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) - So let me introduce this amazing group of directors. Chris Miller, Puss in Boots, - Beautiful. - Thank you. (laughs) Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Kung Fu Panda 2, (audience applauds) Terry George, The Shore, Paul Feig, Bridesmaids, (audience applauds and cheers) Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist, Gore Verbinski, Rango, (audience applauds and cheers) and please welcome Peter Bard, who's moderated this panel for many, many times.

He owns this panel. He's the Editorial Director of Variety. He also hosts and produces Movie Talk, which is shown on NBC and seen in 80 world countries. So please welcome Peter Bard. (audience and panelists applaud) - Thank you. Let's sit down. - [Paul] On the count of three, one, two, three. - 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. (audience and panelists laugh) And you know, 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." (audience and panelists laugh) 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. - No TMZ today? We're safe? Yeah, good. - TMZ is everywhere. - That's true. (laughs) Wait a minute. - So, Paul, let me start with you. I'm gonna throw out a question to each director, and then we'll just argue at random. - [Paul] It's gonna get ugly. - I remember a couple of the actors in your really brilliant movie reminded me that you shot, and shot, and shot.

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? - 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. (audience and panelists chuckle) But 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. You know what it is with comedy, I find, the type that I like to do and that Judd likes to do, that the worse thing you could do is just shoot the script.

We start out with a great script, but what happens, you just find with comedy is something that we're all convinced is hilarious, we put it up into test screening, and it doesn't get a laugh. And then something that we were kinda like, "I don't know, was 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 just insurance really to make sure that you're covering yourself 'cause 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 slide in the new things that we did.

And it was through a combination of alternative jokes that we wrote, improv skills of the girls, and also I cross-shoot when I shoot things, which is I shoot both actors at the same time, so they can surprise each other. And it happens in the moment, so you're capturing that lightning in a bottle, and that's what gives it 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 kinda what it was. - 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 we laughed at totally different jokes.

(audience laughs) - Okay, that's good. - Did you intend it that way? - Well, there's certainly no formula in approach. I just make a movie. If I'm gonna work on a film, and making an animated movie, it's a three-year journey, so you wanna make sure it's gonna be a film that you would definitely wanna see, and I'm setting out to make a film that I would want to go to a theater and have that experience. And I think that covers some generations there.

Knowing full-well it's intended for a family audience, but I think we just sorta pepper the laughs in as they come, and what is appropriate for any character, in any scene, in any situation. Like Paul is even mentioning, there's a lot of, strange enough, improvisation in animation, too. You're 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.

It just works out. There's something for Grandpa (snickers) and Granddaughter in the mix. It's really just that. That's how you balance it out. There's no abacus. That's for sure. - And Gore, when I went to see your picture early on, I said to myself, "This is the most sophisticated "and nuanced animation picture. "Why would this brave son-of-a-(beep), 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? - 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 get 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 gonna approach every day "and kinda figure it out as we go." So sorta uncertainty principal, I think, is underneath all of 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.

- [Audience Member] Louder. - [Gore] Sorry. - [Peter] They say, "Louder and funnier. - [Paul] (laughing into microphone) - [Gore] I hire people for the funny parts. (panelists and audience laugh) - 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're snowed in with dialogue.

Was this part of your seditious thought process when you started that? (audience laughs) - I think it's a combination of many things. First of all, I think the way the story's told in a silent movie is-- - [Peter] A little louder. - I make silent movies, so... (audience and panelists laugh and applaud) they don't have to hear me. The wait for us is very specific. 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 stuck to the character, and they stuck to the stories. I think they're much more involved in the story telling. The second thing I think is even in the real life, I think the really important things, you don't say it really with words.

I'm sure you, sometimes you just say no word, or you look, or you take a time, you take a pose, and people understand what you mean, and you don't have to use words. I'm sure it's a good way to say things. (audience applauds) - Well, I played the score of your movie in my car driving down here, and it is beautiful, but my dog kept barking.

(audience and panelists laugh) - So it was exactly like on set, actually. - 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 story-boarder as well, how does that affect the way you think about the preparation of a movie? - I think it's because I'm an illustrator, and part of animation's process is so front-end.

We don't get a lot of coverage, so 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 picture as you're working on the process. And I'm surrounded by amazing artists every day. To see what they do is a real joy.

- Interesting. - Now, Terry, I am fascinated with the process by which a filmmaker chooses subject matter. Now you move from Hotel Rwanda to Northern Ireland. What guides you in selecting what your focus is? - The story. Follow the story. 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're continents apart and cultures completely different, they were basically the same stories. 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" (audience and panelists laugh) There's not a critic here. There's Pirates of the Caribbean, and then there's The Shore. (audience and panelists laugh) They're basically the same thing. Johnny Depp was supposed to be in ours on The Shore, but he couldn't quite make it. (audience and panelists laugh) But in actual fact, The Shore is-- I hope I'll be able to do a version of The Shore for Rwanda because The Shore, this little film I made is the bookend to Northern Ireland.

It's an allegory about the peace process. And it's a comedy, which is a big step for me. (laughs) So to get back to the question, it's basically following that story of individual bravery in horrific situations and communal situations. Just one thing, though. Improv and animation, I gotta hear more about. (audience and panelists laugh) - [Chris] Yeah, it's crazy. - [Terry] What do you like, two drawings here-- - [Chris] You just do it on the fly, on the fly.

(panelists and audience laughs) - I wanna have that guy, hard to get my head around

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