In our current era of all-Oscar-all-the-time awards race coverage, this Santa Barbara panel has become one of most reliable and exciting stops on the celebrity director road show. Like so much else at the SBIFF, it works on a formula guaranteed to produce movie buff nirvana. Take six well-known directors, all with interesting pictures in the Oscar hunt, plunk them down in front of an attentive Lobero audience seeded with who knows how many voting members of the Academy, and then let Peter Bart needle them for an hour and a half.
The panel this year was typically stellar. Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan and The Wrestler fame probably got the biggest ovation and nabbed the pole position next to moderator Bart. Next to him was Charles Ferguson, the feisty and political software entrepreneur-turned-documentarian responsible for Inside Job. In the center sat 2010’s greatest cinema underdog, Debra Granik. Her film Winter’s Bone has to be among the most economical contenders for Best Picture ever, even if the nomination comes on the new, super-sized 10-nominee slate. To her right was Tom Hooper, the young Englishman responsible for Best Picture nominee The King’s Speech. David O. Russell, another man of the hour, with nominations in both the Best Picture and Best Director category for The Fighter sat next to Hooper, and Lee Unkrich, the Pixar man behind Toy Story 3 took up the end spot.
After a slight attempt at diffusing some of the Ocarmania with irony, Bart began pushing people’s buttons with a question about budgets. “Would you have made a different film if you had had more money?” he asked, beginning with Aronofsky, who said, “I originally budgeted the film for $28-$30 million, but in the end I was only able to finance it for $13 million, so that’s what I had to do it on. The biggest difference in terms of the budgets to me is that with the original figure I would have gotten paid.” This elicited much knowing laughter from the panel and the audience. Aronofsky went on to make a generalization about budgets that would ring true after hearing from several of the others, all of whom made relatively inexpensive films with the exception of Pixar’s Unkrich. Aronofsky said, “Everyone knows that the only place you can really sacrifice and still get something made is above the line, so that’s where the money had to come from — salaries for talent. It’s either that or time, but as filmmakers, we are all used to operating within constraints, and to dealing with them creatively. When I made Pi, I knew that I couldn’t afford to shoot in color because I couldn’t afford to control the color palette. That’s what led me to explore and find a kind of black and white film that was unusual and that really worked for the film.”
Next up on the issue of shooting a low-budget film was Debra Granik, who made several fascinating observations about the way finances affected her experience with Winter’s Bone. Bart prompted her by asking her to confirm that the film was made for $2 million. Granik said, “Yes, we had to shoot the whole film in 24-and-a-half days, and because of our budget we shot a lot of it in a documentary style, without a light crew and with minimal set dressing. I feel like if we had had more money, we would have just crushed the land we were on. Our connection to the local team that allowed us to share that space and their lives was really delicate, and to have brought in a bigger crew from outside would have potentially turned something that worked well and involved a lot of trust into something totally different, even something potentially egregious or unconscionable. We really needed to be sensitive to where we were, so being able to tread lightly like that was key. Of course it was originally budgeted at $2.2 million, and like Darren said, the money comes off above the line, so I have to express gratitude to the two producers who deferred their salaries to get this made.”
At this point Peter Bart made the joke that there is an old saying in Hollywood that “He who defers, never sees.” This got a laugh, but Granik actually came right back in defense of her distributors, insisting, “Except for when you work with Roadside Attractions. Those women are going to get paid, believe me.”
Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech was another one who felt that he had made his film on a significantly smaller budget than he had originally envisioned, but he too felt this was for the best. He regretted the terms it had dictated in some of his negotiations, particularly with the sound side of the production team. He then said, “When your budget for something is a little lower, then the scrutiny from above that you are subjected to during the filmmaking process is somewhat reduced. I feel like the money I had was enough to keep the most important thing, which is the right crew, and yet not enough to trigger any loss of freedom.”
