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MOVIES : THE ENVELOPE DIRECTORS' ROUNDTABLE

An Anxious, Joyful Art

They fret about casting. They worry: Will it be any good? And personal lives? Don't even ask. And yet they can't imagine doing anything else.

January 22, 2012|John Horn
  • They fret about casting. They worry: Will it be any good? And personal lives? Don't even ask. And yet they can't imagine doing anything else. The Envelope Directors' Roundtable: Alexander Payne, left, Michel Hazanavicius, Stephen Daldry, Martin Scorsese and George Clooney share stories about directing.
They fret about casting. They worry: Will it be any good? And personal lives?… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

They have worked in diverse disciplines -- acting, screenwriting, theater, television, exploitation films -- were born in three countries and have made radically dissimilar movies. But there's a lot more that unifies the five filmmakers who recently came together at the Los Angeles Times for the third annual Envelope Directors' Roundtable.

For one thing, their movies are being hailed for standing among this year's Oscar contenders: Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" and George Clooney's "The Ides of March." It's no recent fluke, either: Total all of their past Oscar nominations (19) and wins (three), and you've got five of the town's heaviest hitters.

Even if the specifics of their process vary, they approach filmmaking similarly -- responding emotionally to material; sweating over casting more than any other choice; persevering to create an on-set atmosphere where accidents, the good kind, can happen.

Yet don't assume the directors think or act alike. Scorsese and Clooney love to tell stories, Daldry and Payne tend to ask questions, while Hazanavicius tries to wrap his mind around everything that's happening to him. And they all have obstacles: self-doubt, the film lab that ruins an entire day's footage, strained or ruined relationships.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation with the five directors:

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What does it take to convince yourself to direct a certain movie?

Martin Scorsese: It has to be the actors, it has to be wanting to be with those characters, because I spend a lot of time with them. And being thrilled by surprises on the set with actors too. In "Goodfellas," the whole sequence with Joe Pesci doing his routine about "Do you think I'm funny? You think I'm a clown?" was something that he did for me at lunch. He said, "I don't want to be in the film." I said, "Come on, you got to do this!" "I'll be in the film if I do this one bit that happened to me," he said. And he went up to my apartment and he acted it out and I said, "You got it."

Stephen Daldry: I read the script. It's instant for me. Everything's going to take two years. So it's what you want to spend two years with. I read lots of things that I think I'd like to see that, I'd love to see somebody else do that or I'd love to see their version of that. But really, you know, 18 months down the line, am I really going to be sitting here having the best time of my life with that?

Alexander Payne: For me, it's the flash of an idea. It is a little bit like an epiphany. Boom, that could be a movie. And then comes the hard work, writing the script and then finding the financing and all that. The idea has to be strong enough to see you through those two years of work and then having to talk about it for a year afterward.

Michel Hazanavicius: Everybody told me that ["The Artist"] was an impossible movie to make. And I believed them for a while. By chance I've made two successes in France, and I said, "Maybe they're wrong, and maybe I can do it. Maybe it's not so impossible." I think there's a hunch; something that tells you that it is a good movie to make and that's a movie I can be comfortable with for two or three years and, actually, for the rest of your life because you have to live with it.

George Clooney: I have to look at things that I think are in my wheelhouse. I like to find things that I think my version of it would be the version I'd like to see. [But] there are things I look at and I go, "I don't know how to do that. There are better people for that job."

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George, on "Ides of March" you have to decide about several things at once -- producing, co-writing, acting and directing.

GC: You look at it and you go, "Well, OK, I know how to do [it]." For a political piece, I've been involved in that world for a long period of time. I like those kinds of characters. That for me was the defining factor. "Good Night, and Good Luck" I wrote because I was mad because I was being called a traitor to my country because I said we should ask questions before we send people to war, and I found a way to express that in film. As much as I'd like this to be my day job, it isn't yet. And so I sit here listening to really wonderful filmmakers talk about processes that for me are more complicated because that's not something I do as well as the others. And so I steal from each of them things that I think they do really well.

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Marty, you're the living proof that there is no such thing as a wheelhouse, that you can move from genre to genre.

MS: I've tried to.

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Intentionally?

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