Words of Wisdom from This Year’s DGA Nominees

On Film / Short Takes — Feb 28, 2018

Every awards season, as nominees promote their films, it’s typical to hear the same stories and sound bytes repeated from interview to interview, an understandable result of the relentless publicity circuit that fuels major campaigns. But one discussion that stood out to us this year happened at an event gathering all five of the Directors Guild of America Award nominees for the organization’s own best-director award: Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), who went on to win; Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk); and Jordan Peele (Get Out). Clocking in at a leisurely and consistently engaging three hours, the video is a reminder of the craft, passion, and on-the-fly decision-making that goes into the direction of any movie, regardless of budget or scale.

Thanks to expert moderating from Emmy Award­­–winning director Jeremy Kagan, the conversation favors depth and detail over scope, digging into specific aesthetic choices and on-set preferences that distinguish one artist’s working style from another. The result is a must-see for any aspiring filmmaker, with generous helpings of inspiration and practical wisdom. To cap off the season, which winds down this Sunday with the ninetieth annual Academy Awards—all the panel participants are up for major Oscars—we’ve compiled just a few of the most illuminating and useful moments (slightly edited for your reading pleasure) from the discussion.

From Script to Screen

Martin McDonagh (00:18:22): When I’m writing the script, I’m not thinking about it in terms of visuals. It’s usually in terms of character and dialogue and plot. Once it’s finished, it’s a whole separate process to go away on my own and storyboard the whole thing—literally every scene . . . And [the storyboards are] really terrible, and everyone laughs at me, apart from the DP . . . It’s good shorthand for us both, because he’ll kind of know what I’m trying to get at. And he’ll come up with something that will save having to do something in three images when you can do it in one.

Guillermo del Toro (00:23:40): What I try to do is not write anything that cannot be proven by image or sound . . . Oftentimes you read screenplays that are written in a literary way and function on the page, but—how do I do this? . . . I try to be specific on the images and describe the objects . . . [The Shape of Water is] a 19.3 million dollar movie. I couldn’t do tank work, and I remembered—I used it once on Hellboy—an old theatrical technique called dry for wet, and I decided that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to puppeteer everything on the screen—wires for everything, open ceiling on the set—and I’m going to have ten to twelve puppeteers moving the objects in front of the camera.

Greta Gerwig (00:29:00): I would say my movie is almost entirely on the page. Even the cuts are on the page. I think it’s the way my mind works. I need to know what the rhythm is, in an editorial sense, on the page already. I don’t like finding it in the edit in the way that I think is a useful tool for someone else. I like to know how we’re going to cut from this to this and what that rhythmically will do to the words. For me, even though cinema is obviously a visual language, words matter a great deal, and the way they sound and the way they interact with the editing . . . I love in movies when it feels like the opening of the movie is the entire movie in a scene . . . I wanted the language, both visually and literally, to be simple and plain but also have the ability to be poetic in its own plainness.

Jordan Peele (00:36:37): An earlier draft of [the opening scene of Get Out] had a lot more going on. Originally, there was a white family having their dinner and having a conversation about Disneyland. And this incident happens outside their house that they never realize. I was basically trying to do too much. I was trying to start the movie with the protagonist that you expect a horror movie to start with, and then have the black guy who’s walking down the street—to hopefully put the audience in the position of fearing him first, before we realize that he’s the actual protagonist. I decided to strip it way down because I felt that the first scene in a movie is very important, and it’s important not to do too much. What you’re trying to get across is a feeling, and in the case of a thriller, you’re trying to offer the promise of what is to come. Ultimately it became much more important for the audience to be immersed in the experience of being a black man walking down the street in a white neighborhood. And I felt that out of the gate I could get everybody on that page and feel that feeling of, oh shit, we are the wrong person to be in this neighborhood that is, through other eyes, idyllic and welcoming.

