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2011 SBIFF Directors' Panel: Directors On Directing

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Video: Would more money have made the film better?

SBIFF panelists talk about working with smaller budgets, the pressures of being on the "Oscar circuit", and how to keep creative and focused on the story at hand.
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2011 SBIFF Directors' Panel: Directors On Directing
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As a presenting sponsor of the 26th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, puts you in the front row of four fascinating panel discussions with some of Hollywood's top filmmakers, including a number of Golden Globe, Emmy, Grammy, and Academy Award winners and nominees.

Moderated by the vice president and editorial director of Variety Peter Bart, these six directors speak to the pressures of being on the Oscar circuit and the need to get back to work as soon as possible. Unusual for a group of nominated films—with the exception of Toy Story 3 at an estimated $200 million—these are all relatively low-budget films, ranging from $1 million to a high of $14 million. The directors discussed how not having a big budget to work with forced them to be more creative and focused on the story.

This panel includes Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Charles Ferguson (Inside Job), Debra Granik (Winter's Bone), Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), David O. Russell (The Fighter), and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3).


Would more money have made the film better?

(audience chatter) Male Speaker: Good morning everyone, and welcome! (Applause) Male Speaker: Thank you! Welcome to the Director's Panel. I need to thank, our first-ever--thank you--our first-ever presenting sponsor. Without their generosity, we wouldn't be able to do what we have done for the past week. I also need to thank Fielding Graduate University for sponsoring the Director's Panel.

And let's start right away. Please welcome Lee Unkrich, Director Toy Story 3; David O. Russell, Director, The Fighter; Tom Hooper, Director, The King's Speech; Debra Granik, Director, Winter's Bone; Charles Ferguson, Director, Inside Job; Darren Aronofsky, Director, Black Swan.

And please welcome our moderator. He has been moderating this panel for the past few years. He is part of the family here at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. He is the Editorial Director of Variety, and he is a long-time communist, and he is also co-host of Show Business on NBC in LA and San Francisco and San Diego. And in the house, on the Encore Network across the US, Sundance channels across Europe and Asia. Please welcome Peter Bart! Peter Bart: So everyone you see here is both exhausted and also, I think, delighted to be here in this island of civility where people actually pay attention to cinema and not just to the awards buzz.

So having said that, I realize-- (applause) Thank You! I was saying that I realize at last year's panel we had a sort of domestic, domestic nuances taking place because next to me was Jim Cameron, and next to him was our Kathryn Bigelow and-- Charles Ferguson: No. Peter: And as you remember-- Peter: And as you remember there was a sort of an interesting little subtext of tensions, and I guess I should ask folks, has anyone here hooked up with anyone else? I am glad.

So what all this is about is, folks, is this thing, which most people don't see arrive today. This is the Oscar Ballot, and I have been a voter for some 30 years. And the Oscar Ballet's fascinating. There are really some obvious things to decide on, what, ten best pictures. You folks are familiar with that list. But as an Oscar voter I am also expected to vote on sound mixing. Like Salt is on the list of sound.

I remember, when I saw Salt, I didn't leave thinking, "Boy, was that mixed beautifully!" And makeup, one of the three candidates is Barney's Version. Now, Paul Giamatti is terrific. I don't think his makeup was that great. But that is what we get, and it arrived this morning, and the 5,000 plus voters like myself are expected to fill it out religiously, which we do.

So what I am going to do this morning, folks, is to throw out my usual list of inane questions. And if it's directed at one person, I would be delighted if others also responded and maybe took issue with anything that I said or any of what else has been said. But well one question I couldn't resist is simply this: since most of you here--Lee Unkrich, this is not for you-- most of you here really made films on extraordinarily lean, disciplined budgets, I am tempted to ask you--starting with you, Darren--if you would had twice the budget and twice as long a schedule, would your picture have been better? Darren Aronofsky: That's always the big question.

We actually went out looking for--I think the original budget was about $28 or $30 million for Black Swan, and we ended up with 13 in the end. So it would have been better for me because I would have gotten paid, because that's always the first thing to go above the line, is like, okay, that's chopped off now. Let's start seeing how many days we can do this in. But I think, that's always the boundary. That's the game for all of us of independent film. We've all come from that school.

You find out where your restrictions are, and then you sort of create a visual language that works within that. When I had $60,000 to do Pi, we chose to do black and white because I knew I couldn't control the color palette. I just didn't have enough resources, and I knew black and white would sort of cut that out of the equation. Actually, the black and white we shot was more expensive than color film, because it was black-and-white reversal, but I knew we would be saving money because of all the savings we'd do on that.

So it would have been a completely different movie. You create a film with the amount of time you have-- in this case it was 40 days. And we knew every day was going to be a struggle, which it was, and we just tried to push the limit of that $13 million every single day. Peter: I remember running into Mike Nichols the day after he finished shooting The Graduate, and he said to me, "You know, I think every time that I had to compromise because of cost I think the scene was better because I was desperate." Debra, you, what, your budget was 2? How the hell did you do that? Debra Granik: Well, it depends on who is going to go down there with you.

You have to go with a group of people that want to work in that way, and who are willing. 24 and a half days means that some of it is shot in a documentary style in a sense that that's what the crew looks like and that's how they are moving. It's not that it's documentary techniques, but the actual structure, infrastructure, resembles a very agile, mobile situation, and there are no sets, and the lighting package is tiny. Everything is about being adroit and swift moving and low impact.

