By Amy Dawes
One of the most anticipated days on the DGA calendar is of course the annual awards dinner where the best work of the year is honored. But it is what happens the morning of the awards that is perhaps even more eagerly awaited by some members. Every year on that Saturday morning the five nominees for outstanding directorial achievement in feature film take part in a symposium for members only to share the secrets of their craft. Since its inception in 1992, it has become one of the most popular DGA events—but 20 years ago, it existed merely as an inkling that the Guild could do more to help members share their experience.
“We didn’t know if it would be successful,” says Jeremy Kagan, who as a member (now chair) of the Special Projects Committee co-founded the Meet the Nominees Symposium with the Guild’s then-president, Arthur Hiller. “We had no idea if people would show up.”
At the time, Kagan was presiding over a series of sparsely attended breakfasts he had organized at which members would gather to discuss specific aspects of their trade, such as casting or working with the camera crew. “Directing is essentially a solo experience,” notes Kagan. “So as a Guild, we’re continually trying to provide opportunities for directors to learn from each other.”
Since most of the nominees were likely to be in town for the awards, the thinking was that the Guild could take advantage of their recent experiences at the top of the craft for the benefit of other members. Kagan, who is also a professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and accustomed to speaking before large groups, volunteered to moderate.
The first year, three of the five invited nominees participated—Oliver Stone for JFK, Barbra Streisand for The Prince of Tides, and Barry Levinson for Bugsy. “It was a lively discussion,” Kagan recalls, and somewhat surprisingly, it drew close to a full house of members and their guests, while film students in a standby line were allowed to take any empty seats. The second year, the panel featured nominated directors Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven, Neil Jordan for The Crying Game, and Rob Reiner for A Few Good Men.
It soon became apparent, Kagan notes, that not all directors were equally adept at articulating the process of their art in front of an audience. Imagine handling panelists as diverse in temperament as say, the Coen brothers and Roberto Benigni. “The variety of personalities became my challenge,” says Kagan. “Some are reticent to speak, while others are beyond gregarious. But personally, I want to learn from each one of them, so I’m there to make sure that everyone gets into the conversation.”
The third year presented a unique challenge when only a single nominee—Andrew Davis for The Fugitive—was able to attend because of work schedules, the only time that has happened. “So I said to Andy, ‘I hope you’re OK with this,’ and he went out, and it was a full house and the discussion lasted two and a half hours. It was fabulous. The Fugitive was a big, complicated action movie, full of directorial decisions, and the audience, as it turned out, was incredibly grateful to hear how it had been done.
“From then on,” says Kagan, “I vowed that we would just go on with it, in whatever form the panel came together.” But word spread and the event kept building momentum. By year five, it was rare for fewer than four or five nominees to take part. Those unable to be in Los Angeles began to participate electronically. For instance, a monitor was placed on the stage to accommodate Roman Polanski, who joined the panel from Paris in 2003 when he was nominated for The Pianist. Peter Jackson also took part that year from New Zealand to talk about The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Stephen Frears joined in from London to discuss The Queen in 2007.
One director Kagan was unable to get was the reclusive Terrence Malick, who was nominated for The Thin Red Line in 1999. “What was interesting was that Steven Spielberg called him [and] said, ‘You should come to this; you’ll get something out of it,’ and that call meant a lot to me because it was exactly what we were trying to do,” says Kagan.
Early on, Kagan realized that what all directors had in common was facing the three major stages of the filmmaking process—preproduction, production, and postproduction. He used these phases as the organizing principle for his onstage interviews (as well as for the two Directors Close Up books that have resulted from the panels with a third volume due next year).
Before each session, he explains to the nominees that the audience is not the general public, but fellow members of the directorial team, and that there will be no Q&A period. “We can go right into details about process,” says Kagan. “Each film to me offers questions of ‘How did they do that?’”
The answers reveal an amazing array of differences among directors. “There is no one way to make a movie—that’s what makes this kind of conversation so fascinating,” says Kagan.
For example, in this year’s panel, director Tom Hooper explained why he used a wide-angle lens rather than a long lens for close-up shots of Colin Firth as the tongue-tied and agonized monarch in The King’s Speech. “He said it was because it’s uncomplimentary; it causes a little distortion,” recalls Kagan, “and it also requires the camera itself to be very, very close to the actor, which adds to the discomfort.” His comments served as a specific illustration of how understanding the tools of the trade can help a director achieve an intended effect.
