Tag Archives: Iain Blair

Yesterday director Danny Boyle

By Iain Blair

Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town remembers their songs. That’s the brilliant-yet-simple setup for Yesterday, the new rock ’n’ roll comedy from Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, Notting Hill).

Danny Boyle on set with lead actor Himesh Patel

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel of BBC’s EastEnders) is the struggling singer-songwriter whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend/manager, Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). But after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that only he remembers The Beatles and their music, and his career goes supercharged when he ditches his own mediocre songs and instead starts performing hit after hit by the Fab Four — as if he’d written them.

Yesterday co-stars Ed Sheeran and James Corden (playing themselves) and Emmy Award-winner Kate McKinnon as Jack’s Hollywood agent. Along with new versions of The Beatles’ most beloved hits, Yesterday features a seasoned group of collaborators, including DP Christopher Ross (Terminal, the upcoming Cats), editor Jon Harris (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 127 Hours), music producer Adem Ilhan (The Ones Below, In the Loop) and composer Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse).

I recently spoke with Boyle, whose eclectic credits include Shallow Grave, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, Trance, Steve Jobs, Sunshine and 127 Hours, about making the film and the workflow.

What was your first reaction when you read this script?
I was a big fan of Richard’s work, and we’d worked together on the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics, when we did this Chariots of Fire spoof with Rowan Atkinson, and I casually said to him, “If you’ve ever got anything for me, send it over.” And he said, “Funnily enough, I do have a script that might suit you,” and he sent it over, and I was just overwhelmed when I read it. He’d managed to take these two fairly ordinary people and their love story, and then intertwine it, like a double helix, with this love letter to The Beatles, which is the whole texture and feeling of this film.

It comes across as this very uplifting and quite emotional film.
I’m glad you said that, as I thought this whole simple idea — and it’s not sci-fi, but it’s not really explained — of this global amnesia about The Beatles and all their songs was just so glorious and wonderful, and just like listening to one of their songs. It really moved me, and especially the scene at the end. That affected me in a very personal way.  It’s about the wonder of cinema and its relationship to time, and film is the only art form that really looks at time in such detail because film is time. And that relates directly to editing, where you’re basically compressing time, stretching it, speeding it up, freezing it — and even stopping it. No other art form can do that.

The other amazing aspect of film is that going to the movies is also an expression of time. The audience says, “I’m yours for the next two hours,” and in return you give them time that’s manipulated and squeezed and stretched, and even stopped. That’s pretty amazing, I think. That’s what I tried to do with this film, do something that brings back The Beatles and all that sense of pure joy in their music, and how it changed people’s lives forever.

Is it true that Jack is partly based on Ed Sheeran’s own life story?
It is, absolutely, and he’s good friends with Richard Curtis. Ed played all the little pubs and small festivals where we shot, and very unsuccessfully when he started out. Then he was propelled into superstardom, and that also appeared to happen overnight. Where did all his great songs come from? Then, like in the film, Ed actually returned to his childhood sweetheart and they ended up getting married, and you go, “Wow! OK. That’s amazing.” So all that gave us the exo-skeleton of the film, and Ed’s also done some acting — he was in Game of Thrones and Bridget Jones’ Baby, and then he also wrote the song at the end, so it was really perfect he was also in it.

What did Himesh bring to the role of Jack?
The only trepidation I had was when I began auditioning people for the part, as it was basically, “Come in and sing a couple of Beatles songs.” And some were probably better technically than Himesh, but I soon realized it was going to be far harder than I thought to get the right guy. We had great actors who weren’t great singers, and vice versa, and we didn’t want just a karaoke version of 17 songs.

And making it more complicated was that, unlike in the film, we all do remember The Beatles. But then Himesh walked in, played “Yesterday” and “Back in the USSR,” and even though I was oversaturated by The Beatles music at this point, they just grabbed me. He made them his own, as if they were his songs. He was also very modest with it as well, in his demeanor and approach. He doesn’t rethink the wheel. He says, “This is the song you’ve missed, and I’m bringing it back to you.” And that’s the quality he brings to his performance. There’s a genuine simplicity, but he’s also very funny and subtle. He doesn’t try and hijack The Beatles and lay on extra notes that you don’t need. He’s a very gentle guy, and he lets you see the song for what it is, the beauty of them.

Obviously, the music and sound were crucial in this, and usually films have the actors lipsync, but Himesh sang live?
Totally. He played and sang live — no dubs or pre-records. Early on I sat down with Simon Hayes, who won the Oscar for mixing Les Mis, and told him that’s what I wanted. It’s very difficult to do live recording well, but once Simon heard Himesh sing, he got it.

The songs in this help tell the story, and they’re as important as all the dialogue, so every time you hear Himesh play and sing it live. Then for all the big concerts, like at Wembley, we added extra musicians, which we over-dubbed. So even if there were mistakes or problems with Himesh’s performances, we kept it, as you’ve got to believe it’s him and his songs. It had to be honest and true.

We screened the premiere in Dolby Vision Atmos in London, and it’s got such a fantastic range. The sound is so crisp and clean — and not just the effects, but all the dialogue, which is a big tribute to Simon. It’ll be so sad if we lose cinema to streaming on TV and watching films on tiny phones because we’ve now achieved a truly remarkable technical standard in sound.

Where did you do all the post?
We edited at a few places. We were based at Pinewood to start with, as I was involved with the Bond film, and then we moved to some offices in central London. Finally, we ended up at Working Title, where they have a great editing setup in the basement. Then as usual we did all the sound mixing at Pinewood with Glenn Freemantle and his team from Sound 24. They’ve done a lot of my films.

We did all the visual effects with my usual guy, VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne over at Union Visual Effects in London. He’s done all my films for a very long time now, and they did a lot of stuff with crowd and audience work for the big shows. Plus, a lot of invisible stuff like extensions, corrections, cleanup and so on.

You also reteamed with editor Jon Harris, whose work on 127 Hours earned him an Oscar nom. What were the big editing challenges?
We had quite a few. There was this wonderful scene of Jack going on the James Corden show and playing “Something,” the George Harrison song, and we ultimately had to cut the whole thing. On its own, it was this perfect scene, but in the context of the film it came too late, and it was also too reminiscent of “Yesterday” and “The Long and Winding Road.”

The film just didn’t need it, and it was quite a long sequence, and it was really sad to cut it, but it just flowed better without it. Originally, we started the film with a much longer sequence showing Jack being unsuccessful, and once we tested that, it was immediately obvious that the audience understood it all very quickly. We just didn’t need all that, so we had to cut a lot of that. It’s always about finding the right rhythm and pace for the story you’re telling.

L-R: Iain Blair and Danny Boyle

Where was the DI done?
At Goldcrest with colorist Adam Glasman, who has worked a lot with DP Chris Ross. It was a very joyous film to make and I wanted it to look joyful too, with a summer spirit, but also with a hint of melancholy. I think Himesh has that too, and it doesn’t affect the joy, but it’s a sub-note. It’s like the English countryside, where we tried to capture all its beauty but also that feeling it’s about to rain all the time. It’s that special bittersweet feeling.

I assume Paul and Ringo gave you their blessing on this project?
Yeah, you have to get their agreement as they monitor the use of the songs, and Working Title made a great deal with them. It was very expensive, but it gave us the freedom to be able to change the songs in the edit at the last minute if need be, which we did a few times. We got beautiful letters back, very touching, and Paul was very funny as he gave us permission to use “Yesterday,” which we also used as the film title. He told us that his original lyric title was “Scrambled Eggs,” and if the film turned out to be a mess, we could just call it Scrambled Eggs instead.


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.

Showrunner and EP Peter Gould on AMC’s Better Call Saul

By Iain Blair

Having a legal issue? Thinking of calling someone who has a questionable relationship with the rule of law? Jimmy McGill? Saul Goodman? Or, maybe, Gene, the lonely Cinnabon store manager? The slippery, shady, shape-shifting character — played beautifully by multiple Emmy-nominee Bob Odenkirk — is at the heart of Better Call Saul, the spin-off prequel to AMC’s Breaking Bad. But if you want to know what’s going on under the hood of the show, you better call writer/showrunner Peter Gould.

L-R: Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan

A Sony Pictures Television and AMC Studios co-production, Better Call Saul is executive produced by co-creators Gould and Vince Gilligan, as well as Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad, Diner, Rain Man), Melissa Bernstein (Breaking Bad, Rectify, Halt and Catch Fire) and Breaking Bad alums Thomas Schnauz and Gennifer Hutchison. The show recently won a Peabody Award in the Entertainment category and has racked up wins and nominations from pretty much every organization that hands them out, including Primetime Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG, AFI and the WGA.

For those of you who are champing at the bit for a new season this summer, you must be patient. The new season isn’t set to premiere until 2020, so maybe binge watch some Saul or even Breaking Bad to get you through!

I recently spoke with Gould about making the show and the latest on the Breaking Bad movie.

Do you enjoy being a showrunner?
I love it. In my opinion it’s the greatest job in show business. It’s a privilege to get to work with all the people on this, and it’s a fantastic situation. If the show falls short I only have myself to blame, as the cast and crew are all extraordinary.

What are the big challenges of showrunning Better Call Saul?
The number one challenge is always figuring out the story and how to tell the story in the most interesting and engaging way… while being as true as possible to the characters we’ve created, and then how to create the most cinematic experience that we can. By that, I mean using every tool we have available in production and post.

How far along are you Season 5?
Today we’re shooting the last day of Episode 3. Episode 4 starts next week, and we’re breaking the last episode, which is number 10.  We’re also in the middle of cutting the first three episodes, so there’s a lot going on.

What can fans expect? Will we see more of Gene Takovic, the man Jimmy McGill becomes after he becomes Saul Goodman?
I think it’s safe to say that we’re very interested in Gene. There’s a lot more to be said about him, and fans can expect that. One of the fun things about Gene is that his scenes are in black-and-white, so it gives us a very different space to play in visually.

Why such a long wait from season four until five airs next year?
There’s a lot of moving parts, and we do our best each season to craft the best show we can. So the time is actually spent more in the writing than in the production or post, which are more predictable in terms of schedules. Then there’s the matter of scheduling with the network and other outlets. But I think it’s about the same, month to month. It takes us about 14 months to do a season from start to finish; that seems to be how it works on this. I’m not proud of that, as there are a lot of other TV shows that make a lot more episodes in a lot less time, but we can’t seem to do it much faster and keep up the high quality we all aim for.

Are you still shooting in Albuquerque?
Absolutely. That setting and all the locations are a very important part of the show.

Where do you post, and do you like the post process?
I love working on all the post, and I work closely with our post EP Diane Mercer and the people at our post facility, Keep Me Posted, which is our partner and part of Fotokem in Burbank. We do the audio mix at Wildtracks in Hollywood. Phillip Palmer does our production sound mixing, and Kevin Valentine and Larry Benjamin do all our re-recording mixing. They’re just the best there is.

Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Our editors — Skip Macdonald and Chris McCaleb — cut the show here at our LA offices, where we also have our writers’ room. So at the start of a season, it’s very quiet because nothing much is happening there, but once production starts, every part of our offices are very busy. Then once the writers go home, all the post comes in and it’s really bustling.

What are the big editing challenges?
We have a very big cast and a lot of moving pieces in each episode. Plus there are a lot of time jumps, so we alternate with the editors. So this year Skip is on the odds and Chris is on the evens. They do their cuts and then the directors come in to do their cut. As they’re so heavily booked these days, some of them end up giving notes remotely, and we use Pix to distribute our cuts and dailies.

One of the eccentricities of the way this show’s evolved — and it’s really based on the way Vince Gilligan ran Breaking Bad, and where I learned everything I know about showrunning — is that we don’t really do a producer’s cut until fairly late in the process. There are cuts of pretty much every episode before we close production, but we don’t fully address post until after production has closed, especially on a season like number three.

When I direct the season finale, that creates a big hole in the production schedule, and as soon as I get back we start working on the producer’s cut. Generally, I’ll give notes on the director’s cut and editor’s cut, and the editors will execute those on their own. Then I’ll end up spending about a week with the editor on each episode. Usually, the writer and maybe another producer will sit in too. And often an EP like Tom Schnauz will sit in as he has a great eye for editing, and we’ll do the producer’s cut together in that week.

You mention directing a few of the shows. Do you like directing?
I do, but I find it very stressful. I haven’t done it enough of it to lower my stress level, but I find it very creative. I think it’s very useful for the show to have a showrunner come and direct and episode now and again, as it keeps my humility level going as directing is a hard battle. It’s wonderful to be able to work with the cast and crew in such a hands-on way.

Peter Gould (center) on set

I’ve always loved every aspect of filmmaking, and I’m fascinated by it all — from the chip sensors we use to the dollies, lights and so on. I have such respect for the craft and artistry of everyone making the show, and what I’ve learned about directing is that success or failure is about the situation you’re in as much as it is about your own talent. This is a great situation.

This show has a great score, and great sound design. Where do you mix and talk about the importance of sound and music.
Nick Forshager is our sound supervisor over at Wildtracks. I’m pretty involved in all the sound, but we do things a bit different from most shows. For a start, we use almost no temp music on the cuts, for various reasons. One, it can be a bit of a crutch, and second, you get used to it, so anything new then sounds strange. We’ve trained ourselves to cut without it, and our composer Dave Porter is brilliant at spotting where music can be useful and where it’s not necessary. So we spend time spotting each episode and talk a lot about the music and sound, and I believe sound and music are the way to get to an audience’s emotion by bypassing the logical brain.

