Fall 2011

DGA Interviews
2005 - 2011

For the last six years, the Quarterly has interviewed some of the most prominent directors in the business, covering everything from Robert Altman’s soundtrack innovations to Steven Spielberg’s innate sense of cinema, James Burrows’ sitcom genius, Spike Lee’s breakthroughs, and Nancy Meyers’ mainstream success. In keeping with the theme of our 75th anniversary celebration, we offer excerpts from all the DGA Interviews, reflecting the far-ranging contributions made by members to their craft—game changers all.

DGA Interview Robert AltmanRobert Altman
A Man for All Seasons
Fall 2005

Q: Your longtime assistant director, the late Tommy Thompson, once said that your movies were like an extension of your lifestyle.

A: When you make movies, there is a connection to your life, to the people you surround yourself with. It’s a full experience. The movies you make are like little sculptures of what’s around you.

Q: The Long Goodbye was shot with a very distinctive style.

A: That film is still at the top of my list. I just never let the camera stop moving. I did the same thing on Gosford Park and Prairie Home Companion. It was moving just for the sake of movement. Maybe it’s my own lack of confidence in where to put the camera. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about 3 Women and how slow and leisurely those camera moves were. We’d spend hours on them.

Q: You like to continually move the camera but you also like
using multiple cameras.

A: I started shooting with two cameras a long time ago. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was shot with two cameras. It was efficient. We were getting away from the idea that once you lit a scene you couldn’t move the camera. If you moved the camera, you had to move the light. If you moved the camera just this much you’d fuck it up. I said, ‘I can’t deal with that.’ Suppose you come into a scene and you see a guy sitting at a desk. The audience knows the camera is on him alone. That’s the only thing you’re seeing. But suppose the camera is coming through the office and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody at their desk do something and you get sucked into that? That appeals to me more than the setup. Unless the setup is very specific and I’m using it as part of the storytelling.

Q: You’ve been able to make the movies you want to make even though, excepting M*A*S*H, you’ve never had a smash hit. How do you account for this?

A: Persistence. Persistence. I’ve convinced myself that I’ve always made the movie I wanted to make. There’s not any of them I would change although certainly there have been things that have not been successful.

Q: When you made Short Cuts in 1993 you said you had another six or seven pictures left in you. Now 13 years later you’ve done eight more pictures and counting. What did you do wrong?

A: I’ve made more than 40 films and umpteen miles of television and theater and opera and all kinds of stuff. I’ve had a great life. But I’m more perplexed than ever about what to do. I don’t know what story anybody is going to be interested in that they haven’t already seen. I just know that I won’t spend my time doing something I’ve seen before. If I find that I’m imitating myself I’m gonna worry. But on the other hand, I think, well, why the fuck should I worry?

— Peter Rainer

Click here to read the full DGA Interview.

DGA Quarterly InterviewClint Eastwood
Straight Shooter
Spring 2006

Q: How did you get your first job as a director?

A: In the late 1960s, I optioned a treatment called Play Misty for Me from a friend of mine. It was a small picture. So I went to [Universal President] Lew Wasserman and he said, ‘Yeah, you can do it, but not under the current deal you have. You’ll do it for DGA minimum.’ My agent called me and said, ‘But they don’t want to pay you!’ and I said, ‘They shouldn’t. I should have to prove myself first.’ To be honest, I would have been willing to pay them.

Q: But how did you actually learn to direct?

A: The advantage of being an actor is that you’re on sets all the time, so you kind of know what to do, if you’ve been paying attention. When I was a contract player in 1954-55 at Universal, I used to go around to sets and watch people direct. I wanted to watch the actors, but I also became very curious about the director’s participation. I went on sets where Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk were working. Then there were the Rawhide years, which were great because you were working every day. And we had some good directors come through who’d done movies that I’d seen in the theaters over the years: Stuart Heisler, Laslo Benedek, Tay Garnett.

Q: The two directors you’d worked with the most early in your acting career were Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. Did you talk to them about your desire to direct?

A: Only with Don. When I decided I wanted to direct, I went to him and I said, ‘You know, I’ve got this little project.’ He liked the script and said, ‘You should direct it. Let me be the first to sign your DGA application card.’ So I got into the Guild and I was off and running.

Q: And some 35 years later you were given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Guild. What was that like for you?

A: I’ve been a member of the DGA for 36 years, and when I joined it in 1970, I was real pleased—pleased with being able to direct a film, but also with being able to join a group that included so many people I’d worked with and known along the way, like William Wellman and Robert Wise, and also so many people I admired: Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Ford. They all belonged to it. And that’s what I said when I was up there on stage accepting the award.

Q: You have a reputation for working fast on the set. Is that something you picked up from Siegel?

A: I like to move fast only because I think it works well for the actors and the crew to feel like we’re progressing forward. But you’re still making a film that you want to be right. I find, as an actor, that I worked better when the directors were working fast. That’s why I guess Don and I got along so well. You sustain the character for shorter periods. You’re not having to ask yourself, ‘Now where was I three days ago? What the hell is this scene all about? What are we doing here?’

Q: Is there a certain kind of atmosphere you try to create on the set?

A: I try to get the enthusiasm of everybody—that’s been my best trick, if I have a best trick. I try to get everybody involved. If the janitor can come up with a great idea for a shot, that’s fine with me. There’re no proprietary interests. I try to keep my ego and everybody else’s ego out of it.

— Scott Foundas

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA InterviewSydney Pollack
Big Stories
Summer 2006

Q: You started out as an actor. How did you get into directing?

A: I didn’t know I wanted to be a director early on. I was working as an actor with John Frankenheimer on Playhouse 90 and he found out I had been Sanford Meisner’s teaching assistant. He was terribly impressed—I’m sure more impressed than he was with my acting. He was about to do a very important Playhouse 90 that was the first television appearance of Ingrid Bergman and he asked me to work as a dialogue coach with two young kids while he was busy with Bergman and the adults. Later, when he got his first really big movie, The Young Savages [with Burt Lancaster], there were three young kids who played juvenile delinquents and he hired me again. Lancaster said to me, ‘You should be a director.’ I reluctantly said, ‘OK, I wouldn’t mind trying that.’ Then he set up an appointment with Lew Wasserman, and that’s how I became a director.

Q: What do you recall about your first directing job, an episode of the TV series Shotgun Slade?

A: I was terribly insecure. I had plans up the wazoo, 10,000 sketches—none of which worked, of course, because I knew nothing about cameras. For the first couple of years that I worked as a director, I felt like I was pretending. That feeling slowly went away, but I won’t even say I’m comfortable today. The thing that still gives me the most anxiety in the world is directing a movie.

Q: Do you shoot quickly or slowly?

A: It depends who you talk to [smiles]. But I don’t think I’m super fast. My slowness comes in two forms. The first is the rehearsal process with the actors. I’m not very good at doing two or three weeks of rehearsing before a picture starts. I rehearse right there before I shoot and sometimes that can last an hour or two. The other thing—and this is not pointing fingers—is that I’ve always worked with extremely fussy and detailed cameramen. When you work on movies that cost a large amount of money, everyone works very, very carefully. My time isn’t spent on endless takes; it’s mostly spent on rehearsing and lighting.

Q: How involved do you get in the editing process?

A: Very, very involved. That’s really where the film gets made. Particularly ‘behavior films,’ where tiny details of the performance need to work. While I’m shooting, I’m searching for something. Then, in the editing, it becomes like sculpting. Editing is the process I enjoy the most. It’s the one time when you’re alone and you don’t have to go through an army of 200 people to get what you want. What you want to say to everyone is: ‘Can’t you just reach into my brain and do what it is that I’m daydreaming?’

Q: You’ve worked with Barbra Streisand and Sean Penn, among others. Generally speaking, how do you deal with strong personalities on the set?

A: I don’t think there’s a technique to handling actors. What you try to do is not lie, do your homework, be prepared, and don’t pretend to know more than you know. If you’re going to have a power struggle with an actor about who’s in control of the picture, you’ve already lost. If you have an argument with an actor, there are only three possibilities: either they’re right and they convince you, or you’re right and you convince them, or you find some middle ground. And all three cases are perfectly acceptable.

