Sunday, January 21, 2018
  • Friday, Dec. 22, 2017
Directors Greta Gerwig, Martin McDonagh, Joe Wright Reflect on "Lady Bird," "Three Billboards," "Darkest Hour"
Beanie Feldstein (l) and Saoirse Ronan in "Lady Bird" (photo by Merie Wallace/courtesy of A24)
DP Phedon Papamichael shares insights into "Downsizing," editor Joe Walker discusses "Blade Runner 2049"

For her first turn as a solo director—the already widely acclaimed Lady Bird (A24)—Greta Gerwig benefited from having had an extensive, thorough “pre-pro,” one which spanned many years as a writer, producer and actress as well as an experience co-directing (Nights and Weekends with filmmaker Joe Swanberg).

Based on her body of work in varied capacities, Gerwig noted that upon embarking on Lady Bird, she already had “a really good sense of how you take a film from words on a page to this moment right here. I’ve been lucky in terms of directors and other collaborators I’ve worked with being willing to open up their process to me, allowing me to observe how they were designing shots and moments, talking to actors and department heads. It was a base of knowledge that wound up being my film school and has served me incredibly well.”

Perhaps the most important lesson gleaned from that education, she observed, was that challenges are inevitable when directing a picture. “To encounter challenges is not a deviation from the course. It is the course. You will confront something that may seem insurmountable or that could jeopardize the film and you have to figure out how to get around it and keep going. Knowing that going into Lady Bird gave me a resilience as I faced different challenges.”

Gerwig also realized full well that in order to effectively meet those challenges, she had to assemble a team of adept, talented collaborators who could do full justice to the story.

That story centers on Christine (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan), a student at a Catholic high school. Christine, who has given herself the nickname “Lady Bird,” aspires beyond her seemingly mundane life in Sacramento, Calif., dreaming of college in New York or at least “Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.” Lady Bird’s story, though, extends beyond herself, perhaps most notably to her mother (Laurie Metcalf). The mother-daughter relationship is a major part of the film’s resonant core—which bring us back to Gerwig’s selection of valued collaborators, starting with the actors.

Gerwig said of Ronan, “She’s so young and already one of the great film actresses. She’s never done something quite like this before, so comedic. She can inhabit a person she’s nothing like. You never feel the work. You cannot believe she is not this person. Her technical ability doesn’t overwhelm the spontaneity of the moment. It’s a gift she’s honed.”

That’s why the casting of Metcalf was essential, continued Gerwig. “The mother-daughter relationship needed two heavyweights. I’ve admired Laurie for so many years, mostly for her work in the theater. She’s a stage actress who’s unparalleled in terms of what she can do. I wanted to find someone who could match Saoirse. She is her match.”

As for finding a cinematographer who would match her, Gerwig gravitated towards Sam Levy whose credits include the Noah Baumbach-directed films Francis Ha and Mistress America, both starring Gerwig—and both written by Baumbach and Gerwig. “I had the experience of Sam shooting my writing, saw what a great collaborator he is and how cinematic he made the writing. I also worked with him on Maggie’s Plan (in which Gerwig starred) which was directed by Rebecca Miller. She adored him. He’s the kind of person you want to spend fourteen hours a day with. I asked him to shoot the film [Lady Bird] a year before we were in pre-pro. We both live in New York and we would spend time hanging around, talking about the film, looking at photography and paintings, honing in on what we wanted the look of the film to be. Our catchphrase became that we wanted it to be ‘plain and luscious,” informing every single shot.”

Gerwig noted that Levy brought her into the nuts and bolts of the process, testing for cameras and lenses, walking through different options. She valued the education because it led to informed decisions.

Levy told SHOOT that he too got an education, helping him to realize Gerwig’s vision which was to make Lady Bird “look like a memory.”

In contrast to Levy, editor Nick Houy was an artisan with whom Gerwig hadn’t worked before. However, a trusted collaborator, editor Jen Lame whose credits include Frances Ha and Mistress America, recommended Houy to Gerwig. “Jen told me she had a friend whose sensibility would match up to mine,” recalled Gerwig who subsequently found that assessment to be true. “Nick always understood what I was trying to do and really heard it in an almost musical way. When we first talked about Lady Bird, he said he wanted it imbued with the feeling of the quality of time tumbling into itself and going faster than you can hold onto it. He also understood there was a certain sadness to the story along with humor. He’s an incredibly skilled editor.”

