The high point of the annual EW Comic-Con Visionaries panel with Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”), Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) and Edgar Wright (“The World’s End”) moderated by Anthony Breznican was an exchange on the aesthetics of long takes and bringing reality into fantasy on film.
Wright launched a discussion about combining fights and effects “The world’s End,” a reunion comedy about old chums (led by co-writer/star Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) returning to their home town for a pub crawl–and stumbling on an alien invasion.
EW: The challenge this time is to try and do the [action sequences] without cutting so that you believe that the actors are doing it. There’s no obvious stunt-doubling. I worked with this great choreographer Brad Allen and we basically evaluated the cast members – we had six actors who were up for the challenge (Pegg, Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, and Rosamund Pike). All six are in the action sequences and all six were trained by the stunt team. If you look at a 70s James Bond film, very quickly the camera will go behind Roger Moore’s shoulder and it won’t be Roger Moore. We designed these fights as an all-in-one sequences. I must say that the actors were really up for it. Martin and Simon are both around 40. You have to make it a point of pride. Out of the three movies, I put them through the most punishing action scenes of the three and they really rose to the challenge.
AB: What counts as a punishing action scene?
EW: You’ll see… it was a scene I had cut out of ‘Hot Fuzz,’ where they had a little fight with some teenagers and it didn’t work because we used adult stunt performers and stunt women for the kids. It’s not even on the deleted scenes, I think. I asked the choreographer, can we get teenager stunt performers? He said yes. So there’s a fight in this film with 40 year olds vs. 15 year olds and the 15 year olds totally kick their asses. One of the lead stunt performers, who was 15 and turned 16 on the set, changed from stunt boy to stunt man. He was actually Chloe Moretz’s stunt double in “Kick-Ass” as a 12 year old… it just makes the fight scenes so real because you basically have no doubles.
Marc Webb: One of the most rewarding scenes we did was Andrew Garfield with a coffee cup and a mail cart. It was basically old school physical comedy. Those scenes play out with stunt work but it’s kind of like dance. If you look at Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the camera just sits there. If you look at the physical acumen of those people, the timing and the engineering around them, that is an achievement. You sense it in the room. You’re the king of the long take, Alfonso, but when you can sit and absorb watching characters doing things in the room it’s a different kind of thing.
I remember in ‘(500) Days of Summer,’ the musical sequence. There’s a specific kind of pleasure you get from watching stunts, feats that you don’t get very often. In the ‘Spider-Man’ movies, I am obligated to use computer elements. But trying to find the limits of that is the fun part. Watching somebody do something that is difficult to achieve… I haven’t figured out what it is, it’s a different kind of pleasure. It’s not about comedy or tension; it’s some other pleasure the audience gets from watching people do extraordinary things. Physical comedy, which is an old and forgotten art, is something that really only takes place in action movies with the level of skill where it looks really great. It’s something I think is lost. There are exciting possibilities there.
But it has to be executed well. I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies that are overly choreographed, where you can see the actors thinking ahead of the punch. It’s stilted to me.
Alfonso Cuaron: All the other elements, the engineering and the effects, were around that main performance. It’s almost a lost art and whoever nails it and does a film like that is going to be absolutely brilliant.
AB: It’s the appeal of the unbroken take, and I think of the car attack in ‘Children of Men,’ a response to the feeling that we can’t believe our eyes anymore, that visual effects have advanced to the point where anything is possible?
EW: I’m sure this is the case with ‘Children of Men,’ but you get a buzz from the crew. Everyone gets invested in the shot because you can see it happening. If you do a sequence in one take, everyone gathers around the monitors. There’s a thrill when it really is in-camera. Audiences now are very aware of how films are made. You can even change people’s face now. When it’s clearly done in one-take, people respond to it. Alfonso is absolutely right. The actor has to sell it. Buster Keaton was a master of physical comedy, but the most impressive thing is that he has a poker face.
