Tag Archives: Iain Blair

The Little Stranger director Lenny Abrahamson

By Iain Blair

Lenny Abrahamson, the Irish director who helmed the cult indies Frank, Garage, What Richard Did and Adam & Paul, burst onto the international scene in 2015 with the harrowing drama Room. The claustrophobic tale — of a woman and her young son kept prisoner in a 10×10-foot garden shed — picked up four Oscar nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, and won the Best Actress Oscar and BAFTA for lead Brie Larson.

Now Abrahamson is back with a new film, Focus Features’ The Little Stranger, which swaps the tight confines of The Room for the sprawling, light and airy expanses of a huge English country home.

But don’t be fooled by appearances. Abrahamson begins to twist the screws from the very start of the story, which is part ghost story, part murder mystery. The film follows Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson), the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked. The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries, but it is now in decline. Its inhabitants — mother, son and daughter — are haunted by something more ominous than dying. When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own. It also stars Ruth Wilson (Showtime’s The Affair).

I spoke with Abrahamson about making the film.

Last time we talked, you had been offered a lot of high-profile projects after the huge success of Room. Instead you made this smaller film, which you had been developing. What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of this new film?
I did this for the same reason I did all my other films — I felt compelled to do it, and I connected to it. I’d been thinking about it for the past 10 years. I’m not really strategic about my career. I did consider other projects, but this just felt ready to go, and I was worried that if I didn’t do it just then, I’d never get to do it. So the timing was right.

This is based on Sarah Waters’ novel “The Little Stranger,” and translating any novel to cinema is always tricky, especially this book with all its flashbacks. How difficult was it?
It was very tough, because in a novel you’ve got space to work and digress and build up atmosphere and shift focus. But films are so demanding in terms of unfolding narrative, and it was hard maintaining forward motion while keeping it subtle and ambiguous and dealing with multiple timelines. I also focused on doing it elegantly, not mechanically. It took all the combined efforts of everyone involved — editing, production design, music and sound — to deal with those challenges and also keep it true to the novel.

It’s quite a mixture of genres, tones and themes. Was that your intent?
Finding the right balance and the right tone is always crucial, and in this case we had to find that sense of disquiet and uneasiness, which permeates everything. We also had to keep that sense of ambiguity about everything that happens. I wanted a sort of mash-up of genres — drama, psychological thriller, ghost story, period romance and gothic chiller — and to keep the audience off balance all the time.

Obviously, casting the right actors was crucial. Is it true you originally cast Domnhall Gleeson as another character, not Faraday?
Yes, I’d worked with him on Frank, and he’s got such a range and is so clever. I’d actually started talking to him about this three, four years ago, and I sent him the script with another character in mind for him, but he said he so loved Faraday that he wanted to play him instead. It just made sense, so I cast around him.

It’s beautifully shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland, the DP who also just shot the Judy Garland biopic Judy, starring Renee Zellweger for director Rupert Goold. What was your approach?
We didn’t have any hard and fast rules. I always think that’s a mistake. So we watched a lot of films and talked a lot, and tried to go against the usual assumptions about making a film like this. We avoided the obvious dark look, and in some of the more sinister scenes the lighting is very even and bright, which I think makes it creepier. It’s a bright interior, maybe not what you expect for violence.

He did a great job, very subtle work, and he created great atmosphere without using any of the obvious lighting tropes. We tested a lot, which was very useful, and Ole didn’t use any direct light. All the light is bounced and soft, which was a very smart decision by him. We shot in a real 18th Century country house near London, and then used another in better repair for all the exterior flashbacks.

Where did you post?
I’m based in Dublin, so I always do all the post there, and we have great facilities and great people. We posted and did most of the cutting at Screen Scene in Dublin, where I’ve posted my last four films. We had a big room with a big screen and projector, which was great, and they also did all the VFX.

Ed Bruce was the VFX supervisor and is very experienced. They do such subtle work. For instance, the house didn’t have the beautiful skylight you see quite a lot, so they added all that, and there are a lot of invisible things they did that you’d never notice. They do shows like Game of Thrones, so they’re very experienced and very good at what they do, and it’s a close collaborative relationship.

Do you like the post process?
I love post after the stress of the shoot and the instant decisions and deadlines you have to deal with on the set. It’s such a big contrast, and it’s where you can take your time to actually make the film.

I love sitting there with the editor and slowly building the movie. And unlike the shoot, where the meter’s ticking away, it’s relaxing and also the cheapest part of the whole filmmaking process. It’s where all the magic happens and you begin to discover what the film is.