— Jeffrey Ressner

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Mike NicholsMike Nichols
Working Man
Fall 2006

Q: You studied early on with the great acting teacher Lee Strasberg. Did you think you were going to be an actor?

A: The reason I went to Strasberg is I didn’t know I was going to be a director or an actor or what the hell I was going to do. I knew this process fascinated me. I went for about two years, and all the time I was learning about directing but didn’t know it. I never knew I was going to be a director until after Elaine May and I stopped being a comedy team. A producer asked me to direct a play called Nobody Loves Me that later changed its title to Barefoot in the Park. I said, ‘Well, let’s do it in stock and see if I’m any good at it. On the first day of rehearsal, I thought, ‘Oh my god, look at this! This is what I was meant to do.’ It was perfectly clear that all the things that had interested me, and all the things I had learned without being able to name what they were, were in fact for this: namely, the physical expression of what was happening, and the discovery of what aspects of life would bring out both the events and the humor.

Q: When you started directing what were you looking for?

A: Having unconsciously and then consciously studied George Stevens and other directors, when it came time to plan what I was going to do, I saw it in terms of shots because the shot can’t be separated from the event. And then the question for the camera is where to put it to show what it’s really like. I learned that lesson on Virginia Woolf. The placement of the camera is obviously different for every event, but when you’ve found it you know it and you can’t start shooting until you have found it.

Q: You’ve said, ‘Casting is the job as far as opening the veins is concerned.’ Do you have any hard and fast rules?

A: My prime rule for casting, both for movies and plays, is: NO ASSHOLES. It’s an amazing thing what a difference it makes. You have a company and you have to protect everyone—one asshole and it can all be spoiled. One person who says, ‘I’m not coming out until he’s out of his trailer.’ One person who says, ‘Well, he has five jokes in this scene and I only have one.’ One person who brings the nursery onto the set is enough.

Q: Before The Graduate pop music hadn’t really been used the way you used it. How did you come up with the idea of integrating the score as almost an element of the story?

A: I start thinking about music very early. With The Graduate, my brother sent me Simon & Garfunkel’s album and I used to play it when I got up very early to get to the set. At the end of the third week I said, ‘Schmuck, that’s your score!’ And of course it was. We started using it immediately while we were still shooting. We started using it as we put scenes together because it just expressed that character for me.

Q: What have you learned about directing? Any pearls of wisdom that you’ve picked up during your long career?

A: Sometimes I remember what Jean Renoir told Peter Bogdanovich—who was perpetually interviewing him. He asked, ‘What do you think of [your film] Picnic on the Grass?’ Renoir said, ‘Some of the shots were too long, and some of the shots were too short, but all in all it’s my best picture.’ I didn’t have to remind myself to remember that, because I was just so stunned by how simple he kept it. That was his greatness—he kept everything simple, even the most complex things that other people couldn’t even see. And so I think ‘keep it simple’ is a good thing to remember.

— Jeffrey Ressner

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Steven SpielbergSteven Spielberg
Age & Innocence
Winter 2006

Q: Did you know as a kid you wanted to be a director?

A: I didn’t. I never had a big thought about what I could do with movies in those days. I was making these little 8 mm rinky-dink movies and I knew that made me feel really good about my life, and possibly I could bring some other people into this amazing medium, to enjoy what I was putting together.

Q: Jaws was such a big movie in your career, but you had a lot of difficulties making it. Do you have good memories of that period?

A: I credit Jaws with everything, being a movie director, having final cut. Jaws gave me freedom, and I’ve never lost my freedom. But the experience of making Jaws was horrendous for me. And it was partially because the script was unfinished and we were all making it up as we went along.

Q: The common wisdom is ‘don’t shoot on water.’

A: Yeah, everybody told me not to shoot on water. Sid Sheinberg even said, ‘Why don’t you build a tank on the back lot? We’ll pay for it.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to go out and I want to battle the elements, I want people to think this is really happening, that the shark is really in the ocean. I don’t want this to look like The Old Man and the Sea, with the obvious painted background and all of that.’

Q: You had a chance to direct Schindler’s List years before you actually made it. Why did you wait?

A: Sid Sheinberg found it. He said, ‘I think you need to tell the story.’ But, frankly, I didn’t think I was ready to tackle the Holocaust in 1982 and I actually had more films to make and more steppingstones. I couldn’t have gone from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Schindler’s List. That would have been impossible. I didn’t have the maturity, both the craft and emotional information, to be able to acquit the Holocaust in an honorable way. So I kept trying to give it away to people who kept giving it back to me.

Q: A.I. was a project Stanley Kubrick had first developed. Did you ever discuss it with him?

A: Stanley used to say in the ’80s, ‘You should make this, not me. This is more your sensibility than mine.’ The only thing Stanley ever really actively involved me in of any of his projects was A.I. For the first time he said, ‘I want you to read a treatment that I’ve written.’ In fact, every single beat that I put in my version was first in Stanley’s 95-page treatment.

Q: Some of your most recent films have been uncharacteristically dark. Do you think you will continue in this same dark vein?

A: I’m not consciously planning anything. I don’t say, OK, now I just have to make light popcorn movies to give people relief from the subconscious demons that have pushed me into more historical, darker subjects. I do whatever comes along when I think its time has come. When it’s the time for Lincoln, I’ll make Lincoln. When it’s the time for Indiana Jones, Part Four, I’ll make that film. I’m just saying that when a film’s time has come, I know it.

Q: Is there a particular lesson you’ve learned about storytelling?

A: I think there’s a little moment of mystery that occurs in a movie where two people don’t quite understand each other, and then suddenly understand what they mean to each other and what their lives are all about. The audience has these epiphanies that often go unheralded, but it gives them a chance to say, ‘I’m part of this story. Thank you, you’ve included me in your story.’ My job is to put the audience inside the movie, to reduce the aesthetic distance between the audience and the experience, so they are lost for two hours and only wake up when they walk out of the theater and the sunlight hits them in the face. I think all of us are either successes or failures based on how far inside the experience of the story we can put the audience.

— Richard Schickel

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Francis Ford CoppolaFrancis Ford Coppola
Coppola Rising
Spring 2007

Q: You were a part of the New Hollywood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. How did that take hold?

A: For our generation that flowered in the ’70s, if we had freedom it was because we seized it, not because it was handed to us. We just tried to be as tricky as we could and to outmaneuver [the studios]. The beginnings of that were in movies like Bonnie and Clyde, which Warren Beatty managed to pull off using his charm and the fact that he was a movie star. Then The Godfather did extremely well. So it was an accident, really. If the studios then were as well organized as they are today, I don’t know that it would have happened.

Q: At first you didn’t want to make The Godfather. What changed your mind?

A: After The Rain People, I had gone off to San Francisco and founded American Zoetrope, which was supposed to be an American independent company, like a mini-United Artists. But at that point, we were in deep trouble. When I started reading The Godfather, I thought it was cheesy and I didn’t want to do it. Ultimately, it was George [Lucas] who said, ‘Francis, the sheriff’s going to put a chain on the door of Zoetrope. We have no money. What are we going to do?’ So I finally accepted it.

Q: How did you come up with the style for the film?

A: When I took the job, I spent six weeks analyzing the novel. I ended up concluding that it was the classic drama of a father and several sons; it could have been a Shakespearean play. Out of that, I came up with the idea that I would do the film in a classical way. When I chose collaborators, including the great Gordon Willis, [production designer] Dean Tavoularis, and [costume designer] Anna Johnstone, we spent an entire day discussing the style of the picture and out of that came all of the ideas for the style of The Godfather—the fact that it would exist in extreme levels of darkness and light; that Don Corleone would be in his den in this kind of black ambience, and it would be intercut with the wedding outside which would be bright; that the camera would rarely move and instead the actors would move within the fixed frame, like a picture frame almost.

