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The Art of the Director: It's About Creating Space

Movies: In a pre-awards symposium, DGA winner Anthony Minghella and other nominees discuss the joys and terrors of their craft.


A director's challenge is to be meticulous, prepared for all contingencies and still somehow create an environment in which actors can feel some spontaneity, according to Directors Guild nominees at a four-hour symposium Saturday before the awards banquet.

"You want to set actors free," said Anthony Minghella, who later that evening was named the DGA's best feature film director for "The English Patient." "The job of a director is to create a space where actors feel empowered, to try to create a perimeter in which they can do their work and, if they fall over, you can catch them."

"In the end it is about giving the actors space to let go and enjoy letting their juices flow," said Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies").

Minghella and Leigh were joined at the Directors Guild theater in Hollywood by Scott Hicks ("Shine") and Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire"). Joel Coen ("Fargo"), the fifth nominee, did not attend. Minghella, Leigh, Hicks and Coen also have been nominated for best director Oscars (the fifth nominee is Milos Forman for "The People vs. Larry Flynt") and Crowe was nominated for best original screenplay.

Minghella cataloged the physical challenges of making a movie with the scope of "The English Patient," a tragic World War II love story that took five months to shoot.

"I was terrified of the scale of this film," Minghella said. "We had over 40 trucks going from Italy to the desert. We found there were no roads into the Sahara Desert, so we had to build one." The day the road was completed, a sudden rainstorm struck and washed it away.

At some points in the movie, which spanned two continents, the number of languages spoken on the set "went into the double digits," Minghella said.

Minghella also detailed how various studios had tried to impose their own casting choices, particularly for the role ultimately played by Kristin Scott Thomas.

"We need to pursue our vision like a madman, like a bull," Minghella said. "It's sort of ugly sometimes. But you just need to get there."

Crowe described how he he repeatedly showed "Jerry Maguire" star Tom Cruise photos of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to demonstrate the kind of chemistry he was trying to achieve between Cruise and his love interest, Renee Zellweger.

"I was trying to show that that was really what the soul of the film should be," said Crowe of "Jerry Maguire," a film about a failed sports agent's spiritual and career rebirth.

"I wanted to do a movie which was about how you might arrive at your greatest success through a failure," Crowe said. He added that he had worked on the script for 3 1/2 years and originally envisioned Tom Hanks in the title role, though, ultimately, he perceived the film as "a younger man's story" and saw Cruise as the ideal actor to play Maguire.

The near-capacity audience, made up mostly of film industry insiders and members of the guild, particularly reacted to Leigh, whose methods of writing, casting and shooting his film were hands-down the most unorthodox.

Leigh, who is known for his largely improvisational style, took the audience through the phases of making "Secrets and Lies," a story about the deeply buried tensions within a family.

He selected actors without a script, or even a plot synopsis, in hand. Actors researched and developed their own characters during extensive rehearsal and improvisation sequences.

"It comes out of improvisation, but then it becomes very fixed and disciplined," Leigh said.

Hicks talked about the complexity of casting three people to play Australian pianist David Helfgott over the course of 40 years, and of the difficulties he encountered in persuading the film's backers to allow him to cast Geoffrey Rush, a film novice, in the lead role.

"People would say to me, 'Who the hell is he? He's 40 and he's made no films? What sort of failure is this guy?' " said Hicks of Rush, who has won nearly every acting award given out so far this year.

"The process of casting was incredibly fraught with tension," said Hicks, whose project was 10 years in the making. "I found it utterly exhausting."

Though all consider themselves writer-directors, several said they found the period spent writing alone in a room the most painful.

"I don't have a love of sitting down to write," Hicks said. "I write in order to direct."

And all agreed that actors playing real characters are more compelling than film pyrotechnics or stunning visuals.

"No matter how beautiful Tuscany is, I'd rather watch a human being against a wall," Minghella said.

Ultimately, the four DGA nominees agreed, their task was both simple and staggering: striving for authenticity.

"What you're looking for is to eliminate fraudulence because the audience can smell it a thousand miles away," Minghella said. "People want to be transported, to feel they are invisible participants."

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