Some spent years fighting to bring their movies to the screen. Others had the great fortune of seeing the pieces fall into place almost overnight. A few of the directors work so closely with their actors they almost become their therapists. One simply turns on the camera and lets his performers fly.
The six filmmakers who recently came together at the Los Angeles Times to talk about their craft have dramatically different work and directing habits. And their films could hardly be more diverse: David Fincher’s Facebook film “The Social Network,” Ben Affleck’s crime story “The Town,” Tom Hooper’s historical drama “The King’s Speech,” Darren Aronofsky’s ballet tale “Black Swan,” Lisa Cholodenko’s family comedy “The Kids Are All Right” and Ethan Coen’s western “True Grit” (directed with brother Joel).
But they all achieved something exceptional in 2010: They created movies that not only were critical and commercial hits but also became a part of the pop cultural conversation. For all their differences, these six directors share the same passion for storytelling and concerns about moviemaking -- those early moments when failure seems imminent, praying for the weather to cooperate, kicking holes in doors over financing headaches.
Here are excerpts from a conversation with six of the season’s most celebrated directors:
You’re all here because your films have been incredibly successful. But I wonder if you actually learn more in failure. Are the more telling learning experiences from something that doesn’t work?
Ben Affleck: I feel like all filming for me, directing, is about failure. Every day I go home, “Oh, my God.”
Ethan Coen: Yeah, that’s terrible, isn’t it?
Darren Aronofsky: It’s the worst.
Coen: And you kick yourself all the way home -- that stuff you could and should have done.
Aronofsky: I think it’s a myth that you [get] exactly what you have in mind. You’re in three dimensions with weather, atmosphere, technology that has limitations, time that has limitations. And you don’t want to control an actor to that extent because it’ll just suck the life out of ‘em. It’s a constant form of improv, and you just sort of roll with it.
Tom Hooper: I think it’s an extraordinary thing when you watch your first assembly [of the roughly edited movie], the film always has become something slightly different from what you thought...
Aronofsky: The worst day of my life, every time.
Affleck: Way worst.
In what way?
Aronofsky: When you watch an assemblage, you just know you’re getting drunk that night. It’s just a miserable experience. Because you realize you have so much work [to do on it].
Lisa Cholodenko: And you have no idea if it’ll ever be there.
Aronofsky: And you really thought you did better work. You thought you did better stuff. And it has nothing to do with the editor. It just takes time and time to refine, because you’re so far away from that final mix where you’re really putting on that final sanding, the final shellac.
Coen: It’s always funny because we cut our own movies, and I feel exactly the same way.
Since you’re an actor, Ben, what do you learn about directing from directors who get good performances out of you?
Affleck: One of the real advantages of being an actor who’s a director is that actors have seen how everybody else does it. Actors have been on all these sets. And made more movies, with the exception maybe of you guys. So you have a sense of all the different ways it can be done. And what that means is you’ve seen it done well, and you’ve seen it done really poorly. There is a kind of unique understanding of having to kind of stand there, and what sort of goes on in your head. And I think there’s two ways to get actors’ trust. One is to become a great director and have done all of these movies. And so actors show up and go, “OK, I’m working on the Coen brothers’ picture.” The other is they’re gonna trust you, that no matter what happens I’m on their side.
David Fincher: People like to do things for people that are really handsome too. [Laughter] But do you ever find that you were in a situation that you thought this guy is a jackass and this is never going to amount to anything, and then you go and you see it and you go [this performance is really good]?
Affleck: I’ve worked in situations with an actor where I was like, “This guy is crazy.” You know what I mean? And I’d say, “OK, the scene is over here.” And he’d go, “I think it should happen in the living room.” And I’d go, “Well, I feel like if she’s waiting for you here and you’re going to come to talk to her....” And then we’d work it out and he’d kind of like sulk. And then I’d say “action” and he’d walk into the kitchen, or the living room. I’m like, “But the cameras are over here. OK? You can’t just....”
Fincher: And then the final product?
Affleck: It turns out because that actor was absolutely fearless -- in terms of being able to walk into the room where the cameras weren’t because he thought that’s where the scene was -- he actually had a kind of amazing sort of odd presence. He did nothing fake. There wasn’t a false moment in there.
What you’re talking about, is that you’re half filmmaker and half therapist?
Aronofsky: It depends on the actor. Natalie Portman [in “Black Swan”], just complete professional relationship. Open up the door, she walks in, does the work. No issues. No hand-holding. She’s just fully prepared. Mickey Rourke [in “The Fighter”] ... I’d say 90% therapy.
Isn’t that part of your job as a director, is to meet Natalie where she is and meet Mickey where he is?
Aronofsky: Every actor is an individual and you come to them and see what they need, and try to give them everything they need to sort of be free.
