Control. When six film directors got together virtually for The Envelope Roundtable in December, the issue of control — both when you have it and when you don’t — came up again and again.
Regina King, the Oscar-, Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress who makes her feature debut as director with “One Night In Miami,” a fictional telling of the real-life night that Malcom X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke spent together in a motel room, described herself as “a control enthusiast.”
In explaining how she moved from making “Nomadland,” a stripped-down road movie starring Frances McDormand, to the upcoming Marvel action ensemble “Eternals,” Chloé Zhao said she reflected on an older interview with David Fincher, where he spoke about balancing between having a plan and allowing things to happen on set.
For his part, the notoriously exacting Fincher, director of “Mank,” the story of how Herman J. Mankiewicz came to write the script that would become “Citizen Kane,” spoke candidly about how control is an illusion, “the greatest fallacy of our profession,” whereas Aaron Sorkin, director of the 1960s historical drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and an Oscar winner for his screenplay to Fincher’s own “The Social Network,” admitted how intimidated he was to be on a panel as a director alongside his former collaborator.
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The British Paul Greengrass, who made the elegiac post-Civil War-set western “News of the World,” added that for him, “the pitiless exposure of your weaknesses is the essence of directing.”
When asked how he came to a particularly bold creative decision in making “Da 5 Bloods,” his drama about Black soldiers who fought in Vietnam, Oscar winner Spike Lee simply referred to trusting his four decades of moviemaking experience.
All six filmmakers also shared their thoughts on the future of the film industry and how they can’t wait for audiences to return to movie theaters.
Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.
Regina, “One Night in Miami” is the first feature film that you’ve made after directing some television. What is pulling you toward directing, and is it difficult to balance that out now with your acting?
Regina King: No, not at all. The thing about directing that really drew me in is that once I really started paying attention to all of the things that a director does — and I do credit John Singleton very early on, when we were doing “Poetic Justice,” to just introducing me to the entire process of what a director experiences — it just allows me to be more involved in the storytelling process. I love working with people, and I love ideas coming to life, and I’m a bit of a control enthusiast. To be able to share a thought or an idea or a vision, and all of the department heads come in and take my idea and then bring theirs to the table. And the first time I experienced that, I was like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.”
Aaron, “The Trial of the Chicago 7" is the second feature you’ve directed now. Is it getting harder for you to write for other people? Now when you’re writing, are you really thinking of how you want to direct things?
David Fincher: I want to hear this.
Aaron Sorkin: The two films that I’ve directed, in neither case did I know that I was going to be directing it while I was writing it. I’ve really enjoyed directing and learning and certainly learning how much I don’t know, but I’m not done wanting to work with great directors as a writer.
So many of the films that you’ve made this year deal with history. Spike, “Da 5 Bloods” is about Black soldiers in Vietnam and the traumas that they brought home. What is it that drew you to that story in particular? Was it the fact that it’s something we haven’t seen onscreen before?
Spike Lee: Well, that is part of it. During the height of the Vietnam War, African American soldiers were a third of the fighting force, in Vietnam. Yet we were only 10% of the American population. And Black people died for this country from the get-go. The first person who died for the United States of America was a Black man. His name was Crispus Attucks. The Boston Massacre. But the country hasn’t loved us, the country is still shooting us down in the streets, and George Floyd was a tipping point.
Look, there’s some great Vietnam films. But the influence over this film, [Francis Ford Coppola’s] “Apocalypse Now”; John Huston, “Treasure of Sierra Madre.” And also Marvin Gaye, his album, “What’s Going On?” Marvin had a brother named Frankie who did three tours in Vietnam. So he was writing Marvin from Vietnam, what’s happening. And so Marvin was getting it from his brother there, but he’s also in Detroit and seeing the Black soldiers coming back in coffins or on heroin.
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Paul, Spike touches on the fact that you can make a film that’s set in history and yet it still can have a lot of contemporary resonance to it. And that’s very true in “News of the World,” including a scene with fake news. Are you thinking about those resonances when you’re making it?
Paul Greengrass: Yeah, very much so. I mean, the last film I made [“22 July”] was about the rise of violent right-wing extremism, which was a growing problem in Europe. And I think in your country too, and it was a very dark film. So the next film I wanted to make, I wanted to really explore if there was a road toward optimism or what that might look like. And when I read the book, the “News of the World” novel, it seemed to me it had that possibility. Set after the Civil War at a time of obviously bitter division when America was trying to find, or failing to find, a road to healing. And this strange odyssey that the man Capt. Kidd goes on seemed to me to offer the possibility of finding that road toward hope and redemption. Plus, it was a western, and I grew up on those movies, so I wanted to do that very much.