AC: Shots work when you don’t think about them, when you’re partaking in one experience. Even in comedy, people have a sense of real-time. Whenever you cut, even if you’re not conscious of the cut, in the back of your mind, you’re observing everything in real time.
AB: What was extraordinary about ‘Children of Men’ is that it flowed very naturally. The film is based on that sense of real time and of temporal space.
EW: We never blew out the walls. We didn’t even have a Steadicam. We had a handheld 35 because the operator is right by. Doing fight scenes is always fascinating because it’s not just choreography for the actor, but the camera operator has to be in the right place. There are lots of elements you can add to it. Modern audiences do know how it’s put together so if you can make it feel as real as possible… Nick Frost did do his own stunts. They all did. It comes down to music as well. If somebody’s a good dancer they can be a good fighter. Then you’ve got to learn the moves and sell the performance so it doesn’t just look like 1-2-3-4. It was really fun to design these fights, with lots of limbs and heads coming off.
AB: You describe how the crew will gather around for those shots. What’s it like when somebody blows it?
EW: On ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ there’s a scene when Simon walks to the store and back. It’s a three-minute shot and the joke is that he doesn’t see the zombies but we do. That was the first shot that we did. Because it was a low-budget film, we didn’t have the streets locked off so out of the corner of every frame – and legally you aren’t allowed to restrict anybody, you cannot even touch them or otherwise you’ll get sued.
AC: That adrenaline is almost addictive. When you’re directing, there’s something about knowing that you’re going to fall and you just keep on going. In ‘Children of Men,’ we had twelve days to shoot that action scene at the end and we were losing the location. At the end of the 10th day we hadn’t started shooting, we were still prepping. Day eleven came and there were accidents. We could only do two takes a day. But on the last day, there was a moment where I thought, ‘this is the end of my career.’We were shooting the last take, everything goes great and then as an accident the blood spills on the lens. Stupidly I started yelling ‘cut’ but there was an explosion so nobody heard. We kept on going. Chivo (cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki) said the splash on the lens was the miracle.
Marc, did you have any happy accidents?
MW: They happen every day. The way I like to deal with actors – and Andrew [Garfield] and Emma [Stone] are particularly good at this – I like to keep it loose. I want them to make mistakes. There are scenes sometimes when they’re improvising that end in a completely different way. The actors feel something in that moment that doesn’t match the script. They deviate. I remember one with Andrew and Dane DeHaan early in the movie, he ended up flipping out and walking out the door which of course would end the movie right there, but what that allows is for the actors to feel alive and authentic in the moment. I enjoy being surprised by what the actors do that is different from what I expected. It keeps me awake when I’m watching. You can prescribe a certain kind of performance but sometimes the audience can detect when it’s performative. Sometimes you have to do that but those happy accidents, ideally, happen every day.
AB: How about you Edgar? Was fate pushing you in the right direction?
EW: On the new one, the whole film is set in one night and we shot it in about 12 weeks (About the same as ‘Hot Fuzz’). It’s really grueling, but it tends to add to the performance. When you watch it, you realize that it really adds to the characters and to the performances. There was one thing in the film where Simon jumps over this bar and by the third take, I could see he was wincing. But we did another five takes. But the next day he said we went to the doctors and had broken his hand. He was the producer of a happy accident. He suffers in silence for the rest of the night and has to wear a cast for the rest of the movie. If the actors look authentically beat-up in the movie, it’s because they were. They’re all such pros and really want to push it as far as they can. When there are stunt guys around, the actors always want to show off, so that keeps raising the stakes of what they’ll do. Once you see Nick Frost in the film, he’s just insane.
Audience question: About the use of 3-D in ‘Gravity’ and ‘Spider-Man 2’– ‘World’s End’ is not in 3-D. As much enthusiasm as there is for 3-D, there is a lot of hostility toward it.