The film was cut by your go-to editor Nathan Nugent. Can you tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
He was on the set and also shot 2nd unit for me, so he was very involved during the shoot. He began cutting in Soho during the shoot, and then did most of the editing back in Dublin after we got back.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film.
It’s so important and we began all the sound design and sound work at the same time we began the offline editing, instead of the usual waiting until picture’s locked. I always insist on doing it this way now as there are so many advantages. As you work, you can really see the effect of sound, and that helps with the picture cut.

Our sound editors Steve Fanagan and Niall Brady were also on set and recorded tons of material. Then Steve designed for seven months while we cut, assembling this very rich soundscape. The sound was done at Screen Scene and partly at Ardmore, with some ADR at Goldcrest in London. The music mix was by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley, ex-Abbey Road, now with their own studio called Sweet Thunder. They did incredibly delicate and beautiful work.

How important was the DI on this?
It’s so important, and we did all the grading and picture finishing at Outer Limits in Dublin, with my regular colorist, Gary Curran, who started early on developing looks. We also did an HDR grade, which I hadn’t really delved into before, and it was very beautiful.

What’s next? A big Hollywood movie?
(Laughs) I do get offered projects, but it would have to be something original that really excites me. Next, I’ll probably shoot this boxing film called A Man’s World, based on the true story of Emile Griffith. It’s a fascinating life, and I’ll shoot it in the US next year… hopefully.

We’re heading into the awards season. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar for Room, which won a ton of awards. How important are awards to you and your films?
Very important. They bring a lot of attention to smaller films like mine, and this one is very unusual. It looks like it falls into a genre, but it doesn’t really, so awards and recognition really help.


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.

Kari Skogland — Emmy-nominated director of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale

By Iain Blair

From day one, the stark images of pure white bonnets and blood-red cloaks in The Handmaid’s Tale have come to symbolize one thing — the oppression of women. The Hulu hit series has also come to symbolize that rare moment in pop culture where difficult subject matter and massive artistic ambition cross over into impressive ratings.

In fact, the show — based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian and prescient 1985 novel of the same name — just received 20 Emmy nominations, including eight acting noms and a second nod for best drama series. It reportedly doubled its audience for the Season 2 premiere (as compared to the first season), after becoming the first show from a streaming service to win best drama at the 2017 Emmys.

Many of the most searing episodes, including “Night,” the finale to Season 1, and “Other Women” in Season 2, were directed by the award-winning Kari Skogland. As CEO of Mad Rabbit, which launched in 2016, Skogland produces one-hour dramas for the international market while she continues her work as a director on The Handmaid’s Tale and the upcoming pilot for Starz’s The Rook. Skogland was included in the 2018 Emmy nominations with recognition of her directing work on the Season 2 episode “After.”

A prolific female director of TV and film, Skogland’s television credits include episodes for the premiere season of Condor (Audience), and such shows as The Borgias and Penny Dreadful (Showtime), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), The Killing, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead (AMC), Under the Dome (CBS), Vikings (History Channel), Power-Starring 50 Cent (Starz), The Americans (FX) and House of Cards and The Punisher (Netflix). Skogland also directed Sons of Liberty (History), a six-part event miniseries for which she won the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC) award for Best Director of a Television Miniseries.

As a feature film writer, director and producer, Skogland’s film Fifty Dead Men Walking, starring Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for another six awards, including Best Film.  Additionally, Skogland was recognized by the DGC as Best Director. Her previous film as director, writer and producer was The Stone Angel, starring Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Page. It was nominated for Best Director and Best Writer by WGC as well as Best Screenplay and Best Actress. It also won a Best Film award from the DGC.

I recently spoke with Skogland — the only female nominated in the best directing drama category at this year’s Emmys — about the show, her workflow and mentoring other women.

Why do you think the show’s caught the public’s imagination so much?
I think it’s rooted in many things, one of them being a cautionary tale. Another would be these compelling performances that engage you in the story in an emotional context and a narrative that has the possibility of actually coming true, especially given what we’re seeing on the news all the time now. It’s a weird perfect storm where today’s political climate and this show sort of merge.

I recently read something where Margaret Atwood, who wrote it over 30 years ago, says that everything has happened. It was fiction, but it has happened somewhere in the world since she wrote it, and it’s happening today. So I think the authenticity of the characters and the performances, even more than the events, is what really drives it even further into being so incredibly watchable.

Every character is so complex.
Exactly. You love to hate Serena Joy, but then there are moments where you really feel for her in ways you can’t predict. So your emotional barometer is going up and down.

Fair to say that Atwood’s book and its themes seem more timely than ever?
Definitely. Not only is it very timely now, but it was probably very timely when it first came out too, which makes it even more interesting when you think about progress. Are we really on a treadmill? Have we really moved the political needle at all? It doesn’t seem that different from when she wrote it, when Reagan and the rise of conservatism in America were making headlines.

