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From ‘Joker’s’ violence to ‘Little Women’s’ personal depths, directors share their visions

Todd Phillips just directed one of the year’s most critically divisive films, a comic book adaptation that went on to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time. But top of mind for Bong Joon Ho wasn’t asking the filmmaker how he handled all the controversy surrounding the violence in “Joker.” The Golden Globe-nominated South Korean filmmaker behind “Parasite” had a more pressing question for Globe nominee Phillips, who had been speaking about taking smoking breaks with his star, Joaquin Phoenix.

“Todd, you’re a chain smoker?”

“Yeah,” Phillips replied, nodding his head in the affirmative.

“You look like one,” Bong replied.

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Seeing the puzzled expressions around him, he added, “Basically, he looks cool” as explanation.

These were the kind of things that the directors of six of 2019’s top films wanted to grill one another on when they convened for a roundtable discussion last month. (Bong spoke through a translator.) The group — which included Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”), Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) — was less interested in talking about what it was like to work with Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro and more intrigued by a conversation about the nitty-gritty of on-set life.

Actors get to work together all the time, they noted, but directing is most often a solitary gig. Baumbach was reminded of a Mike Nichols quote about directing being like sex: “You wonder, does everyone else do it this way?” he said to laughs.

Snacking habits, assistants, volume levels and, yes, smoking all proved to be popular conversation starters. After admitting to chain-smoking, Phillips noted that his nicotine habit paled in comparison to that of Phoenix, who “smokes more than Humphrey Bogart.”

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“I used to Juul, and I had to stop Juul-ing before I directed because I knew I wouldn’t stop,” interjected Gerwig, referring to the vape device. “I knew I’d be talking to an actor and Juul-ing the whole time.”

“I mean, this is probably overly self-conscious and too much information,” added Heller, “but I even try to not eat garlic and onions when I’m directing a movie, because I’m gonna be talking to actors and in their faces for months.”

The conversation also covered personal stories, capitalism and Barbie.

Todd, many people see these as very dark times and you’ve responded with a very dark and unnerving movie. “Joker” is now the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time. What do you think audiences are responding to in the movie?

Phillips: I think it’s exactly that. Oftentimes, movies can be a mirror for what’s going on in the world. Some are connecting to the loneliness that is conveyed. Some are connecting to the themes of income inequality. And, you know, oftentimes when you hold a mirror up, it’s not always pretty what you see. And I think the movie’s been divisive because of that reason. But it’s definitely struck a chord around the world. And it’s been really exciting to have a movie on that scale.

Marielle, your movie has a completely different tone. Can you talk about what Mister Rogers’ beliefs and philosophy were and why you think they’re important in 2019?

Heller: I think for some of us who grew up with Mister Rogers, it’s easy to dismiss him as a little bit hokey or sort of sappy, but the truth of the matter was he wasn’t shying away from darkness and things that are intense and what it really means to be human. I’m a parent of a little kid. So getting to reflect on his wisdom has been really nice for me. And it’s been really comforting in these times to think about what it is to really value people and view every person and their emotions as mattering.

Director Bong, it’s rare for an international film like “Parasite” to do as well as it has all around the world. What do you think it is about the story that’s translating globally?

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Bong: I think the story about the rich and poor is something that’s applicable to any country around the world. When you say “international,” you’re basically saying that each country is different. But I think there’s no point in really dividing nations, because in this current era, we all live in this one giant nation of capitalism. And I think that’s something that “Joker” is about as well.

Noah, a lot of people view your film as autobiographical. Did that make you hesitant about putting it out in the world?

Baumbach: I often use biographical details to spark the imagination. With this movie, I have a personal connection to the material. My parents divorced when I was a kid. And I’ve been through a divorce. But I did all this research. I interviewed people who’ve gone through divorce — friends of mine, lawyers, judges, mediators. It’s a way to tell a more expansive story and bring my personal connection into it and create something that was beyond just me.

Lulu, your story is a personal one as well. But when you were trying to make the movie, you heard from people who felt the story was too Chinese while others felt it was too American. How did you reconcile that for yourself?

Wang: In many ways, someone like me, when you’re making films in this industry you’re used to compromising. So when someone said, “Oh, it’s too Chinese, go find a Chinese investor,” that’s the first thing [I tried to do]. “OK, well, maybe that’s the person to go to green-light the film. Whatever it takes.” But the Chinese investor would say: “This is way too American for a Chinese audience. Your main character is American.” And so in the process of making the film and in talking about it, I’ve come to realize that the story wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t an American story. I spent most of my life trying to fit in. And in coming out of this whole process, I realized that it is from a place of being in between, that I don’t need to fit into one because I fit in nowhere, in a way. Maybe I fit in everywhere.