Q: You were honored with the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. Could you talk about your history with the Guild and the role it’s had in your career?

A: The Directors Guild was a particular guild in my life that I found most worthwhile, especially in the sense of camaraderie it fosters with the other members. In fact, when my own children—my daughter Sofia and my son Roman—began to make films in a very low-budget area, they asked me if I thought they should join the DGA and I said, ‘You know, deep down you have to, because the DGA is a wonderful institution of which I am proud to be a member. And Dorothy Arzner, my teacher [at UCLA], was a member.’ I find the DGA very positive and very sweet natured, and I am very grateful for the way they have embraced me as one of their now older members.

Q: Where do you see the medium is headed?

A: I think a lot of directors would like to go their own way if they could figure out how to finance it. Regarding where films will be seen, there are multibillion-dollar interests at stake trying to figure that out right now. They would have people watch films on cellphones if they thought they could make a fortune from it. Whether the cinema is best served to be watched in an airport on a cellphone is another question. Of course, I love to see movies on a big screen with a great soundtrack, and I hope that experience isn’t lost simply because there’s no money in it. Unfortunately, most of these decisions are going to be determined by economics, and I only hope that film lovers will stand up and demand a quality experience for what has become the most important art form in our time.

— Scott Foundas

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview James BurrowsJames Burrows
The Jimmy Show
Summer 2007

Q: When you were starting out as a director in television, who influenced you?

A: I learned a lot from Jay Sandrich. If you watch in the early days of the great ones, like Sandrich and John Rich, their contribution was enormous to the integrity and to the success of all the television shows they did. I watched Sandrich defend what he thought. And so that’s what I did. I fought as much as I could. I had no clout, but I said what I thought. So I try to advise all directors that, please, there are no rules.

Q: After getting your start on The Mary Tyler Moore Show you moved to Taxi. Was that a big adjustment?

A: It was. I’ve never worked so hard on a show. Never. The actors were the most diverse group I’ve ever worked with, still to this day. It was excruciatingly difficult because of the amount of people on the set, the amount of people in the scenes. You had five or six people talking, and four cameras is not enough to cover all of that, so you had to figure out how to cover all the jokes the first time and get all the reactions the second time. And the set was unwieldy: a huge taxi garage that you had to photograph so it looks small. I had to wrestle with the directing, and I had to deal with this cast. It was like the bar in Star Wars. It was all of these kind of strange types, and it was my job to make them look like they loved one another and had been with one another their whole lives.

Q: What kind of tone do you try to set for the actors?

A: I try always to include actors in the creative process when I come to the stage the first day of any show, especially the pilot. I want them to feel part of the process; I want them to create because if an actor creates he’s going to perform better. If he’s looking forward to something he created, some funny bit, he’ll participate. So that’s what I try to do. If actors are good, I’m going to be good, so I want them to have smiles on their faces because it only makes me look better. But I’ve always treated actors the same way: incredibly deferential.

Q: You directed all 194 episodes of Will & Grace, which may have been the first time a single director did that on a series.
Did it ever get tedious?

A: Never. I was never bored. I’d still had shpilkes before we’d shoot. An hour before I’d go, ‘Oh my god, what if that doesn’t work?’ I still have that. I was 58 when I started it, and I did it because it was the funniest show I ever did. I did it because it was working with characters I’d never worked with before. The writing was always funny and cutting edge and an example of how going for the euphemism is always funnier than going for the natural word.

Q: For you, what’s the big difference between multi-camera and single-camera shows?

A: In single camera, the producers and writers in the room say a joke is funny and then they go on to the next joke. There’s no audience influence. In a sitcom, when you run it in front of an audience, they’re going to tell you what’s funny. So it’s harder to be funny on a sitcom than it is on a single-camera show. I’m not a big single-camera fan because you have to re-create the comedy three or four times. I like to hear it once and if it gets a big laugh, ‘Yeah! Let’s go on. Let’s move on. Let’s go home.’

Q: Do you think TV comedy gets the credit it deserves?

A: I think the best comedy being done is being done on television, The Office and Entourage and stuff like that. Sophisticated comedy doesn’t work in movies. I guess Little Miss Sunshine is the anomaly, but that happens very rarely. So for years the best comedy that was being done was on television. I mean Cheers and Seinfeld and Frasier. You can’t get that in movies.

— Howard Rosenberg

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Quarterly InterviewSidney Lumet
Prince of the City
Fall 2007

Q: Your career spans six decades. How have the advances in film and television affected your work?

A: The interesting thing is that it’s coming full circle. I’m now able to go back to multi-camera techniques, which comes completely from television in the era I started working in. The multi-camera technique has a great deal to offer, particularly in terms of performance. And hi-def has much to offer and I love editing on AVID. But I miss the old Moviola because I loved physically handling film myself. And when you’ve made as many pictures as I have, you do mark off your own ends. It’s a little personal pleasure I don’t have anymore.

Q: The pictures that established you as a quintessential New York director are known for their gritty realism. How was that achieved?

A: The obligation is to be very straight—no fake climaxes. You’re not going to dramatize anything. You’re going to record it, essentially. You try to keep it the simplest, most honest, realistic statement that moment demands. To put across the idea, ‘Hey folks, this really happened.’ For Dog Day Afternoon, it’s only interesting and true because of the reality of it. We were killing ourselves trying to get that film to look real. On the first day of shooting for Serpico, we had three different locations in three different sections of Manhattan. It spun Al Pacino and I close together because he had never shot that much on the first day—he didn’t know where he was at the end of that day except that somehow or other six pages had been done.

Q: The diversity of pictures you’ve made is remarkable. How do you wrap your head around the particularities?

A: It’s all tied to the material. As soon as I’m dealing with the material, the shifts in style are not that strange. If I say yes to a script, I may not know how to do it yet, but the idea that it’s got to be done in a very specific way is immediately apparent to me. Prince of the City is a very stylized movie, and we made Murder on the Orient Express the most glamorous thing we could. Often, you don’t know what your talent is until you try it. You can learn a lot of technique that makes something work, but that’s different than having an intrinsic talent for it. I worked very hard for that lightness in Orient Express, and had to learn a whole new way of doing something. Thank God I did, because without it I don’t think Network would have been as good as it was.

Q: And The Wiz?

A: I had an idea of doing a fantasy by using reality, and I wanted to do a picture in which New York City became unreal. But I ran into the problem of not knowing enough in a particular field. If the visual effects artist told me something was impossible, it became impossible. More and more of the shooting got relegated to the studio, and I lost the whole point of why I wanted to make it in the first place.

Q: Why do you prefer shooting digital as opposed to film?

A: When you need something to look real, you’re just not going to ever get it on film, because film color is not real. It’s a chemical process. I remember once in London stumbling across Antonioni shooting [Blow-up] with Carlo Di Palma and they were painting the grass green. And I said to Antonioni, ‘Did you not like the color?’ He said, ‘No, I just want it to look like real green.’ With hi-def you can get just exactly what your eye sees. That’s what hi-def records and what it projects. That kind of control in a movie is what my work is about.

Q: Moviemaking obviously still excites you as much as it did at the beginning. Any advice you’d like to share?

A: Sometimes a picture that was supposed to be a soufflé comes out a pancake. And there’s also the realization that the really good pictures are accidents. The reason the accident has happened to me is how highly prepared the groundwork is to make the accident possible. I think the biggest danger comes when you try to rationalize the failures into successes: ‘Oh, what I really meant there, they never got it.’ But sometimes they don’t get it because you didn’t get it.

— Glenn Kenny

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Quarterly InterviewMartin Scorsese
Talking Pictures
Winter 2008

Q: When do you think you really started to analyze how movies are directed?

A: Maybe when I was 13, 14, 15 years old. Around the time I saw The Searchers. And at about the same time I saw Citizen Kane on television, and The Third Man, and those movies made me very, very aware of style. I mean, I was obviously aware of style before that, but it was that seamless classic style of Ford and Wyler and Billy Wilder, and this didn’t feel the same. I started to realize that directing wasn’t just guiding an actor through a performance and choosing a nice place to put the camera. And Citizen Kane and The Third Man created in me emotions that seemed very different from the ones I had when I was watching the classical cinema, and that’s when I started trying to figure out why.