Have you started Season 3?
Not yet. It’ll probably start filming in September. They’ve asked me to come back, but they don’t have a schedule yet.

Kari Skogland on set

What are the big challenges of directing this show?
First of all, you have to be very aware of all of it. When I did the Season 1 finale, I had to watch everything very carefully up until that point so I could continue the emotional story. It was the same thing for Season 2. They’re very challenging performance pieces for everyone, and you have to maintain that sense of continuity and trust. You have to really plan for the season’s arc for each character, and someone like Lizzie [Moss] is so collaborative. But it’s also this path of discovery, where you want to capture the inspiration of the moment.

Where do you post?
We shoot in Toronto and do all the post at Take 5 Productions there. I’ve known and worked with them for years — they’ve won so many awards for their great work. They do all the editing and finishing.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and with a show like this it’s where you can combine the plan you went into post with, along with those happy accidents and inspired moments, and see the scene or episode come alive in ways you didn’t expect. I always think of it as a way to re-direct the episode. Post is always full of surprises.

Talk about editing. Didn’t you start off as an editor?
Yes, and I am really involved in the edit. I always want to have two options in post. I don’t want to be handcuffed by any decisions made on the set. I need to be able to re-sculpt the footage and rediscover stuff as we go.

You have a big cast, and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
One of the things I really like to avoid is what I call “ping-pong” editing, and doing lazy coverage of a scene where it’s so predictable — there’s the closeup, there’s the wide shot, there’s another closeup!  I always want coverage that actually eliminates edits. The goal is to not interrupt the flow by jumping all over the place. With that in mind, I try and shoot with the idea of “the elegant accident,” and that means you sometimes shoot a lot of extra footage so you can find the gold and the gems as you re-sculpt in post. It’s like documentary filmmaking in that sense, and those gems happen in the oddest of moments.

This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music.
The show’s creator, Bruce Miller, is very really instrumental in all that, but we’re all involved too. For episode eight, Joe Fiennes came up with the idea of a record player, and then we built this whole storyline around the record player. The wonderful thing about Bruce’s writing and his aesthetic is that it’s so spare, so it leaves such great opportunities for performance. The actors can convey a lot without any words.

How important are the Emmys to you and a show like this?
It’s incredibly important! When your peers nominate you it’s a real nod from industry professionals, and it indicates tremendous appreciation.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
I’ve been advocating for women for years, and the truth is, nothing’s really changed that much. There’s been so much talk recently, and it was the same thing 20 years ago. One female director had a big hit with Wonder Woman, but real change will only come when half the superhero movies are directed by women.

What advice would you give young women who would like to direct and run shows like this?
Not only can you do it — just do it! Obviously, it’s hard and there are many sacrifices you have to make, but don’t take “no” for an answer.


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.

Creator Justin Simien talks Netflix’s Dear White People

By Iain Blair

The TV graveyard is bursting at the seams with failed adaptations of hit movies. But there are rare exceptions, such as Netflix’s acclaimed hit comedy Dear White People, which creator Justin Simien adapted from his 2014 indie movie of the same name. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Simien went on to also win Best First Screenplay and a nomination for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Justin Simien (Photo by Rick Proctor).

Now a series on Netflix and enjoying its second season (it was just picked up for its third!), this college dramedy is set at Winchester University, a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college, where racial tensions bubble just below the surface. It stars a large, charismatic ensemble cast (most of whom appeared in the film) that includes Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Marque Richardson and Giancarlo Esposito (as the narrator), dealing with such timely and timeless issues as racism, inclusion, social injustice, politics, abortion, body image, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof), activism and, of course, romance in the millennial age.

Through an absurdist lens, Dear White People uses sharp, quick-fire dialogue, biting irony, self-deprecation and brutal honesty to hold up a mirror to some of the problems plaguing society today. It also makes the medicine go down easy by leading with big laughs.

The show is also a master class in how to successfully make that tricky transition from the big to small screen, and tellingly it has retained a coveted and rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for both seasons (take note, Emmy voters!).

I recently spoke with Simien about making the show, the changing TV landscape, the Emmys and his next movie.

The TV landscape is full of the corpses of failed movie adaptations. How did you avoid that fate when you adapted your film for TV?
(Laughs) You’re so right. Movies often don’t translate very well to TV, but I felt my film was in the great tradition of multi-protagonist ensemble films I love so much. I also felt that in the confines of 90 minutes or so, you can never really truly get into the hearts of all the characters. By the end, the audience wanted more from them, so it lent itself to the longer format. And I felt it would be much more interesting than the typical show if we [borrowed] a bit of that cinematic tradition — like films by Robert Altman and Spike Lee — where you really get a strong point-of-view and multiple stories are carefully woven together, and then apply it to TV.

