LOS ANGELES — They have worked in diverse disciplines — acting, screenwriting, theater, television, exploitation films — were born in three countries and have made radically dissimilar movies. But there’s a lot more that unifies the five filmmakers who recently came together at the Los Angeles Times for the third annual Envelope Directors’ Roundtable.
For one thing, their movies are being hailed for standing among this year’s Oscar contenders: Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist,” Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and George Clooney’s “The Ides of March.” It’s no recent fluke, either: Total all of their past Oscar nominations (19) and wins (three), and you’ve got five of the town’s heaviest hitters.
And Tuesday, Hazanavicius, Payne and Scorsese were among the five directors nominated for the 84th annual Academy Awards, to be presented Feb. 26.
Even if the specifics of their process vary, they approach filmmaking similarly — responding emotionally to material; sweating over casting more than any other choice; persevering to create an on-set atmosphere where accidents, the good kind, can happen.
Yet don’t assume the directors think or act alike. Scorsese and Clooney love to tell stories, Daldry and Payne tend to ask questions, while Hazanavicius tries to wrap his mind around everything that’s happening to him. And they all have obstacles: self-doubt, the film lab that ruins an entire day’s footage, strained or ruined relationships.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation with the five directors.
Q: What does it take to convince yourself to direct a certain movie?
Martin Scorsese: It has to be the actors, it has to be wanting to be with those characters, because I spend a lot of time with them. And being thrilled by surprises on the set with actors too. In “Goodfellas,” the whole sequence with Joe Pesci doing his routine about “Do you think I’m funny? You think I’m a clown?” was something that he did for me at lunch. He said, “I don’t want to be in the film.” I said, “Come on, you got to do this!” “I’ll be in the film if I do this one bit that happened to me,” he said. And he went up to my apartment and he acted it out and I said, “You got it.”
Stephen Daldry: I read the script. It’s instant for me. Everything’s going to take two years. So it’s what you want to spend two years with. I read lots of things that I think I’d like to see that, I’d love to see somebody else do that or I’d love to see their version of that. But really, you know, 18 months down the line, am I really going to be sitting here having the best time of my life with that?
Alexander Payne: For me, it’s the flash of an idea. It is a little bit like an epiphany. Boom, that could be a movie. And then comes the hard work, writing the script and then finding the financing and all that. The idea has to be strong enough to see you through those two years of work and then having to talk about it for a year afterward.
Michel Hazanavicius: Everybody told me that (“The Artist”) was an impossible movie to make. And I believed them for a while. By chance I’ve made two successes in France, and I said, “Maybe they’re wrong, and maybe I can do it. Maybe it’s not so impossible.” I think there’s a hunch; something that tells you that it is a good movie to make and that’s a movie I can be comfortable with for two or three years and, actually, for the rest of your life because you have to live with it.
George Clooney: I have to look at things that I think are in my wheelhouse. I like to find things that I think my version of it would be the version I’d like to see. (But) there are things I look at and I go, “I don’t know how to do that. There are better people for that job.”
Q: George, on “Ides of March” you have to decide about several things at once — producing, co-writing, acting and directing.
GC: You look at it and you go, “Well, OK, I know how to do (it).” For a political piece, I’ve been involved in that world for a long period of time. I like those kinds of characters. That for me was the defining factor. “Good Night, and Good Luck” I wrote because I was mad because I was being called a traitor to my country because I said we should ask questions before we send people to war, and I found a way to express that in film. As much as I’d like this to be my day job, it isn’t yet. And so I sit here listening to really wonderful filmmakers talk about processes that for me are more complicated because that’s not something I do as well as the others. And so I steal from each of them things that I think they do really well.
Q: Marty, you’re the living proof that there is no such thing as a wheelhouse, that you can move from genre to genre.
MS: I’ve tried to.
MS: Yes. In this case of “Hugo,” there was no doubt about that. My wife read the book and said, “This story is you.” I didn’t see it right away. I did connect with the character of the little boy and the idea that it was Georges Melies and making films. Having had asthma, the only thing they could do in the ‘40s was to take me to the movies. (My father and I) experienced a lot watching those films together, but he never spoke about it. So these powerful emotions and these powerful psychological experiences somehow are very primal in my connection to the people who were closest to me. And so that’s where “Hugo” hit. So she said, “Come on, make a film your daughter could see for once.” She’s just turning 12.
Q: She didn’t see “Casino”?
MS: I was going to show her “Goodfellas” first.
