INTERVIEW: Theater Hotshot Scott Elliott Shoots "A Map of the World"
by Andrea Meyer
In 1996, Scott Elliott became one of the hottest directors in New York theater. He had awards coming out of his ears for plays that included Mike Leigh's "Ecstasy" and Christopher Kyle's "The Monogamist," which he had directed for the New Group, the company he founded while still at NYU. Almost instantly he was skyrocketed to Broadway to direct works by Chekhov and Noel Coward. He was named one of Crane's New York's "40 under 40" and Variety's "50 Creatives to Watch."
While directing the American premiere of "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" by Arthur Miller, Elliott caught the attention of producers Kathleen Kennedy ("E.T.," "Jurassic Park") and Frank Marshall (the Indiana Jones trilogy, "The Color Purple"). They sent him a book "A Map of the World" by Jane Hamilton and asked him if he'd like to direct the film. Three years later, their collaboration, which stars A-list actors Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore, is being released by First Look Films, which goes wider with the film next week on the eve of Weaver's Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Weaver plays Alice Goodwin, a woman whose life crumbles when her neighbor's child dies in a freak accident while under her care.
When the film opened for Academy Award consideration late last year, reviews were mixed, begging the question: is Scott Elliott able to work the same kind of magic on the silver screen as when he was the wunderkind of the stage? Andrea Meyer attempted to push him to reveal some sign of anxiety, weakness or despair, but the man's a rock. He is confident and optimistic and as excited as a new daddy can be about his baby's release to the world.
indieWIRE: What was it like making the jump from theater to film?
Scott Elliott: They're so different, that the only thing you can bring with you from one medium to the other is storytelling. The way that you tell the story has to be different. In film, you do it out of sequence. You don't tell it in a linear fashion. You have to run around and do things before other things. You have to understand the emotional leaps of the characters, so that you can calibrate a performance, because you could do a climactic scene first, before you do the lead up to it. In theater, you tell the story from beginning to end, and you have complete control of the storytelling as it unfolds. In film you really have to stay on your toes and keep track of things so that you can make performances happen in the editing room.
iW: Was your experience on set at all intimidating? In the theater, it's just you and a room full of actors. On a film set, there's a camera, lighting equipment, a large cast, an entire crew.
Elliott: The thing I like about being on set was it was a great learning experience. I used a different part of my brain. The decision-making part of your brain really has to work. At least in this kind of independent film, we didn't have unlimited financial resources, so you have to really stay on your toes. Because it could rain! In the theater you don't think about it, because you're always indoors, but you could start shooting a scene and it could start raining. And I also enjoyed the collaborative process with all the other artists that worked on the film, the cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and I love the camera operator and the producers and the script supervisor. It's a group of people who know how to do something very specific in the art, and it was really cool collaborating with people and coming up with a way to make it happen.
iW: I'm interested in your collaborative process. In the theater, the director is king, but on set you're working with a D.P. who knows more than you do about film stocks, lenses, and camera angles. In the editing room, you're working with an editor who's more versed than you are in telling stories with pictures. Was that a shock to the system?
Elliott: It was empowering just the same, because everyone was there to do one thing. We're all there to make the movie happen. For me, I really trusted everybody that I worked with, so that was a really good feeling to know that I had a cushion of people who really understood where I was going and had to make it happen. You've got to be open-minded to the fact that a cameraperson does know more than you do about photography and the editor does know more about editing, and you trust them. So things like magic happen. You could have an idea about doing something one way and then you get up there and you try to figure it out, and it can get better.
iW: Was it daunting to direct actors of the caliber of Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore in your first film?
Elliott: Sigourney and Julianne and everybody was amazing to work with. We rehearsed together; they allowed me rehearsal time before we started shooting, so we rehearsed and were constantly working on the characters, and it really wasn't intimidating. People were there not because they were making tons of money, but because they believed in the project. It was a nice experience, because we all had the best for the movie in our minds. And so it was fantastic. It wasn't one of those stormy experiences. (laughs) I'm sure one day I'll have one. This one was really smooth, and it was a joy to go to work every day. It better be because sometimes you're working seventeen hours, and if it doesn't feel really great to be doing it, it could be really, I imagine, quite arduous. But I hope I never have that experience. You hear tons of stories of insanity on the set, and for me the only crazy stuff was, you know, you have to move so quickly and you have to really be on your toes all the time. When you work that many hours in a row, your whole body is sort of taken over by this thing. You can't do anything else. It was cool. As an artist, it was really invigorating, because you really have to shut out every other element of your life to be able to do it.
iW: You don't experience that level of stress working in the theater?