You can really enhance the drama and clue-in the audience on how to read a scene through sound design and ambient shifts. I can’t tell you how often we’ve had a scene that sort of played okay, but which just came alive when we found the right sound. There’s a great example of that in a scene at the end of Season 1 where Jimmy’s running the bingo game, and he has this nervous breakdown. We kept making the speakers worse and worse, and added some delay and we had the pops in the mic when he got too close — and it went from being a really interesting scene to one that was funnier, more public and more psychological. So we put in so much detail and it really pays off.

Where do you do the grading, and who’s the colorist?
It’s all done at Keep Me Posted and our colorist is Ted Brady. You asked earlier why it all takes so long, and one big reason is that I’m at every producer’s color session. Our DP Marshall Adams is usually there too, and we’ll go through the whole show together. It takes about a day to do one episode and make sure we’re happy with the look.

It definitely has a different look from Breaking Bad, and even from season to season.
You’re right. That was shot on film, and it was a very different process in post. Now we’re shooting digitally, there’s almost too many possibilities. We also switched cameras this season, from Reds to an ARRI LF, and it has a different look from the Red. And we began shooting night exteriors on Season Three with the Panasonic VariCam, which gave us a very interesting look — neither filmic nor digital. The other thing is that as the characters evolve and change, it just made sense to change the look too.

How long do you see the show running?
Great question! This is a show with a beginning, middle and end, and I can say we’re closer to the end than the beginning. I just hope we can stick the ending the way Vince stuck it on Breaking Bad.

What’s the latest on the Breaking Bad movie?
You tell me! Vince knows.


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.

All Is True director Kenneth Branagh

By Iain Blair

Five-time Oscar-nominee Ken Branagh might be the biggest Shakespeare fan in the business. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the actor/director/producer/screenwriter largely owes his fame and fortune to the Bard. For the past 30 years he’s directed (and often starred in) dozens of theatrical productions, as well as feature film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, starting with 1989’s Henry V. That film won him two Oscar nominations: Best Actor and Best Director. He followed that with Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet (which won him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod), Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It.

Ken Branagh and Iain Blair

So it was probably only a matter of time before the Irish star jumped at the chance to play Shakespeare himself in the new film All Is True, a fictionalized look at the final years of the playwright. Set in 1613, Shakespeare is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age, but disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre burns to the ground. Devastated, Shakespeare returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family — wife Anne (Judi Dench) and two daughters, Susanna (Lydia Wilson) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder). The large ensemble cast also includes Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton.

I sat down with Branagh — whose credits include directing such non-Shakespeare movies as Thor, Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express and acting in Dunkirk and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — to talk about about making the film and his workflow.

You’ve played many of Shakespeare’s characters in film or on stage. Was it a dream come true to finally play the man himself, or was it intimidating?
It was a dream come true, as I feel like he’s been a guide and mentor since I discovered him at school. And, rather like a dog, he’s given me unconditional love ever since. So I was happy to return some. It’s easy to forget that he was just a guy. He was amazing and a genius, but first and foremost he was a human being.

What kind of film did you hope to make?
A chamber piece, a character piece that took him out of his normal environment. I didn’t want it to be the predictable romp inside a theater, full of backstage bitching and all that sort of theatricality. I wanted to take him away from that and put him back in the place he was from, and I also wanted to load the front part of the movie with silence instead of tons of dialogue.

How close do you feel it gets to the reality of his final years?
I think it’s very truthful about Stratford. It was a very litigious society, and some of the scenes — like the one where John Lane stands up in church and makes very public accusations — all happened. His son Hamnet’s death was unexplained, and Shakespeare did seem to be very insecure in some areas. He wanted money and success and he lived in a very volatile world. If he was supposed to be this returning hero coming back to the big house and a warm welcome from his family, whom he hadn’t seen much of the past two decades, it didn’t quite happen that way. No, he was this absentee dad and husband, and the town had an ambivalent relationship with him; it wasn’t a peaceful retirement at all.

The film is visually gorgeous, and all the candlelit scenes reminded me of Barry Lyndon.
I’m so glad you said that as DP Zac Nicholson and I were partly inspired by that film and that look, and we used only candlelight and no additional lights for those scenes. Painters, like Vermeer and Rembrandt, were our inspiration for all the day and night scenes, respectively.

Clint Eastwood told me, “Don’t ever direct and star in a movie unless you’re a sucker for punishment — it’s just too hard.” So how hard was it?
(Laughs) He’s right. It is very hard, and a lot of work, but it’s also a big privilege. But I had a lot of great help — the crew and people like Judi and Ian. They had great suggestions and you listen to every tidbit they have to offer. I don’t know how Clint does it, but I do a lot of listening and stealing. The directing and acting are so interlinked to me, and I love directing as I get to watch Ian and Judi work, and they’re such hard workers. Judi literally gets to the set before anyone else, and she’s pacing up and down and getting ready to defend Anne Hathaway. She has this huge empathy for her characters which you feel so much, and here she was giving voice to a woman who could not read or write.

Where did you post?
We were based at Longcross Studios, where we did Murder on the Orient Express and the upcoming Artemis Fowl. We did most of it there, and then we ended up at The Post Republic, which has places in London and Berlin, to do the final finishing. Then we did all the final mixing at Twickenham with the great re-recording mixer Andy Nelson and his team. It was my second picture with Andy Nelson as the rerecording mixer. I am completely present throughout and I am completely involved in the final mix.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s the place where I understood, right from my first film, that it could make — in terms of performance — a good one bad, a good one great, a bad one much better. The power of change in post is just amazing to me, and realizing that anything is possible if you have the imagination. So the way you juxtapose the images you’ve collected — and the way a scene from the third act might actually work better in the first act — is so huge in post. That fluidity was a revelation to me, and you can have these tremendous eureka moments in post that can be beautiful and so inspiring.

Can you talk about working with editor Una Ni Dhongaile, who cut The Crown and won a BAFTA for Three Girls?
She’s terrific. She wasn’t on the set but we talked a lot during the shoot. I like her because she really has an opinion. She’s definitely not a “yes” person, but she’s also very sensitive. She also gets very involved with the characters and protects you as a director. She won’t let you cut too soon or too deep, and she encourages you to take a moment to think about stuff. She’s one of those editors who has this special kind of intuition about what the film needs, in addition to all her technical skills and intellectual understanding of what’s going on.

What were the big editing challenges?
After doing a lot of very long takes we used the very best, and despite using a very painterly style we didn’t make the film feel too static. We didn’t want to falsely or artificially cut to just affect the pace, but allow it to flow naturally so every minute was earned. We also didn’t want to feel afraid of holding a particular shot for a long time. We definitely needed pauses and rests, and Shakespeare is musical in his poetry and the way he juxtaposes fast and slow moments. So all those decisions were critical and needed mulling as well as executing.

Talk about the importance of sound and music, as it’s a very quiet film.
It’s absolutely critical in a world like this where light and sound play huge roles and are so utterly different to our own modern understanding of it. The aural and audio space you can offer an audience for this was a big chance to adventure back in time, when the world was far more sparsely populated. Especially in a little place like Stratford; silence played a big role as well. You’re offering a hint of the outside world and the aural landscape is really the bedrock for all the introspection and thoughtfulness this movie deals with.

Patrick Doyle’s music has this gossamer approach — that was the word we used. It was like a breath, so that the whole sound experience invited the audience into the meditative world of Shakespeare. We wanted them to feel the seasons pass, the wind in the trees, and how much more was going on than just the man thinking about his past. It was the experience of returning home and being with this family again, so you’d hear a creak of a chair and it would interrupt his thoughts. So we worked hard on every little detail like that.

Where did you do the grading and coloring?
Post Republic in their North London facility, and again, I’m involved every step of the way.

Did making this film change your views about Shakespeare the man?
Yes, and it was an evolving thing. I’ve always been drawn to his flawed humanity, so it seemed real to be placing this man in normal situations and have him be right out of his comfort zone at the start of the film. So you have this acclaimed, feted and busy playwright, actor, producer and stage manager suddenly back on the dark side of the moon, which Stratford was back then. It was a small town, a three-day trip from London, and it must have been a shock. It was candlelight and recrimination. But I think he was a man without pomp. His colleagues most often described him as modest and gentle, so I felt a vulnerability that surprised me. I think that’s authentic to the man.

What’s next for you?
Disney’s Artemis Fowl, the fantasy-adventure based on the books, which will be released on May 29, and then I start directing Death on the Nile for Fox, which starts shooting late 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.

Showrunner: Eric Newman of Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico

By Iain Blair

Much like the drugs that form the dark heart of Narcos: Mexico, the hit Netflix crime drama is full of danger, chills and thrills — and is highly addictive. It explores the origins of the modern, ultra-violent drug war by going back to its roots, beginning at a time when the Mexican trafficking world was a loose and disorganized confederation of independent growers and dealers. But that all changed with the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s as Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna) — the real-life former Sinaloan police-officer-turned-drug lord — takes the helm, unifying traffickers in order to build an empire.

L-R: Director José Padilha and producer Chris Brancato bookend Eric Newman on the set of Narcos, Season 1.

The show also follows DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), who moves his wife and young son from California to Guadalajara to take on a new post. He quickly learns that his assignment will be more challenging than he ever could have imagined. As Kiki garners intelligence on Félix and becomes more entangled in his mission, a tragic chain of events unfold, affecting the drug trade and the war against it for years to come.

Narcos showrunner, writer and executive producer Eric Newman is a film and television veteran whose resume includes the Academy Award-nominated Children of Men, as well as The Dawn of the Dead, The Last Exorcism and Bright. After over 20 years in the movie industry, Newman transitioned into television as an executive producer on Hemlock Grove for Netflix. It was his curiosity about the international drug trade that led him to develop and executive produce his passion project Narcos, and Newman assumed showrunning responsibilities at the end of its first season. Narcos: Mexico initially started out as the fourth season of Narcos before Netflix decided to make it a stand-alone series.

I recently spoke with Newman about making the show, his involvement in post and another war that’s grabbed a lot of headlines — the one between streaming platforms and traditional cinema.

Do you like being a showrunner?
Yeah! There are aspects of it I really love. I began toward the end of the first season and there was this brief period where I tried not to be the showrunner, even though it was my show. I wasn’t really a writer — I wasn’t in the WGA — so I had a lot of collaborators, but I still felt alone in the driver’s seat. It’s a huge amount of work, from the writing to the shoot and then post, and it never really ends. It’s exhausting but incredibly rewarding.

What are the big challenges of running this show?
If I’d known more about TV at the time, I might have been far more frightened than I was (laughs).The big one is dealing with all the people and personalities involved. We have anywhere between 200 and 400 people working on the show at any given time, so it’s tricky. But I love working with actors, I think I’m a good listener, and any major problems are usually human-oriented. And then there’s all the logistics and moving parts. We began the series shooting in Colombia and then moved the whole thing to Mexico, so that was a big challenge. But the cast and crew are so great, we’re like a big family at this point, and it runs pretty smoothly now.

How far along are you with the second season of Narcos: Mexico?
We’re well into it, and while it’s called Season Two, the reality for us is that it’s the fifth season of a long, hard slog.

This show obviously deals with a lot of locations. How difficult is it when you shoot in Mexico?
It can be hard and grueling. We’re shooting entirely in Mexico — nothing in the States. We shot in Colombia for three years and we went to Panama once, and now we’re all over Mexico — from Mexico City to Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Durango and so on.

It’s also very dangerous subject matter, and one of your location scouts was murdered. Do you worry about your safety?
That was a terrible incident, and I’m not sure whoever shot him even knew he was a location scout on our show. The reality is that a number of incredibly brave journalists, who had nowhere near the protection we have, had already shared these stories — and many were killed for it. So in many ways we’re late to the party.

Of course, you have to be careful anywhere you go, but that’s true of every city. You can find trouble in LA or New York if you are in the wrong place. I don’t worry about the traffickers we depict, as they’re mainly all dead now or in jail, and they seem OK with the way they’re depicted… that it’s pretty truthful. I worry a little bit more about the police and politicians.

Where do you post and do you like the post process?
I absolutely love post, and I think it’s a deeply underrated and under-appreciated aspect of the show. We’ve pulled off far more miracles in post than in any of the writing and shooting. We do all the post at Lantana in LA with the same great team that we’ve had from the start, including post producer Tim King and associate post producer Tanner King.

When we began the series in Colombia, we were told that Netflix didn’t feel comfortable having the footage down there for editing because of piracy issues, and that worked for me. I like coming back to edit and then going back down to Mexico to shoot. We shoot two episodes at a time and cut two at a time. I’m in the middle of doing fixes on Episode 2 and we’re about to lock Episode 3.

Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
We have four full-time editors — Iain Erskine, Garret Donnelly, Monty DeGraff and Jon Otazua — who each take separate episodes, plus we have one editor dedicated to the archival package, which is a big part of the show. We’ve also promoted two assistant editors, which I’m very proud of. That’s a nice part of being on a show that’s run for five years; you can watch people grow and move them up the ladder.

You have a huge cast and a lot of moving pieces in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
We have a fair amount of coverage to sort through, and it’s always about telling the story and the pacing — finding the right rhythm for each scene.

This show has a great score and great sound design. Where do you mix, and can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
We do all the mixing at Technicolor, and we have a great team that includes supervising sound editor Randle Akerson and supervising ADR editor Thomas Whiting. (The team also includes sound effects editors Dino R. DiMuro and Troy Prehmus, dialogue editor David Padilla, music editor Chris Tergesen, re-recording mixers Pete Elia and Kevin Roache and ADR mixer Judah Getz.)