GC: Bring her in slowly.
Q: What are you feeling the first day on set?
AP: (You see) all those trucks, all those burly bearded men with thickly muscled calves and walkie-talkies wolfing down those aggressive breakfasts. I’m always fearing that all of this, the machinery which American filmmaking tells you that you need, I’m always fearing it’s going to mar the intimacy of what I’m hoping to shoot.
Q: What’s going through your mind?
AP: When I say “action,” I mentally wish it all away, and I’m back in film school next to a Super 8 camera and it’s just me and the camera and the actor. I have to have that same kind of intimate feeling with those actors in front of me.
MH: The first day it’s really scary for me. I think to myself, “Why did I want that? Why did I ask all these people to make something?” I want to be home with my mother drinking hot chocolate and looking at TV. And you spend so much time telling people that you’re going to do a great movie, and you say (it) to yourself. And what if I was wrong? They’re all going to laugh at me, and it’s going to be ridiculous.
SD: I try to avoid it.
Q: The first day?
SD: The idea of a first day. I test, and then we rehearse and you keep filming the test and keep filming the rehearsals until you tumble in and suddenly you’re filming without really knowing that (it’s) filming. So you avoid the first day.
Q: George, you have a trick?
GC: I’m coming from a place of acting, so you’re never quite sure if you’re going to get the crew to even be on your side, and you always have this great fear that they will discover that you’re an impostor and that you have no business being there. And Sidney Lumet’s trick, and I’ve done it on every film, is you set up the first day, the first shot, something you will never use in the film. And the crew’s there and you go, “Ready, action.” They do the first take. You go “Cut, print, moving on.” And everybody in the crew just sits up. For me as an actor, if someone does that to me, if you think you’re going to do 30 takes, you sort of tank it in the first five or six because you figure they’re not going to print it. You’ve got to be on, and it’s funny how you feel everybody kind of sit up in their seat. And it’s just stealing from guys who I really respect.
AP: Marty, for your first day do you prefer an easy scene or a difficult scene?
MS: Usually, it’s slipping in, like just putting your toes in the water. Because I’m concerned about the crew, I’m concerned about everybody working together. And literally getting the focus. For example on “Raging Bull,” the first day of shooting, Michael Chapman, it was his first time shooting black-and-white. We did many tests and everything. And the first day of shooting, which was just a few shots of (Robert) De Niro and the other gentleman (Floyd Anderson), playing Jimmy Reeves fighting in the ring. They were very simple shots, we think. We never saw them, because they put the footage in the color bath (and ruined the film). So we’re lucky not to ...
AP: ... Not to have had a heavy scene.
MS: Unless you can control the scene, you’ve got something that doesn’t necessarily depend too much on technical details. It’s a good idea sometimes to go jump right in with the actors and do something powerful.
AP: On “The Descendants,” we had a difficult scene the first day. It was when he has learned he’s been cuckolded and he runs over to the neighbor’s house, and then has the fight, the heated discussion with the friends: Who was he? Did you know him? That sort of thing. We needed to knock out that location.
GC: To argue from the other side for an actor’s point of view, once you hear the words, “OK, great, got it,” that immediately releases you of all tension. And then of course — and (Alexander) did this many times — he’d go, “Got it, perfect. You know, what the hell, let’s just try one more.”
MH: For the actors, the first day should free something (in them). This is the character. And I think they need maybe one or two days to find something. So I don’t want to frustrate them. For “The Artist” we started with the movie in the movie where there are a lot of shots, but for the actor it was OK because he could overact and it was very funny to make. But his real character came like two days after. So he had an adaptation time.
Q: How much of your job is casting?
AP: Casting’s the most important part of the film by far, by far. All components of cinema are equally important, but casting is the first among equals of all parts. Everyone says that no matter how well lit and shot and everything, who’s in it? Were they good? Do you believe them? They are the primary conveyors of the tone of the film, from the director to the audience through the actors.
MS: It’s sad to say, but you can have different cinematographers, you can have different members of the post, you can have a different director. But you need the actor there.
GC: You could use a good script every once in a while too. But the first thing you learn and I think it’s a fair thing to say is it’s almost always a mistake to hire a friend in a part, because almost inevitably you’ve sort of changed your judgment to say, “Well, they could do this,” and sort of worked them into something that they’re not right for. And you’ll end up probably cutting them out, which is going to give you another terrible conversation you’re going to have later.
SD: Have you ever thought you were miscast?