Gerwig also found an incredibly skilled production designer in Chris Jones whom she met while in the cast of director Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. “He’s a production designer and a painter,” said Gerwig of Jones, citing his affinity for the work of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos, a pair of Northern California painters. Their paintings included landscapes of the Sacramento Delta, a mix of blues, yellows and bits of green, colors Gerwig and Jones wanted reflected in the film. Gerwig also wanted Lady Bird, set in the early 2000s to feel as it had traces of earlier times in it, a prime example being Lady Bird’s room which had colors she chose when she was a little girl. Now a teenager, Lady Bird has a room that doesn’t quite fit her anymore.

As for whether directing fits her or not, Gerwig’s feelings emerge when she’s asked what her biggest takeaway was from her experience on Lady Bird. “A million things—some of them conscious, some of it just the development of your intuition as a director, It happens almost invisibly, knowing what shots you will want or need, what’s required in the editing. Most of all, I learned that I love directing. I can’t wait to do it again. I had a hunch that was how I would feel. But you never really know until you’ve done the whole thing. Spending two solid years on one project can wear you down. But what keeps you going is being open to a collaborative artform and trusting your collaborators. Every step is a new discovery of a different side of storytelling. Every person who works on a movie is a storyteller.”

The storytellers on Lady Bird collectively exhibited their acumen with great results such as four Film Independent Spirit Award nominations—Best Feature, Best Screenplay (Gerwig), Best Female Lead (Ronan) and Best Supporting Female (Metcalf).

Martin McDonagh
Regarding his major takeaway from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight), writer-director Martin McDonagh observed, “With each film, I’m getting a little more open about not being quite as precious about every comma, every word in the script. That’s something I missed on the previous film [Seven Psychopaths] that’s there in this film [Three Billboards] and my first one [In Bruges]. I’m jumping right in there with the characters to be with them, their pains, hopes and even their capacity for change. I’m not sitting above them like some omniscient film director. I’m in there with the characters. I’m in there fighting with Mildred and Willoughby. To be there doesn’t mean being patronizing. It’s being on everyone’s side, to let the humanity come through.”

Portrayed by Frances McDormand, Mildred is a grieving mother consumed with rage because the rape, murder and incineration of her teenage daughter has gone unsolved after a year. She rents three billboards on the outskirts of Ebbing, Missouri (a fictional town). Passing motorists read the successive billboard messages which taunt the town’s sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and ask why no progress has been made in the case. Thus begins a quest for justice that is full of anger, sadness, emotion yet is darkly comic as we are introduced to Ebbing, its characters and their stories.

The inspiration for Three Billboards came some 20 years ago when McDonagh was on a bus in a Southern state and saw what he described as “something not dissimilar to what was on our billboards. It flashed by in the blink of an eye but stayed with me. It was angry, raw, sad, and called out the police for their inactivity. Once I decided in my head years later that it was a mother that put that message up there, everything fell into place. It merged with my desire to make a female-centered film. I jumped in not knowing the plot but knew she had to be a person of rage and willpower.”

McDonagh said that he had McDormand’s “voice in my head during the whole writing process. She has a dexterity with comedy but doesn’t play that up, keeping the truth of scenes at the forefront. My sense of her as a person and an actress, her feistiness and integrity was almost a template of what I wanted Mildred to be.”

McDonagh had to do a similar balancing act as a director. “A prime challenge was making sure that the tone was the same as that of the script—to capture the sadness and be truthful to the pain and rage of Frances’ character but not have it all dragged down into a place of bleak despair,” he shared. “This is not just an angry film. Yes, there’s rage but there’s also humanity and hope. There was also humor on the page but it just doesn’t pop out of nowhere. I didn’t want this to be two separate films in one. I wanted it tonally to be one film—from tragedy to comedy and back again so that the humor doesn’t feel that it’s been shoe-horned in. It feels organic and true.”

It certainly felt organic and true to Toronto International Film Festival goers. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won The People’s Choice Award, voted on by festival audiences. Not since Eastern Promises in 2007 has a People’s Choice winner in Toronto not scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Several People’s Choice recipients have gone on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture including 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.