Christopher Nolan (00:45:25): I started working in no-budget films—my first film [Following] cost 6,000 dollars—so I wrote only what I knew exactly how I could film, I wrote exactly what I had access to, I wrote to this apartment or this restaurant where I knew I could get a couple hours’ shooting time. And then as budgets got bigger and as I progressed as a director to larger things, there came a point when I started to think I have to not do that, I have to sit down and write things that I don’t know how to do. I have to write things that are going to challenge all my heads of department, that are going to challenge me.

The Art of Casting

Christopher Nolan (01:00:48): On Dunkirk, we got to do it in a very old-fashioned way, because we were looking for unknowns in the leads. It was people who didn’t have agents. We were looking at thousands of people on tape and hundreds of people in the room . . . As we started to home in on our key choices, we’d bring them in in groups and have them read the scene together and then try different combinations of them, have them take different parts, look at that combination. And over a period of weeks we gradually settled on the combination that we liked . . . In the case of Dunkirk, you’re looking very specifically for a visual sense of empathy, you’re looking for a performer who you can immediately care about and worry about. When you see him for the first time in the film, when he’s getting shot at and is reacting to it, you have to understand immediately that this is not somebody who’s going to go out and win the war single-handedly. This is a human being, a kid, who you need to care about.

Jordan Peele (01:04:13): My [casting process] is very much focused on the comfort of the actor . . . Having been an actor and going to so many of these awful, brutal, sadomasochistic events [auditions], it’s very important to me to engage in an actor in such a way where even if they don’t get the role, they feel like this experience was worth something and that we both achieved something, even if it’s just in that room. I had the benefit on this film of allowing several auditions to go on longer than they probably should have . . . What I found for this movie is every character has a duality at play. So the thing I was looking for out of every performer was that they possessed both sides of that duality . . . We did this movie in twenty-three days, we had no time, but the whole illusion I like to present to actors is we have all the time in the world to get this right.

Greta Gerwig (01:14:13): A lot of the cast I worked on collecting was from New York, and I cast them early, and part of that was I wanted these opportunities to get everybody together, to get them to meet, to get them to exchange numbers, to be connected to each other . . . I think so much of acting work is laying down sediment, and your unconscious works on it a lot. Of course I like rehearsal but I also think there’s a way in which these things grow invisibly, so I tried to cast as much as possible early . . . I avoid auditions that feel like performances, because I don’t want to see all you’ve got. I want to see the beginning of what it will be. Because if you can give me all you’ve got right now, it’s not as interesting to me as if it’s a sketch, if it’s an opening gambit for what this relationship will be.

Guillermo del Toro (01:25:48): In the case of The Shape of Water, I wrote the parts for most of [the actors]. The work we do is symphonic, and one terrible note is one terrible note in the symphony—it doesn’t matter if it’s a part with three lines, it can actually ruin the experience of the movie. Mostly, I cast the eyes. We spend most of the time during a movie seeing a character see: see each other, see a thing. If you align the eyes of Octavia Spencer, Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Shannon, you have a symphony of notes, completely different ways of looking at the world. Then the second thing I look for is listening. The misconception that exists somehow is that a great actor delivers great lines. But a great actor listens to great lines and looks at great acting . . . A really great actor can be really wrong for a part. So it’s not about their ability, it’s their suitability.

Martin McDonagh (01:34:27): Sam Rockwell’s and Frances [McDormand’s] parts were written for them, and I think about six or seven of the actors I’d either worked with before or I really wanted to work with. So most of the casting for Three Billboards was in the much smaller roles. Frances’s daughter was a very tricky character because there’s only one scene in the movie. She was a character I didn’t want to paint as this perfect victim. It had to be someone who was a completely real teenager who fights with her mom all the time. We saw Kathryn [Newton], who’s in the film, and she was great, but I felt like there were a couple of other colors that I needed to see . . . She nailed completely the anger, and I guess I just wondered if there was a hint of something else. When I saw a couple of other actors who were all that, who were all the softness and the light, I went back and had a look at Kathryn again. I just hinted that there could be a touch of that, and she showed that brilliantly too. Even in a scene like that, it needed a touch of comedic timing.