Elliott: In the theater, it's different. You're in a rehearsal room. You only have so many things that you can do, because you're working in a live medium, and you're only in one place, so you don't have to worry about scheduling or running around. You know, when you're down to the wire in the theater, you could always make it through, because you don't have to deal with anything other than the play. In film, you have to shut everything out in order to stay focused. In the theater, you have a finite amount of time to work with also, but it's just a very different thing, because the play is there. You're doing the play, and it's already finished and it's there, and whatever little changes might go in are minor. In a film, you might have to face that you're losing your light and you're moving location and you have to lose a scene. What do you do?
iW: How faithful were you to your script?
Elliott: We were very faithful. My first cut of the film was two hours and forty minutes long. We shot pretty much everything that was in the script. I did a little bit of work on the script with Peter (co-writer Hedges) once I saw the locations and a little bit after the movie was cast. But it's faithful. You know, I love the book, and we tried to stay as faithful as possible to the book. I didn't want to tell a story that wasn't this story.
iW: How do you work with your actors?
Elliott: I try to base my interpretation of the role, of how it fits into the whole picture, on the actors themselves. I really like actors to draw upon things that are inside of them rather than a character trait, you know, playing a character. I try to make the character easy to relate to. When you look at Julianne or David Strathairn, there are always glimmers of who they are in the work, as people. I think that's a very important thing about getting naturalistic performances from people, which is what I like. I say heightened naturalism. I often say it, because I really do think that what she is doing --Sigourney or Julianne -- feels like naturalism to me. It feels like real life. But some people think that real life is really steady, that people don't move a lot, that they'll sit and talk in stillness so that a camera can move around them. I believe that people don't sit still a lot. We're constantly behaving and constantly thinking, and because we're thinking, there are always things that are going on in our body that reflect what we're thinking. So I really like to draw on who people are and the way that they behave. I often try to guide people to think about how they personally would feel in a situation and make the scene come alive that way, as opposed to thinking this is the way that I see it and this is the way I would do it. But now that I know a little bit about Sigourney, how would she do it?
iW: Before making this film, you were this really big, important fish in the tiny pond of the New York theater. Now you've become a little fish in the huge sea of independent film. I wonder if it was at all humbling for you, to make a relatively low budget film that's being released by a relatively small distributor.
Elliott: Well, it's bigger than anything I'd ever done. It's bigger than anything I'd done in the theater, but then you move into the movies, it didn't feel small. The producers I worked with are Steven Spielberg's producers, so that alone made it feel like they were leading a project that they really believed in and loved and were passionate about, because why else would they make a film of this size? I feel lucky that the film got made and it's getting some attention and Sigourney's doing really well.
iW: I guess she and Julianne Moore have been nominated for some awards.
Elliott: Sigourney's nominated for a Golden Globe for actress and Julianne Moore won best supporting actress at the National Board of Review for this and another film, I think. And this movie was on the ten best National Board of Review independent film list, and it's nominated for a couple other things. I guess awards are really silly anyway. I mean, they're helpful in a way, but they just pit people against each other. In my opinion, there's room for everybody in the business. There are plenty of projects that get made. While awards are really terrific and it feels great to get them, it does do a strange kind of thing to the process, which is a very beautiful process, of making a film.
iW: Has the experience of making your first film been what you expected?
Elliott: Better. (laughs) I really loved it. And I'm still enjoying it. Every day there's something new that happens, especially now that the movie's getting ready to be released. For example, Oprah picked the book. I just got off the phone with Jane Hamilton, and she and Sigourney did the Oprah show. So something new happens every day. It's a lot of fun. Even when things don't go right, it's an interesting life.