.

Only a year old, Raucous Content has continued to grow its pool content creators. The Raucous directorial roster includes Ben Callner, Keith Ehrlich, Luis Gerard, Adam Gunser, Chris Hooper, Paul Iannachino, Vance Malone, Rob McElhenney, Matt Rainwaters, Daniel Strange and Matt Shakman, who recently helmed two episodes of Game of Thrones, including the bombastic Loot Train fight at the end of the episode “Spoils of War.”

Charlieuniformtango adds director Elliot Dillman to roster

Director Elliot Dillman has joined Charlieuniformtango for national commercial and VR representation. His directorial experience spans broadcast commercials, branded VR content, music videos and multi-camera live events.

He has been at the helm of national ad campaigns for a number of top agencies including GSD&M, CP+B, Leo Burnett, Y&R and BBDO, directing spots for brands such as Kraft, Nerf, GMC and Subway.

Recently, Dillman’s work with Verizon and Momentum Worldwide received two 2017 Clio Awards for the “Virtual Gridiron” VR experience at Super Bowl LI. Also, his short film, “In Harmony,” part of the Oculus VR for Good program, premiered at the Oculus house during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and was an official selection of SXSW 2017. The film examines the Harmony Project’s work to help Los Angeles kids stay in school through educational music programs. “

Dillman is the oldest son of Emmy-winning director Ray Dillman, so he grew up on film sets. He started working regularly as a PA at age 12 for production companies like Gartner and MJZ. While studying at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television, Dillman simultaneously began his directing career with multi-camera live concert shoots for the ESPN Summer and Winter X Games. Shortly after graduating, he directed feature film tie-in spots for Sony Pictures, Warner Bros. and Paramount, along with ad campaigns for the Walt Disney Company and Royal Purple Motor Oil, amongst others.

My Passion Project: We Call Her Yolanda

By Anthony Bari Jr.

For the past couple years, I’ve been producing a documentary called We Call Her Yolanda. After volunteering on disaster relief in the Philippines in the aftermath of 2013’s super typhoon, I was taken with the people’s positivity and resiliency even though they had lost everything, including loved ones and livelihoods. I was inspired to go back and start filming a documentary, the shooting for which just wrapped.

While the rest of the world knew the devastating storm as Typhoon Haiyan, Filipinos had their own name for it — Super Typhoon Yolanda. As such, We Call Her Yolanda was an apt title for the film.

Production
For We Call Her Yolanda, we completed four shoots over two years on a mix of cameras and formats. We used two GoPro Hero4 Black cameras (one was mounted on a drone and the other was first-person view), two Canon C300s, a Sony FS7 and a Canon 5D Mark II. We always travelled with at least two laptops for transcoding and media management. We also carried G-Technology hard drives in our backpacks. I relied heavily on software presets for this project, setting up a bunch of them before we left for the Philippines so we could bag and tag all files during the trip.

Just one of Bari’s shooting setups.

For those who are still dragging and dropping hundreds of gigabytes of media from card to drive, beware. That method is wide open to error. ShotPut Pro, Imagine Products’ offloading app, is my go-to tool for safely offloading media. Computers and technology aren’t perfect, so offloading camera cards and making multiple backups is incredibly important. Version 6 has a new interface that looks just like the Finder window on my Mac.

The software’s checksumming capability verifies the integrity of every data transfer and raises a flag if things don’t add up. This feature is not only important for ensuring complete backups, but it also helps pinpoint problems with hardware or systems — and gives me the visual tools to explain the problems to clients.

Rather than just sticking a camera in people’s faces and asking them for their stories during the Yolanda shoots, we spent a lot of time getting to know people and making them comfortable with our team and the technology. Meanwhile, we shot lots of B-roll. Between the relationship building, the filming, the travel and other rigors of the shoot, it was a busy project that kept our whole team going nonstop — which meant I couldn’t always take care of media management myself like I would prefer.

Another critical tool in my data-wrangling workflow also happens to be from Imagine Products — ProxyMill transcoding software, which they recently revamped into PrimeTranscoder. I use this software’s presets a lot. By digging into the tools on the preset menu, flipping switches, or checking/unchecking boxes in the interface, I can program all sorts of functionality and even map certain functions to specific scenarios. For example, I can merge multiple interviews into a single low-res file and program the tool to apply timecode and/or a LUT file to it before sending to a producer or client for review. The fact that I can kick out a low-resolution, color corrected clip that has everything on it and send it off immediately is a big deal. I just dial it in, save it, and it’s ready to go.

Street view of San Joaquin.

The best part about this is that I don’t have to man the station the whole time. I’m ultimately responsible for the data, and I get very nervous when I don’t have control over it, but this workflow lets me delegate the media management duties when needed and trust that it will be done right, even by people with no post experience.

I like to work with native formats whenever possible, but sometimes you have to rely on proxies, especially when some of the footage is shot in data-heavy 4K. With this project, I used Imagine Products’ HD-VU2. This quality-check tool allowed me to preview footage in its native format after a shoot and decide which footage to pull. Then we’d apply ProxyMill to color correct it or add timecode as needed, and then transcode it into one massive ProRes clip using the clip-stitch feature. This capability came in handy when merging all interviews into one file for the translator and when selecting and stabilizing “best-of” drone footage to get it ready for editing later in Adobe Premiere.

Upon returning from the Philippines after each shoot, I made a strict practice of cloning the data from the portable drives onto multiple 4TB G-Technology desktop drives that are more suitable for editing. (We aim never to edit from the portable drives!) During the shoot, there were a handful of moments when we were literally sitting under a coconut tree with a long cable connected to a generator. That made for very unconventional (and nerve-wracking) media management, so I always go for gear with a dedicated power source whenever possible.

Post
Back in Los Angeles working on post for Yolanda, I turned my home into a post production studio. I worked with a carefully chosen team of eight pro editors who operated in rotation at my house, often late into the night. I supplied the food and drinks (you’ve got to keep up morale!), and they showed up and got to work. Some editors brought their own laptops, while others used my two spare MacBook Pros. All computers were equipped with Adobe Premiere CC.

The G-Technology desktop drives each contained the same set of footage, so whenever someone picked up a project, they simply ripped away at the footage from one of those drives. There were also two smaller G-Technology drives floating around with a total of about 600GB of extra footage (such as 4K drone footage) that people could select as needed. I used Basecamp to track the project and assign the work, and CalDigit Thunderbolt stations helped with connectivity.


Anthony Bari is a director/engineer/editor/post consultant. In addition to his freelance and consulting roles, he has worked on major sporting events, TV shows, reality shows and documentaries. He earned an Emmy Award as part of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup on FS1 technical team.

 

Veteran director Michael Apted on his latest film, Unlocked

By Iain Blair

Acclaimed British director Michael Apted is that rarity in today’s cinema — an extraordinarily versatile filmmaker who is comfortable in any genre and equally at home making big-budget tent poles or micro-budget documentaries.

His movies range from Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning dramas (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) to films dealing with medical ethics (Extreme Measures), corporate whistleblowers (Class Action) and matters of faith (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). He has also directed political thrillers (Gorky Park), spy thrillers (Enigma), comedies (Continental Divide), music documentaries (Sting’s Bring on the Night) and a blockbuster Bond movie (The World Is Not Enough).

(L-R) Writer Iain Blair and Michael Apted.

Apted even made a feature film and a documentary about the same event (Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala). He has also directed many TV projects, including Ray Donovan, Rome and Masters of Sex. That is one diverse resume.

In fact, the only constant in an eclectic career that stretches back to the 1960s is the “Up Series,” which he first worked on as a researcher back in 1964, and which he returns to every seven years like clockwork (56 Up came out in 2012).

His latest film, Unlocked, is a pulpy, fast-moving spy thriller which, like many of Apted’s films, stars a woman in the lead role — Noomi Rapace plays a CIA agent undercover in London and on a mission to save the city from biological terrorism. She’s joined by an all-star cast, including Michael Douglas as her handler, Orlando Bloom as her unlikely helper, John Malkovich as the CIA spy chief at Langley and Toni Collette as his MI5 counterpart.

I recently met with Apted to talk about his process on this film along with his long career and what’s next for him.

You’ve made a lot of thrillers. What’s the secret to a good one?
On a trivial level, you always need a good pace. Then you look for lots of twists and turns and a script that isn’t quite what it appears to be. This allows you to keep the audience unsettled and never comfortable. The element of surprise is key.

You’ve made a lot of films with women in the leads. What did Noomi bring to the role?
She was already on board before me, so the idea was to have a woman organically at the heart of it; we met and I thought she was perfect for this. I’ve made a lot of dramas with women, as I find their lives are fundamentally more dramatic than most men’s. They have to make major life choices — having kids, marriage, jobs and so on — and men don’t have the same pressures, at least not in thrillers.

Look at a remarkable woman like Gorillas’ Dian Fossey, who pretty much sacrificed her personal life and any chance of romance and children to do what she did. I find those situations very dramatic, while men tend to follow a more routine life. There’s always far more emotion with the women playing the lead in dramas and thrillers. While women can seem more vulnerable, they often overcome that and so there’s more at stake. That’s another key element to a good thriller or drama.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Pretty early, though this only has about 200 VFX shots, compared to the Bond film, where the VFX are the main piece of the pie, and Narnia that had close to 1,400 VFX shots. My early films, like Coal Miner’s Daughter, had no VFX at all, but now almost every movie has some.

Is it true you shot most of it in Prague? How did you make that work?
Yes, we could only shoot six days in London due to the budget, so the rest was Prague. The key to doing it was the Czech production designer, a very clever guy who told me, “When you choose your key locations in London, don’t use the familiar classic sights as I won’t be able to match them. But if you go more modern, I can probably match it far better.” So that’s what I did. I avoided all the well-known locations, and it worked out great.

Do you like the post process?
I do, a lot. It allows you to fix things. It’s the last draft of a film, and as long as you know what you’re doing while you shoot and what scenes you may be vulnerable in — so you have the necessary coverage — you can then play around with it in post. The more films you do, the more experience you have about what scenes are truly important and which ones are not as you shoot. You have to give each one a value, and the crucial ones are where you want to spend the most time and money, so you can then shape them in the edit.

Where did you post?
I worked with editor Andrew MacRitchie. We cut as we shot and then did the first cut and most of the post in London, including all the VFX at Lipsync. But we had a problem with the ending. From the very start of the edit we knew we’d have to reshoot the end, but we ran into more budget problems.

Ultimately, we reshot the end in Munich and did the final post at Arri Post there for about three weeks. It was a bit hair-raising since we had to ship all the final post elements we’d already done in London, like the music and mix, but they did a great job. Arri also did any needed adjustments to the VFX because of the changes. The big VFX sequence was the big football game at the end, which we shot in Prague, and then made it more like Wembley stadium in London.

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you as a filmmaker.
It’s beyond important — it’s crucial. The composer, Stephen Barton, was very savvy about combining a real orchestra with computers and synths, so we could keep chopping and changing it and do rough scores as we felt our way through it all. All the sound design was done in London with some extra work at Arri Sound in Munich.

Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did most of it at Lipsync in London, and then went to Arri Post to re-grade and finish it off after the reshoot. The DI was key in getting the film’s overall look, a palette of cool grays and blues.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. It’s got some nice twists and great characters, and once we figured out the right end, it came together really well I feel.

Michael Apted on set with Noomi Rapace.

What’s next?
I’m working on a film that we’re casting now. It’s a very emotional story about a father and son, set in Naples, about the son finding his long-lost father. I’ll be doing 63 Up at the end of next year, which will come out in spring 2019.

Do you think of yourself ultimately as a documentary filmmaker?
Yes, I think that’s true because I approach material and all my films in a documentary way. I remember when we did Coal Miner’s Daughter, I insisted on shooting it in the real locations with the local people in it. There’s only three professional actors in the whole film, so that was my documentary voice speaking.


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

Brigsby Bear director Dave McCary

By Iain Blair

When Emmy-nominated writer and director Dave McCary, co-founder of the LA-based sketch comedy group Good Neighbor and in his fourth season at Saturday Night Live, decided to make his feature film debut, he picked the whimsical, heartfelt and charming comedy Brigsby Bear as the ideal project. It’s easy to see why. It has an imaginative, eccentric premise that ultimately pays off big time emotionally.

The story starts with a young man named James (SNL’s Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the script) who lives in an isolated desert bunker with his parents Ted and April (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), who, we learn, kidnapped him when he was a baby. To keep James engaged, and to ensure he learns important life lessons, fake dad Ted creates a fake TV show just for James, called The Adventures of Brigsby Bear, which stars Ted in a fake bear suit.

Kyle Mooney and Dave McCary

Superfan James is obsessed with the clever if quaintly goofy kids’ show. After all, the bright, sensitive young adult still living at home has grown up with this fantasy series, and the program has grown with him as well — getting more complex over the years. But to say James’ intensely protective parents have kept their son a bit sheltered is a huge understatement, and reality inevitably invades their sanctuary.

One dramatic night, James’ insular world is upended when the police arrive and haul James and his “parents” off into the real one. After arresting Ted and April, a cop (Greg Kinnear) reunites James with his biological parents, and his new world and reality demands a major adjustment — especially when he realizes that his hero Brigsby Bear is pure fiction.

I recently talked to McCary, who began his career making shorts and then directing some 75 “digital shorts” over the last four years at SNL (along with countless YouTube clips with Mooney and the rest of the Good Neighbor sketch group), about making the film and his love of post.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
The most honest version of this very unique story. I wanted it to be emotional and sincere, and we knew that with a story like this, there’d be big comedic moments, but we never wanted to lean too much on them. We wanted audiences to stay with the earnestness of James and the film. So, more of a dramatic film than anything we’ve ever done.

Is it true you dropped out of film school and are largely self-taught?
I didn’t enjoy it very much and I did drop out; I had no interest in learning about all the minutia of every department. In terms of being self-taught, I guess I always felt it was more important to just do it while learning as you went, and making videos and shorts was kind of like my film school. So I learned a lot that way and by putting stuff on the Internet and having to deal with your vulnerability and people commenting on your stuff. And at SNL I’ve had a lot of experience with the shorts. So unlike a lot of first-time directors, I’ve been doing about three films’ worth of shorts.

Plus you have a bunch of very experienced directors and producers who worked on this.
Exactly, we had Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the Lego Movie guys who also did the 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs franchises, as well as the Lonely Island guys — Andy Samberg and the others — who did stuff like Dick in a Box at SNL, and they all mentored us through the whole process. They loved our vision and voice, and we always felt protected.

You have an amazing cast, including Claire Danes and Mark Hamill. Were you shocked they all came on board?
Not shocked, but very happy such big names wanted to be a part of it. I knew the script was so special, just on the page, because of the great writing, and I felt people would respond — and they did. Pretty much everyone we approached was very positive. Then doing SNL and dealing with big name guests helps you deal with it too. No one is coddled or put on a pedestal. It was fun and everyone stayed loose and knew exactly what our approach was.

You shot this on location in Salt Lake City. How tough was it?
It was just 23 days, so that was tough, and we were on a very tight budget. But we had five weeks of preproduction, and we were pretty organized.

Where did you post, and do you like the post process?
We did it all in New York at Light Iron since I was juggling SNL at the same time. I love post, going through all the material and shaping it, and I love working on all the sound and music in particular.

Can you talk about working for the first time with editor Jacob Craycroft, who’s cut over 20 films including Robert Altman’s swan song, A Prairie Home Companion. Was he on the set?
No, the turnaround was so crazy he began cutting scenes before we finished the shoot, so we sent him stuff and then we sat down together once I got back to New York for about four months. The big challenge was making sure we had the right tone throughout — which was crucial — and picking our spots for the comedy.

The goal was to keep the audience invested in James’ emotional journey, and every time you get too silly it takes away from the realism and the emotional aspects. It all had to be believable. I think the broad comedy version of this film just felt tired — the old fish-out-of-water comedy, so reliant on all the jokes. But I wanted this to be more a story about friendship, closure, nostalgia and falling in love with filmmaking.

Although it’s obviously not an effects-driven film, you must have needed some VFX?
Yes, and they were mostly done by my friend Andrew Sherman, a very accomplished VFX dude, and he tackled most of it. Then we had some help on a few meticulous shots — like the TV screens and so on — by Visual Creatures in LA.

How important is sound and music to you?
It’s one of my favorite parts of post, especially music, and going back and forth with composer David Wingo who’s so brilliant and who really got the tone perfectly. I didn’t want it to sound too whimsical. It’s a quirky film that needed the dramatic moments to be serviced with a sophisticated score, and he wrote this beautiful theme and constantly surprised us with beautiful pieces. I also love working on sound. I could mix forever. I always think there can be improvements, so you have to pick your priorities. Again, the goal was always realism. What sounds correct? So we did the least amount of manipulation.

How important was the DI to you?
To be honest, I just trusted DP Christian Sprenger and the team at Light Iron and colorist Ian Vertovec. They all did a great job with the look. I was very happy. Nothing ever turns out the exact way you originally picture it, and the film gradually evolved, but it ended up the way I hoped for the most part.

What’s next?
I’m reading scripts and trying to find that next special project. I’m also currently working on an untitled TV show that we hope to sell. I definitely want to direct more movies. After 10 years of directing shorts, I’m kind of sick of them.


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

Big Block adds comedy director Richard Farmer

Who doesn’t like to laugh? No one. Well hardly no one. So when a director is able to evoke that sort of response from an audience, it’s amazing. That was the thinking behind Big Block’s addition of comedy director Richard Farmer.

This Oklahoma native began his career as an agency producer in Los Angeles after spending time post-college living in London, Seattle and Prague, working on indie films and videos. After a few years, he went on to produce for Mindfield, a production, editorial, and animation company for commercial television and music videos.

Since stepping behind the lens, Farmer has directed a prolific amount of commercials, each featuring his absurdist humor. Whether it’s carnivorous bunnies for Wendy’s, a magically appearing Fancy Bear for Free Credit Score or creating ’90s R&B songs about iconic memes for LG V20 phones, Farmer knows just how to create a memorable and compelling spot.

The recent LG spots are an example of Farmer’s style. Shot exclusively on the LG V20 phone, Farmer took well-known memes, from Double Rainbow to Damn Daniel and “remastered” them in high quality, showcasing a mash-up of his skills across the realms of narrative, music and VFX. Farmer has already hit the ground running at Big Block, having just booked a job for Simon Malls.

We asked Farmer what he likes about working with editors on his projects: “I love it when the editor really embraces that they are a partner in the process and know they have the freedom to take risks. Editors that are brave enough to push the creative and what was shot to new areas. Freak me out. Open it up and move the boundary. Show me new possibilities. I’m always blown away when that magic happens.”

 

The A-List: Atomic Blonde director David Leitch

By Iain Blair

Before becoming a director known for his hyper-kinetic, immersive, stunt-driven-style, David Leitch spent over a decade in the stunt business and doubled actors, including Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, on such films as Bourne Ultimatum, Fight Club and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Leitch — a martial artist by trade who co-owns action design and production company 87Eleven Action Design — was also a fight choreographer, stunt coordinator and 2nd unit director on many films, including Wolverine, Anchorman 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Captain America: Civil War and Jurassic World.

Leitch brought all that experience to the table for his directorial debut, the 2014 Keanu Reeves hit John Wick, which he co-directed with Chad Stahelski, his partner in 87Eleven Action Design (@87elevenaction).

David Leitch

For his new film, the pulpy, punk-noir, take-no-prisoners Atomic Blonde, Leitch teamed with Oscar-winner Charlize Theron who plays MI6’s most elite spy, agent Lorraine Broughton, and kicks non-stop ass in the breakneck action-thriller that’s set in Berlin in 1989 with a backdrop of revolution and double-crossing hives of traitors.

Sexy and fearless, Broughton is equal parts spycraft, sensuality and savagery, willing to deploy any of her skills to stay alive on her impossible mission. Sent alone into Berlin to deliver a priceless dossier out of the destabilized city, she partners with embedded station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to navigate her way through the deadliest game of spies. Mayhem and destruction quickly ensue.

The film, which also stars John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones, has a top-notch creative team led by cinematographer Jonathan Sela (John Wick, Deadpool 2), production designer David Scheunemann (Deadpool 2, The Hunger Games series), editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (John Wick), and composer Tyler Bates (John Wick series, Guardians of the Galaxy).

I spoke with Leitch on the eve of its release about making the film, his love of post, and his next movie — the highly anticipated Deadpool 2, starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin and Josh Brolin, which 20th Century Fox and Marvel will release on June 1, 2018.

This is definitely not your usual cerebral, period spy movie. What sort of film did you set out to make?
I wanted to take the cold war spy thriller genre and give it a new polish and add a ton of adrenalin and more of a commercial sensibility.  I also wanted to reference all the great ‘80s music, like Bowie, and that whole visual style of music videos. Then we added more action, so it’s an interesting mash-up of all that.

What did Charlize, who developed the project, bring to the mix?
As a producer she had a real understanding of her character and what she wanted to portray – a very strong point-of-view. As an actor and collaborator, she was just so receptive to this wild, pop-culture mash-up I wanted to make. She was the heart and soul of Lorraine.

Her fight scenes are amazing. How hard did she train?
She was totally committed and immersed herself fully in all the stunts and training we did for a three-month period — hours and hours each day learning all the stunt choreography and fight scenes. It was very important, because we had limited resources to do it all with VFX. We had to do nearly all of it for real — real physical action on camera, and we were able to make that work because Charlize is so athletic.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
There were so many as we were shooting on location in Budapest most of the time, and then we shot for a week in Berlin — there were all the logistics involved. We also had a lot of big set pieces, like crazy car chases and then the scene where Charlize’s car gets submerged in a river, and she did all those scenes herself.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Right from the start.  We had this great VFX supervisor, Michael Wortmann, who’s with Chimney Group in Sweden, and they not only did all the amazing VFX, but did an all-inclusive overall post deal for us, so they also did all the color and sound mixing and so on. We actually did my director’s cut and first previews in LA and then flew out to Sweden for a month to finalize all the post. Then when Universal came on board, we also did a big Dolby remix on the lot at Universal.