David O. Russell’s answer about The Fighter led immediately into a somewhat Byzantine and frequently hilarious account of the various stages of that project. “It was at Paramount and it fell apart,” Russell said of the film. “It had been put together once with Matt Damon attached, and then another whole time with Brad Pitt. I believe that before I was involved, when it was still a big vehicle for one of these two stars, that is when it was supposed to be directed by Darren Aronofsky. Is that right Darren?” Aronofsky said yes, that he had been attached to direct during the Brad Pitt phase at Paramount, to which Russell replied, “But you decided not to make it, so you went and made something else — The Wrestler.” This got big laughs, even from Aronofsky. He said that he had moved on now, and that the choice for him came after The Wrestler, and “At that point I was like, do I want to smell more Ben-Gay, or do I want to work with girls in tutus?”
David O. Russell returned to the subject of working within a limited budget by saying that this film, The Fighter, had been almost like his first movie, Spanking the Monkey, in that regard, and that necessity breeds invention. Russell said, “The most obvious place where I really feel budget constraints is in the discipline it imposes on the screenplay. It must be under 110 pages or I can’t shoot it in 33 days.”
Lee Unkrich of Pixar began by acknowledging that he probably spent more than some of the others combined, but he also reminded everyone that his movie took four years, and not 33 days, to make. “We don’t have an open checkbook though, and of course many of our decisions are made in relation to fixed budgets. I realize that probably doesn’t mean a lot to the person sitting here who made a movie for $2 million, but it’s true.”
Bart stayed with Lee Unkrich and asked him a follow-up question about if he ever gets tired of all the adulation. Unkrich said, “For the first 18 months of this project I lay awake at night thinking I would throw up over the side of the bed. I just didn’t want to be the guy that people said, ‘Oh, you made the crappy sequel to that great movie.’ So, no, I don’t get tired of the adulation, and neither do the other people who worked on this with me, because fear drove me to make it good, and now I’m relieved. If anything, I drink in the adulation.”
Bart asked Charles Ferguson the next question, and used the metaphor “moving the needle” for some nebulous concept to do with creating public consciousness. Bart wanted to know how Ferguson felt as the only person on the panel whose film had not “moved the needle” because Wall Street, even after being exposed by him, was back to business as usual. This convoluted question nevertheless sparked a powerful answer, as Ferguson took the opportunity to denounce President Obama’s handling of the financial industry post-crash, saying, “Obama has been a big disappointment. When he was elected he had a chance to do something about this, but instead he appointed a team of people to deal with it who were the same people who were responsible for the crash in the first place.” Peter Bart broke the tension by asking Ferguson if he thought Obama had casting problems. This got a laugh.
Ferguson, however, was not through. He said that some of the current cast [of White House economic advisers] should probably be in prison. Bart battled back with the remark that Ferguson should get a special Oscar for making the film that was “Most Depressing.” Then he asked perhaps the weirdest question of the session, wondering if Aronofsky had read a remark made by a critic who claimed that he had gone from being a control freak to being an out of control freak.” After giving him a long look, Aronofsky answered coolly, saying, “There was a change between the way I worked to control every shot on The Fountain and the way I worked with the cast and crew on The Wrestler that is pretty noticeable. I will admit that.” He then made some of the day’s funniest remarks very rapidly, almost in an aside, saying, “Mickey [Rourke, from The Wrestler] doesn’t respect marks … or directors … or filmmaking. Just the square footage of his trailer. That’s what Mickey’s looking at. Natalie [Portman, from Black Swan] is much more disciplined.” Then Aronofsky, after a moment’s reflection, launched into a spontaneous defense of his direction against charges made elsewhere in the media that he manipulated actress Natalie Portman in unscrupulous ways that made the shoot unnecessarily stressful for her. “I don’t really push them,” he said, “that’s what people say it is, but what I am really doing is taking these actors back to their beginnings. If you go down to the street level actors studios in Hollywood and look at what people just trying to break into the business, actors who are still taking acting lessons and working on scenes are doing, they are busting their asses and screaming ‘Stella!’ at the top of their lungs and the rest of it. The whole thing is about getting emotional. And that’s why I’m impatient. Of course I’m impatient with some star who thinks, ‘I don’t do more than three takes,’ because what is that? What do you want to do then, sit around all day next to the craft services table while they work out the lighting? I don’t think so. Not on my movie. We have the set — let’s use it. Sure the physicality of Black Swan, the intensity of it was tough on [Natalie Portman], but, hey, she never got that close … I don’t think.”
