2011 SBIFF Directors' Panel: Directors On Directing

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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, lynda.com 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).

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Would more money have made the film better?

- Good morning, everyone, and welcome. Thank you, welcome to the Director's Panel. I need to thank Lynda.com, our first-ever ... Thank you. Our first-ever presenting sponsor. Without their generosity, we wouldn't be able to do what we've done for the past week. I also need to thank Fielding Graduate University for sponsoring the Director's Panel.

Let's start right away. Please welcome Lee Unkrich, director, Toy Story Three. David O. Russel, 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's the editorial director of variety and is a long-time columnist and is also co-host of Show Business on NBC in LA in San Francisco and in San Diego, and In The House on the Encore Network across the US, Sundance channels across Europe and Asia.

Please welcome, 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.

Having said that, I realize ... Thank you. Having said that, I realize that last year's panel, we had sort of a domestic nuances taking place because next to me was Jim Cameron, and next to him was Katheryn Bigelow. - No. - As you remember, there was a sort of interesting little subtext of tensions, and I guess I should ask, folks, is anyone here hooked up with anyone else here? 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've been a voter for some thirty years. The Oscar ballot's fascinating. There are really some obvious things to decide on, like ten best pictures. You folks are familiar with that list. As an Oscar voter, I'm also expected to vote on sound mixing, like Salt is on the list of sound is a new one.

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 a terrific guy. I don't think his makeup was that great, but that is what we get and arrived this morning. Five thousand plus voters, like myself, are expected to fill it out religiously, which we do.

So, what I'm going to do this morning, folks, is to throw out my usual list of inane questions. 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 one else's said. 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'm tempted to ask, starting with you Darren, if you had had twice the budget and twice as long as scheduled, would your picture have been better? - Well, that's always the big question. We actually went out looking for I think the original budget was about twenty-eight or thirty million dollars for Black Swan, and we ended up with thirteen 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 is above the line, "That's chopped off now.

"Let's start seeing how many days we can do this in." 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 what your restrictions are, and then you sort of create a visual language that works within that. When I had sixty thousand dollars to do Pi, we chose to do black and white because I knew I couldn't control the color palate. 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 do on that. It would have been a completely different movie. You create a film with the amount of time you have. In this case, it was forty days. We knew every day was going to be a struggle, which it was, and we just tried to push the limit of that thirteen million dollars every single day. - I remember running into Mike Nichols 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, your budget was two? How the hell did you do that? - Well, it depends on who's 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. Twenty-four 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're moving. It's not that it's documentary techniques, but the actual structure, infrastructure, resembles a very agile, mobile situation. There are no sets, and the lighting package is tiny. Everything is about it 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. 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 quiet and careful about what we were filming, where we were filming. I think, for this production, I think the missing is the two point two, the point two for the two producers that deferred the above the line situation. So, I think in this sense, a frugal budget was commensurate with the story we were trying to tell.

- For the sake of folks here, he who defers never sees. - Except when you have a transparent, honest, hard-working, distributor-like roadside who will absolutely make sure that those two women receive their deferment. - Tom, do you want to speak to that issue? - Well, I definitely think one of the differences if we'd had more budget, we made it with about fourteen million dollars on film, one four, was that there was 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 on post when we really ran out of money, particularly on the sound side.

It was very tough, the deals we had to do to get the picture made, and it would be nice to feel like you could pay people generously when you work, so that would be a difference. I think the key relationship is the relationship between budget and scrutiny or oversight. In my head, one of the bonuses of working on a low budget is the level of scrutiny you're under from the financiers is much reduced because no one's hugely anxious about it because no one stands to lose a ton of money.

I think in the end, I've learned over the time I've been directing, the most valuable thing you have is your freedom, and I would always work for less, less budget to have that freedom. That trade I would make every time. - Well, I wonder if one advantage to scrambling for the financing 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.

- Well, it was at Paramount, and then it fell apart many times. Mark Wahlberg carried it for about four or five years. Brad Pitt was going to do it, Matt Damon was going to do it. They had a sixty million, seventy million dollar budget. We ended up financed by Relativity. Darren was going to do it at one time. Was that without Matt Damon, or who was that going to be with? - Brad Pitt was involved for a little bit, and then Matt Damon, and it was ... Yeah, I went through a few actors on there. - Then when that didn't happen, you went and said, "I'm going to go make this movie "called the Wrestler," right? - No, no, no.

- [David] Why is that so funny? - I read the Fighter, and thought it's an amazing story. Scott Silver, who wrote the script, I went to film school with, and he's from Wooster, which is right near Lowell, and so I begged him to do it, and he eventually did it, and then went through a few actors. Then the Wrestler came together, so I did that. Then it was like more Bengay or girls in tutus? How's that Bengay, how you handling that Bengay there, it's okay? - By the time we came together, Relativity financed it, and we had eleven below the line.

Thirty-three days, three days to do the fights, and thirty 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, and we shot that in twenty-five days. I frankly liked the level of focus and leanness and no nonsense-ness that it gave us. I think necessity breeds invention. It keeps ego out, and we were unified in a humble kind of love for the people of Lowell and for the story. That all came from Mark, so that was an asset from a creative point of view.

It caused us to be disciplined at the script phase, because the script must be gotten below a hundred and ten pages if you are to make a movie in thirty-three days, I made for me and really, really do each one of those scenes. - That's only a hundred pages shorter than Social Network. - Lee, I must ask you, since you worked at Disney and Pixar with limitless amounts of money ... - No, I gotta ... Let me interrupt.

The thing is, yes, I made a film that cost a lot more than any film at this table, but when you're making an animated film because they take so long, because they take years and years, I worked on Toy Story Three for over four years and with a very large crew, so naturally, that means it's going to become expensive, but I don't want 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.

As everybody is pointing out, you always make better decisions when you have limitations, when the sky is not the limit. Every step of 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 know that doesn't mean a lot when you've made a movie for two million dollars, but, I mean, it's ... - So, let me ask you a really stupid question.

How do you handle adulation? I mean, everybody must come up to you an say, "Toy Story Three, that's my favorite "movie in the history of mankind." Do you ever just say to somebody, "Oh, shut up. I've heard that before,"? - 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. 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. 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 along time, and it could very well have gone the other direction. So, we drink it in.

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