Did you do a lot of previs?
I’m not really a big previs fan, but I do get that it’s a necessity and really helpful for some stuff, like complex action scenes. As a 2nd unit director you often get given the animatics, so I’m used to dealing with it, but I much prefer to be inspired by working on the set with stunts and storyboards. Those are what drive the visuals for me.

You reunited with director of photography Jonathan Sela. How tough was the shoot?
It was tough. It was cold, but it was also a really special experience, going to the famous locations in Berlin and seeing a piece of history. It was very inspiring. Even scouting the film was very inspiring.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it. I enjoy the shoot and trying to get the best stuff you can on the day, but then to see it come alive in post with all the sound and music and VFX — that’s the best feeling.

Talk about reteaming with editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir. Was she on set?
Usually she’s not on set, but she was there for the very elaborate stairwell fight scene, which took four days to shoot, and we cut it as we went. Then for the rest of the shoot she was with us on location, but she was assembling from day one while I shot. Then we’d get together on the weekends. The thing is, post schedules are so crunched now with all the VFX and tight turnaround time that you need a partner who’s working while you sleep and vice versa. That’s how we work together.

All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with Chimney Group and VFX supervisor Michael Wortmann.
I really like working with VFX, and they’re so integrated with stunts and action sequences now, and I’m very familiar with the process. Michael was great and understood that I still like to try and get as much of the action in-camera as possible, but we ended up with hundreds of shots and VFX take care of — everything from muzzle flashes and blood to set extensions and wire removal, dealing with period stuff and then manipulation of stunts. Today, you can’t walk away from a film like this without at least 500 VFX shots. It’s all about keeping the illusion alive.

Can you talk about the DI?
We did that with Chimney, and getting the right look was very important. The film has a very distinct visual style, with very different palettes for East and West Berlin, and we had a DI tech on set so he and the DP could plan ahead a lot for post with the digital camera settings. So we all had a very strong impression of what we were after during the shoot.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did – even better than I imagined, which is why I love post so much. We spent nearly six months in post, and every day you’d see the movie get better and better.

Tell us about Deadpool 2.
We’re shooting it up in Vancouver, and we’re about five weeks in. So far it’s been the best film experience of my career. Ryan and Josh are so great and so much fun to work with. And there’s a ton of VFX. Dan Glass, who did The Matrix films and Batman Begins, is my VFX supervisor. DNeg and Method are doing a lot of the VFX. The shoot’s going great, and I can’t wait to get into post next.


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

Director Elle Ginter joins Sanctuary Content

Culver City-based production company Sanctuary Content has grown its roster with the addition of director Elle Ginter, who was recently selected as one of 13 directors worldwide for the DGA and AICP’s Commercial Directors Diversity Showcase.

Ginter’s first project with Sanctuary, a Father’s Day spot for Buffalo Wild Wings out of TBWA/Chiat/Day/LA, showcases her skill for capturing honest, intimate moments in its sweet simplicity as a young girl bonds with her father while watching sports. She also wrote and directed the short Why We Wake, in which she explores depression in an honest and artful way.

Ginter found her way to directing in an interesting way. After getting her degree in journalism, she moved to Boston where she began working on a whale-watching boat. A chance meeting with a casting director led to work as a PA on local feature sets. She quickly worked her way into the camera department, eventually becoming a 1st AC before finally landing back in New York City as a writer and art director on commercial shoots.

Sanctuary Content was launched by EP/founder Preston Lee a year and a half ago — they are made up of a lean and diverse roster of directors who create content across all mediums, including advertising, film, music videos and television.

After meeting Ginter, he knew she would be a nice addition to the team, “I’ve been watching Elle’s work for some time. She’s passionate, excited, hungry, and incredibly creative — and, at 29-years old, she’s just getting started.”

Ginter says she knew a traditional, larger production company wouldn’t be the right fit for her: “My career has been fairly untraditional at this point. When I talked to Preston I realized he’s a really out-of-the-box person and inspires that kind of thinking in everyone around him. Every time I talk to him I leave feeling energized.”

Barry Sonnenfeld on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

By Iain Blair

Director/producer/showrunner Barry Sonnenfeld has a gift for combining killer visuals with off-kilter, broad and often dark comedy, as showcased in such monster hits as the Men in Black and The Addams Family franchises.

He did learn from the modern masters of black comedy, the Coen brothers, beginning his prolific career as their DP on their first feature film, Blood Simple and then shooting such classics as Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. He continued his comedy training as the DP on such films as Penny Marshall’s Big, Danny Devito’s Throw Momma from the Train and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally.

So maybe it was just a matter of time before Sonnenfeld — whose directing credits include Get Shorty, Wild Wild West, RV and Nine Lives — gravitated toward helming the acclaimed new Netflix show A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the beloved and best-selling “Lemony Snicket” children’s series by Daniel Handler. After all, with the series’ rat-a-tat dialogue, bizarre humor and dark comedy, it’s a perfect fit for the director’s own strengths and sensibilities.

I spoke with Sonnenfeld, who won a 2007 Primetime Emmy and a DGA Award for his directorial achievement on Pushing Daisies, about making the series, the new golden age of TV, his love of post — and the real story behind why he never directed the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Weren’t you originally set to direct the 2004 film, and you even hired Handler to write the screenplay?
That’s true. I was working with producer Scott Rudin, who had done the Addams Family films with me, and Paramount decided they needed more money, so they brought in another studio, DreamWorks. But the DreamWorks producer — who had done the Men in Black films with me — and I don’t really get along. So when they came on board, Daniel and I were let go. I’d been very involved with it for a long time. I’d already hired a crew, sets were all designed, and it was very disappointing as I loved the books.

But there’s a happy ending. You are doing Netflix TV series, which seems much closer to the original books than the movie version. How important was finding the right tone?
The single most important job of a director is both finding and maintaining the right tone. Luckily, the tone of the books is exactly in my wheelhouse — creating worlds that are real, but also with some artifice in them, like the Men in Black and Addams Family movies, and Pushing Daisies. I tend to like things that are a bit dark, slightly quirky.

What did you think of the film version?
I thought it was slightly too big and loud, and I wanted to do something more like a children’s book, for adults.

The film version had to stuff Handler’s first three novels into a single movie, but the TV format, with its added length, must work far better for the books?
Far better, and the other great thing is that once Netflix hired me — and it was a long auditioning process — they totally committed. They take a long time finding the right material and pairing it with the right filmmaker but once they do, they really trust their judgment.

I really wanted to shoot it all on stages, so I could control everything. I didn’t want sun or rain. I wanted gloomy overhead. So we shot it all in Vancouver, and Netflix totally bought into that vision. I have an amazing team — the great production designer Bo Welch, who did Men in Black and other films with me, and DP Bernard Couture.

Patrick Warburton’s deadpan delivery as Lemony Snicket, the books’ unreliable narrator, is a great move compared with having just the film’s voiceover. How early on did you make that change?
When I first met with Netflix, I told them that Lemony should be an on-screen character. That was my goal. Patrick’s just perfect for the role. He’s the sort of Rod Serling/Twilight Zone presence — only more so, as he’s involved in the actual visual style of the show.

How early on do you deal with post and CG for each episode?
Even before we’re shooting. You don’t want to wait until you lock picture to start all that work, or you’ll never finish in time. I’m directing most of it — half the first season and over a third of the second. Bo’s doing some episodes, and we bring in the directors at least a month before the shoot, which is long for TV, to do a shot list. These shows, both creatively and in terms of budget, are made in prep. There should be very few decisions being made in the shoot or surprises in post because basically every two episodes equal one book, and they’re like feature films but on one-tenth of the budget and a quarter of the schedule.

We only have 24 days to do two hours worth of feature film. Our goal is to make it look as good as any feature, and I think we’ve done that. So once we have sequences we’re happy with, we show them to Netflix and start post, as we have a lot of greenscreen. We do some CGI, but not as much as we expected.

Do you also post in Vancouver?
No. We began doing post there for the first season, but we discovered that with our TV budget and my feature film demands and standards, it wasn’t working out. So now we work with several post vendors in LA and San Francisco. All the editorial is in LA.

Do you like the post process?
I’ve always loved it. As Truffaut said, the day you finish filming is the worst it’ll ever be, and then in post you get to make it great again, separating the wheat from the chaff, adding all the VFX and sound. I love prep and post — especially post as it’s the least stress and you have the most time to just think. Production is really tough. Things go wrong constantly.

You used two editors?
Yes, Stuart Bass and Skip MacDonald, and each edits two episodes/one book as we go. I’m very involved, but in TV the director gets a very short time to do their cut, and I like to give notes and then leave. My problem is I’m a micro-manager, so it’s best if I leave because I drive everyone crazy! Then the showrunner — which is also me — takes over. I’m very comfortable in post, with all the editing and VFX, and I represent the whole team and end up making all the post decisions.

Where did you mix the sound?
We did all the mixing on the Sony lot with the great Paul Ottosson who won Oscars for Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. We go way back, as he did Men in Black 3 and other shows for me, and what’s so great about him is that he both designs the sound and then also mixes.

The show uses a lot of VFX. Who did them?
We used three main houses — Shade and Digital Sandbox in LA and Tippett in San Francisco. We also used EDI, an Italian company, who came in late to do some wire removal and clean up.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it all at Encore LA, and the colorist on the first season was Laura Jans Fazio, who was fantastic. It’s the equivalent to a movie DI, where you do all the final color timing, and getting the right look was crucial. The DP created very good LUTs, and our rough cut was very close to where we wanted it, and then the DP and myself piggy-backed sessions with the colorist. It’s a painful experience for me as it’s so slow, and like editing, I micro-manage. So I set looks for scenes and then leave.

Barry Sonnefeld directs Joan Cusack.

Is it a golden age for TV?
Very much so. The writing’s a very high standard, and now everyone has wide-screen TVs there’s no more protecting the 3:4 image, which is almost square. When I began doing TV, there was no such thing as a wide shot. Executives would look at my cut, and the first thing they’d always say was, “Do you have a close-up of so and so?” Now it’s all changed. But TV is so different from movies. I look back fondly at movie schedules!

How important are the Emmys and other awards?
They’re very important for Netflix and all the new platforms. If you have critical success, then they get more subscribers, more money and then they develop more projects. And it’s great to be acknowledged by your peers.

What’s next?
I’ll finish season two and we’re hopeful about season three, which would keep us busy through fall 2018. And Vancouver’s a perfect place to be as long as you’re shooting on stage and don’t have to deal with the weather.

