LOS ANGELES — It’s as inescapable as any law of physics: To be a movie director, you must first direct a movie. But being a movie director and becoming one are two fundamentally dissimilar things, as the filmmaking participants in a Los Angeles Times roundtable discussion made clear.
For nearly two hours, five of the year’s most celebrated filmmakers gathered at the Times to discuss the challenges — and rewards — of making distinctive and often highly personal movies, even as the studios grow all the more interested in presold sequels, remakes and adaptations of board games.
When they were not talking about their artistic epiphanies — saying no to Harvey Weinstein at a test screening, challenging a puzzled producer with a gun on the eve of filming — directors James Cameron (“Avatar”), Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”), Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and Lee Daniels (“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”) also shared stories about how they cast their award-winning movies, a process that sometimes includes two-hour auditions and a preference for working with familiar faces.
Here are edited excerpts from last week’s lively, sometimes unguarded conversation among this award season’s front-running directors.
FIGHTING FOR YOUR MOVIE
Question: When you made “Precious,” how did you pitch your producers, Gary and Sarah Magness?
Daniels: I said, “I want to do a movie about a 400-pound black girl who’s learning how to read, who’s raped by her father and raped by her mother.” And they signed a check. And I went over budget. They were like angels. But ... I had to fire a lot of people halfway through the shoot. I had to shut down.
Daniels: Because they weren’t listening to me. Who was I? I ain’t him (pointing to Cameron). I ain’t him (pointing to Reitman). I ain’t him (pointing to Tarantino). I ain’t her (pointing to Bigelow).
Tarantino: But that took a lot of (nerve) for you to do that and it took a lot of (nerve) for them to double down on you, to triple down on you, actually. I mean that’s a really lovely story.
Cameron: That’s a testament to you too, to have the courage to go to them.
Reitman: That’s the moment you become a director.
Q: What was your moment?
Reitman: To shoot my film in five cities and in four international airports. There was this kind of clampdown, “Look, Jason, you make talking movies. They’re about people who just talk to each other, you could really put them anywhere. I know you want to shoot a lot of airports and that’s important to you, but why don’t we just shoot this in one city?” And I thought about it. I could make this movie in one city and I could probably get ... one airport to look like a few. But I finally held my ground. ... I said, “This is right for the film. And it’s going to be some more money, but ... this is the whole world for this film. This is what this character loves; he loves traveling and we need to see America.” And they went for it.
Tarantino: I think the moment he’s talking about is more like something that happens ... earlier on in your career ... where you’re not going to be a hack director. You’re going to be an artist and you can fail and this could not work and this could all fall apart, but you’re going to do your thing. ... It actually wasn’t about filming “Reservoir Dogs.” Harvey Weinstein has bought “Reservoir Dogs” now and they have a market research screening. ... I don’t even want to go to this darn thing. And he goes, “No, come on Quentin. Just help me help you.”
Q: We’re going to recut your film, in other words.
Tarantino: Harvey goes, “OK, so here’s the thing, Quentin, I think that you’ve got a mainstream hit here, but you’ve got this torture scene and it just cuts everybody’s head off. ... It takes it from a popular entertainment that anyone could enjoy and makes it this niche thing that nobody’s going to see. All the women in America will walk out when that scene happens. So, I want you to cut that scene.” When the devil comes to you, he doesn’t come to you with horns. You like the devil. You want the devil to like you. You want the devil to think you’re a reasonable person. So, the thing is Harvey’s coming as this wonderful papa who is offering me the world. All I have to do is get along. And the day I became the director that I am now is when I said, “I’m sorry, Harvey, but that’s not the movie I made, that’s not the movie I want to make. We’re keeping in the torture scene and that’s just the way it’s going to be.” And there was a beat and he goes, “Well, OK. Then we’re going to leave in the torture scene. I just want you to remember it was Miramax who said yes.”
Q: Kathryn, can you top that?
Bigelow: “Near Dark” was a film that I wrote with Eric Red and I wrote it to direct, so I owned it. ... I gave it to a producer who shall remain nameless, who said — and I was rubbing two pennies together, I had like half a can of tuna fish and a bottle of stale water in the refrigerator and that was it — “I’ll give you a lot of money for the script.” I said, ” ... I don’t want to sell it, I want to direct it.” ... Three days later, he called back. “I’ll let you direct it if I can fire you after the first day of dailies and the first day of dailies has to be a really difficult ... ” (assuming she wouldn’t do a good job). So, I put together the scene where ... they trap the guys in the abandoned motel and you shoot through the walls and the light. ...
Cameron: The five-pages-in-one-day scene.