Occasionally, what goes on behind the scenes transcends a director’s expectations, and may even encapsulate a movie’s message. “Spielberg talked about how in shooting Munich, there was a very tense scene where the Palestinians blow up the helicopters with the Israeli hostages in them. When it was done, the Palestinian and Israeli actors all went to check on each other and embrace,” says Kagan. “My eyes got teary when he told that story.”
Bringing a group of directors together like this always results in a wide range of personalities to work with. “Polanski was one of the most articulate people I’ve encountered,” reflects Kagan, citing the Polish-born filmmaker’s “overall knowledge of art and culture and insight about himself as a filmmaker and the filmmaking process.”
“Christopher Nolan,” he adds, “is another one who had a great perspective on the process itself. Clint Eastwood operates on the level of instinct, as we all do, but the question becomes, ‘How do you define that?’ Benigni is on fire with excitement about being alive, and double that when he talks about directing, and Ron Howard has an enthusiasm about the process that really turns on when he discusses it.
“My goal is to keep it moving, to make sure everyone participates,” he says. “And even though each of them is competing that evening for the same award, it’s rare to sense any competition during the panel. It’s more of a collegial appreciation. Everyone is listening with interest, to hear, ‘Well, how’d you solve that problem?’”
For his part, says Kagan, “I’m a better filmmaker from moderating these events. I’ve learned an enormous amount from it, and even more from studying these nominated films. It’s been a major gift for me, and I’m very grateful that I do it.”
Directors share their experience in excerpts from two decades of Meet the Nominees
Scott Hicks | Shine (1997)
The process of casting is incredibly fraught with tension and your sense of the other person’s vulnerability. They only get this little time to make some sort of impression on you. With Alex [Rafalowicz, who played the little boy in Shine], we set up a chessboard. I would get him to close his eyes, and I’d move pieces around on the board and say, ‘Tell me what move I’ve done.’ I was looking for his ability to play a game with me, first of all. Secondly, to focus on something that really mattered. And so I started to get a glimpse of just what kind
of concentration he had.
Robert Zemeckis | Forrest Gump (1994)
I believe in videotape. At the end of the day when I’m exhausted and I’ve seen 20 people, an actor might be doing the greatest reading and I’m not seeing it because I just got off the phone with the head of the studio who is screaming at me over money. So I like to have it recorded so I can evaluate it at a different time.
John Madden | Shakespeare in Love (1998)
It’s a very mysterious process. You have a very strong sense about who the person should be, and usually, I learn that I haven’t got the right idea, and when the person comes along who is right, they tell me [they’re right].
M. Night Shyamalan | The Sixth Sense (1999)
I had definite rules—it can’t be an actor kid, it can’t be a blond kid, it can’t be a kid from Los Angeles. So I ended up with an actor, blond kid, from Los Angeles. Haley Joel Osment came in and his hands were shaking a little and his voice was shaking. He read the scene where Malcolm Crowe [Bruce Willis] says he can’t be his doctor anymore and he just blows it away and he’s crying and I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ So I tried to break him. I started talking about basketball and Michael Jordan and making him laugh, so he wasn’t nervous and he wasn’t going to use that same energy. And then I said, ‘Let’s do another scene.’ Boom, nails the second scene.
Barry Levinson | Bugsy (1991)
You’re looking for a certain rhythm that fits, and you’re trying to couple all that together. It’s a little bit like putting an orchestra together. You need a little of this and a little of that. Sometimes somebody may be doing some great work, but it may not be right for the movie and it can kick the movie out of balance. If the actor is right for the role, you’re really working on the shadings of it. You’re tuning it and playing it, but you know that you’ve got it. If the actor is wrong for the role, you’re literally fighting just to get the performance. When you cast wrong, it’s not an easy day.
Kathryn Bigelow | The Hurt Locker (2010)
Back in my Near Dark  days, Jim [Cameron] told me, ‘Be careful in your casting choices because those are irrevocable decisions.’ No matter how great your script is, no matter how great you shoot the film, edit it, score it, mix it, etc., if you’ve made a mistake in your casting that’s it. I’ve held onto that ever since.