Will there be a fourth Men in Black?
If there is, I don’t think Will or I will be involved. I suspect there won’t be one, as it might be just too expensive to make now, with all the back-end deals for Spielberg and Amblin and so on. But I hope there’s one.

Images: Joe Lederer/Netflix


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.

Chatting with The Beguiled director Sofia Coppola

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Paris Can Wait director Eleanor Coppola

By Iain Blair

There are famous Hollywood dynasties, and then there’s the Coppolas, with such giant talents as Francis, Sofia, Roman, Nic Cage and the late Carmine.

While Eleanor, the matriarch of the clan and Francis’ wife, has long been recognized as a multi-talented artist in her own right, thanks to her acclaimed documentaries and books (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, Notes on a Life), it’s only recently — at the grand age of 81 — that she’s written, produced and directed her feature film debut, Paris Can Wait.

Eleanor Coppola on set in France.

It stars Oscar-nominee Diane Lane as a woman who unexpectedly takes a trip through France, which reawakens her sense of self and her joie de vivre. At a crossroads in her life, and long married to an inattentive movie producer (Alec Baldwin), she finds herself taking a car trip from Cannes to Paris with a garrulous business associate of her husband. What should be a seven-hour drive turns into a journey of discovery involving mouthwatering meals, spectacular wines and picturesque sights.

Maybe it’s something in the water — or the famed Coppola wine, or her genes — but like her many family members, Eleanor Coppola seems to have a natural gift for capturing visual magic, and the French road trip unfolds like a sun-drenched adventure that makes you want to pack your bags and join the couple immediately.

I recently spoke with Coppola about making the film.

You began directing feature films at an age when most directors have long since retired. What took you so long?
I made documentaries, and my nature is to be an observer, so I never thought about doing a fiction film. But I had this true story, this trip I took with a Frenchman, and it felt like a really good basis for a road movie — and I love road movies — so I began writing it and included all these wonderful, picturesque places we stopped at, and someone suggested that we break down. Then my son said, “You should fix it,” so I gradually added all these textures and colors and flavors that would make it as rich as possible.

I heard it took a long time to write?
I began writing, and once I had the script together I began looking for a director, but I couldn’t quite find the right person. Then one morning at breakfast (my husband) Francis said, “You should direct it.” I’d never thought of directing it myself, so I took classes in directing and acting to prepare, but it ended up taking six years to bring all the elements together.

I assume getting financing was hard?
It was, especially as I’m not only a first-time feature director, but my movie has no aliens, explosions, kidnappings, guns, train wrecks — and nobody dies. It doesn’t have any of the usual elements that bankers want to invest in, so it took a long time to patch together the money — a bit here, a bit there. That was probably the hardest part of the whole thing. You can’t get the actors until you have the financing, and you can’t get the financing until you have the actors. It’s like Catch-22, and you’re caught in this limbo between the two while you try and get it all lined up.

After Francis persuaded you to direct it, did he give you a lot of encouragement and advice?
I asked him a lot about working with actors. I’ve been on so many sets with him and watched him directing, and he was very helpful and supportive, especially when we ran into the usual problems every film has.

I heard that just two weeks into shooting, the actor originally set to play Michael was unable to get out of another project?
Yes, and I was desperate to find a replacement, and it was such short notice. But by some miracle, Alec Baldwin called Francis about something, and he was able to fly over to France at the last moment and fill in. And other things happened. We were going to shoot the opening at the Hotel Majestic in Cannes, but a Saudi Arabian prince arrived and took over the entire hotel, so we had to scramble to find another location.

How long was the shoot?
Just 28 days, so it was a mad dash all over France, especially as we had so many locations I wanted to fit in. Pretty much every day, the AD and the production manager would come over to me after lunch and say, “Okay, you had 20 shots scheduled for today, but we’re going to have to lose four or five of them. Which ones would you like to cut?” So you’re in a constant state of anxiety and wondering if the shots you are getting will even cut together.Since we had so little time and money, we knew that we could never come back to a location if we missed something and that we’d have to cut some stuff out altogether, and there’s the daily race to finish before you lose light, so it was very difficult at times.

Where did you do the post?
All back at our home in Napa Valley, where we have editing and post production facilities all set up at the winery.

You worked with editor Glen Scantlebury, whose credits include Godfather III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Francis, Michael Bay’s The Rock, Armageddon and Transformers, Conair, The General’s Daughter and Tomb Raider. What did he bring to the project?
What happened was, I had a French editor who assembled the film while we were there, but it didn’t make financial sense to then bring her back to Napa, so Francis put me together with Glen and we worked really well together. He’s so experienced, but not just cutting these huge films. He’s also cut a lot of indies and smaller films and documentaries, and he did Palo Alto for (my granddaughter) Gia, so he was perfect for this. He didn’t come to France.

What were the main editing challenges?As they say, there are three films you make: the one you wrote, the one you shot and the one you then edit and get onto the screen. It’s always the same challenge of finding the best way of telling the story, and then we screened versions for people to see where any weaknesses were, and then we would go back and try to correct them. Glen is very creative, and he’d come up with fresh ways of dealing with any problems. We ended up spending a couple of months working on it, after he spent an initial month at home doing his own assembly.

I must say, I really enjoyed the editing process more than anything, because you get to relax more and shape the material like clay and mold it in a way you just can’t see when you’re in the middle of shooting it. I love the way you can move scenes around and juxtapose things that suddenly work in a whole new way.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
They’re so important, and can radically alter a scene and the emotions an audience feels. I had the great pleasure of working with sound designer Richard Beggs, who won the Oscar for Apocalypse Now, and who’s done the sound for so many great films, including Rain Man and Harry Potter, and he’s worked with (my daughter) Sofia on some of her films like Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette.

He’s a master of his craft and helped bring the film alive. Also, he recommended the composer Laura Karpman, who’s won several Emmys and worked with Spielberg and John Legend and all sorts of people. Music is really the weakest part for me, because I just don’t know what to do, and like Glen, Laura was just a perfect match for me. The first things she wrote were a little too dark, I felt, as I wanted this to be fun and light, and she totally got it, and also used all these great finger-snaps, and the score just really captures the feeling I wanted. We mixed everything up in Napa as well.

Eleanor Coppola and writer Iain Blair.

Do you want to direct another feature now, or was once enough?
I don’t have anything cooking that I want to make, but I’ve recently made two short story films, and I really enjoyed doing that since I didn’t have to wait for years to get the financing. I shot them in Northern California, and they were a joy to do.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
Well, first off, it’s never too late! (Laughs) Look at me. I’m 81, and this is my first narrative film. Making any film is hard, finding the financing is even harder. Yes, it is a boy’s club, but if you have a story to tell never give up. Women should have a voice.


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.

1stAveMachine makes coffee for Nespresso

People take their coffee very seriously. They want it brewed and served in a certain way, and any aberration could ruin the entire experience. With this in mind, 1stAveMachine and director Roman Rütten showcased the intricate brewing process of the Nespresso VertuoPlus (for agency 360i) in a mysterious way that actually shows little of the machine itself.

“You’re taken on this really interesting journey, and in the end this complex structure collapses into the actual machine, which makes it feel quite slick and sophisticated,” says Rütten. “We’re making the complex, hidden art of coffee-making from the inside look simple.”

1stAveMachine got involved in the project early on. “We really collaborated with the agency to come up with a concept that deconstructs the Nespresso machine and shows coffee brewing in an artistic way,” explains Rütten. “We wanted to inspire and surprise people with visuals that are usually hidden inside a coffee machine.”

Highlighting the inner workings of Nespresso’s VertuoPlus required a bit of creativity since all parties agreed to shoot everything in-camera. “We had to basically create a rig to show something in a way it has never been seen before while working with the real coffee on a macro level in high-speed,” he explains. “It’s just a really fragile process of fine-tuning adjustments, which just adds a lot of variables to the shoot as we’re dealing with real physics. So, you need the patience to keep pushing for the perfect shot. It can come quick or take a little bit longer, but in the end, every shot looked really pretty and very classy when we walked away from it.”

Why not go the visual effects route?  “An in-camera approach may add complexity but also creates a warm and tactile feel,” explains Rütten. “There is something really intimate about working with the product on a macro level like this, which you might not get when strictly using post. A practical approach is more difficult to achieve and replicate which shows a certain level of expertise and craft. This works really well with the Nespresso brand and their level of craft that goes into the development of their products.

The spot was was developed over a period of weeks and shot in two days with a Phantom and Bolt rig. “These were really challenging and long days since we were dealing with real physics at a macro level and just a slight adjustment gives a complete different result,” reports Rütten.

According to the director, embracing the spontaneity and unpredictability of any shoot can lead to such an ultimately rewarding result. “With an interesting creative concept, some unconventional framing and the natural epic-ness of high-speed photography, you get some really stunning results that are quite mesmerizing,” he says. “Every time it’s slightly new and we always learn a lot about how certain rigs perform and physics react. You try to set up the stage with some interesting variables and embrace happy accidents. When no take looks the same, it’s a blessing and curse at the same time. But with the right patience and talented crew, we can push the boundaries, come in with some fresh ideas and try to have a little fun.”

The spot was edited in Adobe Premiere and color graded in Blackmagic Resolve.

David Michôd on directing Brad Pitt’s latest, War Machine

By Iain Blair

Aussie writer/director David Michôd first burst onto the scene with his 2010 feature film debut Animal Kingdom, a gritty crime drama that won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and 10 Australian Film Institute awards. The film was also earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver).

David Michôd

Michôd followed that up with his second feature film, The Rover, a dystopian drama set in near future Australia following a global economic collapse. It starred Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.

His new film, War Machine, was inspired by the book “The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” by the late journalist Michael Hastings. It stars Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon, a successful, charismatic four-star general who leaps in like a rock star to command coalition forces in Afghanistan, only to be taken down by the quagmire of war, his own hubris and a journalist’s no-holds-barred expose.

Joining Pitt in this cautionary tale of the rise and fall of a larger-than-life military hero is a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Sir Ben Kingsley, Topher Grace, John Magaro, Alan Ruck and Meg Tilly.

Michôd also assembled an accomplished team behind the camera, including director of photography Dariusz Wolski, production designer Jo Ford, editor Peter Sciberras and sound designer Sam Petty. War Machine has premiered globally on Netflix and opened in select theaters on May 26.

I recently talked to Michôd, who began his career making short films, about making the film, working with Pitt and his love of post.

What was the type of film you were trying to make with War Machine?
Something that was bat-shit crazy! That’s kind of glib, but it’s true. I’d been looking for a way into a war film for a while, and given my natural sensibilities I thought it would be a dark and menacing rumination on the horrors of war. Then when Plan B gave me Hastings’ book and I just couldn’t put it down. I began to see the film as a much larger thing, although I never lost sight of that kernel of an idea I initially had for a war film.

Suddenly the world around that idea got bigger and wilder and more interesting. I began to see a movie about the entire war machine, a multi-layered story that spanned the sort of hubristic buffoonery at the top levels, and the real impact and grave consequences that had on the troops on the ground. There was this huge chasm between them. So, I wanted to make a film about that absurd delusion at the top, but also the real horrors of war.

