Delving Into "Little Women," "The Irishman," "Joker," "Just Mercy" and "The Two Popes"
Greta Gerwig (l) and Saoirse Ronan on the set of "Little Women" (photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)
Director Gerwig, VFX supervisor Helman, DP Sher, editor Sanders, production designer Tildesley provide insights into their films, collaborators

Last year when accepting her DGA nomination medallion for Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig said to her peers in the audience, “Storytellers are healers and I am so honored to be included among you.”

Storytelling can indeed be healing--by raising awareness of peoples’ circumstances or plights and in turn fostering empathy for others, even helping us to look at ourselves and life differently.

By continuing her healing ways, Gerwig may soon be receiving another DGA medallion as director of Little Women (Sony Pictures), for which she also wrote the screenplay based on the classic novel and other writings of Louisa May Alcott. 

This latest cinematic version of Little Women stirs our empathy, introducing us to the aspirations of and adversity faced by its protagonists, including Jo March (portrayed by three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan), an ambitious, talented writer whom Gerwig describes as her personal “North Star.”

Reaching for that star has seen Gerwig, with Lady Bird, become just the fifth woman ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. And Little Women could make her the first woman to be nominated twice for that coveted honor. Gerwig already has two career Academy Award nominations, having also earned a Best Original Screenplay nod for Lady Bird.

For Little Women, Gerwig assembled a team of artists consisting of ongoing collaborators as well as those she worked with for the first time. Among those in the former group are Ronan, a Best Actress nominee for Lady Bird, and editor Nick Houy, who garnered an American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Award nod for Lady Bird as well.

The relationship between director and editor is “intimate,” said Gerwig, explaining, “You spend so much time alone together, locked in a room trying to hear the same music that doesn’t exist yet. It’s been said you write a film three times--when you write it, shoot it and edit it. In a way it (editing) is letting this one person into this process of rewriting.” 

Gerwig observed that Houy has “sensitivity to every aspect that matters to me--language, rhythm, acting, storytelling. He’s utterly relentless, doesn’t ever say ‘uncle.’ This was a complicated movie at every stage, with multiple timelines, multiple characters over eight years, many seasons. It was a beast. We knew going into the edit that it would be a long carefully calibrated process.”

Gerwig jumped into cutting the day after she stopped shooting. “The heart of the movie, the core, the essence was always there. But everything around it took a long time,” she recalled. “We went through many versions. Small changes had a ripple effect that was large. I knew Nick had the ability to never let go of a project until we explored every avenue. He’s a great human being with great taste. I feel this trust with him.”

Meanwhile Little Women marked Gerwig’s first collaboration with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, production designer Jess Gonchor, twice nominated for an Academy Award, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, a six-time Oscar nominee who won in 2013 for Anna Karenina.  Her other Academy Award nods were for Pride & Prejudice in 2006, Atonement in 2008, Mr. Turner in 2015, and Darkest Hour and Beauty and the Beast, both in 2018.

Among the magnets drawing Gerwig to Le Saux to begin with was his work, including A Bigger Splash and I Am Love, both for director Luca Guadagnino. Gerwig described I Am Love as “a movie you want to eat,” one which had “a kinetic feel.” 

Gerwig struck up a creative rapport with Le Saux; they envisioned the camera as functioning differently through different timelines. When the main characters are adults, the cinematography is “more formal, further away, locked off,” Gerwig explained. When they are youngsters, “the camera has to feel like a dancer--but not handheld.”

Gerwig shared that she wanted Little Women to look like a painting while being light on its feet. “I never wanted to feel the lighting package. I wanted to feel always on the move but not like, ‘Oh God, it’s a period piece.” Gerwig said that she and Le Saux “spoke the same language right away.”

As for production designer Gonchor, Gerwig has been an unabashed fan of his work for quite some time. She cited his efforts on Bennett Miller’s Capote as well as several Coen brothers’ films (which included Oscar noms for Gonchor on True Grit and Hail, Caesar!). 

“His (Gonchor’s) houses always feel like homes,” observed Gerwig of the work. “I never feel like I’m looking at something separate from the characters and the storytelling.”

For Little Women, Gerwig recalled, “The way he talked about the world was what I wanted, straddling something magical in the memory of it balanced with the reality of it--doing both things at once.” She saw the March family’s home as being “plain looking” on the outside but quite different on the inside, “like a jewelry box, with a feeling of fantasy and being magical inside--lives pushed by the fantasy inside while they also deal with their reality.”

