Reflections on "Water," "Dunkirk," "Get Out," "Lady Bird," "Call Me by Your Name," "Beauty and the Beast," "Darkest Hour"
A scene from "Dunkirk" (courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios)
Insights from directors del Toro, Nolan, Peele, Gerwig, producer Georges, production designer Greenwood
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Along The Road To Oscar is a significant destination in and of itself—the DGA Awards. And four of this year’s five DGA nominees for Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film correspond with those in the running for the Best Director Oscar: Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight); Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird (A24); Christoper Nolan for Dunkirk (Warner Bros.); and Jordan Peele for Get Out (Universal Pictures).

(The remaining DGA nominee was Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri while the other filmmaker up for the Best Director Oscar is Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread.)

SHOOT was on hand for the Directors Guild’s Meet the Feature Nominees symposium earlier this month (Saturday, 2/2) at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles where dual Oscar/DGA nominees del Toro, Gerwig, Nolan and Peele shared insights into their films. The session was moderated by director Jeremy Kagan. 

Later that same evening, at a gala ceremony in Beverly Hills, del Toro won the DGA Award, making him the odds-on favorite to take the Academy Award for Best Director.

During the DGA symposium, del Toro observed that directing entails such prime responsibilities as creating worlds and deftly dealing with the unexpected happenings that invariably come up during filmmaking. He likes to call the latter “orchestrating the accidents,” citing the adage, “the obstacle is the path.” 

The director shared that there were “at least two major crises” every day on The Shape of Water. How a director and his team deal with these crises is crucial, he affirmed.

Those unexpected occurrences or crises are both the best and worst parts of being a director, continued del Toro. Out of the unexpected can come something positive and beautiful. It’s akin, he said, to the sound barrier. It’s a challenge but “once you break through,” you can find “the true art.”

Most importantly, though, asserted del Toro, is thorough preparation. “When you prepare, an accident is benign.” But if a director isn’t properly prepared, an accident can turn opportunity into “disaster.”

In his preparation for The Shape of Water, del Toro knew he wanted to adopt a “dry for wet” approach to certain underwater sequences, which had cinematographer Dan Laustsen, DFF, using smoke, wind machines and projection to create a dripping, pulsating feel contributing to the illusion of water. This enabled the actors to perform with their eyes open, tapping into their facial expressions, serving to heighten feelings of both romance and mystery.

Del Toro said he knew dry for wet would work, having successfully deployed it in the feature Hellboy. The difference this time around with The Shape of Water, explained del Toro, was that the dry for wet technique had to yield a “painterly” feel.

As for the feel a director must have, del Toro related that “the set is a living thing” and a filmmaker has to serve in many capacities. In that vein, del Toro said he’s “good at comforting” and “confrontation” depending on whatever the situation calls for.

Christopher Nolan
For what’s believed to be the first time, all five DGA nominees also wrote the screenplays for the movies that earned them Guild nods. Nolan penned a script for Dunkirk that was about half the length of what he normally would write for a feature. An economical 76 pages contained “mostly stage direction and very little dialogue,” he said. 

This also marked the first feature for Nolan depicting a true historical story, which necessitated him spending time up front in the actual filming locations, including Dunkirk beach. Prior to writing the screenplay he walked the locations, soaked them in, and researched the history extensively.

Making the transition from writing the material to realizing it cinematically as a director is a process that has changed dramatically for Nolan over the arc of his career. “My first film cost $6,000,” he recollected, “and I wrote what I had access to, to what I could film.” As his career progressed and budgets grew, he was afforded the opportunity to “write things I didn’t know how to do, that I didn’t know how to film.”

Challenging himself in this manner spurred Nolan’s growth as a filmmaker, a maturation which paradoxically makes it increasingly difficult to come up with something he hasn’t yet experienced. However, Dunkirk fit the bill, extending him into different realms—a true story, and logistically dealing with boats and how to best capture the experience at sea on film.

Casting also presented a different experience from what had been the star marquee actor norm for Nolan. For Dunkirk, he found himself instead looking for “unknowns in the leads,” portraying the 18 and 19-year olds who were in battle. As for what he sought on the acting front, Nolan said performers who could visually elicit “the mysterious quality of empathy.” He needed “a kid you need to care about,” someone an audience could relate to even though that character doesn’t talk a lot in the movie.