McDonagh himself is no stranger to Oscar. He won one for Best Short Live-Action Film in 2006 on the strength of Six Shooter. And In Bruges was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2009.

In addition to being People’s Choice in Toronto, Three Billboards won the Golden Osella honor at this year’s Venice Film Festival for Best Screenplay, and was nominated for Venice’s Best Film Golden Lion. Additionally, the film garnered three Film Independent Spirit Award nominations—for Best Screenplay, Best Female Lead (McDormand) and Best Supporting Male (Sam Rockwell as police officer Dixon).

Joe Wright
With Darkest Hour (Focus Features) now in his rear-view mirror, director Joe Wright said the prime lesson learned from his experience making the film “could be written on a t-shirt: ‘I love drama.’ What really fascinates me is how human beings interact, how they communicate or fail to communicate, how they connect or fail to connect. I’m entering a new phase in my work where I’m delving more deeply into these relationships and their possibilities.”

Darkest Hour features a tour de force performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill when he becomes Prime Minister of Great Britain with World War II on the horizon. He’s faced with pursuing a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany or fighting against an imminent invasion by Germany’s war machine. Churchill’s leadership and mettle are put to the test as he must deal not only with the Nazis but also an unprepared British public, a skeptical King and his own party plotting against him. Darkest Hour goes beyond the history books, exploring Churchill’s personal self-doubts as the fate of the free world stands in the balance.

For Wright—whose filmography includes Anna Karenina (2012), Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement which earned him a Best Director Golden Globe nomination in 2008—perhaps the biggest challenge posed by Darkest Hour was “working with a script that was predominantly men in rooms talking to each other, which doesn’t necessarily strike one initially as being particularly cinematic. We had to try to create a cinematic experience from this very interior-based drama—one scene in particular comes to mind when we have a ten-page dialogue scene with seventeen men sitting around a war room table. It was an enormous challenge to try to avoid that being just about coverage. You had to feel the tension in the room. Of course my job is vastly helped by having some of the greatest English-speaking actors on the planet.”

Inspiring to Wright relative to the challenge of action confined to a room were such films as 12 Angry Men, A Man Escaped and Cool Hand Luke—of the latter Wright described a scene “with a bunch of guys around a table creating a tension that was electrifying.”

Wright observed that “limitations often liberate you as a filmmaker. Sometimes if you have too many options, you get options paralysis. If you have fewer options with people in a room, you just go at it.”

Among those helping Wright to give it a go were a first-time collaborator and an artist with whom he has had a longstanding working relationship. The former is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC. Wright usually works with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC, but he was unavailable for Darkest Hour. Wright turned to Delbonnel. “I’ve been an enormous fan of Bruno’s work with films like Amelie and Inside Llewyn Davis. Just as importantly we met a few years ago when I was in L.A. for Anna Karenina and he was on Inside Llewyn Davis. We began talking and I found him thoughtful, gentle and kind. I was interested in his sort of humanity and outlook on life. He stuck in my mind. I thought of him as someone I’d like to work with, which is so important for a director and a DP. I need the set to be a safe place with no egos flying around. So I met him to talk about the film [Darkest Hour] and was excited about everything he had to say. I also liked that he was someone who would push me, challenge me in a very non-aggressive way to be the best I could possibly be. He avoided just doing coverage. He uncovers the dramatic or emotional intention and represents it cinematically.”

Wright’s alluded to long-time collaborator is production designer Sarah Greenwood, a four-time Oscar nominee—three of the four nods coming for the Wright-helmed films Anna Karenina, Atonement, and Pride and Prejudice. “I’ve made one piece of work in my entire career—a TV job when I was 27 years old—without Sarah Greenwood,” said Wright. “Our aesthetic is so interlocked that it’s impossible for me to ever determine whose idea is who’s. She’s recently been doing some big Disney stuff, Beauty and the Beast, which allows her great scope and budget. Our film [Darkest Hour] pared that back considerably; it was as minimalist as possible. On the face of it, Darkest Hour didn’t seem like that heavily designed a film and yet she invests in every detail—along with set decorator Katie Spencer—with a deep sense of meaning and story. I think this is actually one of her best pieces of work, particularly the war room. What she managed to create in those war room sets was extraordinary.”