Greta, when you first met with Amy Pascal, your producer on “Little Women,” you said to her: “I’m the only person who can do this.”

Gerwig: Meetings are like, “Well, the worst that could happen is they don’t hire me, and they probably won’t. So I’ll just tell them this.” And then people say it back to me and and I sound so arrogant!

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What was it about your vision for the movie that you felt so passionate about?

Gerwig: Well, I grew up with “Little Women” as my favorite book. And the character of Jo March was my literary character. I didn’t know if I wanted to be like her because she was like me or the inverse — like, I made myself like her. It was so much a part of who I am that it becomes indistinguishable from autobiography from me. When you’re young, there are books that get inside of you and then they become part of your personal landscape of things that you feel belong to you. And those sisters and their adventures felt like my memories and my personal history.

Todd, before “Joker” even came out, there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. People were afraid that it might incite violence. How do you feel about the fact that the movie inspired that conversation?

Phillips: We found it offensive because you see the movie and you realize the movie’s actually about the power of kindness. The idea that it was being painted with this violent brush because maybe the violence in it is realistic? To us, it felt like a very responsible way of portraying violence. It was a tough thing to talk about at the time because you don’t want to give that idea oxygen. And that’s what was happening. It was suddenly on the ticker on CNN every four seconds about the violence it’s creating.

‘Joker’ director turned away from cartoon-style violence, the type with machine guns blazing. Instead he kept it as realistic as possible to make sure it didn’t feel glorified.

Wang: I’m always so curious about portraying violence. I had a conversation with [Swedish director] Ruben Östlund, who said he can’t show violence that he hasn’t experienced himself because he doesn’t know what it’s actually like if he’s never experienced it. How do you make that decision?
Phillips: I don’t necessarily think I have to go through things to be able to show them. But I think what affected people most about the violence in the movie is that it felt so real. So it got painted with this kind of brush that it was horrifically violent when really, if you look at the amount of violence in the movie, it’s not much.

But I think we’re also used to cartoon violence, particularly in that world of filmmaking. We talked about it a lot. It felt like showing it as grotesque and horrific is actually a way more responsible approach to violence than the machine-gun frenzy.

Recently, a USC study said as many as 14 of this year’s 100 top-grossing films will be directed by women — the most ever. Have you seen that change reflected in the conversations you’re having in the industry?

Gerwig: I do think that when you’re looking at studios and what they’re doing and how they’re hiring and thinking about hiring, I think that’s changing. And I think that they have stopped feeling like it’s appropriate for them to only hire men. I think that they’ve changed their minds.

Heller: Or the world has forced them to change their mind.

Phillips: I mean, I’ve been at Warner Bros. making movies for 15 years and they have drastically changed. But that came from the top. I mean, it might have been outside forces that brought it up but it’s also definitely something they want to do and they’re actively doing. And it’s pretty amazing.

Gerwig: I always want to be careful in the discussion about female filmmakers and representation with filmmakers, because film is an art form but it’s also a populist art form. It’s part of capitalism. ... I don’t ever want it to seem like films by women are, like, “Eat your spinach. You don’t like it but it’s good for you.” And what’s lovely about capitalism is — turns out people are so excited to see your film. Nobody’s [going to our films] because they feel real bad that we’re ladies. They’re doing it because they’re good movies and they’re excited to see them. I think that’s what’s nice about the market showing that there is an audience for “Wonder Woman” or “Hustlers.”

Wang: You know, Noah, I grew up watching your films. They made me want to make films. They felt universal. It didn’t feel like just because I’m Asian and my family’s Asian, like I can’t relate. Every story can be universal. It isn’t about pitting stories against each other or genders or whatever. And that’s just, like, the hump we have to get over. ... The only challenge for me is the gatekeepers being like, “Well, your version of authenticity doesn’t work for the marketplace.” And that’s a myth.

“I still can’t lose my obsession for the movie theater. That’s still my best platform. It’s the only place where the audience can’t press the pause button.”
Bong Joon Ho

Director Bong, your film “Parasite” won the Palme d’Or this year at the Cannes Film Festival. You had previously been there with your film “Okja,” which was released by Netflix. But now Cannes won’t show movies that come out on Netflix. How do you feel about that?

