‘New Moon’ director says film was inspired by ... David Lean and Akira Kurosawa?
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‘TWILIGHT: NEW MOON’ COUNTDOWN
In May, Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre traveled north to Vancouver to visit the set of ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’ and talk to the creative minds behind one of the most anticipated films of 2009. This week, as we count down to the Friday release of the vampy sequel, McIntyre gives us daily dispatches from her trip. Today it’s a Q&A with director Chris Weitz:
GM: I understand the scheduling on this film has been difficult.
CW: The thing is, you want to shoot in sequence if possible. The ideal movie, you would be shooting each scene in the order in which it occurs in the movie. But of course you have to go back and forth to locations and you’d rather shoot everything in the same place once you’re there. One of the nice things about ‘Twilight,’ the first movie, was that all these kids got all this exposure so they get other movies to do and then we have to very carefully try to do this jigsaw of fitting people in when they’re available. You end up shooting things crazily out of schedule, which is hard on the actors because they have to remember, Oh, this scene that I’m shooting actually takes place after scenes that we’re going to shoot in two weeks and I’m supposed to be in this emotional state which follows that. It all gets very hard to organize mentally. In that sense it’s one of the more erratic schedules that I’ve worked with but it’s working out so far.
GM: With the werewolves coming to the forefront of the story in ‘New Moon,’ there are a number of visual effects in the movie. Your previous film, ‘The Golden Compass,’ also was very heavily dependent on computer-generated effects. Were you excited to tackle that aspect of this production?
CW: I have to say, I watched ‘Hellboy 2’ the other day, and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy really loves visual effects and he really, really, really knows how to stage them.’ I’m not that guy. I know the right people who know how to stage them. I can’t say that I relish them to the same degree that somebody like Guillermo del Toro does. That’s not my thing. My thing is working with actors. I have been kind of hazed into the world of VFX, so I understand how to do that -- or at least who to trust -- and I get what it is that they’re trying to do. I think that with the right visual effects supervisor, I can direct animators who are animating creatures, who are like actors in that sense. It’s just that their performances are being done over the course of months. Each five-second shot takes months to develop. That stuff I like very much, but I wouldn’t say that I’m either an expert or kind of a savant as far as that goes. That’s Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi. That’s not me.
GM: What most intrigued you about directing this film?
CW: It’s kind of like the return of the repressed, this whole fantasy thing that’s come along. I started doing comedies and then me and my brother [Paul] started veering towards drama and then ‘Golden Compass’ came along and I just loved the book. With ‘Twilight,’ I’m not sure it’s as much the fantasy per se as the emotionality of it. To me, it’s kind of about loss and longing and breakup and reunion and all those sorts of feelings. The visual effects stuff and the fantasy stuff is great and it has to be done right, but it’s not going to matter at all if it’s not about people. Even the vampires are people. The moment you stop thinking about them that way, you just lose it and then you’re making a tent-pole blockbuster movie. That’s fine but that’s not really my interest.
GM: What’s it been like to come in on the second film in the series?
CW: For one thing it saved me the horror of auditioning -- I find auditions incredibly mortifying because it puts me in this really false position of judging people and I don’t like doing that. I don’t like saying no to people. I really feel for actors and the position they’re in when they’re auditioning for something and you have to say no to 95% of the people who come in. I hate that. So I inherited this really great cast and the cast to me is the strength of the movie. I also got some opportunities to go after some wonderful people I thought were great, and I also got some opportunities to cast people who hadn’t been seen before -- like a lot of the kids who are playing the werewolves, some of them are doing it for the first time. One of the guys kind of walked in off the street, didn’t even know what he was auditioning for and got a part, which is cool. Also I’m really grateful to [‘Twilight’ director] Catherine Hardwicke for having selected these amazing players and also for doing this movie that has so much interest attached to it. It’s a really rare and wonderful feeling to know that people are going to want to see what you’re making. The fear sometimes when you’re making a film is that you’ve gotten everybody all dressed up with nowhere to go. What if nobody wants to see it or what if it’s going to bomb? Certainly there is the possibility that I can really, really drop the ball and everyone’s going to hate this and hate me for the job that I’ve done with it. But at least people are going to go and see it.
GM: Is that frustrating to know that you won’t be doing the next film?