Wright added, “It’s very very difficult to do period England in a way that feels authentic. Sarah and I fought very hard to shoot a large portion of the film in Yorkshire where stately homes are a little more run down, helping us to capture the grubbiness of London in the 1940s. Also the Buckingham Palace set is far more authentic—back at a time when it was not decorated or refurbished within an inch of its life. It’s that kind of authenticity that Sarah brings to a project. It may be subtle but is totally integral to the telling of the story. Another example is that she fought tooth and nail to build the House of Commons. It didn’t get a huge amount of screen time but she was utterly vindicated in the final film.”

Darkest Hour also carries relevance to the present. There’s a scene, for example, when Churchill goes directly to the people of England to get their thoughts and feelings on the crisis at hand. He goes down to the London Underground transit subway system on his own to meet folks face to face. “That scene is very emotional,” related Wright, showing Churchill’s care and empathy for everyday people. “It speaks to what we aspire to for our leaders today.”

Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC
A collaborative bond between director Alexander Payne and DP Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC, has thus far spanned four films: Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013) and now Downsizing (Paramount Pictures). Sideways and The Descendants both earned Payne and his colleagues Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars. For his gorgeous black-and-white lensing of Nebraska, which received 6 Academy Award nominations, Papamichael earned Oscar, BAFTA and ASC Award nominations, among other honors.

Downsizing is part science fiction, part drama, part romantic comedy, part adventure, part social commentary and bits and pieces of other genres, starring Matt Damon as a man who seeks a better life through shrinking himself. Damon and assorted others are taking advantage of a breakthrough technology that can reduce people to five inches tall—not only decreasing their environmental footprint but increasing their buying power, meaning for example that a middle class income family can purchase a miniaturized mansion for a fraction of what it costs in the “grown-up” world. New mini-communities—for that matter a miniaturized society—have become a growth industry.

Much like Payne’s other movies, this imaginative story is full of humanity, compassion and humor, with an eye on our relationships, hopes, aspirations and foibles. The miniaturized society has its own problems—many which Damon and others were trying to flee from. Yet what makes life worthwhile is also present in a reduced size society; for some, it’s found in helping the have-nots, and of course there’s love as Damon—whose wife backed out at the 11th hour from being miniaturized, leaving him solo in a strange world—finds an unlikely mate, a Vietnamese political prisoner turned house cleaner portrayed by Hong Chau.

“We approached this film as we do all of Alexander’s films—with the emphasis on the story and humanity,” said Papamichael. “That was my advice to him. We had to be mindful of the visual effects [from Industrial Light & Magic] but could not get distracted by them. Yes, we had some ‘small’ gags. But once we’re down-sized with these characters, we forget they’re small. Occasionally something will remind the audience that they’re small but we didn’t want to play that gag constantly. It’s all about the human story—and we all worked towards that with our collaborators, including Jaime [VFX supervisor Price] and Stefania [production designer Cella].”

Still, Downsizing had far more visual effects than are typical in Payne’s character-driven films. Mattes, background plates, green screen were all deployed but Papamichael tried to make them as incidental as possible, the priority being the characters themselves. “This movie was very important to Alexander. He had been trying to get it off the ground for over a decade,” said Papamichael. “It’s a pretty brilliant concept with lots of potential and it’s relevant today in our world with talk of the border wall, immigration, global warming and other issues. But Alexander tackles it with humor, in his own satirical, tongue-in-cheek way—without being preachy. It’s important to have movies like this. And it’s rare that a studio will finance this kind of film.”

The ambitious story and the effects work it entailed translated into some 80 shooting days for Downsizing, said Papamichael who noted that Nebraska, in comparison, had but 35 shooting days. Papamichael shot Downsizing with ARRI Alexa cameras in tandem with vintage Panavision lenses. Papamichael related, “Alexander likes the feel of 1970s’ cinema, which leads us to older glass [lenses].” And in digital color grading, film grain was added to enhance that sought after ‘70s movie feel.

Papamichael’s filmography extends beyond his stellar work with Payne. At press time, he was in line to shoot his fourth film for director James Mangold, the first three being 3:10 To Yuma, Knight and Day, and Walk The Line. Papamichael also shot director Gabrielle Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness, and multiple films for director Wim Wenders, including The Million Dollar Hotel.

