IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is an exploration of how good movies get made through in-depth conversations with filmmakers about their artistic process. This fall and winter we were fortunate to host guests whose films are favorited to take home Academy Awards this weekend. As we get ready for the Oscars, here’s a look back at some of what we learned from the writers, directors and editors behind this year’s best films.
“Arrival” Screenwriter Eric Heisserer
Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” is a beloved sci-fi short story, but no one thought it was natural fit for the big screen. Well, nobody besides Eric Heisserer, who was emotionally devastated the first time he read Chiang’s 32 page story. He wanted to find a way to capture that feeling in a movie, but to do so he’d have to re-invent the narrative so that it had a dramatic tension that could maintain a two hour movie.
“Making it a dramatic narrative was probably the biggest obstacle because one didn’t need to exist in the short story,” said Heisserer when he was guest on the podcast. “We added a new element to it. It’s like grafting a new appendage onto somebody. You worry if the story is going to reject the new organ. Once you have it there, you have to make sure it integrates and synthesizes with the rest of the story.”
To create a layer of conflict and give the film a “ticking clock” element he explored how global powers would respond to first contact being made aliens. Heisserer decided to use the theme of “fear of the other” and the natural suspicion of foreign countries as starting points.
“There are going to be personalities that are going to be suspicious of aliens, illegal or otherwise,” said Heisserer. “Thankfully, the [way] global powers responded [in “Arrival”] happened to be similar to the craziness we’re seeing in our geopolitical climate.”
“La La Land” Director Damien Chazelle and Editor Tom Cross
Damien Chazelle shot most of his musical numbers with well-choreographed long takes that captured the rhythm and romanticism of his magical song and dance numbers.
“The musical scenes are like breaths, the movie exhales and becomes wider, so sometimes you want to build up a certain amount of claustrophobia especially in that realistic section of the movie,” said Chazelle.
From an editing perspective that presented some steep challenges for Chazelle and editor Tom Cross. To build to these moments, Cross and Chazelle would use more angular cutting, or up the tempo, to make more editing rhythms feel percussive or faster to offset the floating, magical musical numbers.
“If you had this movie of long, unbroken takes they would lose their value,” said Cross.
Changing the editing style of the scenes that surrounded the musical numbers though wasn’t enough. Cross and Chazelle would also perform surgery on the film’s overall structure.
“There wasn’t a musical number we didn’t try cutting at some point,” said Chazelle. In fact, the film’s much celebrated opening number “Another Day of Sun,” featuring a large scale dance number set against highway traffic jam, wasn’t in the film for awhile.
“For about three months, the movie didn’t have the opening,” said Chazelle. “The first version of the movie that Emma Stone saw, the first version we test screened publicly didn’t have that opening.”
“Moonlight” Writer-Director Barry Jenkins
There was an inherent challenge baked into Barry Jenkins’ vision of “Moonlight,” which tracks to development of two boys, Chiron and Kevin, from grade school to their late 20s. Split into three chapters, each section of the film captures a different stage of the boys’ lives. But Jenkins didn’t want to any actor to play more than one stage of a character’s life.
“There was never any thought of trying to find a 14 year old who could look ten but also look like 28,” said Jenkins. “Those people exist, probably, but we never wanted to go down that path.”
Jenkins also didn’t want to the low budget film to be further hampered by casting director Yesi Ramirez being confined by needing to find actors based on shared physical traits, but rather focus on finding the best actors for the roles.
“I’m a big fan of Walter Murch’s ‘In the Blink of an Eye.’ It’s the first book I read in film school that was to me a real organic concrete text of what the art of cinema,” said Jenkins. “It’s all about the eyes being the window into the soul.”
Jenkins came to believe that actors could be 80% different in terms of their physical appearance, as long at there was a connection in the way the character was expressed through the actors’ eyes. In the case of the protagonist Chiron, who is in almost every scene of the film, this meant matching the character’s vulnerability.
