Six directors recently sat down with The Envelope, the Oscars blog for the L.A. Times, for a roundtable chat about the pressures and joys of directing. Of the prestigious few were Ben Affleck (“The Town”), Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right”), Ethan Coen (“True Grit” with brother Joel Coen), David Fincher (“The Social
Network”) and Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech"). Though not all are expected to get an Oscar nod for Achievement in Directing when the announcements are made this Tuesday -- of the six, only Aronofsky, Fincher and Hooper are probably locks -- all of their names have been brought up as worthy of a nomination. Though a lot of the discussion is pretty standard fare -- what’s worse about being a director, how they get great performances -- there's still quite are a few golden tidbits of candid talk, insight and knowledge.
Perhaps the most interesting and fascinating part of the conversation kicks off early about directing actors, giving them what they need to do the job and whether they need to be babysat, psychologically coddled, given feedback or just room to let their performances breathe (among other techniques).
1. The always frank and forthright Darren Aronofsky said working with Mickey Rourke on "The Wrestler" was "90% therapy."
The director's self-described differences between working with Mickey Rourke on “The Wrestler” and Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" is pretty amusing. "Natalie Portman [in "Black Swan"], just a complete professional relationship. Open up the door, she walks in, does the work," he said. "No issues. No hand-holding. She's just fully prepared. Mickey Rourke [in "The Wrestler"] … I'd say 90% therapy."
2. Perhaps one of the most shocking revelations, though not much of one if you're a hardcore fan, is Ethan Coen's admission that the brothers pretty much refuse to direct actors.
To hear Coen tell it, it almost seems like if the actor is unsure of themselves or has questions, they are shit out of luck. Not exactly an unknown quality about the odd-duck brothers as Nicolas Cage had already called the brothers "difficult" and "autocratic" during "Raising Arizona." "We don't give the actors anything. We don't do anything for the actors," Coen said with a nervous laugh after a long pause. "I'm not aware of ever having directed an actor, actually. If an actor comes to us for therapy [they're] in deep, deep trouble."
3. Conversely, Lisa Cholodenko had an amazing experience with Mia Wasikowska who she cast without meeting. The actress impressed her with every scene, but she was worried initially.
"She’ll be the next big great actress, guaranteed," she said, “I just liked her from seeing her on ‘In Treatment.’ We were going really fast. I had an instinct. I just did it. And she showed up and I was really like, ‘Oh, no. This girl is so meek and kind of petite and withdrawn.’ But I didn't talk to anybody about it. And then it was one of those things where you're just
stunned as you go. You're like, ‘Oh, my God. She knows more than I do. She's letting her cards out slowly. This girl is a firecracker."
4. Can you guess what actor Ben Affleck is talking about, stating that he's both difficult, fearless and brilliant?
Fincher asks Affleck, "Do you ever find that you were in a situation that you thought this guy is a jackass and this is never going to amount to anything, and then you go and you see it and you go [this performance is really good]?" The actor/director responds clearly talking about one actor in particular, but never saying his name. We have a great, solid guess, but we'll let you sound off in the comments section. "I've worked in situations with an actor where I was like, 'This guy is crazy." You know what I mean?,' Affleck said. "And I'd say, 'OK, the scene is over here.' And he'd go, 'I think it should happen in the living room.' And I'd go, 'Well, I feel like if she's waiting for you here and you're going to come to talk to her....' And then we'd work it out and he'd kind of like sulk. And then I'd say 'action' and he'd walk into the kitchen, or the living room. I'm like, 'But the cameras are over here! OK? You can't just....'
But Affleck seems to ultimately admire this ballsy-ness. "It turns out because that actor was absolutely fearless — in terms of being able to walk into the room where the cameras weren't because he thought that's where the scene was — he actually had a kind of amazing sort of odd presence. He did nothing fake. There wasn't a false moment in there."
5. All the directors, except Fincher, agreed, that watching the raw, first-cut assemblage of their films is a painful experience.