It seems that in many ways, the film’s concerns and issues work even better in an extended TV series. What were the big themes you wanted to explore?
As with the film, it’s really a conversation about identity and self, and the roles that you play in society. We all do it in order to navigate society, but for people of color, those identities have been chosen for them, so it often takes us a lot longer to get to the heart of who we really are and what the self is. We’re taught from a very early age to always be aware that you’re different, and that people see you differently. We deal with all that through comedy and satire. It has a lot on its mind.

Where do you shoot?
All in LA. Most of the interiors are done at Tamarack Studios in Sun Valley, and then we shoot our exteriors at UCLA and at a former school in Alhambra.

Do you direct a lot of the episodes?
I direct some. I did three in the first season, and four in the second, but since I run the show along with Yvette Lee Bowser, I’m just too busy to direct them all. So I handpick other directors who come in, such as Barry Jenkins, Charlie McDowell, Tina Mabry and others. But they don’t come into this world to paint by numbers. It’s more a case of them riffing off of what I did, like a jazz musician. It’s a very cohesive and collaborative process, and I’m very involved in all the episodes.

Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, but to be honest I like directing and writing more. The storytelling is the part of the gig that I’m in it for. But it is satisfying to run the larger operation and work closely with all these fantastic writers, directors and actors, and creating this environment where they can all do their best work.

Where do you post?
All at Tamarack, and it’s very convenient since it’s important for me to be able to bounce between the set and the edit bay on each episode. We did all the sound at Warners, and the DI at Universal with colorist Scott Gregory.

Do you like the post process?
I love post because it’s where you figure out if what you shot really works, and it’s your last chance to write the show. It’s the final rewrite, and a chance to fix the things that don’t work, so it’s scary and challenging. Post is also where you get to see the arc of the whole season and see all the episodes as like a five-hour movie. It’s where I get to apply all my final ideas. When I’m writing the show, we’re in a process of discovery, and it’s not until post that you really get a sense of how the beginning fits with the end, and that what you’re trying to say is there and working.

Justin Simien

Can you talk about the editing? You have several editors on the show, yes?
We use two editors per season. Phil Bartell, who cut the film for me, is always one of them. Steve Edwards was the other one on Season 1, and Omar Hassan-Reep was on Season 2. Post schedules are so jammed in TV that using two editors helps speed it all up. We allot a certain amount of time for each episode, so I can spend time with it. Same with the director and the editor.

You have a big cast and a lot of storylines. What are the big editing challenges?
The big one is that none of the show is turnkey. Directors don’t paint by numbers and the scripts are not written to any kind of format or formula — other than we stay with one point of view at a time. So that means that editing each episode is like editing its own mini-movie. One episode is film noir, another’s about mushrooms and hallucinations, so each one requires different styles, techniques, and different approaches work for different points of view. Each time we have to reinvent the wheel.

VFX play a big role in some episodes. Can you talk about working on them?
There’s far more than normal for a show like this, and mostly because social media is such an integral part of the characters’ lives. So we really try and use all that in a cinematic way and give you the feeling of what they’re going through instead of just cutting to the cell phone or computer every time. We really work hard to integrate all that.

Ingenuity does all the overlay VFX and it can take a while to figure it all out and get it right.

Unlike movies, sound in television has arguably always played second fiddle to the images, but this has a great score by Kris Bowers and great sound design. Please talk about the importance of sound and music to you.
Sound in movies has always gotten more attention, but TV’s changing and getting more cinematic. Music is so important to me, and I make sure the score isn’t just filler or interstitial — it has to be able to operate independently of the visuals, like it does with the movies of my favorite filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick. It’s not just supplemental, and Kris is brilliant — just as adept at jazz as classical — and we have recurring themes and motifs and thematic hooks, and it’s very multi-layered.

How important are the Emmys to a show like this?
Very. We live in a world where there’s so much to watch now, and I don’t think there’s anything like it out there. But it can take effort to get people to watch and give the show and the characters a shot. So the Emmys can really help shine a light.

What’s next?
I’ll be directing my second film, which I wrote and is titled Bad Hair. It’s a horror satire that’s set in the late ‘80s about an ambitious young woman who wants to be a DJ but who doesn’t have the right look, so she gets a weave that may or may not have a mind of its own. I’m casting right now and hope to start shooting this summer.


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.

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.

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.

Chatting with The Beguiled director Sofia Coppola

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A-List: Director Danny Boyle talks about T2 Trainspotting

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain Blair and Danny Boyle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Iain Blair

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

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The A-List: Lego Batman Movie director Chris McKay

By Iain Blair

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

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

Chris McKay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The A-List: Elle director Paul Verhoeven

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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