The 29th annual Directors Guild Symposium, held Saturday morning before the DGA Awards that night, hosted two first-time Feature Film nominees — Korean Bong Joon Ho, nominated for his seventh film, family comedy “Parasite,” and New Zealander Taika Waititi, recognized for his fifth, Nazi satire “Jojo Rabbit” — both of whom are contending for the big prize against veterans Sam Mendes (World War I actioner “1917”), who won the award 20 years ago for his film debut “American Beauty,” Quentin Tarantino with his ninth film, showbiz bromance “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and “The Irishman” director Martin Scorsese, who participated via live-video feed from New York.
Per usual, moderator Jeremy Kagan quizzed the filmmakers on their process. The directors turned out to have much in common, from directing children, recreating the past, and dealing with violence, to drawing storyboards and relying on VFX.
Here are the most compelling things I learned from this two-hour and 43-minute interview.
1. The video monitor can be friend or foe.
Waititi and Tarantino stay as close to their actors as possible, often acting out scenes for them. “I hate playback,” said Tarantino. “I know which one is the one; I feel it.” On “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi felt self-conscious about barking orders dressed like Adolf Hitler. “I suddenly became a lot nicer to the crew,” he said, to much laughter. “‘That’s not an order, it’s a suggestion.'”
Both Mendes and Scorsese had to pay more attention to video playback than normal because of the unusual technical requirements of their respective shoots. Mendes was tethered to a big-scale monitor, mounted on a horse box — “a video village on wheels,” he said — which rolled from place to place out of camera range, as he and his script supervisor tracked the long-take, 360-degree action that was sometimes so far away that young actors George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman couldn’t hear him say “cut.”
Mendes had to make editing decisions while they were shooting, and each eight-to-10 minute scene required full engagement from the entire crew, as he and editor Lee Smith had to decide immediately which take to use before lining up the next shot. When he had executed 28 takes, the last thing Mendes wanted to hear was that the best one was No. 9.
Scorsese had a similar experience watching at some distance from a crowded office scene as Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa kept on going, unable to hear the director through the din. Scorsese had to commandeer, with DP Rodrigo Prieto, two to three cameras equipped with three lenses each — as many as nine lenses total — to capture the actors’ expressions for de-aging VFX. While for big action scenes “I tend to pull away,” Scorsese said, “[the video monitor] is a great tool, a help, and a temptation.” For meaty dialogue scenes like Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino telling Robert De Niro’s hitman “it is what it is,” Scorsese said, “I was right at their feet.”
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In Korea, productions are accustomed to having the editor on set constantly editing as they shoot, with people watching the screen. “Sometimes I want to crush the laptop with Final Cut Pro,” said Bong, who starts from square one again in the editing room.
2. Storyboards can keep you focused.
In order to execute “1917,” which Mendes considers “a movie with no cuts, rather than a one-shot movie,” he said, “we storyboarded over and over. The actors, cameras, and landscape, all three move at the same time.” But on certain days he had to bring each new senior officer — from Andrew Scott and Colin Firth to Benedict Cumberbatch and John Madden, who showed up to do their short bits — and root them in the reality of “the fog of war […] when they would never know what was happening around the corner.”
For “The Irishman,” Scorsese holed up in a hotel for eight or nine days, listening to music, mapping in advance his editing patterns and camera movements within the frame. “I lay it all out,” he said. “Completely. It’s going to change. But this picture was different. There had to be anonymity to the look of the picture but within the frame it had to have emotional and psychological power. When to do the last brushstroke of the shot? With all the CGI issues, it was about eliminating extra shots. I knew what my foundation was, it was to simplify it.”
Tarantino sees his long screenplay as a novel to be honed down during production as the film takes shape in his mind.
Besides trusting his hand-drawn storyboards to show him the way, Bong also digitally stitches the best performances from his ensemble of actors — from wildly different takes — into a single frame. “There’s a lot of that in the movie,” said Bong. “It’s impossible to tell.”
3. Stay open to new things.
Mendes felt vulnerable directing a movie that he had written for the first time. “If a line is not working,” he said, “you can’t blame the writer. It’s your fault. On the day if something is not working, you have to rewrite it.” But this new way of shooting a movie also taught him that “there is no end to the language of the camera,” he said. “There are endless, limitless ways to shoot a scene, the camera has its own language. If you push yourself it forces you to find new ways to express things with the camera.”