AC: in most of the cases, it’s not necessary. In most of the cases, 3-D is an afterthought and not a creative afterthought, a complete financial and distribution afterthought. In the case of ‘Gravity,’ the movie took 4 ½ years to make. At that time, 3-D was still cool. I wanted to make a 3-D film. The original screenplay, the core was ‘Gravity,’ space-suspense in 3-D. It was designed to be in 3D and we worked meticulously to get amazing 3-D. If I compare the 2-D and 3-D versions, I hate 3-D because the blacks and the whites suck. It takes away the color and it takes away resolution. In the case of ‘Gravity,’ I have to say I prefer it in 3-D. With all of those misgivings, I prefer it because it was designed like that. Everybody talks about 3-D from ‘Avatar’ on or thinking about the 50s. the first 3-D film was done in 1896, two years after the Lumiere brothers invented cinema. 3-D as a tool is a fantastic tool. I don’t believe it is a tool that needs to be universalized. It has to have a reason, like any other tool in cinema.
MW: I shot ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ in 3-D and stereo and this one I shot on anamorphic. We’re doing a post conversion process. We still conceived the movie in specific scenes with 3-D in mind. The delivery mechanism for 3-D can be volatile. You need the right lighting circumstances and really good screens. Anytime that is not really precise, it’s frustrating. You only have so much control over that as a filmmaker and that’s very difficult. As a 3-D filmmaker, you need to engage in how exhibitors exhibit 3-D films. The controversy makes sense. It’s frustrating to have that kind of pressure applied to your film. But it’s an incredible format and has enormous possibilities. For ‘Spider-Man’ when you’re trying to sense space and velocity and volume, it can be exquisite at its best. It can also be really terrible.
EW: Most people are lukewarm on the format because you see too many bad ones where it has been done after the fact. Sometimes I see movies where it becomes a very dark experience and it feels like another two dollars on your ticket. I call it blockbuster tax. I’m not a huge fan when it’s coming out every week. People tire of it when it’s slapped on to every film every week.
Audience: Many professionals have taught me to emphasize one skill but back when you guys had to showcase multiple skills and prove that you could write and direct, what did you create and how did you manage to showcase more than one skill?
EW: If you want to get into writing and directing, it is a good thing to try and do every job. Even to be an actor onscreen, if that’s not your calling, you can understand an actor’s perspective. I made amateur films as a teenager and was learning by my own mistakes, but I ended up doing everything. Because of that, I have an idea of everybody’s job. If you want to be a director, it’s a good idea to step into everybody’s shoes even for one shot just to see how it feels. You’ll learn so much by trying on all the different hats. I always loved editing. I don’t edit but it’s something I’m passionate about. It gives me an understanding when I’m working with an editor.
Audience: For your current projects, were there any films that you drew reference or inspiration from?
AC: When you’re doing a film, you have an array of films that effect you and why you make films. In this last film, there’s a film that I love, Spielberg’s ‘Duel.’ That was his first film. The whole film is Dennis Weaver driving a car and being chased by this big truck in this desert. It’s one character being chased by this force.
MW: I looked at ‘Operation Dumbo Drop.’
EW: In our film, our heroes stumble into this sort of social science fiction, like a quiet invasion. When I was growing up, a lot of films like ‘Village of the Damned’ and episodes of ‘Doctor Who.’ Before Netflix, you would watch what you were given. Now when you have so much choice but now you can watch anything. As such, I saw decades of science fiction b-movies, a lot of those kind of movies were an influence on me.
Who was the mentor that helped get you started?
MW: I was a volunteer at Sundance one year when I was in a college and I met this guy Doug Pray in a parking lot who went to the same college I went to. He taught me how to edit when I first moved to Los Angeles and I had to transcribe his first documentary film. He didn’t do a lot of narrative stuff but he did music videos, and I always really valued that. He was a really wonderful documentary filmmaker and brilliant editor. Appreciating that form has been incredibly helpful for me.
