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Five top film directors on tipsy chats, mysterious packages and more

Watch five directors of 2014's top films join in an Envelope Roundtable chat about their experiences

Film directors work in a bubble of sorts, on their sets with their teams and their rules. They don’t often get to see how their peers run their productions. So it’s no surprise that this year’s Envelope Directors Roundtable found five filmmakers curious and eager to ask one another about how they each made their movies. That they helmed five of 2014’s most distinctive and well-regarded films just amped up the engagement.

Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”), J.C. Chandor (“A Most Violent Year”) and Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild”) recently sat down with The Envelope’s Mark Olsen and Rebecca Keegan to share stories from the making of their films. Among the tales that emerged were casting stories (based on a single phone call or a slightly drunken dinner), looking for an actor’s dark side and what can happen if you actually open a mysterious package given to you by a total stranger.

Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Olsen: Richard, we’ll start with you and the casting of “Boyhood.” How did you decide on the people that you wanted to spend 12 years with?

Linklater: That was a daunting casting choice for sure. Casting’s tough enough as it is, but to be looking at a 6-year-old going … I’m, like, OK, who are you going to grow up to be? Are you going to be cool? I always joke that it’s kind of like picking the Dalai Lama.

Miller: What if he had become, like, a jock or something?

Linklater: I could tell as a kid he was a kind of a dreamer, thoughtful, his parents are both artists. But I met a lot of jock kids, so I really made a choice.

Olsen: Patricia Arquette you’d, you’d only met once before you cast her? What was it about her that made you make that decision?

Linklater: I just liked her. I think she’s really wonderful. I knew she had had a kid very young like when she was about 20. So she was a single mom and I thought that was really important. But I just called her up kind of out of the blue and we talked for a couple hours, and she just jumped in, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” You know, I made a 12-year commitment on one phone call.

Chandor: Is that literally, was the contract they signed a 12-year…

Linklater: There are no contracts. I found this out, but did you know you can’t contract anyone to do anything over seven years?

Chandor: Really?

Linklater: That’s why all the TV actors have seven years and especially a kid. You can’t really contract a kid to do anything.

Vallée: Did you have kids at the time yourself?

Linklater: Yeah. That’s what kind of motivated it.

Vallée: Your daughter is in the movie, correct?

Linklater: Yeah, she was 9 when we started. But when I started thinking about the movie she was about 6 or 7 when I was, like, OK, this is dredging up a lot of childhood and parenthood issues, and things in myself. So I suddenly had the desire to try to make a film about those years, but...

Vallée: So you wrote the script and you didn’t change anything to adapt it to the casting when he grew up?

Linklater: Oh, no, very much. Every year I would … it was a great opportunity to have a year in between shoots to kind of feel my way through the material.

Keegan: James, what was your casting process like? Did you audition Eddie Redmayne?

Marsh: No, I met him and he got drunk. He wasn’t filtering himself and we spent four hours talking about what this was going to entail. And based on that meeting I cast him straightaway. He wasn’t very well known at this point so I went on my instinct about how I could get on with him. He was very scared of what it would entail and I approached it with the right amount of fear. Hence, the drinking. With Felicity I knew her already and was keen to work with her.

Keegan: When we had Eddie here he told us that he signed on before he really believed he could do it. How do you help an actor gain the confidence to perform like this?

Marsh: Well, he knew what it was going to entail. The preparation was going to be daily… it was going to be, you know, good days and bad days.

Olsen: Bennett, you oversaw a different kind of transformation with your casting of Steve Carell, a beloved persona, and you decided to cast him in this kind of creepy, odd role of John du Pont. What was it that you saw in him that made you see that character in him?

Miller: Well, nobody expected John du Pont to murder anybody, so it made some kind of sense to put somebody in there who you don’t expect was going to do what he did. And I’m attracted to comedic actors doing dramatic roles because we all suspect that they’ve got some kind of dark side. And the way he described it to me when he was saying, “Look, this is not like something I’ve done before.” He just exhibited an understanding and a seriousness, and I began to envision what that turn would feel like when he goes from an innocuous, hapless poser into something that is dangerous.

Keegan: Jean-Marc, you had a different situation in that Reese Witherspoon was already attached to the film producing it when you came on as director. How does that affect your dynamic with an actor?

Vallée: Yeah, I didn’t cast Reese, Reese cast me. It didn’t affect anything at all. She was well surrounded as a producer and she trusted me. And then she focused on her acting job.

Keegan: Reese said part of the reason why she wanted you was because she felt like you would really hold her feet to the fire. Did you?

Vallée: In the cold water [laughter] the ice, naked by the bed and, yeah, well, I think so, yeah. She saw something in “Dallas Buyers Club” that was raw, that felt good for “Wild.” And when I read the book and the script I loved the project as much as she did. The thing is, I just try to capture and not try to stage or interfere too much as a director — we shot the film without lighting and no tracks and no dollies and try not to show off and try not to create a style, but just capture what we have in reality and putting the actors in a place in a zone where they feel free, they don’t have to hit a mark or feel the heat of a spot.