Bigelow: So I kept my job. But that was one of those moments where I thought ... that was a bet with the devil I could make.
Q: And you won.
Bigelow: I never had another moment like that.
Cameron: This was right at the beginning. ... I had gotten fired off of “Piranha II” after a few days, so I kind of don’t count that. So John Daly of Hemdale is financing “Terminator” ... and we were literally a few days from starting and I was very prepared. I had everything storyboarded. I was ready to go. ... Daly sort of reads the script a few days before we start shooting and he wants to have a story conference. ... That’s the one film that didn’t evolve during the process because there was no time. There was just bare bones, 42 days and everything was exactly the way I had sort of drawn it out ahead of time. It was the most prepared of any film I’d ever gone into. And he wants to have a story conference ...
“I want to talk about this guy who comes from this other planet.” And we said, “What other planet? He comes from the future.” ... I had been with the prop guy earlier in the day and I had been looking at the props and I liked this .45 automatic and I took it with me — empty gun — in fact, it wouldn’t even fire, it was a prop gun. It was a real weapon, it just had the barrel stoppered. ... So I go in and I sit down in front of Daly’s desk and he says, “Yes, I want to talk about this man that comes from the future and I don’t really understand this and that about the story.” And I — it just was like a flash. I just opened (my) briefcase, I took the script out, set it on his desk. I took the .45 out, I set it on top of the script. I said, “I am prepared to discuss anything. ... ” He said, “You can’t do that! I’m the producer!” I said, “I’m not doing anything.” And he fled the room and we shot the movie exactly as it was written.
CASTING THE RIGHT ACTOR
Q: One of the things that you did incredibly well in every movie is cast, and we haven’t really talked about actors at all. How about Jeremy Renner, how did that come about?
Bigelow: I knew I wanted to work with somebody that wasn’t very familiar. On the other hand, within the industry, I mean we all know of him and he’s got a really pretty large body of work. But I knew I wanted to work with somebody fairly unfamiliar so that he would look — he was just salt of the earth. He wasn’t like someone who would bring any baggage too. It was simply, “This is Sgt. James.” ... And I found “Dahmer,” which was just an extraordinary performance where (Renner) played an impossible character ... and yet you have compassion for him. I met with him and that was it.
Q: And when you go to your investors and you say, “Here’s my actor,” and they’re OK with it?
Bigelow: They have a heart attack.
Daniels: Mo’Nique was the first person that I cast. We worked together on a film called “Shadowboxer.” She’s my very good friend and she doesn’t — and for the most part, nor do any of the other actors — question me. They don’t question me. If I ask you to throw the baby, she throws the baby. ... I ask her don’t shave her arms, she doesn’t shave her arms. There are no questions ... like, “What’s my motivation?” ... I tell her jump off the roof, she jumps off the roof. With Gabby (Sidibe), I interviewed over 400 girls ... I looked for the truth. I was looking for girls that were Precious because, certainly, Hollywood didn’t offer them. So I was at the 7-Eleven, on the train station stops, inside of the KFC, off the streets. I narrowed it down to 10 girls and they were phenomenal ... a lot of them couldn’t read, a lot of them were sexually abused. I learned so much about Precious through those 400 girls.
Q: So the casting influenced the movie?
Daniels: Without question, because they’re all invisible. ... Gabby came in at the end and she was as good as the rest of the girls, but Gabby is not that girl. She talked like this white girl from the Valley. She’s like, “Oh, my gawd, I love ‘Shadowboxer!’” ... And it was clear to me that she came from a really great background and she had gone to college and she was not this girl. And if I had used those girls, one of those girls that had made it to the final 10, I would’ve been exploiting them because they were the truth. ... The difference is that Gabby really was acting. These girls were not acting. They were the real deal.
Q: Do you like to have familiar faces around — even department heads?
Reitman: I want a shorthand. I believe in relationship over resume. ... Things are going to get tough ... and you have to really question who you want to be standing next to when they do. With actors, and I suppose this is one difference between (Daniels) and I, I don’t like acting. I like people being as real as humanly possible. ... I want to cast people who are as close to the character as possible. ... The reason I enjoy working with people I know is just I know what they do. I know how to get them to do things. The faster I can get there with somebody, the better.
Q: Do you find yourself writing parts for specific actors?
Reitman: I wrote this part for Vera Farmiga and then I found out she was about to have a baby. ... I met with her and she was like seven months’ pregnant — we were about to shoot. I just didn’t think it was possible. And it was funny because that was actually the moment that I suddenly realized how perfect she was for the role because there she was seven months’ pregnant going, “Oh, no, this is not going to be a problem.” ... She was so convincing, I was like, all right, I guess we’re going there. She showed up and started shooting three weeks after she had a baby. It was just astonishing.