AC: The idea of having mentors is something that keeps the ball rolling from generation to generation. Growing up in Mexico there were a couple of filmmakers. I did many positions in the industry. I did fifteen movies as a boom operator. I was making my way up. I was an AD [assistant director] for a long time, and there was a director who I ADed for I consider a mentor, José Luis García Agraz. What I learned from other people, for instance early on someone who helped me in my Hollywood career was Sydney Pollack, and something that I learned from Sydney is the importance of giving a hand to the next generation.
EW: Somebody who was really encouraging to me was my drama teacher. He’s actually in ‘Hot Fuzz.’ Somebody plays him in the ‘World’s End.’ His name is Peter Wild. When I was 16 and making films on super 8 and video, he would encourage me. It’s good at that early stage to have an authority figure to say, this is good, keep doing this. One of the directors whose story really inspires me is Sam Raimi. I saw this documentary on British TV in 1988 called ‘The Incredibly Strange Film Show’ and it was about Sam Raimi making the ‘Evil Dead’ films at the age of 18. I had assumed wrongly that, like Steven Spielberg, he had been dropped off by a stork at Universal Studios. When I saw the Sam Raimi films, I thought you had to grow up in Hollywood. Hearing his story of making a film in Michigan and then going to the Cannes Film Festival, the light bulb went off. Having that person in your life early on who is encouraging is important.
Edgar, you brought up younger filmmakers, I was curious to know for all of you, Spielberg and Lucas made some extreme comments about the state of the film industry and I wanted to know your thoughts and where we might be headed in the future and how it might affect young filmmakers.
AC: What is definitely changing is the way in which films are released and distributed. We are about to live in a moment in which there is going to be a big change. Now multiplex cinemas are almost exclusively for big movies. Ten years ago you could find very small movies.
MW: It’s very difficult to make a $15 million dollar drama. It’s almost impossible. Even the independent film market has been marginalized in a significant way.
AC: But that’s in terms of distribution. That doesn’t mean that those films don’t get made.
MW: It’s a great time to be a young filmmaker because you have access to equipment you never could have imagined having before.
AC: In terms of distributing films, even if multiplexes are the monopoly of big films, there are other means of distribution right now, so that’s the part that is very exciting. We don’t know where that’s going to lead. I don’t think that means that from now on only sequels and franchises are going to be produced.
MW: A lot of writers have migrated to TV because it’s novelistic. The serialized form that has taken shape on TV is new and exciting. The types of storytelling you can engage in there is awesome.
AC: I don’t think it’s so much about drama vs fantasy or drama vs action because even action films, or fantasy films, that are not branded, they don’t necessarily find a place in the market. Right now we are living in an age in which for the multiplexes, franchises and sequels are required. Those things will keep on existing.
EW: I think there’s going to be a choice. There is an appetite for original films as well as for franchises and series. Sometimes it just comes down to the season. In the summer, big effects movies come out. Last year, over four of the best picture nominees grossed over $100 million. It’s definitely true that the multiplex has to be more diverse and independent films need a chance to break out. That’s why I’m excited to see ‘Gravity.’ There has to be a balance. If we don’t start doing more original films, there will be nothing to remake in thirty years time.
AC: I’m not against the possibility of other ways those films will be released. It’s happening right now.
EW: There’s actually more ways for people to get their work out there than ever before. If you’re starting out as a young filmmaker, you have more chance of your film being seen than when we all started making movies.
Audience: Mr. Wright what’s going on with ‘Ant Man’? What’s next on the horizon?
EW: I will be doing “Ant Man” in 3-D. I’m making this movie for Marvel next. I wanted to do it with 2015 effects and not 2005 effects. It will be better for the wait.
MW: I want to finish ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2.’ There are many things but it’s hard to say right now. There are other projects I would love to do down the road. I’d like to do some musicals. I’ve been messing around with physical comedy.
EW: People always gave us a hard time for not doing a third series of ‘Spaced.’ I’d definitely like to work with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost again. I’ll never be done with those guys.
AC: ‘Gravity’ was supposed to be released last November. I haven’t finished it yet. One day I’ll finish it. I would like to do a horror movie.