Surprises, Accidents, and Compromises

Christopher Nolan (02:20:40): I make complicated, technical films, so they have to be carefully planned. But the structure that we’ve come up with is to plan the things that I have to plan quite carefully and then allow within that freedom for serendipity . . . We start at seven in the morning with just a rehearsal, and I don’t tell anyone where to stand or what to do. We just say let’s see what this is going to be. The challenge for me over the years has been to find a way to be able to always do that—because that’s how I started off, making films where you just have a 16 mm camera and some actors, and you wouldn’t know where you were going to shoot until the day before . . . I loved that, and I always wanted to carry on doing that. The bigger the film, the less people are willing to accept that as a working methodology. They see it as evasion . . . I let everybody know at the beginning of the film that we shoot whatever the weather. As a result I’ve developed a reputation for being very lucky with the weather. And I’m not—we’ve shot in some of the most appalling conditions. But everybody understands that upfront, that we shoot up to the point where the safety officer says the winds are too high, or there’s lightning and you have to shut down. Because something magical, visually, will come from that.

Jordan Peele (02:25:35): We were consistently thrown curveballs, and very early on I’d made this decision that the curveballs, the problems, the walls that get put up in front of my face, were gifts . . . Every time the forces that be tell me no, you can’t have this, is an opportunity to make a stronger choice than I originally had. You realize that you can’t have forty background performers at this party. I pictured this big party where you get lost—we probably ended up with something like sixteen. To me I’m like, how do I make that work to my advantage? So it becomes about placing [the actors] in a very choreographed way, so we get this uneasy sense that everybody who’s supposed to be just acting normal around the party is actually following some sort of script. If I immediately went, well shit, there’s the movie, and if I can’t have this huge party, that’s not what I pictured . . . I wouldn’t be open to this idea of this contrived placement of these people that ended up feeling very creepy and eerie—and indescribably so.

Greta Gerwig (02:27:53): It was a limited budget, so a lot of unexpected things happened just in pre-production. With smaller movies, there’s this feeling of let’s just get people shooting, because I’ve been part of so many movies that have just fallen apart. There were days when it was just me and the AD and my DP, and there was no one else driving the ship but us.You have to be a bit crazily relentless about it because there is no reason it should exist, on some level. I always think about the French word for director, réalisateur—it always felt to me to be a more accurate description. It’s not that it’s just in front of you and it’s waiting to be instructed; it must be realized. And it has to be realized by you . . . Once we were shooting there were unexpected things that happened, but getting up to that point where this train is moving, everything before that moment was “Oh God, we’ve just lost this,” or “This fell through.” Every day.

Guillermo del Toro (02:30:15): When you’ve been doing it for long enough, you understand that there are two levels of artistry in what we do. One of them is to create worlds that are color-coded, shape-coded . . . but the second half of our craft is orchestrating the accident. I often quote the Zen saying “The obstacle is a path.” You are the one who is holding all of the strands—narrative, financial, artistic, visual . . . [In one scene] I scouted the exterior of the theater. I wanted to do a crane. There was a lamppost that the city would refuse to move. We had only one night for everything, with very complicated cranes, and everything started going wrong. We had a drone shot, and the drone started flying away in the wind to the next city. We improvised the whole night, but the main point of improvisation came when Shannon, who is an amazing actor, neglected to tell us that he didn’t drive!

Martin McDonagh (02:36:24): This is more about me being a bastard with the script and [wanting to stick] to it, and when that didn’t happen once. There’s a little scene with Frances and Woody Harrelson where he coughs blood in her face. In the script he says sorry, and she says, “I know, I know,” and then goes out. But in one of the takes, because they were so connected and empathetic with each other, she said, “I know, baby.” She only did that once in a scene, and it was just purely a Frances moment, and it’s the only moment in the film where there’s a proper, gentle, humane connection between them.