“I thought if I can find these actors where if the audience sees the same person, that’ll get us where we are charting this trajectory where you are watching this same soul go through these three perminations, these three evolutions of the character,” said Jenkins.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber
“Fire at Sea” Director Gianfranco Rosi
For his first film “Boatman,” the Italian master Gianfranco Rosi shot only 12 hours of footage over five years of filming in India. In this digital era, where non-fiction filmmakers are weeding through hundreds of hours of footage in postproduction, those numbers seem comical. Rosi, whose first films were shot on 16mm film, says that beginning his career in the pre-digital era shaped him as a filmmaker.
“Every shot had to be worth it because of the money restrictions,” said Rosi. “[Each] shot became so important. That shot was the mother of all possible. You were discovering cinema in that moment. You were the one making the composition. That truth had to come out and I never wanted to cut things in between.”
It’s a discipline Rosi tries to instill in his students when he finds time to teach. He’ll give his students three minutes of film to tell a story, which he says often creates a panic for his students.
“Everything is one shot, there is almost no editing in between,” said Rosi. “[It’s] an incredible exercise of patience, knowing when to roll and when to cut. So for me, it was an incredible school. And I think for people who are starting right now where it’s so cheap that you can shoot five-hundred hours with no budget, you end up spending a lot of time on editing.”
Rosi told IndieWire he took only 10 days to edit “El Sicario,” six weeks for “Below Sea Level,” and with “Fire at Sea” he finished postproduction in just two months.
“OJ: Made In America” Director Ezra Edelman
Edelman’s initial instinct was to say no to ESPN’s offer to make a film about O.J. Simpson. He had little desire to explore the events surrounding the murder trial that became one of the biggest media circuses of the 20th century, nor did he think he’d have anything to add to the story.
What changed for Edelman was realizing that the bigger canvas of making a long form documentary (“OJ” is close to eight hours long) would be freeing and allow him to paint on a bigger canvas where the context and historical background of Simpson’s life story could become the focus of in his groundbreaking documentary.
So how do you make an eight hour documentary? Edelman walks us through the process of initial research, creating a structure and narrative arc, the way interviews and the archival search process inform one another, and working with three editors to complete the film.
“Toni Erdmann” Writer-Director Maren Ade
“Toni Erdmann” walks a fine line between observational family drama and comedy as it tells the story of father who tries to rescue his daughter from her dreary life. For Maren Ade the key is always taking her time. From writing to casting to rehearsal to taking 50 days to shoot the film, Ade explained how each step was a process that took time to get right.
She also shot an incredible amount of footage, close to 100 hours, which also allowed her to take time in post production to shape the films’ performance and comedic tone.
“I don’t know what I really need in the editing room,” said Ade. “I’m very happy when I can go back to the editing room and have an archive where I can modulate the psychological development. I have the different notes [to play].”
This was particularly important in crafting actor Peter Simonischek’s performance. The actor in essence played two characters, Winfred and Winfred pretending to be Toni Erdmanm, a transition that also embodied the film’s comedic elements.
“Peter had to play Toni, who is a good actor, and Winfred, who is a bad actor, so it was always thin line we had to walk,” said Ade. “Sometimes we really found it on the shooting day and sometimes I knew we had enough [coverage that] I could do it in the editing room.”
- “Kate Plays Christine” director Robert Greene
- Kirsten Johnson discussing her life as a “Cameraperson”
- “Night of” location manager on shooting in New York
- Andrea Arnold on “American Honey”
- Gianfranco Rosi on “Fire at Sea”
- Barry Jenkins on “Moonlight”
- Ezra Edelman on “OJ: Made in America”
- Paul Verhoeven’s refusal to be censored
- “The Witch” director Robert Eggers on adapting “Nosferatu”
- Eric Heisserer on adapting “Arrival”
- Sophia Takal explores the horror of being an actress in “Always Shine”
- Mia Hansen-Love & David Ehrlich’s Top 25 Video Countdown
- Pablo Larraín On Chasing Ghosts in “Neruda” and “Jackie“
- Editing “La La Land:” Damien Chazelle & Tom Cross