Q: We live in an era in which actors want offers, they don’t want to come in and read.
Cameron: I won’t do it.
Daniels: I don’t like the auditioning process. I can sort of feel just in a conversation whether or not that person is or isn’t the person that I want to work with.
Cameron: I’ve got to have them read. I’ve got to have them show me that character.
Q: Did you have Brad Pitt read?
Tarantino: Yeah, no, I did, but ...
Daniels: Brad Pitt read for you? That is genius.
Tarantino: No, I did. ... Brad’s a different story. Getting Bruce (Willis) in “Pulp Fiction” and getting him to read before I gave it to him — that was something else. ... I need to hear their voice say my dialogue. It’s just that simple. ... They don’t need to show me the character per se. We can just muck around with the script, but I have to hear it.
Cameron: I’ve never done an audition shorter than two hours.
Reitman: Whoa! Really?
Cameron: I’ll ... read all the scenes. I don’t care. ... An audition for me is if you’re not willing to put two hours into this process to decide if you’re going to tank or not tank my couple-hundred-million-dollar project, then that’s a non-starter conversation.
Tarantino: That is actually my favorite thing that’s been said right now.
Daniels: When (my casting director) gives me these things on the computer, I push a button and out comes the audition. To me, that’s the work right there. I don’t need to have them re-audition for me. ... I’ve seen the character.
Cameron: I use that to narrow it down from 400 or 300 to three or four or five that I’m interested in and I’ll spend the time with them because if I’m going to spend years on a movie, why wouldn’t I spend a few hours making the most important decision of the production?
Daniels: I have made a radical mistake and I won’t say who, but I made a big mistake once.
Q: By casting the wrong person?
Daniels: Correct. ... And I was wondering whether I was the only one that had that experience here.
Cameron: I don’t because I work with them for two hours at a time.
Reitman: There are people I’ve worked with that I’m not proud of the work experience I had with them and I would not work with a similar actor just because I think that the process isn’t right and I get better work when the process is right.
Tarantino: I cast a couple actors once ... I thought they were interesting enough at the time and I thought they passed the audition process. I thought they were the best but then I realized they were just not the level of actor that I need and require. My feeling is if you show up on my set, there’s none of that B.S. where you learn your lines on the day. You need to know my dialogue as if it’s the sixth week of your Broadway run and you already had a Boston tryout. You need to know it beyond it. And unless you’re prepared to do that, you’re not prepared to be on my movie.
Bigelow: It goes back to instinct. ... I can kind of just see the person and we communicate well together, I think they perhaps will trust me, I will trust them implicitly and I know it’s going to be a good situation.
BORED WITH BOARD GAMES
Q: I think in some ways you are in a slightly insulated world from what’s happening in Hollywood where big-name directors are making movies based on board games and sequels and franchises.
Reitman: I’m making Boggle. I should put that out there now.
Cameron: Battleship was taken.
Q: Is the pressure of having a “pre-awareness” title increasingly encroaching on what you want to do as a filmmaker?
Cameron: I just think it’s not a coincidence that the people who make those movies are not being honored. ... The only reason we’re sitting in this room is because everybody in here is doing distinctive, original stuff. Iconoclastic stuff, whatever it is, and not some stupid number six in a series.
Q: Do studios care about distinction? Don’t they just care about revenue?
Reitman: They need the money to make these movies. I respect the fact that they have a business and they need to make movies that people want to see. And look, I think if it weren’t for the Boggles and Candy Lands and Battleships of the world, I might not have the financing to make my movies. I’m fortunate so far my movies have made money, but some of them aren’t and they are trickier movies and definitely more difficult films to green-light. The same respect I want the studio to give me, I have to give back to them and say, “Look, I know you need to make some money to keep this company running.”
Daniels: Jason, you sound like a politician. Answer the question.
Reitman: No, that’s my answer. I think it’s necessary. I think that you need movies that are definitely going to make money.
Cameron: They don’t have to do board games though. They should have a little pride.
Reitman: The studio system isn’t based on pride, you know? ... It is those companies that finance our films.
Cameron: I get that. But most of these companies are run by people who have been in the job less than five years. They have no sense of history. When I started 25 years ago, everybody was crying about VHS and how it was wrecking the movie business. There’s always something wrecking the movie business every two or three years. The movie business has been wrecked since the ‘50s, since, you know, television came in. But it always seems to survive just fine and this is not an excuse for people to just constantly be whining about how the business is failing and we have to do all this commercial stuff in order to just pay the rent or pay the payments on our corporate jets.