By Iain Blair
Oscar-winner David Frankel is probably best known for his enormously successful films The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, but the writer/director has an eclectic slate of films under his belt, including The Big Year, Hope Springs and One Chance.
Frankel owns a “Best Short” Oscar for his film Dear Diary, an Emmy for his direction of the miniseries Band of Brothers, and an Emmy nom for the Entourage pilot. In addition, he directed several episodes of Sex and the City, and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.
Frankel’s new film, Collateral Beauty, is a drama about a successful New York advertising executive who suffers a great tragedy and retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty. Frankel assembled an all-star cast, including Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren..
The drama’s behind-the-scenes creative team included director of photography Maryse Alberti (Creed), editor Andrew Marcus (American Ultra) and composer Theodore Shapiro (Trumbo).
I spoke with Frankel about making the film.
There’s been a lot of mystery about this film and the plot?
Will plays this advertising guy who loses his six-year-old daughter to cancer and he spirals into a deep hole. He’s devastated, he’s divorced, he’s not functioning at work anymore, and everyone tries to help him reconnect, but nothing really works. Then they come up with this wacky scheme, which involves hiring some actors to help him answer the questions he’s asking of the universe. I saw it as this screwball drama — a little crazy — but also very grounded and emotional. There’s a lot of moving moments and tragedy, but I think it’s quite uplifting and hopeful.
You got an amazing cast. Any surprises with Will Smith?
He was everything I expected and more. He’s such a risk-taker and keeps challenging himself as an actor. He took on stuff here he’s never done before, and Jacob Latimore was very impressive, really able to hold his own with the others, and there was a very unlikely pairing of actors — Helen Mirren and Michael Peña — that was unexpected and which worked out so well.
You shot this on location all over New York. How tough was it?
People complain about it a lot, but I never do. We shot it in eight weeks. It was great and wherever you go, people would help decorate the streets with Christmas lights and the street vendors would come out, and neighbors would help keep the streets quiet while we shot, so there was all this enthusiasm and great support. And you can’t really fake New York, and I love the fact that wherever you point a camera, it looks amazing.
You shot digitally, but it has a very filmic look.
Right, and I really struggle to see the difference between film and digital now, because digital’s so good. Maryse did a great job. She shot Dear Diary for me 20 years ago, and we quickly picked up where we left off. The goal was to make some very beautiful images and focus on composition and the performances.
Do you enjoy the post process?
I love post because it’s the time of discovery. When you’re shooting, it’s a time of wonder — when you’re scratching your heads for weeks on end and trying to deal with the schedule and budget and all that. Once you’re in post, you finally sit down to start telling the story you want, and when you start solving the puzzles that are in front of you in the cutting room, it’s just so satisfying. We did all the post in New York, and all the cutting at The Post Factory in Tribeca, and then we did all the sound work at the Warner Bros. mixing stage. We also recorded the music and orchestra in New York, so it was very much a New York production.
Talk about working for the first time with editor Andrew Marcus. Was he on the set?
He was on set a lot, and he actually lived just down the street from one of the locations, so he’d stop by a lot and we’d discuss stuff every day. He was so enthusiastic right from the start, and I think he’s quite brilliant. The way I work with editors is to tell them at the wrap party, ‘Pretend I got hit by a bus on the way home and you have to now finish the movie. Don’t just do an assembly and string scenes together.’ The big challenge on this was getting the tone right, as it’s such a strange mix of humor and really heavy drama, and sometimes all in the same scene.
You shot in early spring, but there’s a lot of winter, so you must have needed some VFX?
Right. We used VFX to add some Christmas decorations, lights, some snow, and we had to do clean-up. Mr. X in New York did all that.
You’ve collaborated with composer Theodore Shapiro a lot. How important is sound and music to you?
It’s huge. I’ve worked with just one composer my whole career, and Ted wrote this beautiful score that’s perfect, because it’s such an emotional movie but it also needed a very restrained score that doesn’t tell you how to feel, and I had the most fun being in the studio with him and trying stuff out. And all the sound design is so crucial to it too —capturing the sounds of New York, the subway trains.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did the DI at Company 3 in Chelsea, with Tim Stipan, who’s a genius. He just did Silence with Scorsese and he has this fantastic eye for storytelling through color. I’m always involved with the DI, but even more so this time as Maryse had to go off to shoot Chappaquiddick, so I did a lot of the sessions with Tim, and it probably ended up a little warmer with me in there.
This is releasing at the same time as this new little film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Are you nervous?
No, not at all. It’s good counter-programming. The Devil Wears Prada opened against Superman and did great. I like to think people want choices.
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.