Moderator Kagan explains the format

Meet the Nominees: Feature Film

56th Annual DGA Awards

They don't rehearse much. They don't shoot endless takes. In the midst of a bad day, they are capable of concealing their rising panic by out-acting the actors. And in the editing room, they often respond to their first cut with fear and loathing.

But ultimately the five directors who came to the DGA stage on February 7 conveyed the consuming passion for their craft that brought them this year's nominations for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film. The nominated directors for 2003 were Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ), Gary Ross (Seabiscuit ), and Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

After being welcomed by DGA President Michael Apted, the nominees spent the next two hours responding to the interrogation of moderator Jeremy Kagan concerning the decisions and quandaries of the directorial process. When it was over, they had explored not only the technical intricacies of directing but their own personal journeys from pre-production to final cut.

Under the tenure of Kagan, the "Meet the Nominees for Feature Films" seminar has become one of the most popular traditions of the DGA's award weekend. This year, an SRO crowd of Guild members filled the DGA Theatre to hear the nominees share their experiences.

"I think the forum attracts so many members because it's rare to have the opportunity to hear directors talk about the way they work," said Kagan. "Frank Capra made the famous remark, 'one film, one director,' and that singularity means the director's creative process is often done privately. In the seminar, I try to make that private process as public as possible."

Kagan, who would that night be honored with the Guild's Robert B. Aldrich Award, demonstrated this approach early on when he inquired about the role of accidents and mistakes in filmmaking. "Our role as directors is to have control over things, but oftentimes the accidents that happen can produce some of the most interesting material," Kagan noted. "I'm talking about things that weren't intended to happen but worked their way into the film."Coppola, speaking of her modestly budgeted film, quickly retorted that her Tokyo shoot "was all accident." Her film, she said, was neither story-boarded nor, in many cases, even scripted. Some scenes were improvised throughout, such as the one in which Bill Murray's character confronts the Japanese psyche while making a Suntory ad.

Coppola laughingly described her approach: "We just let the scene go on until we ran out of film."

Eastwood's Mystic River could hardly be more different from Coppola's film in tone and content, but he also emphasized the value of serendipity in filmmaking. "I'm always looking for accidents," he said. At one point in the film, he recalled, actor Tim Robbins was supposed to walk onto a porch to light a cigarette. But when he struck the match, the entire book of matches exploded in his face. Startled, Robbins threw the burning matchbook off the porch, all the while staying in character.

"I said, 'print it,'" Eastwood remembered. "And Robbins is looking at me as if to say, 'are you serious?' But it was great. It was just a natural thing, he stayed in character: he looked down to where the matches had gone. Those are the human things that you just can't buy. If you told somebody to do that, it would come out forced."

Eastwood also recalled doing a film with Meryl Streep (The Bridges of Madison County) and showing her a rough cut of the film. She finally turned to him and said, "you printed all my mistakes."

Eastwood told her: "I did. Your mistakes are all wonderful."

Throughout the discussion, the directors returned repeatedly to one of their most daunting challenges: what to do when a shooting day goes bad. These are the moments when an actor has lost his way, when the script is not playing well, when the chemistry has gone sour and momentum lost.

For Peter Jackson, these moments often seem to occur when he is the most exhausted, a condition that was not unusual in the 15-month shoot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. "Sometimes you turn up at the set, and your brain is just dead. That often happens toward the end when you're totally exhausted. You realize you've got no good ideas, and it's an extra challenge when you see your actors are not giving you what you want.

"What I've learned works quite well — when I can't quite produce the words anymore — I just beckon them (the actors) over and run the last take on the screen for them to look at. When I get to the problem area, I say, 'I'm not believing this. This is what my problem is. I'm not believing that moment.'

"Almost every time, I found that the actors say, 'right,' and they'd storm back on the set and get it almost every time."

Gary Ross, however, took mild exception to this strategy. "When an actor starts asking, 'what am I doing wrong?' then they start watching themselves act, and when they start watching themselves act, you're done. You're not climbing out of a hole. So I try to find some way to get spontaneity into the situation."

What often works for him, Ross said, is to suggest a new way of thinking about the scene. "If what you're dealing with is just performance, then get them to relax and try something new so that the judgment leaves. There's not one right answer."

Peter Weir, for his part, referred to those challenges as "terrible, terrible moments."

"It's when (the scene) is just not working, and you sense it's a problem with the actor. If you speak up, and the crew picks it up, the situation can go backward," he said.

