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Five Things I Learned at DGA Symposium with Scorsese, Greengrass, Russell and McQueen (UPDATED)

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 6, 2014 at 6:15AM

Paul Greengrass, David O. Russell, Martin Scorsese and Steve McQueen explain how they shot key sequences their films at the annual pre-DGA Awards Directors' Symposium.
Greengrass, Russell, Scorsese, McQueen
Greengrass, Russell, Scorsese, McQueen

At the 23rd annual Directors Guild Symposium held the morning of the DGA Awards, the frontrunner was a no-show--"Gravity" director Alfonso Cuaron was flying in from Italy in time for the awards dinner Saturday. (Update: as expected, he won.) That left room for the other four DGA rivals to dig into each of their widely different films. Moderator Jeremy Kagan quizzed Brits Paul Greengrass ("Captain Phillips") and Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave") and Americans David O. Russell ("American Hustle") and Martin Scorsese ("The Wolf of Wall Street") on their process. They turned out to have more in common than you might expect, from dreaming their movies to vomiting on set.

Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

Here are the five most compelling things I learned from this 160-minute interview (the DGA has posted video here).

1. David O. Russell likes to jam his cast and crew into a 15-passenger mini-van every morning before the shoot in order "to deal with the overwhelmingness of it all," he said. "It's proper to be overwhelmed, a movie beats your ass, you're on the ropes the first half of the day, like 'Raging Bull,' and at the end you say 'yeah, I beat that day! I did it!'"

2. Directing is a dream state. "I'm dreaming on set," said McQueen. "When I'm shooting it's about catching butterflies, embracing what's there, making what you can of what's in front of you...anything can happen when the camera's rolling and you could catch it. It's a totality. I don't have too much fear, I've learned to embrace it, it's my friend. It's about trusting things and magic. No one knows what's going to happen...We were dancing with ghosts on this movie, in footprints of footprints of the past in New Orleans, the air was sweet with perfume, old music, Spanish moss, two-century old trees. It is a dream, fantasy, reality. Things happened that couldn't be explained."

Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale in "American Hustle"
Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale in "American Hustle"

Scorsese sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and makes notes of his dreams, he said: "I've been able to push the structure of the narrative around in ways I hadn't thought of before."

"You get in a trance," said Russell. "It's a beautiful thing in an environment of love and trust. I'm playing music on set, it does induce a dreaming state, I play music in the van, to feel what it is, to get out of our heads and jump into the ocean together, open to the muses --things come to you." 

"The filmmaking process is a strange fugue state," said Greengrass. Once you start shooting it's a strange realm, not reality, not really awake, not asleep. It's to do with stress. Once the first day starts you keep on the race to get finished. It's a profound race in your imagination between what you know when you start the film in terms of your visions of the piece and what you build step by step along the way, always a bewitching mysterious thing...I find myself a lot of the time running the film in my mind, 'how's this shot going to work?' I play it in my mind, like a nonstop conversation you're having with yourself. At its heart I've always felt that making films is an attempt to recreate in a pale and inadequate fashion the intensity of feelings you had as a child when exposed to moving pictures."

It's important not to know where you're going, Greengrass added. "You start the film with a screenplay...Each piece is alive. We must fashion from these pieces the ends of the scene without regard for the ends that are shaped on the page. It says that ABC is going to happen but we must play the scene as if we believe in different outcomes, not that it's preordained, otherwise it will not be alive."

3. Two films provoked vomiting. In "Captain Phillips," the first time they filmed in the rocking claustrophobic lifeboat on the open sea off the seaport Malta, the director of photography Barry Ackroyd and his focus puller started throwing up after 20 minutes. During one scene in "The Wolf of Wall Street," Scorsese told Leonardo DiCaprio not to eat the sushi in every take. The actor insisted on doing it. Soon enough, he was hurling into a bucket. 

This article is related to: DGA, Directors Guild, Martin Scorsese, Martin Scorsese, Paul Greengrass, Paul Greengrass, David O. Russell, Steve McQueen, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Academy Awards, Awards, Directors Guild Awards

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.