Q: You made documentaries early in your career, and you’ve continued to make them ever since, which is unusual.

A: It just seemed natural to me to pick up a camera like an Arriflex 16 mm and go out and shoot. And the nature of the way people related to each other in some of the Italian films, the Rossellini movies, was like how the people related in the world I came from, so it felt right to put that kind of camera in that kind of world. Whenever I went to make a film it would have elements of documentary, like the neorealist films. And I sometimes feel that there’s something about the way documentary captures the nature of people that you can’t create any other way.

Q: Was there a lot of improvisation in your early films?

A: In Mean Streets, we improvised in rehearsals and then typed the scenes up, and rehearsed again, and the scene would evolve in that way. But it’s all really in the casting, ultimately. There’s something about what Cassavetes did with actors, there’s, I don’t know, just a love of being with actors, a love of seeing the actors becoming the characters they’re playing. And I do love that. Actors constantly surprise me, and I feel privileged to think that this performance by Keitel or De Niro or Ellen Burstyn is in my film. I’ll see something that happens on the set or look at the rushes and say to myself, This is why I do this.

Q: Did making documentaries have a strong effect on your narrative films?

A: In some ways, the picture I’ve directed that I learned the most from—and maybe I’ve been trying to unlearn it ever since—was Italianamerican, the movie about my mother and father. The camera stayed pretty still, and we simply asked a very few questions and they took off. … I mean, I’d heard it all my life, but not in this constructed way. It was a great revelation, and ultimately, I think, it influenced how I did certain scenes in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

Q: You were nominated for the DGA Award six times before winning for The Departed in 2007, the year you also won your first Oscar.

A: The DGA Award was very special, because you know it’s your peers, whose work you respect so much. When I was making the movie, I was always invoking other directors, sort of calling on the spirits of Don Siegel and Anthony Mann and Sam Fuller: Where are you, come and help me! [laughs]

— Terrence Rafferty

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Spike LeeSpike Lee
Doing the Right Thing
Spring 2008

Q: Did you want to be a filmmaker growing up?

A: Growing up I wanted to play second base for the Mets. But someone gave me a Super 8 camera for Christmas, and the summer of my sophomore year in college I went back to New York from Atlanta. For some reason I said, ‘I’m going to spend the summer just documenting the city.’ My first film teacher encouraged me to give it a narrative and when I showed it to my class they loved it.

Q: When you first started out there were very few black filmmakers. Who did you look to for inspiration?

A: When I was in film school at NYU I looked up to the black independent filmmakers—Charles Burnett, Warrington Hudlin. There was one thing I wanted different though: I didn’t want to make a film once every five years. From the very beginning, my determination was to get output going, make a film a year. Make a film, make a film, make a film.

Q: Your first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, moves freely between genres.

A: From the very beginning, I always believed that you could do serious subject matter with humor in it. Do the Right Thing is a very serious film but I also think it’s very funny too. So I’ve always tried to, no matter what type of genre I’m doing, try to have some humor in it.

Q: Do the Right Thing was a big step for you creatively and created quite a stir. Were you comfortable in your ability?

A: It was just a matter of having my eyes and ears open. New York City was radically polarized at the time and I wanted to show audiences what it really meant to live in the city. I wanted it to take place on the hottest day of the summer: 95 degrees, 8 million people on top of each other, the heat, the cement, the stink—people going off. As the day progressed it got hotter and hotter and hotter until there was just an explosion. What gave me more confidence was the simple fact that I had done two feature films already. Each one was a progression, I felt, in getting to where I needed to be as a director.

Q: Controversy tends to follow your films around.

A: If you have a hang-up, if you’re shy, whatever, then you shouldn’t be doing films like that; you can’t be shy. With Do the Right Thing, the critics said I’m trying to start riots. And in Mo’ Better Blues, I’m anti-Semitic. I still get mad thinking about it. It’s just ignorant. Not only that, but it detracts from the films, because critics and people start writing about stuff that has nothing to do with the movie.

Q: Talk a bit about your signature shot which occurred for the first time in Mo’ Better Blues.

A: The double dolly shot! In Mo’ Better, there’s a shot where my character, Giant, has to walk and we came up with the idea of having Giant ride the dolly. If you look at that scene, I’m sitting up on a dolly as it moves, and I’m moving like I’m walking. At the very beginning, that was really just show-offy, student film stuff. After that, I decided that if we were going to use the shot, there should be a reason for it. You can get a transportive or alienated feeling depending on the scene.

Q: Malcolm X brought you to epic territory. Was that a difficult project?

A: It took five years off my life, but it was worth it. As usual, it came down to money and Warner Bros. tried to use that as leverage against me on the film’s length. But I wouldn’t knuckle under. I haven’t been back to Warner Bros. since and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Q: You coined the phrase ‘Make black films by any means necessary.’

A: If you don’t find the means, to be honest, how are you going to get better? How was I going to be working my craft if I’m not doing the craft? You got to get out there and learn and learn. And it’s all right if you stumble. Just keep getting up. Get up. Keep moving.

— Glenn Kenny

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Quarterly InterviewJames Cameron
In Search of the Miraculous
Summer 2008

Q: Was there a Cameron style in your early films?

A: With Terminator I didn’t have a style, I had a lot of ideas. I wasn’t influenced in a film school. It’s kind of the anti-Scorsese approach. Marty totally goes to school on the aesthetics of the European filmmakers; I don’t. I just like movies, and I sort of throw it all into a blender and what comes out is what makes sense to me in the moment, with no attempt to impose a specific style on it.

Q: So if you don’t look at your work in terms of style how do you think of it?

A: I think of it as storytelling. It’s like, what does this scene demand? What am I trying to tell the audience? The things that impress me are not the big action sequences. Big effects sequences are relatively easy. They’re expensive as hell. They’re grueling to make. But they’re relatively easy because they are what they are, generally speaking. The things that impress me are when a filmmaker can very quickly and efficiently evoke some kind of
out-of-body, transcendental state where I’m 100 percent connected to the characters. That, frankly, still induces awe when I see that because I think that’s one of the hardest things to do.

Q: With Aliens you had a character that was not human. Was that a different kind of challenge for you?

A: That’s the kind of fantasy filmmaking I wanted to be doing. We were out to beat those guys that did the first Alien film but we certainly set ourselves some harder bars to leap over by having the thing out in the open involved in a fight, an actual action sequence. The first film was really all about style and mood and a different kind of horror. My film was very different. It was about somebody going beyond their paralysis, beyond their overwhelming fear, to become someone who takes action. And the second it kicks into action, that’s my turf. That’s my forte. And so we set ourselves a whole set of different challenges, but to me that was the fun. I love that. It’s the magic of moviemaking.

Q: How do you keep effects from overpowering the story line?

A: You pick your battles. You want to take people to a place they couldn’t have imagined for themselves. But it has to be organic to what you’ve already set up. It’s not so much about the ‘holy shit’ moments, as about the details that surround those moments and what builds to them. Now if you really step back from it, the whole thing is completely absurd, or at the least highly implausible. But you build it like bricks and mortar. You build it, you build it, you build it, and you create the detail.

Q: Do you think in 3-D as a director?

A: I don’t look in 3-D while I’m composing my shots. I compose it just on a flat monitor. And I don’t edit in 3-D. So for me the discipline is imagining what the shot will look like in 3-D, but be satisfied with the shot aesthetically in 2-D. That way I’m always making a good 2-D movie as I go along. And that seems to work for me.

Q: You were inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Did you ever meet Kubrick?

A: I did—it was my 40th birthday present to myself. I was on vacation in Europe, and I called him up and said, ‘I’m coming over.’ So I went to see this reclusive guy knocking around this big house and he just totally wanted to know how True Lies was made. He had a print of it on his KEM down in his basement, and made me sit there and tell him how I had done all the effects shots. So I spent the whole time talking about my movie with Stanley Kubrick, which was not where I thought the day was going to go. But I want to be like Stanley, I want to be that guy. When I’m 80, I want to still be the guy trying to figure it all out.