How tough was it walking the tonal tightrope between the beginning black comedy and the increasingly serious nature of the film?
It was very challenging, but the way to deal with it was to stay true to the tones we’d chosen to use, and to use them to show the huge disconnection between the upper and lower levels of the machine. So, I amplified those two tones — the black comedy and the seriousness of the situation. Where the movie starts to shift tonally is with the intimate scenes around Brad’s character, and that begins with the scenes with his wife, played by Meg Tilly. You start to see something underneath all the braggadocio for the first time. You see the ambitious little boy inside this man through her eyes, and around then the edifice starts to crumble.

What did Brad Pitt bring to his role?
He really got the character and the arc, from this vain, ambitious, comically-heightened general to a tragic figure. Today, these top generals often seem to be more academic, but this guy is more old school — the kind of guy who still thinks he’s like some great WWII general, like a MacArthur or a Patton. Brad loved that concept and really ran with it.

Any surprises working with him?
Not really. When I began writing this, it was under the assumption I’d be writing it for Brad, although it wasn’t guaranteed he’d play it. But that was the plan, and I was excited to write it in this comedic vein for him, as I think he’s been under-used in comedy roles. Usually, they’re just supporting roles here and there, like Burn After Reading and Inglourious Basterds, but this was a chance for him to use that skill set in a much larger way, as I wanted McMahon to be amplified and absurd, yet also sympathetic. I felt we should just swing for the fences and go big and go delusional. I knew he would do a great job with the character, and he did.

What were the main technical challenges of making this?
The big one was finding the right desert locations to stand in for Afghanistan, as we obviously couldn’t shoot there, and it’s not easy to recreate all its different terrains. We had to find somewhere in that part of the world to shoot, but so much of it now is very volatile. All the old go-to places like Jordan and Morocco are becoming tricky if you’re there for a long time with a high-profile cast. We also needed somewhere with access to all this military gear, and we knew we wouldn’t get any co-operation from the US military.

In the end, we used the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which stands in for Afghanistan, and then we did most of the interiors on London soundstages. We also shot stuff in Paris, Berlin and LA. The great thing about the UAE was that we had access to all the military hardware we needed, and the moment we started shooting there you could just feel the scope of the movie opening up. You’re looking at all the tanks and the Black Hawk helicopters and the hardware, and you start to feel the frighteningly attractive pull of it all, its raw power. I could really understand how if you were in charge of all this machinery, how it could start to make you feel very powerful. It’s a bit like a drug. If any one of these elements had collapsed, we probably couldn’t have made the movie, but it all fell into place.

How tough was the shoot?
We shot over 55 days, and it was tough because you had the heat and dust and so on, but no tougher than usual. Despite its size, it honestly didn’t feel any harder than making any of my shorts. When you’re on set and the clock is ticking, it’s the same anxiety, adrenaline and sense of joy of creating something out of nothing.

Do you like the post process and where did you do all the post?
I love post, the editing and doing the sound — the whole thing. Like the shoot, we were all over the place doing post. We began cutting in Sydney for four months and then moved up the coast for a while so we could work alongside my sound designer, Sam Petty. Then we moved everything to Goldcrest in London for another four months. The plan was to finish post there, but this movie’s so complex, with so many colors and layers, that we decided to keep working on it and then moved to LA for another four months, and kept cutting there and then went back to London to finish off the music and VFX and other stuff. It ended up being about a year on post.

You cut this film with editor Peter Sciberras. How did that relationship work?
He wasn’t on set, as he feels redundant and in everyone’s way, but he followed us around while we shot so we could talk and I could have a look every day. But I don’t like to pore over my dailies while I’m shooting. We shot Sony CineAlta 4K digital with three cameras often, so there was more footage than he knew what to do with. The big challenge in editing was dealing with that complex, strange triangle between politics, information and tone. The essence of the movie didn’t really change over that year — just the way in which we were framing it. We spent a lot of time getting that framing right.

Can you talk about the importance of the film’s music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and the sound design by Sam Petty?
Because we were making a movie about the insanity of war, I wanted it to have that schizophrenic tone, and that fed into how we dealt with all the sound design and music. Sam did an amazing job, and I just love the music that Nick and Warren did, as it really embodies the tone I wanted. Their music drifts in and out of tones and tunes and time with all these layers. Really, it makes no sense, yet it all hangs together. We did the mix at Goldcrest.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a role. Who did them?
BlueBolt in London, and we had a lot, mainly recreating the look of Afghanistan, set extensions, augmentations, clean-up and so on.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
Also at Goldcrest, and it’s so vital now, especially with this brave new world of streaming. The danger is you spend so long on your theatrical grade, yet this is a movie that’s largely going to be streamed. That applied to my last two movies; I spent two weeks doing a beautiful theatrical grade when they were mainly being seen on cable TV. The challenge is for me to pay as much attention in the DI to all the different platforms and formats out there now. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

What’s next?
Not sure. I always come out of a movie feeling like I never want to make another. I need a break to recharge.


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.

Behind the Title: Sibling Rivalry director Gerald Ding

NAME: Gerald Ding

COMPANY: Sibling Rivalry

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Sibling Rivalry is a creative studio that combines immersive storytelling with a distinct design sensibility. It was founded by Joe Wright, Mikon van Gastel and Maggie Meade in 2011.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Directing a commercial, short film or music video is similar to being a chef at a restaurant. You handpick a team of individuals based on their specific talents to execute the vision you have in mind. It’s up to the director to bring out the best performance from each person working on the film for it to become what you imagined.

House of Marley

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I think the misconception about directing is that you’ve got to be difficult to work with if you want to be respected in this industry. I don’t believe that. I think how you present yourself and treat others is just basic common sense and respect. You can find your way of communicating what’s important to you while staying focused on the bigger picture.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
When there’s a genuine mutual respect and trust between the artists you’re collaborating with; it really elevates the project and raises my expectations because it evolves into something greater than what I first imagined it as.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
My least favorite part of the job is not working!

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
The time that I can get a coffee in my hand.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I’d like to think I’d still be making something that I could show or share with my friends.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I think the excitement of watching films as a kid never left me. I still remember each film and how it affected me, and I loved talking about them after and retelling the stories I had seen. I got into directing so I could tell my own stories, but now the process of making a film is more exciting to me than watching one.

I got into directing through animation because I saw Akira as a kid and wanted to be an animator. As a character animator you’re stoked on just owning a sequence or portion of the film, but eventually I just wanted to work on the whole story and got into directing.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
HPE Tech Actually, G-Dragon x Airbnb Superstar Superhost, Google Android Handshake and House of Marley The Get Together.

Tech Actually

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I’m currently working on a short documentary about this female fighter; we just filmed a portion of it in Belarus. It’s nowhere close to being finished right now but there’s a lot of great talent involved and it’s a story I’m really excited about.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My 35mm film camera Fuji Klasse S film camera (RIP, I’m sorry I broke you), my future Contax T3 35mm point-and-shoot and my Miele washing machine (it’s a life goal after years of renting apartments in New York).

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Instagram

CARE TO SHARE YOUR FAVORITE MUSIC TO WORK TO?
Filming on set I don’t listen to music unless it’s a part of the scene. I always have hip-hop and RnB in my head but when I’m writing treatments or scripts I usually listen to Frank Ocean or some sad girl pop. I don’t know why, but it works.

THIS IS A HIGH-STRESS JOB WITH DEADLINES AND CLIENT EXPECTATIONS. WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I just try to do my best each time and show up prepared because it’s a privilege for me to be here and I embrace all of it, good and bad. I’ve been training in Brazilian Jiu jitsu for quite some time so hard sparring with your friends is a great way to get rid of stress (as well as your ego).

The A-List: Director Ron Howard discusses National Geo’s Genius

By Iain Blair

Ron Howard has done it all in Hollywood. The former child star of The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days not only successfully made the tricky transition to adult actor (at 22 he starred opposite John Wayne in The Shootist and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), but went on to establish himself as an Oscar-winning director and producer (A Beautiful Mind). He is also one of Hollywood’s most beloved and commercially successful and versatile helmers.

Since making his directorial debut in 1977 with Grand Theft Auto (when he was still on Happy Days), he’s made an eclectic group of films about boxers (Cinderella Man), astronauts (Apollo 13), mermaids (Splash), symbologists (The Da Vinci Code franchise), politicians (Frost/Nixon) firefighters (Backdraft), mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind), Formula One racing (Rush), whalers (In the Heart of the Sea) and the Fab Four (his first documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week).

Born in Oklahoma with showbiz in his DNA — his parents were both actors — Howard “always wanted to direct” and notes that “producing gives you control.” In 1986, he co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Brian Grazer, a powerhouse in film and TV (Empire, Arrested Development) production. His latest project is the new Genius series for National Geographic.

The 10-part global event series — the network’s first scripted series — is based on Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” and tracks Albert Einstein’s rise from humble origins as an imaginative and rebellious thinker through his struggles to be recognized by the establishment, to his global celebrity status as the man who unlocked the mysteries of the cosmos with his theory of relativity.

But if you’re expecting a dry, intellectual by-the-numbers look at his life and career, you’re in for a big surprise.

With an impressive cast that includes Geoffrey Rush as the celebrated scientist in his later years, Johnny Flynn as Einstein in the years before he rose to international acclaim and Emily Watson as his second wife — and first cousin — Elsa Einstein, the show is full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

We’re mostly joking, but the series does balance the hard-to-grasp scientific theories with an entertaining exploration of a man with an often very messy private life as it follows Einstein’s alternately exhilarating emotions and heartlessness in dealing with his closest personal relationships, including his children, his two wives and the various women with whom he cheats on them.

Besides all the personal drama, there’s plenty of global drama as Genius is set against an era of international conflict over the course of two world wars. Faced with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, surveillance by spies and the potential for atomic annihilation, Einstein struggles as a husband and a father, not to mention as a man of principle, even as his own life is put in danger.

I talked recently with Ron Howard about directing the first episode and his love of production and post.

What was the appeal of doing this and making your scripted television directorial debut with the first episode?
I’ve become a big fan of all the great TV shows people are doing now, where you let a story unfold in a novelistic way, and I was envious of a lot of my peers getting into doing TV — and this was a great project that just really suits the TV format. Over the years, I had read various screenplays about Einstein but they just never worked as a movie, so when National Geographic wanted to reach out to their audience in a more ambitious way, suddenly there was this perfect platform to do this life justice and have the length it needed. It’s an ideal fit, and it was perfect to do it with National Geographic.

Given that you had considered making a film about him, how familiar were you with Einstein and his life? How do you find the drama in an academic’s life?
I thought I had some insight, but I was blown away by the book and Noah Pink’s screenplay, and everyone on the team brought their own research to the process, and it became more and more fascinating. There was this constant pressure on Einstein that I felt we could work with through the whole series, and that I never realized was there. And with that pressure, there’s drama. We came very close to not benefiting from his genius because of all the forces against him – sometimes from external forces, like governments and academic institutions, but often from his own foibles and flaws. He was even on a hit list. So I was really fascinated by his whole story.