This got everyone’s attention. Peter Bart quickly redirected in a very clever way to Debra Granik, asking her about the prep she did with Jennifer Lawrence, an even younger actress (17!) who played another demanding lead role. Granik gave a fascinating brief account of how they worked together to create Ree, the protagonist of Winter’s Bone. “Jen was willing to come to southern Missouri for a week to work with the family that we shot with there,” said Granik. “She spent time with them doing the things they did, getting to know their animals, and learning things like skinning, which she had to do for the movie. It was a huge help that she was willing to do all this work, and that she had grown up in Kentucky and so had a good ear for the speech. It’s my perception that actors need a quiet place to retreat to mentally between takes, and that for the good ones that is a precise and lucid place. It seems like that’s the only way to sustain the intensity of a performance, although of course it varies from group to group.”
Bart then asked Tom Hooper if it changed things on his set that actor Geoffrey Rush had done such a lot of work to bring the story of Lionel Logue to the screen. Hooper acknowledged that it was Rush who developed the piece, but he added, “He still didn’t have even one photograph of Lionel Logue when we started, and it was only through the discovery of Logue’s papers through a family member that a lot of the gaps in his knowledge of the character got filled in.” Hooper then said that he too had an experience similar to that of Granik when Rush agreed to come to work early: “I was on a conference call listening to two reps argue about whether Geoffrey could be available for six days before the shoot to rehearse when suddenly he interrupts and says directly to me, ‘Look Tom, I’m not doing anything for the next few weeks — why don’t I just come to London now?’”
Bart directed his next question to David O. Russell, asking him about Christian Bale’s ongoing use of a variety of English accents in his public appearances. Russell said that Bale had joked with him that this would be how Batman would speak from now on — like Dickie, his character from The Fighter. He went on to say that he likes to cast against type, and that he was particularly gratified on behalf of Mark Wahlberg, who took the less flashy role, when he was complimented on the quiet power of his performance by none other than Robert De Niro.
After an unremarkable series of comments on the topic of participating in the media frenzy of an Oscar campaign, Bart got the gang going on the idea of what they would say in an entirely candid acceptance speech. These answers, which focused mostly on themes of “filmmaking as teamwork” and “remembering the little people,” were also for the most part unrevealing. Tom Hooper and Darren Aronofsky seem to be developing some kind of friendly rivalry, but otherwise the waters stayed smooth. Likewise, the specter of an Oscar curse, which would mean bad things for the winners, was toyed with for a few moments before being dropped with a handful of clichés.
Things finally got back on track when Bart asked the group about their experiences with initial screenings of their respective films. Darren Aronofsky told a story about screening Black Swan at the Venice Film Festival and being seated between Natalie Portman and the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, and his wife. He said that right before the film began, he leaned over and said to the president, “I am really sorry about this.”
Charles Ferguson said that he had two initial screenings — one with a small group of people who were in the film, and a second at Cannes, where Oliver Stone walked in just as the first reel began, which he said made it very exciting.
Debra Granik said that the Winter’s Bone premiere was at Sundance 2010, and that she was very nervous. “It was hard to breathe, and my hands were ice cold,” she said. Tom Hooper said that he showed his film to his wife and kids first, even before the producers got to see it. He also described a scored test screening that he had in New York in April. Having heard bad things about testing, he was prepared for the worst, but because the film tested so well, he said that it confirmed the way he had edited it and made things from there on easier, rather than more difficult. Finally he said the most satisfying screening was at Telluride on September 1, because the audience was laughing and he had not expected that the film would get any laughs. “We never had a conversation about how to make it funny,” he said, “so that was delightful.”
David O. Russell talked about a test screening in Woodland Hills that included not only the test audience, but also the backers, his family, and Mark Wahlberg and his entourage. He lamented that it was ironic that, despite the fact that the film tested better with women than with men, the studio stuck with a male-oriented “fight film” marketing campaign. Finally, Lee Unkrich described a screening of Toy Story 3 at Showest in Las Vegas that was demanded by Disney. He was not ready for the film to be screened, but he went through with it anyway and the audience loved it. He said that this gave him courage to keep going and finish the film, and that it also made him paranoid about not doing anything to mess things up.
Overall the 2011 Director’s panel was another coup for the SBIFF, providing an appreciative audience with a great glimpse behind the scenes into the making of six of the year’s best films.