It’s all so crucial. All you have to do is look at a rough edit without any sound of music and it’s just so depressing. I come from a family of composers, so I really appreciate this part of post, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla has done a fantastic job, and the music’s changed a bit since we moved to Mexico. I’m fairly involved with all of it. I get a final playback and maybe I’ll have a few notes, but generally the team has got it right.

In 2017, you formed Screen Arcade with producer Bryan Unkeless, a production company based at Netflix with deals for features and television. I heard you have a new movie you’re producing for Netflix, PWR with Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt?
It’s all shot, and we’re just headed into the Director’s Cut. We’re posting in New York and have our editorial offices there. Netflix is so great to partner with. They care as much about the quality of image and sound as any studio I’ve ever worked with — and I’ve worked with everyone. In terms of the whole process and deliverables, there’s no difference.

It’s interesting because there’s been a lot of pushback against Netflix and other streaming platforms from the studios, purists and directors like Steven Spielberg. Where do you see the war for cinema’s future going?
I think it’ll be driven entirely by audience viewing habits, as it should be. Some of my all-time favorite movies — The Bridge on the River Kwai, Taxi Driver, Sunset Boulevard, Barry Lyndon — weren’t viewed in a movie house.

Cinema exhibition is a business. They want Black Panther and Star Wars, so it’s a commerce argument not a creative one. With all due respect to Spielberg, no one can dictate viewing habits, and maybe for now they can deny Netflix and streaming platforms Academy awards, but not forever.


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.

Idris Elba and Gary Reich talk about creating Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie

By Iain Blair

Idris Elba has always excelled at playing uber-cool, uber-controlled characters — often villains and troubled souls, such as drug lord Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire, detective John Luther on the BBC’s Luther, and the war lord in the harrowing feature film Beasts of No Nation. No wonder everyone thinks he’d be perfect as the next uber-sexy Bond.

But there’s another, hidden side to the charismatic star. The actor has long been heavily involved in post production. Additionally, he moonlights as a DJ, the inspiration for his new Netflix show Turn Up Charlie. He trashes his super-cool image by starring as the titular Charlie, a decidedly uncool, struggling DJ and eternal bachelor, who finally gets a shot at success when he reluctantly becomes a “manny” to his famous best friend’s problem-child daughter.

The show also serves as a showcase for Elba’s self-described “nerdy” side behind the camera, his love of producing and his hands-on involvement in every aspect of post. The eight-part series is co-produced by Elba’s Green Door Pictures and Gary Reich’s Brown Eyed Boy Productions, with Elba and Reich serving as executive producers alongside Tristram Shapeero, who directs the series with Matt Lipsey.

And in a serious show of support for the show and its star, Netflix (which for the first time beat HBO in Emmy noms last year) officially launched an Emmy “For Your Consideration” campaign, with a screening and panel discussion featuring Elba.

Prior to the event, I spoke with the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated Elba (whose credits also include the Avengers and Thor franchises, American Gangster, Star Trek Beyond, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Office and The Jungle Book) about his latest project, his real-life moonlighting gig as a DJ, his love of post and his upcoming role in Cats. We also spoke with his Turn Up Charlie co-creator Reich.

Let’s talk about post production on the show. How involved are you, considering you’re also starring and co-producing?
Idris Elba: We did it at The Farm in London, and I’m pretty involved in every aspect of post, though I’m not sitting in the edit suite all day long looking at every frame. But I really love the whole process, especially editing and, of course, the sound and music because of my background as a DJ. So I’ll be there checking the edits and how it’s being put together.

Then I’ll be there for all the sound mix stuff and also for the final grade, which I love too. I’m super-nerdy in that way, and I find it very satisfying to be involved in post. For most actors, post is this whole hidden, secret world that you never see or get involved in, but I’ve always been fascinated by how it all comes together… how you can manipulate a performance or the sound to totally change a scene and how it works and affects the audience. It’s really the most creative part of making a TV show or a movie, and hopefully I’ll be more and more involved in it all.

People think of you as an actor first and foremost, but you’ve been involved in producing and post for quite a while.
Elba: Yeah, I’ve always been interested in it, learning stuff as I go, and watching directors and how post works. When I directed my first film, Yardie, a couple of years ago, it was a real education, and I loved every minute of it — being involved in all the editing and working on all the elements that go into the sound mix and music. I’ve been involved in production with a lot of the shows I’ve done, like Luther and Five by Five and now this one, and I really enjoy it.

Gary, any surprises working with Idris? And what was the schedule like?
Gary Reich: For someone so busy across so many different mediums, it was amazing how he was always able to give 100% in the moment. He’s like a powerful lighthouse — when he shines on you and your production, you get a dazzling 150% of him. As a co-executive producer, he was involved across many surprisingly small details, as well as the larger picture. We edited at The Farm, and the offline was what you’d expect — a week for each half-hour episode. The music was extremely complex, so once the pictures were locked, there was a long process of auditioning tracks.

Who edited, and what were the main challenges?
Reich: Gary Dollner edited block 1 (Episodes 1-4) with the block 1 director, Tristram Shapeero. Pete Drinkwater edited block 2 (Episodes 5-8) with the block 2 director, Matt Lipsey. The main challenges were that Idris wanted us to approach the edit like a DJ, where the rhythm of each episode’s scene-to-scene transitions would be similar to what a DJ achieves mixing between tracks. Luckily, our editors more than rose to that challenge.

Talk about the importance of sound and music for you and Idris on this. Where did you mix?
Reich: We also mixed at The Farm. Sound and music were extremely key to the show as it is, after all, a show about, created by and scored by a DJ. The score was composed by DJ James Lavelle, so Idris and he had various meetings in the edit where it was clear they spoke the same language. It was important to Idris that the character themes were all electronic rather than acoustic, even the very emotional beats. James and his team adapted accordingly, and we have some amazing new sounds in the show.

Also, one of the key series arcs was a track that Idris’ character Charlie had had a big one-off hit with in the ’90s, that then gets remixed across three episodes by our female Calvin Harris character, played by Piper Perabo, and then gets dropped at the Latitude Festival. It was key that we were authentic, as we showed the track coming together at different stages across different scenes. The mix was all done at The Farm.

I noticed some VFX credits. What was involved, who did them?
Reich: We had a lot of mobile phone and some Skype screens that needed shots compositing in, and some posters too, as well as needing to build a nightclub onto the back of a beach bar. They were all done by The Farm.

Who was the colorist and what was involved?
Reich: Perry Gibbs was the colorist. Because we shot on anamorphic lenses, but also had to use the Red cameras in order to meet certain Netflix technical requirements, there were challenges in the grade, but they were worth it, as the end result was particularly deep.

Idris, Charlie is a major U-turn from your usual self-assured characters. You co-created this show with Gary for yourself, so is this actually the real you?
Elba: (Laughs). Yeah, it is the closest to the real me. I’m not anything like Luther or the other characters I’m best known for. I’m closer to Charlie than anything else. I really wanted to show what the real world of DJs is like, and we spent a lot of time in post working on the music. But the truth is, no one really cares about what DJs go through as long as the music’s good, so I needed to add some heart and other elements to it, and it gradually became more about parenting and all those challenges. I’m a parent, so I brought all those experiences and stories to it and merged the two worlds. It ended up being a bit about the world of music and a lot about people.

Many people probably don’t know that you actually started out as a DJ in London before you got into acting.
Elba: Right, and partly thanks to this, I seem to be getting a lot more exposure for my DJ’ing these days, especially after doing “the wedding” [Elba was asked by Prince Harry to DJ at his wedding to Meghan Markle], and now I’ll be DJ’ing at Coachella, and then I’m doing the Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas and some other gigs. So if the acting thing falls apart, I’m all set!

DJ’ing was really my first love, and by the time I was 13, 14, I was DJ’ing for house parties and whatnot, and then I met my drama teacher, and DJ’ing went out the window. But the truth is, I kept DJ’ing alongside my acting career, and I just love doing it. It grounds me, and I love music. What I chose not to do is market my DJ’ing as part of my acting career, but recently it’s become this crazy crossroads of all this stuff happening, what with this show and Coachella and so on. It all looks like a brilliant marketing plan, but it’s not. I’m just not that clever!

When you get back to London, you’ll keep filming Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which is due out later this year. What can you tell us about it?
Elba: I can’t reveal too much, but it’s going great. I get to play another villain, Macavity, which is always fun for me. Tom’s got a really interesting look and take on it, and he’s assembled this amazing cast: Taylor Swift, who I got on great with, and Jennifer Hudson and James Corden. He’s so funny. And Ian McKellen. It’s going to be pretty special.

Aren’t you playing another villain in Hobbs & Shaw, the Fast & Furious spinoff due out in August?
Elba: Yeah, I play Brixton Lore, this cyber-enhanced criminal mastermind who’s going at it with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. Director David Leitch did Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, and we did some really wild stuff. I’m really excited about it. It’s been a busy 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.

The Kominsky Method‘s post brain trust: Ross Cavanaugh and Ethan Henderson

By Iain Blair

As Bette Davis famously said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies!” But Netflix’s The Kominsky Method proves that in the hands of veteran sitcom creator Chuck Lorre — The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and many others — there’s plenty of laughs to be mined from old age… and disease, loneliness and incontinence.

The show stars Michael Douglas as divorced, has-been actor and respected acting coach Sandy Kominsky and Alan Arkin as his longtime agent Norman Newlander. The story follows these bickering best friends as they tackle life’s inevitable curveballs while navigating their later years in Los Angeles, a city that values youth and beauty above all. Both comedic and emotional, The Kominsky Method won Douglas a Golden Globe.

Ethan Henderson and Ross Cavanaugh

The single-camera show is written by Al Higgins, David Javerbaum and Lorre, who also directed the first episode. Lorre, Higgins and Douglas executive produce the series, which is produced by Chuck Lorre Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television.

I recently spoke with associate producer Ross Cavanaugh and post coordinator Ethan Henderson about posting the show.

You are currently working on Season 2?
Ross Cavanaugh: Yes, and we’re moving along quite quickly. We’re already about three-quarters of the way through the season shooting-wise, out of the eight-show arc.

Where do you shoot, and what’s the schedule like?
Cavanaugh: We shoot mainly on the lot at Warner Bros. and then at various locations around LA. We start prepping each show one week before we start shooting, and then we get dailies the day after the first shooting day.

Our dailies lab is Picture Shop, which is right up the street in Burbank and very convenient for us. So getting footage from the set to them is quick, and they’re very fast at turning the dailies around. We usually get them by midnight the same day we drop them off,  then our editors start cutting fairly quickly after that.

Where do you do all the post?
Cavanaugh: Mainly at Picture Shop, who are very experienced in TV post work. They do all the post finishing and some of the VFX stuff — usually the smaller things, like beauty fixes and cleanup. They also do all the final color correction since DP Anette Haellmigk really wanted to work with colorist George Manno. They’ve been really great.

Ethan Henderson: We’re back and forth from the lot to Picture Shop, and once we get more heavily involved in all the post, I spend a lot of time there while we are onlining the show, coloring and doing the VFX drop-ins, and when we start the final deliverables process, since everything for Netflix comes out of there.

What are the big challenges of post production on this show, and how closely do you work with Chuck Lorre?
Cavanaugh: As with any TV show, you’re always on a very tight deadline, and there are a lot of moving parts to deal with very quickly. While our prolific showrunner Chuck Lorre is busy with all the projects he has going — especially with all the writing — he always makes time for us. He’s very passionate about the cut and is extremely on top of things.

I’d say the challenges on this show are actually fairly minimal. Basically, we ran a pretty tight ship on the first season, and now I’d say it’s a well-oiled machine. We haven’t had any big problems or surprises in post, which can happen.

Let’s talk about editing. You had two editors for Season 1 in Matthew Barbato and Gina Sansom. I assume that’s because of the time factor. How does that work?
Cavanaugh: Each editor has their own assistant editor — that was true in Season One (Matthew with Jack Cunningham and Gina with Barb Steele) and in Season two (Steven Lang with Romeo Rubio and Gina with Rahul Das). They cut separately and work on an odds-and-evens schedule, each doing every other episode. We all get together to watch screenings of the Director’s Cut, usually in the editorial bay.

What are the big editing challenges?
Cavanaugh: We have a pretty big cast, and there’s a ton of jokes and stuff going on all the time. In addition to Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, the actors are so experienced. They give such great performances — there’s a lot of material for the editors to cut from. To be honest, the scripts are all so tight that I think one of the challenges is knowing when to cut out a joke, to serve the pacing of an episode.

This isn’t a VFX-driven show, but there are some visual effects shots. Can you explain?
Cavanaugh: We do a lot of driving scenes and use 24frame.com, who have this really good wraparound HD projection technology, so we pretty much shoot all our car scenes on the stage.

Henderson: Once in a while, we’ll pick up some exterior or establishing shots on a freeway using doubles in the cars. All the plates are picked ahead of time. Occasionally, for the sake of continuity, we’ll have to replace a plate in the background and put a different section of the plate in because too many cars ran by, and it didn’t match up in the edit.

That’s one of the things that comes up every so often. The other big thing is that both of the leads wear glasses, so reflections of crew and equipment can become an issue; we have to deal with all that and clean it up.

Cavanaugh: We don’t use many big VFX shots, and we can’t reveal much about what happens in the new season, but sometimes there’s stuff like the scene in season one where one of the characters threw some firecrackers at Michael Douglas’ feet. We obviously weren’t going to throw real ones at Michael Douglas, although I think he’d have sucked it up if we’d done it that way! We were shooting in a residential neighborhood at night and we couldn’t set off real ones because they are very loud, so we ended up doing it all with VFX. FuseFx handled the workload for the heavier VFX work.