What most surprised you about Einstein once you began delving deeper into his private life?
That he was such a Lothario! He had quite a complicated love life, but it was also that he had such a dogged commitment to his principles and logic and point-of-view. I was doing post on the Beatles documentary as we prepped, and it was the same thing with those young men. They often didn’t listen to outside influences and people telling them it couldn’t be done. They absolutely committed to their musical vision and principles with all their drive and focus, and it worked — and collectively I think you could say the band was genius.

Einstein also trusted his convictions, whether it was physics or math, and if the conventional answers didn’t satisfy his sense of logic, he’d just dig deeper. The same thing can be said for his personal life and relationships, and trying to find a balance between his career and life’s work, and family and friends. Look at his falling in love with his fellow physics student Mileva Maric, which causes all sorts of problems, especially when she unexpectedly gets pregnant. No one else thought she was particularly attractive, she was a bit of an outcast as the only female physics student, and yet his logic called him to her. The same thing with politics. He went his own way in everything. He was a true renaissance man, eternally curious about everything.

In terms of dealing with very complex ideas that aren’t necessarily very cinematic, it must have helped that you’d made A Beautiful Mind?
Yes, we saw a lot of similarities between the two. It really helped that both men were essentially visualists — Einstein even more so than John Nash. That gave us a big advantage and gave me the chance to show audiences some of his famous thought experiments in cinematic ways, and he described them very vividly and they’re a fantastic jumping-off point — it was his visualizations that helped him wrap his head around the physics. He began with something he could grasp physically and then went back to prove it with the math. Those principles gave him the amazing insights about the nature of the universe, and time and space, that we’ve all benefitted from.

I assume you began integrating post and all the VFX very early on?
Right away, in preproduction meetings in Prague, in the Czech Republic, where Einstein lived and taught early in his career. We had our whole team there on location, including our VFX supervisor Eric Durst and his team, DP Mathias Herndl, our production designers and art directors and so on. With all the VFX, we stayed pretty close to how Einstein described his thought experiments. The one that starts off this first episode is very vivid, whereas the first one he has as a 17-year-old boy is done in a more chalk-board kind of way, where he faints and can barely hang on mentally to the image. All the dailies and visual effects were done by UPP.

Where did you do the post?
We did all the editing and sound back in LA.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. I love the edit and slowly pulling it all together after the stress of the shoot.

It was edited by James Wilcox, who’s done CSI: Miami and Hawaii Five-O, along with Debby Germino and J. Kathleen Gibson. How early was James involved and was he on set?
Dan and Mike weren’t available. It’s the first time I’d worked with James and he’s very creative and did a great job. He wasn’t on the set, but we were constantly in communication and we’d send him material back to LA and then when I got back, we sat down together.

The show constantly cuts back and forth in time.
Yes, I was fascinated by all those transitions and I worked very closely with my team to make sure we had all that down, and that it all flowed smoothly in the edit. For instance, Johnny Flynn plays violin and he trained classically, so he actually plays in all those scenes. But Geoffrey doesn’t play violin, but he practiced for several months, and we had a teacher on set too. Geoffrey was so dedicated to creating this character.They both looked at tons of footage of Einstein as an older man, so Johnny could develop aspects of Einstein’s manner and behavior as the younger one, which Geoffrey could work with later, so we had a real continuity to the character. That’s a big reason why I wanted to be so hands-on with the first episode, as we were defining so many key aspects of the man and the aesthetics and the way we’d be telling the whole story.

Can you talk about working on the sound and music?
It’s always huge to me and adds so much to every scene. Lorne Balfe wrote a fantastic score and we had a great sound team: production sound mixer Peter Forejt, supervising sound editor Daniel Pagan, music editor Del Spiva and re-recording mixers Mark Hensley and Bob Bronow. For post production audio we used Smart Post Sound.

The DI must have been important?
It was very important since we were trying to do stuff with the concept of time in very subtle ways using the camera work, the palette and the lighting style. This all changed subtly depending on whether it was an Einstein memory, or a flashback to his younger, brasher self, or looking ahead to the iconic older man where it was all a little more formal. So we went for different looks to match the different energies and, of course, the editing style had to embody all of that as well. The colorist was Pankaj Bajpai, and he did a great job.

What’s next?
I plan to do more TV. Remember, I came out of TV and it’s so exciting now. I’m also developing several movie projects, including Seveneves, a sci-fi film, and Under the Banner of Heaven which is based on the Jon Krakauer bestseller. So whatever comes together first.


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.

Saturday Night Fever director John Badham looks back 40 years

By Iain Blair

English-born director/producer John Badham had never even been to Brooklyn, and admits that he “also didn’t know much about disco and dancing” when he took on the job of directing Saturday Night Fever. But that didn’t stop him from capturing the colorful street life of the gritty borough and making one of the most beloved, joyful and seminal films of the late ‘70s.

John Badham on the set of Saturday Night Fever.

With John Travolta’s electrifying Oscar-nominated performance (which launched his movie career), the Bee Gees’ earworm soundtrack (including mega-hits “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love”), and, of course, the unforgettable dancing (and that white suit), Saturday Night Fever perfectly captured the angst, hopes and disco-mania of a simpler time and had an indelible impact on popular culture.

Forty years later, the film about a Brooklyn kid with no prospects who lives for Saturday night continues to resonate, and Badham worked with Paramount in 2016 to restore the film in 4K using the original negative and update the surround sound mix to further enhance the soundtrack. During this process he also added scenes to the theatrical R-rated version that round out character and plot, making it the definitive representation of his original vision.
The result is the 40th anniversary brand-new Director’s Cut of Saturday Night Fever, which arrived on Blu-ray and DVD on May 2 from Paramount Home Media Distribution. The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p high definition with 5.1 Dolby TrueHD.

Over a career that has now spanned five decades, Badham has directed over 60 projects, including the films WarGames, Short Circuit, Bird on a Wire and Stakeout, and popular TV shows as Supernatural and Psych. He’s also written books on his craft, including “John Badham on Directing,” and heads Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts directing program.

I talked recently with Badham about Saturday Night Fever, his long career and his love of production and post.

How do you look back on Saturday Night Fever?
If you’d told me 40 years ago we’d be talking about it today I’d have never believed you. We made what we felt was a good movie — but it was a small movie, just $2.5 million, and to be frank, it was intended as a place-holder for John Travolta while he was waiting to shoot Grease. That was how the studio viewed it, but I was thrilled as I had an amazing script, the best I’d seen in years, and it really spoke to me. It was so powerful, and coupled with the Bee Gees’ music, I felt it was irresistible. But a lot of people were worried that the movie wouldn’t last, that it would be here and gone. Instead it turned into this huge hit.

How do you explain its lasting appeal?
Some people like to say it’s the dancing and music, and I know that’s part of it, but I really believe it’s mainly the strength of the characters and how we see ourselves in them, wishing for more exciting, better lives, and the chance to escape the dreary world we’re in. Audiences all over the world seemed to feel the same way.

It made Travolta a star. What did he bring to the role?
Talk about perfect casting. He had this tremendous life force and energy and appeal that he brought to it, along with an innocence and darkness to his character. Tony Manero is this funny, cute kid, but there’s also this really dark side to him. There’s a lot of anger and resentment, and he’s mean to the women and his parents. He’s trying to be one of the cool guys on the street, the gang leader, and he has this wild, wacky sense of humor, but he’s also very nervous around girls who give him a hard time. We see ourselves in that confused mix of behavior.

What were the biggest challenges of restoring it and redoing the mix?
Restoring any film is a huge job, and we had to go through every single frame of 10,000 feet of film times 24 frames. Every frame has to be looked at and examined and fixed for any scratches, damage and flaws, as well as things that weren’t quite right in the first place because we shot this so fast and on such a low budget. Now it looks better than our original release print, and it certainly sounds a lot better. Thank God we were able to fix the Dolby mix, because the original was Dolby 1.0 stereo for 35mm and it was still really buggy back then. So our new 5.1 Dolby mix is out of the surround speakers. Back in ’77, 95% of our prints were mono because we had so much trouble with it, and we just had 25 stereo prints. So this is like a whole new film.

You basically redid post on the film. Do you like post, and why?
Post is my favorite part of the whole process because you have control of almost all the elements — and where you don’t, you can repair it in post. It’s where you’re molding the material into the image you have in your mind, and it’s wonderful to be able to have that ability.

What are the biggest changes in post you’ve seen since you started?
It’s miraculous what we can do now thanks to the digital revolution, especially in editing, sound and VFX, compared with what you used to be able to do. When I began on mixing stages, you had to mix 10 minutes of material at a time, one pass straight through, and if you made a mistake you had to start all over again. Now it’s all digital and sound possibilities are endless. Tools like Avid have freed up and sped up editing, and systems like Dolby Atmos jack up the level of excitement in a theater. I’m a big fan of digital.

You began your career in TV, and currently you are mainly working in TV. How has the TV landscape changed?
It’s unrecognizable, and it’s blossomed beyond belief — both creatively and in business terms. It’s gone from the three main networks and PBS to hundreds and hundreds of channels and platforms like Netflix, Amazon, HBO and so on. That means both the quantity and quality have really gone up. I’m watching the new Fargo, and thinking, “What a great show — as good as any movie.” And TV is doing stuff now that no one dares do in movies anymore, because it’s so willing to take risks, and the writing is so strong.

You’re also still teaching. What advice would you give to a young person wanting to become a director?
I’d say, thank God we can make films even with our iPhones. Ten years ago you wouldn’t even think of it. That’s what you have to do — get out and make a film that you can then show and discuss with people. Sitting about and reading and thinking about it won’t get you anywhere. You have to get out and actually do it.

What’s next?
I’m just about to start shooting the third season of the ABC sci-fi murder mystery Stitchers, which I love doing. I’m also doing a lot of Supernatural, which is now in its 13th season, and I really enjoy that too. I’d love to do more movies, but getting financing is so hard now, and TV keeps me very busy.


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: Veteran director Walter Hill

By Iain Blair

Over the course of a long and storied career, writer, director and producer Walter Hill has done it all. His career began in the early 1970s with screenplay credits for The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, and The Drowning Pool, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 1975, he made his directorial debut with Hard Times, a Depression-era street fighting drama starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Since then, his projects have ranged from classic sci-fi (Alien) to classic westerns (The Long Riders, Geronimo, Wild Bill) and from action-packed thrillers (Extreme Prejudice) to buddy comedies (48 Hours, Another 48 Hours).

With his unique visceral style, Hill also made a successful foray into television, receiving both the Emmy and DGA Awards in 2005 for the pilot of the neo-western Deadwood. He also directed AMC’s acclaimed Emmy Award-winning debut television movie, Broken Trail, and was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards — he won an Emmy for producing and a DGA award for directing. Hill was also executive producer of the Emmy-nominated series Tales from the Crypt.

