It's as inescapable as any law of physics: To be a movie director, you must first direct a movie. But being a movie director and becoming one are two fundamentally dissimilar things, as the filmmaking participants in the Envelope Roundtable made clear.
For nearly two hours, five of this award season's most celebrated filmmakers gathered together at The Times discussed the challenges -- and rewards -- of making distinctive and often highly personal movies, even as the studios grow all the more interested in presold sequels, remakes and adaptations of board games.
When they were not talking about their artistic epiphanies -- saying no to Harvey Weinstein at a test screening, challenging a puzzled producer with a gun on the eve of filming -- directors James Cameron ("Avatar"), Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air"), Quentin Tarantino ("Inglourious Basterds"), Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") and Lee Daniels ("Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire") also shared stories about how they cast their award-winning movies, a process that sometimes includes two-hour auditions and a preference for working with familiar faces.
Here are edited excerpts from Saturday's lively, sometimes unguarded conversation among this award season's front-running directors.
Fighting for Your Movie
When you made "Precious," how did you pitch your
producers, Gary and
Daniels: I said, "I want to do a movie about a 400-pound black girl who's learning how to read, who's raped by her father and raped by her mother." And they signed a check. And I went over budget. They were like angels. But . . . I had to fire a lot of people halfway through the shoot. I had to shut down.
Daniels: Because they weren't listening to me. Who was I? I ain't him [pointing to Cameron]. I ain't him [pointing to Reitman]. I ain't him [pointing to Tarantino]. I ain't her [pointing to Bigelow].
Tarantino: But that took a lot of [nerve] for you to do that and it took a lot of [nerve] for them to double down on you, to triple down on you, actually. I mean that's a really lovely story.
Cameron: That's a testament to you too, to have the courage to go to them.
Reitman: That's the moment you become a director.
What was your moment?
Reitman: To shoot my film in five cities and in four international airports. There was this kind of clampdown, "Look, Jason, you make talking movies. They're about people who just talk to each other, you could really put them anywhere. I know you want to shoot a lot of airports and that's important to you, but why don't we just shoot this in one city?" And I thought about it. I could make this movie in one city and I could probably get . . . one airport to look like a few. But I finally held my ground. . . . I said, "This is right for the film. And it's going to be some more money, but . . . this is the whole world for this film. This is what this character loves; he loves traveling and we need to see America." And they went for it.
Tarantino: I think the moment he's talking about is more like something that happens . . . earlier on in your career . . . where you're not going to be a hack director. You're going to be an artist and you can fail and this could not work and this could all fall apart, but you're going to do your thing. . . . It actually wasn't about filming "Reservoir Dogs." Harvey Weinstein has bought "Reservoir Dogs" now and they have a market research screening. . . . I don't even want to go to this darn thing. And he goes, "No, come on Quentin. Just help me help you."
We're going to recut your film, in other words.
Tarantino: Harvey goes, "OK, so here's the thing, Quentin, I think that you've got a mainstream hit here, but you've got this torture scene and it just cuts everybody's head off. . . . It takes it from a popular entertainment that anyone could enjoy and makes it this niche thing that nobody's going to see. All the women in America will walk out when that scene happens. So, I want you to cut that scene." When the devil comes to you, he doesn't come to you with horns. You like the devil. You want the devil to like you. You want the devil to think you're a reasonable person. So, the thing is Harvey's coming as this wonderful papa who is offering me the world. All I have to do is get along. And the day I became the director that I am now is when I said, "I'm sorry, Harvey, but that's not the movie I made, that's not the movie I want to make. We're keeping in the torture scene and that's just the way it's going to be." And there was a beat and he goes, "Well, OK. Then we're going to leave in the torture scene. I just want you to remember it was Miramax who said yes."
Kathryn, can you top that?