Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video Working with talent, part of 2010 SBIFF Women's Panel: Creative Women in the Business.
(Music playing.) Madelyn Hammond: Joan, first question. I want to ask you about Tom Ford, the director of A Single Man. It was his directorial debut. Was it challenging or was it there - did you have to handle things a little bit differently because formerly he had been very famous in the fashion world? And now I am sure he was mecurial in terms of how he saw things, and how did that work for you? Joan Sobel: You know, sometimes you get a chance to work with someone who is just so amazingly creative, and Tom is fabulous.
I did not have to do anything differently. He had an innate sense for movies. He loves movies. And one of the things I think that we found out about each other is how much we have this passion for film that goes back to really old movies. And we would sit in the cutting room and talk about old movies all the time. And there are a lot of influences in The Single Man I am sure that people can pick up, that we were both very aware of. Tom is just an amazingly generous and creative person in the cutting room.
He, unlike a lot of first directors, sometimes they tend to hold on to things, and he did not. He was willing to be experimental, willing to be creative, willing to listen to ideas, and the best thing about working with Tom was, the buck stopped with Tom. There was nobody else involved in this movie. It was just Tom and me in the cutting room. And we did not have to answer to anybody because Tom was both the producer and the director and the writer.
So it made for a wonderfully vibrant, creative, freeing experience. It's something that you really dream of as an editor to be in there. And I have been there a few times. I have worked with some really wonderful people, but I have to say Tom is right at the top. Madelyn Hammond: I saw a Q&A with him and I was surprised at what an amazing knowledge of film history he had. He is quite extraordinary. Joan Sobel: Huge. I think actually when he interviewed me he thought that he had more knowledge than I did, and I think that was probably the charm, because we were pretty close.
So what I think it intrigued me a little bit. Madelyn Hammond: So, I just want to know, did you feel like you had to dress up all the time, because this guy looks perfect every second of every day? Did you really? Joan Sobel: Everybody asks me that. And what was so funny that Tom came into the cutting room every single day, impeccable. Every single day. I mean, it would be raining, it would be hot, it would be- Every day impeccable, and of course that is not me. I mean I wear my red Keds, and every day he comes in and he goes, "Oh Joan, what color Keds are you wearing today?" (Laughter.) Madelyn Hammond: You are brave.
Next question to Bonnie. Bonnie, about 20 years or so that you had to keep the faith for- to make The Last Station, how did you do that? How did you just, one day just said, that is it. I am moving on. All my friends, all my relatives, are sick of hearing me talk about this film. What was it that kept it going? Bonnie Arnold: Well, I will just tell you really quickly. The first time I found out about the book, The Last Station, was from the actor Anthony Quinn. I worked with him on a film called Revenge, and he bought the book for himself to play Tolstoy, and asked me if I wanted to get involved with the project with him as the producer, and I knew it was a good movie, would be.
I had read the book. I thought this is a movie I would want to see. And whenever you are involved in a project over the long haul, and I guess when I made the transition from live action to animation, it was a big change because a day in live action is equal to about a week in animation. It's like the sprint and a marathon. So I was sort of, I had gotten used to this whole marathon thing. But I think when you have a project over a 20 year period or involved with it, you have to sort out there are days that you are just not working. You cannot think about it at all. And then there are times when you are just like, Okay, now I am going to get back into it again, and I am going to figure out how to take the next step.
And I think it's almost like when you are wanting to be in the business or looking for a job. You just have to keep putting it out there. Any time, sometimes, I did not work on it for a while, and things were not going, you know, nothing was happening on a project. But then I would meet somebody and I said, and I would think in my head, this is the person I am going to mention The Last Station to. And it ended up that a producer friend of mine in LA that I had mentioned the project to, just as sort of venting one day about what I'm going to do, I think I am just going to-- I do not know what to do with it anymore. I had mentioned it to her. It ended up she had produced a Michael Hoffman film a number of years ago.
Michael Hoffman ended up directing The Last Station. So she called me one day and she said, you know, Michael Hoffman is interested, this director, and he was interested in this project. And would you like to meet him? And that was the thing, the final thing, that actually came together that actually made the film so. I think it is about, like I said, just keep putting it out there. Something is going to snap at some point. And then a lot belief actually in the book author, I mean belief in me, by the book author as well to sort of keep encouraging me "we are going to get this movie." Madelyn Hammond: But also you were fortunate in that you could do your day job and keep the animation thing going.
Your bosses were understanding, and they let you - Bonnie Arnold: Oh, yes, lots of thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Who sort of I worked for and produce animation for, and has sort of allowed me the space to also do The Last Station on the side. Madelyn Hammond: Great. I just think that's so great. So, next question is directed to both Erin and Amanda because they are both teachers. Erin, Professor of Playwriting. Before that I think you also taught at Brown and Duke, and you as well like to teach, if I am not mistaken, Documentaries and Fiction Directing.