Gerwig gravitated to costume designer Durran for her artistry cast over a wide range of work. For one, among Gerwig’s heroes is director Mike Leigh for whom Durran has done several feature films, including Mr. Turner, a period piece, and Another Year, which by contrast had a feel of like “the actors came with their clothes,” observed Gerwig. “Jacqueline has the ability to do both which is very attractive to me.” 

Durran also did the aforementioned Beauty and the Beast, “something big that’s more pushed,” continued Gerwig. “She has the ability to straddle worlds which is kind of what we were doing (with Little Women). Jacqueline and I tried to figure out how to establish the March family separate from the rest of the world.”

The director and costume designer decided to break from the stereotype of 1860s’ garb, almost as if the Marches were “a strange hippie family who make their own clothes,” related Gerwig. Being slightly “off” and “odd” helped the audience to see that the March women were indeed different.

Gerwig herself was different on Little Women as compared to her first solo feature directing effort, Lady Bird. She said of her experience on Little Women, “I felt that I got more confident with how I wanted to shoot things, less tentative about making the wrong decision. The first film I was so scared I would mess something up. I felt very careful that first film, very deliberate. This one I took some risks, finding that part of me able to push film as a language.”

As for the daunting task of writing a screenplay adapting an iconic, cherished piece of literature, Gerwig acknowledged that it was “a big mountain to scale.” But her approach allowed her to make the climb. “I kept myself in line with what I loved about the book, what I felt was empowering.” Doing anything other than that, she said, would be folly. Gerwig thought that if she could keep to the heart and intellect of the original story “that I deeply feel, then I’d be okay.”

Pablo Helman
VFX supervisor Pablo Helman of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) is a two-time Best Achievement in Visual Effects Oscar nominee--for Star War: Episode II--Attack of the Clones in 2003, and War of the Worlds in 2006. He’s been nominated for six Visual Effects Society (VES) Awards, winning in 2006 for Best Single Visual Effect of the Year for War of the Worlds

Helman’s most recent VES nod came in 2017 for Silence, his first collaboration with director Martin Scorsese who next month will receive the VES Lifetime Achievement Award.

Following Silence, Helman’s collaborative bond with Scorsese further intensified over the course of two more projects, which recently overlapped with each other in terms of scheduling--the documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, and the just released The Irishman (Netflix). The latter is supported by breakthrough visual effects which figure to strongly contend in both the Oscar and VES Award competitions.

The breakthrough is in the discovery of the fountain of youth--the de-aging of actors so that they appear decades younger--in the case of The Irishman, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. 

In the past, de-aging involved facial markers, helmet rigs, garb with sensors and other encumbrances that got in the way of the acting. Scorsese wanted youthful versions of his actors sans any physical impediment to their live performances. This would free the auteur filmmaker to fully tell the story of The Irishman.

One one hand The Irishman is an epic saga about organized crime in America, taking us from post World War II through the Kennedy administration and beyond. But ultimately the film is a character study--with dramatic and wryly humorous elements. 

Through its protagonists, The Irishman shows us not just a life lived in and around the mafia but the toll that life takes on a lone person now that he has the time to reflect on it in his old age--and in particular the melancholy he feels over the lack of a relationship with his daughter. 

It’s a tour de force performance by De Niro as Frank Sheeran, the Teamster and mafia figure who claimed before his death that he had killed Jimmy Hoffa (portrayed by Al Pacino). Also at the core of the film playing a masterful role in Sheeran’s life is crime boss Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci), whose persona alternates between sinister and sympathetic.

Scorsese has called de-aging that doesn’t compromise the actors the next evolution of makeup. Helman noted that it’s been something that visual effects artisans have been looking to do for years, a brand of effects that supports the content of a film in a very important way. 

Scorsese first approached Helman about the possibilities when they were working on The Silence in Taiwan. It was over Thanksgiving dinner during a break in the shooting. “We started talking about how to make an actor younger,” recalled Helman. That’s when the director told Helman about The Irishman, getting him a script that very same evening. “In the morning, I said, ‘Yes, I want to do it,’” said Helman.

The process started four years ago, with two years focused on inventing a new piece of software that would help to capture performances of actors sans any physical encumbrances. Complementing that software is a three infrared camera rig that allows triangulation, creating a kind of 3D geometry of and around the actors; the center camera being the “director’s camera” flanked by two others.

Actors could act younger and then the technology would later make them look younger. 

Helman noted that the burden thus is taken away from the actors--and in some respects transferred to the production designer. For example, doors on set would have to be 32 inches wide so that the camera rig could pass through them. Also in The Irishman there was a problem presented in the use of vintage 1950s and ‘60’s automobiles which had lead in their windshields. Infrared can’t pass through the lead. So the windshields had to be removed from the car and put back via CG.