Oliver Stone | JFK (1991)
I rehearse a lot. It allows us freedom. Once you have developed in a rehearsal an attitude, then we can go against it. And I find that very valuable. But the movie is a debate. The
debate starts with the rehearsal.
Baz Luhrmann | Moulin Rouge (2001)
We had four months of full-time rehearsals. And that is starting with dance workshop in the morning and then we’d have scene work in the afternoon, the odd absinthe party at night to sort of keep everyone going, and then it would start all over again.
Gary Ross | Seabiscuit (2003)
The rehearsal process is as much for me as it is for the actors. It’s about finding certain intentions that I can remember on the day. I’ll make notes in my script so that on the shooting day, when I’m less clearheaded and I have so many more things to worry about, I have a document where I can go back to what the original performance intentions were.
John Madden | Shakespeare in Love (1998)
I don’t like to rehearse too much. I operate on a touch-and-go policy. You land on the material for a moment, just to prime it, so the actors are aware of what might be in the scene, and then you take off again quickly. So that in the white heat of the moment, there’s still something left to discover.
Michael Mann | The Insider (1999)
Sometimes if you move [the camera] just right, then I am the person. And you don’t know it until the camera is on your shoulders and you’re looking through the viewfinder and you make that slightest shift and you just, you match your footsteps to his, and somehow I’m with him, I’m him. I can’t explain it any other way, except it’s an emotional state that as a director you just fall into it.
Christopher Nolan | The Dark Knight (2008)
We were introducing the Joker, a very iconic character, in a totally different incarnation. The thinking was to aggressively present Heath’s [Ledger] portrayal in a sequence that would excite the audience and show them the way we were reinterpreting the character in a context more like a conventional action film as opposed to a superhero comic. We tried to construct a sequence that would be overpowering to the audience, and not allow them to reject Heath’s portrayal. We wanted to conceal who he was and let his body language start to show that there was something different about this character wearing the mask.
Andrew Davis | The Fugitive (1993)
The train sequence was probably the most storyboarded. We knew from the beginning that we were going to crash a real train. We had to find an empty locomotive and push it from behind. We had to have a side railing. It was very complicated. We were not going to rely on miniatures or process to make the sequence work; we would shoot as much as we could. But we actually did have [some] models. For example, the plate of the train chasing Harrison [Ford] is an Intravision shot that we created with a model. And at the same time, we had a shot of a real train running into a camera in North Carolina.
The combination of the two together made it work.
Paul Thomas Anderson | There Will Be Blood (2007)
[In the opening sequence where Daniel Day-Lewis, playing a wildcat oilman, falls down a mine shaft]: He was on a harness so he could fall, and we did a few takes. Then I said something that you should probably never say to Daniel Day-Lewis—I said that it looked fake. So he fell down a 50-foot mine shaft, hit his back, and broke a few ribs. But it looked pretty good.
Sam Mendes | American Beauty (1999)
One of the things you learn is you’ve got to treat everybody differently, depending on how they want to work on a role. Kevin [Spacey] wants to joke and be on his mobile phone. Chris Cooper wants to be in total silence. Annette [Bening] will be listening to her Walkman for 15 minutes quietly in a corner. And your job is to bring them to the same point at the same time.
James L. Brooks | As Good As It Gets (1997)
> ‘Let’s move on’ should be your pledge to the actors that you really have it. One day, it just wasn’t happening, and it was serious; it was embarrassing and frustrating. The great thing about Jack [Nicholson] is his willingness to humble himself. I was a little behind schedule, and I had to send the crew home. Suddenly it was just the two of us, and we talked for four hours. It was just a matter of respect, respect for the process, that we’re not machines.
Christopher Nolan | Memento (2000)
In the first week, we shot Guy Pearce’s close-up, where he reveals, quite early in the film, how frustrating and upsetting this fact is that he can’t remember things. After I got something I was very happy with, I said, ‘Are you OK with this? It’s time to move on.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not. I haven’t done it yet.’ At that moment, I’m either going to say, ‘Look it’s good enough; you have to trust me,’ or see what else he can do. He did one more take, and it was so in the moment that it was transcendent. … You suddenly realize that with the right actor in the right role, you’re gonna have a lot of fun.
