2012 SBIFF Directors' Panel: Directors on Directing

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2012 SBIFF Directors' Panel: Directors on Directing
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As the presenting sponsor of the 27th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, lynda.com is once again pleased to open the door to four entertainment industry panels that feature some of Hollywood's top talent from the world of producers, directors, and screenwriters. Panelists are carefully chosen during the awards season and include many you'll see on the Golden Globes® and the Oscars®.

Moderated by Peter Bart (vice president and editorial director from Variety) the Directors on Directing panel features a who's who of Oscar®-nominated directors on their way to the Kodak Theatre on February 26, 2012. With a dynamic range of films, from feature animation to comedy to silent films, this panel offers a diverse group of opinions and stories from the set. Gore Verbinski (Rango) was shocked that voice actors were recorded one at time, so he arranged for his ensemble cast to be recorded at the same time to take full advantage of the actors' comedic interactions. Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) talks about the challenge of getting a black-and-white silent film made in the 21st century. Terry George (The Shore) tells how he found humor in the serious subject of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Chris Miller (Puss in Boots) leaves room for improvisation in his script with his three main characters, two cats and an egg. Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2) shares her darker moments during production, assuring a nervous studio (a year into production) that everything will work out—despite having nothing to show them. Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), discovering the brilliant performance of actress Melissa McCarthy in rehearsals, rewrote parts of the script to take better advantage of her comedic genius.

All of the directors speak candidly about the importance of great casting, a strong story, and the ability to listen to their audience through prerelease testing.


The process of comedy

(applause) Roger: So let me introduce this amazing group of directors. Chris Miller, Puss in Boots. Thank you! (applause) Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Kung Fu Panda 2; (applause) Terry George, The Shore; (applause) Paul Feig, Bridesmaids; (applause) Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist; (applause) Gore Verbinski, Rango; (applause) and please welcome Peter Bart, who has moderated this panel for many, many times.

He owns this panel. He is the editorial director of Variety. He also hosts and produces Movie Talk, which is shown on NBC and seen in eighty world countries. So please welcome Peter Bart! (applause) Peter Bart: Good morning everyone! So it's nice to be in Santa Barbara, far from the madding crowd of Los Angeles during award season.

The madding crowd of Santa Barbara is infinitely more congenial, trust me. The thing about this directors' panel each year that one is reminded how nice it is to be apart from the media frenzy of the superstar panels. Although a couple of years ago, just as I said that to Roger, he looked at me and said, "Guys, don't forget that the entire crew of 60 Minutes is in the second row." So everybody became a little more cautious about what they said.

I do not believe 60 Minutes or anybody else is here, so I think we can have some fun with this. Paul Feig: No TMZ today, we are safe. Good! Peter Bart: TMZ is everywhere. Paul Feig: That's true. Wait a minute! Peter Bart: So Paul, let me start with you, because I am going to throw out a question to Peter Bart: each director, and then we'll just argue at random. Paul Feig: It's going to get ugly. Peter Bart: But I remember a couple of the actors in your really brilliant movie reminded me that you shot and shot and shot, and the thesis being that a film, a comedy, really is made in the cutting room.

So did you match Judd Apatow's world record for most footage? Paul Feig: I think Judd and I are always in the contest of who can waste the most film. You know it's bad when Kodak shows up with bottles of champagne on the set. So when we started doing that on Freaks and Geeks I was told, in no uncertain terms once, that I would never work in this town again, for all the film that I shot. But you know what it is with comedy, I find the type, that I like to do and like Judd likes to do, that the worst thing you could do is just shoot the script. We start out with a great script, but what happens is you just find with comedy is something that we're convinced is hilarious we put it up in a test screening and it doesn't get a laugh.

And then something that we were kind of like, I don't know, is that funny or not, that somebody just experimented with or came up with on the spot, ends up being something that destroys. So it's almost--it's just insurance really, to make sure that you are covering yourself, because you never want to go in--that's why we were able to have a movie that has done well with audiences laughs-wise, because we did about eight or nine test screenings over the course of putting the movie together and would just find the weak parts and then slot in the new things that we did. It was through a combination of alternative jokes that we wrote, improv skills of the girls, and I cross-shoot when I shoot things, which is I shoot both the actors at the same time, so they can surprise each other, and it happens in the moment, so you are capturing that lightning in a bottle, and that's what gives it kind of a freshness as far as, it feels real.

That's why I think a lot of people responded to the girls talking, because it felt like women actually talking and joking with their friends, which is kind of what it was. Peter Bart: So Chris Miller, on the subject of laughter, I went to see your picture with my seven-year-old granddaughter and she laughed a lot and I laughed a lot, but Peter Bart: we laughed at totally different jokes. Chris Miller: Okay, that's good! Peter Bart: Did you intend it that way? Chris Miller: Well, there's certainly no-- there's no formula and approach, but I just look, I'll make a movie, if I am going to work on a film--and making animated movie, it's a three-year journey, so you want to make sure it's going to be a film that you would definitely want to see.