Chloé, your film is the one among all of you that’s set in contemporary times. How much were you considering what it is saying about economic displacement in America?
Chloé Zhao: If I’m completely honest, I wasn’t thinking about any of that, because I was out there. I spent a lot of time on the road in the heartland, traveling, making my first two films. Initially I wanted to make a film I wrote about young people hitting the road. And then I read Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland” and realized the meaning of the road changes for someone in their 60s and 70s, 80. The meaning of the road changes for someone when they lose everything that defined who they are in what should be the twilight of their lives. I was trying to understand what it means to these people that thought they knew who they were and all that is gone overnight. It’s hard not to be political, because when you put a camera on anything, you’re saying something. So, I’m glad that it sparks discussions, but it’s not the first thing I think about when I wake up.
Spike, one of the things that makes “Da 5 Bloods” so powerful is that creative decision to have the older actors play their younger selves in the scenes in Vietnam. That’s a bold choice to make; it might work, it might not. How do you feel the confidence to do that?
Lee: I’m on my fourth decade of making movies. Plus, I didn’t have a hundred million dollars ... like Scorsese.
Fincher: There’s a great through-line for an actor to play.
Lee: I hate that, when the actor’s got to say the person’s name, so you know who’s playing who. Didn’t want to do it.
Zhao: Also the way it was edited, when we found out what happened, the forgiveness [Delroy Lindo] was seeking, and then I was sobbing when they were hugging and having that conversation right after we found out what happened. If it was played by a different [younger] actor, it might become a roadblock.
King: It wouldn’t have been as powerful, definitely.
“The notion that any one person has control over 90 people who are playing dress-up is the greatest fallacy of our profession.”
Chloé, after “Nomadland,” you’ve already shot a big-budget Marvel movie, “Eternals,” with a very large cast that includes Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. What has that experience been like for you going to that scale?
Zhao: Well, I’d actually seen an interview of you, David, a long time ago, talking about control. Because it’s so difficult, something I think I’m going to be learning for decades, is that at what point do you let the actors — because they know the characters a lot of times better than me — and allow them to let mistakes and imperfections happen. And then at the same time, having your eyes on the bigger picture. Especially, the bigger it gets the harder to make sure that they are doing things that maybe nobody else knew, but you knew what the whole blueprint is and finding that balance. And not ruining moments because you were controlling, it’s very difficult.
Fincher: The notion that any one person has control over 90 people who are playing dress-up is the greatest fallacy of our profession. I mean, I find it amazing that a day of shooting ever gets completed, because you’re getting five setups in the last hour of the day and one setup in the first five hours. It’s always that thing of finding your momentum. And it becomes compounded. The more money you’re spending, the more difficult it is to make your way through the forest of activity to even whisper in somebody’s ear, or for them to hear you. So it really is an amazing thing when something goes off the way you had it in mind.
Greengrass: David, isn’t that the kind of psychodrama of doing the job — the director controlling people by nature? Because you wouldn’t want to do it, and yet you put yourself in the place where it’s impossible to control. And so the whole thing becomes a kind of pitiless exposure of every weakness that you can possibly have, beginning with the fact that you can’t control. So you have to try to just focus on the few things that really will make the difference and then try and create some intimacy there. But the pitiless exposure of your weaknesses is the essence of directing, isn’t it? That’s kind of why we do it, I think, deep down.
Fincher: Because we didn’t cry enough as children.
David, how was that working with your father, who wrote the script?
Fincher: Yeah. Well, it was difficult.
Lee: Families can be ... complex. That’s the word, complex.
Fincher: Yes. Collaboration is a complex art form, and so it was .... Listen, it was everything that anyone here can imagine. It’s one thing when you give notes to an Aaron Sorkin and he can process this stuff by knowing that this is what it’s going to take to get there. And then when you’re talking to your dad ....
You had another sort of layer on top of that in that unfortunately your father passed while you were working on the film. Did that make it difficult to work on it the way you normally would?