But all the logistical issues are worth the end result, assessed Helman. “The performances are so incredible. The actors were allowed to as truthful to the script, dialogue and scenes as possible without having to worry about what we were doing.”

Helman has come to deeply value his working relationship with Scorsese. The two first met on a location scout in Taiwan in 2014 for The Silence. “We hit it off,” said Helman. “He is an incredible filmmaker with an incredible eye for framing, timing, sequencing, rhythm. He’s very intuitive yet very knowledgeable about film. It’s also been an incredible opportunity to learn from him. He’s very collaborative, always ready to listen and very funny.”

Helman has learned from Scorsese and from his experience of working four years on The Irishman. Helman acknowledged that The Irishman was “an incredibly risky project from the beginning but we never lost hope. I never felt we weren’t going to be able to do it.” His confidence was rooted in the team at ILM, one he grew up together with over the past 24 years.

While he’s gratified over the finished film, Helman started to feel that sense of satisfaction earlier on, “working three feet away from De Niro and Pesci. You see their eyes are connecting,” related Helman. Seeing that interplay between actors, the freedom to innovate and ad lib, meant the world to Helman who said that The Irishman gave him more insights into human behavior, performance and art.

Lawrence Sher, ASC
While it marks Lawrence Sher’s sixth film in 11 years for director Todd Phillips, Joker (Warner Bros. Pictures) breaks new ground for both the filmmaker and the DP--a departure from their collaborations on The Hangover series of movies, Due Date and War Dogs.

Sher recalled reading the script by Phillips and Scott Silver, and in his mind committed to the project immediately. 

“Not only was it a fantastic script but it enabled us to stretch slightly different muscles than we had in the past,” said Sher, noting that Joker is a character study, delving into Arthur Fleck and subsequently the Joker, affording the opportunity to be “slightly more artful in our approach.”

Joaquin Phoenix portrays the socially awkward outcast/loner Fleck whom we see evolve into the Joker. And his environment--a dysfunctional, decaying Gotham City, patterned in some respects after a 1970s-’80s’ NYC--becomes a character in the film as well, impacting Fleck’s psyche. It’s a world of despair, alienation and bullying, shedding light on how the Joker came to be, even evoking empathy for him at times.

For Sher, addressing a prime challenge posed by Joker was “a bit of an extension of what Todd and I had done over previous films, creating the flexibility to allow the actors to do whatever they want. For a cinematographer, that’s always a challenge--how can I create artful lighting and cinematography but within the parameters of giving Joaquin and Todd the flexibility to go 360, to even rehearse, set new marks, explore the scene in real time. This greatest challenge is also one of the greatest thrills and satisfactions, discovering a scene in real time with Joaquin, moments for the first time as they happen.”

This approach in turn makes the film feel different from others in the so-called superhero/supervillain genre. “The movie feels handmade, a little bit dirty, very real, constructed by human beings, not a pre-vis lab. Humanity is the best way to describe it. Joker introduces us to a human being who happens to transform into something that exists within a superhero context.”

Sher deployed a large format ARRI Alexa 65 on Joker

“The sensor is two-and-a-half times larger than the normal 35mm sensor we’re used to seeing on screen,” he related. “It looks a lot like portrait photography, with a shallow depth of field. You almost feel the faces are three dimensional because the backgrounds are shallow and out of focus. It’s 3D in a 2D space. Plus you’re getting the field of view of a wider lens, able to see the character in his environment. You isolate the character with depth of field and also see the environment where he lives.”

Sher also valued the collaboration on Joker with production designer Mark Friedberg. This was the first time Phillips and Sher had worked with Friedberg. 

Sher observed that cinematography and production design are “two sides of the same coin. They don’t exist without each other. So much of production design is the lighting. In constructing Gotham, we asked what can we do to build the lighting into the production design. It’s not just about him constructing this amazing artistic palette from an era 45 years ago. It’s a constant conversation about where we can place lights as production elements in the frame to allow for this 360 style of shooting. So much of the lighting is done in production design.”

Sher described Friedberg--whom he knew of from the production designer’s work with such filmmakers as Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited), Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Wonderstruck, and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce for which Friedberg won an Emmy in 2011), Darren Aronofsky (Noah) and Ava DuVernay (Selma)--as “an amazingly hard worker, really meticulous with great attention to detail. I couldn’t have enjoyed working with him more.”

As for the biggest takeaways or lessons learned from his Joker experience, Sher said, “To be present every day. Great preparation allows you to be flexible and present on the day. If you are really present when you make the movie, you can find these amazing opportunities and moments you couldn’t have planned for. Joker had so many of these moments.”