Also in the mix was an accomplished actor, Mark Rylance, whom Nolan had wanted to work with for decades. Rylance portrayed Mr. Dawson, one of many civilian mariners whom the British navy enlisted to help rescue soldiers across the English Channel. 

Dawson was one of the everyday heroes who piloted his own boat to Dunkirk for the mission. Nolan credited Rylance with pointing out a gap in his script—namely the relationship Mr. Dawson had with his son who’s on board for the mission. Nolan and Rylance then collaborated to bring that aspect of the story to the screen, underscoring the importance, said the director, of listening to the professionals around you.

While Nolan’s films are ambitious and often involve complex logistics that require extensive, detailed  planning, he still likes to leave some room for the unexpected, happy accident that can occur during production. That’s why, he explained, that his preference is to do “as much in-camera as possible.” Computer-generated imagery, he pointed out, doesn’t typically have the flexibility to accommodate such serendipity.

Immersing himself in the Dunkirk story which unfolded in 1940 proved to be a learning experience that went beyond just the event itself. It showed Nolan that like many people he had “an inadequate grasp of history and its importance.” He is now striving to address this, not so much as a filmmaker but personally to become a more informed person who better understands the past, its significance and the implications it carries relative to the present and the future.

When presented with his nomination medallion at the evening DGA Awards ceremony, Nolan said that doing justice to history weighed heavily on him in the making of Dunkirk. He met several people who were part of that history first-hand, now in their 90s, and felt a profound responsibility to them to be true to their stories, honoring those who didn’t survive the event, as well as the heroism of both the civilian rescuers and those in the military service who lived to tell about it.

Being entrusted to bring this story to the screen so that younger generations could learn about it, said Nolan, “is one of the great privileges in my career.” He noted that what the civilians and military forces endured and achieved in the face of insurmountable odds as well as  in the face of tyranny will “stand in eternity.”

Jordan Peele
As a first-time director, Jordan Peele described the audition process for actors “as much an audition for me working with actors. I learned I needed to experience the emotions as much as the performer did.”  For Get Out auditions, Peele found himself at times teary-eyed, having cathartic moments with actors. “I didn’t know that would happen,” he shared.

Even with a tight turnaround time whereby Get Out was shot in just 23 days, Peele often made time to break away from takes to “walk and talk” with actors, take them aside to gain their feedback and provide them with counsel before resuming shooting. As a director, Peele observed “the illusion I like to present to actors is that we have all the time in the world.”

Peele’s approach to Get Out was powered in part by dealing with all the inevitable, unexpected “curveballs” thrown at him during the course of production as if they were welcomed “gifts.” 

Budgetary limitations often fostered such “gifts” as reflected in a party scene where Peele would have liked 40 people in the background to create the desired vibe for the story. 

But Peele learned that instead he would have to make do with 16 or so backgrounders. This prompted him to place the performers in the scene in a choreographed fashion which wound up feeling “creepy” and “eerie,” promoting an uneasiness that wound up complementing his horror film.

Get Out was a transformative experience for Peele, achieving a long-held aspiration. “Since I was 12, I wanted this (to direct a film). I wanted it so bad, it gave a me a pain in my stomach. There were so many reasons I doubted myself.”

Peele thought he had relinquished his dream awhile back but now realizes, “I never actually abandoned my dream.” Rather, he was “developing a skillset to do this movie. I’m so glad I didn’t try to do it earlier.”

Waiting paid off—not just with the DGA nomination in the marquee category, but also with a DGA Award win for Outstanding Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director.

Greta Gerwig
Gerwig discussed her dual role of writer and director of Lady Bird, noting, “My movie is almost entirely on the page. My cuts are on the page. I need to know what the rhythm is in an editorial sense on the page. I don’t like finding it in the edit.”

As a writer and director, she likes to attain a story that is “something familiar but not what you could have imagined,” making it relatable for an audience but a new experience at the same time.

Gerwig also likes when “the opening of a movie feels like the entire movie in a scene,” a reference to the mother-daughter exchange in the car between Laurie Metcalf as the mom and Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird.

Still, there are times when a director may face doubts about how to bring to life what he or she has written—or for that matter doubts about the script itself. Gerwig thus valued the counsel of Tracy Letts, who portrayed Lady Bird’s dad. A playwright, Letts offered Gerwig what she described as a well-timed relevant piece of advice along the lines of “you have to trust the person you were when you wrote it. You’re not the same person anymore—now you need to direct it.”