Are there actors who just make you want to pull your hair out?
Cholodenko: Yeah. I’ve only had a couple experiences where I wanted to pull somebody’s hair out. And I still wasn’t satisfied with what I saw on the screen. There’s one actor that I just worked with, that is Mia Wasikowska, where I cast her without meeting her. I just liked her from seeing her on “In Treatment.” We were going really fast. I had an instinct. I just did it. And she showed up and I was really like, “Oh, no. This girl is so meek and kind of petite and withdrawn.” But I didn’t talk to anybody about it. And then it was one of those things where, like, you’re just stunned as you go. You’re like, “Oh, my God. She knows more than I do. She’s letting her cards out slowly. This girl is a firecracker.”
Affleck: I think actors want to be allowed to contribute and do their thing and not be micromanaged. They really want to feel like this guy or woman has got it, gets it, and is gonna take you there.
Hooper: It’s a paradox. They have to feel you have a completely tight vision and know exactly what you want, but at the same time the more they can feel completely free to give you everything that you have in your head, without feeling like they’re negotiating your preconceived vision. The more and more I work with really great actors, the more it’s about opening yourself up to what they bring.
Ben, you’re describing actors wanting to see a director who is completely in command, and you say you’re driving home every night saying, “This is falling apart.” So is part of your job as a director to give a performance?
Fincher: No, to lie.
Affleck: For me it was just like pretending: “Yes, I know what we’re doing.”
Coen: Yeah, we don’t give the actors anything. We don’t do anything for the actors. I’m not aware of ever having directed an actor, actually. And if an actor comes to us for therapy, he’s in deep, deep trouble. We cast people from our visions because we trust them, and the whole process is mysterious to me. And really, truly, we don’t do anything with actors. They do their thing. You feel like a scene is not working, but you never feel that in a vacuum. The actors feel that too. You kind of work through a scene. It’s all about kind of working the scene. It’s not about the people, or we pretend it isn’t, and that has worked well for us.
Has there ever been the case where you put them in front of a camera and you just say it’s not working, you’ve got to recast the part?
Aronofsky: I cast a brain surgeon to play a brain surgeon [in “The Fountain”] because I was so impressed with him. We did all this research, and we found him. And he came -- it was just terrible. And as he was doing the lines, I noticed that his nurse, who was his wife, was mouthing the words with him. So it was like they rehearsed all night, and it was a disaster. So, don’t cast a brain surgeon.
Affleck: Will you guys tell an actor, if inside you think, like, “This is no good. This is not working”? And the actor goes, “Well, I had an off day.” Will you kind of come out and say, “Yeah, it doesn’t work”?
Fincher: I think honesty is the best policy. I think you have to be able to go up and say, “I don’t think this is working for the following reasons.” I think it’s all about taking away the things that are confusing. But getting the blinders on so that you go, “You know, this is human, and it may be real, but it’s ultimately confusing to the narrative. And now let’s talk about what it means for these other colors to come into this. And let’s try to find it.” I have found, on numerous occasions, that people are doing stuff where you go, “This is so odd. This is not what we talked about.” And then you find over the course of three of four days, “Oh, I see what this is.”
Coen: That happens a lot.
Aronofsky: The goal is, if you want to reshoot it, then you might be honest with them and tell them, “You’re right. It’s not working.” You’ve generally got to keep it positive and moving forward, I think, because if you knock the confidence away from an actor, you’re.... That’s where it falls apart.
Hooper: Actors are programmed to see the worst. If you’re talking about an actor’s TV series, you say, “I loved you last night.” And they go, “What about the week before?” They immediately worry. Sometimes your body language is enough for an actor to know that you’re not happy. And you don’t really need to say it out loud if you deal with actors you know very well. And I don’t think you really need to be explicit.
Fincher: But it’s never their fault. You know what I mean? If something’s not working it’s usually...
Aronofsky: Either writing or something.
Cholodenko: I had an experience on “The Kids” where there was a scene [that wasn’t working] -- I mean, we had no time. So I didn’t really have time to go around and pull it apart and let them find it. I had to look at it twice, three times ... it didn’t work. And say, “You know what? We need 15 minutes.” And I grabbed my co-writer and said, “We have to rewrite this. We have to go out there and edit it and turn this around.” And it was the writing.
Do you give your actors line readings?
Coen: You can hear [dialogue] before it actually gets performed, line readings in your head. And if the actor makes a different choice you go, “Oh, man. That sounds wrong. I don’t know why, but it’s wrong because it isn’t what was in my head.” But, of course, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Affleck: Jeremy Renner on the second day on the movie, in a scene where he’s getting angry at me -- and we did a couple of takes. And I was really kind of into what he was doing. And then the last take seemed to be a little bit weird. And he was like, “Hey, can I talk to you?” I was like, “Yeah. Of course. Sure.” And he goes, “You’re mouthing my lines.”