Furthermore, Papamichael’s exploits extend beyond cinematography. Over the years he has directed assorted commercials and continues to do so with European credits for such brands as Green Cola, Milko, Volkswagen, Seat and Infiniti. Earlier this year he joined the directorial roster of Untitled, Inc.—a Santa Monica, Calif.-based production house headed by founders/executive producers Jim and Kristin Evans—for spots and branded content in the U.S. Papamichael knew Untitled Inc. well before becoming part of its directing lineup. He shot for McCann NY the latest Nespresso spot directed by Untitled’s Grant Heslov and featuring George Clooney.

Joe Walker
Joe Walker, ACE, has a pair of Best Editing Oscar nominations thus far in his career—for 12 Years a Slave in 2014 and Arrival earlier this year. It’s apropos that the former was directed by Steve McQueen and the latter by Denis Villeneuve. Walker feels blessed to have regularly collaborated in recent years on multiple films with McQueen and Villeneuve, two of the industry’s most revered auteur filmmakers. Walker has cut three McQueen features—Hunger, Shame, and Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave. Furthermore, Walker is currently editing a fourth McQueen-directed film, Widows, with a cast that includes Colin Farrell, Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson and Daniel Kaluuya.

For director Villeneuve, Walker has served as editor on Sicario, Arrival and the recently released Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros.). “Normally you finish a film with a director, and you say, ‘See you on the next one.’ The next one might be three months or three years later, if at all,” said Walker. After Arrival, “I said to Denis, ‘See you on Monday,” to begin Blade Runner.

Walker related, “Each film with Denis has grown exponentially in the number of visual effects shots. On a film with the scale of Blade Runner, the visual effects team in editorial expanded. With Sicario and Arrival, we didn’t need an editor on set. But for Blade Runner, such an ambitious film and being under the gun with a tight schedule—and conversion to 3D which makes that schedule even shorter—Denis had to have an editorial voice on set.”

Nonetheless, working with Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049 was in key respects the same as their experience together on Sicario and Arrival, observed Walker. “Denis is a master. Every day has been a delight during our straight run of several years. He sets the bar very high on what he wants us all to achieve—but he does it gently and encourages collaboration.”

Another prime collaboration for Walker on Blade Runner 2049 was particularly fulfilling—namely being able to edit the images of Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE, a 13-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee. “There were days I would pinch myself. I’d see dailies and realize that I was editing Roger Deakins’ photography. Every day there was some new kind of extravagantly beautiful image to reckon with,” said Walker. “It takes considerable nerve to be tough with that stuff—like it is cutting Harrison Ford. Working with Roger’s images is like a master class in shadow and silhouette. For an editor, it’s a tightrope walk. There are so many different approaches to some scenes, and the imagery is so beautiful. You try to preserve that dreamlike quality of the images as you cut, keeping the tension needed for each scene. It’s quite a balancing act.”

Successfully handling that balancing act is made much easier when you have an established relationship with filmmakers like Villeneuve and McQueen, noted Walker. “It brings a kind of security and creative freedom together, joining forces with somebody, trying to push boundaries all in the name of doing justice to the story and its characters.”

Walker noted that McQueen and Villeneuve have the utmost respect for each other. “It’s been a privilege for five or six days a week being one or two feet from one of these two people for the last five years,” affirmed Walker.

Asked to assess Blade Runner 2049, Walker said working on it and seeing the results has been a gratifying experience. Yet he added, “The odd thing about editing a film is sometimes it takes several years for you to see the film as others see it. Last year I did a master class for film editors in the Netherlands, and we did a clinic on Hunger. I hadn’t seen it for quite some time. I now had the luxury of seeing it as an audience member, not just as an editor, enabling me to better appreciate the whole story in a much different way. To get that level of perspective when viewing a film sometimes takes several years.”

This is the sixth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, 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.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

An A24 release, Lady Bird marks the solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig who also penned the script. Sam Levy, DP; Nick Houy, editor.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Fox Searchlight trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh, shot by cinematographer Ben Davis, edited by Jon Gregory, with music by Carter Burwell and production design by Inbal Weinberg.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Alexander Payne, director/writer; Jim Taylor, writer; Phedon Papamichael, DP; Kevin Tent, editor; John Jackson, casting director.