CW: You grow fond of people as you work with them and feel as though you would like to carry them on in their journey on the one hand. On the other hand, you also grow exhausted by the sheer grind of making a film and I think I need a rest. By the end of a movie and especially one that’s being made at the kind of pace that we’re doing it, I’m just going to be pummeled. I have a family and time has to be spent with my wife and kid. The whole family makes a sacrifice to make a film. As it happens, the way that things are scheduled, they’re going to be going into pre-production while I’m still in post-production. There’d be no way for me to do it anyway, so there’s that as well. It’s kind of knowing that I’m here to carry the bowl of water and hand it on without spilling too much. It’s OK. It’s kind of what they did with [the] ‘Harry Potter’ [franchise] where each film sort of had its own separate stamp but there’s an aesthetic that ran through it and a cast.
GM: Did ‘Twilight’s’ visual aesthetic at all shape your approach to the look of ‘New Moon’?
CW: I wanted to approach it fresh. There is a point where it links up, which is in the school life of the main character, where we do maintain some of the hand-held quality of the camerawork. But I’m kind of old-fashioned in terms of my references. I go back to much more composed romances that I love. Those are my influences rather than what I think is a more pop contemporary sensibility that Catherine Hardwicke has. I don’t think I’m very contemporary or cool. What will result is probably a much more romantic, classically framed old-fashioned epic for this one. We’re going to these big sets and Italy, the world expands, the mythology of the piece expands. It fits better in a way with a sweeping approach, although one uses these metaphors really loosely. Sweeping, what does that mean? One hates to quote filmmakers who are great because it sounds like you’re comparing yourself to them and I’m not at all, but David Lean and Kurosawa who composed on this grand level, that’s the inspiration for this movie. It kind of has been for the last couple of movies for me in terms of building the visuals. ‘Golden Compass’ was a biggie.
GM: How have your experiences with young actors on ‘About a Boy’ and ‘Golden Compass’ affected your approach to working with this cast?
CW: When you’re working with Kristen [Stewart] and Rob [Pattinson], in a sense you’re working with young actors but you’re working with people who have worked quite a lot. Kristen’s been working since she was a kid, so it’s really like working with very experienced competent actors, which is a pleasure. Dakota Fanning, she’s young but she’s done more movies than I have. With Kristen too, she’s extraordinarily aware of at what point in a scene you might cut in or out of something and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m working with coltish young people. They know what they’re about.
GM: I understand that you put together a 20-page pamphlet that you gave to the actors at the outset of filming to help explain your ideas for ‘New Moon.’
CW: I put it together about a week before the actors started arriving. It suddenly struck me that actors kind of get landed in a movie sometimes like paratroopers in a war zone and they’re just expected to fight their way out of it -- hey, this is the set you’re going to be on, this is your bedroom, this is the school that you go to, this is the forest that you live in. They don’t get time to acclimatize at all. I wanted to give the actors an insight into what I was thinking about the way it should end up looking, what the visual inspirations were. In part it was self-serving because you don’t want to have to explain what the heck is supposed to be going on when you could be shooting it. Part of it was just the sense that actors deserve a fair shake and to know what it is they’re getting themselves into beforehand, what kind of world they’re going to inhabit because they’ve been working on their characters the whole time, which is great but they’re not necessarily attuned to the environment.
You hopefully have enough time to rehearse with your principals so you either feel comfortable with the script or you’ve been able to modify the script in ways that make them feel comfortable. But also I think it’s helpful for the people who are coming in for short periods even for smaller roles to know what it is that they’re going to be part of. They know the tone that’s been set for the movie as well. That it’s not jokey, that it’s not hyper stylized, that it’s fitting within a certain range. They even know what palette the colors of the movie are going to be in, which doesn’t necessarily impact upon their work, but they get the sense that people have been thinking a lot about what they’re going to be doing. We worked very hard to try to prep things for their arrival, they work hard to prep their characters and you want to meet in the middle.
GM: It might surprise most moviegoers to know that a director creates a color palette for a film.
CW: Nobody ever leaves the movie thinking, ‘That was a great color palette.’ People maybe think, ‘Oh that looked cool.’ But I think the devil is in the details or God is in the details, if you prefer, and I tend to hire on to work again and again with people who are obsessed with details so that even little things, things that are not surface, things that will be missed on first viewing, things that will be missed on second, third and fourth viewing, are gotten right. Because then you know if you’ve gotten even the minute details right then the stuff that’s right in your face is going to be right as well.