Barbra Streisand | The Prince of Tides (1991)
I always imagine how I want it to be in my head. But I don’t want to impose that on actors, at first. … I do find it fascinating that most actors would like to be told what to do. But I do like when the actor brings very definite opinions. Because it forces this debate, the energy, and the aliveness.
Steven Soderbergh | Erin Brockovich and Traffic (2000)
The scores for my films tend to be more tonal and atmospheric than they do traditional. I guess that’s just my taste. For the composers, I’m probably frustratingly inarticulate ’cause I’m not a musician. I’m sitting there half the time sort of eating ice cream and saying, ‘It’s not sad enough.’
Michael Radford | Il Postino (1994)
You try to express in ordinary language something which is inexpressible, because musicians think in different ways. I started this movie with Ennio Morricone, and he’s one of the great composers, no doubt about it. He would sit around a grand piano in his apartment and thump out a theme. I said to him one day, ‘I’d like the music to be discreet in this picture.’ He said, ‘I don’t do discreet music.’ So he rang me up and said, ‘I’m off this picture.’ I moved on to Luis Bacalov, who’d done the music for Fellini’s City of Women. He was the best collaborator for an ignoramus like me. I said, ‘I want something that’s popular, that’ll catch people’s attention, but is discreet.’ And he came up with the perfect thing and improvised all that on piano in the studio. It was just fantastic.
James L. Brooks | As Good As It Gets (1997)
At the very end of the road, we had a picture that was getting laughs, but that was short of its emotional life. I was almost at the point of giving up and deploring this, and [composer] Hans Zimmer wouldn’t let me. He kept saying to me that the ambitions I’d had at the beginning for the picture [should be] the ambitions I still had at the end. What he was able to do with the music was that I finished with the same ambitions, and I almost didn’t. That’s working closely with somebody.
Frank Darabont | The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Wasn’t it Milos Forman who said that shooting a movie was a necessary evil to get into the editing room? That’s really my favorite place to be. That’s where you can concentrate on making the film.
Rob Reiner | A Few Good Men (1992)
I change performance tremendously in the editing room. I love doing this stuff. I will take the dialogue of one take, the dialogue of another take, marry that line and put it in the mouth of that third take, because I like the way the person looks on the certain take, but I don’t like the way the dialogue’s coming out.
Mike Newell | Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
It’s in the cutting room that the real shit happens—studio stuff, money stuff, disap-pointment, rage. ‘Why didn’t we do this?’ ‘It doesn’t work, does it?’ And the editor must make up his mind where he’s going to stand, and usually a good one will stand with you. They are your right arm.
Spike Jonze | Being John Malkovich (1999)
The worst part was probably watching the assembly a week after we finished production—it was three and a half hours long, really flat, no pacing, not funny. It was painful. The best part is just whenever anything’s working.
Scott Hicks | Shine (1996)
The worst part is when you don’t have an idea in your head and those 40 faces turn toward you, and you try not to show your panic. The best parts are those days when everything lays out in front of you and you see things so clearly. You’re in tune with what you’re doing.
Peter Jackson | The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The worst always revolves around the weather, actually. Weather is what I hate, standing in a field and getting snowed on.
Curtis Hanson | L.A. Confidential (1997)
The best part is being able to do it. To direct a movie is a dream come true. It doesn’t even have to be going well. If it’s just going OK, I just feel so lucky to be able to be there doing it. The worse part is when it’s not going OK, and you can feel your dream turning into shit and there’s nothing you can do about it!
Gary Ross | Seabiscuit (2003)
The worst part is fighting about money. What if the set was smaller? What if it didn’t have a floor? What if it didn’t have a roof? Do you really need a thousand extras? Could you get by with 700? What about 600? You’re being pecked to death, so that’s a drag. The best parts of the entire process are when you get a good day, and you let the van go and walk home alone, back to the base camp, and you just have the satisfaction of seeing this thing coalesce. There’s absolutely no better feeling in the world.
Steven Soderbergh | Erin Brockovich and Traffic (2000)
It never gets any easier, at least in my experience. You just have to believe that the parachute will open, and it only opens after you’ve reconciled to hitting the ground. The only thing that gets me down is when I feel like I fell short, I missed it. I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t know enough. That’s the worst feeling in the world. And you basically just have to keep getting on the horse, you know, and keep moving.
Anthony Minghella | The English Patient (1996)
Every day is filled with pleasure and pain. The best and worst are often holding hands.