Another major takeaway, related Sher, “sounds almost silly” but it’s simply that Joker is an affirmation that “you can combine art and commerce. We were able to be artful and put that side of filmmaking to the forefront and it didn’t hurt the commerce. Art at times can feel self-conscious and isolating to the audience. But in this film, we were able to combine these two forces--great mass appeal serving the commerce side while also feeling uncompromised from the artistic side. As challenging and difficult as it was at times, this movie has resonated for audiences. The big picture takeaway is that audiences are cool with being challenged--they don’t just want things to be cotton candy easy. They want something different.”

Nat Sanders, ACE
Editor Nat Sanders, ACE has formed special bonds with a couple of notable directors in particular, cutting Barry Jenkins’ first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, only to wait some eight years for the chance to work on the filmmaker’s second feature, Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight, followed by If Beale Street Could Talk. Sanders teamed with Joi McMillon to edit Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk

Sanders and McMillon picked up a Best Editing Academy Award nomination for Moonlight in 2017 as well as an ACE Eddie Award nod, and a Film Independent Spirit Award win. (McMillon made history as the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Best Film Editing Oscar.)

Jenkins has played a big part in Sanders’ career--not only as a collaborator but ironically when they weren’t collaborating. That eight-year stretch separating Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight made Sanders realize halfway through that he needed to dovetail with other directors in order to make a successful go of it. 

But directors tend to have their own preferred editors in the feature world so Sanders decided to take a different route to meaningfully connect with another helmer. He began sifting through short films, looking to identify directorial talent that hadn’t yet broken into long-form fare yet demonstrated the potential to do so.

Sanders found himself impressed by Short Term 12, a short film directed, written and edited by Destin Daniel Cretton. “The film blew me away and I also saw that he edited it himself. I saw an opportunity there,” recalled Sanders who reached out to Cretton, which led to their coming together on the feature-length version of Short Term 12

Sanders’ work on that movie earned him a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Editing in 2014.

Sanders then cut two more Cretton-directed features, The Glass Castle and Just Mercy (Warner Bros.), which is slated for wide release on Christmas Day. Just Mercy now has Sanders once again in the awards season conversation. 

The film stars Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard Law School grad who co-founded Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative in the 1980s to defend death row prisoners, mostly people of color. Among them is the wrongly accused Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx) who in 1988 was sentenced to death for the murder of a local young white woman. 

Based on Stevenson’s 2014 book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” the film does justice to this activist attorney, and his unfaltering commitment to his clients, along the way opening our eyes to such issues as judicial reform, the death penalty and racial profiling. Brie Larson (who starred in Short Term 12) portrays Eva Ansley, who teamed with Stevenson to launch the Equal Justice Initiative.

Sanders’ contributions to the film include cross cutting in a moving sequence where one of the prisoners makes his way to the electric chair after his final appeal is denied. McMillian and his fellow death row inmates, as well as other prisoners who are within earshot of the proceedings, start to bang their cups against the cell bars, picking up the pace and the decibel level to drown out the sounds of electrocution in a sonic show of solidarity. 

The edit takes us back and forth from the execution to the witnesses and the prison cells as the march to the execution progresses, ultimately reaching a horrible end, the electrocution of a war veteran inmate whose PTSD drove him to commit a crime for which he felt great remorse. Banging the cup against his cell, McMillian delivers a heartbreaking speech in tribute to his friend, with music adding a poignant emotional accent.

All the while Cretton and Sanders, who both have documentary/reality content backgrounds, brought an authenticity to the overall film, doing justice to the story of Stevenson and his clients, particularly McMillian and his family. 

“Destin and I feel very simpatico,” related Sanders. “We both really value going for authenticity, finding the realness of a moment. I learned quickly when we worked on Short Term 12 that he rejects any ‘movie-ness’ in the reading of a line. He’s always looking for that truth.”

Sanders recalled Cretton never being satisfied, even when receiving positive feedback from test screenings. “We got great responses in those screenings from the very beginning,” said Sanders, “but neither of us would focus on the positives. We would focus on some negative things we saw and figure out how to fix them. One thing was the heaviness of the subject matter. You ask something of your audience to experience that. At times we saw the need to keep that authenticity but make it not so overwhelming that you lose the audience.”

This constant striving to improve the film was given further impetus by the great responsibility Cretton and Sanders felt to tell Stevenson’s story properly. “I spent so many sleepless nights or waking up in the middle of the night with story ideas,” shared Sanders. “My brain never shut off as I felt that sense of responsibility to Bryan (Stevenson).”