Waititi embraces danger. “With every film I’ve done, if it feels dangerous,” he said, “it’s probably worth doing it.” He quoted David Bowie’s image of creativity: of walking out into the ocean until you start losing your footing, just touching the bottom. “When I feel like that creatively, I know I am doing good work. If it feels like it came too easy, I’m going to need to try to make it a bit more chaotic and sort of shake it up, and find ways to make it more interesting.”
Tarantino learned on the set of “The Hateful Eight,” he said, when it was all about shooting parts of scenes over many weeks when they had to capture the Colorado weather, to abandon his quest for “the theatrical integrity of a dramatic scene,” he said. “It’s a movie.”
For his part, Bong was accustomed to scoping out and mastering practical locations and knowing where he could move his camera in advance. In this case, his interiors were 90 percent filmed on two sets, the rich house and the poor house. And the space didn’t come together until right before the shoot. So he had his VFX team put together a virtual model of the set designs that he could roam through in order to choose lenses and camera angles.
The reason he had to figure this out: The first half of the movie may seem like it’s introducing the characters and the house infiltration, he said, “but it is also subconsciously educating the audience on the full geography of the rich house, for the second half of the film to tell the narrative and the events that explode later on.”
4. Anxiety can drive you to excellence.
When it came to shooting the finale of “1917,” after a sleepless night Mendes called his editor Lee Smith and asked if he knew what was wrong with what they had shot that day. “It felt detached,” he said. Mendes instantly recognized that he had pulled away from the horror. “Can the audience take any more?” he asked himself. He went to the set early on his own, walked through and marked out new camera positions, drew a diagram, and told his A.D. and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns he was re-staging the field hospital scene with 20 doctors, nurses, and wounded patients who needed bits of business, and went over the scene with DP Roger Deakins, changing the way the camera would float over a mound of dead bodies. “It was way better,” Mendes said. “I had to do it.”
Similarly, Tarantino changed up his climactic set piece on Cielo Drive on the day, informing his cast and crew that he was throwing out much of the choreographed action that Austin Tyler and Brad Pitt had prepared. “I don’t need any of that,” he said. “We’re doing it this way.” Tarantino hopped around grabbing all the little snippets of action that he would assemble for the sequence. “There was an exciting energy.”
Tarantino gets nervous about his big action scenes because “I want it to be fucking great,” he said. “I want it to be in the annals of the great action scenes of all time and for all time. It’s OK if it’s not one of the best ever. This is where I discover the limits of my talent, what I’m finally able to do. My talent has a ceiling, I’m trying to find where it is. This calliope of cinema, it all has to work together. I’m not doing second unit. I’m not going back. […] Starting that climb up the Himalayas is tough.”
For the improvisational sequence with Leonardo DiCaprio in his trailer, Tarantino insisted on no pre-written dialogue, knowing he’d edit the best bits together. He told DiCaprio, “Go into the trailer and have a freakout. I’ll come up with subjects for you to work with. No matching, we’ll shoot until the mag runs out. I’ll do jump cuts. Let it rip.”
For the last scenes of “The Irishman,” Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker struggled to figure out the emotional beats — without falling into sentimentality or cliche — for Frank Sheeran in the nursing home, which had to tie into the opening framing device, accompanied by The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” which helped to “set the pace of the film, its rhythm,” Scorsese said. “He’s waiting for some kind of salvation, or forgiveness, for somebody or something to see his soul. He leaves the door open. Death is coming like a thief at night when you least expect it.”
Scorsese clearly saw “The Irishman” as possibly marking his “last chance to pour it all in,” he said, “everything goes on the table” on a movie that clocks three-and-a-half hours. “What if it plays as it plays?”
Bong was most anxious about the ambitious final flood sequence, which required building his lower depths neighborhood inside a water tank so that he could “spend a long time in water.” His coping mechanism, said Bong: “I eat sugar. Chocolate and candy is around the monitor at all times.”
Waititi, for his part, copes with stress by curling up in a ball in the corner and going to sleep. “This film in particular was a big career-ender,” he said. “I’m in it, the idiot in the film.” His worst day was shooting a river scene with Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis having a heart to heart — as the radios weren’t working. “I was dressed as Hitler screaming across the river at the crew,” he said. “I’m not proud of it.”
“I’ve done a good job hiding my inner Hitler all these years,” said Mendes.