Keegan: J.C., you’re nodding when he said, “Not show off,” is that something that you think about as well or…

Chandor: No, I’m trying to show off at all times [laughter], as much as humanly possible. But it is something I admire about his films. I mean, they’re beautifully alive, you know, they’re alive.

Keegan: J.C., we were talking about casting. In “A Most Violent Year,” you had an actor fall out and then Oscar Isaac came in to take the role. Can you tell us a little bit about that, how that happened?

Chandor: Yeah, it wasn’t really a fallout, I was writing it while talking to an actor about it. So it was with Javier Bardem and — it was sort of a mistake looking back on it. I was kind of selling him on the character as I was writing it, so when it was actually done I had kind of created this idea in his head that was different from what I had actually written [laughing]. So over a three- or four-month period we both just kind of very amicably realized that we wanted totally different things out of the story, which happens all the time.

And Jessica Chastain had been attached through that whole period, and as we started to realize there might be some problems there, she started pitching me about her classmate, you know, from Juilliard. She’s like, “There’s this guy, his mom is Guatemalan; his dad is Cuban; he grew up in Miami; he got himself into Juilliard,” which is a lot of these kind of very American kind of immigrant traits that come through in this character. And then I saw them together for the first time and they sort of had this wonderful kind of physical, it’s almost like a competitive nature, you know, acting students from way back when. There was a wonderful sort of energy.

Keegan: Bennett, you first got interested in Channing Tatum long before most of the rest of the world knew of him, after you saw him in “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” What was it that you liked about him?

 Miller: I mean, he’s … have you seen that film? He’s like an animal. It was the first time I’d ever seen him or heard of him, and he was just alive and flawed in a way that his character couldn’t understand. You know when you meet somebody and they’re flawed in a way that’s going to make the rest of their life difficult and you can see something about them that they’ll never know their whole life? He really played that character. It was something that he had created. I hadn’t even gotten to a script at that point. I was just researching it and developing it and when I saw that film and I saw Channing I thought, “OK, there is somebody who could play that role.” It actually encouraged me to continue. And I was also very attracted to the idea of casting a complete unknown, which at the time he was, and then his career sort of went off in this wild direction.

Keegan: James, in shooting your film out of sequence it placed tremendous demands on Eddie Redmayne. How did you guys think about how to do that?

Marsh: We had no choice. It’s about resources. And on the first day of filming Eddie had to do two scenes on two sticks. One scene on one stick, three scenes able bodied, and one scene in a wheelchair — within the first day. He had this elaborate chart he’d made where each scene had been worked out for the physicality. So we were able to keep it honest together that way. When we were on the set it was different. When we were shooting in the studio it became more chronological, but basically the first week when we were shooting on location in Cambridge that’s all he was doing was flipping from one of these various stages of the illness.

My job a lot of the time with Eddie was to support him and make him feel confident about what he was doing and not get in his way. If you cast properly, then you’re interested in what their ideas are and create a space for them on the set that’s, kind of, sacred for them to offer those ideas. If you’ve chosen well, you keep out of their way and let them get on with it.

Olsen: Jean-Marc, you recently directed two actors to Oscars — Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Do you have techniques that you use with every actor or do you really have to find actor to actor how to communicate and how to work with them?

Vallée: No, I don’t have techniques or tricks. I have my own thing, which is my personality. I’m like actors, very instinctive, and I can relate to them. Like James was saying, when you cast the right actors, it flows. “Dallas” was a film where they were doing more is more, and I’m from a less is more school. And Matthew was telling me, “Texas is more is more, Jean-Marc, and that’s it.” And in the first week, the first day I was like, “Oh, my God, this is professional suicide.” [Laughter.] My reaction was to withdraw, step back and not shoot too close to them, because they were scaring me with the more is more. And then I was looking at the dailies and I went, “Oh, my God, this is not too bad. This more is more thing is working.” [Laughter.]

So it was adapting, and Reese and Laura [Dern] weren’t doing more is more, it felt like something more natural. So it’s adapting with every person and with the material and what you’re doing. I guess that’s the trick.

Keegan: Bennett, I think it’s so funny how this movie came to you in the first place with a gentleman walking up to you at a DVD signing with some clippings. How did you go from that to making the film?

Miller: So after “Capote” came out, Lionsgate released my first film “The Cruise” on DVD and said, “Would you do a signing at Tower Video on Lafayette Street in New York?” And somebody came to this event, I mean, 11 people probably came to this event and one of them was a guy who had an envelope that had information about this story. He handed it to me and said, “I think you’re going to find this story interesting. You’re going to want to make this into a film.” And he was right.

Chandor: Did you open it right away?