The flip side to feeling profound responsibility, though, ultimately is gratification, observed Sanders. “It was such a privilege and honor to be part of telling Bryan’s story. People might think it was heavy or depressing to be working on such intense subject matter but it was actually kind of the opposite. It felt inspiring. We had a sense of purpose, responsibility and pride, feeling the call to get Bryan’s message out there to a larger audience.”

As for what’s next, Sanders is taking a 180-degree cinematic turn, about to embark on Cretton’s next film, a Marvel action/adventure/fantasy centered on the Asian kung fu superhero Shang-Chi.

Mark Tildesley
Production designer Mark Tildesley reunited with director Fernando Meirelles and cinematographer Cesar Charlone on The Two Popes (Netflix). The threesome had previously worked together on The Constant Gardener, for which Tildesley earned an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award nomination.

The Two Popes takes us behind Vatican walls where conservative Pope Benedict (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) and liberal Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis (portrayed by Jonathan Pryce), come together to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.

Among the daunting tasks Tildesley encountered on The Two Popes was having to recreate the Sistine Chapel where many dialogue laden scenes took place. Tildesley had to weigh varied options since there was virtually no filming inside the Vatican itself. 

An ambitious set had to be built. One desired option--painting that set in an old world authentic manner--fell by the wayside, though, when the days calculated to do it exceeded the time they had to have the venue ready for lensing. Some photographic processes were considered but they appeared and felt too flat, sans the needed luster and texture. Through the grapevine, however, Tildesley learned of tattooWALL, a company in Milan, that could take a printed tattoo and apply it to a stone wall. 

A test proved successful so Tildesley and crew proceeded to build their Sistine Chapel structurally with a special plaster that had a marble texture and shine, and then applied the time-saving tattoo process which made meeting the deadline possible.
The Sistine Chapel was built without the ceiling at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, giving Meirelles and Charlone the flexibility to shoot 360 degrees when necessary. The ceiling was then added in postproduction. 

Tildesley had to rebuild the chapel based largely on photos that a company hired to clean the Sistine had taken about 10 years ago. Vatican experts, historians and artists were consulted and they later got a look-see at the set to give it “a full bill of health,” related Tildesley whose other prime challenge was making sure the various locations used for the Vatican worked seamlessly with the studio set.

Tildesley’s full artistic plate extended well beyond Italy as he had to address the Argentinian portion of the film as we hearken back to Bergoglio’s roots. Tildesley got local artists to paint work reflective of that community’s history--in a sense creating a parallel between the stories of those community paintings with those told by the artwork in the Sistine Chapel. Poor Argentinian communities also had breathtaking paintings and murals that like the Vatican celebrate their heroes and saints.

In Argentina Tildesley observed that Meirelles and Charlone taught him much about the “simplicity of filmmaking.” Rather than a conventional approach with lots of equipment and lighting, the director and DP, said Tildesley, prefer to go the “simple and beautiful” route, “to engage real communities without the feeling like the circus has arrived. They are very in tune with the real people in communities, using real refugees in the film....Simplicity and authenticity makes the process very strong.”

Tildesley also loved the spirit of The Two Popes, centered on two human beings whose meeting started out “very frosty” but “by the time it’s finished, Francis shows him (Benedict) the tango. It’s a very awkward and wonderful moment,” particularly as you see the reaction of others. “To read a story that is essentially reconciliation and forgiveness,” being able to see “each other’s differences and trying to deal with them makes for a strong film. I love the lightheartedness of it. It’s very gentle yet a super serious message as we are in a very divided world right now.”
Tildesley also felt a personal impact from working on the film and seeing its story unfold. 

He noted that in the past he had issues with Cardinal Ratzinger but “through the film I got to feel the other side of things. It was sort of a mild reconciliation for me. I had my own pilgrimage and journey from this film...We are living in times when we have to reach out and try to understand each other.”

Currently Tildesley is designing the next James Bond film, Bond 25, for director Cary Joji Fukunaga. Other recent credits for the production designer include Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed Phantom Thread, Oliver Stone’s biopic Snowden, and Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea.

Tildesley’s work also spans notable collaborations with such directors as Danny Boyle, for whom he designed T2: Trainspotting, Trance, Millions, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine (which earned Tildesley a British Independent Film Award). 

Tildesley is also a frequent collaborator with director Michael Winterbottom, encompassing such films as The Killer Inside Me, Code 46, 24 Hour Party People, The Claim, Wonderland, With or Without You, and I Want You. Additionally, Tildesley co-designed the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, for which he won a primetime Emmy Award.

This is the ninth of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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