Bong: So two years ago, Noah and I were the two Netflix directors at Cannes. It was a very lonely journey. And now I’m very jealous, because he has an exclusive theatrical window for “Marriage Story.” I tried to get a theatrical release for “Okja” but it didn’t quite work out as well. So Netflix has been creating amazing films like “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.” And I had a great experience working with them, because they gave me full creative control.

And now I know they’re becoming more flexible with their distribution policy. So I think that’s great. But I still can’t lose my obsession for the movie theater. That’s still my best platform. It’s the only place where the audience can’t press the pause button.

[To life partners Baumbach and Gerwig] You two are collaborating on a live-action Barbie movie with Margot Robbie. Obviously, this season you have your own films, but how do you work out when you want to write together?

Gerwig: We love Margot. She came to us. She’s a really smart producer, really interesting actor. And she approached us. And I’m a fan. And I had some jokes. She liked the jokes. And then Noah had some other jokes and she liked those jokes. Writing together is just fun. I mean, the writing’s hard. And to write with another person is just so much better. It’s a lot less lonely.

Baumach: But I feel like even when we’re not officially writing a thing together, it’s an open conversation.

Gerwig: There’s a lot of like, “Listen to this,” or “Read this.”

Bong: So are both of you actually at the same table together?

Baumbach: Greta likes to leave the house to work and I like to stay in the house.

Gerwig: For everything.

Heller: Now we’re getting somewhere!

Baumbach: I’m gonna take a sip of water.

Gerwig: He can work at the dining room table and I feel like I have to get out of the house. I get really restless when I’m in the house. So I have to take my computer and leave and then I’ll come back with my pages like a cat that’s killed a bird.

Baumbach: Somebody asked me, “When did you show Greta ‘Marriage Story?’ And there’s no time. She’s part of the whole thing. She’s coming in and out. I always feel like we’re in it together, no matter what — even though it’s technically a separate project.

Director Bong, you have a style of filmmaking where you like to really meticulously storyboard what you’re working on. But where does that leave space for creativity for the actors’ performances?

Bong: I actually love the improvisation of actors. I stimulate them. I provoke them. But they say my storyboards are very organized and meticulous and “there is no space for us to do something.” No matter how narrow the cracks or narrow the room, [they] always manage to find inspiration and be creative. No matter how tightly you grasp a live fish, they’ll just continue to flap on. ... I take back comparing actors to fish. I’m a director who loves actors. I feel happiest when I see them perform something that I never even imagined. You storyboard, Noah?

Baumbach: No, I do a shot list but I don’t storyboard, partly because I can’t tell what I drew. I’ve tried to do it but it doesn’t feel intuitive to me to tell somebody else and have them do it. But to what you’re saying, the actors don’t improvise in my movies, but I find in some ways creating these rules and boundaries lets the actors feel safe. I find they can lose themselves. It’s actually freeing, because you’re taking certain responsibility away. It’s all there for them. And then they can just go.

Heller: I feel like I always start with: “I have an exact idea of how I think this could work,” and I show it to them and go, “But if it doesn’t work for you, we’ll throw it all out and you tell me if you need to do something different.”

Baumbach: Mike Nichols has that thing of, “For directors, directing is like sex in that you wonder: Does everyone else do it this way?” I’m just always so grateful to find directors and talk.

Phillips: It’s just a really lonely experience. Actors get to work with each other all the time. Directors don’t. I have a lot of friends who are directors, and we’ll just go have dinner and just talk about it.

“Being an actor was a great way to be a spy. I got to see a lot of people with different ways of going about it, which became a version of film school for me.”
Greta Gerwig

Gerwig: I mean, being an actor was a great way to be a spy. I got to see a lot of people with different ways of going about it, which became a version of film school for me. And then I’d come home and Noah would be like, “How did they do it?”

Heller: I know. You want to talk about the most mundane things, like, “When you write your shot list, what do you keep it on? What’s your type of paper? How do you organize?”

Wang: Is it digital or is it analog?

Baumbach: After 10 movies, I’m still trying to figure out how to hold the script.

Gerwig: Do you look at the monitor or do you sit by the camera?

Baumbach: I’m curious how everyone likes their sets. Do you play music? Do you like a lot of people? Are you loud?

Bong: I keep eating on set.

Gerwig: Me too.

Bong: Really?

Gerwig: I eat so much on set.

Heller: I do the opposite. I lose tons of weight because I stand and never eat and forget to eat the whole day. I lost 17 pounds while I made my first movie. It was really bad.

Gerwig: I’m in the Orson Welles school of filmmaking.


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