What was it that draws both of you? I will start with Amanda first. What draws you to teaching? And is that just been something that you always wanted to do, or you feel what is your way of giving back? Amanda Pope: No, it is really interesting. I teach in the Production Division at USC and I did not go into teaching until I was 50 and we are talking 20 years ago. So, I was - I did not even - I was too, too busy making films and then there came a point when practically I needed as a documentary filmmaker, very often we are doing what we call righteous projects.
So, current one that I am doing with a former student, Tchavdar Georgiev, who has been out for ten years is a film to help this museum in Uzbekistan. And there is no way that we could get major funding for this. And so for me teaching was both a way to connect across generations, and I love working across generations. It is so stimulating. It's just fun.
Also, I think that practically speaking, a university is a safe harbor for a filmmaker on one condition. Do not go to a university to teach early on in your career because then you will be slid in there as an adjunct. Go to a university once you have major credits. Then you come in with a certain amount of authority, and then you have to have a lot of energy. Because we are expected, even though you get, I have tenure, we are expected to be fully functioning in our field.
So that means making films and teaching full-time. So you have to love what you do. Madelyn Hammond: Erin? Erin Cressida: She answered the question for me in many ways. You know, I am in agreement with all of that, and sort of did the similar thing at a different age but the number one word that I took from what you said is fun. I ran into a couple of students before I came on stage, and I went from I am nervous, I am going to get a migraine.
I hope that I am okay, my hair sucks, it always sucks, they are going to put pictures on the internet of me, I am going to-- My ex-boyfriends will see them, and then I saw my students and I was completely taken out of my neurotic head. And they delight me. And I teach up here but I live in Santa Monica and sometimes I am like, uh, I have to drive all the way to Santa Barbara. And then I get into class, and the spirit and the energy that happens when I get to teach them.
And they get to teach me also, and I have learned so much from them. And as a writer, I am really sequestered within a room that is inside my own fantasies so much, and it is so glorious, but it is also so dementing that to come out and to give back and to teach, and to be refreshed with the fountain of youth is amazing. And the final reason, and this is a very big reason I teach also is freedom, artistic freedom.
So I do not have to take a job I do not want to take. I do not even really have to work in a film in order to make money because I make a living as a teacher. And that way I can-- I make things that I want to make, and that is, if it were not that way, I do not think I could do it. Madelyn Hammond: It's interesting that your teaching is funding your film career. I would have thought it would have been your film career funding your teaching. That's kind of cool.
Rachel talk to us about the crazy Coen brothers. What it is that they look for because they cast all these very interesting character type people? So as a casting person this must be incredibly challenging but it must be difficult because-- Rachel Tenner: But it is way more fun than difficulty. Madelyn Hammond: Absolutely. Rachel Tenner: I mean besides just A Serious Man but all their movies. They are the most open to different looks and personalities and they love the more awkward, or the more character, the more you know something off on them, they just embrace it so much.
So it is so fun because once you kind of click into what they want... I'll walk on the street and I will see somebody and say, oh my god that's such a Coen brother face and sometimes I am kind of crazy that I can stop them and get their name or I will take it as far-- Madelyn Hammond: Is that a compliment? Rachel Tenner: Yeah, exactly. It can be. But it is funny because it is such a pleasure not to have to work on movies where everyone has to be pretty and young and this or that. Like they really celebrate every style of person and it is really a joy to cast.
And they let you take it as far as you want to. For "A Serious Man," I keep wanting to say "A Single Man." We have been doing all day long. Well I did "A Single Man." No, what I did is "A Serious Man." I would literally hang out in the back of the synagogues every weekend and just like look at everybody. And then at kiddush, I would go up and introduce myself and say I am working on a movie and just pull people in from it and they love it. They think it is great, they think it is such a-- and they get a lot of joy out of it too. So the process is really quite, and it is like Joan saying before about having the autonomy because they don't have to answer to anybody.
So you really get to just do your business. Madelyn Hammond: In temple they probably thought it was the Coen brothers. Rachel Tenner: Yeah, that was in Minneapolis so they were all like "of course I know their father, I know their mother, I know their sister." And then they would ask me "are you Joel Tenner's sister?" And I go, oh my God, because I am Chicago and from a conservative Jewish community too, so they all know each other. It was really funny. Madelyn Hammond: God, I just -- can you imagine though? Did you ever go to them and say I have someone in mind and they were like, that's almost too quirky? Rachel Tenner: Oh, yeah.