And I am setting out to make a film that I would want to go to a theater and have that experience. And I think that covers, okay, so that covers some generations there. Knowing full well it's going to be a family--it's intended for a family audience, but you know, I mean, I think we just sort of pepper the laughs in as they come and what is appropriate for any character, in any scene, in any situation. And like Paul was even mentioning, there is a lot of, strange enough, improvisation and animation so your always looking for opportunities to keep it fresh, and we come up with so much material that we'll test in front of audiences or test on ourselves, and it just works out.

There's something for grandpa and granddaughter in the mix and really, it's really just that. That's how you balance it out. There's no abacus, that's for sure. Peter Bart: And Gore, when I went to see your picture, early on, I said to myself, this is the most sophisticated, nuanced animation picture. Why would this brave son of a (bleep) having just left $2.7 billion in Pirates movies undertake a picture that sort of defies expectations? So gutsy man, but what got into you? Gore Verbinski: I don't know. I mean, I think when we first started the first Pirate film, everybody thought we were crazy, and then we kind of lost--you're not the underdog anymore.

When your second film has to make 300 million at the box office, you're kind of carrying this thing on your shoulder, and it's nice to get back to the unknown, back to the feeling of, you're getting more spring in your step, and you wake up every morning going, I don't know what the hell we're doing, and we're going to approach every day and kind of figure it out as we go. So sort of an uncertainty principle, I think, is underneath all that. This is the best job in the world when it continues to be an education, and when you continue to grow and you try things you're not quite sure you know how to do.

Peter Bart: They say louder and funnier. Gore Verbinski: Yes. I hire people for the funny parts. Peter Bart: Now, again, in terms of gauging audience reaction, Michel, I find that audiences for your picture, a silent movie indeed, they seem to be more profoundly moved by silence than they are when they are snowed in with dialogue.

Now, was this part of your seditious thought process when you started that? Michel Hazanavicius: I think it's a combination of many things. First of all, I think the way the story is told, in a silent movie-- Peter Bart: A little louder. Michel Hazanavicius: I make silent movies. You don't have to tell me. The way it works, it's very specific. I mean, because of the lack of sound, you try to feel the lack of information.

So you put a lot of yourself, and you do it with your own brain, your own imagination, your own references. So it's ironic, but it looks very far from people, but it's really closer, because people make the move to the story. Putting a lot of themselves, they're stuck to the character and they're stuck to the story. So I think they are much more involved in the storytelling. And the second thing, I think, is even in the real life, I think the really important thing--you don't say it really with the words, I am sure you-- sometimes you just don't--you just say no word or only a look or you take a pose, and people understand what you mean, and you don't have to use words.

So I am sure it's a good way to say things. Peter Bart: Well, I played the score of your movie in my car driving down here, and it is beautiful, but my dog kept barking. Michel Hazanavicius: So it was exactly like on set actually. (laughter) Peter Bart: Jennifer, if I can ask you this, you are an illustrator by background, and so many of the rest of us on this panel came from the story background, but you were a storyboarder as well.

How does that affect the way you think about the preparation of a movie? Jennifer Yuh Nelson: I think it's because I am an illustrator and part of animation's process is so front end, we don't get a lot of coverage that we can create in the editing room. We just don't have that luxury, because we just can't animate all that stuff. So what we get to do is we make a rough cut of the film and we get to write it in drawings, and that's a real wonderful thing to be able to come in as an artist, because you get to draw your movie and write it in the picture as you are working on the process.

I am surrounded by amazing artists every day and to see what they do is a real joy. Peter Bart: Interesting! Terry, I am fascinated with the process by which a filmmaker chooses subject matter. Now, you moved from Hotel Rwanda to Northern Ireland. What guides you in selecting what your focus is? Terry George: The story, follow the story, and it's basically, strangely enough, it's the same story each time.

It's about communities torn apart and people within those communities who find inner strength to battle the evil that's there. So even though they are continents apart and culture is completely different, they were basically the same stories. And I have the great--I don't know if it's a plus or not, of being on this panel with a film that absolutely no one has seen.

So I can say it's so fabulous. There's not a critic here. There's Pirates of the Caribbean and then there's The Shore. They are basically the same thing. Johnny Depp was supposed to be on The Shore, but he couldn't quite make it. But in actual fact, The Shore is--I hope I would be able to do a version of The Shore for Rwanda, because The Shore, this little film I made, is the book- end in Northern Ireland.

It's an allegory about the peace process, and it's a comedy, which is a big step for me. Yeah, so sort of get back to the question, it's basically following that story of individual bravery in horrific situations, in those situations. Just one thing though: improv and animation, I've got to hear more about. Chris Miller: Yeah, it's crazy. Terry George: Well, do you do, like, two drones? Chris Miller: You just do it on the fly, on the fly.

Terry George: I want to have that. I have to get my head around it.

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