They are among the season’s most acclaimed directors. But if you ask the six filmmakers who participated in The Envelope’s fifth annual Directors Round Table, each would say they learned more from movies that didn’t work than from movies that did. In our conversation, the directors also talked about how some of the best scenes in their films were made up on the spot.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation with J.C. Chandor (“All Is Lost”), Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips”), John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks”), Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”), Spike Jonze (“Her”) and Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”):
Question: Do you learn as much from failure as you do from success?
Greengrass: You learn much, much more from failure.
Q: What do you learn?
Greengrass: The depths of your own inadequacy. I made a film that was a staggering failure early on. I was brought up in the British documentary tradition, and I was very comfortable there. I sort of took my first steps there and started writing and making films. But I always felt that I was wearing a suit at a wedding, do you know what I mean? It was the moment when you’re at the wedding when you’re wearing the suit and you go, “This is just not me.” And it made me resolve to create the synthesis in my mind between dramatic storytelling and the traditions that I grew up with, marrying that in a way that was authentic to me.
Chandor: I came from a middle-class family, had a wonderful education, had every opportunity, came out of college with some momentum and then basically went 15 years of absolute mediocrity and failure. I’d been thinking about (“Margin Call”) for about two years, but I wrote an 82-page draft over four days and it was literally my last chance. I remember halfway through the first day of shooting on that movie, I walked around and I realized that, actually, I’ve learned so much over the last 10 years of kind of flopping around. You thought it was this colossal waste of time, and now I actually know what I’m doing.
Hancock: It’s like there’s great power in understanding what pleases you and embracing that. You have to know what you want to say, because there’ll be lots of people telling you, “This is good. This is right for you,” and oftentimes — almost always — it’s not.
Holofcener: I feel like I keep making some similar mistakes. I guess my mistakes are the things that don’t work or scenes, and I think, “Where was my head?” and “Next time I’m never going to let this happen again. I knew something was wrong.” Why do I keep moving on when I have that sinking feeling? So I clearly don’t learn, actually.
Jonze: The worst failures are when you fail yourself. And when you fail your intention. And I feel like I’ve sort of come to realize that what success is to me is how close did I get to that initial feeling that I started with. The first movie I worked on was a movie that didn’t get made, called “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” It was a children’s film that was going to go back and forth between live action and animation. I worked on it for a year and a half, and when we finally got the plug pulled, I had this amazing sense of relief. And we took this giant purple crayon and took it up to the roof of the 12-story building we were in and just threw it off and watched it shatter in the parking lot. I had let the studio keep giving me all their anxieties of, “It’s got to be funnier.” “It’s got to be snappier dialogue.” “It’s got to be this; it’s got to be that.” And it happened millimeter by millimeter, so by the time it was a year and a half later, I realized this thing is so far away from what I wanted to do. I got to learn that lesson without making the movie I didn’t want to make.
Hancock: I think that the fact that you can get a movie made is not the reason to make a movie. The fact that you must make it is the only reason to make a movie, and you fight that fight.
Q: If necessity is the mother of invention, is there a specific scene in your film that was more accident than design?
Greengrass: Well, the last scene of my movie came because we were shooting a different scene on the ship that didn’t work. And the clock ticks on, and we had a hard out. We had to be off that ship at 7, and I think it was about half past 5. We were talking to the captain. We said, “Well, you know, where else?” And he said, “When he first came on (back to the ship after being held in the lifeboat), he would have gone to the infirmary.” So I said, “Can we go down there and just try something there?” It’s kind of like a last throw of the dice, really. And he said, “Yeah, sure. There’ll be a medic on duty. You can use her.” Of course, at that moment, blind panic sets in. But what happens is you stop thinking about it and you start being entirely instinctive.
Q: So this is the scene with Tom Hanks in the infirmary. You have no script? You have no dialogue? And you don’t have an actor to play the nurse? And you get what is probably the most memorable scene in the movie?
Greengrass: The first take it all went horribly wrong. I said to the medical officer, “Imagine it’s a training exercise. Just ignore the fact it’s Tom Hanks.” And she went white. It was all just a disaster. But you could tell just in that moment, there was something in the room that was real.
Holofcener: But how did Tom get to that place of blind panic?
Greengrass: We had a conversation after the first take. He said, “Oh, it just feels different here because it’s tiny. And suddenly someone’s being nice to me after weeks and weeks and weeks of having a gun put in my face.” And it just all poured out.
Q: Steve, there are those beautiful shots that “12 Years” cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and you created of Chiwetel just standing there. Were they planned?
McQueen: I don’t do shot lists, really. I feel that sometimes you have to do a little bit of tai chi within the environment where it’s almost like the camera’s on a tripod and the wind blows it this way. I mean an example of that is Chiwetel Ejiofor with a close-up — I think it’s 2 minutes and 20 seconds. We shot it in a car park, toward the end of the shoot.
Q: It wasn’t even on location?
McQueen: He was the character at that point. It was a minimal crew. Just natural light. There’s no noise. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew that I wanted his face on the camera. You switch the camera on and you find it. It’s just him in his head. And it holds you.
Spike, was there something in the making of “Her,” whether unplanned or unscripted, that you said, “This is beautiful, let’s keep it in the movie”?
Jonze: There’s a scene at the end of the movie where (Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson) are having this very emotional conversation. We’d shot the scene, and I was really happy with what we got. And our script supervisor said, “Well, at one point you had mentioned wanting to do this (scene) with him not saying the dialogue verbally, just thinking it and hearing his dialogue.” Even as we were shooting, it was in the back of my head, but I was like, we’ve got to move on. And I went and I said, “Joaquin, actually, hold on. Let’s not wrap.” It was this take that we just didn’t cut. We just kept rolling, and he didn’t turn away. I was just so moved by him and so grateful that everything lined up to get us that.
Greengrass: Isn’t that the sort of magical paradox of filmmaking? You’re doing two entirely different things all the time. One is having a plan, the other is you listening to what the actors are feeling, what the script supervisor says to you, what the weather’s like.