—Jeffrey Ressner

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Milos FormanMilos Forman
A Storied Life
Fall 2008

Q: What made you want to become a filmmaker?

A: My first experience as a theatergoer was totally surreal; I was 6 years old in Czechoslovakia and I was hooked. It was magic. Sometime after the war, I applied to drama school and was rejected, so I tried the film school at the Prague Academy and got in. After spending four years there, seeing hundreds of movies, it became a passion.

Q: When you came to the United States in 1968, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make to American filmmaking?

A: There’s really no difference in the process all over the world. Language was the biggest problem for me. That’s why for Taking Off, I wanted to bring my own cameraman so I’d be able to communicate very clearly with my closest collaborator. The union resisted, but the DGA helped convince them that it was necessary. I like to let the actors improvise; on Taking Off I didn’t understand a word they were saying.

Q: How did you come to be involved with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

A: Luck. The producers, Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, couldn’t find any studio that would put up the money, so Zaentz financed it himself, which meant they were looking for somebody they could respect and who was cheap. That was me. When I was making Cuckoo’s Nest, friends said, ‘Don’t touch it, you’ll kill your career because it’s such an American subject, you can’t do it well.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s a Czech movie. For you it’s literature; for me, it’s real life. The Communist Party was my Big Nurse. I know exactly what this is about.’

Q: How much of an impact did your experiences in Czechoslovakia have on your films?

A: What you see in Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball is the reaction of my whole genera-tion in Czechoslovakia to the artificiality of the so-called socialist reality we were living in. Everything was fake; everything was propaganda. So our reaction was to put real people on the screen, real faces. I’ve always made my films on the principle that whoever can play the part best should get the part. If it’s a star, fine. If it’s a nonprofessional, that’s fine too. [With] Amadeus, a lot of big stars wanted those parts, but from the beginning I wanted to not know the faces playing Mozart and Salieri. I guess that’s a remnant of the film culture in Czechoslovakia, which wasn’t star-driven.

Q: Your movies are often concerned with artists and the importance of free expression.

A: Artists by nature are rebels. The conflict of individuals rebelling against institutions—that’s McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s a timeless conflict, it’s good for drama. I think this always will be the most substantial conflict of mankind. The People vs. Larry Flynt is about the most impor-tant law of the land—the First Amendment. For
somebody who lived under the Nazis and Com-munists, as I did, nothing was more important.

Q: After you won DGA and Academy awards for Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, did you feel extra pressure trying to top what you’ve done before?

A: Not really. You don’t think differently, you don’t start to ignore your instincts. You still just want to tell the story the best you can and concentrate on what you think is good for the movie. That’s it.

— Terrence Rafferty

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Roman PolanskiRoman Polanski
A Life in Pictures

Q: You’ve said that the lesson you learned from your first film, Knife in the Water, was to rehearse, observe, and shape, and you’ve applied that ever since.

A: Absolutely. That’s how I work. There are probably many other ways to skin the cat, but I feel comfortable by doing it my way, which is to rehearse first and then decide how I’m going to block it and how I am going to film it. As the director, I’m the observer. So at the beginning I try to interfere as little as possible, but to notice that there may be things wrong—that they may be either too difficult to film or the way they evolve within the scene is not interesting or not real. So that’s my job, to render it filmable.

Q: How does this approach affect what you do with the camera?

A: I try to always impress on students that they should not attach too much importance to the camera itself. There’s often a notion, particularly with beginners, that the camera brings a kind of magic to the set, that everything happens around the camera and for the camera. And to me, it’s just the opposite. The camera is there to film what has been staged, and it should not be staged for the camera. Very often you see young directors place the camera and find a beautiful angle and then try to fit people into it. It’s just like buying a beautiful suit and trying to fit a person into it.

Q: In many of your films you position yourself inside the story and see the film subjectively.

A: Chinatown is very much this type of narrative because it’s completely subjective. So you should feel like you’re in Gittes’ skin and seeing it with his eyes. It’s a bit romantic, so you can indulge in a certain dance. It flowed and I often had the camera over his shoulder and you discover things with him. So you walk into a room with the character. In general, I hate to precede someone into any room. I don’t want to see the character come into an undiscovered location from the front. I want to go in with him.

Q: But for The Pianist the visual approach was quite different.

A: For The Pianist I stressed to my DP that I don’t want to feel or see any camera movement, that we should somehow give the feeling that you get by watching documentaries of that period. Someone watching the film should be absolutely unaware of the director. I didn’t want to make a motion picture drama out of it. I just wanted it to happen as it was, in a casual way just progressing. It just becomes a gradual hell.

Q: What changes did you have to make to Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown?

A: Towne didn’t want Gittes [Jack Nicholson] and Evelyn [Faye Dunaway] to sleep together and he didn’t want Evelyn to die at the end, and we had some disagreements about it. But we had to get into production, so I wrote those scenes in the middle of the film. I wrote the end scene and took it to Jack’s trailer on the night of the shoot and asked him to revise the dialogue so it sounds like his style. I was always convinced that it was the logic of the piece; if you want to have any feeling of injustice you have to take it to its end.

Q: You once said that your passion is moviemaking and you’re happiest when you’re in the middle of it all. Do you still feel that way?

A: Yeah, absolutely. I realize that the best moments for me are when I’m on the set where I feel happy in spite of the aggravation. But of course it depends very much on the production. Sometimes it’s hell. I had moments several times in my life when I thought I’d better change professions. Much of the time, not only for me but for most directors, our energy is soaked up by all kinds of problems which have nothing to do with filming.

— James Greenberg

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Nancy MeyersNancy Meyers
Head of the Table
Spring 2009

Q: At what point did you know you wanted to move from writing and producing into directing?

A: [My ex-husband] Charles Shyer and I were a team for a long time. We wrote together, he directed, and I had been a producer on all of them. We had young children so I hadn’t thought about directing, because I knew from living with a director what it took. By the late ’90s, I had made a lot of movies, had been on the set of my own films as a screenwriter and producer and I had faced a ton of situations, so it seemed like a natural progression. But no matter how many times you’ve been in the car, it’s a little bit different to be driving it.

Q: Your first film was The Parent Trap. Was it difficult to deal with a split-screen process?

A: It was complicated, but I approached the movie like it wasn’t an effects film; I just tried to make it authentic. And I had a very good DP who really helped. We had to do everything twice, and on children’s hours. But the complexity of the motion control work became oddly fun. My naiveté about the process really helped me and it was a challenge to figure out. And Lindsay [Lohan] was absolutely great, a real find.

Q: How involved are you in casting?

A: The director casts the movie, that’s part of the job. I try really hard to find people who can execute the movie and deliver tonally what I’m after, and people who will play well off each other. It’s really important to cast funny people in a comedy, and ‘kind of funny,’ or ‘makes you smile’ isn’t the same as being really funny. That’s something I’ve learned over the years.

Q: Your characters always live in picturesque places. Can you talk about the importance of set design?

A: My movies take place so much in the environment of the house. Something’s Gotta Give, in my mind, was a movie about two people stranded on a desert island. The house was the desert island, and I wanted to create a place where this love could bloom. The beach house in the Hamptons was actually shot on stage in Culver City, and it was fun to create that.

Q: Do you ever use improvisation on your films?

A: I’m not a big fan of improvising and changing things the day of; I like to stick to what I’ve written. I really don’t believe in the moment. I trust myself from when I was home alone writing, concentrating, more than I trust myself on the set with changes. Sometimes it does sound funny and fresh, but in general it’s a great idea to stick to the script.

Q: What have you learned that you wished you’d known when you started out as a director?

A: I think the reason many people make really good first movies is because you don’t know a whole lot. That naiveté becomes bravery. The more you know, the more you see the pitfalls. On the other hand, I have much more confidence now, and a better understanding of all things involved in directing. So I don’t know if the films will be better, but certain aspects of them will, because I’ve learned. And I get a new kind of bravery.