We had a set which functions for about 20 seconds – Jacob Black’s house that Bella storms through. Our production designer and his art director went down to La Push and met with the community there, so that when we constructed Jacob’s house, it looks like the kind of house that is on the La Push reservation. When the kids who were First Nations kids -- in America we call them Native American -- who were playing the wolves, first went and saw it, there was this kind of spooky moment. The guy playing Sam Uley told me, ‘It really kind of threw me because it looked like the house I grew up in. I was expecting my dad to come around the corner.’ That is really satisfying. I think the accumulation of detail is parallel to when you have a really good actor and they’re putting together a performance scene by scene and line by line. They think about it very carefully and we have to think about the visuals very carefully as well.
GM: You even used the camera differently to depict the characters’ relationships ...
CW: The camera moves differently for different relationships. When we play scenes and Kristen and Taylor with Bella and Jacob, a friendly organic thing, those shots are all on Steadicam. It gives you a freedom from rigid axes, and it means you’re not always moving in straight lines, you’re always kind of fluidly moving around. As much as possible when she’s with Edward, we go on rails, on dollies, which means you’re moving in a straight line, you’re moving on an axis and the camera tilts or pans on specific axes as well. You might end up with the same kind of shot but behind it unconsciously -- and I think that people are so used to watching movies and TV now that they feel things even when they don’t necessarily know what it is that they’re feeling -- there’s a sense of rigidity to it and restraint. Then sometimes we would go hand-held with Bella’s relationship with her friends, which they did in the first movie.
In the first movie, a tremendous amount of it was hand-held. I’m not a huge fan of hand-held except in certain circumstances. I am a huge fan of Steadicam because it allows you incredible freedom. We also have one of the greatest operators in the world working with us, David Crone. There’s a grammar of camera movement if you wanted to be pretentious about it, which I guess I am being, that I also wanted to lay out at the beginning as well. It’s about detail. Anything down to the choice of the length of the lens you’re going to use actually affects the way that everything’s going to look -- whether or not you notice it, you’re going to see the degree of resolution of the background or not. There’s also the fact that we’ve been fighting the weather this entire shoot. We’re supposed to be shooting in a very rainy, gray environment and sometimes the sun is out, so sometimes we’re having to put up huge flags to cover entire bits of forest and then the one day where we want sun, it refuses to come.
GM: What has most surprised you about the cast?
CW: Their maturity surprised me the most given their age but on reflection I shouldn’t be because [Kristen and Rob] both have been working for a long time. But they’re remarkably clever and they keep me on my toes. They’ve thought about every line. Not that it’s my inclination to ever say, ‘Look, just do it, it’s a movie,’ but you can’t get one over on them. The surprising thing is that even though they’re playing vampires and werewolves and a girl who’s in love with a vampire, they still actually want to think about them as people, which is good, but their intelligence requires me to bring up my game quite a bit, which I’m willing to do.
GM: Have they had a lot of input into the script then?
CW: I sort of promised the actors at the beginning that no matter what, we would have time to discuss every single line. So that if things weren’t feeling right we would talk it over. We had a pretty nifty script to start with from Melissa [Rosenberg] but I can kind of work on the fly as well a bit because I’m a writer-director, which is helpful. I don’t feel stuck or panicky when an actor is not down with a particular piece of dialog.
GM: Does it impact you having Stephenie Meyer on set?
CW: Surprisingly positively, I say surprisingly because you’d think it would be terrifying to have the writer of the book on set – oh God, I’m going to get it wrong today. But she’s been remarkably kind of cool. I think she comes to the set as a fan of movies more than anything else. Early on, we had extensive and good exchanges. I believe she felt that I wanted to bring the book to the screen, not to make the second movie in a franchise. I’ve been adapting books for a long time now and that’s my main concern, this is a literary adaptation, it’s not a movie.
GM: Your last three films were literary adaptations. Is there something that draws you to stories originally told in novel form?
CW: I think it’s a lack of confidence in my own creative powers. I don’t believe my characters.
-- Gina McIntyre
PHOTO GALLERY: ‘New Moon,’ A to Z
PHOTOS: From top, Chris Weitz; Weitz with cast members during filming; Taylor Lautner and Weitz on forest set of ‘New Moon.’ All by David Strick, Hollywood Backlot. At left, Lautner and Kristen Stewart arrive for the premiere. Credit: Matt Sayles /Associated Press