"So I tend to just change the angle. I'll say, 'great, terrific, we've got that one, so let's move on.' And then there's some time as things get changed around, you go get some coffee with the actor and say, 'did you feel something about that scene...' And the actor will usually say, 'yeah.'"

When that happens, Weir said he casually suggests a reshoot, a comment that led Eastwood to quip: "You can mask it by saying it's coverage."

All agreed with Jackson's closing comment on the delicacy of dealing with such moments: "There are some occasions when the directors have to be as good at acting as the actors themselves. You can't let people see that you are floundering at times."

At Kagan's urging, the directors also addressed the mysteries of casting. The nominees agreed that the decisions made in casting amount to some of the most important in the entire process of filmmaking. But how does the director decide who is the right person for a given role, and what are the consequences of a mistake?

Kagan began by asking Weir to discuss his own process, and particularly how he cast the role of the young boy in Master and Commander.

"I think that, after concept, casting is probably the most important thing," replied Weir. "I love the process and I think of it sometimes as like 'missing persons.' You're like a detective and you got a description of the person and a lot of people are going to come along and pretend to be this person.

"It's very mysterious business because it's not just that they've got the right stuff and have the qualifications. There also has to be rapport. And that's impossible to describe, a kind of subconscious something. It's not that they're going to be friends or anything, you don't need that, but it means there's some connection.

"And if you cast the thing right, you don't really have to say much to them. The most trouble I've had is when I've had somebody miscast.

As for the young boy in Master and Commander, Weir obviously believed he got lucky. "I had no idea this young boy would be as good as he was. When the first dailies came in, I watched him, and it was as if he had an old actor's soul in his body. I wanted to know how he did it."

The boy replied that he had a simple technique. He made himself yawn before each scene.

"Yawn!" said Weir. "And not a normal yawn, a kind of odd yawn. I think he went into some sort of hypnotic thing. I mean, he had no acting experience at all outside of school."

For Mystic River, Eastwood noted that he chose not to attend the first round of casting for the three boys who would play the younger versions of the main characters. More than anything, he said, this was because of his own experience as an actor.

"I don't sit in when (the casting director) is putting them on tape because, if I did, I would hire everybody," Eastwood said. "Unfortunately, coming from the actor's side of the reading and having people blow smoke in your face for a lot of years, you get very, very sensitive."

Sometimes, he noted, the actors he chooses are not the ones who perform most ably during the auditions but rather those who seem to mesh with the look and feel of the film. "It's just you looking for the right sound and ability. You're trying to get somebody who fits the picture because, once you cast the picture, whether it's known actors or unknown, that's when you put a tie on the film. And if you've miscast it, you're fighting an uphill battle all the time.

Of the three boys who were eventually cast, Eastwood said, one had never acted before. "When I saw him on the tape, I said, 'there's something real about him. He has an edge, like Sean (Penn) has an edge. He doesn't look like an actor.' And that's the greatest compliment you can give a person, because they look like they belong in the neighborhood."

For casting Lost in Translation, Coppola — who does not speak Japanese — said she faced an unusual challenge in finding the appropriate actors for the Japanese-speaking roles. "A lot of the characters were real people who had never been cast before. My friend Stefanie, who's never done casting but knows my taste, just went out and found the old man in the hospital chess club and the photographer in the Suntory commercial."

Casting the Japanese-speaking characters brought some uncertainties, Coppola recalled. The actor who played the director of the hospital in the film was, in fact, the director of the hospital. During the scene, he spoke only Japanese and when it ended, she recalled, "I wasn't sure what he had been saying."

The seminar concluded with Kagan asking the nominees the traditional question about their best and worst experiences as directors, and the nominees first responded vigorously with the aspects of the job they dislike.

Weir hates waiting for the weather to turn right; Eastwood gets frustrated by the mindless detail of early production meetings; Coppola gets worn down by the sheer difficulty of the job; Ross hates fighting studios over the budget; and Jackson laments the cost to directors' families.

And all agreed with Weir when he remarked that the worst day for any director is the day they view the first cut of his film. "You are convinced you have made the worst film in history," said Weir, laughing.

But then Jackson summed up the other side of the ledger. The profession of film director, he said, is one of the most unusual in the world. "In our profession, you can imagine something in your head and then have this huge team of very talented people who will kill themselves to get what's in your head onto the screen so the rest of the world can enjoy it.

"It's the most self-indulgent thing in the world, but it's also incredible. There's nothing quite like it."