Q: Do you think that the female audience is given short shrift in terms of the movies that get greenlit for production?

A: I think they are, actually. I don’t think there’s enough interest in movies about women. The ones that get made, the dramatic ones, tend to be depressing. There’s not a huge variety of fare for women. There are romantic comedies, which become very repetitive, and they’re mostly limited to a certain age, with the same people in them. But I don’t think the audience in general is that well served. Everything is of a genre now.

— Amy Dawes

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Jay RoachJay Roach
Is This Guy Really Funny?
Summer 2009

Q: Do comedy directors have to be funny? Are you a funny guy?

A: It’s my job to know what’s funny. To sit in the chair as an audience member and say, ‘Make me laugh.’ On many of our dailies, you can hear me laughing. When it comes to getting people to laugh, I’m too anxious to be funny. My mind is always busy enacting worst-case scenarios to focus on how to amuse others or myself in the room. I’d love to laugh more in real life, and I think that’s why I love comedy so much.

Q: Is it true that you ask actors how they like to be directed?

A: I guess it’s partly out of my own insecurity that I won’t have the right magic thing to say to the actor. But I also think that if a certain approach works for a performer and it doesn’t cost me anything to adjust my approach, why not find out what works for them, and what doesn’t? I asked [Dustin Hoffman] in preproduction: ‘You’ve worked with all the great directors in the world, what works best for you?’ He explained that he likes to talk things through and if I didn’t know that in advance, I might have been less patient. But everything was cool because we’d had that discussion.

Q: What was your first day of shooting like with De Niro on
Meet the Parents?

A: I got a bit lost in the blocking. It took all the courage I could muster to say, ‘I’ve made a mistake. We’re going to reblock and start over.’ On the first day of a shoot there’s anxiety, but I was also anxious because it was Robert De Niro. In my mind, De Niro could kill me. He was an Oscar-winning movie star who’d worked with far greater directors. But the opposite was true: He was extremely patient, constructive, and very cool.

Q: Do you encourage improvisation?

A: There’s a big difference between an Austin Powers movie and a drama like Recount. The common approach is I literally just say to myself over and over: ‘script and cast, script and cast.’ The more you know the script, the more license you have to improvise. I prefer to work with actors who can go off the script and surprise you. I remember on the first Austin, we were shooting in a direction toward Seth Green, playing Scott Evil, and off camera Myers started telling him to shush: ‘Shhh! Shhh!’ He was just doing it to mess with him from off camera, to try to provoke a reaction, and it was so good that I shot it and said, ‘OK, now you got to keep doing that.’

Q: How do previews and informal screenings inform your final cut?

A: We do around eight screenings for friends and family before the official previews, where we invite people who we can trust not to go onto the Internet right way. What’s great is you can tell how a comedy plays by listening to where the audience laughs, so we record the whole screening and use it in the editing room later.

Q: Mike Myers says your real talent lies in your “charmth”—charm and warmth. Does it pay to be a nice guy director?

A: Directing is always, to some extent, getting a lot of people to do something they don’t want to do. Sometimes diplomacy is involved. I suppose I could be more efficient if I was more dictatorial because I could just say, ‘I don’t have time to talk about this anymore; we’re just doing it. Everybody here we go, and Action!’ But I don’t think that’s good for comedy. It’s impossible to be funny when it feels like work.

— Jeffrey Ressner

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Ron HowardRon Howard
The Professional
Fall 2009

Q: Roger Corman gave you the chance to direct your first movie, Grand Theft Auto, when you were 23.

A: I will admit that I was behind in my personal schedule. I really wanted to direct a film in my teens. Hubris of youth. … Roger put his hand on my shoulder in a kind of paternal way and said, ‘Ron, if you do a good job on this movie, you’ll never have to work for me again. And I haven’t. But the education was fantastic, the work felt wonderful, and the wrap party was a highlight of my life.

Q: Even though you’d been on sets all your life, you were discover-ing movies the same way everyone else of your generation was.

A: That’s right, weirdly enough. Apart from one complicated crane shot I remember Vincente Minnelli staging in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and some sort of Busby Berkeley elements in The Music Man, the movies I’d made didn’t seem to me all that different from being on The Andy Griffith Show. The master, then the close-ups, then the scene was over. So it was thrilling to be exposed to this whole other approach in American Graffiti.

Q: You’ve said the first cut of Grand Theft Auto was mortifying. Have you come to enjoy editing more since then?

A: In a way, editing is the most intimate experience you have on a film. The editing room is like a bunker sometimes, and you’re dug in there for months trying to determine what the film is really going to be. There’s that process of coming to terms with what you have to work with—reconciling what you’d imagined the movie could be with what it actually can be. Sometimes that’s disappointing. But sometimes it’s incredible; sometimes you feel like you’ve discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Q: Has a film changed dramatically in the editing?

A: The first cut of Apollo 13 terrified me. The assembly was four hours and 15 minutes long. I remember being pretty discouraged when we took a break after two hours and the launch hadn’t happened yet. I stood at the urinal thinking, I’m fucked. [laughs] But as we kept trimming, we could see it come to life.

Q: Do you storyboard?

A: For very complicated scenes where there are a lot of elements, a storyboard makes it much easier to have a production meeting with the second unit and the art department and the visual effects people and the physical effects people and the actors themselves, if you can point to a frame and say, ‘We need to achieve this.’ I don’t really need a storyboard much, because it all kind of exists in my mind.

Q: How do you feel about digital effects generally?

A: Where digital effects help is in allowing you to open up your frame. When you use a matte painting you can’t move the camera. Now you have more freedom; you can create a complete environment.

Q: What about other technological advances?

A: Well, 3-D doesn’t interest me that much. I’d use it if it was right for the material. But I’m not really a stylist; for me, making movies is so much about character. I’m interested in having enough command of the medium as a filmmaker to be able to look at a story and know how it can best be realized, and to be able to do it.

Q: Do you think you could have maintained your level of excitement as an actor?

A: No. Not in my makeup. I look at some of the actors I’ve worked with—Hanks, Carrey, Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Paul Giamatti—people who know how to be artists and help tell the story and collaborate in the process in a way that elevates everything, and do it in movie after movie. And I didn’t know how to do that as an actor. I think I was a solid actor, and I wouldn’t mind doing some acting again—maybe I’d be more creative at the job now. But I need to be in the director’s chair, to have that title and that responsibility, in order to be fully creative. That seems to be my personality.

— Terrence Rafferty

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Wener HertzogWerner Herzog
The Mystery of Werner Herzog
Winter 2010

Q: In the past you’ve often described yourself as ‘a good soldier of cinema.’ What does that mean exactly?

A: In part, it means holding an artistic outpost that others have abandoned. It means discipline. It means perseverance. It means courage. For instance, Roger Ebert is a great soldier of cinema, for reasons that are self-evident.

Q: Is there any process you use every time you make a film?

A: There is no process. I see a film in front of my eyes as if I were sitting in a screening room. Because of that, I write screenplays very quickly, as fast as if I were copying one from a book. I hear the characters’ dialogue, I see what they are doing, I hear the music. This is why I’ve never spent more than a few days writing a screenplay.

Q: You’ve also said that in preparing for your productions you don’t use storyboards, correct?

A: Storyboards are for cowards, for those who lack imagination, for those who are bureaucratic and nothing else on the set. However, I cannot speak of that in absolute terms. When you’re doing a film with real action or digital effects that depict fantastic landscapes, you have to organize the images so you don’t run into trouble in postproduction. So, for that type of film, I think storyboards are a legitimate, if not an indispensable, tool.

Q: You worked with the late Klaus Kinski five times, starting with Aguirre: The Wrath of God in 1972. How did you handle his tirades?

A: I remember once he threw the most incredible tantrum because his coffee at breakfast was only lukewarm. [smiles] Every director has to find his or her own way to deal with complicated actors on the set. And it’s not only actors. Sometimes you have crew members who create the complications. What always helps is if you have a very clear vision. People will fall into line in the wake of the dynamic you create.

