Director's round table: Cameron, Jackson, Bigelow, Tarantino, Reitman, Daniels
The latest roundtable from The Hollywood Reporter has a superb line-up of talented directors with James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Kathryn Bigelow headlining, as well as Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Lee Daniels, and they some revealing things in the discussion.
They discuss some interesting topics, and there's a lot to get through. Luckily I have the video discussions below and a few highlights I've grabbed from the article. It really does sound fascinating stuff and I would love to see much more of this.
One of the first parts that caught my eye was when the directors talked about funding the early stages of the process themselves, to retain control and ensure that things were done just right:
Peter Jackson: "The Lovely Bones," which we've just done, we paid for the rights to the book ourselves, we wrote the check, we developed it ourselves. If we're doing conceptual art, we pay for that ourselves. We only ever go to a studio when we have a complete package and know the budget. It comes down to people. It comes down to you and somebody else (at the studio) on the other end of the phone that you're talking to, and I think that transparency counts for a lot. Honesty and transparency, and then if you do get into the situation where you're going $6 million over or whatever it is, everybody can see it happening way in advance -- you're not hiding it -- and people can make very rational decisions. The only conflicts we have are procedural ones. Like the process we always insist on now with making films is we always build into our budget a pickup shoot in postproduction. Because I feel once you've shot the movie and you've cut the movie, you want to do another three weeks of shooting. You're just going to want to because there are ways of making the film better. Studios will always say, "Don't put that in the budget, we don't want that in the budget, if you want to do that come and see us, we'll decide," and I never trust that, so we always insist that our pickup shoots are part of the budget. That's the argument we always have, but on the other hand we usually win that argument because it's common sense and we shop (the project) to different studios and we go with the one that agrees to allow us to do that. But honestly you're dealing with a person, you're not dealing with a faceless corporation, you're dealing with other human beings and having a relationship with those people is very, very important.
Katryn Bigelow: I think that transparency is really important. On "Hurt Locker," I had to convince people that shooting in the Middle East was going to be all right and nobody was going to be killed, so I went over there, financed it myself and did the scout, came back with all the materials and the locations and met with the Royal Family (of Jordan). I don't think anyone would have taken a flier unless that initial leap had been done.
James Cameron: I was four or five days from starting to shoot "The Terminator" and I was meeting with (producer) John Daly -- may he rest in peace -- and he said, "I don't really understand this story about this guy that comes from another planet and we need to have a story conference." And actually it was (writer-producer) Gale (Anne Hurd) that had the balls; she stood up and said, "That's ridiculous. We're four days from shooting." (She) walked out and I was like, "What she said!" (Laughs.)
The conversation moved on and this section caught my eye, when the discussion came about the final cut of films. This is interesting because of the stance James Cameron takes and how everyone else is surprised. He doesn't invoke his final cut?
James Cameron: I've had final cut for a long time and I've never invoked it.
Lee Daniels: Really?
James Cameron: Because I've always believed that the people paying the price, writing the check, have an opinion and we need to work this out and we need to be partners. If they feel strongly about something --
Quentin Tarantino: But that's a great loaded gun to have in your holster.
James Cameron: Better to have a gun and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Now comes a really interesting section, where the directors start talking about the whole market research and test screenings area, something that is a bit of a dark art and definitely something that can make or break a film whether the director wants it to or not.
Quentin Tarantino: Actually, the thing to me that is more of a dealbreaker than final cut -- because I've had final cut for a long time, I can't imagine not having it now -- is the whole market research process. I have in my deal: I don't do that. I have one screening with an audience -- no cards, no focus group, I just watch the movie with the audience, me and (editor) Sally (Menke), we see how they react. Two weeks later, locked cut…I always do something after that market research screening but I don't care about the audience's opinion individually. I don't care about the cards.
James Cameron: It's the vibe in the room.
Quentin Tarantino: It's the vibe in the room. Look, you know when your movie plays well and when it doesn't, and what'll happen oftentimes is a movie totally plays well, everyone's happy and then the cards contradict exactly what you watched happen in the room.
James Cameron: As long as the filmmaker is in charge of the market research process. That's the way it needs to work. You can have audiences saying things that are kind of a gestalt effect over the course of a film and the second the studio asks you to take this out because somebody didn't like it in that moment, they're not thinking about the effect it might have six scenes later and how something that they loved and that plays beautifully now won't play. They don't think holistically, and the problem with the cards is it gives the studio guys ammunition for specific agendas that they've had all along. They've got a hard-on for this scene or they've got a hard-on for this scene and all they've got to have is one card they can point to that doesn't like the scene and suddenly they're right.
Kathryn Bigelow (to Cameron): On "Blue Steel" -- I don't know if you remember this -- somebody in the focus group said they didn't like Ron Silver -- and he's the bad guy. They were like, "Reshoot it!"
James Cameron: This is interesting. I was led astray by the market research process. I was not savvy. I had never done it before. We didn't do it on "Aliens," didn't do it on "Terminator." We just finished the film, put it in theaters, no bullshit, no screening, nothing…
…I showed it to the studio but we didn't have time to do a screening on "Aliens." So, the first time I did it was on "The Abyss," and I misinterpreted the cards because I didn't know how to operate the process. And we showed it to an audience in Texas, two screenings back to back. One with the wave scene at the end, and one without. And they hated both versions! (Laughs.) So I said, "Well, at least make it short." So, to answer your question, I like the wave version better when we finished the visual effects on it and it worked.
…I learned some lessons from that. I learned: One, the filmmaker's got to be in charge of the market research process and not let other people interpret the cards for you. You've got to sit with the cards in some kind of Zen state and try to first of all get past the egregious handwriting. (Laughs.) You've got to look at the author: 12-year-old male. You've got to get patterns. And the patterns are like going through the chicken guts. You become a shaman.
I find that bit fascinating, really intriguing, especially just how much the directors do listen to the process and how it affects the final film.
Finally, Tarantino reveals that he will give up directing when 35mm disappears, and the others are convinced he doesn't have long to go.
Quentin Tarantino: I would add more to that. If it actually gets to the place where you can't show 35mm film in theaters any more and everything is digital projection, I won't even make it to 60.
James Cameron: Oh. Nobody's told you? (Reaches out hand.)
Quentin Tarantino: It hasn't happened yet!
Jason Reitman: Let's not turn this into a fight.
Peter Jackson: It's coming down the pike pretty quickly, Quentin.
Quentin Tarantino: Well, maybe I've got one more.
I have to admit I hope that Tarantino is right and that 35mm holds on for a little longer, and although I'm happy with the introduction of digital, I'm not so happy with the introduction of 3D and motion capture as a staple addition to film, despite Avatar (Filmstalker review) making me see it in a completely different light. Tarantino will move to digital, I'm sure of that.
The videos from The Hollywood Reporter round table through are below. I'd thoroughly recommend watching them all and reading through the transcript, it's fascinating stuff and they really should release the whole video, or even better do more of them.
Many thanks to the Hollywood Reporter for setting this up.