Even though these directors made some of the best films this year, they rail on and on about how terrible their first cuts were and are at first without music, sound design, etc.. Aronofsky even said, “When you watch an assemblage, you just know you're getting drunk that night. It's just a miserable experience.” It would’ve been nice to have a follow-up question where they talk about how the refining process happens to get these great works.
6. Tom Hooper is kind of dull.
And doesn't contribute much to the conversation. At least that’s how it seems by these excerpts. In one quote, he said, “They [the actors] have to feel you have a completely tight vision and know exactly what you want, but at the same time the more they can feel completely free to give you everything that you have in your head, without feeling like they're negotiating your preconceived vision.” Blah.
7. David Fincher and Ben Affleck both agree that lying is part of being a director -- at least when it comes to pretending you're in control.
As long as your actors think everything is going smoothly, then everything’s fine seems to be the sentiment the two directors agree on. Coen disagrees, instead saying. “You feel like a scene is not working but you never feel that in a vacuum. The actors feel that too. You kind of work through a scene. It's all about kind of working the scene. It's not about the people, or we pretend it isn't, and that has worked well for us.” Fincher at the same times says "honesty is the best policy" when it comes to directing actors.
8. Ben Affleck admitted an embarrassing, amateur mistake that Jeremy Renner had to quietly call him out on during the filming of "The Town."
"On the second day on the movie, in a scene where he's getting angry at me — and we did a couple of takes. And I was really kind of into what [Renner] was doing," Affleck said. "And then the last take seemed to be a little bit weird. And he was like, "Hey, can I talk to you?" I was like, "Yeah. Of course. Sure." And he goes, "You're mouthing my lines." Takes balls to admit something like that. He also expresses his fear about being a director, saying, “I feel a tremendous amount of anxiety, talking about making the day, and my own unknowns. Is what I'm doing working? Can I hear my own writing? I mean, just a constant sort of staying above water.”
9. Fincher, Aronofsky, and Cholodenko blame bad writing for scenes not working.
They say that it’s usually never bad acting getting in the way. Fincher said, “If something’s not working it’s usually...” and Aronofsky finished his sentence, saying, “The writing.” Interesting. Is this saying that there are a lot of bad writers in Hollywood, or are they saying that the writing is the most important part of a film? It really makes for the argument that good writers in Hollywood are seriously undervalued.
10. Finally, Hooper says something interesting! The awareness of time may be the most important aspect of filmmaking.
“What Ethan was saying about speed is the most curious thing about filmmaking because, in reality, your most intimate relationship on set is with time,” he said. Every director on the panel agrees with this statement. The pressure isn’t making a great movie, at least not during the moment; it’s getting done on time for the production schedule.
11. Fincher would be the only one who dares say something remotely negative about Aaron Sorkin writing.
He notes that Sorkin’s script did have its problems, stating, “I think the key with Aaron is to make sure that not everybody is the same. 'Cause there's a degree of snark or glibness or whatever that he has," Fincher said. "You have to be careful that you don't sort of parse out that, that the ensemble becomes delineated and specific. So you want to make sure that Jesse's [Eisenberg] thing is not Andrew's [Garfield] thing. So it's about kind of judging that. But for the most part, it's on the page.” Finally, he’s giving himself some credit for what most critics and awards are saying is the best picture of the year.
12. In conclusion, some parting words for budding, potentially naive, filmmakers. All the directors agree that every film, sometimes every scene, turns out far, far different from what you imagined it would be.
"Every movie is like that. Every film, every scene in a movie is a varying degree of [compromise]. I don't think I've ever [made a film that turned out the way i initially envisioned it]," Fincher said. "I think it's a myth, like the Kubrick myth... that you [get] exactly what you have in mind," stressed Aronofsky. "You're in three dimensions with weather, atmosphere, technology that has limitations, time that has limitations. And you don't want to control an actor to that extent because it'll just suck the life out of 'em. It's a constant form of improv and you just sort of roll with it." Fincher is brutally honest. "You read a script and you get through it the first time and you go, 'God, that's an awesome movie.' And then it's never that interesting or fun from that moment on." Watch this clip, it'll practically deter you from filmmaking if you've ever had the thought. [top photo credit: Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times] - Catherine Scott