At the 23rd annual Directors Guild Symposium held the morning of the DGA Awards, the frontrunner was a no-show–“Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron was flying in from Italy in time for the awards dinner Saturday. (Update: as expected, he won.) That left room for the other four DGA rivals to dig into each of their widely different films. Moderator Jeremy Kagan quizzed Brits Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips”) and Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and Americans David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) and Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) on their process. They turned out to have more in common than you might expect, from dreaming their movies to vomiting on set.
Here are the five most compelling things I learned from this 160-minute interview (the DGA has posted video here).
1. David O. Russell likes to jam his cast and crew into a 15-passenger mini-van every morning before the shoot in order “to deal with the overwhelmingness of it all,” he said. “It’s proper to be overwhelmed, a movie beats your ass, you’re on the ropes the first half of the day, like ‘Raging Bull,’ and at the end you say ‘yeah, I beat that day! I did it!'”
2. Directing is a dream state. “I’m dreaming on set,” said McQueen. “When I’m shooting it’s about catching butterflies, embracing what’s there, making what you can of what’s in front of you…anything can happen when the camera’s rolling and you could catch it. It’s a totality. I don’t have too much fear, I’ve learned to embrace it, it’s my friend. It’s about trusting things and magic. No one knows what’s going to happen…We were dancing with ghosts on this movie, in footprints of footprints of the past in New Orleans, the air was sweet with perfume, old music, Spanish moss, two-century old trees. It is a dream, fantasy, reality. Things happened that couldn’t be explained.”
Scorsese sometimes gets up in the middle of the night and makes notes of his dreams, he said: “I’ve been able to push the structure of the narrative around in ways I hadn’t thought of before.”
“You get in a trance,” said Russell. “It’s a beautiful thing in an environment of love and trust. I’m playing music on set, it does induce a dreaming state, I play music in the van, to feel what it is, to get out of our heads and jump into the ocean together, open to the muses –things come to you.”
“The filmmaking process is a strange fugue state,” said Greengrass. Once you start shooting it’s a strange realm, not reality, not really awake, not asleep. It’s to do with stress. Once the first day starts you keep on the race to get finished. It’s a profound race in your imagination between what you know when you start the film in terms of your visions of the piece and what you build step by step along the way, always a bewitching mysterious thing…I find myself a lot of the time running the film in my mind, ‘how’s this shot going to work?’ I play it in my mind, like a nonstop conversation you’re having with yourself. At its heart I’ve always felt that making films is an attempt to recreate in a pale and inadequate fashion the intensity of feelings you had as a child when exposed to moving pictures.”
It’s important not to know where you’re going, Greengrass added. “You start the film with a screenplay…Each piece is alive. We must fashion from these pieces the ends of the scene without regard for the ends that are shaped on the page. It says that ABC is going to happen but we must play the scene as if we believe in different outcomes, not that it’s preordained, otherwise it will not be alive.”
3. Two films provoked vomiting. In “Captain Phillips,” the first time they filmed in the rocking claustrophobic lifeboat on the open sea off the seaport Malta, the director of photography Barry Ackroyd and his focus puller started throwing up after 20 minutes. During one scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Scorsese told Leonardo DiCaprio not to eat the sushi in every take. The actor insisted on doing it. Soon enough, he was hurling into a bucket.
4. Scorsese, McQueen and Greengrass used careful choreography for key scenes. For”The Wolf of Wall Street” orgy scenes, a choreographer “helped us with the mini-stories,” said Scorsese, “episodes going on, who’s doing what to whom, ‘face this way, two more here.’ We had to put a digital chair in front of two guys. ‘There’s a dirty bit here.’ In the airplane scene some dancers were willing to do certain things, some were not completely naked, half-naked. We were in there all day. It was about sex, drugs, and power. It was not erotic. They do it because they can. ‘Screw you, screw them.'”
And for the quaalude scene Scorsese mapped how Leonardo DiCaprio would get from the telephone to the Lamborghini. “His mind is telling his body what to do but it can’t react,” said Scorsese. “We worked out how he crawls inch by inch throughout the sequence. There are ten steps, he looks at it and it looks like fifty –we used CGI and green screen. We hadn’t realized that the Lamborghini opens up. He can’t reach the door with his hand. ‘I’ll use my foot,’ he says. His body language is like Jerry Lewis or Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. We did it in two takes. No reverse, no nothing. ‘Let’s get out of here.'”
McQueen choreographed the intense Patsy whipping sequence so that it unfolded in one shot. “It’s the crescendo of violence in the picture,” said McQueen. “We shot this in one shot so the audience was present while this is happening, not in film time, you are there in real time. Witnessing everything. We rehearsed the choreography on the location with no marks, to see what the actors do, follow them, and go for it full-heartedly…The whole idea is keeping the energy and the intensity, we wanted to keep the pressure on, if we put a cut in there it would leak out. I don’t want the audience to breathe, I want them to be there in the moment. It was a five-minute reel. We shot five takes. The VFX guys joined the camera pan to Michael with the last 56 seconds. It was magic, you were there, you felt it. It’s cinema.”
Greengrass and his team mapped out three careful phases–with abort positions– for the approach of the small skiffs up to the huge container ship when the Somalis were going to board. Greengrass didn’t like the way the shot looked in a tank, he wanted to shoot it on the real ocean. “I didn’t want it in smooth water,” he said. “The container ship was moving at high speed. It displaced large amounts of water, they could get sucked under.” A Marine expert rehearsed with the Somalis in the boats to bring them alongside. “The phases of approach had to be right before we moved onto the next stage,” said Greengrass. Cinematographer Ackroyd was in a skiff alongside shooting with a small maneuverable 16 mm camera. Only one hair-raising jump onto the ship was staged with a stuntman.
5. Russell shoots in a 360 degree environment. “I like to let a scene explode,” said Russell. “I block it, have one camera and a Steadicam with a china ball on a stick with soft light. We live for those moments. These are the keys in the editing room. It all has to be real, intense, no bullshit, and good. We want each color, is it better whispering or screaming? I don’t know. We do three or four takes and try all the ways. We have a shorthand. ‘Go!’ is ‘take the brakes off.’ Richie is sometimes insecure about his masculinity, he wanted to be powerful and in charge. He wanted to be Irving. [Bradley Cooper would] touch his crotch, ‘what just happened?’ Suddenly the whole scene got different.”