He has also written two graphic novels, which have been published in France, the second of which served as the basis for his provocative new film, The Assignment. The neo-noir, pulpy thriller, which he co-wrote with Denis Hamill, stars Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia. It tells the story of hitman Frank Kitchen, who is given a lethal assignment, and after being double-crossed discovers he’s not the man he thought he was — he’s been surgically altered and now has the body of a woman (Rodriguez). Seeking vengeance, Frank heads for a showdown with the surgeon (Weaver) who transformed him.

I talked with Hill, whose eclectic credits also include Brewster’s Millions and Bullet to the Head, about making the film.

Many movies take years to get made, but this must be some kind of record — it’s been nearly 40 years since you first read a script for it. Why the long wait?
Denis wrote it back in ’76, and I was very taken with it. I thought it was an amazing and very unusual revenge story with some great twists, but I was very busy with other projects, and time went by before I called Denis and optioned the material. I then co-wrote a script, which I didn’t like, and so I let it go. About 20 years went by, and some five years ago I came across Denis’ original script in my basement, read it, still loved it and called Denis to find out if the rights were available. So I re-optioned it and this time figured out how to do it.

Walter Hill, directing The Assignment.

You did this as a graphic novel first. How did that help in terms of realizing the film version?
I think having done Tales from the Crypt and my first graphic novel in the meantime, all that really helped with my visual approach this time around. I did a draft in just two weeks and it worked. So the script became the graphic novel and then the film.

What sort of film did you want to make?
A neo-noir thriller in the graphic novel vein, with the freedom of a low-budget project. My agent and I knew it wasn’t a studio film, and he suggested I meet with producer Said Ben Said, who’s worked with Polanski, Verhoeven on Elle and Cronenberg, so I met him in Paris and made the deal.

This is your first film with female leads. How early on did you decide to have the male lead, Frank Kitchen, played by Michelle?
It took about six months to figure it out, and one big problem about casting for me was that I felt that if we cast a male actor as Frank, the movie would then become too much about the make up and VFX — and you also have a big challenge for the actor, playing this low-class, underworld Darwinian survivor who’s very macho. I felt that casting a woman would be far more interesting, so I changed that to a woman and I also changed the doctor from a man to a woman. That’s when it all fell into place.

What did Michelle bring to the role?
We had lunch, and she told me, “You’ll never find anyone better for this role,” and she was right. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. It takes a brave actor to play the part, and Michelle’s very brave. I admire her performance a lot.

The whole outrageous, forced sex change angle has pushed a lot of buttons. Was that intentional?
No. Look, we live in an age of gender fluidity, which is a good thing. We also live in the age of the Internet, where opinions are instantaneous and everywhere. The movie’s not a comment on transgender issues and was never going to be about transgender issues. For the record, there’s nothing that disputes or ridicules the current transgender theory.

Frank Kitchen is not a villain, and he’s not a hero. He’s simply a protagonist, and he doesn’t become a transgender woman. He stays what he is inside his head, a macho and heterosexual male. Genital surgery and feminization aren’t the same thing as being transgender. Frank didn’t want the surgery.

But the film and story are obviously and intentionally lurid.
Yes, which is why I used the comic book panels every so often as devices to let the audience know it’s not your everyday reality in the storytelling. I wanted that freedom you have with the comic book or the graphic novel.

Where did you shoot and how tough was it?
We shot it on location in Vancouver, in just over 20 days, which is the shortest shoot I’ve ever had for a movie. Of course, that presents problems, and every director always needs more time and money. We just didn’t have it, so we were very inventive.

Where did you post?
We cut in LA, but did the rest of it — sound, color correction, VFX — all in Vancouver.

Do you like post, and why?
I’ve always loved post. After the madness of shooting, it gets you back to a civilized life. Some directors make their movies in prep, some during the shoot, and others during post. It’s probably a bit of all three for me, but with the emphasis on post. I follow the lead of greats like Sam Peckinpah and Kurosawa, and Sam always said, “Directing is 75 percent casting.” I think he’s right. You get that right and the shoot’s relatively straightforward and you just let the actors do their work.

There’s definitely a big misunderstanding about what a director does — that he’s basically an acting coach on the set. But that’s often the least of his skills. It’s finding the right tone and all the stuff you add in post that’s so important to the job.

Tell us about editing it with Phil Norden, who worked with you on Broken Trail.
He was up in Vancouver with us but rarely came to the set. That way he stuck close to me and cut almost as fast as I shot. As this was so low budget, there wasn’t much room for error. We had to get it right the first time (laughs). Happily, I love the editing part.

Talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker.
They’re both so important, and without either any footage, however wonderful, just looks flat. We did all the sound work at Sharpe and some ADR at Wildfire in LA.

What about the VFX?
Stargate did the VFX, and we had some greenscreen work, especially in the assassination scene, and some clean-up.

Where was the DI done?
At Encore Vancouver, with colorist Claudio Sepulveda (working on Blackmagic Resolve). He really captured a great look.

What’s next?
I’m co-writing a script, I co-wrote another graphic novel, a sci-fi story, and I hope to direct something this summer. So I’m very busy.


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

A conversation with editor Hughes Winborne, ACE

This Oscar-winning editor talks about his path, his process, Fences and Guardians of the Galaxy.

By Chris Visser

In the world of feature film editing, Hughes Winborne, ACE, has done it all. From cutting indie features (1996’s Sling Blade) to CG-heavy action blockbusters (2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy) to winning an Oscar (2005’s Crash), Winborne has run the proverbial gamut of impactful storytelling through editing.

His most recent film, the multiple-Oscar-nominated Fences, was an adaptation of the seminal August Wilson play. Denzel Washington, who starred alongside Viola Davis (who won an Oscar for her role), directed the film.

Winborne and I chatted recently about his work on Fences, his career and his brief foray into house painting before he caught the filmmaking bug. He edits on Avid Media Composer. Let’s find out more.

What led you to the path you are on now?
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I graduated with a degree in history without a clue as to what I was going to do. I come from a family of attorneys, so because of an extreme lack of imagination, I thought I should do that. I became a paralegal and worked at North Carolina Legal Services for a bit. It didn’t take me long to realize that that wasn’t what I was meant to do, and I became a house painter.

A house painter?
I had my own house painting business for about three years with a couple of friends. The preamble to that is, I had always been a big movie fan. I went to the movies all the time in high school, but after college I started seeing between five and 10 a week. I didn’t even imagine working in the film business, because in Raleigh, that wasn’t really something that crossed my radar.

Then I saw an ad in the New York Times magazine for a six-week summer workshop at NYU. I took the course, moved to New York and set out to become a film editor. In the beginning, I did a lot of PA work for commercials and documentaries. Then I got an assistant editor job on a film called Girl From India.

What came next?
My father told me about a guy on the coast of North Carolina, A.B. Cooper, Jr., who wanted to make his own slasher film. I made him an offer: “If I get you an editor, can I be the assistant?” He said yes! About one-third of the way through the film, he fired the editor, and I took over that role. It was only my second film credit. I was never an assistant again, which is to the benefit of every editor that ever worked — I was terrible at it!

Where you able to make a living editing at that point?
Not as a picture editor, but I really started getting paid full-time for my editing when I started cutting industrials at AT&T. From there, I worked my way to 48 Hours. While I was there, they were kind enough to let me take on independent film projects for very little money, and they would hire me back after I did the job.

After a while, I moved to LA and started doing whatever I could get my hands on. I started with TV movies and gradually indie films, which really started for me with Sling Blade. Then, I worked my way into the studios after Crash. I’ve been kind of going back and forth ever since.

You mention your love of movies. What are the stories that inspire you? The ones that you get really excited to tell?
The movie that made me want to work in the film business was Barry Lyndon. Though it was not, by far, the film that got me started. I grew up on Truffaut. All his movies were just, for me, wonderful. It was a bit of a religion for me in those days; it gave me sustenance. I grew up on The Graduate. I grew up on Midnight Cowboy and Blow-Up.

I didn’t have a specific story I was interested in telling. I just knew that editing would be good for me. I like solitary jobs. I could never work on the set. It’s too crazy and social for me. I like being able to fiddle in the editing room and try things. The bottom line is, it’s fun. It can be a grind, and there can be a bit of pressure, but the best experiences I’ve had have been when I everybody on the show was having fun and working together. Films are made better when that collaboration is exploited to the limit.

Speaking of collaboration, how did that work on a film like Fences? What about working with actor/director Denzel Washington?
I’d worked with Denzel before [on The Great Debaters], so I kind of knew what he liked. They shot in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t go on location. There was no real collaboration the first six weeks but because I had worked with him before I had a sense of what he wanted.

I didn’t have to talk to him in order to put the film together because I could watch dailies — I could watch and listen to direction on camera and see how he liked to play the scenes. I put together the first cut on my own, which is typical, but in this case it was without almost any input. And my cut was really close. When Denzel came back, we concentrated in a few places on getting the performances the way he really wanted them, but I was probably 85 percent there. That’s not because I’m so great either, by the way, it’s because the actors were so great. Their performances were amazing, so I had a lot to choose from.

Can you talk about editing a film that was adapted from a play?
It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so I wasn’t going to be taking anything out of it or moving anything around. All I had to do was concentrate on putting it together with strong performances — that’s a lot harder than it sounds. I’m working within these constraints where I can’t do anything, really. Not that I really wanted to. Have you seen the movie?

Yes, I loved it. It’s a movie I’ve been coming back to every day since I’ve seen it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Then you’ll remember that the first 45 minutes to an hour is like a machine gun. That’s intentional. That’s me, intentionally, not slowing it down. I could have, but the idea is — and this is what was tricky — the film is about rhythm. Editing is about rhythm anyway, but this film is like rhythm to the 50th degree.

There’s very little music in the film, and we didn’t temp with much music either. I remember when Marc Evans [president, Motion Picture Group, Paramount Pictures] saw this film, he said, “The language is the music.” That’s exactly right.

To me, the dialogue feels like a score. There’s a musicality to it, a certain beat and timbre where it’s leading the audience through the scene, pulling them into the emotion without even hearing what they’re saying. Like when Denzel’s talking machine gun fast and it’s all jovial, then Lyons comes in and everything slows down and becomes very tense, then the scene busts back open and it’s all happy and fun again.
Yeah. You can just quote yourself on that one. [Laughs] That’s a perfect summation of it.

Partially, that’s going to come from set, that’s the acting and the direction, but on some level you’re going to have to construct that. How conscious of that were you the entire time?
I was very conscious of it. Where it becomes a little bit dicey at times is, unlike a play, you can cut. In a play, you’re sitting in the audience and watching everybody on stage at the same time. In a film, you’re not. When you start cutting, now you’ve got a new rhythm that’s different from the stage. In so doing, you’ve got to maintain that rhythm. You can’t just be on Denzel the entire time or Viola. You need to move around, and you need to move around in a way that rhythmically stays in time with the language. That was hard. That’s what we worked on most of the time after Denzel came back. We spent a lot of time just trying to make the rhythms right.