Fincher: I mean, I certainly was really familiar with what my father was trying to do. And I see myself very much as a person who takes a blueprint and puts it on its feet and then works with 90 other people to try and make it as good as it can be, as clear as it can be, as terse as it can be. There are a lot of scenes that in the moment of directing them with the actors, I would have to be honest and say I’m not exactly sure what he was saying with this, but let’s work together to sort of glean what the meaning is. And everybody was game to kick that ball around, and on the day [of shooting] we sorted it out.
Regina, “One Night in Miami” is based on this real-life event in 1964 where Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown all met for a night in a hotel room. And yet their conversations speak so directly to the issues of our time. What was it that you found intriguing about these four men together?
King: Well, I mean, just that, that those conversations were current before 1964, they’ve been conversations that as Black Americans we’ve been having privately before I was born. It’s part of the fabric of America. And one of the things that I realized in reading the script [by Kemp Powers] and digging deeper is that it felt like almost a love letter to the Black man’s experience, being Black, being big, having to put on your talisman when you’re getting on an elevator or when you’re in certain environments to make other people feel comfortable. And the fact that this conversation was happening between these larger-than-life icons, these luminaries who have impacted all of our lives, that shows the vulnerability, as well as the strength, that men that I know and love have had to balance all of their lives. What appealed to me was humanizing these men that are looked at as deities, almost, by some.
... But you can go back and look at a film years later and the question that a film may have posed for you 15 ago, it could be a different question 15 years later. And that’s one of the many reasons we truly love this art form.
Greengrass: The interesting, and rather terrifying, thing about the last year is that our whole business has undergone this profound revolution. And it’s really two crises, one inside the other. There’s the obvious crisis of COVID and the sort of collapse of the theatrical business. But the other one is the rise of the streamers. And how is that all going to work with theatrical studios?
Lee: We have to learn from this. We cannot repeat, go back to normal.
The Envelope - Directors Roundtable
Aaron Sorkin talks directing and writing and quarantining
Regina King on directing her first film and her love of acting
Chloé Zhao talks 'Nomadland' and how chickens have helped her through the pandemic
Oscar nominated director David Fincher on resurrecting his late father’s screenplay for “Mank.”
Aaron, how do you feel about that? Do you think social changes are also being reflected in Hollywood and in the movie business?
Sorkin: Well, first of all, I don’t think we’re going to know for a while, right? Things are changing very, very fast, so it’s unclear. There’s a new community that builds around series that are on Netflix, whether it was “House of Cards” or “Queen’s Gambit” or anything else. But the shared experience was the actual experience, the audience experience in the theater. It’s just a different experience if it’s a shared experience with an audience. And I’ve been accused of thinking idealistically and romantically, but I feel like nothing is ever going to really replace that and that it’s a habit we’ll get back to again.
Lee: I agree. I’m telling you.
King: I really believe it, because the majority of the world does not have a home theater, so the people that want the sound, that want the shared experience or that want to see the image larger than life are still going to always want that experience. I just think that we are at a time that we have to understand that the younger generation, they’re OK watching things on their phone. They’re OK watching things on their computers. There’s a whole generation of people that have never even been in the movie theater. I think where we’re going is that there’s going to be a choice. Things are going to be released more at the same time. We’re going to see.
Zhao: The decision that Warner [Bros.] put out [to release films in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time] really shocked me. If one company does it, again, in a very competitive industry, if someone doesn’t hold up, then we all are going to do it. And I don’t want people to go into the theaters, at least for six months and it’s safe. It’s literally people’s lives right now we’re talking about. But November, maybe it’s OK. I didn’t even grow up with movie theaters. I grew up in Beijing; I didn’t ever walk into a movie theater until I moved to the UK. But I know that it’s like being around a fire in a cave. I think that there’s something so important in our essence, and I’m just scared.
Fincher: I feel that there are two conversations happening. One is the size and the awesomeness of an IMAX or whatever, but I think that the most important thing is exactly what Chloé is talking about, which is when you’re in a room with 700 strangers and everybody laughs at the same time, the power of that is that you know that you are not alone in the universe, and that is almost religious in its resonance and importance to strangers. And when people come together to acknowledge that, “Hey, that made me jump out of my seat, and everyone else.” And when she said that, I burst out laughing because it’s so true. Those things are not Dolby-approved, none of that stuff has anything to do with the pipe that’s delivering it, it has everything to do with the substance of the tales told around the campfire.
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