Had we had more money, we would have crushed the very piece of land that we were invited to work on. We would have rolled over the local participants. We would have been seen even more as outsiders as we already were. We were outsiders. And so the connection of our team with the local team I think would have been inhibited and marred by a kind of money that would be both intimidating and seem egregious, maybe unconscionable. It would have been hard to defend coming down with any more resources than we had.

And I don't think it would have made it a better film, for all the reasons of-- we didn't need to alter. We needed to be very quite and careful about what we were filming, where we were filming. So I think for this production, I think the missing is like the 2.2; the .2 for the two producers that deferred their--above-the-line situation. So I think in this sense, a frugal budget was commensurate with the story we were trying to tell.

Peter: Just for the sake of the folks here, he who defers, never sees. (laughter) Debra: Except when you have a transparent, honest, hard-working distributor like Roadside, who will absolutely make sure those two women receive their...deferment. (applause) Peter: Tom, do you want to speak to that issue? Tom Hooper: Well, I definitely think one of the differences if we've had more budget--I mean we made it for about $14 million, our film. 1.4-- there were some people I collaborate with a number of times, and it is tough to keep going back and saying, "Would you work for less than you should?" and keep putting in those favors, and particularly in post when we really ran out of money, Particularly on the sound side, it was very tough to do what we had to do to get the picture made.

It would be nice to feel like you could pay people generously when you work. So that would be a difference. But I think the key relationship is the relationship between budget and scrutiny, or oversight. And in my head, one of the bonuses of working on a low budget is the level of scrutiny you are under from the financiers is much reduced, because no one is hugely anxious about it, because no own stands to lose a ton of money.

And I think in the end, I have learned over the time I have been directing, the most valuable thing you have is your freedom, and I would always work for less and less budget to have that freedom, and that trade I would make every time. Peter: Well, I wonder if one advantage to scrambling for the financier is simply that there is no studio to tell you what to do because there are a bunch of financial entities. Now David, I kept trying to follow how The Fighter came together, and I lost track, so I don't know who you ended up answering to.

David O. Russell: Well, it was at Paramount, and then it felt apart many times. Mark Wahlberg carried it for about 4-5 years. Brad Pitt was going to do it. Matt Damon was going to do it. They had a $60-70 million budget. We ended up financed by Relativity. Darren was going to do it at one time. That was with Matt Damon? Who was not going to be with? Darren: Brad Pitt was involved for a little bit and then Matt Damon. I went through a few actors on it.

David: And then when that didn't happen, then you went and said, "I am going to make this movie called The Wrestler," right? Darren: No, no, no. I -- (laughter) David: Why is that so funny? (laughter) Darren: I read The Fighter and thought it's an amazing story, and Scott Silver who wrote the script, I went to film school with, and he is from Worcester which is right near Lowell, and so I begged him to do it, and he eventually did it.

And then went through few actors and then The Wrestler came together, so I did that. And then it was like, more Bengay or girls in tutus? Okay, so David. How's that Bengay? How you handlin' that Bengay there, it's okay? David: So by the time it came together Relativity financed it, and when we had 11 below the line. 33 days, 3 days to do the fights and 30 days to do the rest. It was the closest to my first film, Spanking the Monkey, which was more like Winter's Bone in scale.

We shot that in 25 days. I frankly liked the level of focus and leanness and no-nonsense-ness that it gave us. And I think necessity breeds invention and keeps ego out, and we were unified in a humble kind of love for the people of Lowell and for the story--and that all came from Mark. So that was an asset from a creative point of view, and it caused us to be disciplined at the script phase because the script must be gotten below 110 pages if you are to make a movie in 33 days, I mean for me, and really, really do each one of those scenes.

Peter: That's only 100 pages shorter than Social Network. (laughter) So Lee, I must ask you, since you worked at Disney and Pixar with limitless amounts of money, but -- Lee Unkrich: But you know what I got a--let me cut you off. The thing is, yes, I made a film that cost a lot more than any film at this table, but when you are making an animated film, because they take so long, because they take years and years-- I worked on Toy Story 3 for over four years, and with a very large crew--so naturally that means it's going to become expensive. But I don't anyone to feel like we have an open checkbook to make this movie.

In fact, we were shielded quite a bit from the money that was being spent, and we were allowed to just completely focus on the creativity of making the film. And as everybody is pointing out, you always make better decisions when we have limitations, when the sky is not the limit. And every step for the way, we had limitations upon us, many of them self-imposed, because we knew that we would come up with smarter ideas if we had those limitations. So I mean I know that's, like, that doesn't mean a lot when you've made a movie for $2 million. But I mean it's -- Peter: So let me ask you a really stupid question.

How do you handle adulation? I mean everybody must come up to you and say, "Toy Story 3 is my favorite movie in the history of mankind." So did you ever just say to somebody, "Oh, shut up. I've heard that before." (laughter) Lee: No, I love it. I spent the first year and a half of this movie waking up every morning feeling like I wanted to throw up over the side of the bed, because there was an enormous amount of pressure on me to not only be making the new Pixar movie after a string of ten that had all been very successful, critically and financially, but to be making a sequel to the Toy Story films, which have been beloved for a number of years by people all over the world.

I just knew there was a very real chance that I would go down in history as being the guy who made the crappy sequel to the Toy Story movies, a very real possibility that could happen. And that fear drove me each and every day to not let that happen, or to do everything in my power to not let that happen. So yes, I love the adulation because my crew and I worked really hard for a long time, and it could very well have gone the other direction, so we drink it in.

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