While a director may need to make adjustments to the story if something doesn’t work, Gerwig said you still need to “respect the person who wrote it.”

Based on her experience as an actor, Gerwig finds herself innately “sympathetic” with performers, recalling the horror of auditioning. 

Asked to describe that horror, Gerwig remembered going to an audition as an actor only to hear, “You better be a good actor if you wear overalls.” Gerwig thinks she replied, “You betcha.”

As a director, Gerwig said she’s not a fan of an actor sharing everything in one fell swoop during an audition. She prefers to get a sketch, “an opening gambit” that shows the promise of what a performer can offer. 

Gerwig saw that in Beanie Feldstein when she auditioned and won the part of Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend. At the audition, Gerwig recalled that she “knew right away” that Feldstein was right for the role.

Once actors were cast for Lady Bird, Gerwig got them to meet, exchange phone numbers and get connected to one another. She likened this process to “laying sediment,” building a foundation for an ensemble cast to help foster a good working rapport which is conducive to their characters relating to each other.

Gerwig acknowledged that she has an affinity for doing lots of takes. “I like to see where actors go when they get bored of their ideas,” she explained. Oftentimes, you see the most interesting performances “on the other side of boredom.”

Gerwig said that directing is something she’s been “working towards and wanting to do for a very long time.” Lady Bird marks her first turn as a solo director (she had earlier co-directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg). 

For Gerwig, Lady Bird was like “realizing that you have the ability to breathe under water.” She related you may be apprehensive about diving into the ocean, thinking “what if I drown?...But what if you don’t?” Then you dive in, “and you don’t drown,” laughed Gerwig. 

Directing, she affirmed, has been a transformative experience.

At the evening DGA Awards ceremony when she was presented with her nomination medallion, Gerwig said to her peers in the audience, “Storytellers are healers and I am so honored to be included among you.” She then referred to the symposium earlier in the day which had her and fellow nominees talking about directing and their different approaches to the work as being “one of the most exciting three hours of my life.”

Emilie Georges
Producer Emilie Georges earned her first career Oscar nomination with Call Me by Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics) which is up for Best Picture—one of four nods, the others being for Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory), Leading Actor (Timothee Chalamet) and Original Song (Sufjan Stevens for “The Mystery of Love”).

Georges shares the Best Picture nomination with producers Peter Spears and Marco Morabito, and producer/director Luca Guadagnino.

Among the prime artistic challenges that Call Me by Your Name posed, observed Georges, was to do justice to the story, “the representation of the characters’ emotions and resilience, how to properly create the emotions of first love,” and to depict that love in the context of “giving life to a multilingual family, the fluidity between an American father (portrayed by Michael Stuhlberg), a French mother (Amira Casar) raised partially in Italy during the summers, and a son (Chalamet) who comes out of this trilingual environment,” discovering the beauty and heartbreak of love through a relationship with a visiting grad student (Armie Hammer).

In terms of delving into characters’ emotions, Georges noted that director Guadagnino gets close to these people by keeping a distance from them with the camera. “He went for very long shots in certain scenes, capturing characters within their environment, which gives insights into the general mood and their relation to the world.”

That world was set in 1983 in a 17th century villa where the characters spent the summer. Georges said that Guadagnino had an “obsession” for artistic coherence relative to the time period.

Georges described Call Me by Your Name as “an incredible adventure,” a journey yielding critical acclaim and Oscar nominations while “emotionally moving a lot of people all over the world.” 

As for what Georges’ first Oscar nomination means to her personally as well as professionally, she is “very proud” of the work, adding that it affirms her commitment as a producer “to continue to protect authors and directors who have strong visions, giving them the opportunity to act upon and realize their vision.” Georges finds it particularly gratifying to offer European directors a bridge to the U.S., being entrusted with bringing their talent to people throughout the world.

Sarah Greenwood
Production designer Sarah Greenwood added two Oscar nominations to her filmography this year—for Beauty and the Beast (Disney) and Darkest Hour (Focus Features). She now has six career Academy Award nods; the first coming in 2006 for Pride & Prejudice.

A common denominator across these half-dozen noms is that Greenwood earned them in collaboration with her long-time set decorator, Katie Spencer. With a track record together spanning some 20 years, Greenwood and Spencer first met at the BBC. 