Henderson: There was a big shot in the pilot where we did a lot of shot extensions in a restaurant where Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) and Nancy Travis’ character are having coffee. It was this big sweeping pan down over the city.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
Cavanaugh: They both play a key role, and we have a great team that includes music editor Joe Deveau, supervising sound editor Lou Thomas, and sound mixers Yuri Reese and Bill Smith. The sound recording quality we get on set is always great, so that means we only need very minimal ADR. The whole sound mix is done here on the lot at Warners.

Our composer, Jeff Cardoni, worked with Chuck on Young Sheldon, and he’s really on top of getting all the new cues for the show. We basically have two versions of our main title sequence music cues — one is very bombastic and in-your-face, and the other is a bit more subtle — and it’s funny how it broke down in the first season. The guy who cut the pilot and the odd episodes went with the more bombastic version, while the second editor on the even episodes preferred the softer cues, so I’ll be curious to see how all that breaks down in the new season.

How important is all the coloring on this?
Cavanaugh: Very important. After we do all the online, we ship it over to George at Picture Shop and spend about a day and a half on it. The DP either comes in or gets a file, and she gives her notes. Then we’ll play it for Chuck. We’re in the HDR world with Dolby Vision, and it makes it look so beautiful — but then we have to do the standard pass on it as well.

I know you can’t reveal too much about the new season, but what can fans expect?
Henderson: They’re getting a continuation of these two characters’ journey together — growing old and everything that comes with that. I think it feels like a very natural extension of the first season.

Cavanaugh: In terms of the post process, I feel like we’re a Swiss watch now. We’re ticking along very smoothly. Sometimes post can be a nightmare and full of problems, so it’s great to have it all under control.


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.

DP Tom Curran on Netflix’s Tidying Up With Marie Kondo

By Iain Blair

Forget all the trendy shows about updating your home décor or renovating your house. What you really need to do is declutter. And the guru of decluttering is Marie Kondo, the Japanese star of the hot Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.

The organizational expert became a global star when her first book, 2014’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” was translated into English, becoming a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up was 2016’s “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.”

Tom Curran

Clearly, people everywhere need to declutter, and Kondo’s KonMari Method is the answer for those who have too much stuff. As she herself puts it, “My mission is to organize the world and spark joy in people’s lives. Through this partnership with Netflix, I am excited to spread the KonMari Method to as many people as possible.”

I recently spoke with Tom Curran, the cinematographer of the Kondo show. His extensive credits include Ugly Delicious for Netflix, Fish My City for National Geographic and 9 Months for Facebook, which is hosted by Courteney Cox. Curran has an Emmy on his mantle for ABC Sports’ Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Let’s start with the really important stuff. Do you have too much clutter? Has Marie’s philosophy helped you?
(Laughs). It has! I think we all have too much stuff. To be honest, I was a little skeptical at first about all this. But as I spent time with her and educated myself, I began to realize just how much there is to it. I think that it particularly applies to the US, where we all have so much and move so quickly.

In her world, you come to a pause and evaluate all of that, and it’s really quite powerful. And if you follow all of her steps, you can’t do it quickly. It forces you to slow down and take stock. My wife is an editor, and we’re both always so busy, but now we take little pockets of time to attack different parts of the house and the clutter we have. It’s been really powerful and helpful to us.

Why do you think her method and this show have resonated so much with people everywhere?
Americans tend to get so busy and locked into routines, and Japan’s culture is very different. I’ve worked there quite a bit, and she brings this whole other quality to the show. She’s very thoughtful and kind. I think the show does a good job of showing that, and you really feel it. An awful lot of current TV can be a little sharp and mean, and there’s something old-fashioned about this, and audiences really respond. She doesn’t pass judgment on people’s messy houses — she just wants to help.

You’re well-known for shooting in extreme conditions and locations all over the world. How did this compare?
It was radically different in some ways. Instead of vast and bleak landscapes, like Antarctica, you’re shooting the interiors of people’s homes in LA. Working with EP Hend Baghdady and showrunner Bianca Barnes-Williams, we set out to redefine how to showcase these homes. We used some of the same principles, like how to incorporate these characters into their environment and weave the house into the storyline. That was our main goal.

What were the challenges of shooting this show?
A big one was keeping ourselves out of the shot, which isn’t so easy in a small space. Also, keeping Marie central to all the storytelling. I’ve done several series before, shooting in people’s homes, like Little People, Big World, where we stayed in one family’s home for many years. With this show the crew was walking into their homes for a far shorter time, and none of them were actors. The were baring their souls.

Cleaning up all their clutter before we arrived was contrary to what the show’s all about, so you’re seeing all the ugly. My background’s in cinéma vérité, and a lot of this was stripping back the way these types of unscripted shows are usually done — with multiple cameras. We did use multiple cameras, but often it was just one, as you’re in a tiny room, where there’s no space for another, and we’re shooting wide since the main character in most stories was the home.

As well as being a DP you’re also the owner of Curran Camera, Inc. Did you supply all the camera gear for this through your company?
Sometimes I supply equipment for a series, sometimes not. It all depends on what the project needs. On this, when Hend, Bianca and I began discussing different camera options, I felt it wasn’t a series we could shoot on prime lenses, but we wanted the look that primes would bring. We ended up working with Fujinon Cabrio Cine Zooms and Canon cameras, which gave us a really filmic look, and we got most of our gear from T-stop Camera Rentals in LA. In fact, the Fujinon Cabrio 14-35mm became the centerpiece of the storytelling in the homes because of its wide lens capture — which was crucial for scenes with closets and small rooms and so on.

I assume all the lighting was a big challenge?
You’re right. It was a massive undertaking because we wanted to follow all the progress in each home. And we didn’t want it to be a dingy, rough-looking show, especially since Marie represented this bright light that’d come into people’s homes and then it would get brighter and brighter. We ended up bringing in all the lighting from the east coast, which was the only place I could source what I needed.

For Marie’s Zen house we had a different lighting package with dozens of small fresnels because it was so calm and stood still. For the homes and all the movement, we used about 80 Flex lights — paper-thin LED lights that are easily dimmable and quick to install and take down. Even though we had a pretty small crew, we were able to achieve a pretty consistent look.

How did the workflow operate? How did you deal with dailies?
Our post supervisor Joe Eckardt was pretty terrific, and I’d spend a lot of time going through all the dailies and then give a big download to the crew once a week. We had six to eight camera operators and three crews with two cameras and additional people some days. We had so much footage, and what ended up on screen is just a fraction of what we shot. We had a lot of cards at the end of every day, and they’d be loaded into the post system, and then a team of 16 editors would start going through it all.  Since this was the first season, we were kind of doing it on the fly and trying different techniques to see what worked best.

Color correction and the mix was handled by Margarita Mix. How involved were you in post and the look of the show?
I was very involved, especially early on. Even in the first month or so we started to work on the grade a bit to get some patterns in place; that helped carry us through. We set out to capture a really naturalistic look, and a lot of the homes were very cramped, so we had to keep the wrong lighting look looking wrong, so to speak. I’m pretty happy with what we were able to do. (Margarita Mix’s Troy Smith was the colorist.)

How important is post to you as a DP?
It’s hard to overstate. I’d say it’s not just a big piece of the process, it is the process. When we’re shooting, I only really think about three things; One, what is the story we’re trying to tell? Two, how can we best capture that, particularly with non-actors. How do you create an environment of complete trust where they basically just forget about you? How do we capture Marie doing her thing and not break the flow, since she’s this standup performer? Three, how do we give post what they need? If we’re not giving editorial the right coverage, we’re not doing our job. That last one is the most important to me — since I’m married to an editor, I’m always so aware of post.

The first eight shows aired in January. When is the next season?
We’ve had some light talks about it, and I assume since it’s so popular we’ll do more, but nothing’s finalized yet. I hope we do more.  I love this show.


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.

Catching up with Aquaman director James Wan

By Iain Blair

Director James Wan has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood thanks to the $1.5 billion-grossing Fast & Furious 7, as well as the Saw, Conjuring and Insidious films — three of the most successful horror franchises of the last decade.

Now the Malaysian-born, Australian-raised Wan, who also writes and produces, has taken on the challenge of bringing Aquaman and Atlantis to life. The origin story of half-surface dweller, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry stars Jason Momoa in the title role. Amber Heard plays Mera, a fierce warrior and Aquaman’s ally throughout his journey.

James Wan and Iain Blair

Additional cast includes Willem Dafoe as Vulko, council to the Atlantean throne; Patrick Wilson as Orm, the present King of Atlantis; Dolph Lundgren as Nereus, King of the Atlantean tribe Xebel; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the revenge-seeking Manta; and Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s mom, Atlanna.

Wan’s team behind the scenes included such collaborators as Oscar-nominated director of photography Don Burgess (Forrest Gump), his five-time editor Kirk Morri (The Conjuring), production designer Bill Brzeski (Iron Man 3), visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain (Furious 7) and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (Wonder Woman).

I spoke with the director about making the film, dealing with all the effects, and his workflow.

Aquaman is definitely not your usual superhero. What was the appeal of doing it? 
I didn’t grow up with Aquaman, but I grew up with other comic books, and I always was well aware of him as he’s iconic. A big part of the appeal for me was he’d never really been done before — not on the big screen and not really on TV. He’s never had the spotlight before. The other big clincher was this gave me the opportunity to do a world-creation film, to build a unique world we’ve never seen before. I loved the idea of creating this big fantasy world underwater.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
Something that was really faithful and respectful to the source material, as I loved the world of the comic book once I dove in. I realized how amazing this world is and how interesting Aquaman is. He’s bi-racial, half-Atlantean, half-human, and he feels he doesn’t really fit in anywhere at the start of the film. But by the end, he realizes he’s the best of both worlds and he embraces that. I loved that. I also loved the fact it takes place in the ocean so I could bring in issues like the environment and how we treat the sea, so I felt it had a lot of very cool things going for it — quite apart from all the great visuals I could picture.

Obviously, you never got the Jim Cameron post-Titanic memo — never, ever shoot in water.
(Laughs) I know, but to do this we unfortunately had to get really wet as over 2/3rds of the film is set underwater. The crazy irony of all this is when people are underwater they don’t look wet. It’s only when you come out of the sea or pool that you’re glossy and dripping.

We did a lot of R&D early on, and decided that shooting underwater looking wet wasn’t the right look anyway, plus they’re superhuman and are able to move in water really fast, like fish, so we adopted the dry-for-wet technique. We used a lot of special rigs for the actors, along with bluescreen, and then combined all that with a ton of VFX for the hair and costumes. Hair is always a big problem underwater, as like clothing it behaves very differently, so we had to do a huge amount of work in post in those areas.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
It’s that kind of movie where you have to start post and all the VFX almost before you start production. We did so much prep, just designing all the worlds and figuring out how they’d look, and how the actors would interact with them. We hired an army of very talented concept artists, and I worked very closely with my production designer Bill Brzeski, my DP Don Burgess and my visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain. We went to work on creating the whole look and trying to figure out what we could shoot practically with the actors and stunt guys and what had to be done with VFX. And the VFX were crucial in dealing with the actors, too. If a body didn’t quite look right, they’d just replace them completely, and the only thing we’d keep was the face.

It almost sounds like making an animated film.
You’re right, as over 90% of it was VFX. I joke about it being an animated movie, but it’s not really a joke. It’s no different from, say, a Pixar movie.

Did you do a lot of previs?
A lot, with people like Third Floor, Day For Nite, Halon, Proof and others. We did a lot of storyboards too, as they are quicker if you want to change a camera angle, or whatever, on the fly. Then I’d hand them off to the previs guys and they’d build on those.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together on the shoot?
We shot most of it Down Under, near Brisbane. We used all nine of Village Roadshow Studios’ soundstages, including the new Stage 9, as we had over 50 sets, including the Atlantis Throne Room and Coliseum. The hardest thing in terms of shooting it was just putting all the actors in the rigs for the dry-for-wet sequences; they’re very cumbersome and awkward, and the actors are also in these really outrageous costumes, and it can be quite painful at times for them. So you can’t have them up there too long. That was hard. Then we used a lot of newish technology, like virtual production, for scenes where the actors are, say, riding creatures underwater.

We’d have it hooked up to the cameras so you could frame a shot and actually see the whole environment and the creature the actor is supposed to be on — even though it’s just the actors and bluescreen and the creature is not there. And I could show the actors — look, you’re actually riding a giant shark — and also tell the camera operator to pan left or right. So it was invaluable in letting me adjust performance and camera setups as we shot, and all the actors got an idea of what they were doing and how the VFX would be added later in post. Designing the film was so much fun, but executing it was a pain.

The film was edited by Kirk Morri, who cut Furious 7, and worked with you on the Insidious and The Conjuring films. How did that work?
He wasn’t on set but he’d visit now and again, especially when we were shooting something crazy and it would be cool to actually see it. Then we’d send dailies and he’d start assembling, as we had so much bluescreen and VFX stuff to deal with. I’d hop in for an hour or so at the end of each day’s shoot to go over things as I’m very hands on — so much so that I can drive editors crazy, but Kirk puts up with all that.

I like to get a pretty solid cut from the start. I don’t do rough assemblies. I like to jump straight into the real cut, and that was so important on this because every shot is a VFX shot. So the sooner you can lock the shot, the better, and then the VFX teams can start their work. If you keep changing the cut, then you’ll never get your VFX shots done in time. So we’d put the scene together, then pass it to previs, so you don’t just have actors floating in a bluescreen, but they’re in Atlantis or wherever.