Miller: No. It took about a month. I’m throwing stuff out and I’m, like, what is this? And I’m like, “Oh, that guy, that thing.” There was just something about it. It’s a little bit related to “The Cruise” and the other things I’ve done which is that that it’s people in worlds where they don’t really fit, eccentric characters with big ambitions meant to remedy their problems. And these two worlds mixing one of the wealthiest guys in America with this old American money and wrestling. And if these two things came together — you know it’s the material of what could have been a comedy. But it ended tragically and I just wanted to know who were these people and who were they to each other, and what did they want, and what was the transaction. I was just sucked in.

Linklater: Did he get a producer credit … the guy who gave you the stuff?

Miller: Yes.

Keegan: He did. I met him at Telluride at a bar.

Linklater: That’s the best way to get into the film industry. [Laughter.]

Keegan: James, your film is obviously about Stephen Hawking, but the character of the wife is hugely important in it. Why did you guys choose that way of telling this story?

Marsh: Well, that’s why I wanted to do the film. I wasn’t interested in doing a biography of Stephen Hawking. And the fact that it’s not a documentary, which I’ve done a lot of documentaries over the years. This script could go somewhere where a documentary really couldn’t go as a portrait of a relationship, a marriage. And the perspective of the wife was much more interesting than Stephen’s perspective. She’s a very strong woman, a very formidable woman in her own right. And to have that female voice as strongly as Stephen’s voice felt like a very interesting way of approaching his story and what he’s known for, which is obviously theoretical physics, which is not really a very user-friendly topic for a dramatic film.

Linklater: Box office gold.

Olsen: J.C., the couple in your film, in a lot of ways they are really on equal footing through a lot of the story.

Chandor: Yeah, the sort of gag of the movie is essentially it’s structured like a classical gangster movie, and so the beginning of the movie she’s the femme fatale gangster’s wife. She’s literally sitting at a makeup table brushing her hair, and obviously the last scene in the movie you realize she’s basically the CFO of the entire company. She’s probably 60% or 70% of their success. It’s really the most meaningful relationship I’d ever had with an actress actually. I’d worked with Demi Moore for a couple days on my first film and then my second film only had one actor in it. So it was an amazing experience; there’s two or three lines in the movie that Jessica put in there that are wonderful.

Keegan: It strikes me that three of you had real people in your movie who, then, saw your movie. What is it like to screen your movie for Cheryl Strayed, for instance?

Vallée: Very emotional. She came in the cutting room and saw one of the first versions and of course she came on the set and she had some emotional moments, and on the trail she became my technical advisor. But picture this, you wrote a book about your life, about your demons, about your hope, about your desire to find yourself. And then it becomes a film. You’re played by Reese Witherspoon. Your daughter is playing little Cheryl. And then you’re in the cutting room and you’re seeing the movie. So I was seated behind her and she was on the couch her husband and they were holding hands, and they had a box of tissues. And it was an amazing emotional moment. We felt we had a moral responsibility to be respectful of her story, her life. And so that was a relief to see her react that way.

Olsen: Bennett, what has that been like for you? Have you screened the film for the Schultz family?

Miller: Yeah. There were many people who are involved with this story, who had a deep interest in it and something I found when researching it is that pretty much everybody wanted to share their version, and everybody also was uncomfortable with some part of the story, they just intuitively guarded some aspect of it. So there was a lot of nervousness about what the film was going to be, because the film wasn’t really beholden to anybody. It didn’t quite take as long as Rick’s movie, but eight years with a family and with a lot of Dave Schultz’ friends, I think it became some kind of a therapeutic exercise like slowly unclenching the fist and looking at some difficult aspects of the story.

It was a co-authored tragedy in some regards, meaning that everyone made decisions that contributed to the outcome, but I think that everybody respected the honesty and the truthfulness of the story and feels some kind of a catharsis by watching it. Nancy Schultz, who’s Dave Schultz’ widow has done a few screenings around the country. And Mark Schultz has come to all of the festivals except for Telluride and he sits through the film every single time.

Olsen: And James, you’ve had two very specific people to show the film to. What has that been like?

Marsh: They are English people of a very different generation from my own and quite reserved and I’m dealing with their marriage and the failure of their marriage. We showed the film to Stephen, we hadn’t finished the sound mix, and when it’s over you have to wait about 20 minutes to get his response because the way in which he communicates is so slow. So then you fill that void with just inane kind of babble of your own. And you’re dealing with the smartest man in the world and you’re just saying the most ludicrous and dumb things.

The building of tension in that wait is extraordinary, what’s he gonna say? And he will say it in a very short number of words and it could ruin your life, you know. So his proclamation was that it was “broadly true,” which I will take as a documentary filmmaker because often you make films about people and they don’t say that even as a documentary when they’ve had a big part of the storytelling. So that was a relief. And he’s since been quite generous about the film.

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