“We have a real kind of simpatico,” said Greenwood. “There’s something about working with someone you really know and understand, who has similar taste. We don’t always agree, but it’s all good. It’s part of a very creative partnership. Now I wouldn’t know how to work with somebody else. We choose projects together. I don’t choose a project without her saying it’s good for us to pursue.”

Greenwood’s first collaboration with director Bill Condon, Beauty and the Beast appealed to the production designer on many levels. 

“I very much liked that it wasn’t set in fairy tale land,” explained Greenwood. “Rather it was a period film, set in 1740s’ France. That gave it a grounding for me as a production designer—so I could build from there and then figure out how to enchant it, make it be magical.”

Also enticing were the unique characters and the questions they sparked for Greenwood. “How would a candlestick walk, a clock dance?”

And then there’s the production designer’s dream of creating an 18th century village. Initially the plan was to shoot in France as Greenwood and her colleagues scouted there and found a number of viable options. 

But ultimately the decision was made to build the village on a backlot. Greenwood asked rhetorically, “What production designer wouldn’t want to build such a world? And because we had been to France, what we had seen there made a great reference point for us—to take the best of what we saw, capture that in the village we built while making this world work in terms of the choreography.”

Greenwood observed that Beauty and the Beast was the best of old Hollywood—physical construction, painting, designing and shaping—meshed with on-the-edge modern tech. 

“If we had built the sets in CG, it would not have been a true live-action film. But CG helped to bring certain characters to life, “giving us a combination of the old and new working together to make something quite special.”

While she worked with Condon for the first time, Greenwood has maintained an ongoing, long-time creative relationship with Darkest Hour director Joe Wright.

It’s been a most fruitful collaboration. In fact, of Greenwood’s six career Oscar nods, four came for her work on Wright-directed films: Pride & Prejudice in 2006, Atonement in 2008, Anna Karenina in 2013, and now Darkest Hour. (Greenwood’s other Academy Award nomination came for the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes.)

“I go back a long way with Joe (Wright)—not quite as long as with Kate (set decorator Spencer),” said Greenwood. “Joe is simply a great director to work with. He is very collaborative, very open to what you have to offer.”

As for what Darkest Hour had to offer, Greenwood cited “a great script,” Gary Oldman who delivered a stellar performance as Winston Churchill” (which has earned a Lead Actor Oscar nomination), and Joe’s vision which “made an historical drama into a political thriller.”

“We all helped Joe turn a story with gray men in gray rooms into this political thriller,” affirmed Greenwood whose production design had to reflect not only the time period leading up to World War II but also “the feeling of the moment—depressed, quite grim, gray, being underground in a British war room, claustrophobic.”

Greenwood noted, “Everything that came out of that space ran the war—and before that, the decision to go to war emerged from that room. And it was from this gray room that they went up against the German war machine. It’s quite remarkable what was accomplished out of that little space”

Historical accuracy was essential, continued Greenwood, pointing out that Buckingham Palace back then was “aging, seemed a bit tawdry, a bit low key, a bit sad.” Greenwood and her colleagues built The House of Commons based on original drawings from that era, recreating what it looked like during Churchill’s war time reign as Prime Minister. 

Overall, said Greenwood, “We had to do a lot within a tight budget, a tenth of what we had on Beauty and the Beast. But Joe and I are used to making things work no matter the limitations.”

Greenwood noted that enough can’t be said about Oldman’s incredible transformation into Churchill. 

“He became Churchill. It was so astonishing, it gives you a shiver. For all three months of shooting, I never saw him as Gary. He was always made up as Churchill. It was odd to once in awhile see him as Churchill and to hear him talk as Gary off-camera.”

Greenwood added that fortuitous timing has given us a movie season in which both Darkest Hour and Dunkirk were released. And she believes the two films “work brilliantly” to tell the story of Dunkirk from distinctly different yet fascinating perspectives.

From the gray war room, Churchill in Darkest Hour put the wheels in motion for civilian mariners to take their boats across the English Channel to rescue the country’s trapped military forces. And in Dunkirk, we see that rescue come to life—the horrific deaths, along with an overlapping heroism and triumph of the human spirit depicted in both films.

Greenwood conjectured, “I think Dunkirk and Darkest Hour will one day be part of the same curriculum to teach people about an important chapter in history, taking us from the London underground to across the Channel.”

This is the 14th 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 The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. 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.

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