Q: So no specific suggestions?

A: Maybe this: Fortify yourself with enough philosophy. That’s one thing. Secondly, have a copy of Livy’s The Second Punic War in your pocket at all times. And also the Bible. [After dealing with Kinski] I would go and read the book of Job for consolation.

Q: Is it true you don’t like to do more than a few takes?

A: Yes, but sometimes more, it depends. If a scene doesn’t work after four or five times, I get the suspicion that something—probably the text, or how the actors are instructed—is not right. So I’ll take a quick, fresh look at things. I’ll stop for 10 seconds, rewrite the dialogue in another 20 seconds, and just tell the actors what to say. All of a sudden, the scene will have life, it feels fresh, it has a dynamic. You have to have the nerve to look at what is happening on the set, a straight and direct look without checking into any video playback. I have never allowed a so-called video village on my sets. I do not allow anyone to look at video playbacks on tiny little screens, except perhaps the cinematographer or his assistant who may need to check if the actors are in frame.

Q: What did you mean when you said many of your documentaries are feature films in disguise? Do you script your documentaries?

A: I stylize. I invent. Script sometimes, yes, sure. But not in order to cheat you. It is in order to give you moments of illumination, moments of a much deeper truth than just the factual existence there.

Q: Do you think the image of the steamship being hauled over a mountaintop in Fitzcarraldo will be your legacy?

A: No, no. For God's sake, I have made some 60 films by now and there are stronger films than that one. Of course I care for images and I want to show things we have never seen or experienced or dreamt of. The image of a steamboat going over a mountain is very unusual and it drew a lot of attention. It's like a big metaphor, but don’t ask me what the metaphor means, because I wouldn’t know.

— Jeffrey Ressner

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Quarterly InterviewAng Lee
Crossing Borders
Spring 2010

Q: You were raised in Taiwan and went to film school at NYU. How did you break through into directing?

A: In 1990 I entered a Taiwanese government script competition and I won both first and second place. The first was for Pushing Hands, which I wrote for the competition. And The Wedding Banquet, which I had written five years before, won the second prize. When I wrote Wedding Banquet, it was too Chinese to make in the U.S. and too gay to make in Taiwan. So it had just been sitting there. And then a Taiwanese studio wanted to invest in Pushing Hands. It was a small story of a Taiwanese family set in New York. They gave me about $400,000 to make the movie in New York. I was referred to Good Machine and I pitched the story to James Schamus. James said, 'No wonder you couldn’t get anything made for six years. You're the worst pitcher—you can't pitch out of a basket.' So we hooked up, did the first movie and it was a hit in Taiwan. And because that was a hit, the Taiwan studio gave me more money to make The Wedding Banquet. James said, 'Let me help you revise the script.' He did, and the rest is history.

Q: Jane Austen seems like unusual territory for a Taiwanese-born director. How did you come to do Sense and Sensibility?

A: The Wedding Banquet was seen by the future producers of Sense and Sensibility, and somehow they thought I'd be a good candidate to adapt Jane Austen. I couldn’t decide whether to do it or not; the budget was $16 million and I had never handled that kind of money. And I had never done a period piece. But I took the challenge. I was very scared: I spoke broken English, and I had to work with a top-of-the-line English cast and crew, with Oxforders, Royal Shakespeareans—of course I was intimidated. So I brought James along with me. He became kind of my front man.

Q: After establishing yourself here with The Ice Storm, you went back to China for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What was that like?

A: I was directing both in English and Chinese; it became a balancing act for me. In American films, because it was an adopted culture, the skill and artistic endeavor became clearer. In some ways, psychologically it’s easier. I see the subtext better. Once I had directed in English and went back and started Crouching Tiger, I found my thinking had been westernized a lot. So I had to find my way back into the Chinese culture, which was my first culture.

Q: How do you retain the humanity of your characters when working with strong visual effects?

A: Well, wirework is a relatively low-tech special effect, and there’s no way of getting away from the human element of it. For Crouching Tiger's battle in the forest, we had scores of people on the ground physically manipulating various elements. The human aspect as far as the characters were concerned had to do with the way they fly, which was not specified in the writing but conceived and carried out in the shooting. These particular techniques were very expressive of what the characters were about. On Hulk I looked at it as if I were a painter and was using a new and very expensive tool.

Q: How do you see your role as director?

A: Film is an artificial medium. It’s not life; it's not real. But it certainly has a god of its own. There's a film god you have to worship. There's a certain point you just have to give up everybody's ideas and listen to that voice. I think each film has its own way. I tell my cast and crew it’s not about us, it's not about me. We're all slaves to that big master of the movies. My goal is to tune everybody in to that and bring unity.

— Glenn Kenny

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Peter WeirPeter Weir
Uncommon Man
Summer 2010

Q: What was the Australian film industry like when you started out?

A: In the late ’70s, we still had only two crews that could be assembled at any one time. If three pictures were shooting, somebody was in trouble. And in those days, you couldn't really count on [actors] over 25. They’d turn up with these freaky voices, because they came from radio and theater. In my early films I was constantly cutting dialogue because it sounded so bad, having to come up with visual ideas that would convey the character. To this day, after the first cut or two I’ll watch my film silent, to see what’s coming over without dialogue.

Q: You’ve continued to use a fair amount of Australian technical talent in your films.

A: Even on my first American picture, Witness, I did the post in Australia. It was more comfortable, and I preferred to keep my distance from Hollywood. I liked—and still like—the feeling of being a foreigner to the United States, which is why it was important to me never to live there.

Q: Did you have any trepidations about making Witness?

A: I had to settle in with a major star, Harrison Ford, and with the studio. The meeting with Harrison went well, and I had a meeting with Jeff Katzenberg at Paramount and he offered me the picture. I asked, 'Can I tell you the story?' Jeff said, 'You want to pitch a movie we've just offered you?' I said, 'No, I just want to tell you the story so you'll know what I'm going to do.' I gave them a little radio show, in a way, which probably goes back to the performing side of my early career. It put me front and center, as the director should be.

Q: How did the casting of Linda Hunt in a man's role come about in The Year of Living Dangerously?

A: That was a desperate and dangerous move. I’d been trying to pull the sword out of the stone when the casting director held up a photograph. I said, 'That's perfect,' and he laughed and said, 'It's a woman.' I asked her if she thought she could do it as a man. She said, 'As long as I know you believe in me.' In the end, her performance was so strong it almost threw off the structure of the movie.

Q: Was The Truman Show also difficult to cast?

A: I was in that dangerous situation a director can sometimes be in, which is that there’s only one person you see playing a particular role. When I saw Jim Carrey I thought, that’s the guy. Also, The Truman Show was originally much darker in tone. So I made the setting sunnier and happier. Beach, water, lovely quaint houses, like a holiday resort. I’d done something similar with Dead Poets Society, changing the time of the story. It had originally been set in the Kennedy era, and I moved it back into the Eisenhower era, which was when I was in school, allowing me to draw on my own experience.

Q: You seem interested in the less conscious aspects of the creative process. How do you get your subconscious going?

A: Sometimes I just write things out as a short story. I hate scripts; they’re such a horrible, bastard form of literature. But writing a scene out, in prose, can release things from the unconscious. You want to get those dreamy kinds of thoughts, things that are alien to your own personality and worldview, which can make the work richer. I always say to students when I talk to them, write, write, write. You may not be very good, but it makes the mind agile, just as going to the gym does for the body.

— Terrence Rafferty

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Ridley ScottRidley Scott
Man of Vision
Fall 2010

Q: Do you remember specific films that captured your imagination when you were growing up?

A: The very first film I ever saw was a pirate movie called The Black Swan with Tyrone Power. And I thought that was great stuff. Of course, in those days Technicolor was really Technicolor; there was no such thing as desaturation. Everybody looked super suntanned. The first film that gonged me was a movie with Rita Hayworth, Gilda, which I was way too young to see. When she sang, 'Put the Blame on Mame,' something funny happened to me.