Where did you do the post?
We did most of it back in LA on the Warner lot.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it, and it’s very important to my filmmaking style. For a start, I can never give up editing and tweaking all the VFX shots. They have to pull it away from me, and I’d say that my love of all the elements of the post process — editing, sound design, VFX, music — comes from my career in suspense movies. Getting all the pieces of post right is so crucial to the end result and success of any film. This post was creatively so much fun, but it was long and hard and exhausting.

James Wan

All the VFX must have been a huge challenge.
(Laughs) Yes, as there’s over 2,500 VFX shots and we had everyone working on it — ILM, Scanline, Base, Method, MPC, Weta, Rodeo, Digital Domain, Luma — anyone who had a computer! Every shot had some VFX, even the bar scene where Arthur’s with his dad. That was a set, but the environment outside the window was all VFX.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
The answer is, the whole movie. The trench sequence was hard, but Scanline did a great job. Anything underwater was tough, and then the big final battle was super-difficult, and ILM did all that.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
For the most part, but like most directors, I’m never fully satisfied.


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 Peter Farrelly gets serious with Green Book

By Iain Blair

Director, producer and writer Peter Farrelly is best known for the classic comedies he made with his brother Bob: Dumb and Dumber; There’s Something About Mary; Shallow Hal; Me, Myself & Irene; The Three Stooges; and Fever Pitch. But for all their over-the-top, raunchy and boundary-pushing comedy, those movies were always sweet-natured at heart.

Peter Farrelly

Now Farrelly has taken his gift for heartfelt comedy and put his stamp on a very different kind of film, Green Book, a racially charged feel-good drama inspired by a true friendship that transcended race, class and the 1962 Mason-Dixon line.

Starring Oscar-nominee Viggo Mortensen and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali, it tells the fact-based story of the ultimate odd couple: Tony Lip, a bouncer from The Bronx and Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class black pianist. Lip is hired to drive and protect the worldly and sophisticated Shirley during a 1962 concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, where they must rely on the titular “Green Book” — a travel guide to safe lodging, dining and business options for African-Americans during the segregation era.

Set against the backdrop of a country grappling with the valor and volatility of the civil rights movement, the two men are confronted with racism and danger as they challenge long-held assumptions, push past their seemingly insurmountable differences and embrace their shared humanity.

The film also features Linda Cardellini as Tony Vallelonga’s wife, Dolores, along with Dimiter D. Marinov and Mike Hatton as two-thirds of The Don Shirley Trio. The film was co-written by Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie and reunites Farrelly with editor Patrick J. Don Vito, with whom he worked on the Movie 43 segment “The Pitch.” Farrelly also collaborated for the first-time with cinematographer Sean Porter (read our interview with him), production designer Tim Galvin and composer Kris Bowers.

I spoke with Farrelly about making the film, his workflow and the upcoming awards season. After its Toronto People’s Choice win and Golden Globe nominations (Best Director, Best Musical or Comedy Motion Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Mortensen, Best Supporting Actor for Ali), Green Book looks like a very strong Oscar contender.

You told me years ago that you’d love to do a more dramatic film at some point. Was this a big stretch for you?
Not so much, to be honest. People have said to me, “It must have been hard,” but the hardest film I ever made was The Three Stooges… for a bunch of reasons. True, this was a bit of a departure for me in terms of tone, and I definitely didn’t want it to get too jokey — I tend to get jokey so it could easily have gone like that.  But right from the start we were very clear that the comedy would come naturally from the characters and how they interacted and spoke and moved, and so on, not from jokes.

So a lot of the comedy is quite nuanced, and in the scene where Tony starts talking about “the orphans” and Don explains that it’s actually about the opera Orpheus, Viggo has this great reaction and look that wasn’t in the script, and it’s much funnier than any joke we could have made there.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
A drama about race and race relations set in a time when it was very fraught, with light moments and a hopeful, uplifting ending.

It has some very timely themes. Was that part of the appeal?
Absolutely. I knew that it would resonate today, although I wish it didn’t. What really hooked me was their common ground. They really are this odd couple who couldn’t be more different — an uneducated, somewhat racist Italian bouncer, and this refined, highly educated, highly cultured doctor and classically trained pianist. They end up spending all this time together in a car on tour, and teach each other so much along the way. And at the end, you know they’ll be friends for life.

Obviously, casting the right lead actors was crucial. What did Viggo and Mahershala bring to the roles?
Well, for a start they’re two of the greatest actors in the world, and when we were shooting this I felt like an observer. Usually, I can see a lot of the actor in the role, but they both disappeared totally into these characters — but not in some method-y way where they were staying in character all the time, on and off the set. They just became these people, and Viggo couldn’t be less like Tony Lip in real life, and the same with Mahershala and Don. They both worked so hard behind the scenes, and I got a call from Steven Spielberg when he first saw it, and he told me, “This is the best buddy movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and he’s right.

It’s a road picture, but didn’t you end up shooting it all in and around New Orleans?
Yes, we did everything there apart from one day in northern New Jersey to get the fall foliage, and a day of exteriors in New York City with Viggo for all the street scenes. Louisiana has everything, from rolling hills to flats. We also found all the venues and clubs they play in, along with mansions and different looks that could double for places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, as well as Carolinas and the Deep South.

We shot for just 35 days, and Louisiana has great and very experienced crews, so we were able to work pretty fast. Then for scenes like Carnegie Hall, we used CGI in post, done by Pixel Magic, and we were also amazingly lucky when it came to the snow scenes set in Maryland at the end. We were all ready to use fake snow when it actually started snowing and sticking. We got a good three, four inches, which they told us hadn’t happened in a decade or two down there.

Where did you post?
We did most of the editing at my home in Ojai, and the sound at Fotokem, where we also did the DI with colorist Walter Volpatto.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. My favorite part of filmmaking is the editing. Writing is the hardest part, pulling the script together. And I always have fun on the shoot, but you’re always having to make sure you don’t screw up the script. So when you get to the edit and post, all the hard work is done in that sense, and you have the joy of watching the movie find its shape as you cut and add in the sound and music.

What were the big editing challenges, given there’s such a mix of comedy and drama?
Finding that balance was the key, but this film actually came together so easily in the edit compared with some of the movies I’ve done. I’ll never forget seeing the first assembly of There’s Something About Mary, which I thought was so bad it made me want to vomit! But this just flowed, and Patrick did a beautiful job.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film.
It was a huge part of the film and we had a really amazing pianist and composer in Kris Bowers, who worked a lot with Mahershala to make his performance as a musician as authentic as possible. And it wasn’t just the piano playing — Mahershala told me right at the start, “I want to know just how a pianist sits at the piano, how he moves.” So he was totally committed to all the details of the role. Then there’s all the radio music, and I didn’t want to use all the obvious, usual stuff for the period, so we searched out other great, but lesser-known songs. We had great music supervisors, Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval, and a great sound team.

We’re already heading into the awards season. How important are awards to you and this film?
Very important. I love the buzz about it because that gets people out to see it. When we first tested it, we got 100%, and the studio didn’t quite believe it. So we tested again, with “a tougher” audience, and got 98%. But it’s a small film. Everyone took pay cuts to make it, as the budget was so low, but I’m very proud of the way it 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.

Steve McQueen on directing Widows

By Iain Blair

British director/writer/producer Steve McQueen burst onto the international scene in 2013 when his harrowing 12 Years a Slave dominated awards season, winning as Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and a host of others. His directing was also recognized with many nominations and awards.

Now McQueen, who also helmed the 2011 feature Shame (Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan) is back with the film Widows.

A taut thriller, 20th Century Fox’s Widows is set in contemporary Chicago in a time of political and societal turmoil. When four armed robbers are killed in a botched heist, their widows — with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities — take fate into their own hands to forge a future on their own terms.

With a screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen himself — and based on the old UK television miniseries of the same name — the film stars, among others, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson.

The production team includes Academy Award-nominated editor Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave), Academy Award-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and director of photography Sean Bobbit (12 Years a Slave).

I spoke with McQueen, whose credits also include 2008’s Hunger, about making the film and his love of post.

This isn’t just a simple heist movie, is it?
No, it isn’t. I wanted to make an all-encompassing movie, an epic in a way, about how we live our daily lives and how they’re affected by politics, race, gender, religion and corruption, and do it through this story. I remember watching the TV series as a kid and how it affected me — how strong all these women were — and I decided to change the location from London to Chicago, which is really an under-used city in movies, and make it a more contemporary view of all these issues.

You assembled a great cast, led by Oscar-winner Viola Davis. What did she bring to the table?
So much weight and gravitas. She’s like an iceberg. There’s so much hidden depth in everything she does, and there’s this well of meaning and emotion she brings to the role, and then everyone has to step up to that.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
The big one was logistics and dealing with all the Chicago locations. We had over 60 locations, all over the city, and 81 speaking parts. So there was a lot of planning, and if one thing got stuck it threw off the whole schedule. It would have been almost impossible to reschedule some of the scenes.

How tough was the shoot?
Pretty tough. They’re always grueling, and when you’re writing a script you don’t always think about how many night shoots you’re going to face, and you forget about this big machine you have to bring with you to all the locations. Trying to make any quick change or adjustment is like trying to turn the Titanic. It takes a while.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
From day one. You have to when you have a big production with a set release date, so we began cutting and assembling while I shot.

Where did you post?
In Amsterdam, where I live, and then we finished it off in London.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s my favorite part as you have civilized hours — 9 till 5 or whatever —and you’re in total control. You’re not having to deal with 40 or 50 people. It’s just you and the editor in a dark room, actually making the film.

Joe Walker has cut all of your films, including Hunger and Shame, as well Blade Runner 2049, Arrival and Sicario. Can you talk about working with him?
He wasn’t on set, and we had someone else assembling stuff as Joe was still finishing up Blade Runner. He came in when I got back to Amsterdam. Joe and I go way back to 2007, when we did Hunger, and we always work very closely together. I sit right next to him, and I’m there for every single cut, dissolve, whatever. I’m very present. I’m not one of those directors who comes in, gives some notes and then disappears. I don’t know how you do that. I love editing and finding the pace and rhythm. What makes Joes such a great editor is that he started off in music, so he has a great sense of how to work with sound.

What were the big editing challenges?
There are all these intertwined stories and characters, so it’s about finding the right balance and tone and rhythm. The whole opening sequence is all about pulling the audience in and then grabbing them with a caress and then a slap — and another caress and slap — as we set up the story and the main characters. Then there are so many parts to the story that it’s like this big Swiss watch: all these moving parts and different functions. But you always go back to the widows. A script isn’t a film, it’s a guide, so you’re feeling your way in the edit, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. The whole thing has to be cohesive, one thing. That’s your goal.

What about the visual effects?
They were all done by One Of Us and Outpost VFX (both in the UK), but the VFX were all about enhancing stuff, not dazzling the audience. The aim was always for realism, not fantasy.

Talk about the importance of sound and music.
They’re huge for me, and it’s interesting as a lot of the movie has no sound or music. At the beginning, there’s just this one chord on a violin when we get to the title card, and that’s it. There’s no sound for 2/3 of the movie, and then we only have some ambient music and Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and a Van Morrison song. That’s why all the sound design is so important. When the women lose their husbands, I didn’t want it to be hammy and tug at your heartstrings. I wanted you to feel that pain and that grief and that journey. When they start to act and take control of their lives, that’s when the music and sound kick in, almost like this muscular drive. Our supervising sound editor James Harrison did a great job with all that. We did all the mixing in Atmos at De Lane Lea in London.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did it at Company 3 London with colorist Tom Poole, and it’s very important. We shot on film, and our DP Sean and I spent a lot of time just talking about the palette and the look. When you’re shooting in over 60 locations, it’s not so much about putting your own stamp and look on them, but about embracing what they offer you visually and then tweaking it.

For the warehouse scenes, there was a certain mood and it had crappy tungsten lighting, so we changed it a bit to feel more tactile, and it was the same with most of the locations. We’d play with the palette and the visual mood, which the DI allows you to do so well.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
(Laughs) I always hope it turns out better than I hoped or imagined, as your imagination can only take you so far. What’s great is when you go beyond that and come up with something cooler than you could have imagined. That’s what I always want.

What’s next?
I’ve got a few things cooking on the stove, and I should finish writing something in the next few months and then start it next year.

All Images Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Merrick Morton


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.

First Man: Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle

He talks about his most recent film, First Man

By Iain Blair

It’s been two years since I spoke to writer/director Damien Chazelle for postPerspective about his film La La Land. While he only had three feature films on his short resume at the time, he was already viewed by Hollywood as a promising major talent.

That promise was fulfilled in a big way when La La Land — a follow-up to his 2014 release Whiplash (which received five Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle) — earned 14 Academy Award nominations, winning six awards, including Best Director for Chazelle. He was the youngest to receive the award. The film also won a record-breaking seven Golden Globe Awards and was honored with five BAFTA wins and 11 nominations.

Damian Chazelle working with DP Linus Sandgren on the set of “First Man.”

Recently, Chazelle reteamed with that film’s star, Ryan Gosling, who plays astronaut Neil Armstrong in Universal Pictures’ First Man, the story behind the first manned mission to the moon. Focusing on Armstrong and the decade leading to the Apollo 11 flight, it’s an intimate account that puts the audience squarely inside the planes and rockets, fully immersing the viewer in the exciting and terrifying test flights and space missions.

Based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film also explores the triumphs and the cost — on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself — of one of the most dangerous missions in history.

The film co-stars Claire Foy, as the unsung hero Janet Armstrong, and a supporting cast that includes Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Ethan Embry, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott and Corey Stoll.