Madelyn Hammond: Really? Rachel Tenner: Oh for sure. Madelyn Hammond: Then you know that you are really -- Rachel Tenner: There is a fine line that can go into like too cartoony. Like we don't wanted to be too cartoony or too grotesque or too something but it is a really great pleasure. I do. I feel so lucky. I just actually got back from working on a True Grit, which is their new one, which is the Western and a remake of the old Western. And I just was in the South for 13 weeks and saw 5,000 girls, read 2,000 and one has a final callback actually today to see if she is going to get the movie.
But you know they are just so open to just finding anybody. Do you know what I mean? Because they want that excitement. Madelyn Hammond: Now is that going to be challenging doing True Grit since it is a remake cause...? Rachel Tenner: Not for them. Jeff Bridges is going to be Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon is the Glen Campbell role and Josh Brolin is Tom Chaney. Then hopefully this girl from Austin can be the Kim Darby role. But she is truly 14, so they are not going to do a 23-year-old playing 14. So, that's good.
Madelyn Hammond: Well since we are talking about casting, I can't help to talk about Gabby Sidibe who is in Precious and even though I know that, Sarah, from conversations that we have had that you were there almost every step of the way. Did you know when Gabby walked in that room? I have heard Lee tell the story and many of you may have heard that they auditioned a million people and it was very important to him to have that authenticity that this character really be Precious. But she walked in, did you know? Sarah Siegel Magness: Well the thing was that, we had a camp for like, first of all it was 500.
We solicited everywhere for a Precious because it would be nearly impossible to cast in Hollywood. (Laughter.) Sarah Siegel Magness: So then we had about-- Madelyn Hammond: Full figure. Sarah Siegel Magness: Yeah, then we have about 500 girls. We narrowed it down to a small group that we had sort of like a Precious camp where we had an acting coach that went through and worked with these girls, none of which were actors, and to see which one we wanted to choose. Well, then Gabby comes.
Billy Hopkins actually in New York finds her and I remember Lee and I were actually away on vacation for my birthday and he shows me this video and I mean I can't explain to you how incredible this audition tape is and I actually think it is in YouTube, if you guys ever want to. Fun facts. But you can watch it and Gabby is so different from Precious and to see that audition tape, I mean she blew us away and then it was like, oops sorry girls.
So all the girls that have been doing this camp. Gabby stole it, but she really was... I mean we knew that was it. All of us were like, okay it is done. But it was a very interesting process and Lee is super open as well and he works with Billy Hopkins, but to finding talent in really different places and you can see that in the casting of this film. Madelyn Hammond: Bonnie, I have got to talk for a second about distribution. When I first met you, which was at Telluride, which was the very, I think if I am not mistaken, the first time The Last Station was screened.
Bonnie Arnold: Yes. Madelyn Hammond: And then it was picked up eventually by Sony Classics. Bonnie Arnold: Correct. Madelyn Hammond: Did you along the way though have in mind if this doesn't get picked up by distributor, I want to get this thing seen? Obviously it has got Helen Mirren and just amazing cast. Christopher Plummer. Did you have kind of an alternative plan B in mind? Bonnie Arnold: Well no, because everyone turned down, including Sony Classics at first, and the great thing about Telluride, the film festival in Telluride which is every Labor Day weekend, which I can't say enough great things about, is the audience, the response of the audience.
And it is not a real sales festival, but it happened that Sony Pictures Classics was there and saw the response to the movie of the audience and it is just ultimately a business decision. They thought they could actually make money on the film because people would actually go see it. And they end up picking up the film after that, but it was frightening in a way. Especially I am sure for the bank because they are the ones that took the biggest risk and it is just unbelievably difficult.
I am not sure what we would have done. I mean I had been reading and talking and talking with the other producers and myself and try to figure out what would we have done. Because there actually are a lot of films that don't get seen, good films that don't get seen, and even more difficult these days with the demise of the sort of more independent arms of the majors and some of these just independent distribution companies. So definitely the dynamics of the business is changing.
So I am not sure. I don't know what would we have done. I hear all these ones about now there are some companies that do sort of this premier on cable and direct to video but that's not the ideal thing when you make a film that you wanted to be seen in movie theaters and that's I think everybody's first choice. Madelyn Hammond: Especially for a film like Last Station. I can't really see the YouTube crowd necessarily or the Netflix crowd doing it. Well Netflix actually would.
I was looking at some data recently about independent film and there is like 11 different ways to release a film now. You have theatrical, you have the downloads, you have got video on demand, you have the hybrid forms. There are so many different ways, which is good for emerging filmmakers. But for established actors it presents a little bit of a challenge. Bonnie Arnold: Even with our cast. I mean this is the stuff that people say all the time. Even with your cast, I mean Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, nobody wanted to-- nobody thought everyone would go see it. Whatever they thought. I mean it is just as quite amazing.