I think that’s one of the most difficult jobs an editor has, is choosing when to show someone saying something and when to show someone’s reaction to the thing being said. One example is when Troy is telling the story of his father, and you stay on him the entire time.
Hughes: Right.

The other side of that coin is when Troy reveals his secret to Rose and the reveal is on her. You see that emotion hit her and wash over her. When I was watching the movie, I thought, “That is the moment Viola Davis won an Oscar.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I agree.

I think that’s one of the most difficult jobs as an editor, knowing when to do what. Can you speak to that?
When I put this film together initially, I over-cut it, and then I tried to figure out where I wanted to be. It gets over-cut because I’m trying the best I can to find out what the core of the scene is. By I’m also trying to do that with what I consider to be the best performances. My process is, I start with that, and then I start weeding through it, getting it down and focusing; trying to make it as interesting as I can, and not predictable.

In the scenes that you’re talking about, it was all about Viola’s reaction anyway. Her reaction was going to be almost more interesting than whatever he says. I watched it a few times with audiences, and I know from talking to Denzel that when he did it on stage, there’s like a gasp.

When I saw it, everybody in the theatre was like, “What?” It was great.
I know, I know. It was so great. On the stage, people would talk to him, yell at him [Denzel]. “Shame on you, Denzel!” [laughs]. Then, she went into the backyard and did the scene, and that was the end of it. I’d never seen anything like it before. Honestly. It blew me away.

I was cutting that scene at my little home office. My wife was working behind me on her own stuff, and I was crying all the time. Finally, she turned around and asked, “What is wrong with you?” I showed it to her, and she had the same response. It took eight takes to get there, but when she got it, it was amazing. I don’t think too many actresses can do what Viola did. She’s so exposed. It’s just remarkable to watch.

There were three editors on Guardians of the Galaxy — you, Fred Raskin and Craig Wood. How did that work?
Marvel films are, generally speaking, 12 months from shoot to finish. I was on the film for eight months. Craig came in and took over for me. Having said that, it’s hard with two editors or just multiple editors in general. You have to divvy up scenes. Stuff would come in and we would decide together who was going to do it. I got the job because of Fred. I’d known Fred for 25 years. Fred was my intern on Drunks.

Fred had a prior relationship with James Gunn [director of Guardians]. In most cases, I deferred to Fred’s judgment as to how he wanted to divvy up the scenes, because I didn’t have much of a relationship with James when we started. I’d never done a big CG film. For me, it was a revelation. It was fun, trying to cut a dialogue scene between two sticks. One was tall, and one was short — the green marking was going to be Groot, and the other one was going to be Rocket Raccoon.

Can you talk about the importance of the assistant editor in the editorial process? How many assistants did you have on Fences?
On Fences, I had a first and a second. I started out cutting on film, and the assistant editor was a physical job. Touch it, slice it, catalog it, etc. What they have to do now is so complicated and technical that I don’t even know how to do it. Over my career, I’ve pretty much worked with a couple of assistants the whole time. John Breinholt and Heather Mullen worked with me on Fences. I’ve known Heather for 30 years.

What do you look for in an assistant?
Somebody who is going to be able to organize my life when I’m editing; I’m terrible at that. I need them to make sure that things are getting done. I don’t want to think about everything that’s going on behind the scenes, especially when I’m cutting, because it takes a lot of concentration for me just to sit there for 10 hours a day, or even longer, and concentrate on trying to put the movie together.

I like to have somebody that can look at my stuff and tell me what’s working and what’s isn’t. You get a different perspective from different assistants, and it’s really important to have that relationship.

You talked about working on Guardians for eight months, and I read that you cut Fences in six. What do you do to decompress and take care of your own mental health during those time periods?
Good question. It’s hard. When I was working on Fences, I was on the Paramount lot. They have a gym there, so I tried to go to the gym every day. It made my day longer, because I’d get there really early, but I’d go to the gym and get on the treadmill or something for 45 minutes, and that always helped.

Finally, for those who are young or aspiring editors, do you have any words of wisdom?
I think the once piece of advice is to keep going. It helps if you know what you want to do. So many people in this business don’t survive. There can be a lot of lean years, and there certainly were for me in the beginning — I had at least 10. You just have to stay in the game. Even if you’re not working at what you want to do, it’s important to keep working. If you want to be an editor, or a director, you have to practice.

Also, have fun. It’s a movie. Try and have a good time when you’re doing it. You’ll do your best work when you’re relaxed.


Chris Visser is a Wisconsin kid who works and lives in LA. He is currently an assistant editor working in scripted TV. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Chatting with Scorsese’s go-to editor Thelma Schoonmaker

By Iain Blair

Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese go together like Lennon and McCartney, or Ben and Jerry. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.

Simply put, Schoonmaker has been Martin Scorsese’s go-to editor and key collaborator over the course of 23 films and half a century, winning Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed. Now 77, she also recently received a career achievement award at the American Cinema Editors’ 67th Eddie Awards.

She cut Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s that Knocking at My Door, and since Raging Bull has worked on all of his feature films, including such classics as The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, New York Stories, GoodFellas (which earned her another Oscar nomination), Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New York (another Oscar nomination), Shutter Island, Hugo (another Oscar nomination) and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Their most recent collaboration was Silence, Scorsese’s underrated and powerful epic, which is now available via Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand from Paramount Home Media Distribution.

A 28-year passion project that reinforces Scorsese’s place in the pantheon of great directors, Silence tells the story of two Christian missionaries (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) who travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) at a time when Christianity was outlawed. When they are captured and imprisoned, both men are plunged into an odyssey that will test their faith, challenge their sanity and, perhaps, risk their very lives

I recently talked with Schoonmaker about cutting Silence, working with Scorsese, and their long and storied collaboration.

Silence must have been very challenging to cut as it’s very long and could easily have ended up being a bit slow and boring.
(Laughs) You’re right! It was one of the things we were most concerned about from the start, as it’s a very meditative film. It’s nothing like his last films, Hugo and Wolf of Wall Street, and it couldn’t be more different.

Wolf had all the crazy stuff and the wild humor and improvisation, but with Silence Marty wanted to make an entirely different movie from the way most movies are made today. So that was a very brave commitment, I think, and it was difficult to find the right balance and the right pace. We experimented a great deal with just how slow it could be, without losing the audience.

Even the film’s opening scene was a major challenge. It’s very slow and sets the tone before the film even starts, with just the cicadas on the soundtrack. It tells you, slow down from our crazy lives, just feel what’s going on and engage with it. The minimal score is all part of that. It’s not telling the audience what to think, as scores usually do. He wanted the audience to decide what they feel and think, and he was adamant about starting the film off like that, which was also brave.

It feels far closer to The Age of Innocence in terms of its pacing than his more recent films.
Yes, and that was definitely a big part of its appeal for him, as it’s set in another country and also another century, so Marty wanted the film to be very meditative, and the pace of it had to reflect all that. Along with that, he was able to examine his religious concerns and interests, which he couldn’t do so much in other films. They were always there, but here they’re up front.

Did you stay in New York cutting while he shot in Taiwan, or did you visit the set?
I was in Taipei while they shot, working on the dailies, but I didn’t go on set as the locations they used were very arduous — up these steep mountains — and it took two hours just to get up there. There was bad weather and mud, wind, mosquitoes and snakes. Really, I just didn’t have the time to go on set, so I never got to see the great beauty of Taiwan, since I was back in Taipei in my editing room.

I do go on sets sometimes, and I love to visit and watch Marty work with the actors, and it’s always fun to be on the set, but as an editor, I also want to be unbiased when I sit down and watch footage. I don’t want to have my eye prejudiced by what I see on set and how difficult it might be to get a particular shot. That has nothing at all to do with my job.

How long did it take to edit?
Almost a year, but we had a couple of interruptions. Marty had to finish up his show for HBO, Vinyl, and then there was a family illness. But I love having that much time. Most editors simply don’t get to live with a film that long, and you really have to in order to understand it and understand what it’s saying to you. You’re editing the work of 250 people, and you have to respect that. You shouldn’t have to rush it.

Last time we talked, you were using Lightworks to edit. Do you use Avid now?
No, I still use Lightworks, and I still prefer it. It’s what I was trained on during the early days of digital editing, and it’s used a lot in Europe. Our first digital film was Casino, and back then Lightworks sent a computer expert to train me, and I’ve loved it ever since because it has a controller that is like the old flatbed editing machines and I love that — you can customize it very easily. It also has this button that allows me to throw stuff out of sync and experiment more, and that’s not available on Avid. So I’ve been editing on Lightworks ever since Casino.

When I last interviewed Marty, he told me that editing and post are his favorite parts of filmmaking. When you both sit down to edit it must be like having two editors in the room rather than a director and his editor?
It’s exactly like that. I do the first cut, but then once he comes in after the shoot we make every decision together. He’s a brilliant editor, and he taught me everything I know about editing— I knew nothing when we started together. He also thinks like an editor, unlike many directors. When he’s writing and then shooting, he’s always thinking about how it’ll cut together. Some directors shoot a lot of stuff, but does it cut together? Marty knows all that and what coverage he needs. He’s a genius, and such a knowledgeable person to be around every day.

You’ve been Marty’s editor since his very first film, back in 1967 — a 50-year collaboration. What’s the secret?
I think it’s that we’re true collaborators. He’s such an editing director, and we know each other so well by now, but it’s always fresh and interesting. There are no ego battles. Every film’s different, with different challenges, and he’s always curious, always learning, always open to new experiences. I feel very fortunate.

What’s next?
Right now I’m working on the diaries of my husband, (famed British director) Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus), and then Marty and I will start The Irishman later in the summer. It’s all about elderly gangsters, with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It’s exciting.


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.

Ross Cooper joins Golden’s roster of directors

LA’s Golden, which is made up of live-action directors and a collective of designers and visual effects artists, has added director Ross Cooper to its roster. Formerly known as OneInThree, Cooper’s resume is chock full of commercial and music video work.

Cooper studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins in London, but his interest in original visual ideas evolved while pursuing a Master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art. After winning two Silver D&ADs in interaction design and architecture for the live video installation The Last Clock, Cooper began shooting videos for bands like Two Door Cinema Club, Wild Beasts and The Teenagers. He went on to receive a number of nominations as an up-and-coming filmmaker at the Music Video Awards, including Best New Director, Best Art Direction and Best Budget Video.

Cooper stepped into the commercial world with a recreation of his VV Brown video for the song “Leave!” made for French bank BNP Paribas. The spot featured a rotating cardboard box that revealed a different stylized diorama with every spin. Since that time, Cooper has continued to hone his in-camera perspective to visual effects and trompe l’oeil, crafting ads for brands including Ford, O2, Trident and Betway.

A-List: Director Danny Boyle talks about T2 Trainspotting

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain Blair and Danny Boyle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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