Written by Academy Award-winner Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) — with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer — the film also reunites Chazelle with his Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross (Whiplash) and Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash). The director also teamed for the first time with Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert (Blade Runner 2049, The Huntsman: Winter’s War).

I recently talked to Chazelle about making the film, which has already generated a lot of Oscar buzz, and his love of editing and post.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
I wanted to strip away the mythology a bit, as it’s very easy to forget these are real human beings who risked their lives in glorified sardine cans. It was a time before personal computers, and they were using technology that seems so antiquated now. It was about figuring out the edges of their potential. To me it felt like a story of resilience and sacrifice that was really worth telling, and my hope was to make it totally immersive. I wanted it to feel like you’re right there — in the capsules, in the test flights, wherever the characters are. I wanted to give it a feel of being almost like virtual reality.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
The big thing was, we all wanted to get it technically right, down to the very smallest details, so all the help we got from NASA was invaluable. And first, we had to deal with the sheer density of material. There was so much knowledge we had to quickly gain in order to reflect it accurately. There was so much research and trips to landing sites and space museums, and meeting and talking to former colleagues and former astronauts. We also got the input and support of Neil’s sons and family. Then there was a lot of prep time where our production designer Nathan Crowley started designing and building all the spacecraft pretty much to scale.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Right away, but Nathan and I agreed that we should do as many of the VFX as in-camera as possible rather than using greenscreen, so we used a lot of full-scale models and also some miniatures. We used gimbals, motion-control and LED technology and some other in-camera effects, so the result felt like a very physicalized approach. I thought really suited the subject matter. I didn’t want to glamorize it, but show just how raw and tough it all was.

We looked at a lot of archival footage, and I storyboarded every scene in space and then made animatics set to Dustin’s music, so it gave us a very precise sense of, “OK, this is the shot. How are we going to do this other shot? How are we going to combine this effect with that one?” It was figuring out the methodology, shot by shot, and we had lots of multi-departmental meetings around tables with models and art work laid out. This allowed us to walk each other through the process. It was a bit like a relay race.

Can you talk about how you collaborated again with Linus Sandgren?
He did such a beautiful job on La La Land, and I knew what he was capable of, so it was great to collaborate with him and watch him work on this bigger canvas. He was able to tackle all the technical challenges, yet he was also always able to ensure that his photography had humanity to it. The human beings are at the center of it all, and he captured all the emotions in their faces, all the poetic moments in between all the big set pieces. He’s always searching for those things, which is what I love about his work. He built special light rigs for scenes with the sun, and then we shot the moon sequences at this gray-colored quarry near Atlanta, which we then sculpted.

To get that harsh lunar light, he developed the biggest film light ever built — around 200,000 watts. That gave us that black sky look and stark shadows. We also did a lot of testing of formats to figure out what the balance should be because we planned to shoot a lot in 16mm, some in 35mm, and then all the moon stuff in IMAX. All the transitions were important in telling the story.

(See your interview with Sandgren about his work on La La Land here.)

Where did you post?
All on the Universal lot in LA, including the sound mix.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, especially the editing. It’s my favorite part of the whole process, and where it all comes together.

Talk about editing with your go-to guy Tom Cross. What were the big editing challenges?
The big one was the huge amount of film I shot — two million feet — and a short editing schedule, shorter than La La Land. So figuring out how to take all that, and a lot of it was documentary style, and wrangle it into a narrative space and make the movie feel visceral, kinetic and propulsive was very challenging. Then finding the balance between the big set pieces in space and the quiet moments at home was demanding, but Tom’s so good at that and finding gems. Our first cut was over three hours long, so we had to cut a lot and find the most economical ways to work through the footage. This wasn’t like our last film, which was full of cuts and close ups. This was more a first-person point of view, and we had to edit in a way that gave clarity, structure and a kineticism to make it feel like this one big breathless ride.

All the VFX play a big role. Can you talk about working on them with visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert.
He was there right from the start, and he also designed all of the in-camera effects, and he’d refer to it as “doing the VFX in prep rather than leaving them all to post.” We used archival footage projected onto LED screens through the windows of the spacecraft, and that gave us our backgrounds. We didn’t have a lot of CG stuff created from scratch, but there was a lot of fine-tuning and finessing, so it was a big endeavor both in prep and post. But it never felt like that kind of effects movie where you shoot a ton of greenscreen and then fix it all in post.

(See our interview with Tom Cross about his work on First Man here.)

Talk about the importance of sound and music.
It’s huge for me, and that’s why music drives a lot of my films. I used to be a jazz drummer and I’m always thinking in terms of rhythm and sound. The sound team collected a huge range of sounds we could play with. Our sound designer Ai-Ling Lee would go down to the Cape and record stuff, and we also recorded sounds in old hangars and sounds from the old space suits and their cooling tubes and so on. It was really specific. Our set sound mixer Mary Ellis also recorded a ton of stuff, and it all went into a pile. The mixing took a long time, and we’d also augment the authentic sounds with animal noises, gunfire and other things, so it was quite experimental. Then there’s the absolute silence of the moon.

(Stay tuned for our interview with the audio post team on First Man.)

Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did it at Universal with colorist Natasha Leonnet from EFilm. She did La La Land and Whiplash for me and is very experienced and an artist. The DI is such a key part of post, and I love the look we got.

What’s next?
I’m doing pre-prep on this TV musical drama, The Eddy, for Netflix. It’s set in Paris and we’ll start shooting there in March. Then I’m also writing this drama series for Apple TV, which I’ll direct and also executive produce. I have some movie ideas in development, but nothing set yet. I’m excited about the TV stuff.


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 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.

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

The A-List: Hidden Figures director/co-writer Ted Melfi

By Iain Blair

When writer/producer/director Ted Melfi (St. Vincent) first came across the true story behind his new film, Hidden Figures, he was amazed that it had never been told before. The drama recounts the history of an elite team of black female mathematicians at NASA who helped win the all-out space race against the Soviet Union and, at the same time, brought issues of race, equal rights, sexism and opportunity to the surface of 1960s society.

Focusing on a trio of women who crossed gender, race and professional lines, it stars Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Benjamin Button), Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station, The Help), singer Janelle Monáe (making her motion picture debut) and two-time Oscar winner Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams, Dances With Wolves).

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Ted Melfi

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film was written by Melfi and screenwriter Allison Schroeder (they both received Oscar noms for Best Adapted Screenplay), who reports that the subject matter was already embedded in her DNA. “I grew up a NASA baby in Florida,” she explains. “My grandparents and dad all worked there, and then I interned there for four years during high school and worked for a missile launch company after my freshman year at college.” She then channeled that family history and her own workplace experiences into a story about “what it was like to be a woman in science and mathematics back then.”

Not long ago, I spoke with Melfi about making the film and his workflow.

This is a very timely film, dealing as it does with racism, sexism and all the issues with Russia and the space race. Was that the appeal?
Absolutely. It’s a completely unknown true story for many reasons, the main one being that all the material was classified for so long because of the Cold War and our fear of Russia. So everyone on the space program was sworn to secrecy, and even the astronauts themselves didn’t know who’d be flying until days before a launch.

While we have parades celebrating astronauts, athletes and so on, we don’t have parades for mathematicians. So I wanted to make an American classic, a movie about this crossroads in America where you had the fight for civil rights and the space race. That’s how I saw it in my mind — how did all that collide?

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.You got a great cast. How tough was it casting the women?
Taraji was my first thought for her role and she said yes right away on the phone after I just pitched her the storyline. Octavia was also on board right away. Janelle was the hard one, in that it was tough casting her role. We wanted someone fresh and different, and once she came in to audition, we knew she was perfect for it, and she just blew it away.

Did you get a lot of cooperation from NASA?
Not only did we get tons of help from them, but I’ve become good friends with some of the guys there. They pored through draft after draft, gave notes and really helped us craft all the math. So everything in the film is completely accurate from a scientific, mathematical and engineering standpoint, and they were so helpful. We also had a math scholar who helped us and Taraji with her math and all the equations, so we spent a lot of time on research.

What was the biggest production challenge?
How to pull off the space race, because we were essentially a low budget film — a $25 million movie — and we didn’t have the money or time to recreate all the launches and rocket stuff. So we had to find a very clever way of combining archival footage and VFX with all the live-action footage. You see those transitions throughout the film; we’ll have a piece of archival footage and then roll right into something we shot, with all the VFX incorporated into that.

Getting all that archival footage was both tricky and easy — easy as NASA has a huge archive, but they also have a lot of footage that they couldn’t find. So we had to send a film historian specialist to DC to dig through all of NASA’s film reel archives in this massive vault, and that was a lot of work, since they have thousands and thousands of them of every piece of footage ever shot of all the launches and landings and so on. We wanted the original negatives, and he was able to get almost all of them. Then we re-scanned them and blended them into our footage.

You shot on location in Atlanta. Was that tough?
Yes, in that we had just 43 days, which is very short for something of this scope.

Given that sexism is a main theme, and there’s so much talk now about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, was it intentional or coincidental that you hired a female DP, Mandy Walker?
It was a bit of both. I met with a bunch of DPs, and she was just great. It’s a shame that just three percent of the world’s DPs are women. So I try to approach my professional life with a very inclusive attitude, just in general, which means you have to work at it and be pro-active, and 35 percent of our crew were female, and extremely diverse.

Do you like post?
I love it, until you get to the very end. (Laughs) For me, after the shoot, when I literally feel like collapsing because I’m so tired and exhausted. Then I get to this room with a couch, and can finally sit down. So it’s like a vacation in a way, where I get to enjoy and discover stuff every day. At times it’s depressing, when there are problems, but it’s mainly a time of exuberance and joy for me. But at the end, say the last month, it becomes the same as the shoot, with all the time and money constraints, and the pressure to get it done in time.

Where did you do the post?
All on the Fox lot. We did the editing and had our whole team in the same building — our sound team, music guys — and it was awesome, like a small family. The only problem was that we got a very truncated post schedule. Based off all the dailies, the studio decided they wanted to release it early in time for all the awards season stuff, so suddenly we had to deliver it in October instead of for Christmas. That meant we got eight to 10 weeks cut out of post. That left us with just 26 weeks all in, which isn’t very long for something of this scope. Most movies this size get way longer than that. So that was tough.

Tell us about working with editor Peter Teschner, who cut St. Vincent for you. Was he on the set?
Yes, he was in Atlanta with us, cutting from day one as we shot. Basically, I let him do his thing, he puts the movie together in a rough assembly, and we began with a cut at just over two and a half hours. Then we got down to two. Normally, that first rough cut is the most depressing day of your life, but this one wasn’t. There was a lot of work to do, but it was enjoyable work.

Obviously, all the VFX were very important, right?
Very. It’s a period piece, and with all the capsule and rocket scenes there was a lot of stuff to do. We used Cgfluids and ILP for all the VFX, and probably had 400 to 500 shots, and maybe half of those were clean-up, like removing any modern stuff, such as streetlights and cars and so on. But then we had around 100 shots of capsule stuff — the capsules in orbit, pieces of the rocket going up, and then John Glenn’s re-entry and fire scenes.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s so crucial to every scene. People say it’s half your movie, but I think it’s often more. Just watch your movie without sound or music and you go, “This is so awful! It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” but then you start adding all those layers and it suddenly all comes alive. It’s all these little things that add up to huge things and how an audience feels emotionally and how they respond.

I had a great sound team — Andy Nelson was the re-recording mixer and Derek Vanderhorst was the sound designer, and those guys are brilliant. When you’re in space and in the capsule, you need to feel all that, the intensity of the rocket. Then musically we had a great team with Pharrell and Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch. They came on board very early, before we even began proper production, to map out the musical plan. So we had music to shoot to. We shot Taraji’s running scenes to Pharrell’s track, which was a big benefit.

Where did you do the DI?
On the Fox lot with colorist Natasha Leonett from Efilm at their room there. She’s done a ton of films, including La La Land. She’s brilliant.

You’ve had a long and very successful career directing over 100 commercials, so I assume you’re very involved?
You’re right. I’ve been used to doing coloring for over 20 years, as my DP was never around, so Mandy came in for a few days and then I did my thing. It’s the final piece of the post workflow and I love it.


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

The A-List: Jim Jarmusch on his latest film Paterson

By Iain Blair

Over the past few decades, writer/director Jim Jarmusch has followed the beat of his own drum and built up a body of idiosyncratic films that include Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control (2009), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Gimme Danger (2016).

Jim Jarmusch and Iain Blair.

His new film, Paterson, fits firmly in that tradition. Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey — he is also a poet. Each day he adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route observing the city as it drifts across his windshield and while overhearing fragments of conversations swirling around him; he writes poetry into a notebook; he walks his dog; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; he goes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

By contrast, Laura’s world is ever changing. New dreams come to her almost daily, each a different and inspired project. They have a happy marriage and love each other. He supports her newfound ambitions and she champions his gift for poetry. The film quietly observes the small triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details. As Jarmusch himself says, it’s “a kind of antidote to dark, heavily dramatic or action-oriented cinema.” No kidding. The film’s big action scene is when Paterson’s bus breaks down.

In a rare interview — he doesn’t like doing press or promotion — I met up with Jarmusch about making the film, his workflow and poetry.

You’ve always been interested in poetry?
Yes, since I was a teenager. I studied poetry at Columbia and I read a lot of Rimbaud and the French poets. I then got into the American poets like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, who came from Paterson, so it all ties together. This is my first film where the main character’s a poet, but I’ve woven references to poetry into a lot of my films, such as Mystery Train and Ghost Dog and Dead Man, so there’s a thread there.