GC: Several actually — particularly early on in your career, because you don’t really understand you’re miscast. Actors don’t really have that sort of perspective at first. You know it when you’re working with a director and it’s just not working.
Q: What happens if you’ve cast the wrong person?
MH: The problem is that you don’t pay as much attention to the other ones, because it’s the worst one who you have to work with, and it’s bad for the others. But you don’t have a choice.
Stephen, you were very fluid in terms of how you set up your days on “Extremely Loud.”
SD: For me, it’s so much about relaxing. Can I get to a point of relaxation that I can have an idea. And if you have an idea, will the crew — it’s much more crew than actors — will the crew go with the idea? “I know we’ve said we’re going to do this scene here, but we’re now going to do it over there, and it’s actually not this scene.”
Q: That doesn’t sound relaxing at all.
SD: The most relaxing thing to do is to actually just make it up on the spot.
GC: Actors will always like another crack at something. (It’s) trickier shooting yourself, obviously. Directing yourself is a terrible thing. First of all, you’re breaking that trust (among actors if) you and I are doing a scene, and I’m not supposed to say to you, “Don’t do that.” So you’re cheating already, No. 1, and No. 2, you can never do more takes on yourself than you do on the other actors.
Q: How is your job changed by also being a screenwriter?
MH: I think it makes things easier also because people maybe trust you more, and trust is very important in the whole process. And because it’s a story you created, people are maybe more trustful with you and they say, “OK. This is his story. Let him do what he wants to do.”
Q: When do you realize the movie you are making might be good?
MH: You can’t leave every day with that idea, it’s good, it’s good, it’s good. But deeply you think it’s good but maybe just you hope it’s good. When people on set say to me, “It’s really good, what we did here, it’s really good,” I’m really defying of that. Because I think what’s true one day in October on a set is not the same truth four months later in an editing room. So I try to trust what I wrote, to trust what I storyboarded and to let things happen on set.
AP: Some days I am Orson Welles. Other days I am the worst loser, impostor, know-nothing wannabe filmmaker in the world. I believe both with equal conviction. And I’ve become friends with that rudderless feeling.
Q: How do you know when your movie’s done?
AP: There’s the old phrase, of course, that films are never finished, they’re abandoned. You can tweak forever. But in my experience there comes a time where you’ve edited and screened and screened and edited and cut by cut you kinda comb through every cut and (try it) this way and that to make sure it’s the best and it’s as short as possible but still allowing each emotion. And you just sorta feel done.
MH: In advertising, every first cut for an advertisement of 30 seconds, it was like 54, 56 (seconds). “I can’t do 30 seconds.” But it’s advertising so you have to. And when you do the 30 seconds, you say it’s much better than the 54 seconds. So for every movie I say, “This one has to be one hour 35.” The first cut is more than two hours, and I force myself to (cut), and it’s very painful at the end. Very very painful. And even the editor says, we can’t ... even the producers say we can’t cut that. But I force myself to go there.
MS: It’s interesting you say that about the commercial, because I remember now I did a small commercial for Armani back in 1988 I think it was. One minute had to be 30 seconds. “How could I do that?” And it got to be 30 seconds. And that’s when I realized the way the mind perceives an image, and that’s what led a lot to the fast cutting in “Goodfellas.” Because I realized, “No, you can do it.”
Q: How do you balance work and life?
SD: God. You sacrifice your personal life. I find it incredibly hard. And it does depend on your loved ones, how much they’re prepared to go along with you and how much suffering they can endure.
MH: For the personal life, yeah, it can be dangerous. I sacrificed one family, and I tried to get better with this one.
AP: I’m 50 years old, I’m still single. I was married once, but personal life has taken a back seat to this bitch goddess of filmmaking.
GC: I’ve been around show business my whole life. I understand how fleeting all of this is and that at the end of the day we’re all going to be sitting on a couch and Ralph Edwards is going to be doing “This Is Your Life.” I understand that they will take those keys away at some point. It doesn’t matter; everyone had the keys taken away at some point and you weren’t allowed to play anymore. So for me, when they allow you to do that, it’s such a great gift, and I feel very lucky to be in that position. So I’m going to keep driving that car until they take the keys away, and then I’ll take some time and do things that are, you know, more pleasing sometimes to the other parts of your soul.
MS: This is my fifth marriage. We’ve been married 12 years, wonderful family. I was very lucky; 12 years is a long time in movie years. So I’ve got that.