What do people misunderstand about your work?
Aronofsky: That 95% of our job is bureaucracy. It’s like worrying about budget, scheduling, how much time is left in the day. But when we call “action,” we can sort of surrender and sort of, hopefully, connect with what’s going on. And so I think that’s what it’s all about.
Does that 95% impede your ability to make your movie?
Coen: I mean, shooting a movie you’re just worried, basically 95% of the time, about making the day, getting the setups, because, yeah, production is time pressure. When you’re rolling it can be fun because you’re an audience for what the performers are doing. You’re always worried having to make the day.
Hooper: What Ethan was saying about speed is the most curious thing about filmmaking because, in reality, your most intimate relationship on set is with time, I think.
It’s not with an actor?
Coen: It’s always there. The actors come and go.
Cholodenko: I think there’s a kind of interesting flip side to that kind of time pressure, which is that it makes your senses incredibly heightened. It really is like being in combat so that I think your creativity kind of fires faster, your problem-solving fires faster.
Hooper: You check your watch hundreds of times. And yet when you see “The King’s Speech” nothing would make you think that the major battle the director is having is with time. Our work never gets judged in the context of the time pressure, nor should it. But in reality, when I look at it, I can decode what I’ve done very specifically in relationship to time or lack of it.
Affleck: It’s like weather. Nobody cares.
Coen: An intense, a really intimate relationship with the weather -- where the sun is and what the clouds are doing.
Aronofsky: Do any of you guys pray for weather?
Fincher: Pray for snow.
All of your films are governed by great use of language. David, I would love to hear about your relationship with language and Aaron Sorkin.
Fincher: I think the key with Aaron is to make sure that not everybody is the same. ‘Cause there’s a degree of snark or glibness or whatever that he has. You have to be careful that you don’t sort of parse out that, that the ensemble becomes delineated and specific. So you want to make sure that Jesse’s [Eisenberg] thing is not Andrew’s [Garfield] thing. So it’s about kind of judging that. But for the most part, it’s on the page. You kind of look at it and you
Is it a different challenge for Tom, Lisa and Darren because you have to go out and help put together the money to make the movie?
Hooper: It’s certainly psychologically very strange -- that up to the week before we shoot, the whole thing can collapse and there’s no protection. You have to make this imaginative commitment to the idea that your film is going to happen, when there are a myriad of possibilities that it’s gonna fall apart. So you have to take this leap of faith. It’s only the act of starting that will make it real.
Cholodenko: It’s fight or flight. This film, it was insane. We started prepping. And then the person who was putting up the money couldn’t guarantee that the crew was gonna get paid. And the producer said we’re not gonna prep unless we can guarantee everybody gets paid. And we stopped and we lost a week out of a short prep anyway. And you think, “This is a train wreck, this is a recipe for disaster, I can’t believe I’m going headlong into doing this, and I’m gonna exploit these actors who I respect enormously and I’m gonna exploit myself.” I’ve made three independent films that have been financed this way. And this was the one that I was sure was gonna be the easiest and it was by far the most [complicated]. There’s a hole in my door. There’s evidence that it was insane.
A hole that was punched or kicked by you?
Cholodenko: I just kicked this hollow door in. And I was like, “I’m losing my mind.”
It sounds as if filmmaking is kind of managed compromise -- what can I accomplish, what battle can I win?
Fincher: You read a script and you get through it the first time and you go, “God, that’s an awesome movie.” And then it’s never that interesting or fun from that moment on.
Hooper: When you’re shooting, you’re always hunting for “Is there a better shot? Is there a better moment? Is there something else, another take? Is there a different angle?” And then the moment you get to the cutting room that falls away, and it becomes a sort of ruthless thing of just cutting these things that you fought so hard to get. And they’re shots that you drive your crew so hard to get. And then if they’re not serving the story, they go. It’s a complete change of personality.
What was the biggest crisis on “The Town”?
Affleck: It all felt kind of like a crisis to me. There are definitely directors with more experience, who appear to be able to do it with their eyes closed. I feel a tremendous amount of anxiety, talking about making the day, and my own unknowns. Is what I’m doing working? Can I hear my own writing? I mean, just a constant sort of staying above water. We had some trouble. There was an actor that we wanted to play one of the bigger parts and he had a felony conviction.
What was the problem?
Affleck: You can’t hold or handle a handgun if you’ve had a felony. So we went to the federal judge and the probation officer. It turns out there are some things that even Hollywood can’t get past. You’re used to this idea that like, “We’ll talk to him, we’ll go in there, we’ll get the permits.” They’re like, “We’re a federal judge. He’s a felon. No.”