How long had this idea been gestating?
A long time. Some 20 years ago I took a trip to Paterson because of William Carlos Williams, and the whole idea of it being a utopian idea for an industrial city. Allen Ginsberg had also grown up there, and when I got home I made notes about a possible story about a guy named Paterson who lives in Paterson and writes poetry. I also got very interested in the history of the city, which is fascinating. Then I finally wrote the script about six years ago.

Fair to say it’s a wry look at the simple pleasures of domestic life?
Absolutely. I think it’s a comedy, like almost all my films — or at least, they have comedic elements. It’s a story about details, all the little mundane stuff of daily life, the slight variations in the days of the week, that might inspire a poet that is of that school. It’s not the poetry of exclamation. I intentionally avoided conflict, action and, to some degree, plot. For some time I’ve been trying to make films where you’re hopefully not always thinking about what’s going to happen next — Zen-like things where you’re just in the present all the time.

What did Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani bring to their roles, as you usually write with specific actors in mind?
Nearly always, but not this time, which was very strange for me. I’d seen him in just a few things and I love his look. Once we met I intuitively knew he’d be just right, because he has this very subtle, good sense of humor, he’s quiet and very observant. He’s not analytical, he’s intuitive like me, and I was so lucky to get him and create this character together. I wrote Laura as this all-American girl, but someone I know said, “Why don’t you cast Golshifteh Farahani, since you love her work?” Once we met, I thought, why not? And the city of Paterson is very ethnically diverse, so it made sense.

Do you like the post process?
I love editing and post. I love all parts of filmmaking, except getting the financing, which can be agonizing. But the rest is so much fun, and post is where you really make the film. Shooting for me, since I don’t have it all figured out, is just gathering all the material. In post is where you find the film and finesse it into the form it tells you it wants to be.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all — editing, sound and the DI — in New York at Harbor Picture Company.

You worked with editor Affonso Gonçalves, whose credits include Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone and who cut Only Lovers Left Alive for you. Tell us about that relationship?
He doesn’t usually come on the set — maybe a couple of times on this one. He got familiar with the dailies as we shot, but he didn’t really start cutting (via Avid Media Composer) until we were done shooting. Then a very important part of my job is to select the takes, as I’ve collaborated for a long time with the actors, and that’s not always obvious in the editing room. You could make a totally different film by taking, say, all the most light-hearted takes. So we go through all the takes and mark what I like, and then we start working and shaping it. He starts in the mornings and then I come in after lunch and we work together. Sometimes I get ahead of him, so some days I don’t come in, but generally it’s a daily thing.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I have incredible sound designers I’ve worked with on many films over the years — sound designer Robert Hein and re-recording mixer Tony Volante — and it’s all incredibly important to me. Sound is half the film, so it’s very delicate and evocative, and the big thing I love about it is it’s the closest thing humans create to dreaming, drifting into this parallel world.

Robert Hein is this amazing artist, and we discuss things as detailed as, how many trees are close to the house? What types of birds and how many would be audible at dawn? Or you hear a distant motorcycle go by. We discuss exactly what type of bike is it, and what does that mean. What kind of people are around? The audience isn’t conscious of all that, but all these details form the fabric of the film and accumulate over all the scenes. The visual seems more important, more dominant, but it’s the sound and music that often tell the real story of what’s going on in a film. So I love love love working on all the sound. (At part of his process, Hein used Avid Pro Tools 12.5 Native during editorial, Pro Tools 12.5 HD in the mix studio and the Avid System 5 mixing console during the mix.)

How important was the DI on this?
We did it with colorist Joe Gawler, who did Arrival. In my opinion he’s the greatest on this planet. He is the man! I had the master Fred Elmes as my DP, and when I got the two of them together — I was thinking, “How did I trick these great artists into working with me?!” So I sat in on the timing, but I defer to them as they really elevate the look, which is really quite beautiful. (Gawler used Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve.)

What’s the state of indies today?
Financing is much harder now, and there are fewer companies, especially in the States. And the theatrical release used to be the big business part of it, and then the video release and so on was just ancillary. But now that’s totally flipped, and the theatrical release is just the promotion for the VOD and so on. It’s mind-boggling for me, though it doesn’t affect how you make a film. When people say, ‘The novel’s dead, it’s the end of cinema,’ that’s all nonsense. These art forms change and fluctuate and mutate, but they don’t die.


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

Paramount Pictures

The A-List: Arrival director Denis Villeneuve

By Iain Blair

Dark and super-intense dramas are the specialty of acclaimed French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. His 2010 feature film Incendies, a drama about the legacy of civil war in Lebanon for a Montreal immigrant family, earned a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. Villeneuve made his Hollywood directorial debut with Prisoners, a suburban-vigilante drama starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It too was nominated for an Oscar. He followed that with Enemy, an eerie thriller starring Gyllenhaal as a history lecturer who discovers an unexpected alter ego.

Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Iain Blair.

But it was his explosive 2015 hit Sicario — about an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) whose hunt for justice thrusts her into the lawless US/Mexican border where drugs, terror, illegal immigration and corruption challenge her moral compass — that really got Hollywood’s attention. The film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Achievement in Cinematography (Roger Deakins) and Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray) and paved the way for his latest film, the sci-fi drama Arrival.

When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team, led by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers. But this Paramount release is not your usual alien invasion epic.

I spoke with Villeneuve, who’s currently in post production on his biggest project to date — the sequel to the cult classic Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling — about making Arrival, which has been nominated for eight Oscars, including best director in Villeneuve and best editor in Joe Walker. (Read out interview with Walker here.)

This is your first sci-fi film, but definitely not your usual kind. What was the appeal of doing it?
Yes, it’s my first but I was raised on sci-fi and was swimming in it as a kid. I read a lot of comic books out of Europe — those great graphic novels. I was dreaming of doing a sci-fi film for a very long time, but was looking for the right story, and then this came along. I was so excited because this was a chance to do something very different. It’s an alien invasion, but told from an intimate point of view, by this person who’s in mourning and dealing with strong emotions in her life, and who suddenly is thrust into this momentous ARRIVALevent. So it’s about aliens but also a mother-daughter story.

This is also your sixth film with a female protagonist. Why do you love having women at the center of your films?
The truth is, in my first two films I had two female leads and for me it was a way to get some critical distance from my subjects. I don’t know why. Then it just carried on from there. I’m in love with women and femininity and very interested in the female world, and I love to tell their stories. For me, being a man is about taking control, but being a woman is more about listening, and I love the tension between the two.

Is it true that with Sicario, there was some pressure to change the female lead to a man?
Yes, but it was telling this story of drug violence through a woman’s eyes that really interested me. That really interested me! I like strong women.

What did Amy Adams bring to this role?
A great sense of her character’s internal life, her inner world. She has this great capacity to play several layers at once, and is able to convey very strong emotion without words, which I don’t see too often.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
By far the biggest was creating the aliens and figuring out this new life form — its way of thinking and behaving, its culture and its language. Creating something that’s never been seen before without it looking just like a visual effect was very hard and took a long time.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?ARRIVAL
From the very start, and you now have to prep for post. Even so, it still feels like the process is too fast. I like to have a lot of time in post and the edit to think about the film and change things, but all the VFX guys were very hungry to get started as soon as possible, and that caused some tension. It was a very complex cinematic structure, and I needed to be able to play with it in the editing room.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love post and editing — so much so that if I wasn’t a director I’d be an editor. It’s insane the amount of creativity you have in post, and you don’t have to deal with all the problems with weather and actors and equipment and time and money. You can just focus on the creative part of actually making the film, so I love post. We did the whole film in Montreal. We shot it there, and used VFX houses there, and there are so many good ones — Rodeo, Oblique FX, Alchemy 24, Raynault and Hybride.

Talk about editing with Joe Walker, who cut Sicario for you and was Oscar nominated for 12 Years a Slave. Was he on the set?
Joe never likes to visit sets, for a very specific reason — when he sees all the hard work and pain we go through to get a particular shot, it makes him afraid to cut. So he came to Montreal and we sent him dailies and he started. Then he worked with me on the director’s cut. It was a very long edit and we worked non stop for about eight months. It’s the longest edit I’ve ever done, first because it was a nonlinear structure, and second because we wanted to give clues to the audience without revealing too much.

So it was very tricky, especially since two of my main characters were completely digital. So it was a tough edit and it took time to work it all out. Joe was also very involved in all the sound design, as he began as a composer and then as a sound editor, so we did the sound together as we cut.

Denis Villeneuve and Amy Adams on set.

The VFX play a crucial role. Talk about working with VFX supervisor Louis Morin, who did Sicario for you, and whose credits include The Aviator and Brokeback Mountain.
I’m very grateful to him because he understood that the edit was very complicated, and I put his team under a lot of time pressure, as I took my time. The spaceships and aliens were designed, but all the scenes with them and everything else had to evolve in the edit. Then we had hundreds of computer screens in the military tents and we had to feed all those, which was a lot of work, and then all the military equipment. It was very complicated.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Definitely the aliens. If you have a machine-like alien, it’s a lot of work but not difficult to do. What is really hard, is creating a life form that looks real — not like a visual effect — and one the audience will accept and have an emotional experience with. Hybride did them, and while it was a huge challenge, they did a fantastic job. And I was very involved. I sat down with the artists to share ideas and that’s the only way you can get it right.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
In Montreal with Harbor Picture Company colorist Joe Gawler (who worked out of Mels, which used to be Vision Globale). It’s so important and dealing with the aliens was the main thing. But the rest was fairly simple as we did so much in camera.

What can you tell me about Blade Runner 2049?
(Laughs) Not much. I’m not allowed to say much, but it was the biggest, most ambitious and longest thing I’ve ever done, and we’re currently in the middle of post on the Sony lot. It’ll be out next October.

What’s next?
Nothing. I need a long break to recharge after doing the last three films back to back.

Check out the trailer:


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

The A-List: James L. Brooks on his latest film The Edge of Seventeen

By Iain Blair

James L. Brooks, the legendary writer/director/producer, probably has a reinforced mantelpiece in his home. If not, he could probably use one. After all, he’s Hollywood royalty — a three-time Academy Award winner and 20-time Emmy Award-winner whose films include Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, As Good as It Gets and Jerry Maguire.

Brooks, who began his career as a writer, produced television hits such as Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Tracy Ullman Show and The Simpsons. He produced his newest film, The Edge of Seventeen, for writer and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with James Brooks.

A coming-of-age comedy, it stars Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson as inseparable best friends attempting to navigate high school. Along with acting vets Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson, the behind-the-scenes team on The Edge of Seventeen includes DP Doug Emmett (The One I Love, HBO’s Togetherness) and editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith, ACE (About Last Night, How Do You Know).

I talked to Brooks about making the film and why post is everything.

You’ve made such a diverse slate of films. What do you look for in a project?
A writer with a specific voice. That’s always the main thing.

I heard that you worked on this script with Kelly for four years. Was that unusually long?
Unfortunately not (laughs)! This is up there, but I’ve never done less than four years on any of my own films when I direct, so that’s how I work. On this, it became more about what Kelly was about to do than what she did. I urged research on her, and she turned out to be gifted at it.

She got groups of young women of this age together and she was very empathetic and she asked great questions, and we’d look at the video, and it started to give us a sense of mission and responsibility. Then about two years in, she turned in this draft that was just extraordinary. Here was a writer popping and a new voice emerging, and I was dazzled. Then it took two more years to cast it and get financing.

She’d never directed before. How nervous were you?
I wasn’t. You’re always nervous about the movie, but I was the one who said to her, ‘You should direct this one day,’ and she told me she’d been trying to figure out how to sell herself for the job. I believe in writer/directors, as once you’ve done the script, you’ve seen a version of it.

You’ve mentored so many first-time directors over the years, including Cameron Crowe for Say Anything and Wes Anderson on Bottle Rocket. What have you learned from all that?
That it’s good to back writers of real ability. In Cameron’s case, he was a noteworthy screenwriter when he directed for the first time. From the start, we knew Wes was going to direct, and he felt he’d have died if he didn’t. It’s always the writing first, then that need to direct.

EDGE OF SEVENTEENDo you like the post process?
I not only love it — I think that post is what filmmaking really is. Editing is where you make the film. Everything else —all the prep and the shoot — is just the raw material you then shape into the actual film.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all in LA. We rented space for all the editorial, and used Wildfire for finishing.

You’ve worked with editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith before on the rom-com How Do You Know (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd), which you directed. Tell us about the relationship and how it worked.
She was absolutely brilliant, as we were a long time editing, and it wasn’t always easy with two of us in the room. But you try to find “it.” You’re not trying to just get your way. You’re trying to find the movie. That’s what it is. You start off with a firm idea of the movie you want to make, and then in post, you’re forced to come to grips with the movie you’ve actually made. And they’re not supposed to be the same thing.

That’s the thing about actors and what they bring to the script. You can’t have that many people involved in the shoot and not have the whole movie redefined in some way. We shot in Vancouver, and Technicolor did the dailies. Then it was back to LA. I was there with Tracey pretty much every day, and I love editing. It’s exciting. It’s everything. It’s a roller coaster. Editing is hitting your head against a brick wall until it gives.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEENEditing’s changed so much technically since you began.
Totally! I did my first films with people wearing white gloves and carefully handling the film and all the bins, and when you made a cut, you had to wait a couple of minutes until it was made. Then digital and instant gratification arrived, and that meant you can see every version of every scene, given the time — but you don’t have the time to do that.

I’m a huge digital fan. It’s like electric lights. Who wants to go back? It’s such a different process that the result has to be different. Look at the whole religion of lighting a set — it’s been changed forever as you can now do so much in post. There’s almost nothing you can’t do in post now. So I’ve lived through the revolution, and we always schedule more time for editing than we think we might need. This took a good six months to cut.