Q: You've said directing commercials was your film school and that one of the things it taught you was how to work fast.

A: Fast and on the clock. There’s a clock going tick, tick, tick, and that’s costing you. And then at the end of the day the agency is the pressure of the studio; they’re always trying to intervene. I learned to deal with that by saying, 'Good idea.' If you say, 'Good idea,' you’ve just defused the bomb. So I learned all my politics from advertising and walking the tightrope. Because film is walking the tightrope.

Q: That great shot in Alien, when the monster erupts out of John Hurt’s stomach, how did you do that?

A: It was basically a glove puppet. [Designer] Roger Dicken walked in with it in a bag under his arm, because I didn't want anyone to see the alien. In the scene, John Hurt is having his breakfast and chokes and they flop him onto the table. I had a chest made out of fiberglass with a hole in the middle and a T-shirt on it, and I screwed it to the table. John was there with his head pushed up with rubber cushions behind him, and at some point Roger, lying in his lap, was supposed to push the puppet through the hole. And John's lying there going, 'Come on, mate.' He's drinking white wine, so I give him a drink to keep him calm.

Q: Where did the look of Blade Runner come from?

A: I think that’s from my old art directing days. There were a number of years when I would be flown into New York on a monthly basis, shooting television commercials. New York to me always seemed to be a city on overload. I liked it because it was dark, dingy, and smelly. I liked the pulse of Manhattan, and I never forgot that. I also shot several times in Hong Kong in the early '70s. There would be fleets of junks locked together for the night and all the families are cooking on the decks on open fires; it was like the 19th century. At the same time, you’ve got the biggest building in the world going up, and alongside it was a snake butcher. So when I started to do Blade Runner, I thought it’s got to be a city like that.

Q: How do you make your day on a film like American Gangster where you’re doing 50 setups?

A: More on Black Hawk Down. But there I had 11 cameras. So sometimes there’s 100 or more setups a day. And what I discovered is that the actors love it; they love to move fast. You’d think actors would say, 'I must have my rehearsal,' and 30 takes later they’d say, 'I have the take.' It doesn't work that way. I've always heard that Clint Eastwood does two takes and says, 'That’s it.' And I always like to do that. With Russell [Crowe], he knows I'm already thinking, 'This is pretty good,' so he’ll put his hand up and go, 'One more?' I’ll say, 'Keep running.' It’s faster to keep running than to explain why. You have to remove your ego as a director; let others have ego. In the final analysis, your ego is the quality of the movie.

— Kenneth Turan

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Quarterly InterviewJohn Rich
It's a Wonderful Life
Spring 2011

Q: How did you first get into directing?

A: When I was a stage manager for the Kraft Television Theatre, I’d watch a director trying to solve a problem and I'd think, how would I do this? I always used to say, you can learn more from a bad director than you can from a good director. A memory sticks with me of a director shooting at the Brooklyn Navy Yard: He said 'Move the boat four feet to the left.' That was 45,000 tons of battleship. Somebody else said, 'Move the fucking camera.’'

Q: When you joined the Screen Directors Guild in 1953, what was your impression?

A: I was directing I Married Joan and had to become a member of the Guild to [shoot on] film, because I had been in live television. My first meeting was jaw dropping—there I was, in the same room as Frank Capra, George Stevens, and John Ford. We were introduced as the new young members to a smattering of applause, and I was completely humbled sitting among this pantheon of great directors.

Q: How did the 1960 merger of the Screen Directors Guild and the Radio and Television Directors Guild come about?

A: I was back East shooting a pilot on film, and a member of the Radio and Television Directors Guild came to my set and asked for five years of back dues. I said, 'I'm working with film and am covered by the Screen Directors Guild.' When I came back to Hollywood, I related the story and suggested we merge with the other union. Most everybody scoffed but I said, look, we’re all liable to become either live directors or use videotape. The other union had a chance of going up [in membership], while ours had the chance of being diminished. Stevens and Capra understood instantly, and they backed me.

Q: How did you come to be involved with The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961?

A: I’d been doing Westerns and Sheldon Leonard asked me 'How would you like to come in from the sawdust?' He introduced me to Carl Reiner and when I first came to the show, Carl had 13 scripts ready. Carl's a friggin' genius. And Dick was wonderful, he could do anything. One time we had a very weak show, and I asked Dick, 'How many ways can you sneeze?' He figured out about 35 different sneezes. It was hysterical.

Q: All in the Family is a show that defines its time. Is there a single episode that stands out for you?

A: One of those wonderful moments you dream about happened while we prepared the episode with Sammy Davis Jr.’s visit to Archie Bunker’s home. We did a table read that was satisfactory, except there was no ending. I sat there musing and finally started to laugh. I said, 'Sammy ought to kiss Archie.' Norman [Lear] said, 'You think it will work?' I said, 'It's worth a try.' Well, if we didn’t stop them, the audience would still be laughing. It went on for about 30 seconds. It was an ideal moment.

Q: What advice would you give young directors starting out today?

A: The best training for a director is to become an assistant—answer phones, work as a page, and keep your eyes open and learn from the mistakes of others on the set. Study English literature: Shakespeare and Chaucer. Learn basic three-act story structure and how characters behave. Comedy? Well, you can’t really teach it; that comes naturally. You can learn tricks, but you either get it or you don’t. And you’ve got to have strong feet and an ironclad bladder.

– Jeffrey Ressner

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interview Gil CatesGil Cates
To Serve and Protect
Summer 2011

Q: What do you recall about the Screen Directors Guild and the Radio and Television Directors Guild merger in 1960?

A: It was still a new medium. I was 28 years old, working on my brother’s game show Haggis Baggis. It wasn’t hard getting into the RTDG—you just needed a job. Members sensed someday tape would be the format on which all material would be recorded, so a small group said ‘not so fast’ about merging with the Screen Directors Guild. But more of us felt the SDG was very powerful and wanted to be part of that.

Q: As a television director for much of your early career, what creative rights challenges did you face?

A: I once directed a piece for the new Twilight Zone series and, bottom line, my rights were violated. CBS got fined and punitive actions were taken. When I was president it was amazing how many members told me that were it not for the Guild they would have been screwed with this or that. The battle continues.

Q: Can you talk about the diversity campaign launched during your two terms as president?

A: It’s a tough march. Although we attempted legal remedies to force change in studio hiring practices, the Guild’s principal goal is to negotiate, not litigate to correct discriminatory hiring practices. Making sure everyone is aware of the exceptional talent of our women and minority members is what we find to be the real game changer as it upends preconceived notions. So now the onus is on [the studios and producers] to explain why they aren’t hiring women or people of color.

Q: You’ve led the negotiating committee four times. What is the DGA’s negotiating philosophy?

A: We negotiate from the bottom up, not from the top down. Our councils tell us what they want, and each council is represented on the negotiating committee. As chairman [of the negotiating committee], you hear everyone’s position and then try to blend what you can get that will make everybody equally happy and unhappy. Many guilds and unions negotiate top down, and that’s really tough, because [it can] breed a lot of discontent.

Q: What triggered the DGA’s first and only strike in 1987?

A: The slogan for those negotiations was ‘Protect Our Future’ because the studios were attempting to roll back residuals. I led the massive organized effort, preparing the membership to be ready to strike. The studios didn’t withdraw their proposals until the night of the deadline, and also asked for a creative rights take-back which was never mentioned before. Everyone felt they were screwing around with us and the vote was unanimous to strike. While it’s called the ‘five-minute strike,’ the actual strike probably lasted about 40 minutes.

Q: Looking back, what do you think drew you to become so involved with the Guild?

A: There’s the nuts and bolts of directing, but there’s also a magical side to it. Every group has a spirit, and the DGA has a certain culture to it. To me, if you talk about the Directors Guild and leave out the point of trying to have one person reach the spirit of other people, then you’re really missing the whole point of the Guild.

— Jeffrey Ressner

Click here to read the full DGA interview.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

More from this issue