Don’t you like to preview?
I do. I’m a big believer, and they always result in more tweaking and refinement to the film. And that went great. We were very lucky as we were previewing very well, but Kelly and I both felt we needed a couple of extra scenes in order to really get the ending right, and STX, the financing company, gave us three extra days to shoot them and solve the problem. Kelly came up with this last shot that means everything to me. It’s the absolute honest true ending we needed.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
We did all the mixing at Wildfire, that has an Atmos stage with an Avid S6. Kelly was brilliant at finding and using the songs — there are over 30 — which form the great backdrop to the story. But the score was tricky. My friend Hans Zimmer agreed to produce it, and he brought in this wonderful composer from Iceland, Atli Orvarsson, who came up with the perfect theme, and that was the last piece of the puzzle. Then we spent a final week fine-tuning the mix with re-recording mixers Kevin O’Connell, Deb Adair and Chris Carpenter. It’s hard to over state the importance of sound. It’s always huge, especially when you’re trying to be real.

Director Kelly Fremon Craig and James Brooks on set.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but there are a few.
They were all done by Stargate Studios, and we couldn’t get the damn phone right! That killed us for a while, as there was an emoji we just couldn’t get right. Sometimes it’s the simplest stuff that’s the hardest.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it at Wildfire with colorist Andrew Balis, and Kelly and the DP were more involved in that than I was. The DI is hugely important.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you began?
Obviously, the digital revolution, but also things like women crew members and getting over the tendency to say, ‘Can I help with that?’ when the grip’s a woman (Laughs)! What hasn’t changed is that script is everything, passion counts, and post is the most creative part of filmmaking.

Why haven’t you directed more films recently, and what’s next?
I’ve just been so busy with these other projects, but I’ve been working on a script for several years — which is normal for me — and hope to do that. But the price you pay to direct is to go legally insane – meaning, you lose touch with the world and people you love. And that’s a high price to pay.

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

The A-List: Moonlight director Barry Jenkins

By Iain Blair

Moonlight may only be Barry Jenkins’ second film — his first was the 2008 low-budget debut Medicine for Melancholy — but he’s already established himself as a filmmaker to watch. Written and directed by Jenkins, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

At once a vital portrait of contemporary African-American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship and love, Moonlight focuses on the particular, but reverberates with universal truths. Anchored by performances from an ensemble cast that includes Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert and Jharrel Jerome, the film is a moving portrayal of the moments, people and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are, and since its premiere at Telluride is justifiably getting a lot of awards buzz.

Our writer Iain Blair and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.

I recently met up with Jenkins to talk about the process of making Moonlight.

Can you talk about the film a bit?
It’s based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is a coming-of-age story that not so much defied the genre, but that more readily captured what it was like to grow up where we both did, in Miami. It focuses on three different times in this kid’s life, so instead of all the usual beats we take these three big beats and dramatize them in realtime.

You use three actors to portray those different times as the kid wrestles with his sexual identity and what it means to be a gay black man, but you’re not gay. Did you have any trepidation taking this on?
At the start, I felt it might be too much of a stretch, as I tend to feel certain stories need to be told by the people who lived them. But at the same time, in talking with Tarell, I knew he trusted me to present his voice and to be empathetic.

The film was shot by cinematographer James Laxton. He shot your last film and was nominated for an Indie Spirit award. What did he bring to the film?
He didn’t want to compromise the visual aesthetic, despite the very low budget we had, so we worked with a smaller crew and a few more days than we could afford — and even then we did this in just 25 days. The other thing is, there are always problems and mistakes on the shoot that you can fix in post, but we had so little money that we were very limited in what we could do. Thankfully, we had some partners who did us a lot of favors.

You shot on location in the pretty rough area of Liberty Square in Miami. How hard was that?
It wasn’t hard at all, once we had made the inroads. That neighborhood hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years, so there was this real patina and authentic look that we didn’t have to create.

MoonlightDo you like the post process?
I love it, but to be really honest, I love production more, as it’s less finite. Post is so finite, and it’s a very complex puzzle you have to solve. When we shot the swimming scene, we thought we had six hours, but it turned out we only had 90 minutes. You feel anything’s possible in those 90 minutes, whereas in post you’re trying to find the best shot, the best footage to tell the story, and the pressure’s on. (Laughs) And then the post budget was very small.

You edited the film with two editors — Nat Sanders who cut your first film, and Joi McMillon. Tell us how that relationship worked.
We used this system called the Atomos Samurai, since they weren’t on set. We didn’t have the budget to fly them out, plus they were cutting Season 5 of HBO’s Girls when we started.

So the way this system works is that our DIT on set was basically duplicating all the dailies in HD, and it was like a mirror image of the actual dailies — with a very simple LUT placed on them — and then they were shipped to LA. Nat and Joi worked off that for the entire process. Both of them were at film school with me, and I think the original plan was that Joi would be Nat’s assistant, but as the footage began to come in, and as there were these three distinct stories to cut, it just made sense that Joi would take one of the stories. That’s how it happened.

MoonlightSo they did an assembly while I was shooting, and then when I got back, we rented a small office in downtown LA, and that’s where we cut the whole film. We edited for roughly four months. I’d go in and sit with them pretty much every day. We were all in the same room, with me in between, so I could just turn and see his cut, and then what she was doing. It was a great set-up, and it also meant that they each got fresh eyes to view the material, as they weren’t often working on the same story at the same time.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s huge. I wanted this to be totally immersive, and as the character’s adopting all the trappings of hyper-masculinity, all the other elements around him echo that, like the hip-hop stuff. And composer Nick Britell did all this great chopping and screwing with the orchestra.

Where did you mix the sound?
We did it at Wildfire here in LA.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but effects must have played a significant role in the final look?
Absolutely, and VFX house Significant Others worked hand in hand with our colorist Alex Bickel at Color Collective. Both are in New York, and the VFX house did us a huge solid. The biggest thing they did was where we have the opening Steadicam shot. We were shooting anamorphic, usually wide open, and there was a focus gaffe, and they went in and just nailed it.

There was a mic pack they had to erase, and a bunch of creative stuff they did — like where a shot begins, and it’s not Steadicam but then becomes Steadicam. They also comped in the ocean in one shot at the end, where it was just too dark to see it.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
Extremely important. We did it at Color Collective, and Alex Bickel (who used Resolve 12) was the third person I hired, right after the DP. I knew it was so crucial, and we spent a lot of time getting the look just right.

There’s been so much talk in Hollywood about the lack of diversity — in front of and behind the camera. What’s your take?
It’s tricky. There are so many films this year that are being framed as addressing this lack of diversity — and the outrage that’s arisen, but it takes so long to make a film. I think it’s the build-up of frustration over the past four or five years that’s just bubbled over in the past year.

As a fairly rare sight in Hollywood — a black filmmaker — do you feel you’ve had to struggle a lot to get this far? After all, it’s taken you eight long years to make this.
I think there are certain struggles when you’re a black filmmaker making black stories, and they’re mostly based on myths — black audiences only like this, black characters act like that, and so on. But for me, my last film, relative to its budget, was pretty popular, and the long gap between my films is all down to me; it’s doesn’t have anything to do with the system.

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

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

By Iain Blair

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

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

David Mackenzie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The A-List: Suicide Squad director David Ayer

By Iain Blair

With his distinctive, anarchic, immersive style, director/producer/screenwriter David Ayer has always excelled at probing the murky depths of human behavior and blurring the lines between the bad guys and the good guys in such hardcore films as Training Day, Fury, Sabotage, Harsh Times and End of Watch. Now Ayer, whose credits include Street Kings, and the screenplays for U-571, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., has made Suicide Squad, a blockbuster without the usual bluster, and a superhero movie without the usual heroes.

David Ayer

With an all-star cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, and based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, it tells the story of a rogues gallery of outcasts who are assembled into a team, equipped with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and sent off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic entity.

Ayer’s behind-the-scenes stellar creative team included director of photography Roman Vasyanov, production designer Oliver Scholl, editor John Gilroy and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. The music is by composer Steven Price. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and in select IMAX 3D theaters.

I spoke with Ayer on the eve of its release about making Suicide Squad and why editing is like a wrestling match.

This is definitely not your usual superhero movie. What was the appeal of doing it, as there’re so many superhero films out there now? 
Great question. When I did Fury, it was all about historical accuracy and recreating WWII. With this, I wanted to try and create a fantasy world and give it this real and gritty feel that I like as a director, and bring that sensibility to a comic book movie and create multi-dimensional characters through casting amazing actors — and ground the fantastical as much as possible in reality.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
In a lot of ways filmmaking is very mechanical, and all the processes are sort of an industrial process. So it was dealing with all the sets and set pieces, the sheer scale of it, and that becomes about logistics — building them, tearing them down, building new sets on the same stages, and how to move all these pieces around and keep your crews running smoothly. It was a massive undertaking.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Sony Imageworks’ Jerome Chen — who did the VFX on Fury, and the Spider-Man films as well as Beowulf and The Polar Express for Bob Zemeckis — came in right at the start. We did extremely complex CG characters in this, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to go about doing it and what were the best techniques. It took a lot of time and work, and we also had to figure out all the computer time and the renderfarms we needed to generate the shots, so all the VFX were embedded in the shoot from day one. We set up witness cameras to record everything the crew did, we had constant telemetry and a ton of data gathering.

Did you do a lot of previs?
Quite a lot. Third Floor did them. It’s a very interesting technique, as for certain scenes you absolutely have to have it. You have to go in knowing efficiently where you’re going to have to drop that camera on the set, and there are a few scenes that almost exactly match the previs we did. But other times it’s not really an essential tool

You reunited with director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury and End of Watch. How tough was the shoot?
We did most of the principal photography at Pinewood Toronto Studios, and it was a long and grueling shoot. I was very happy to get to post!

Do you like the post process?
I love post. You know you’re going to work every day, that’s for sure. We did it all on the lot at Warners. It’s always challenging because film isn’t logical, it’s emotional, and it comes together in strange ways. It’s never a linear journey, and you go down blind alleys and try to solve problems, and not every problem wants to yield its secrets.

Can you talk about working with editor John Gilroy, (Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, The Bourne LegacyMichael Clayton). Was he on the set?
He set up editorial in Toronto so it was up and running from the beginning. He tried to keep up with the shoot as much as possible as we shot on film, so there’s the lag between photography and the dailies reaching editorial.

And you like to shoot, don’t you?
(Laughs) I do shoot a lot! Over 1.5 million feet of film on this — so it’s a lot of work just to watch it and keep the assembly up to date. Then we did the main editing back on the lot. I love editing even though it’s baffling and frustrating and wonderful, all at the same time. The challenge is always that you can make an infinite number of films out of the same footage, and whatever your ideas and dreams are going in, they’re going to be shattered along the way — because the movie wants to be what it wants to be, and you can only fight that so much. You’re wrestling every day to find the right film.

All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jerome Chen who did Fury for you.
We have this shorthand, and he knows my taste and how I think and what I’m going to want and how I’m going to want it. It’s a pretty seamless relationship, and he also has great ideas; he often surprises me. This was a huge job with thousands of VFX shots, and a lot of vendors, but the main ones were MPC and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Anything with full CG characters is hard. It’s hard to shoot that and block it and hard to edit things you can’t see. You end up with this hodgepodge of previs and half-finished shots and slowly the finished VFX stuff gets dropped in.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Shed in Santa Monica, a fairly new company [which runs Baselight’s latest Generation VI system with more grading power]. We did the DI with colorist Yvan Lucas, who co-founded the company. He did Fury, but this was my first time at The Shed, and he did an amazing job. The film looks very beautiful. The DI is so important, and it’s almost my favorite part of post. I get in there and look at every shot. Yvan and Roman would do a pass and then I’d do one, and we’d keep passing the baton like that until we were all happy.

For me, it’s where the film really comes to life. After seeing it in dailies for so long, it’s such a pleasure to see it like this. We did everything from the overall look to saturation and contrast matching, and some re-composition now and again. We shot the film in a very precise way and composed shots very specifically, but the DI lets you do some re-comps if needed when you simply don’t have the time on the day of the shoot, especially with exterior stuff.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was mostly what I had envisioned, but the mechanics of how you get there and how to tell the best story were a bit different, and you can’t foresee that. It was a great experience, and I can safely say I learned more about filmmaking on this than on any other film I’ve done. It was a maturing as a filmmaker.

What’s next?
I’m doing Bright with Will Smith. We start shooting in the fall.

Will you do another superhero movie?
(Laughs) I’ll wait to see how the fans respond to this before I put my neck on the block again.

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

The A-List: The Little Prince director Mark Osborne

By Iain Blair

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

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

Mark Osborne and Iain Blair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Iain Blair

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

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

Rebecca Miller and our writer Iain Blair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie's Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The director and his cast on set.

The director and his cast on set.

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

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

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

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

THE HATEFUL EIGHT   THE HATEFUL EIGHT

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

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

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

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

The director and his cast on set.

The director taking a look a a shot..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The A-List: Director George Miller talks ‘Fury Road,’ Oscar season

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

George Miller and writer Iain Blair

George Miller and writer Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlize Theron and George Miller on set

Charlize Theron and George Miller on set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Miller photos credit: Jasin Boland

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

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

Writer Iain Blair and filmmaker Cary Fukunaga.

Writer Iain Blair and filmmaker Cary Fukunaga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Fukunago shooting with the Arri Alexa.

Cary Fukunago shooting with the Arri Alexa.

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

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

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

The A-List: Peter Bogdanovich on directing ‘She’s Funny That Way’

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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